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By Martin Keady · January 9, 2023
Alfred Hitchcock had already enjoyed a nearly 20-year career as a director in England, producing both silent classics such as The Lodger (1927) and sound classics such as The Lady Vanishes (1938), when David O. Selznick wooed him to Hollywood in 1939. Eager to escape inevitable war in Europe, Hitchcock accepted Selznick’s overly controlling contract and joined other English luminaries, including W.H. Auden, in crossing (or fleeing across, as many at the time said) the Atlantic.
Over the next quarter-century or so, Alfred Hitchcock became the central member of a trio of British artists who would conquer America, and with it the world, in the 20th century. Just like Chaplin before him and The Beatles afterward, Hitchcock first documented American obsessions and then refracted them through his own uniquely twisted mind. The result was a collection of classic films that even today, nearly 60 years after his last masterpiece, remain among the finest movies ever made.
This is a collection of 10 screenplays for films that Alfred Hitchcock made in America, from Rebecca (1940) to The Birds (1963).
The source story for Rebecca was Daphne du Maurier’s novel about the second wife of a rich widower who gradually discovers the disturbing truth about her predecessor, which enjoys the rare distinction of being both a best-seller and a classic. Selznick had already overseen the transition to the screen of another such novel, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (1939), and hired Alfred Hitchcock to repeat the trick. Hitchcock, who had acquired artistic independence in England by the time he left, chafed under Selznick’s controlling hand. Nevertheless, the result was a triumph for both men and one of the most truly Gothic films ever made.
Ben Hecht (https://thescriptlab.com/features/main/3454-the-great-screenwriters-part-2-ben-hecht/) was one of the first Hollywood screenwriters and also one of the greatest. Having been a crime reporter and then a Broadway playwright, he was summoned to California by his friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, with what is probably the most famous telegram ever written: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
Notorious is one of Hecht’s finest screenplays and also represented a breakthrough for Alfred Hitchcock; indeed, its combination of glamour and danger provided the template for many of his later films. Made just after the end of WW2, it shows a US agent, played by Cary Grant, recruiting the daughter of a Nazi, played by Ingrid Bergman, in an attempt to infiltrate other Nazis who have fled to Brazil. Although Notorious is largely celebrated for featuring probably the most beautiful couple ever to appear on screen together (Grant and Bergman), most of its success belongs to the far less cinegenic “couple” behind the camera, Hitchcock and Hecht.
Alfred Hitchcock’s contract with Selznick finally expired after Notorious and he immediately set about trying to re-establish control over his career. One of the first products of his new-found freedom was Rope, based on Patrick Hamilton’s play about a “perfect murder” that was inspired by the actual murder of a teenager by two college students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, whose surnames, like those of Burke and Hare, have been linked together in infamy ever since.
Arguably, Rope provided Hitchcock with the defining idea of his career, one that he used to draw the distinction between horror (which he initially abjured) and suspense (which he eventually perfected). He said that horror was when a bomb went off in a room and suspense was when the audience was aware of a bomb’s presence before it went off, or as he put it: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”. There was no bomb in the room in Rope, but there was a corpse in a chest, hiding in plain sight, and Hitchcock employed this device, or variations on it, in many of his later films.
Strangers On A Train also featured two men plotting a “perfect murder”. However, whereas the Leopold and Loeb-alikes in Rope knew each other and planned their murder together, in Strangers On A Train the two “murderers” are, as the title suggests, unknown to each other until they meet by chance in transit. Even more importantly, only one of them is a killer. However, after he kills the first man’s wife in the expectation that the other man will then kill the father he loathes, both are locked together.
Such was Alfred Hitchcock’s success after escaping Selznick’s control that he was able to work with the very best writers. Indeed, he worked with two of the finest crime writers of all on Strangers On A Train, with Raymond Chandler being one of the screenwriters who adapted the original novel by Patricia Highsmith, who became The Queen of Suspense to Hitchcock’s King. The only shame is that Hitchcock never filmed Highsmith again, as it would have been fascinating to see what he made of her great anti-hero, Tom Ripley, who instead would be filmed by many other fine film-makers, from René Clément to Anthony Minghella.
For Chandler and Highsmith on Strangers On A Train, read John Michael Hayes and Cornell Woolrich on Rear Window. Hayes would virtually become Alfred Hitchcock’s personal screenwriter for much of the 1950s, writing four of his films in that decade (two of which are in this collection), while Cornell Woolrich was an extremely successful crime novelist. And both men produced probably their best work on Rear Window and its source story, It Had To Be Murder, which may be the greatest compression drama (or limited-setting story) ever filmed.
Hitchcock himself was not a writer; although credited as such on several of his English films, he never wrote any of his American films. Why would he, when he had his pick of the finest American writers and, equally importantly, had his wife Alma act as his personal script reader and supervisor? Her seminal importance to her husband’s career is explored in the 2012 biopic Hitchcock, which is as much about her as it is about him.
Instead, Alfred Hitchcock was the ultimate story-boarder, transfiguring the written word into compelling visual imagery. Indeed, he often said that the most satisfying part of filmmaking was the initial storyboarding process and that the subsequent filming was actually less interesting. Nevertheless, Rear Window stands as the perfect testament to both his initial conception and his final filmmaking.
Alfred Hitchcock followed both Rear Window and Vertigo, his two darkest masterpieces of the 1950s, with far lighter films, To Catch A Thief and North by Northwest. Perhaps he wanted to show his range, or perhaps he just wanted to cleanse his audience’s palette after such chewy, even gruesome fare.
To Catch A Thief comes close to matching the chemistry of Grant and Bergman in Notorious in pairing Grant with Grace Kelly, the most dazzling blonde. Of course, the irony is that To Catch A Thief eventually led to Kelly (who Hitchcock reportedly spied on for real, as well as through a movie camera) being stolen away from him by Prince Albert of Monaco; in making a film about cat burglary on the French Riviera, he inadvertently brought her to the attention of European aristocracy. Hitchcock may have been cinematic royalty by this time, but he couldn’t compete with actual royalty and Kelly eventually retired from film-making to become a real queen.
Having lost his ultimate blonde, Alfred Hitchcock spent several years searching for a replacement: first, Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), who was just too clean-cut; and then, finally, Kim Novak in Vertigo. And all that longing and searching would go into his greatest film.
In 2012, Vertigo achieved what had previously seemed unthinkable by dislodging Citizen Kane from the top spot in the Sight and Sound poll of global film critics to determine the Best 100 Films Ever Made. And even if it subsequently lost that top spot this year to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an entirely different vision of womanhood by a female film-maker, its presence at No.2 remains proof of its enduring quality.
Even more than Fellini’s 8½, Vertigo might just be the greatest film about film-making, only it is not about the film (or computer files) we load into cameras (or camera phones) but, crucially, the films we make and play in our minds. Those internal and intensely personal films are the most important ones we ever see. And so Jimmy Stewart’s literally vertically challenged detective attempts to recreate the woman he was unable to save from falling to her death, without realizing, until it is too late, just how futile and dangerous that is.
Consequently, Vertigo might also be Alfred Hitchcock’s most autobiographical film. That might seem counter-intuitive, but in all his “thrillers” and “suspenses” the adult Hitchcock was effectively trying to recreate the most terrifying night of his childhood when his father infamously had him locked up temporarily in a police cell for petty theft. Whether the story was true or not, the childhood fear was real and Hitchcock spent the rest of his life gaining revenge by terrifying all the adults in the world.
Ernest Lehman was another great screenwriter who Alfred Hitchcock hired to realize his fears or fantasies. Fortunately for Lehman, he was hired to realize the latter, because North by Northwest, just like To Catch A Thief after Rear Window, was the merciful release after the slow agony of Vertigo. But that is not to diminish it in any way, because North by Northwest may be Hitchcock’s most purely enjoyable film.
Fittingly, North by Northwest was a fantasy based on a fantasy. As is eventually revealed, the spy who Cary Grant’s advertising agent is mistaken for does not actually exist; he was a concoction by the US secret services to try and flush out foreign spies. And as is also acknowledged, that idea was based on the actual invention of a fictitious spy by British forces during WW2, when they tried to convince the Nazis that they were planning to invade Sicily rather than Normandy. Alfred Hitchcock would have enjoyed the irony of Operation Mincemeat, as it was called, eventually being filmed in 2021, with the initial fantasy behind North by Northwest finally being realized on screen.
After Vertigo, it was as if Alfred Hitchcock realized that he had reached the end of the line with suspense and so in Psycho he effectively invented a new cinematic genre – horror. Of course, there had long been horror movies, notably the Universal horror movies of the 1930s, such as Frankenstein, which created horror archetypes that persist to this day. But typically Hitchcock was far more interested in the monsters within us, or the internal horror of the psychopath, or “psycho” for short.
He found the perfect source material in the novel of that name by Robert Bloch, which was inspired by the true story of Ed Gein, the original “American Psycho” who, just like Norman Bates, was dominated by his mother to the extent that he tried to become her. However, what Alfred Hitchcock realized was that such horrific material was even better suited to cinema than literature because in cinema the audience would literally see the world through the killer’s eyes.
The story of Alfred Hitchcock in America really ends how it began, with the adaptation of another Daphne du Maurier story. Rebecca launched Hitchcock’s Hollywood career and The Birds, in which flocks of birds attack a village, effectively ended it, because he would never make another great film again. Marnie (1964), his troubled and troubling story about childhood trauma and rape, marked the end of his imperial phase, which had begun with Vertigo five years earlier, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest imperial phases in all of cinema.
Many would argue that The Birds itself marked the end and that it does not compare to Vertigo or Psycho. And yet in our increasingly all-digital, all-artificial age of film-making in the 21st century, The Birds is at the very least a technical masterpiece: a triumph of real film-making, in which actual birds (augmented by some mechanical ones) are used to inflict terror.
In fact, the terror of star Tippi Hedren was all too real, as she was subjected to numerous takes – and attacks. And her subsequent account of that ordeal has probably been Exhibit A in the attacks upon Alfred Hitchcock himself in recent years, namely that he was a voyeur (guilty as charged, certainly on screen and almost certainly of it) and a misogynist (case not proven, as is allowed in Scottish law, because he simultaneously worshipped and feared women, both of which are evident on screen). However, he was also a great filmmaker, and never more so than in America.