Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’: a Masterful, Timeless Thriller (set in San Francisco!)

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Call me old-school, but I love going to the cinemas. From as young as I can remember, my mom would take me to Shaw Theaters on the weekends, a movie theater located in a mall near where I lived in Singapore. 

I think you can call her a “cool mom” – she introduced me to the filmography of Studio Ghibli, and even took me to see Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in theaters when I was only 4. 

Although the Dead Marshes that Frodo fell into would forever haunt my memory, those formative movie-going years were probably how I fell in love with cinema. 

Sitting in a dark room with comfy sofa-chairs, having my face lit up by the big silver screen, dipping my hands into a bucket of freshly popped caramel popcorn, eyes stuck to the moving pictures, and the best bit – talking about the movie afterwards with my mom. This was by far my preferred afternoon activity.

Before arriving to San Francisco for graduate school, I honestly had no idea how the city or the Bay Area would be like. In my head, California was this mythical state full of state parks, surfers, and stardom seekers. 

Well, I also knew that the Golden Gate Bridge existed, so there’s that. Wanting to understand the city and its history better, I quickly turned to what I loved most: exploring the local cinemas of San Francisco.

In no time, I had a mental map of where each neighborhood was geographically located in the city, based on each cinema I visited. 

In recent memory, watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo at Balboa Theater, Outer Richmond, was one of the most exciting experiences I have had. The theater was packed like sardines, with audiences from all ages.

Other theaters I have been to were at most half-full. While other cinema chains showed upcoming movie trailers, I was pleasantly surprised by an advertisement for a local café, Balboa Café on Fillmore, amongst clips from movies that Balboa Theater was programming for the month. 

As an avid film lover, Vertigo has been on my watchlist for a while. The movie had ranked second in Sight and Sound’s Greatest Film of all Time ranked list, 2022 edition, and Korean director Park Chan-wook had cited Hitchcock as inspiration for his recent work, Decision to Leave

John “Scottie” Ferguson, played by James Stewart, is a retired detective who developed vertigo and a fear of heights while on duty. A college acquaintance hires Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine, as she has been acting strangely and he wishes to know what exactly she has been doing. 

In his automobile, Scottie begins to meander up and down downtown San Franciscan hills, tailing Madeleine’ car for an hour, then a day, then a week. A deep obsession soon unfolds. 

Having just formed an image of modern-day San Francisco, I found it surreal to experience these exact locations again through the lenses of 1958. People wore different clothes, different shops lined Market Street, there were different cars roaming in the city. 

However, familiar and iconic landmarks sparked moments of recognition in me – when Madeleine visit Mission Dolores and the Legion of Honor, or when Scottie saved Madeleine underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and when the pair visited Muir Woods. 

In the second act, both Scottie and Madeleine undergo drastic changes in character, yet San Francisco the city remained inanimate, unchanging. Scottie engages in an obsessive loop of self-destruction. 

Similar events play out in the same locations, but something just feels awry and Hitchcock’s use of San Francisco only highlights the twisted inner-workings of Scottie.  

At times, the film struck a chord with my fellow audience: “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast. I should have liked to have lived here then. Color, excitement, power, freedom.” 

The movie theater audience burst out into laughter. It was funny how true the lines of a film made 65 years ago could still ring true to many. 

Recently, I could not avoid seeing articles online expressing worries about San Francisco experiencing a “doom loop”. It is funny though, that the same feelings have been felt before, six decades ago. Perhaps, the good, the bad, and the ugly will always ebb and flow in a way. 

Walking out of the theater, I thought to myself how much Vertigo reminded me that I like this city a lot.