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.


Alfred Hitchcock Makes a Modern Spy Drama

8 03 2011

The late 1960s was a difficult period for Alfred Hitchcock. Audiences’ tastes were moving in two directions: Toward the escapism of James Bond or the realism of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Hitchcock’s brand of carefully controlled suspense in films layered with meaning derived from camera movement and lighting, costume and color was no longer in style.

Hitchcock was certainly aware of the change in the air. After more than twenty years, the title “Master of Suspense” was weighing him down. Trends in European filmmaking had given him new inspiration that he wanted to follow. Around 1965, he developed a script called, alternately, “Kaleidoscope” and “Frenzy” (having nothing to do with his 1972 film of the same name). This was to be a very violent and sexual thriller, with a killer for a hero, and Universal Pictures killed the project.

While “Kaleidoscope” was in development, Hitchcock also began another script called “R.R.R.R.,” working with Italian writers Age and Scarpelli. Hitchcock had first dreamed up the idea of a comedy about a hotel full of criminals in the 1930s; now he hoped to direct it with a cast of unknowns. Again, Universal had no interest in this film, and it was dropped with little writing done.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock directed “Torn Curtain,” a movie with stars he did not particularly like, and an undercooked script. As a counter-balance to Paul Newman and Julia Andrews, Hitchcock populated the film with European actors, and set the action primarily in East Berlin.

Hitchcock took this modified European approach further with his next film, “Topaz,” released in 1969. Based on a bestselling novel by Leon Uris and adapted by Samuel Taylor, who had written the sublime “Vertigo,” “Topaz” is a difficult movie on many levels, with touches of Hitchcock’s filmmaking brilliance peeking through the morass only occasionally.

“Topaz” is divided into three sections. (It’s hard to call it a three-act structure, since each part is so separate from what came before.) Set in 1962, it begins with a typical bravura Hitchcock set-piece, as a Russian intelligence officer, on vacation in Copenhagen with his wife and daughter, defect to the United States. The suspense builds slowly as the Russians attempt to quietly evade capture by their former comrades while on a tour of a porcelain factory, the two sets of players moving against each other like chess pieces on a board. The defectors get their instructions from CIA agent Mike Nordstrom, played by John Forsythe, and make a break from a department store into the American’s getaway car, while other American agents block the Russians’ way in an oddly stiff dance, trying not to cause a panic on the crowded streets but still reach their quarry.

A beautiful, almost abstract shot of the defectors' car approaching their plane

The defectors board a plane bound for the U.S., with Kusenov, the intelligence officer, griping about the clumsy operation. After being set up in a house, Kusenov refuses to cooperate; he’s now decided that there he never made any promises to the Americans. But his hosts refuse to take no for an answer, and Kusenov finally gives up some hints about the mysterious Topaz they’ve been asking about. He sends the agents after Cuban revolutionary Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Kusenov warns the Americans that Parra won’t talk to them, and so Nordstrom enlists the help of a French agent, André Devereaux, played by Frederick Stafford.

Devereaux picks up the story here as the second part begins; he heads into Harlem, where he enlists Phillippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) to infiltrate Parra’s offices to find documents concerning a missile program, which lead Devereaux away from his wife and into Cuba. There he contacts Juanita de Cordoba (Karen Dor), a well-connected anti-Communist with romantic ties to Parra. Devereaux and de Cordoba are in love as well, and they plot how to gain information on the Russian missile program. When Parra learns that de Cordoba has been passing classified information to Devereaux, he regretfully shoots her, trying to spare her from being tortured.

Part three begins as Devereaux, now compromised as both an agent and a husband, flees Cuba and heads back to Washington, where he learns that the spy organization Topaz is based in the French intelligence community. Devereaux flies home to Paris and calls together his most trusted associates, hoping to piece things together; one of the men, Jarre, lets slip a bit of information that tells Devereaux that he is a counter-agent. Devereaux sends his son-in-law, a reporter called Francois, to learn more from Jarre, but Francois is put in harm’s way when killers show up at Jarre’s doorstep. Francois escapes unharmed, and, on recalling a phone number he heard the killers mention, tells Devereaux that the leader of Topaz is his old friend, Granville, another intelligence agent.

Word gets out that Granville is an enemy agent, and the film (at least the version I saw) ends at an airport, as Devereaux and his wife, now reconciled, board an airplane; nearby, waving to them, is Granville, boarding his own Aeroflot plane to Russia.

“Topaz” is populated – perhaps overpopulated – by characters we barely get to know, including the CIA agents attempting to make Kusenov cooperate, de Cordoba’s network of Cuban peasant operatives, Parra’s revolutionary stooges, and the French agents who work with Devereaux. Hitchcock costumes them distinctively, which helps the viewer to keep them straight, but very few of the cast are engaging as characters. Although Hitchcock’s concession to Universal was to film a bestseller, he preserves so much of the convoluted plot that it’s hard to follow what’s going on from one scene to the next. One that feels that Hitchcock might have been making a point about the ultimate triviality of spy work by reducing the secret agents to near ciphers.

Or are the heroes and villains of “Topaz” not the cast members but their nations? There are scenes set in Sweden, the United States, Cuba, Russia and France, and Hitchcock creates a distinctive look for each setting; the countries almost have more personality than the characters do.

Hitchcock makes his traditional cameo about halfway through the film; he’s in an airport, being pushed along in a wheelchair, when he suddenly stands up to greet a friend.

“Topaz” encountered some serious trouble during test screenings. Originally, the film ended with Devereaux and Granville dueling at a football stadium, but American audiences found this laughable. The second ending, described above, was also disliked, as the villain gets away with his misdeeds. A third ending was made, too, in which we see Granville enter his house, followed by a gunshot that’s meant to imply that he killed himself; this is the most commonly seen ending, although it was tacked onto the movie so late that it had to be made with reused footage. It’s both cheap looking and unclear.

Of the sprawling cast, the standouts are John Forsythe, who recalls the cool, early spies of Hitchcock’s films like “Secret Agent”; Karen Dor, who played Juanita de Cordoba; John Vernon as Rico Parra; Dany Robin as Devereaux’s wife; and Roscoe Lee Brown as Phillippe Dubois. There’s also some rather bad acting from Tina Hedstrom as Kusenov’s teenaged daughter and Claude Jade as Devereaux’s daughter, although Hitchcock was fond of Jade.

As with “Torn Curtain,” Hitchcock rushed “Topaz” into production, and the script feels unfinished. The dialogue is flat, even laughable, at times. Hitchcock had often said that by once the script was finished, the film was over for him; actually shooting it was both boring and the dreaded point where compromise began. Now, it seemed that even the act of creating the script no longer interested Hitch. After the test screenings, Hitch cut the movie considerably, although it’s the full two hour twenty minute version that appears on DVD currently.

Still, there are moments of genuine brilliance in the movie, including that opening defection, the sequence in which de Cordoba’s operatives capture information on the missile program and are themselves captured, and, especially, the moment when Parra shoots de Cordoba. As she collapses, her dark purple dress spreads out on a black and white tile floor; shot from above, it looks almost like a pool of blood. It’s a fascinating moment in an otherwise workmanlike movie.

Here’s the exciting trailer for “Topaz,” in which Hitchcock briefly describes the movie against modern graphics and type treatments. Note the emphasis on the novel’s bestseller reputation…

Adam Philips Live on Stage at “The 39 Steps”

11 06 2010

This past Monday, June 7, I was the guest host for a talkback session following that evening’s performance of “The 39 Steps” at the New World Stages in New York – that’s right, it was me, live on stage in an Off-Broadway theater, talking about Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” on stage, film and in book versions, and then chatting with the fantastic four actors who bring the show to life.

It was an amazing experience, and I was truly honored to be there. The show itself is terrific. It takes Hitchcock’s 1935 classic, grafts on the opening monologue from the book, and moves it along at a frenzied pace, making silly references to other Hitchcock movies along the way, including “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Strangers on a Train.” While the references are funny, they also point out that Hitchcock’s themes remained constant in so many of his pictures.

The cast was a lot of fun to talk to – they were candid, funny and charming, and it was a real pleasure sitting with them. As you listen to the chat, you’ll notice that one actor, John Behlmann, is REALLY loud – this man knows how to project, and as Richard Hannay, he’s onstage for the entire show, so that is certainly de riguer.

Left to right: Kate MacCluggage, Jamie Jackson, Cameron Folmar, John Behlmann and Adam Philips

So, here it is… you can download a mp3 or a zip file from the box on the right and put it on itunes and your ipod. You can also click on the box to play and skip the download. The sound quality is pretty good, although the audience is a little hard to hear. And if I sound a little flustered at the start, it’s because the stage manager’s introduction of me said a lot of what I was going to start with. Oh well!

Oh, and thanks to my daughter, Lucy, for taking pictures, and to my friend Paul Byrne for loaning me a really amazing recorder!

Alfred Hitchcock Spies Again with “Secret Agent”

3 06 2010

“There were lots of ideas in the picture, but it didn’t really succeed . . .” — Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock returned to the spy game in 1936 with “Secret Agent,” starring John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre and Robert Young. It was Hitch’s third spy thriller in a row, with a cast that was probably the best he had assembled to date.

Based on the novel “Ashenden” by Somerset Maugham, the story is set in 1916 and begins when British intelligence fakes the death of an officer, then drafts him into service as a spy under the name Richard Ashenden. He is sent to mainland Europe to stop an unknown enemy agent from igniting another front in the war. Ashenden is introduced to the man who will be his assistant: The General, played with manic intensity by Peter Lorre. While Lorre’s fake Hispanic accent is almost laughable, he is a powerful presence in the film, especially when he stops chasing women and gets down to the serious business at hand.

Ashenden has another assistant as well: Elsa, played by Carroll, who has been sent to aide him by posing as his wife; apparently Ashenden’s masters believe that since he was single before his death, he needs a wife now to help cover his true identity. The trio pick up some clues and trump up a mountain climbing expedition in order to kill the man they believe to be the enemy agent, but after the General pushes him off the mountain, they learn that they had the wrong man.

While Elsa is overcome by guilt, as well as suspicion that Ashenden has no conscience, Lorre gleefully accepts what’s happened as collateral damage. Ashenden decides to quit before it’s too late for him, but is talked into finishing the job. They follow more clues that lead to a giant German chocolate factory, where they are discovered. There’s a terrific chase through the monumental sets, marred only by Lorre throwing the least convincing punch I’ve ever seen.

Elsa, meanwhile, has stayed behind at the hotel, where she’s been hanging around with the charming American expat, Marvin, played by Robert Young. Young must have been a breath of fresh air to Hitchcock, as he typified an American approach to acting that’s naturalistic, rather than reliant on stagecraft. Hitchcock would find other actors like Young in Robert McCrea and, later, James Stewart. By contrast, Gielgud, then the toast of the London stage, had a hard time adjusting to film work here, and never looks entirely comfortable on camera.

The film builds to a climax when Elsa follows Marvin onto a train bound for enemy territory. Ashenden and the General manage to get onto the train as well, but as soon as the train starts moving, it is attached by British airplanes. Just as the General is about to knife Marvin, the train crashes off its tracks. The quartet pull themselves out of the wreckage, but Marvin manages to shoot the General before he dies himself. The whole train sequence is reminiscent of the finale from “Number 17,” but more complex and convincing.

Still, Hitchcock judged “Secret Agent” to be not entirely successful, and it may be due to its tone. There are portions of it that feel like a comedy, maybe even a screwball comedy, and others that are dead serious. Usually, Hitchcock is a master at leavening serious, even morbid, stories with humor, but here the tones clash. It doesn’t really help that Madeleine Carroll spends so much of the picture acting like a comedienne, only to be drained of her sprightly energy when things go wrong. She and Marvin flirt through the first half of the movie; when they are about to part ways, he hands her a photo of himself as a memento, with a mustache drawn on it and the words “the villain” added. It’s a chilling moment, as the viewer has only just learned that Marvin is the spy they’ve been seeking all along.

The very end of the movie, too, leaves something to be desired – we first see Ashenden’s superior receiving his letter of resignation, and then we crossfade to a lingering shot of him and Elsa looking into the camera to no particular effect. It’s as if Hitchcock knew what he wanted to say at the end – that they are finished with spy work and will live happily ever after – but didn’t quite know how to show it.

It’s unfortunate that this would be the last time Hitchcock worked in film with Peter Lorre; Hitch was very fond of Lorre, and one might wonder what they could have done together in other pictures. Lorre could have played the James Mason role in “North by Northwest,” for example, and brought more fun to that part.

Next, Hitchcock continues his run of spy films with “Sabotage,” starring Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka, based on a novel by Joseph Conrad. (This time for sure!)

At Last, “The 39 Steps”

28 05 2010

“What I like in The Thirty-Nine Steps are the swift transitions. The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement. It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort.” – Alfred Hitchcock

We’ve come to the end of my “39 Steps Fest,” and so, at last, to “The 39 Steps” itself – Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation of John Buchan’s spy novel, which is considered one of the greatest British movies ever made, and the crowning achievement of Hitchcock’s British period. The movie was very successful, and it certainly benefitted from the fact that the book itself was a big hit.

In the book “Hitchcock on Hitchcock,” which I wrote about here, Hitch mentions that he had read the novel when it was new, and that when he finally got the chance to film it, he realized that it would need a lot of work before it could be made into a movie. Hitchcock, with writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay and the always reliable Alma Reville, streamlined the story considerably. In the process, Hitch added female roles and also made Richard Hannay more of an everyman than he was in the novel.

Hitchcock throws us straight into the action, as we open on the London Palladium, where, onstage, Mr. Memory performs, answering questions from the audience, punctuated by his catchphrase, “Am I right, sir?” Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) asks a question that identifies him as Canadian; moments later, violence erupts, shots ring out, and Hannay escapes the hall, pushed up against Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). They repair to his flat, and he learns that she is a spy, being pursued by two men. She gives him a few clues as to her mission – something about “The 39 Steps,” military secrets and a man with part of his finger missing – then goes off to get some rest, while Hannay sleeps on a couch, but in the middle of the night she staggers out of the bedroom, a knife in her back and a map of Scotland in her hand.

Just then the phone rings; the two men are still outside, watching the apartment from a phone booth, but if they’re there, then who just stabbed Annabella? That question is never answered, as Hannay flees the apartment and begins his long flight away from the authorities and, he hopes, toward the evidence that will eventually clear his name, as he becomes a suspect in Annabella’s murder.

By morning, Hannay hops a train, trying to lay low, but he has the misfortune of being in a compartment with two chatty salesmen who are discussing the news of the day, including the murder. Hitchcock revels in their discussion of the murder; one claims he’s not interested, but keeps asking for details anyway, while the other doesn’t even pretend not to care about it.

Hannay abandons the compartment when he sees that the police are on the train; he takes refuge with a young woman, who turns him over to the police. In one of the movie’s most exciting scenes, Hannay escapes the train by climbing behind a column on the Forth Bridge; apparently the police are not used to looking behind things.

Hitchcock preserves some of John Buchan’s colorful Scottish characters as Hannah is pursued by both the police and the two spies from outside his apartment; he is helped by a poor crofter’s wife and given shelter by a doting innkeeper and her oblivious husband. When Hannay gives the police the slip by ducking into a political rally, he is called upon to speak by a man whose barely audible introduction is met with cries of “Speak oot!” from the audience.

Pace is the key to “The 39 Steps.” Things move along so quickly it’s almost hard to keep the action straight. Hannay meets the woman from the train at the political rally, where one of the spies, acting as a police officer, takes both Hannay and the woman, Pamela, into custody, handcuffing them together. When the spies’ car runs into a herd of sheep, Hannay and Pamela escape, although she believes that he is a killer. He half drags her across the moors, and they spend the night at the inn, but then she manages to slip out of her handcuff and heads downstairs, where she hears the spies planning to go back to the Palladium in London. Hannay and Pamela go to the Palladium as well, where Hannay realizes that the secrets the spies have obtained are in the mind of Mr. Memory. When Hannay stands up and asks Mr. Memory, “What are the 39 Steps?” the performer begins to answer, explaining that they are a circle of spies, and is shot.

Besides the frenetic pace of much of the movie and the powerful sequences like the Forth Bridge escape and the political rally, “The 39 Steps” is Hitch’s tribute to the British music hall. The audience is rowdy – they’re amusing themselves almost as much as they’re enjoying the show – and we also get glimpses of other acts, including a three-man song and comedy act and a line of chorus girls who are seen dancing onstage while Mr. Memory lies dying.

Hitchcock especially enjoyed working with Madeleine Carroll, whose role as Pamela grew as filming went on. The director often said that he disliked working with actresses who were too concerned with being ladylike to be real people, and here, as Pamela is stripped of her iciness as she’s dragged along with Hannay, she comes to symbolized Hitchcock’s attitude toward actresses in general.

Although Hitch smoothed out the plot in making “The 39 Steps” into a movie, eliminating several large coincidences, some coincidences remain, such as Pamela’s presence at the political rally where Hannay wanders in. Hitchcock specifically mentions having to eliminate sequences from the novel in which Hannay disguises himself as a Scotsman because they would not believable (although Robert Donat doesn’t sound at all Canadian in the film). And in true MacGuffin fashion, we never learn much about the spy ring itself, only that it exists and that Mr. Memory was the key to their plans.

As I mentioned here, Hitchcock had wanted to make John Buchan’s second Hannay novel, “Greenmantle,” into a movie starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

I was fortunate enough to watch the Criterion Collection disc of “The 39 Steps,” which had a really superb picture. The disc has extras including a half-hour documentary on Hitchcock’s British period produced by Janus Films.

Up next, Peter Lorre returns, along with John Gielgud and Robert Young, in “The Secret Agent,” based on a story by Someset Maugham.

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