"As an expression of racking emotion, and as a trip into an eroticized universe, 'VERTIGO' is nonpareil"

San Francisco isn't just the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo: It's the movie's muse. Along with composer Bernard Herrmann, who transforms convoluted psychology into resounding lyricism, and co-star Kim Novak, whose pheromones and otherworldliness give body and soul to tortured romance, San Francisco enables Hitchcock to conjure a nether world of amorous yearning. Of course, James Stewart is wonderful in the role of a retired police detective drawn into an apparent case of demonic possession. But he's not the movie's muse; he's its Orpheus. San Francisco is a fantasia made into flesh and blood and bricks and mortar. Cutthroat street history and cushy mid-'50s chic, theology, and murder rub up against each other--and then, improbably, merge in a seductive trance.

The movie breaks into two big chunks, as Stewart pursues Novak first when she appears in the guise of a socialite named Madeleine, and then when she reappears as a shopgirl, Judy. San Francisco seals the cracks. The story of the movie's current rerelease also breaks into two big chunks: It's a tale of one city and two obsessions--that of a preternaturally gifted imagemaker, and that of a couple of zealous film restorers, Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who want to bring Hitchcock's vision back in glory.

Let's take Hitchcock's obsession first. The script's key writer, Samuel Taylor (who shares screen credit with Alec Coppel), is a San Francisco native; that may explain why locations from the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge to Novak's Nob Hill apartment and Stewart's flat near the base of Lombard Street inform and heighten the action. It was Hitchcock, though, who took the suggestiveness of the locations and ran with them creatively.

Long before Taylor finished the script, the director deputized his production designer, Henry Bumstead, to scout Bay Area shooting sites. One scholar has taken that as proof of Hitchcock's need to fold a "travelogue" into his movies as a selling point; after all, in 1957, wide-screen runaway productions in colorful, far-flung locations were winning audiences back from television, and directors were looking for ways to pop moviegoers' eyes.

But the precipitous urban hills with their unexpected perspectives and blind spots, the wind-swept trees of the Northern California coastline, and the misty pockets of the sequoias inspired Hitchcock to do what only a great director can do. He melded hypercontrolled studio artifice, as specific as a building plan, to spontaneous physical beauty. In Vertigo, Hitchcock's combination of natural and unnatural flirts with the supernatural.

This directorial wizard's brew was crucial for the far-out plot to work: Stewart plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, who, while hanging from a rooftop, discovers that he has acrophobia. After Scottie quits the San Francisco police department, a college pal, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now a shipping magnate, hires Scottie for an odd job: following Elster's wife, Madeleine (Novak)--who acts as if she were seized by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor. Scottie's best friend is Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), his one-time fiancee, a commercial artist who's too much of a maternal force to be a lover. Madeleine has problems, but being maternal isn't one of them. The vertigo of the title refers to Scottie's acrophobia and to his vertiginous drop into amour.

When Novak and Stewart emote by a picturesque stretch of shore, Hitchcock goes from the pair's anguished parlay in front of a studio-built tree to a shot of them navigating an actual rocky hill, and then on to a process shot of the two stars avowing their love and tempestuously kissing just as a big wave tumbles and froths behind them. (A process shot is a visual sandwich whose ingredients usually include live actors and a canned background.) Hitchcock turns studio trickery into the highest of high styles; the shifting grade of the shoreline actually tweaks the emotions. Even as a movie-mad Eastern kid watching Vertigo on Saturday Night at the Movies 35 years ago, I recognized that the crisp outlines around Hitchcock's human figures related to the whirling geometric forms in the opening credits--and that the surface action had a subterranean pull that didn't connect with conventional thrillers.

When Blue Velvet opened, the people who loved it best didn't immediately take apart its narrative, but settled into the movie as into a Roman bath. I think that's probably the best way to enter Vertigo, too. As a thriller it abjures the momentum and cathartic release of Hitchcock's peak suspense film, Rear Window. But as an expression of racking emotion, and as a trip into an eroticized universe, Vertigo is nonpareil. The glory of the reconstruction Harris and Katz have done on Vertigo is that it allows you to be overwhelmed like a kid again while reckoning with Hitchcock's sophisticated artistry. In the 70mm prints, the sharpness of the imagery and the luxuriance of the sound help you realize afresh how much imaginative discipline went into this dreamscape, and help you to appreciate motifs, some of them major, that are diminished when the image loses clarity. Before I saw Vertigo projected, not just broadcast, I'd never fully registered the way the world outside Midge's window looks eerily black-and-white, or that whenever Scottie starts to trail Madeleine outside her apartment, he has to maneuver around a patch of torn street. Now these touches seem emblematic of the movie's booby-trapped romanticism and of the mixture of sentiment and decadence in San Francisco itself. Gavin Elster complains that what made San Francisco a potent place is gone--in 1957! Auras of tarnished and vanished glory are part of the allure of cities like Venice and San Francisco, whose bustling past gives them a sensual humanity beyond the realm of airbrushed picture books.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Sragow