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Revisiting a favourite movie

Although I spent the bulk of my recent trip to northern California north of the Bay Area, on my final day I went south, as there was one particular place I wished to visit. This was the town of San Juan Bautista, just inland from Monterrey, and in particular I wished to visit the historic Mission San Juan Bautista, whose bell tower from which Kim Novak falls to her death around halfway through Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and then again at the very end of the movie.

This particular movie is a favourite of many film nerds, although it was not a box office success when it was released. Possibly it is the theme of the film – it isn’t really a thriller but is more a study of the descent into madness of the character played by James Stewart, as his obsession with Kim Novak becomes more and more weird and destructive. This is perhaps the movie in which Hitchcock’s various obsessions came closest to the surface, and is perhaps about a kind of obsessiveness that those of us who spend a lot of time watching movies in dark rooms understand. I certainly do. It is perhaps my favourite movie.

Or perhaps it is just the beautiful way that Hitchcock used his locations. San Francisco may have been shot better in other movies, but it has seldom been shot in a way that captures the feel of the city as much as does this one. You wander round the various locations in the city, you feel the steepness of the hills, and the coldness of San Francisco Bay and you feel, even today, that Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak might walk down the corner. It’s a slightly less genteel city than those on the east coast. You can tell it is the city of gold rushes, and the characters in the movie, who in some instances have great wealth or work for people who do, but who none the less act from rather depraved motives, seem to belong there.

Hitchcock was famously disdainful of actors – once referring to them as “cattle”, but he was none the less brilliant at getting great performances out of stars. None of these were better than those he got out of Jimmy Stewart in this movie and in Rear Window. In both cases, Hitchcock created characters who were almost the classic James Stewart everyman, and which certainly drew on this aspect of his stardom, but cracks appeared in the persona as the movie went on, as the characters became warped and twisted. (Oddly, Hitchcock’s use of Stewart in a third movie, Rope is in my mind a failure. In that case the character is clearly required to be warped and twisted (and gay) in the script, but Stewart plays the character far too clean cut). Kim Novak was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the role of Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo, Vera Miles having had to pull out because she was pregnant, and Hitchcock apparently was unable to hide his displeasure about the fact that he was directing his second choice, but Kim Novak plays fragile, scheming, vulnerable, caught up in the consequences of her own machinations, and does so beautifully. I personally cannot imagine anyone else in the role.

In any event, I had visited the San Francisco locations of Vertigo on previous trips to the cities. I wanted to visit the location where the climactic events take place at the end. Watching the movie, I have always got a sense of the church in which the finals events occur being in a place of isolation, and almost unworldly place, but when you get there, you realise it is not so.

This is the one place in the movie which does not feel it has been shot as itself, which is intriguing given that the setting is clearly indicated as being the real place. (Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak turn down a road down which a sign points to “San Juan Bautista” on their way to the final scene of the film). Rather than being isolated, the church is in the middle of the town. Watching the DVD of the movie again, Hitchcock makes no attempt to hide the fact that the church is in the middle of a town, and yet somehow I never got that sense until visiting the location. And the bell tower: the bell tower which looks enormous and looms over everything is in fact in reality quite small. The real church tower is shown in the film, but it is shot in such a way as to hide its true lack of size. One suspects that if Kim Novak fell off it in reality she might perhaps hurt herself, but she would have to be unlucky to die. And of course, there is the small matter that the inside of the tower seen in the film is clearly a set. The characters go round and round a seemingly endless spiral staircase, and there is no possible way that this would fit inside the exterior of that particular bell tower.

But it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter for a very particular and clever reason. Jimmy Stewart’s character has suffered from vertigo ever since watching his police partner fall to his death from a high building in the first scenes of the movies. A lot of the film is seen through his eyes, and Hitchcock shows his vertigo through doing interesting things with the camera. He simultaneously moves the camera forwards and zooms out, causing the relative positions of objects to appear to change.(Hitchcock is often given credit for inventing this shot. That may be true, and if it isn’t he is certainly the person who brought it into mainstream movies. It has been used endlessly since). Objects such as the bell tower are very distorted, and we just see this as part of the mental state of the character. The fact that the location makes no sense in reality is largely lost on us. And Hitchcock understood that this would be so when he made the movie.

But when you visit the location, this is immediately obvious.

(I have actually written about Vertigo before, in the context of Terry Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys, which is sort of a simultaneous science fiction remake of Vertigo and Chris Marker’s La Jetee all crossed with James Tiptree Jr’s The Last Flight of Dr Ain. People who were interested in this post might also find that one interesting).

14 comments to Revisiting a favourite movie

  • Divine Mercy

    Thanks for sharing pics, sure brought back memories. Perhaps I’m biased seeing as I hail from S.F. the fog of the city being one of my fondest memories. Hope you’re enjoying it! Try to get to San Juan Capistrano if you can.

    The drive from Southern to Northern Calif, is breathtaking, I’ve done it several times, each time brings a new delight. The Vinyard areas, the Spanish style architecture all adding to it’s charm and beauty.

    I’ve never seen Vertigo, noted Barbara Bel Geddes was in it. I recall her best from her role as the compassionate mother in “Dallas” not really considering her obviously earlier roles.

    Hitchcock, he was the one who made us ponder black birds for years to come. Oh, and showers. Gasp.

  • Thanks so much, Michael. I enjoyed this post, as I love “Vertigo”, but I enjoyed the “12 Monkeys” review even more, as it is one of my most favorite movies of all time.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    I think Stewart was better in Hitchcock’s “Rope”, which is a great movie despite the gimmick. Stewart was so-so in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, but that’s made up for by having Doris Day run around London in a little gray women’s suit for the entire second half of the movie. 😉

    And call me strange, but the two Hitchcock movies I love watching over and over are “Saboteur” (of all things) and “Notorious”. OK, add “Lifeboat” and make that three.

  • Rollo

    Kim Novak, now there’s an example of timeless sex appeal.

  • Midwesterner

    I never got vertigo from Vertigo. But North by Northwest? (Shivers.)

  • Verity

    Vertigo just didn’t do a thing for me. It was atmospheric, but it just wasn’t an engaging movie for me. Notorious, on the other hand, still sings. That scene when they came down the staircase is still madly glamourous and full of tension, all these years later. North By Northwest is also a heart-stopper. I think it may partly be because Cary Grant had a much stronger screen presence than James Stewart.

  • I love this movie too. Love the special effects, that is the spinning pinwheels. They look campy now. I am also from San Francisco. BTW Monterrey is in Mexico, Monterey is in California.

  • The tower in Vertigo looks bigger than the real tower because it was matted in as a special effect in production. I don’t thin the actual tower appears in the film at all.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Saboteur told pretty much the same story as North by Northwest 17 years earlier, and is in my opinion better than North by Northwest. (Yes, I know many Hitchcock fans will consider that a sacrilege!) Bob Cummings may not have been the greatest actor (see his role with Ronald Reagan in “King’s Row”), but he was well cast in Saboteur, and he doesn’t have the bull-in-the-china-shop delivery that Cary Grant brought to dramatic roles. Also, Saboteur doesn’t have the police playing a deus ex machina role the way they do for most of North by Northwest.

    Cary Grant did do a good job in Notorious, although that’s because he’s not functioning as the lead — Ingrid Bergman clearly drives that film, with Claude Rains’ superb performance second and Grant a distant third. The one time Grant’s clumsy delivery worked was in Suspicion, except that the studio execs couldn’t handle the idea of Grant being the villain, and made Hitchcock screw up the ending, making it an absolute mess.

    I don’t know that Grant necessarily has more screen presence than Stewart — go back and watch Stewart’s performance in “Rope”. Grant did probably have more power than Stewart in Hollywood (or at least a greater compunction to use it), which explains why Grant comes across as having more screen presence. In any case, Gregory Peck in Spellbound has more screen presence than either Grant or Stewart, even if Spellbound has a thoroughly ludicrous plot and childish Freudian symbolism.

  • Verity

    Ted – I’m not saying that James Stewart wasn’t a very good actor. But Cary Grant just had more presence – perhaps because he also always seems to have an interior life in his movies. You always have the sense that he, as his character, is thinking and judging every minute. Hard to describe. I think Gary Cooper had a similar quality.

  • Susan

    Michael, did you go into the carriage house across the square (which was also featured in the movie)? Last time I went (late ’90s) they still had the grey papier mache horse in it — which Scottie teases Madeleine about at one point in the movie.

    And yes they did use a mat for the bell tower in the film — the real bell tower looks nothing like the one in the film.

  • I presume you drove down US 101 to get to San Juan Bautista. There was a shot in the film of driving down a eucalyptus-lined road — that stretch of trees is still there, although the road is four-lane divided highway now. I used to drive 101 between the Bay Area and southern California all the time, and whenever I drove that stretch I would think of Vertigo.

  • Jim: I remember that shot in the film well, but I don’t recall seeing it on the drive. I may have just missed it. (I was staying in Berkeley and so I drove down the Oakland side of the Bay, and joined Highway 101 at San Jose, so if the stretch is north of San Jose I wouldn’t have driven past it).