John Michael Hayes


I just learned that Hitchcock’s screenwriter during a good part of his fantastically productive 1950s period, John Michael Hayes, has died.

The screening of REAR WINDOW I attended when the film (along with ROPE, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY) was re-released in the ’80s is certainly up there with the most important cinema experiences of my life. I owe Hayes my thanks for his amazing and inspirational work.

Chin chin.

19 Responses to “John Michael Hayes”

  1. As I trust you know he and Hitch clashed when Hitch wanted Angus McPhail to get script credit on the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hayes said Hitch was an egomaniac. As if we didn’t know. Hitch called Hayes a “radio writer” because that’s where he got his start. Nice belittling Hitch.

    They were too good for each other. Hitch’s peerless technique and Hayes’ sparkling dialogue (the Grace Kelly character, who didn’t exist in the Wolrich story, was his invention) make Rear Window a masterpiece.

    So, to paraphrase Marlene at the end of Touch of Evil , they were some kind of men. What does it matter what you say about people?

  2. I had just finished watching The Children’s Hour a little less than a day before I saw the nytimes obituary… which is always a surreal experience. And even though TCH is one of the movies that probably required the least of Hayes’ compositional effort, it’s still a movie that really got me thinking about the choices in creating an adapted screenplay… and of course about the natural experiment that is TCH and These Three.

    Aside from that, he definitely wrote some remarkable scripts, and just as admirably, he was exceptionally discriminating in the work he chose to undertake.

  3. I think Hayes was never as effective without Hitchcock though.

    The Children’s Hour was apparently quite a tough script to crack, with Lillian Hellman promising to adapt it herself and then failing to do so. I think rewriting was still going on as they shot.

    The play began with a true story of an incident at a girls’ school here in Edinburgh, interestingly enough.

  4. Don’t forget the Levine-iana: “The Carpetbaggers” and “Where Love Has Gone” and “Harlow.”

    What was it Susan Hayward said in the second of these? “When you’re dying of thirst, you drink from a mudhole.”

  5. I definitely agree that Hayes’ best films went through Hitchcock, but insofar as writers are so far upstream in the actual production of a film and maybe because of that, there are so few who can boast an exceptionally high success rate with their work, it is somewhat striking the amount of conceptually interesting films that he’s worked on.

    I mention his relative lack of compositional involvement in TCH mostly because it’s supposed to be relatively close to the original play. I haven’t actually read or seen the play itself, but I’m interested in what you know about the evolution of the material as they made it.

    In many ways I think that TCH is a much more dated work than These Three because of its fidelity to the lesbian/suicide themes. By 1961, there was probably much more expectation to deal with those ideas in a more socially advocational (that’s not a word) way than the work actually treats it. It’s not really a failing of the original play, because it really wasn’t supposed to be about all that… and to audiences in the 30s it would have been bombastic enough to be beyond the criticism that it was socially irresponsible. That’s part of what makes comparing

  6. And perhaps that latter qualifies as a Line She Was Born To Say?

  7. the two interesting, among other things.

  8. Hayes also wrote ”The Trouble With Harry”, one of Hitchcock’s own very personal efforts.

    As I trust you know he and Hitch clashed when Hitch wanted Angus McPhail to get script credit on the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hayes said Hitch was an egomaniac. As if we didn’t know. Hitch called Hayes a “radio writer” because that’s where he got his start.

    Well Angus MacPhail was Hitchcock’s friend from way back in the days of the London Film Society(he was the guy who translated the intertitles for ”Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler” and who technically invented the “McGuffin”) and he was going through a very rough time in that phase of his life. And Hitchcock was hoping that MacPhail entering the SGA would help him out and get him some benefits.

    MacPhail’s contribution to the film was certainly enough to get a co-credit and Hitchcock was very disappointed that Hayes used his clout at the SGA to deny him that. So Hitchcock being an egomaniac is at odds with his helping out MacPhail, who went on to write the darkest of Hitchcock’s – ”The Wrong Man” and Hayes certainly does come across as more spoilt in this case, in my view. None of Hitchcock’s team – Robert Boyle, Hilton Green and others liked Hayes much other, they saw him as an interloper or something.

    Still his screenplay for ”Rear Window” and ”The Trouble With Harry” was excellent. But to paraphrase what Bernard Herrmann said to Hitchcock, Hitchcock had a career before Hayes and he did afterwards making ”Vertigo”, ”North by Northwest”, ”Psycho”, ”The Birds”, ”Marnie”.

  9. RIP John Michael Hayes. It’s a bad time for great screenwriters. I will always be grateful for Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and the very underrated Trouble with Harry (a very unlikely teen favourite for me)

    I remember readiing Hayes’ memoirs…somewhere.I remember him talking about Hitchcock’s advisors begging him to help when Topaz was in freefall. He said he’d gladly do it, if the Hitchcock just apologised for how rude he’d been. Even if Hitch did it in a joking way he’d still help out he saod. But they said no-Hitch never apologises. Shame because much as I love Vertigo, Hayes could have easily saved Topaz-given the characters some heart,some purpose and given the whole film a lightness. That’s what he regularly gave Hitchcock and that’s what he should be celebrated for. They could have made some great pictures together.

    I also remember him talking about how proud he was of Iron Will a film about a cross country dogsled race, finally being made in 1994 with Kevin Spacey. I must seek that out some time

  10. With ”Topaz” the film began production without a complete script(Mr. Meticulous Hitchcock did that often with ”Strangers on a Train” and ”Notorious”) and Hitchcock apparently considered Hayes to step in and help him out. But then I don’t think Hayes’ light touch would have helped that film. ”Topaz” is a very ambitious mosaic of the cold-war era and while it may have given more structure to the story it still had to contend with the disaster that is Frederick Stafford in the main role.

    The interest in the film for me is how Hitchcock shifts from the various episodes and timelines of the story so it’s incoherence is it’s chief interest that and it’s secondary cast of such luminaries as Michel Subor(”Le Petit Soldat” himself), John Vernon, Roscoe Lee Browne, Philippe Noiret and the divine Michel Piccoli whose role here plays as an audition for his turn in Bunuel’s ”Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeosie” and ”Le Fantome de la Liberte”.

  11. Roscoe Lee Browne is the whole show! I wanted a looong series of films about this Harlem florist / superspy.

    The Uris novel was unsympathetic material from the start, but it seems they really became aware of the problem in previews. Three endings tried (they’re on the DVD) and the worst one chosen, of course. I don’t know what Hayes could have done to save this turkey.

    Hayes said that as soon as Variety mentioned “the new Hitchcock-Hayes film”, the partnership was dead, because Hitchcock didn’t want anybody else’s name up there. It wasn’t long before he fired Bernard Herrmann in the most humiliating manner possible.

    MacPhail was somebody Hitchcock tried to use several times, and it rarely worked out, due to the author’s health problems, personal problems, etc. But it shows Hitch certainly had a caring side. And I think it applied more to old friends from his British days.

  12. Yes, Chris, that is most definitely a line Susan Hayward was born for.

    I also like in The Lusty Men when she admires her husband’s girlfriend’s dress: “I can’t tell if she’s inside trying to get out or outside trying to get in.”

  13. Susan Hayward’s fantastic in ”The Lusty Men”, an all-time and yet a criminally underrated masterpiece.

    Leon Uris hated ”Topaz” just as he hated ”Exodus”. Right-wing nut that he was he made the film into a pro-US propaganda. Hithcock who regarded the Cold War as a waste of time for everyone involved went ahead and showed what that most pointless of conflicts did to human beings. One example is that Rico Parra(John Vernon) was a sex pervert in the book but he is very tragic and moving in the film. Like when he kills Karin Dor(her murder scene being literally a love scene) he does it because he couldn’t bear having to torture her even if she might have information his government wants. Then the ending of the film in the book was an all-out stars and garters escort to the White House to the French guy.

    Which ending do you see as the worst? The ending which I like is the one where Michel Piccolli and Frederick Stafford wave at each other at the airport. Very cynical but satirical. The weak one is the weird way they try to punish Michel Piccoli for being the bad guy, the fakest of all bad-guy gets punished endings. The one with the duel in the stadium is positively baroque…But then I don’t think that film really can end. They should have shown all three scenes back to back.

    Hitchcock considered the Harlem scenes the best of the film, he got on well with Browne. What Hitchcock liked was the way he shot the street scenes of the conversations which go on silently and cut so as to incorporate Stafford’s subjective perspective. It’s really something else. Spielberg gave hommage to that scene in ”Munich” which is somewhat similar to it.

  14. I think Karin Dor’s murder is the only really beautiful filmmaking in the movie, but it’s worth seeing just for that. John Vernon was a terrific actor but I can’t take him seriously as a Cuban.

    Browne seems like he’d appeal to Hitchcock. (Why do I think that? He just DOES.)

    The airport ending is nice, the stadium one is fine with me, but the freeze-frame house suicide is pathetic. Thank God he made another two films afterwards.

  15. —————-
    Hayes said that as soon as Variety mentioned “the new Hitchcock-Hayes film”, the partnership was dead, because Hitchcock didn’t want anybody else’s name up there.

    Well, considering that ”Topaz” was based on a book by a popular writer and that it had significant contributions by Samuel Taylor and others, to have it considered a “Hitchcock-Hayes film” would piss him. Hitchcock did have his ego but he was also against giving people more credit than they did. For instance he didn’t like Raymond Chandler getting credit for ”Strangers on a Train”(and neither did Chandler) because his contribution was minimal but the publicity people insisted on it.

    And let’s face it, Hitchcock not only directed the film but he also produced it(even if he rarely took credit as a producer) and also contributed significantly as a writer on his films. Hitchcock isn’t one to put his name on screenplays even if he had the option to do it(He only did it once with ”The Ring” which he in fact wrote) so it is fair to call it “a Hitchcock film”.

    It wasn’t long before he fired Bernard Herrmann in the most humiliating manner possible.

    That was way before ”Topaz”. Hitchcock was going through a big mid-clife crisis in that period(which shows in his Cold-War diptych) and a couple of personal projects like ”Mary Rose” or ”Kaleidascope” never get of the ground and his health was having a weight on his work.

    Nobody knows exactly why they fell apart. Herrmann as is widely known was obsessive about having freedom with his music but Hitchcock didn’t always accept his ideas. Like the cropduster scene in ”” was to be scored but Hitchcock turned down the music(he had also told Herrmann that he wanted no music for it but he went ahead and did it anyway). The only occassion when Hitchcock accepted Herrmann’s ideas was the Shower-scene of ”Psycho”. In ”Torn Curtain” he again told Herrmann that he didn’t want music for the killing of Gromek(the scene that gets press) and Herrmann went ahead. That and the studio wanted a pop score and Hitchcock used that as an excuse to get rid of him.

    So a fall-out was building during their creatively successful but often strained professional relationship and Herrmann’s ego matched Hitchcock’s step-for-step. Hitchcock can’t have been much to be around in that time, he lost many of his creative collaborators, many of whom died at that time. His favourite actors were getting old and the studio working system was chaotic in that period. So I think either way that partnership was done anyway and Herrmann did well with Truffaut, DePalma and especially his final score(one of his best) for Scorsese’s masterpiece.

  16. I think the Variety story was about the last ACTUAL collaboration, not Topaz, but The Man Who Knew Too Much, I think.

    Various people have come forward to say that many of Hitch’s statements in the Truffaut book are denying credit to his collaborators. But as you say, he didn’t bother with a producer credit and almost never took a writing credit. So it’s complex. But he knew as long as he received recognition for The Whole Film it didn’t matter what the titles said.

    Consider that Herrmann was fired partway through the recording session. He said to Hitch, “You’ve paid for this orchestra, you might as well finish recording it and then you can decide later,” but Hitch had to fire BH in front of the entire orchestra. That seems both cruel and unwise. And I would argue that the murder is MUCH better with music, and a Herrmann score would have helped that miscast movie enormously.

  17. I found Vernon more convincing as a Cuban than Stafford as French(this despite the fact that actor IS French). Mostly it’s his acting. I like ”Topaz” a lot as does Wim Wenders. The scene with the Russian defectors family basically getting blackmailed by the yankees into defecting and the latter scene where the Russian is totally transformed into a vulgarian is a cutting picture of American assimilation. The Harlem scenes are magnificent as is Karin’s Dor death. Then I like the bit where Michel Subor interviews Philippe Noiret. It’s really an anthology of great bits rather than a good film in and of itself.

    By the way, you’ll be happy to know that most prints and the DVD ends with the airport scene. The suicide freeze-frame(which is actually Philippe Noiret walking into the house after his character’s death) is usually excised. The duel-scene was what Hitchcock wanted because he liked it(and it has this amazing shot of Michel Piccoli pointing the pistol straight into the center of the camera lens).

    Hitchcock’s last two films while not great are welcome return to forms. They’re both very good and a fine cap off a career. His last masterpiece however was ”Marnie”.

  18. Hitchcock only had himself to blame for went wrong with Herrmann. Herrmann actually tried to bury the hatchet with Hitch a few years later but Hitchcock refused to meet him. Herrmann for his part always spoke proudly of his work with Hitchcock and encouraged John Williams to score ”Family Plot”(which is the best of the Post-Herrmann scores).

    If you read Hitchcock’s interview with Bogdanovich he does name names occassionally and praise his collaborator like he talks about Albert Whitlock being a great special effects man and the like. I think Hitchcock loved and admired his crew in his own tough way. He was a very shy man personally(and despite being super-famous was never part of the Hollywood scene preferring to be with friends and family instead). Hitchcock also rarely talked about other film directors, except in passing.

    However Hitchcock still has to answer for the one time he DID deny credit. Saul Bass did storyboards for the shower scene of ”Psycho” and when Truffaut asked Hitchcock what Bass did(based on his credit as “Pictorial Consultant”), Hitchcock said that Bass did storyboards for the Arbogast murder which he didn’t use. That’s true but he totally refused to mention Bass’ work on the shower scene. Bass got so pissed off that he years later printed those storyboards in a magazine and claimed that he directed the scene. That’s not true and Hitchcock’s shower scene didn’t exactly come off as storyboarded but I can understand where Mr. Bass comes from.

    Well…nobody’s perfect and Hitchcock never made films about perfect people. And in the long run it didn’t really affect their careers adversely, did it?

  19. The waters are muddied by Hitchcock admitting that Bass actually directed the Arbogast murder, but saying that it didn’t work as planned and he had to step in and change stuff: Bass made it look like a sinister man climbing stairs, rather than a man climbing sinister stairs.

    Looking at Bass’s one film as director, Phase IV, I can believe that. He was unbeatable for graphics and imagery and encapsulating an idea in shorthand, but not much of a storyteller when it came to longer narratives.

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