One of the singular elements in the work of Alfred Hitchcock is his use of spectacular public set pieces staged in and around famous buildings, structures and monuments. His early work for Gaumont-British displays Hitchcock’s penchant for placing characters in dangerous situations in the middle of grand public settings: the Royal Albert Hall in the 1934 Man Who Knew Too Much where a woman sits in the audience knowing that an assassination is about to take place during a concert, the bridge crossing the Firth of Forth in Scotland in The 39 Steps on which Robert Donat escapes police trying to capture him for a murder he did not commit, and the London underground and bus lines in Sabotage which are threatened by a young boy unknowingly carrying a time bomb created for maximum destruction. The use of public and well known settings for such potential dangers amps up the suspense for an audience who might otherwise feel quite safe and out of harm’s way in those locations.
The bridge over the Firth of Forth. Robert Donat boards the Highland Express in The 39 Steps.
Hitchcock continued this narrative device when he came to the United States. The US provided him with the possibility for stunning set pieces staged around the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Navy Yard (Saboteur), the United Nations and Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest) and the Golden Gate Bridge and assorted San Francisco settings (Vertigo). Of course the difficulties of shooting in such locations (not to mention people being murdered, falling to their deaths, or jumping into harbors) required judicious use of special effects.
Jimmy Stewart fishes Kim Novack out of the bay in Vertigo. Hitchcock spent 16 days shooting locations in San Francisco in 1957. At the time the film was still being called From Among the Dead. The screenplay was written by Samuel Taylor, who was recommended to Hitchcock, supposedly, because of his knowledge of San Francisco.
Saboteur makes use of one of Hitchcock’s favorite plot structures: the innocent man pursued by both the police and the bad guys. He is placed in the harrowing situation of being accused of heinous crimes (murder, treason) and caught in a web so tightly woven that going to the police or the FBI is out of the question. He is a man alone. The final scene of Saboteur (1942) takes place at the very top of the Statue of Liberty, a fitting place for the final confrontation between the innocent defense plant worker (Bob Cummings) and the sneering Nazi fifth columnist (Norman Lloyd) who has just set off an explosion in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. To ratchet up the audience’s animus towards the saboteur Hitchcock follows Lloyd’s earlier escape in a taxi which passes the overturned hull of the ship, ostensibly just destroyed. The camera focuses on the saboteur’s smirk as he observes the mayhem. The brief shot of the sunken ship is quite striking as it clearly is not a miniature or other trick shot. It is the hull of the USS Normandie which had accidentally caught fire in New York Harbor and overturned during the shooting of Saboteur. Hitchcock upon hearing the news dispatched a news crew to get some footage the day after the fire was put out and he used a single traveling shot in his film thus adding a bit of verisimilitude that required no special sets, shots or effects. Sometimes there's nothing like the real thing.
The USS Normandie founders in New York Harbor. Bob Cummings and Norman Lloyd (right) atop the
Statue of Liberty in Saboteur. The torch and much of the upper part of the statue was recreated on a sound stage.
Shooting on the real Statue of Liberty however was another thing. For the final showdown Hitch had a replica of the head and upstretched arm built on a soundstage. The background and everything around the lit arm was covered with black paint or cloth (an early version of green screen replacement technology). As the villain falls from the arm of Lady Liberty to his death (a shot copied to great effect in later movies such as Die Hard) the camera catches him falling back to earth, writhing and screaming. It’s such a dramatic shot that as boy I lost no opportunity to catch Saboteur whenever it showed up on television even at 3 in the morning (this was long before video, DVDs, cable or netflix). What could be better when you’re a 12 year old boy than to watch a Nazi saboteur fall screaming to his death from the Statue of Liberty? It pins the cool needle.
Norman Lloyd gets his in Saboteur. Die! Nazi scum!
On the set however Norman Lloyd never falls anywhere. Hitchcock sat him on a bar stool and had him twist and turn on the stool as the camera pulled away from him on a crane rising up over forty feet above the soundstage floor. The black background allowed Hitchcock to insert a plate shot from top of the statue. The final result is a startling and quite believable shot of a man falling from a great height. Hitchcock used pretty much the same sort of effect in North by Northwest (1959), to depict the swan dive of a very nasty foreign spy off the top of Mount Rushmore. The first time I visited the Statue of Liberty I tried to get up into the arm to see if it was anything like what I had seen as boy watching Hitchcock’s filmed version. Unfortunately no one had been allowed up above the platform at the statue’s crown level in many years and I was left to make my own decisions about what lay up those stairs to the torch.
Now that I think of it, I have visited a number of sites used by Hitchcock in his American films. In North by Northwest Cary Grant exits a cab and enters the United Nations where he will be framed for murder. Although the UN did not allow commercial film to be shot either outside or in the building, Hitchcock, with the help of a bit of guerrilla style film-making concealed a camera inside the cab that shot Grant’s entrance onto the UN plaza. The outside plaza looked pretty much the same when I first visited it in the late 1970’s but the interiors were very different. The inside was constructed on soundstages and even involved some animated matte shots showing Grant running from the building from a very high vantage point. Apart from the exterior of the UN and some shots done in New York’s Grand Central Station most of the locations were combinations of composite shots and sets and looked nothing like the actual locations.
Location shooting at Grand Central Station for North by Northwest. Cary Grant holds up the murder weapon in a studio set stand-in for a United Nations interior shot.
At Mount Rushmore Hitchcock did little more than second unit photography. His notion of having Cary Grant hide in Abe Lincoln’s nose did not sit well with the National Park Service people and since the script called for a chase across the tops of the presidential domes he constructed the heads of the monument in a warehouse-sized building and replaced backgrounds with matte shots and additional photographic plates to create the composite effects. If you visit the monument you will be able to tell right away that the top of the mountain is nothing like what you see in the film. I was also disappointed to find that the very cool, fifties coffee shop where Eva Marie Saint “shoots” Cary Grant is nowhere to be found either. I wanted to order black coffee and sit in the corner wearing Ray-Bans looking all Cary-Grant waiting for people to start pulling out weapons.
Eva Marie Saint gets ready to give it to Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Grant and Saint on the monument. What every well dressed man on the run from the law should wear. Ray-Bans give Cary Grant that "I'm guilty, arrest me" look.
For the house inhabited by the evil James Mason, Hitchcock had a Frank Lloyd Wright style house built at a cost of $50,000. Quite a lot of money in 1959. Many of the shots seen in the film however are matte paintings combined with other photographic plates. This house, of course does not exist in the real woods around Rushmore but interestingly enough Gutzon Borglum, the creator and sculptor of the Mount Rushmore monument once wrote a letter asking Wright to build him a house near the mountain. Wright never got a chance to build it but Hitchcock did.
Frank Lloyd Wright style house from North by Northwest.