Alfred Hitchcock always preferred Northern California to Hollywood; he shot some of his most accomplished films within a 90-mile radius of San Francisco. From the ominous ocean vistas used for The Birds to his grand tour of moods in Vertigo, Hitchcock found a palette for his every vision.
Bodega Bay is an otherwise unremarkable stop on a remarkable stretch of Hwy 1. However, it does have one enduring claim to fame: it was the setting for The Birds. Although the layout of the town was altered radically by special effects, you can get a good feel for the bay and its western shore, supposed site of Mitch Brenner's (Rod Taylor) farm. The Tides Restaurant, where much avian-caused havoc occurs, is still there but has been transmogrified since 1962 into a vast tourist-processing plant - no iota of the charming seaside restaurant of the movie remains. But venture five miles south of Bodega Bay on Hwy 1 to the tiny town of Bodega and you will find two Birds icons: the schoolhouse and the church along Bodega Lane. Both are barely altered: if you see a crow you might share Tippi Hedren's sense of doom (though the house where Suzanne Pleshette gets fatally beaked was a set).
The next Hitchcock location is only 14 miles east on Hwy 12. Santa Rosa is a sun-dappled gem of a city, which served as the main location for 1943's Shadow of a Doubt. The train station where Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) arrives in a swirl of sinister smoke still stands on Railroad Sq downtown. It is now the California Welcome Center, with info for tourists. Right across Wilson St, the Hotel La Rose has been in operation for more than 100 years. It can be seen in numerous shots as the ever-less-genial Uncle Charlie shuttles around town one step ahead of suspicions that he is a serial killer.
Hitchcock's love for San Francisco, 60 miles south of Santa Rosa, was genuine, from its restaurants to its shops to its posh hotels. Although the city appeared in The Birds, Family Plot and more, it will always be most closely associated with the 1958 psychological masterpiece Vertigo. In its own dark way, the movie is a big wet kiss to the city by the bay. There are scores of locations still in existence but one of special note includes Mission Dolores. Here Jimmy Stewart (Scotty) follows Kim Novak (Madeleine) and looks on as she visits the grave of Carlotta Valdes. The cemetery seen in the film is still here but, sadly, the tombstone used in the movie is gone (it actually remained in place for many years after 1958).
Madeleine gets wet at Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Scotty plunges into the bay to save her. Although the scenes with the stars were filmed here, a stunt double actually jumped off the wall (the water scenes were shot in Hollywood). The old fort is no less imposing now as it was in VistaVision five decades ago. The dark plot twists in Vertigo are coming with abandon by the time we see Scotty obsessed with Judy, a working girl who reminds him of Madeleine (and with good reason!). The Empire Hotel where Judy bunks is on Sutter St. Renamed through the years, the hotel is now called (we are not making this up) the Hotel Vertigo. Obviously the owners would have been psycho not to take advantage of this angle. Rooms 501 and 502 are kept as they were in 1957 when they were used as models for the studio set in which Scotty creepily gets Judy to change her hair and clothes for him.
Just like Scotty and Madeleine/Judy, head south of San Francisco on Hwy 101 for 90 miles to San Juan Bautista. (You may first want to go a little farther south because just past Hwy 156 on Hwy 101 you pass through the majestic eucalyptus grove the pair drive through in Vertigo.) The centerpiece of the town is Mission San Juan Bautista, which is death to Scotty's blondes. There's just one problem: there is no bell tower for the fatal plunges. It was a special effect and studio set. Still, you can sense Scotty's panic as you wander the familiar grounds.
Nearby is San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, which has several buildings used in Vertigo, including the Plaza Stables. During filming, Kim Novak took a liking to La Casa Rosa, a restaurant that has changed little since it opened in 1935 (the pink-hued building dates to 1858). Enjoy sweet dreams at Posada de San Juan, which is close to the mission. If you hear a woman who sounds like she's falling, just put a pillow over your ear.
Hitchcock turned to the San Joaquin Valley for two classic scenes. A three-hour drive southeast of San Juan Bautista takes you on I-5 to Hwy 46 in featureless Kern County. Drive east four miles to flat-as-a-board Corcoran Rd, head north and add a homicidal crop duster to complete the classic scene with Cary Grant in North By Northwest.
The article 'For the Birds: Hitchcock’s California' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.