Villainous Homes

I went to our library’s used book sale on Saturday and came home with an armful. I’ve learned that half of what I enjoy is about browsing the titles, appreciating what people are reading, and seeking out the unusual titles that aren’t being heavily marketed by the big bookseller.

And then there are the books that must be bought at reatil because they are so new. Like this one:

The author, Christine Madrid French, has an article in Vanity Fair if you want to get a scent for the trial she follows in her book.

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first major directors to leverage this architectural zeitgeist, co-opting the essential features of modernist design and turning those characteristics into totems representing the calculated fervor of a malevolent genius. Drawing from early films such as Metropolis, Hitchcock also reconstructed the essential character of the screen villain, abandoning the crazed henchmen of the 1920s and instead casting dashing, charismatic people who wielded wit and charm as their weapons. In North by Northwest, Hitchcock’s team revealed these two new archetypes fully fledged for contemporary moviegoers, pairing a modern villain with a mid-20th-century modern building. This cinematic-architectural marriage of patron and design was so successful that it has been fully typecast as a storytelling device. In the years afterward, production designers, screenwriters, and directors recruited actual houses to play the part of the villain’s lair, drawing from a proliferation of modern designs in Southern California created by architects such as John Lautner, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Other creators designed fantastical modernist hideaways that existed only on film and in matte paintings.

I only recently watched North by Northwest and loved the shots in the VanDamm House. But I never thought about the setting’s influence of the audience’s view of the villain. French’s insights give the brain a little massage.

In North by Northwest, the modernist design effectively merged the malevolent identities of the structure and the villain. Film critics such as Raymond Durgnat interpreted the Vandamm House as a sentient being; he described the building as “an alien, malign, disaffected intelligence.” Likewise, he interpreted the position of the home, on a plateau above the carved stone faces of Mount Rushmore, as one that “expresses visual domination and panoptic control” over the nearby “devotional shrine of American democracy.” Author Steven Jacobs, who created a set of blueprints of the house based on extensive archival research, observed that “both love of the arts and a predilection for modern architecture are persistent Hollywood signifiers of menace and malice.” Jacobs conflated the style and location of the building with the power of the villain within. He posited that this iconic residence ultimately represented a “progressive quest for power and wealth,” a quality attributed to capitalists and likewise to criminals.

For this book, I’ll willingly pay full price.