April/May 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 2
You can go there too, even to the Bates Motel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).