Obituary: Charles Bennett

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The Independent Online
Charles Bennett, screenwriter, director, dramatist, actor: born Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex 2 August 1899; twice married; died Los Angeles 15 June 1995.

Charles Bennett will be remembered for the contribution he made to Alfred Hitchcock's early films - a contribution as vital as Hitchcock's own, though that was not something Hitchcock would admit. Hitchcock had, as Bennett once said, "a monstrous ego that matched his appetite".

Bennett grew up in the theatre after making his stage debut in The Miracle at Olympia at the age of 12. After serving in the First World War, he returned to acting with several leading repertory companies. His first play was The Return (1927), but it was Blackmail the following year, with Tallulah Bankhead, which made his reputation; a girl stabs a would-be seducer to death and finds that the detective assigned to the case is her own boyfriend.

John Maxwell, of British International Pictures, bought it for Hitchcock, then acquiring his reputation as a master of the thriller genre. He wrote his own screenplay, for which Benn W. Levy wrote the dialogue; it was well received and is celebrated as Britain's first Talkie.

Bennett gave up acting to write crime melodramas for both stage and screen. Meanwhile Hitchcock didn't like the material Maxwell was foisting on him and left to take on a musical, Waltzes From Vienna. He was approached by Michael Balcon, for whom he had directed his first five films, and Hitchcock told him that he and Bennett had been discussing a project about the detective Sexton Blake. Maxwell held the rights to the character but sold them to Hitchcock who sold them to Balcon; whereupon Balcon signed Hitchcock and Bennett for a five-film contract with Gaumont-British.

Sexton Blake was abandoned for a story beginning with the murder of a secret agent in St Moritz, taking in the kidnapping of the daughter of a seemingly blameless British couple and culminating in a reproduction of the Sydney Street siege. The anarchist-in-chief was played by Peter Lorre. The screenplay for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) was worked out with Ivor Montagu, whom Balcon had appointed Hitchcock's associate producer, and Angus McPhail, supervisor of the studio's screenplays. Hitchcock was the guiding force. The notices were ecstatic, although, like Hitchcock's earlier films for Balcon, it was loathed by C.M. Woolf, the executive in charge of G-B's distribution.

Their next film was adapted from John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), which had sold merrily since its publication in 1915. That it concerned German spies in Britain appealed at a time when the country was again eyeing Germany warily. It was now set in the present with its spies unidentified but dangerous, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Bennett thought the book terrible but it had possibilities - the double chase, for example - and he and Hitchcock worked out the climax in the Palladium which was not in the book, and which gave the title a different meaning to Buchan's. The film, with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll as a mismatched couple in flight both from the police and the invisible enemy agents, proved highly influential.

Bennett was surprised that Hitchcock's wife received credit for "continuity" on The Thirty-Nine Steps and subsequent films; until he realised that it was one way of augmenting the Hitchcock household budget.

Bennett received sole credit for the screenplays of Secret Agent (1936), based on a play taken from Somerset Maugham's autobiographical "Ashenden" stories, with John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Young; and Sabotage, an evident retitling of Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, with Sylvia Sidney and Oscar Homolka. These artists were well known in the international marketplace but Hitchcock's name alone was enough to sell Young and Innocent (1937), which eschewed espionage but was another johnny-on-the-spot tale, with Derrick de Marney desperate to find the murderer before the police arrest him for the crime. Bennett shared screenplay credit with Edwin Greenwood and Anthony Armstrong.

Also at Gaumont-British, Bennett worked on The Clairvoyant with Claude Rains, King of the Damned (1935), a vehicle for Conrad Veidt, and King Solomon's Mines (1937), a version of Rider Haggard's novel with Paul Robeson and Cedric Hardwicke, directed by Robert Stevenson. Both Stevenson and Hitchcock went to Hollywood under contract to David O. Selznick in deals arranged by his agent brother Myron. But Bennett was the first to leave Britain when Myron leased his services to David for The Young in Heart (1938), a charming comedy about a family of conpersons (Roland Young, Billie Burke, Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr), which he wrote with Paul Osborn.

Bennett was reunited with Hitchcock when Walter Wanger borrowed him from Selznick for Foreign Correspondent (1940). Quite consciously they incorporated situations from The Thirty-Nine Steps as they followed an American reporter (Joel McCrea) in the summer of 1939 from the Netherlands to Britain, both countries spy-infested. Joan Harrison was drafted in to help because Bennett had a previous commitment. Bennett's next two pictures were both heavy with anti-Nazi propaganda - They Dare Not Love (1941), with Paul Lukas, and Joan of Paris (1942), with Michele Morgan, directed respectively by two more expatriates, James Whale and Robert Stevenson.

Bennett wanted to return to Britain to help the war effort but the Ministry of Information told him that he was more useful to Britain by explaining to Americans why the country was at war.

By this time Hitchcock had made it clear that he did not want to work with Bennett again, who did not mind on the personal level since on another occasion he called him "a sadistic son of a bitch". Instead Bennett acquired the style necessary for three bloated de Mille epics, Reap the Wild Wind (1942), The Story of Dr Wassell (1944) and Unconquered (1947). After the last-named, Bennett looked into the possibility of working again in Britain, offering Rank the chance of revitalising Margaret Lockwood's career by writing and directing the sort of blazing melodrama which had made her popular; so in Madness of the Heart (1949) she played a blind bride who is the likely victim of her husband's rejected girlfriend (Kathleen Byron) in a French chateau. Rank however decided to withhold it both from the press and a West End showing. Bennett's second attempt at directing was No Escape (1953), a San-Francisco-based thriller with Lew Ayres and Sonny Tufts.

Bennett directed over 200 television shows and contributed light-hearted scripts to some science-fiction ventures: The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1963); but the production values imposed by the producer-director Irwin Allen were detrimental to the results. The last two reunited Bennett with Peter Lorre and City Under the Sea (1963) returned him to Britain; that was also the last film of the director Jacques Tourneur.

Two of Bennett's non-Hitchcock films are of quality and both are tales of murky goings-on in Edwardian London. Ivy (1947), written by Bennett from a story by Marie Belloc Lowndes and directed by Sam Wood, has Joan Fontaine as one of the most ravishing of 1940s wicked ladies handy with the arsenic bottle and Kind Lady (1951), written by Bennett and others from a tale by Hugh Walpole and directed by John Sturges, has the servants Keenan Wynn and Angela Lansbury plotting foul things against a lonely spinster, Ethel Barrymore.

In 1991, Bennett described himself as "the oldest living screenwriter" when 20th Century Fox commissioned him to do a new version of Blackmail but the film has not yet gone into production.

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