Hitchcock On Location

PrintPrintEmailEmailAlthough Alfred Hitchcock lived in the United States for more than 40 years, becoming an American citizen in 1955, five years after his wife, Alma, he carefully retained his Britishness. Even in the warm sunshine of Southern California he always turned up for work in an immaculately tailored dark suit, and his wardrobe held dozens of them, all identical except for their varying waistbands. On his sets everybody, down to the humblest grip, was encouraged to wear a tie, and courtesy prevailed, with “Mr. Hitchcock” controlling his actors at the start of a take by declaring, “Action, please.” I have heard no other director add “please” to this command. It is as though a drill sergeant were to say to his platoon, “Attention, please.”

Calling on him as a fellow Briton in California, either in his commodious bungalow office suite on the lot at Universal Studios or at his house in Bel Air, I often found that after initial pleasantries he would complain about some aspect of American bureaucracy that was irking him. Perhaps his airmail copy of the London Times had been held up and was a day late, or Washington had decreed that the succulent Melton Mowbray pork pies he liked to have flown in from Fortnum & Mason no longer complied with the FDA’s fierce standards and were prohibited.

For all this faintly conspiratorial “fellow Brit in a strange land” banter, he clearly had a great love for his adopted country and things American, relishing the variety and vastness of the landscape, the diversity and occasional eccentricities of its people. He was perfectly at home. He had always looked at the world with the eye of a filmmaker and with an appetite for places. His interest in travel and transportation was lifelong. As a boy in northeast London he had made a point of journeying to the extremities of every bus line across the sprawling city, and would decorate his bedroom with orange-crate labels bearing lithographed enticements from distant groves that came into his father’s fruit and vegetable store. As an adolescent he became a devotee of American cinema, and his first industry job, at 21, was as a designer and writer of title cards for Famous Players–Lasky at its new London base. It gave him an early insight into the differences between American and British working methods.

Three of his first American films were to have California-simulated European settings.

His move across the Atlantic was a logical fulfillment of ambition. For 12 years he had directed British films, mostly thrillers, achieving an eminence that outshone all his rivals. Finally, in March 1939, he sailed, having completed lengthy negotiations with David O. Selznick, his creativity released from the parochial limitations of the depressed British film industry. Selznick, with Gone With the Wind to his name, was brilliant and dictatorial, towering over other Hollywood producers. Hitchcock, while reveling in the professionalism and superior resources of Hollywood, soon found their mighty egos in conflict. Worse, the Britain he had left behind was plunged into war only days before Rebecca , his first American film, began shooting. America was polarized between determined neutralists and those whose Old World roots were threatened with extinction.

Three decades earlier Hollywood had been chosen by the emergent film industry for more than just a balmy climate and abundant sunshine. Within a day’s drive from Los Angeles was an astonishing variety of topography. Hitchcock found on a production-office wall a map of California that marked where within the state could be found the Blue Nile, the Swiss Alps, the sands of the Sahara, Sherwood Forest, the rugged coast of Spain, the Siberian snows, the Red Sea, the South African veldt, to say nothing of the mighty Mississippi, the cattle ranches of Wyoming, the horse pastures of Kentucky, and the mountain forests of Vermont.

Some directors nowadays balk at shooting in pretend as opposed to true locations, but in the 1940s films were invariably studio-bound. This was for the sake of efficiency and cost, especially in wartime, even when the film’s setting was supposed to be exotic. For instance, Warner’s most celebrated hit, Casablanca , was shot entirely on the studio lot at Burbank, except for one brief location moment at the nearby Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys. Hitchcock shot some of his films in natural locations but was well accustomed to studio-built sets, painted backdrops, and models or miniatures.

Three of his first four American films were to have California-simulated British or European settings, starting with the atmospheric Rebecca , from Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance, with, at its center, the great house of Manderley, an ancestral pile high atop a bluff on the Cornish coast. Manderley was no more than several intricate miniatures, the rocky coast with the pounding breakers not that of Cornwall but of Point Lobos, near Carmel, which earlier in the film had represented the Mediterranean near Monte Carlo. It is a coastline much loved by Hollywood. A few miles farther south toward Big Sur is Bixby Creek, where the scenery became Sussex, alongside the English Channel, in the melodrama Suspicion , made by Hitchcock in 1941. It was the nearest Cary Grant ever came to playing a villain, saved only by the studio’s insistence that his public would never tolerate it.