Trevor Hogg delves into Writing with Hitchcock by Steve DeRosa to explore the collaborations of director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes in the first of a two part feature…
“A lot of people embrace the auteur theory,” observed legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. “But it’s difficult to know what someone means by it. I suppose they mean that the responsibility of the film rests solely on the shoulders of the director. But very often the director is no better than his script.” Arguably, the most fruitful collaboration for Hitchcock was with American screenwriter John Michael Hayes; within a two period they produced Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).
Recalling how he became creatively involved with the British moviemaker, John Michael Hayes told Steve DeRosa, the author of Writing with Hitchcock, “Hitchcock had his agents and my agent get together for lunch; they handed me this book which had the short story in it called Rear Window. They told me, ‘You’re to meet Mr. Hitchcock on Friday night at the Beverly Hills Hotel for dinner. Read the story and be prepared to discuss it with him.’” When time came for the meeting Hitchcock was nowhere to be found. As Hayes headed for his car a taxi pulled up and his late host hurried out of the vehicle. Hayes called out, “Mr. Hitchcock?” to which the filmmaker replied, “No. Sorry. No autographs. I have a very important meeting.” Hayes surprised him when he responded with, “You have it with John Michael Hayes.” Without apologizing for his tardiness, the director ushered the screenwriter back into the Beverly Hills Hotel. Asked by Hitchcock to give an analysis of his movies, Hayes obliged by giving him critiques on Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946) and The 39 Steps (1935). After the meal, the two men went their separate ways with the topic of Rear Window never being discussed. On Monday morning Hayes received a phone call from his agent announcing, “You’re in. Hitchcock loved you.” A year later Hayes asked Hitchcock to explain why he hired him. “I remember meeting you and going in to eat, but I don’t remember anything after that,” admitted Hitchcock. “But you talked a lot, and on the assumption that a man talks a lot has something to say, I hired you. But don’t forget if I didn’t like you, two weeks later I could have let you go.”
Rear Window was first published in the February 1942 issue of Dime Detective under the title It Had to Be Murder. Hal Jeffries is confined to a single bedroom with an unscreened window; to fight off his boredom he watches the activities of his neighbours, one of whom may be a murderer. The tale, which is told in the first person, was inspired when author Cornell Woolrich discovered two giggling teenage girls staring at him from the apartment building next door as he wrote in his underwear. “We had to give Jefferies [given a slightly changed name] a reason to travel around the world, a dangerous occupation, and a reason to get his leg broken,” revealed John Michael Hayes as to why the main character was turned into a photojournalist. “It was more dramatic having it broken in the line of work, and not just slipping on the stairs.” The camera owned by Jefferies influenced the storytelling. “He had a telescopic lens we could use later with the picture of the flowers going up and down in the garden. He had flashbulbs to fend off the villain.” The occupation enabled the protagonist portrayed by James Stewart [Mr. Smith Goes to Washington] to realistically meet his glamorous love interest. “I spent a week with Grace Kelly [The Country Girl] and got to know that she was whimsical, funny, humorous, and teasing. She was like girl next door, but she was very sexy and had all these attributes. I had to give her a profession, so I gave her my wife’s profession – a high-style fashion model. I combined the best that I saw in Grace Kelly, the best in my wife, and created the character of Lisa.”
In order to make the story more interesting Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes decided to have Lisa Fremont pursue L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies as opposed to the other way around. “Jeff is afraid of the fact that if he and Lisa marry, she’ll get him to settle down in New York to do portraits, and he’ll miss all the excitement of life.” It has been suggested that the relationship between Lisa and Jeff was modeled on the love affair between Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight) and photojournalist Robert Capa. Hayes is quick to point out that he incorporated his own experiences into the romantically-charged liaison. “In the case of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, when Lisa was in danger, he suddenly realized how much she meant to him and that if anything happened to her, my God, life was worthless. That came out of my life. Before my wife and I were married, we decided to delay our marriage until I was more successful. We got into an automobile accident, and she was thrown out of the car and onto the highway.” The screenwriter from Massachusetts adds, “I believe in building your characters carefully. The more you know a character, the more you suffer when suspenseful things happen to them.”
“When we were casting Rear Window, they brought in all sorts of thuggy-looking people for [Lars] Thorwald, and you knew damn well that they killed their wives,” remarked John Michael Hayes. “We got Raymond Burr [Count Three and Pray], aged him, put rimless glasses on him and tried to disarm him. Yet he was such a good actor, there was an intensity about him that was tremendous, so when he turned and looked directly at the camera, everybody in the theatre moved back.” The screenwriter does not define the world by black and white. “I’ve never really written a pure villain. I think when a man becomes a villain there have to be reasons for it.” Contemplating the actions of Thorwald, Hayes observed, “One day, he had enough of his wife, had an affair on the side, and made a desperate move which was probably atypical of him. He thought nobody would notice.” A key role was that of Stella (Thelma Ritter), the wisecracking insurance company nurse. “I like a character like that to act as a Greek chorus, to tell us what might happen and to go to for comic relief because you can’t have unrestrained suspense all the time. You have to give your audience a chance to laugh, catch their breath, and get set for the next scary thing that’s going to happen.”
To enhance the gruesome nature of the murder and the detection of the crime, Alfred Hitchcock referred John Michael Hayes to two famous British murder trials. Patrick Mahon cut up his female victim and deposed of her body parts by throwing them out of the window of a train; and Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen poisoned his wife, dismembered her, and buried her remains in his basement. Hayes met daily with Hitchcock turning the screenplay into a shooting draft. “We sat down in his office and he broke up all the scenes into individual shots, made sketches of them, and laid out the picture.” The Hollywood Reporter wrote in 1954, “Rear Window is one of the directorial masterpieces of recent years. To keep it from being cold and technical Hitchcock adds to it the warmest love story he’s ever packed on the screen. In addition to revealing a new capacity for tenderness, the director shows an unsuspected flair for wisecracking comedy, particularly the scenes where Miss Ritter and [Wendell] Corey make expert use of the bright dialogue in John Michael Hayes’ screenplay.” The thriller which cost $1 million to make grossed $26 million and contended for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography – Colour, and Best Sound at the Oscars; it also received nominations from the BAFTAS, Directors Guild of America, and the Writers Guild of America.
For his next cinematic effort with the American wordsmith, Alfred Hitchcock decided to adapt To Catch a Thief; the novel penned by David Dodge revolves around a former convict who is suspected of orchestrating a number of jewelry robberies. The story was inspired by a series of French Riviera burglaries committed by Dario Sambucco during the 1950s. “We went over, they got a French assistant director as our guide, and we went down and did research,” recalled John Michael Hayes who was accompanied by his wife. “Plotting was not my greatest talent, dialogue and character were. I was presented with the same problem as Rear Window. You’ve got this basic background and all we had to do is just sit down and ask, ‘What if he did this? What if he did that?’ And gradually our plot grew.” The script and the source material deviated so much that Dodge stated, “All that survived in the end were the title, the names of some of the characters and the copyright, which was mine.” One significant change was making the criminal mastermind Bellini a restaurateur. “I learned that a lot of the people in the underground were restaurant workers – cooks, chefs, and waiters,” explained Hayes who modeled the illegal network on the French Resistance; however, instead of battling the Nazis, the eating establishment preyed upon its wealthy patrons. “Hitch and I thought we could get them all together as a group in Bellini’s restaurant. This would give the gang access to the wealthy. They could overhear their conversations, [and] judge the jewelry they wore.”
There were daily meetings between the filmmaker and his screenwriter. “We discussed in general terms story and character; he let me go on and write until I finished,” remarked John Michael Hayes who described Alfred Hitchcock as being not one to hand out compliments and very cordial when addressing changes which needed to be made. “Most of my conferences with Hitch concerned with his reminiscing about how he had solved some cinematic or story or problem.” Hayes was instructed to do an unusual task. “Hitchcock had me translate the script into French but more than that, we translated it back into English, so that the French actors would speak English with French idiom. I worked long and hard with a translator to get the script ready on time. I can’t imagine many producers doing that but Hitch did.” Language issues still ensued in particular with French actor Charles Vanel whose speeches as Bellini had to be shortened. “Hitch hired him because he saw him in The Wages of Fear  and never bothered to check whether he could speak English at all. They had his lines on a blackboard and he tried to look offstage and read the lines.”
Lead actor Cary Grant (Penny Serenade) liked to improvise during the principle photography. “We had to come up with a gimmick to forestall this because Hitch planned every script very carefully, down to the camera angles,” revealed John Michael Hayes. “When he did the scene as written, everyone from the grips to the lighting boys, broke out into applause.” French actress Brigitte Auber (The Man in the Iron Mask) endeared herself to the filmmaker. “She had a casual way of wearing a blouse which exposed her bosom frequently. Hitch, of course, was delighted with her. She brought a lot of humour and vivacity to the part. Grace [Kelly] was more reserved and Brigitte was more playful, more childlike. And of course, that was disarming. You couldn’t think of her as the jewel thief. She was just a lovely, effervescent young girl, in love with this older man, who kept saying, ‘Leave me alone. Go back to your dolls.’” The onscreen competition between the two women gave the screenwriter an opportunity to compose some crafty dialogue such as when Kelley responds to the playboy antics of Cary Grant with Auber by observing that it looked like they had been “conjugating some irregular verbs.”
“We had a fight only once and that was over the ending of To Catch a Thief, and it got to be quite bitter,” confessed John Michael Hayes. “I must have written a dozen endings for that picture. I had a scene that I liked. Cary Grant would like one. Grace Kelly would like one. And Hitch wouldn’t like it.” Hayes wanted to literally conclude the picture with a cliffhanger. “The ending I liked was with the little Sunbeam, Francie’s car, with which she took him for a ride over the Corniche and scared the hell out of him. I wanted the last love scene to be played in the car, on the edge of the road, overlooking Monte Carlo.” The final sequence features Grace Kelly following Cary Grant to his villa; her concluding line was changed from “So this is where you live? I think I’m going to like it.” to “So this is where you live? Oh, Mother will love it up here!” Explaining the reason for the alteration, Hitchcock said, “I didn’t want to wind up with a completely happy ending. It turns out that the mother-in-law will come and live with them, so the final note is pretty grim.” Film critic Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times, “In his accustomed manner, Mr. Hitchcock had gone at this job with an omnivorous eye for catchy details and a dandy John Michael Hayes script.” To Catch a Thief had a budget of $2.5 million and earned $9 million; it won Best Cinematography – Colour, and competed for Best Art Direction & Set Decoration – Colour, and Best Costume Design – Colour at the Academy Awards. John Michael Hayes received a Writers Guild of America Nomination while Alfred Hitchcock contended for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
The third collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes involved the discovery of a corpse and the movie debut of an Oscar-winning actress.
Continue to part two.
For more on the collaborations between Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes, check out Steve DeRosa’s book, Writing with Hitchcock.
Five Essential… Films of Alfred Hitchcock
Silent Master: The Early Films of Alfred Hitchcock
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.