Ambler and Greene: Journeys into Fear

“International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood.”
(Eric Ambler)

“Victims? Don’t be so melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving? […] These days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing”
(Harry Lime, looking down from the Great Wheel in The Third Man)


A year or so ago, when I was contemplating writing a book on the relatively unexplored territory of the screenwriting career of Eric Ambler, one outcome seemed certain: I would need to devote a chapter comparing Ambler with Graham Greene. The connection seemed inescapable. They were both major screenwriters who had made a significant contribution to British cinema during its heyday of popularity from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s; they were both masters in their fictional field who, particularly during the 1930s, brought a new literary respectability to the genre of the mystery thriller; they even shared the same publishers and had coincidentally spent regular periods of residence in Switzerland.

My interest was piqued still further when I recalled quotations cited in two classic works of Greene scholarship, which, in an interesting and oblique way, seemed to confirm my conviction that the parallels between Ambler and Greene were worth pursuing.

The first quotation comes from Volume One of Norman Sherry’s biography, The Life of Graham Greene (1989), where Sherry is quoting from a review of a novel published in 1951: “The cinema has taught him speed and clarity, the revealing gesture. When he generalizes it is as though a camera were taking a panning shot and drawing evidence from face after face.”1 As Sherry remarked, it could be a description of Greene’s own writing style, but it is, in fact, taken from a review by Greene of Eric Ambler’s novel, Judgment on Deltchev. We know that Greene was an admirer of Ambler’s work, describing him as “unquestionably our best thriller writer” on the cover of a compendium of Ambler’s work; and including Ambler in The Spy’s Bedside Book (1957) which he compiled and edited with his brother Hugh. “He analyses danger,” wrote Greene of Ambler, “as carefully and seriously as other novelists analyse guilt or love.”2 His review of Judgment on Deltchev suggests a stylistic literary kinship particularly derived from their common cinematic experience.

The second quotation comes from the third edition of Quentin Falk’s study of cinematic adaptations of Greene’s work, Travels in Greeneland (2000), when he draws attention to an observation from the Observer’s film critic, Philip French made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Third Man in 1999. French had been musing on why Greene had always expressed a preference for The Fallen Idol over the more highly esteemed The Third Man, the reason being, Greene said, that it was more a writer’s film whereas The Third Man was more a director’s movie. French suspected there was more to it than that and that Greene was distancing himself from “this masterpiece” because he was aware that, in terms of plot and character, The Third Man owed something to Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel, The Mask of Dimitrios, most notably its central situation of a main character, presumed dead, who turns out two thirds of the way through the story to be very much alive. French suggested further points of contact which I will be exploring in due course, but he seemed surprised that few commentators had picked up the comparison. When he had once asked Ambler if he had noticed the resemblance, Ambler replied drily; “Yes, I have.”3

It should be emphasized that I am not talking about direct or conscious influence here, but more about parallels and connections between two writers who might be considered, in a sense, kindred spirits. I have talked in a similar way about parallels between the work of Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, even though Greene’s film criticism had a curious blind-spot about the merits of Hitchcock’s movies.4 Ambler had an even more direct contact with Hitchcock. He not only wrote two episodes for Hitchcock’s television series, but he married Hitchcock’s long-time assistant and later producer of his tv shows, Joan Harrison, with Hitchcock being their (by all accounts, very unruly) best man.5

Parallel lives and literary connections

Before exploring the cinematic and literary connections in greater detail, I think it might be useful to sketch in a bit of biographical background. Incidentally, both wrote two volumes of autobiography, the second of which was even less forthcoming than the first and the first each having titles that suggested something short of complete self-revelation: in Greene’s case, A Sort of Life (1971); in Ambler’s Here Lies (1985). I think it was John le Carré who said of Greene that he never disclosed the whole truth about himself but only gave you a cover story, in the spirit of someone who sometimes covers his tracks with the truth only because it is easier to remember. Ambler put things more bluntly. “Only an idiot believes he can write the truth about himself,” he declared.6

Both were born and died in the same decade: Greene (1904-1991) at the age of 87; Ambler (1909-1999) at the age of 89. Their family backgrounds were very different, Greene being the son of a headmaster, Ambler the son of parents who were partners in a successful music hall variety act. Both were psychoanalyzed in their youth and both early on seemed to conclude that England was a dull place to live, finding inspiration and excitement in foreign locations.

They each discovered at an early age a love of reading and a passion for writing. For Greene a decisive influential text was Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan (1906), a deceptively escapist period novel which for Greene conjured up a world of tragedy, treachery and terror. “She had given me my pattern,” he was to write in his essay ‘The Lost Childhood’, “perfect evil walking in the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.”7 The whole world of The Third Man is evoked in that description; the Great Wheel of Vienna seems almost like the Wheel of History tilting tentatively and only temporarily towards a more optimistic future. For Ambler, it was his encounter, at the age of fifteen, with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and, being, as he wrote, “shattered by it. Wrapped in the mantle of Raskolnikov, I used to go for long, gloomy walks in the more depressing quarters of London, looking for fallen women whom I could salute, though from a respectable distance, in the name of suffering humanity.”8 It led to his conviction that there is a potential policeman or criminal in every human being. The Dostoyevskian influence can even be felt as late as 1963 when The Ability to Kill was published, his macabre and even morbid collection of essays about notorious murder cases, narrated in that characteristic low-key prose which in his novels, as Gavin Lambert remarked, often conveys “a high state of panic”.9

Over the years they developed a writing routine that was quite similar. They both would draft out their work in longhand. Greene would customarily stop when he had written 500 words; and Ambler was to remark that 500 words a day “was good going.”10 Their literary reputations were established in the 1930s, with both ending the decade on a high note: in Greene’s case, with two masterpieces, Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940); and in Ambler’s case, the two novels on which his literary fame and prestige largely rest, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940). Although there is no evidence of conscious borrowing, there seems sometimes an intriguing crossover of stimuli. Ambler uses as epigram a quotation from Dryden to launch Cause for Alarm (1937); Greene does likewise for The Power and the Glory. There is a similarity of titles: Journey into Fear (Ambler); The Ministry of Fear (Greene, 1943). “Dangerous” is one of Greene’s key words, whether it be found in the lines from Robert Browning’s poem Bishop Blougram’s Apology that he said was at the basis of all his work (“Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things”) or his comment that it was the “dangerous third martini” that prompted him to propose himself as film critic to the editor of The Observer in 1935. Ambler describes Dimitrios’s “brown, anxious” eyes as “dangerous” and one of his early novels has the title, Uncommon Danger (1937). “Would they ever cross the border?” says a character in Uncommon Danger; and crossing the border is a main theme of Greene’s great short story of the following year, ‘Across the Bridge’.

Given that they were both working within the thriller genre, such coincidences are perhaps not surprising in themselves or significant until one considers what each novelist has done with the ideas. Nevertheless, it seems to me noteworthy when the imagery one of them uses prompts a memory of something in the work of the other. For example, we know now the symbolic importance to Greene of the green baize door which led to a passage by his father’s study, and which signified not only the dividing line between home and school, but also between safety and anxiety, for the other side of the door opened onto an alien world of fear and hate.11 Ambler’s image in Journey into Fear for a similar kind of realization, where a zone of comfort leads to one of chaos, is “the world beyond the door, the world in which you recognized the ape beneath the velvet”.12 This is the moment when three shots are fired at the armaments engineer Graham as he opens his hotel room door; and suddenly he is aware of a world of terror outside of the orderly and comfortable terrain in which he has hitherto complacently moved. When Ambler talks in Epitaph for a Spy of “mankind fighting to save itself from the primaeval ooze that welled from its own subconscious being” and then later in Journey into Fear refers to “the insanity of the subconscious mind…the awe-inspired insanity of the primaeval swamp”,13 I cannot help mentally fast-forwarding to Greene’s fascination with the Viennese sewers in The Third Man, this slippery underworld through which Harry Lime moves, and which could symbolize the subconscious mind of Holly Martins, who has a guilty admiration and envy of his best friend’s outlawed vitality that must be rooted out and destroyed in a final and deadly underground confrontation. Greene has always – and rightly – been admired for the prophetic quality of his novels, his nose for the next political trouble spot, which prompted his friend Alec Guinness to remark that when he heard that Greene was going off to visit some part of the globe, he would avoid that place like the plague: he thought some revolution or war would be bound to erupt soon. The Quiet American is the quintessential example of that. Ambler also had his impressively prophetic side. One would struggle to find a more chillingly prophetic sentence in all 1930s literature than the one in Ambler’s 1936 novel, The Dark Frontier: “Never does a man’s knowledge advance so rapidly as when he is creating a weapon of destruction.”14 In a few years’ time that knowledge will have advanced the world into a new nuclear and Cold War age that could imperil its very survival.

The cinematic connections

The connections between the two authors’ engagement with the film industry seem alternately minor and substantial. Both made a solitary personal appearance in a film: Ambler as a Bren Gun instructor in The New Lot (1942), Greene as a retired businessman in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Each had the distinction of being nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay: Greene for The Fallen Idol, Ambler for The Cruel Sea (1953). A more substantial connection is that both collaborated on three films with the director Carol Reed. During Greene’s period as film critic in the 1930s, Reed was one of the very few English directors whose work he had consistently championed. Their three films together – The Fallen Idol, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana (1959) – constitute one of the most highly regarded writer/director partnerships in the history of British film; and Greene was to dedicate the publication of his novella The Third Man, which provided the basis for the screenplay, to Carol Reed “in admiration and affection”. A good friend of Reed also, Ambler had a more quirky and unorthodox collaboration. His first screenwriting experience was for Carol Reed’s Army Film Unit, where they worked together on The New Lot, which was intended as a recruiting film for the Army and an introduction to basic training. This was expanded into the feature film starring David Niven, The Way Ahead (1944), which, with Went the Day Well? (1942), seems to me arguably the best British war film made during the actual war years. Their third collaboration was an altogether more troubled affair, for they were involved in MGM’s ill-fated remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), which essentially involved their endeavor to make a coherent and entertaining movie whilst satisfying the whims of its temperamental star, Marlon Brando. Years earlier, in a lecture entitled ‘The Novelist and the Film-Makers’, Ambler had defined the central issue confronting any screenwriter, as being “the problem of collaboration without loss of self-respect”.15 After fourteen re-writes had failed to satisfy the film’s star, Ambler resolved to salvage his self-respect by leaving the production altogether and Reed followed shortly afterwards. Less original and imaginative a screenwriter than Greene perhaps, Ambler was nevertheless to demonstrate a particular facility for literate and well-crafted adaptations of popular English novelists in the realist tradition, such as his adaptation of H G Wells’s The Passionate Friends (1948) for David Lean, and his version for Ronald Neame of Arnold Bennett’s The Card (1952), which Ambler mentions in his autobiography as being his father’s favorite novel. As well as the Oscar nomination for The Cruel Sea, Ambler was to be nominated for British Academy Awards for The Purple Plain (1954), which its director Robert Parrish thought improved on the HE Bates novel, and for Roy Baker’s film, A Night to Remember (1958), which still looks the best film yet made of the Titanic disaster.

Ambler’s lecture on the novelist and the film makers had originally been given in 1951 at the invitation of Greene’s publisher friend, A. S. Frere to the Sunday Times Book Exhibition and delivered later that year to the Edinburgh Film Festival. It offered a wise and whimsical fantasy about the likely fate awaiting a young and enthusiastic novelist who has excitedly sold his novel to the movies but then must look on askance and even aghast as his precious work becomes progressively altered to suit the commercial imperatives of the medium. Ambler is pragmatic about this process. After all, he says, “most writers from other media go to work in the film industry in the hope of making a lot of money in a comparatively short time.”16 There is nothing wrong in that, of course, because it means they will be able to continue writing novels; and it still requires them to fulfil their obligations to the project with all the diligence and professionalism at their command. The novelist must be under no illusions, however, about what is involved. “Screenwriting has very little to do with writing as a novelist understands the term,” Ambler argues. “The only common denominators are a sense of story construction… and the ability to create characters who breathe.”17 The distinction Ambler makes between writing a novel and writing for the screen underscores one significant difference between Ambler’s approach and that of Greene: namely, Ambler’s policy of never adapting his own novels for the screen, for they involved completely different approaches and techniques. This was in sharp contrast to Greene, who, after what he saw as his disastrous attempt to adapt John Galsworthy’s play ‘The First and the Last’ in Twenty-One Days (1937), vowed in future only to adapt his own work for the screen, a rule he kept, except for the solitary (and frustratingly unexplained) exception of his adaptation of G. B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957) for Otto Preminger.

In 1958 Greene was to write his own essay on the same theme, entitled ‘The Novelist and the Cinema – A Personal View’. Like Ambler, he expressed a general gratitude towards the cinema in the contribution it has made to a novelist’s survival; in his case, not so much in writing for the screen but selling the rights to others for his novels to be filmed. “It is better to sell outright,” he wrote, “and not to connive any further than you have to at a massacre.”18 The book would probably have a longer life, he reasoned, and the money he made from a film version would enable him to carry on writing. The “massacres” he mainly deplored were those films which reversed the meaning of his originals: as examples, he would single out particularly John Ford’s film, The Fugitive (1947), his version of The Power and the Glory, and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American (1958), neither of which he seems to have seen but which he concluded, from reports he had read, were travesties of his intentions.19 Worth recommending also, for a more balanced assessment than Greene’s, is Andrei Gorzo’s perceptive and judicious analysis of Mankiewicz’s film of The Quiet American in A Sort of Newsletter, February 2021, pp. 2-7.)) Like Greene, Ambler disliked nearly all the films made from his work. Probably the most successful was Jules Dassin’s heist movie, Topkapi (1965), adapted from his novel, The Light of Day (1962), and which at least won a best supporting actor Oscar for his great friend, Peter Ustinov. An adaptation of Journey into Fear (1942) was, in Ambler’s phrase, “master-minded” by Orson Welles, who was a great fan of Ambler’s writing, but was directed by Norman Foster and in the end bore little relation to the novel. Jean Negulesco’s film of The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) was an attempt to cash in on the success of John Huston’s film of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and similarly featured Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. The experience of watching it gave Ambler stomach cramps; and although the film has gathered a following as a well-executed mystery of mood and atmosphere, it and the novel were never mentioned, in terms of theme or achievement, in connection with The Third Man. Until Philip French, that is.

Dimitrios and Lime

Ambler’s preferred title for his novel had always been A Coffin for Dimitrios. One surmises that the publishers might have thought it too downbeat, but for Ambler, it would have concealed for longer the twist in the tale: that, just as the body in Harry Lime’s coffin is not Lime’s but that of the hospital’s doctor, Joseph Harbin, so the body in Dimitrios’s coffin is not that of Dimitrios but of his expendable criminal associate, Manus Visser. As Philip French went on to argue, the connection between Ambler’s novel and The Third Man was not simply confined to the two charismatic criminals at their core, but to their other main characters, both of whom are writers of popular lowbrow novels (Greene’s Holly Martins writes westerns, Ambler’s Charles Latimer writes detective stories) who discover that there is more excitement in pursuing a real-life adventure mystery. With his admiration for Ambler, Orson Welles is likely to have noticed the similarities and, for that matter, so might Carol Reed, whose opening narration for The Third Man, as French noted, begins: “I never knew the old Vienna before the war – Constantinople suited me better,” which is where the narrative of Mask of Dimitrios begins also.

On a visit to Turkey, a university lecturer in political economy and writer of popular detective novels such as The Bloody Shovel, Charles Latimer is introduced to an admirer of his, the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, who wonders if he is interested in real murderers. He starts telling him the story of a man named Dimitrios, whose murdered body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus and who, for the last fifteen years or so, had been an international criminal of legendary status for his involvement in crimes ranging from robbery, murder and drugs smuggling to sex trafficking, spying and political assassination. Latimer becomes obsessed with finding out more about Dimitrios and, to this end, begins to track down and interview people who knew him and, in some cases, were former associates. The structure has sometimes been thought to have influenced that of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which has also begun with the death of a larger-than- life character and which has then been followed by an investigation and interrogation of people who knew him, gradually building up a character portrait based on the sum of their different perceptions and perspectives. As Latimer proceeds, he keeps encountering an individual called Peters who seems to have his own agenda regarding the investigation into Dimitrios’s past. There is something disquieting about Peters. On their first meeting, Latimer is reminded of “a high church priest he had known in England who had been unfrocked for embezzling the altar fund”.20 On further acquaintance, he will notice “an edge to his husky voice that made Latimer think of a small boy pulling the legs off flies”;21 and Peters’ smile with his brilliant false teeth is “as if some obscene plant had turned to the sun”.22 It will transpire that Peters is seeking revenge on Dimitrios and knows something that Latimer does not: namely, that the body in the morgue which Latimer saw was not that of Dimitrios and that Dimitrios is still very much alive.

When one recalls Greene’s high praise for Ambler, it seems certain that he would have read The Mask of Dimitrios and inwardly absorbed some of its contents, for, as well as the central twist, there are incidental details which will occur in modified form in The Third Man. Indeed, Ambler even uses the phrase “the third man” at one point about one of the intermediaries involved in a drugs operation that had been masterminded by Dimitrios.23 The babble of foreign languages around Latimer, which sometimes confuse him, anticipates similar situations experienced by Holly Martins during Greene’s story. One of the characters whom Latimer locates, Grodek, is identified by his inordinate fondness for cats;24 and, of course, it is a favourite cat that will first disclose the presence of Harry Lime in The Third Man. “I have, I know, done things of which I have been ashamed”, Peters tells Latimer at one point;25 one of Lime’s associates, Kurtz will make a similar disclosure when he first meets Holly Martins (“I have done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war”). Ambler’s imagery sometimes has the evocative pithiness of Greene. The “watchful repose” on Colonel Haki’s face reminds Latimer of “a very old and experienced cat watching a very young and inexperienced mouse”.26 One of Latimer’s contacts, Irana Preveza tells him that Dimitrios’s eyes “made you think of a doctor’s eyes when he is doing something to you that hurts.”27

The central comparison is that between Dimitrios and Lime. If Lime is the logical and consistent product of a fallen post-war world (amoral, cynical, indifferent to the suffering of humanity, governed only by motives of self-interest and greed), Dimitrios is similarly representative of the spiritual, moral and political degeneracy that has led to this genocidal war in the first place. (Ambler will even deploy the word “holocaust”.28 ) There is an extraordinary passage in Ambler’s novel when Latimer is still absorbing the news that Dimitrios is alive; and aligning this information with what he has learnt about the man. “If there were such a thing as Evil,” he reflects, “then this man…”; but he stops this thought in mid-flow and carries on:

But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements in the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent: as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics have been replaced by that of The Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.29

In its way, and for its time, Latimer’s reflection seems to me as remarkable as Harry Lime’s immortal “cuckoo-clock speech” in The Third Man in its attempt to define the cock-eyed state of the world. When Latimer later communicates what he has learnt from his quest to his journalist friend Marukakis, the latter wonders whether it is possible to explain a character like Dimitrios or simply turn away disgusted and defeated. “Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that he typified,” he suggests. “All I do know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will obtain.”30

Do those words resonate today? I found re-reading The Mask of Dimitrios a rewarding but unnerving experience, partly because Dimitrios now looks such a modern figure. Harry Lime might have been, in Major Calloway’s words, “about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city”, but Dimitrios is an insidious international bandit; an entrepreneur and puppet-master behind the scenes who manipulates the links between businesses and politicians; a man who “could preserve a picture of distinguished respectability”31 and is on the Board of Directors of an organization called the Eurasian Credit Fund (the equivalent of a multi-national corporation of today) whose reach and influence extend world-wide into all kinds of significant and murky spheres and events. Anton Karas could write a jaunty theme to capture the sardonic swagger behind the villainy of a Harry Lime, but I think he would have been hard pressed to come up with something similar for a sinister character like Dimitrios. His actions have no boundaries of shame or conscience or moral integrity, and adherence to the law is something entirely outside of his consideration. He knows exactly what he is doing and, because he is doing it, he reasons it therefore cannot be wrong. What motivates him? Peters will have the answer to that. “He wanted money and he wanted power,” he tells Latimer. “Just those two things, as much as he could get.”32 One would not need to look very far for contemporary equivalents nor be surprised by his explanation for what finally brings about his downfall: in a word “stupidity”; as he says, “If it is not one’s own, it is the stupidity of others”.33 In his final communication with Latimer, Marukakis is describing political tensions between his country Bulgaria and Yugoslavia which seem to him utterly absurd but, because of the stream of propaganda, could lead to war. ”If such things were not so dangerous one would laugh,” he says. “But one recognizes the technique. Such propaganda always begins with words, but soon it proceeds to deeds. When there are no facts to support lies, facts must be made.”34 For me, that last sentence is redolent of the politics of 2021, never mind 1939.


Although Ambler’s post-war novels do not achieve the same level of literary eminence as Greene’s, they are still well worth investigating, not least because of their Greene connections. There is an explicit reference to The Quiet American in Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959) when a guide says to the hero, an American engineer Greg Nilsen, “Now I show you where Quiet American makes bomb explosion”,35 and is not to be dissuaded even when it is pointed out to him that Greene was writing a work of fiction not fact. In his fine critical study of Ambler, Peter Lewis has pointed out more parallels between the two novelists, as, for example, in a later novel like Ambler’s Doctor Frigo (1974), which reminds Lewis of The Honorary Consul (1973) in terms of setting and seems to anticipate The Human Factor (1978) in terms of theme. Ambler’s droll essay ‘Spy-Haunts of the World’, which includes a list of ten questions which could help one identify a spy, would make an amiable companion piece to Our Man in Havana.36 My impression is that they never saw each other as rivals so much as literary practitioners working within a tradition laid down by John Buchan and later pursued by writers such as John le Carré and Len Deighton, and which they pursued in their own distinctive and individual ways.

Reviewing Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) in the Washington Post, the critic J. W. Anderson wrote that “Ambler deserves to be considered a major novelist by any standard; had he chosen another subject [i.e. something other than the thriller], he would no doubt have been installed long since in the required reading lists for college English majors.”37 As David Lodge pointed out in his Foreword to the collection of essays, Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, the same situation seemed until recently to have been true of Graham Greene, who, though widely read, was rarely considered to be of sufficient stature to figure on the syllabus of a University English Department: too accessible perhaps, and working in a popular genre that was not quite academically respectable.38 A Festival in celebration of his work, that is still going strong after more than twenty years and has attracted leading scholars from all over the globe, has knocked that perception of Greene’s literary status on the head. Has a similar commemoration been created for Eric Ambler? I don’t know, but I would like to think so; and a festival devoted to his masterpiece The Mask of Dimitrios would be a thrilling place to start.

Neil Sinyard

  1. Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene, p. 415. 

  2. Quoted in Gavin Lambert, The Dangerous Edge (Barrie & Jenkins Ltd., 1975), p. 121. 

  3. Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland, p. 69. 

  4. I elaborate on this comparison in my chapter ‘Poets of Criminality and Conscience: Greene and Hitchcock’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 96-108; and in ‘The Strange Case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock’ in Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2004, pp. 44-48. 

  5. For a full account of the incident, see Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie (Simon & Shuster, 2005), p.233. Hitchcock had arranged an elaborate reception for the married couple at Chasen’s, which featured an 18-course dinner, with food flown in from all corners of the world and drinks to accompany every course. By the time he was due to deliver his best man’s speech, Hitchcock seemed thoroughly inebriated, swaying from side to side, almost falling over, and speaking incoherently, to the embarrassment of the guests. Suddenly at the very end of the speech, he stood up straight, looked at the audience, and said in perfectly spoken English without a hint of having had a drop to drink, “I do hope they’ll be very happy.” In this context, it might be remembered that another thing Greene and Hitchcock had in common was a fondness for practical jokes. 

  6. Eric Ambler, Here Lies (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985), p. 18. 

  7. Graham Greene, Collected Essays (Penguin, 1970), p. 17. 

  8. Eric Ambler, The Ability to Kill (Bodley Head, 1963), p. 81. 

  9. Lambert, p. 116. 

  10. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 128. 

  11. For an elaboration of this idea, see my chapter ‘The Green Baize Door’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life, pp. 86-95. 

  12. Quoted in Lambert, p. 119. 

  13. Cited in Valentine Cunningham’s British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 75. 

  14. Cited in Peter Lewis’s Eric Ambler: A Literary Biography (Continuum, 1990), p. 50. 

  15. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 199. 

  16. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 179. 

  17. Ambler, The Ability to Kill, p. 187. 

  18. Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader edited by David Parkinson (1993), p. 445. 

  19. As a counter to Greene’s opinion, it is perhaps worth mentioning that John Ford told Peter Bogdanovich that The Fugitive had “come out the way I wanted” and was “one of my favourite pictures – to me, it was perfect.” – John Ford (Studio Vista, 1967), p. 85. 

  20. Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios, p. 43. All quotations from The Mask of Dimitrios are taken from the Omnibus edition of Ambler’s novels, published by Heinemann/Octopus, 1978. 

  21. Ambler, ibid., p. 67 

  22. Ambler, ibid., p. 100. 

  23. Ambler, ibid., p. 23. 

  24. Ambler, ibid., p. 77. 

  25. Ambler, ibid., p. 119. 

  26. Ambler, ibid., p. 19. 

  27. Ambler, ibid., p. 60. 

  28. Ambler, ibid., p. 27. 

  29. Ambler, ibid., p. 130. 

  30. Ambler, ibid., p. 155. 

  31. Ambler, ibid., p. 139. 

  32. Ambler, ibid., p. 105. 

  33. Ambler, ibid., p. 152. 

  34. Ambler, ibid., p. 155. 

  35. Eric Ambler, Passage of Arms, p. 628. 

  36. Reproduced in Ambler, The Ability to Kill, pp. 139-56. 

  37. Quoted in Lewis, p. 248. 

  38. See Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, edited by Dermot Gilvary and Darren J Middleton, Continuum, 2011, p.xiii. 

Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory

Book review: Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 435pp.

Sinyard_Understanding Sound Tracks review_bookcover
This is a fabulous feat of film scholarship, both for the range of material it encompasses and the lucidity with which it handles complex ideas. The book is aimed primarily at undergraduate and postgraduate students of film; and, as a concise scholarly introduction to the thorny theoretical topics of Genre, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Queer theory, it could hardly be bettered. The theory is then applied to a variety of film soundtracks, and familiar films are paired with less mainstream examples for purposes of analysis, comparison and contrast. In the process dazzling insights are offered into acknowledged classics such as The Searchers (1956) and Rebecca (1940) as well as less well known films such as Dead Man (1995) and Ten Canoes (2006). One of the most revelatory sections is devoted to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), where, through a closely argued commentary on the way in which the soundtrack reflects the hero’s difficulty in pulling things together, the chapter offers a convincing critical rehabilitation of a film that was widely derided and misunderstood on first release. A coda combines all these theoretical approaches in a brilliant reading of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), which makes the film sound a lot more interesting to hear than I found it to watch.

A primary aim of the book is to challenge what has been called the “visual chauvinism” of much film analysis and give equal attention to a film’s soundtrack. This yields some remarkable and challenging interpretations. For example, there is a detailed account of the way Max Steiner’s score for John Ford’s The Searchers seems to run counter to the film, in the author’s words “obfuscating threat and emphasising reassurance” in a way that adds yet another layer of complication to what is already one of the most troubling masterpieces of the American cinema.1 (I would love to see a similarly forensic analysis carried out on Steiner’s equally contentious score for John Huston’s 1948 classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Huston claimed he only first heard at the film’s premiere.) The soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is then used as a compelling visual and aural contrast to the Ford film. There is a similarly engrossing comparison and contrast between Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Ten Canoes to show the different ways they voice the Aboriginal experience. The visual elements of Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) might seem to reinforce Laura Mulvey’s influential description of the dominant patriarchal discourse of classic Hollywood film, but the author argues that aurally things are more complex, with Lauren Bacall’s vocal performance (and, contrary to movie myth, it is her actual singing voice on the film) challenging and even countering the film’s ostensible reinforcement of gender inequality. Conversely, a more overtly feminist film, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) “reveals some irresolvable mixed messages when it comes to the endurance of a female ‘voice’ in a patriarchal context.”2

Elsewhere the author demonstrates how David Raksin’s “consistently alarmist” score for Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956) is “an important regulator of [the father’s] power, since no one in the film world itself is able to exert clear-cut control of him”;3 the way Rebecca and Mrs Danvers, and not Maxim, “hold the primary aural power” in Hitchcock’s Rebecca;4 and how Peter Dasent’s score in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) assists in “helping us to understand the extreme and emotional multi-dimensionality of its subversive protagonists who were all-too-easily labelled monsters in their own time.”5 The implications of all these assertions are eloquently followed through. The result is to make you want to experience all these films afresh – and through new ears as well as new eyes.

Neil Sinyard

Two random afterthoughts, as stimulated by a couple of observations in the book:

1) In the chapter on Rebecca, the author notes that “in placing emphasis on the mesmerizing power of Mrs Danvers’s silent entrances in terms of her impression on us more than on ‘Fontaine’s’ experience, we are reading against the grain of what the auteur said. Though recognizing the significance of Hitchcock’s directorial role, we nevertheless explore meanings beyond the delimitations set out by him.”6 Although authorship is not one of the theoretical areas discussed in detail, the book cleverly intimates how consideration of the soundtrack inevitably complicates an auteurist approach to the cinema. John Ford’s legion of critical admirers often cite his method of cutting in the camera so as to minimise the possibility of editorial or studio interference with his footage, but that same control did not seem to extend to the soundtrack, which makes the discussion of Max Steiner’s score for The Searchers all the more intriguing and important (Ford grumbled about the score in his book-length interview with Peter Bogdanovich, saying “with that music they should have been Cossacks not Indians”). This issue of ultimate authorial control was surely partly behind Hitchcock’s legendary falling out with Hollywood’s most distinctive and original musical personality, Bernard Herrmann. To Hitchcock’s probable discomfort, Herrmann’s “voice” over the soundtrack was becoming too individual and insistent in its own right and competing for attention with Hitchcock’s, and you can’t have two auteurs in one film: not in a Hitchcock film, certainly.

2) In the chapter on The Piano, the author compares Michael Nyman’s score with Georges Delerue’s music for a roughly contemporaneous film, Steel Magnolias (1989), and writes: “the whimsicality, light textures and delicate timbres of the Delerue score seem innocuous and clichéd in comparison with the exuberant energy and stridency in Ada’s music as performed by [Holly] Hunter”.7 It is a curious comparison (the musical requirements of the two films are quite different) and also rather oddly expressed (Delerue’s “delicacy” is viewed negatively whereas Nyman’s “stridency” is seen as a virtue). Anyone who knows Delerue’s concert music as well as his film scores will readily appreciate that he would have been more than able to rise to the complexities of Campion’s film if he had been offered the assignment. Indeed, for me, it is a pity he was not, for I always find Delerue’s music infinitely more engaging, touching and beautiful than Michael Nyman’s, which, to my ears (and even when acknowledging its dramatic effectiveness in a film such as The Piano), invariably sounds like Philip Glass on an off day. But then: Benjamin Britten couldn’t stand Brahms; Andre Previn’s idea of musical torture would be having to sit through a Wagner opera; Leonard Rosenman described Maurice Jarre’s much-loved “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago as “amateurish” and with “actual wrong notes” etc. etc. There’s no accounting for musical taste – even theoretically? Discuss.

  1. Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 36. 

  2. Ibid, pp. 238-239. 

  3. Ibid., p. 285. 

  4. Ibid., p. 363. 

  5. Ibid., p. 388. 

  6. Ibid., p. 356. 

  7. Ibid., p. 216. 

Juggling Wolves: BFI Film Classics: Marnie

Book review: Murray Pomerance, BFI Film Classics: Marnie, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 96 pp., £12.99

Fifty years after the film’s release, the jury is still out on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 suspense melodrama, Marnie. It was widely condemned and even derided on its first release for its apparent technical incompetence, artificial sets, and dubious sexual politics, though it found an eloquent early champion in Robin Wood, who proclaimed it a masterpiece in his trailblazing monograph, Hitchcock’s Films (1965) and thereafter never wavered in that opinion.1 More recent accounts include a thoughtful and sympathetic book by Tony Lee Moral about the film’s production (2002),2 and Donald Spoto’s latest, increasingly disillusioned volume on Hitchcock, Spellbound By Beauty (2009), where the film’s aesthetic quality takes second place to Spoto’s allegations about the director’s sexual harassment of his leading actress.3 Inspired by Spoto’s book, the tv movie, The Girl (2012) dramatised the relationship between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren; and it prompted an article in The Guardian, which described Marnie as ‘a terrible movie and a cruel one: the idea that a woman sexually traumatised by her childhood can be saved by submitting to a controlling rapist, is offensive and plain wrong.’4 Yet might it not be the article, rather than the film, that is ‘offensive and plain wrong’? Reading it, one could almost hear Robin Wood turning in his grave.

In his stimulating new study of Marnie, Murray Pomerance, to his credit, does not spend time remonstrating with the film’s detractors, which could be a wearisome exercise; when he does quote a fellow critic, it is invariably in a positive spirit and with a view to augmenting his own argument. The film’s quality emerges quite naturally from his enthusiastic, intelligent and insightful commentary. He plunges the reader straight into the film’s opening (one of the cinema’s great opening sequences). The camera focuses on a bulging yellow handbag (already suggestive of money) being carried under her arm by a mysterious female whom the camera follows along a deserted train platform, then stops, then follows again briefly, then stops, as if exhausted by the pursuit: its quarry has escaped. As Pomerance emphasises, a dominant theme of the film is flight: at this stage from a crime (the heroine is quickly established as a thief); then from her surrounding stifling society (the following scene with the outraged employer from whom she has stolen suggests she may have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment); but crucially from herself and from her own identity. It is some time before we are allowed to see her face. It has been calculated that Tippi Hedren as Marnie has 32 costume changes in the film, which, as well as keeping Edith Head on her toes, is expressive not only of the character’s external fluidity of appearance but also of the internal fragility of her sense of self. Soon we are to become aware that she harbours secrets deeper than her criminal activities, or her dislike of men, or an unusually tense relationship with her mother. There is also an irrational fear of the colour red at moments of stress or distress, and nightmares triggered by storms that seem linked to some fearful event from her childhood. The film’s narrative trajectory is dedicated to closing off her successive retreat from these demons to the point when she must finally confront them: only then will she able to find herself.

When Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) comes onto the scene and falls in love with her, Marnie’s flight from self becomes increasingly difficult, particularly when he discovers her theft from his office and virtually blackmails her into marriage so as to escape prosecution or an inevitable later apprehension by a male victim who might be much less forgiving. Is Mark’s behaviour that of a ‘controlling rapist’ (to borrow the phrase in the Guardian article) or that of a potential saviour prepared to defy conventional morality to save the woman he has come to love? There have been many accounts of the central relationship in Marnie, and particularly of the motivation behind Rutland’s actions, but I know of none more sympathetically attuned to the tone of the film than the following account in Pomerance’s book:

Mark’s sole project in Marnie is to rescue this girl from her amnesia, help her locate the memories of ‘old times’ so she can live in the present. He must time-travel with no map. Clues not placed in the narrative so Mark can cut a path to Marnie’s rescue are there so that viewers can share willingly in his concern. We must come to love Marnie because of her blazing pride, her animality, the elemental warmth buried within the frozen sheath of her fear.5

One of the particular pleasures of the book is the attention to the numerous felicities and subtleties of vocal intonation and dialogue delivery of the two leading actors. It is refreshing to see Tippi Hedren’s performance so eloquently celebrated, when some of the mythology surrounding the film (partly encouraged by Hitchcock himself) has been the suggestion that Hedren was an inadequate substitute for Hitchcock’s preferred choice of Grace Kelly, who had regretfully decided that her royal responsibilities as Princess Grace of Monaco compelled her to decline the role. In fact, I have often wondered whether her eventual rejection of the part was her suspicion that it might be beyond her capabilities. She could certainly have conveyed Marnie’s frosty exterior, but could she have conveyed the vulnerability of a frightened child that Hedren so courageously and capably assays in the extraordinary revelation scene at the end, where the actress has to simulate the tormented state of mind of a five-year-old girl? I wonder.

With the aid of a detailed study of the film’s preparatory production notes, Pomerance has no difficulty in defending Hitchcock from the charges of technical sloppiness and demonstrating that the stylised artificial backdrops are part of the film’s aesthetic design. It is not as if Hitchcock has not done this sort of thing before. In the famous love scene in the hotel room in Vertigo, when James Stewart’s hero thinks he has brought his love-object (Kim Novak) back to life, Hitchcock has incorporated back projection of a livery stable from an earlier scene to suggest the depth of Stewart’s delusion, the sense that this re-creation of the past is a fantasy inside his own head. Hitchcock’s use of back projection during Marnie’s ride on her beloved horse, Forio has a similar expressive implication. The director wants simultaneously to convey both Marnie’s sense of release but also the sense that this is not a genuine release and that her feeling of freedom is illusory. As Pomerance points out, Tippi Hedren was an accomplished rider, so there would have been no need to use back projection unless it were at the service of some other expressive purpose.

The back-projection debate is familiar territory in Marnie criticism and can never be wholly conclusive (one can acknowledge the deliberate and valid intention behind Hitchcock’s aesthetic strategy without necessarily being convinced by the result). Less familiar in Marnie criticism is what the blurb at the back of the book describes as the author’s ‘sharp-eyed understanding of American society and mores’, which extends to a particularly illuminating discussion of the North/South divide in the film and even the symbolic significance of the pecan pie baked by Marnie’s mother.

There is also a particularly good analysis of the fox-hunting sequence, where he argues that Marnie’s trauma here is not simply due to the sudden sight of the colour red but also by what he calls her ‘profound identification with the victimised animal. All too plainly, Marnie can see how society is little more than a fox hunt, with the callous, brave, unforgiving, and desperate (Strutt and Co) ganging up on the weak, vulnerable, feelingful and innocent…. She is the fox, a race with the hounds behind.’6 That section of the text took me back to the film’s first scene after the opening, announced by Strutt’s ‘Robbed!’ and where, joined by Mark who is visiting the premises, Strutt (Martin Gabel) affirms his conviction that the robbery has been committed by his former employee Marion Holland (one of Marnie’s aliases). Simply the way he describes her to the police is very revealing about the male classification of women against which Marnie rebels. Strutt can describe her appearance and indeed measurements in great detail (the secretary’s reaction whilst he is doing so is a picture: she has clearly seen all this before). Mark also joins in with this callous classification, saying ‘Oh, that one’ and recalling her as ‘the brunette with the legs.’ Strutt particularly remembers her habit of ‘pulling her skirt down over her knees as if they were a national treasure’, and it is a gesture that will later give Marnie away when she comes to work at Rutland’s: Mark will remember Strutt’s description. What is being implied through all this is a motive behind Marnie’s kleptomania: namely, a form of revenge against the patriarchal world in which she lives and the sexist attitudes she has to endure. (Significantly, we will learn that she steals in order to win her mother’s love.) One of the most sympathetically observed themes in the film is that of the situation of the modern woman trying to operate in a man’s world and how difficult it is for someone like Marnie in this society to maintain her sexual and financial independence. It reminds me of that superb moment in Rear Window when Jeffries (James Stewart) is spying on Miss Torso in one of the apartments opposite as she entertains a number of gentleman acquaintances in what seems to be a formal cocktail party. Jeffries rather leeringly refers to her as a queen bee, but Lisa (Grace Kelly), a successful career woman, has a much clearer perception of the situation and puts Jeffries straight (and the animal imagery looks ahead to Marnie). ‘I’d say she’s doing a woman’s hardest job,’ she explains. ‘Juggling wolves’.

There is another key moment in Marnie where a comparison with Rear Window suggests itself, and it occurs in the revelation scene when Marnie finally recalls the incident in her childhood when she has killed the sailor. It is activated by her sight of a struggle between a white-shirted Mark and her mother, at which point the memory she has so long repressed takes over and is visually recalled. Pomerance valuably reminds us that Mark can see none of this recollection and ‘is experiencing a form of paralysis akin to what besets Jeff Jeffries in Rear Window when through his long focus lens he sees his beloved Lisa Fremont caught in a murderer’s grip and, hobbled in his wheelchair can do nothing to save her.’7 Similarly in Marnie: far from being controlling, Mark is at this key point in the story completely helpless. Pomerance describes this moment as ‘the paralysis of dramatic involvement’.8 I would take this further and suggest that it is the moment in both films when the hero is confronted with the full consequences of his obsession and where it has led; the perilous terrain into which his obsession might have plunged the person he most loves; and, perversely perhaps, the moment in the film more than any other when he recognises the intensity of that love.

Appropriately, the most contentious section of the book deals with the most contentious section of the film (it led to screenwriter Evan Hunter’s removal from the project): namely, the honeymoon sequence. Is the scene when Mark finally has intercourse with his wife a ‘rape’ scene? The screenwriter Evan Hunter thought it was, which is the reason he was removed. The new writer, Jay Presson Allen always thought the scene was dealing with a difficult marital situation, and the word ‘rape’ was never used in her discussions with Hitchcock. There is a lot of sensitive detail in Pomerance’s description of the whole sequence (the reference to Klimt is a particularly lovely observation), but there is also an element of tentativeness and imprecision not present elsewhere in the volume. ‘What precisely can Mark take her to mean when Marnie bellows “No!”?’ he asks.9 Well, precisely: ‘No’. It is difficult to see any ambiguity in Marnie’s response; the rejection could hardly be plainer. Pomerance posits the suggestion that Mark’s entry into her bedroom might have awakened another occasion in her past that she is trying to suppress rather than signifying a rejection of any form of sexual congress with Mark himself. He writes: ‘When Mark kissed her in his office during the thunderstorm, and again in the stables at Wykwyn, we saw her fondness for sex, at least with him.’10 Not exactly. In the scene in his office, Mark could be seen as taking advantage of Marnie’s obvious terror, certainly comforting her, but also using the opportunity to make a romantic advance. His line, ‘You’re safe… from the lightning’ has the undercurrent of ‘but not from me’. It always reminds me of that moment in Vertigo when Scottie is comforting a similarly distressed Madeleine, and says, ‘No one possesses you, you’re safe with me’, which, in the full context of the film, will become profoundly ironic. Similarly with the love scene in the stables: it concludes not happily, but with Marnie looking away from Mark and with an expression on her face of profound anxiety. Her robbery of Rutland’s safe directly follows that love scene in the stables and suggests a connection: the theft could almost be a kind of rebuke directed at Mark’s romantic presumption. It certainly indicates her intention to effect a closure of the relationship and her desire to flee from it.

In discussing the actual ‘rape’ scene, Pomerance quotes William Rothman to the effect that ‘we have grounds for believing, as Mark does, that he is making love to her, not raping her. As Hitchcock films this moment, she even seems to move on her own accord to the bed, though backward, as if in a trance.’11 This rather glides over the fact that Marnie is to follow this sexual experience with an immediate attempt at suicide. To compound the impression of authorial unease, there is an odd misprint hereabouts in the text (along with the erroneous dating of Winston Graham’s novel as 1971, not 1961, it is the only such instance I spotted) when Pomerance writes; ‘There is no escape from the fact that he [Mark] is become the camera.’ I presume what is meant is ‘has become’, because the author then quotes Raymond Bellour as saying that ‘Hitchcock becomes a sort of double of Mark’. He then concludes that, like Mark, ‘we are all now very much wanting to go to bed with Marnie’ and being held back.12 On the contrary, it is equally possible, and arguably more plausible (because of the suicide attempt that follows) that Hitchcock is inviting us to identify with Marnie rather than Mark at this stage – the close up of Mark at the moment of intercourse looks more threatening than seductive – and share her feelings of desolation. As I have argued elsewhere, the character of Marnie (her repression, the private fears beneath the external calm, the sublimation and displacement of her sexuality) seems much closer to that of Hitchcock’s own personality than does the virile, self-confident hero played by Sean Connery. Ironically, much earlier in his book, Pomerance has made a very similar observation when he has claimed: ‘If ever he [i.e. Hitchcock] had a female alter ego….Marnie is her epitome.’13 Absolutely: and it is curious that he does not follow through this intuition in the film’s most controversial scene, because it could illuminate and even validate Hitchcock’s whole presentation.

Even in a detailed and rigorous study such as this, one cannot expect complete comprehensiveness in coverage of such a complex film. However, I was a little surprised by two omissions. There is no extended discussion of what has always seemed to me the key scene in the film: the ‘free association’ scene between Marnie and Mark, which brings together all the main elements of Marnie’s trauma; is the scene when she openly challenges Mark in suggesting that his obsession might be as ‘sick’ as her repression; where, for the first time, she is driven to concede that she needs and wants help; and where Mark’s genuine love for her is apparent in his gesture of protectiveness and concern. Hedren, Connery and Hitchcock are at their very best here. ‘It’s a very sad scene, isn’t it?’ Hedren said to Hitchcock at one of their script sessions. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but it comes out of anger,’ a remark I have always thought as being as revealing about Hitchcock as about Marnie. Perhaps Pomerance thought the scene had been analysed extensively elsewhere and that he had nothing to add. One would have welcomed his intuitions nonetheless.

The other striking omission – to me, at least – is the complete absence of any reference to Bernard Herrmann’s score. Over the years this has become almost as controversial as the film itself, because it foreshadows the calamitous falling out between composer and director over the score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain (1966). No one could dispute the importance of Herrmann’s contribution to Hitchcock’s films, from The Trouble with Harry (1955) to Marnie (1964), but a number of critics have suggested that Hitchcock felt that Herrmann was beginning to repeat himself. In Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores (2012), Gergely Hubai goes so far as to contend that ‘Hitchcock mostly blamed Herrmann for Marnie’s poor box-office showing, claiming that its old-fashioned style ruined his cutting edge “sex mystery”’.14 Memos at the time indicate that Hitchcock saw Marnie as a psychological suspense drama in the manner of Spellbound and that it should have a similar recurring musical theme, which Herrmann does indeed supply, though in his own distinctive style. It was actually quite unusual for Herrmann to highlight his main theme in that way. Although the theme itself is quite similar to one he composed for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (and indeed quite similar to Leonard Rosenman’s main theme for Rebel Without a Cause), he would have been entitled to quote Brahms when he was informed that a theme in the finale of his First Symphony was similar to a theme in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth: ‘Any donkey can see that.’ The important point is how the theme is deployed and developed. In this regard, I would think back to Pomerance’s fine visual analysis of the early hotel room scene when our mysterious heroine rinses the black dye out of her hair in the bathroom before facing the camera for the first time as the archetypal Hitchcock blonde. ‘In the explosion of that proud, beautiful face inside the wet ring of sparkling hair,’ Pomerance enthuses, ‘we already love her.’15 What is missing from that exultant description is an acknowledgement of the essential way Herrmann’s music swells, contributes to, and indeed completes that moment. In the words of musicologist Christopher Palmer (1990), ‘the burst of musical technicolor’ at that point ‘makes it one of the most memorable images in the film.’16 One could multiply instances of that kind. For me, Herrmann’s score, which appropriately combines rich romanticism with disturbing dissonance, has always been an inseparable part of Marnie’s greatness.

Let me end on the film’s finale, and on the book’s eerie cover illustration, which grows more haunting the more you look at it. It is an image of the children playing in the street, as seen by Marnie when she emerges into daylight after exorcising the childhood trauma that has paralysed her emotional development. One can also just see at the end of the street that disconcerting ship, a clue all along that Marnie’s mental blockage might have some connection with it (a sailor being at the centre of her forgotten nightmare). The children are very oddly arranged in the frame and look slightly alien: is there a potential future Marnie amongst them? When Mark emerges from the house, Marnie tells him she does not want to go to prison but would rather stay with him. Is that the nearest she can come to a declaration of love, or is it simply an expression of her preference for one kind of imprisonment over another? Mark replies: ‘Had you, love?’ Pomerance astutely picks up on the curious expression and grammar of that response: ‘had you’ rather than ‘would you’; ‘a delicious subjunctive’, as he puts it, ‘which invokes a potent “if”.’17 If Marnie is right that what has excited and attracted Mark to her is the mystery of her background, how stands the relationship now the mystery has been solved? Wonderfully appropriate that this most enigmatic of films should end on an Ivesian Unanswered Question.

Joseph Conrad once said that he would rather have the faults of Dickens’s Bleak House than most other novels’ virtues; and one can feel the same about Marnie. It is a film one can love irrespective of its flaws; after all, that is what Mark does with Marnie. Pomerance’s splendid monograph is a love letter that reads like a thriller. Hitchcock would surely have been delighted..

Neil Sinyard, November 2014

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  1. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (Tantivy Press, 1965). 

  2. Tony Lee Moral, Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie (Manchester University Press, 2002). 

  3. Donald Spoto, Spellbound by Beauty: Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (Hutchinson, 2008). 

  4. Alex von Tunzelman, ‘Do Hitchcock and The Girl reveal the horrible truth about Hitch?’, The Guardian, 11 January 2013, available here

  5. Murray Pomerance, BFI Film Classics: Marnie (Palgrave Macmillan for British Film Institute, 2014), p. 48. 

  6. Ibid, pp. 49-50. 

  7. Ibid, p. 77. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid, p. 34. 

  10. Ibid, p. 35. 

  11. William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, 2nd edition (University of New York Press, 2012). Quoted in Pomerance, p. 33. 

  12. Pomerance, p. 37. 

  13. Ibid, p. 9. 

  14. Gergely Hubai, Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores (Silman James Press, 2012), p. 62. 

  15. Pomerance, p. 8. 

  16. Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood (Marion Boyars, 1990), p. 291. 

  17. Pomerance, p. 83. 

Aspects of Innocence and Experience: some reflections on literature and film analogy, with particular reference to Henry James and Billy Wilder

One of the finest and most influential books of film theory, Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) has, I think, one particularly fine but not very influential sentence. At the end of his chapter on the auteur theory, he writes: ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts: Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, or Hawks with Faulkner.’1 I used that observation as the starting point of one of the chapters in my book, Filming Literature (which is itself nearly 30 years old now) and it was always my favourite chapter of the book. I called it ‘Kindred Spirits’; and the kindred spirits I compared were Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and John Ford, Joseph Conrad and Orson Welles, and Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock.2

Such comparisons have continued to interest me; and certainly in those particular cases I’ve discovered many more points of contact than I realised at the time. In the case of Dickens and Chaplin, I’d no idea at that time that Chaplin had actually given a talk to the Dickens Fellowship in London in 1955, attracting a record attendance of over 300 members and calling his talk ‘The Immortal Memory of Charles Dickens’; or that, during the last year of his life in 1977, Chaplin had obsessively read and re-read Oliver Twist, obviously because it reminded him so sharply of his own appalling childhood and experience in the workhouse. In the case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, at time of writing that chapter and comparing Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I had no idea that Hitchcock had tried to buy the rights of Our Man in Havana nor that he had once approached Greene to write the screenplay of his most overtly Catholic film, I Confess (a fact, incidentally, that is still surprisingly omitted from most Greene biographies). I was later to expand on this comparison in my book on Graham Greene;3 and, in fact, the writer-director Neil Jordan has commented on the connection between these two and wondered about what he called Greene’s ‘strange miasma about the work of Alfred Hitchcock’, without doubt Greene’s biggest blind-spot as an otherwise exceptional film critic, which he never corrected and which Jordan rightly thought seemed a little suspect: ‘And there must be another book to be written,’ as he put it, ‘about the lack of contact between these two poets of English criminality and bad conscience’.4

Strangely, though, comparative books between literary authors and film auteurs have not happened, perhaps because the whole notion of authorship – what constitutes an author – has become more complicated, in both literary and filmic terms, since Wollen wrote his book. In revisiting this territory, particularly in relation to Henry James and Billy Wilder, I thought at the outset I should revisit the personal question of why this continues to interest me, and the motives and strategy behind the comparison. I was, and remain, fascinated by what J. Dudley Andrew, in the context of adaptation, referred to as ‘the dialectical interplay between the artistic forms of one period and the cinematic forms of our own period.’5 I like the notion of ‘dialectical interplay’ as a way of discussing connections between literature and film and between the literary artist and the film artist: it permits a broader, more open-minded perspective than had often gone on before. It offered the prospect of going beyond the ‘film of the book’ strategy, with that tired tactic of scoring points between the two, generally at the expense of the newer medium; at going beyond qualitative comparisons that became a form of cultural elitism, with the critics either using the aesthetic and cultural capital of literature to attack film for simplification or sentimentalising the original, or of being accused of surreptitiously trying to raise the prestige of film through comparison with literature or the older arts. Robin Wood was attacked for the latter, I remember, when he had the audacity to compare Vertigo with Keats in his first book on Hitchcock, but I always thought it was a very suggestive comparison, and if it has occurred to him and he can justify it, why shouldn’t he articulate it?6

I am heartened to think that critical attitudes towards adaptation have become much flexible. The touchstone of so-called ‘fidelity’ to the original is invoked much less often; adaptation is seen not as simple ‘visual reconstruction’ but much more imaginatively as, among other things, translation, transformation, re-location; and the idea of the text itself has become much more fluid, implying a recognition that any text is made up of a lot of pre-existing texts and that, as readers and viewers, we ourselves bring to it a multitude of texts from our own experience – an interaction which becomes then a form of renewal and enrichment.

In my own experience, one of the things I’ve always loved about the cinema (and maybe this accounts for my fascination with adaptation) is its multi-disciplinarity, its capacity to draw on and synthesise features of the other arts whilst still producing something uniquely cinematic. Film has elements of drama (e.g. the power of performance), the novel (its momentum of narrative), painting (its visual composition), music (its integration of image with soundtrack, use of rhythm and counterpoint). That great film critic, Raymond Durgnat had a phrase for this aspect of cinema: ‘the mongrel muse’ he called it.7 That multi-dimensional aspect of film has always had an enormous appeal for me, partly because it chimes in with something that Leonard Bernstein said at the opening of his marvellous series of Harvard lectures on music in 1973 called ‘The Unanswered Question’ and which has since become something of a critical mantra of mine: that one of the best ways to get to know a thing is in the context of another discipline. It’s sometimes said rather patronisingly of the directors of the Nouvelle Vague that they discovered Shakespeare through Orson Welles: well, what a wonderful way to discover Shakespeare. This isn’t, in the awful phrase, ‘dumbing down’ (which is often said about film adaptations) but ‘opening up’ and indeed opening vistas of artistic possibilities, journeys and adventures.

I want to undertake one such journey now by exploring connections between two great artists in their respective fields – the novelist Henry James and the film writer-director Billy Wilder – who might at first glance not seem to have that much in common. Indeed one could hardly imagine two more disparate artistic personalities on the surface: Henry James, the refined literary aesthete; Billy Wilder, the uproarious cinematic satirist. They both had elder brothers called William, though that seems at best a tenuous connection, particularly when you recall Henry’s brother William was a brilliant psychologist (often credited with the invention of the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’) whereas Billy’s brother, Wilhelm was a B-movie director, W. Lee Wilder whom even Billy described as ‘a dull son of a bitch’. Unlike Wilder, you cannot really imagine Henry James writing a part for Marilyn Monroe (unless it be Daisy Miller?). So at first you might think that this is just a case of two very different artists in different eras and media expressing themselves by very different means and whom, coincidentally, you just happen to admire and who have the occasional thing in common: you might think that, and you’d be absolutely right. But why is it, then, that when I think of one, I invariably think of the other? It’s that strange connection that I want to say more about now; and I should at the outset say that I’m in not in any way talking about conscious influence – there’s no evidence I know of to indicate Wilder had read any Henry James let alone was deeply affected by his work.

Initially one might list incidental aspects of their personal and artistic character that they (along with other artists) had in common. They were both great raconteurs. Wilder was a famously good interviewee, full of waspish witticisms about Hollywood and stars, notably on Marilyn Monroe (‘My God, there’ve been as many books on Marilyn Monroe as on World War Two – and there’s a great similarity…. She had a brain like Swiss cheese, full of holes – and she was never on time: mind you, my Aunt Ida is always on time, but I wouldn’t pay to see her in a movie’). James was noted as an inveterate one-way conversationalist, whom a young Virginia Woolf remembered as a frequent and loquacious visitor to their house, sounding forth as he leaned back in his chair and apparently on one occasion leaning back so far that he actually fell off, though, as Virginia Woolf recalled it, still continuing to declaim even as he sailed backwards through the air.

On artistic matters, there were two characteristics they shared which I just want to comment on briefly here. They were both perfectionists and absolutely meticulous in their attention to the written word. James’s Prefaces to his novels constitute an extraordinary document of the thought and care that went into the construction and articulation of his work. T. S. Eliot called this quality in James ‘an integrity so great, a vision so exacting that it was forced to the extreme of care and punctiliousness for exact expression.’8 It would not be an exaggeration to make the same claims for Billy Wilder, who went into direction essentially to protect his scripts and who, when he was filming, would ensure that his co-writer from the mid-1950s, I. A. L. Diamond was seated on the set, ensuring that the actors had not deviated from the script by a single syllable: if they had, the scene would have to be done again. Both of them were sticklers about form and structure. I remember once trying to count the recurrent motifs and leitmotifs in Wilder’s The Apartment that bind the whole thing together in this beautiful structure – I counted 28. Too schematic? ‘Maybe construction is frowned upon these days,’ Wilder would say in the 1970s, ‘but that’s the way we’ve been doing it and that’s the way we’re going to do it until they take the cameras away’.9 In the case of Henry James, one thinks of his reply to Hugh Walpole who’d just been reading Dostoyevsky and was suggesting that surely the most important thing was what the artist was actually saying and that form was secondary to substance. In strenuously disagreeing, James countered: ‘Don’t let anyone persuade you that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds, and preserves, substance.’ His objection to Dostoyevsky and to Tolstoy was that they created, in his famous phrase, ‘loose, baggy monsters’, with a leakage of substance caused by an inadequacy of form.

Another thing the two men had in common: they were both art connoisseurs. James was an art critic of great discrimination, and Wilder had one of the finest art collections of anyone in Hollywood: when he came to sell it towards the end of his life, it fetched more than $30 million. Because of his insistence on the primacy of his scripts and his hostility to overt visual effects, Wilder has been underrated as a visual stylist, but he had a very precise eye and just occasionally one can see the influence of his artistic tastes in his own compositions (for example, in The Apartment, there’s a conscious and thematically significant allusion to Henri Rousseau’s ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ in one of the shots after the Shirley MacLaine character has attempted suicide). Similarly, although James was the most densely verbal of novelists, he was very sensitive to visual detail, and some of the greatest moments of revelation in his novels are essentially pictorial. For example, in The Portrait of a Lady, the first inkling that the young heroine, Isabel Archer has that her husband Gilbert has had a former intimate relationship with Madame Merle is an occasion when she comes upon them unexpectedly and there is just something in their posture – nothing as flagrant or obvious as an embrace – that strikes her as disquieting in Chapter 40:

She perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends, in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected.10

It’s an image that will later trigger her tormented self-communing across the whole of that wonderful Chapter 42, as she sits alone in front of the fire, mentally analysing the agonies of her marriage, a scene that will build to that devastating last sentence when, at 4 in the morning, she exhaustedly starts to go to bed: ‘But even then she stopped again in the middle of the room and stood there gazing at a remembered vision – that of her husband and Madame Merle unconsciously and familiarly associated’.11

One more comparative example of their visual astuteness: in one of James’s late great novels, The Ambassadors, where his style has become very tortuous and elaborated (I always remember reading a volume of Alec Guinness’s memoirs where he said he’d started to read James’s The Wings of the Dove and after the first page, he’d gone so dizzy with the exhaustion of trying to follow the sentences that he had to lie down). Nevertheless, as in Portrait of a Lady, the key moment of revelation is visual not verbal: an act of seeing, when its hero, a middle-aged American in Paris, Lambert Strether catches sight of what seems like a courting couple in a boat on a lake, recognises them as two people he has idealised on coming to know them, and suddenly realises they are engaged in a furtive and ignoble affair. As in Portrait of a Lady, the vision is not only a moment of revelation but a moment of self-revelation, where the watcher becomes aware of his naïve gullibility as well as the others’ worldly corruption. An equivalent moment in Billy Wilder would be that astonishing moment in The Apartment, when Jack Lemmon’s clerk, on the path to promotion in his job through blithely lending his apartment key to his superiors so they can pursue their extra-marital affairs, learns that the woman he loves, Shirley Maclaine’s elevator operator, is having an affair with his boss (Fred MacMurray). Again it’s an exquisitely planned moment of seeing. She lends him her compact case to check his executive bowler hat in its mirror and the mirror is broken; and he suddenly recognises it as something he has found in his apartment and returned to his boss to whom he has lent his key. The shot of his fractured reflection- which is the moment of recognition – not only signifies the shattering of his illusions about her but also is the moment when he is compelled to see himself and the dual role he has been playing. Like the Jamesian moments I’ve described, it’s a moment of maximum disillusionment – what James in the Preface of The Ambassadors calls the ‘terrible fluidity of self-revelation’ – and they are moments prepared for and delivered by two consummate masters of dramatic structure.

There are numerous other points in common that I could mention – their social comedy, their sophisticated use of often unreliable narrators, their desire for popular success mingled with the tasting of the bitterest failure – in James’s case, his play, Guy Domville, where, coming to take his author’s bow at the end, he was booed off the stage; or in Wilder’s case, Kiss me, Stupid, which was critically reviled – but I want to come now what seems to me the core connection between them. Let me state it as a blunt proposition: that Billy Wilder could be seen as Henry James in reverse, a sort of mirror image, distorted by different perspectives of personality, time and artistic form, but at the same time and in an odd way strikingly reminiscent of each other.

To sketch this out a bit: Henry James is an American, a New Yorker of the 19th century who travels to Europe and eventually settles there, becoming in a way more European than the Europeans, though never, as it were, shaking off his American accent. He never desires to return to America – as he put it in a letter to his sister-in-law Mrs William James,12 ‘I could go back to America to die, but never, never to live’ (he will, in fact, die in London); and yet he never loses his American perspective; and the contrast and conflict between America and Europe becomes a key theme of his work (I’m thinking of novels like Roderick Hudson, The Europeans, The American, The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady – a far from exhaustive list). By contrast, Billy Wilder is a 20th century European, born in Sucha which is now in Poland but which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who emigrates to America from Berlin when the Nazis come to power (as he put it when he left in 1933, ‘Berlin was not a place for a nice Jewish boy to be’) and settles there. He becomes more American than the Americans – he develops a legendary passion for baseball and a compendious knowledge of American popular songs that will find its way into his films – but he never loses his European perspective and, like James, the America/Europe conflict and contrast is at the core of many of his films (The Emperor Waltz, A Foreign Affair, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, One, Two, Three, Avanti!). For all his nearly seventy years in America, he literally never loses his European accent, about which he is to the end of his life very sensitive. His accent apparently became particularly pronounced at moments of stress, like the first day of shooting a new film; and there’s a famous occasion when he begins shooting The Fortune Cookie and starts barking out heavily accented instructions: Jack Lemmon, who by that time has worked with Wilder on three previous films, is unfazed, but Walter Matthau, who has never worked with him before, is at first baffled and then intrigued. ‘Say,’ he says to Wilder, ‘You’re from outta town, aren’t you?’

To put this comparison in another way: Henry James is a supreme American master of the great artistic form of the 19th century, the novel, a century that could be called the ‘European century’; Wilder is a supreme European-born master of the great artistic form of the 20th century, the cinema, a century that could be called the ‘American century’. ‘One day the world will be yours,’ says Emperor Franz Joseph in Wilder’s fin-de-siecle musical comedy, The Emperor Waltz to Bing Crosby’s American phonograph salesman in Vienna, to which Crosby replies without batting an eyelid, ‘You bet it will.’ This cultural, social and artistic contrast between America and Europe will give both of them their big theme: what James would call the ‘International theme’ and what Wilder might call ‘A Foreign Affair’. To put it in James’s words at the beginning of his book, William Wetmore Story and his Friends (1903): ‘The social, personal, aesthetic relation of the American world to the European made as charming a subject as the student of manners, morals, personal adventures, the history of taste, the development, need wish to take up.’ Wilder’s work would also completely confirm that.

In James’s case, he will become enthralled by, and will work infinite variations on, the situation of American ‘innocence’ coming up against European ‘experience’ and watching the interaction. There is a very funny passage early on in James’s study of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1879) where he writes:

One might enumerate the items of high civilisation, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it would become a wonder to know what was left… No sovereign, no court… no aristocracy, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles… nor old country houses, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; nor little Norman churches; no great universities nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; … no museums, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom nor Ascot! The natural remark in the almost lurid light of such an indictment would be that, if these things are left out, everything is left out.

This [heavily edited] evocation of the then emptiness of American culture and heritage, as James saw it, always reminds me of that moment in Citizen Kane when Kane is off to Europe for a break and Bernstein is pulling his leg about the pictures and statues he hasn’t bought yet: ‘You can’t blame me, Mr Bernstein,’ Kane replies, ‘They’ve been making statues for 2,000 years and I’ve only been buying for five.’ In other words, if we Americans can’t acquire culture and heritage through experience, maybe we can buy it, turn it into a commodity. Money, acquisitiveness and greed will become key themes in James, as they are in Wilder, but at that stage, I think, the conflict is between American innocence (which can connote idealism but also ingenuousness) coming up against European experience (which can connote culture and civilisation but also corruption and decadence). Behind it all, I think, are two crucial things for James, as they will be equally crucial for Wilder: firstly, a vision of an ideal society, which is something he sketches in The American Scene (1907) and which would combine the best of American vitality and enterprise with European culture and sophistication; and, secondly, an exploration of his own identity as a Europeanised American.

Wilder’s 20th century equivalent to that outburst of James against the shallowness of 19th century America might be something that Marilyn Monroe’s character says in The Seven-Year Itch when she’s talking about her appearance on a tv commercial: ‘Every time I show my teeth on television, more people see me than ever saw Sarah Bernhardt. It’s something to think about, isn’t it?’ It certainly is; and the critic Stephen Farber in a fine Film Comment article on Wilder, made a potent observation on this: ‘That line crystallises Wilder’s disenchanted vision of today’s world, Americans with “kissing sweet” toothpaste grins, who haven’t the slightest shred of culture, refinement or elegance.’13 Up to a point that’s true, but I also think that part of Wilder loves that kind of vitality and indeed vulgarity: it might not be that refined, but it’s close to real life. If Henry James is the 19th century American who has gone to Europe and been completely seduced by its culture and refinement, Wilder is the 20th century European who has gone to America and been bowled over by its energy and drive (one can see that particularly in a film like Some like it Hot). He falls in love with the country (according to his first major screenwriting collaborator, Charles Brackett: ‘in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it’), yet he also sees the flaws more bitingly than any other director of his generation and seems to hanker occasionally for an injection of ameliorating European civilisation and humanity, which I think he also recognises has probably gone. Like James, he evokes a lost ideal more than a prospective reality or aspiration. In James, the America/Europe theme will culminate in The Ambassadors; in Wilder, it will culminate in his 1972 film, Avanti!, ostensibly a light romantic comedy with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, actually an epic personal contemplation, lasting around two-and-a-half-hours, of America/Europe interaction and his own identity as an Americanised European. As it is in James, the European landscape is felt as a moral as well as a physical presence. Indeed you can not only feel and see this America/Europe interaction, conflict and contrast in Wilder; you can also hear it over his soundtracks which often counterpoint American popular idioms with European classics: e.g. the popular song ‘Fascination’ with a Haydn symphony in Love in the Afternoon; the song ‘Tangerine’ with Schubert in Double Indemnity; Bing Crosby warbling sentimental lyrics to Johann Strauss waltzes in The Emperor Waltz.

This kind of duality – between high culture/ popular culture, America/Europe, Innocence/Experience – set me thinking about something that Graham Greene wrote in an essay on James in 1936: that

to render the highest justice to corruption, you must retain your innocence; you have to be conscious all the time within yourself of treachery to something valuable. If Peter Quint is to be rooted in you, so must the child his ghost corrupts; if Osmond, Isabel Archer… These are the points of purity in the dark picture.

You do get these figures in Wilder as well as James: there are the predators, like the William Holden heroes or Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, but there are also the more pure in heart, like the Audrey Hepburn heroines of Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon – and this is the essence of the tension. James is constantly drawn to the theme of Innocence in danger, or lost, or betrayed, in works like Washington Square, What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw, The Spoils of Poynton – and that activates Wilder too, as he contrives situations where there are very rarely two completely innocent lovers in Wilder who meet on equal terms: one is invariably deceiving the other in some way or is more worldly-wise, and that might be precisely the attraction. Innocence is attracted to experience and vice-versa- experience is attracted to innocence, perhaps in order to corrupt it, but perhaps also as a reminder of what has been lost. In one of his early stories, The Last of the Valerii, James will divide people into two categories: people who were, or who were not, as he put it, ‘susceptible of the moral life’. Wilder has a similar division in mind, but usually puts it a bit more bluntly: in The Apartment, he divides people into those who take and those who get took; and in The Fortune Cookie, he divides people into those who will do anything for money and those who will do almost anything for money (and there are characters like that in James too, notably in Washington Square and The Aspern Papers). In both cases, all this adds up to a world-view that is very much connected to their feelings as artists, outsiders and exiles, and bringing, in James’s case, an American perspective to the European scene and in Wilder’s case, a European perspective to an American scene, which will translate into rich and complex reflections on innocence, experience and morality.

I want to illustrate some of these points by showing and commenting on extracts from two Billy Wilder films. The first is his classic film noir of 1944, Double Indemnity. By now Wilder had lived in America for ten years; had established himself as a screenwriter (particularly for Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen) and then as a director. This is his third film as director but the first to offer the kind of dark view of America with which, particularly over this and the next decade, he will be associated, Just to set the scene: an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) has plotted with an American-style femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband; fake it to look like an accident; and then claim the insurance. It seems at first like the perfect murder. But the claims investigator (Edward G. Robinson) is beginning to smell a rat; also Stanwyck’s stepdaughter, Lola has revealed to MacMurray that her mother also died in suspicious circumstances – and the nurse in charge of her was Barbara Stanwyck. The tale is being narrated in flashback by MacMurray, who is now mortally wounded.

These are not nice people, and because the characters were so unpleasant, nobody wanted to play them. Wilder had a lot of trouble casting the roles. He remained confident, however. ‘When George Raft turned it down,’ he said, ‘we knew we had a good picture.’ At this point in the film MacMurray has arranged a secret assignation with Stanwyck to warn her off claiming the insurance because Robinson is getting too suspicious:

The supermarket setting is, on one level, a nice use of dramatic counterpoint – an image of normality and order, set against a hushed discussion of the consequences of murder. On another level, it is an extension of the two protagonists: a cold and concentrated image of commerce, money, profit, precisely the forces that are driving them. There’s a sign in the shop that says ‘We Deliver- More for Less’. Meanwhile, the characterisation of the heroine is a kind of Americanised corruption of the European femme fatale: a figure allied, as Molly Haskell argued in her book, From Reverence to Rape, ‘not with the dark forces of nature, but with the green forces of the capitalist economy.’14 Yet the hold she has over the hero is still definitely sexual; and I would contend that, whereas it would be hard to imagine more indigenous American directors like Ford or Hawks, say, so convincingly creating such a devouring female siren, she could emerge from the darker cultural heritage of European émigrés like Wilder, Lang or Siodmak. There is one detail that is particularly relevant here: Wilder changes the surname of her character from Nirdlinger (in the James Cain novel) to Dietrichson – surely a conscious reference to Marlene Dietrich, the sexual siren of The Blue Angel tempting the previously upright hero to his downfall. Finally, the music drifting up from the Hollywood Bowl – as MacMurray prepares to quiz the daughter of the man he has murdered to find out how much she knows – is Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, its incomplete nature perhaps a wry analogy to a murder scheme that they are finding themselves unable to push through to a successful conclusion. More than that, though, it seems a poignant, almost subliminal memory of the European culture Wilder has left behind – and the war has now shattered- as he now begins to strip the New World of its innocence with a sardonic satirical savagery worthy of his Viennese idol, the writer Karl Krauss. It’s a wonderfully evocative and concentrated image of the Old World/New World conflict in Wilder – art and culture of the past in the dim background, a distant music, as it were: upfront grim venal greed.

I want to jump forward around 30 years to a film Wilder made towards the end of his career, Avanti!, made in 1972. The America/Europe contrast is now not only more overt but indeed the central theme of the film. Wilder’s favourite actor, Jack Lemmon plays a conservative American businessman called over to Italy to collect the body of his father, who has been killed in car crash while holidaying in Ischia. When he arrives, he is shocked to discover that not only has a woman been killed in the car along with his father, but that his father had been having a holiday affair with this woman for the last ten years. Juliet Mills plays the woman’s daughter, who has come over from England to arrange for her mother’s funeral.

The scene I want to show is the scene at the morgue where they go to identify their parents. Just two quick things by way of preface: I would argue that Avanti! is Wilder’s most Jamesian film in two respects at least: a) the Italian setting and the way it is used: it’s a kind of paradise in the film and it recalls James’s love of Italy above all other countries: as he says in his Preface to Roderick Hudson: ‘One fact about it indeed outlives all others; the fact that the loved Italy was the scene of my fiction- so much more loved than one has ever been able, even after fifty efforts, to say!’; and b) the other Jamesian touch here is the tempo. There’s a funny bit in James’s Portrait of a Lady where the brash American Caspar Goodwood grumbles that ‘Italian trains go at about the rate of American funerals’ and this scene seems almost a droll evocation of that: Jack Lemmon’s finger-snapping executive keeps trying to speed things up, but is compelled to adjust to a more leisurely tempo and to a less cynical, more romantic tone:

[Extract begins at 34:00]

Being Wilder, that scene is very funny. I love the characterisation of the coroner, this automaton who only knows one word of English (‘Okay’- rather like the Lemmon character, in fact, who only knows one word of Italian, ‘Ciao’), but who, towards the end of his appearance, with that sodden sponge in his pocket, shows a touching human fallibility; just as later, with the Jack Lemmon character, a little bit of humanity will start leaking through. I like the detail of Juliet Mills’s daffodils – which Lemmon doesn’t know the name of, in English, let alone Italian; they add colour and warmth to what could have been a chilly scene. I love the discreetness of the camerawork, which for the most part keeps a respectful distance from the action, only moving into close-up when Juliet Mills is identifying her mother and putting flowers next to her, a poignant shot that is cannily defused of sentimentality when Lemmon noses his way into the frame to sneak a curious peek at the corpse. (By contrast, she has had the discretion to look away when the corpse of Wendell’s mother has been uncovered.) I love Lemmon’s acting in this scene – overall, I think this is possibly his greatest screen performance, and that’s saying a great deal: his abashed expression when she tells him the name of the flowers; the way he can intimidate the coroner through that distinctive quizzical raising of the left eyebrow; his vocal skill to suggest how decorum is only just keeping the rein on his impatience; ‘Come on – just sign, please’/’May I make a suggestion?’/‘No’. All of this is building up to that excruciating moment when, as a casual afterthought when he is leaving and with unpardonable American brusqueness, he murmurs to Carlucci (Clive Revill): ‘Ask fat-ass if she wants a ride.’ It is a tiny detonation of exasperation and meant to be a private aside, but even Carlucci is taken aback by the rudeness; and she hears it in all its repulsiveness, replying with dignity: ‘Tell him, “No, thank you”.’ And then comes perhaps the most beautiful significant moment of all, when she goes over to the window and opens it, and suddenly the interior becomes suffused with warmth, radiance and sunlight, as if life has started up again.

Wilder aficionados might particularly sense the significance and even symbolism of that last gesture, which has occurred in Ninotchka, the famous 1939 film which Wilder co-scripted for Ernst Lubitsch; and also in Sabrina, when in both cases the heroines open the window to let in the air, a gesture of emotional and spiritual release. In both cases there the setting is Paris – ‘Paris is a place for changing your outlook, for throwing open the windows,’ says Audrey Hepburn to the jaded, plastic American executive played by Humphrey Bogart, who will indeed be heading for Paris at the end of the film. And in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, there is a comparable moment and sentiment in the open air of a spacious garden in Paris when, as if stirred by the atmosphere around him, the stuffy middle-aged American hero, Lambert Strether makes a similar plea to his young friend: ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have had your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?’.15 It is exactly the same feeling in Wilder – a feeling of emotional release stimulated by the air the character breathes.

At one point in Avanti!, Jack Lemmon notices a 90-year-old man who is able to rise from his chair and dance with two beautiful young nurses. Musing ruefully that ‘this place must take years off your life’, Lemmon is told that the old man has been coming to the hotel ‘since before World War 1’ – in other words, before Europe tore itself apart. Although Wilder might be offering Europe as a source of spiritual rejuvenation in Avanti! to set against the materialist values of the American, the reference to the Great War signals an awareness of the way the war represented a watershed in terms of European identity and self-belief, politically and socially as well as emotionally and psychologically. For Henry James, the outbreak of war – and he did not live to see the end of it, for he died in 1916 – was a terrible shock: ‘an abyss of blood and darkness,’ he called it. To him it seemed both an awful premonition of what the new century was in for, but also a terrible betrayal of what he thought the 19th had stood for, with its promise of continual progress and betterment in which he had so fervently believed. T. S. Eliot characterised this outlook as James’s ‘Romanticism’ and he went on to elaborate on what he thought this meant:

His romanticism implied no defect in observation of the things he wanted to observe; it was not the romanticism of those who dream because they are too lazy or too fearful to face the facts; it issues rather from the imperative insistence of an ideal which tormented him. He was possessed by the vision of an ideal society; he saw (not fancied) the relations between the members of such a society. And no one, in the end, has ever been more aware – or with more benignity or less bitterness – of the disparity between possibility and fact.

In some ways I think Billy Wilder takes James’s romanticism to its next phase – now even more bruised and battered after World War Two. It might seem odd to use the term ‘Romantic’ about a film-maker so often associated – branded even – with the label ‘bad taste cynicism’, but even Andrew Sarris had to revise his assessment of Wilder in view of his later films and the light they shed on earlier works: so a director he had castigated in 1968 as ‘too cynical to believe even in his own cynicism’ was described thirty years or so later in a completely different way, when Sarris says that ‘critics [including himself?] failed to realise that his apparent cynicism was the only way he could make his raging romanticism palatable.’16 I’m not sure I would go so far as to call Wilder a ‘raging’ romantic, but I do think there’s a strong element of romanticism in classic early screenplays of his like Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939) and particularly, Hold Back the Dawn (1941), with its astonishing idealisation of an imagined America that will wash its hero – a corrupt European gigolo – clean, and which Wilder then has to adjust to the harsher realities he sees. Yet he never entirely loses this romanticism and which is connected to his European heritage, and indeed seems to flower in Europe: so that for every Double Indemnity there’s a Sabrina; for every Lost Weekend there’s a Love in the Afternoon; for every Ace in the Hole there’s an Avanti!

Remember that speech that Greta Garbo has to give towards the end of Ninotchka in 1939 when the world is on the brink of another war and where a mood of melancholy has overtaken the film. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘wars will wash over us… bombs will fall… all civilisation will crumble… but not yet, please… wait, wait… what’s the hurry? Let us be happy… give us our moment.’ Almost like the 1913 poem ‘Grantchester’ by Rupert Brooke (whom James so wildly admired), Garbo’s speech seems to be exhorting time to stand still in the hope that the drift towards war can be arrested and the world might come to its senses. It doesn’t, of course, and it’s disquieting to think about the films Wilder makes in the immediate aftermath of World War Two: editing a documentary on the concentration camps at Auschwitz, where a number of his family (including his mother and grandmother) had perished; a musical The Emperor Waltz (1947), set in the fin-de-siecle Vienna of Wilder’s youth, as if recollecting what has just been destroyed; and A Foreign Affair (1948), a black market comedy that, in the phrase of the critic Richard Winnington, ‘illuminates as well as stings’, about the American occupation of post-war Berlin, shot on location in a city that Wilder loved but had to escape from 15 years earlier and which was now little more than a heap of rubble. He will return to Berlin in One, Two, Three (1961) at the time of the erecting of the Berlin Wall, another dubious milestone of 20th century European history. But when he returns to Europe in his final films – like the Victorian London of Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or the idealised Italy of Avanti! – the vision is more mellow, nostalgic even, an affectionate evocation not only of a ‘visitable past’ (in James’s phrase in The Aspern Papers) but also of a vanished world. Even in his great penultimate film, Fedora (1978), whose setting is contemporary and which is mainly set in Corfu, the mood is more elegiac than bitter, and the situation rather Jamesian, notably the James of The Aspern Papers, with a duplicitous American hero who for his own career purposes tries to trick his way into the confidence of an old woman and her daughter, who have something he wants but are not what they seem; whose scheme will fail; but who will nevertheless find reconciliation of a kind at a funeral in Paris.

To summarise: looking at James and Wilder together, I have tried to sketch how a supreme novelist of the 19th century and a supreme film maker of the 20th have dealt with one of the big themes of their respective epochs: the contrast between America and Europe, its general significance, but also its personal meaning for them. The word ‘sketch’ is deliberately chosen: there are nuances of contrast and difference in terms of theme and style that would require much more detailed consideration. However, I would like to return to the point about the value of this kind of study and the way this value might touch on what we are doing when enthusing about adaptation.

I began by quoting from Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema about how more books were needed on film and the other arts as well as, he said, books that lead to greater clarification of debates in the context of film authorship, notably to do with the nature of collaboration, industrial and generic constraints etc. Wollen wrote this over 40 years and much of the things he asked for then have come to pass. ‘We need not two or three books on Hitchcock and Ford,’ he wrote, ‘but many, many more.’ Well, we have certainly had that, but when he went on, ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts, Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, Hawks with Faulkner’,17 that hasn’t happened, and I suggested early on why I thought this was so. But it also raises the question: why do we need this? Is it simply to see authorial similarity or influence in artists working in different artistic forms? To see where film fits in a wider artistic tradition? To see what it has in common with other arts and can learn from them- or vice-versa?

For myself, I like to think that it is another form of ‘throwing open the windows’ – of enlarging the artistic field. One of the ideas about adaptation that has always appealed to me has been, on the one hand, the idea of continuity – of a text being circulated and re-circulated amongst an evolving generation of recipients, who bring their own perspectives to it which generate and guarantee the text’s continual growth, renewal and transformation, The other great appeal for me has been the idea of the broadening community: that is, that to transform a text from one artistic form to another brings into play a whole new community that might not otherwise have encountered it. And, to take it closer to James and Wilder, it relates to the way artists across different media connect and- sometimes you feel almost by a process of osmosis- communicate with each other, discover an inter-relationship quite unconsciously.

One of the projects I was going to do a long time ago (my book on Billy Wilder intervened) was a study of the interrelationships between the arts and artists responding to something in the air in the period immediately before World War One: comparative essays that drew out connections between Picasso and Stravinsky; Kandinsky and Schoenberg; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes and the music of Ravel; Gustav Mahler and Thomas Mann, particularly the Mahler of the 9th Symphony and the Thomas Mann of Death in Venice; H.G.Wells’s novel, Tono-Bungay and its impact on Vaughan Williams’s ‘London’ Symphony; E.M.Forster’s Howards End and Elgar’s 2nd Symphony – all contemporaneous works that have an enormous amount in common: even though they cross different disciplines, they are responding to the same artistic, social and political currents, to similar themes and tensions of the times. When I find some free time during retirement, I might one day get back to that, as I might with another project that has preoccupied me over a number of years and is another film project that goes beyond film and would embrace the other arts – specifically, on the film, Vertigo and what it owes to, and throws light on, Romantic poetry, Impressionist painting, Gothic literature, Wagnerian opera, French Symbolism, and many other things beside. It’s almost like the feeling behind Alexander Sokurov’s single-shot tour of the Russian Hermitage in his film, Russian Ark (2002), which emphasises continuity and evolution in a single camera movement that travels through centuries and epochs and gives, as he put it, the feeling of ‘each artist sensing a whole civilisation of artists standing behind him.’ (It recalls for me too another quote from the French writer Anatole France about what critics did and indeed what they were for: ‘A good critic is one who relates the adventures of his [or her] soul amongst masterpieces.’) In a Sight and Sound piece on Sokurov and Russian Ark, Ian Christie contended that Eisenstein belonged to this same tradition, and that Eisenstein even saw it exemplified by the popular 1940s Hollywood movie, A Guy Named Joe (re-made by Steven Spielberg as Always), where dead pilots serve as guardians for the living and symbolise what Eisenstein called ‘the creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ In some ways, I like to think that is what we are doing when studying adaptation. From our own individual angles and perspectives, we are considering and discussing – even deconstructing- the ‘creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ May I then just offer Henry James and Billy Wilder as my own eccentric example of this glorious transmission.

Neil Sinyard

A version of this talk was first given at an Adaptations Conference at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, and more recently at the University of Dundee. It is respectfully dedicated to my special American friend, Tom Leitch, and to the memory of the late Jim Welsh, founding editor of Literature/Film Quarterly and an exceptional scholar and gentleman who will be greatly missed.

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  1. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 115. 

  2. Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature

  3. Neil Sinyard, Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 

  4. Foreword in Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland Third Edition, p.7. 

  5. Dudley Andrew, ‘Adaptation’, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (editors), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 454. 

  6. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (1965). 

  7. Raymond Durgnat, ‘The Mongrel Muse’, in F.H. Marcus (editor), Film and Literature: Contrasts in the Media (Seranton: Chandler, 1971, pp. 71-82. 

  8. T. S. Eliot, ‘A Prediction in Regard to Three English Authors: Henry James; J. G. Frazer; F. H. Bradley’, Vanity Fair, 1924. The James section of this piece is reproduced, for example, in Dorothea Krook, The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), pp. 1-2. 

  9. ‘Dialogue on Film’ in American Film, August 1976, p. 36. 

  10. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, Chapter 40. 

  11. Ibid, p. 435. 

  12. 1 April 1913. 

  13. Film Comment, Winter 1971, p. 11. 

  14. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, p. 197. 

  15. Book 5, Part 2, p. 173. 

  16. See Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, p. 326. 

  17. Wollen, p. 115. 

Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock

I was tempted to sub-title this talk ‘The Mistress of Romance meets The Master of Suspense’, except that there’s more to Daphne du Maurier than Romance and more to Alfred Hitchcock than Suspense. Actually, to the best of my knowledge, they never did meet, certainly not socially, and there are slightly unusual aspects to this. For example, Hitchcock was actually a friend of Daphne’s father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, who appeared in one of his films, Waltzes from Vienna (1933) and whom Hitchcock described to François Truffaut as ‘in my opinion, the best actor anywhere’. He did want to make a film of one of the Bulldog Drummond stories with Gerald du Maurier; and it is sometimes said that the main character of one of Hitchcock’s early talkies, Murder (1930) – about a distinguished actor who is on a jury that finds a young woman guilty of murder but who then begins to suspect that there may have been a miscarriage of justice – was actually modelled on Gerald du Maurier. (The part is played in the film by Herbert Marshall.) Both of them, incidentally, were great practical jokers and Hitchcock’s most successful one played on Sir Gerald was an occasion when he invited him to a fancy dress party. Sir Gerald turned up in greasepaint and wearing a kilt, only to discover that it was a formal black tie and tails affair, and he had to bid a hasty retreat.

The fact that Hitchcock knew father Sir Gerald much better than daughter Daphne is also striking because Hitchcock was to adapt three of Daphne du Maurier’s works for the screen. Of the 50-odd feature films Hitchcock made, most of which are adaptations of novels, short stories or plays, there is no other writer I can think of offhand whom Hitchcock adapts more than once, and yet there are three du Maurier adaptations. One of them, Jamaica Inn, which was the last film he made in England before his departure to America in 1939, is self-confessedly one of his lesser works. Hitchcock himself described it as ‘an absurd thing to undertake’, and one of the best critics of Hitchcock’s English period, Charles Barr has said that ‘it is almost alone among Hitchcock’s films in containing no felicitous scene or line or detail that gets remembered and quoted, or that deserves to be’. The other two, however, Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963) are two of Hitchcock’s most important films, and two particularly fascinating examples of du Maurier adaptations for the screen, because they could not be further apart: one, a novel, the other a short story, so one requires compression whilst the other requires expansion; and one that sticks fairly close to the original text, whereas the other departs almost completely from the original apart from retaining the basic situation. Not surprising perhaps that the author herself was said to be delighted with the first and horrified by the second.

Still, it does prompt the question: what was it about Daphne du Maurier’s work that stimulated Hitchcock’s interest and encouraged him to adapt her more than any other author? I think there were two things that Hitchcock particularly responded to:

The thing he seems to have admired most in writers is what one might call good craftsmanship, a fascinating story well told within a solid structure. He wasn’t a fan of florid writing, of a literary style that drew attention to itself, or of modernist experimentation, or of Art for Art’s Sake. This, I think, derives from his theatre-going as a young man around the early 1920s where he was a great admirer of the so-called well-made play, the kind of literature that unobtrusively held your attention and where all the parts were seen to fit together. (Hitchcock’s admiration for John Russell Taylor’s book on the subject of the well-made play is thought to have encouraged him to invite Taylor to write his authorised biography.) There might be a lot of subtler things going on under the surface in these plays, but these could be uncovered later. The immediate thing is that your attention is held by a good yarn and interesting characters. I think he saw Daphne du Maurier in that same tradition of writers like John Buchan, Marie Belloc Lowndes, J.M. Barrie, J.B. Priestley, John Galsworthy: i.e. writers who tended to become unfashionable in the middle of the last century and to be downgraded in academic circles for being middlebrow, conventional, technically unadventurous etc, but who wrote accessibly, entertainingly and successfully for a mass readership.

The second thing that might have attracted him is something that du Maurier says in her introduction to one of her short story anthologies: ‘I’ve always been fascinated by the unexplained, the darker side of life, the macabre.’ That would certainly appeal to a director who, when criticised for the illogicality of his plots, would reply, ‘I have a saying to myself: logic is dull’; and who once said, ‘I have brought murder back into the home, where it belongs’. He was certainly fascinated by the darker side of life, by the extremities of violent passion, and, according to some biographers, he had his own dark side, so there’s definitely a kinship between the two there.

So: to move onto Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s novel, which had been published to huge popular success in 1938 and I believe has never been out of print since. It was Hitchcock’s first American film (a bit ironic, this, since it was a very British subject, and most of the main cast were British) and produced by the mercurial mogul, David Selznick, who had just had a colossal success with Gone with the Wind. He was the man who had lured Hitchcock to America and put him under contract; and, for a while, they had discussed making a film about the Titanic before fixing on Rebecca for their first collaboration. Immediately conflict arose. Hitchcock wanted to open out the novel a bit and also introduce a lot more comedy. He invariably felt a bit uneasy if he couldn’t inject some humour into his material: even when he came to make Psycho, he thought of it as a fun film. Selznick was horrified by what he was proposing and insisted that they stick to the story, because that was what lovers of the novel would expect and would pay to see. Over and above that conflict of approach, there was inevitably the usual adaptation problem of how you condense a 400 page novel into a two hour film. As David Lean said when discussing his classic film adaptations of Dickens, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist: ‘The thing not to do is try a put a little bit of every scene of the novel into your film, because it’s going to end up a mess. Choose what you want to do in the novel, and do it proud.’ The challenge remains the same: how to turn words, even thoughts, into images. But, of course, what you choose to include- and exclude- will be very revealing not simply about how you are, as it were, illustrating the novel but how you are interpreting it. There was another important issue with regard to the adaptation of Rebecca for the screen, and that was the issue of censorship. The hero might have been allowed to get away with murder in the novel, but, given the Hollywood Production Code at the time, this was certainly not permissible in the film so the adaptation had to contrive another set of circumstances whereby Maxim could plausibly feel a sense of guilt over Rebecca’s death without actually having killed her.

In a moment I want to discuss an extract from the film but just to set the context for you. Many of you will know the plot of Rebecca at least as well as I do, but there are some differences from the novel in the film. A young unnamed heroine (played in the film by Joan Fontaine) is accompanying her employer, Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates) as a paid companion on holiday in Monte Carlo. She meets the mysterious Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who in the film we first meet standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff, staring down into the sea below, and looking for all the world as if he’s about to jump: the young woman cries out to him in alarm and breaks the spell. We learn that he’s the owner of one of the grandest country houses in England, Manderley, and that he was married to Rebecca, who died in a boating accident a year before and whom, so they say, he adored. To the young woman’s astonishment- and we never do learn her name (when Hitchcock suggested calling her Daphne, Selznick was appalled)- Maxim begins paying her attention; and when it seems as if she might have to go to New York with her employer, he proposes marriage. She’s astounded- how can someone like him be interested in someone like her?- but accepts, of course, because by this time she’s madly in love with him.

When they arrive at Manderley, she’s completely overawed by her surroundings, seeming (and looking) a bit like a commoner in a palace surrounded by royalty. More than that, though, there are reminders of Rebecca everywhere- initialled pillowcases, stationery, monogrammed handkerchiefs etc.- and incessant talk of Rebecca’s brains, beauty, breeding, which only serve to make her feel even more insecure and inadequate and feel that Maxim only married her out of loneliness. Above all, the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) seems to hate her, because she adored Rebecca and resents anyone taking her place. Just before we join the extract, the heroine has had a particularly upsetting encounter with Mrs Danvers who has shown her Rebecca’s room in the West Wing and all of Rebecca’s elegant clothes and ornaments in a way that underlines the heroine’s feelings of inadequacy and inferiority in such a setting. She has run out of the room, crying- but now decides it’s time to assert her authority and behave in the manner expected of the new Mrs de Winter, mistress of Manderley. What better way than to organise one of those grand costume balls that Manderley was famous for?

[Extract starts at 3:05]

Just to make a few comments on the sequence of the Costume Ball, its preparation and its immediate aftermath:

I like the little scene between the heroine and Maxim at the beginning, when she is asking his permission to hold the Ball. It captures in miniature their relationship: her adoration, his indulgent condescension; it could almost be father and daughter more than husband and wife and it’s certainly noticeable in the film that she talks a lot more about her father than her mother. Her childishness is emphasised by her gestures (obedient hands behind her back); and I’m always struck by the moment at the Costume Ball when Maxim’s sister, Beatrice (Gladys Cooper) arrives and she doesn’t say ‘Where’s so-and-so’ or ‘Where’s your wife?’ she says, ‘Where’s the child?’ And Maxim’s first suggestion of what she might go as is ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Her reply is, ‘I’ll give you the surprise of your life.’ Well, she certainly succeeds in that. Another line I really like in that scene happens when she says to Maxim, ‘I’ve been thinking…’ and he retorts: ‘What have you been doing that for?’ The implication is: no need for that sort of thing for a woman in this household, this society. Indeed, that was surely one of Rebecca’s problems. And might have been her undoing.

In the section where the heroine chooses the costume of one of Maxim’s ancestors, at the suggestion of Mrs Danvers, there are several interesting details:
a) the portrait that displays the costume dominates the shot, as if the heroine still is overwhelmed by what she has moved into, its glamour, its opulence, its grace;
b) the portrait is also the nearest we get to actually seeing Rebecca. It isn’t her, of course, but, as we’ll discover, the portrait features something that she’s worn. Hitchcock and Selznick did debate whether the film should show Rebecca in flashback (there was talk of Vivien Leigh playing the role) but I think they agreed eventually that part of the power of the character in the film is precisely that we never see her: we imagine her through other people’s descriptions of her beauty and brains and through visual details like the flourish of her signature. It’s an appeal to our imagination, but it’s more than that: it’s this feeling that the heroine is dealing with a ghost, a phantom, which makes it all the more difficult for her.

Then there’s Mrs Danvers, so superbly played by Judith Anderson. She’s the one who has set up this situation. She’s sinister not simply because she’s dressed in black, as if in permanent mourning for Rebecca, but she moves noiselessly, and in dead straight lines. The heroine is frightened of her partly because she often doesn’t hear her entrances, she’s suddenly there, making her jump. You’ll have noticed in this scene that she’s not aware that she’s gone: her silent exit is marked by a large dark shadow of her across the portrait, as if her malign influence is lingering on it; and the camera at that point closes in on the portrait as it seems to be looking at us, as if in possession of a great secret that we don’t as yet know.

The introduction to the Costume Ball does at least allow Hitchcock a bit of room for humour, with the brother-in-law (Nigel Bruce, probably most famous as the screen’s Dr Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes) as this strong man figure with a rubber weight; and Maxim’s estate manager, Frank (Reginald Denny) who, even in costume, looks hardly different from the boring practical man he is in everyday clothes.

The heroine’s approach is a very good example of Hitchcock’s use of subjective camerawork to approximate both the heroine’s point of view and the novel’s first-person narration: that is, he focuses his camera on the heroine, so that we empathise with her excitement and delight. When she passes the portrait, she looks at it fleetingly and, for the first time, you think, she feels she can stand comparison with Manderley magnificence rather than always feeling in its shadow. She’s found a new identity and when she comes down the stairs, we have the subjective use of the camera, as it were, reflecting her point of view as it moves towards the back of Maxim’s head to suggest the heroine’s approach and to prolong the sense of anticipation and suspense. How does Hitchcock get maximum dramatic power from what is to happen and from her excruciating embarrassment? I would suggest there are 3 things here:

1) She’s smiling, anticipating Maxim’s approval, and that was very deliberate direction on Hitchcock’s part: the effect works better, he thought, ‘if you don’t put a dramatic expression into a face, but already have the face in a contrasting condition, say smiling. then, to get a reaction, you allow that smile to drain away from her face. The power comes not simply from the expression itself but from the contrast.’

2) The choreography: a waltz is playing in the background, and she seems to float down the stairs, almost in time to the music. But as she nears Maxim, the music stops, so that there’s this momentary sinking feeling, of anti-climax, and of course, the brief silence at that point seems to maximise the shock and embarrassment. Maxim’s anger can’t be covered up by the music and seems to resound even more resonantly as a result.

3) the use of close-up, which has been saved just for this moment to enlarge the sense of shock, embarrassment, horror.

Rebecca has often been seen as a sort of fairy-tale, but this is a dark variation: Cinderella arrives at the ball in her finest garments to see her Prince Charming, but his first reaction is to say, in so many words, ‘God, you look awful, get out of those clothes immediately, I don’t care what you put on.’ Olivier is particularly good here, pressing his hands to his temple as if his brain is about to explode; his flash of temper and the intensity of it certainly could suggest someone of a potentially murderous disposition.

The remainder of the sequence is particularly intriguing from an adaptation point of view, because Hitchcock and his screenwriters have very effectively telescoped two scenes from the novel into one and compressed the element of time. (They will do something similar in a later scene when they transfer Maxim’s confession about his hatred of Rebecca, which in the novel takes place in the library, to the boathouse where the ‘accident’ took place, which in turn allows Hitchcock to simulate a re-enactment of Maxim’s ‘crime’ through some cleverly suggestive camerawork.) Whereas in the novel she now goes back to her room, spends most of the night sobbing her eyes out and only confronts Mrs Danvers the next day, in the film the confrontation takes place immediately after the heroine’s humiliation, so that the mood is carried directly from one scene to the next. There’s an emotional continuity to the heroine’s despair, so that the moment when Mrs Danvers seems to be tempting her into committing suicide is one of hypnotic power. We have two figures in close proximity, one dressed in white, the other in black, almost like good and evil side by side, or like a snake hypnotising a rabbit. The close-ups and the music contribute to the feeling of romantic heartbreak and of wanting to end the agony; we are given the subjective shots of the mist into which the distraught heroine could temptingly disappear; the camera pulls away as if beckoning her to her doom, inviting her to let go- and then suddenly, the spell is broken by the explosion that signals a boat has run aground on the rocks.

All of that seems typical Hitchcock, so it’s a curious thing that he felt that Rebecca wasn’t really a Hitchcock picture. He felt constrained by having to follow the novel so closely, he felt a bit bullied by the producer, it wasn’t really his cup of tea, he would say. It was François Truffaut who pointed out to him very astutely that actually it was more characteristic and personal than he might have realised. ‘The novel itself was rather an unlikely one for you,’ Truffaut said to him. ‘It wasn’t a thriller: there was no suspense. It was simply a psychological story, into which you introduced the element of suspense around the conflict of personalities. The experience, I think, had repercussions on the films that came later.’ I think that’s spot on: the suspense in later Hitchcock will come as much from the psychology as from the situation. A number of his later films- like Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964), for example, and in the same way as Rebecca– only turn into murder mysteries two-thirds of the way through: before that the emphasis and suspense are all on the mystery of personality.

As in Rebecca, there are a number of later films in which the heroines have to measure themselves against an ideal of femininity. In Vertigo, for example, there’s a scene not unlike the one we’ve just seen where a woman’s attempt to impress a man she loves by, as it were, ‘disguising’ herself as a feminine ideal she thinks he will admire goes disastrously wrong. (I am thinking of that almost unbearably painful scene when Midge does a parody portrait of herself as the beautiful Carlotta in an endeavour to shake Scottie out of his romantic trance and back into reality, but it only alienates and enrages him and underlines how deeply he is in the grip of obsession.) For all the director’s disclaimers about Rebecca, Hitchcock scholars, and particularly feminist critics, have seen all kinds of precursors of his future work: his empathy with the suffering heroine; the theme of romantic obsession; the overpowering house which is filled with the spirit of someone dead and which the heroine first approaches in pouring rain (that’s a bit like Marion Crane arriving at the Bates motel in Psycho); and a forerunner of what I think is Hitchcock’s greatest film, Vertigo, which also begins with its hero hovering over a precipice and also deals with an obsession with a dead woman and how the dead come back to haunt the living. Without consciously realising it, it seems, Hitchcock was responding to the material on quite a deep level, giving it a very personal slant. He’s offering an interpretation of the original which enlarges on and illuminates it in very interesting ways; and the material brings out something in him that was not at all apparent before he filmed Rebecca but was to become much more apparent afterwards: romantic anguish. So it’s one of those fascinating adaptations that brings something fresh to the novel and discloses something fresh about the director’s own artistic personality: a mutual enrichment.

I want now to move on to The Birds, which was released in 1963 and which was Hitchcock’s first film after his huge success with Psycho in 1960, so he was hoping to top that. Significantly, unlike in Rebecca, he didn’t have an interfering producer to contend with. By now he was his own producer and, to all intents and purposes, the star of the picture, internationally known through his cameo appearances in his films; through his hugely successful television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents which he always introduced and concluded himself; and through his complete identification with the genre of suspense thriller. He was the one director in the industry where you could sell a film on his name alone; and when you went to see an Alfred Hitchcock picture, you went with certain expectations of thrills and suspense. As he liked to put it, ‘If I made Cinderella, people would be looking for the body in the coach.’

So, when he came to make The Birds, he had much more freedom to do with the basic material what he wanted- for good or ill. Accordingly, he takes the basic situation, but he will put it in a completely different milieu with a completely different set of characters.

In a moment I will discuss a couple of extracts from the film as examples of the way Hitchcock creates suspense, but a word about Daphne du Maurier’s short story, which had first been published in 1952. ‘The idea for it,’ she said, ‘was born on my daily walks across the cliffs in Cornwall. I would see the farmer ploughing his fields, his tractor followed by a flock of gulls screaming and crying. As they dived for worms and insects, I thought, “Suppose they stop being interested in worms?”’ An example of her macabre imagination in action. Hitchcock had read the story when it first came out and indeed included it in one of those paperback anthologies Alfred Hitchcock Presents that featured short stories of a macabre or suspenseful nature. He claimed only to have read the story once and very quickly at that, so, unlike in Rebecca, there was to be no attempt at ‘fidelity’ to the original (though there are details from the story that will crop up in the film); and in these circumstances, it is interesting to consider why he turned to this story at this particular time or what attracted him to it. There is a lot of bird imagery in his previous film, Psycho: Norman Bates, with his stuffed birds on the wall seemingly watching him; even some the names in the film- Marion Crane, from Phoenix, Arizona- but Hitchcock said that was entirely coincidental. I think he felt the material offered the possibility of a new departure for him: it was experimental, enigmatic, technically challenging, even a bit arty in its lack of resolution.

The brief sequence I’m about to discuss is a bit gruesome, but this is Daphne du Maurier’s fault as much as Alfred Hitchcock’s, because the gruesome bit is a visual detail that is suggested in the original story. The setting now is not Cornwall but California, and the characterisation is not a farming community but consists of a socialite heroine, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) who, having met this lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird shop in San Francisco when he’s buying a present of love birds for his younger sister, on a whim of romantic attraction decides to follow him to his home in Bodega Bay. She thus immediately incurs the hostility of the local schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who is clearly in love with Mitch, and Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy), who seems to disapprove of Melanie and her life-style. Most significantly, as soon as Melanie arrives, the birds start behaving strangely. A gull swoops down and pecks Melanie on the forehead; a bird crashes into Annie’s front door; a flock of birds disrupt a children’s party, flying around, knocking things over, bursting balloons; and then a flock of sparrows comes down the chimney in the Brenners’ dining room and fly around, smashing teacups and china. What’s going on? The next morning Mitch’s mother goes to visit a friend, a local farmer, Dan Fawcett. She’s having some problems with some feed for her animals and needs some advice. She will find that the birds have got there before her:

The gruesome detail of the farmer with his eyes pecked out is suggested in the original story: Hitchcock might have remembered more of it than he thought. Another moment that’s always interested me about that sequence is just a point about Hitchcock’s direction. Apparently, when they were filming it, Hitchcock suddenly felt there was something not quite right about the scene as it was written. When Lydia says ‘Dan, Dan, are you home?’ and there’s no answer, why didn’t she just leave? Hitchcock felt that he had to come up with something visual that would be unnerving enough to sustain the mood of tension, but not so frightening that she would leave anyway. So when she receives no answer to her call, she’s looking around and her eyes light upon something very strange, almost unaccountable: a row of cups hanging by their handles on the hooks by the sink, and the cups all broken, as if something has just flown along them in a destructive sweep. In the previous scene, the mother has been associated with china, trying to piece it together after the bird attack in their dining room (like her, it’s outwardly elegant but also brittle, and the metaphorical association between her and broken china seems to be hinting at her imminent breakdown). The image of the broken cups is just enough visually to tweak her interest into going further, but maintain the level of suspense, anxiety and apprehension: what is she going to find? I love that moment: it is a classic example of Hitchcock finding a visual solution to a dramatic and structural problem. To convey her distress and agitation, he even took care over the truck she drives away in and the dust that follows it: he wanted to suggest an anxious truck, an angry truck to keep up the emotional intensity.

Moving on to another scene from The Birds: again it’s a scene that shows the primacy of the image over the word, though the soundtrack here is also very interesting. This scene occurs not long after the one I’ve just discussed, which particularly demonstrated the harm the birds can inflict: they can smash windows, they can kill. It follows a dialogue scene between Melanie and the mother where the latter’s fears- of the birds, of being left alone, for her daughter Cathy at the school- have surfaced. To reassure her, Melanie offers to go and collect Cathy from the school at the end of the school day, and this is what happens:

This is a classic suspense sequence, because suspense is about waiting and here we have: Melanie waiting for Cathy; the birds waiting for the children; and the audience waiting for what happens next, the director having given us just enough information to allow our imagination to work:

There is a characteristic use of setting. Hitchcock liked staging his most suspenseful scenes in settings of normality, places where one would usually feel safe (the shower, even the United Nations building) because it completely undermines any sense of security. His contribution to universal paranoia has been immense. Here a school playground becomes a territory of terror, tension rising against the background of a nursery rhyme which, like the film, seems part rational, part irrational, nonsense verse.

Hitchcock knows by now that, if he’s done his job properly, then the very sight of a bird will be enough to make us jumpy, uneasy, particularly as, like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, they seem to have the capacity to creep up on you unaware. So, as Melanie sits down and lights a cigarette, one bird lands on the climbing frame, behind her and immediately hops over, as if expecting company (a brilliant eerie detail). Again classic suspense technique: the audience now knows more than the character and feels anxious on her behalf and powerless to warn her: when/how will she find out? And how will she react? And while we’re taking that in, Hitchcock cuts to a slightly wider angle, allowing us to see that, in the space of a few seconds, a few more birds have arrived silently, adding to our apprehension. Then, in a particularly telling moment, Hitchcock keeps the camera on Melanie, so we cannot see and have to imagine what is happening behind her, and the suspense now comes not from what the director shows but from what he withholds. She smokes anxiously; the nursery-rhyme seems endless.

And then Melanie notices something and looks up: a solitary bird is flying across the sky, usually a harmless enough sight, but not here. She follows its flight, the moment being stretched as her nerves are being stretched, until its descent; and she turns to see (and Hitchcock, in planning the scene, felt he could hear an audible gasp from the audience at this point) the climbing frame which is now full of birds. Whilst she has been finishing her cigarette, gathering behind her has been her worst nightmare. Tippi Hedren’s reaction is marvellous; a silent scream, for she dare not make a noise for fear it will set them off. The image is like something out of Edvard Munch.

The shock comes from the speed and silence with which the birds have gathered, but it comes from something else as well, which Hitchcock and his writer Evan Hunter might have picked up from the original story: the irrational sense of an implied intelligence and intention behind the birds’ behaviour. After all, why don’t they attack Melanie? It’s almost as if they’re saying: we’ll get to you later (which they do). At that moment that doesn’t seem part of their plan, they’re waiting for the children; and somehow seem to know what time school is out. There’s an intriguing shot just before the children run from the school, when Hitchcock cuts to a shot of the birds; it looks almost as if they’re chatting amongst themselves. Then we hear the sound of running; the birds fly out in a mass at the camera; and in long shot we see the blue sky seeming to turn black as the birds swoop down on their young prey.

Why do the birds attack? The film has been sometimes criticised for offering no definitive answer to this question. Hitchcock was accused of being pretentious and trying to imitate the ambiguities and complexities of European art cinema; but he was simply being true to the original story, for Daphne du Maurier doesn’t offer any explanation either. He always said the theme of the film was complacency, and an attack on human complacency; and to have provided a comfortable explanation at the end for what had happened would have undermined his whole strategy. I’ve sometimes felt that both he and du Maurier were picking up on a kind of post-war anxiety about threats from the air: in du Maurier, an imaginative response to a post-World War Two environment in which humanity is still coming to terms with the dropping of the atom bomb and the realisation that, for the first time in the world’s history, war can become synonymous with global annihilation; in Hitchcock, a similar response to a Cold War environment in which humanity, in the Cuban missile crisis of the year before, had been taken to the brink of nuclear devastation. Both are apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenarios for an era that seemed bent on self-destruction.

Inevitably the film has prompted many different interpretations: maybe the birds are an enactment of the caged passions the humans are trying to conceal- hostility, jealousy, rage … or: more generally and symbolically, the birds represent the forces of chaos, or natural disaster, that can erupt with shocking suddenness into people’s lives and turn their values upside down, forcing them to re-evaluate their priorities.

One of the questions that the film raises is: is the heroine, Melanie Daniels, the cause of it all? The attacks only start when she arrives in Bodega Bay. Her ‘teasing’ of the other characters (Mitch, his mother, the schoolteacher Annie) unleashes a chaos of human emotion that has previously been caged or contained: the mother’s possessiveness and her terror at being left alone; Annie’s unrequited love for Mitch. There’s also a curious sub-text of family dysfunctionality, where Mitch has a possessive mother and absent father whose portrait is still prominent in the house; Melanie is close to her father but reveals she’s been abandoned by her mother when she was 11, which might be why she’s drawn to Mitch’s younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) who’s also 11. There’s this tangled knot of interconnecting relationships, with emotions swirling between passion, possessiveness, jealousy, anger, and which are going nowhere until the bird attacks force the characters to rip apart the evasions and face the fears that confront them.

Yet when Melanie is accused of being the cause of it all by a hysterical woman in the café, the woman is looking straight into the camera and thus directly at us, the audience. ‘They say when you came, the whole thing started,’ she says: well, that’s certainly true, the film couldn’t start without the audience. ‘I think you’re the cause of all this,’ she goes on, ‘I think you’re evil, EVIL!’ Is it, then, an accusation implicitly directed at all of us: a sort of Day of Judgment, an ecological horror story in which Nature strikes back in vengeance at the violations of Nature by mankind? The film incidentally has sometimes been seen as more analogous to a poem than to a short story. It works through rhythm and intensity of imagery rather than through narrative coherence and rounded characters, and is comparable particularly to a poem like Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, another Revenge of Nature tale against man’s heedless inhumanity.

OR: another reading of that line, spoken directly at the camera, ‘I think you’re the cause of all this, I think you’re evil’: is it, like a number of Hitchcock’s films, and particularly a film like Rear Window (1954), in some regards about the film audience, where very often the structure seems to encourage an audience to indulge its impure emotions (when I saw The Birds for the first time, someone behind me in the audience was getting very impatient with the film’s slow opening, and murmuring, ‘When are the birds going to attack, when are the birds going to attack?’) and then being compelled to live through the consequences of these emotions- i.e. when they’re turned back on you and you’re terrified. This could be the reason that Hitchcock’s films have such cathartic power and which one could say is the moral imperative behind his use of suspense. Robin Wood has particularly examined this aspect of Hitchcock’s use of suspense and its therapeutic effect and value.

OR: more specifically, when that hysterical character says, ‘I think you’re the cause of all this’ directly at the camera, she is, in a literal sense, absolutely right: the camera is the cause of all this. This would take us back to the basic premise of Hitchcock’s work as a film director: namely, that the camera tells the story, not the dialogue, not the characters, but the camera. I think that one of the things that most appealed to him about The Birds as basic material- and I’m not sure it would have occurred or appealed to Daphne du Maurier, or any writer for that matter- is that on one level it’s about the futility of language. Words are of little use in the film and often evasive and misleading; indeed, in the early part of the film the characters spend an inordinate amount of time verbally sparring with each other in increasingly frustrating games of ego and undisclosed desire (as Robin Wood once speculated: what would have happened to these people and these relationships if the birds hadn’t attacked?). There’s a scene in a café which must be one of the longest dialogue scenes in the whole of Hitchcock where a crisis debate about why this is happening and what to do about it leads absolutely nowhere, at which point the birds attack, and reduce them all to silence anyway. Critics have tried to rationalise the film, or attacked it for being irrational- but it’s not an illogical film, it’s an anti-logic film that undercuts humanity’s sense of rational superiority. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, as Hamlet says to Horatio (and even Annie asks Melanie at one stage: ‘what do you think of our little hamlet?’) Film should be stronger than reason, Hitchcock thought, and the fact that this film’s basic premise- Birds attack people- is fantastical is precisely the point. The basic premise was the thing that François Truffaut admired above all about it. ‘I am convinced that the cinema was invented so that such a film could be made,’ he said.

Daphne du Maurier was understandably miffed that Hitchcock continued to get credit for an idea that was originally hers; and she certainly didn’t like the liberties he took with the setting and the characterisation. And yet it does intrigue me that, in two widely different adaptations of du Maurier’s work- one intentionally faithful to the text, the other flying off in its own direction- Hitchcock reveals in both something absolutely fundamental about himself and about his cinema. With Rebecca we get the unexpected revelation of a romantic yearning in Hitchcock which was hitherto unsuspected and which will come to the fore in some of the greatest of his later works; and also an empathy for feminine feeling which is also new in his work and which critics have argued anticipates his later exploration of ‘feminine’ regions of his own personality- the sensitivity, the passivity, the anger. With The Birds, we get Hitchcock the ultimate cineaste, a film which as much as any other demonstrates film’s difference from literature; almost his revenge on a literature-dominated film culture in the form of a film adaptation that words cannot ultimately explain. ‘I don’t care about the subject-matter;’ he told Truffaut, ‘I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all the technical ingredients that make an audience scream. It’s tremendously satisfying to able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion, where audiences are not stirred by the message, or great performances, or enjoyment of the original novel, but by pure film.’ By imagining and creating source material that penetrated to the roots of a great film-maker’s personality and his technique, Daphne du Maurier will always have a special place in the heart of all lovers of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Neil Sinyard

This is the text of a public lecture at the Daphne Du Maurier Festival in May 2012.

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Capsule: Vertigo (1958)

‘A completely unbelievable story told with such a spellbinding logic that you feel the same thing could happen to you tomorrow’: this was Alfred Hitchcock’s description of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. It could equally apply to Vertigo, a tall story about a detective (James Stewart) who becomes the dupe of an elaborate murder plot involving an old college friend (Tom Helmore) and his mysterious wife (Kim Novak). At the beginning of the film, Stewart has a vertigo seizure that leaves him clinging for life whilst yearning for oblivion; and this sets up the swoops and falls of the film’s physical and emotional landscape. The narrative spirals rather than develops, and Bernard Herrmann’s fabulous score weaves an incredible web of yearning, as love and hate, life and death contend for supremacy. James Stewart’s extraordinary performance represents masculinity at its most tormented and oppressive; and, with unbearable poignancy, Kim Novak projects femininity at its most alluring yet vulnerable. Dismissed on its first release as a botched suspense thriller, Vertigo is now widely recognised as a masterpiece of romantic obsession. It is Hitchcock at his most personal, profound, perverse and poetic: how could it not be one of the greatest films ever?

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Capsule: Notorious (1946)

François Truffaut’s favourite of all Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is a spy story without violence but with uncommon emotional intensity. The daughter of a convicted Nazi (Ingrid Bergman) is recruited by an FBI agent (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a nest of Nazi sympathisers in post-war Rio, particularly through exploiting her attraction to their leader (Claude Rains). Hitchcock’s thriller technique is flawless, particularly at moments such as the famous crane shot that starts at the top of a balcony and ends on a stolen key concealed in Bergman’s hand, or a scene of high tension organised around a drugged cup of coffee. Yet the main suspense comes through the tormented relationships and from whether the central couple can break through their neurotic uncertainties about each other to a (literally) life-saving understanding. Scripted with superb economy by Ben Hecht, the film’s plot moves with implacable logic to the moment when a locked car door becomes a death sentence; and espionage becomes a metaphor for the kinds of betrayal and deceit that poison all communication, personal or political. As the ostensible villain, Claude Rains is, perversely, all aching sincerity, whereas the supposed hero, Cary Grant has a dark cynicism that chills the blood, the actor’s impeccable timing giving his wounding words an extra twist of the knife. No actress suffered more exquisitely for love on screen than Ingrid Bergman and this is her noblest, most courageous performance. Hitchcock might have been the Master of Suspense, but Notorious added another dimension to his creative personality: artist of erotic anguish.

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Capsule: Spellbound (1945)

‘Will he kiss me or kill me?’ was the original poster tagline for Spellbound, showing an apprehensive Ingrid Bergman in the arms of a preoccupied Gregory Peck, who is holding Bergman with one hand and an open razor with the other. It is a familiar dilemma for a Hitchcock heroine. Here Bergman’s psychiatrist has fallen for Peck’s doctor, who is a suspected murderer and amnesiac with recurrent nightmares that hold the clue to his past and identity. Hollywood had at this time only recently discovered Freud, and although Hitchcock tended to dismiss the film as ‘just another manhunt picture wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis’, it is a pointer to future Freudian themes and the proximity of film to dream in his work that will culminate in such masterpieces as Vertigo and Marnie. With a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali and a sumptuous Oscar-winning Miklos Rozsa score, this was Hitchcock’s biggest hit of the 1940s and has many audacious visual flourishes: fork-lines on a linen table-cloth that will trigger Peck’s trauma; a succession of opening doors as the couple first kiss; and a fine scene in a white bathroom where Peck, enacting the fear that roams Bergman’s subconscious, discovers the terror that can lurk in everyday objects. As the love-smitten analyst who turns dream-detective, Ingrid Bergman contributes many lovely touches and she is finely supported by some eccentric characterisation, notably from Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton) as her psychology professor. ‘Good night and happy dreams,’ he says to the honeymoon couple, before adding mischievously, ‘which we will analyse at breakfast.’

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Grace Kelly in Rear Window

According to Hitchcock’s associate producer, Herbert Coleman, ‘it was the most beautiful shot of a woman I have ever seen in my life.’ It is one of the most entrancing entrances of any screen character- a moment when, in a reversal of convention, a sleeping hero is awakened by a kiss from a Fairy Princess.

In Rear Window (1954), a professional photographer, L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), in a wheelchair with a broken leg after an accident at one of his assignments, is asleep in his apartment. Suddenly a sinister shadow falls across his face, which puts us slightly on our guard. Hitchcock cuts to a shot of a stunningly beautiful blonde coming into seductive close-up.


He then cuts to a close profile shot almost in slow-motion to accentuate the dreaminess of the atmosphere as hero and heroine kiss. ‘Who are you?’ asks Jefferies, jokingly. Taking up the playful tone, the heroine introduces herself- ‘Lisa Carol Fremont’-, on every name switching on a lamp as if to emphasise the warmth and light she has brought into the room.


Delighted with her contribution to Dial M for Murder (1953), Hitchcock was keen to work with Grace Kelly again, a feeling that was mutual: she turned down the offer of a role in On the Waterfront (1954)- which was to win Eva Marie-Saint an Oscar- to make Rear Window instead. This time Hitchcock was keen to create a part that was closer to her actual personality. ‘She’s stiff on film,’ he told the screenwriter John Michael Hayes, ‘and we have to open her out somehow.’ Hayes spent some time with her and wrote a part which brought out the gaiety and wit of her natural temperament. Hayes’ wife had been a professional model and that helped to create a background for the character that was authentic but also, to Jefferies, provocative.

Sinyard_RearWindow_08Grace Kelly’s performance has not only sparkle but shade, and the antagonism between Lisa and Jefferies (intimated by that initial shadow of his face when she first appears) in the film has several intriguing dimensions. Kelly looks gorgeous in the costumes Edith Head has designed for her (under Hitchcock’s watchful eye), but the character is far more than just a clothes-horse for glamorous garments. She is a successful and intelligent career-woman, and the hero’s mocking remarks about her life-style (‘You should list that dress on the Stock Exchange,’ he says about the $1100 dollar dress she is wearing when she greets him), reveal a touch of envy and masculine insecurity on his part. Lisa wishes to marry him but is being kept at arm’s length, ostensibly because he does not think she could share the rough and tumble of his life as a magazine photographer, subconsciously because he seems to fear marriage itself. What he watches from his window- vignettes of loneliness, desire and disappointment – only serves to reflect and perhaps deepen that fear, particularly when he begins to suspect that one of his neighbours, Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife.

Although the action of the film is seen almost exclusively from Jefferies’ point of view, Rear Window subverts the usual Hollywood active male/ passive female narrative stereotypes. Whereas Jefferies is immobile and mostly helpless throughout the film, Lisa is one of Hitchcock’s most active and resourceful heroines. When she begins to share Jefferies’ suspicions about Thorwald, she has no compunction about crossing the courtyard and climbing into Thorwald’s room through the window, thereby demonstrating that, contrary to Jefferies’ assertion, it is possible both to dress immaculately and be effectively adventurous. And, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, feminine intuition provides the solution to the mystery. Lisa has always contended that no woman would go on a trip without her wedding ring and when she finds Mrs Thorwald’s ring amongst her husband’s belongings, it clinches his guilt.

The visual revelation of that moment is brilliant. Whilst searching his room, Lisa has been attacked by Thorwald but rescued in time by the arrival of the police. Whilst they are being questioned, Lisa signals her discovery of the ring to Jefferies by wearing it on her finger and pointing to it behind her back (Thorwald will notice the gesture and later come across to confront Jefferies). As Francois Truffaut has noted, the moment serves a dual function of implicating Thorwald whilst also reinforcing Lisa’s desire for marriage: she finally has a wedding ring on her finger. At the back of our mind, though, is a disquieting thought: it is a murdered woman’s wedding ring – and, moreover, it fits.

The ending is one of Hitchcock’s most adroit, and particularly interesting in relation to Lisa and the other female characters. During the film Lisa has particularly identified with two other women across the square whom Jefferies has spied on- Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), with her constant stream of admirers (’She’s doing a woman’s hardest job…juggling wolves,’ says Lisa, as if she knows what she is talking about); and Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), who acts out imaginary dates but who is then taken to the point of near-suicide when an actual date tries to assault her. These two side-stories are happily resolved: Miss Torso’s amusingly diminutive Army husband returns home; and Miss Lonelyhearts has struck up a friendship with the frustrated songwriter whose song has now been recorded and whose music has meant so much to her (and to Lisa).

The temperature has dropped; normality seems to have been restored, though the newly-weds are now bickering, as if potential Thorwalds in the making; as at the beginning of the film, Jefferies is asleep with his back to the window but, after his encounter with Thorwald, now has two broken legs, making him doubly impotent. Hitchcock now pans to Lisa, in casual slacks and blouse, reading ‘Beyond the High Himalayas’. Has she capitulated, then, to Jefferies’ requirements of a female partner? Not a bit of it. Noting he is still asleep, she puts down the book and picks up her preferred reading matter, the fashion magazine ‘Bazaar’, implicitly affirming her right to live according to her own lights and values. The last word we hear on the soundtrack is from the songwriter’s composition and it is the single word ‘Lisa’- allowing the heroine, as it were, the last word.

It is a scintillating characterisation and Grace Kelly plays it with a combined elegance and vitality, immaculate manner and yet sexual self-confidence that utterly enchanted Hitchcock. No wonder Rear Window remained one of his favourite films. He said it was because it was an example of ‘pure cinema’; I suspect it was also because he had found in it his perfect blonde.

Neil Sinyard

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Hitchcock vs Herrmann: the story behind the break-up of cinema’s finest director/composer partnership

I have called this talk ‘Hitchcock versus Herrmann’ because I want to tell the story behind the break-up of what to me is the cinema’s finest director/composer collaboration. But first I’d like to show two short extracts by way of introduction. The first represents the highpoint of their collaboration and is very famous:

The second is undoubtedly the partnership’s low-point and I guarantee that no one will have seen this sequence in this precise form in the cinema:

[Please note that, although Neil’s text describes the version of the Torn Curtain opening scored by Bernard Herrmann, the extract on this webpage is currently the version with John Addison’s music. The Herrmann version is, however, available on the DVD release of Torn Curtain.]

The first extract was, of course, the famous shower-murder in Psycho, made in 1960, the murder accentuated by perhaps the most celebrated musical cue in film history, Herrmann’s famous screaming violins that highlight the heroine’s screams but also the stabbing knife. The second extract was the credit sequence of Torn Curtain, made in 1966, and some of you might have noticed that it says ‘Music by John Addison’. Actually the music you heard was by Bernard Herrmann, arguably the most notorious piece of film music ever written because it brought to an end – and an abrupt and hostile end – this great director/composer partnership. The orchestra liked it: indeed, after they’d played it, they burst into spontaneous applause, so it came as something of a surprise to them that, when Hitchcock heard it, he was angry and upset, cancelled the remainder of the session, and severed a partnership that had served him well – nay, brilliantly – over 11 years and 9 films. My talk then is centrally concerned with what happened on that fateful day in March 1966 (surely the most dramatic recording session in Hollywood history) and why it happened. It is a complex and even mysterious story with some still unanswered questions, but very revealing about the individual personalities of two extraordinary artists and of two competing egos and insecurities. I also want to assess different accounts of what happened, offering my own interpretation but basing this too on what people who were close to the event have told me. But to understand it fully, one needs to contextualise it a bit; and in this regard, I want to say a few things about the partnership of Hitchcock and Herrmann in its prime.


On the face of it, it might seem an odd pairing: Hitchcock a droll Cockney Catholic, who after a string of brilliant English thrillers such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes had gone to Hollywood at the invitation of producer David Selznick in 1939 to make Rebecca and who had settled in America; Herrmann a volatile Jewish New Yorker of prodigious musical talent as conductor as well as composer, and for the concert-hall as well as the movie screen and incidentally a great Anglophile: he loved English music and English literature. They came together, though, through a colossal mutual professional respect; a shared sense of humour (Herrmann’s widow, Norma, told me that when I asked her what she thought was the secret behind their successful partnership: ‘They had a very similar sense of humour,’ she told me, ‘quite dark and mischievous’); a certain similarity of outlook (both nurturing under defensive exteriors a deeply romantic sensibility); and similar aesthetic goals. Herrmann thought that the key to good film music was the ability of the composer to seek out and intensify the inner emotions of the characters, not just to illustrate and accompany the drama but to get inside it (if you can’t do that, he thought, then you shouldn’t be writing music for films in the first place); and that corresponded to Hitchcock’s aesthetic of conveying psychological intensity not through histrionic display but through cinematic means of composition and montage.

When they teamed up in the mid 1950s, both were on a career high. Having been in Hollywood for 15 years, Hitchcock was now established as a major player. He had just made one of his greatest films, Rear Window (1954); had launched his hugely successful television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents which, through his witty introductions and conclusions, had made him a star in his own right, which undoubtedly enabled him to make controversial films like Psycho on the basis of his name alone; and, significantly, was being hailed not simply as the ‘Master of Suspense’ but a major artist- an auteur, indeed- by the young critics and budding film-makers of the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, who were soon to form the nucleus of the French Nouvelle Vague: Francois Truffaut, Jean-luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol.

[Please note that the video of Herrmann extracts above was not part of Neil’s presentation but is included here as illustration.]

Similarly with Herrmann. Having begun his professional career as a staff musician for CBS radio and collaborated with a boy wonder by the name of Orson Welles, he had accompanied Welles to Hollywood and begun his film music career in spectacular style with his score for Citizen Kane, which was a musical milestone as well as a movie masterpiece, because it broke away from the lush Europeanised romanticism of composers such as Korngold and Max Steiner that had dominated Hollywood soundtracks in the 1930s and created a much starker sound that often involved an innovative use of the orchestra: in Howard Goodall’s phrase, he replaced sentiment with anxiety. Straight after Kane, he won an Oscar for his score for The Devil and Daniel Webster; and one of his typically Gothic scores of the mid-1940s, Hangover Square even prompted a fan letter from a 15-year-old Stephen Sondheim. During the 1940s he was trying to divide his time between his concert and cinema engagements and between composing and conducting but was now in such demand by the studios that the concert and conducting ambitions were having to take a back seat. This frustrated him in some way because he was a formidable musician whose real love was conducting (he never quite forgave André Previn for landing the post of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra – he would have loved that job). Which career path should he choose? His widow Norma Herrmann once showed me a copy of the score he had of Stravinsky’s Symphony in 3 Movements which he had asked Stravinsky to sign, and the inscription reads: ‘To the excellent musician and conductor, Bernard Herrmann. Cordially, I. Stravinsky.’ For a 20th century musician, an inscription such as that from Stravinsky would be like a reference from God: I doubt whether Stravinsky would have done that for Herbert von Karajan.

Herrmann completed his opera based on Wuthering Heights in 1951, but by the mid 1950s, he was in such demand as a film composer that his path had been chosen for him. When Hitchcock came along, the partnership ‘jelled’ immediately, with Herrmann catching the tone of Hitchcock’s macabre comedy thriller, The Trouble with Harry to perfection with a witty, alternately playful and portentous score that really added to the fun; then scored The Man who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man with an appropriately menacing tread, sometimes flamboyant, sometimes eerie and troubled; and then the Golden Period, between 1958 and 1960, when we had three masterpieces of film direction and film scoring one after the other- Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960), the latter being perhaps their ultimate collaboration in terms of success and impact: it’s noticeable that Herrmann’s name comes up second on the credits just before Hitchcock’s, as if emphasising his importance.

BUT: with hindsight, it’s possible to see that the Psycho collaboration contained hints of future discord, areas of disagreement that here had been successfully resolved but might have left niggling feelings of disquiet. For example, it is well known that Hitchcock had originally not wanted music for the shower murder whilst recognising that the whole film depended on the effectiveness of that scene – everything leads up to it and everything that follows is dependent on its impact, so if that sequence didn’t work, then the whole film would go down the drain, as it were. Herrmann came up with those screaming violins, perhaps the most immediately effective cue in film music, and in essence proved Hitchcock wrong, which generally was not a wise thing to do. Still, to give Hitchcock his due, he deserves credit for giving way on this point (when Herrmann with typical mischief reminded him that he’d said he didn’t want music for this scene, Hitchcock replied, ‘Improper suggestion.’); and, in fact, I was once on a radio programme with writer/director Peter Bogdanovich who’d attended the New York premiere of Psycho when little was known about the film and he said the audience was screaming so loudly during the shower murder that he never heard the music, so maybe Hitchcock was right after all. At one point Hitchcock was getting cold feet about the film and was thinking of cutting it down to an hour to show as one of his television specials and it was Herrmann particularly who persuaded him not to do that and that it was one of his major films; and what particularly persuaded him was seeing the complete film with the score. In short, Herrmann was becoming very important, the danger of that being that he might be stealing some of his thunder (and Hitchcock was notoriously loath to give credit to his collaborators). In the end, with Psycho, everything worked out triumphantly, but his next film The Birds had a mixed critical and commercial reception (Herrmann on that film being more of a technical consultant as it didn’t have a conventional score); and then when Marnie, which had one of Herrmann’s full-blown romantic scores, flopped with critics and public, being regarded as clumsy and old-fashioned (it has been re-evaluated since), the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership was put under stress as never before. Things came to a head over Torn Curtain.

There is no doubt that Hitchcock was under considerable pressure from the heads of Universal Studios to commission a score for his new film that was commercially exploitable, which was becoming a feature of films at that time. They had seen how Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ had boosted the popularity of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Maurice Jarre’s ‘Lara’s Theme’ had added to the appeal of Dr Zhivago; and there was the widespread feeling in the industry in the mid-1960s that the conventional symphonic score of Hollywood’s heyday was now a bit old-hat. The pressure on Hitchcock would have been intensified by his terror, as Herrmann’s widow has described it to me, of what he called ‘the whizzkids’ and of being thought old-fashioned and out of touch with the tastes of the contemporary audience. Before he’d always seemed ahead of the game, particularly with Psycho, which had been enormously popular and ahead of its time and had confounded the critics, many of whom had condemned the film at the time and had been compelled to eat their words. Was he losing his touch? Was a new strategy required?

So initially Hitchcock’s decision to keep faith with Herrmann could be seen as being commendably loyal, particularly as Herrmann was a notoriously cantankerous character who made no secret of his contempt for the studio’s attitude to, and ignorance of, film music. Conversely, I think it would be wrong to suggest, as the critic of The Times did when reviewing a concert of Herrmann’s film music in 2006, that the relationship foundered during Torn Curtain because ‘Hitch’s lordly ways had, it seems, been gnawing way at Herrmann for some time.’ I don’t think that is so- if anything, it’s more true the other way round. Whatever the niggles over the Psycho experience, the swiftness and finality of their falling-out over Torn Curtain seems to have taken Herrmann completely by surprise. Another misconception (reiterated by Howard Goodall in an otherwise splendid programme he did on Herrmann’s music for Channel 4) has been the suggestion that, after the Torn Curtain debacle, Herrmann was seized on by Francois Truffaut to write the score for Fahrenheit 451 (1966). In fact, Herrmann had been commissioned for the Truffaut film before the Hitchcock; and indeed there is a letter by Truffaut to Hitchcock (18 November, 1965) which deepens the mystery of their subsequent split. ‘In London,’ Truffaut wrote, ‘I met Bernard Herrmann who will be writing the score for Fahrenheit 451. We had a long talk together about you and I feel that, in him, you have a great and genuine friend.’ It is a reminder that the break-up was not simply a professional blow but, for both men, a devastating personal loss. Herrmann was undoubtedly one of Hitchcock’s closest friends in the film community, and vice-versa. They went shopping together, apparently; would wash up together after meals; and crucially, would confide in each other and exchange confidences about their private lives- and at that particular time, both of them had quite a lot to exchange. During the filming of Marnie, Hitchcock had become infatuated with his leading lady, Tippi Hedren, and although accounts might differ as to how far this infatuation went, it certainly ended unhappily (‘She said something that no one is ever allowed to me,’ he told his authorised biographer, John Russell Taylor, ‘she referred to my weight’). At the same time Herrmann was experiencing the collapse of his second marriage and going through a very painful divorce. So I’ve no doubt Truffaut was right: there was a great bond and friendship there, which makes the break-up all the more extraordinary.

The exchange of telegrams between them about the upcoming score make interesting reading. Although remaining loyal at this stage to Herrmann, Hitchcock had expressed his disappointment at the composer’s most recent score for the film Joy in the Morning (1965), which he’d found repetitive and derivative, and demanded a different approach that recognised, as had European film makers, a new audience that was, in his words, ‘young, vigorous and demanding’ and required a score that had ‘a beat and a rhythm.’ ‘If you cannot do this,’ he concluded, ‘then I am the loser’ (words that, one could say, would come back to haunt him). Herrmann seemed unfazed by this and responded with enthusiasm: ‘Delighted to Compose Beat Score for Torn Curtain. Always Pleased to Have your Views.’ Hitchcock immediately got a production assistant to cable back: ‘These are not views: these are requirements.’ Whether Herrmann quite understood what Hitchcock was getting at is a moot point; directors are not always good at conveying to composers what it is they’re after. (Anecdotally, I can remember interviewing the director Fred Zinnemann during the making of his last film, the mountaineering drama, Five Days One Summer when he’d had a falling-out with his composer, Carl Davis: he’d wanted a small intimate score, he said, and Davis had composed for an orchestra of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony proportions, and I remember thinking: how could they have misunderstood each other so completely?) It’s not clear to me whether Herrmann did think he was delivering what Hitchcock wanted or went away and did his own thing, thinking that that this was the fix the film needed. (As he used to put it: ‘You expect a doctor to make you well: you don’t expect him also to make you rich.’) Were Hitchcock’s requirements specific enough? He told Herrmann that the score should be modern, that he had very definite ideas about where the music should go, and that there shouldn’t be too much of it. Herrmann had simply responded: ‘Please send script indicating where you desire music- can then begin composing.’ Hitchcock had told him that ‘the main title should be exciting, arresting and rhythmic’. One could certainly argue that Herrmann’s main title music was all of those things: what it was not, however, was melodically memorable or obviously commercial. Herrmann went away and wrote the score. In March 1966, the Goldwyn studios in Los Angeles were booked for two days for the recording of the score, with Herrmann conducting. And then all hell broke loose.

Versions of precisely what happened that day have tended to differ. In broad terms, Herrmann started recording the score with the orchestra and the session was going well. Indeed, after the playback of the title music, the musicians had burst into spontaneous applause, a rare tribute from seasoned Hollywood musicians, who would have been accustomed to André Previn’s cryptic summary of the film composer’s perennial dilemma: ‘Do you want it good or do you want it Thursday?’ However, as soon as Hitchcock appeared on the scene, the atmosphere changed. His first sight of Herrmann’s orchestra would have startled him, because it was typically unconventional: 12 flutes, 16 horns, 9 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets of tympani, 8 celli, 8 double basses, and no violins – he must have wondered where his hit song would have materialised out of that combination.

But there is question: why was he there in the first place? Was it his usual practice of attending recording sessions? (I’ve been told that he wasn’t at the recording sessions of Psycho, for example.) In his biography of Hitchcock, Patrick McGilligan writes that ‘Hitchcock kept an appointment with Herrmann in late March to listen to the first recording of the music’. However, an article on the Bernard Herrmann website by Steve Verlieb in 2002 states that: ‘Hitchcock who must have been warned by his spies about the performance, arrived unannounced on the stage accompanied by his assistant Peggy Robertson to listen to the newly recorded cues.’ If I incline towards this second interpretation rather than the first, it’s for two reasons: 1) Norma Herrmann told me that Herrmann as a rule didn’t like directors turning up at his recording sessions, for he thought they had no business there (they’d done their job, leave him to do his); his ideal was someone like Truffaut, who would just arrive, wish everybody good luck, and then disappear; and 2) if Hitchcock had been invited, why wasn’t he there at the start of the session, particularly as he’d made specific requirements about the main title music? Also, if he’d been invited, would Herrmann have started without him? These are not conclusive arguments, but they do tend to suggest to me that Hitchcock’s arrival was unexpected.

Well, whether Herrmann was expecting him or not, he seemed unperturbed and asked the engineer to play back what they had recorded, at which point, according to McGilligan, ‘the director didn’t get very far before shutting the recording off’. A row broke out between director and composer in front of the other musicians, in which Hitchcock declared that the score was exactly the kind of score he hadn’t wanted and cancelled the session on the spot. ‘Where’s the theme song?’ Hitchcock apparently demanded of Herrmann: not love music or romantic music, as has sometimes been suggested, but a hit song, a ‘number one’, as he put it, and he kept demanding. ‘Where’s the theme song?’ ‘I know this,’ Norma Herrmann told me, ‘as Benny used to say in later years with the greatest contempt in his voice, ‘Theme song! Theme song!’ Hitchcock then walked out (though the principal horn player Alan Robertson told Norma Herrmann that it was Herrmann who had stormed out first) and went over to Head Office, apologising for what had happened, confirming the cancellation of the next day’s recording session and offering to pay Herrmann’s salary out of his own pocket to atone for his mistaken loyalty in hiring him in the first place. What has always struck me as extraordinary about that chain of events is that, for Hitchcock, it seems so out of character. Everyone who knew Hitchcock- and it’s confirmed by every interview about him I’ve ever seen or every book on him I’ve read- agreed that he was a man who hated confrontations (it was one of Ingrid Bergman’s grouses; ‘You can never have an argument with that man, he just walks out of the room’); and yet, in this instance, according to some accounts, he seems to have gone our of his way to provoke a confrontation and to cause maximum embarrassment in the process.

No music for Gromek's killing: Torn Curtain

No music for Gromek’s killing: Torn Curtain

Later that day Hitchcock rang Herrmann, who was still in the recording studio in a state of shock. They resumed their argument, Hitchcock furious with Herrmann for disobeying instructions and Herrmann angry with Hitchcock for capitulating to the wishes of studio bosses. Hitchcock would have been particularly cross also because the composer had written music for a brutal murder scene when the director had expressly told him not to: this was a sensitive matter when one recalls that Hitchcock had not wanted music for the shower murder in Psycho – clearly he did not want to be proved wrong twice. To prove him wrong once might be a misfortune; to prove him wrong twice looks like carelessness. And incidentally there’s an odd sub-text to this: the music Herrmann used for this was music he’d used years before for the Hitchcock TV episode ‘Behind the Locked Door’: whether Hitchcock recognised this is unknown, but if he had, it would certainly have made even madder, because it would have confirmed his belief that Herrmann was beginning to repeat himself. Herrmann, though, would have probably said, as he had of the Psycho incident: ‘If you don’t like it, don’t use it.’ In any event, according to Herrmann’s biographer, Steven Smith: ‘Both voices were rising; and the conversation quickly ended. It was Hitchcock and Herrmann’s last.’ That last statement, incidentally, is not strictly accurate, as I will shortly explain.

So: how to interpret what happened? Had Herrmann betrayed Hitchcock’s trust by ignoring his requirements and going along with his own instincts rather than those of the director? Or had Hitchcock behaved with rudeness and insensitivity towards one of his most loyal and prestigious collaborators? It has never been entirely clear whether Herrmann quit or was fired; and there are other mysteries connected with the event that seem to go way beyond simply the question of creative differences, and I’ll just mention three things:

(1) If Hitchcock was so insistent on requiring a commercially exploitable score, why had he commissioned Herrmann in the first place? Herrmann was not incapable of accomplishing this, but he wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice. The positive reading of Hitchcock’s motive would stress loyalty to, and confidence in, his composer-friend. The negative – indeed paranoid – reading of his motive would suggest that he was deliberately setting up a confrontation. If so, why? I’ll return to that in a moment.

(2) Also, even thrown by the sight of Herrmann’s orchestra and disliking what he had heard, why did he not at least listen to the score in its entirety? This was Herrmann’s own argument: the sessions have been booked, the musicians will still need to be paid, why don’t we just carry on and finish, and if you still don’t like it, then throw it out? (He might have added that, after all, audiences didn’t exactly go out of the theatre whistling the theme from Psycho but no one would dispute the importance of the music to that film’s success.) Hitchcock wouldn’t hear of it. Again defenders of Hitchcock might say that, having expressed his displeasure so forcefully, he could hardly be expected to go back on it: he’d look a bit of a fool if he said at the end of it all ‘Actually I quite like it now’. But to me this detail highlights the most extraordinary aspect of the affair: not the fact that the score was rejected but the way it was rejected, which in my view was-and still is- unprecedented. After all, umpteen scores have been thrown out in different circumstances and replaced, but this is something else. There is no other occasion I can recall where a director has halted a recording session in mid-flow after hearing only one section; berated the composer, who is not some newcomer but the finest in the business, in front of the other musicians; and essentially rejected the complete score without hearing it. And this coming from one of the foremost of all director/composer partnerships and involving two great artists who had previously been great friends. I honestly can’t think of anything quite like this in the annals of movie history.

The on-screen composer credit for Torn Curtain

The on-screen composer credit for Torn Curtain

(3) After ditching Herrmann, why did he replace him with John Addison, a perfectly competent film composer but who was no more likely to come up with a ‘popular’ film score than Herrmann? There were certainly more obvious choices, and we do know that, for example, Dimitri Tiomkin, who had worked with Hitchcock before and had a good track record of popular hits (High Noon, High and the Mighty, Friendly Persuasion, Green Leaves of Summer amongst them) agitated for the job. The obvious choice, if available, would have been Henry Mancini, not only one of the most popular composers of the day but extremely adept at writing music for thrillers (The Grip of Fear, Charade). The irony here is that Hitchcock was later to commission Mancini to write the score for his 1972 film, Frenzy, but then rejected it because, he said, it sounded it sounded too much like Bernard Herrmann. Anyone who has heard some of Mancini’s score and compared it with Ron Goodwin’s replacement might feel, with me, that Hitchcock made the wrong choice – again.

In a television documentary entitled Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann, a number of the interviewees, like Claude Chabrol, for example, see the break-up between Hitchcock and Herrmann as entirely Hitchcock’s fault, and that indeed he may even have engineered the showdown, though personally I think that might be taking paranoia a little too far. However, I do believe that certain ingredients of potential conflict had been bubbling for some time and, on this fateful day, boiled over. In the documentary the great film musicologist and arranger, Christopher Palmer, who was very close to Herrmann, suggested that Herrmann was becoming too important and perhaps getting too big for his boots; and Hitchcock, feeling as insecure as only a man with a man with a massive ego can feel, was determined in this instance to demonstrate who was boss and in as public a manner as possible. The person most critical of Hitchcock in the documentary was the composer David Raksin (composer of great film scores for films such as Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful etc.) who also seemed to suspect a set-up. ‘He was determined to humiliate Benny’ he said, (Herrmann was known to his friends as ‘Benny’) and he described Hitchcock of having, as he put it, ‘the loyalty of an eel’, showing no gratitude towards the man whose music had so enriched his movies. As a film composer himself and a close personal friend of Herrmann’s, Raksin could be seen as a partial witness; but he was quite close to the event, Herrmann having showed him parts of the score prior to the recording (‘I was amazed at the quality’, Raksin told me). Raksin also saw Herrmann and the leader of the cello section on the day of the recording session, Edgar Lustgarten, on the day of the recording session after the argument had happened, when Herrmann was badly shaken. In a letter to me, Raksin told me how he, Lustgarten and their wives had invited Herrmann to dinner that evening and had tried to cheer him up, but when Herrmann started to offer ‘a kind of loopy defence of Hitchcock’, as Raksin put it to me, he lost his temper with him, feeling that he was wrongfully defending the director for an act of gross insensitivity, cruelty and ingratitude.

We might never know the full story of what happened that day. Who was in the right? Would Herrmann’s score have made a difference to the film’s reception and perception? (It got mixed reviews but was moderately successful at the box-office.) Typically Herrmann seemed musically to be seeking out the film’s darker sub-text and endeavouring to get behind these cardboard tv characters, as he called them. Would the film have been able to sustain that or would the score have proved too heavy for the material? The rejected score survives and has indeed been recorded in its entirety twice, which is more than the score that was actually used. One scene in the film interests me particularly as providing a clue as to what Herrmann thought the film was about. It’s near the end, where the hero, an American scientist played by Paul Newman, is on the run in East Berlin with his fiancée (Julie Andrews). He’s pretended to defect to East Berlin in order to steal a secret formula from a top East German scientist, not, it seems, out of any patriotic motive but for his own purposes: the film has an odd Faustian sub-text about a hero who might be selling his soul for ultimate knowledge. As we join the film, they are hiding in a theatre during a ballet performance prior to making good their escape to the West, but they have been spotted by the star-ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) in mid-pirouette. Until now, in a running joke in the film, she has always found herself upstaged at airport arrivals and news conferences by Newman’s defecting, defective scientist, and now is her chance for revenge. But what particularly interests me in the scene is the music:

[The extract discussed in Neil’s text, the theatre scene from Torn Curtain, is currently unavailable.]

Very Hitchcockian, that: when Paul Newman shouts ‘Fire!’ and causes panic in the auditorium, some of you might have been reminded of the Royal Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) when Doris Day’s scream halts a concert performance and foils an attempted political assassination. The music is very resonant, coming from Tchaikovsky’s tone-poem ‘Francesca da Rimini’, inspired by an episode from Dante’s Inferno in which the souls of two lovers are swept into the flames of hellfire. Whose choice was it? There’s no doubt in my mind that it was Bernard Herrmann’s and would have been made before the two fell out. My conviction about this point, incidentally, has been confirmed by correspondence with Norma Herrmann, who thought the same. ‘It makes sense anyway,’ she told me, ‘because on the wall of his study is an old engraving of Francesca….Benny bought it during the Depression as the music was a great favourite of his. He used to walk past it and stop and conduct in front of it, singing very badly.’ My feeling is that, just as Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde was Herrmann’s key to the mood and theme of his great score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, he sensed that Francesca da Rimini fitted the mood and theme of Torn Curtain, interpreting what Hitchcock had delivered not as a simplistic tale of heroism and democracy (which is how a number of critics disdainfully read it) but as a subversive tale of hellfire and damnation. Think of the credits of the film: fire and smoke billowing out on one side of the screen, faces writhing in agony on the other, as if they are souls in purgatory. Whether Hitchcock saw the material in quite that way is another matter.

It has often been asserted that the two never spoke to each other again after that disastrous day and that Hitchcock actually hid behind his office door when Herrmann once turned up unannounced. However Norma Herrmann (she married Herrmann in 1968) told me that she was actually present at an occasion when they met again, when Herrmann gave Hitchcock a recording of his opera of Wuthering Heights; and she also showed me an affectionate inscription by Hitchcock to Herrmann when Herrmann asked him to autograph his copy of Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview with Hitchcock, and that was dated 1967: i.e. after the Torn Curtain bust-up. Herrmann was to continue to speak admiringly of Hitchcock in interviews; by contrast, Hitchcock in public was never again to mention Herrmann’s name, if it could be avoided. When one interviewer was brave enough to ask him if he would work with Herrmann again, he replied: ‘Only if he did as he was told.’ In personal terms, the one who came off worst was definitely Herrmann. He was deeply wounded by the split; genuinely surprised it had happened; and hoped that his superb 1969 recording of orchestral suites from Hitchcock’s films, with its affectionate ‘Portrait of Hitch’ derived from themes from Trouble with Harry would serve as an olive-branch: but to no avail. But what about professionally?

The irony is that, although many believe it was Hitchcock more than Herrmann who was to blame for their falling-out, it was Hitchcock who suffered the most from their parting. He was never again to secure a film score remotely in Herrmann’s league (John Williams’s charming score for Family Plot was the nearest) and his films were diminished as a result. By contrast, after a few lean years, Herrmann was re-discovered in the early 1970s by the Movie Brats and particularly championed by Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese. He wrote a thunderously romantic score for De Palma’s Obsession, a virtual re-make of Vertigo when the Hitchcock film was out of circulation because of a prolonged copyright dispute and where Herrmann’s score seems almost like a passionate homage to himself and to his Hitchcock past. And poignantly, as another reference to his Hitchcock past, the very last notes of his final film score for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver quote the three-note madness motif of Psycho to suggest the continuing unresolved psychosis of the Robert De Niro character, ironically acclaimed as a hero after his rampage of righteous slaughter has almost inadvertently rescued a teenager from a life of prostitution but where the man is still clearly profoundly disturbed. (‘He’s gonna do it again,’ said Herrmann, explaining that musical touch at the end, ‘he’s gonna do it again.’) Completing the recording session for Taxi Driver on Christmas Eve 1975, Herrmann retired to his room in a Los Angeles hotel and died that same night. The film is dedicated to his memory.

Herrmann thought of film music as ‘the connecting tissue between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.’ That is very close to Hitchcock’s aesthetic of using all the elements of the film apparatus to envelop an audience in an emotional experience. ‘Ours not to reason why,’ he would say, ‘ours just to scare the hell out of people.’ And yet: he moves us, as well as terrifies us; and in this, particularly in masterpieces like Vertigo and Psycho, he is helped immeasurably by Herrmann’s music, which seemed so imaginatively and innovatively attuned to the fraught psychological landscape of Hitchcock’s world. What a pity it was that this quite remarkable partnership should have ended so abruptly and dramatically in rancour and regret, though, given two such powerful personalities, perhaps it was inevitable. At its finest, though, in my view, it was a director- composer relationship (and there have been many great ones) unmatched in film history for dramatic flair and cinematic symbiosis. Or, to put it more simply, they brought out the best in each other – and in their respective fields, that best is better than practically anyone else’s best.

Neil Sinyard

This piece is taken from Neil Sinyard’s keynote address at the conference Partners in Suspense – Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock that was held in York in 2011. That talk was entitled ”The Loyalty of an Eel’: some reflections on the incomparable partnership of Hitchcock and Herrmann and the reasons behind their falling-out over Torn Curtain‘.’

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