Alfred Hitchcock’s Collaborators: John Michael Hayes

2 01 2011

By the mid-1950s, Alfred Hitchcock’s working relationship with his writers had become very complex. On some pictures, Hitchcock, a writer, and Hitch’s wife and confidant, Alma Reville, would meet for a series of story conferences to discuss the movie in development, often over long, elaborate dinners. Hitchcock would describe the story and his ideas on everything from character to costuming to camera angles. After several of these meetings, the first writer would create a detailed treatment that could run upwards of fifty pages.

A second writer would be brought in to break the treatment down into the first draft screenplay. After revisions, Hitchcock might bring in a third writer to add information about the camera angles and settings. If needed, a fourth writer might polish the script, as Dorothy Parker had on “Saboteur” in 1942.

In 1954, Hitchcock began a four-picture collaboration with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. These four movies — “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” — represent some of Hitchcock’s most intelligent stories, with sophisticated, believable characters.

Nearly twenty years younger than Hitchcock, Hayes had been born in Worcester, Massachusetts. After working as a reporter for the Associated Press, he paid his dues in Hollywood as a writer for radio comedies and dramas including “The Adventures of Sam Spade,” “My Favorite Husband” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” He quickly gained a reputation as a prolific writer of scripts that were sharp, funny and exciting.

After writing only a handful of films, Hayes was invited by Hitchcock to meet in regard to a possible collaboration on “Rear Window.” Over dinner, Hitchcock asked whether Hayes was familiar with his movies. Hayes, who had been a projectionist in the Army, had indeed seen many of Hitchcock’s pictures, some dozens of times. Hayes launched into a detailed critique of the director’s films; afterward, Hayes was surprised that Hitchcock had hired him. He later learned that Hitchcock could remember little about their conversation other than Hayes talking a lot, as he had come from a cocktail party where he had had several drinks.

Hayes began work on “Rear Window,” creating a seventy-five page treatment that was considered so good that Paramount gave out copies of it to staff writers for years thereafter as an example of how to write a treatment. In “Rear Window,” Hayes creates a dynamic between photographer L.B. Jeffries and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont that is subtle and believable. They not only have to solve the murder; they also must make their relationship work.

Hayes takes a similar approach in “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” There is the surface problem: John Robie must not only prove his innocence but must also emerge from his life of isolation to form a bond with Francie Stevens; Sam Marlowe and Jennifer Rogers need to find out how Harry died so they and their friends can rest easy and so they can be married; Dr. Ben McKenna and Jo Conway McKenna must rescue their son while reconciling the conflicts between their two careers. Hayes loads his dialogue with meaning; characters don’t merely talk but give us insights into their motivations, their fears and desires.

The breakneck pace of Hitchcock’s production schedule kept Hayes constantly busy; while one picture was shooting or in post-production, Hayes was working on the treatments and scripts for the next ones. The movies were released to strong reviews that called out Hayes’ intelligent scripts in particular, raising his profile. Hitchcock may have begrudged Hayes his accolades; Hitchcock felt he had taught Hayes much of his craft, and that the writer was not sufficiently grateful. Also, Hayes’ fees were rising, which could not have made Hitchcock happy, despite the fact that that it was their work together, and Hitchcock’s direction, that improved Hayes’ standing as a writer. Hayes also dared to tell Hitchcock that he did not think “The Wrong Man” was a particularly good subject for a film.

The issue that broke up this collaboration effort was more complicated than hurt feelings, though. To expedite work on “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Hitchcock brought in another writer, Angus McPhail, who had worked on the script to “Spellbound” and on Hitchcock’s wartime propaganda films. McPhail sat in on the story sessions, contributing, to Hayes’ mind, very little, then wrote up the notes in a cursory manner. When McPhail’s name appeared side by side with Hayes in the credits for the film, Hayes lodged a complaint with Paramount Studios. The issue went before a Writers’ Guild of America abritration board, which ultimately decided in favor of Hayes. Hitchcock took Hayes’ action as a betrayal, and the two never worked together again.

In the mid-1960s, while Hitchcock struggled with the script to “Torn Curtain,” those closest to the director urged him to contact Hayes. Hitchcock never did so; Hayes later said that had Hitchcock reached out to him, he would have been happy to work with the Master of Suspense again.

After “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Hayes continued writing in Hollywood, with credits including “Peyton Place,” “Butterfield 8,” “The Children’s Hour” and “Nevada Smith.” He continued to write and also teach writing, and was honored with the Writers’ Guild Screen Laurels Awards in his later years. Hayes died on November 19, 2008.

You can read more about Hayes and Hitchcock’s collaboration in Steven DeRosa’s excellent book “Writing with Hitchcock,” which you can order here.

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4 responses

3 01 2011
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

As a writer, I’m always interested in hearing how my fellow writers work, plus I’m a fan of John Michael Hayes, so I found this blog post to be especially intriguing reading. I agree with you that it’s the characters’ combination of complexity and rooting interest that makes Hayes’ scripts so good. That’s why REAR WINDOW, TO CATCH A THIEF, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, and the 1956 remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH still feel fresh and relevant to this day. It’s a shame the relationship between Hitchcock and Hayes eventually crumbled, but at least we have those great movies to remember them by.

3 01 2011
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

My husband Vinnie Bartilucci suggested I share our REAR WINDOW story with you from 2001. Basically, it’s a correspondence between film historian Robert Harris and me. Here it is:

E-Mails Exchanged Between Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci and Robert A. Harris Re REAR WINDOW

Subject: Changed Line in REAR WINDOW?
Date: Wed, 14 Mar 2001 09:56:06 -0800
To: robert_harris@filmpreserve.com
From: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci (E-mail address changed since then)

Dear Mr. Harris:

First off, I want to tell you what a superb job you and James Katz have been doing on your recent restoration projects! In particular, REAR WINDOW has been one of my favorite films for years, and seeing your restored version made me feel like I was seeing an entirely new movie! However, the new DVD release made me feel like it was even newer than I realized.

You see, in the scene where sculptor “Miss Hearing Aid” (Jesslyn Fax) is asked the name of her current work-in-progress, she answers “Hunger” — but in the theatrical re-releases (as well as on the VHS and laserdisc versions of REAR WINDOW that I’ve seen), she calls the sculpture “A Lift.” Was any new dialogue looped into the DVD edition, or is this an alternate take, or is there some other explanation?

I realize how busy you must be, Mr. Harris, but any response you send would be most helpful. Thank you in advance for any light you can shed on this mystery (a mystery worthy of Hitchcock! 🙂 ).

Sincerely,
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Subject: Re: Changed Line in REAR WINDOW?
Date: Mon, 12 Mar 2001 22:17:51 -0800
From: robert_harris@filmpreserve.com
To: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

While I can’t vouch for anything that occurred on past video releases, our tracks were derived directly from the earliest extant 35mm track prints c. 1954 and 1962.

If something other than this line crept into the film, it might
have been for TV or other alternate. Although I’ll check original
dialogue continuities and let you know of anything unusual,
this is the track as presented in 1954.

Thanks for taking an interest in our work. It’s appreciated.

Best,

RAH

Re: Changed Line in REAR WINDOW?
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2001 23:16:19 –0500
From: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci
To: robert_harris@filmpreserve.com

Dear Mr. Harris,

Thank you so much for your prompt and informative response to my question! If you do indeed find out any new information about Jesslyn Fax’s dialogue, I’ll be interested in hearing about it. In the meantime, keep up the terrific work — it’s great to see folks like you and Mr. Katz working so hard to preserve classic films like REAR WINDOW!

All best,
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Subject: Re: Changed Line in REAR WINDOW?
Date: Wed, 14 Mar 2001 09:56:06 -0800
From: robert_harris@filmpreserve.com
To: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci
Further to your query, we have checked the original screenplay dated 1953 — final draft. There is no line for her.

RAH

Subject: Re: Changed Line in REAR WINDOW?
Date: Thu, 15 Mar 2001 21:17:43 -0500
From: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci
To: robert_harris@filmpreserve.com

Dear Mr. Harris:

Very useful information indeed. Looks like Hitchcock allowed some room for improvisation despite his love of storyboarding and overall order! 🙂 Thanks again for being so helpful and informative — we Hitchcock fans and film history aficionados sure appreciate it!

Sincerely,
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

And then something else came to my attention to ask Bob Harris about…

Subject: Did You Co-Author Hitchcock Book?
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2001 12:44:18 -0500
From: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci
To: robert_harris@filmpreserve.com

Dear Mr. Harris:

Please forgive my ignorance, but are you also an author in addition to your film preservation work? I recently found a 1976 book, THE FILMS OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK, by Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky — are you *that* Robert A. Harris, too? If so, I congratulate you on your versatility!

In any case, thanks again for your help with the REAR WINDOW/ Jesslyn Fax dialogue information!

Best wishes,
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Subject: Re: Did You Co-Author Hitchcock Book?
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2001 14:58:16 –0500
From: robert_harris@filmpreserve.com
To: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Guilty as charged. I can also walk a reasonably straight line and sing on pitch.

BTW, per the Paramount Dialogue Continuity dated June 21, 1954
the line of dialogue you questioned is stated as “It’s called “Hunger.”

Best,

RAH

Subject: Re: Did You Co-Author Hitchcock Book?
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2001 19:51:55 -0500
From: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci
To: robert_harris@filmpreserve.com

Dear Mr. Harris:

Thanks for your prompt — and witty! — response! I congratulate you on co-authoring such an enjoyable reference book (my niece found it helpful for her film class project), as well as your preservation accomplishments. And thanks *very* much indeed for the new information on the “Hunger” line courtesy of the Paramount Dialogue Continuity. Amazing the subtle ways in which a film can change as it goes through post-production, re-releases, preservation, and everything else celluloid is heir to. Much obliged to you for following up on that for me!

All best,
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Subject: Re: Did You Co-Author Hitchcock Book?
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2001 21:44:08 -0800
From: flmprsrv@cloud9.net
To: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

Dorian,

A brief tale of educational intrigue and ultimate truths…

Pat Hitchcock told me that one of her daughters (don’t remember which of the three) was taking a college level film course several years before Hitch passed away.
She came home one day to ask Pat about comments made during class re: her grandfather — she was going by the name of O’Connell, Pat’s husband —

The prof had mentioned that Hitch’s works were so finely honed and controlled that he personally chose every color, etc.

Pat’s answer…

ask your grandfather.

So she went over to Hitch at his home on Bellagio…

and asked.

His response:

I had absolutely nothing to do with that. That was the work of the production designer, set dresser, costume designer…

She went back to school. Privately corrected the prof, who apparently resisted, wanting to know precisely how she would have gotten the information.

I believe she passed the course.

Best,

RAH

Subject: Thanks For The Educational Tale! 🙂
Date: Thu, 22 Mar 2001 22:00:36 -0500
From: Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci
To: flmprsrv@cloud9.net

Dear Mr. Harris:

What a delightful anecdote about Pat Hitchcock O’Connell’s daughter! My
husband and niece and I all got a big kick out of it. We’re not only
Alfred Hitchcock fans, but fans of Pat as well (we still feel she
should’ve gotten a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her scene-stealing performance in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN). Thanks for taking the time to pass on this little story, and regards to you and yours!

All best,
Dorian

3 01 2011
alexjuliusgriffith

It’s interesting that Hayes had such a high profile when he worked with Hitch, who’s public personality tended to dominate the publicity of his pictures. Good post and good research!

7 12 2011
Alfred Hitchcock – Coming Soon to a Theater Near You « Hitchcock and Me

[…] Since the start of 2011, there’s been talk about Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Sir Alfred Hitchcock in a big-screen adaptation of “Writing with Hitchcock,” Anthony De Rosa’s fantastic book about Hitchcock’s 1950s collaboration with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. (I blogged about this book here.) […]

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