Filmed on location in San Francisco, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1958) provides tantalizing mid-century glimpses of the City in sparkling VistaVision color. Remarkably, when Scottie (James Stewart) traces Madeleine (Kim Novak) by car back to his own apartment, they cross paths twice with Buster Keaton. It turns out Keaton filmed many scenes from Day Dreams (1922) (inset left) and a key scene from The Navigator (1924) in San Francisco. (You can download a Keaton – San Francisco PDF tour HERE). Why Keaton chose to film here remains a tantalizing mystery. Perhaps it was simply a fun way to combine work with pleasure, justifying trips from Hollywood.
Madeleine and Scottie in Vertigo, and Buster in Day Dreams, all traveled east along Washington, with Madeleine and Scottie turning left (north) onto Powell, while Buster, traveling by cable car, turned right (south). The same building on the NE corner (red box below) appears in both shots, and remains unchanged today.
More remarkably, Scottie’s apartment on 900 Lombard overlooked a nightmarish chase scene from Day Dreams, as Buster flees an army of cops east down Lombard from Jones. To begin, as Scottie, dumbfounded, realizes he has followed Madeleine towards his own apartment, his point-of view through the car windshield (below) shows the block of Lombard where Buster fled the police.
Below, you can even see the corner site of Scottie’s yet to be constructed apartment at Lombard and Jones (yellow) during Buster’s chase, while a Hyde Street cable car (red) passes by along the crest of the hill.
The shot above also reveals further at back the block of Lombard now world-famous for all the twists and turns. To my eye the roadway for the block west of Leavenworth (red line) looks torn up, but before the prominent curved cement retaining walls were installed. I’ve tried to pin down when exactly the twists and turns were built, and when Buster was here filming, but the answers are elusive.
At the time the Lombard street improvement was hardly newsworthy, affecting only the handful of residents living on the block. An August 1, 1922 letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle reports construction plans were presented to the homeowners for approval, and that by mid-June the cobblestones lining the street were dug up. However, complains the letter-writer, the serpentine project was halted because one of the owners was in Europe and wasn’t ready to give his consent, forcing his neighbors to live with the dust, inconvenience, and delay. “Fourteen American property owners and the city’s engineer’s office halted upon orders from Europe – wealth and political influence! Some of us have had our first lesson in what makes a Bolshevik” seethes the letter-writer, signing off anonymously as “FAIR PLAY.”
The initial plans for the project are dated June 6, 1922, and a further plan, apparently the “as-built” plan is dated December 11, 1922, showing a November 5, 1923 revision regarding the stairways along the street. So the project was likely completed well after August 1, but before the December rainy season. My best guess is Buster filmed here some time during the summer, after the road was torn up in mid-June, but before the major construction commenced. PS – apparently this section of Lombard was two-way until 1939! Can you imagine driving up this street?
UPDATE – intrepid reader ‘Skip,’ who solved the Safety Last! mystery building (the Dresden Apartments, 1919 W 7th Street, the still standing 4 story building human spider Bill Strother climbs early in the movie – read HERE), followed a hunch that the Steve McQueen car chase in Bullitt (1968) must somehow cross paths with Keaton and Hitchcock, and he was right! During the chase, SMQ drives south down Jones towards the corner of Lombard, with Scottie’s apartment (red box above) on the right.
Hitchcock filmed Vertigo in San Francisco in part because its dizzying streets and hills create a mood of imbalance and uncertainty. 36 years before him, Buster recorded his fever-pitched Day Dreams of persecution and pursuit on those very same streets. To see all of the Vertigo filming locations, check out Reel SF. I highly recommend this entertaining and meticulous classic-era San Francisco movie location blog.
Vertigo (C) 1958 Paramount Pictures. Day Dreams from Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917 – 1923 (C) 2016 Kino-Lorber, Lobster Films.
Looking east down Lombard towards Scottie’s apartment, in 2011, before it was remodeled.