Copyright © 2001 Steven DeRosa. All rights reserved.
A Perfect Treatment
On the morning of September 9, 1965, Alfred Hitchcock sat in hisoffice at Universal Studios confounded that after a detailed treatment,three complete drafts, and one set of revisions, the screenplayhe had been preparing for Torn Curtain was not up to par. Hitchcockhad spent four months working on the scenario with the novelistBrian Moore, and then engaged the screenwriting team ofKeith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to do a hasty rewrite, but stillfound the script lacking. Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock's personal assistant,knew her employer was in trouble, especially after Marniehad flopped a year earlier. Robertson was Hitchcock's most valuedassociate during his tenure at Universal and had remained part ofthe director's entourage since serving as script supervisor on Vertigoduring happier times at Paramount. At Hitchcock's request, Robertsonprepared a short list of writers she thought were skilled enoughto retool the second-rate script. Hitchcock surely trusted Robertson'sjudgment, but was adamantly opposed to calling one of the writersshe had put on her list, even though a little more than a decadeearlier the writer had been responsible for the scripts of some ofHitchcock's major successes. For some reasonpride, anger, principleHitchcockrefused to call John Michael Hayes. Hitchcockfelt he became the Master of Suspense on his own and did not requireassistance from someone whom he had made a star.
In the spring of 1953 Hitchcock had faced a similar career crisis.His independent production company, Transatlantic Pictures, hadfailed, and his years at Warner Bros. were a mixed bag of mostlybox-office failures. With its track record on the stage in London andon Broadway, Hitchcock hoped that a film of Frederick Knott's DialM for Murder would bring the change of luck he desperatelyneeded. Warner Bros. purchased the rights for Hitchcock, but thestudio was in financial trouble. In March the studio halted productionon all new projects for ninety days, and the following monththey asked their executives to take a salary cut of up to 50 percent.
In a business where you're only as good as your last film, Hitchcockcould not afford to let his career come to a standstill. He instructedhis agents at MCA Artists to shop around for another studiocontract. In his business dealings, Hitchcock was handled personallyby the agency's president, Lew Wasserman, in addition toArthur Park and, later, Herman Citron. In spite of the fact thatHitchcock's performance as his own producer in Hollywood hadnot yet lived up to his reputation, Wasserman and companyshrewdly arranged what became over the next few years a lucrativemultipicture contract with the Paramount Pictures Corporation.
Eager to obtain Hitchcock's services, Paramount offered tomake a deal if he would develop a script out of a story from a collectioncalled After Dinner Story by mystery writer Cornell Woolrich(who wrote under the pseudonym William Irish). TakingWasserman's advice, Hitchcock chose "Rear Window." Eager tofind the perfect writer to dramatize Woolrich's short story, Hitchcockrecalled a name he heard often on the radio in connectionwith comedy, suspense, and detective shows. "Do you know JohnMichael Hayes?" he asked his agents. The response was that theycertainly didHayes was also an MCA client.
Through much of his first decade or so in Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcockworked with a number of distinguished writers, includingRobert Sherwood, Thornton Wilder, Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht,and Raymond Chandler. Impressive as this list of collaborators maybe, Hitchcock still found himself in the late 1940s and early 1950swith a string of commercial failures. Hitchcock's agents were thereforeperplexed by their client's request that they arrange a meetingwith John Michael Hayes. By the spring of 1953, the thirty-three-year-oldHayes had been a popular and prolific writer of radiodramas, and although his potential as a screenwriter had beenrecognized, there was little evidence in his first film credits to indicatehe had much to offer Hitchcock. Nevertheless, there was somethingabout Hayes's style that Hitchcock responded to and felt heneeded.
Hayes recalled, "Hitchcock had his agents and my agent get togetherfor lunch and they handed me this book which had the shortstory in it called `Rear Window.' They told me, `You're to meet Mr.Hitchcock on Friday night at the Beverly Hills Hotel for dinner.Read the story and be prepared to discuss it with him.'" Hayes virtuallymemorized the story in order to anticipate what Hitchcockwould ask. What color were the eyes of the hero? How many stepsup to his door? How many windows across the way? Hayes preparedfor a thorough examination.
The dinner was scheduled for seven-thirty in the Polo Lounge ofthe Beverly Hills Hotel. Hayes dressed as well as he could, memorizedhis notes and ideas, and drove from the San Fernando Valley,over the Santa Monica Mountains, to Beverly Hills, arriving a fewminutes early. By seven-thirty, Hitchcock hadn't arrived. At quarterof eight, he still wasn't there. And by eight o'clock, there was nosign of Hitchcock. The young writer thought he might have gottenthe night or, worse, the hotel wrong, which only added to hisfeelings of anxiety about meeting the famous director. In need ofsomething to calm his nerves, Hayes went into the hotel bar and explainedhis predicament to the bartender.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in Hollywood, Hayes was aneophyte when it came to liquor and wisely set his limit at twodrinks. Unaware of the potency of martinis, which the bartenderprescribed as a good drink to calm one's nerves, Hayes knockedback his drink and returned to the lobby as quickly as he could, notwanting to miss Hitchcock. Having skipped lunch that day in anticipationof a big dinner, Hayes quickly felt a warm glow from theliquor as he continued to wait. By eight-thirty, Hitchcock still hadn'tarrived, prompting the writer to retreat to the bar for one moredrink before returning home.
Having consumed his second martinihis limitHayes walkedout of the hotel and down the path toward his car, when suddenly ataxi pulled up and out came Alfred Hitchcock, who started up thewalk hurriedly. Hayes tried to interrupt him. "Mr. Hitchcock?"
"No. Sorry. No autographs. I have a very important meeting."
"You have it with John Michael Hayes."
Hitchcock stopped and said, "Are you John Hayes?"
"Yes," the writer replied.
"Well, come on. Let's get going," commanded Hitchcock, whonever apologized for being late. The two proceeded to the diningroom, with the headwaiter fussing over Hitchcock, whose reputationas a big spender and gourmand had been well established evenbefore he arrived in America. As they sat at the booth reserved forthe star moviemaker, Hayes must have been impressed, if not intimidated,by the attention he commanded, which made it all themore surprising when the first words out of Hitchcock were "Doyou drink?"
Taken aback, Hayes replied, "Well, I've been known on occasionto take a drink."
"Well, what do you drink?"
"I think the last drink I had was a martini."
"Oh, wonderful, my favorite drink," said Hitchcock, adding mischievously,"I like a man who drinks." Hitchcock called the waiterto the table and ordered two double martinis. When the drinks arrived,the two men tipped glasses, and Hayes sipped as cautiously ashe could.
Soon after, Hitchcock called for hors d'oeuvres and anotherdouble martini for each of them. Hayes had finally gotten the firstcocktail down and by now was bleary-eyed, praying he would notget sick. "Mr. Hitchcock, I don'tI think one" protested Hayes.
"Oh, come on," Hitchcock encouraged, "we've got to relax andget to know each other. As I told you, I like a man who drinks."Along came the second round of double martinis. Hayes kept imagininghe was going to get sick and that Alfred Hitchcock wouldnever speak to him again. And to this point, the director hadn'tmentioned Rear Window at all. Pouring sweat, trying to keep soberand sound intelligent, Hayes recalled the director asking, "Haveyou seen any of my movies?"
"Yes, I have, Mr. Hitchcock."
By now they'd finished the hors d'oeuvres and had started a secondcourse of Dover sole with a rare white wine. Hitchcock extolledthe virtues of the wine as he poured a big glass for the writer, whotried to sip it politely and act as if he truly appreciated it. Returningto the subject of his pictures, Hitchcock said, "For example?"
Recalling his experience as an Army theater projectionist, Hayesreplied, "Well, for example, oh, Shadow of a Doubt."
"What did you think of it?" asked Hitchcock.
Hayes began to give an analysis of Shadow of a Doubt fromframe one to the end of the picture, telling Hitchcock what hethought he had done right and what he thought he had donewrong, where it was strong, where it was weak, and that he didn'tparticularly like the casting. The young writer continued his assessmentof Shadow of a Doubt straight through the next course of steakwith red wine. Blurred by the combination of martinis and finewines, Hayes started going through Hitchcock's movies, one by one,indicating some things that he could have done better in Notoriousand telling the director that he thought the bullet stopped by theBible in the hero's pocket in The 39 Steps was kind of corny. WhileHayes talked, Hitchcock said nothing and just continued eating anddrinking and munching and crunching and slurping.
At the conclusion of the meal, Hitchcock ordered dessert to bebrought with a concoction of brandy and Drambuie. Amazingly,Hayes hadn't gotten sick, but Hitchcock still had said nothing aboutRear Windownot a single word. Finally, with the dinner finished,Hitchcock said, "Well, I've got to go home." Hayes offered to drivehim, but shrewdly Hitchcock decided to take a taxi. After a considerableamount of coffee, Hayes got into his car, put the top down,and drove slowly over the Santa Monica Mountains back home.Upon his arrival, Hayes's wife, Mel, asked, "How did it go?"
"Well, we had one of the great feasts of all time. But I amthrough, not only with Alfred Hitchcock, but maybe forever in thistown. I'd better start thinking of a new profession. Because," Hayessaid, "I analyzed his pictures, and I analyzed them like a reviewer,critically." Hayes spent the rest of the weekend waiting to hear howmiserably it went. On Monday morning Arthur Park telephonedhim and said, "You're in. Hitchcock loved you. You start work tomorrow.Report to Warner Bros., where he's preparing Dial M forMurder."
In disbelief Hayes responded, "Are you sure you have the rightJohn Michael Hayes?"
"We never talked about Rear Window, or anything."
The next day Hayes arrived at Warners, and he and Hitchcockdiscussed Rear Window for the first time. Baffled by the experience,Hayes needed a year before he had the temerity to ask Hitchcockabout that night. "Well, let me tell you what happened," Hitchcocksaid. "I went to a cocktail party at Jules Stein's house. That's why Iwas late. You know, I was dieting and I had several drinks. I remembermeeting you and going in to eat, but I don't remember anythingafter that. But you talked a lot, and on the assumption that a manwho talks a lot has something to say, I hired you." Not one to leavean associate completely at ease, Hitchcock added, "But don't forget,if I didn't like you, two weeks later I could have let you go."
A Partnership Is Formed
Based on their first meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Alfred Hitchcockcould not have known how fortunate he was in selecting JohnMichael Hayes as his screenwriter. Hayes's youth and enthusiasmmight have reminded Hitchcock of his years at Gaumont-British inthe 1930s; perhaps he recognized that they were just the right qualitieshe needed to get his batteries "well charged," as he later said ofthis period. Hayes was a sharp dresser who deferred to the director'simperious presence by at first calling him "Mr. Hitchcock," althoughhe was quickly granted permission to call him "Hitch."What's more, Hitchcock could get him cheap.
Hayes met with Hitchcock on the Warner Bros. lot twice beforestarting work on the treatment for Rear Window. At a salary of $750a week, with no guarantee, Hayes was officially put on the Paramountpayroll on June 8, 1953. At this time, Paramount assignedRear Window a story fund number, 84001, to keep an accounting ofall costs. (Once the studio approves a project for production, it is assigneda production number.) During their preliminary meetingsHayes discovered that Hitchcock's main concernas was true ofnearly all his filmswas with creating a love story.
First published in the February 1942 issue of Dime Detective underthe title "It Had to Be Murder," the short story by Cornell Woolrichwas anything but a love story. Instead, Woolrich's story is a pure oscillationthriller, its primary objective being manipulation of thereader. The story is told in first-person narration. The protagonist,Hal Jeffries, is confined to a single bedroom with an unscreenedbay window. The uncomfortably warm weather and lack of exercisehave left him with an inability to sleep, and so, to ward off boredom,he takes to observing the nameless, faceless "rear-windowdwellers" around him. After noting the abnormal behavior of oneneighbor, a salesman named Thorwald, whose sickly wife has beenconfined to her bed, Jeffries suspects that the man may have murderedthe woman.
Jeffries continues to observe the salesman, soliciting the aid ofhis black houseman, Sam, and a detective friend, Boyne. However,nobody else is convinced a murder has taken place, and at timeseven Jeffries doubts his conviction. Soon Jeffries stumbles upon aclue of sorts and comes to believe that the murdered woman isburied under the new cement floor laid in the apartment above themurderer's. Before he can share his theory, the murderer discoversJeffries spying and tries to shoot him. Jeffries is saved when Boyneand his men arrive, and the salesman is killed while attempting toelude the police. It is not until the end of the story that Woolrich revealsthe reason Jeffries is confined to his apartment. The doctorsays, "Guess we can take that cast off your leg now. You must betired of sitting there all day doing nothing."
In his biography of Woolrich, Francis M. Nevins, Jr., suggeststhat the inspiration for the story can be traced to an event Woolrichhimself described in his memoir Blues of a Lifetime. On a hot summerevening Woolrich was sitting in his room busy at the typewriter,dressed only in trousers and an undershirt, when he heard thesound of muffled giggling. When he moved to the window, hefound two teenage girls staring at him from the apartment buildingnext door.
This experience of being spied on, according to Nevins, madeits way into several of the author's earlier works. For example, in"Wake Up with Death," published in 1937, Woolrich's main characterwakes up in a hotel room with a hangover, finding the lifelessbody of a woman on the floor beside his bed. He then receives atelephone call from someone claiming to have seen him kill thewoman from a window opposite his.
In "Silhouette," published in 1939, a middle-aged couple waitingfor a bus late one evening believe that they have seen a manstrangling a woman behind the window shade of a house on theother side of the street. Woolrich keeps the reader guessing throughout,wondering whether or not a crime was committed. Like "RearWindow," the story is rich in the vivid details of everyday life andagainas in "Rear Window"the protagonist-witness has no emotionalconnection to the suspected killer.
Later that year Woolrich's novelette You'll Never See Me Againwas published. It concerns a newlywed couple who have a quarrelthat begins innocently enough but escalates to the point where thebride packs her belongings to move back with her mother and stepfather.A few days later the husband calls in the hope of effecting areconciliation, but is told that his wife never arrived. When the husbandfrantically tries to find out what became of his wife, a homicidedetective is convinced that he killed her.
While the act of being spied on may have influenced Woolrich,it is also likely that he had read a short story by H. G. Wells called"Through a Window," which is remarkably similar to "It Had to BeMurder." Published in 1895, Wells's story concerns a man namedBailey who is confined to a couch in the study of his London flatbefore a window that overlooks the Thames. With his legs wrappedlike a "double-barreled mummy," Bailey watches the comings andgoings of the boats and ships outside his window.
Like Woolrich's protagonist, Bailey comes to know the intimatedetails of those he watches and at times regards the activity out hiswindow as an entertainment to help him pass the time while he recoversfrom his illness. As does Jeffries, Bailey has regular visitorsahousekeeper named Mrs. Green, who brings him meals, and afriend named Wilderspin, to whom he complains about his idlenessand comments on his newfound "eye for details."
The story builds up to a point one morning when Bailey, leftalone for the day, notices a figure clad in white fluttering in the distance.Bailey soon identifies the figure as a white-robed Malay sailorwho has run amok with a knife and is being pursued by a band ofarmed men. Bailey sits helplessly watching glimpses of the manhuntoutside his window. The sailor continues moving nearer andnearer, until he finally comes through the window and into Bailey'sflat. All Bailey can do to defend himself is throw medicine bottles atthe madman, who is finally shot and killed at the last moment.
In addition to the similarity of an isolated protagonist immobilizedbefore a window, there are two other telling details that pointto the influence of Wells's story on Woolrich. The first of thesecomes when Bailey sees a boat pass by with a married couple on itarguing. Bailey cannot tell what led to the argument, or how it wasconcluded; he can only fill in the details with his imagination. Itwould seem that this single detail intrigued Woolrich so greatly thathe would explore the theme in several narratives. The other detailcomes when Bailey first sees the white cloth fluttering in the distance.He is unsure if it is a flag or a handkerchief, and finally recognizesthe material as the white robes of a Malay sailor. Woolrichemploys a similar device when Jeffries watches Thorwald packinghis wife's dresses, first believing the dresses on triangular hangers tobe pennants.
Consistent throughout Woolrich's several explorations of thesedetails is a sense of self-doubt on the part of the protagonist-narrator;thus the stories become "did he or didn't he" stories, rather thanconventional "whodunits." These "oscillation" stories are exercisesin tension that Woolrich is able to balance delicately until their suspensefulclimax.
"It Had to Be Murder" was given the title "Rear Window" whenit was reprinted in a 1944 collection entitled After Dinner Story.That autumn Woolrich's publisher submitted After Dinner Story toParamount Pictures, and the following May, Woolrich sold themovie rights to all six stories in the collection for a total of $9,250 toB. G. DeSylva Productions, Inc. Songwriter-producer Buddy DeSylvawas then head of production at Paramount, and although thestudio released three films based on Woolrich's work over the nextfive years, none were made from stories in this collection. In 1950"Rear Window" was sold to Orange Productions, Inc., which wasowned by the well-known producer and talent agent Leland Hayward.
For a short time in the 1940s Hitchcock had been represented byLeland Hayward, until the latter's agency was bought out by MCA.Hayward first tried to arouse Hitchcock's interest in "Rear Window"in October 1951, when the director was in New York taking part in"Movietime U.S.A.," a nationwide promotional campaign by membersof the film industry designed to lure audiences away from theirtelevisions and back into movie theaters. The campaign was one ofseveral attempts made by the movie industry to increase ticket salessince it began in the late 1940s to compete with television for its audience.Hitchcock and his longtime friend and Transatlantic Picturespartner Sidney Bernstein met with Hayward to discuss DavidDodge's soon-to-be-published novel To Catch a Thief, as well asCornell Woolrich's story "Rear Window."
While it is unknown how Hitchcock reacted to the story at thetime, it is clear he did not immediately pursue the rights (althoughhe did buy the rights to To Catch a Thief, which he intended tomake at a later date for Transatlantic). It is likely that after reading itin its present form, lacking a leading female character, Hitchcockdid not see enough in "Rear Window" to suit his purposes andpassed. Hayward then had playwright and theater director JoshuaLogan draft a treatment in February 1952. A treatment is a detailedoutline of a film's plot, containing character descriptions and occasionalsuggestions of dialogue. Logan's thirteen-page treatment remainedlargely faithful to Woolrich's original, but also made severalsignificant changes that bear similarities to the finished film.