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The Washington Post (25/Nov/2008) - John Michael Hayes; Writer Worked With Hitchcock

(c) The Washington Post (25/Nov/2008)

John Michael Hayes; Writer Worked With Hitchcock

John Michael Hayes, 89, a screenwriter who added sexy sophistication to Alfred Hitchcock's films "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief" and toned down explicit material for movie adaptations of the popular books "Peyton Place" and "Butterfield 8," died of renal failure Nov. 19 at a retirement community in Hanover, N.H.

Mr. Hayes was credited with writing more than 1,500 radio scripts, including comedy and detective shows, before his work for Hitchcock propelled him to the front rank of screenwriters in the 1950s.

They forged a partnership that created some of the director's most engaging films of his greatest professional decade, said film scholar David Sterritt. Mr. Hayes, he said, "successfully mediated between Hitchcock's imagination and the requirements of a polished Hollywood screenplay."

Often that meant building character and adding humorous diversions to Hitchcock's concern with visual storytelling.

It was Mr. Hayes's idea to add sly romantic banter -- even a love interest at all -- to "Rear Window" (1954), which he helped transform from a slender Cornell Woolrich short story into what many critics regard as a masterpiece of suspense.

Although an early version of the film made the protagonist a sportswriter who thinks he has seen a murder from his apartment window, Mr. Hayes turned the leading man into a wheelchair-bound photographer to emphasize the theme of voyeurism.

James Stewart played the photographer, and Grace Kelly was his girlfriend, a high-fashion model based on Mr. Hayes's wife.

When Kelly makes her entrance in early evening, she whispers into Stewart's ear,

"How's your leg?" 
"Hurts a little. 
"Your stomach?" 
"Empty as a football." 
"And your love life?" 
"Not too active." 
"Anything else bothering you?" the Kelly character asks. 
"Uh-huh," he replied drolly. "Who are you?"

"Rear Window" earned Mr. Hayes an Academy Award nomination and a top honor from the Mystery Writers of America.

The next Hayes-Hitchcock project was "To Catch a Thief" (1955), with Cary Grant as a European thief on the French Riviera and Kelly as the wealthy young American romantically intrigued by him.

As a sexual prelude, Kelly's character tells Grant, "I have a feeling that tonight you're going to see one of the Riviera's most fascinating sights." After a pause, she says, "I was talking about the fireworks."

In a memorable series of edits, Hitchcock intercuts their passionate embrace with an increasingly volatile fireworks display behind them.

Mr. Hayes said his work on "To Catch a Thief" included acting at Hitchcock's request as the official "delayer" when Grant "came in every morning with sheaves of rewritten scenes ... I used every device. I'd ho and hum and say that's interesting until it was too late to use the scenes."

John Michael Hayes was born May 11, 1919, in Worcester, Mass., where he contributed Boy Scout news for the local newspaper. He graduated in 1941 from what is now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and served in the Army entertaining troops during World War II.

After his discharge, he wrote for radio shows including "Amos and Andy" and "The Adventures of Sam Spade." He wrote several action films, including "Red Ball Express" with Jeff Chandler and "Thunder Bay" with Stewart, before pairing with Hitchcock because they shared an agent.

Mr. Hayes also wrote for Hitchcock "The Trouble With Harry" (1955) and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), a remake of Hitchcock's 1934 thriller of the same name.

Tensions over money and writing credit had persisted between Mr. Hayes and the director. He said the breaking point was when Hitchcock insisted on giving an old friend, Angus MacPhail, script credit for "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Mr. Hayes felt none was deserved.

Mr. Hayes won an arbitration battle and went on to other high-profile writing assignments.

His first was a screenplay for "Peyton Place," based on Grace Metalious's best-selling novel about incest, infidelity and abortion. Mr. Hayes wrote eight drafts and changed illegal abortion to a miscarriage before pleasing censors. The script brought him his only other Oscar nomination.

Through the 1960s, he watered down the strong sexual content to adapt screenplays of books and plays including John O'Hara's "Butterfield 8" and Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" as well as the Harold Robbins novels "The Carpetbaggers" and "Where Love Has Gone." He also wrote "Nevada Smith" (1966), a revenge western starring Steve McQueen.

Mr. Hayes settled in New Hampshire, where he taught screenwriting at Dartmouth College. His last screen credit was "Iron Will" (1994), a Disney movie about a dog-sled race.

His wife, Mildred "Mel" Hicks, died in 1989.

Mr. Hayes is survived by four children, Rochelle Hayes Skala of Calabasas, Calif., Garrett Michael Hayes of Smyrna, Ga., Meredyth Badreau of Houston and Corey Hayes of Jacksonville, Fla.; and four grandchildren.