19 April 2015

For all the good it may do you

In the early 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock met with journalist Otis L. Guernsey Jr. to discuss Guernsey's idea for a film about a salesman who is mistaken for a master spy. Guernsey's idea was based on a true story involving British secretaries in WWII who had invented a fictitious spy for fun and then watched the Nazis follow him around. Although Hitch was immediately intrigued by the idea, it would take several years before he turned it into a film. 

In 1957, Hitch was working with screenwriter Ernest Lehman on the film adaptation of the novel "The Wreck of the Mary Deare". Both men had reservations about the project and decided to do a different film instead. Hitch had been toying with the master spy idea suggested by Otis Guernsey years earlier and discussed it with Lehman who, as an admirer of Hitch's "wrong man"-films, was immediately interested. Thus, the two men abandoned "The Wreck of the Mary Deare", and Hitch bought Guernsey's 65-page treatment for $10,000. The film they eventually made was, of course, "North by Northwest" (1959).

Above: Hitch on the set of "North by Northwest" with leading man Cary Grant. Below: Hitch with screenwriter Ernest Lehman who wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures".

Below you'll find two letters from Otis Guernsey to Alfred Hitchcock in which Guernsey talks about his script idea. Being unable to develop the idea further himself, Guernsey hands it over to Hitch and says he can do with it whatever he likes. The first letter is undated but presumably written in the early 1950s, the second one was written on 14 October 1957. 


Transcript:

Dear Hitch:

This note has been long in coming, and I hope that the delay has not caused you any embarassment [sic]. I wanted to make sure of my ground before I got in touch with you again about the script idea we talked over in "21".

Kay Brown got in touch with me, and she has been very patient and helpful about the whole thing. She has stressed the need for speed in this matter, and that is why I am writing you although nothing constructive has been accomplished.

As you remember the idea was originally this: that a diplomatic controvery [sic] exists in a Near Eastern country, involving, possibly, something active like the smuggling-in of American arms collected in Europe where they were sold or abandoned and brought in to create a sub rosa rebellion; that the "Good Guys", in order to decoy the "Bad Guys" espionage, create a fictitious character of a masterspy; that a young, ingenuous American salesman, entering the country for respectable purposes is saddled by accident with this identity; that, subject to this unexpected melodrama he turns like the American worm always does and tries to clear himself; that, in the course of his searches he meets a girl who is part of the "Good Guys" plan to establish the fictional masterspy, and, finally, that he contributes to the downfall of the bad guys in a flurry of denouement and romance.

The idea of an innocent man suddenly saddled with a highly romantic and dangerous identity still sounds to me like a good one for a picture. But it does not seem to stand up under development. I have worked for a considerable time on it, covering some 65 pages with notes and detail in four different approaches. 

It still does not seem to work, instead developing faults of a) logic b) corn or c) overcomplicated devices in order to establish situations. 

I admit the possibility that the flaws only exist in the eyes of the beholder; that it does not suffer development simply because I personally am unable to develop it. After many frustrations I can only say that I'm not sure, but I am not yet convinced that it is I who am at fault.

There's no point going into detail about the plot avenues I have explored, except to say that I can think of yet one more possibility that has not at this writing shown the signs of cracking apart under the strain of development. I haven't given up, and I intend to continue working on it until I run out of ideas.

At the same time, I don't want to hold you up by pretending that I have the perfect outline just waiting to go to the typist's. Do whatever you wish with the idea-- abandon it, or cause it to be worked on. In the meantime, I will keep my nose to the grindstone and if I come up with anything I'll forward it to you via Kay Brown. 

In the meantime, best of luck to you and yours and don't fail to let me know when you pass through this metropolis.

Yours,
Otis (signed)

Cary Grant as advertising executive Roger Thornhill hiding on board the train in "North by Northwest" (above), and Grant with Eve Marie Saint (below).

Transcript:

Otis Guernsey
October 14, 1957

Mr. Alfred Hitchcock
c/o M-G-M
1540 Broadway
New York, New York

Dear Hitch,

A few years ago I suggested to you an idea for a movie, vaguely based on something which actually happened in the Middle East during World War II. At that time, a couple of secretaries in a British embassy invented--for the fun of it and to relieve the boredom of an inactive post--a fake masterspy. They gave him a name, and a record and planted information around to lure the Nazis onto his trail.

To their delight and astonishment, the enemy gobbled the bait and spent some valuable time and energy trying to hunt down the non-existent operative.

I suggested to you that this escapade might be built into a good movie melodrama in any one of a number of ways. The actual treatment we discussed at the time involved an ingenuous young American--probably a traveling salesman--who has the fake identity pinned on him by accident and finds that he cannot get rid of it. He is on the spot: the enemy is trying to capture and kill him, and his friends cannot help him because they cannot afford to have their ruse exposed. 

However you plan to use the idea at this time, I hereby hand it over to you, blithely and with best wishes, with all rights and privileges, etc., etc., with no purpose of evasion or mental reservations, etc., etc., for such consideration as may have been discussed between my agent and yours, for all the good it may do you which I hope will be plenty.

Cordially yours,

(signed)
Otis L. Guernsey Jr.

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