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Helsingin Sanomat (2007) - A Hitchcock thriller that never was

(c) Helsingin Sanomat (2007)

A Hitchcock thriller that never was

By Juha Merimaa

A man loitering in the main post office in Helsinki looks on as a middle-aged woman with short hair retrieves a package. The woman walks off with the package under her arm. The man cautiously follows her at a short distance.

From the main post office, the woman moves on to the Market Square. The camera focuses on the package. A moment later she is seen buying tomatoes and grapes from a market vendor.

The man observes the situation.

The scene continues. The camera follows the woman to the Esplanade bandstand, where a group of folk dancers are performing. The woman stops to watch the performance.

Only the feet of the dancers can be seen on the screen. She puts the shopping and the parcel down on the ground in order to applaud.

A moment later she moves on, leaving the package behind. The man glances first at the woman, and then at the package.

The protagonist, played by Sean Connery, is at a loss as to what to do.

Or he would have been if "The Short Night" had ever been produced.

In the movie, Connery was to have portrayed an American hero who wanted to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of a psychopathic Soviet agent. The package was to have led him to the agent.

Liv Ullmann or Catherine Deneuve had been considered for the main female role. The events were to have taken place in Helsinki, as well as the lake backdrop of Savonlinna, and at the Vainikkala border station.

The director was to have been Alfred Hitchcock.

The film was never made. Although the movie was going through Hitchcock's mind since 1968, the master director never managed to shoot it. The script was ready, all the way down to the camera angles for the folk dancers on the Esplanade stage, and the start of production was announced in 1977. However, the director, who was nearly 80 years old at the time, no longer had the strength. The project was finally and quietly buried in 1979.

With the cancellation of the movie, Finland may have lost more than just a piece of cinematic history: judging from the script, "The Short Night" would have been a very old-fashioned spy adventure in the late 1970s.

Nevertheless, "The Short Night" did get Alfred Hitchcock to visit Finland.

He arrived in Helsinki on August 2nd, 1968 to scout for shooting locations.

Although he was to have popped into Finland unofficially, news about the visit of the director naturally spread. At Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, Hitchcock was met by a large group of journalists, including Leena Larjanko of Ilta-Sanomat.

"The airport was terribly crowded", recalls Larjanko, who is now retired.

She naturally had hoped to get an interview with the man, but the situation appeared difficult.

As others surrounded Hitchkock, Larjanko noticed that his wife Alma was dragging a massive suitcase on her own.

"I offered my help, which Alma was happy to accept. I carried her bag, and we exchanged a few words about how the flight had been."

From the airport, Hitchcock and his entourage moved to the Hotel Marski, where eager reporters lurked in the lobby. However, no interviews were forthcoming - except for Larjanko. So carrying the bag of Hitchcock's wife, who was also his most important working partner, paid big dividends.

The director invited Larjanko up to his suite.

The atmosphere was informal.

"Hitchcock praised my tenacity and offered me some whisky", Larjanko recalls.

The director himself said that he was more of a vodka man. "Nevertheless, we managed to empty the bottle in a couple of hours".

It was more of an evening get-together than an interview. Hitchcock spoke of his father's shop, and how he preferred artificial things to genuine articles. At the director's home, even the lawn was plastic.

Hitchcock asked Larjanko politely about Finland, and its position right next to the Soviet Union.

This was precisely the reason why he was in Finland.

In the storyline of the film, neutral Finland provided the family of a British man who had spied for the Soviet Union with a place to hide. The spy wanted to take his wife (Liv Ullmann) and his son behind the Iron Curtain, but a romance between Connery and Ullman mixed things up.

However, the director did not talk about the movie to Larjanko.

"I got the feeling that he did not really know himself what he was looking for here."

She spent more than two hours in the hotel suite. Then, Alma Hitchcock came from the bedroom in her pyjamas with curlers in her hair and hinted that she would like to go to sleep.

Hitchcock drew Larjanko his famous profile, and asked her to drop in if she ever came to California.

"I still regret that I never got around to doing so."

Saturday, the following day, Hitchcock moved on to Hämeenlinna and Aulanko. He also made a boat trip in the area. The director needed a town near Helsinki with a lake view. He also needed an island, where two women, Olga and Hilga - both staunch Communists - would guard the family of the Soviet agent.

On Sunday a visit to the Vainikkala railway station was on the schedule. This is where the movie's dramatic climax was to have taken place - a chase scene, where the hero tries to prevent the spy from kidnapping his children and taking them to the Soviet Union.

Hitchcock told the Finnish media that he wanted to get a chance to shake hands with a Russian border guard.

Unfortunately, he never got the chance, says Elli Huomanen, a local shopkeeper, who showed Hitchcock around Vainikkala station. The whole village was there to see the director's entourage, and Huomanen, who spoke English, ended up being his guide.

"For more than an hour they walked around the station and the tracks. Hitchcock was terribly fat, but seemed to be very eager to look at places", recalls Huomanen, who is now retired, but remembers the visit well, even though it took place 39 years ago.

Hitchcock was especially interested in the disused rails.

The director was pleased at the attention that he got from the people in the village, and it is said that he drew his famous profile on the wall of the men's room in the station.

Later, a cleaner wiped it off.

Back at the hotel in the evening, Hitchcock gave another interview. The 25-year-old film critic Peter von Bagh managed to link up with the master in the lobby of the Marski.

Hitchcock initially promised von Bagh ten minutes, but ended up spending nearly an hour with him. Von Bagh especially recalls one thing that the master said: "Logic is dull".

"I think that this thought helps in the understanding of his works", von Bagh says.

This time, he drank vodka, rather than whisky. The director knocked back at least 15 shots in very short order.

"He did not seem to become particularly intoxicated. He did turn a bit red and he became more lively."

The director also asked why von Bagh wasn't drinking.

"Later I have regretted that I took the situation so seriously, and didn't start drinking with him."

From Finland, Hitchcock went on to Denmark the following Monday. There, the shooting of the movie Topaz was underway. The spy film was completed in 1969.

Hitchcock promised to come back to Finland with a camera crew the following summer. However, a year later there was a small news item that the shooting would be delayed by a year. In 1970 it was said that the film would be indefinitely postponed. Then there was no more news.

This came as no great surprise, as Hitchcock was already an old man, and was very slow at making films. Also, "The Short Night" would have required famous actors, and Hitchcock did not care much for stars any more.

However, it was a surprise that almost ten years after Hitchcock's visit to Finland, a phone rang.

Film director Åke Lindman received a call from a Hitchcock aide in 1977.

Lindman also received mail, a preliminary script, on the basis of which he was asked to look at filming locations.

"I suggested Savonlinna instead of Hämeenlinna, because I felt that it corresponded better to what they were looking for", Lindman says.

"There were better landscapes there, and small town atmosphere. In addition, Savonlinna had enough hotels for the production crew to live in."

Lindman's suggestions were obviously taken to heart, because in the last version of the script, the location was Savonlinna. There had been numerous scripts for "The Short Night", the last of which was written by David Freeman.

In the film script, Savonlinna is located just a couple of hours from Helsinki by bus, and is rather unusual in other ways as well.

According to the script, the hero visits the sauna of a Savonlinna hotel, which is praised as the best in the city, because it has an electric stove; traditional saunas are said to be dangerous, because they are heated by gas (?!?). In the film this really is the case; there is an attempt to kill the heroine in a gas-fired sauna.

The attempted killing focuses on pipes leading to the sauna - one of them is labelled Gas and the other reads Wasser - gas and water - in German, for some obscure reason.

The heroine does not die, but she also does not get out of the sauna unscathed: she ends up being washed by a rough Finnish man, who even sings a folk song.

The biggest Finnish role is that of Linnankoski, the police chief of Savonlinna. It was suggested to Lindman that he might get the Linnankoski role. The part would have given him a couple of the best lines in the movie: "Finland is a neutral country. We pretend to the point of stupidity that we are not interested in anything, but in the final sense, we are very curious."

And: "In Savonlinna, everyone meets each other."

Lindman does not regret that he did not get to play the part.

"I was not that enthusiastic about it. Roles in foreign productions were so small, and I was accustomed to bigger parts."

As if giving one more effort on behalf of the film, Hitchcock invited Lindman to Hollywood the following summer. During a meeting lasting about an hour, Lindman noticed that the director was in poor shape.

"He was seriously overweight and moved slowly, taking short steps."

Hitchcock asked about working conditions in Finland for film production, and put forward the plans of his working group.

"He was also very interested in when the leaves in the trees turn yellow. He had a clear idea that he wanted yellow leaves in his pictures."

The meeting left Lindman with a feeling of confusion. "I didn't think that he seemed capable of work."

Lindman's assessment was correct. Hitchcock gave up. "The Short Night" joined the long list of Hollywood projects that were never realised.

The work of Sir Alfred was not completely without references to Finland. In "Rear Window", which was produced in 1954, the society lady played by Grace Kelly tries to persuade adventurous photographer James Stewart that she would follow him to the ends of the earth.

Stewart dismisses Kelly's assurances out of hand, telling her that she would freeze to death in Finland with the clothes that she wears.