Charles Bennett as an avenging Romeo with Alexander Marsh Shakespearean Co., c.1923. (Charles Bennett’s personal collection/Charles Bennett’s personal collection)
The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett

By Charles Bennett

Edited by John Charles Bennett

Univ. Press of Kentucky. 279 pp. $40

Not long ago, Turner Classic Movies showed “Curse of the Demon” (1957). In his introductory remarks, Robert Osborne noted that the director, Jacques Tourneur, hated what happened to the film after he handed it in: RKO Pictures spoiled the effect sought by Tourneur, a master of evoking horror indirectly (see his “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie”) by shoehorning in a tacky sequence in which the demon becomes visible.

Now, thanks to “Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense,” a posthumous memoir by screenwriter Charles Bennett (1899-1995), we know that Tourneur wasn’t the only one infuriated by RKO’s failure of nerve. “The moviemakers added a visible monster, which made me very angry,” Bennett writes. “I had intended a psychological thriller. The monster should have been any pursuing horror that an audience could conjure in its mind.” When you realize that Bennett had based his “Curse of the Demon” script on “Casting the Runes,” a subtle but powerfully chilling short story by M.R. James, the betrayal stings even more. And the dumb-down turned out to be pointless anyway because RKO stopped making movies that same year and sold its lot and buildings to Desilu. (RKO was also the studio that had wrecked Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” in 1942 by shooting a “happy” ending to replace the original one while the young genius was off working on his next project in South America.)

Tasteless meddling with a writer’s vision is a recurrent theme in Bennett’s memoir, edited by his son, John Charles Bennett. What helps make the tampering palatable is how well screenwriters get paid, and Bennett made big bucks during his long and prolific career. Too bad that, as the son explains in some added material, his mother’s myriad health problems, both physical and mental, ate up so much of the family’s wealth.

As the book’s title suggests, Charles Bennett’s legacy will always be his films with Alfred Hitchcock, from 1929 to 1940: “Blackmail,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (which Hitchcock later remade), “The 39 Steps,” “The Secret Agent,” “Sabotage,” “Young and Innocent” and “Foreign Correspondent.” The first six were made in Britain, and the last in Hollywood, to which Bennett emigrated, as did Hitchcock, in the late ’30s. Some of these stories were originals, others adaptations (“The 39 Steps,” for example, is based on a novel by John Buchan). Because Hitchcock was not a writer but rather an interpreter of what writers gave him and what he could coax out of them, Bennett can rightfully claim a starring role in the making of Hitchcock’s reputation.

Bennett’s take on the great director is not pretty. Bennett saw “tremendous ambition” and “vast inventiveness” blended with insecurity and arrogance. Hitchcock “could be the kindest guy in the world. He could bend over backward to be kind. He could bend over backward to be sadistic and horrible. I suspect he was only kind because it made him feel how wonderful he was. Actually, he was a bully.”

After his work with Hitchcock, Bennett ran into the blades of the Hollywood studio sausage-making machine. He co-wrote a couple of movies directed by Cecil B. DeMille (“Reap the Wild Wind” and “The Story of Dr. Wassell”); received solo writing credit for “Ivy,” in which Joan Fontaine plays a seductress; did some directing; and scripted several cheapies made by the hack producer-director Irwin Allen. Otherwise, the rest of Bennett’s career is mostly littered with unproduced screenplays for films — and dozens of produced ones for television, a medium Bennett held in contempt.

Speaking of television, he tells an amusing story about his friend Peter Lorre, the actor (who in real life, Bennett says, was the antithesis of the nasties he played onscreen). In what was probably the first dramatization of a James Bond novel, Lorre played the villain, Le Chiffre, in a live 1954 production of “Casino Royale.” After Le Chiffre got his just deserts onscreen, “the director forgot to press the necessary button, and instead of jumping the scene to the next, the cameras remained on ‘dead’ Peter. Lorre rose to his feet, and — believing himself to be off-camera and out of sight of his perhaps twenty million viewers — sauntered off, smiling whimsically.”

Bennett salts his text with Shakespearean epigraphs, and his first professional experience with make-believe came from acting in Shakespeare as a young man in England. To his son, though, an even stronger influence was the family pathology, especially Charles’s father, who was one in name only. Charles “populated his scripts with suave psychopaths,” the younger Bennett writes, “who were as emotionally absent as his father.” (See, for example, Herbert Marshall in “Foreign Correspondent.”) Suave bad guys are pretty scarce in real life, but the movies are rife with them. For that we may owe a great deal of thanks, if that’s the right word, to Charles Bennett.

Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.