Jul 9, 2014

Book Review: The Man Who Shaped Hitchcock's Style

Hitchcock's Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett
Charles Bennett, ed. John Charles Bennett
University Press of Kentucky, 2014

One of my fans...took my virginity on a cemetery gravestone. We were in the churchyard, and I remember she did not remove her hat.

It was necessary to put Hitchcock in the title of actor, producer, director, and above all, writer Charles Bennett's posthumous autobiography, and not just because it was with the director that he did his most notable work. This entertaining book would have slipped away without notice had there not been the draw of that famous director's name. As can be seen from the quote above, there was plenty excitement in his life beyond working with the master of suspense.

Screenwriters have always gotten the shaft in Hollywood. They're the ink-stained wretches shoved away in a suite of offices, expected to produce brilliance, but generally not celebrated for it unless they also direct their work. And this is a shame, because a good script is the first stop on the journey to cinematic greatness, it's the birth of the story, and the elements that give it form.

That's just what Bennett did for Hitchcock in his UK years. The pair collaborated on six features. Writing scripts for the likes of Blackmail (1929), The 39 Steps (1935) and Sabotage (1936), the young screenwriter all but pioneered the modern suspense film, giving it a structure and character that continues to influence movies today. A lot of the praise we pay Hitchcock belongs to this writer who was so sensitively attuned to the rhythm of suspense.

Though he was never again quite as inventive as in those early years, Bennett led a productive, thrilling life. As a young man in England, he survived fighting as an underage soldier in World War I, found modest success as a stage actor and eventually discovered his passion for writing.

He wasn't all work though, in his early years there were plenty of parties, with some of the brightest talents of the day. At one wild Fleet Street gathering, a guest disappeared across the rooftops, and when he returned from exploring the city from this point of view, he was found to be the budding writer Evelyn Waugh. Bennett's story is full of bright, curious characters like these and with his adventurous approach to life, he belonged among them.

Bennett writes in an entertaining, energetic style. I found myself racing through the text, though it was full of rich, colorful details. It was like being strapped into a speeding race car, exhilarating, but with an uneasy feeling of impending disaster. 

He packs in a lot of stories without overloading his narrative. Chats with a nude Tallulah Bankhead in her dressing room fit right in with tales of his relationship with George Gershwin, the time mobster Bugsy Siegel was a tenant in his California home and his risky spy work during World War II.

There are likely plenty of tall tales in Bennett's biography, and he clearly leaves out many of the darker elements in his life. These holes in the story are addressed by the writer's son, and book's editor, John Charles Bennett in a couple of devastating, but I felt necessary chapters at the end of the book. Hearing of the struggles of the younger Bennett's mentally and physically ill mother, his father's second wife, and of his own horrifying childhood pulls a lot of air out of the story Bennett senior floats, but also adds poignant depth to what has come before.

It would be a huge mistake to ignore Hitchcock's Partner in Suspense because it isn't about a glamorous star or an eccentric director. Bennett's story reflects the relative freedom of a screen and stage writer to experience all life has to offer, in comparison with a more set-bound star. It's one of the most fascinating entertainment biographies I've read, alive with the perspective of a man who was passionate about adventure, the craft of writing and the world around him.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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