In this occasional series on famous unproduced screenplays, Don Groves highlights a project which frustrated Alfred Hitchcock. 
SBS Film

8 Jan 2010 - 1:23 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

It could have been the Master of Suspense's darkest ever film, the entire grisly story viewed through the eyes of a handsome serial killer and rapist.

Alfred Hitchcock wrote the script himself, at the age of 68, after deals with his Psycho collaborator Robert Bloch and Blackmail screenwriter Benn Levy hadn't panned out.

Alas, the project known variously as Frenzy and Kaleidoscope, was rejected by MCA Universal in 1967, despite the director's assurances that he would make the film for under $1 million with a cast of unknowns. The studio's rationale: the protagonist was too “ugly.” The knockback irked Hitchcock for the rest of his life.

On the set of what turned out to be his final film, Family Plot, in 1976, Bruce Dern and the director (both pictured) were chatting about how to film a scene. The shot involved a garage door which Dern suggested should be covered in graffiti. Asked what the graffiti should say, Hitch replied: "Fuck MCA." All that remains is an hour of silent footage, test shots that amounted to full mock-ups of scenes from the screenplay using unknown actors and models. Dan Auiler, author of the tome Hitchcock's Secret Notebooks, who's seen the footage, believes the film would have created a new brutalist, verite style of filmmaking. "Here was one of cinema's greatest directors (perhaps the greatest) proposing a groundbreaking film that would have eschewed the American studio style for the kind of filmmaking Hitchcock was seeing in France and Italy," Auiler told The Guardian.

Hitchcock scholars say much of the evil at the heart of Kaleidoscope surfaced in his 1971 thriller Frenzy, in which Barry Foster's tie strangler throttles Anna Massey to the cry of "Lovely! Lovely! Lovely!" – perhaps a sick commentary on the final words of Lerner and Loewe's song 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly' from My Fair Lady.

The doomed project was initially envisaged as a kind of prelude to Hitchcock's 1943 hit Shadow of a Doubt, the saga of an attractive guy who killed rich widows and whose dark secret is discovered by his favourite niece. It starred Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright and was the director's personal favourite of all his films.

It would, he hoped, enable him to bounce back from critical and commercial failure of the Tippi Hedren/ Sean Connery vehicle Marnie, and the mixed reaction to Torn Curtain, which starred Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.

The lead character, Willie Cooper, in Hitchcock's screenplay was inspired in part by the true story of Neville Heath, a psychopathic killer in England in 1946 who masqueraded as Group Captain Rupert Brooke. Two other famous British criminal cases also provided source material: John George Haigh, the 'acid bath murderer' who killed for personal gain; and John Reginald Christie, a necrophile.

In the New York-set tale, Cooper kills his first victim, United Nations worker Caroline Varley, in Central Park. He meets the second victim, Patti Landis, at a Manhattan art school and tops her on an abandoned U.S. battleship from World War II. The twist: A female policewoman is sent out as a decoy to capture Willie, and he actually falls in love with her.

Auiler observed the set-up anticipated Jodie Foster's role in The Silence Of The Lambs by making the lead detective a woman who's put in harm's way.
Fittingly for his out-there plot, Hitchcock intended to break new ground with the use of indoor natural lighting and a 360 degree pan of an entire apartment. He scouted locations and shot test footage. Despite Hitch's plan to use unknowns, at various times David Hemmings, Robert Redford, and Michael Caine were all suggested as leads.

Universal wasn't impressed. “They told him his pictures were known for elegant villains, and that here was an impossibly ugly one," said novelist Howard Fast, who had worked on the screenplay. According to Donald Spoto's The Dark Side Of Genius, Hitchcock was so upset by the rejection that he burst into tears.

He was simply trying to do what he thought the studio wanted: something different to catch up with rapidly changing times. Moreover, he'd recently seen a film that made him realise he needed to change if he wasn't going to get left behind. He exclaimed to Fast: "My God, Howard! I've just seen Antonioni's Blow-Up. These Italian directors are a century ahead of me in terms of technique! What have I been doing all this time?"

Hitchcock's death, aged 80, from renal failure in 1980 deprived the world of a sizable number of other unrealised projects. Among them were a fresh take on Hamlet starring Cary Grant; No Bail for the Judge, a big-budget, highly commercial vehicle earmarked for Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Harvey; Mary Rose, a small, intimate and deeply personal picture; and The Short Night, which would have marked a return to the moral ambiguity of his British espionage classics Sabotage and Secret Agent.