Classics 101 - Presenting Alfred Hitchcock, Part 3: The Selznick Years

On March 4, 1939, with Jamaica Inn finished, Hitch loaded Alma, Pat, and assistant Joan Harrison on the ship bound for New York, leaving England and establishing permanent residence in the U.S. After a brief tour of the country and a stop in Cuba, the Hitchcock's arrived in California in April and Selznick advised Hitch that his proposed Titanic film was temporarily shelved and his first U.S. film would be Rebecca.

The making of the Daphne du Maurier adaptation is fascinating in itself; Hitch vainly tried to make a Hitchcock film out of it, but Selznick adamantly rejected all attempts to add humor or 'Hitchcock touches' and had final say in the hiring of the cast. Selznick was also livid that Hitch was cutting the film in the camera, not giving the producer alternate shots he could insert at his own liking. Hitch, for his part, kept his mouth shut and did the retakes the producer demanded after the daily rushes, but tended not to use them. Leading man Laurence Olivier, disappointed that Vivien Leigh hadn’t gotten the female lead, was cold and aloof to young Joan Fontaine.

In the end, the clashes between producer and director resulted in a film that was both a popular and critical success despite missing Hitch's odd touches and quirky humor. Rebecca ended up with eleven Academy Award nominations, winning two -- Best Picture (Selznick's second consecutive win, after 1939's Gone with the Wind) and Best B&W cinematography. Hitchcock, nominated for Best Director for the first of five times, lost to John Ford for Grapes of Wrath.

Interestingly, one of the films Rebecca beat out for Best Picture was also directed by Mr. Hitchcock, an adaptation for independent producer Walter Wanger of the memoirs of foreign correspondent Vincent Sheean. Hitch brought in humorist Robert Benchley to help with the script (and play a key role). The film would earn six Oscar nominations, although it won none.

Foreign Correspondent has one breathtaking sequence after another, from the classic assassination scene (the escape is through a crowd of umbrellas) to the windmill sequence (Joel McCrea gets his overcoat caught in the gears) to one of the most spectacular plane crashes ever built on film. It's only a movie, so if the romance seems forced and the plot makes little sense, we don't care. As Hitchcock said, we don't think about those things until we're on our way home, and by then we've already bought our tickets.

The film opens and closes with a plea for Americans, still neutral in 1940, to get involved in the fight against Fascist tyranny, and is dedicated to the foreign correspondents who 'saw the clouds of war where others saw rainbows.'

Hitch and Selznick fielded offers or inquiries from MGM, Universal, Columbia, Warners and Fox, but the director's next project had a personal source: Carole Lombard, who with her husband Clark Gable had become friends and frequent guests of the Hitchcock's, had a lot of clout with her studio, RKO. Her next film was a screwball comedy with Robert Montgomery called Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and she insisted that she wanted to work with Hitchcock. He wasn't interested in the comedy, but RKO held the rights to Before the Fact, a suspense novel about a charming wife-killer, and THAT was very appealing. Hitch agreed to do the former if the latter were part of the deal, and that's how he came to make his first and last screwball comedy: Mr. and Mrs. Smith would turn out to be one of the few turkeys in the director's long career.

Before the Fact (retitled by RKO Suspicion, which Hitchcock hated) was a problem: the novel dealt with suicide and a man who gets away with murder, both verboten by the Hays Office. As filming started with Cary Grant (whom Hitch wanted) and Joan Fontaine (whom RKO insisted on), nobody was quite certain how the darn thing was going to end. Interestingly, the movie was a huge hit, critics loved it, it warranted another Best Picture nomination for the director, and Miss Fontaine copped the Best Actress Oscar (she thought, belatedly for Rebecca, and she's probably right). For sheer audience approval, Hitchcock may not have ever topped it.

David O. Selznick still had no projects for him, so Hitchcock and Myron Selznick shopped around a new two-picture deal and found a taker at Universal with producer Jack Skirball, with an idea of updating two of Hitch's popular British films, The 39 Steps and The Lodger, setting them both in America. Rights problems curtailed straight remakes, but they could serve as the inspiration for new films. Still a newcomer to America, Hitch envisioned his 'American 39 Steps' as a chase across the country, visiting several landmarks, plus a ranch, a ghost town, and a climax atop the Statue of Liberty. He called the film Saboteur.

Hitch had hoped for Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck; he had to settle for Bob Cummings and Priscilla Lane. The final sequence, on the torch of Liberty, is one of the great Hitchcock works, filmed by having villain Norman Lloyd strapped into a saddle and waving his arms and legs as though falling while the camera, suspended right above him, backs up to the ceiling.

Pearl Harbor occurred during filming, making the production quite timely. During post-production, the ship Normandie, which had been seized from the French and was being converted to a troop ship called the Lafayette, mysteriously burned and capsized in New York; Hitch quickly added a scene of Norman Lloyd looking at the half-submerged craft and smiling evilly.

Turning to his next Universal Studios project, Hitch was handed Uncle Charlie, an unpublished story about a small-town family visited by a relative who seems charming and debonair, but is in fact a serial killer. The result is a true classic, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

The film came together relatively quickly. Hitchcock approached Thornton Wilder about taking a crack at the screenplay; Hitch had very much enjoyed Our Town, and wondered if Wilder could write about the 'dark side' of small-town America for this project. Wilder thought the story corny but took it and headed to California, where he and Hitch scouted locations and settled on sleepy Santa Rosa.

Hitch wanted William Powell as Uncle Charlie but settled for Joseph Cotten when MGM balked at Powell playing a murderer.

Filming on location went very well, and Hitchcock enjoyed the California climate, the ample wine and food, and the cast. Many times, he'd name this as his favorite of his own films. It received mixed reviews and only one Academy Award nomination (for the story), but is now regarded by many as one of his best.

Daryl F. Zanuck finally succeeded in attracting Hitchcock for a Fox film; Hitch had the idea of setting an entire film in a lifeboat filled with survivors of a torpedoed ship, sharing that boat with the captain of the U-boat that had sunk it: Lifeboat (1944).

After Ernest Hemingway turned the film down, the idea was offered to John Steinbeck, who'd given Fox one if its greatest triumphs, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck wrote a novella that proved unsatisfactory; it didn't matter; Steinbeck's name was more important than his story, and Hitch brought in a battery of writers to work on it.

A fine cast of character actors was assembled, including Hume Cronyn, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, and Walter Slezak as the German who seems to be the only one who has any idea what to do to stay alive.

Background filming was done in Florida and the Pacific, but for the most part, the film was shot in a big tank on the Fox lot, with the lifeboat a marvelous device assembled and disassembled in pieces to allow for camera movement. It was a difficult shoot, the film went way over budget and scheduled shooting time. Diva Bankhead made everyone but Hitchcock miserable.

Zanuck pronounced the result a masterpiece that he was particularly proud of; previews were encouraging. Once the film opened, though, early audiences decried that the Nazi was the only guy in the movie with any sense and worried that the film demonstrated the idea of the German Superman. 'Translated into German, could be presented in Berlin as a morale builder,' said Dorothy Thompson (who was the inspiration for the Bankhead character). Reviews went bad, lauding its technical brilliance but attacking its humanity. Box-office took a dive. Fox withdrew advertising for the film, which had cost million. Hitchcock flew to England to make two short subjects on behalf of the Free French war effort.

Selznick decided it was time to once again begin producing his own films and Hitchcock was delighted: he had three films left on his contract with Selznick, and wanted to make them and get out. The first project would be about 'the healing potential of psychiatry,' a subject Selznick was deeply into at the time. Contract players Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck -- neither of whom liked the script -- would star in Spellbound (1945), and since the key to unlocking the mystery is the interpretation of Peck's dreams, Hitchcock talked Selznick into bringing in Salvador Dali to design those sequences.

It's a silly, problematical story and everybody, including Hitchcock, seems to recognize how goofy the script is. The asylum's doctors stand around and discuss the patients' diagnoses right in front of them and spend much time alternately stroking Bergman's ego and calling her frigid. Nobody seems to have a problem with a doctor having a love affair with a patient. The dialog frequently falls into the howler category ('Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. Then they make the best patients') and Miklos Rozsa's score swells to the heavens every time anybody does or says anything.

Still, the film turned out to be a massive hit and was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, but only Rozsa's bombastic score won.

Looking through the Selznick-owned properties for his next project, Hitch came across a 1921 Saturday Evening Post serial about a government agent who falls for an actress he's pressuring to seduce an enemy saboteur. The result was Notorious, my nominee for Hitchcock's best film, a dark romance thriller with a dream cast.

The female part was written for Ingrid Bergman, who was looking forward to the challenge of playing a 'bad girl' and though Selznick was pushing for Joseph Cotten as the agent, Cary Grant wanted to do the picture; he liked the dark, rather perverse side of his character's personality. The third part of the triangle, the Nazi agent, was up for grabs; Selznick pronounced it a perfect part for Claude Rains.

Hitch chose Edith Head to design Miss Bergman's costumes. 'Every costume is indicated when he sends me the script,' Head remembered. 'He spoke a designer's language, even though he didn't know the first thing about clothes. He specified colors. If he wanted a skirt that brushed a desk as a woman walked by, he spelled that out.'

Notorious stands as a fine example of movie making as both art and popular entertainment. There are at least two highly celebrated set pieces in the film; Hitch dusted off the famous long crane shot from Young and Innocent; this time, the camera swoops down during a crowded party scene from the top of a long, curved staircase and focuses on a key in Bergman's hand. Hitchcock also got around the Breen Office's banning of kisses of more than a few seconds by showing an extended sequence (more than two minutes!) of the two lovers nuzzling each other, breaking their lips apart just in time to keep the censor's rule at bay, the camera in close up the entire time, despite the fact the couple moves from the balcony to the kitchen. Grant and Bergman thought the sequence weird and that it 'didn't feel right' but Hitch assured them it would work on film, and it does, one of the sexiest kisses in the history of movies.

The film, released in the fall of 1946, was a solid hit, although surprisingly not nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Director, or Costumes, or for Grant or Bergman, both of whom give truly great performances (Hecht and Rains were nominated, but lost).

Selznick, meanwhile, owned a 1933 novel by Robert Hichens, author of The Garden of Allah, a courtroom drama called The Paradine Case. Hitch was unexcited by everything about the project except the thought of finally being free of David O. Selznick.

Gregory Peck called The Paradine Case the worst movie he ever made, and this is the guy who made The Omen. Selznick had acquired the rights in 1933 back at MGM to star Greta Garbo, and the part was offered to her now as a comeback; she turned it down. Hitch offered it to Ingrid Bergman, who turned it down even faster.

In fact, Mr. Selznick was bleeding money, so contract players Gregory Peck, Alida Valli, and Louis Jourdan were cast. Worse, Selznick wrote and rewrote the script himself, delivering each day's new sides to Hitchcock to film. Shooting ran to more than three months. The entire thing ended up costing more than million back when that was REAL money.

Could anything save this mess?

Well, frankly, Hitchcock could. Talk about making, if not a silk purse, at least a reasonably entertaining handbag out of a sow's ear. Despite Selznick screaming at the cameraman and crew to 'brighten it up! It's too dark!' the camerawork is impressive, with a lot of nice, fluid sequences. Valli is fine, beautiful and a good actress. Peck is miscast as a British barrister, but there are worse things in life than movies with Peck as an attorney. Jourdan is totally wrong for the part, and sinks whatever semblance of possibility the story had to keep people's interest. But, you've got Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore as the Judge and his wife; she wants Mrs. Paradine acquitted, he wants Keane disbarred, and their conversation and scenes are delightful.

Maybe it's not enough to say of a film that it 'doesn't stink.' Perhaps the 1947 public, who walked past the box office in droves to go see something else, was right. Hitch walked off the lot with his final Selznick paycheck in his pocket and went looking for films to make as his own boss.

Next: The Masterpiece Years

Clifford Weimer is a writer and film historian in Sacramento, CA. He can usually be found lurking about the dark corners of a movie theatre at