Saturday, May 10, 2014

Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense

By David Luhrssen
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One of my favorite horror films, Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, always reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock—had the master of suspense turned to occult themes. Little wonder. Turns out the screenplay for Night of the Demon was composed by one of Hitchcock’s seminal collaborators, Charles Bennett, the writer behind The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

That’s just one revelation in Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett (University Press of Kentucky). Edited by the writer’s son, John Charles Bennett, the book is more posthumous memoir than biography. In the musings he left behind, Bennett senior is sometime a bit full of himself. “I suppose I was the best-known constructionist, scenarist, scenario writer in the world at the time” (1930) he writes, as if compensating himself for being overlooked. And yet, if most of his account is true, he lived a full life. Undeniably, he was in the right place during fascinating times on more than one occasion.

Was he really an intelligence agent during World War II who tangled with a high-placed Hollywood Nazi? (Hint: not Errol Flynn but one of Flynn’s buddies.) If so, the encounter might help illuminate one of the characteristic figures in Bennett’s play and screenwriting, the suave villain, familiar to audiences nowadays largely through Hitchcock. But even apart from Hitch, Bennett enjoyed an active career, starting as a thespian. He co-stared with a young man called John Gielgud in a 1927 London stage production, and wrote a hit play, Blackmail, that was adapted by Hitchcock into Britain’s first full-length talking picture.

 Eventually, Bennett followed the lead of Hitch and many other talented Brits by moving to Hollywood, where the climate was warmer and the salaries higher. His prolific career as a screenwriter in England was exceeded by a longer career in American movies and television. In Hollywood he wrote for Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent), Cecil B. DeMille (Reap the Wild Wind) and Irwin Allen (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).

After a 1968 episode of a short-lived TV sci-fi series, “Land of the Giants,” the credits stopped rolling. But according to his son, Bennett never stopped writing, tinkering on scripts and hoping to keep his hand in the business. He published a novel in the ‘80s, a couple of articles, complained with some justice about ageism in Hollywood, and was generally overlooked by most film scholars and fans.

Perhaps Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense will spur a revival of interest? Hey TCM, about a Charles Bennett day? Enough material exists for a whole week of programming.

 

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