In the 1970s, after growing up in California and moving to the East Coast, I happened to attend a revival showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s great film North By Northwest (1959). By this time I knew more about the terrain along the Atlantic Coast than I had known when I first saw Hitchcock’s film in the 1950s. Early in the movie, there is a scene in which Cary Grant nearly loses his life while driving drunk, supposedly along the coast of Long Island. Viewing the film for the second time, I suddenly realized that the winding, precipitous road along which Cary Grant was careening could not be anywhere near Long Island, because all the seacoast in that area is flat or nearly so. But, I realized, the topography did look a lot like California, which is in fact where the scene was filmed.
Ever since that time, I have played a mental game of noting and remembering film and TV scenes that are not supposed to take place in California but in fact do.
Many uses of California topography as substitutes for someplace else are quite convincing. In Rebecca (1940), a story set in England, Hitchcock uses rocky cliffs along the California coast for the climactic scene in which the heroine is nearly killed by her dishonest lover. In North By Northwest, there is a chase scene, one of the most famous in all of cinema, in which Cary Grant is buzzed repeatedly in an Illinois cornfield by a crop-dusting airplane. The scene was actually filmed on a flat farm field north of Hollywood and was made to look very convincingly like Illinois by Hitchcock’s amazing technicians.
In the thrilling Warner Bros. film version of Robin Hood (1938), the sequins on Errol Flynn’s costume may have become a bit suspect with the passage of time, but the dense clusters of California oak trees and the streams that run through them serve very well as Sherwood Forest even if the soil is drier than it would be in England.
We can witness the same degree of success in the great adventure film Gunga Din (1939), which depicts the nineteenth-century exploits of three British soldiers who battle against a murderous cult on the Northwest Frontier of India. To provide atmosphere and situate the story, the film makes excellent use of locales such as a British frontier fort and rock-bordered trails along which the British soldiers and their bagpipers must march. Our belief that we are in India is very strong. But the film was actually shot entirely in areas north and east of Hollywood that bear a powerful resemblance to northern India.
Among television shows, an example of very convincing use of California locales was Mission Impossible (aired 1966-1973). It was about an elite group of intelligence operatives who carried out difficult takedowns of Cold War-style tyrants and their agents in countries that closely resembled actual states in Latin America and Central Europe. All of the episodes were said to take place in those countries but the episodes were filmed entirely in Los Angeles and environs. When the dictator was Latin American, choice of locales was easy, given California’s heritage of Spanish architecture. But even in more difficult cases the carefully chosen scenery was very convincing. In one episode, for example, there was a foot chase in and out of a frightening, shadowy but artistically curved set of archways that were supposed to be somewhere in Eastern Europe but might be recognizable by a few viewers as exactly what they were: the concrete arch supports under the famous highway bridge in Pasadena that crosses the arroyo near the Rose Bowl stadium. An equally convincing backdrop in another episode was the front view of an ornate building said to be the palace of a Central European dictator. It was the front of Glendale City Hall.
Another example of successful use of local terrain in television was M.A.S.H. (aired 1972-1983), one of the most popular and honored TV series ever produced. The story takes place at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. All the settings bear a very believable resemblance to that locale even though they were filmed in carefully selected topography outside Hollywood.
The practice of using California to stand for someplace else in films and TV programs is not, in principle, anything that should bother us. After all, one of the reasons the film industry first concentrated in Hollywood, in addition to the sunny climate, was the great variety of terrain that could be accessed easily and lessen the need for expensive construction of indoor sets.
But it is still a good idea to be alert for sloppy uses of the Golden State as background. In the TV series Dukes of Hazzard (aired 1979-1985), the action is supposed to take place in the Deep South, but the settings for the numerous car chases are much too obviously located in California. Similarly, in the currently- running and often very well written TV police series Battle Creek, the action is supposed to be occurring in a small city in Michigan, but the sunlight and the vegetation and the architectural styles of the houses are unmistakably in California. Egregious contrasts of this kind diminish our ability to enjoy what we are watching. In such cases it is a good practice to remember that drama is, among other things, manipulation.
In the fall of 1964, at the start of my senior year at Stanford University, I was invited by a national foundation to fly down to Pasadena and compete for a graduate school fellowship against ten other seniors from schools around the state. We met with the selection committee in the baronial surroundings of the Cal Tech University faculty club. Two students were chosen to receive the fellowships. I was not one of them.
I packed my bags and went back to Burbank Airport, where my time in the Los Angeles area had begun two days before. As I sat in the almost empty passenger lounge waiting to be called to the gate for my flight, I realized that I was an hour early, probably because of the distraction of thinking back on my interview the day before. I wondered what I would do to pass the time. Perhaps buy a newspaper?
Then, next to the row of chairs facing mine, a short, portly man shuffled into view and sat down. He was wearing a dark, navy blue, three-piece suit and very shiny black loafers. The bald top of his head was as shiny as the shoes.
Suddenly I realized that the man was Alfred Hitchcock. I had an urge to walk over and ask for an autograph. But I refrained, perhaps because of the leftover influence of the restrained surroundings of the Cal Tech faculty club, where anything resembling mass behavior was unthinkable.
Hitchcock and I were alone in the passenger seating area for around ten minutes. I was careful not to stare at him, and, as his head moved, his alert eyes seemed to take in everything except me.
At this point, two elderly ladies, chatting animatedly with each other, walked into our area and sat down three seats away from me. Initially I couldn’t make out the many things they were saying to each other. But, after one of them looked across to the other row, the conversation became a series of loud stage whispers, saying, in so many words, “Oh, look, over there. It’s Alfred Hitchcock. Don’t gawk. This is thrilling. I wonder if we should ask him for an autograph.“
If ever there has been a man preternaturally alert to the words and gestures of others, that man was Alfred Hitchcock. He sensed immediately what the two ladies were discussing. Then, to my surprise, and probably theirs, he lifted himself ceremoniously from his chair and walked floatingly toward them.
Many celebrities try to preserve their privacy. But Hitchcock, apparently, was not one of them. As he neared the two admirers, he made a slight bow, reached out, shook hands, and said, in his famous rounded pronunciation, “I see that you two ladies have noticed me. I should be most pleased to give each of you an autograph, if you so desire.”
By now almost giggling, the women shuffled in their purses for stray pieces of paper and handed them to Hitchcock. He pulled a ballpoint pen from inside his coat pocket, took several minutes to write out what must have been very fulsome remarks, chatted briefly, graciously excused himself, and returned to his chair.
A short while later, hearing the announcement that my plane was ready for boarding, I headed toward it. Neither Hitchcock nor the ladies followed. Apparently they were waiting for later flights.
Ever since that chance encounter with Alfred Hitchcock, I have often wondered how, as the most British of men, he fit into life in California. Something of an answer to the question may be found in a look at the films he made which were set in the Golden State.
In 1939, after a stunningly successful career in Europe, Hitchcock migrated to Hollywood, attracted by the opportunity for a great increase in income, the global reach of the American film industry, and the fact that the way had already been prepared by a large community of British actors and directors – what many people called the “Hollywood Raj.”
Hitchcock’s first two American films, Rebecca (1940) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), were both set in Europe. Thereafter, his productions were sometimes set in other countries and sometimes in the United States.
Among the American-made films, a significant number were set in California. In some cases, to be sure, the focus on California was only partial. Saboteur (1942) begins in a defense factory in Southern California but moves across the U.S. to Manhattan.
And in some cases Hitchcock cleverly makes us believe that a California setting is something else. For example, in North by Northwest, the drives along the Atlantic seacoast occur in California terrain. And the iconic scene in which Cary Grant is pursued through a mid-western corn field by an airplane actually was filmed outside of Los Angeles in a large flat farm area made to look like a corn-field by Hitchcock’s incredibly talented set designers.
That said, however, it is clear from four other films, Shadow of A Doubt (1943), Vertigo (1958), The Birds (1963), and Family Plot (1976), that Hitchcock had a long-standing interest in his adopted state. The interest may simply have been due to the fact that Hitchcock lived in California and, like many in Hollywood, regarded film making in the state as convenient, especially because of California’s great scenic diversity. But a more likely explanation is that the landscape and heritage of California evoked a certain kind of religious response, as can be seen by examining the films.
Shadow of A Doubt begins in Chicago, where Joseph Cotten, suspected of murder, is being chased by the police. Eluding the authorities, Cotten determines that he must leave the city immediately. He sends a telegram to relatives in the small, Northern California city of Santa Rosa, announcing to them that their dear “Uncle Charlie” will be coming out for a visit after being away for much too long.
During his train ride west, Cotten has a conversation with a fellow passenger, in which they agree that Santa Rosa is a nice quiet little town. And this is clearly one of the reasons why Hitchcock has chosen it as the main setting of his film. Santa Rosa is, in part, a symbol of middle-American innocence. But Hitchcock could have picked a town in, say, Kansas or Nebraska if he wanted an even more quintessentially middle-American setting. The choice of Santa Rosa was probably traceable to his Catholic sensibility, which is an element in all of his California-based films. Hitchcock grew up in a Catholic family in England and was the product of a Jesuit education. The choice of setting for Shadow of A Doubt shows several Catholic aspects. The town takes its name from Spanish-Catholic culture. It is located not in the treeless expanses of the Great Plains, but in the midst of a heavy forest of pines and redwoods. Like the interior of a cathedral, the trees protect the town and also cause one from time to time to gaze upward toward the heavens. This is the ideal setting for a Catholic morality play, and the infinitely charming Joseph Cotten is the snake in disguise who invades the sanctuary.
All of this provides the moral atmosphere of the story, which has as its central narrative the discovery of original sin. Theresa Wright, playing a girl in her early twenties, the unmarried niece of Joseph Cotten, is among the family members who welcome Uncle Charlie for an extended stay in the large Victorian house where they live. But, where the other family members suspect nothing, she proves to be more observant and gradually realizes how dangerous Cotten is. He, in turn, decides he must eliminate her, which he attempts to do in a frantic struggle on the passenger stairway of a moving train, and in which he falls to his death. As the film ends, we see that Hitchcock has presented us with a powerful tale about the intrusion of evil into the least likely of places, and we wonder whether we, Santa Rosa and Theresa Wright will ever be the same.
The elements of a Catholic morality play are even more apparent in Vertigo. The story centers on an American detective, very middle American in his persona, and fittingly played by James Stewart, who finds himself drawn gradually into a world of sin he does not completely understand. The character’s fear of heights is in some ways reminiscent of Dante, and everyone’s anxiety about falling into the pit of Hell. Stewart’s girl friend, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, is the balanced, middle-American companion who helps Stewart to reckon with his fears. But gradually he is drawn into a morally ambiguous world. Along the shore beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, Stewart rescues a hauntingly beautiful woman, played by Kim Novak, who is getting ready to kill herself: a mortal sin in Catholic theology. She seems at first to be upper-class and Mexican in background, although Stewart eventually discovers that she is a lower-class woman of Irish-Catholic background who has been hired to impersonate the upper-class woman, who was previously murdered.
San Francisco, with its large Irish, Spanish, and Mexican Catholic populations, is an excellent setting for such a story line – complicated though the plot may be. Equally useful is the city’s famous fog, which adds to the sense of moral ambiguity. And for good measure the film includes a drive along the Pebble Beach coast as the turbulent setting of a love scene, and a foggy scene in Muir Woods, the redwood grove in Marin County north of San Francisco, where the cathedral-like features of the giant trees are one of the backdrops for Novak’s frequent attempts during the film to understand her inner self (although Big Basin Redwoods Park south of San Francisco was used to represent Muir Woods).
The climactic, final scene of Vertigo is heavily Catholic. In an effort to help Novak exorcise the deep troubles rooted in her memories, and force her to confront her various guilts, Stewart drives Novak from San Francisco to the small ranching town of San Juan Bautista, south of the city of San Jose. As anyone who has driven the route knows, the journey by car takes about three hours. But in the film Hitchcock manipulates his audience, leaving us with the feeling that Stewart and Novak have made the complete drive in about twenty minutes. In any case, once at San Juan Bautista, Stewart and Novak walk to the historic Spanish mission located there and climb to the top of its bell tower, where, overcome by fright, Novak falls to her death, either because she has slipped or because she has subconsciously chosen to jump. Stewart has not fallen into the pit of Hell, but she has.
The Birds also has strong theological elements. They are not as explicitly Catholic as in Vertigo, because it is easy to interpret the film’s moral code in secular terms as a stern warning about respecting the balance of nature. But the film can also be seen as an exploration of sin against God’s creation. The story begins in a pet shop in San Francisco, where the lead characters, Tippie Hedren and Rod Taylor, first meet and become interested in each other. At the shop, the owner happens to talk reflectively about the immense cruelties that humans have perpetrated over the centuries against birds. These remarks foreshadow the rest of the film, which is a visual narration of a collective act of revenge by birds in which Hedren and Taylor become involved. Hedren follows Taylor to his home in the small Northern California community of Bodega Bay. The two become attracted romantically, but in the midst of a series of ever-more terrifying acts upon the people in the area by thousands of birds. The events evoke a film viewer’s thoughts of Apocalypse. The religious atmosphere is also evoked by frequent shots of Gothic-style buildings, most notably an old wooden church photographed against a gray daylight sky.
Hitchcock’s last film before his death was Family Plot. Its locales are in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. The two cities are at times the actual settings for the filmed scenes. But the use of actual landmarks is not as explicit as in most of Hitchcock’s previous films. So, for example, the car chase scenes in the movie were filmed on the back lot at Universal studios. On the other hand, Hitchcock used the interior of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco as one of his settings.
The title of the film is confusing. It refers both to a cemetery and to the intrigues among the relatives who are the main characters. The film’s very complicated plot involves three sets of characters, played by Barbara Harris and her boyfriend Bruce Dern (one set), Cathleen Nesbitt and Ed Lauer (another pair), and William Devane and Karen Black (the third set), who maneuver through scenes both comic and macabre to possess a large diamond. The story barely holds together, but it is nevertheless a tour de force that rewards viewers because of Hitchcock’s trademark manipulation of details and his always-impressive cinematic technique. One would have to strain to claim that the film involves any serious exploration of theology, Catholic or otherwise, but it does continue Hitchcock’s emphasis upon California locales as devices for exploring morality.
In sum, then, one could say that, in both small and large degree, California was, for the transplanted Englishman Alfred Hitchcock, an important extension of the moral universe first presented to him by his Catholic family and his Jesuit education. I should have asked the man for his autograph.