It is an illusion cleverly created by the director. One finds many things amiss in the famous locales of San Francisco from what has been pictured in the iconic movie “Vertigo”.
“It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco…” wrote Oscar Wilde a long time ago, apparently tongue in cheek. His observations could well relate to the happenings in Hitchcock's “Vertigo” (1958) — often rated by critics as the “greatest film ever made”. In the movie “Madeline” (Kim Novak) mysteriously “disappears” and just as the hero is filled with remorse for not saving her in time, a look-alike appears. In between, viewers get one breath-taking ride after another of the “delightful city”.
Though San Francisco features prominently as a backdrop in books such as Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and in the movies — “The Woman in Red” (1984), “Mrs Doubtfire” (1993), and “The Wedding Planner” (2001), the photogenic city and “Vertigo” remain inseparable in the minds of old movie fans.
The “psychological thriller” remains as much admired for the whirl-wind tour of the city as for its chills, spills and thrills. In the movie, retired private sleuth Scottie (James Stewart) lives in No. 900, Lombard St. flat with views of Coit Tower. A rich client, a former college-mate, hires him to trail his wife, Madeline. The lady is a manic-depressive, says his old friend, and she's on the verge of suicide. The detective hesitatingly takes on the case. And follows her around San Francisco: The detective follows her to various parts of the city including Mission Dolores, Legion of Honor where she sits “possessed” by a “Carlotta Valdes” portrait, Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps into the Bay. Scottie dives in after her, and saves her from a watery grave. Soon the hunter and the hunted fall in love, and dreamily walk into the Palace of Fine Arts.
Some 60 years after it was first screened, “Vertigo” continues to enchant fans, students of cinema, movie-makers and equally critics. Though much has changed in the city, die-hard movie-buffs lob up at the famous old locales hoping to relive the cinematic excitement. The locales in the movie then and now continue to be more or less the same… but to the discerning eye, amid the splendour there is always something amiss!
No tower and staircase
At the Mission San Juan Bautista for instance, there is no such thing as a bell tower. In the movie, this scene is pivotal to the narration — with the acrophobic Scottie chasing Madeline up the stairs, with the background score thumping away appropriately until the fall. When I went to the Mission, I found there's no spiral staircase, and on Montgomery St., either they had shut down or was there ever Ernie's Supper Club. In Castro, at Mission Dolores the grave where Madeline lays a posy is missing and in the Legion of Honor museum where Madeline gazes at “Carlotta” there is no such portrait. Blank and another blank.
Fact is movie-makers create illusions, not everything in the setting is real. Instead of cinematic angst, I took a long, deep breath and enjoyed the ride. For, on every stop in the Hitchcock trail, there's plenty to fill the eye, warm the heart.
Lombard Street — at the top of Hyde Street where it meets the “crookedest street in the world” there are great views of Alcatraz. As I studied Scottie's address, the Powell-Hyde cable car came dreamily up, paused and went clanking away downhill. In front, the 27 degree Lombard incline was packed with zigzag curves and beautiful “Painted Ladies” and cheerful gardens bursting with flowers in full bloom. Coit Tower came into view at several spots on the Byzantine curve but not Scottie's No. 900 flat.
Coit Tower — the landmark has a top that resembles a fire-hose nozzle, and is visible right from Ferry Point. It was built by an eccentric wealthy lady, Lillie Hitchcock who “smoked cigars, gambled heavily and lived raucously”. She was rumoured to have had the “hots” for firemen! No relation, though to the director.
Mission Dolores — the oldest brick and mortar building in San Francisco, built in 1776, has a small museum that traces the city's early history. In its compact white-walled cemetery stands a statue of the Spanish missionary Junipero, looming over the garden and tombstones of the original Indians of the area and early settlers. When I got there, “Vertigo” fans were all over, scrambling for “Madeline's grave”. In reality, there's no such thing.
Legion of Honor — Don't waste time looking for the non-existent “Carlotta”. Instead get a load of Rodin's “Thinker”, “Kiss” at the palace-like museum. The gallery has a wonderful collection of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet's lily pond series and other delightful works of art. Beyond the relaxed, picturesque location are great views of the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge.
Fort Point — built originally to guard the Bay and defend vessels ferrying gold from Californian mines. Cannons and other 19th century weaponry lie in the courtyard. Nearby is the lovely Crissy Field waterfront and park. Standing below the Bridge, near the lighthouse on the fort's thick walls, it's easy to get swept off one's feet — either by the panoramic views or by gusty winds.
Golden Gate Bridge — this famous landmark has six-lanes for vehicles plus a pedestrian walkway connecting SF with Marin County. The 746-ft twin red towers holds more than 128,000 kms of steel wires, enough to encircle the globe thrice over at the equator! Nippy winds are the order of the day, any time prompting Mark Twain to quip, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”
Bay Area — “the playpen of countercultures” comprises “nine counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and the Sonoma, 101 cities, and 7,000 square miles”. “I bet, there's someone out there from Bangalore,” said a desi referring to the many countrymen who inhabit Silicon Valley.
Palace of Fine Arts — constructed in 1915, this grandiose monument has sculptures, Corinthian pillars, waterworks and lawns. It is here that Scottie and Madeline walk in the garden. Today the Rotunda and Exploratorium attract thousands for the interactive exhibits and multi-media attractions. The optical illusions gallery is a big hit with visitors.
At the end of the trail, visitors are bowled over by the clever illusions weaved by the master director in this iconic movie to heighten the suspense, drama…and equally by the delightful city that they have chanced upon, captured on camera and in the mind!
Keywords: San Francisco tourist spots