Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov Trade Letters and Ideas for a Film Collaboration (1964)


Alfred Hitch­cock, writes James A. David­son in Images, “is usu­al­ly men­tioned in the same breath with Cor­nell Wool­rich, the lit­er­ary ‘mas­ter of sus­pense,’ ” not least because he adapt­ed a novel­la of Wool­rich’s into Rear Win­dow (1954).” Yet David­son him­self finds in Hitch­cock “a much greater affin­i­ty with that of the Russ­ian émi­gré writer Vladimir Nabokov, with whom he is not typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed since there is no appar­ent con­nec­tion” like the one between Nabokov and Stan­ley Kubrick, who brought Nabokov’s nov­el Loli­ta to the screen. Hitch­cock and Nabokov nev­er sim­i­lar­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed, but not out of a lack of desire. Close his­tor­i­cal con­tem­po­raries and mutu­al admir­ers, the writer and the direc­tor did once exchange let­ters dis­cussing film ideas they might devel­op togeth­er. You’ll find the full text of both Hitch­cock­’s query and Nabokov’s inter­est­ed response at the Amer­i­can Read­er.

“The first idea I have been think­ing about for some time is based upon a ques­tion that I do not think I have seen dealt with in motion pic­tures or, as far as I know, in lit­er­a­ture,” wrote Hitch­cock to Nabokov on Novem­ber 19, 1964. “It is the prob­lem of the woman who is asso­ci­at­ed, either by mar­riage or engage­ment, to a defec­tor.” After fill­ing out a few details, suit­ing the con­cept per­fect­ly to what he calls “the cus­tom­ary Hitch­cock sus­pense,” he lays out a sec­ond, about a young girl who, “hav­ing spent her life in a con­vent in Switzer­land due to the fact that she had no home to go to and only had a wid­owed father,” sud­den­ly finds her­self released back to the hotel run by her father and his entire fam­i­ly. But ah, “the whole of this fam­i­ly are a gang of crooks, using the hotel as a base of oper­a­tions,” which would lead into the telling of an “extreme­ly col­or­ful sto­ry.” Reply­ing nine days lat­er, Nabokov admits that Hitch­cock­’s first idea, about the defec­tor’s wife, “would present many dif­fi­cul­ties for me” due to his unfa­mil­iar­i­ty with “Amer­i­can secu­ri­ty mat­ters and meth­ods.” The one about the crim­i­nal hotel, how­ev­er, strikes him as “quite accept­able,” and he goes on to make two pitch­es of his own.

Nabokov’s first idea, some­thing of a rever­sal of Hitch­cock­’s first one, involves a defec­tor from the Sovi­et Union in the Unit­ed States. His sec­ond focus­es on a star­let “court­ed by a bud­ding astro­naut.” When this astro­naut returns home famous from a major mis­sion, the actress, whose “star­rise has come to a stop at a mod­er­ate lev­el,” real­izes “that he is not the same as he was before his flight.” Unable to put her fin­ger on it, she “becomes con­cerned, then fright­ened, then pan­icky.” Nabokov tan­ta­liz­ing­ly men­tions hav­ing “more than one inter­est­ing denoue­ment for this plot,” but alas, we’ll nev­er see them cin­e­ma­tized, and cer­tain­ly not by the likes of Hitch­cock. “One can only imag­ine the kind of invo­lut­ed, com­plex, and play­ful work these two men would have pro­duced,” writes David­son. “What is left, in the end, is the work they pro­duced, which can be well sum­ma­rized by a line the fic­tion­al John Shade wrote in Pale Fire: ‘Life is a mes­sage scrib­bled in the dark.’ ”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

21 Free Hitch­cock Movies Online

François Truffaut’s Big Inter­view with Alfred Hitch­cock (Free Audio)

Vladimir Nabokov Mar­vels Over Dif­fer­ent Loli­ta Book Cov­ers

Vladimir Nabokov (Chan­nelled by Christo­pher Plum­mer) Teach­es Kaf­ka at Cor­nell

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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