x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Glittering career

Highlights from the career of the Hollywood set designer Robert F Boyle, who has died at the age of 100.

Robert F Boyle, who was nominated for four Oscars but never won, was given an honorary award in 2008.
Robert F Boyle, who was nominated for four Oscars but never won, was given an honorary award in 2008.

When security fears thwarted Alfred Hitchcock's plans to shoot part of the thriller North by North West inside the United Nations headquarters in New York, the celebrated filmmaker came-up with a unique solution. He sent secret camera crews into the vast lobby of the building, then used the clandestine footage to construct a giant replica of the interior on a sound stage. Although Hitchcock was never short on ambitious technical ideas, he had to call on others to bring his visions to life: Robert F Boyle was one such man. Hitchcock's artistic collaborator on five films - as well as the art director or the production designer on more than 70 others - Boyle died last week, aged 100.

Defining his job as being "responsible for the space within which the film takes place", his credits include The Wolf Man, The Birds, Private Benjamin, Cape Fear and The Thomas Crown Affair. Boyle was nominated for an Academy Award four times throughout his career, but never won - he was finally recognised for his contribution to cinema in 2008, however, with an honorary Oscar - making him the oldest Academy Award winner yet. He also became the subject of a documentary, The Man on Lincoln's Nose, in 2000 - named after the breathtaking finale of North by North West in which the characters come to blows on top of Mount Rushmore.

"I learnt a lot about the Hitchcock way of thinking. It's in the minor details that we found suspense," he told the makers of the documentary. His first collaboration with the British director was the 1942 man-on-the-run thriller, Saboteur, featuring a similar finale to North by North West - this time atop the Statue of Liberty. Next came the mystery thriller Shadow of a Doubt - which Hitchcock would later call his most cherished movie. Boyle continued working with the director into the 1960s, creating the bird's-eye view seagull attack in The Birds and the plush surroundings seen in the Sean Connery romance, Marnie.

Born in Los Angeles and trained as an architect, Boyle found himself out of work in the mid-1930s during the Great Depression. After a stint as a movie extra, he was eventually able to put his technical know-how to good use at Paramount Pictures under the tutelage of the great art director Hans Dreier, before moving to Universal Studios in the early 1940s. After his second Hitchcock collaboration, Shadow of a Doubt, Boyle served in the US Army Signal Corps in France and Germany as a combat photographer during the Second World War. Decades later in the early 1980s, he created a production design programme at the American Film Institute in Hollywood, where he continued to teach up to his death, on August 1, of natural causes.

"He was the last of the great art directors. His films have a look, an ambience, a setting that's very real because of his scrupulous attention to detail," the filmmaker Norman Jewison told TheNew York Times. "Every nuance he could bring to bear to make a film real, he'd do it. He was a real cinematic artist," added the director, who worked with Boyle on The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming, The Thomas Crown Affair, Gaily, Gaily and Fiddler on the Roof.

Hitchcock had wanted to film the iconic Mount Rushmore climax of North by North West at the monument itself, but was again refused permission. Boyle overcame the problem by using a combination of back-projected still photographs and large scale mock-ups of the monument, as the director Daniel Raim documented in The Man on Lincoln's Nose. "Basically, the documentary shows the construction of Mount Rushmore on a studio soundstage," Raim told the Los Angeles Times. The film includes "a detailed section where we see original black-and-white photos of Bob Boyle rappelling down the monument on cables and taking photographs ... from varying angles."

For the famous sequence in which a crop-duster (pursuing Cary Grant) collides with a tanker lorry, the designer created immensely detailed miniatures - not just the plane and the lorry, but the cornfield as well. "This is pre-digital filmmaking," Raim said, "and I think part of Bob's genius was his ability to create believable sets and special effects that still hold up today."