San Francisco is still dizzy over 'Vertigo' after 50 years

When Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo premiered here 50 years ago, audiences and critics were unimpressed by the tale of a former San Francisco cop who falls for the mysterious blonde her husband hires him to follow.

But five decades later, Hitchcock's off-kilter love letter to the City by the Bay hovers near the top of every "best movies" list. And it continues to spark pilgrimages and tributes, from this weekend's open-air screening in Union Square to the December debut of the movie-themed Hotel Vertigo.

The moody thriller captured "the heart, soul and pace of the city at midcentury," and Hitchcock — born in Englandbut a longtime resident of the Bay Area — "incorporated San Francisco as if it were a leading character in the film," says Aaron Leventhal, co-author of Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco.

The movie stars Jimmy Stewart as Scottie Ferguson, an obsessive detective with a fear of heights, and Kim Novak as both Madeleine Elster, a socialite who believes she is possessed by the spirit of an ancestor, and a Madeleine look-alike, Judy Barton.

But the city's evocative scenery and architecture get top billing, too. The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, where Madeleine spent hours idolizing her ancestor's (fake) portrait, held its own Vertigo tribute in July. At Fort Point National Historic Site, where Madeleine plunged into the bay with the Golden Gate Bridge looming above her, "we always get people asking, 'where did she jump?' " says tour guide Ed McDaneld. (Don't try to angle for the same view: Post-9/11 security fences block public access, and the steps leading down to the water were a Hollywood addition.)

Some of Vertigo's featured locations are now demolished or closed, including Ernie's restaurant, a longtime local favorite where Scottie first spotted Madeleine amid the overstuffed booths. But the city's tony Nob Hill neighborhood, where Madeleine's apartment building, the Brocklebank, still sports a signature beige awning, has "maintained its old-world San Francisco feel," notes Leventhal. Across the street at the Mark Hopkins and Fairmont hotels — Hitchcock usually stayed at the latter when he was in town — "you still see men in suits and ties."

And every time Leventhal visits the family-owned Argonaut Book Shop near Union Square, inspiration for Vertigo's Argosy bookstore where Scottie searches for insight on San Francisco history, "I think Hitchcock could be standing on the other side of the wooden table," he says.

Yet another key San Francisco location, known as the Empire Hotel in Vertigo and the York in real life, will be reborn as Personality Hotels' Hotel Vertigo when it reopens on Sutter Street in December. (Its tagline: "Equilibrium is overrated.") Free in-room screenings of the hotel's namesake film will be available 24 hours a day.

No Vertigo fan should miss the two-hour drive south to sleepy little San Juan Bautista, where the largest of California's 21 Spanish missions served as the setting for the film's dizzying finale. The church welcomes visitors, but the tall bell tower that terrified Scottie doesn't exist: Built in a studio, it was added to the real mission via special effects.

So far, the town of 1,200 hasn't done much to exploit its celluloid connections (no "take a fall for San Juan Bautista" T-shirts, though there is a Vertigo Coffee). But that could be changing: Last fall, San Juan Bautista held its own party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vertigo's filming there.

And in 2009, a new museum at the mission will include an exhibit with film-related memorabilia — celebrating the enduring magic of the master of suspense.

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