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Star Tribune (20/Dec/1990) - Veteran writer returns to the screen of the crime



Veteran writer returns to the screen of the crime

The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood is that it's tough to be a screenwriter if you're over 40. The Writers Guild even mails surveys to its members every few years, checking the extent of age discrimination in the business.

Clearly, not all the young moguls in Hollywood have heard of 91-year-old Charles Bennett. Or if they have they assume that the writer of such classics as "Foreign Correspondent," "The Thirty-Nine Steps" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" has long since tottered off into the sunset.

But don't look for Bennett in the palatial back bedroom of a Sunset Boulevard mansion, reliving his glory days through the haze of senility, like a Norma Desmond.

Bennett, happily ensconced in the Los Angeles home he bought more than four decades ago, is hard at work on a new screenplay. It will be the 59th in his career. He is the oldest writer in the history of film ever to be paid to write a major screenplay.

"I love it," said Bennett, of 20th Century Fox's decision to remake "Blackmail," which he first wrote as a stage hit for Tallulah Bankhead in 1928 and which was turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock a year later.

But he knows how rare the opportunity is.

"It's a young man's industry," said Bennett in a recent telephone interview. He is well aware of the astronomical prices commanded by such screenwriters as Joe Eszterhas, who was paid $3 million for "Basic Instinct," and 29-year-old Shane Black, who got $1 million for "Lethal Weapon II."

"I think I was born too early," Bennett said. "I'd love to get a million dollars for a picture." Without missing a beat, he laughed and said, "I intend to get a million for my next one."

Bennett was approached to write the remake of "Blackmail" by Stuart Birnbaum and William Blaylock, a writer-producer team who saw the original film for the first time when they were students at the University of Southern California film school 20 years ago.

The original "Blackmail," starring Anny Ondra, John Longden and Cyril Richard, involves a Scotland Yard inspector who is blackmailed for concealing that his girlfriend is involved in a murder. It was the first talkie for Hitchcock, who also wrote the screenplay.

When they decided to produce the remake and commission a script, Birnbaum and Blaylock learned that so much time had gone by, the rights had reverted to the original material — Bennett's 1928 play. Birnbaum, 41, said they thought Bennett was dead. They were delighted to find him alive and well in Los Angeles.

Birnbaum said they hired a team of new writers to remake "Blackmail," intending that Bennett's involvement be merely cursory. They sent a draft over to Bennett's Coldwater Canyon house and Bennett asked if he could give them a few notes.

"A couple of days later he delivered a 42-page document," said Birnbaum. "It was not only a critique but a total reconstruction of the story that had been written using only the best elements. It was amazing, right on target."

Exit the team of writers and enter Bennett.

"This is history for Hollywood," said an enthusiastic Birnbaum, who is co-writing the script with Bennett. "I come over to his house every day for four hours. I even bought Charles a computer for his 91st birthday."

Bennett was born in Shoreham, England. He calls himself the sole survivor of the close-knit British colony in Hollywood that once included David Niven, Ronald Colman and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. He was married twice and is a widower. Birnbaum calls him "still very handsome."

Bennett began as a minor actor on the British stage and in films as a teenager. After a stint in the Army he was starring in a British repertory company in Paris and "managed to write three plays at night."

He found he was a more successful playwright then actor with the production of "Blackmail." He then graduated to films, working closely with Alfred Hitchcock on a succession of movies.

"He and I became tremendous friends," Bennett recalled. "We used to go to St. Moritz every Christmas and New Year's. I would ski and Hitch would sit in the bar of the Palace Hotel."

In 1937, Bennett moved to Hollywood to work for Universal Pictures. He briefly dabbled in television, then returned to film. His screen-writing credits include four movies for Cecil B. DeMille.

Bennett was busy writing his autobiography when Birnbaum and Blaylock got in touch with him. His only regret, he said, is that the remake of "Blackmail" is taking time away from his book.