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The Guardian (05/Dec/2008) - Obituary: John Michael Hayes

(c) The Guardian (05/Dec/2008)

Obituary: John Michael Hayes

Oscar-nominated screenwriter best known for four 1950s Hitchcock films

Alfred Hitchcock was known to be stinting in his acknowledgements of his many significant collaborators, although it is a testimony to his unspoken admiration for the screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who has died aged 89, that Hitch hired him to write four of his films, more than any writer since Charles Bennett in the 1930s.

Hayes' contribution to Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was considerable - though, perhaps to balance Hitchcock's inability to give credit where credit was due, he tended to overstate his case. "What I brought to Hitch was character, dialogue, movement and entertainment," Hayes remarked. "And he supplied the suspense element."

Hayes' skilful Oscar-nominated screenplay for Rear Window, among Hitchcock's masterpieces, was based on Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story It Had to Be Murder. There already existed a 13-page treatment by stage and screen director Joshua Logan, which added the female character and the love interest, which were not in the Woolrich story. Hayes expanded the role of the girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), and made her a fashion model, inspired by his wife, Mildred Hicks, who was also a model. "She's too perfect, she's too talented, she's too beautiful, she's too sophisticated, she's too everything but what I want," says James Stewart, unaccountably.

In addition, Hayes changed JB Jeffries (Stewart) - whose voyeurism while nursing a broken leg uncovers a murder - from a sports writer into a photographer, created the witty, sexual interplay between the lovers, and brought in the police detective (Wendell Corey) and Stella, the nurse (Thelma Ritter), giving them some tart dialogue (Stella says: "You heard of that market crash in '29? I predicted that. I was nursing a director of General Motors. Kidney ailment, they said. Nerves, I said. And I asked myself, 'What's General Motors got to be nervous about?' ... When General Motors has to go to the bathroom 10 times a day, the whole country's ready to let go.")

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, of Irish descent, Hayes was brought up during the Depression. He began writing in his youth while laid up, as he frequently was, with illnesses. He eventually got a job as a radio writer, contributing to My Favorite Husband, starring Lucille Ball, and The Adventures of Sam Spade, with Howard Duff in the title role. (In his lengthy interviews with François Truffaut, Hitchcock dismissed Hayes as "a radio writer who wrote the dialogue".)

In 1952, Hayes was given a contract by Universal studios, where he wrote the screenplays for Budd Boetticher's B war movie Red Ball Express, which has an interesting racial theme (like every film with Sidney Poitier at the start of his career); Anthony Mann's Thunder Bay (1953) with Stewart as a dour oilman; and George Sherman's War Arrow (1953), a competent western in which Jeff Chandler is an army captain recruited to get Seminole Indians to help him fight another Red Indian tribe.

Then came the fateful meeting with Hitchcock at the Beverly Hills hotel. "Hitchcock arrived late and, with time to sit and worry over his arrival, I had a couple of drinks, which I wasn't entirely used to," Hayes recalled. "Upon his arrival, we had a feast for the ages, along with copious amounts of alcohol. Plied by the liquor, I rambled on for much too long about Hitchcock's prior films." (Hayes claimed to have seen Shadow of a Doubt 90 times.) "Hitchcock appeared to listen, but once the meal itself was finished, he abruptly left. And we had never even spoken about Rear Window at all ... I felt quite strongly that my opportunity with Hitchcock had vanished along with any future career I had envisioned in the industry. Amazingly, upon reporting for work on Monday, I was told that Hitchcock immensely enjoyed our dinner and that I was to be hired immediately."

After Rear Window came To Catch a Thief, a lighter, elegantly written film, spiced with sexual innuendoes. A ravishing Grace Kelly asks Cary Grant, "Do you want a leg or a breast?" - referring to chicken, though Grant's eyes say otherwise. The Trouble With Harry, Jack Trevor Story's novel transposed by Hayes from England to an autumnal New England, recaptured some of the spirit of Hitchcock's British comedy-thrillers. Hayes' task on The Man Who Knew Too Much was to update Hitchcock's earlier 1934 version to the very different (cinematic and otherwise) world in 1956, with starring roles for Stewart and Doris Day (cleverly using her singing of Que Sera, Sera as a plot point). Legend has it that Hitchcock described the story to Hayes and then got him to write the movie without sight of the original.

However, when it came to the screenplay credit, Hitchcock insisted that his old friend Angus MacPhail, who had worked on Spellbound, and whom he brought in as a technical consultant for the spy parts of the story, be given a co-writer's credit. According to Hayes, MacPhail was "a dying alcoholic" whom Hitchcock had hired as a favour, and who did no work on the script. Hayes managed to get MacPhail's name removed after a Writers Guild arbitration. Hitchcock and Hayes then parted with great animosity forever. Hayes later recalled: "I enjoyed working with Hitchcock professionally ... But he was egotistical to the point of madness."

Hayes went on to prove that he did not need Hitchcock to make a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter. He was Oscar-nominated again for Peyton Place (1957) - his rather bowdlerised, but wickedly enjoyable adaptation of Grace Metalious's bestseller - and continued in soap operatic vein with Butterfield 8 (1960), based on a John O'Hara novel, which won Elizabeth Taylor an Oscar as high-class hooker Gloria Wandrous; and three over-the-top Harold Robbins adaptations: The Carpetbaggers (1964), Where Love Has Gone (1964) and Nevada Smith (1966). Hayes did a more subtle job on William Wyler's The Children's Hour (1961), in which he could only suggest the lesbian longings of Shirley MacLaine for Audrey Hepburn, rather than the more overt sexuality of Lillian Hellman's 1934 play.

In the 1980s, Hayes took up a post teaching screenwriting at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire until retiring in 2000. He is survived by two daughters and two sons.

John Michael Hayes, screenwriter, born May 11 1919; died November 19 2008