A Short Knighthood: Alfred Hitchcock’s Final Years

7 04 2011

As a consummate professional, Alfred Hitchcock followed the success of “Family Plot” in 1976 by moving on to a new project: An adaptation of “The Short Night,” a novel by Ronald Kirkbride that was based on the case of George Blake, an Englishman convicted of spying for the Soviets.

Hitchcock had maintained for many years that once the scriptwriting and storyboarding of a film had been completely, the rest was a bore. But writing “The Short Night” gave him trouble. He had been considering the project since the late 1960s, giving it his full attention only after “Family Plot” had wrapped. Despite his declining health and stamina, Hitchcock moved ahead on the screenplay, working with, among others, his old collaborator Norman Lloyd (star of “Saboteur” and associate producer of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”) and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (“North by Northwest” and “Family Plot”).

Neither writer was able to produce the work Hitchcock wanted, and so The Master of Suspense asked the powers that were at Universal to find him another writer: a younger man, whom he could direct. Hitchcock was teamed with David Freeman, a relatively green writer who had been doing some script doctoring.

In 1984, Freeman wrote about working with Hitch in “The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock,” in the 70-page essay that opens the book. Freeman paints a vivid, if sad, picture. Hitchcock is easily distracted, rambling through old stories and focusing only intermittently on the project, as though he hopes to prolong the writing phase while he can. His physical pain, caused by arthritis, seems to increase greatly in the six months Freeman worked with him, leading Hitch to drink more and more heavily. Only occasionally does his brilliance shine through. Exhaustion dogs him constantly, and their work progresses slowly.

If anything, the one meeting with Alma Reville that Freeman recalls is even sadder, as Hitch struggles to act out the story for Reville, who herself had suffered two debilitating strokes.

Freeman’s book includes the full script for “The Short Night,” although it is only a draft. Still, it’s clear that had it been made, this would have been another strong story of love and espionage, and a worthy successor to Hitch’s many spy tales. There are faint echoes of “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes” in the story, which Hitch hoped would star Sean Connery and Liv Ullman.

The script opens with a typical Hitchcock flourish, as a man sits in a car near a prison, speaking into a walkie-talkie hidden in some flowers. Inside the prison, Gavin Brand waits anxiously for the signal to move, but his rescue is delayed over and over by distractions. Finally, Brand gets the sign and makes his escape, meeting the man with the flowers. But when a young woman who’s supposed to drive Brand to another location refuses his advances, he strangles her, seemingly making him a fugitive from both the British authorities and the Communist sympathizers who allied themselves with him.

We then cut to Joseph Bailey, a rugged man whose brother was among those killed by Brand. An FBI agent tries to recruit Bailey to hunt down Brand, but Bailey refuses – until he is nearly killed in a street scuffle with someone close to Brand. Bailey learns that whatever else he is, Brand is devoted to his wife and sons, and so he finds his way to the wife in Finland, pretending to be interested in her to learn more about Brand.

Of course, Bailey’s feigned interest soon becomes real, and he and Brand’s wife fall in love. Then, in an erotically charged scene, the couple have sex while out the window they can hear the sounds of Brand’s approaching boat. Brand shrugs off his wife’s betrayal, but kidnaps his sons, intending to take them behind the Iron Curtain. In an old-fashioned train chase, Bailey catches up with him, and with the unwitting help of some Soviet soldiers, Bailey is able to grab the boys and escape back into Finland.

The script is full of typical Hitchcock touches: The inept Finnish police; the lengthy, highly focused chase scene in which Bailey traces a package in transit; the charming, sympathetic villain; the sexual overtones of Brand’s lesbian caretakers. It also bears the stamp of late-period Hitchcock: the heightened sex and violence, and the increased use of profanity. Knowing that Hitch wanted Sean Connery for the lead, it was very easy to hear his lilt in the dialogue.

In a commentary on the screenplay, Freeman explains that this was just a draft, and that there were scenes Hitchcock had planned to work on further. For example, the scene in which an FBI agent attempts to recruit Bailey would have been reversed, so that Bailey, having read in the newspaper about Brand’s escape, would instead have insisted that the FBI do something about the situation. The agent would have shrugged it off, leading Bailey to take matters into his own hands – as the agent had hoped he would.

What had been firmly decided upon by Hitchcock was that this scene, set in the restaurant “21,” would have a special sense of verisimilitude by having the place slowly fill over the course of the conversation. The camera would stay tight on Bailey and the agent, though, as the ambient noise of other diners increased, until, as Bailey angrily leaves the table, we see that the restaurant was now packed.

Of course, the movie was never made. In the spring of 1979, with Hitchcock’s progress on the screenplay slowing every day, the American Film Institute was preparing to honor him with a life achievement award. Hitchcock acted as though he was unaware of the ceremony, dreading it as though it were a sentence of death. He was nearly incapable of walking, and his wife was only vaguely aware of her surroundings. After delaying as long as he could, Hitchcock agreed to appear at the ceremony, which took place on March 7, 1979. Many of Hitch’s former stars were on hand, including Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, James Stewart and Tippi Hedren, Henry Fonda and Joan Fontaine. You can see Hitch’s lovely acceptance speech here:

The AFI ceremony took a great toll on Hitchcock, and he never really recovered what little strength he still had left. Although work on “The Short Night” had stopped, he continued coming into his office now and then; at the start of 1980, he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth.

Now eighty years old, Hitchcock at last decided that he could no longer carry on as though he might still make another movie. He told the head office at Universal that he was going to retire, and, unable to face his staff, left it to others, like producer Herbert Coleman, to give them the bad news. After a last run of publicity interviews following his knighthood, and with no office left on the Universal lot, Hitchcock stayed home and took to bed. He died on April 29, 1980, surrounded by his family.

Alma Reville lived till July 6, 1982. Having grown out of touch with reality following her strokes, she seemed unaware of Hitch’s death, telling visitors that he was on a set somewhere, and that he would be home soon.

Coming up, we’ll look at the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as books and movies inspired by The Master of Suspense.


A 21st Century Version of “The 39 Steps”

7 05 2010

The most recent film adaptation of “The 39 Steps” was produced in England by the BBC and broadcast on PBS in the United States earlier this year. Directed by James Hawe, the film stars Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay, and while it is still set in the days before World War I, our hero is in many ways a Hannay for the 21st century.

Things get off to a fast start as Hannay, bored and alone in London, is accosted by a freelance secret agent called Scudder (Eddie Marsan), who seeks refuge in Hannay’s apartment. Scudder explains that he’s being hunted because of the secrets he’s learned, but before Scudder can spill all he knows, he’s killed by a pair of German agents who have invaded the premises.

While Hannay tries to find help, the two agents disappear, leaving Hannay with the corpse on his living room floor and the police beside him. Hannay breaks away and quickly boards a train to Scotland, where, Scudder had said, some of the clues would lead.

The plot moves ahead quickly, as Hannay must abandon the train, is chased by the agents and shot at by a biplane. Tumbling down a hillside, Hannay narrowly avoids being hit by a car, and the driver and his passenger assume that Hannay is the man they’re looking for – a political spokesman come to speak on the driver’s behalf at a rally. Hannay plays along, but the passenger, who is the driver’s sister Victoria (Lydia Leonard), ends up at his side through the rest of the movie. She is introduced as a suffragette, and Hannay wins no points with her when, at the rally, she asks “Where do you stand on women?” and Hannay replies, “I try not to stand on women at all.”

Their initial antipathy turns to attraction soon enough, as Victoria reveals herself to be more than she seemed at first. They piece together Scudder’s puzzle, working out the coded notes he left behind and finding the 39 steps he hinted at – in this case, steps leading through a castle to a loch where a German U-boat waits. They foil the German plot, but at a great cost.

This Hannay is a somber soul; he’s restless and not sure what it is he’s looking for, and when Victoria shows up, he lets her lead him into danger. She is not embarrassed when they are forced to share a hotel room and undress in front of each other, and later, when she asks to stay with him for the night, it is he who says no in the hope that they can avoid falling in love.

This version of “The 39 Steps” also lays off the colorful Scottish characters of the original novel, putting the emphasis instead on Hannay and Victoria, with their German pursuers on their heels almost from the moment they meet. Hannay is knowledgeable, but not enough to figure out the final turns of the plot. He reacts angrily when he realizes that he’s been kept in the dark by Victoria. To some degree he reminded me of the Daniel Craig James Bond – he’s physically capable, but others underestimate his intelligence, which leaves him with a sour outlook on the world that needs him.

Still, it’s a fast-paced, exciting version of the familiar story, and the modernization of the characters, if not the plot, probably serve to make the tale more relatable to today’s viewers.

Here’s a look at the trailer… keep your eyes open, as it will probably show up on PBS again sometime.

Psych Pays Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock

11 03 2010

Last night, Psych paid tribute to Alfred Hitchcock in its entertaining fourth season finale. The episode is called “Mr. Yin Presents,” so the Hitch references are there from the git-go.

The episode begins with Shawn arriving late at a Hitchcock film festival – but just in time for the shower scene from “Psycho.” As the story unfolds, they visit their nemesis, Yang (played by Ally Sheedy!), in a scene that borrows from “Silence of the Lambs.” The boys learn that there’s a Yin to her Yang, and Yin has been busy – he’s set up an elaborate trap inspired by Hitchcock movies, in which Shawn, Gus and the police are forced to play out brief moments from Hitchcock movies including “Frenzy,” “Vertigo,” “The Birds,” “Rear Window” and “Marnie,” with references to “Life Boat” and “Topaz.”

My favorite bit in the episode may have been when one of the cops is chased across a park by a biplane…an RC biplane, that is, operated by a 12 year old. There was more “North by Northwest” in the story, though; it’s one of the clues Yin leaves for the team to follow. I also dug Shawn’s discussion of Hitch’s love of Japanese house slippers – which was completely made up, of course.

If you want to see it, it’s being rerun next at midnight on Friday night/Saturday morning, and I’m sure it’ll be rerun again a bunch of times after that.

Also, if you visit the USA Network website, there’s a commentary on the episode here from writers Andy Berman and James Roday (who stars as Shawn and also directed this episode) that talks about Hitchcock some.

Oh, and special thanks to my buddy J.C. Vaughn, who pointed the episode out to me!

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