I happen to be writing this on board ship, in a little café, at a table by the window, with an idle eye on any glamorous women passing by. And as always in such settings I think of North by Northwest, which contains the all-time great strangers-on-a-train/ships-in-the-night scene. In a lifetime’s travel, everyone should have a North by Northwest moment: on the Twentieth Century train to Chicago, Cary Grant walks into a crowded dining car and is seated opposite Eva Marie Saint, the coolest of cool blondes. The conversation starts out quietly smouldering and heats up from there:
He: The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.
She: What makes you think you have to conceal it?
He: She might find the idea objectionable.
She: Then again, she might not…
He: Is that a proposition?
She: I never discuss love on an empty stomach.
He: You’ve already eaten.
She: But you haven’t…
It’s not just a pick-up scene. Grant is on the lam, wanted for a murder he didn’t commit, with his face splashed across the front page of every newspaper and disguising himself only with a pair of sunglasses that do not seem entirely natural on an evening train. So the scene doesn’t only sizzle, it also has an underlying tension. Miss Saint is a classic Hitchcock blonde; it’s not just the hair colour, she seems blonde all over — eyes, cheeks, lips — and the playful unhurried evenly modulated voice with all the time in the world is the sort of thing you’d love to stick around for, if only the train hadn’t pulled to a halt so the cops could board.
The man who wrote those words was Ernest Lehman, who died last week in his 90th year. Eva Marie Saint was supposed to say ‘I never make love on an empty stomach’, which gives the ‘You’ve already eaten’/‘But you haven’t…’ exchange a sly visual image — the literal inversion of Larry Hart’s original lyric in ‘Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered’:
He’s a laugh but I love it
Because the laugh’s on me…
Which the censors changed to ‘He can laugh’. Lehman’s particular censor insisted ‘make love’ be changed to ‘discuss love’, which he thought ridiculous, even in 1959, but in no way diminishes the incendiary power of the scene.
Accepting an honorary Oscar at the 2001 Academy Awards, Lehman urged movie critics to ‘bear in mind that a film production begins and ends with a screenplay’. Just so. If William Goldman is more frequently posited as the archetypal consummate screenwriter, Goldman himself in his last book on the trade acknowledges Lehman as the ultimate movie pro, an author so versatile there’s no signature or style other than superb skill across all the genres: of his big films, North by Northwest is a brilliant original screenplay; The Sweet Smell of Success an unforgettable shot of pure vitriol drawn from his own short story; The Sound of Music an efficient adaptation so spectacularly successful it came to dwarf the original stage version; and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a fabulous one-off in which Lehman demonstrated that his skills of adaptation could be applied just as effectively to new dramatists like Edward Albee as to Rodgers and Hammerstein. He was the Hollywood musical’s last screenwriter (The King and I, West Side Story, Hello, Dolly!) and Philip Roth’s first (Portnoy’s Complaint). He did the glossiest romantic soufflés (Sabrina, with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn) and a dark terrorist thriller (Black Sunday by Thomas Harris in pre-Silence of the Lambs days).
Lehman had his off-days. There’s one small change he made to The Sound of Music that always irks me: in the stage version, Hans the postboy — the guy who’s 17 going on 18 — is a loyal and enthusiastic Nazi but, at the crucial moment, he misleads the party bigshots and thus permits the Trapp family to escape; in the film version, the Trapps escape because the nuns swipe the spark plugs from the Nazis’ car. The first version is the classic Hammersteinian theme that everyone is capable of redemption, or at least doing what’s right in the moment, and it underlines that, whatever their political differences, in the end Hans has lived up to the love he claimed in his song; the second is just cute nun shtick. It’s a tiny shift that makes it a little easier to despise The Sound of Music — as many of Lehman’s friends did. As Burt Lancaster sneered to him, ‘Jesus, you must really need the money.’ Not after two-and-a-half per cent of the profit he didn’t.
Lancaster starred in Lehman’s The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) as the big, bespectacled, beetle-browed bully of a columnist J.J. Hunsecker. It’s a marvellous physical performance, along with that of Tony Curtis as the craven, oleaginous press agent hanging at his elbow. But it’s the slightly stylised heightened dialogue Lehman provides — beginning with Lancaster’s constant taunt to Curtis: ‘Match me, Sydney’ — that raises the film to the heights. To a Senator’s query — ‘Why is it that everything you say sounds like a threat?’ — Hunsecker replies that it’s merely a ‘mannerism’, and that’s the film’s arc: a mannered menace that curdles into the real thing. When Lehman co-produced a Broadway musical of the picture in 2002, he allowed himself to go along with shifts that softened and sentimentalised the characters and betrayed the film’s hard mean edge.
Still, he was pushing 87 by then and any work was better than what most writers are doing at that age. After his first wife died, he married his second in 1997 after meeting her in an online chatroom and telling her, ‘I like distant intimacy.’ That’s a classic Lehman line — indeed, it sums up that Eva Marie Saint pitch in North by Northwest. After all, even as they’re kissing, what do she and Cary Grant know about each other?
She: This is ridiculous. You know that, don’t you?
She: I mean, we’ve hardly met.
He: That’s right.
She: How do I know you aren’t a murderer?
He: You don’t.
She: Maybe you’re planning to murder me right here, tonight.
He: Shall I?
She: Please do.
Compare that with the plonking boilerplate accompanying the special effects in War of the Worlds. Lehman was right: every great movie begins and ends with a screenplay.