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

Today’s movie audiences readily indulge in the Hollywood trope that murderers, spies, and monsters hide out in high-style modernist homes that embody a sense of elevated separateness. Evil adversaries, from Dr. No in the James Bond series to the vampires in Twilight, spurned decrepit castles and instead took up residence in glass-walled, minimalist buildings. These cinematic structures, whether cantilevered confidently over a precipice or hiding within a dense forest, are cast as incredibly beautiful characters. Yet, the screen sensation generated by these enigmatic houses is cold and unyielding, a physical manifestation of the inhabitant’s wicked psyche.

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

For decades, filmmakers followed literary and stage traditions in which the architectural environment matched the disposition of the character. In early productions a dysfunctional mastermind inhabited a ruined home on the moors or an agent of the undead hunkered down in his stone-walled fortress on the hill. This convention for architectural metaphor perfectly fit the visual nature of film narratives, creating an intellectual shortcut within the mind of the viewer: Bad things happen in scary places. Universal Pictures pioneered the horror genre and cemented this connection in the public eye with more than a dozen movies released in the 1920s and 1930s, many featuring iconic film villains Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Universal’s resident art director, Charles D. Hall, created “an endless variety of cobwebbed halls, frightening stairs, and creepy cemeteries” for The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. Hall, a mastermind of monster homes, also worked as art director on The Black Cat, notable for the inaugural screen pairing of horror stars Lugosi and Karloff.

The Black Cat stands out not only for this genius co-billing, but also as one of the first films to feature modernism as the home of the villain, a devious and deadly architect. For the character of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), Hall created a sleek modernist house with glass-block walls, neon-tube accents, and bent-steel chairs, a marked departure from earlier Universal films in the horror genre. The flat exterior façades and polished interior materials recall the streamlined work of designer Raymond Loewy or the futuristic visions of Norman Bel Geddes (the father of Vertigo star Barbara Bel Geddes). The standard filmic visual cues indicating danger and villainy, such as gargoyles, turrets, and towers, are nowhere to be found. Instead, the designers surrounded the modern palace with lopsided gravestones and a neglected landscape to promote the impression of danger and impending terror.

After its momentous debut in The Black Cat, modernism did not appear as a villain’s lair again until Hitchcock brought it back in the mid–20th century with North by Northwest. The return of high-end modern designs on film corresponded with a critical shift in the portrayal of evil characters, morphing from a frazzled Dr. Frankenstein into a handsome Captain Nemo. Using cultivated gentility to cover malign intentions required an equally sophisticated architectural expression. One of Hitchcock’s first experiments with this portrayal is seen in The Secret Agent, in which he unveiled a villain who was “attractive, distinguished,” and “very appealing” to audiences, according to his biographer François Truffaut. Hitchcock moved forward from there with the belief that “the best way” to make a thriller work was to “keep your villains suave and clever—the kind that wouldn’t dirty their hands with ordinary gun play.”

The building that changed movies forever makes its first appearance almost two hours into North by Northwest and is onscreen a mere 14 minutes. Filmic structures are “evanescent as a flicker of light,” as noted by historian Alan Hess. Nonetheless, this design had a penetrating and lasting effect in the public consciousness. The Vandamm House itself is now a movie star with its own dedicated legion of fans. The high-quality production design of the film, and the hybrid mixing of recognizable locations with studio sets, led to many inquiries as to the “real” location of the home. Explorations in the area behind Mount Rushmore would prove futile, however, as the building is entirely conjectural, a set created by production designer Robert F. Boyle at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in Los Angeles.

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