Saturday, July 20, 2013

Reel Connections: Vandamm's "Frank Lloyd Wright" House on Mt. Rushmore in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (1959)


One of Hitchcock’s most successful (and commercial) films was the classic thriller North by Northwest (MGM 1959). Hitch’s previous film Vertigo (Paramount 1958), while certainly an artistic success and a cinematic masterpiece, did not fare so well in the box office. It was a little too dark and a little too slow for the contemporary audiences. Hitch desperately needed a giant success and therefore he returned to his forte of sorts: the romantic thriller. North by Northwest is indisputably one of Hitch’s finest films and it features the Hitchcock repertoire of great elements: a stellar cast led by one of Hitch’s favorite actor’s Cary Grant, a sparkling dialogue, moments of great situational humor, a beautiful cool blonde love interest (played by Eva Maria Saint), a mysterious MacGuffin and a fast-moving, smooth, and of course, suspenseful plot.
Saul Bass' famous title design

It also features another Hitchcockian element that I’ve touched one in previous posts, but never mentioned by name: the Hitchcock villain. Who is the Hitchcock villain, you may ask. I’ll tell you. For one, he’s wealthy, showing that he’s successful at whatever kind of evil he practices. He’s suave and charming. He’s sophisticated and moves in high society with oily ease. He may be foreign, but then again, he may not, but he will almost certainly have an attribute that sets him apart. He is personified by James Mason, who plays Philip Vandamm, the criminal mastermind in North by Northwest. James Mason plays one of my favorite villains and he does it with such ease, it’s hard not to love to hate him. (It’s also interesting to note that North by Northwest is often cited as the forerunner of the Bond films, with its suave leading man, large-scale chases, and oily, foreign criminal mastermind).
Roger Thorndale (Cary Grant) in the famous "Crop-dusting Scene"

In the film, Cary Grant (who’s at the top of his game in this great role that’s funny, charming and completely believable) plays Roger Thorndale Madison Ave executive who is mistakenly identified as a spy, “George Kaplan” by the wicked Vandamm and as an assassin by the rest of the country. Roger is forced to flee and attempt to figure out who George Kaplan is and why people want to kill him in an attempt to clear his own name. Gradually, it’s revealed that while Kaplan is not a spy, or (spoiler) even a real person, Roger’s going to have to do some pretty complex intelligence work for the US government and retrieve a bunch of government secrets on microfilm from Vandamm who’s about to smuggle them out of the country. This brings him to Rapid City, the site of the Mt. Rushmore monument, the film to its critical climax and it brings us to the point of the post.
A view of Roger approaching the house- obviously a matte
Roger is forced to break into Vandamm’s mountaintop mansion so he can save his love interest Eve (Eva Maria Saint) and recover the film. He creeps into the house, which appears to be near the top of Mt Rushmore, and eventually vaults himself onto a balcony to get into the house. But that’s all a side-note- back to the house.
An interior view of the house's flat open floorplan

Vandamm lives in a modernist mansion, which reeks of Frank Lloyd Wright. Blending into its mountaintop setting, it features a sharp horizontal design and numerous cantilevers. Once inside, you realize that the house features many natural elements including wood and limestone and a flat open floor plan, another Wright specialty. The house looks like a Wright, but it is one hundred percent NOT. Once again, Hitch turned to shameless copying to achieve a look he desired. (Remember his copying of Roualt in Strangers on a Train). But what look is Hitchcock looking for this time?
Phillip Vandamm (James Mason): the suave supervillain

As I said before, Vandamm, the typical Hitchcock villian, while essentially evil, he is also sophisticated (he’s an accomplished art collector) and wealthy (he can afford to be an accomplished art collector). So obviously, he has to live in a home that reflects this wealth and sophistication. At the same time, it required a level of coldness and isolation that befit a great villain, but also befits the film itself which thematically introduces an element of loneliness in the modern world and the plight of a man alone in such a world. Wright’s “Prairie Style” modernism fits the bill in every regard.  

Wright's iconic Fallingwater 

In the late ‘50s, Frank Lloyd Wright had become not only a household name, but one of the most famous and recognizable architects of any style in the United States. The 50s American audience not only recognized Wright’s work like Fallingwater but also appreciated its modern luxury and its great expense. In Hitch’s mind, that made it perfect for his perfect villain.
A close-up detail of the Vandamm house (also a matte)

According to an essay written by Sandy McLendon in JetsetModern, Hitchcock realized that Wright fit all his requirements for the house but that he could not, under any circumstance accord Wright’s designer fee.  So, “Hitchcock seized upon the idea of having MGM staff design a house in Wright’s manner. It was a sensible idea; Wright used materials and themes in his designs that could be conveniently appropriated. All those magazine articles had already conditioned the audience to know that those materials and themes meant "Frank Lloyd Wright" and nobody else. Hitchcock would get the look and the recognition- without the expense” (McLendon, 2001).
Boyle's preliminary designs for the Mt Rushmore house

Hitchcock then turned to his artistic director Robert F. Boyle and the production team of MGM:  William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvey. Boyle, as it happens, was a Hitchcock veteran, having worked on films with Hitch earlier. While, I’m focusing on one particular element of his work in this film, the level of quality he brought to the whole of North by Northwest is truly admirable. But I digress.
Hitchcock initially envisioned a chase scene on Mount Rushmore as the inspiration for North by Northwest.
 Boyle also had to create the iconic monument on the Culver City backlot. 
As it turned out, copying a Wright design would be easy enough compared to the other problems the production team had to overcome. Obviously, a set could not be built on the top of Mt. Rushmore, the National Park service would have none of that. (Besides, creating this house, which was quite an accomplishment, Boyle and Co. had to recreate Mt. Rushmore in Culver City for that great final chase scene: no easy (or cheap task), trust me.) Finally, Hitchcock not only couldn’t afford a real Frank Lloyd Wright house, he couldn’t afford the price of any real house. So they’d have to fake it.
A rear view of the house which reveals a carport and an additional balcony

The “house” as it so happens, was not even a real house. It wasn’t even a miniature, like Manderly, in Rebecca.  It was a mix of interior sets, matte designs by matte artist Matthew Yuricich and a few choice exterior shots of the house’s support, which Grant had to climb in one scene. I looked to see if Yuricich’s mattes were still in existence, but it appears when MGM cleaned shop in the 60s and 70s, a lot of great stuff was thrown out or “lost” and I believe these mattes were included in that “lost” list.
An interior view of Vandamm in his home, which features the finest of
contemporary home fixtures: including modern furniture and a TV

Of course, certain rooms had to be real so that the lighting and such wouldn’t be completely wrong when viewed on screen. McLendon noted that in many cases real materials were used only sparingly, when the audience could notice the difference between say, plaster and limestone, and real glass (which could reflect they crew) was often not used. It’s an instance of classic Hollywood trickery and magic, but it is certainly excellent magic.
Roger climbing up to Eve's balcony.
This part of the house was actually built. 
One of my issues with the Vandamm house is those exterior support beams. It’s not that they’re such an eyesore, because they certainly aren’t. But they are certainly not an element Wright would have used. He would have hidden the supports, like in Fallingwater, so they would have more seamlessly blended with the environment. Granted, I know they’re essential for Roger to climb into the house, but I feel they’re the one element that gives the house a way as a “fake,” in more than one way.
Hitch in the original trailer for the film. 

North by Northwest certainly didn’t introduce modernism to the silver screen but it was one of the first films to openly highlight the sophistication and luxury of a modernist palace like Vandamm’s mountainside retreat. It is groundbreaking, in a way, as it established modernism as the successful criminal’s architectural style of choice (ala Goldfinger). Vandamm may not have had a lot of redeeming qualities, but he did have an excellent artistic eye and you have to be grateful for that, especially when you get to enjoy sumptuous views of his Frank Lloyd Wright “original.”  
A close up of Eva Maria Saint with a great view of Vandamm's house in the background. 




3 comments:

  1. I have just stumbled upon your blog (can't remember how I got here) and really enjoy your impressions of the movie Vertigo. It is my favorite movie. I have a restored copy on DVD. I have searched for the locations used in the movie and am particularly fascinated with the apartments of both Midge and Scotty. I design homes, that is my profession...so I am always intrigued by where the characters live and what it says about them. I see Scotty's digs as traditional, about ten or so years behind the times and Midge's as an artist's home, complete with some iconic mid-century modern furniture and those wonderful windows looking out on SF with the bamboo shades and the mat flooring material we used to pick up at Pier 1. Artsy and bohemian. The little kitchen with its apartment stove and rounded fridge. Fantasy. You never see Madeline's home because she doesn't exist. Over the many years since I first saw the movie, I realize more and more the complexity of it. Wow, what a film.

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    1. Thanks so much for your feedback! If you truly enjoy Hitchcock houses and the thought behind Hitchcock settings as much as I do, I urge you to read the very informative book about the subject titled "The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock" by Steven Jacobs. I hope you continue to read the blog (and be sure to follow the blog while you're at it) and providing valuable input.

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  2. I have been a Hitchcock fan since about age 5. Thanks for this website. I don't think I've seen all of the master's movie masterpieces but have enjoyed those I have seen. Kudos for those who have made and maintain this site. Please keep up the great work ---Len Hart

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