The UN Building in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest

The new movie “Home Again” reminded me that place is often a character in films. The movie was directed by the daughter of the “chick-flick” director Nancy Meyers–who is possibly as well known for the production design in her movies as for the movies themselves. The houses become important characters and tell a story within a story–illuminating the characters through the way that they live and the things they surround themselves with. The interiors in Meyers films feel intimate and real to deliver a voyeuristic pleasure of seeing into the everyday lives of the characters.

The Holiday, 2006, Nancy Meyers

Something’s Gotta Give, 2003, Nancy Meyers

The Intern, 2015, Nancy Meyers

The house in “Home Again” is a 1929 Brentwood house of 3,850 sq. ft renovated once in 1936 and formerly owned by several movie stars, notably Cindy Crawford who had it published in Elle Decor.

The house from “Home Again” in the 1970’s

As we were talking I started to think about what other movies used houses or location as a character. The haunting lines of Daphne du Maurier’s book and Hitchcock’s film of the same name Rebecca drift through my mind, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. Manderley is actually just a model, truly a dream of a house but du Maurier  based it on nearby estates Menabilly and Milton Hall that du Maurier visited as a child.

Manderley created for the movie Rebecca, in reality a model

The boat house on the beach in Rebecca, 1939

Entrance and staircase in Rebecca

Hitchcock was the master of setting the most iconic scenes in dramatic locations. His visual storytelling–specifically locations and use of color–I have loved and been inspired by my whole life. Here are just a few because almost every shot of almost every film is so architecturally structured and beautiful.

The bell tower from Vertigo is the Mission San Juan Bautista

Far from California, in “To Catch a Thief” the villa at the climax is stunning–but even more stunning to me is John John Robie’s secluded villa. The rustic quality of the house reflects the story in that Robie is trying to hide from the gilded luxury of the Rivera which continues to draw him in over the course of the film–the final example ends up being the Castle of la Croix des Gardes.

John Robie’s (Cary Grant) villa in the beginning of the film

Castle of la Croix des Gardes, scene of the finale

More movie magic was used for the Vandamme house in North by Northwest. The house was never really built in full, but parts of the interior were created. For the story, they wanted a Frank Lloyd Wright house–at the time he was experiencing huge popularity and was constantly in magazines–but the studio couldn’t afford him so they had the set crew design something “in the style of”.

The fictional house from North by Northwest

North by Northwest, dramatic climbing scene at Mt. Rushmore

Or in Saboteur when you see the Statue of Liberty and the whole city of New York from impossible angles and so close with so much detail.


Then there is Rear Window, Dial M for Murder & Rope which all take place in the confides of apartments. In the birds, the opening in a pet shop in the city and then the whole town becomes the rural setting for what comes.

The town in The Birds

The Brenner Ranch in The Birds

I am reminded of another Cary Grant movie–not a Hitchcock–but with a house at the center of the story. The movie is “Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House”, and there is a scene that has always stayed with me where Myrna Loy, the wife, and the painters discuss the colors she wants:

Muriel Blandings: I want it to be a soft green, not as blue-green as a robin’s egg, but not as yellow-green as daffodil buds. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow, but don’t let whoever does it go to the other extreme and get it too blue. It should just be a sort of grayish-yellow-green. Now, the dining room. I’d like yellow. Not just yellow; a very gay yellow. Something bright and sunshine-y. I tell you, Mr. PeDelford, if you’ll send one of your men to the grocer for a pound of their best butter, and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong! Now, this is the paper we’re going to use in the hall. It’s flowered, but I don’t want the ceiling to match any of the colors of the flowers. There’s some little dots in the background, and it’s these dots I want you to match. Not the little greenish dot near the hollyhock leaf, but the little bluish dot between the rosebud and the delphinium blossom. Is that clear? Now the kitchen is to be white. Not a cold, antiseptic hospital white. A little warmer, but still, not to suggest any other color but white. Now for the powder room – in here – I want you to match this thread, and don’t lose it. It’s the only spool I have and I had an awful time finding it! As you can see, it’s practically an apple red. Somewhere between a healthy winesap and an unripened Jonathan. Oh, excuse me…

Mr. PeDelford: You got that Charlie?

Charlie, Painter: Red, green, blue, yellow, white.

Mr. PeDelford: Check.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

I think that good design is getting the details perfect for the application. White paint does come in endless shades–the trick is to choose the best one for the story. Clearly, the many filmmakers whose work stands the test of time chose correctly and got the details right.