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The Times (24/Nov/2008) - Obituary: John Michael Hayes

(c) The Times (24/Nov/2008)

Obituary: John Michael Hayes

John Michael Hayes: screenwriter who penned Hitchock's Rear Window

For Alfred Hitchcock the mid-1950s were an exceptionally successful and productive time, with four films completed in barely three years. It was no coincidence that all four had screenplays by a young writer from radio, John Michael Hayes.

The collaboration between Hitchcock and Hayes began on Rear Window (1954) and continued with To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and the remake of Hitchcock’s 1930s thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The films were notable for introducing a warmer, lighter tone into Hitchcock’s work before he switched to the bleaker themes of The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). This was in large part because of Hayes. While Hitchcock mapped out the structure of the films, it was Hayes who supplied the witty, polished dialogue and lively characterisation.

Hayes had worked in radio before entering films, honing his craft in comedy and on dramas, including a private eye series based on Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He was recommended to Hitchcock by MCA, the agent they shared, and immediately impressed his boss with his screenplay for Rear Window.

Hitchcock made no direct comment but told Hayes that his wife, Alma Reville, herself a screenwriter, had liked his work. It was an oblique way of giving praise. Moreover, on the basis of Hayes’s treatment, James Stewart agreed both to play the lead and to accept a percentage of the film’s profits instead of a fee.

Rear Window has its unsettling side as a study in voyeurism. Stewart’s photographer, wheelchair-bound after an accident, passes his time looking out into the apartments opposite. But there is much humour as well in Hayes’s lean, precise and skilful screenplay for which he won an Oscar nomination.

To Catch a Thief, set on the French Riviera starring Cary Grant as a retired cat burglar, has a light touch throughout. In the seemingly innocuous jousting between Grant and Grace Kelly, Hayes managed to introduce a degree of sexual innuendo that was daring for the prim 1950s but so cleverly done that nobody took offence.

In The Trouble with Harry, a genial black comedy about a corpse that refuses to go away, the leisurely pace and lack of suspense means that Hayes’s dialogue becomes crucial. Hayes again rose to the task and much of the pleasure of the film, together with its autumnal New England setting, comes from the interplay between Edmund Gwenn’s elderly sea captain, John Forsythe’s painter and the young mother played by Shirley MacLaine, in her film debut.

Although it has its admirers, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which culminates in an assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall, is probably the weakest of the four; much longer than the 1930s version and in places ponderous. Hayes was not helped by having to write the script more or less on the hoof. The tight schedule demanded that location shooting had to begin in Marrakesh before the script was completed, and Hayes stayed behind in Hollywood turning out eight to ten pages a day, which were then flown over. When the cast and crew moved to London Hayes was at least there with them, though still writing day by day.

There seemed no reason why, since they had worked so well together, that the partnership between Hitchcock and Hayes should not continue for several more films. Hayes had learnt much from Hitchcock about structure and technique while Hitchcock admired his ability to work quickly and produce screenplays of quality.

As it was The Man Who Knew Too Much would be their last film together. There were tensions earlier. Hayes felt he had been underpaid for the script for Rear Window and never received the bonus Hitchcock kept promising him. When the Mystery Writers of America awarded him a ceramic statuette for Rear Window Hitchcock deflated Hayes by telling him that it was the material from which toilet bowls were made.

Hayes’s modest scriptwriting fees continued to rankle and he reckoned that his combined earnings for the four films were barely enough to keep his family. On The Man Who Knew Too Much he was furious that, out of loyalty to an old friend from his British cinema days, Hitchcock brought in Angus MacPhail to work on the script.

MacPhail was an alcoholic and according to Hayes incapable of contributing anything worthwhile. When Hitchcock proposed that McPhail received a screen credit Hayes defied Hitchcock and took the matter to the Writers Guild. It found that the script had been entirely Hayes’s work and removed MacPhail’s name. Hitchcock threatened not to speak to Hayes again.

The break finally came when Hitchcock agreed to do a film for Warner Brothers for no salary but a share of the profits and asked Hayes to do the same. Hitchcock argued that as he had helped him to become a leading Hollywood writer Hayes was in his debt. Hayes retorted that he could not afford to work for nothing.

There were losses on both sides. Hayes departed for more lucrative but less distinguished films while Hitchcock rarely again enjoyed the luxury of having brilliant scripts promptly delivered. On later films, such as Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), where the scripts had run into trouble, Hitchcock’s personal assistant, Peggy Robertson, suggested calling in Hayes. Not one to swallow his pride, Hitchcock ignored her advice.

John Michael Hayes was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1919. He began as a newspaper reporter before serving in the US Army during the Second World War. He moved to California where he worked in radio before turning to Hollywood in the early 1950s, where, among others, he wrote the screenplay for Thunder Bay (1953), one of several films made by James Stewart with the director Anthony Mann.

Hayes’s first film after Hitchcock was Peyton Place (1957), from Grace Metalious’s novel, about the dark secrets of a small New England town. It earned him a second Oscar nomination. He co-wrote Butterfield 8 (1960), which won an Oscar for Elizabeth Taylor, and he adapted two Harold Robbins novels, The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Where Love Has Gone (1964).

In a very different vein he turned Enid Bagnold’s gentle play, The Chalk Garden, into a British film released in 1964 and starring Edith Evans, before moving on to Harlow (1965) — a poor biopic of the tragic Hollywood star Jean Harlow — and the western, Nevada Smith (1966), starring Steve McQueen. During the 1970s Hayes abandoned the cinema for television, without great success, and seemed to have slipped into retirement until resurfacing on the credits of the Disney adventure, Iron Will (1994).

His wife, Mildred Hicks, predeceased him in 1989. He is survived by his four children.

John Michael Hayes, screenwriter, was born on May 11, 1919. He died on November 19, 2008, aged 89