Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Book Review: The Wrong House

The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock by Steven Jacobs
nai010 publishers, 2013 (second edition)
Paperback, 344 pages
"Rope contributed in no small way to freeing the filmmaker from his obsession with painting and making of him what he had been in the time of Griffith and the pioneers – an architect."
Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock (1957)
This quote is accompanied by seven others at the beginning of Steven Jacobs' book on Alfred Hitchcock, and it serves to reinforce the author's premise that Hitchcock is an architect and therefore deserves a traditional monograph. I doubt anybody would take this premise to mean that Hitchcock  literally worked as an architect, but the role of buildings and their interiors in his films is undeniable. Not only are the buildings he envisioned with his set designers memorable (think of the Bates house from Psycho), but often the rooms, particularly in houses, serve to heighten the suspense and drama of his films. It's as if architectural spaces are a member of the cast, and therefore Hitchcock's sets are worthy of their own "monograph," in this case focused on the domestic realm.

Like other traditional monographs, Jacobs' book includes a couple essays before it launches into the projects. The essays "Space Fright" and "The Tourist Who Knew Too Much" allow Jacobs to paint broad strokes in his analysis of Hitchcock's films (especially on their production), all the while extending his reach beyond the houses and other domestic spaces that populate the book. Hitchcock did not exclusively "design" residential sets, but these spaces allowed him to bring horror "into the home, where it belongs," as he said.

The examples of murder happening close to home are numerous, and Jacobs partitions the 22 films in the book into three chapters: Houses, Country Houses and Mansions, and Modern Hide-Outs and Look-Outs. The films reach back from the director's days in 1920s and 30s London to Marnie from 1964. Most of the residences are treated with floor plans that arise from the author watching the films repeatedly, rather than based on archival plans and other set designs. Therefore the focus is on what is on screen, what the viewer experiences; this means architectural logic and spatial logic aren't always present. Such is the nature of film that sets and spaces serve the narrative reality rather than architectural or an objective reality.

[Spread from chapter on Rear Window, courtesy of nai010]

The book's "projects" are best when the reader has seen the film. I've seen many of Hitchcock's films but only about half of the ones Jacobs analyzes; not having seen a film makes the analysis less desirable while also giving away much of the plot, hardly ideal with suspense films. The projects are also best when they are accompanied by plans; it's unfortunate that some houses are missing them, as they add a layer of information that makes the analyses more understandable and even enjoyable.

Not surprisingly, the chapter on L.B. Jeffries' Greenwich Village apartment in New York City is a highlight, even though the film has been architecturally dissected by many critics, in particular Juhani Pallasmaa and Jeffrey Kipnis. Really, the film can be considered Hitchcock's penultimate example of giving architecture a leading role in a film. It's impossible to think of any portion of the narrative happening outside of the self-contained world the director created. Thankfully the film comes near the end of the book, allowing the reader to digest some of Jacobs' words on earlier films and to see how "the wrong houses" built up to this masterpiece.