If there was one Hollywood director who knew how to maximize a setting, it was Alfred Hitchcock.
I hadn’t realized this until I came across a quote in Halliwell’s Harvest. The author Leslie Halliwell stated that Hitchcock believed “the location must be put to work”. That’s why so many of his scenes are still remembered.
- North By Northwest: The hero is pursued by enemy spies. When he finds himself on a lonely road out in the country, a crop dusting plane tries to kill him. At the end of this movie, the villain owns a house near Mount Rushmore. The hero and heroine almost fall off the famous faces, trying to escape.
- Foreign Correspondent: This movie from 1940 races around Europe with the hero trying to figure out what Nazi agents are up to before WWII. While sneaking up on spies in a windmill in Holland, the hero’s sleeve gets caught in the gears, and he must free himself, silently, before his arm gets crushed.
- Pyscho: Hitchcock used the Bates’s home (see photo) so well that it has become the symbol in America for the kind of rundown, creepy house you don’t linger in front of if you walk past it.
Hitchcock wasn’t the only director to work a location to maximum effect. I recently saw the movie Niagara from 1953. A young couple, taking a much-delayed honeymoon at the Falls, become involved with another couple, an older man married to a much younger, adulterous wife. The director had scenes shot on the boat Maid of the Mist. Two key scenes occur during the walking tour on the Falls. The Carillon Bell Tower, overlooking the Falls, is the setting for a plot point and a murder. After viewing this movie, I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1953 and was taking a vacation with the characters.
One of the reasons I love The Bourne Identity is that the director made such effective use of driving through Europe in winter. It was a setting I hadn’t seen before in movies, and he conveyed the desperate road trip so well that I want to drive across Europe to see the sights.
So wherever you choose to place your stories, be sure to research it well enough to maximize the setting. Some idosyncracy about a particular location can inspire a character, a plot point, or simply elevate your setting from good to great.
What’s a memorable setting from a movie? Or have you written about a unique setting?
Excellent article. When I think of writer’s who put the location to work I think of Huysmans and his extensive research into the old cathedral of Chartres. He was so knowledgeable about it, in fact, that tourists used the novel as a guidebook.
I don’t know the book, but I love the history and engineering behind cathedrals.
I Loved Gone with The Wind, I Loved the settings and everything in it.
It’s a favorite of my sister’s, but I have not read it. Do you like the movie, too?
Yes, the movie is really good also, but I always find that the stories are much better in the books. 🙂