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The Great Screenwriters – Part 9: Ernest Lehman

By Martin Keady · October 15, 2016

Today Ernest Lehman is principally remembered as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s coterie of writers, with whom Hitchcock created a succession of classics in the 1950s, including Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and finally North by Northwest (1959), which Lehman himself wrote.  However, Lehman was also a hugely successful screenwriter both before and after working with Hitchcock, writing or co-writing such defiantly “non-Hitchcockian” movies as Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Sound of Music (1965) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).  As such, he deserves to escape the “Fat Man’s” shadow.


Like so many great American screenwriters, Lehman was born in New York, in 1915, and also went to college there.  Unlike so many American screenwriters, however, he did not “head west” at the first opportunity but instead worked in the Big Apple for several years, initially as a copywriter for a theatrical publicity firm (which his original story for Sweet Smell of Success was based upon) and then as the writer of short stories and novellas for magazines including Cosmopolitan.  As a result of this success, he was offered a screenwriting contract by Paramount Pictures and eventually found himself working in California.


Lehman also differed from most American screenwriters in that he hit pay-dirt first time out, rather than having to struggle for years as a “script doctor” (rewriting, usually without credit, the scripts of others). His first screenplay for Paramount was Executive Suite (1954), an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Cameron Hawley. It examined the internecine struggles of corporate America (which was just beginning to exert its global grip in the wake of WWII) by telling the story of the board members of a large manufacturing company after its chief executive suddenly dies.  Starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck, the film was a major success, both commercially and critically, earning four Academy Award nominations. Although Lehman was not nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay, the success of the film established him in the top rank of Hollywood screenwriters and he suddenly found the greatest directors of the day gravitating towards him.


The first of those great directors to employ Lehman’s sharp wit and detailed knowledge of the inner workings of American institutions (such as large companies) was Billy Wilder, who worked with Lehman to adapt Samuel A. Taylor’s successful play, Sabrina Fair, for the screen.  The ensuing adaptation, simply called Sabrina (1954), is famous for starring the two men who were probably Hollywood’s greatest “alpha males” of the 1950s – Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. They play two brothers who both become besotted with the daughter of their chauffeur, played by Audrey Hepburn, when she returns from studying abroad.  Although Sabrina undoubtedly owes much of its success to the sheer “star power” of the leads, particularly Hepburn, who consolidated the breakthrough success she had achieved in Roman Holiday a year earlier, it also has a witty script that allowed Wilder, the consummate “actor’s director”, to get the best out of his cast.  In addition, Lehman had showed, once again, that he was Hollywood’s “go-to” man for adaptations of work in other media, such as novels or plays. 


What is especially impressive about Lehman is that he may have started at the top in cinema, with both his first two screenplays enjoying great success, but, unlike so many people in cinema, he remained there.  He obviously prized quality over quantity, writing or co-writing only 14 films throughout his entire career of nearly 25 years, but almost all of them are memorable and many are masterpieces. Indeed, it could be argued that Lehman’s 1950s was almost as successful as Hitchcock’s, only much more varied in subject matter and style.


The film with which Lehman completed his opening hat-trick of successful screenplays was another adaptation, but this time it was not of a novel or a play but of a musical, Oscar Hammerstein’s The King and I.  Lehman was probably helped by the fact that the producer of the film was himself a renowned screenwriter, Charles Brackett, who had co-written the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950) with Billy Wilder before their writing partnership broke up and Brackett struck out on his own as a writer-producer.  The King and I was the first of four hugely successful adaptations of stage musicals by Lehman, a remarkable “hit rate” for a screenwriter in any genre let alone in the traditionally difficult musical genre.


After the success of Lehman’s trio of adaptations, Hollywood finally became interested in his own ideas, and the result was one of the darkest and most genuinely perverse American films ever made.  Sweet Smell of Success (there is no definite article) was based on Lehman’s own experiences on Broadway, a locale that could be every bit as hucksterish and amoral as Hollywood itself.  Indeed, the central character in the film, Sidney Falco (memorably played by Tony Curtis), is a press agent of the kind that Lehman himself had been, desperately trying to gain the attention of and favourable mentions from a newspaper columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (immortally inhabited by Burt Lancaster).


Sweet Smell of Success was originally a novella by Lehman, but it was electrified for the screen by the involvement of two other stellar talents: Clifford Odets, the great playwright who had fallen on hard times and needed the adaptation money; and Alexander ‘Sandy’ Mackendrick, the brilliant British director who had overseen several Ealing classics, including the greatest (and “Ealingest”) Ealing comedy of them all, The Ladykillers (1955).  As legend has it, Odets adapted Lehman’s prose for the screen in a three-week burst of hotel food and amphetamine abuse, while Mackendrick took the final script and produced probably the greatest first-time success (at least artistically) of any foreign director in America.  The result was a masterpiece that is as dark and dizzying as hashish (drugs feature prominently in the story, as Falco is ordered by Hunsecker to plant them on a jazz musician he disapproves of). Indeed, when it comes to thinking of a darker masterpiece that has been made since, I am minded to quote the great Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap: “None more black”.


Lehman’s first four films were such successes (Sweet Smell of Success may not have enjoyed the commercial success of Executive Suite, Sabrina or The King and I but it was critically lauded) that he then gained the Hollywood equivalent of royal patronage – an invitation to work with Alfred Hitchcock.


It is almost impossible now to fully understand the impact that “Hitch” had on 1950s screen culture (both film and television), because no director before or since has come close to matching either his on-screen success or his off-screen presence. Indeed, so successful were his movies and his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which was basically a series of Hitchcockian mini-movies, directed by Hitchcock himself and others), that even his silhouette, which was used in the title sequence of the TV series, became world-famous.  And that cultural and commercial clout was converted by Hitchcock into a series of big-screen suspense masterpieces, of which North by Northwest is one of the finest.


In his superb analysis of Hitchcock’s working practices, Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks, the film critic Dan Auiler examined Hitchcock’s work during his “golden age” of the 50s in meticulous detail. Hitchcock would often help to co-write his screenplays (usually without taking screenwriting credit) by locking himself and his principal writer away in a hotel room to produce detailed notes and pages of dialogue that Hitchcock’s secretary, who was the only other person present, would type up immediately. This process continued on-set, as Cary Grant worked alongside Lehman to hone and refine the lines of Roger O. Thornhill, the advertising executive who has to go on the run after being wrongly identified as a Government agent.  However, this detailed distillation of the story and the dialogue was ultimately vindicated in the realisation of the chase movie that Hitchcock had long had in mind, and which was originally called The Man On Lincoln’s Nose.


North by Northwest is such a great film that it is perhaps not surprising that, despite all his other successes in other genres, Lehman became closely identified (even synonymous) with it.  The screenplay was another testament to his genius at adapting material for the screen, in this case Hitchcock’s long-held desire to create a movie that would culminate in a shoot-out on Mount Rushmore.  (Hence his original title.)  He took Hitchcock’s ideas, especially for such set-pieces as the chase across the presidential faces, and converted them into one of the greatest cinematic adventures, involving murder at the UN, attack by a crop-duster and the famous ending of the film. In fact, the ending is so good that William Goldman, an eminent screenwriter himself and author of the screenwriting bible, Adventures in the Screen Trade, memorably described it as “the most economical” ending ever filmed, as all the various plot twists and knots are instantly and seamlessly smoothed out.


On the one hand, given the success of North by Northwest (for which Lehman received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay), it is astonishing that Hitchcock and Lehman did not work together again for nearly two decades. On the other hand, it is not that surprising, given both Hitchcock’s penchant for working with different writers (between 1950 and 1960 he worked with, among others, Patricia Highsmith, Cornell Woolrich and John Michael Hayes) and Lehman’s own ability to work in several different genres and not just in suspense, which Hitchcock had made completely and utterly his own.


Indeed, it could be argued that Lehman’s 1960s were almost as successful as his 1950s, and they were certainly more successful than Hitchcock’s 1960s, with Hitchcock seeming to lose his way after the ultimate psych-out of Psycho (1960).  Lehman’s greatest successes in the decade were again in adapting stage musicals for the big screen, beginning with West Side Story (1961), reaching peak success with The Sound of Music (1965) and culminating with Hello Dolly! (1969), which he also produced.  His priceless ability to construct meaningful, even memorable dialogue for the “scenes between the songs” was a factor in the success of all three films, grounding even their greatest flights of fantasy in realistic verbal exchanges.


However, Lehman was obviously not content with simply being the writer best able to translate musicals into cinema, because he also returned to the darkness and desire of Sweet Smell of Success with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which he also produced.  Edward Albee’s play was an extraordinary piece of stagecraft, but it was Lehman who brought it to the screen, alongside, of course, director Mike Nichols and its stars, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, for whom it would be the ultimate cinematic legacy. 


Lehman finally worked with Hitchcock again on Hitch’s final movie, Family Plot (1976), but it was an unworthy addition to the vast Hitchcock canon (or even the considerably smaller but still impressive Lehman canon).  Of far greater interest is Lehman’s final screenplay for Black Sunday, the adaptation of the debut novel by Thomas Harris, who would go on to achieve fame as the creator of Hannibal Lecter.  Black Sunday (1977) is not a great film but it is still memorable as one of those 70s blockbusters that contain more ideas than a whole summer’s worth of blockbusters today.  With its story of a deranged Vietnam veteran conspiring with Palestinian terrorists to crash the Goodyear blimp into the Super Bowl crowd, Black Sunday was, if nothing else, a presentiment of the dangers of aerial attack on US civilians, nearly a quarter of a century before the 9/11 atrocities.


Lehman continued to write novels and TV miniseries virtually until his death in 2005, but it was his screen adaptations and original screenplays that were his lasting legacy.  He was such a successful screenwriter that William Goldman included him in his “Top 10” list of screenwriters in Adventures in the Screen Trade (alongside luminaries such as Billy Wilder and Woody Allen).  Although his incredible status and success as a screenwriter may be largely forgotten today (like those of so many screenwriters of the past), he deserves to be remembered as more than just one of “Hitchcock’s writers”.  He was a truly great and versatile screenwriter, and North by Northwest was just one of his many fine scripts.