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Sight and Sound (1997) - Me and Hitch




As a novelist, Hunter had experience working with movie director Alfred Hitchcock that marked an unforgettable inspiration. Hunter further relates what it was like to work with the master of suspense, after being chosen to write the screenplay for the film "The Birds."



Me and Hitch

by Evan Hunter (Ed McBain)

26 March, 1996 marks ten years since the world premiere of Alfred Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot. My working relationship with him started some 40 years earlier, when he bought a short story of mine for his then half-hour television show. It ended on 1 May, 1963 when I was abruptly replaced as the screenwriter for Marnie, his film then in development. What goes around comes around.

Ironically, the short story was titled Vicious Circle, and it was originally published in Real magazine in March 1953. This was 19 months before publication of The Blackboard Jungle, and I was still writing a mélange of short stories and a handful of paperback mystery novels in an attempt to earn a living for myself and my family. The story was about the rise of a small-time hood, culminating in a gangland murder with a surprise twist - just the sort of clever mystery fare Hitch was offering on his enormously popular weekly show.

In its original half-hour format, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had premiered on 2 October, 1955. Most people who watched the show assumed that he directed each and every episode. In fact, many people believed he also wrote the show's scripts. Hitch did nothing to disabuse anyone of these notions. Years later, when I told one of my sons' friends that I had written the screenplay for The Birds, the kid said, "No, you didn't, Alfred Hitchcock did." Actually, of the 372 episodes filmed during the lifetime of the television show, Hitch directed only 20. Bernard Schoenfeld wrote the teleplay for Vicious Circle. Paul Henreid directed it.

In both the half-hour format and the hour-long format the show later assumed, Hitch would do a little tongue-in-cheek introduction before the story began, and would then continue with amusing little bits during the commercial breaks. These monologues, coupled with the short cameo appearances he made in all of his films, resulted in him becoming the most highly visible director in the world. I sincerely doubt that many moviegoers today would recognise Steven Spielberg if he walked into a restaurant unannounced. When Hitch walked in, everyone knew who he was.

I did not know him personally when his Shamley Productions bought my story, and I was not asked to adapt it for television. Joan Harrison, the show's producer, knew my work because by then The Blackboard Jungle had been published and the sensational movie based upon it had been released. At the time, however, I'd written only one or two teleplays and no screenplays at all, and I'm sure Joan had no inkling that I was anything but a novelist and short-story writer. I'd have been astonished if she'd asked me to write the teleplay of my own story. In fact, the only time I saw the television version was when it aired for the first time in April of 1957.

Pulp rewrite

I next heard from Hitch, indirectly, in the early part of 1959, when my agent called to say that Shamley had bought a story by one of his clients, and they wanted me to adapt it for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I still had no substantial screenplay or teleplay credits, and I wondered why Joan was willing to take a chance on me. (Hitch later told me he specifically wanted a novelist to adapt this particular story because of its 'internal' nature.) The story was called Appointment at Eleven, and it was written by a very good pulp writer named Robert Turner. The movie Pulp Fiction notwithstanding, the expressions 'pulp magazine' or 'pulp writer' may still be unfamiliar. These terms evolved from the fact that the magazines were printed on a yellowish, very grainy grade of paper called 'pulp', in which one could often detect actual wood fibres. These pulps were the forerunners of today's genre novels, specialising as they did in science fiction, detective, sports, adventure, romance and Western stories. The covers of all but the Western, sports and romance pulps were luridly illustrated, and usually depicted a woman in jeopardy. On the science-fiction covers, she was scantily clad in a futuristic toga of sorts, and screaming in terror at the approach or embrace of a bug-eyed monster or a mad scientist. On the detective covers, the victim was usually a blonde-haired woman showing a lot of cleavage, her short, tight skirt pulled back over gartered silk stockings. The men threatening her were either unshaven thugs in blue fedoras or long-nailed Orientals in red kimonos. (The covers were always printed in the primary colours.) Some very good writers, such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich got their starts in the pulps, but you'd never guess anything of quality was packaged between those sexy front covers and the back covers with their Charles Atlas body-building ads.

Appointment at Eleven is a short story about a young man sitting in a bar, drinking and waiting for 11pm to arrive. The reader doesn't know why. The story is told entirely in the young man's head as alternately he drinks and watches the hands of the clock. At 11 sharp, the lights in the bar dim, and we learn that his father has just been electrocuted at the penitentiary nearby.

This was a difficult story to adapt because it all took place in the lead character's head, in a silent internal monologue. I opened it up by having various people in the bar attempting conversation with him, trying to draw him out. Why do you keep watching that clock, kid? Something going to happen at a specific time, kid? What time, kid? And so on. The audience would learn the title when Hitch introduced the show, and this preparation would give me an advantage: whatever was going to happen, the audience would already know it would happen at 11. All I had to do was keep cutting away to the clock and the advancing minute hand for a kind of built-in suspense. Gradually, through casual conversation that becomes inexorably more pointed, we learn that an execution is going to take place down the road tonight, and we learn that the kid has a father, and the father's in jail, and that he's in jail for Murder One. When the lights dim and the kid breaks down, we know without question that the man who just got electrocuted was his father, and the shock is almost palpable.

Suspense and shock.

Two of Hitch's trademarks, and I hadn't yet exchanged a single word with him.

First meetings

I met him for the first time on the set of The Crystal Trench, one of the few shows he himself directed for the television series bearing his name. This was sometime during the late summer of 1959. By then, I had written four bestselling novels under my own name, and was on the Coast adapting one of them (Strangers When We Meet) for Columbia Pictures. A weekly television series based on the '87th Precinct' novels I'd begun writing as Ed McBain three years earlier was scheduled to go on the air that season. Joan Harrison invited my then wife Anita and me to the studio to view the final cut of Appointment at Eleven, which was to air in November. Watching the film, I discovered to my great surprise that Hitch had abandoned his usual wry introduction, instead stating quite simply that the subject matter of tonight's show was too serious to joke about, and he would let the story speak for itself.

After the screening, Joan took us down to meet him. Since he directed so few of the television shows, his personal appearances on the set were rare, and always occasioned an appreciably higher energy level. There was an unmistakable buzz in the air when we walked down from Joan's office. That day, he was shooting a particularly difficult scene in which an actor was lying under a block of ice, the crystal trench of the title. The ice was resting on a narrow wooden ditch into which the actor had crawled. Another actor was supposed to rub his gloved hand over the ice until the face of the actor below was gradually revealed.

Hitch strolled over from where his people were setting up the scene. Joan introduced us, and he immediately began explaining to my wife the enormous technical problems of lighting the scene from above as well as from inside the trench - somewhat similar to lighting the rain from both front and back in Gene Kelly's famous 'Singin' in the Rain' number. At least, that was what I gathered from what I could overhear; all of the conversation was directed at my wife.

Ed McBain is fond of repeating that 15 October is the birth date of great men. On that 15 October I would be 33. Hitch was 62. Anita was all of 29 years old, an attractive, russet-haired woman with green eyes, a warm smile, and a smart New York Jewish Girl sense of humour. Hitch took an immediate liking to her, which was somewhat surprising considering his predilection for glacial blondes. As he showed her around the set, explaining pieces of equipment, introducing her to his cinematographer and his assistant director, the people setting up the shot began to get a bit frantic because the huge block of ice seemed to be melting under the glare of the lights and Hitch still showed no intention of wanting to direct the scene. Finally, after the plaintive words "Mr Hitchcock, sir, we're ready to go now, sir" had been repeated half-a-dozen times, he cordially bade us goodbye, and got on with his work.

Two years later, he asked me to write the screenplay for The Birds.

Forget the story

The call came from my agent toward the end of August. I thought at first that Joan Harrison wanted me to adapt another story for Hitch's television show. But no, it seemed Hitch had purchased motion picture rights to a Daphne du Maurier novella titled The Birds, and he wanted me to write the screenplay for the movie he planned to make from it. I told my agent I would have to read the story before I decided. In truth, for the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock on a feature film, I would have agreed to do a screenplay based on ...

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