1. Background As A Production Designer In German Studios: Before he started directing films in 1925, Hitchcock designed sets for films shot in the sophisticated studios in Germany. He favored oppressive and claustrophobic spaces, which were important in expressionist cinema as well as in the Kammerspielfilm, which dealt with individuals in an everyday claustrophobic environment.
In addition, sophisticated special effects developed in German studios (such as the Schüfftan process, or the use of scale models) proved very important to Hitchcock, who continued using rear projections, for instance, when they were already considered outdated special effects.
The house in North by Northwest was constructed for the film to resemble a Prairie-style Frank Lloyd Wright home.
Another link to the legacy of his work in Germany is his reliance on shooting in the studio. Although some of his films were original in their use of location shooting, Hitchcock favored the control on the set. Production notes often illustrate his almost maniacal obsession for control over the details in the production design.
2. A predilection for Architectural and Domestic Details
Jean-Luc Godard noted that of Hitchcock, we remember objects instead of stories: the glass of milk in Suspicion, the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, the cup of coffee containing poison inNotorious, etc. Such fetish objects—emphasized through close-ups or by their integration in Hitchcock's typical point-of-view editing technique—pervade the master's films.
Panorama of the view from James Stewart's apartment in Rear Window. © Paramount Pictures
In many cases, these objects have architectural or domestic connotations. Keys, locks, closed doors, and door handles relate to a secret that is hidden within the confines of the house and the family. Also, windows are important in Hitchcock films. Mediating between light and shadow, they are connected to the Hitchcockian theme of voyeurism. Rear Window deals with this in its entirety and has been interpreted as a meta-film.
Undoubtedly, stairs are the quintessential Hitchcock motif. Already in 1929, a critic spoke of Hitchcock's "staircase complex." Spatially fragmented structures, staircases are places of crisis and their perspectival effects seem to confine characters. Connecting the semi-public spaces of the house with the strict private environment of bedrooms, stairs are the spines of domestic spaces, and hence an arena for psychological tensions. Staircases also lead to trouble, since inquisitiveness drives characters upstairs or downstairs. In addition, Hitchcock integrates staircases into his technique of suspense: Each step advances but also delays the dénouement.
Still from Vertigo.
3. The Omnipresence of Monuments
Throughout his career, Hitchcock used famous monuments in his films. Often, climactic scenes are situated in buildings that are entertaining in themselves, such as the British Museum, the Statue of Liberty, or Mount Rushmore.
Hitchcock was fascinated by the scale of such buildings, confronting them with the human bodies of his characters. He made the most of the emblematical power of monuments, which are symbolic by definition. Because of the monument, the environment becomes the ground for a communication with the past—a theme perfectly elaborated in the San Francisco locations of Vertigo, a film about characters haunted by the past. Instead of familiar places, monuments become deceptive and dangerous.
Top image: Still from Vertigo. © Paramount Pictures