Home       Newsletter       Search       Contact       Guestbook       Site Map       What's New       Links      


Feature Article


How Alfred Hitchcock and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put a Frank Lloyd Wright house on top of Mount Rushmore in spite of common sense, Frank Lloyd Wright and the United States Government. Sort of.

I guess it’s only natural. Since I’m known as a modernism buff, Frank Lloyd Wright fan, movie freak, and Hitchcock addict, I hear the questions all the time: Where is the Frank Lloyd Wright house that was used in "North by Northwest"? Was it a real house? Was it based on a real FLLW design? Is it still on top of Mount Rushmore? Can I visit it?
The Vandamm House looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright design to most people; it isn’t.

The simple answers are no place, no, no, no, and no, but there’s much more to it than that. The house in "North by Northwest" has a history just as fascinating as any "real" dwelling ever built, as you’re about to find out.

The simple truth about the Vandamm house is that it was not a real structure, and that it was not designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was designed by MGM set designers for some very specific reasons; some of the reasons had to do with the movie’s plot, some were based in the mechanics of movie-making, and not a few were because Alfred Hitchcock had a point to make.

To understand how the Vandamm house came into "existence", you have to understand the main point of "North by Northwest". The complexities of the famous plot aside, it is about a man who is surrounded by the trappings of wealth, power and prestige- none of which are of any use to him whatever in his incredible adventure. "North by Northwest’s" hero, Roger Thornhill, is a Madison Avenue ad man who is abducted when he is mistaken for a spy. He’s kidnapped from the least likely place on the planet- right out from under the Everett Shinn murals in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel. Having made the point that even the safety of the most famous hotel in New York was useless to his film’s hero, Hitchcock went on to surround Roger Thornhill with example after example of late-1950’s luxury, and kept hammering the point that none of it did Thornhill any good. The assassins take Thornhill to the Phipps Estate on Long Island in a Cadillac limousine. He’s nearly killed later in a Mercedes roadster. He escapes back to the Plaza, then to the new United Nations Building. His adventures take him to Chicago via the Twentieth Century Limited, where he meets a female spy who possesses a Bergdorf Goodman wardrobe, a ruby necklace from Van Cleef & Arpels, and a new 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III convertible. From there, Thornhill’s adventures culminate in a visit to Mount Rushmore, where he finds the mastermind behind the assassins in a luxurious Modernist eyrie built almost on top of the monument.

Hitchcock had two basic reasons for all this luxe. First was the movie’s theme of isolation amidst luxury, of course. But there was another reason: "North by Northwest" was designed from its inception as a very, very commercial movie. Hitchcock knew the mass audience responded very well to being shown things and places they couldn’t really afford, as long as they were presented in a way that paid that audience the compliment of saying, "of course, you know all about this."

This presented a challenge for Hitchcock- one that, by all accounts, he had a great deal of fun meeting. He was faced with having to find places and things that were universally recognized as belonging to the rich and powerful; that mass audience being targeted by MGM could not be relied on to get the point of discreet luxury. For Hitchcock, this meant pleasurable tasks like personally selecting Eva Marie Saint’s wardrobe at Bergdorf’s- and making sure a Bergdorf label showed in one shot. It meant getting the cooperation of the Plaza and the equally famous Ambassador East in Chicago. And it meant coming up with a house for Vandamm.

Almost alone among the trappings chosen for "North by Northwest", the Vandamm house was a problem- or, rather, multiple problems. First was that it had to fulfill the recognition requirement; the house had to reek of sophistication and luxury. Second, it almost had to be a Modernist house; the rocky hills of South Dakota didn’t lend themselves to traditional architecture. And third, it had to be a Modernist house that was obviously in the same class of expensive good taste as the Plaza and the ruby necklace and the Lincoln and the Twentieth Century Limited. Hitchcock knew that there was only one way to fill these requirements- a Frank Lloyd Wright house. He ran into trouble almost immediately.

Mass-market magazines like House Beautiful kept Frank Lloyd Wright in the public eye with all-Wright issues; there was one in 1955 and this one done in 1959 as a tribute after Wright’s death.

In 1958, when "North by Northwest" was in production, Frank Lloyd Wright was the most famous Modernist architect in the world. His magnum opus, "Fallingwater", was conceivably the most famous house anywhere. His renown in the Fifties was such that mass-market magazines like House Beautiful and House & Garden devoted entire issues to his work. If Hitchcock could put a Wright house in his movie, that mass audience was going to get the point right away. Wright was absolutely the man to fill the bill Hitchcock needed filled, but there were some snags along the way.

The biggest was that Frank Lloyd Wright was expensive, even by Hollywood standards. Wright had been approached by Warner Bros. in 1949, for "The Fountainhead"; the story of a Modernist architect cried out for Wright-designed sets. Wright was perfectly agreeable to doing the job, but talks broke down when he set his fee. He asked for a fee of ten percent- the standard architect’s fee he asked for any design. The Warners' people told him that a fee of ten percent of the set budget was high by their standards, but that they’d meet it- whereupon Wright coolly informed them that he’d meant ten percent of the movie’s budget. End of discussions. "The Fountainhead" ended up with sets by Edwin Carrere, and Wright never designed for any Hollywood movie.

Taking a page from Warners' book, Hitchcock seized upon the idea of having MGM staff design a house in Wright’s manner. It was a sensible idea; Wright used materials and themes in his designs that could be conveniently appropriated. All those magazine articles had already conditioned the audience to know that those materials and themes meant "Frank Lloyd Wright" and nobody else. Hitchcock would get the look and the recognition- without the expense.

Designing the house was one thing; building it would be quite another. Despite the plausibility of "North by Northwest’s" plot, its final sequences atop Mount Rushmore contained a major untruth. Far from being an area where a spy could build a mountaintop mansion, the top of the monument was considered so ecologically fragile that MGM researchers had to have special permits and U.S. Park Service escorts to visit. Building anything up there was absolutely out of the question. The research team photographed and measured, and came back with a plan.

The house would be created entirely in Culver City, where MGM was located. It would consist of a few sections built at full-scale, as movie sets. The exterior shots would depend on special effects. Certain shots would blend the sets together with the special effects, to create the illusion that the house was real.

The set designers on "North by Northwest" were Robert Boyle, William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvey. It has not been possible to sort out exactly which of these men was responsible for the house design, but whoever did it did his homework. The final design was of a hilltop house of limestone dressed and laid in the manner made famous by Wright, along with a concrete cantilever under the living room area. The house was correctly situated just under the top of its hill; Wright was famous for saying, "of the hill, not on top of the hill." The house’s massing- heavy with limestone in the rear where the house met the hillside, light with glass and concrete at the free end of the cantilever- was also correctly Wrightian. To the knowing, the design contained one element that would not have been used by Wright; there were steel beams supporting the cantilever. Wright would almost certainly have come up with an unsupported cantilever, as he did at "Fallingwater", but very few viewers would know that. It is also possible that the mass audience requirements for "North by Northwest" dictated the use of the beams; Hitchcock may have felt that a true Wright cantilever would distract audiences from the plot, making them wonder what on earth was holding the house up, instead of focusing on the action. In the event, the beams also served the plot by giving Cary Grant a way to climb into the house.

The portions of the house that were actually built were the living room, part of the bedroom wing, the carport, and a bit of hillside under the living room where the cantilever beams were. Most of the construction was of interiors only, but certain areas like the outside of the bedroom wing had their exteriors finished, so that they could be shot from inside looking out, or outside looking in. The interiors were masterpieces of deception: nearly nothing was what it appeared. The limestone walls were mostly plaster, real limestone was used in a few places where the camera would be very close. The expanses of window were mostly without glass; glass reflects camera crews and lights. For a few shots where reflections were needed, and could be controlled, glass was used in some places. And in the best tradition of movie-set building, some of the walls were "breakaways"- walls that looked perfectly real and solid, but were capable of being unbolted and taken away to accommodate the bulky VistaVision ® cameras used in 1958. An enormous black velvet cyclorama surrounded the sets, to give the illusion of a deep South Dakota night. All the house sequences were deliberately done as nighttime ones, because the special effects needed to create the house’s exteriors would be best concealed that way.

The luxurious Modernism of the house extended to its furnishings.
The living room set was dressed in the best of 1958’s furniture and art, and it makes a very interesting point. The furniture is largely Scandinavian Modern. There is Chinese art, and a Pre-Colombian statue figures prominently in the action. Greek flokati rugs are on the floors. Vandamm’s spying is meant to set the nations of the world at war, but it seems they co-exist peacefully enough under his roof!

The exterior sequences were done using a pre-digital technique called ‘matting’. In matte photography, a real location or set is combined with a painting; the real portion is then made to appear part of a larger area that does not actually exist. A very famous example is when Dorothy and her friends run toward the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz". The foreground with the actors and the deadly field of poppies is a set; the background is a painting. (See the sidebar article below for pictures and a simplified explanation of matting.)

And there it is- the truth about the Vandamm House. It’s not real, and it never was. It’s imagination and technology and our dreams, all wrapped up together. It’s exactly where we wanted a Hitchcock villain to live. And if it never existed in Rapid City, South Dakota, it is real where it counts- in the minds of the millions who have seen it, and loved it, and coveted it for their own.

And I like to think that Frank Lloyd Wright deserves at least part of the credit for that.

Reel and Unreal: Matte Photography for the Novice

It’s an old story; a film script contains a scene that cannot possibly be filmed as written. Maybe it’s impossible to get permission to film where the scene is to take place, or maybe the place does not exist. Today, CG (computer-generated) effects can solve the problem, showing us everything from Roman arenas in "Gladiator" to dinosaurs in the "Jurassic Park" movies. In the old days, they did it with a process called matte photography.

Fig.1 - First, you film Cary Grant walking along a real road somewhere

Fig. 2 - ...then you paint the rest of the scene

Fig. 3 - ...and combine both images in the lab.

To simplify, matte photography, or matting, combines a real scene shot on a real location or a set, with fictional elements. Usually the fictional part of the image is what is known as a matte painting; it’s photo-realistic. The process of matting begins with shooting a scene like Cary Grant walking on a real road. In the lab, part of the image is removed, leaving a blank space (Fig. 1). A matte painting is prepared; it contains the rest of the desired image, such as Vandamm’s house in the background (Fig. 2). The matte painting has a blank area where the "real" image is to go. Film lab techniques combine the two images, and the illusion of Cary Grant walking toward a Frank Lloyd Wright house is complete (Fig. 3). Mattes are difficult to do, because so much depends on the quality of the painting and the precision of the match between real and painted areas. If you’ll look closely, Fig. 2 looks much less "real" by itself than it does on the screen; the reality of the foreground fools the eye into accepting the fake background.

Author’s Note: The images shown here are not the original matte elements used in "North by Northwest"; those elements may not even exist any more, because MGM broke up and sold off all its physical properties beginning in 1969. These images are digital approximations of what those original elements probably looked like.

Photo credits: The original images from "North by Northwest" are copyright by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Turner Entertainment, and Warner Bros. The masthead image is based on the original Saul Bass title sequence from the film.

"North By Northwest" is available on DVD and VHS from amazon.com
Click the covers below to order:

coverDVD coverVHS (Widescreen)

This movie's world premiere was in Chicago; it played there even before it opened at Radio City Music Hall in NYC. And if you'd like to see it on the big screen again, you're in luck! It will be shown in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on August 11 and 12, 2001!
Click here to visit the Music Box Theatre's website.

Please sign my guestbook!
Guest Book -  Read and sign my Guest Book!

Questions? Comments? E-Mail the author at DANEMOD@aol.com
This article was originally posted on June 5th, 2001. All Rights Reserved. Copyright (c) 2001,
D.A. "Sandy" McLendon
Joe Kunkel, Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All Rights Reserved.

Home - Top of Page