Sonoma in Cinema
Beyond A Shadow of a Doubt
Sonoma County is a filmmaker’s dream: quaint farmhouses, tidy vineyards, pristine beaches, and charming town squares. Here, there is sweet country living and real urban grit. Here, there are grand neighborhoods and busy boulevards and panoramic vistas. As locations go, a filmmaker couldn’t do much better, which is why Hollywood has been calling since the days of old Hitch.
Alfred Hitchcock kept a home in the Bay Area for many years, and set some of his most iconic films in Wine Country. His favorite–though perhaps not best known–was Shadow of a Doubt, a dark-hearted mystery set in Santa Rosa circa 1943. With a literate, strong script by Thornton Wilder to work off, Hitch chose Santa Rosa as a foil for the sense of ominous dread inherent to the film.
“Hitch wanted a tone of menace to equally compete with the comfort and warmth of this lovely town,” writes Joseph Cotton, the actor cast as the dashing uncle with dark secrets. With Teresa Wright cast as the ingénue, Hitchcock achieved that and more, and the movie holds up today, weird and wonderfully suspenseful as ever.
Of course, you can’t talk Bay Area Hitchcock movies without mentioning Vertigo, argued by many to be his masterpiece. But it is The Birds that allowed a Sonoma location to be not only setting but star. Based on a 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier, Evan Hunter’s screenplay takes us to sleepy, picturesque Bodega Bay, where the town finds itself unable to wake from an avian nightmare. Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant and Grace Kelly for his leads (who wouldn’t?) but was pleased with Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, signing them both to personal contracts. The Birds was Oscar-nominated for special effects, many of the shots created by the genius of animator/inventor/technician Ub Iwerks, who pioneered a sodium vapor process that still thrills, even with today’s remarkable computer graphics. The Birds lost out to Cleopatra that year, though some would argue Elizabeth Taylor was the special effect that makes that film memorable.
Scary never goes out of style, it seems, and two particularly frightening films used Sonoma County locations more recently. In 1996, Scream used locations in Glen Ellen, Healdsburg, Tamales Bay and Santa Rosa to scare the bejesus out of viewers. And 1980s The Fog starred a northern California town targeted by ground clouds out for bloody revenge. (I hate it when fog gets personal.) This John Carpenter genre classic had many of us hoping for clear skies while visiting locations in Bodega Bay, Point Reyes and Inverness.
Then there was 2008‘s celebratory Bottle Shock, produced by local festival producers Mark and Brenda Lohrmer. Based on the true story of the 1976 blind Paris winetasting that put California winemaking on the map, this film starred the great, droll Alan Rickman fighting for Sonoma’s respect as a wine region. I was fortunate enough to interview this colorful character actor when he finished shooting in Kenwood, Santa Rosa and Sonoma, and it was clear he’d been smitten by our beautiful Sonoma Valley. The next time you are winetasting, the tall gent sipping next to you just might be the articulate villain from Die Hard, or the ghostly lover in Truly, Madly, Deeply (his own favorite of his movies and mine, too.)
Historic Nick’s Cove in Marshall was one of the sites of Bandits, a comic crime caper starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thorton and Cate Blanchett. And filmmaker Barry Levinson, (Wag the Dog, Avalon, Rainman, Bugsy) chose Marshall and Bodega Bay for his tale of a crime duo that just can’t get the crime, or the sticky love triangle, to work. At least they got some stunning views and fresh oysters.
Other films to celebrate our beautiful Sonoma County include: A Walk in the Clouds, American Graffiti and Peggy Sue Got Married (both famously filmed in Petaluma), Tucker (shot at Steve Ledson’s Sonoma mansion), Smile (shot in Santa Rosa, with a make-believe beauty pageant staged in the Veterans Memorial Building), The Candidate, Mumford and The Horse Whisperer. Reaching further back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, there was The Egg and I, The Farmer’s Daughter and The Fighting Sullivan’s. And for every great film there’s a well-intentioned flop: Howard the Duck...enough said.
You can’t go far in Wine Country without meeting someone involved in the film industry. With Pixar headquartered in the East Bay and its chief guru living in Glen Ellen, and George Lucas channeling The Force in the Presidio, Sonoma County has become—with its embarrassment of natural riches and picturesque beauty—a default setting for Hollywood; a sun-kissed wine-rich slice of heaven, ready for its close-up.