Hitting the highway for Hitchcock’s favorite haunts

By: Matthew Whitley, Journal correspondent
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Hitting the road is generally one of the best activities to do with friends here in California. There is really no shortage of things to see or do; sometimes it is simply a matter of narrowing the decision down. So finding inspiration can come from anywhere. 

As a film lover, I immediately noticed the book “Footsteps in the Fog, Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco” written by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, 2002, sitting in the returning book cart when I was in the Auburn Library a few weeks ago.

Checking it out and reading it I realized that seeing the locations Hitchcock used to shoot his films was a great way to see the best places of the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Inspiration hit. The weather is great, Halloween is coming up. It was time to hit the road with the Master of Suspense.

Alfred Hitchcock immediately fell in love with Northern California in 1940 when he shot his first American film, Rebecca starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. 

Hitchcock had moved to Hollywood in the late ’30s when the British Film industry began to decline. The film was shot in Big Basin Park in Monterey County, which was used to double for the Cornwall, England setting in the film. Hitchcock spent weeks travelling to scout locations, staying and spending time in San Francisco and eventually falling in love with it. 

In his entire career here in California, Hitchcock would return to film some or all of nine films in the Northern California Bay Area and North Coast, eventually buying land in Scott’s Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains as his Hollywood retreat. 

Hitchcock and his films

Hitchcock used key places in the Northern California Bay Area worth seeing in person: Avenue of Tall Trees, Highway 1, Cypress Point, The Fairmont Hotel, Grace Cathedral, Mission San Juan Bautista, Bodega Bay, Union Square, Salinas and The Presidio. Of all his films using the Bay Area, three films in particular made real use of the locales of Northern California not only as a place where the action is set, but also as a character. 

The first film he set in Northern California, 1943’s “Shadow of a Doubt” stars Joseph Cotten as a man visiting relatives in a quaint small town who may or may not be a serial killer. Hitchcock said he liked the idea of bringing menace to a small town.

Next, the rugged, isolated coastline that is Bodega Bay where the citizens of the small hamlet are attacked by nature sets the stage for 1963 film, “The Birds,” starring Tippi Hendren. The film depicts an attack by birds on a small town on the ocean, loosely based on real events in Santa Cruz. 

Finally, Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, “Vertigo,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, uses the Bay Area, specifically, San Francisco and its steep hills, mixed lighting, fog and the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge, for his very dark and twisted murder mystery/ love story about necrophilia. 

Initially not one of his most well-received films, “Vertigo” recently bested “Citizen Kane” as the Best American Film ever made by the American Film Institute.

If you were so inclined, this Hitchcockian road trip could take you three days if you really wanted to see everything. 

A tour of film locations

Start by exploring Santa Rosa which made great use of the downtown area including Courthouse Square, then drive down the coast to Bodega Bay and Bodega where a few of the structures still stand including the Potter School House, where the famous sequence of the birds attacking Tippi Hendren and the children was shot, then head over to the Tides Wharf restaurant on Highway 1. The restaurant is still there but has been remodeled; though from the back it still looks the same. Memorabilia from the shooting cover the walls. 

You can continue into San Francisco, then down into Monterey County, the Mission and even hit Santa Cruz. The Victoria Gothic mansion said to the inspiration for Psycho house, now a B&B called Sunshine Villa still stands at 80 Front Street. Now refurbished and brightly painted, it isn’t quite the ominous house Hitchcock saw back in the 40s when it was rundown.

For me, and my friend, who I grabbed on the way down, one day was all we had time for. We began in the Mission area of San Francisco, 16th and Dolores, to see the Mission Dolores. In the film, Jimmy Stewart goes to the church and the cemetery in back while trailing Kim Novak. Of note, The Mission Dolores is the oldest standing building in San Francisco it was built by Spanish missionaries in 1776. If you’re so inclined, services are available. 

We then headed off to the Palace of Fine Arts with a slight detour through Union Square where Hitch set several scenes of both The Birds and Vertigo. Built for the Panama Pacific exhibition of 1915, the Palace is meant to resemble Roman ruins. In fact, The Palace looks identical to when Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart strolled down Baker Street near Marina Drive. 

Next, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, completed in 1924, was a gift of Alma and Adolph Spreckles, of the Spreckels Sugar Company. The museum sits on top of a hill in Lincoln Park in the presidio. The museum which exhibits art from 6,000 years ago to present day sits on a hill near the coast with 360 degree views of the city and the coast and the Golden Gate. 

Following part of the scenic 47-mile drive, we took El Camino del Mar down to our next stop, Fort Point off Marina Drive. This spot in San Francisco is frankly spectacular. In the film, this is where Kim Novak leaps in the bay, forcing Jimmy Stewart in after her. This Fort was originally built by the Spanish 1794 as a military installation. Along the water is a mix of both the tourists taking in the views of the bay, the bridge, Alcatraz, as well as, the joggers out running along the water and those brave surfers who take on the rocky shore in pursuit of a perfect wave. 

And one last stop…

Finally, we headed across town to Market Street to make our way up the top of Twin Peaks. 

If you’ve never been to the top of Twin Peaks: prepare to be impressed! The views, where you can see Marin, Berkeley, the shipyards, Oakland, both bridges and all of San Francisco lay before you, go on forever. It is the perfect place to see the sun set and watch the fog roll in over the city smothering it in a marine layer. I will warn you, it can be really cold on the top of the peak, bring a coat. Of course, then you’re ready for a warm drink in one of the city’s great cafes and restaurants to end your day.

Alfred Hitchcock died in 1980 an honorary Californian. Leaving with us one of the most impressive bodies of work any artist could create and fortunately for us, he memorialized Northern California in the most Californian way possible…Film.