Reshaping the Stories: ‘Scripting Hitchcock’

Thirty-plus years after his death, and half a century after he directed his greatest films, the name of Alfred Hitchcock remains vital to any discussion of the best films, and the best directors, of all time. Many books have been written about Hitchcock, but Scripting Hitchcock: Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie finds a niche that seems completely obvious after the fact, yet that no one has previously tried to fill.

What Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick provide in Scripting Hitchcock is an examination of the scripts of three of Hitchcock’s greatest films, with particular focus on Hitchcock’s process of working with his writers (Joseph Stefano, Evan Hunter, and Jay Presson Allen). Raubicheck and Srebnick (I’m resisting the temptation to refer to them as “the two Walters”), both professors of English at Pace University, find the sweet spot between technical academic language and the chattier tone often adopted in books aimed at the casual film fan, and succeed in producing a book which any interested adult will find informative and easy to read, but which does not talk down to its readers. It’s sure to find a home in film school courses as well, as budding screenwriters and directors could benefit from this well-written discussion of how one of the century’s great directors created and maintained an identifiable style while working with a variety of collaborators.

The hallmarks of Hitchcock’s best films include the skillful combination of a tense mystery or adventure story with the exploration of character and human relationships, an emphasis on the visual aspects of film, and a particular interest in exploring the characters’ emotions and though processes through visual and verbal subjectivity, the latter being particularly evident in the three films discussed in this book. Easy to say, but how did Hitchcock do it, particularly considering that the sources for Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie all began as literary works (a novel by Robert Bloch, a short story by Daphne Du Maurer, and a novel by Winston Graham, respectively) that were not particularly “Hitchcockian?” Raubicheck and Srebnick’s primary concern in Scripting Hitchcock is describing the process by which this source material was shaped and modified to produce three of Hitchcock’s most-appreciated films.

One Hitchcock myth Raubicheck and Srebnick put to rest is that he planned all his films in advance, so much so that shooting them was almost an afterthought. Sometimes Hitchcock did do that kind of detailed planning, but not for every shot in every film: instead, to take Psycho as an example, some scenes (usually those with dialogue) were broken down shot by shot, while others were storyboarded, and still others were devised primarily during shooting. Granted, Hitchcock may have had an excellent idea what he wanted to do with the scenes that don’t seem to have been written down in advance, but that’s something quite different from the claim that shooting the film was simply a matter of executing plans already committed to paper.

In interviews, Hitchcock seldom gave much credit to his writers (although at least he didn’t suggest that they should be treated like cattle, as he supposedly once said about actors) but seemed to regard them in a similar light to the assistant director or the production designer, as professionals who worked for him, to execute his vision, and shouldn’t expect to be praised merely for doing their job well. In Hitchcock’s defense, he worked with many different writers, actors, and crew members, and yet you can always tell a Hitchcock film, so perhaps his attitude is more reflective of the reality of working with him than the “I’d like to thank my 300 closest friends” that we’re used to hearing on Oscar night.

What’s more surprising is how closely Hitchcock worked with his writers, how much freedom he gave them, and how patient he was during the process of developing a script. To take an example of the latter, Marnie was Jay Presson Allen’s first movie script, and it shows, yet he was willing to work with her to turn an overwritten and dialogue-heavy first draft into something much more visual and appropriate for the cinema.

Scripting Hitchcock is informed by analysis of the shooting scripts and other archival materials, as well as numerous interviews with people who worked with Hitchcock, and their colleagues and family members, but Raubicheck and Srebnick never try to impress the reader by flaunting scholarship for its own sake. Instead, they keep they eye on the prize, which is illuminating Hitchcock’s process of working with screenwriters and demonstrating how that knowledge can increase enjoyment and understanding of his films.

Scripting Hitchcock was nominated by the Mystery Writers of American for an Edgar Allan Poe Award in the Critical/Biographical Category. As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that the inspiration for Scripting Hitchcock lies in two academic conferences, held in 1986 (not long after five major Hitchcock films had been re-released for public viewing) and 1999 (the centennial of Hitchcock’s birth)—if only more academic conferences would produce such delightful results.

RATING 8 / 10