Robert F. Boyle, Film Designer for Hitchcock, Dies at 100


Robert F. Boyle, the eminent Hollywood production designer who created some of the most memorable scenes and images in cinematic history — Cary Grant clinging to Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest,” the bird’s-eye view of the seagull attack in “The Birds,” the colorfully ramshackle shtetl for “Fiddler on the Roof” — died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 100

“He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and lived in Los Angeles”, a son-in-law, John Biddle, said.

Mr. Boyle worked on more than 80 films as art director or production designer, synonyms for a job he once defined as “being responsible for the space in which a film takes place.”

As a young assistant fresh out of architecture school at the University of Southern California, he worked on the Cecil B. DeMille western “The Plainsman” (1936) and Fritz Lang’s “You and Me” (1938). Over the next six decades he worked with a long list of top directors, including Douglas Sirk, Richard Brooks and Norman Jewison.

At the 2008 Academy Awards, as his list of credits was read aloud, he stepped onto the stage to tumultuous applause to receive a special Oscar for his life’s work in art direction.

Mr. Boyle is best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he produced indelible scenes like the climactic struggle atop the Statue of Liberty in “Saboteur” and the crop-dusting sequence with Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” not to mention the seagull attack in “The Birds.” He was also Hitchcock’s production designer for “Marnie.”

“It was a meeting of equals: the director who knew exactly what he wanted, and the art director who knew how to get it done,” Mr. Boyle told Film Comment in 1978.

His art direction earned him Academy Award nominations for “North by Northwest” and “Fiddler on the Roof” as well as for “Gaily, Gaily,” a period comedy set in early 20th-century Chicago, and “The Shootist,” John Wayne’s last film. He was also the subject of an Oscar-nominated 2000 documentary by Daniel Raim, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose.”

“He was the last of the great art directors,” the director Norman Jewison said in an interview for this obituary. He worked with Mr. Boyle on “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Gaily, Gaily” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“His films have a look, an ambience, a setting that’s very real because of his scrupulous attention to detail,” Mr. Jewison added. “Every nuance he could bring to bear to make a film real, he’d do it. He was a real cinematic artist.”

Robert Francis Boyle was born on Oct. 10, 1909, in Los Angeles and grew up on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. His degree in architecture, which he received in 1933, was of little use during the Depression, so he began working as a bit player for RKO Pictures. Fascinated by set design, he introduced himself to the studio’s art director, who directed him to Paramount. There he was hired by the great art director Hans Dreier, and wound up doing a bit of everything.

“We were illustrators, draftsmen, we would supervise the construction on the sets,” he told an interviewer for the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1998. “We did almost anything that the art director thought we ought to do.”

After doing second-unit work on “The Plainsman,” with Gary Cooper, and “Union Pacific,” both directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” Mr. Boyle left Paramount to paint in Mexico but soon returned to the United States and began working for RKO and Universal. One of his first films for Universal was “The Wolf Man” (1941), with Lon Chaney Jr.

Art directors enjoyed a varied diet in those days. “We might be doing the Bengal Lancers one day and Ma and Pa Kettle the next and something else the next,” he told the Merrick Library. “Saboteur” (1942) was his first collaboration with Hitchcock and the beginning of a series of unforgettably suspenseful cinematic sequences. For the climactic battle between Robert Cummings and Norman Lloyd, Mr. Boyle and his team constructed a studio model of the hand and the torch of the Statue of Liberty. To create the illusion that Mr. Lloyd, the villain, was falling in an uncontrolled spin from a great height, Mr. Boyle twirled him on a revolving chair as a crane mounted with a camera swooped upward at dizzying speed.

Mr. Boyle worked with Hitchcock on one more film, “Shadow of a Doubt,” before serving in the Army Signal Corps in France and Germany as a combat photographer during World War II. After the war, they resumed their collaboration and he married Bess Taffel, a contract writer at RKO who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. She died in 2000. He is survived by two daughters, Emily Boyle, of Los Angeles, and Susan Licon, of Toledo, Ore., and three grandchildren.

Mr. Boyle’s touch is evident in the cleverly orchestrated Mount Rushmore sequence in “North by Northwest,” in which large-format still photographs were rear-projected using stereopticon slides. He also used studio mock-ups of sections of the stone heads — “just enough to put the actors on so we could get down shots, up shots, side shots, whatever we needed,” Mr. Boyle said. For the famous scene in which a crop-duster strafes Cary Grant on a desolate road, Mr. Boyle combined location footage with a toy airplane and toy truck on a miniature field created in the studio.

Mr. Boyle said that the attack sequence in “The Birds” may have been his trickiest bit of work. To simulate the point of view of the swooping birds descending on Tippi Hedren in a phone booth, Mr. Boyle and his team climbed a cliff overlooking an island off Santa Barbara, Calif., and photographed seagulls as assistants threw fish into the water, encouraging the birds to dive. Only the telephone booth was real. The town of Bodega Bay, actually a composite of several towns, was reproduced on mattes.

For “Gaily, Gaily,” Mr. Boyle recreated turn-of-the-century Chicago on a backlot at Universal, right down to the elevated tracks in the Loop. Notoriously finicky about locations, he traveled the length and breadth of Eastern Europe for “Fiddler on the Roof” before settling on a location in what was then Yugoslavia.

For “In Cold Blood,” Mr. Boyle took the opposite tack, using as a set the actual Kansas farmhouse where the murders took place that provided the material for the Truman Capote book on which the film was based.

Trickery for its own sake did not interest him. “If it doesn’t have any meaningful application to the story, it’s never a great shot,” he said.

Mr. Boyle took on projects of every description. He worked on Ma and Pa Kettle comedies and “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars.” He was the art director for Sam Fuller on “The Crimson Kimono” and for J. Lee Thompson on “Cape Fear.” He was the production designer for “The Shootist,” “Private Benjamin” and “Troop Beverly Hills.”

A movie, he said, “starts with the locale, with the environment that people live in, how they move within that environment.” Sometimes that environment has to be built.

“I’m all for construction, because we’re dealing with the magic of movies,” he told Variety in 2008. “And I always feel that if you build it, you build it for the dream rather than the actuality. We make up our own truth.”

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