When North By Northwest proved a success, Alfred Hitchcock planned one of his most ambitious projects – and Walt Disney wasn’t happy.
Alfred Hitchcock is an almost universally revered filmmaker, and was knighted for his services to the movie industry. In his own lifetime, audiences kept wanting to see more of his films and there’s still a huge appetite for his movies today. But, like most great directors, he started a lot of projects that just didn’t materialise.
One of the most interesting was a thriller that was to be set in Disneyland. It’s intriguing to imagine the psychological intensity, suspense and drama of a typical Hitchcock film in a setting that’s associated with fun, adventure and childhood.
The story behind it dates back to 1960. That’s when Hitchcock and script writer Ernest Lehman decided to work together on a screenplay for a new film called The Blind Man. The last film they’d collaborated on was North By Northwest – pictured below – which had been a massive success the year before, both at the box office and with critics. So, they had high hopes for their new project and were excited to work together again on a very original script.
The plot was incredibly innovative. Blind jazz pianist Jimmy Shearing is able to see again because of an eye transplant. But he comes to realise that the dead man who donated his eyes was actually killed and his murderer is still free. When Shearing goes to Disneyland with his family, he watches a fake gun fight in a Wild West show that triggers memories of getting shot. He starts having strange memories about a man he meets and feels extremely disturbed every time he sees him. Shearing soon concludes that this man is the murderer of his eye donor.
Somehow, the donated retinas preserved an image of the murderer during the crime.
This leads to a game of cat and mouse between the pianist and the murderer. Shearing feels that he has to keep pursuing the killer because of his debt to the murdered man. The action and suspense of The Blind Man is heightened as the chase continues amidst crowds of innocent children in the huge carnival of Disneyland.
The idea was an echo of Hitchcock’s early film Strangers On A Train where the killer and the hero fight on a carousel of screaming children. But this was on a much bigger scale. Shearing and the murderer finally end up in a frantic chase on the passenger ship, the RMS Queen Mary.
Hitchcock created a striking final scene, too. The killer and the musician are locked in an intense fight. It seems like Shearing has almost defeated the killer but the villain throws acid in the pianist’s face. Moments later the killer dies. Shearing ends up blind again and back to the same position he was in before the story started, so you don’t even get a happy ending.
In terms of casting, Hitchcock wanted James Stewart for the title role (above right, in Hitchcock’s Rope). Stewart typically played the weary everyman and would have been perfect as a man who gets involved in a murder through a bizarre set of circumstances. In fact, the name Jimmy Shearing in the script is actually a shorthand reference to James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart and the blind jazz pianist George Shearing, who was the inspiration for the main character.
There were even plans for Maria Callas to have a minor role as an opera singer at the beginning of the film. She would be singing on stage and witnesses the murder so her high note becomes a scream, which is applauded by the audience. Another of Hitchcock’s striking images.
Thus, Hitchcock and Lehman had a highly original plot packed with action, suspense and even elements of sci-fi. They planned on having one of the most popular actors of the time in the starring role and even a world famous opera singer in a cameo. It sounds like the perfect recipe for success.
What went wrong?
The first small problem came when Stewart was unable to commit to the role because he was busy on other projects. So Hitchcock was forced to readjust his ideas and make the pianist more of a David Niven-type. That was just the start of their difficulties. Walt Disney read in the trade papers that Hitchcock was involved in a new film set in Disneyland and went ballistic. Earlier that year, Hitchcock had released the horror film Psycho. After reading about The Blind Man, Disney made a statement that he wouldn’t let his children watch Psycho and wouldn’t allow the man who made that ‘disgusting’ movie to ever film a movie in Disneyland.
This forced Hitchcock and Lehman to change the setting to a round the world cruise, This was, no doubt, inspired by the fact that in their original plan the closing sequence was set on ship. Hitchcock had the idea that some of the scenes could be set off the ship in the medieval town of Carcassonne with its many watchtowers. But there were too many coincidences, and there didn’t seem to be a believable way to get the characters to meet each other in the right place at the right time.
Lehman ended up quitting because he wasn’t able to resolve any of the issues with the plot. Hitchcock was furious that he’d just given up and swore he’d never work with Lehman again. This, in turn, meant that Hitchcock cancelled any plans he had for The Blind Man. He kept his word and didn’t work with Lehman for almost two decades. They only reunited for another project 16 years later, the little known movie Family Plot, which turned out to be Hitchcock’s final film.
If The Blind Man had been made, it would have showcased Disneyland in a way that had never been seen before. After all, not many people think thriller and Disney. The central idea of donated eyes that preserve an image of a killer could have led to Hitchcock experimenting with sci-fi a lot more, especially at a time when there was so much interest in new technology, space and the supernatural.
Think of all we missed out on, just because Disney hated Psycho…
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