aficionados are familiar with the trio of great
collaborators who helped make some of Hitchcock's
best films so memorable: Bernard
Herrmann (composer), Robert
Burks (cinemaphotographer) and George
Tomasini (editor). Together, they brought
a chillingly clean, professional touch to The
Birds (1963), Vertigo (1958) and The
Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 version). Individually,
they brought their talent to bear on Strangers
on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953),
Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955),
The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Wrong
Man (1956), North by Northwest (1959),
Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and
Marnie (1964)—the bulk of Hitchcock's
great, mature work.
What about Hitchcock's costume
designers? Edith Head's
a good guess—and a correct one, more often
than not, for Hitchcock and almost everybody else
working in Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1980s.
(In all, she designed costumes for three hundred
and fifty-four films.)
But what about Hitchcock's art
directors and set designers?
Can you name one?
Don't worry: nobody else can either.
So ask yourself another question:
can you name an object or a set that you remember
readily from a Hitchcock film?
Ah, that's much easier, isn't
The shower scene and the creepy
Bates mansion in Psycho, the sleeper train
car and that wonderful lodge in North by Northwest,
the fateful tower and the art gallery in Vertigo,
the chest concealing the dead body in Rope (1948),
the dark, wainscoted mansion of the three-and-a-half-fingered
man in The 39 Steps (1935).
Or what about Mount Rushmore in
North by Northwest? Hitchcock wasn't allowed
to film on the real national monument, so he had
a set designed to scale.
Actually, Hitchcock's films have
wonderful sets—so why can't anybody name the
people who helped design and build them?
couple reasons come readily to mind.
First, Hitchcock storyboarded his films copiously
before ever talking to designers, and much of the
credit for the visual strength behind his films
should go to him. But possibly as importantly, Hitchcock's
sets have a strangely generic quality that belies
both their complexity and the sophisticated role
they play in defining the films' characters.
Hitchcock is famous for his lack
of interest in the nuances in character—he
once said the best actor would be a tailor's dummy.
And he was positively flummoxed when Paul Newman
wanted to chat about the motivation behind
his character in Torn Curtain (1966). So
the subtle help Hitchcock gets from the sets is
all the more important.
Take, for example, the slightly
cloying, effeminate interior Robert Taylor's character
finds himself trapped in with The Birds.
While he spends weekdays in the city, on the weekends
he travels to nearby Bodega Bay, where he stays
with his mother and nearly-eleven-year-old sister.
The mother (played by Jessica Tandy) smothers her
son, chasing off potential mates like...well, like
a bird chasing a cat from its young. The house interior
is rather bland in its colors (grays predominate),
with low-backed upholstered furniture that offers
neither hints of a particular style nor much comfort,
and the space gives off a tense, neurotic sense
of unwanted closeness. So when Taylor boards up
the house to protect his family (and potential mate)
from the marauding birds, there's inevitably going
to be a meltdown in the suddenly claustrophobic
For another example, let's look
at the elderly parents of Joan Fontaine's character
in Suspicion (1941). They live in a striking
British mansion, with tall, leaded-glass windows
and heavily carved oak doors. Clearly, we're told,
these are wealthy, stable people. They've been here
for generations, and as long as their daughter knows
her role in upper-class society, their genes will
be staying here for years to come.
But look at the furniture in this
opulent house: it's remarkably frumpy and boring.
So ignore the house's wonderful bone structure and
ask yourself: would you want to live with
this couple, with this furniture? Yes, the place
is worth a bundle, and a good decorator could bring
it around, but what if you could leave it for, say,
Cary Grant? Sure, he's got a bad reputation as a
womanizer and a gambler among the locals, but just
look at the guy! What woman would choose to take
her mother's place in that musty old chair, spending
her dwindling years with a needle in her hands,
when she could be living it up with a dashing playboy?
All right, so he may be a murderer
as well as a gambler and a womanizer. Isn't the
fun worth the risk?
Actually, no. At least, not for
Hitchcock's main characters. They tend to get punished
rather severely when they go looking for adventure.
As boring as that old couple in Suspicion
may be, you're much safer with them than you are
with Grant in that dashingly bright house and that
winding staircase with its ominous shadows (anyone
care for a glass of warm, glowing milk?).
But here's another question for
you. Whatever made you think you could actually
end up with Grant to begin with? The fact that so
many of Hitchcock's characters are uncomplicated,
even boring people (put into striking dilemmas,
of course) may help us project ourselves into them—even
though most of us don't look like Cary Grant or
Grace Kelly. But it's not just their undistinguished
lives that makes it so easy for us to slip into
their characters. I think it's primarily the dowdy,
boring furniture that helps us make the leap, frankly.
Put Joan Fontaine in an exquisite palace and people
may have trouble projecting themselves into her
Apparently, the average viewer
is more than likely going to err on the flattering
side when it comes to their body-image, but they're
pretty damn accurate when it comes to sizing up
their tastes in furniture.
maybe the word 'generic' is too derogatory a word
for Hitchcock's sets. Actually, the pieces are often
quite nice—but they rarely leap at us the
way, say, the Deco liquor cabinet does in Jake's
office in Chinatown. This is a signal distinction,
I think: Polanski is trying to evoke a past era
explicitly by drawing our eye to stellar examples
of period furniture. Hitchcock, on the other hand,
primarily worked in the present. He had little need
to telegraph 'Deco 1930s' to his audience, and he
was thus under less pressure to make his sets do
Instead, Hitchcock's after something
a little simpler with his sets: the frumpy, boring
couple gets frumpy, boring furniture because...well,
because they're frumpy and boring.
It's a simple formula, really.
When you don't want the actors chatting you up about
motivation, you sometimes have to let the
furniture do the talking.
the individual pieces tell us a lot about the characters
and help us make the precarious leap into thinking
we're all Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
But what about the sets as sets?
Here, I think, we can see most clearly how involved
Hitchcock was with the set design. Consider, for
example, how often Hitchcock's love of difficult,
even claustrophobic experiments hinged on brilliant
set design. In Rope (1948), he used a set
with walls built on wheels so that he could have
the cameras move unimpeded around the film's group
of three rooms. (Placed prominently at center-stage,
of course, was that corpse-concealing chest.)
The shower stall in Psycho
was built in sections, so it could be partly disassembled,
thus allowing a variety of complicated camera angles.
And in Rear Window, Hitchcock had an entire
apartment building with a courtyard mocked up so
that James Stewart could stare across the courtyard
into his neighbors' windows—each window, of
course, functioning like a miniature movie screen
showing Stewart (our flattering mirror image) individual
comedies, melodramas and (of course) murder mysteries
staged on isolated sets.
But it's not just neat, complicated
trickery that shows us how caught up Hitchcock was in
the set design. It's often where the furniture
was placed in those original storyboards that matters.
Consider, for example, how brilliantly the husband's
heavily formal and masculine desk works in Dial M
for Murder. For much of the film, we are confined
to the couple's apartment living room, and the desk
sits with its back to the heavily draped windows, confronting,
even controlling the room—just as Ray Milland's
character tries to control his wife. (And what about
those perennially closed drapes? Do they symbolically
conceal the secrets behind Milland's seemingly respectable
That Grace Kelly's struggle with
her intended killer takes place on top of the desk
itself (which holds the title's telephone, no less)
only underlines what Hitchcock is trying to make
the desk tell us about the couple.
Hitchcock, smart as he is, didn't select each lamp
and chair and sofa and put each one into place.
So who are the designers behind the sets?
I'd like to report that there's
a single, unsung hero behind it all. Unfortunately,
there's not. Over the course of his career, Hitchcock
drew on a variety of set designers and art directors,
some undoubtedly provided contractually by the various
studios (which functioned something like a present-day
HMO with its list of participating physicians).
It is, in general, a good though
not remarkable group of artists. Alfred
Jung, Albert Juliann and Oscar Fredric Werndorff
worked with him until 1938, when Hitchcock
left British studios for Hollywood. Among this group,
Jung probably did the most outstanding non-Hitchcock
work, with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Black
Narcissus to his credit.
Through the forties, Hitchcock
worked principally with Van Nest Polglase, Darrell Silvera, Russell A. Gausman,
Emile Kuri and Thomas N. Morahan. Although
Polglase worked on a few good non-Hitchcock projects
(Citizen Kane being most prominent), the
most significant designer to come from this period
is Silvera, who worked on more than two hundred
films, including everything from Val Lewton's Cat
People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard
Man to Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another
World—with Citizen Kane thrown
in for good measure. Kuri, on the other hand,
went on to work on several live-action Disney movies
like The Absent-Minded Professor and Blackbeard's
Ghost. (Another name that pops up in the Forties
with Hitchcock is Robert Boyle—he
would later work as production designer on North
by Northwest, The Birds and Marnie.)
Likewise, a variety of designers
worked on the mature films of the Fifties and Sixties.
Among them: Edward S. Haworth,
George James Hopkins,
Sam Comer, Hal
Pereira and Henry Bumstead. Hopkins has the most distinguished
(as well as the longest) resume, with the high points
running from Casablanca to My Fair Lady
and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Pereira
and Comer, on the other end of the scale, did a
lot of work together on Jerry Lewis comedies.)
So there are groups of
designers who worked with Hitchcock for a period
of time, but the overall vision and purpose behind
the design—character development, audience
projection, sophisticated layout, etc.—carry
across the groups. Leading us to conclude, of course,
that it was primarily Hitchcock's vision (probably
in the earliest stages of storyboarding) that drove
But that, I suppose, is hardly