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March/April 2005 | San Francisco

March/April 2005 | San Francisco

Chasing visions of Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock was infatuated with San Francisco, calling it the "Paris of America." No one ever captured the city's majesty and vulnerability as Hitch did in his haunting, hypnotic 1958 cinematic masterpiece of obsession, Vertigo. Bay Area photographer Bradford Noble reincarnates TV goddess Brini Maxwell as the doomed Madeleine in our photo homage to this queerest of all cities.

Object of Obsession

"There is someone within me, and she says I must die." Vertigo was Hitchcock's sad valentine to San Francisco, full of in-the-know references to the Bay Area, a place he called his part-time home. Martin Scorsese (one of Vertigo's biggest fans) describes the picture as having "such great and personal heart to it." Early in the movie Madeleine (played by Kim Novak) is mystically and fatally drawn to the grave of Carlotta Valdes at the Mission Dolores at Dolores and 16th streets. The mission adjoins America's gayest neighborhood, the Castro, and it's the oldest building in San Francisco, dating back to 1776. You can explore the tranquil cemetery, where Carlotta's prop gravestone was only recently taken down. The Brocklebank apartments, at 1000 Mason St., Madeleine's abode atop swanky Nob Hill, is nearly exactly the same now as when Hitch shot it in 1957. The nearby Fairmont and Mark Hopkins hotels are two of the top places to stay in San Francisco.

The Woods Darkly

"Somewhere in here I was born...and there I died. It was only a moment for you..." While examining the chronological rings of a fallen redwood, Madeleine is sure she is the reincarnated Carlotta. Less than half an hour from the heart of San Francisco, tourist-popular Muir Woods National Monument is a rare 554-acre preserve of redwoods. Hitchcock actually filmed at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, north of his country home in Scott's Valley, near Santa Cruz.
The Engulfing City

Like so many gay travelers, Madeleine is intoxicated by San Francisco's otherworldly atmosphere. Built in 1933, the 210-foot Coit Tower (opposite page), atop Telegraph Hill, is another landmark from the film where visitors can view New Deal-era murals and great panoramas of the downtown area. Hitchcock said he included the tower in the film as a phallic symbol! The Palace of the Legion of Honor (below), in Lincoln Park, entrance at 34th Avenue and Clement Street, is where Hitchcock spent a week filming this brief scene just to get the lighting right.

Portals of the Past

Another San Francisco monument from Vertigo is the Palace of Fine Arts, at 3301 Lyon St., a remnant of the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition and now home to a 1,000-seat performing arts theater. Future renovations will reinstate the iconic dome's original burnt orange hues.



Moderate: Its flashing green "Hotel Empire" sign may be gone, but the renamed and nicely renovated York Hotel (940 Sutter St., $85-$125, 800-808-9675), is the best place to stay in San Francisco for Vertigo fans, ever since its close-up in a supporting role in the film (Judy camped out in room 501). Though Hitchcock filmed the interiors on a back lot in Hollywood, two rooms recapture the dizzy aura of the film: the Kim Novak Room and the Vertigo Room. The majestic pillared lobby serves a bountiful continental breakfast, and the adjoining Empire Plush Room is a former '20s speakeasy and now one of the best cabaret lounges in the city. Another Vertigo Room can be found at the cozy Hotel Bijou (111 Mason St.; 800-771-1022; $89-$129), where each room is named for a film shot in S.F. (others include Dirty Harry and Harold and Maude). Pick up the old rotary phone in the lobby to access the hotel's 24-hour film line, which announces current filming locations and extras casting opportunities. Double features of S.F.-based films are screened each evening in the hotel's Petit Theatre Bijou. Hitchcock and his crew stayed at the lush Fairmont Hotel (950 Mason St.; 415-772-5000; $169-$309) during the filming of Vertigo. Located high atop Nob Hill, most rooms feature sweeping views of the bay and beyond.


Early on in the film, Scottie says, "I can't climb steep stairs or go to high places, like the bar at the Top of the Mark." Unless you suffer from acrophobia, you won't have a problem at the elegant Top of the Mark, located on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel (999 California St.; 415-616-6916). Sip a cocktail from its famed 100 Martinis Menu, feast on a prix-fixe menu of filet of beef or grilled king salmon (dinner is offered only on Friday and Saturday nights), and gape at the 360-degree vista. Deep in the Mission, the gay-popular Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission St.; 415-648-7600) gets a big thumbs-up for its transporting Mediterranean fare. Expect to graze for at least two hours so you can catch the nightly film flickering on the wall of its giant outdoor patio. Each table has its own set of drive-in style speakers.


Go on location with the Hitchcock Vertigo Tour, offered by A Friend in Town (800-960-8099). As the film's soundtrack plays in the tour van, you'll follow in the footsteps of Madeleine and Scottie before testing your own vertigo in the St. Francis Hotel's glass elevator. In the film, Madeleine buys a nosegay of flowers for Carlotta's grave at the Podesta Baldocchi flower shop (now at 410 Harriet St., 415-346-1300), still one of the classiest in the city, albeit at a different location. The truth about Carlotta's suicide is discovered at the Argosy Book Shop, which was filmed on a set inspired by the Argonaut Bookshop (786 Sutter St.; 415-474-9067).

Getting There

Delta Air Lines (800-221-1212) provides three excellent daily nonstop flights between San Francisco and New York. Delta also offers nonstop service to San Francisco from Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas-Fort Worth, Honolulu, and Salt Lake City.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.
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