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.

News
peoplePolice were acting on arrest warrant after actor fled US in 1977
News
Apple CEO Tim Cook
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ukip leader Nigel Farage has been fined £200 by the Electoral Commission
tvNot a nightmare, but the plot of a new TV mockumentary
Travel
<p><strong>15. Plas Teg Mansion, Flintshire</strong></p>
<p>Plas Teg, a Jacobean house near the the village of Pontblyddyn, Flintshire between Wrexham and Mold, is said to be one of Wales' most haunted buildings. One of its late owners was the infamous 'hanging' Judge Jeffries, who is thought to have held court in the home and had people convicted and hanged in the dining room. Reports of paranormal activity include heavy breathing in one bedroom and the spirit of a young girl appearing in the Blue Bedroom.</p>
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant needed for long term assignment

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experienc...

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain