Scenarist of 'North by Northwest' Maps Thriller With Old Master
The question before the house is: just how did I go about writing
the original screen play that Alfred Hitchcock has put to
celluloid for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as "North By Northwest"?
The mere posing of the question seems to assume special
circumstance, as though perhaps I might have used not pen nor
pencil, but a dagger dipped in blood. Such was not the
case. However, the creative process involved in the
fashioning of this particular flicker did differ in several ways
from my previous screen writing.
For one thing, this literary effort was not based on a previously
written work in another medium.
Secondly, and more importantly: it was written specifically for a
particular star, a very special kind of star - the director, Mr.
If one is aiming at a film with the genuine Hitchcock touch, one
will try never to be dull; one will try not to shun the bizarre
or the macabre or the surprising; one will try to give one's
characters a certain amount of sophistication, understatement
and more than on occasional witticism; and one will try never to
forget that murder, as well as love-making, is sometimes
committed with tongue in cheek.
And so: "North By Northwest." You can't blame a guy for
Hitch and I decided our epic would commence in New York and move
in a north-westerly direction to include, eventually, the great
stone faces of Mount Rushmore, and that our ball-carrier would
be an innocent Madison Avenue bystander who became embroiled in
intrigue, murder and love.
I spent days browsing through the General Assembly Building of the
United Nations, seeking not new avenues of world peace, but an
interesting place for murder. I sipped Martinis in the Oak
Bar of the Plaza, getting quietly loaded with ideas. I
explored the precipitous roads of North Shore Long Island,
wandered through an uninhabited Glen Cove mansion that seemed a
likely place for skullduggery. Then I moved furtively
through Grand Central Station like a fugitive from justice, and
boarded the Twentieth Century Limited for Chicago, as Hitch and
I had agreed our protagonist would
Upon arrival, I investigated the La Salle Street terminal, with
particular emphasis on the gents' room. I then cased the
plush Ambassador East Hotel, several auction galleries and
Midway Airport, before pressing on to Rapid City, S.D., and
Mount Rushmore National Park in the Black Hills just beyond.
It was winter, very cold and very much out of season, and a chill
drove me inside to the magnificent cafeteria that lies under the
granite gaze of the stone Presidents. This lucky move gave
me not only a much-needed cup of coffee, but also a
story-setting I might otherwise have never come by. It now
remained for me only to climb to the top of Mount Rushmore.
Drawing the Line
It still remains for me to scale Mount Rushmore.
A few hundred heart-pounding feet from the top, I looked back,
looked down, paled, and cried out to my guide: "What the devil
am I doing here? I'm a writer!" I clambered down and
rushed back to Hollywood and began to write the picture, armed
with full notebooks and fond memories.
Six months and 174 pages later, I wrote the most beautiful words
in the English language: "Fadeout -The End."
The end? It's to laugh!
Now Hitch and I began to meet almost daily, combing actors,
agents, set decorators and casting directors out of our hair as
we went over my screen play scene by scene. Hitchcock has
often stated his belief that when the writer has set the last
word to paper in a final shooting script, the picture has been
"made," and all that remains is the mechanics of "Getting it
down on celluloid." While this may sound like an
over-simplification, I can state that it is more or less the way
Hitch prefers to work.
This "involvement" went on for days, even as the starting date
approached. Sitting in my suite at the St. Regis Hotel in
New York one day, Hitch said: "The cutter thinks the cafeteria
scene is too long."
"I will shorten it."
"And now if you will excuse me," he said, "I shall be going."
"Why?" I demanded.
"Because," said Hitch, "in exactly twenty minutes, I am due over
at the United Nations to start directing this picture."
But my song was still not ended. Whither "North By
Northwest" went, I went too, and continued to go until half the
film was in the can.
Finally came the day when I said good-by to the company to make
off to a European holiday. It was toward the end of a
particularly wearying day's shooting, and Hitch was not his
usual ebullient self. "Y'know, Earnie," he said, "a writer
should consider himself fortunate if the director gets eighty
per cent of the script's intentions onto the screen."
I didn't believe a word of it, and don't you believe it either.
I've seen "North By Northwest." If you'll forgive me for
saying so, Mr. Hitchcock has made a silk purse out of a writer's