Hitchcock spotting: A tour of classic film sites including Vertigo in San Francisco

36 hours in San Francisco

In a city that's constantly reinventing itself, San Francisco has endless offerings, from bowling in the Mission to diversions on the waterfront, not to mention creative restaurants and bars. Video: New York Times

The city is filled with reminders of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic, writes Barry Divola.

Four years ago, Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, conducted their once-a-decade poll of 850 respected film critics from around the world, asking them to name their number one film of all time. Nudging out the likes of Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, The Searchers and 2001: A Space Odyssey was Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo

The film starred James Stewart as retired detective John "Scottie" Ferguson and Kim Novak as the troubled Madeleine Elster, but in many ways the real star was San Francisco. As Stewart tails Novak's green Jaguar in his De Soto, descending the steep streets and getting lost in the maze, the city becomes a metaphor for his own descent into obsession and madness. Hitchcock loved the Bay Area and northern California so much that he also set 1963's The Birds and 1976's Family Plot there. 

It's easy to get obsessed with Vertigo. So much so, that I decide to go to San Francisco and do a bit of sleuthing myself, investigating what landmarks from the film are still around. Of course, almost half a century since the film was made, some of the locations have disappeared. Don't bother searching for Ernie's Restaurant, McKittrick's Hotel or the Podesta Baldocchi Flower Shop. They're all long gone. 

But a surprising number of places are still there for Hitchcock-spotters. In fact, the Empire Hotel, where Scottie follows Judy, the girl who reminds him of his lost love Madeleine (both played by Novak), is not only still standing at 940 Sutter Street in Nob Hill, but you can stay there. 

It's no longer called the Empire. In 2009 it was refurbished and rebranded as Hotel Vertigo. 

The 102-room boutique property has several nice touches in tribute to Hitchcock. Vertigo plays constantly on the flat-screen TV in reception and you can also request a DVD copy to watch in your room. In each room, orange leather wingback armchairs have the movie's title stitched into the seat, while the mirrors all feature the famous Saul Bass-designed spirals from the credit sequence and film poster. Five rooms are even named after characters in the movie. And if you go up to the eighth floor and look down, you can experience your own Vertigo moment as you look down the stairwell. 

If you want to get really obsessive – and the hotel manager says many do – then ask to stay in room 501, which is where Novak stood in the bay window and was spotted by Stewart from across Sutter Street. 

Staying at Hotel Vertigo also gives me the ideal base for hitting the hilly streets of San Francisco and hunting down locations. In fact, my first stop is just a couple of blocks away at 786 Sutter Street. 

In the film, Scottie asks his old gal pal Midge to help him find an authority on California history. He wants to learn about Carlotta Valdes, the ancestor who is haunting Madeleine. Midge takes him to the Argosy Book Shop, where the owner tells them her tragic story. 

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The Argosy Book Shop doesn't exist now, because it didn't exist then. But Hitchcock historians agree that he modelled it on the Argonaut Book Shop in Nob Hill. Fifty years ago, Hitchcock was good friends with the owner, Robert Haines. The store is now run by Haines' son. It still specialises in antiquarian books and American history and has an impressive collection of old maps, photographs, diaries and prints. 

After some book browsing, I fuel up with coffee and a late breakfast. I've got a hill to climb. By the time I get to the corner of Mason and Sacramento, at the very top of Nob Hill, my legs are aching and I'm covered in sweat. But the reward is there in full view – the Brocklebank Apartments at 1000 Mason Street. 

In Vertigo, this was the home of Madeleine and her husband, Scottie's old friend Gavin Elster. Apart from the late model BMWs, Mercedes and Audis in the turning circle at the front of the luxury building, it looks almost exactly the same today as it did in 1958. Built in 1926, it retains its impressive L-shaped façade, along with the pillars and antique lamps at the driveway entrance. And Vertigo is not the Brocklebank's only screen appearance – you can also see it in 1984's The Woman in Red and in the TV adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City

After Scottie rescues Madeleine following her jump into San Francisco Bay – right under the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point in the Presidio, if you're looking for it, but please keep both feet on land – he drives her back to his place and puts her to bed. 

It's easy to find his apartment building today. Just go to the crookedest street in the world. 

The zig-zagging one-block stretch of Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth in the Russian Hill neighbourhood is one of San Francisco's most popular – and most crowded – attractions. I battle my way through the hordes of selfie-sticks and end up being the only person standing outside number 900, on a decidedly straight stretch of Lombard Street. 

Hitchcock shot the exteriors on this very spot. When Madeleine returns the next day to thank Scottie, she says that she remembered where he lived because she could see Coit Tower through the apartment window the night before. 

"That's the first time I've been grateful for Coit Tower," says Scottie, in a dig at one of San Francisco's most controversial structures. 

Many San Franciscans thought it was an eyesore when it was built in 1933. Some still do. The 64-metre reinforced concrete tower was funded by an eccentric, wealthy socialite named Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who shared a name with Hitchcock but wasn't related. The tower was reportedly meant to represent a firehose nozzle, as she was a patron of the fire department, but Hitchcock apparently wanted it in the film because it was a phallic symbol. Whatever you think it looks like, you can go and pay eight bucks to go inside, catch the elevator to the observation deck and get one of the best panoramic views of the city. 

One of the grandest locations in Vertigo is right where it always was. Scottie follows Madeleine to a palatial museum where she sits spellbound in front of a portrait of her ancestor, Carlotta Valdes. The building, which is fronted by massive columns and an imposing plaza, is the Legion Of Honor in Lincoln Park. If you're looking for the room where Novak sat, it's gallery six.

The painting of Carlotta, which went through multiple versions before Hitchcock was happy with it, was just a prop, but on a visit to the museum you can see works by Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet and Degas plus one of the best collections of Rodin sculptures in the world.   And finally, it's time to go to church. Catch a BART train to the 16th Street stop and you're in the heart of the Mission, the rapidly gentrifying Hispanic area of San Francisco. On the corner of 16th and Dolores Street is Mission Dolores, the church where Madeleine goes to contemplate Carlotta Valdes' grave. Once you pay a five-dollar donation and get into the chapel and the mission, you are standing in the oldest building in San Francisco, built in 1791. Its four- feet thick adobe walls have withstood the ravages of time and earthquakes. 

Hitchcock had a gravestone made for Carlotta – born December 3, 1831, died March 5, 1857 – and for some reason it was not removed from the cemetery after filming wrapped up. For many years this fake gravestone remained in a real cemetery, but after years of vandalism and unwanted attention, the church had it removed. 

The church is a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city and a great place to end a day of Vertigo-induced sleuthing to sit and reflect on a film that immortalised San Francisco. 

Then you can enter the gift shop and check out the Alfred Hitchcock bobble-head dolls for sale. 

The writer was a guest of Visit California. 

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies direct to San Francisco six times a week. See qantas.com

STAYING THERE

Hotel Vertigo is at 405 Sutter Street in Nob Hill. Rooms from $290. hotelvertigosf.com

MORE INFORMATION

visitcalifornia.com

visittheusa.com

FIVE MORE GREAT FILMS SET IN SAN FRANCISCO

BULLITT (1968)

This Steve McQueen vehicle contains the grandaddy of all car chases, a thrilling 10-minute, 53-second sequence that takes you on a guided tour of San Francisco at high speed in a 1968 Mustang.

DIRTY HARRY (1971)

You will feel lucky, punk, if you want to see early '70s San Francisco, as the Clint Eastwood film features Golden Gate Park, North Beach, Washington Square and even the real mayoral office at city hall.

WHAT'S UP, DOC? (1972) 

From the pie fight in the Hilton to the chase scene through Pacific Heights, Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal made the city the backdrop to one of the best screwball comedies of the era. 

THE CONVERSATION (1974)

Union Square becomes the focus of Francis Ford Coppola's SF-based conspiracy thriller, as surveillance expert Gene Hackman is hired to spy on a couple who walk around the park whispering to each other. 

BLUE JASMINE (2013)

Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her role as a socialite forced to live with her working class sister in San Francisco. Manhattan-centric Woody Allen returned to film in the city for the first time since 1972's Play It Again, Sam

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