The screenplay is an adaptation of the French novel D'entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had attempted to buy the rights to the previous novel by the same authors, Celle qui n'était plus, but he failed, and it was made instead by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques. Although François Truffaut once suggested that D'entre les morts was specifically written for Hitchcock by Boileau and Narcejac, Narcejac subsequently denied that this was their intention. However, Hitchcock's interest in their work meant that Paramount Pictures commissioned a synopsis of D'entre les morts in 1954, before it had even been translated into English.
Hitchcock originally hired playwright Maxwell Anderson to write a screenplay, but rejected his work, which was entitled Darkling, I Listen, a quotation from Keats's Ode to a Nightingale. A second version, written by Alec Coppel, again left the director dissatisfied. The final script was written by Samuel A. Taylor—who was recommended to Hitchcock due to his knowledge of San Francisco— from notes by Hitchcock. Among Taylor's creations was the character of Midge. Taylor attempted to take sole credit for the screenplay, but Coppel protested to the Screen Writers Guild, which determined that both writers were entitled to a credit.
Vera Miles, who was under personal contract to Hitchcock and had appeared on both his television show and in his film The Wrong Man, was originally scheduled to play Madeleine. She modeled for an early version of the painting featured in the film. Following delays, including Hitchcock becoming ill with gallbladder problems, Miles became pregnant and so had to withdraw from the role. The director declined to postpone shooting and cast Kim Novak as the female lead. Ironically, by the time Novak had tied up prior film commitments and a vacation promised by Columbia Pictures, the studio that held her contract, Miles had given birth and was available for the film. Hitchcock proceeded with Novak, nevertheless. Columbia head Harry Cohn agreed to lend Novak to Vertigo if Stewart would agree to co-star with Novak in Bell, Book and Candle, a Columbia production released in December 1958.
In the book, Judy's involvement in Madeleine's death was not revealed until the denouement. At the script stage, Hitchcock suggested revealing the secret two-thirds of the way through the film, so that the audience would understand Judy's mental dilemma. After the first preview, Hitchcock was unsure whether to keep the "letter writing scene" or not. He decided to remove it. Herbert Coleman, Vertigo's associate producer and a frequent collaborator with Hitchcock, felt the removal was a mistake. However, Hitchcock said, "Release it just like that." James Stewart, acting as mediator, said to Coleman, "Herbie, you shouldn't get so upset with Hitch. The picture's not that important." Hitchcock's decision was supported by Joan Harrison, another member of his circle, who felt that the film had been improved. Coleman reluctantly made the necessary edits. When he received news of this, Paramount head Barney Balaban was very vocal about the edits and ordered Hitchcock to "Put the picture back the way it was." As a result, the "letter writing scene" remained in the final film.
Vertigo was filmed from September to December 1957. Principal photography began on location in San Francisco in September 1957 under the working title From Among the Dead (the literal translation of D'entre les morts).
The scene in which Madeleine falls from the tower was filmed at Mission San Juan Bautista, a Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista, California. Associate producer Herbert Coleman's daughter Judy Lanini suggested the mission to Hitchcock as a filming location. A steeple, added sometime after the mission's original construction and secularization, had been demolished following a fire, so Hitchcock added a bell tower using scale models, matte paintings, and trick photography at the Paramount studio in Los Angeles. The original tower was much smaller and less dramatic than the film's version. The tower's staircase was later assembled inside a studio.
Following 16 days of location shooting, the production moved to Paramount's studios in Hollywood for two months of filming. Hitchcock preferred to film in studios as he was able to control the environment. Once sufficient location footage had been obtained, interior sets were designed and constructed in the studio.
Hitchcock popularized the dolly zoom in this film, leading to the technique's sobriquet, amongst several others, "the Vertigo effect". This "dolly-out/zoom-in" method involves the camera physically moving away from a subject whilst simultaneously zooming in (a similar effect can be achieved in reverse), so that the subject retains its size in the frame, but the background's perspective changes. Hitchcock used the effect to look down the tower shaft to emphasise its height and Scottie's disorientation. Following difficulties filming the shot on a full-sized set, a model of the tower shaft was constructed, and the dolly zoom was filmed horizontally.
The "special sequence" (Scottie's nightmare sequence) was designed by artist John Ferren. The painting of Carlotta was created by Italian artist Manlio Sarra.
The rotating patterns in the title sequence were done by John Whitney, who used a mechanical computer called the M5 gun director, AKA the Kerrison Predictor, which was used during World War II to aim anti-aircraft cannons at moving targets. This made it possible to produce an animated version of shapes (known as Lissajous curves) based on graphs of parametric equations by mathematician Jules Lissajous.
Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head used color to heighten emotion. Grey was chosen for Madeleine's suit because it is not usually a blonde's colour, so was psychologically jarring. In contrast, Novak's character wore a white coat when she visited Scottie's apartment, which Head and Hitchcock considered more natural for a blonde to wear.
A coda to the film was shot that showed Midge at her apartment, listening to a radio report (voiced by San Francisco TV reporter Dave McElhatton) describing the pursuit of Gavin Elster across Europe. Midge switches the radio off when Scottie enters the room. They then share a drink and look out of the window in silence. Contrary to reports that this scene was filmed to meet foreign censorship needs, this tag ending had originally been demanded by Geoffrey Shurlock of the U.S. Production Code Administration, who had noted: "It will, of course, be most important that the indication that Elster will be brought back for trial is sufficiently emphasized."
Hitchcock finally succeeded in fending off most of Shurlock's demands (which included toning down erotic allusions) and had the alternative ending dropped. The footage was discovered in Los Angeles in May 1993, and was added as an alternative ending on the laserdisc release, and later on DVD releases.
Music and titles
The score was written by Bernard Herrmann. However, the score was conducted by Muir Mathieson and recorded in Europe because there was a musicians' strike in the U.S.
In a 2004 special issue of the British Film Institute's (BFI) magazine Sight & Sound, director Martin Scorsese described the qualities of Herrmann's famous score:
Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again ... And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.
Graphic designer Saul Bass used spiral motifs in both the title sequence and the movie poster, emphasizing what the documentary Obsessed with Vertigo calls, "Vertigo's psychological vortex".
Filmed from September to December 1957, Vertigo uses location footage of the San Francisco Bay Area, with its steep hills and tall, arching bridges. In the driving scenes shot in the city, the main characters' cars are almost always pictured heading down the city's steeply inclined streets. In October 1996, the restored print of Vertigo debuted at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco with a live on-stage introduction by surviving cast member Kim Novak, providing the city a chance to celebrate itself. Visiting the San Francisco film locations has something of a cult following as well as modest tourist appeal. Such a tour is featured in a subsection of Chris Marker's documentary montage Sans Soleil.
In March 1997, the cultural French magazine Les Inrockuptibles published a special issue titled Vertigo's about the film locations in San Francisco, Dans le décor, which lists and describes all actual locations.
Areas that were shot on location (not recreated in a studio):
- Scottie's apartment (900 Lombard Street) is one block downhill from the "crookedest street in the world". Although the door has been repainted, the entrance is easily recognizable save for a few small changes to the patio. The doorbell and the mailbox, which Madeleine uses to deliver a note to Scottie, are exactly the same as they were in the film. A spite wall was erected in 2012 by the current owner of the property. The wall encloses the whole entrance area on the Lombard side of the building.
- The Mission San Juan Bautista, where Madeleine falls from the tower, is a real place, but the tower had to be matted in with a painting using studio effects; Hitchcock had first visited the mission before the tower was torn down due to dry rot, and was reportedly displeased to find it missing when he returned to film his scenes. The original tower was much smaller and less dramatic than the film's version.
- The Carlotta Valdes headstone featured in the film (created by the props department) was left at Mission Dolores. Eventually, the headstone was removed as the mission considered it disrespectful to the dead to house a tourist attraction grave for a fictional person. All other cemeteries in San Francisco were evicted from city limits in 1912, so the screenwriters had no other option but to locate the grave at Mission Dolores.
- Madeleine jumps into the sea at Fort Point, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
- The gallery where Carlotta's painting appears is the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The Carlotta Valdes portrait was lost after being removed from the gallery, but many of the other paintings in the background of the portrait scenes are still on view.
- What purports to be Muir Woods National Monument in the film is in fact Big Basin Redwoods State Park; however, the cutaway of the redwood tree showing its age was copied from one that can still be found at Muir Woods.
- The coastal region where Scottie and Madeleine first kiss is Cypress Point, along the 17 Mile Drive near Pebble Beach. However, the lone tree they kiss next to was a prop brought specially to the location.
- The domed building Scottie and Judy walk past is the Palace of Fine Arts.
- Coit Tower appears in many background shots. Hitchcock once said that he included it as a phallic symbol. Also prominent in the background is the tower of the San Francisco Ferry Building.
- The exterior of the sanatorium where Scottie is treated was a real sanatorium, St. Joseph's Hospital, located at 355 Buena Vista East, across from Buena Vista Park. The complex has been converted into condominiums and the building, built in 1928, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Gavin and Madeleine's apartment building is "The Brocklebank" at 1000 Mason Street on Nob Hill, which still looks essentially the same. It is across the street from the Fairmont Hotel, where Hitchcock usually stayed when he visited and where many of the cast and crew stayed during filming. Shots of the surrounding neighborhood feature the Flood Mansion and Grace Cathedral. Barely visible is the Mark Hopkins hotel, mentioned in an early scene in the movie.
- The "McKittrick Hotel" was a privately owned Victorian mansion from the 1880s at Gough and Eddy Streets. It was torn down in 1959 and is now an athletic practice field for Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory School. The St. Paulus Lutheran Church, seen across from the mansion, was destroyed in a fire in 1995.
- Podesta Baldocchi is the flower shop Madeleine visits as she is being followed by Scottie. The shop's location at the time of filming was 224 Grant Avenue. The Podesta Baldocchi flower shop now does business from a location at 410 Harriet Street.
- The Empire Hotel is a real place, called the York Hotel, and now (as of January 2009) the Hotel Vertigo at 940 Sutter Street. Judy's room was created, but the green neon of the "Hotel Empire" sign outside is based on the actual hotel's sign (it was replaced when the hotel was renamed).
- Ernie's Restaurant (847 Montgomery St.) was a real place in Jackson Square, one mile from Scottie's apartment. It is no longer operating.
- One short scene shows Union Square at dawn, with old-fashioned "semaphore" traffic lights. Pop Leibel's bookstore, the Argosy, was not a real location, but one recreated on the Paramount lot in imitation of the real-life Argonaut Book Store, which still exists near Sutter and Jones.
- A possible discrepancy between the movie and then-contemporary San Francisco neighborhood designation is Elster's Mission District Shipping Company (the Mission being described as "Skid Row"). At the time, the designation "South of the Slot" applied to the waterfront, including its working piers located to the south of Market Street and east of Eleventh Street, encompassing today's South Beach and north of today's Mission Bay. In the 1950s, the area south of Market was inhabited by poor maritime workers, their families, and related support industries, it was torn down by redevelopment in the 1960s to clear the way for the Yerba Buena Redevelopment Area: Convention Center, Garden, Arts Center.