These days, the auteur theory — which dubs the director the true author of a film — is championed mostly by film directors, their agents … and those who have never set foot on a movie set. If greater proof of the theory’s fallaciousness were needed, this fine book offers it in vivid detail, telling anecdote and incisive analysis.
Proponents of the auteur theory point to no other American director more often than they do to Alfred Hitchcock. After all, Hitchcock was a supreme craftsman who planned every shot in advance, involved himself with every aspect of physical production, and spearheaded the development of his material from start to finish. Yet, as Steven DeRosa’s book eloquently reminds us, someone actually had to sit down and write the scripts.
“Writing With Hitchcock” focuses entirely on Hitchcock’s collaboration with the talented John Michael Hayes. If you have never heard of Hayes, you are not alone. His name and reputation have been obscured by decades of Hitchcock worship, much of it inspired by the fawning of French film critics (most notably Truffaut) and disingenuous assertions from Hitchcock’s own mouth. Their combined effect is to leave one with the erroneous impression that Hitchcock’s scripts sprang full-born from his own prodigious head.
In 1953, when Hitchcock hired Hayes to write “Rear Window,” Hayes, at 34, was already the author of successful radio drama and a produced screenwriter at MGM and Universal. Known for his sharply limned characters and crackling dialogue, he was also considered one of the fastest writers in the business. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was in serious trouble. Despite an already mighty resume of financial and artistic success, he had recently suffered through the failure of his own production company. To make matters worse, DeRosa notes, “a combination of poor story material and uneven casting [had] left Hitchcock with a string of commercial failures he had not experienced since his days at British International Pictures.”
Little did either man know that their collaboration would lead to the production of four films in the next two years: “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” As a result of the success of these films, Hayes was elevated into the ranks of the screenwriting elite, and for Hitchcock, “the collaboration marked the beginning of his most successful period, critically and commercially.”
“Writing With Hitchcock” offers not only entertaining biographical sketches of both men, chockful of anecdote, but a thorough illumination of the Hitchcock/Hayes collaboration: how it worked, who contributed what, and how it ended. Each of the four films is broken down with scholarly specificity, from the purchase of the underlying material to the unrolling of the red carpet. (An interesting note: Hitchcock often purchased his source material for bargain-basement prices, then turned around and sold them to the studios for hefty sums.) The book concludes with a film-by-film analysis of the translation of each script from written word to celluloid. While this might be of interest only to the most serious cinephile, it is also worth the effort for anyone keen to know just how films are actually made.
It is clear that both men gained immeasurably from the talents of the other. Hitchcock, as great a producer as he was a director, guided the story, focusing on the creation of set pieces where he could exercise his remarkable talent for detail and suspense. Hayes not only contributed some of the most charming, witty dialogue the commercial cinema has ever seen, but expressed his own distinct point of view in the creation of his characters.
For example, Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont in “Rear Window” was based almost entirely on Hayes’ own fashion-model wife, Mildred Hicks.
DeRosa, as much psychologist as reporter, presents Hitchcock as a man terribly ambivalent toward the contributions of his writers. On the one hand, he cherished Hayes’ talents, hiring him again and again. In a candid moment, Hitchcock confessed: “People embrace the auteur theory, but it’s difficult to know what someone means by it. Very often the director is no better than his script.” But years later, when interviewed by Truffaut, he refused to shared the limelight, shamefully labeling Hayes “a radio writer who wrote the dialogue.” The story of how the collaboration ended is as sordid as it is tragic, yet not in the least unpredictable.
Despite the great weight of evidence not only from Hayes himself, but from other Hitchcock collaborators, that the director relied greatly on the talents of his writers, DeRosa never makes the mistake of using this to belittle Hitchcock’s talents. Hitchcock emerges as a formidable artist, whose gift for choosing writers and shaping stories was equaled only by his genius for suspense. If there is an enemy to truth suggested by DeRosa’s story, it’s not necessarily Hitchcock. DeRosa instead blames the critics who accepted Hitchcock’s prideful assertions without skepticism, and other directors, who, seeking to create a paradigm for their own overweening ambitions, insist even today on making the great man into more than he was.
Allison Burnett is a screenwriter whose credits include “Red Meat” and “Autumn in New York.”