Thanks to the University Press of Kentucky, there is a new biography of screenwriter and producer Ernest Lehman who will forever be remembered  for writing NORTH BY NORTHWEST.


Written by Jon Krampner, the book gives an excellent overview of Ernest Lehman’s career, from his early days as a Broadway press agent, journalist and short story writer; to his adaptations of Broadway hits like WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and HELLO DOLLY; and his original story for THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS ; and of course his original script for Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST.


Ernest Lehman



Lehman was invited to Hollywood and adapted the novel, Executive Suite, directed by Robert Wise, with whom the writer would work in the future.

Lehman’s  novella, Sweet Smell  of Success became a successful film.

Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster

Lehman confirmed “a bitter feud’ between  Humphrey Bogart and Billy Wilder on the set of SABRINA – Bogart thought that Wilder favoured Audrey Hepburn.


THE COMEDIAN was originally a Lehman short story for Colliers magazine in 1953. It became  a successful TV movie adapted by Rod Serling and starring Mickey Rooney as a monstrous comic with his own TV show who treat everyone around him with contempt –  his brother (Mel Torme) ,his head writer (Edmond O’Brien).

Constance Ford, Edmond O’ Brien, Mickey Rooney, Mel Torme, Kim Hunter.

A Playhouse 90 production directed by  John Frankenheimer. Amazing to think the drama was broadcast live over 90 minutes.Rooney won an Emmy for his performance.


Lehman was introduced to Alfred Hitchcock by their mutual friend, Bernard Hermann.  Lehman and Hitchcock were attached to an adaption of Hammond Innes’s THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE, but that fell through and they started on NORTH BY NORTH WEST.

A rare photo of the Mount Rushmore brochure( held at the University of Texas), with notes made by Lehman when he visited the site. The notes indicate the detail of Lehman’s script.

Lehman hired a guide and tried to climb to the top of the famous memorial- he gave up half way up!

Another example of Lehman’s detail, describing the scene where the gasoline on the truck blows up and Thornhill escapes, unhurt. Fascinating.



Cary Grant. NORTH BY NORTHWEST.      It is suggested that audiences didn’t get the link between Thornhill calling for a page boy just as ‘Mr. Kaplan’ is paged by Vandamm’s men.


  • Filming at the the United Nations  building in New York wasn’t permitted  – “The only way they were able to get the establishing shot was to conceal a VistaVision camera in a carpet- cleaning truck across the street.  And hope that no one would recognise Cary Grant walking up the steps!
  • Cary Grant at the top of the steps.

In July 1958, Lehman, presumably with Hitchcock’s consent, sent an early version of the script to Elizabeth Taylor, offering her the part of Eve Kendall. But her agent rejected it.

………‘George Kaplan’ was a plot device dreamed up by Hitchcock.

………..An initial title for the film was “In a Northwesterly Direction.”

……..’Roger O. Thornhill’ – Roger was the name of Lehman’s son.

………Hitchcock  went off to shoot VERTIGO while Lehman did extensive research, visiting the Plaza Hotel,N.Y., the United Nations , Chicago and Mount  Rushmore. He took the Twentieth Century Limited from Grand central to Chicago. And visited various art galleries.

………Lehman was struck by the view from the Mount  Rushmore  cafeteria and subsequently set the scene where Eve shoots Thornhill.

………Hitchcock wanted a tornado  in the desert scene – Lehman gave him a crop duster!


That famous shot of Cary and Malcom Atterbury.


Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant, Edward Platt.

I love the fact that fans can visit the Glen Cove courtroom portrayed in the film. (Thornhill’s arrest was filmed at the actual Glen Cove (Long Island) police station and courthouse – now part of the North Shore Historical Museum.)


Ernest Lehman, Alfred Hitchcock.

It’s not clear why Lehman didn’t write more original scripts after the colossal success of “North By Northwest” – he usually said that originals weren’t highly regarded  – well known plays and books came first.


Lehman scripted THE PRIZE (1963) from the Irving Wallace novel. A good thriller, worthy of Hitchcock ( directed by Mark Robson and starring a Paul Newman, Elke Sommer and Edward G. Robinson. As one reviewer on IMDB said, “If only the Nobel Prize ceremonies were always this intriguing!’


HELLO DOLLY  is described as ‘inconsequential piffle’ – quite a criticism of Mr. Lehman.   He also says this musical ‘bombed.’ And that Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau hated each other.’

I’ve read the film was the fifth highest grosser in its years of release and took a while to make a profit because  of its huge cost in production.

I liked it.


Lehman wrote the script for Hitchcock’s final film, FAMILY PLOT (1976).

In  2001, Ernest Lehman became the first screenwriter to be awarded an Honorary Oscar.

In a book of just under 400 pages, almost a quarter is taken up with the Index and Notes.

I don’t doubt the tremendous amount of research done by Mr. Krampner, but the relevance of the pages and pages of references escapes me. I’d rather have had even more discussion about North By Northwest!

Note: All illustrations in the book are black and white. I have added some photos to my review.

There is a very good 50 minute interview with Ernest Lehman at

2 responses »

  1. Fascinating and of course there was also his interesting adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for the screen. It was a film I’m sure you’ll agree was very well suited to black-and-white!

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