Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence –Alfred Hitchcock, Part 2

by Philip Berk August 10, 2020
Alfred Hitchcock and Rosalind Russell

HFPA Archives

Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette DavisElizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.

Selznick, again preoccupied with his other pictures, including the massively expensive Duel in the Sun, and needing the ready cash, sold Hitchcock’s Notorious lock stock and barrel to RKO for $600,000. For many film connoisseurs, Notorious is Hitchcock’s most essential film, the one which best exemplifies his undeniable genius, but what did Selznick know! The film ended up a critical and box-office triumph.

For his final obligation to his megalomaniac producer Hitchcock was offered an old chestnut, a 1932 novel by Robert Hitchens The Paradine Case, which because of Selznick’s endless interference (he got screenplay credit) and compromised casting, it can best be summed up by Gregory Peck who called it, “the one picture of mine I’d like to burn.” Initially intended for Greta Garbo and Robert Donat, Selznick cast key roles with his newly acquired contract players Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan; Hitch was even unhappy with Charles Laughton in a supporting role. All told it was an unhappy experience, but he quickly put it behind him, buoyed by Warner Bros. who had agreed to bankroll his Transatlantic Pictures.

But be careful what you wish for. Even though he had a simpatico partner in Sidney Bernstein and carte blanche as both producer and director the four films he made for TransAtlantic were the low point of his career. The first, Rope, trumpeted his revolutionary ten-minute take, but when word got out that the characters were gay, which in 1945 was strictly verboten, Warner Bros curtailed its release. The second Under Capricorn deserved the scorn that greeted it when it was released. The third misadventure was Stage Fright, intended as a starring vehicle for Jane Wyman, who had just won the Oscar for Johnny Belinda. When her costar Marlene Dietrich commandeered the film, Hitchcock didn’t intervene. And even worse, after viewing the early rushes Wyman demanded that she be made to look more glamorous even though the role she signed up for was that of a mousy plain Jane (no pun intended). Stage Fright did well at the box office, however, and Warner Bros. was happy to pay Hitchcock his fee, now up to $600,000 per picture.

His next movie Strangers on a Train again posed a problem for the studio, concern that the leading character was homosexual, but Hitch was able to appease the studio by casting Robert Walker, the former husband of Jennifer Jones, in that role. The film was tailored to Hitchcock’s genius and as was his practice he sought out a celebrated author to work on the script. That writer was Raymond Chandler who however didn’t get along with Hitchcock and the feeling was mutual. Hitchcock tolerated him for months, and then took his completed script and threw it out. He hired an unknown writer to replace him, and the film, without Chandler’s contributions, became one of his most beloved classics. Of course, Chandler’s name remains on the credits thanks to the WGA’s intervention.

Following that, Hitchcock took a six-month leave of absence and returned to make a very personal project, I Confess for which playwright George Tabori wrote exactly the script Hitch was looking for.

Warners was vacillating over his next film and finally approved Dial M for Murder, based on the London and New York theater success. A film which he could make cheaply and which he promised would be profitable. Even though the film was shot in 3D – audiences depleted by TV viewing and studios were trying anything to get them back – by the time it was released the 3D fad was over, and the film was shown in the standard format. It was nevertheless a big hit and Hitch was back in good graces. Meanwhile, every studio was feeling the pinch of declining revenues, so most contract people were let go. But Jack Warner held on to Hitchcock who he had signed to a long term contract, even allowing him to make his next film for Paramount, one of a few bad decisions he ever made. The film was Rear Window, and it presaged the greatest artistic period in Hitchcock’s dazzling career.

The director had first discovered Grace Kelly in a screen-test she had done for Fox and never forgot her. He borrowed her for peanuts from MGM for Dial M, and he did not hesitate to use her again as James Stewart’s costar. Rear Window was one of the year’s biggest moneymakers, a film everyone had to see. Hitch was excited by a new screenwriter he had discovered and had signed him to a three-picture deal. However, when John Michael Hayes turned in his script for Rear Window, based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, Hitch was so pleased he tore up the contract and made it a four-picture deal.

Hitchcock’s deal with Paramount, where he joined their stable of great directors which included Billy Wilder, William Wyler, George Stevens, and Cecil B. deMille, allowed him total independence, but he was granted one guarantee the others didn’t get. After eight years he would own the pictures he made for them outright, and of course, this arrangement eventually made him a very rich man, the deal orchestrated by his newly acquired agent Lew Wasserman on whom he relied upon for the rest of his career.

His second Paramount picture To Catch a Thief reunited him with Cary Grant, who by now was a very demanding star, and Grace Kelly. The film was a surprise hit and Paramount was so happy with their partnership they allowed him to make the quirky The Trouble with Harry with unknown Shirley MacLaine and Broadway actor John ForsytheThe Trouble with Harry is most memorable for introducing Hitchcock to composer Bernard Herrmann, who went on to score his most famous films including Vertigo and Psycho. He and Hitch were inseparable for seven years until they had a falling out over Torn Curtain and never spoke to each other again.

Flush with the success he was eager to remake The Man Who Knew Too Much, and at that very moment Angus MacPhail, who was credited with the screenplay of the 1937 version, wrote him a letter begging for financial assistance. MacPhail was unemployed, ill, and heavily in debt. As was his wont, Hitch sent him a check, arranged for former friends to help pay his back taxes, and put him on Paramount’s payroll assigning him to write The Man Who Knew Too Much script, a credit which would guarantee him future medical benefits.

The script was tailored for James Stewart, also a Wasserman client, who too was guaranteed 10% of the gross. Hitchcock was hoping he could convince Grace Kelly to play the female lead. Even though she might have accepted the role she was embroiled in a contract dispute with MGM and much to Hitch’s surprise she became engaged to Prince Rainier. As her replacement, he accepted Doris Day, another Wasserman client. Meanwhile, John Michael Hayes contracted to script four Hitchcock films, was reluctant to share screen credit with MacPhail, and after a bitter showdown with Hitch, the two of them worked out their contract and never spoke to each other again. The film was again a big hit thanks in part to Doris’s Oscar-winning song “Que Sera Sera,” sung twice in the film. And she and Hitchcock developed a close relationship during and after the shoot.

By now Hitchcock was about to embark on his two most famous films, working on both of them at the same time. The first Vertigo was based on a French novel by the authors of Diabolique. Although it was Hitch’s practice to use a number of writers (including Sam Taylor) on any given script, it was Alec Coppel, best known for having written Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession, who clinched the deal. Although in the final analysis, Vertigo is Hitchcock’s baby. He expended more creative juices on this film than any other, and it is no wonder he later acknowledged it as his best film.

James Stewart was always penciled in for the lead but knowing Princess Grace wouldn’t be unavailable he settled for Vera Miles, an actress he had personally groomed, having discovered her on his TV show. He put her under a long term contract, but then when production was delayed interminably because of Hitch’s meticulous preproduction changes, Vera became pregnant and he reluctantly had to settle for Kim Novak, a hot property, no doubt a Wasserman client, but someone he was not enthusiastic about.

But of course, Hitchcock had put his complete trust in Wasserman, who had not only made him rich but famous as well, thanks to his weekly TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents which he introduced and closed and needed only half a morning once a week to shoot. It quickly became TV's top-rated show and made Hitchcock the most recognizable film director in America and richer than ever. After its first run, Hitchcock would own the show, another Wasserman coup.

Hitchcock’s other preoccupation during the Vertigo preproduction was an idea he had entertained for ten years. It was only after he was introduced to writer Ernest Lehman, by no less than Bernard Herrmann, that North by Northwest became a reality. Wasserman had engineered a deal whereby Hitch would make the film for MGM. At the time the studio was on its knees, so they offered him unprecedented ownership of the negative after eight years, once again Wasserman’s doing.   

Even though at the time of its release it was tepidly received by both the public and critics, Vertigo justifies its revered reputation. On no other film did Hitchcock devote so much of his time, and even throughout post-production he made endless adjustments, most notably allowing for longer stretches of Herrmann’s score, the love theme of which has since been compared to Wagner. In so doing he transformed the film into a haunting emotional allegory.  

Fortunately the poor reception the film initially received never dampened his spirit, and in fact, he was even more inventive in realizing the set pieces of North by Northwest (the crop duster sequence, the Mount Rushmore climax) and this time he was rewarded when the film became a huge box office success. Even Cary Grant, who had become quite dismissive during the shoot, years later got down on his knees and thanked his director.

But there was an even greater success to come. Again, thanks to Wasserman’s maneuvering, his final Paramount commitment ended up at Universal. Psycho, a low budget black and white potboiler, for which he took no salary but would own 60% of the gross, became his top moneymaker of all time. Even in preproduction, he had an amazing working relationship with relatively unknown writer Joseph Stefano. And carefully choosing Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh for the leads, he supervised every aspect of the production and distribution, thrilled by Herrmann’s score, which has often been imitated but never equaled. On its initial release it became the years second-biggest moneymaker, only Spielberg’s Jaws would top it. And critically it was considered a masterpiece.

After that, although he had some box office success with The Birds and critical success with Marnie – on both he found his ideal successor to Grace Kelly in Tippi Hedren (before eventually falling out with her) – the other four films he made never quite jelled.

He died in 1980 at the age of 80. Forty years after his death, his work and reputation are more alive than ever.

His classic movies? Too many to list.