This week in VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC SPECIAL EDITION Elster’s Office and Scottie’s Apartment

Elster’s office-one of the film’s many elaborately decorated interior sets-was filled conscientiously by Henry Bumstead with San Francisco memorabilia: old maps and posters, a prominent glass case holding a model of a ship. An entirely separate section of the room, complete with raised floor and a visible ceiling, gave the shorter Tom Helmore a chance to tower over the sitting Stewart. Coleman called Elster’s office the “seven-walled set.”

The set featured a large bay window that overlooked the shipbuilding cranes. All of the shots that contain the view out Elster’s window were shot using transparencies: The window, in other words, was a film screen upon which the scene shot with the cranes were projected. In the finished film, the background plate appears in only a few shots. Most of the sequence is filmed so that the window does not show, leaving the Foley track-the soundtrack of ambient sound; in this case, introducing subtle hints of shipyard noise-to remind watchers what’s outside the window.

The crew began to set up on that first day a little before 9:00 A.M.; the first take rolled at 10:20, and, with an hour break for lunch, the day did not finish until 6:10 P.M.

The soundstage work reveals a slightly different Hitchcock. Now, with everything at his control, he was able to push more surely for what he wanted. Setups took longer, and on average Hitchcock called for a greater number of takes. On the first day, there were seven takes on some dialogue from Elster as he sat at his desk. Line problems, camera-movement problems, and a director willing to push a little further for perfection made for longer days. Compared with many of his colleagues, Hitchcock was almost frugal with his footage.
Outside the studio, Hitchcock rarely took more than two or three takes, and even inside, he averaged seven to eleven takes.  Herbert Coleman worked with far less efficient filmmakers.

“I assisted Willy Wyler on a couple of pictures,” Coleman remembered, “and the contrast between Hitch and Willy Wyler was: Willy Wyler would do forty, fifty, sixty, ninety takes. Yet he knew exactly what he liked. I think on Roman Holi­day, if he did fifty, sixty takes, he would say to the script clerk to print so-and­ so, hold so-and-so.”
One difference between Hitchcock and many of his fellow directors had to do with what came later, in the editing room. Since Hitchcock was involved from the start in the conception and writing of his films, the editing was es­sentially in place before filming began: His scripts were designed to be shot one way, and one way only. Other directors are often required to provide “cover­age”-footage of the same scene from several angles-so that a sequence can be altered if necessary in the editing room. Except when he worked for David O. Selznick,  Hitchcock always had the final say in the assembly of his footage. He had the power and freedom to shoot with the possible economy that total control provided.

The sequence in Elster’s office­ where Scottie’s old school acquain­tance offers the bait and Scottie reluctantly takes it-dominated early scripts, and it remains an important scene in the film. This scene, and the one with Midge that precedes it, are the only “normal” moments in the film-the only sequences not overly influ­enced by the haunting of Carlotta Madeleine or the sense of vertigo (even here certain el­ements do foreshadow these: the tall cranes, the swiveling chair, and the yearning for a freer time). Hitchcock took great care in establishing the mood of the film.  He created real danger not in the dark, wet streetscapes of film noir, but in bright, carefully appointed offices.

Cast and crew moved to another part of the enormous Stage 5 for Elster’s club after more than two days in his office. The day moved along without much incident; Tom Helmore’s inability to pronounce the name McKittrick Hotel properly in the club scene cost some time, as a similar problem pronouncing Ernie’s had in his office the day before.

Then, after nineteen days of shooting, Hitchcock, Stewart, and the crew fi­nally got some time off. Kim Novak and Stewart would return Monday morning for a sequence that would bedevil the production: their long first meeting in Scot­tie’s apartment.

Scene 151 of Vertigo, the couple’s first encounter-in Scottie’s apartment, after Madeleine leaps into the bay-is nine minutes long. It lasts from page 46 to 57 in the final script, and it was filmed as written, with only a few minor line changes. But to nearly everyone involved, from the technical crew to the young actress at its center, it would prove one of the most daunting.

The scene begins with a slow pan from Scottie, seated on the sofa by the fireplace, toward his bedroom across the apartment; in passing, we see Madeleine’s clothes drying in the kitchen. The camera stops on his bedroom; through the open door, we see Madeleine sleeping, and we hear her murmur­ing something about “her child.”
It is a terrific shot, connecting Scottie’s gaze to Madeleine. It also offers a good introduction to Henry Bumstead’s design work. Hitchcock never came to “approve” a set, Bumstead recalls. “There was an assumption that because you were working with Hitchcock, you would do your absolute best.” Accord­ing to Robertson, Hitchcock liked to meet in the evening with the technical crew on the next day’s set to discuss the work for the following day. There were seldom specific requests from Hitchcock above or beyond what the script re­quired.
In his eighties, Bumstead is still one of the top art directors in the indus­try (his work for Clint Eastwood is his most notable), and his philosophy has always been that location should realistically match character. He dislikes de­sign work that gives a spectacular apartment or home to someone who could never afford to live in such a place.
“In the early days, we kept good set pieces to reuse, and I was building an apartment for this one character, so I was using three great-looking book­cases that we had in storage. When the director walked through, he didn’t say anything critical-just, ‘Hm, this guy must like to read.’ And, in fact, he didn’t. It wasn’t in his character at all. That’s when I began to realize that the set has to match what’s happening with the character,” Bumstead ex­plained.
According to some accounts, Hitchcock had photos taken of several bach­elors’ apartments as research material. No such photos survive today (in fact, the only research photos that still exist were taken at San Juan Bautista and the rejected Muir Woods site), and, according to Bumstead, he really didn’t check a lot of apartments. He does recall, though, talking to the Asian gentle­man who lived in the apartment at 900 Lombard in an effort to convince him to change the ironwork that can be seen outside the door (although Bumstead could not remember why they wanted to change the ironwork).

But there were a few specific requests from Hitchcock. According to Bum­stead, he asked that Coit Tower appear outside Scottie’s large apartment win­dow, despite the fact that the actual tower was down the street (it can be seen in the background as Scottie and Madeleine talk on his porch), and the window in question appears to face the wrong direction. Hitchcock confessed to Bum­stead his purposes: “I was in Hitch’s office and he asked if I knew why he wanted Coit Tower outside the apartment window. I confessed that I didn’t. He smiled and said, ‘Coit Tower is a phallic symbol.’”

Filming for the apartment scene began at 9:45 with the long pan, which was accomplished in four takes: one with a bra hanging on the line in the kitchen, followed by three more without a bra, to satisfy the censor. One of the bra-less takes was chosen for the final cut.

You’ll find more history on the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in my special Kindle edition of VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC.

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