The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage and Commemoration

Editor: Douglas A. Cunningham

There have been many books written on Alfred Hitchcock and his films; indeed there have been many written on his individual films including Vertigo. It begs the question: is there any more to be written and said on his films? The editor and contributors to these film answer with a resounding yes. This book; The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage and Commemoration explores the meaning of San Francisco as a location for Hitchcock. Few directors have painted such a vivid portrait of America as Hitch (he was British after all), especially in the 1950s. The city takes on many meanings in the film and few who are familiar with the film would not want to visit or seek out some of the locations used and try and follow in the footsteps of Jimmie Stewart as Scottie, the retired cop who becomes obsessed with the woman he has been hired to follow (Kim Novak).


As several of the contributors assert, Vertigo was not a huge success on its release. It also disappeared for many years, along with four other key Hitchcock films from the 1950s held back by the Hitchcock estate It wasn’t until its release on video in the late 1980s that it has grown in popularity in becoming one of the top 5 best of his films and has received consistent critical praise. In 2001 ‘Sight and Sound’ voted Vertigo among the Top 10 greatest films of all time. But this book is not merely a critical reappraisal of the film, nor merely a theoretical study of Hitchcock’s approach as a filmmaker, but is rather about the film and the city it is set in: San Francisco. Personally I have never been to San Francisco (it is top of the list of places I would like to visit though) but that does not make the book any less accessible and each chapter is a variation on a theme, namely the film and the city. The first part of the book consists of four chapters that deal with the films legacy, the meanings and history behind a couple of the locations and the way the film is shot and framed using the VistaVision process used by Paramount.


The second part deals with location as a sacred place and how these places are imbued with meaning and uses far more in theoretical and psychoanalytical studies of location. The best of these chapters is Diane Borden’s essay, ‘Travelogue as Traumalogue’ in which she studies the psychoanalytical meanings in the film in great depth as well as the chapter on the use of museums in both this films and others in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Hitchcock himself was fascinated by psychoanalysis and that is perhaps one of the keys as to why he is such a fascinating filmmaker and his films are the rightful study of so many books.


The third part of the book focuses on those who give tours around the city to tourists and visitors to the city seeking the locations from the film. Many of these read like testimonials as to how they began giving their tours, anecdotes and references as to why the Vertigo tours are so popular and the enduring appeal of the film. As a former tour guide myself I can understand how the fascination in a single subject can become an obsession. I formerly gave Third Reich tours in Munich and the former concentration camp at Dachau. There was a great deal of pedagogy connected to giving these tours as also seem to be the case in reading between the lines of a Hitchcock tour. However there is one keyword that seems to be missing from all these essays and that is the word aura. When giving tours about the Third Reich or at a former concentration camp the buildings you are standing in front of, the location and the site have an aura connected to them because of what happened there historically or the meaning invested in them. The same can be said of Vertigo. Hitchcock also invested a great deal of meaning in his locations in Vertigo and the place (San Francisco) is invested with a great deal of psychoanalytic meaning: the Coit Tower (phallic), the giant Redwoods, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission Dolores and San Juan Bautista. All of these places are given power by Hitchcock and it is unfortunate none of the authors never mention there aura, although this is inferred throughout the book.


On reading the book I felt that I knew the film even better than before and have to admit to entering reading it cynically believing that nothing more can be written on it and discovering that I was wrong. I do know Vertigo more now but more than that I feel I know San Francisco better.


Chris Hick

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