History haunts the city by the Bay in Hitchcock’s 1958 film.
This month, CityLab will be rounding up essential scary movies about cities—films that speak to the anxieties of urban life, showcase urban settings to terrifying effect, or forever change the way you see the cities they depict.
Near the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo, Scottie Ferguson asks his old college pal, Gavin Elster, if he likes it here in San Francisco.
From behind his heavy wooden desk in his shipping magnate’s office, Elster responds: “Well, San Francisco’s changed. The things that spell ‘San Francisco’ to me are disappearing fast.”
Elster longs for Gold Rush-era San Francisco, which he imagines as a time when men were free to do and take whatever they wanted. Vertigo shows how Elster capitalizes on and manipulates the city’s past to control other people.
The film begins jarringly: we see Ferguson, played by a graying Jimmy Stewart, watch one of his police colleagues fall to his death during a rooftop chase. Traumatized and left with vertigo-inducing acrophobia, Ferguson swears out of the police force.
While Ferguson is attempting to re-acclimate himself to heights, Elster calls him with a strange request: to trail his wife, Madeleine, whom Elster believes to be in danger.
“I’m afraid some harm may come to her,” Elster says.
“From whom?” Ferguson asks.
“Someone dead. Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?”
Ferguson says no, of course not, but he agrees to follow Madeleine. On her trail, Ferguson watches Madeleine walk into the cemetery at Mission Dolores and stand before the grave of Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who went insane and committed suicide in 1857 at age 26—the same age Madeleine is now. From there, Ferguson follows Madeleine to the Legion of Honor museum, where she sits before a larger-than-life painting of Carlotta. She leaves the museum and drives down to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point in the Presidio; she contemplates the water for a while, then throws herself into the bay.
Ferguson rescues her, and the previously skeptical detective falls under her sway. Madeleine claims she doesn’t recall what she’s done; Carlotta seems to be acting through her, her undead spirit pulled out of all the sites in the city that hold her memories.
Panic sets in for Ferguson, but he’s also falling in love with Madeleine. After saving her life, he feels an obligation to protect her. They drive up to Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, and wander around, looking at the redwoods. The trees appear to unsettle Madeleine. “What are you thinking?” Ferguson asks her. “Of all the people who’ve been born and have died, while the trees went on living,” Madeleine answers.
The past feels palpable in a city like San Francisco, whose relatively short history has unfolded within the lifespan of one of these great trees. The idea that Carlotta may be reaching through to grab hold of and control Madeleine’s life is disturbing because it doesn’t feel so impossible; despite Elster’s complaints of the evaporating culture of San Francisco, the city hasn’t evolved enough to truly lay its past to rest. The old Missions retain the memories of early settlements; the fog swirling around the Golden Gate reinforces some idea of the undead. At NPR, Laura Sydell describes the particular creepiness of the Bay city:
The city's winding streets and mansions set above the deep blue bay are familiar, but over the course of the film they reveal themselves to be dangerous, and their history seems to rise up and tug at the characters in the present.
The haunting by Carlotta turns out to be an elaborate hoax by Elster, who hired a woman to act as a body double for his wife, and pretend to be possessed by Carlotta’s undead spirit. This fake Madeleine leads Ferguson to Carlotta’s childhood home at the old mission San Juan Bautista, south of San Francisco (Elster has brought the real Madeleine there, too, to kill her). While Ferguson lags behind on the steps, his vertigo preventing him from climbing higher, Elster shoves his wife to her death, and smuggles the fake Madeleine out alive.
Ferguson, believing Madeline to be dead, is left in a state of shock. He revisits the places where he once followed Madeleine; he sees traces of her everywhere. For him, the exposure to Elster’s scheme has a real, haunting effect. The city becomes a repository of memory: as long as these places exist, he can return to them and grasp at an encounter with Madeleine.
The fear that Vertigo preys on is not, as the name implies, one of heights. Instead, the film captures the dread of looking back at where you’ve come from, unsure of what you might see there. In Hitchcock’s world, to walk through a city like San Francisco is to toe the line between past and present, and maybe, to fall into the cracks between them.