John Michael Hayes: Screenwriter who graduated from radio and collaborated with Hitchcock on 'Rear Window'

For Alfred Hitchcock, actors may have been cattle but writers were a different breed; in collaborating with him, however, they could be sure their haunches would soon bear his initials' impress – and the steam from that operation lingered for years. Raymond Chandler, for one, never ceased complaining after his experience with Strangers on a Train, and John Michael Hayes was understandably irked by Hitchcock's dismissing him, during long conversations with Truffaut, as "a radio writer". Hayes had worked with the director on four films over a two-year period, an intense, congenial and educative process which yielded one masterpiece and added three more curiosities to Hitchcock's bewilderingly uneven output.

Hayes's route to Rear Window and the other Hitchcock films was circuitous. He was born in 1919 in Worcester, Massachusetts, where marriage obliged his father, of Irish descent, to exchange vaudeville for tool-making. Young Hayes's frequent illnesses were leavened by voracious reading, his own writing further spurred by a grandfather's relaying of folk tales. After itinerant family life during the Depression, the stage-struck Hayes returned to Worcester for a typing course, from which he was profitably distracted by editing a Boy Scout weekly, whose material he also gave to a local paper: such youthful enterprise was itself reported, and in 1937 Associated Press offered him work in Washington.

There came a taste for radio work, which funded literature studies at Massachusetts State College – augmented by part-time pall-bearing. Widely industrious, Hayes plumped for radio writing – from news to comedy – until drafted in 1942. Sent to California the following spring while awaiting deployment in the Pacific, he was delegated film-projecting duties for the troops, which meant he saw Hitchcock and Thornton Wilder's masterly small-town creation Shadow of a Doubt (1943) 90 times.

By 1946, with radio aspirations hampered by 18 months in hospital for rheumatoid arthritis, Hayes was determined to write in Hollywood. Hitching there left him with less than $5 but he then won a quiz show through his expertise in the literature questions, and netted himself $640. He joined CBS radio, where he wrote for Lucille Ball and others, producing 1,500 hard-boiled and comedy scripts amid marriage (in 1950, to the model Mildred Hicks) and a start in screenwriting.

Even if the oil-rig of Thunder Bay (1953, with James Stewart) was no better realised than the backstage melodrama of the Joan Crawford vehicle Torch Song (1953), Hayes came to the attention of Hitchcock, whose commercial standing had slipped with the broodingly fascinating I Confess (1952). They arranged a dinner for discussion of Rear Window. Nervous, Hayes sampled several martinis before the director finally arrived. Plied with more drink, he then spoke at length about Shadow of a Doubt while Rear Window went unmentioned, and he assumed that he had blown it; Hitchcock, however, simply deduced that the well-informed Hayes was his man.

Taken from Cornell Woolrich's 1942 story "It Had To Be Murder", Rear Window would – like Shadow of a Doubt – confound Graham Greene's assertion that Hitchcock's films "are simply made up of tricks, in their plots as well as their direction. They give a momentary impression of great liveliness, that's all". By confining the widescreen set to one Greenwich Village courtyard (fabricated, but with genuine street sounds), Hitchcock achieved greater flow and unity than his customary offering of witty scenes implausibly yoked together.

Hayes and Hitchcock expanded Woolrich's obsessive, first-person story – of a wheelchair-bound photographer (James Stewart) spying on his neighbours to pass the time – partly by creating more characters in the adjacent buildings, notably the censor-defying semi-nude Miss Torso. This played up the sexual element reflected in the protagonist's being subjected to the marital yearnings of his smart girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) who, moving towards the bed, offers "a preview of coming attractions" – all of which is put in another perspective by the unbridled opinions of hired help Stella (the glorious Thelma Ritter).

Every angle makes for an endlessly watchable masterclass in movie-making. Whether by sunshine or lamp-bulb, the screen scintillates, the film's economic pacing such that a few seconds seal the fate of the dog who knew too much. Where Woolrich is introspective, here the talk flows. Whether referring to "a woman's hardest job – juggling wolves" or saying of the rain "all it did was make the heat wet", Hayes's script equals 1930s Warner Bros for pace and wit. Indeed, Stella recalls anticipating the Crash when she was nursing a kidney-stricken executive: "when General Motors has got to go to the bathroom 10 times a day, you know the whole country's ready to let go."

The film struck many chords in 1950s America and Hitchcock and Hayes went on to collaborate on three more projects. Steven DeRosa details the evolution of their work in his 2001 book Writing with Hitchcock (2001), and it is no less fascinating if one ranks the other films lower than DeRosa does. Accomplished enough, To Catch a Thief (1955) is a caper lifted by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. The Trouble with Harry (1956), for which Shirley MacLaine was plucked from theatrical understudying, is bucolic whimsy; its last line, by Hayes, matches his one for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) in its incisive drollness, but, in each case, it's a long time coming.

He and Hitchcock fell out over the director's desire (over-ruled) to co-credit his crony Angus MacPhail with the screenplay for The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hayes would have willingly, and most usefully, returned in the 1960s but Hitchcock dismissed the studio's suggestion.

Hayes had success with the seething 1957 film Peyton Place and the lesser schlock of The Carpetbaggers (1964), adapted from the Harold Robbins novel. But Not For Me (1959), with Clark Gable, is pleasant enough. Inevitably many projects went unfilmed, and Butterfield 8 (1960) was among his doctoring efforts. Where Love Has Gone (1964) was another Robbins version, as was the western Nevada Smith (1966). Such literary adaptations as The Children's Hour (1961), The Chalk Garden (1964) and uncredited Separate Tables (1958) again show Hayes's way with ensemble playing. By way of the film Harlow (1965), however, came television work and, with four children, a return east, first to Maine and then to New Hampshire, where Hayes taught film studies and screenwriting at Dartmouth College until retiring in 2000.

In 1994 Hayes made a return to the big screen with Disney's entertaining dog-sled saga Iron Will. Meanwhile, he also outlined a New England sequel to Rear Window, which could yet be made. Would, though, that he had fulfilled a 1957 promise to take a year off and write a novel himself.

Christopher Hawtree

John Michael Hayes, screenwriter: born Worcester, Massachusetts 11 May 1919; married Mildred Hicks (died 1989; four children); died Hanover, New Hampshire 19 November 2008.

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