Thursday, January 28, 2010

The legacy of screenwriter John Michael Hayes

Best work with Hitchcock
Screenwriter John Michael Hayes did some of his best work while under the employ of director Alfred Hitchcock. Their four-film collaboration was short, but it produced three classic movies, including Rear Window  (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was one of the biggest box office hits of the year.

Hayes’s screenplays for Hitchcock, bright and sophisticated when first produced, have remained fresh and contemporary, even in the been-there-done-that era in which we live today.

Rear window ethics
Sample this piece of dialogue between Jeff (James Stewart) and Stella (Thelma Ritter) from Rear Window.

Stella :You heard of that market crash in '29? I predicted that.
Jeff: Oh, just how did you do that, Stella?
Stella: Oh, simple. I was nursing a director of General Motors. Kidney ailment, they said. Nerves, I said. And I asked myself, "What's General Motors got to be nervous about?" Overproduction, I says; collapse. When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country's ready to let go.

Few people before or since, have been able to match Hayes’s ear for authentic-sounding dialogue. Granted, having Stewart and Ritter mouth what you’ve written helps, but they had great material to work with to build their characterizations.

Three out of four isn't bad

The one picture that didn’t catch on with the public was The Trouble With Harry. It was too British in its black humor, according to Hitchcock (although apparently the British didn't like it much either). To Hitchcock fans, it's a fun film for a number of reasons. It features the film debut of Shirley MacLaine for one and a pre-Leave it to Beaver Jerry Mathers for another. It also has some beautiful cinematography and a pounding score by composer Bernard Herrmann. This was the beginning of a long professional relationship between Hitchcock and Herrmann, that lasted until Marnie (1964).

After Hayes moved on and worked more independently, his services were in great demand. He wrote the screenplays for some of the biggest blockbusters of the 1950s and 1960s, including Peyton Place (1957), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and Nevada Smith (1966). Still, his most enduring work remains the films he wrote for the master of suspense.

Hayes’s last screenplay was for the film Iron Will (1994) starring Kevin Spacey. Hayes died in November 2008 at the age of 89. 

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