Landscape, Memory: The Birth of VERTIGO—and a Look at THE ROYAL ROAD

by Johnny Ray Huston

Fifty-seven years ago this week, production began on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo , then titled From Among the Dead.


The first shot in the production was of Kim Novak getting out of a car at Mission Dolores. “The film’s Mission Dolores sequence is among the earliest developed, surviving all drafts, and it happened to be the first major scene put to film when principal shooting began on September 30, 1957,” Douglas Cunningham writes in The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.



Local filmmaker and LGBT historian Jenni Olson’s upcoming film The Royal Road  touches upon Vertigo ‘s Mission Dolores setting—a starting point for a rumination on Hitchcock’s classic that functions within Olson’s broader project, “a primer on the Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War alongside intimate reflections on nostalgia, butch identity, [and] unavailable women.” Shot on 16mm, with a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner, The Royal Road  is part of a growing landscape- or terrain-based cinematic exploration of the history behind the image of the Golden State, one also undertaken by filmmakers such as Thom Andersen, James Benning, Lee Anne Schmitt, and William E. Jones (who contributes cinematography to Olson’s movie). 

In honor of the anniversary of Vertigo ‘s origins, we’re presenting a script excerpt from The Royal Road , which is currently raising funds as it nears completion: 

MissionDoloresBasillicaExcerpt from The Royal Road
 A film by Jenni Olson

At this moment, we’re standing upon the spot which was the Northern terminus of El Camino Real as Junipero Serra knew it in his lifetime (or so the historic marker tells us). This landscape looks considerably different than when Mission Dolores was founded in 1776. Except for the height of the trees, it appears very similar to how it looked in 1957 when it was documented in Technicolor VistaVision for one of the greatest Hollywood movies ever made.

I think of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo  as a sort of cinematic ode to nostalgia—it’s a cautionary tale really, about the pull of the past and the futility of striving for things that are unreachable precisely because they only exist in the long ago. 

Jimmy Stewart stars as Scottie, the retired police detective with a fear of heights. Kim Novak is the mysteriously obsessed Madeleine, with whom he falls in love. Caught up in his own travelogue of desire, Scottie follows Madeleine through the streets of San Francisco. Supposedly seeking a cure to Madeleine’s strange psychological malady, they drive 90 miles down El Camino Real, to the film’s tragic, pivotal location at Mission San Juan Bautista.

Was Hitchcock’s choice of the name Madeleine—for one of his most memory-obsessed characters—an intentional allusion to Proust?

Madeleine’s ostensible fugue state is induced by her obviously unhealthy, too-vividly experienced attraction to some very particular San Francisco history—she supposedly believes she had a previous life as the fictional Mission-era mistress Carlotta Valdez.

“Where do you go? What takes you away?” Scottie asks Madeleine as he tries to uncover the mystery of her attraction to the past.

A question we might also ask of Scottie as his obsession deepens in the latter half of the film. And ultimately of ourselves as well, as Vertigo  succeeds in bewitching us under the same spell our protagonists endure. We too are entangled in the pull of the past, the desperate struggle against loss.

Early in the film Scottie goes to meet his old friend Gavin Elster at his shipyard office. Out the window of the studio set behind him we see the rear-projected image of the cranes at the San Francisco Dry Docks down at Pier 70. As we soak in this image of the city’s bustling maritime waterfront, Elster artfully sets up the ruse that will entangle Scottie in his brilliantly convoluted deception.

“The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast,” says Elster, voicing a perennial lament clearly as old as the city itself.

In Vertigo ’s original screenplay (in a lengthy reflection removed from the final shooting script) Gavin Elster gives an impassioned description of the siren lure of San Francisco and its impact on his wife.

“You know what San Francisco does to people who have never seen it before,” Elster begins.

“All of it happened to Madeleine, but with such an intensity as to be almost frightening.

She was like a child come home. Everything about the city excited her; she had to walk all the hills, explore the edge of the ocean, see all the old houses and wander the old streets; and when she came upon something unchanged, something that was as it had been, her delight was so strong, so fiercely possessive! These things were hers.”

Elster’s monologue goes on to make the claim that: “something in the city possessed her.”


Vertigo  screens Tuesday, October 7, 7:30pm at the Balboa Theatre as part of Cinema SF’s Balboa Classic Movie Series. 3630 Balboa, SF. 

Jenni Olson has been programming, researching, collecting, creating, and writing about lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT) film since 1986 and is one of the world’s leading experts on LGBT cinema history. Her debut feature film,  The Joy of Life is an experimental documentary that explores butch identity and the history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge. Jenni’s historical movie trailer programs, short films, and videos include her short cinematic elegy to Harvey Milk,  575 Castro St., which can be seen in a permanent installation at the HRC Action Center & Store as well as online. Jenni serves as an advisor to filmmakers and champions LGBT films as VP of e-commerce and consumer marketing at Wolfe Video.  Her personal blog can be found at

Johnny Ray Huston has written about film, music, and visual art for 25 years at various newspapers, magazines, and websites, including a 14-year stint as Arts Editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian when it was an independent publication. He has co-created movies and put together film programs shown at Artists’ Television Access, Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, and the San Francisco International Film Festival, and written and made collage work for exhibitions at [2nd Floor Projects] in San Francisco.

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