Uncredited Second Unit Cameraman Irmin Roberts invented the famous "zoom out and track in" shot (now sometimes called "contra-zoom" or "trombone shot") to convey the sense of vertigo to the audience. The view down the mission stairwell cost nineteen thousand dollars for just a couple of seconds of screentime.
This movie was unavailable for three decades because its rights (together with four other movies of the same period) were bought back by Sir Alfred Hitchcock and left as part of his legacy to his daughter. They've been known for long as the infamous "Five Lost Hitchcocks" amongst movie buffs, and were re-released in theatres around 1984 after an approximately thirty-year absence. The others are The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Rear Window (1954), Rope (1948), and The Trouble with Harry (1955).
Sir Alfred Hitchcock had originally wanted to use his now-famous Vertigo zoom in Rebecca (1940), but due to lack of technology at that time, he couldn't do it. The technique was inspired by a time when Hitchcock had fainted during a party.
The Empire Hotel where James Stewart eventually finds Kim Novak is (as of 2009) the Hotel Vertigo (formerly the York) located at 940 Sutter Street in the heart of San Francisco. Novak's character lived in Room 501, which still retains many of its aspects captured in this movie.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock was embittered at the critical and commercial failure of this movie in 1958. He blamed this on James Stewart for "looking too old" to attract audiences any more. Hitchcock never worked with Stewart, previously one of his favorite collaborators, again.
Kim Novak told interviewers that she did not wear a bra when appearing as "Judy." (Actresses performing bra-less was an unusual occurrence in films made under the 1934-1968 Motion Picture Production Code.) Novak claimed it was this element of the Judy costuming that helped her feel more comfortable as Judy than as Madeleine, a character whose costumes were more severe and stiff.
The lighting changes when important events occur. For instance: When Scotty first sees Madeleine in Ernie's restaurant, the light around her becomes unnaturally bright for a moment. While Scotty is listening to the story of Madeleine's ancestor in the book shop, it gets very dark; once he exits the store, it brightens again. When Scotty first sees Judy made up completely as Madeleine, she is lit by a blurred, ghostly green light (the reflected light from the neon sign outside the window).
Costume Designer Edith Head and Director Sir Alfred Hitchcock worked together to give Madeleine's clothing an eerie appearance. Her trademark grey suit was chosen for its color because they thought it seemed odd for a blonde woman to be wearing all grey. Also, they added the black scarf to her white coat because of the odd contrast.
Midge's remarks about the "cantilevered" brassiere designed by an aircraft engineer are a reference to the story that Howard Hughes had an engineer invent a new type of underwired bra for Jane Russell.
When this movie opened at San Francisco's legendary Castro Theater during its restored re-release in October of 1997 (only a few months after the death of James Stewart), it did more business there than any other theater in the U.S. that weekend.
San Juan Batista, the Spanish mission which features in key scenes in the movie doesn't actually have a bell tower, it was added with trick photography. The mission originally had a steeple, but it was demolished following a fire.
When Sir Alfred Hitchcock's wife, Alma, saw this movie, she said that she liked it, except for one shot where Kim Novak walks towards the San Francisco Bay, which she felt made Novak look too large on the screen. For years afterward, when discussing this movie, Hitchcock would insist that Alma hated it.
This movie is often credited or blamed for creating or popularizing the misconception that vertigo means a fear of heights. For the record, the proper name for that condition is "Acrophobia", whereas vertigo is "a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height" (Oxford Dictionary).
Even though another trivia reference says Second Unit Cameraman Irmin Roberts invented the "contra-zoom", the effect is oddly similar and nearly identical to a zoom and vertigo shot seen in Hobson's Choice (1954), where a drunk Henry Hobson is seen falling down a shaft into the basement of Freddy Beenstocks shop. This movie was released four years later, and other special effects elements in the movie oddly mirror what was seen in Hobson's Choice (1954).
In Sir Alfred Hitchcock's cameo, he is seen carrying what has been called a musical instrument case, but there is no musical instrument shaped like that. It is a case for a very high quality costume mask of the Doctor of the Plague, much more appropriate for the Master.
When Scotty is tailing Madeleine driving around the city, the driving route is geographically correct. This is unlike most movies where routes driven are not accurate and may jump from one part of a city to another, like Bullitt (1968). So, it is possible to drive the exact route that is shown in the movie.
Scottie's apartment actually exists, and it boasts the improbably stunning view of Coit Tower through its living room window, which looms over Scottie and Madeleine in the apartment scenes. True aficionados can find it (near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco) by positioning themselves in the same relation to the tower that is seen through the window.
After additional location shoots at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park and the Spanish mission San Juan Bautista, the cast and crew settled in at Paramount Pictures Studio soundstages for two months of filming. In the studio, Sir Alfred Hitchcock was in his element, and could exert absolute control, though he had his share of creative challenges. One very striking sequence is the kissing scene that occurs when Scottie has finally made Judy over as Madeleine. As the couple kiss, the background slowly swirls, and we lose equilibrium as we see Judy's apartment become the livery stables of San Juan Bautista, setting for an earlier emotional scene between Scottie and Madeleine. The shot was achieved with rear projection of the background plates. The camera tracking slowly back, then forward, and with James Stewart and Kim Novak revolving on a circular platform. A key visual here that often is missed is that, as the camera circles, the scene switches to the stable at the Mission (where they first fell in love), then back to the hotel room.These simultaneous movements were difficult to coordinate, and to pull off without Stewart and Novak getting dizzy, in one take, Stewart fell and was slightly injured. Also, the green lighting in the hotel room earlier, before Judy emerges from the bathroom is an indicator of Scotty's obsession and, when she emerges, she appears enveloped in it, like a ghost, drifting toward him. The ghost of his dream has returned. Principal photography was completed three days after this shot, just before Christmas 1957.
Kim Novak already had a reputation for being difficult, so perhaps it was not a surprise when she refused to show up for work one day. She was striking for more money from her home studio Columbia Pictures, who was paying her one thousand two hundred fifty dollars a week, even though they were receiving two hundred fifty thousand dollars for her loan-out for this and one more movie. The ploy worked, and Novak got a raise.
While Madeleine recovers in Scottie's apartment from her fall into the bay, he waits on his sofa. Seen on his coffee table is a copy of the 1950s pulp men's periodical "Swank", which consisted of a mix of cheesecake pictures and action/adventure stories by contemporary writers.
The screenplay is credited to Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, but Coppel didn't write a word of the final draft. He is credited for contractual reasons only. Taylor read neither Coppel's script nor the original novel. He worked solely from Sir Alfred Hitchcock's outline of the story.
The original source material for this movie was the French novel "D'entre Les Morts" and the action was set in Paris. Sir Alfred Hitchcock changed the setting to San Francisco, a city well known for its unique topography and hilly landscape, in order to add a further torment to Scottie's life, and emphasize the debilitating nature of his vertigo and acrophobia.
A theme song titled "Vertigo" by Livingston and Evans (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) was recorded by Billy Eckstine, and was reportedly used for promotional purposes, but was not included in the final cut. Word has it that Sir Alfred Hitchcock didn't feel it was appropriate.
The name "Madeleine" refers, of course, to Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Migdala. "Migdal "is Hebrew for "tower". "Madeleine" is the only name of the four main characters from the original French novel that was retained in this movie. "Judy" was "Renée" in the book. So it is fascinating that Sir Alfred Hitchcock did not keep the name. After all, Renée = re-née = reborn.
The original novel by Boileau and Narcejac is entitled "D'entre les Morts" (From Among The Dead). It is a play on Luke's Gospel Chapter 24 verse 5, spoken by the Man, or Gardener, after the Resurrection: "Who comes to seek the living amongst the dead?" This is said to, amongst others, Mary Magdalene whose name is nowadays used as Madeleine, the name of the protagonist in the novel and movie.
Scottie's house is located at the corner of Lombard and Jones streets. The exterior remained unchanged until about 2013, when the owners did an extensive remodel. They wanted to add a front wall to screen out the noise from the schoolyard across the street.
John Ferren, the artist for the "Nightmare Sequence" design, also painted the pivotal "Portrait of Carlotta" that transfixes the main characters of this movie. Production Designer Henry Bumstead did the joke one of Carlotta with Midge's head. Ferren also did a portrait of Vera Miles when she was to play the role of Madeline.
Scottie's car is a light grey 1956 Desoto Firedome Sportsman Hardtop Coupe. This added to the following of Madeleine's grey suit. To add further to the dizzying effects of following, Scotty passes an identical grey DeSoto on his right while following Madeleine.Madeleine's is a green 1957 Jaguar Mk. VIII. Midge's is a gray 1956 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Coupe.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock had originally opted for another location for the famous staircase sequence, but Associate Producer Herbert Coleman's daughter (Judy Lanini) suggested the Mission at San Juan Bautista (the location that was eventually used) as a more suitable location for filming.
Kim Novak was borrowed from Columbia Pictures for the production, in exchange for a payment of two hundred fifty thousand dollars by Paramount Pictures to Columbia Pictures, and the agreement that James Stewart would co-star with her in Bell Book and Candle (1958).
The post-production period in early 1958 was consumed with retakes, editing, and the creation of special effects shots involving models and matte paintings, particularly of the all-important bell tower.
Bernard Herrmann wasn't able to conduct his score for this movie. Muir Mathieson conducted Herrmann's score for this movie. Because of this, the music score in this movie lacks Bernard Herrmann's "personal sound", which he applied in every score he conducted.
As with most Sir Alfred Hitchcock movies, the filming went relatively smoothly. Hitchcock avoided surprises, preferring to have every detail planned out in advance. Extensive storyboarding of most sequences assured that his trusted production staff would know what was expected of them.
The similarity of the plot theme of this movie and Beyond Oblivion (1956), shot in Buenos Aires, obsessed all Argentine movie buffs for decades. Finally, the question was explained. The link between both movies is the novella "Bruges-la-Morte" (1893) of the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. Hugo del Carril adapted it directly. Sir Alfred Hitchcock indirectly, through a French novel titled "D'Entre Les Morts" (1954) that its authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac hatched a childish police plot about the double tragedy of Rodenbach.
For the German market, this movie was dubbed three times. For the original theatrical release in 1959 (by Paramount Pictures), for the re-release in 1984 (by Universal Pictures) and again in 1999 for the restoration (again by Universal Pictures). Only the 1999 version has been used on home video releases.
In her hotel room, Judy shows Scottie a photograph of her father. He is standing in front of a store, holding an upright pitchfork in his hand. The image recalls the famous painting "American Gothic". On the window behind him, one can see that this was his hardware store. However, the image is cropped such that the actual words one sees are "Barton's War."
For the viewer of this film "focuses on the implications of the active/looking, passive/looked-at split in terms of sexual difference and the power of the male symbolic encapsulated in the hero .. [so that] erotic involvement with the [the cinema audience 'spectator's own] look boomerangs: the spectator's fascination is revealed as illicit voyeurism as the narrative content enacts the processes and pleasures that he [the spectator] himself is exercising and enjoying. .. hence the spectator [viewing the film] lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent legality of his surrogate [Stewart], sees through his look and finds himself [the film viewer] exposed as complicit, caught in the moral ambiguity of looking." Laura Mulvey: 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' in 'Screen'; 1975.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The only one of Sir Alfred Hitchcock's movies in which the killer is not punished. An ending in which Scottie and Midge hear news over the radio of Gavin Elster being sought by the police was filmed at the demands of the American Production Code Administration, but ended up not being used.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock had contemplated editing Judy's flashback sequence, which reveals that she and Madeline are one and the same. Hitchcock was worried that audiences would lose interest in the movie if audiences knew this twist early. Two screenings for critics were subsequently held in New York City: one with the flashback and the other without it. With the flashback, critics called it Hitchcock's best movie. Without it, critics called it one of Hitchcock's worst movies. With that in mind, the flashback was retained in the final movie.
Numerous uses of repetition and reflection throughout, including: The mirror on the way out of Ernie's restaurant; Scotty sees Madeleine reflected in it right after he has seen her for the first time. The numerous reflections and repetitions of Madeleine throughout, including at least two women whom Scotty mistakes for her. The metaphorical or dream mirrors that Madeleine describes as lining the corridor of her life. Midge paints herself into the portrait of Madeleine's ancestor, and, in one shot, sits next to the self-portrait, as if doubled. After showing Scotty the portrait, Midge sees herself reflected in the glass of the window. Judy as Madeleine's reflection. Madeleine as repetition or reflection of her ancestor. Scotty repeating his former life. Judy falls from the tower to her death the same way Madeleine did. There is a motif of spirals in this movie, as literal shapes in the opening credits, and as the more abstract shape of the movie's plot, as well as the shape of the pivotal tower staircase.
The words "power" and "freedom" are repeated three times in the movie. 1. At the beginning, Madeleine's husband longs for the old San Francisco, because there was more power and freedom. 2. At the Argosy bookstore, Pop Leibel explains that in Carlotta's time, a man could just throw a woman away because he had more power and freedom. 3. During the climax of the movie, John suggests that after the murder was completed, Gavin left Judy because he had more power and freedom.
Originally, in the book on which this movie was based (D'entre Les Morts by Boileau and Narcejac), it is revealed that Judy and Madeleine are the same person. Sir Alfred Hitchcock decided to change this, and reveal it just after the introduction of the character of Judy in order to create a sense of suspense in this movie, rather than a surprise at the end.
This film contains many "echoes" of Hitchcock's later movie, Psycho (1960): prolonged sequences of sedately driving a car through the countryside; a receptionist gestures at some keys on a key rack, which indicates the empty rooms; the leading lady writes a note, only to rip the paper to pieces; a special sequence designed by Saul Bass features a huge close-up of a woman's eye, then zooms out again; the leading lady is killed about halfway through the movie; a detective and his female associate visit a local retail store to make inquiries; watched from above, the detective climbs a carpeted staircase up to a landing, to seek a lady who isn't there; a dead woman is dramatically revealed; and a doctor gives his expert opinion on the psychosis which ails the leading man.