Once upon a time, on a warm, sunny afternoon about 70 years ago, an out-of-work vaudevillian and wannabe movie comedian named Buster Keaton blew into Lone Pine, Calif., a tiny municipality nestled under the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Keaton was looking for his pal, silent comedy star Fatty Arbuckle, who was in town shooting a parody western called "The Round-Up."

Lone Pine, in the Owens Valley at the foot of Mount Whitney, was an unfamiliar location for Hollywood, but someone at the Sennett company had told Arbuckle about these amazing rock formations called the Alabama Hills right near town. "Listen, Fatty, they'd be perfect for filming chases, shootouts, ambushes, whatever ya want. And get this -- the Owens Valley is only 200 miles from Hollywood and Vine!" Keaton found no sign of Arbuckle on the set, built out in the great rock bluffs of the Alabama Hills, so he strolled along Main Street gazing distractedly at the high wall of the Sierra looming west of town. There must be a slew of comic stunts he could stage on those steep slopes; if he could think up a really great one, Fatty might come through on his promise to give him a bit part. Maybe something with rolling boulders . . .

Suddenly, Buster heard the sounds of a commotion coming from the alley next to the old Lone Pine Hotel. There he found Fatty, down on his knees, rolling the bones -- deeply engrossed in a roaring, thousand-dollar crap game that had been going on for 24 hours.

Some details of this scenario have been lost in the mist of time. No one knows if Fatty won or crapped out, or whether Buster came up with a great stunt. But we do know that a flood of filmmakers followed Fatty and Buster to the Owens Valley, and the picturesque high desert wilderness of Inyo National Forest.

Although Los Angeles has ravaged the Owens Valley to slake its ever-growing thirst (a tale told fairly accurately in Robert Towne's script for "Chinatown"), the landscape still makes for sensational photography. Countless films have been shot here, everything from "Rose Marie" to "How the West Was Won" to "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," last year's marvelous cult horror hit, "Tremors," and parts of this past summer's "Die Hard II." The Marlboro Man has been a frequent visitor, as has the Camel Character, as have ad executives for five different makes of four-wheel-drive cars.

In this respect, the Owens Valley is a kind of cinematic microcosm of the whole state of California: a real location that helps to make Hollywood fictions more convincing. Many Hollywood movies are still shot in and around Los Angeles, of course, but the rest of California is dotted with locations for films as diverse as "The Empire Strikes Back" (the Ewoks live in Muir Woods), "Peggy Sue Got Married" (Petaluma), "Who'll Stop the Rain" (San Diego), "Godfather II" (Lake Tahoe), "The Terror" (Big Sur), "American Graffiti" (Modesto), "El Norte" (San Ysidro) and, from the silent days, Erich von Stroheim's "Greed" (San Francisco and Death Valley) and Cecil B. DeMille's original version of "The Ten Commandments" (Santa Barbara).

Tracking down the real locations behind the Hollywood fabrications can make for a terrific vacation -- for casual film fans and serious movie mavens alike. When filmmakers abandon the fakery (and convenience) of Hollywood sets to find authentic locations, it's hardly worth it for them unless they seek out sites and sights that casual tourists miss. Studio heads grow vexed when directors spend millions of extra dollars merely to capture images anyone can buy on a 25-cent picture postcard.

But we're talking more than scenic splendor here. When you love a movie, really love it, and you feel a need to pay the ultimate homage, you can "walk that walk": Step in the footsteps of the characters through the real world. As film mavens in good standing, we've spent a lot of vacations doing just that.

We've ridden the high country of Inyo National Forest on the trail of Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart. We've walked the beach behind San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado, wondering if our feet might find Marilyn's vanished footsteps in the sand. We've stood on the windswept point under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, smelling flower petals floating on the water and sensing Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart very close by.

They were all there, waiting for us. Come on. The Hollywood Tour of California is about to begin.


BUSTER AND FATTY ENTERED OWENS Valley from the south, but we live in San Francisco, so our first stop was Mammoth Lakes, at the top of the valley (just southeast of Yosemite). For a few years in the late 1870s, Old Mammoth was a flourishing gold rush boom town. Following the brutal winter of 1880, the miners scattered, and the magnificent high-mountain landscape reverted (first) to farms and horse pastures, and (lately) to skiing, fishing and filmmaking.

In 1961, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and a slim, freckled, 20-year-old Shakespearean stage actress named Mariette Hartley came to Mammoth Lakes to work for macho newcomer (by way of TV) Sam Peckinpah. The film that resulted, a now-legendary western called "Ride the High Country," was only Peckinpah's second; many critics and fans consider it to be his most moving film. It's a special favorite of ours: an almost flawless Western that proves great films can be inspiring as well as exciting.

Westerns have gone out of style in recent years, along with the hard-but-fair frontier morality that gave them their character. To tell the truth, we've missed them badly. Their action scenes thrilled us at the Saturday kiddie matinees. Later, when teenage poverty had us dating at Western triple-bills in New York City's Times Square grind houses, the mythic heroism of their stories impressed us -- and may have helped to mold us.

Of course, as cynical city kids we always believed that the scenery (not to mention the heroism) was somehow bogus. Then we rolled west for the first time, on a motorcycle camping vacation. Chopping firewood after a long, hot ride, or washing dishes in ice-cold lake water, we needed some inspiration. We found it in the stoic men and women of remembered Westerns by Peckinpah, Howard Hawks and John Ford. And then we crossed the Missouri River -- and discovered that those endless skies and prairies were real after all.

We moved to California the very next year. New York City had begun to seem like the illusion.

"Ride the High Country" centers on aging (and reformed) gunfighter Steve Judd (McCrea), who hires on to accompany a shipment of gold down from the mines at the crest of the Sierra. He signs up his old pal Gil (Scott) and his young cohort, Heck, to help. In reality, Gil and Heck are plotting to steal the gold. During the climb into the mountains, they pick up the virginal Elsa (Hartley), who's running away to join her sweetheart in the mines. But Elsa's fiance is all too willing to share her with his horrible hillbilly brothers; after a nightmare wedding in a brothel, Elsa is rescued by Steve and Gil. Now Steve has to contend not only with his larcenous companions, but with a gang of degenerates trying to recapture their bride. Eventually, Steve's moral force wins over his crooked old companion, and saves both gold and girl -- but a final shootout with the hillbillies does him in.

When McCrea falls, toppling out of the frame like a felled tree, it marks the death of more than a hero; the Wild West, and the Western itself, die too. Never again, Peckinpah implies, will Americans have such absolute freedom to choose their courses through life; never again will they stand so tall. "High country" here means more than mountains. It refers to high moral ground as well: values of decency, honesty and loyalty that can't be faked.

Utterly enchanted by the verdant landscape of Peckinpah's drama, we began searching for his high country more than 20 years ago. The film's end credits indicate it was shot in Inyo National Forest -- but Inyo is no mere wood patch. Starting north of Mono Lake and ending south of Mojave, it runs irregularly along both sides of Route 395, between the eastern edge of the Sierra and the arid Inyo Mountains, for a distance of nearly 200 miles. We returned several times -- but Peckinpah's locations continued to elude us. Recently, we found out why: Many of the most striking shots were made with rock piles covered with fake snow, built in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

Fakes! But not all of them. Dead set on authenticity, Peckinpah had planned to spend most of his high-speed 24-day shooting schedule in the real high country near Mammoth Lakes. But it just didn't work out that way.

"I found the location just extraordinary," remembers Hartley. "Those giant mountains, absolutely clear lakes and . . . golden quaking aspens. But after less than two weeks, not even halfway through the shoot, they got a weather warning that there was snow in the area, and MGM pulled the plug. Sam was just furious! They told us we had to leave the next morning, so we all got up very, very early and took the buses down to Los Angeles. The fact that the film looks like it's all shot in magnificent scenery is just the magic of movies . . . The scenes in Coarsegold, the mining town {which were shot on MGM's "movie ranch"}, are all surrounded by shots that we did in the mountains, so that nearly every scene begins and ends in Mammoth."

Wrangler Lou Roeser, who stabled some of the film's horses at his pack station in Mammoth Lakes, remembers Peckinpah staging a shootout on the lower slopes of Red Mountain, surrounded by incredible vistas of high peaks and distant valleys. If you're following our trail, you'll find the spot by driving up Lake Mary Road until you see Roeser's Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit on your right; the trail up Red Mountain is directly on your left.

A mile further up the road are two glorious high-mountain lakes, Lake Mary and Lake Mamie, where several key exteriors were filmed. The area is a bit more developed now than it was in 1961: A few yards from the spot on Lake Mamie where McCrea took his memorable cold-water shave, we encountered happy sport fishermen angling for golden trout.

Roeser also took us to the steep hillside where Peckinpah clearly meant to set his town of Coarsegold: the abandoned mines of Old Mammoth (on the other side of Red Mountain, at the end of Old Mammoth Road). Four years after MGM pulled Peckinpah out, Old Mammoth finally got to play a gold mine in Henry Hathaway's "Nevada Smith." Based on an episode from Harold Robbins's The Carpetbaggers, "Nevada Smith" stars Steve McQueen as a young man bent on avenging the murder of his parents. Hathaway shot at a number of Owens Valley locations, including the stunning (and little-known) hot springs, a steamy stream where McQueen goes skinny-dipping with his pretty Indian girlfriend. (We played it safe and wore bathing suits.) You'll find it by driving south from Mammoth Lakes on Route 395 and turning east at the Fish Hatchery sign.

When you're done tracking down movie locations, you'll discover that the relatively uncrowded Mammoth Lakes area is an ideal spot for a great outdoors vacation. (Once you've gotten used to the altitude, that is. If the views leave you breathless, it's because you're at 9,000 feet.) Depending on the season, there's hiking, pack trips, trail rides, horse drives, skiing (downhill and cross-country), hayrides, sleigh rides, fishing trips, dog sledding, balloon rides, mountain biking, waterskiing, windsurfing, rock climbing, and photo and painting safaris. A variety of packages are offered by Lou Roeser's Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit/ McGee Creek Pack Station (619-872-2434; 619-935-4324; 619-934-2434) and Mammoth Adventure Connection (1-800-228-4947).

Food in Mammoth Lakes is typical ski-country fare: great breakfasts and trendy dinners. Our favorite meals were the wholesome, homespun breakfasts at Annie Rose's (on Main Street) and the hardwood-grilled meats and giant salads at Whiskey Creek (Main and Minaret, reservations suggested, 619-934-2555).

ONE HUNDRED MILES TO THE SOUTH lies Lone Pine, and the Alabama Hills. In most ways Lone Pine hasn't changed much in 70 years. It's perhaps one of the last towns in America without a single fast-food chain restaurant, and although the Smoke Signals BBQ and the Southern Inyo Artisans Guild have replaced the old Lone Pine Hotel, the alley where Fatty's crap game roared is still there. (It's now the Smoke Signals's outdoor dining patio.)

Lone Pine is also the gateway to Mount Whitney, at 14,494 feet the highest mountain in the continental United States. It's among these high stone walls that "Mad Dog" Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) shoots it out with a hundred-odd cops in "High Sierra," the classic action thriller co-written by John Huston and directed by Raoul Walsh. It was Huston's last writing job before he directed "The Maltese Falcon," and he makes Roy Earle a fascinating combination of career criminal and intuitive moralist, an antihero who's far too complicated to fit into the black-and-white world of the early '40s.

The story: Newly pardoned criminal "Mad Dog" Earle agrees to mastermind the heist of a posh desert hotel. He meets his undisciplined henchmen at a rustic cabin complex, where he also encounters Marie (Ida Lupino), a soulful floozy. Beneath the illusion of a tough exterior, Earle is really a kind-hearted guy; he befriends a poor family and falls for crippled granddaughter Velma. But after he pays for surgery to fix her lame foot, the girl rejects him to jitterbug with a boozy lounge lizard. Earle now recognizes Marie's true value, and takes pains to keep her safe. When the heist goes wrong and the cops close in, Earle narrowly escapes a roadblock in Lone Pine and goes speeding up the precipitous road to Whitney Portal. He makes his last stand among the rocks, in front of crowds of gawkers -- including a heartbroken Marie.

Driving along Route 395, smelling the sagebrush and watching the land grow wider and drier with every mile, we couldn't help thinking about Bogart careening along this same road -- a quintessentially urban man dangerously out of place in this wild countryside. "High Sierra" was a breakthrough film for Bogart. After a decade of being miscast in one-note bad guy roles, he was freed by Huston's complex script to become "Bogie" at last: the stoical, pensive, grudgingly compassionate outsider who makes up his morality as he goes along. The contrast between Bogie's soft-hearted persona and the hard landscape is what makes "High Sierra" a tragedy. As soon as Bogart arrives in these mountains, we can see that he's doomed. He runs to the rock, but the rock won't hide him.

Of course we had to follow him up the mountain. Halfway through Lone Pine, we turned west onto Whitney Portal Road, the getaway route Bogie screeches along when he runs to the rock. It's paved now, but otherwise it's precisely as you see it in "High Sierra," winding steeply up into the mountains with astonishing views at every turn. The road ends in the wooded splendor of Whitney Portal, where there's wonderful hiking, a fly-fishing pond and a lovely campground. We couldn't resist climbing the first portion of the breathtaking Mount Whitney Trail. (The full trip to the summit is arduous and requires an overnight bivouac and a permit.)

On the way back from following the fleeing criminal's path we were arrested -- by the stirring sight of the Alabama Hills. Every rock ought to be inscribed with a name. William S. Hart was here. So were Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Gene Autry, Lash La Rue and William Boyd. Errol Flynn (who won the locals' utter loathing), Gary Cooper and Cary Grant showed up too, dressed not in Stetsons but in the red coats of British soldiers for such films as "Gunga Din," "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and the delicious "Lives of a Bengal Lancer."

A leisurely drive along Movie Road is the best way to tour the rocky bluffs of the Alabama Hills. In the old days it was lined with standing sets depicting whole Western towns, not to mention an eight-acre Hindu temple complex for "Gunga Din." The sets are gone, but the sensuous crags are still there. Even amateur photographers will find themselves inspired, and kids will be in heaven playing cowboy in them thar hills.

Before we left town, we managed to find our way to the old Lone Pine Station, a handsome train depot where a one-armed Spencer Tracy alights in "Bad Day at Black Rock." The railroad tracks are gone, but the depot still stands in a dramatic setting beneath a brooding mountain wall east of town. It's a little tricky to locate: Look for a road with a sign reading "Station," about two miles north of Lone Pine on Route 395. Also, if you have time, take a drive east on Route 136 (just south of Lone Pine) and follow the Dolomite Loop; you'll recognize this splendid (and desolate) landscape as one of the most spectacular locations in "Nevada Smith." Along the way, you can get the creeps at eerie Owens Dry Lake (it was plain Owens Lake before L.A. stole the water), which -- along with the Alabama Hills -- was home to four icky monsters in the vastly entertaining "Tremors."

Lone Pine has just held its first film festival. Call the Chamber of Commerce at (619) 876-4444 for information about next year's event, and about trail rides, mountain climbing, superb fishing, golfing and swimming at lovely Diaz Lake. Our favorite local eatery is the Smoke Signals BBQ; proprietor Curtis Herring is a knowledgeable movie buff and can furnish you with a map of nearby film locations.


THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ IS ABSOLUTEly real, or at least its inspiration is: the Hotel Del Coronado, a magnificent Victorian resort built in 1888 on a small peninsula across the bay from downtown San Diego. The Del (as San Diegans fondly call it) has served as the key location for two of Hollywood's most memorable movies. Can you name them? (No fair cheating by reading on.)

Technically we can't count "The Wizard of Oz" (which was shot on Hollywood sets), although author L. Frank Baum, a Coronado neighbor, frequented the Del at the turn of the century and admitted that it was the visual inspiration for his Emerald City. Even then the all-wooden palace was San Diego's greatest landmark, but what must have made it look really extraordinary to Baum was its fairy tale brilliance at night, in a world still generally illuminated by gaslight. Thomas Edison had personally installed the hotel's electric lighting system, at that time one of the largest such systems on the planet.

The first time we set eyes on the Del we simply could not believe it. Sure we'd seen it on screen, but we had assumed that it was mostly movie fakery. It couldn't be as large as it looked in all those pictures, or as handsome. By now it had to be a deteriorating wreck, or (worse yet) bought up and garishly remodeled by some sultan, and peopled exclusively by Trumps. When we actually drove up to the doorway we had to fight to accept the fact that the soaring block-long fairy tale chateau -- in cake-icing white, topped with caramel-orange roof tiles and fronted with palm trees on a deep-green lawn -- actually existed on this planet, in three dimensions, on a normal, sunny Thursday. Moreover, we could hardly believe that "they" were going to let us stay there -- especially since we'd left our ruby slippers at home!

Like Oz itself, San Diego is the stuff of dreams, especially California dreamin'. The balmy weather, endless shoreline and laid-back atmosphere of California's oldest city are the purest essence of a Beach Boys song. Little wonder that Hollywood moviemakers have so often sped southward looking for locations.

San Diego County's military bases have appeared in scores of war movies; the most recent was "Top Gun," but the platoon includes "Guadalcanal Diary," "Sands of Iwo Jima," "The Wings of Eagles" and "Hellcats of the Navy" (costarring, of course, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis). In countless other productions, from "Airport '77" to "Raise the Titanic!" and "Splash," San Diego's chilly blue waters have enacted the recurring role of Ocean.

In 1958, writer/director Billy Wilder turned up looking for a location to set a mood of benign magic for a sex comedy to star Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon: "Some Like It Hot," our memorable movie No. 1.

The story turns on two Jazz Age musicians, Jerry and Joe (Lemmon and Curtis), who inadvertently witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago. In order to slip out of town undetected, they don women's clothing and join an all-female orchestra en route to a Florida resort. Once there, Joe redisguises himself as a sexually impotent millionaire to woo Sugar, the band's luscious, tender-hearted singer (Monroe). Jerry remains in drag, discovers he likes it and attracts a real millionaire (Joe E. Brown) -- which leads to one of the most famous, and side-splitting, last lines in movie history.

Wilder's hilarious, high-risk comedy is one of the enduring glories of American film. The performances are fabulous: Lemmon's matter-of-factness and Curtis's touch of coarseness are delicious with the actors in drag. Monroe is extraordinarily effective; she never gave a better performance. Nor did she ever look more radiant and womanly; she was in the early months of a pregnancy that later, unfortunately, miscarried.

Wilder (like most of her other directors) had problems with Marilyn. "{She} was never on time," he told an interviewer, "and never knew her lines . . . I have an old aunt in Vienna. She would be on the set every morning at 6 and would know her lines backwards. But who would go to see her?"

Wilder had fewer problems with his "Florida" location, which he found in the delirious gingerbread architecture of the Del. Today, despite restoration and scrupulously tasteful redecoration, there are still plenty of spots where Marilyn's ghost seems very close -- and comparatively happy. Marilyn lived in a bungalow that you can still glimpse to the right of the tennis courts. (You can't stay in it, unfortunately; it's now a private home.) The Del's immense white sand beach remains, of course; in fact, it's so wide you almost need a camel to cross it (although the chilly ocean is mainly filled with youthful boogie-boarders). The balconies that Tony Curtis scales are still there too, although the veranda from which Joe E. Brown greets the new arrivals was replaced in 1960 with a reconstruction of the hotel's original porte-cochere. Don't waste time searching for the nightclub where Monroe sings, the art deco elevator or the checkered lobby floor either. All the interiors were Hollywood sets, and (truth to tell) look pretty cheesy compared with the real thing.

Exactly 20 years later, the Del went before the cameras again, in a starring role -- as the primary visual metaphor for Richard Rush's "The Stunt Man" (memorable movie No. 2). This Pirandellian comedy of illusion, reality and paranoia centers on Peter O'Toole as a power-mad movie director who can't (or won't) distinguish between real life (the Del, with its magical maze of rooms, restaurants and corridors) and Movie Magic (an absurdly complex anti-war war movie) -- nor, it seems, between himself and God.

"The Stunt Man" opens with Cam, a disturbed Vietnam vet (Steve Railsback), fleeing the cops after an unnamed crime. When he inadvertently causes the death of a Hollywood stunt man, movie director Eli Cross (O'Toole) blackmails Cam into replacing the dead man on the film he's shooting. Cam learns a few tricks from legendary real-life stuntman Chuck Bail and embarks on a romance with Nina (Barbara Hershey), an actress who may or may not be merely acting romantic. Eli tricks Cam into performing increasingly risky stunts, and finally bamboozles him right back into sanity.

Although most of the beach sequences were shot up the coast at La Jolla, all the "chateau" exteriors were shot at the Del. Many interiors were too; the millefleurs wallpaper and wicker bedstead of Hershey's bedroom are typical Del decor.

Near the end of "The Stunt Man," a violent aerial ballet sets the hero, and what must be fully three-quarters of the ambulatory stuntmen in Hollywood, leaping, sliding and tumbling across the peaked roof of the Del's graceful Flag Tower -- which finally explodes. We were slightly nonplussed to discover that all the structures in this sequence, including the Flag Tower and an adjacent square tower, were sets built on the hotel roof. Today the real Flag Tower stands intact but inaccessible; reachable only by ladder, the lookout is off-limits to guests.

Given "The Stunt Man's" theme of is-it-illusion-or-is-it-reality, we were delighted to hear that during the shoot a burglar smashed the window of the hotel's posh jewelry store and calmly helped himself to the ice therein while a dozen hotel guests stood around and watched. They assumed it was a scene from the movie.

Staying at the Del is like moving into an enchanted village. Once you walk through the hotel doorway, you're transported back to a far more gracious age. We started the day with breakfast in the lovely Palm Court, furnished in fin de sie`cle style with wicker and green marble. Then we picked up cassettes for a self-guided hotel tour from the Lobby Shop ($3), which told us more hotel history than we wanted to know.

The hotel is shaped in a square around a fragrant, peaceful courtyard garden. We explored the heated pools, the shaded verandas, the chic shops and the stately, newly renovated Crown Room. The Crown served as the site of Charles Lindbergh's triumphal reception after his transatlantic flight, both in real life and in Billy Wilder's "The Spirit of St. Louis" (with James Stewart). Its awesome wooden ceiling, about an acre in size (well, maybe just half an acre) is held up without a single nail, probably by Glinda's Oz magic. Presently we found ourselves admiring the seascape from an umbrella-shaded table on the promenade overlooking the beach, sipping delicious tropical drinks while surfing songs played softly in the background.

Finally, at midnight, we slipped upstairs and tiptoed through the long, low-ceilinged corridors of the "haunted" fifth floor -- which did, indeed, feel acceptably spooky. Alas, neither of the two ghosts reputed to live there used to be Marilyn.

Despite the history, the magic and the hotel's popularity with U.S. presidents (11 of whom have stayed there), the Del is really a family hotel; its atmosphere is cheerfully informal, and there's none of the competitive chic you find at many L.A. poolsides. Only the Prince of Wales Grille (the most formal of the hotel's three restaurants) requires a jacket and tie at all meals. In fact, the unwritten dress code exemplifies the California dictum that life's a beach.

In the original part of the hotel, no two rooms share the same decor, and ceiling fans and large windows provide ample cooling in the temperate climate. A newer wing offers air conditioning but less character. Rooms start at $145 per night, and the better ones (large and lovely, with high ceilings, delicious views and lanais on which to sunbathe) run $170 to $315. To reserve, call 1-800-522-3088.

While you're in residence at the gingerbread castle, try to remember that you're still in San Diego, one of the world's great tourist towns -- especially for families with kids. If you venture out of the Del, be sure to wear comfortable shoes, if only to cross the vast parking lots. Start with the obligatory trinity of Sea World, the Wild Animal Park and the San Diego Zoo. Another tourist mecca (among what seems like hundreds) is the awesome, giant-screen Omnimax movie at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Museum in Balboa Park.

La Jolla Cove (featuring the underwater reef seen in "Splash") provides one of the finest snorkel/scuba sites east of Hawaii. And just 15 miles south of town lies Tijuana, with its duty-free shopping, jai alai games and spirited Mexican food. To avoid a hassle driving across the border, we followed the example of canny San Diegans -- took a trolley to the border, walked across and caught a cab to the center of town. CINEMATIC GHOSTS: THE SOPHISTICATED CALIFORNIA OF SAN FRANCISCO

SO MANY GREAT FILMS HAVE BEEN shot in San Francisco that to those of us lucky enough to live here, sometimes it seems like a city of cinematic ghosts. We can never venture into Fort Point without sensing Lee Marvin lurking somewhere in the darkness above, waiting to take a terrible revenge. Or walk through the 24-hour Cala Market on Haight Street, especially at 3 in the morning, without looking for a sad-eyed Julie Christie filling up her shopping basket. Or climb down the Filbert Steps without halfway expecting Bogart, swathed in bandages, to come stumbling up. ("Point Blank," "Petulia," "Dark Passage." If you guessed all three, you're good!)

But of all the great San Francisco movies, Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," re- leased in 1958, is probably the greatest.

For 30 years, Hitchcock was the cinema's acknowledged master of suspense and subtle terror. Possessed by a vision of pervasive evil, coupled with a dark, delicious sense of humor, he could imbue the sunniest settings (whether Santa Rosa, Mount Rushmore or your bathroom shower stall) with sinister undertones.

The first time we came to California, we found ourselves riding through a beautiful little coastal village, and suddenly, for absolutely no good reason, we both felt something deeply ominous in the air around us. It was driving us crazy, until we heard the seagulls crying at ocean's edge and realized that we were in Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed "The Birds." Even now, 27 years after "The Birds" was released, the real Bodega Bay is still overlaid with Hitchcock's artful fiction about a village traumatized by homicidal fowl.

"Vertigo" is Hitchcock's portrait of San Francisco. In fact, our early fascination with the film may well have been a factor in our decision to settle here. Hitch equates the city with romantic love: that old black magic by which we turn a real person into a fantasy of the perfect soulmate. He then goes on to associate the lie of romance with images of dizziness, vertigo, loss of balance. Perhaps that does sum up our town. Most San Franciscans (including us) are so crazy about our city that in spite of its faults (and its Fault) we wouldn't think of living anywhere else. Another victory of illusion over reality.

In any case, this terrifying love story is one of the most powerful and profound pictures ever made. Over the years, a number of film-obsessed visitors (among them, filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders) have come to San Francisco to follow in James Stewart and Kim Novak's footsteps. Since Hitchcock was intimately familiar with the city, the "Vertigo" tour provides a terrific trek through its most photogenic locales.

"Vertigo" begins in the midst of a hot pursuit across the rooftops of San Francisco. Detective Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) is chasing the bad guy when he loses his footing and finds himself dangling from a crumbling gutter. A colleague dies trying to save him, and the traumatic experience leaves Scottie terrified of heights.

As the film unreels, Scottie falls in love with Madeleine (Novak), a mysterious, ethereal blonde. When she falls to her death, Scottie blames himself and suffers a nervous breakdown. Just as he's beginning to recover, he meets Judy, a tough, passionate brunette who resembles Madeleine. Scottie remakes her, against her will, into the image of his lost love. Inevitably, this effort fails, and his world is annihilated.

Our tour starts at the top, high on Nob Hill: Madeleine's L-shaped apartment building, the Brocklebank, is at 1000 Mason -- just across Sacramento Street from the Fairmont Hotel, where Hitchcock always stayed. If, like Madeleine, you feel like wandering, Chinatown is only a few blocks away, as is another of Hitchcock's favorite S.F. locations, Union Square.

A quick five-minute drive (or a scenic 20-minute walk) will take you to the intersection of Lombard and Jones. Recognize anything? That apartment at 900 Lombard, say? It's the exterior Hitchcock used for Scottie's apartment -- the one where he takes off all of Madeleine's wet clothes and puts her to bed. Presumably. Hitchcock would never be so crude as to actually show such a scene; some things are much better left to the imagination. We know you won't be so crude as to bother the current tenants.

A few blocks to the west we discovered one of the most elusive of all the "Vertigo" locations: Judy's residential hotel, the Empire. Why elusive? Well, for one thing, Hitchcock misremembered its location in a famous interview with filmmaker Francois Truffaut, and for another it's changed its name. Now called the York, it's located at 940 Sutter St. between Leavenworth and Hyde. It's an attractive hostelry with one of the city's premier jazz clubs (the Plush Room) on the ground floor. If we came to town to take the "Vertigo" tour, we know where we'd stay.

Much further west lie Golden Gate Park and the Portals of the Past. The Portals never actually appear in "Vertigo," but we're told that Madeleine likes to "sit by the lake, staring across the water at the pillars that stand on the far shore." Lloyd Lake and the Portals are on John F. Kennedy Drive just west of the 19th Avenue overpass. They make a fine starting place for an exploratory expedition into the enchanting pseudo-wilds of Golden Gate Park. (Bring warm clothing; it's often foggy there.)

Continuing the tour, we head west to the Pacific Ocean at the Great Highway. Now we swing north, and make our way to the Palace of the Legion of Honor (34th Avenue, just off Clement on the northern edge of the city in Lincoln Park). This is where Scottie finds Madeleine, in the left-hand gallery just off the entrance, lost in reverie before "Portrait of Carlotta," a painting of a sad-eyed Latina holding a pastel nosegay. Unfortunately, the prop portrait is long gone, leaving only a collection of stodgy baroque canvases. Once you pay your respects to the gallery, you may prefer to check out the spectacular views along the cliff-top Ridge Trail overlooking Land's End and the Golden Gate.

We're now only a short drive from Old Fort Point, directly under the San Francisco terminus of the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the film's most memorable sequences occurs when Madeleine visits Fort Point. She drops her flowers into the bay, stares at the floating petals for a moment and then throws herself into the choppy water. Fort Point is one of the most dramatic locations in San Fran- cisco, with fierce wind, black water crashing on the rocks and the best view of the Gate in the city. (The inside of the fort is also one of the prime locations of "Point Blank.")

Driving east on Doyle Drive takes us to the lagoon next to the Palace of Fine Arts (off Baker Street, near Marina Boulevard). This delicious fake ruin (the showpiece of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition) is a setting of exquisite beauty, where Scottie and Judy take a last romantic stroll before their love affair starts to come apart. Nearby, the Marina Green offers dazzling views of Alcatraz and the bay; it's a favorite spot for runners, kite-fliers and lovers.

Mission Dolores (Dolores Street, between 16th and 17th streets) is the oldest building in the city. In one of the dreamiest scenes in the film, Madeleine slips into the mission's cemetery garden and stands, enchanted, before a gravestone that reads "CARLOTTA VALDES." The gravestone was a prop, but the attractive garden is still there. Mission Street, the backbone of San Francisco's exciting Latin-American district, is only a few blocks away down 16th Street.

You may want to end your "Vertigo" tour where Scottie begins his: in Ernie's Restaurant (847 Montgomery, 415-397-5969). This is where Scottie catches his first glimpse of Madeleine; later on, Scottie and Judy refer to it as "our place." The opulent red-plush interior has been redecorated since Hitchcock re-created the second-floor Ambrosia Room on a Hollywood set. Nonetheless, you may want to stop in for dinner. Scottie and Judy never seem to need a reservation, but you will.

Other restaurants you might try are: La Folie, 2316 Polk St., contemporary French; Zola's, 395 Hayes St., French-California; Ristorante Milano, 1448 Pacific Ave., North Italian; and Narai, 2229 Clement Ave., Thai-Chinese.

As "Vertigo" moves toward its shocking conclusion, Judy gives Scottie the ultimate gift, herself, and lets him remake her into the image of Madeleine. What we know (but Scottie doesn't) is that Judy really was Madeleine, a fake paid to die a fake death. When Scottie catches on he explodes in fury and drives Judy through the night to a dreadful confrontation at the Mission of San Juan Bautista, 90 miles to the south -- where Madeleine "fell to her death" from the bell tower. The mission is still there, but the bell tower isn't -- and never was. Hitchcock superimposed a 70-foot mockup built in the studio. Hence, this cautionary tale about the danger of believing in illusions concludes with a final, unacknowledged illusion, a fake staged just for us.


SERIOUS "LOCATION HUNTERS" ARM themselves with stills from their favorite films, so when they find themselves teetering on a steep, wind-swept ridge at 9,500 feet, they needn't depend on their failing memory. You may not want to go to that much trouble, but most of the films mentioned in this article are available on videotape or laser disc, so you might consider staging a video film festival before you take off for the Golden State. Here are a few more candidates:

Big Sur/Carmel: Clint Eastwood's fine first foray into directing, the suspenseful "Play Misty for Me," was shot around Big Sur and Eastwood's adopted home town of Carmel, with Clint playing a helpless deejay pursued by a lady psychopath. Years earlier, Jack Nicholson nearly drowned in Big Sur's rough surf while a very young Francis Coppola (one of six or seven young directors taking a stab at the film) directed him to swim farther out, farther out, for Roger Corman's "The Terror." (The best way to see this notoriously awful movie is via Peter Bogdanovich's far superior "Targets," which includes some of the footage.)

Death Valley: Eric von Stroheim, who wouldn't settle for anything less than realest reality, forced the cast and crew of his great silent film "Greed" to shoot in scorching Death Valley. Decades later, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni returned to the site to shoot parts of his scenic, grim, Italian-leftist-intellectual-needs-translator portrait of hippies, "Zabriskie Point."

Mono Lake: Clint Eastwood's "High Plains Drifter" was shot here, among the stunning tufa formations.

Monterey: "Cannery Row" was shot here, with the place gussied down to look dumpy, but if you want to know what it looks like "now," the new aquarium is featured in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (which contains many other scenes shot in San Francisco).

Petaluma: This small town north of San Francisco got its sidewalks painted warm yellow for Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married," and returned in "Tucker."

San Simeon: Although "Citizen Kane" wasn't really shot at Hearst Castle, "Xanadu" was modeled after Hearst's fabulous folly where Dolores Del Rio splashed Charlie Chaplin and Marion Davies in the heated indoor pool. The tour of the castle is a fabulous half-day excursion into ultimate luxury, reality seen as an endless movie.

Santa Barbara: A definitive portrait of the dark side of luxurious Santa Barbara is delivered in Ivan Passer's cult hit, "Cutter's Way." The film used the whole town as a location and was shot, in part, during the annual Fiesta Days hoopla. The recent remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" was shot here too, along with most of "Starman" and some of "Harper."

Stockton: "Fat City," John Huston's stunning version of Leonard Gardner's novel, tells of an aging boxer (Stacy Keach) falling and a young boxer (Jeff Bridges) rising. It was shot on Stockton's skid row, in tomato-and-bug country.

Venice: "The Wild Angels," the first (and probably best) of the '60s biker movies, starred Peter Fonda and then-unknown Bruce Dern (not to mention Nancy Sinatra in boots meant for walking); it opens in Venice, a suburb of Los Angeles that refutes L.A.

How to Do Your Own Location Search

IF YOU'RE NUTS FOR A FILM NOT MENtioned here and want to track down its locations, your local public library may have books about the film's director or star (including discussions of locations). Major periodicals may have run articles about the shooting of the film, including location details. (Ask the librarian for an index to film periodicals, as well as one for regular magazines.)

The end credits of a film usually mention where it was shot; they may include a credit to a government agency that was instrumental in securing the permits. Start by phoning that agency. You can also try the public relations department of the studio that released the film.

Once you know the state and general area where a film was shot, start with the state's film commission and ask for recommendations of people to contact in the specific area. In California, this is the California Film Commission at (213) 736-2465.

Books we found especially helpful in researching Owens Valley locations were: Dave Holland's On Location in Lone Pine; and David Rothel's An Ambush of Ghosts: Great Western Film Locations. In addition, look for Mariette "Ride the High Country" Hartley's just-published autobiography, Breaking the Silence.

In researching films shot around San Francisco, a good place to start is the library of the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant, Berkeley, Calif., (415) 642-1437, open 1 to 5 p.m. weekdays; the staff is very helpful with phone inquiries.

Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise have written on film for numerous publications. They are the authors of On the Edge: The Life and Times of Francis Coppola, published last year by William Morrow and Co.