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The New York Times Encyclopedia of Film - August 2, 1959

Screen Writer's Recipe for 'Hitch's' Brew

by Ernest Lehman
(submitted by Barry Martin - Thanks Barry!)

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. Hitchcock.

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 trying.

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 ear.

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