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KCET Movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s (Non-Existent) Los Angeles

The defining quality of Alfred Hitchcock’s Los Angeles is that he didn’t have one. Or rather, he had a Los Angeles in his life, but not in his work. By the time he passed away in his Bel-Air home in 1980, the Leytonstone-born director’s filmography had grown to include more than 50 features across a career spanning six decades. He made roughly half of them in Britain and half in America, the latter period accounting for the bulk of his reputation as the 20th century’s undisputed master of cinematic suspense. And though he embraced well-known American locations with the bravado of a thrilled new arrival – even those who’ve never seen “North by Northwest” know it features Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint hanging off Mount Rushmore – he set not one of his films in the American city where he lived.

“Movies aren’t about places, they’re about stories,” says Thom Andersen’s narrator in an early passage of his documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” “If we notice the location, we are not really watching the movie. It’s what’s up front that counts. Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else. They do the work of our voluntary attention, and so we must suppress that faculty as we watch,” allowing the filmmakers to do their emotional work on us. But “what if suspense is just another alienation effect? Isn’t that what Hitchcock taught? For him, suspense was a means of enlivening his touristy travelogues,” though Andersen names him as the greatest of the “low tourist” directors, a group who “generally disdain Los Angeles. They prefer San Francisco and the coastline of northern California. More picturesque.”

And indeed, with 1958’s “Vertigo,” Hitchcock made what the latest Sight & Sound critics’ poll named the greatest motion picture of all time, and therefore the greatest San Francisco movie of all time as well. Sixteen years earlier, Hitchcock did set the first ten minutes of the less well-regarded “Saboteur,” the story of a framed airplane-builder on the run, in Glendale and elsewhere in greater Los Angeles, but as Andersen writes, “it could be anywhere in America where there is an aircraft factory. The scenes were shot in the studio, and there is nothing distinctive to the region in the sets.” At that time, the director had lived in America for only about three years, but according to Hitchcock scholar Dan Auiler, he felt the film failed to re-create “the real America he had been discovering on weekends.”

Read the whole thing at KCET.