Whenever I think of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, I think of… apartments. Not out-of-control birds or psychos in showers, but apartments — in all their Hollywood-constructed artifice. I was reminded of this as I saw Vertigo again, recently voted the greatest movie of all time by the British Film Institute, supplanting Citizen Kane, which had held that slot for the last 50 years.
In Vertigo, it’s Barbara Bel Geddes’ faux bohemian pad, right, with San Francisco’s Coit Tower as a backdrop, where the easel she employs as an aspiring artist is center stage when Jimmy Stewart drops by to chat. Likewise, Stewart’s own bachelor abode, where his character likes to toss throw pillows in front of the fireplace, especially when Kim Novak comes for an unexpected visit.
Rear Window, of course, would provide a justifiable explanation for my Hitchcock apartment fixation; after all, the film revolves entirely around Stewart’s voyeuristic snooping on the strange occurrences transpiring at a building across the way. And how about Grace Kelly, right, lounging languorously on that incongruous bed in the living room as Stewart nurses a broken leg in the wheelchair?
There’s also Dial M for Murder, with its overpowering desk where the pivotal telephone resides, as well as the always-drawn drapes that signal the claustrophobia of bad things waiting to happen.
But the real reason is Rope, right, my all-time favorite Hitchcock film. It’s hard to match a setting that features a buffet arrangement atop a chest that’s really a repository for a just-committed homicide. As a panoramic Manhattan looms in the background, the ‘40s-chic dinner guests (a little blood with that champagne, please) are oblivious to the surreality of their situation as unknowing visitors at a murder scene. For the viewer, the tension in the air is almost as strangling as the actual crime. (Recalling one of the director’s mordant quotes: “Some of our most exquisite murders have been domestic, performed with tenderness in simple, homey places like the kitchen table.”) Rope is, for me, Hitchcock at his most sardonic.
I couldn’t come up with a consistent name responsible for the subtle genius behind the creation of these memorable set designs (no Bernard Herrmann-like collaborator, who scored several of the great Hitchcock films), as the director worked with so many. Which makes it obvious that most of the myriad architectural motifs were probably a result of the master’s own singular imagination.
Imagination, one is reminded, that was as wonderfully creative as it applied to the mysterious as well as the mundane. Like apartments.
(Illustration / top: Stanley Chow)