- The lair of a modern-day movie villain changed in the mid-twentieth century from a spooky castle to a sleek modernist home. What film was instrumental in that change?
- When a picture of an old Victorian mansion with a 1930s motel in the front yard is shown, our minds immediately go to a famous bathtub murder scene in the movies. Do you know how this setting came to carry such a potent and disturbing message for a mid-century movie-going audience?
- Apartment buildings and skyscrapers are appealing for telling certain types of stories in the movies. What California architecture school became skilled at designing both, within certain parameters, for movie sets in Hollywood?
If you know the answers to these questions — or are simply intrigued to learn more — then Christine Madrid French‘s new book The Architecture of Suspense: The built world in the films of Alfred Hitchcock (2022) is for you. Chris has written one helluva good read, the rare book from an academic publisher (the University of Virginia Press) that is academically sound in its field (architectural history), insightful in its conclusions, instructive in its suggestions as to how her findings can be applied in the real world (through historic preservation), and — perhaps best-of-all — a page-turner that a reader simply cannot put down. Chris has managed all of this and more.
The book opens with a thought-provoking foreword by architect and historian Alan Hess, who suggests that while “lairs, gloomy mansions, and motels rarely appear on conventional lists of influential twentieth-century buildings” perhaps — after reading French — they will begin to take their place in such hallowed listings.
French begins her book with a scene-setting chapter on Hitchcock, his early work in European film, and his move to America in 1939 where his legend grows until he is known as one of the unquestioned masters of cinema. She really hits her stride and showcases her long-nurtured love of modern architecture with the second chapter on modernist houses as villain’s lair. In this, as in each of the three key chapters on building types, Chris provides the architectural history critical to understanding Hitchcock’s employment of buildings as a character in his films. She also highlights films that preceded Hitchcock’s work, and then the many that followed in his footsteps.
The modernist house as villain’s lair was casting against type in many ways, as movie-goers were accustomed to thinking of their villains of the age (e.g., Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff) in creepy castles high on a mountaintop. Hitchcock, in the mid-century film North by Northwest, changes all of that at a time when the portrayal of evil characters was “morphing from a frazzled Dr. Frankenstein into a handsome Captain Nemo.” An attractive, distinguished, yet somewhat creepy villain was appealing to audiences and the new archetype (they are usually male) required a new home that was equally modern, sleek, and attractive, yet somehow both transparent and impenetrable at the same time.
The modernist designs pioneered by architects Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright fit the bill for Hitchcock. The movie begins in a New York City being transformed by modernist skyscrapers. It ends in that most middle-America of places, Mount Rushmore, with a cantilevered lair — the Vandamm House, named for the murderous spy Phillip Vandamm, portrayed by the elegant James Mason — which is set into the monument’s rock in a way that calls to mind Wright’s masterpiece at Fallingwater.
Chris explains how Hitchcock uses this modernist design to provide an appropriate lair for the new type of villain. A great mini-segment on the staging of a murder in the cafeteria of the Mount Rushmore visitors center under the ever-watchful eyes of the four presidents even allows Chris to bring in the ground-breaking Mission 66 design program. Hitchcock used the setting to challenge “the notions of nationalism, safety, and security.” As she moves to wrap up this chapter, Chris highlights other famous modernist villain lairs, including the Sheats-Goldstein House in Los Angeles.
After an excellent chapter on the urban honeycombs of skyscrapers and apartments, which provide both the anonymity and soul-crushing sameness which helps drive murder mystery plots, Chris turns to one of the most famous of Hitchcock’s architectural types — the mansions and motels of America’s roadside.
Even if you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s 1960 movie Psycho, it is such a part of America’s collective unconsciousness that, as one writer noted, you’ve seen it. And as Chris notes at the beginning of a terrific chapter, the “long-standing public fascination with this landmark film elevated two American vernacular structures into enduring architectural symbols: the Mansion and the Motel.” Sixty years later we still recognize the striking image “of the dilapidated Victorian house towering above a low-slung, outdated motel.” Hitchcock played with the “cultural subtexts of these two buildings to create sentient structures that spoke to the audience” and helped cement the film into what none other than Stephen King called “the definitive horror film of the period.” Chris explains how that came to be.
The longevity of this architectural imagery can be attributed to Hitchcock’s precise capture of a unique turning point in the history of mid-twentieth-century American cultural landscapes. Both the Victorian mansion and the roadside motel forms had, in the past, represented the height of ‘modernity’ when introduced and popularized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, respectively. Coincidentally, both building forms also crashed into disuse and abandonment at the same moment amid a nationwide tsunami of design innovation and construction propelled by post-World War II economic prosperity. At that point, the cultural impression of the motel and the mansion changed from ideal representations of modernity to symbols of a disowned past.
These derelict buildings are displayed in disrepair, only adding to their isolation that occurred as the interstate highway system became the preferred method of travel for Americans. Finally, that isolation then resulted in a noticeable uptick in crime, as various criminal elements preyed upon the few who used these long-forgotten motels. Christine goes into this entire story with expressive detail, so that by the time the three-minutes of horror strikes Janet Leigh in the shower, we fully understand the cultural context brought by those sitting in the theatre.
The final chapter looks at architects and the art of film. The architecture school at the University of Southern California comes in for special mention, as many of its graduates came to work at Hollywood’s movie studios, especially during the Depression when other design jobs were scarce or nonexistent. Hitchcock made full use of these excellent design craftsmen (again, usually male) which is highlighted in The Architecture of Suspense.
In the end, the book succeeds on such an important level because as Hess points out in the foreword, “Hitchcock also suggests a way to look at buildings that stretches beyond the usual didactic categories.” Historic preservation has long been driven by professionals in the design and architectural history fields who focus on these important elements. But as Chris states so eloquently in the introduction,
Preservationists and historians overlook the enduring quality and power of human emotion as a critical factor in public outreach with their wholesale rejection of nostalgia countered with a dogmatic embrace of objective analysis. But building on cinematic narrative foundations can be effectively utilized to save endangered structures. The key is storytelling.
Architectural critic Herbert Muschamp once wrote, “Landmarks are not created by architects. They are fashioned by those who encounter them after they are built. The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory (emphasis added).” Malaysian architect Laurence Loh, one of the foremost conservation specialists in that region, also writes and speaks about how historic sites convey a spirit of place, or their cultural essence, and suggests that the concept in Southeast Asia may be better understood if one alludes to the notion of “body and soul.” The building fabric is important to authenticity, but so is the story.
Christine Madrid French — a former colleague of mine at the National Trust for Historic Preservation — is speaking this fall at various venues around the country. In The Architecture of Suspense, she is making the point that preservationists can learn from those who are attuned to public opinion, and we can advance our cause in significant ways if we focus on telling our stories — using the flair in storytelling that is encouraged and enriched by these special places.
After a delightful few hours of reading, I suspect most will find, as I did, that The Architecture of Suspense is a book that’s arrived — like a good horror movie — just in time for Halloween!
More to come…
Image of the set for the Bates Mansion and Motel from the film Psycho, Universal Studios, 1959