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.

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