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South Bay historian recalls "Hitchcock blonde" Kim Novak during filming of "Vertigo"

Revisiting the Bay Area landmarks of Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'
Revisiting the Bay Area landmarks of Hitchcock's "Vertigo" 05:14

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA -- One October day 65 years ago, Sandy Lydon and friends were prowling the streets below the Resetar Hotel in downtown Watsonville where screen star Kim Novak was staying.

"There was this thing about this woman," Lydon recalled. "I was a freshman at UC Davis so I was seventeen and Kim Novak was a pretty big deal."

Novak, in Room 16 on the fourth floor of 1920s-era hotel, was studying her lines for a scene in the movie Vertigo being filmed in nearby San Juan Bautista under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock.

"I thought she was gorgeous and, I think, every young man in the country thought she was gorgeous," said Lyndon. "And ... just the fact that she was so tantalizingly close!" 

Novak, now 90, is unlikely to show up at Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto this weekend, but you may. Vertigo is showing at 3:05 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 26 and 27.

Released in the spring of 1958, it was something of a disappointment at the box office. At the time, not many critics praised it and it barely recovered production costs. Hitchcock later regretted casting James Stewart in the role who, at 50, was retroactively judged too old for the part opposite the 25-year-old Novak.

But the whirligig of time has its revenge. Sixty-four years after its premiere, Vertigo is hailed as a masterpiece ahead of its time. In 2012 it landed atop the British Film Institute's list of the greatest films of all time, revised every 10 years, displacing Citizen Kane which had held the top spot for decades. 

In this decade, Vertigo dropped to the No. 2 position, below Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a film few have seen (and few Americans can pronounce). Nevertheless, Vertigo remains lots of fun for Bay Area folks who will recognize a lot of 2023 landmarks captured in glorious Technicolor and VistaVision. It's chock full of San Francisco scenics and, really, the Bernard Herrmann musical score is perfection.

"Vertigo in so many ways was a Valentine to the city [of San Francisco]," said Aaron Leventhal, author of the excellent book Footsteps In The Fog. "Hitchcock was really a fan and was passionate about living in this area. So he wanted to give something back and, in so many ways, this movie was his way of doing it."

Hitch had a home in the Santa Cruz Mountains but he vacated it in the aftermath of the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, fearing he could be an easy target in the remote forested hills.

If you know San Francisco or San Juan Bautista well, you'll have fun imagining Hitchcock at work in both places. The city, of course, has changed plenty but San Juan Bautista is remarkably unaltered by the 21st century except at the fringes. The mission still stands on its perch uplifted by the San Andreas Fault, although its bell tower is far less dramatic than the one you'll see in the film which exists only on celluloid -- the handiwork of Hollywood matte painters.

As for Sandy Lydon, local historian extraordinaire, and his close encounter with Kim Novak?

"We tried everything. We got maybe three or four responses from her manager saying that, y'know, 'She's very flattered but um ... No.' Most of the time she spent was inside the limousine they had for her, studying her script," explained Lyon.

An afterthought: did Lydon remember seeing Hitchcock?

"Oh yes! He wore a gray kind of a tweed jacket and was very recognizable and was just walking around. It changed my idea about what movie directors did because it didn't seem like he was doing much of anything," Lyndon said. "He was diminutive and round. He wasn't good-looking and we were 17."

The denouement for Sandy Lydon and his five college mates, 65 years on?

They all married blondes.

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