Friday, May 21, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock and His Writers: An Overview

I was thinking that this would be a good time to give new readers a bit of backstory—a history of Alfred Hitchcock and his writers, and why I feel this is an aspect of his career deserving of much attention.

To Alfred Hitchcock the real creative work of making motion pictures was done in the office with the writer. Having participated in this process, Hitchcock was not only entitled to, but relished being praised an auteur. "A lot of people embrace the auteur theory," said Hitchcock. "But it's difficult to know what someone means by it. I suppose they mean that the responsibility for the film rests solely on the shoulders of the director. But very often the director is no better than his script."

From selection of the basic material, to the hiring (and firing) of every writer, to the final revision of the final shooting-script, Hitchcock involved himself in nearly every aspect of developing the screenplays for his films. Although he rarely did any actual "writing", especially on his Hollywood productions, Hitchcock supervised and guided his writers through every draft, insisting on a strict attention to detail, and a preference for telling the story through visual rather than verbal means. While this exasperated some writers, others admitted the director inspired them to do their very best work. Hitchcock often emphasized that he took no screen credit for writing his films, however over time, the contributions of many of his writers have been solely attributed to Hitchcock's creative genius, and he rarely went out of his way to correct this misconception. Notwithstanding his technical brilliance as a director, Hitchcock relied on his writers a great deal.

Legend has it that Robert Riskin—screenwriter of such Frank Capra classics as It Happened One Night, Meet John Doe, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town—was incensed that all the critics seemed to write about when discussing their movies was "the Capra touch." Riskin supposedly walked into Capra's office one day and dropped a pile of blank pages on his desk and told him to "give the Capra touch to that." While Hitchcock would have met the challenge had one of his writers done the same, all his cinematic tricks would have amounted to very little without the solid stories, sophisticated dialogue, and characterizations provided by his best writers.

Hitchcock's first job in film was as a designer of silent movie titles, which led him to work closely with the studio's writers. It was during this early apprenticeship that Hitchcock learned the fundamentals of writing movie scenarios, and he might have found his calling had his visual flare, technical proficiency, and exposure to the German cinema not made him more ideally suited to becoming a director than a film writer.

At least Michael Balcon, chief of Gainsborough pictures, thought so when he assigned Eliot Stannard to write Hitchcock's directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden. Stannard was a ten-year veteran of the British film industry with more than fifty scripts to his credit when he wrote Hitchcock's first five films for Gainsborough, including the breakthrough thriller, The Lodger. Ivor Montagu described Stannard as a consummate professional, whose method "was to sit down and tap it straight out on the typewriter as he thought of it, without change or erasement." Stannard followed Hitchcock to British International Pictures for two more films where his sure-handed writing freed the director to sharpen the visual skills that quickly set him apart from his contemporaries.

Hitchcock's transition from silent to talking pictures appropriately coincided with the beginning of his long association with screenwriter Charles Bennett. It was Bennett's own stage play Blackmail which Hitchcock adapted for the screen that became England's first "talkie". Four years later, Bennett and Hitchcock would reunite to make movie history. 

Beginning with The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, Hitchcock and Bennett closely collaborated on a string of innovative thrillers which combined a certain wit, freshness and originality that became trademarks of Hitchcock's style. Bennett's true genius was at story construction, and his scenarios were built on many devices now regarded as "Hitchcockian"—the 'MacGuffin', the double-chase, the charming villain, and the use of exotic locales woven dramatically into the plot. With Bennett, Hitchcock's cinematic vision had come into clear focus, and he also charted the course which the most successful of his screenwriting collaborations would take. Bennett described a typical workday with Hitchcock:

In the morning, I used to get up and pick up Hitch in Cromwell Road, where he lived, at ten o'clock exactly. And he would be sitting on the curb waiting for me, with Joan Harrison, who was our secretary... And then we would go to the studio where we would discuss the script and what I was doing with it ... Then at about one o'clock, everything would stop, and we'd go to lunch, always at the Mayfair Hotel, and have a wonderful lunch. Then come back and at that point, Hitch would usually go to sleep in the office, and I would do a little work, and possibly doze off too slightly. But eventually, at about five o'clock, we would go back to Hitchcock's flat where we would start having nice cocktails for the evening, and talk more and more and more about the script. And I think more work was done on the script in the evening over cocktails, than any other time.

Bennett and Hitchcock would meet each day until they completed a detailed treatment, of about 70 to 100 pages. Not until this treatment was completed would any dialogue be written. In Bennett's case, Hitchcock nearly always brought in other writers for dialogue. With Bennett's scripts for The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, and later Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock reached the zenith of his British period and Hollywood beckoned.

Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood in 1939 and although he worked with a number of distinguished American authors including Robert E. Sherwood and Dorothy Parker, these early efforts were largely stories set in England, or reworkings of his British successes. The director did not establish a truly American voice until his collaboration with playwright Thornton Wilder on Shadow of a Doubt. "This was one of those rare occasions when suspense and melodrama combined well with character," said Hitchcock. An even more fruitful association with Ben Hecht followed.

Hecht had a knack for crackling dialogue and strong characterizations honed from years as a Chicago newspaper reporter. Complemented by Hitchcock's plot twists and means of drawing suspense out of any situation, Hecht turned out two of the director's finest achievements of the 1940s, Spellbound and Notorious. "He was an extraordinary screenwriter and a marvelous man," said Hitchcock of Hecht. "We would discuss a screenplay for hours and then he would say, 'Well, Hitchie, write the dialogue you want and then I'll correct it.' Ben was like a chess player, he could work on four scripts at the same time." The collaboration could not last though, because in addition to being one of the busiest and most expensive screenwriters in Hollywood, Hecht was as notorious a self-promoter as Hitchcock.

Following Hecht, Hitchcock never worked with another writer whose reputation was at par with, or exceeded his own. This is also why Hitchcock's films were frequently adapted from lesser known novels and plays. Hitchcock learned a valuable lesson from his first Hollywood production, Rebecca, which was billed as "David O. Selznick's production of Daphne du Maurier's celebrated novel ... directed by Alfred Hitchcock." Thenceforth, whatever the source material, Hitchcock's name would not be over-shadowed by the original author's.

Following a string of commercial failures at Warner Brothers and his own company Transatlantic Pictures, Hitchcock moved to the Paramount Pictures Corporation where he turned out a series of upbeat comedies skillfully written by John Michael Hayes. The Hitchcock-Hayes collaboration produced four motion pictures in two years—Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much—and proved to be one of the most successful director-screenwriter pairings in Hollywood history.

"What I brought to Hitch was character, dialogue, movement, and entertainment," remembered Hayes. "And he supplied the suspense element. You see, if a writer goes to work with Hitchcock, he doesn't need to bring suspense with him, because Hitch has that." Hayes left an indelible mark on the director's canon, just as Charles Bennett did before him. With Hayes, Hitchcock's films attained the pinnacle of style and sophistication, highlighted by crisp dialogue. "It was a wonderful experience," said Hayes. "I learned a lot from Hitch about gourmet food, cigars and wine, in addition to learning about screenwriting. When we worked together there was a certain brightness to his movies, and we should have done more."

Like the comic-thrillers of Hitchcock's British period, the Hayes films shine like a beacon in an otherwise gloomy landscape. But even more than these early masterworks, Hitchcock's films with Hayes were consistent in their wit, originality, and sheer creative excellence. Theirs was a brilliant collaboration that should have continued, but Hayes committed the gravest of sins, challenging Hitchcock over a credit dispute on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Hayes won the battle, but Hitchcock severed the relationship. Following Hayes, Hitchcock never settled on an individual writer with whom he completed more than one consecutive film.

Hitchcock ended the 1950s working with screenwriters Samuel Taylor and Ernest Lehman, each of whom wrote one of the director's masterworks. According to Taylor, who wrote Vertigo, Hitchcock understood the difference between plot and story, observing that while the director's films were often looked down upon because of the genre in which he worked, the characters' stories were of great significance. "He preferred telling an inconsequential yarn," recalled Taylor, "but bringing to it all the artistry he had."

Ernest Lehman set out to write the "Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures." The result was the greatest Hitchcock chase film, North by Northwest. "He didn't go around like some imperious film producer-director," recalled Lehman. "He was very quiet, very unassuming, but everybody was afraid of his disapproval, and that's what made them do their best for him. You feared doing something that was below his standards."

As the cost of moviemaking began to skyrocket, Hitchcock chose to move away from writers like Lehman and Taylor who commanded high salaries. Thus he sought out less expensive (and less experienced) writers, and the quality of his films began to decline. Beginning with Joseph Stefano on Psycho, Hitchcock engaged a series of relative newcomers to write his films. This allowed Hitchcock to avoid paying high fees and maintain a comfortable level of control over his writers, but the scripts were often sorely in need of the skills of a Hayes, Taylor, or Lehman. John Michael Hayes observed, "Hitch relied on stars and suspense to sell his pictures, when he should have been concerned with the script more than anything else."

The 1960s were particularly troublesome for Hitchcock and his writers—The Birds screenwriter, Evan Hunter, was dismissed from Marnie when he refused to write the film's rape scene; after completing Marnie, Jay Presson Allen adapted J.M. Barrie's Mary Rose for Hitchcock, but the studio discouraged the director from proceeding with the film; and Brian Moore was so dissatisfied with his script that asked to have his name removed from Torn Curtain. Hitchcock had reached a point in his career where nearly every project he started required multiple writers, and even more projects were abandoned at the script stage. Joseph Stefano observed, "In a strange way, the rest of his movies were an attempt to top Psycho. He never got back to that nice leisurely going from one film to another that he had done before."

In the end, Hitchcock maintained no allegiance with any of his writers. Even Ernest Lehman, who reunited with the director for Family Plot, was replaced by another writer on The Short Night, the last project Hitchcock was preparing before his death in 1980. Perhaps then, the single most important collaborator of Hitchcock's career was his wife Alma Reville. For nearly fifty years when not directly involved in the writing of one of her husband's movies, Alma was always in the wings as Hitchcock's in-house story editor. Many of Hitchcock's writers attested to the fact that the director did not believe in flattery, and agreed that the greatest compliment one could receive from Hitchcock was that "Alma liked the screenplay very much."

Without a doubt, Alfred Hitchcock brought out the very best in his writers. Hitchcock's writers created absorbing storylines, peopled them with interesting characters, and provided them with compelling dialogue. Combined with Hitchcock's direction, they produced a body of work unmatched in the cinema.

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