SAN FRANCISCO - “OK, so Jimmy Stewart is sitting in his DeSoto right where that white minivan is parked - right there!” says author Aaron Leventhal, as knowledgeable an Alfred Hitchcock fanatic as you are bound to find. “And he’s looking between those two pillars - right over here - at Kim Novak, who’s coming out of her apartment building to get into her green Jaguar and go wandering through the city.”
We’re standing at the corner of Mason and Sacramento streets atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, and we’re about to follow, 50 years later, in the footsteps of Stewart, Novak - and Hitchcock himself. He filmed “Vertigo,” his 1958 classic, on these very streets, as well as amid the redwoods of Big Basin and at Mission San Juan Bautista, where Novak falls to her death. Twice. Sort of.
“Vertigo” is both murder mystery and love story. It pivots on double identity and mines themes of obsession and guilt, romantic longing and pain, using the writhing, up-and-down San Francisco cityscape as a representation of the story’s dizzying plot twists and emotional states. After half a century, millions revere it and academics study it (the Stanford Humanities Center holds a “Vertigo” symposium Friday).
Leventhal and Jeff Kraft wrote “Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco,” the product of obsessive detective work. It essentially shows the location or inspiration for every shot in the film, which first screened May 9, 1958, at the Stage Door Theater on Mason Street near Union Square.
A door. An alley. A grave marker. All are identified in the book, along with the precise routes Stewart (playing detective John “Scottie” Ferguson) drives as he follows Novak (as Madeleine Elster, a married socialite, deeply troubled; he loves her) and her Jaguar on the first of three drives through the city.
“It’s like Hitchcock’s almost renting you your 15 minutes of fame; you feel almost a part of that film, even though it was made 50 years ago,” Leventhal says.
“OK so Madeleine’s first drive starts there,” he says, pointing to the castle-like Brocklebank apartments at Mason and Sacramento, once home to newspaper columnist Herb Caen and Mayor Joseph Alioto, not to mention the fictitious Madeleine. Her second drive starts here, too, the one that ends at Fort Point, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, where she plunges into the bay and is saved by Scottie. And so does her third, the one which ...
Hitchcock, who spent weekends with his family on a nearby estate for 30 years, and who viewed the Bay Area as “a great escape from the film industry in Los Angeles,” Leventhal says, filled “Vertigo” with authentic San Francisco detail. He included Ernie’s Restaurant (long gone, at 847 Montgomery St.; Hitchcock was a regular) and, across the street from the Brocklebank, the Fairmont Hotel, whose “cascading shadows,” Leventhal says, form a backdrop to Scottie’s mid-film madness.
We walk past the Fairmont and down two steep blocks of Mason Street to enter the Argonaut Book Shop, at 786 Sutter St. Based on their study of production notes from the film, Leventhal and Kraft are certain that this shop was the inspiration for the Argosy Book Shop in “Vertigo,” where Scottie meets old Pop Leibel, proprietor, California history buff and explainer of Madeleine’s family secrets.
“My dad knew Hitchcock,” explains Argonaut owner Robert Haines Jr., who, like Pop, specializes in rare books on the Gold Rush and old California. He says his father, Robert Haines Sr., who founded the store on Kearny Street, was the director’s model for Pop Leibel.
“There’s a scene where Pop pulls out a Zippo and taps a cigarette - and that’s just what my father did,” he says. “For the last 40 years, I’ve had people coming in here, asking, ‘Is this the shop where Alfred Hitchcock’ did so and so?’ “
“And it is,” Leventhal says. “Hitchcock once said, ‘This is what a bookshop should look like,’” referring to the original shop on Kearny.
Next, it’s time to replicate that third drive, starting at the Brocklebank.
We zigzag to the corner of Hyde and Filbert streets, turn right on Filbert and look down on the bleached-white city below. Hitchcock’s shot of this same vista included the bottom of Coit Tower (Hitchcock thought it a phallic symbol, a reminder of sexual tension between Scottie and Madeleine) and St. Peter and Paul Church, where Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe, in North Beach.
We keep zigzagging and, approaching the corner of Lombard and Jones streets, Leventhal announces: “Here it is. Right there on that corner is 900 Lombard, Scottie’s apartment,” on Russian Hill.
It’s basically impossible not to stand here without remembering Novak, an elegant bombshell, stepping out of her Jaguar and walking to the front door to slip a note in Scottie’s mailbox, not knowing she has been followed by the detective, who we’ve been led to think has become her lover.
Leventhal, now out on the sidewalk, scripts that moment: “She pulls in, right over there, and walks to the porch, and he approaches her from just about this same angle, from right where we’re standing. The door is the same; the mailbox is the same,” he says. “You see that video camera that’s been installed? We’ve been told they put that in there because so many people were walking up to that door.”
Hitch’s footsteps mark these streets, even after 50 years.