The set designers on “North by Northwest” were Robert Boyle, William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvey. It has not been possible to sort out exactly which of these men was responsible for the house design, but whoever did it did his homework. The final design was of a hilltop house of limestone dressed and laid in the manner made famous by Wright, along with a concrete cantilever under the living room area. The house was correctly situated just under the top of its hill; Wright was famous for saying, “of the hill, not on top of the hill.” The house’s massing- heavy with limestone in the rear where the house met the hillside, light with glass and concrete at the free end of the cantilever- was also correctly Wrightian. To the knowing, the design contained one element that would not have been used by Wright; there were steel beams supporting the cantilever. Wright would almost certainly have come up with an unsupported cantilever, as he did at “Fallingwater”, but very few viewers would know that. It is also possible that the mass audience requirements for “North by Northwest” dictated the use of the beams; Hitchcock may have felt that a true Wright cantilever would distract audiences from the plot, making them wonder what on earth was holding the house up, instead of focusing on the action. In the event, the beams also served the plot by giving Cary Grant a way to climb into the house.
The portions of the house that were actually built were the living room, part of the bedroom wing, the carport, and a bit of hillside under the living room where the cantilever beams were. Most of the construction was of interiors only, but certain areas like the outside of the bedroom wing had their exteriors finished, so that they could be shot from inside looking out, or outside looking in. The interiors were masterpieces of deception: nearly nothing was what it appeared. The limestone walls were mostly plaster, real limestone was used in a few places where the camera would be very close. The expanses of window were mostly without glass; glass reflects camera crews and lights. For a few shots where reflections were needed, and could be controlled, glass was used in some places. And in the best tradition of movie-set building, some of the walls were “breakaways”- walls that looked perfectly real and solid, but were capable of being unbolted and taken away to accommodate the bulky VistaVision ® cameras used in 1958. An enormous black velvet cyclorama surrounded the sets, to give the illusion of a deep South Dakota night. All the house sequences were deliberately done as nighttime ones, because the special effects needed to create the house’s exteriors would be best concealed that way.
The luxurious Modernism of the house extended to its furnishings.
The living room set was dressed in the best of 1958’s furniture and art, and it makes a very interesting point. The furniture is largely Scandinavian Modern. There is Chinese art, and a Pre-Colombian statue figures prominently in the action. Greek flokati rugs are on the floors. Vandamm’s spying is meant to set the nations of the world at war, but it seems they co-exist peacefully enough under his roof!
The exterior sequences were done using a pre-digital technique called ‘matting’. In matte photography, a real location or set is combined with a painting; the real portion is then made to appear part of a larger area that does not actually exist. A very famous example is when Dorothy and her friends run toward the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz”. The foreground with the actors and the deadly field of poppies is a set; the background is a painting. (See the sidebar article below for pictures and a simplified explanation of matting.)
And there it is- the truth about the Vandamm House. It’s not real, and it never was. It’s imagination and technology and our dreams, all wrapped up together. It’s exactly where we wanted a Hitchcock villain to live. And if it never existed in Rapid City, South Dakota, it is real where it counts- in the minds of the millions who have seen it, and loved it, and coveted it for their own. (via)