Curtis Hanson: In Memoriam

Curtis Hanson died last week. He had not been well for some time and rumors In Memoriam Curtis Hansoncirculated he was suffering from the onset of a form of dementia. His last film was, Chasing Mavericks in 2012, but he was unable to finish the film due to ill health. He was replaced by Michael Apted

Hanson was born in Reno, Nevada. In something of a parallel to Stanley Kubrick, Hanson dropped out of high school, finding work as a freelance photographer and editor for Cinema magazine.

Hanson worked on the screenplay for ‘The Dunwich Horror’, based on the short story by H. P. Lovecraft, in 1970.

He began making small-budget films, working up to larger productions. He wrote the screenplay and directed ‘The Bedroom Window’ and directed ‘The River Wild’.

Hanson claimed as influences Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. He gravitated towards suspense thrillers.

While I admire the grit of Hanson’s film ‘8 Mile’, his films based on the books of James Ellroy and Michael Chabon were my personal favorites. It was Hanson’s adaptation of Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential’, the third novel in his ‘L.A. Quartet’, where it all came together.

Brian Helgeland met Curtis Hanson during post production on ‘The River Wild’. Helgeland had been trying to convince Warner Brothers to let him make ‘L.A. Confidential’. But Warner Bros. hired Hanson instead of him. Hanson saw promise in Helgeland, who recognizes Hanson took a chance when he brought him aboard the project.

“Curtis started out as a screen writer and had done horror films in his younger days, as I had,” said Helgeland in a recent interview. “In a funny sort of way, Curtis saw a younger version of himself in me.”

“We basically worked on our own dime a lot of it. I did a lot of drafts that I didn’t get paid for, but Curtis was always this cheerleader for the film. Not rah rah, just this kind of grim cheerleader and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so it was kind of, that was his big thing was to just put this thing on his shoulders and not put it down till he got it made.”

Hanson’s belief in the project, and in Hegeland, paid off handsomely. The film is the best adaptation of Ellroy’s work to date. ‘L.A. Confidential’ was a hit at the box office and has had a long life in rentals and streaming. Hanson and Hegeland shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their work on ‘L.A. Confidential’.

And Hanson’s career was made.

After L.A. Confidential, Hanson worked on a screenplay and read scripts looking for his next project. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, (The Fabulous Baker Boys) had written a script based on Michael Chabon’s second novel, Wonder Boys. Hanson loved the characters. They made him laugh. He identified with the Grady Tripp character and the frustration building inside him. The film ‘Wonder Boys’ is a beautifully crafted comedy of errors that completely captures the chaos and hilarity of Chabon’s book.

Hanson continued to make features and, in 2011, he directed Too Big to Fail, based on the 2009 Andrew Ross Sorkin book. It was the last film he was to complete in his lifetime.

Regarding which character in their film Hanson identified with the most, Helgeland said:

“I think ironically, he associated more with Kevin Spacey’s character, [Jack] Vincennes, because Vincennes had sort of existed on the fringes of Hollywood. And not that Curtis was on the fringes of Hollywood, but he wasn’t an A-list go to guy at the time. And I think he had a lot to prove cause he loved Hollywood so much and he loved movies so much. And he knew he had this great movie in him, but…he had to give himself the chance to make it. It wasn’t going to be given to him.”

Curtis Hanson will be missed.

‘I Confess’: The Religious Hitchcock

HitchcockIn the recent HBO documentary HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, director DAVID FINCHER describes directors in general, and ALFRED HITCHCOCK in particular.

“If you think that you can hide what your interests are – what your prurient interests are, what your noble interests are, what your fascinations are, if you think you can hide that in your work as a film director, you’re nuts, you know. And I think that he was one of the first guys who said I’m gonna go with that. I gotta be me.”

The Three Sides of Alfred Hitchcock

There is a triptych of films that define Alfred Hitchcock: VERTIGO, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, AND I CONFESS. Each film explores a completely different aspect of Hitchcock’s personality. Vertigo is the artist representing his (perhaps unconscious) desire to recreate his infatuation with his lost icy blonde, GRACE KELLY. SHADOW OF A DOUBT is Hitchcock’s greatest exploration of his core subject matter – a serial killer drops into Our Town. But Hitchcock’s I Confess is representative of the religious, the Catholic Hitchcock.

Hitchcock: Growing Up Catholic in Kensington

Hitchcock was born in the closing days of the Victorian era to a pair of Roman Catholics who clung to their religion, being surrounded as they were by Protestants in their Kensington neighborhood. Hitchcock was brought up as a Roman Catholic and educated by Jesuits at St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London.

According to THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK ENCYCLOPEDIA by STEPHEN WHITTY, the Jesuits were a traditionally rigorous order, though their methods seem a bit diabolical.

“The experience schooled him in logic and discipline but also left him with a sense of fear – in a sneaky form of torture, corporal punishment for any offense was scheduled, so that the student was forced into dreadful anticipation – and of human duality, ‘a consciousness of good and evil, that both are always with me’.”

Fear is not the first word that comes to mind, though it certainly applies. By scheduling punishment for a future time, the Jesuits didn’t just create fear.

They created suspense.

The Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview

The film Hitchcock/Truffaut documents the marathon interview in which François TRUFFAUT, a passionate film critic and journalist who had himself become an established director, interviewed Hitchcock over the course of several days. The interview produced over 20 hours of audio tape. Truffaut’s questions were respectful – he prepared for the interview with intense research.

During their interview, Truffaut asked Hitchcock “Do you accept the idea of being considered a Catholic artist?”

Hitchcock responded: “Go off the record.”

The tape machine was shut off. We have no way of knowing what Hitchcock said to Truffaut until the tape recorder was turned on again.

Hitchcock later explained “I don’t think I can be labeled a Catholic artist, but it may be that one’s early upbringing influences a man’s life and guides his instinct.”

Later in the interview Truffaut stated “It would have been impossible for a non-Catholic filmmaker to shoot the prayer scene in THE WRONG MAN.”

Hitchcock responded “Yes, that’s right.”

Truffaut reiterated his thesis.


Hitchcock later added, “I am definitely not anti-religious; perhaps I’m sometimes neglectful.”

Hitchcock’s ‘Wrong Man’ Paradigm

Hitchcock claimed that his father sent him to the neighborhood police station with a note instructing them to lock him up to show what happened to bad little boys. This is the great repeating trope throughout a large part of his oeuvre. A man is falsely accused and must prove his innocence. It is at once a dream image, a la Kafka, and a spiritual one.

In the entryway to Hitchcock’s home hung a painting of the death mask of Christ. Can there by a more sublime illustration of ‘the wrong man’ than Jesus Christ?

The Catholic Hitchcock

When talking about his schooldays, Hitchcock told Truffaut about his odd situation and about the moral sense he developed.

“Ours was a Catholic family,” he said, “and in England, you see, this in itself is an eccentricity.”  Hitch added that at school “a strong sense of fear developed—moral fear—the fear of being involved in anything evil.”

According to Father Mark Henninger, writing in the WALL STREET JOURNAL, Hitchcock worked to downplay his Catholicism. Father Henninger came to Hitchcock’s home to conduct Mass for Hitchcock and his wife, Alma. According to Father Henninger, Hitchcock created the impression that he was not a religious man.

“Hitchcock had been away from the church for some time, and he answered the responses in Latin the old way. But the most remarkable sight was that after receiving communion, he silently cried, tears rolling down his huge cheeks.”

In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock had said, ‘I am definitely not anti-religious; perhaps I’m sometimes neglectful.”

“There’s a little bit of Catholicism in most of Hitch’s films — even if at times it isn’t much more than an Ash Wednesday smudge,” JOEL GUNZ writes, via his website THE HITCHCOCK GEEK. “As such, it’s easy to say that he belonged to the 20th century’s small handful of Catholic modern artists — a very short list that also included GRAHAM GREENE, (with whom he had tried to work), Expressionist painter GEORGES ROUAULT and not many others.”

Imagine Greene (Who wrote THE THIRD MAN, TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, and OUR MAN IN HAVANA) collaborating with Hitchcock. The mind reels.

Hitchcock’s Ultimate Wrong Man: Father Michael Landon

I Confess out-wrongs The Wrong Man for one very simple, very Catholic reason. But even The Wrong Man is a very Catholic movie.

The Wrong Man is based on actual events. According to Gunz, “The story is about an everyman, a Queens, New York-bred Italian Catholic named Christopher Manuel (Manny) Balastrero (HENRY FONDA), who is wrongly accused of committing a series of robberies. In this case of mistaken identity, he is arrested, put on trial and nearly convicted in place of the real culprit.”

Balastrero must prove his innocence in order to be released from jail and to restore his good name.

In I Confess, there is, what is in simple terms referred to as a ‘plot complication’. Father Michael Logan, played by MONTGOMERY CLIFT, is the wrong man. But the real killer committed the crime wearing one of the priest’s cassocks, and hid the blood-stained garment in the priest’s footlocker.

And then, he confessed his crime to that very priest, knowing that his confession would be safe and that the priest could never reveal the truth, even if he went to prison.

He effectively prevented the only witness from naming him as the murderer. And he makes damning statements that focus the attention of the investigators on Father Logan. As a result, Father Logan is unable to clear his name.

He, in effect, becomes a stand-in for the real criminal, as Jesus was for the insurrectionist, Barabbas.

Perhaps Father Henninger is correct, that Hitchcock deliberately downplayed his beliefs and practices to separate them from his very public persona. But, like Truffaut, it’s hard to watch films like The Wrong Man and especially I Confess without a sense of a deep and profound belief.


Evolution of a Screenplay: Hitchcock’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

typewriter-726965_1280Alfred Hitchcock made over 50 motion pictures, beginning in the silent era and working into the 70s. He is a master filmmaker, and has been lauded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special Oscar. He was honored by the American Film Institute. His work has seen a resurgence in popularity through the re-releases of his classics in theaters and on DVD and Blu-Ray. He directed the classic ‘North by Northwest’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘Rear Window’, ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Birds’, among many, many others. But of all his films, Hitchcock most often expressed his appreciation of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’.

Hitchcock had been on perpetual loan-out by David O. Selznick since they had made ‘Rebecca’, He had been working with different producers. His most recent film, ‘Suspicion’, had been produced by Jack Skirball. In 1942, Hitchcock was given a five-page treatment for his consideration by Margaret McDonnell, who worked for Selznick. The story, ’Uncle Charlie’, had been conceived as a novel by McDonnell’s husband, Gordon. He had come across a story in the news and wrote the treatment based on that story.

‘Uncle Charlie’ tells of an average family of four living in the small town of Hanford, in California’s San Joaquin Valley.The father is an employee of the local bank. Mother is involved in her women’s groups – there is great concern about social standing in the family according to McDonnell’s treatment. ‘The Girl’ seems hard, maybe a little edgy. Her ne’er-do-well boyfriend is viewed with concern by the community, who are quick to blame him for a local stick up.

In the treatment, the cold, dispassionate voice of the narrator describes the residents of the town the way Uncle Charlie describes people in the film, though in this case the perspective is that of ‘the girl’s’ boyfriend.

Mother receives a letter from her brother, the near-mythical Uncle Charlie, announcing that he is coming to visit. The children have not met him, only heard countless stories of their idyllic childhood and how wonderful Charlie is. After Uncle Charlie arrives, he meets and bonds with his niece. He showers her with gifts, but he doesn’t care for her boyfriend and tells her so.

You can read Gordon McDonell’s treatment for ‘Uncle Charlie’ here:

Hitchcock saw promise in the story, suggesting it would make an excellent basis for a screenplay. He hired Thornton Wilder, three-time Pulitzer prize-winning author and playwright. Wilder had written ‘Our Town’ and that was the feeling Hitchcock wanted – ‘Our Town’ with a serial killer plopped right down in the middle of it. It would be Hitchcock’s first ‘American’ film. Jack Skirball would produce once again.

Hitchcock, his wife Alma Reville and Wilder began developing the screenplay. The story was moved to Santa Rosa, California. ‘The girl’ in McDonnell’s treatment was fleshed out into Charlotte, whom everyone calls Charlie because of her strong connection to her uncle. The connection is demonstrated by the crossing of the telegraph messages from one Charlie to the other. And it is evident that her affection for Uncle Charlie is reciprocated.

But she is not the only character with such a close connection. The mother, Charlie’s sister, Emma, was developed into a believable counterpart to Charlie’s socio/psychopathology. She is emotional in the way Uncle Charlie cannot be. The scene in which Charlie presents the family members with gifts has a particularly telling moment when Emma opens her gift – framed photographs of their parents she hasn’t seen in many years. She is at once pleased to see them and to receive them but, at the same time, she is upset in the knowledge that Charlie had them, had kept them from her, for so long.

The screenwriters removed the character of the niece’s lowlife boyfriend. ‘Young Charlie’ became a nice girl who is just bored with life in a small town and looking for something to stir things up.

Hitchcock found working with Wilder so pleasant he added an effusive tribute to the screenwriter in the film’s opening credits.

Wilder left the project to join the Army. Writer Sally Benson was brought in to contribute additional dialog. Benson’s collection of short stories, ‘Junior Miss’, had been turned into a play that had just opened on Broadway. Alma and Hitch worked with Benson to finalize the screenplay. Benson was given full (shared) screenwriting credit with Wilder and Reville.

During shooting, actress Teresa Wright felt that the dialog in the scene in the garage in which she and Macdonald Carey begin to explore their relationship didn’t ring true. Actress Patricia Collinge, ‘Emma Newton’ in the film, had been published in the New Yorker and Hitchcock asked her to work with the actress to rewrite the dialog in the scene.

You can read a draft of the screenplay here:

Evolution of a Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’


Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds’ (1963) is based on a short story/novella by British author Daphne DuMaurier. She also wrote the novels ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Jamaica Inn, both of which Alfred Hitchcock adapted into feature films. But Hitchcock preferred using short stories and novellas as source material for screenplays. He felt that novels were too dense, that too much was lost in order to meet the confines of motion picture storytelling. Short stories and novellas, on the other hand, could be expanded into films.

The short story was set in Cornwall, England, and describes a small coastal community that finds itself under attack from birds. As the survivors escape from the community they discover that all of England has been attacked by birds. The author described her inspiration as watching a farmer plowing his field in her native Cornwall, as seagulls swooped and hovered over him. She imagined them growing increasingly hostile. It is thought by many that the story was a metaphor for the Blitz, experienced by Great Britain during the Second World War.

Hitchcock was fastidious when it came to his screenplays. He wanted to contemporize the story. As it happened, he had a ranch in Scott’s Valley, near Monterey Bay. There was an incident reported in Santa Cruz in which birds aggressively flew into buildings, and streets were covered with their dead carcasses. Marine biologists determined that the incident was caused by amnesic shellfish poisoning. Hitch wasn’t concerned with the reason it happened as much as that it happened.

Evan Hunter was brought in to write the screenplay. Hunter had written for Hitchcock’s television program ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, as well as writing (as Ed McBain) the 89th Precinct novels. As always, Hitchcock drove the process.

The script was never completely shot. Almost the entire last scene of the movie never made it to film. You can read the script here:

“When I saw the ending, I was shocked,” says Hunter of the advanced screening of ‘The Birds’ he attended.

According to someone involved in the production, the first part of the original final scene was shot. The town of Bodega Bay was dressed with dead chickens and ketchup. Someone went around with a rag soaked in ketchup and threw it at buildings.

It shifted the focus of the bird attacks away from Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and made it more universal. Throughout the film it seems that the bird attacks are happening wherever Melanie is and nowhere else. But as the car drives away towards San Francisco, it is clear that is not the case.

This is also a closer parallel to the original story by DuMaurier. The bird attacks are occurring across Great Britain which, in reference to the Blitz, might have indicated the way the entire country was affected by the bombing of London.

The loss of that final scene also deprived us of what would have been one of the most intense scenes in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, the final bird attack on the convertible as they try and outrun them on the road out of town. In the draft available at, you can read for yourself the scene that would have rivaled the shower scene in ‘Psycho’ (1960), if Hitch had actually gone through with it.

“I know that sequence would have taken them a month to shoot,” said Hunter, without rancor.

You can watch the interview with Hunter here: