Scene stealer

Just in time for the Oscars, Ben Stubbs tours movie locations in Alfred Hitchcock's favourite city.

Alfred Hitchcock leers at us with one eye cocked and his bottom lip protruding. This is his city and he's daring us to get closer.

Our guide, Jay Sherwin, snaps the brochure away from us and points in the direction of the Brocklebank building that looms at the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco. It is the first stop on our tour to discover Hitchcock's view of the city.

The Birds and Family Plot were shot in the "City by the Bay", though the most infamous of Hitchcock's films featuring San Francisco is undoubtedly Vertigo, as Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) pursues a possessed Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) across the city.

One critic called Vertigo "another Hitchcock and bull story", and it was deemed a commercial and critical failure at the time. The focus of the film is on a flawed protagonist with obvious weaknesses (vertigo and blonde women, it seems). As the subtleties and themes have aged, though, the film has become one of Hitchcock's most endearing, and in 2012 it was named the best film ever by British magazine Sight & Sound.

"Hitchcock and his films were always full of layers and complications," Sherwin says, reminding us of the skeletons in Hitchcock's own closet that were aired in the recent biopic with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren.

We walk down the windy channels of downtown. "San Francisco is a character in Vertigo," Sherwin says. "It's a tortured valentine to the city, with its darkness and intrigue."

Sherwin's intention is to show us some of the city and how it reflects the facade that Hitchcock delighted in using in his films.

There is a group of about 15 of us in Huntington Park. It's a sunny afternoon, though with the wind blowing up from the bay below, it contains no warmth. It seems appropriate for the tour. Sherwin devised the Hitchcock walk after 40 years of watching his films and taking Hitchcock film classes. "It's the role I was born to play," he says.

Sherwin is one of 300 guides in San Francisco who lead free tours through the city. Their topics cover everything from art and culture to the "bawdy and naughty" underbelly.

Sherwin sets the scene of Vertigo for us again, reminding us of Jimmy Stewart's fear of heights and his obsession with Kim Novak. He reminds us of the two characters played by Novak in the film: the blonde and refined Madeleine Elster and the grittier, working-class Judy Barton.

"Like the characters, San Fran has two sides and today we'll scratch the surface to discover the Madeleine and Judy of the city," Sherwin says.

On the manicured lawns at the corner of Mason and Sacramento streets, the scene looks vaguely familiar. This was the exterior where the Elsters lived. The grand neo-Gothic building looks over the bay from Nob Hill, and Sherwin tells us that while much of the building is rent-controlled, an apartment with a view can go for up to $US15,000 ($14,500) a month. The filming for Vertigo began here, and it was only a short commute for the cast and crew because they stayed across the road at the Fairmont hotel. As we watch the well-to-do with dogs in bags and cashmere sweaters coming and going from the lobby, Sherwin tells us that this is where Scottie did his own spying in the film as he followed Madeleine.

Our guide knows his town well and he tells us that this hotel was also where Tony Bennett first performed his song I Left My Heart in San Francisco. We walk across to 1000 California Street and to the steps of an imposing brownstone building. It was one of the few to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire disaster, and it is now one of the most exclusive addresses in the city.

"It's the Pacific-Union Club, the last bastion of white male Republicans in the city," Sherwin says, lowering his voice as an elderly man toddles by. "They still only let women in the first floor." It was this location that Hitchcock used as a model for Gavin Elster's men's club in Vertigo.

We walk along and stop at the haunting, grey Grace Cathedral, used in Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot, where the protagonists kidnap a bishop in plain sight. Hitchcock made a $US5000 donation to the cathedral so he could film here. "It was Hitchcock's way of showing that art can imitate life," Sherwin says. "As the kidnapping happens, everyone just watches passively without stepping in — an apathetic view he saw in society and wanted to comment on."

With the sun tipping behind the buildings on Nob Hill, we descend into "Judy Barton" San Fran, where smoke and steam rise from the sewers and men linger at the corner liquor store on Pine and Jones. As we walk, Sherwin smiles and says that many locals call the area the "Tender Nob" because it's halfway between the Nob Hill and Tenderloin districts, and it is something of a seedy area after dark.

Fluorescent signs flicker to life as we walk along Sutter Street. They're advertising haircuts and male strip joints, though our stop is the Argonaut Book Shop. It's a hole in the wall, though apparently Hitchcock was good friends with its owner and used it as the "Argosy" bookshop in Vertigo, with a rear projection of Powell Street in the background to make it look like the main drag. Sherwin and I walk and talk, and he tells me about Kim Novak and her pride of Vertigo. She campaigned against 2012 Oscar winner The Artist, which used Vertigo's score (with permission). Novak said that it was an abuse of the integrity of the original film and even took out a full-page ad in Variety.

We pass the Hotel Commodore with its neon sign and white fire escapes, just like the Empire Hotel used in Vertigo (though it's been updated into the modern Hotel Vertigo further down the street).

This tour takes us through the essence of the film and 1950s San Francisco, rather than the refurbished locations that force us to picture something that simply isn't there any more. It shows us the city as Hitchcock saw it.

We cross Grant Avenue and the city changes again; swept streets, business people and boutiques replace the grunge from a few streets over. We pass flower stores and restaurants that were used in Vertigo, though the place Sherwin really wants us to see is darker. On Maiden Lane, nothing seems out of place - it's all Chanel, Marc Jacobs and a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gallery.

Sherwin says this is a perfect example of Judy Barton San Fran disguised as Madeleine Elster.

This lane used to be the most notorious red-light district in the city and it was wall-to-wall with wooden-shack brothels.

After the earthquake, the bordellos went up in smoke and the area was repurposed for rather more wholesome customers.

There is much more to Hitchcock's San Francisco, with the Palace of Fine Arts, Fort Point and St Joseph's Hospital among the notable locations used in his films. "You can't do it all on foot, though if you're like me, you'll certainly try," Sherwin says.

We finish out in the exposed centre of Union Square in the last moments of the afternoon. This is where Jimmy Stewart paced with insomnia and Tippi Hedren introduced us to The Birds.

Sherwin says goodbye and wanders off into the smoky evening. Tourists and locals mingle around the cable car and department stores, though there is something foreboding about the darkness. The wind picks up again and the square fills with people rushing past, concealing their faces from the cold in scarves and jackets. Hundreds of birds swell across the sky and I stop and look up at the shadows, momentarily understanding the two sides of the City by the Bay.

The writer travelled with assistance from Visit California.

Trip notes

Getting there

United flies direct from Sydney to San Francisco.

Staying there

Villa Florence is on Powell Street, in the heart of the city across from Union Square and the cable-car terminus. There is a range of rooms and suites from $US230 ($223) for a deluxe queen room with valet parking, breakfast and a free room upgrade.

Doing there

If Hitchcock isn't your style, view the tours available (free, tip appreciated) with San Francisco City Guides,

More information

Suite shots: hotels in the movies

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Alfred Hitchcock's suspense thriller used the La Mamounia hotel in Marrakech for the McKenna family's holiday.

The Pink Panther (1963) The original film starring Peter Sellers revolved around a diamond thief at an exclusive Italian ski resort — it is the Cristallo Hotel Spa & Golf in Cortina d'Ampezzo.

Octopussy (1983) Set in the beautiful Rajasthani city of Udaipur, as Roger Moore sets out to foil a Soviet plot he is drawn to Octopussy's base, which is better known as the Taj Lake Palace.

Notting Hill (1999) As bumbling bookstore owner Hugh Grant looked for love with Julia Roberts, the Ritz in London was used as the star's base in the film.

Ocean's Eleven (2001) The Bellagio Towers in Las Vegas featured prominently in the heist film starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as they look to mastermind the robbery of three casinos.

From Leading Hotel's list of prominent hotels in the movies.

City star: other San Francisco locations

Alcatraz, The Rock Visit the infamous island prison on an Alcatraz tour from Fisherman's Wharf to experience the desperation and isolation of the most notorious prison in the US.

Bullitt Walk the streets around Russian Hill to see Steve McQueen's old haunts (or drive to relive one of the best car-chase scenes ever filmed).

Dirty Harry Experience Harry Callahan's San Francisco: Mount Davidson Park, Kezar Stadium, Chinatown and the Bank of America building.

Sister Act Search out St Paul's Church in Noe Valley to relive Whoopi's finest hour.

Full House Find the home of the Olsen twins and Bob Saget on Broderick Street.

Locations, locations, locations: eight more movie sets to visit

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Explore the ancient city of Petra in Jordan to rediscover the Holy Grail and Harrison Ford's quest for the fountain of youth. Check out for its eight-day Jordan and Egypt tour.

The Hobbit Take a tour of Hobbiton from Matamata in New Zealand to trace the path of Bilbo.

Sideways Take a trip through the Napa Valley to revisit the film locations and have a few drinks along the way.

The Motorcycle Diaries Using Tripline and a sense of adventure, you can retrace the epic journey of Che Guevara along the spine of South America.

The Great Gatsby Explore some of the locations before the film is released. See Centennial Park, Glebe Island, Waverley Cemetery and St Patrick's seminary in Manly (now a management school).

Alive From the Argentinian ski resort of Las Lenas it is possible to do a multi-day summer hike to the wreckage of the infamous plane of the Uruguayan rugby team of 1972.

Star Wars Visit southern Tunisia to discover Luke Skywalker's old house at Hotel Sidi Driss, as well as Mos Espa and the caves of Tatooine.