Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hitchcock, Truffaut, and John Buchan

Robert Ellis
The reason I wrote about seeing my first Hitchcock film yesterday was because of the impact the filmmaker has had on my life as a writer. Most of Hitchcock's films are about innocent people being thrown into horrific situations. With the entire world stacked against them, these characters are under extraordinary pressure to defeat their opponents in order to survive. Because these characters are innocent people, rather than cops, lawyers or even PIs, we experience their ordeal with a heightened sense of concern and compassion.

I was reading Truffaut's wonderful book about Hitchcock. Actually, the entire book is a conversation between Hitchcock and the French director. By the time they finish, Truffaut has managed to examine Hitchcock's entire career.

Master Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock
But what turned out to be most important for me was the point when Hitchcock started talking about his favorite author, John Buchan. Hitchcock had made the film THE 39 STEPS, which was Buchan's first novel in the Richard Hannay Series. At the time I had no idea who John Buchan was and ran out to the bookstore. I found all of them: THE 39 STEPS, GREENMANTLE, MR. STANDFAST, THE THREE HOSTAGES, and THE ISLAND OF SHEEP. But also, a remarkable standalone entitled THE POWERHOUSE. Within about fifty pages of THE 39 STEPS, John Buchan became my favorite author as well, and I read these novels over and over again.

One of the most striking realizations I made was that almost every memorable scene from Hitchcock's films can be found, at least in spirit, from Buchan's novels. In fact, Cary Grant's chase through a cornfield by the biplane in NORTH BY NORTHWEST came right out of GREENMANTLE. While Hitchcock allowed himself to be inspired by this novel, and all of Buchan's novels, he refused to make a movie out of GREENMANTLE because it was his favorite of them all.

John Buchan, a.k.a Lord Tweedsmuir
But John Buchan didn't just influence Alfred Hitchcock. Buchan's work was so well realized that it changed the entire genre, and still has an impact today. You can see Buchan's hand in a film like THE FUGITIVE, where an innocent man has been accused of killing his wife and is on the run. After getting about three chapters in on Robert Harris's terrific novel THE GHOST, (as well as Roman Polanski's perfect film version), I knew that Buchan and played a big role in both of these artist's lives. What's so amazing is that Buchan was writing these novels around the time of World War I. The original copyright on THE 39 STEPS is 1915.

So I guess when my parents decided that they wanted to see PSYCHO at the drive-in that night, they were right. I may not have been able to sleep, but everything was cool.

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