Lights, Camera, Action! Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo at the Legion of Honor

This Saturday, August 13, marks the birthdate of legendary British film director Alfred Hitchcock, who was born in London in 1899. Famous for his psychological thrillers and virtuoso use of suspense, Hitchcock had a particular affinity for the San Francisco Bay Area, using it as a setting for several of his films, including The Birds (1963), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and perhaps most famously, Vertigo (1958).

Vertigo still

Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart), in pursuit of Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), pulls up in front of the Legion of Honor.

The story of San Francisco detective Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) and his obsession with the mysterious Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), Vertigo prominently features the Legion of Honor as the location for a pivotal scene in the story. In the film, Scotty, hired by her supposedly concerned husband, tails Madeleine through the city—providing us with a great glimpse of San Francisco in the ‘50s—to the Legion of Honor, where she sits on a bench in the museum’s Gallery 6 and stares at the Portrait of Carlotta, a painting of a 19th-century San Francisco resident who bears a striking resemblance to her.

Vertigo still

Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) fixates on the Portrait of Carlotta in the Legion's Gallery 6.

Vertigo features three exterior and three interior scenes of the Legion. The interior scenes focused primarily on the museum’s rotunda and Gallery 6, and portions of Gallery 5 can be seen through the doorway in certain shots. Naturally, several works from the Legion’s permanent collection can be seen in the shots. (You can watch the entire Legion of Honor scene in the Vertigo clip from YouTube embedded at the bottom of this post.)

Vertigo still at the Legion

Scotty in turn fixates on Madeleine from the Legion's rotunda.

James Stewart in Vertigo

Scotty taking a closer look at Portait of Carlotta. Portrait of a Gentleman (1710) by Nicholas de Largilliere and Architecture (1753) by Carle Vanloo can be seen behind James Stewart. Visit them at the Legion today in Gallery 7.

Unfortunately, you can’t drive up right in front of the museum entrance anymore, as Madeleine does in her green Jaguar Mk. VIII, and you won’t find Portrait of Carlotta on view, since it was a prop created for the movie and removed from the Legion once filming wrapped. The painting was in fact created by American Abstract Expressionist artist John Ferren, who worked with Hitchcock as artistic advisor on Vertigo and for his 1955 dark comedy The Trouble with Harry.

Exterior of the Legion in Vertigo

Scotty walks up to the Legion's Court of Honor. That's Madeleine's green 1957 Jaguar Mk. VIII parked to the right of the arched entryway. At one time there was a gravel road passing in front of the building.

And yes, occasionally visitors do show up at the Legion asking to see Portrait of Carlotta or at least wanting to know its current whereabouts. The painting allegedly disappeared shortly after completion of the film, so a viewing of Vertigo is really your only chance to see it these days.

For more information and fun facts about the filming of Vertigo at the Legion of Honor, download the brochure (PDF) created for the 50th anniversary of the movie in 2008. You’ll be able to see which works from the Legion’s collections were on view in the film, and where they are in the museum today.

Vertigo movie poster

For more information on Hitchcock’s numerous Bay Area filming locations, visit www.footstepsinthefog.com, the website for the book Footsteps in the Fog by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, which is available for purchase at the Legion of Honor Museum Store.