How the Vandamm House in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’ Changed Cinema Forever

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Today’s movie audience easily indulge in the Hollywood trope that murderers, spies, and monsters lurk in high-style modernist homes that embody an elevated sense of separation. Evil adversaries, from Dr No in the James Bond series to vampires in Dusk, rejected decrepit castles and instead took up residence in minimalist, glass-walled buildings. These cinematic structures, whether confidently cantilevered over a precipice or hidden in a dense forest, are interpreted as incredibly beautiful characters. Yet the screen feel generated by these enigmatic houses is cold and unyielding, a physical manifestation of the inhabitant’s evil psyche.

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first great directors to capitalize on this architectural zeitgeist, co-opting essential features of modernist design and turning those features into totems representing the calculated fervor of a malevolent genius. Drawing inspiration from early films such as Metropolis, Hitchcock also rebuilt the essential on-screen villain persona, ditching the crazed henchmen of the 1920s and instead casting dashing, charismatic people who wielded wit and charm as weapons. In From North to Northwest, Hitchcock’s team revealed these two new archetypes in their own right for contemporary moviegoers, pairing a modern villain with a mid-20th century modern building. This cinematic and architectural marriage of patron and design was so successful that it was fully typecast as a storytelling device. In the years that followed, production designers, writers, and directors recruited real houses to play the role of the villain’s lair, drawing inspiration from a proliferation of modern designs in Southern California. created by architects such as John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright. Other creators have designed fantastical modernist hideaways that only existed on film and in matte paints.

For decades, filmmakers followed literary and scenic traditions in which the architectural environment matched the disposition of the character. In early productions, a dysfunctional mastermind inhabited a ruined house on the moors or an agent of the undead cowering in his stone-walled fortress on the hill. This convention for architectural metaphor fits perfectly with the visual nature of cinematic narratives, creating an intellectual shortcut in the mind of the viewer: bad things happen in scary places. Universal Pictures pioneered the horror genre and cemented that connection in the public eye with more than a dozen films released in the 1920s and 1930s, many of which featured iconic cinema villains Bela Lugosi and Boris. Karloff. Universal’s resident art director Charles D. Hall has created “an endless variety of cobwebbed rooms, spooky staircases, and spooky graveyards” for The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The invisible Man. Hall, a monster house mastermind, also worked as art director on The black Cat, notable for the inaugural on-screen pairing of horror stars Lugosi and Karloff.

The black Cat stands out not only for its brilliant co-billing, but also as one of the first films to present Modernism as the home of the villain, a devious and murderous architect. For the character of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), Hall created a sleek modernist home with glass brick walls, neon tube accents and bent steel chairs, a marked departure from previous Universal films in the genre of the horror. The flat exterior facades and polished interior materials recall the clean work of designer Raymond Loewy or the futuristic visions of Norman Bel Geddes (the father of vertigo star Barbara Bel Geddes). Standard filmic visual cues indicating danger and wickedness, such as gargoyles, turrets and towers, are nowhere to be found. Instead, the designers surrounded the modern palace with lopsided tombstones and a neglected landscape to foster the impression of impending danger and terror.

After his memorable debut in The black Cat, modernism no longer appeared as a villain’s lair until Hitchcock brought it back to the mid-twentieth century with From North to Northwest. The return of high-end modern designs to the movies corresponded with a critical shift in the portrayal of evil characters, from a battered Dr. Frankenstein to a handsome Captain Nemo. Using cultivated kindness to cover up malevolent intentions required an equally sophisticated architectural expression. One of Hitchcock’s first experiences with this representation is seen in secret agent, in which he unveiled a villain “seductive, distinguished” and “very attractive” to the public, according to his biographer François Truffaut. Hitchcock went from there with the belief that “the best way” to make a thriller work was to “keep your villains suave and smart – the kind who wouldn’t get their hands dirty with an ordinary gun game”.

The Building That Changed Movies Forever Makes Its First Appearance Nearly Two Hours After from north to northwest and is on screen just 14 minutes. The filmic structures are “evanescent like a flicker of light”, as noted by historian Alan Hess. Nevertheless, this conception had a penetrating and lasting effect on the public consciousness. House Vandamm itself is now a movie star with its own legion of devoted fans. The film’s high-quality production design and hybrid mix of recognizable locations with studio sets led to many questions about the “real” location of the house. Explorations in the area behind Mount Rushmore would prove futile, however, as the building is entirely conjectural, a setting created by production designer Robert F. Boyle at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Los Angeles.


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