No, I’m not talking about the scandals involving the Master of Suspense and his fraught relationships with women, I’m talking about Hitch’s love affair with the United States. As you probably recall, Hitchcock was born in England almost exactly 123 years ago (August 13, 1899) and did his early work in silent films and talkies there. From the start, he was a keen observer with diverse interests: art history and true crime; he had an intense fear of law enforcement; and he called himself an Americaphile. As soon as he had the chance to direct, he began making thrillers, and his film Blackmail (1929) was the first British talking picture.
He had some familiar hits in Britain—The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938)—but the UK film industry was losing ground to Hollywood, so when David O. Selznick made a generous offer to bring him to California in 1939, Hitchcock jumped at the chance for bigger budgets, greater creativity, and better weather.
In Hollywood, Hitchcock had the chance to meld America’s promise and his own dark vision. The open spaces, the sunshine—these set up a contrast, a natural tension, with the nightmarish stories he wanted to tell, according to film historian Steven C. Smith, who talked about “Alfred Hitchcock’s America” in the New Plaza Cinema lecture series last week.
Selznick’s instincts were right. The first film Hitch made for him was Rebecca (1940), based on the Daphne du Maurier novel, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Ironically, Hitchcock himself never won a best director Oscar, despite five nominations.)
Rebecca, though, was set in Europe, and Hitchcock’s first film set in America was Saboteur (1942), when war panic and fear of German spies was high. I saw it for the first time a few months ago, and the climactic scenes atop the Statue of Liberty remain thrilling today. Smith revealed how the illusions were done (decades before CGI, of course), following a pattern Hitchcock perfected: extensive storyboarding, so that every shot was defined beforehand; a surprisingly small number of location shots; and as much filming as possible on a sound stage, where he and the special effects cameraman could control every element.
The limited wartime production budget for Hitchcock’s personal favorite film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), meant fewer sets, and much of it was perforce shot on location in Santa Rosa, California. That small town (then only about 30,000 people) had to stand in for a generic, idyllic America. His scenes of actual mid-century New York (and New Jersey) captured for The Wrong Man (1956) are a valuable visual record of that era.
Many of the locations used in Vertigo (1958), filmed in and around San Francisco, still exist: the Mission Dolores, the Brocklebank Apartments, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Mission San Juan Bautista where two important scenes occur still exists, but at the time the movie was filmed, the bell tower (from which falls occur) had already been demolished. Smith did a fascinating shot-by-shot analysis of the first fall scene, noting how each shot was filmed—alternating sound stage, miniature, on location, matte painting, combination matte painting and location, etc. (Any view including the “bell tower” is a matte painting.) Yet the artistry is so perfect, to the viewer the action appears seamless.
Perfection was a bit harder to achieve in the famous scene in North by Northwest (1959) in which Cary Grant is running across a field, while being buzzed by a crop duster. Supposedly this action occurred in northern Indiana, but the wide-angle shots were actually filmed in Bakersfield, and the scenes where he stumbles and hunkers in the dirt were shot on a sound stage, with a film of the airplane playing on a screen in the background. But, Smith said, the continuity director neglected to keep track of how much dirt Grant had on his suit from one shot to the next, so they had to do a lot of re-shooting. This is the movie that ends with the famous chase scene on Mt. Rushmore. The crew was allowed only two days at Mt. Rushmore to shoot still photos (no climbing!), which were used to recreate views of the monument. The rest was Hollywood magic. (An oddity I observed in the Mt. Rushmore footages was Eva Marie Saint wearing heels and carrying her handbag as she clambers around Thomas Jefferson’s nose.) In the previews for this film, Hitchcock looks at the audience and with tongue-in-cheek menace asks, “Have you had your vacation yet?”
Itʼs the realism of these sound stage creations that makes them so memorable and terrifying. Hitchcock believed that nightmares are very specific. Rear Window (1954)and Psycho (1960)—two of his scariest—were shot almost entirely at the studio. (It was years before I could take a shower without reliving Psycho.) For exteriors in The Birds (1963)(another contribution by Daphne de Maurier, a short story this time) Hitchcock chose Bodega Bay, not far from his home in Northern California, and well away from meddling studio executives.
As Smith pointed out, other films have made use of many of these same locations, but when we think of their star turns in the movies, Hitchcock’s films are the ones that come to mind.
Want more? Try these:
The DVD Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection with “how they did it” material and interviews
Award-nominated biography: The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
“The Hitchcock Zone,” a website with more than 9000 images and, and, and!