Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett

With a career that spanned from the silent era to the 1990s, British screenwriter Charles Bennett (1899-1995) lived an extraordinary life. His experiences as an actor, director, playwright, film and television writer, and novelist in both England and Hollywood left him with many amusing anecdotes, opinions about his craft, and impressions of the many famous people he knew. Among other things, Bennett was a decorated WWI hero, an eminent Shakespearean actor, and an Allied spy and propagandist during WWII, but he is best remembered for his commercially and critically acclaimed collaborations with directors Alfred Hitchcock and Cecil B. DeMille. Bennett has only recently been given some credit for the wit, structure and tone of those beguiling entertainments that preceded the departure of both director and writer for Hollywood. He complained in later life that the director was ungenerous in acknowledging indebtedness.

Alfred Hitchcock, quite rightly, is known as ‘the master of suspense.’ But suspense has been my middle name. And being a somewhat conceited individual, I like to believe that I subscribed in no small way to Hitch’s reputation. In fact, I know that it was my sense of suspense which moved Hitch to enlist me as his regular writer for seven of his early sound movies beginning with the ‘FIRST SUPER TALKEE,’ Blackmail (1929), for British International Pictures (BIP). But Hitch would not acknowledge it. It always had to be Hitch! He would not acknowledge any writer. A very ungenerous character flaw, actually, as Hitch was totally incapable of creating or developing a story. Without me there wouldn’t have been any story. Hitchcock was never a constructionist, never a storyteller. I would take a story and turn it into something good. After that, Hitch and I would turn it into a screenplay, and then, as often as not, we’d call in certain people to write dialogue for it. As initially I always wrote my own dialogue, basically the picture would be mine—he would bring in other dialogue-writers after I left the picture. So we were a writer-director partnership—but his vanity could not credit his writers, he could give credit to no one but himself. —Charles Bennett

The fruitful partnership began after Hitchcock adapted Bennett’s play Blackmail (1929) as the first British sound film. Their partnership produced six thrillers: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Foreign Correspondent (1940). In this witty and intriguing book, Bennett discusses how their collaboration created such famous motifs as the “wrong man accused” device and the MacGuffin. He also takes readers behind the scenes with the Master of Suspense, offering his thoughts on the director’s work, sense of humor, and personal life. Featuring an introduction and additional biographical material from Bennett’s son, editor John Charles Bennett, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense is a richly detailed narrative of a remarkable yet often-overlooked figure in film history. A required book for any screenwriter.

The construction is the most important goddamned thing. It’s like building a house—you have to build the outside properly before you put the bits and pieces inside afterward. Get your story, get your architecture right, and you can always add your dialogue afterwards. A story starts at the beginning, it develops, it works itself out, and it works up to its finale. The great essence of construction is to know your end before your beginning; to know exactly what you’re working up to; and then to work up to that end. To just start off and wander on the way isn’t any good whatever… because you’re wallowing. —Charles Bennett

Over the years the Writers Guild Foundation has recorded interviews with prominent writers about their careers and about their working lives and practices. Completed interviews are available for viewing on their blog, their YouTube channel and in their library. Charles Bennett is interviewed here by actress Janet Leigh.

Also recommended viewingOmnibus: Hitchcock (BBC, 1986). An in-depth two part BBC documentary, broadcast as part of the Omnibus series; Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995) is a documentary series produced by David Gill and silent film historian Kevin Brownlow. Chronicles the birth of European cinema, from the Lumiere brothers to World War I, and then the first golden age of Swedish cinema, from the formation of Svenska Bio to the departure for Hollywood of Stiller and Sjöström. The French build the first studio, invent the traveling shot, and experiment in sound. Max Linder becomes the first comedic star. The Italians do spectacle and early realism. Germans invent film propaganda and have Lubitsch. The Danish cinema is rich before the war. An affectionate portrait of Swedish cinema appreciates its cinematography, led by Jaenzon, its conversion of novels into film, and the emergence of a production company that owned its own theaters.

Opportunity Lost (Britain). Exploring the early career of Alfred Hitchcock.

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