North by Northwest: Hitchcock’s House on Mt. Rushmore

North by Northwest Hitchcock movie Van Damm house

North by Northwest is considered one of the best Hitchcock films ever made. It was also one of the most commercially successful. The movie follows the classic Hitchcock “Wrong Man Scenario.” Cary Grant is a successful Madison Avenue ad man who says things like, “There’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only the expedient exaggeration.”

Then his life gets turned upside down when he gets mistaken for an undercover CIA agent. He’s swept up in a game of cat and mouse that takes him across the country and eventually to the top of Mt. Rushmore for that classic chase scene across the presidents’ faces.

Modernist Vandamm House in North by Northwest Movie

The cool Modernist house, perched on the peak of Mt. Rushmore, is what a lot of us remember most about the movie, right? I’ve gotten a lot of requests for photos of it. And we’ll get to the Vandamm House, as it’s known, but first let’s start back at the beginning of the story.

Roger Thornhill (Grant) is having lunch in the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel when a couple of thugs force him into their car at gunpoint. They think he’s an undercover agent named George Kaplan.They filmed these scenes on location, and Cary Grant lived in an apartment at the Plaza during filming:

Plaza Hotel lobby

The bad guys drive him here, to the Townsend Estate in Long Island:

Townsend estate-exterior

Townsend Mansion was a real estate in Glen Cove, Long Island, but the interiors were a set. The estate is known as Old Westbury Gardens, and they provide tours of the home. You can see some cool photos of it being built in 1905 and read about its history here.

The estate as it looks today:

Old Westbury Gardens-hotel today

Jessie Royce Landis (below), the actress who played Grant’s mother in the movie, was in reality only 8 years older than he was:

Townsend entry hall 2

The set designers were Robert Boyle, William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvey.

Townsend entry hall 1

The library that Thornhill gets locked in. He says, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll catch up on my reading.”

Townsend library

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman says Grant was a perfectionist who often complained about various parts of the script or the way things were being filmed and lobbied to get them changed.

North by Northwest turned out to be Grant’s biggest box-office success.

Townsend library 2

James Mason played the baddie, Phillip Vandamm, and Martin Landau was perfect as his sinister-looking associate. Hitchcock loved using overhead shots like these. I appreciate them because we get a good look at the rugs:

Townsend library-overhead shot

After escaping from Vandamm’s thugs, Thornhill went to the U.N. to try to figure out what was going on.

Hitchcock wasn’t allowed to film there, so they “stole” a shot of the U.N. exterior with Cary Grant walking in. The other people walking around in the shot didn’t know they were being filmed, or that Grant was walking beside them. (Can you imagine? “Hey, that’s me!”)

UN exterior in North by Northwest

The interior of the U.N. was (quite obviously) a matte painting:

UN interior painting

The backdrop was on display in Grand Central Terminal a few years ago, as part of a Turner Classic Movies exhibit on movies set in NYC. A reader sent me this photo of the matte painting:

U.N. matte painting on display

The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, who won more Best Screenplay Awards from the Writer’s Guild than anyone in history. He was the screenwriter behind other classics like The King and I, West Side Story, Sabrina, and The Sound of Music.

Ernest Lehman-screenwriter

Lehman died in 2005 at the age of 89, so we’re fortunate that he recorded a detailed commentary about North by Northwest.

Hitchcock told him, “I always wanted to do a chase scene across the faces of Mt. Rushmore,” and that was the starting point for the movie. Lehman recalled, “I wanted to write the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures. I wanted something that had wit, sophistication, glamor, action, and lots of changes of locale.”

For the famous crop-duster sequence, they planted some corn in Bakersfield, California, to make it look more like Indiana:

Grant-running from crop duster plane

After Thornhill miraculously survives (and the pilot of the plane doesn’t), he surprises Eve by showing up at her room in the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago. He’s a little dusty but every hair is still in place.

I thought the hotel decor was pretty cool:

Ambassador hotel room

The movie was a little racy for the late ’50s. It may not have shown much, but it insinuated a lot about what Roger and Eve were doing when the cameras looked away.

In the dining car in the train, Eve coos, “I never make love on an empty stomach.” It was censored in post-production to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach,” but if you read her lips you can see what she was really saying.

Actors at Mt. Rushmore

The crew traveled to South Dakota, and Eva Marie Saint, Cary Grant, and James Mason posed for the press before shooting on it was supposed to begin.

Then word leaked that there would be a fight scene and a couple of deaths on the monument, and the government officials barred them from filming it there. The crew flew back to Hollywood, where Mt. Rushmore had to be recreated at MGM.

Mt Rushmore-cars

Those are real shots of the monument from the distance. The rest was Production Designer Robert Boyle’s creation back at the studio.

“I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt’s looking at me,” Roger says when looking up at the monument. “I think he’s trying to tell me not to go through with this hare-brained scheme.”

Cary Grant-Mt. Rushmore

Thornhill meets Van Damm and his crew at the community parks building near the monument, and even it had style:

Mt Rushmore park bldg 1

Check out the cool checkered-wood walls in the cafeteria:

Mt Rushmore park bldg 2

In the scene where Eve (Eva Marie Saint) shoots Roger (Grant), can you spot the mistake in the background?

Mt Rushmore-park building goof

The little boy at the table behind Eva Marie Saint plugged his ears, knowing the gun was about to go off. I always get a kick out of that!

The Vandamm House:

North by Northwest Hitchcock movie Vandamm house 3

They needed to come up with a reason why all of the characters would be congregating at Mt. Rushmore, so Lehman decided that the bad guys would have their headquarters nearby. It’s known as “The Vandamm House” after James Mason’s character, Phillip Vandamm.

North by Northwest Hitchcock movie Vandamm house 2

A lot of people have asked me whether it’s a real house, and if it’s really on top of Mt. Rushmore. Sadly, no, it’s not real. The exterior was a matte painting (a pre-digital effect when a real set or location was combined with a painting), and the interior was created on a soundstage.

In reality, there is no way anything could be built on top of the monument, even temporarily for a film.

North by Northwest Hitchcock movie Vandamm house 4

Hitchcock knew he wanted it to be a Modernist house. In the late ’50s, Frank Lloyd Wright was the most famous Modernist architect in the world. Any house he designed for the film would have been instantly recognizable to audiences.

North by Northwest Hitchcock movie Vandamm house 5

The problem: they couldn’t afford Wright’s fee. So Hitchcock decided they’d just build a house that looked like one Wright would have designed.

North by Northwest Hitchcock movie Van Damm house 8

The second problem: the top of Mt. Rushmore was too fragile to build anything on it. The MGM researchers had to get special permits and Park Service escorts just to visit the area in order to photograph and measure it.

According to Sandy McLendon:

The house would be created entirely in Culver City, where MGM was located. It would consist of a few sections built at full-scale, as movie sets. The exterior shots would depend on special effects. Certain shots would blend the sets together with the special effects, to create the illusion that the house was real. 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.

Cary Grant in North by Northwest movie

Van Damm house-balcony

North by Northwest Hitchcock movie Vandamm house 6

Just when he thinks he’s in the clear, Vandamm’s housekeeper pulls a gun on Thornhill:

Cary Grant in North by Northwest movie 2

McLendon explains how the set was designed:

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.

outside looking in-Vandamm house

All of the scenes involving the Vandamm house were shot at night so that the effects would look more realistic. (Thanks to Lyle for the info!)

North by Northwest Hitchcock movie Vandamm house 7

More North by Northwest Movie Trivia:

  • North by Northwest was the working title, but they never came up with anything better. One they considered: The Man in Lincoln’s Nose. (Seriously.)
  • Jimmy Stewart was originally considered for the role of Thornhill, but Hitchcock decided he looked “too old.” Cary Grant was 55 when he filmed it (4 years older than Stewart).
  • MGM wanted Cyd Charisse in the role of Eve Kendall, but Hitchcock insisted on Eva Marie Saint.
  • MGM designed an entire wardrobe for Saint’s character, but Hitchcock threw out almost everything. She says he took her to Bergdorf-Goodman and selected clothes for her “right off the models.”
  • Hitchcock gave Saint three basic directions: 1) Lower your voice. 2) Don’t use your hands. 3) Always look directly into Cary Grant’s eyes.
  • North by Northwest was nominated for 5 Oscars but lost in every category.

The movie trailer, humorously presented by Alfred Hitchcock himself:

What’s your favorite Hitchcock movie? I just watched Rebecca again (you can see my post about Manderley here). Hitchcock knew how to work a great house into a suspenseful movie!

Julia-simple-teal-signature2

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Comments

  1. says

    That was a great movie, but anything with Cary Grant was great!
    This was a great post, lots of interesting facts!
    As for Hitchcock movies? I think “The Birds” is one of my favorites.
    .-= Pat´s last blog ..SUNDAY SCRIPTURE =-.

  2. says

    I was raised on Alfred Hitchcock movies, and this one was one of my favorites. Thanks so much for the trivia! I always like the fact that Hitchcock often made a cameo appearance in his movies!
    .-= Deidra´s last blog ..Playing Up =-.

  3. Cori Heffernan says

    I live in Long Island and have been to Westbury Gardens many times. The grounds have been used for many films including Love Story. There is a beautiful walled “secret garden”. In the summer they have great concerts on the lawn. I haven’t been there in several years. We went there alot BK(before kids). I think I am going to make a date to take them to the gardens just as soon as it stops RAINING.

  4. says

    I love, love, love North by Northwest. One of my very favorite Hitchcock films–right up there with To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. :) If you’ve got a Hitchcock film starring Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, you can’t go wrong.

    We were in Southern California last week on a college search trip and took an afternoon to go to Universal Studios. Seeing the Bates Motel and house from Psycho was the highlight of the tour for me.
    .-= Richella at Imparting Grace´s last blog ..DIY flower arranging =-.

  5. says

    Oh, I learned a few facts here! Fun, I am forwarding this post to my husband, this is his favorite movie. So much so his business name is inspired by it. Funny fact about the age difference between Cary and the woman Jessie, who played his mother. Go figure!!
    Janell
    .-= Janell Beals´s last blog ..My Chair Challenge =-.

  6. Patricia Connell says

    If you like houses and Hitchcock, check out “Shadow of a Doubt”. It’s my favorite Hitchcock movie and is set on McDonald Avenue in Santa Rosa, CA, just down the street from the “Pollyanna” house (used for the Disney movie). It’s a charming street filled with lovely homes, which is why I think they used this area for “Shadow of a Doubt”–the loveliness of the neighborhood contrasts with the sinister undertones of the movie.

  7. Thomas Gessner says

    Thanks for the cool info. I will have to watch this movie again now that I know some of the insights you gave us. I also enjoy THE BIRDS and VERTIGO. I just visited northern california and saw the schoolhouse used in THE BIRDS. It is now a privite home.

  8. says

    Great post, Julia…you do such a good job of telling us about the film without telling us the entire plot! I’ve actually never seen “North by Northwest,” but I am adding it to my to-see list! :)
    .-= Amanda @ Serenity Now´s last blog ..Dressing Up My Window =-.

  9. says

    That is so funny that people wondered if the house was really on Mt. Rushmore. I guess I never considered that. We went to Rushmore last year, and it was fun. There were all these mountains goats on the road by the monument, and we jumped out of the car to take pictures of them. A whole goat family!

    I love that house! But of course, you know that I j’adore anything mid-century. Great post!
    .-= Laurie @ My Domicile Style´s last blog ..Friday Finds: Great Design Under $100, Easy Wrap, Before/After & Every Room Needs… =-.

  10. says

    You know… I’m hooked on houses and movies… and your blog is the perfect combination of the two! You make me dream!! :-)
    kisses
    Etta

  11. says

    My goodness Julia I always marvel at the work you put into these posts ! I’m delighted to see one of my favorite Hitchcock’s featured – I loved the pair of Eva and Cary in this film ! Can’t wait for ‘Rebecca’ – another all time favorite of mine !

    ? Kate
    .-= Kate at Centsational Girl´s last blog ..Favorite Greens, Rhoda Style =-.

  12. Nita says

    Definitely my favorite Hitchcock move is Rear Window and have to watch it every time it comes on, which is a lot! I love the apartment courtyard, which looks into the other little apartments and you see the other peoples’ lives playing out before your eyes.

  13. Nita says

    Oh wait, my FAV IS Shadow of a Doubt!!!! It is just the best ever Hitchcock movie!! Love the house and the cute little town in it. Watch it every time too!

  14. says

    What a fabulous post!! Love that mid century modern style. Another one of my favorite Hitchcock movies is “Marnie”. There are some scenes in the movie filmed in Middleburg, Virginia. My husband and I lived in Middleburg in the early 90’s. Our house was a restored Civil War farmhouse with beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was heaven living in Northern Virginia horse farm country! Thank you for a terrific post today. I will be showing it to my hubby tonight! Now if we could just win the lottery to have enough money to several different style homes to express our love of different architectural styles!

    Love,
    Susan and Bentley
    xxoo
    .-= Susan´s last blog ..Vintage Tray From Tired to Fab! =-.

  15. says

    I have never seen an Alfred Hitchcock movie….I guess I need to get caught up. :)
    .-= Rachel´s last blog .. =-.

  16. says

    I just watched Rear Window not that long ago (gotta love the library for old movies). I remember watching The Birds when I was a kid and thought it was so freaky. I haven’t ever seen North by Northwest. I think I’ll have to check it out.
    .-= Carmen´s last blog ..My living room isn’t ready yet… =-.

  17. says

    Well, there is going to be a run on Netflix! No, wait – I already have it here! Would it be too decadent to watch it in the afternoon?
    .-= Tricia Rose´s last blog ..Ice Rafting =-.

  18. Kim says

    It seems like every movie I have seen Cary Grant in, he never seems to age much.

    I have never seen this movie, I might have to rent it sometime. I loved the sets of both houses. They each have their own character.

    I love the hard work and heart that went into making old films. You can tell they made them as perfect as they could. You just don’t see that much in today’s movies. That’s why I love watching old films.

  19. Kim says

    I forgot to mention my favorite Hitchhock movie. My favorite hitchhock movie was probably The Birds.

  20. says

    I can’t wait to hear about Manderley. I’m obsessed with both the book and the movie of Rebecca. Actually, I’m kind of obsessed with the character of Rebecca!
    .-= CashmereLibrarian´s last blog ..Liberty of London =-.

  21. says

    This is one of my favorite all time movie! But I must say that the furniture designed as Frank L. Wright for the Vandamm house for this movie looks too comfortable. I have toured Wright’s house in PA on the Falls and other Wright buildings and I can say that his furniture is NOT comfortable at all. He designed his furniture to go with his buildings but I wouldn’t want to have to spend anytime sitting on them. We ate in a building in WI where Wright designed the furniture and the chairs at the tables were so low to the ground that I was uncomfortable and I’m SHORT! My two other most favorite Hitchcock movies are Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in “Vertigo” and “Bell, Book and Candle” (not sure if this last one is a Hitchcock movie but I loved it anyway). Back to “North By Northwest” – that famous corn field and airplane scene – sorry but it’s too dry in the field to be Indiana. My hubby and I laugh at one scene every time we watch Stephen King’s TV movie “The Stand”. They show some oil tanks labeling the scene as being in Indiana and there are mountains in the background. Trust me there are no mountains in Indiana. This was a very enjoyable post and interesting to learn what was real and what wasn’t on this fantastic movie. Wasn’t Cary Grant just wonderful!
    .-= Sandy´s last blog ..Shamrocks =-.

  22. says

    I love that fake-pieced-together home!

    You really do your homework on these posts–it’s cheesy but I mean it: you get an A+. Must be the homeschool teacher in me. :)

    Thank you so much for the mention on FB today, thank you! :)
    .-= angela | the painted house´s last blog ..Eight =-.

  23. says

    Julia,
    Great house and set decoration on this movie. Very slick. My husband and I were lucky enough to stay at The Plaza and dine in the Oak Room for dinner. We also have had lunch at The Oak Bar several times. Great old hotel with lots of movie star history!
    Also, a side note on Jessie Royce Landis. She played Grace Kelly’s mother in To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant.
    Great post, Julia. :)
    Robin
    .-= Robin´s last blog ..Magazine Treasures =-.

  24. says

    What an interesting post!! I never saw the movie, but it was still fun to read about how it was made. Interesting about the set house not having any glass in the windows — totally makes sense.

    Thanks for checking out my kitchen makeover :-) Yes, I’m BEYOND thrilled that it’s done!!

    Kelly
    .-= DesignTies´s last blog ..The real & official kitchen makeover post =-.

  25. David says

    I lived in Keystone SD at the base of Mt. Rushmore for most of the 90’s and visited the 1957 concession building for breakfast many Sunday mornings with family and friends. No better place to spend an early morning after a fresh snowfall with no one to bother you except park rangers with shovels and a wandering Mountain Goat.

    The park concession building was just as these photos of the sets show, brilliant mid century park-atechture. From the viewing terrace everything about this building was earthy and natural in a smart atomic way. Seemingly sprung from the earth, the asymmetry of the decorative brick the building exterior and column supports were clad, was comforting and grounded against the background of surprise checkerboard plywood panels.

    In 1996 when it was finally deemed to costly to maintain the concession building and its companion interpretive center, a new more monumental design was developed more in the vein of Washington DC. The contents and furnishings of the 39 year old facility were auctioned off in preparation of demolition and reconstruction, Movie buffs and rock hounds from all over the western US showed up to chisel bricks and pull panels from the walls of a very American dining room made famous by the Royal Subject named Hitchcock.

    • Julie F says

      Thanks for the update on the concession building. I visited Rushmore as a child in the 1960s, but can’t remember what the buildings looked like. Sad that it had to be demolished. Very cool design. You are lucky to have been able to eat there so often.

  26. E. George says

    Hi Julia you must have been up all night and then some thank you for this great post. I know I’ve seen this movie but it was a long time ago love Cary Grant. I remember Alfred Hitchcock had a TV show many many moons ago. I loved The Birds but I’ve never looked at birds the same way they gather in one of the street trees and at about 6pm they have a bird screeching party we can’t hear the TV thank god its not an allnighter. Till next time Regards Esther from Sydney…

  27. says

    Mmm…I’m not sure. I just watched Rear Window and To Catch a Thief again. In fact, I just love, love Cary Grant. I always wanted to name a cat John Robie, after his cat burglar character in To Catch a Thief. My favorite movie, however, is Charade. Grant’s costar was Audrey Hepburn and Stanley Donen directed.

    What excellent movies. Thank you for another fine post, Julia!

    : )

    Julie M.
    .-= Julie M.´s last blog ..Sweet Dreams ~ The Little Red Shop’s 100th Post Giveaway! =-.

  28. Carol M says

    My favorite Hitchcock movie is “Suspicion” with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. Every time it’s on, I can’t walk away from it. Love the little village and homes in that one. I only wish it was in color!

  29. says

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I am a lifelong fan of Hitchock’s work. The trivia was too cool – especially that bit about Wright. Never knew that! Such a fun post. It was like watching the movie all over again.

  30. says

    Wow Julia,
    Fantastic and detailed post, as usual! I’ve always loved the house on top of Mt Rushmore in this movie. So sad to hear it’s not real! Still, the interior shots, even of the cafeteria, are gorgeous.
    I have three favourite Hitchcock movies: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. I think To Catch a Thief is my all-time favourite Hitchcock movie.
    .-= Cathy Rust´s last blog ..Ontario Hydro bills set to increase 25% by 2011. Believe it or not, it’s a good thing =-.

  31. Susan says

    A little late but I have to chime in. I LOVE HITCHCOCK!! I grew up on him…i’m 38…love old movies. My favorites…I have 2. To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. Third favorite…though it’s not a Hitchcock is Charade. Just had to comment.
    Love your blog…always wanted still shots of fabulous movie houses!!! Keep it up.

  32. Lance says

    This is a fabulous website, both in terms of content and design. I just came across it tonight after searching on a whim about the house in the original Parent Trap movie — then found you had pages about Hitchcock films too! North by Northwest is my favorite of all films. I knew the house on top of Mt. Rushmore doesn’t exist, because many years ago my family visited the monument and there was a helicopter there offering quick 5-minute fly-bys over the top. The movie was on my mind at the time, and of course I searched high and low for the house while we flew over. After we gained altitude, it was clear that there was n-o-t-h-i-n-g up there at all. I was mighty bummed.

    I also love the Rebecca post. Have you considered doing something about the home in Hitchcock’s “Notorious”? Haven’t watched it in a few years. I imagine that was all built on a sound stage, as Hitch seemed to prefer the high degree of control that he could get there.

  33. Gina says

    I just re-watched this movie on the big screen today. Such fun! I had read your post last year about this house and had forgotten that the ‘modern’ house on the monument mountain was entirely photos and models. Still very impressive for it’s time.

  34. says

    “Hitchcock loved using overhead shots like these. I appreciate them because we get a good look at the rugs.” Julia, this not only made me laugh out loud but I instantly saw the truth in it–and agree with you wholeheartedly!