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Alfred Hitchcock’s (Non-Existent) Los Angeles

Alfred Hitchcock (courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
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The defining quality of Alfred Hitchcock's Los Angeles is that he didn't have one. Or rather, he had a Los Angeles in his life, but not in his work. By the time he passed away in his Bel-Air home in 1980, the Leytonstone-born director's filmography had grown to include more than 50 features across a career spanning six decades. He made roughly half of them in Britain and half in America, the latter period accounting for the bulk of his reputation as the 20th century's undisputed master of cinematic suspense. And though he embraced well-known American locations with the bravado of a thrilled new arrival – even those who've never seen “North by Northwest” know it features Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint hanging off Mount Rushmore – he set not one of his films in the American city where he lived.

“Movies aren’t about places, they’re about stories,” says Thom Andersen's narrator in an early passage of his documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” “If we notice the location, we are not really watching the movie. It’s what’s up front that counts. Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else. They do the work of our voluntary attention, and so we must suppress that faculty as we watch,” allowing the filmmakers to do their emotional work on us. But “what if suspense is just another alienation effect? Isn’t that what Hitchcock taught? For him, suspense was a means of enlivening his touristy travelogues,” though Andersen names him as the greatest of the “low tourist” directors, a group who “generally disdain Los Angeles. They prefer San Francisco and the coastline of northern California. More picturesque.”

And indeed, with 1958's “Vertigo,” Hitchcock made what the latest Sight & Sound critics' poll named the greatest motion picture of all time, and therefore the greatest San Francisco movie of all time as well. Sixteen years earlier, Hitchcock did set the first ten minutes of the less well-regarded “Saboteur,” the story of a framed airplane-builder on the run, in Glendale and elsewhere in greater Los Angeles, but as Andersen writes, “it could be anywhere in America where there is an aircraft factory. The scenes were shot in the studio, and there is nothing distinctive to the region in the sets.” At that time, the director had lived in America for only about three years, but according to Hitchcock scholar Dan Auiler, he felt the film failed to re-create “the real America he had been discovering on weekends.”

“Saboteur” only offered what “Alfred Hitchcock's America” author Murray Pomerance calls “inspired but abbreviated sketches of domestic space in America,” such as a “tiny bungalow in Los Angeles, its rear kitchen door backing onto that of the busybody next-door neighbor,” all of them a mere precedent to his later “detailed picture of American family and domestic life in films that would render more prolonged and complex visions of the culture.” As Hitchcock told other stories in other corners of the country, he would go on to more vividly convey his slightly anachronistic vision of, almost in the abstract, “an American city still in the relatively early stages of development, with its foundation in a bucolic small town associated with agriculture and long-lasting human relations.”

Hitchcock and family upon their arrival in Los Angeles in 1939
Hitchcock and his family upon their arrival in Los Angeles in on April 4, 1939. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
 Alfred Hitchcock with his wife Alma Reville and their daughter Patricia Hitchcock at their California home, ca. 1941.
Alfred Hitchcock with his wife Alma Reville and their daughter Patricia Hitchcock at their California home, ca. 1941. Photo courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. | Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Andersen also points out that later, in Psycho, “Hitchcock even had Marion Crane bypass Los Angeles on her fateful journey from Phoenix to the Bates Motel in northern California,” though the Phoenix she departs isn't always genuine. “Although real estate is booming (as per the storyline) what we are given to see is a modest, even genteel urban environment (some of it realized onscreen through rear-projection plates made in architecturally unprepossessing sections of Los Angeles),” writes Pomerance, highlighting once again Hitchcock's tendency to “deploy townscapes and cityscapes still culture-bound to the 19th century. These films foreground interpersonal civility, living spaces intermeshed with working environments, evocative topographies, and a discreet sense of settlement and groundedness.”

Maybe the Los Angeles Hitchcock knew, with its recently arrived and often alienated citizens repeatedly crossing this vast, concrete-laced basin from home to work, struck him as unusably of the 20th century.

Maybe the Los Angeles Hitchcock knew, with its recently arrived and often alienated citizens repeatedly crossing this vast, concrete-laced basin from home to work, struck him as unusably of the 20th century. Not so the directors Andersen labels “high tourists,” a group including Michelangelo Antonioni making “Zabriskie Point,” Jacques Demy making “Model Shop,” and Roger Corman making “The Trip,” all of whom had less of an interest in “what made Los Angeles like a city” than “what made Los Angeles unlike the cities they knew.” These high-tourist filmmakers, often continental Europeans, saw a kind of sublimity in the Los Angeles of the 1950s, 60s and 70s that the locals didn't, or couldn't.

And while Andersen sees New Yorkers (such as the low-tourist Woody Allen of “Annie Hall”) as “generally hostile, the British are often fascinated. In “The Loved One,” Tony Richardson acknowledges his ambivalence,” depicting Los Angeles architecture as kitsch but “transcendent kitsch” and a movie studio as “a cruel court where everyone is subject to the most wayward whim of its mogul, but the back lot is an enchanted village of accidental surrealism.” Two years later, Richardson's countryman John Boorman made “Point Blank.” “People who hate Los Angeles love ‘Point Blank,’” Andersen says, citing Boorman's depiction of the city as “both bland and insidious,” but somehow cinematically compelling for it.

Bel Air entrance, 1932
Except for a brief period upon first arriving in Southern California, when he lived at the Wilshire Palms apartments, Hitchcock called the affluent enclave of Bel Air home. Pictured: Bel Air's new gates in 1932, courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
Paramount Pictures entrance, 1940
Before moving to Universal City, Alfred Hitchcock kept an office on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, inside the Producer's building. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

One might think that Hitchcock, given his penchant for black humor, comfort with unhappy endings, and instinct for the sinister, would have found an ideal setting in Los Angeles, the birthplace and still the defining urban realm of film noir. But compare Hitchcock's films with the noir canon and you see two distinct, even incompatible sensibilities at work: the former generate unease with the murderer crouching around the corner or the bomb under the table, which demands the balance of a certain normalcy of setting, while the latter do it with the rootlessness and inhumanity of the setting itself. Hitchcock's tight (if, on closer inspection, sometimes nonsensical) plots held up their powerless characters and their best-laid plans almost as objects of satire, while the most astute noir directors understood that the mechanics of the plot hardly matter in the face of, and indeed can't hold up to, the absurdity of it all.

Hitchcock was apparently one of few notable English expatriates not fascinated by Los Angeles.

If, as some critics say, Hitchcock's fascinations – poisoned meals, great heights, oceanic journeys, blondes – all manifest in his movies, he was apparently one of few notable English expatriates not fascinated by Los Angeles. But if he hated or even disliked the place, he never publicly said so. His opportunity to come presented itself at the end of the 1930s, when his fame in England had reached such a height as to incite jealousy in Hollywood; a contemporary New York Times feature referred to the “three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not. Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world.” Offered a seven-year contract by producer-mogul David O. Selznick, the Hitchcock family, after its patriarch wrapped up “Jamaica Inn” in 1939, moved across the ocean and into a three-bedroom apartment in a Wilshire Boulevard building near the Los Angeles Country Club.

From there they moved on to a Bel Air mansion on St. Cloud Road vacated by their friend, then-superstar Carole Lombard. In 1942 (just six or so months, incidentally, after Lombard's death in a plane crash) they found a house elsewhere in the neighborhood, two miles away on Bellagio Road, that would remain their primary residence for the rest of their lives. Legend has it that Hitchcock, ever the showman, gave his wife and frequent collaborator Alma Reville a handbag for her 43rd birthday, inside of which she found a gold key to the front door of their new home. In the book “Hitchcock and Selznick,” Leonard J. Jeff quotes the director telling a reporter that “All I need is a snug little house with a kitchen,” but he wound up with seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, and – unsurprisingly, given his known perfectionist tendencies and love of food – a kitchen he spent the next two decades redesigning.

Hitchcock riding to work from his Bel Air home in 1961
Hitchcock riding to work from his Bel Air home in 1961. (He holds a transistor radio in his hand.) Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Hitchcock at a Dodger game, 1965
Hitchcock at a Dodger game with Alma Reville Hitchcock, Dyan Cannon, and Cary Grant April 20, 1965. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The Hitchcocks would never live in the mother country again; Alfred took American citizenship at the Los Angeles County Court one day in 1955 during pre-production on “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” a remake of a film he'd first done 20 years earlier in England. The Bel Air house (though represented by one in Beverly Hills for its exteriors and another in Pasadena for its interiors) figures in Sacha Gervasi's “Hitchcock,” the 2012 biopic about Hitchcock’s and Reville's experience making “Psycho” – albeit in an invented chapter wherein the couple mortgages it in order to raise badly needed funds for their daring new project. Though it emerged from less dramatically straitened circumstances in real life, “Psycho” would turn out to be Hitchcock's most successful picture.

Hitchcock had by that point, after nearly 30 years in America, long since established his commercial reliability and therefore attained great financial success. (Not for nothing did he spend the nearly half his life in a part of the city whose name has become a byword for wealth.) But along the way, almost inadvertently as he turned out psychological thriller after psychological thriller that gave audiences the harrowing viewing experiences they so desired from him, he'd also earned critical acclaim. Not only that, but especially after an enthusiastic François Truffaut (colleague of those European high tourists) later championed the artistic seriousness of the Master of Suspense, he found he'd also won the very thing so many in this town, then as now, have sought in vain: intellectual credibility.

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