Let’s go back in time. Imagine with me that you’ve been given the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock, cinema’s great master of suspense. The job? Help Hitch write the screenplay for his FINAL film, what would be the last big hurrah in his career. Fascinating prospect, isn’t it? This idea captivated me more in 2008 than any other.
The first question you have to ask yourself is “are you qualified yet?” Do you feel capable of delivering a story for cinema’s beloved auteur that can stand next to his classics like Rear Window, Vertigo, or Psycho? Can you deliver dialogue that’s on a par with John Michael Hayes? Are you schooled enough yet in the craft of screenwriting (such as structure, story, subtext, exposition, character depth, & visual storytelling)? Do you know enough about Hitchcock’s core principles of pure cinema and the art of suspense to rise to the occasion?
I suspect many would say, “Yes, I’m qualified,” but few truly are.
I thought I’d first do a little New Year’s house cleaning and finish up my series on the Unproduced Scripts of Alfred Hitchcock. I had written so much about The Short Night in so many other articles, I forgot to actually write the long-promised script review, which a few readers have pointed out. I’ll follow-up this review with one more on Mary Rose, the film Hitch wanted to make more than any other.
They were so close to making this film that they had a poster designed (seen at the top of the article) by illustrator Jussi S. Karjalainen. Oooooo… Sean Connery and Liv Ullmann? Really? I love it! Man, I’m SO there! Regrettably, due to Hitch’s failing health, they quietly canceled what would have been his final project in 1979. He died a year later. But if only Hitch and his screenwriter, David Freeman, had worked faster... If only Freeman found a way around Hitch’s leisurely pace and heavy drinking… Freeman recounted his experience working with Hitch in his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, where you can also read the screenplay for The Short Night.
The film was to be an adaptation of a book called The Short Night by Ronald Kirkbride. It’s a very simple setup for a film. A British double agent (working for the communists) by the name of Gavin Brand escapes from prison. An American civilian, Joe Bailey, is persuaded (unofficially, of course) by the CIA to assassinate bad boy Gavin because Gavin had murdered his brother years ago. Joe naturally agrees. They know that Gavin will be meeting up with his wife and two sons to take them back to Russia. Find the wife and sons, and you’ll eventually find Gavin. And Joe does, indeed, find his wife, by the name of Carla Brand, on an island in Savonlinna, Finland. And while they wait for Gavin to arrive, they fall in love…
The pic below is from an article about Hitch’s tour of Helsinki and Savonlinna in August, 1968, as he scouted locations for the film.
I’d like to break this review down into a pair of threes. There were three scenes I loved, and three elements that I felt needed retooling.
First, the 3 scenes I loved.
1) THE OPENING SEQUENCE
I love the opening sequence! (This section may sound familiar to some, as this was also quoted in my Screenwriting State of Emergency article, but I’d like to include it here as well.) This is the prison break of Gavin Brand, as described by Freeman in his Last Days book:
A man sits in a car holding a bouquet of chrysanthemums. It’s evening, getting dark and raining. The car is a Humber Hawk and it’s parked on a cobblestone service road, next to a high brick wall. The man with the mums is listening to a voice we can’t quite make out. It could be the car radio, but his ear is cocked slightly toward the flowers.
The camera moves toward the windshield, descending slightly as it dollies forward peering into the car, about to show us what the man is doing with those mums. But when the camera arrives at the car, it surprises us, and further piques our interest, by panning off the windshield, over the wet cobblestone road, toward the brick wall. As the camera climbs the rough red bricks, going steadily higher, inducing dizziness in the viewer, the voice we’ve been hearing becomes clearer, as if the camera were hunting it. It’s an angry voice, an upper-class Oxbridge accent. “I’m here… hurry on now… can you hear? I said, I’m here.” When the camera is at the top, and before its descent, we get a glimpse of the surroundings on both sides of the wall. But instead of clarifying, it only serves to tease us more. In our one glance, from this height, we can see that inside the wall is a prison. There’s a tower, a few searchlights, and rude-looking cell blocks. On the outside, beyond the service road, we glimpse another large institution and a sign that says “Hammersmith Hospital.” But before we know what to make of that, the camera, our guide, moves down the wall toward the voice.
Inside, a tall, imperious man, dressed in prison garb, is huddled against a wall avoiding the lights and speaking urgently into a primitive walkie-talkie. “I’m here, damn it. I’m here. Now move.” The camera cuts to the outside (the very first cut in the scene) to the interior of the car. The driver speaks soothingly into his flowers. “That’s right then, I’m here. You’ll be fine… stay calm.” He starts to get out of the car, but his eyes register surprise and he stops talking. Across the service road, another car has parked and its headlights have gone off. There’s a young couple in the front, and they’re embracing feverishly. The man in the Humber Hawk mutters “Damn…” into his flowers and the voice from the other side, desperate now, says, “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“It’s bloody lovers’ lane.” He silences his flowers and then flashes his headlights at the second car, leering at the couple. They pull apart quickly, frightened by the light. The woman averts her eyes and her thwarted lover scowls and drives away. The mums are turned on again and a torrent of abuse comes from inside the prison. “Where the bloody hell are you..? You’ve bollixed it. You bloody Irish ass. I’m not going back. I’m not. I’m not going back.”
There’s more to this sequence. Man gets out of the car, turns off the flower-mic-thingee, and gets out a rope ladder. Headlights illuminate his boot as an old car approaches him. Inside’s an elderly couple. The woman leans across her driver husband and asks for directions. He answers. She can’t hear him. He repeats himself. Then there’s a question about where to park. Inside the prison, a movie’s about to finish and guards and prisoners will be entering the compound any minute. The prisoner’s getting frantic, yelling for the ladder. Outside, the elderly woman notices the flowers and wants details. Where did he buy them? Then she talks about her daughter-in-law whose liver is shot to hell. Inside, the prisoner is practically screaming for the ladder. There’s movement. They’re about to come out. Outside, not only is the couple still talking, but the man notices that there’s also a shift change at the hospital next door and more people are coming out into the street. Finally, the couple leaves. Rope ladder is thrown. The prisoner hurries over the wall just barely making it before getting caught but falls as he comes down and severely hurts himself.
Of this opening, Freeman said:
It could only be Hitchcock. Daring, outrageous, and complicated. Several things are happening at once, each component of the scene both clear and mysterious. It’s what Hitchcock liked to call “pure cinema.” By that, he meant a telling of a story in a way that has no effective equivalent in written narrative. It’s an emphasis on the visual, rather than the verbal. In the scene just described, the camera is doing one thing – traveling toward the mysterious mums; then before we can know what the flowers are, and who that fellow in the car is, the camera moves toward and then up and over the prison wall toward the angry voice. Now the soundtrack contains two unexplained voices, one desperate, the other soothing, while at the same time, the exact location of the activity is teasingly unclear. There are cars, a prison, a hospital, searchlights, and a rainy night that makes it even harder to know what we are being drawn toward. That all these things can happen simultaneously, and before we’re more than 45 seconds into the picture, is unique to the medium. Pure cinema.
How many new writers today would think to include an old couple asking a million questions in order to send the tension to excruciating heights? I LOVE the escalating tension! I love the way they slowly revealed important details non-verbally to the audience. I especially love the camera work, and yes, something like that CAN be written in a spec without using camera angles, without mentioning the camera, or writing (God forbid) “we see.” Just think about it. It’s not difficult.
A few interesting details. The script called out the location to be at Wormwood Scrubs Prison specifically, which is actually situated next to Hammersmith Hospital. In the aerial shot below, the prison is on the left, the hospital on the right, and the red circle highlights the street where the Humber Hawk would’ve been located.
Not only that, the opening sequence is based on a real prison escape by a real British double agent working for the commies named George Blake. He actually climbed over that wall from the yard with a rope ladder (while other prisoners were inside watching a movie). They never caught him. Consider how big that wall really is:
Another interesting detail to note is the choice of car, the Humber Hawk. Freeman wrote, Most scripts don’t specify such detail. Hitch was quite certain what he wanted. I had to ask Universal’s research library to get me a picture of one. Humber Hawks turn out to be cute enough, but I still didn’t see why he wanted that specific car. His answer, which illustrated a Hitchcock working maxim: “It’s a timeless-looking sedan, don’t you see. A little out of date, but still roughly contemporary. Bear in mind it’s the first thing we see. American’s won’t recognize it at all, it will be foreign to them. Mustn’t let them (the audience) get too comfortable right at the start.”
Hehehe… That’s hilarious.
2) THE TRANSITION TO SAVONLINNA
Definitely a favorite. Early in the Second Act, Joe Bailey figures out that a green and white parcel is being mailed to Carla Brand, which will be picked up at a specific post office in Helsinki. He goes there and waits for Carla to show up. I’m going to share the sequence as it’s written. Newbies should know that a Hitchcock screenplay is more like a shooting script than a spec, which is what we write. Hitch is essentially writing for himself, which will include a lot of technical details. The format is old school 1970’s shooting script style. Specs today should not include camera angles, as we’ll read in this sequence, although these same shots can be just as easily implied through Secondary Headings, which is also used throughout this sequence.
It’s so much fun! You just know when you read all of those details about the locations that they were born out of Hitch’s tour of Helsinki and Savonlinna that I mentioned earlier when he scouted locations. This is pure cinema. It's a sequence that feels Hitchcockian…
And it begins in Helsinki.
INT. POST OFFICE
…Joe continues to watch the line, listening to the Clerk and the Customers converse – all of course in Finnish. The name “Mihkelsson” floats by, and Joe looks up suddenly to see a middle-aged woman (HILDA) accepting and signing for the green-and-white parcel. The woman is definitely not Mrs. Brand. She’s Finnish, a little masculine, with short gray hair. She tucks the parcel – beaten up now, with canceled stamps and torn corners – under the arm and starts past Joe, toward the exit.
She leaves the post office, turns to her right and disappears from view.
LONG SHOT – SHOOTING IN, THROUGH THE ENTRANCE
Joe starts toward camera. He stands in the doorway and looks in the direction the woman took.
JOE’S POV – STREET OUTSIDE POST OFFICE – DAY
He sees her moving away with the package under her arm.
CLOSE SHOT – JOE
Looking off, he quickly starts forward and out of shot.
CLOSE SHOT – PACKAGE – JOE’S MOVING POV (CHEATED CLOSER)
Camera follows her as she walks. The screen is practically filled with the package under her arm.
HIGH SHOT – MARKET PLACE – HELSINKI HARBOR – DAY
The market is filled with noontime activity. Hilda threads her way through the crowd.
CLOSE SHOT – JOE
MARKET PLACE – PACKAGE
As Hilda stops for a moment at a produce stand. The package dominates the screen, but we can see Hilda buying tomatoes and grapes. When the package moves on, it’s two bags of produce.
Watching. Hanging back, but following.
As Hilda walks idly through the marketplace. Her hand plunges into one of the produce bags and we see a ripe tomato removed. Then, after it’s out of view for a moment, tomato juice and a few seeds drip down and spatter across the parcel.
She stops near the outdoor theater on the esplanade of the marketplace.
A group of Folk Dancers are performing. We see just their legs and the bottoms of their costumes.
In front of the state. As Hilda watches the dancers, she puts the parcel and the produce down for a moment to applaud.
In the background, also applauding, keeping his eye on the package.
Flops down onto the ground. As Hilda gets up to leave, she takes only the produce, accidentally leaving the package.
Surprised. Unsure what to do as the parcel lies deserted.
Masculine hands pick it up and hurry out of the shot.
An usher from the outdoor theatre hands Hilda the package. She’s surprised that she lost it, thanks him, and then moves on.
Relieved. He continues to follow her.
Hilda - with the package – boards a bus marked Savonlinna. She takes a seat by the window, and puts the parcel prominently on the luggage rack above her seat. It can be seen through the window.
JOE – LONG SHOT
He hurries across the plaza toward the bus depot.
JOE AND BUS DRIVER – LONG SHOT
The Driver stands next to his bus while Joe speaks to him. We can’t hear what they say, but the driver raises several fingers, then points to his watch, indicating the hour.
INT. BUS – TRAVELING – DAY
Close on the parcel in the luggage rack as the bus bounces along the road out of Helsinki into the countryside. Camera stays on the parcel, but we can hear the sounds of the passengers, of the motors, and other traffic noises.
INT. BUS – TRAVELING – VARIOUS ANGLES OF THE PARCEL – DAY
Revealing the countryside through the bus windows, and in the rear of the bus, keeping his eye on the parcel, Joe. He has an overnight bag with him.
The bus comes to a stop and the parcel is removed from the rack. The passengers leave the bus.
EXT. SAVONLINNA – DAY
A resort and fishing village a few hours out of Helsinki. The bus stops at the dock. Some of the passengers go into town and others go to the end of the pier to board a ferry that goes across the bay.
Hilda and the parcel head for the boat. Joe follows. Camera continues close on the parcel.
EXT. FERRY – DAY
Hilda boards the boat and puts the package down next to her. The shot loosens to reveal the other passengers, including Joe.
As it bounces up and down with the ferry, moving along the shore line.
EXT. FERRY AND FIRST STOP
Shooting from the boat, as it docks at the first stop, a promontory in the bay, about a half mile from Savonlinna.
When the ferry is moored, a few passengers, including Hilda get off.
Joe follows Hilda and the little knot of disembarking passengers. Hilda detaches herself from the group and walks to the other side of the jetty.
STAIRS LEADING DOWN TO THE WATER
She steps down off the jetty, and heads for the water, moving out of Joe’s sight.
WATER AT BOTTOM OF STAIRS – JOE’S POV
A motor launch is waiting. It’s piloted by another Finnish woman (Olga) who is about Hilda’s age, but stouter and stronger, and a little more mannish. Olga’s irritated, apparently because she’s been waiting for a long time. She pulls Hilda into the launch. Joe hears the last of their conversation.
You waste time. You dawdle.
I was shopping. I got some grapes.
I don’t want grapes. Just hurry.
Olga starts the engine and the launch pulls away.
Watching it move out into the bay. He turns and hurries back across the dock.
FISHING SUPPLY AND BOAT RENTAL PLAE – JOE’S POV
Joe hurries toward it. The boatman is tying flies, to sell to the fishermen.
Joe fumbles through a “Finnish For Travelers” book.
Mista voin vuokrata moottori veneen?
The boat man laughs.
I could do more Englanti a little.
(points to a small motor boat)
How much? Real quick. For the day.
(starting to prepare the boat)
(flipping through the book)
How much in American?
About seven pounds, English.
Here’s twenty bucks.
The boatman pulls the startling cable, accepts the twenty-dollar bill and helps Joe into the boat.
As Joe heads out into the bay, the boatman stands on the dock examining the twenty-dollar bill.
EXT. BAY – DAY
Joe moves out into the open water in his rented boat.
JOE’S POV – THE WOMEN’S MOTOR LAUNCH
Far ahead of him but still visible.
Trying to make the rented boat go faster.
As they go around a curve in the bay, momentarily out of sight.
Nervous, as he nears the curve.
HIS POVE – AROUND THE CURVE
Nothing. Open water.
Staring at the void.
Above is a pic of Savonlinna.
3) THE SEX SCENE
My third favorite moment is the sex scene, still very original even by today’s standards. I wrote about it in my two-part series for the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Script Magazine on “Sex and Screenwriting.” The following paragraphs come from part two of that series, which is still available for free online here. This is the final moment together of Joe Bailey and Carla Brand, which occurs right as Gavin returns.
Here’s Freeman again: “The lovers are seated across the room from each other,” [Hitch] began in his deliberate tones. “Their robes open as they look at one another.” He stopped, savoring the scene, repeating that the robes were open. He was starting to sound suspiciously like a schoolboy with a copy of Penthouse. “Outside, on the bay, a tiny boat is approaching, coming over the horizon” (the scene takes place in a cabin on an island off of Finland). “The lovers know the husband is approaching. They can hear the sound of his boat’s motor, growing louder as it comes over the horizon. They stare at each other and begin to masturbate, each of them. The camera moves closer to their eyes. The sound of the motor grows louder as their eyes fill the screen.” He’s grinning now and actually stretching his legs, his cane has fallen away with the lovers’ robes. “Then, after orgasm, the man must take an ivory comb and comb her pubic hair.” Now he didn’t actually intend to put this in the film. It was a private vision, playful and from the heart, a true home movie.
I love that scene. I love the aching desire between those two characters combined with the fact that they can’t touch each other in those few moments they have together. Plus, you have the noise of the approaching boat’s motor that brings a sense of rising tension into the scene with the arrival of her evil husband and by extension, the moment where he must be executed. Fabulous! It’s different from all the usual sex scenes we see in films. It’s rooted in the story, and it capitalizes on the high emotions of the moment. Hitchcock many times thought about quitting the development of this film, but it was the passion of these characters that kept him going.
The only other detail to note about that sex scene is that the noise in the motor boat was only taking place in her mind. Think about that.
Okay, the 3 critical elements
1) CHARACTERS & DIALOGUE
I want to talk about the two principle characters: Joe Bailey and Carla Brand, beginning with Joe. There is a scene that takes place at 21, Hitch's favorite restaurant in New York City. Joe is called to a meeting with a man named Paul Zelfand who works for the CIA. Joe Bailey is just a civilian. On the one hand, the scene is interesting from a technical standpoint because as these two men talk in the restaurant about Gavin Brand’s prison escape and retribution, the background shows an empty restaurant getting ready for lunch and by the time the scene is over, the restaurant is full. On the other hand, the dialogue is weak. It’s a scene that Freeman admitted bothered Hitchcock throughout the project, and I can tell you exactly what’s wrong here. Zelfand has to convince Joe to go on this mission (unofficially sanctioned by the CIA) to kill the man who murdered his brother, and Joe consistently refuses. Thus, he’s under-motivated.
Consider this bit of dialogue:
Zelfand: Stop wasting time. You know you’re going to do it.
Joe: What makes you so sure?
Zelfand: I was at your brother’s funeral. I saw your face. If you get near him, you’ll do the job.
Joe: You’ll say anything won’t you.
Zelfand: If it’ll stop Gavin Brand.
Joe looks at the photos, tosses them on the table and rises to leave.
Joe: It’s not for me. No.
Joe should be chomping at the bit for the chance to kill this man. Maybe, for the sake of adding layers to the dialogue, he could be putting up a front so he can negotiate for money and lots of cool weapons. That, I can understand. Otherwise, Joe needs to be totally motivated to do this thing. Freeman shared his thoughts on the changes he would’ve tried to make had they continued, and to his credit, he said he would’ve changed the dialogue to something like:
Joe: What are you going to do about this?
Joe: Then I will.
Zelfand: We can’t have anything to do with it.
That’s still a bit on-the-nose and sketchy for me, but it’s better than what we had because Joe’s more motivated to go on the mission.
Another aspect that bothered me was this relationship between Joe and Carla after they meet in Savonlinna. For the sake of plot and expediency, they had to fall in love pretty damn quickly. But the way it plays out left me feeling unconvinced. Here’s dialogue from when these two characters first meet. Joe had broken the motor on his rented boat and had been towed to the island where Carla and the boys are staying and waiting for Gavin.
Joe: I guess I was expecting a fisherman or a fisherman’s wife… or a boat mechanic… I don’t know what I was expecting.
Carla: That’s the surprise, that I’m not a mechanic?
Joe: The surprise is that you’re so beautiful.
Carla: Is that why you’re staring at me?
Joe: No, no. I don’t mean to be. I’m sorry. I can’t seem to stop myself.
Carla: If my sons can’t fix your boat, they can tow you to the ferry. I don’t mean to be rude, but it isn’t a good time for visitors.
Joe: You’re very lovely.
Carla: Please stop looking at me like that. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s so intense. You make me feel… naked.
Joe: I apologize. But I have to say the prospect isn’t altogether –
Carla: I’m curious, do you always talk to strangers like this?
For one thing, I hate it when protags apologize repeatedly like this in dialogue, which is so prevalent in amateur scripts, although apologies can be funny like the use of “I’m sorry” in Wanted. But here, when a man is hitting on a woman, apologies do nothing constructive. That’s the weak talk of the average frustrated chump, not Sean Connery. You guys know that I’m a fan of Doc Love, Style, and Mystery. None of this type of dialogue or these excessive repeated compliments about her looks, would raise a woman’s interest level, especially if a woman’s actually saying that he’s making her feel uncomfortable. Later, Joe keeps returning to the island against Carla’s explicit wishes to the point where today he’d be considered a stalker. If she had gotten a restraining order, I would’ve understood and probably sympathized. But do you know what would’ve solved all of these problems?
Humor. Simple humor.
He steps into this situation with non-direct humor and a little flirtation. No one would think twice about them falling love. And this is a good example of why Hitch needed a man like John Michael Hayes to handle dialogue and characters. Because the humor was so essential. A little humor can bring about a turning point in the plot, as well as move a plot forward, in a short amount of time and without the audience ever doubting what's happening between the characters. And I say this, of course, with all due respect to David Freeman, a good writer.
The problem with Carla is that we never got a sense of what she wanted. She has Olga and Hilda telling her what to do because Gavin’s coming soon to take them to Russia. You have this American stalker named Joe Bailey convincing her they’re in love and all she does is flip emotionally - “yes, I do,” “no, I can’t.” That’s weak, because we don’t have any real bearing as to what SHE wants. She needed to be more assertive and independent about her own feelings. She’ll do what she damn well pleases, Olga and Hilda be dammed, and she gives hints to Joe before they have an affair that yes, she’s needs something else in life, but she can’t. Fleshing out her inner conflicts and giving her some depth of character would’ve enriched the story.
2) SETUPS & PAYOFFS
They needed to go through the script with a fine tooth comb and iron out all the implied setups and payoffs. Very few screenwriting gurus talk about this but so much of screenwriting is the fine art of setups and payoffs. And you have to be careful about the implications of what you’re saying and doing early in your scripts because they imply certain payoffs later.
For example, when Gavin breaks out of prison, he’s put up in a nearby flat. They’re sitting around and looking at newspapers because Gavin’s made all the big headlines. A doctor arrives to set his arm and put it in a cast. The doctor uses the newspaper in order to create the cast for his arm. Cool. But nothing comes of it. It feels like a setup to a really great payoff that never happened. Just imagine Gavin somewhere trying to get through a checkpoint or something and he’s trying to conceal his identity but then… a piece of the cast falls off revealing his face from a headline. Imagine the suspense you could wring out of a scene like that. That’s a payoff to this kind of setup.
The doctor leaves. The two men in the room also leave to get a van they’ve arranged for Gavin who is now left alone with a woman - Rosemary. They talk. Gavin makes a move on her, which turns into rape, and in his rage over her rejection, he kills her. Then, he leaves before the men return. Well, this sets him up as a rapist threat, a volatile kind of guy, which has no payoff in the story. In fact, when he merely throws Carla into a sauna to die after learning about her affair with Joe, it felt like an inconsistency in his character because we already witnessed a sampling of his rage. We think that the death of Rosemary will play some part later in the story, but it doesn’t. Perhaps the two men will show up for vengeance over her death, but they don’t. I think it would’ve been better if he killed both the men and Rosemary only to establish how scary Gavin truly is.
In the scene between Joe and Zelfand, Joe mentions that there were 41 other men killed along with his brother and that surely there will be other men out to get even with Gavin. Why allow for such a line unless it plays out somehow in the narrative?
There was a big, strapping male Woodchopper on Carla’s island. He was established to be a threat, but he was quickly and easily killed. If you’re going to establish a character as a threat, he better be a threat. He better do some damage or cause a turning point in the plot.
Joe had a gun mailed to him by Zelfand, which never played a part in the story. He comes back to his room one night to find it missing, probably taken by the local cop, whom Joe curses. Remember what Anton Chekhov said? “If, in the first chapter, you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story.” If you’re wanting to have the gun taken away from Joe for the sake of raising tension, then you should take the gun away when Joe needs it most, like say, Gavin sends men to his hotel room to kill him. When Joe realizes men are there to kill him, he tries to get the gun, but – gone. Thus, RAISED TENSION.
3) THE ENDING
The ending to Hitchcock’s final film is quite an interesting dilemma, isn’t it? What should it be? The ending in the script, which took place on a train, was nice, but I needed more. In fact, as a screenwriter, I would’ve devoted the majority of my time to ensure that we had the biggest, most exhilarating, suspenseful ending ever in Hitch’s career. Hell, I might’ve also included a scene with a bomb under a table as a hat-tip to the wisdom of the master filmmaker…