Thursday, September 9, 2010

Had Hitchcock Heeded Peggy's Advice ...?

It was 45 years ago today—September 9, 1965—that Peggy Robertson, Alfred Hitchcock’s longtime personal assistant, did what might have been considered the unthinkable by her employer. After consulting with Lew Wasserman and trusted agent Ned Brown, Robertson included John Michael Hayes’s name on a list of writers suggested as possible script doctors for the ailing screenplay of Torn Curtain.

The trio Hitchcock relied upon for so long secretly hoped that the decade which passed since the falling out with Hayes might have softened the director’s attitude toward the writer that once helped put him back in the good graces of his audience with a string of box office successes—Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Such was not the case.

Although their reasoning was sound—production was scheduled to begin in less than 6 weeks—it was a matter of ego and principal not easy for Hitchcock to overcome. As it was, Hitchcock was indifferent to the other writers on Robertson’s list—one of which had just had an off-Broadway play produced which left the director unimpressed, and another who refused to fly and would only work in New York. It’s difficult not to imagine Hitchcock asking, “He doesn’t expect I’ll come to him, does he?”

And so in spite of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, which may have been more compelling than the script Hitchcock was about to direct, the once great team failed to come together. Although Robertson would try to reunite Hitchcock and Hayes at least twice more during the decade, I always come back to this date and wonder what might have been had Hitchcock been amenable to Robertson’s suggestion. It may be that even with Hayes's help Torn Curtain was beyond salvaging. The story had already drifted far from Hitchcock's original concept for the film, and the casting had left Hitchcock cold. But the "what ifs" remain. 

Torn Curtain made money, but by most accounts, it was the first time in a long time that Hitchcock went forward with a movie that he didn’t want to make. When it happened in his mid-30s (Waltzes from Vienna), he was able to bounce back mightily, as the best of his creative energies hadn’t even been tapped yet. When it happened in his late-40s (The Paradine Case), he  was already looking forward to the greener pastures of independence from David Selznick. But on the wrong side of 65 years of age and with his one-time agent (Wasserman) now effectively his boss, bouncing back from Torn Curtain would be another matter entirely.

Of course you can read all about it in Writing with Hitchcock.


Unknown said...

Ah but bounce back he did! Frenzy can hold its head high among the sturdy Hitchcock films of the 40's. And really, compared to Topaz, Torn Curtain looks almost classical. In fact, the great critic Robin Wood compared Torn Curtain, with its self-contained episodes and theme of dangerous escape home, to Homer's Odyssey.

Anonymous said...

Well, it seems as long as the Odyssey ;)

stevenderosa said...

@Msneedle ... it does. That Countess Kuchinska sequence is painful.

stevenderosa said...

Agreed on FRENZY for a variety of reasons—exceptional script, very well acted, no stars forced to fit the Hitchcock mold, suspense, humor, it's Hitchcock back in top form.

All due respect to the late Robin Wood, yes, TORN CURTAIN's references to Homer's Odyssey are in your face, but do not make it a successful film.

Joel Gunz said...

Of course, there were other factors militating against Hitch - age and Wasserman, as you mentioned, but also the deaths of many of Hitch's longtime collaborators. Plus, he'd had relative dry spells before. (That said, the uneven TOPAZ has several brilliant scenes (watch the "director's cut" on DVD - it hangs together much better), FRENZY is first-rate and FAMILY PLOT is lively, if light, as were MR. AND MRS SMITH and TO CATCH A THIEF before it.) Another what if: What if Hitch had taken better care of his body and lived for another decade? What could THE SHORT NIGHT have been?

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