Obituary: Joan Harrison

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Joan Harrison, screenwriter and producer: born Guildford, Surrey 1911; married 1958 Eric Ambler; died London 14 August 1994.

JOAN HARRISON lived a life of crime. At least, that is what she was best at - besides the fact that she was married to perhaps the most mature and clever of British thriller writers, Eric Ambler. Crime is what attracted Alfred Hitchcock when Harrison applied for a job as his secretary while he was making The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935). She had studied literature at the Sorbonne and Oxford, but was drawn to criminology, which she discussed in depth with an uncle who was an official at the Old Bailey. Hitchcock began to take her for long lunches, over which he recounted the grisly details of hundreds of murders.

Apart from being a good listener, she organised his professional life in a way that his wife, Alma Reville, was unable to do - because, for one thing, she was too occupied with the screenplays for his films. The three became inseparable and by the time Hitchcock made Young and Innocent (1937) Harrison was officially his 'script collaborator', working with Reville, Charles Bennett and others - but these three were at this time in his career, or would be, Hitchcock's most valued colleagues. The four of them took a rather bland thriller by Ethel Lina White, The Wheel Spins, and submitted the script to Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. Launder and Gilliat became the credited screenwriters on the finished film, The Lady Vanishes (1938). And a comparison with White's story shows the film to have a bite and a wit that the book lacked.

Hitchcock was contracted by Mayflower to direct Jamaica Inn (1939), based on Daphne du Maurier's novel about wreckers and smugglers in 19th-century Cornwall. Mayflower was run by Erich Pommer, who had produced just about every famous German film in the Silent era, and Charles Laughton, who regarded the property as primarily a prospect for his pyrotechnics. Gilliat, JB Priestley and Harrison - it was her first screen credit - wrote the script.

Hitchcock next accepted a film offer from David O. Selznick, who paid Harrison dollars 125 a week as Hitchcock's assistant. Before leaving England he and she had set about adapting another du Maurier novel, Rebecca. Selznick sent a wire to say that the public which had bought the book in such large quantities would not stand for any changes, offering any number of writers to put it back the way it was. Hitchcock eventually chose the dramatist Robert E. Sherwood, and the film (1940) is credited to both Sherwood and Harrison. It remains one of Hollywood's most satisfying melodramas; and although filmed in the United States it offers a far more convincing Cornwall than Jamaica Inn.

Among 11 Oscar nominations was one for Best Screenplay (it won for Best Picture), giving Harrison and Hitchcock's careers in the United States a tremendous start. Since Selznick had no immediate plans for them, he loaned them to another independent producer, Walter Wagner, who had been struggling to get a movie out of Vincent Sheean's Personal History, an account of an American journalist observing the preparations for war in Europe.

Fourteen scriptwriters worked to the Hitchcock formula: 'the innocent bystander who becomes involved in an intrigue'. The result was Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which Joel McCrea is pursued by assorted baddies after witnessing the assassination of a Dutch statesman (Fritz Kortner) pleading the cause of world peace. Credit for the screenplay went to Harrison and Charles Bennett, but acknowledgement for the dialogue went to James Hilton, the best- selling novelist, and Robert Benchley, the humorist who had a leading role in the film.

While working at RKO on a Carole Lombard comedy, Hitchcock discovered that the studio had acquired Before the Fact, a British novel by Frances Iles about a young wife who increasingly begins to believe that her husband plans to murder her. The film, retitled Suspicion (1941), won Fontaine an Oscar for Best Actress. The screenplay was the final professional collaboration between Reville and Harrison, credited jointly with Samson Raphaelson, who had worked on the film before Hitchcock took over.

Back with Selznick, Hitchcock planned a more typical venture, Saboteur (1942), concerning a factory worker pursued from West Coast to East by both those who suspect him of sabotaging an aircraft plant and those who actually did it. Michael Hogan and Harrison mapped out those bizarre situations in which a Hitchcock hero must expect to find himself, at which point Selznick sold the package to Universal - and while her name remains on the film, along with Peter Viertel and Dorothy Parker, Harrison's involvement ended there.

During the seven years that she had been with Hitchcock she had witnessed as much cinematic wrongdoing as anybody could. She was safe within his shadow but anxious to move out of it. Universal and she began discussing the possibility of her becoming a producer. As it happened the studio had under contract a director quite the equal of Hitchcock: Robert Siodmak. He and Harrison joined forces respectively to direct and produce Phantom Lady (1944), based on a novel by William Irish.

The film's star, Franchot Tone, persuaded Harrison to return to writing when Marian Cockrell was having difficulty adapting a story she had co-written, Dark Waters (1944). The result, with Tone and Merle Oberon, is a superior version of the frightened-lady-in-the- old-dark-house situation, and it is Harrison's last writing credit.

She and Siodmak were happily reunited for The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). Thomas Job's play, set in Yorkshire 45 years earlier, had been transposed to modern New Hampshire by the adaptor Stephen Longstreet, but Siodmak imposed upon it his twin strengths of narration and


Harrison brought Robert Montgomery, a waning star who had turned director, to Britain to direct and star in a thriller, Your Witness (1950). She and David E. Rose, an Anglophile American who had toiled long in the British film industry, formed a company, Coronado, arranging for the Rank- owned Eagle Lion to release in the United States, but - curiously - the film was not distributed by Rank in Britain but by Warners. The box office results did not encourage Warners to invest in Circle of Danger (1951), which Paramount handled.

Harrison retired until she returned to work with her old chum in several capacities on his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1950s and 1960s.

(Photograph omitted)