THE chance to view a legend such as Alfred Hitchcock from close up would be hard to resist on any terms, but to find yourself getting paid to listen to that famous voice and gaze daily upon that unforgettable profile! To work with him, have friendly arguments with him and even, in the afternoon, watch movies (frequently even his own) alongside him -- this was the situation in which David Freeman, a part-time Californian with a growing reputation as a script doctor, found himself in 1978. Not surprisingly, Freeman (a journalist as well as a playwright) decided to keep notes on their six months of meetings, and the result is the just-released The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock (Overlook).
Starting to work with Hitchcock, Freeman quickly learned that wearing a tie would make a difference in their relationship. Not usually an item of Hollywood working apparel, the change in wardrobe was tactfully suggested by a longtime associate of Hitchock's, and, says Freeman, "I didn't have to be told twice." The 79-year-old Hitchcock himself wore "high-waisted black suits," one learns. "The trousers rested above his enormous belly, leaving just a few inches of white shirt exposed -- and with a black tie tucked into his pants he looked positively fictional, from Dickens perhaps or a banker by way of Evelyn Waugh."
The project the two collaborators were engaged upon: a film based on the case of the escaped English spy, George Blake, who fled a British prison in 1966 only to disappear into the Soviet Union. Hitchcock had many years before bought rights to two books about Blake -- The Short Night by Ronald Kirkbride and The Springing of George Blake, by a fellow inmate who'd abetted his flight, Sean Bourke. Ernest Lehman, the scriptwriter for North by Northwest, had done a couple of drafts, but Hitch was dissatisfied and, somehow, with a few Universal jobs under his belt (that studio being Hitch's home base) Freeman got tapped.
"It became clear after not very long that Hitch couldn't ever direct the film," Freeman remembers. "Maybe produce it, but even a younger man would practically have had to go into training to direct it, with locations spread over this country, England, Finland. Yet I just don't think he could have worked as enthusiastically at the beginning if he hadn't thought then the thing was going to come off." What makes The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock especially important for Hitchcock buffs and film historians, however, is that the actual script of The Short Night (as Hitch intended to call the film, with Freeman preferring Pursuit) is included here. At first reluctant to permit its publication, Universal later relented, perhaps in reaction to some of the negative Hitchcock publicity generated by Donald Spoto's revealing and not always flattering life, The Dark Side of Genius.
Freeman, whose feature film credits include The Border and First Love, is at present "very near completion of a book on Hollywood" that's under contract to Putnam. "I'm going to try to explain how Hollywoood got the way it is, how it works on a daily basis, what people do every day here," he explains. And, for those whose appetite for things Hitchcockian isn't satisfied by The Last Days, a new edition of the late Francois Truffaut's classic book-length Hitchcock interview, called simply Hitchcock, is just out in a revised edition from Simon and Schuster. Avon Goes Southern
REGIONAL writing is alive and well out there in the regions themselves, but in midtown Manhattan, where publishing's center still is and where the West Side is more important than the West, it often merely seems interesting or quaint. That's why the announcement from Avon that it's initiating a program devoted to southern writing is an attention-getter. "The immigration of fine writing from the South into our New York offices approximates in volume the population's own migration to the Sunbelt," Walter Meade, Avon's president and publisher, is quoted as saying. In a later phone conversation, he's just as given to grand statements: "Two years from now, this program will be an important part of our business." Certainly, many other houses will be watching to see if this is so.
The idea to inaugurate a southern program in Avon's trade paperback line, complete with distinctive logo, design and all, came to Meade, he says, when in Washington earlier this year. Here to watch Avon author John Edgar Wideman receive the PEN-Faulker Award for fiction for Sent For You Yesterday, he talked to and was impressed by PEN-Faulkner committee member Stephen Goodwin whose own now out-of-print 1979 novel The Blood of Paradise he then read. That book is one of 11 titles, both fiction and nonfiction, which have been acquired to kick off the program in late '85. Among the others are Mary Hood's How Far She Went (University of Georgia Press), Joan Williams' Pariah and Other Stories (Little, Brown), Gurney Norman's Kinfolks (Gnomon Press) and Judith Sensibar's The Origins of Faulkner's Art (University of Texas).
Three lesser-known Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novels that Meade's "been trying to wangle out of Scribner's for years" are included in the new buys, too. Plus, already on the Avon backlist are nine more which will be incorporated into the series; prominent among these are Gone With the Wind, four novels by Walker Percy and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Half a southerner himself ("on my father's side"), Meade speaks of the richness of language and metaphor which seems common to southern writing: "Not this plain-spoken Yankee stuff I'm getting so bored with." Comments a pleased Steve Goodwin, who's also head of the writing department at George Mason University, "Trade paperback is an ideal way to have a book printed."
Avon also, in an act Goodwin describes as "a piece of philanthropy on their part," is planning to help publish a booklet containing the speeches given by judges Mary Gordon, Robert Coover and David Bradley at the 1984 PEN-Faulkner ceremonies. Having benefited from the award, Avon is making this their way, notes Goodwin, "of plowing something something back in."