Hitchcock On Location


Rebecca won the Academy Award and considerable box-office success. Hitchcock’s second American film, Foreign Correspondent , cost half as much again to make. Joel McCrea plays an American journalist engaged in adventures in London, the Netherlands, and the mid-Atlantic in the days immediately before the European war. Hitchcock had briefly traveled back to Britain in July 1940 and, sensing the mood of impending catastrophe, added a coda to his finished film, the scene in which McCrea broadcasts across the Atlantic as the bombs begin to fall, anticipating the frontline dispatches of Edward Murrow and Quentin Reynolds: “Hello, America, hang on to your lights, they’re the only lights in the world!” It was prophetic. The savage Nazi blitz on London began in earnest days after the New York premiere.

Hitchcock, perceived in Britain to have deserted his mother country in its hour of need, was attacked in the press. It caused him particular distress that his old friend Michael Balcon, the producer responsible for his career break in the 1920s, publicly categorized him alongside other voluntary exiles labeled as “gone with the wind up.” (Having “the wind up” was British soldiers’ slang for being scared.) In reality Hitchcock had been officially advised that staying to work in America would do far more for his country’s war effort than returning, overage and overweight, for military service.

His most famous structure, the house next to the Bates Motel, was his own invention.

The production code blocked direct reference to the Nazis until Pearl Harbor, but following Suspicion , Hitchcock constructed a thriller involving national security and espionage fears. In Saboteur a California aircraft worker, alleged to have burned down his factory, pursues the real villain and his accomplices. The chase takes him via Hoover Dam and a Nevada ghost town to a frenetic New York climax that embraces the attempted destruction of a warship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an onstage shoot-out at Radio City Music Hall, and most memorably the end sequence, when his enemy dangles from the torch of the Statue of Liberty held only by a jacket sleeve. Disappointingly, in spite of its 3,000-mile odyssey, most of the film is studio based, even to the studio replica of Liberty herself.

Seventeen years later Hitchcock reworked the same idea more elaborately and successfully in North by Northwest , with Cary Grant as the fugitive chasing his traducers, from the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York to the vertiginous presidential faces of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Again the director was refused permission to have his actors crawling about on a real national landmark, seen only in long shot, and he re-created Gutzon Borglum’s sculptures on a sound stage. He also visualized a wooded plateau behind the heads, containing a private airstrip and the residence of the suave villain (played by James Mason) an angular modernist house that could have been the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Actually, there is nothing behind the real Mount Rushmore but a steeply sloping rock face. Perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film—indeed, of all Hitchcock’s films—is the attempt by a bogus crop-duster to kill Grant on an open prairie in Indiana. The Midwest state could hardly have looked so parched, but then the sequence was filmed near Bakersfield, California, in the sunbaked Central Valley.

Hitchcock developed a passion for Northern California, finding it far more congenial than Los Angeles, which he regarded as a company town. In more than 40 years in America he had only three Los Angeles addresses: a rented apartment at the Wilshire Palms on Wilshire Boulevard, where he, Alma, and their daughter, Patricia, lived initially; an English-style house on Saint Cloud Road in Bel Air, owned by Carole Lombard; and, from 1942 until his death, 10957 Bellagio Road, a secluded house abutting the golf course of the Bel Air Country Club. He made a point of collecting the balls that landed in his yard, some bearing the initials of giants of the movie industry. I remember also his well-stocked walk-in refrigerator, and his wine cellar.

While filming Rebecca , he found Monterey Bay and, in 1940, bought a magnificent 200-acre ranch in Scotts Valley, in the hills above Santa Cruz, which included an active vineyard. The main California-Spanish house became the Hitchcocks’ weekend retreat from the pressures of Hollywood. He was within easy reach of San Francisco and developed a taste for Bay Area cuisine, particularly its fresh seafood.