When Buildings Become Characters: Alfred Hitchcock and the Architecture of Suspense

Image of an old movie set house

Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications

October 26, 2022

“North by Northwest.”

“Rear Window.”

“The Birds.”

“Vertigo.”

“Psycho.”

Any fan of the late Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock will remember these as some of his canonical suspense movies.

Viewers will recall his distinct characters, like “North by Northwest” protagonist Roger Thornhill, played by the dashing Cary Grant, or “Psycho” hotel keeper Norman Bates, performed by 1950s heartthrob Anthony Perkins.

The performers make the movie. But what about the physical structures?

Think of the sleek, modernist Vandamm house in “North by Northwest,” fictionally situated atop Mount Rushmore. Or consider the terrifying Bates mansion in “Psycho.”

Christine Madrid French headshot

Christine Madrid French will talk about her new book on Halloween day at the School of Architecture. (Contributed Photo)

Those buildings, says 1998 University of Virginia architectural history graduate Christine Madrid French, are characters, too. She sets out to prove that in her detailed new book, “The Architecture of Suspense: The Built World in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock,” published in September by UVA Press.

French said she got the idea for the book because of people’s fixation with the Bates mansion. “I work in historic preservation and I was just fascinated with how many people knew about that mansion,” she said. How, she wondered, “does the building have so much cultural power after 60 years?” It’s especially fascinating, she says, because there is no real mansion. It was an empty façade in the film.

“In ‘North by Northwest,’ the Vandamm house, where the villain lives, the building is actually dictating the actions of the characters and is involved in that scene,” French said. “It’s not just the house on the hill where the bad guy lives. It’s actually projecting to you everything that the bad guy represents.”

French calls the Vandamm house “the villain’s lair” and goes into minute detail, describing how the script directly influenced the production designer, the person who created the movie set.

“The script writer wrote different ways that Cary Grant had to move around to save the damsel in distress trapped inside the villain’s lair, and the production designer interpreted that and said the only kind of building that would satisfy the requirements was a modern building,” French said. “That was the very first time a mid-century modern house was used as the villain’s lair, which is incredibly important because you see in James Bond, right after that, and even today, the villain always lives in a big, beautiful, modern house.”

Look Like You Never Left.
Look Like You Never Left.

You can see the divide when you look back to the horror movies of the 1920s and ’30s. Films like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy” had villains living in castles draped in cobwebs.

French put it another way in a recent piece in Vanity Fair. “The Vandamm House, now a movie star itself, makes its first appearance almost two hours into ‘North by Northwest’ and is onscreen a mere 14 minutes,” she writes – so little screen time for a building that would forever change the way villains are portrayed in future cinema.

Intrigued? You can hear French talk about her new book in person. She is speaking at UVA’s School of Architecture at noon on Halloween day in Room 158 in Campbell Hall.

UVA’s Edgar Allan Poe and the Bates Mansion

Although not mentioned in her book, French also pointed out something about UVA’s spookiest student, Edgar Allan Poe, who attended the University in 1826. Thirteen years later, he published “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

“That house is also a character,” she said. “The cracks in the facade are representing the defaulting of the family into pieces.”

Now to 1960’s “Psycho,” Hitchcock’s film about the demented Bates who (spoiler alert) killed his mother in a jealous rage, kept her mummified body in the mansion’s cellar, pretended she was still alive and adopted her persona as an alternate reality with deadly consequences.

French deduced that the set design of the Victorian-style mansion is directly connected to where the set designer, Robert Clatworthy, was living at the time. “The production designer was living in downtown L.A. at the same time ‘Psycho’ was being done,” she said. “That’s when they were tearing down all the Victorian mansions in downtown L.A.”

During the production of “Psycho,” newspapers carried photographs of dilapidated Victorian mansions, images that French included in her book.

“You can see a very distinct connection between those buildings and what [Clatworthy] represented on the set for the Bates mansion,” she said.

still from the movie rear window where actors are all talking

Christine Madrid French says the enclosed spaces in “Rear Window” and the wide-open expanses in “North by Northwest” are crucial elements in our perceptions of the Hitchcockian universe. (Courtesy of James Vaughan via Creative Commons)

French dissects the architectural attributes of the Bates mansion. “The building represents humanity and all its problems and all its issues,” she said. “So the basement is the place to hide secrets. The windows are the eyes into the soul. The stairway is a spine between the heart and the mind.”

If you go back and watch the movie, French said Hitchcock will show a window when he’s trying to illuminate something for the viewer.

“He’ll show a door when he’s showing a character transition,” she said. “He’ll show a hallway when maybe a character is finding something or losing something. So, you’ll see these architectural, fetish objects, like totems. They are used repeatedly to help tell the story.”

Doorknobs are also symbolic in Hitchcock’s movies. “There are a lot of doorknobs. He does like doorknobs. You’ll see the hand reaching for the doorknob, which is very common in movies,” French said. “Part of that is expectation. You’re reaching for something, but you don’t know what’s on the other side. They’re doing that subconsciously to you the whole time you’re watching a movie.”

If you’re not able to attend French’s talk in person, it will be recorded and later uploaded it to the Architecture School’s YouTube channel.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications