Getting Vertigo in San Francisco: Hitchcock’s Film and the City Now

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is a film about obsession that is itself an object of obsession. Its fans are legion, from big name filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and auteurs like Chris Marker to blogosphere cinephiles and the British Film Institute, which in 2012 declared it the greatest film ever made. Vertigo, which was received mostly with yawns by critics and public alike when it was released, thus ended up booting Citizen Kane out of the first-place slot it had held for fifty years.

The story is an adaptation of a French crime novel about a detective who falls in love with the married woman he has been asked to follow by her husband, an old friend. The husband says he’s afraid his wife’s been possessed by the ghost of a suicidal ancestor. The detective gets hooked on the haunted dame and wants to run off with her. However, his chronic fear of heights (which had forced him to retire from the force when it caused the death of a fellow cop) stops him from saving her when she (apparently) leaps to her death from a tower. He’s devastated; he breaks down. Later, still mentally fragile, he finds another woman who hauntingly reminds him of the first. He sets out to remake her in the image of his dead love, with disastrous consequences.

While the plot points are mostly the same, the movie has the added appeal of its visual iconography. The femme fatale, Madeleine, was played by ice-blonde ‘50s sex goddess Kim Novak, the detective “Scottie” by (the much older, but that’s Hollywood) Everyman hero Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo also cooked up a new character, career girl Midge, to be the luckless third wheel in a love triangle with Scottie. And the setting was transposed from grim, dark, wartime and postwar France to an idyllic, gorgeous and prosperous mid-century San Francisco and its wild, lush environs.

Vertigo’s plot is impossibly overwrought, with its bizarrely mismatched leads inhabiting stick-figure characters, and its moments of classic Hitchcockian kitsch: the scene where Midge titillates Scottie by sketching “cantilevered” designer bras; a truly goofy mixed-media dream sequence that stands in for Scottie’s nervous breakdown after Madeleine’s death; the spooky nun who fatally pops up in that mission bell tower in the almost laughably Freudian final scene.

But from the time I first saw the film, I couldn’t dismiss it just as stylish fun, as I have many other Hitchcock thrillers. It pulled me into its world, and it started to haunt me – if not to obsess me, at least to make me wonder what its hold on me was. My first time was at the big-screen Castro Theater, one of San Francisco’s grandest nostalgia spaces, a preserved specimen of the 1920s movie palaces once a fixture in many neighborhoods. (These in turn were mostly 20th century copies of Gilded Age European concert halls, which themselves paid baroque tribute to Ancient Greek and Roman theaters – something like déjà vu all over again, architecturally).

I went back for repeated viewings, whenever Vertigo was in town. I bought a copy of the meticulously re-mastered version of the film that was proudly debuted at the Castro, and watched it again and again. I began to realize that unlike many of my fellow obsessive fans, who were fascinated by the film’s perverse take on hopeless love, I was perhaps most enthralled by Vertigo’s use of location – a breathtaking, oneiric San Francisco. Had I not actually lived in San Francisco, I realized, I might have become no more obsessed by Vertigo than Scottie was by any woman who didn’t remind him of Madeleine.

Hitchcock was reputedly as entranced by the city as he was by his unobtainable blonde starlets. San Francisco has been elevated to the status of one of the movie’s characters by other fans. We have to be clear, though, what “character” means in this context: Vertigo’s San Francisco is just about as real as the human figures that populate it, which is to say that it is an iconic fantasy.

And yet it’s embellished with real details of a real place, both in its numerous location shots and in many unnecessarily specific bits of dialogue: “The Mission – why that’s Skid Row, isn’t it?” “I want to know who shot who on the Embarcadero back in 1859.” “An engineer down the Peninsula designed it.” An unbelievable story is thus made more compelling by embedding it with just enough local realism to bring it alive.

In any case, while the impossible plot was unfolding, while the protagonists were sleepwalking to their doom, while Bernard Herrmann’s brilliantly nerve-wracking score swirled around me, I kept looking at the backdrop: the wide, traffic-free streets, little mom-and-pop shops, North Beach walk-up flats, the neo-Classical colonnade of Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts (another great nostalgia space) where handsome lovers decorated the green lawns. Coit Tower, not yet out-phallused by slick high-rise boxes. Fort Point, dark and silent under the great red bridge, empty of tour groups in pedi-cabs, dog-walkers, and faux trolleys. The fog-softened blue sky illuminating everything, making it softly incandescent. And the gorgeous coast on which the city sits: wild, rocky, with its grove of Sequoia sempervirens… “always green, ever living,” says Scottie.

It gave me a nostalgia for something I’d never experienced. A San Francisco I’d never actually seen, but in which I longed to live. A languid, heavenly city, frozen forever at the peak of its beauty – and almost uninhabited by other people. An uncanny, eternal place, where only eternal stories could be told.

The city I lived in fifty years later was tantalizingly like Vertigo’s San Francisco in some ways – except that it wasn’t. Just as Judy, the woman Scottie meets after Madeleine’s death is she – except that she isn’t.

Vertigo confronted me with the psychic experience I had of the San Francisco I actually did live in, which I had come to without direction and stayed in for decades without ever really belonging to. That city was beautiful and desirable but somehow empty, its wide, clean sidewalks dotted with comfortable, blank-faced inhabitants moving about in a kind of hypnotic trance, its core, inner realness apparently inaccessible no matter how close you got.

In Vertigo’s early scenes, Madeleine appears to be wandering the quiet city in a dreamlike state, compelled by her ghostly possessor. But we later learn she is visiting an itinerary of pre-selected places in a calculated and staged way, to play out a role that has been contrived for her. Madeleine, like the San Francisco she haunts, turns out to be an empty vessel, inaccessible to the smitten Scottie no matter how much he tries to possess her. In the second half of the film the reason for her emptiness is revealed: she is an illusion, entirely a creation of the villainous industrialist Gavin Elster, who sets the wheels of the plot in motion.

“The things that mean San Francisco to me are disappearing fast,” says Elster, as he sits in the plush office of a 19th century robber baron, with spider-like cranes moving goods around in a shipyard behind him. There’s a faint implication that the grimy business he runs on his wife’s behalf is part of what’s causing the disappearance of those things.

Obsessively eyeing this backdrop, I was struck by the fact that those cranes, like the Mission Bay shipyards – the film’s symbols of fast-paced industrial modernity – are long gone, obsolete within two decades after Vertigo was made. The old waterfront, a post-industrial wasteland twenty years ago, has in the last decade filled up again with massive glass and steel boxes built to house the new growth industry: biotechnology. (One whose profits, like Elster’s murder plot, depend on erasing the boundaries between the living and the dead.)

That is the San Francisco I know: destined to be continually flooded and scoured by tsunamis of newly created wealth, and restructured in their wake each time.

I was dogged by a fantasy that the San Francisco that simultaneously haunted me and often made me feel like a ghost on its streets actually was the mythical San Francisco of Vertigo. It was three-dimensional and playing in perpetuity, incorporating incessantly changing buildings, businesses, cars, inhabitants – but underneath not really changing at all. Trapped in breathlessly perpetual but somehow cosmetic change under which was an oddly enduring stasis. It was the stasis of a projection, something that floats above existence, disconnected from material reality. Like a movie.

Indeed the forces at work in San Francisco today have been the same since its boom town beginnings– lust for profit, the never-ending quest to possess the un-possessable: all the wealth of the earth and its beauty too – forever. The ultimate fantasy, the ultimate Big Score. “Power and freedom,” says the uxocidal Gavin Elster, waxing nostalgic about the Gold Rush years. And what is that, speculated visionary filmmaker Chris Marker (pointing out that the words “power and freedom” are repeated three times in the film, at key points) but an attempt to conquer death, and thereby time itself?

If there is a place that is the epitome of the “creative destruction” required by the eternally restless empire of capital, my San Francisco is that place – then and now, once and again. And how lucky, we inhabitants are made to think! Many places in the world see only the destruction – starvation, war, economic collapse, decay, abandonment. You know: Kabul, or Detroit. But San Francisco is desirable. It is the most desirable city in the country today, to judge by its rents and real estate prices.

The system in which we are ensnared depends on the idea that our desire for possession is, and must be, infinite. (This is what is called the “driver of growth.”) And thanks to continual technological revolutions enabled by “engineer[s] down the Peninsula,” that still includes the ancient desire to possess a kind of immortality, to triumph over time. Not by extending time, these days, however – but by collapsing it. The information revolution creates the illusion of an infinitely abundant and accessible now, where money and technology conjoin to make everything seem immediately possible.

Well, that can give anybody vertigo. But what does such infinite pseudo-possibility make of us all, psychologically, but desperate little Scotties? After all, we aren’t meant to have everything, just to want everything. And look what happens to poor Scottie, and because of him. His vertigo is the fatal flaw that kills; his obsessive desire for an illusion ruins him and destroys those who love him. Maybe he really is the Everyman after all, and not just Hitchcock’s creepy ice goddess-obsessed alter ego.

For what is vertigo but the sickening sense that there is no solid ground under your feet, that you are being pulled inexorably into a bottomless abyss? This is a legitimate psychic response to living in places that are constantly being destroyed and remade by money. Places that offer no possibility of living out the full circuit of a lifespan – or even a few years – in an environment that’s recognizable as the one you started out in. This is what new capital and tech-enabled utopia feels like: the absolute antithesis of home.

Vertigo the film offers us the seemingly contradictory experience of two opposing psychological states: the dizzying removal of limits, and paralysis, the impossibility of movement or change. The plot has the feel of nightmare—not in the sense of horror but of entrapment, the inability to take any action that doesn’t lead to a pre-determined outcome. This also calls up the fate of anything desirable – a beautiful person, or a place – when its desirability has been entirely objectified and commodified.

Thanks to the ever-expanding marketplace of desire, places like San Francisco can be trapped by their own beauty, forced into a temptress’s role like Judy being manipulated and made over by two domineering men. They become pretty façades, scoured of much of the messy complexity of the living world. (Disney, that other consummately perverse movie magician, was the mastermind of such environments.) They are fantasy projections that invoke the eternal but are haunted by collapse: all these glittering pleasure-dome utopias hide the repressed horror that they will inevitably buckle one day under the weight of the unsatisfied needs of the many and the insatiable desires of the few.

But Vertigo is also about being imprisoned by the past, not just in thrall to an illusory future. It is a story in which a stolen past is used to create a very real haunting, and a desperate and destructive nostalgia tries to revive a corpse.

Back to Elster again, whose greed and power falsify and erase the very past he expresses his longing for. It’s he who appropriates the legend of Carlotta Valdez, the seduced and abandoned Spanish mission girl who is supposedly his wife’s ancestor – and while Scottie confirms her existence independently, we’ll never know whether Madeleine Elster was “really” related to her or not. Elster uses history like Hitchcock uses geographic detail: to make a fiction come alive, to entice us to believe an enthralling lie.

San Francisco’s historical persona is also relentlessly traded in the psychic marketplace today – pimped to tourists, transmogrified into colorful tales of the Barbary Coast, the Beats, the Summer of Love. And then there’s preservation, where rich patrons transform a limited number of physical spaces into changeless museums, the way token amounts of wildlife are preserved in parks and zoos. These are ways of trying to moot the psychological consequences of the constant upheavals demanded by unlimited growth – by aestheticizing the past, and shrewdly turning it into another avenue of profitability.

But less marketable ghosts also haunt the city: the deadly anti-Chinese riot of 1877, the 1934 San Francisco general strike (history’s first use of tear gas on civilians for crowd control), the mass removal and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the bloodily repressed San Francisco State College student strike, the White Night riots. There are ghosts of other utopias than the one envisioned by money, ghosts particularly of darker, poorer people who sought to make this their home, displaced in the tens of thousands by wave after wave of urban “renewal” and gentrification – so that places like the Fillmore, the International Hotel, South of Market and the Mission District have become synonymous with mass removal and relocation. Beneath all other historical layers is of course, the bounty hunting and ultimate extermination of the original human inhabitants of the area.

The eternally cleansed paradise that money seeks to create is thus filled with gritty ghosts, swarming unseen on every corner. As San Francisco turns itself into an alluring illusion for each new generation that gets drawn here like Scottie’s moth to Madeleine’s flame – it is (and they become) haunted by the ghosts of what it is always destroying in order to remake itself. And its promised “freedom” turns out to be another kind of determinism for the masses who cannot be its beneficiaries. It is a never-ending cycle of return, the proliferation of ghostly, disconnected existences, the impossible longing for an ideal of union (for a true home is psychically akin to the individual beloved), overshadowed by a more vibrant past that is being erased, imperfectly, but with ever-greater rapidity.

Around the time of Vertigo’s release, the great modernist author Clarice Lispector wrote that the “game” of contemporary life is always “to act as if you do not know” the underlying truths of existence. But this tendency also reaches back into history: it is how empires are built and maintained. It is how capital’s crisis-ridden shell game works too: turning our eyes from its failures, we allow them to repeat again and again, the skies of our past filled with black swans.

Vertigo is a great, weird tragedy of the overweening desire for power, freedom, and possessive love; and the destruction of the real in pursuit of a ghost. San Francisco, Vertigo’s mythical backdrop, is also a real place where this recurring tragedy is playing out once again, on the collapsed-time stage of a technologically sustained empire. The truth we all act as if we do not know is the foretold outcome.

Christy Rodgers lives in San Francisco, where all that is solid melts into air. Her essays and reviews have appeared in CounterPunch Alternet, Upside Down World, Truthout, Dark Mountain Project, and Left Curve Magazine. Her blog is What If? Tales, Transformations, Possibilities.