Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Short Night — The Last Script Prepared by Alfred Hitchcock

Some thoughts on one of Alfred Hitchcock's unproduced projects—The Short Night—comparing Ernest Lehman's first and second drafts to the draft published in David Freeman's The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock

To provide a little background, The Short Night is based on a novel by Ronald Kirkbride, which was based on the true account of British spy George Blake who as a double-agent for the Soviet Union, blew the cover of some 400 MI6 agents, damaging British and US intelligence operations in Eastern Europe. Blake was exposed by a Soviet defector in 1961 (shades of Topaz), and following a high profile trial at the Old Bailey, was found guilty and given a 42 year prison sentence. In 1966, Blake escaped and made his way across Europe to the Soviet Union. Sean Bourke, a former prison-mate who helped mastermind Blake's escape, published a non-fiction account in 1970 called The Springing of George Blake. Hitchcock acquired the rights to both books, but would roughly follow the storyline of the novel, where an American sets out on a mission to stop the escaped traitor from reaching his destination, and along the way he encounters the fugitive's wife and children.

Following Family Plot, Hitchcock went to work on preparing a screenplay for The Short Night. After failing to get anywhere with a writer recommended by Universal, Hitchcock called in Ernest Lehman. After Lehman penned two drafts, the director worked closley with his longtime associate and friend Norman Lloyd, and finally with a young screenwriter named David Freeman, who would ultimately publish a book about his brief collaboration with Hitchcock along with the resulting unfilmed script.

Although David Freeman had the benefit of having his draft published, much of Ernest Lehman’s structure, and sometimes, whole scenes, remain intact in Freeman's draft of The Short Night. Now, as much as I have a preference for Lehman's work, Freeman’s draft does make some significant improvements. The prison break being the main one. Gavin Brand’s escape is the catalyst for the whole story—so I think it was key to show this. Had Hitchcock kept Lehman on board, I don't doubt that one of them would have decided that opening the film with Brand's escape over Joe Bailey in a Manhattan office building after the escape was superior and necessary. But at least two more drafts were written before any escape seqeunce was added. I also think from a movie hero’s perspective, having Joe save Carla (Brand's wife) from her near death-by-sauna scene is better than having Joe bound and nearly axed, until he is saved by Detective Linnankoski.

There are perhaps more “Hitchcockian” moments in the Lehman drafts. Such as a sequence where Joe Bailey is towed from Squirrel Island back to the mainland by Sven Mihkelsson. As the two boats move peacefully across the lake, Mihkelsson maneuvers the boat so that Joe comes right along the path of the oncoming ferry nearly killing him. Mihkelsson laughs it off when Joe confronts him.

Another is Joe overhearing Mrs. Mihkelsson tell Brand about Carla’s betrayal and true intentions. Brand then says they’ll take care of Carla quietly once they’re across the border in the Soviet Union. Thus, Joe cannot let Carla go.

But…both of these moments are quite similar to scenes Hitchcock and Lehman used before. The first reminds me of Joe Maloney taking care of Blanche and Lumley’s brakes in Family Plot and the second is right out of North by Northwest, when Thornhill overhears Leonard and Vandamm plotting to eliminate Eve once they’re in flight.

Lehman’s draft does not have the scene in the tall reeds and there is no hunting of Joe by Brand. In Lehman's second draft, Brand gets to the island, reunites briefly with Carla, learns Carla’s true intentions, collects his boys and Carla then leaves, while Joe is tied up—literally—by Sven Mihkelsson. In Lehman’s first draft, Brand is killed during his struggle with Joe on the train, and in the second draft, Brand is arrested by Linnankoski after his struggle with Joe. In Freeman’s draft, Brand escapes to the Soviet Union, but without Carla and the boys.

Although some have said The Short Night had the potential to be something like Notorious, I’ve always felt The Short Night to be more of another take on Secret Agent. Like Secret Agent, we have a somewhat reluctant protagonist being sent on a mission to assassinate a spy. He falls for a blonde, has second thoughts about the killing, and there’s a big finale on a train that’s headed close to the “enemy border.”

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