According to biographer Caroline Moorehead, during the summer of 1945, Hitchcock had pitched to Sidney Bernstein the idea of Transatlantic Pictures' first film being a modern re-telling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, starring Cary Grant. In a cable to Bernstein, Hitchcock described it as being a "psychological melodrama" and that Grant was keen to take on the role. Prior to the actual formation of Transatlantic Pictures, Hitchcock had also considered bringing Grant in as a third partner in the company.
Bernstein sought out a suitable English scholar to help advise on the project and recruited Alan "Jock" Dent to provide "a full analysis of the various versions of Hamlet."
Although Hitchcock initially voiced concerns to Bernstein about keeping the project secret ("I am concerned about maintaining secrecy on this because the idea is in the public domain and could easily be stolen"), he and Grant soon began talking about the project to both the American and British press.
The transcription will be closely watched, so as to be as faithful as possible to Shakespeare's text, yet modern enough to appeal to the widest possible audience. The plot, situations, psychology and characters will be retained, but the action and sets will be modern.
— Alfred Hitchcock
Hamlet will be shown as a modern man with problems. I won't attempt to portray the role in the traditional Shakespearean manner. I approach the assignment with considerable trepidation, but my faith in Mr. Hitchcock is my reassurance in the matter, which I am eager to undertake. Shakespeare is the best theater in the world and if we are successful in devising an acceptable film formula through Hamlet, other things may follow.
— Cary Grant
By the time Bernstein had joined Hitchcock in California late 1945, the director's interest in the project had apparently waned slightly and they discounted the idea of Grant joining as Transatlantic's third partner. In early December, Variety reported that the project had stalled and that it wouldn't begin filming until autumn 1946 at the earliest.
In early January 1946, columnist Leonard Lyons reported that, "When Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant do their movie version of Hamlet in modern dress, Hamlet's soliloquy will be recited from the psychoanalyst's couch."
The following month, columnist Earl Wilson reported Cary Grant as saying: "We'll do it in a modern manner. For instance, 'To be or not to be' will probably read, 'What the hell do I do now?'."
Variety reported in late February that Hamlet would still be going ahead and that it would be followed by Under Capricorn. This was one of the final press reports to mention the Hamlet project.
When Transatlantic Pictures was officially formed in April 1946, it was announced that Under Capricorn would be the company's first film and would star Ingrid Bergman. A month later, Variety reported that, "The first film Sidney Bernstein's new company will make is The Life of Keir Hardie, founder of the British Labour Party. Alfred Hitchcock, associated with Bernstein in new setup, will direct."
The Law Suit (1947–1955)
The American press coverage of the Hamlet project caught the attention of Irving Fiske (also known as Irving Louis Fishman) who filed suit for $1,250,000 damages against Cary Grant and Hitchcock in New York in May 1947. Fiske claimed the project infringed upon a work he wrote between 1938 and 1941 titled Hamlet in Modern English. Although it unknown if Hitchcock or Grant were aware of the work, Fiske claimed he had circulated it "throughout the theatrical and film industry" and that he had been in talks about a stage version which was scuppered when Hitchcock announced his intentions.
By January 1949, Grant's name had been removed from the suit. Speaking to Variety, Hitchcock's attorney, Joseph Levene, stated that the director had abandoned the project long before Fiske's suit was filed and that he would ask that the case be thrown out.
After a series of delays, the case finally went before Judge William Bondy in October 1954 at the New York Federal Court. By that point, Fiske's claim for damages had been reduced to $750,000. Hitchcock was busy filming The Trouble with Harry and did not attend the trial.
The case generated much interest within the film industry as concerns grew that a victory for Fiske would open the flood gates for other similar litigation.
After 11 days of testimony, Judge Bondy halted the trial and directed the jury to find the case not proven. According to Variety, famed stage actor Maurice Evans provided valuable evidence in Hitchcock's defense — during two-hours on the stand, Evans described prior examples of Shakespeare's text being "modernised" and, when asked what he thought of Fiske's "Hamlet in Modern English", he replied, "As an actor I would not want to play it; as a producer, I think it would be a disaster."
A footnote to the trial occurred in March 1955 when Judge Bondy ordered Fiske to pay $5,000 to Hitchcock "to help pay the latter's counsel costs." It is unknown if Fiske actually paid up.
North by Northwest (1959)
In his 1981 article on the film published in Critical Inquiry, scholar Stanley Cavell argued that North by Northwest (1959) is a symbolic reworking of "Hamlet". During the second act of the play, Hamlet says, "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw."
Notes & References
- Sidney Bernstein: A Biography (1984) by Caroline Moorehead, pages 173-4.
- See, for example, the Aberdeen Journal (05/Sep/1945) and Variety (29/Aug/1945). There was widespread coverage in U.S. regional newspapers during August 1945.
- Source: Associated Press (Aug/1945)
- Source: Associated Press (Aug/1945)
- See Variety (05/Dec/1945).
- Lyons' column was reprinted in many local U.S. newspapers, e.g. Amarillo Daily News (05/Jan/1946).
- Source: Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio) on 25/Feb/1946
- See Variety (17/Apr/1946).
- See Variety (15/May/1946).
- See Variety (28/May/1947).
- See Variety (12/Jan/1949).
- See Variety (27/Oct/1954).