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Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Lehman’

Comfortably situated at the nexus of film and literature were French writers Pierre Boileau (1906-89) and Thomas Narcejac (1908-98), often billed simply as Boileau-Narcejac, who—like some two-headed Gallic Matheson—excelled at thrilling audiences on both page and screen.  They wrote the novels upon which H.G. Clouzot’s oft-remade Diabolique (1955) and Eric Red’s Body Parts (1991) were based, and helped adapt Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) from the novel by Jean Redon.  Perhaps the best-known entry in their filmography is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), based on their 1954 novel D’Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead), published in Geoffrey Sainsbury’s 1956 translation as The Living and the Dead.

The screenplay for Vertigo is credited to Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, yet according to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, he used only Taylor’s material after rejecting earlier versions by esteemed playwright Maxwell Anderson and Coppel.  Anderson (in whose Anne of the Thousand Days yours truly starred as Henry VIII in high school) had shared script credit on Hitchcock’s previous film, The Wrong Man (1956), with Angus MacPhail, who similarly rewrote his work.  Taylor adapted Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) from his own stageplay Sabrina Fair, along with Wilder and Ernest Lehman, who would write Hitch’s next film, North by Northwest (1959).

The majority of Hitchcock’s films were literary or stage adaptations, yet he was known for taking one or two elements that had drawn him to the material, and inventing the rest in close collaboration with his screenwriters.  Sometimes he started with a potboiler such as Francis Beeding’s The House of Dr. Edwardes, which became Spellbound (1945), but he claimed that even John Buchan said Hitchcock had improved upon his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, and an adaptation as faithful as Psycho (1960) was rare.  However, although Vertigo updates the story from 1940s Paris to contemporary San Francisco, and invents the character of Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a surprising number of elements in the novel have specific analogs in the film.

Police detective Roger Flavières left the force after his fear of heights indirectly caused a colleague to fall from a roof during an attempted arrest, and now reluctantly accepts an assignment from an old school friend, Paul Gévigne. The wealthy shipbuilder’s wife, Madeleine, periodically appears to be possessed by her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, who  killed herself when she was Madeleine’s age, and whose necklace Madeleine inherited.  Flavières follows the seemingly oblivious Madeleine to various locations—including Pauline’s grave and a small hotel that had been her home, where Madeleine rents an upstairs room—and saves her life when she tries to drown herself, just as Pauline did.

No longer able to follow Madeleine anonymously, Flavières begins joining her in her travels, falling in love with her in the process, and recognizes her detailed description of a small town she has seen in her “reveries” as an actual location.  They visit the village and enter the church with its tall tower, but as she ascends to the belfry Flavières is overcome by his acrophobia, and watches in horror through a window as Madeleine plunges to her death from the tower, an apparent suicide.  And yet, some time later, he chances to spot a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine, and obsessively begins following her as well.

Flavières starts a relationship with the woman, who swears she is not Madeleine but Renée Sourange, and begins trying to remake her in Madeleine’s image, down to her hairstyle and grey suit.  When he discovers Pauline’s necklace in her possession, the truth comes out:  Gévigne had recruited Renée to impersonate Madeleine in order to murder his wife, knowing that his vertigo would prevent Flavières from reaching the top of the tower and seeing Gévigne push the real, dead Madeleine—whom Flavières had never met—to the ground below.  Renée dies during their final confrontation, leaving the devastated Flavières as a man who has lost the woman he loved…twice.

If that sounds to you like a recap of Vertigo with the names changed to protect the guilty, you’re not the only one, and it was a little disorienting to read the book with scenes from the film playing in my mind’s eye, right down to the detail of the green light coming through the window of Renée’s hotel room.  But for all its fidelity, it has three main points of departure from the novel:  the aftermath of Madeleine’s death, the manner in which John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) encounters Judy Barton (Kim Novak), and the circumstances of her own death.  In each case, with all due respect to Boileau-Narcejac, I think Hitchcock and Taylor surpassed their source.

Scottie does exactly what Flavières was expected to do, providing Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) with the perfect alibi by testifying to “Madeleine’s” suicidal tendencies at an inquest presided over by the hilariously sarcastic coroner (Henry Jones).  Flavière, on the other hand, throws a monkey wrench into Gévigne’s plan by concealing the fact that he was present when she died, leading the police to investigate her husband and beneficiary as a natural suspect, since she was seen driving toward the village with an unidentified man.  This leads, again indirectly, to a comeuppance that Elster does not meet, or at least is not shown to, when Gévigne’s car is machine-gunned by a plane (presumably German) as he tries to flee Paris and police scrutiny.

In the film, Scottie is institutionalized for an unspecified period after the tragedy, while Flavière, rejected by the army for medical reasons, sits out the war with a lucrative legal practice in Dakar, and soon after returning to Paris spots Renée in a newsreel.  This seems even unlikelier than Scottie happening to see Judy on the sidewalk, as Flavières uses his detecting skills to track Renée down, and in an amazing piece of luck discovers that she is still staying at the same hotel in front of which the newsreel footage was shot.  Finally, the enraged Flavière strangles her, apparently unintentionally, after he learns the truth, whereas having Judy’s death mirror Madeleine’s provides an ending whose circularity befits the film’s spiral motif and Möbius-strip plotting.

As Taylor told Spoto, Hitchcock “knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he explained several scenes in meticulous detail.  But…I realized that the characters had to be personalized and humanized, and further developed.”  In that light, Midge fulfills two functions, not only aiding in the exposition—as does Argosy Bookshop owner Pop Liebl (Konstantin Shayne), another invented character—but also humanizing Scottie through their somewhat troubled relationship.  Casting Stewart, that most amiable of actors, probably helped the most, yet it is the intensity of Scottie’s darker aspects, however much more likeable he may be than the crotchety Flavières, that makes Vertigo one of his and Hitchcock’s best films.

It’s been said that Hitch’s primary leading men reflected him as he wished to be—Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest—and as he saw himself:  Stewart in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  The nakedly self-revelatory Vertigo dramatized a penchant for remaking his leading ladies, most notoriously with Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), and it is no surprise that he retreated to safe, if familiar, entertainment with North by Northwest.  Hitchcock felt betrayed when a pregnant Vera Miles, who had starred in The Wrong Man, turned down Vertigo; ironically, by the time the script problems and other delays were resolved, she was available, and although sticking with Novak, he later cast Miles in Psycho.

Needless to say, Robert Burks’s dreamlike photography and Bernard Herrmann’s aptly vertiginous score contributed immeasurably to the film’s effectiveness, as did the well-chosen northern California locations.  Opinions differ regarding the quality of Novak’s performance, yet many felt that she was eminently suited to the dual role of, first, a woman who is out of it half the time and, second, a Kansas shopgirl molded by an obsessive Svengali.  Hitchcock’s controversial decision to tip the audience off sooner than the authors did makes Scottie’s manipulation of Judy less objectionable, since we already know—even if he does not—that she is an accomplice to murder, but in any case, the result is an unforgettable characterization and a cinematic masterpiece.

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First of all, humble thanks to Cinema Retro for mentioning this blog on their site (http://www.cinemaretro.com/index.php), as well as giving readers another look at my article about the relationship between superspy Matt Helm’s appearances on page and screen.  It’s equally humbling to remember that when the piece debuted back in 2007, award-winning author Ed Gorman—a contributor to The Richard Matheson Companion—wrote the following on his own blog (http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/):  “Even though I’m no fan of Dean Martin or the Matt Helm movies, Matthew Bradley, one of the best of all writers on popular culture, manages to make both subjects a lot more interesting than they deserve to be in his long piece now available on Cinema Retro.”  You couldn’t ask for a more supportive group of guys, and I’m endlessly grateful to them all.

As long as we’re digging into the archives, here’s a piece I wrote on that dark day of July 7, 2005,  back when I had no forum other than e-mail to disseminate it.  Old news, obviously, but the opinions and information are, I hope, timeless.  Seems a shame to waste them…

Two titans of the typewriter have left us vastly poorer by their passing, and by a curious coincidence had connecting links with not one but two of our greatest directors:  The Great John Frankenheimer (aka TGJF) and Alfred “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Adjectives” Hitchcock.  First, in order of both birth and death, was Ernest Lehman, whose talent was equaled by his diversity.  His first major screen credit was also his first of four collaborations with editor-turned-director Robert Wise, and the films they made show both men at their protean best.  Executive Suite (1954) was a knockout boardroom drama with the kind of powerhouse cast one only dreams of today:  William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, and Shelley Winters. Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) featured knockouts of another kind, a biopic of boxer Rocky Graziano that gave Paul Newman one of his first star-making roles.  Then came the mammoth musicals that won Wise a Best Director AND Best Picture Oscar apiece, West Side Story (1961)—for which Lehman was also nominated—and The Sound of Music (1965). 

That quartet alone would have ensured Ernie immortality…but we’re just warming up here, folks.  Along the way, he earned his first nomination for Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954), with Humphrey Bogart (as uncomfortable in that role as Harrison Ford was in the 1995 remake), Audrey Hepburn, and Holden, and worked on another big Broadway musical, The King and I (1956). Lehman was also a published author whose works formed the basis for a memorable episode of Playhouse 90, “The Comedian” (directed by TGJF, and scripted by his frequent collaborator, Rod Serling), and one of the great warts-and-all showbiz stories, Sweet Smell of Success (1957).  Lehman later worked with Frankenheimer directly on one of the latter’s best films, Black Sunday (1977), based on the first novel by a pre-Hannibal Thomas Harris.

And then came Hitch.  Personally, I’ve always felt North by Northwest (1959) suffered by being too much a catalog of elements from his earlier films, but it’s easy to see why the project appealed to him after Vertigo (1958).  It’s been said that Hitch’s two most frequent leads—Cary Grant and James Stewart, with four films apiece—personified him as he wished he were and as he really saw himself, and since Vertigo (which I don’t think was as revered on its release as it is now) was his most naked self-expression, it was surely a comfort to return to the old Grant glamour.  Lehman received another nomination for the film and returned to write Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976), a lesser if worthy end to the Master’s career.

Lehman made two films with Mark Robson (who, like Wise, had been an editor for Orson Welles and graduated to the director’s chair under the aegis of RKO’s legendary producer Val Lewton), From the Terrace (1960) and The Prize (1963); the latter is a Hitchcock pastiche starring other alumni from Newman to Leo G. Carroll.  Lehman produced his next three scripts:  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), an early effort by masterful Mike Nichols that won Oscars or nominations in almost every major category; Hello, Dolly! (1969), which surely drove a nail into the coffin of big Broadway adaptations; and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), which marked his one and only outing as a director, as well.  Not a bad little career, eh?

Our second subject is Salvatore A. Lombino.  Never heard of him?  Sure you have…under one or more of his pen names.  As Ed McBain, he defined the police procedural genre with his 87th Precinct novels.  I don’t have handy the statistics on this amazing series but it incorporates something like fifty books written over a period of something like fifty years, which should suffice.  Several of the earliest were turned into the largely forgotten films Cop Hater, The Mugger (both 1958), and The Pusher (1960), and there was also a short-lived 87th Precinct TV series in 1961, but by and large the men (and women) of the 87th have had spotty success onscreen, except as the inspiration for Hill Street Blues.

Fuzz (1972) was largely a misfire—with an eclectic cast headed by Burt Reynolds, Jack Weston, Tom Skerrit, Raquel Welch (!) and Yul Brynner—in spite of being written by McBain himself under the name of Evan Hunter, which he legally adopted in 1952.  True to form, foreign filmmakers found these gritty romans policiers suitable subjects, and one of the most interesting adaptations saw King’s Ransom become Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), whereas the most recent domestic versions have been a trio of TV-movies:  Lightning (1995), Ice (1996), and Heatwave (1997).

It was under the Hunter name that he had greater success in films, as both original author and screenwriter (and in some cases both).  Writer-director Richard Brooks took one novel and turned it into a showcase for such up-and-coming stars as Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky and Jameel Farah (aka Jamie Farr), namely the juvenile-delinquent classic The Blackboard Jungle (1955).  Hunter himself did the honors on Strangers When We Meet (1960), depicting an adulterous affair between Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak, and his novel A Matter of Conviction was adapted by others into TGJF’s second feature, The Young Savages (1961), marking the first of five collaborations with Burt Lancaster.  Probably his best-known work as a screenwriter was the script of The Birds (1963)…a job that some guy named Matheson talked himself out of, by telling Hitch they should show the birds as little as possible and let the audience use their imagination.  Silly boy!

Somewhat more unusual were adaptations of his novels Buddwing, filmed as Mister Buddwing (1966) with James Garner as an amnesiac, and Last Summer (1969), which if nothing else must have raised an eyebrow for its strong subject matter:  Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas (yes, John-Boy), and Bruce Davison (yes, Willard) play bored teens who first befriend and then rape an ugly-duckling girl at a beach resort; Eleanor Perry’s adaptation was directed by her then-husband, Frank. As if that weren’t enough, McBain/Hunter’s scripts and/or stories saw the light of day on such shows as Climax!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Ironside, and Columbo.  Again, a pretty impressive oeuvre for one man.

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