- Historic Sites
Hitchcock On Location
You can go there too, even to the Bates Motel
April/May 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 2
His 1943 film, Shadow of a Doubt , which he told me was his favorite, was set in Santa Rosa, 55 miles north of San Francisco. Sonoma’s county seat, it then had a population of 13,000, less than a tenth of its size today. It was to represent an idyllic American small town, a sunny, peaceful paradise visited by evil. One of its families entertains the charming Uncle Charlie, played by Joseph Cotten, suddenly arrived from the East. They are unaware he is a fugitive serial killer of rich widows. Hitchcock spent much time getting to know the locals, and Santa Rosa comes across as a real place, even down to the use of its rightful name, and the attractive turn-of-the-century white house on the tree-shaded McDonald Avenue still exists. Although Hitchcock would have liked to have shot the entire film on location, wartime conditions required most of the interiors to be filmed at Universal Studios. In spite of expansion and greater renown today as the home of the “Peanuts” comic strip, Santa Rosa retains a small-town atmosphere with its preserved railroad depot and still-recognizable downtown buildings. (In 1942, though, the cop directing traffic would greet citizens that were in Hitchcock’s film by name; today to be recognized by the police usually means only one thing.)
Hitchcock based his apocalyptic parable of 1963, The Birds , at the nearby coastal village of Bodega Bay. The location was changed substantially, with the one-room schoolhouse besieged by an avian armada seeming only yards from the Tides restaurant (twice rebuilt since) when it was actually at Bodega, several miles inland. An astonishing aerial shot of the damage wreaked by an airborne attack and an explosion at the village gas station reveals a Bodega Bay that never existed, created by the elaborate skills of the Hollywood matte painter. The choice of a picturesque and peaceful coastal setting was entirely deliberate, with the heroine, Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren, seen by the locals as a hedonistic San Francisco heiress who has become the focus of the sudden hostility of the bird population.
Hitchcock’s devotion to the urban beauty of San Francisco was fulfilled by Vertigo , made in 1958. The film clings to the city fabric and its landmarks: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Coit Tower, Mission Dolores, Russian Hill, the Presidio. It even creates its own, the mysterious “McKittrick Hotel,” which was the now-demolished Victorian Portman mansion, and the “Argosy Book Shop” on Powell Street at Union Square, an institutional antiquarian bookstore probably modeled on the Argonaut, now on Sutter Street. Ever the epicurean, Hitchcock also incorporated one of his favorite upscale restaurants, Ernie’s, on Montgomery Street. After 61 years of operation, Ernie’s closed in 1995.
Even more essential to the plot was the Mission San Juan Bautista, 97 miles south of San Francisco, near Hollister. One of Hitchcock’s recurring devices in several films is a fatal fall from a great height, and here he utilized the tall mission bell tower. Visitors to California’s largest mission are often puzzled to find no tower there, only a modest belfry. Hitchcock had built the tower for the film, and in long shots it is the work of the matte artist.
Although Northern California was a discernible setting for several of his films, especially Shadow of a Doubt , Vertigo , and The Birds , he chose never to base a film in Los Angeles. His last, Family Plot , in 1976, was set in an unnamed city and was shot in both cities but is recognizably more San Francisco than Los Angeles. For instance, “St. Anselm’s Cathedral,” from which a bishop is kidnapped in mid-service before a bemused congregation, is unmistakably Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. And although the aircraft factory in Saboteur was described as being in Glendale in the San Fernando Valley, it was created on a sound stage, as was the house where the hero faces the mother of his best friend, killed in the blast. Hitchcock would often use the Los Angeles area as a stand-in for other places, some of them nonspecific. The used-automobile lot in Psycho , where Janet Leigh, observed by a cop across the street, trades her car was on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, close to Universal Studios.
His most famous structure, the ominous gingerbread-gothic house adjacent to the Bates Motel was entirely Hitchcock’s invention. Inspired by Charles Addams and Edward Hopper’s House by the Rail road , it still stands on a hillock at Universal City, a spooky and highly popular attraction on the studio tour. I like to think of it as an unofficial memorial to this playful movie genius who so often illuminated the darkness that lurks within the human psyche.
George Perry is a British critic, author, and broadcaster, and former film editor of the London Sunday Times . He has produced more than 30 books, many on the movies, including two on Alfred Hitchcock, and his latest is the first authorized biography of James Dean (DK, New York).