The Short Night
Hitchcock secured the rights to Ronald Kirkbride's short novel The Short Night (1968) shortly after its publication and then to Sean Bourke's non-fiction book The Springing of George Blake (1970) in the early 1970s.
Both books dealt with British spy and double agent George Blake who was arrested and imprisoned in 1961 but subsequently escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison, London, in October 1966. After his escape, Blake fled to Finland and then to Russia.
First Development Phase: 1968-70
The project was initially announced in September 1968 by Variety as the director's next film after Topaz:
Alfred Hitchcock will begin his next directorial offering for Universal with the purchase of "The Short Night," a new novel by Ronald Kirkbride, British author. Production will commence on the heels of Hitchcock's "Topaz," slated for lensing later this month. "The Short Night" is an adventure drama with a Finnish setting. The director is already planning on three major stars for the principal roles of an American journalist, a notorious spy and his wife.
During the pre-production phase of Topaz, Hitchcock had visited Europe to select the cast for the film. After travelling to Stockholm to meet with with director Ingmar Bergman, Hitchcock continued on to Helsinki with his wife, Alma, producer Herbert Coleman and writer Samuel A. Taylor to scout possible locations in Finland for The Short Night. Following a local recommendation, they selected Hämeenlinna — the birthplace of composer Jean Sibelius — as an ideal filming location.
Although the trade press were still reporting as late as January 1970 that The Short Night would shortly go into production as Hitchcock's next film, the project was eventually set aside in favour of Frenzy later that year. The disappointing response to Topaz was likely a contributing factor to the director's decision not to make a third cold war political thriller in a row.
Video: Hitchcock's Arrival in Finland
Second Development Phase: 1977-79
In May he began script meetings with writer James Costigan, who was hired for $150,000. However, within a few weeks, Hitchcock began to express his doubts — in a letter to Michael Balcon, he said complained that the writer was "non-cinematic, in addition to which he is extremely obstinate, if you attempt to guide him away from the overemphasis on the verbal" — and Costigan was soon paid off.
By October, Ernest Lehman had been recruited to work on the treatment with Hitchcock, despite the friction that had arisen during their work together on Family Plot. Over the following 10 months, Hilton A. Green, Edith Head, Robert F. Boyle, Albert Whitlock and Norman Lloyd all became involved in the pre-production, with Boyle and Lloyd travelling to Finland to scout further locations and take photographs.
In an interview published in Sight and Sound, John Russell Taylor asked Hitchcock about the project:
In The Short Night it's a situation that fascinates me: the man falls in love with the wife of a man he's waiting to kill. It's like a French farce turned inside-out. If he sees a boat coming across the bay with the husband on it, he can't hop out of the back window, he has to wait and do what he has to do. And of course he can't take the wife, who loves him, into his confidence. And so the whole romance is overshadowed by this secret, which gives it a special flavour and atmosphere. That's what I want to convey.
I read a review of the novel somewhere, and was struck by this idea. The central action takes place on an island off the coast of Finland, near where Sibelius was born. It's where Blake's wife with their two children waited for him to come and collect them once he'd got out of England, and take them into Russia with him. That's where the man who is stalking him comes also in Ronald Kirkbride's novel, and where he and the wife fall in love while they are waiting. The end of the film is a big traditional chase: the wife won't go with the spy, so he kidnaps his children and gets on the train for Russia from Helsinki, and the other man has to pursue the train, get on it somehow and get the children away from him as well as killing him if he can before they reach the border.
The beginning comes from the non-fiction book by Sean Bourke, who actually engineered Blake's escape. The details of that are incredible: they sound as though they came straight out of a movie. Bourke and Blake communicated by a walkie-talkie that had been smuggled into the prison. Hammersmith hospital is right next to the prison, and Bourke used to stand outside it on visiting days with a bunch of flowers wired for sound, into which he would talk to Blake. They finally got him out over the wall one night when there was a film show in the prison, with all kinds of delays, and then hid him three minutes away until the fuss had died down. But the main thing is the love story. I went to look at the island. It has a few low scrubby trees, very bleak and windswept, but there are lots of reeds in shallow water all round. I thought what an interesting image it would be to shoot a chase there from slightly above, so that you can't see the men at all, just the movements of the reeds as they almost converge, then get further apart, neither knowing where the other is...
Interviewed in 1978, Edith Head said:
The next film I'm doing is "The Short Night" by Hitchcock. It's being shot in Finland, and it will be a contemporary film. But with Hitchcock I will know in time who's going to be in the part and what's needed. I already know it's the kind of picture where the girls wear sweaters, skirts, sport clothes. Ten or fifteen years ago we would have had the sweaters and skirts made to order. Today nobody, not even Hitchcock, does that, because the financial situation has changed.
However, by the summer of 1978, Lehman had left the project after a disagreement about a rape scene — a similar disagreement in the early 1960s over the inclusion of a rape scene had resulted in writer Evan Hunter being dropped from Marnie. In 2000, Lehman recalled, "It's something I prefer to forget. We had a number of arguments about it. He wanted the hero to rape a woman at the beginning of the picture [...] Anyway, as you can see, I have no affectionate memories about that project."
In July 1978, Lloyd took over as the writer on the project, although he later recalled that "[Hitchcock] couldn't lick the story. Nobody could lick the story. Nobody knew better than Hitch that it was old hat. He'd had [The Short Night] on his shelf for eleven years, and interestingly enough, while we were talking about doing it, we kept looking for something else." In late September, despite Lloyd's initial treatment remaining unfinished, Hitchcock decided to start writing the shooting script. When Lloyd disagreed and said, "I don't think we're ready," the director cut him out of the project.
Despite Hitchcock's declining health, a final writer was hired to work on the project at the end of 1978 — David Freeman. Together, they worked for 5 months and completed a draft script, which was later reprinted in Freeman's book The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. By the summer of 1979, Hitchcock had difficulty walking without a stick and, following the death of Victor Saville, he decided he was no longer physically strong enough to make the film. Hilton A. Green later recalled:
I remember the day very vividly in my mind. I was up in my office and got a call from Sue, his secretary, saying that Mr. Hitchcock wanted to see me right away and it was very important. Well, of course, I dropped everything and went down to his office and went into his office, and it was just the two of us. And he was behind his desk, and he almost had tears in his eyes. And he said, "I can't go on." I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "I can't make this picture, and I would like for you to do a favour for me." And I said, "Well, of course, I'll do a favour, but why..." He says, "I'm just not up to it, and I'm not strong enough to go on location." I said, "But we'll do it for you. You're there. You tell us what to do, and we'll do it." And he said, "No. I'm never going to make a movie again." He said, "I want you to call Mr. Wasserman and let him know. I can't face him."
And I'll never forget that. I called Mr. Wasserman and went up and told him that Mr. Hitchcock was retiring. And it was a... It was a horrible, horrible moment for me. And it was really tough on Mr. Wasserman too.
During the two periods the film was under development, a number of actors were considered for roles in the film, including Clint Eastwood, Walter Matthau, Sean Connery, Liv Ullman and Catherine Deneuve.
- Wikipedia: George Blake
- A Hitchcock thriller that never was
- The Short Knight: What Happened During "The Short Night"
Notes & References
- Variety (1968) - Pictures: 'Short Night' for Hitch
- The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir (2007) by Herbert Coleman, pages 358-60. According to Herbert Coleman, Bergman suggested Per-Axel Arosenius and Sonja Kolthoff as two actors worth casting in Topaz.
- Wikipedia: Hämeenlinna
- The Independent Film Journal (1970) - Production News
- Variety (1977) - Pictures: Hitchcock's Next Film
- Boxoffice (1977) - Hitchcock Will Direct 'Short Night' for Univ
- Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan, chapter 18
- Sight and Sound (1977) - Surviving: Hitchcock
- American Film (1978) - Dialogue on Film: Edith Head
- Creative Screenwriting (2000) - "North by Northwest": An Interview with Ernest Lehman
- Plotting Family Plot (2001)