Unsung Hero: Joan Harrison, Hitchcock’s Most Frequent Collaborator

by Brent Reid
  • Hitchcock/Harrison: sharing hundreds of screen credits, now she’s stepping out from the Master’s shadows
  • Screenwriter on a handful of Hitchcock classics became trailblazing film executive in her own right
  • Universal’s first female producer went solo to write and produce many more successful thrillers
  • Rounding up all home video editions of five classic film noirs she scripted and produced
  • She also shepherded Alfred Hitchcock Presents to enormous and enduring popularity

Note: this is part of an ongoing series of 150-odd Hitchcock articles; any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

L-R: Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, Hitch and daughter Pat in a New York restaurant, August 1937

L-R: Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, Hitch and daughter Pat in a New York restaurant, August 1937


An unsung hero

Joan Harrison, 1943

At work, 1943

Apart from his wife Alma Reville’s lifelong and inestimable contributions to Alfred Hitchcock’s career, Joan Harrison had the longest personal and professional relationship with the Master. Born into a journalistic background and going onto study in related fields, her own future career must have seemed all but assured. But life took a left turn when she joined Hitch as his secretary in late 1933 during pre-production for The Man Who Knew Too Much then worked increasingly, albeit uncredited, on his scripts. She received her first onscreen credit for Jamaica Inn and having established herself as an invaluable part of Hitch’s inner team, was a natural choice to accompany him and his family on their emigration to America in early 1939. Once there, she further proved her worth by co-writing the screenplays for Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion and Saboteur, picking up two Academy Award nominations into the bargain; the first woman to do so.

She then became a very successful screenwriter and producer in her own right, being one of only three women working in Hollywood in the latter role and the only one to do both. Perhaps most significantly, after more than a decade on her own, Harrison rejoined Hitch to produce all 268 episodes of his half-hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series (1955–1962) and 23 (of 93) episodes of its expanded follow-up The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962–1965). Incredibly, she did all that while maintaining her own busy slate of major projects. Hitch may have been the public face of the programme but Harrison inarguably did more than anyone to ensure its quality, consistency and popularity throughout the initial broadcasts and decades since. In 1958, Harrison married the hugely popular thriller novelist and screenwriter Eric Ambler who, among his many accomplishments, penned the 1962 “Act of Faith” episode of Presents. Her association with the programme contributes to her being by far Hitch’s most frequent collaborator; the pair share 325 onscreen credits between them.

Alongside several of Hitchcock’s unjustly marginalised associates such as Charles Bennett and Eliot Stannard, Harrison is finally getting her due. Most recently, this comes in the form of Phantom Lady, an in-depth, impeccably researched and written biography by Christina Lane. It’s named after the classic 1944 film noir, Harrison’s first post-Hitch producing success, which was swiftly followed by a co-writing credit for Dark Waters later the same year. It was another solid noir and throughout her career Harrison worked mainly within the crime and thriller genres. Her biography is highly accessible but more than meaty enough for fans and scholars alike, and shines a revealing, evocative light on an important figure who for too long has been omitted from the annals of film history. In addition to uncovering numerous previously undocumented details, it firmly dispels the myth that Harrison has a cameo in The Man Who Knew Too Much:

“She is listed in the official credits as “Secretary,” a description that has led some to misidentify her as the woman who sits next to Lorre in the opening dining room sequence at the Swiss hotel (though the exotic brunette in the scene bears little resemblance to Joan). The truth of Joan’s participation is much more prosaic. “The actress in the movie [Edna Best] was supposed to drive a car in one scene,” Joan disclosed in a 1949 interview, “and she couldn’t drive. For one glorious scene, I became a double for the heroine, for the first and last time on screen.’

If Joan did serve as a substitute driver for Best, her fleeting moment likely ended up on the cutting-room floor. Jill’s scenes when she travels by automobile involve only taxis and police cars. In no scene is she, or her stand-in, seen driving. So why is Joan described as playing a secretary in so many credible references? One possible explanation: Joan was listed as company “secretary” in some of the film’s official documents, including call sheets and credit lists, which led to ensuing confusion about her role on the production. Even at this early stage, Joan was already playing the role of phantom lady.”

The type of lazy repeating of supposed ‘facts’ flagged up here by the assiduous Lane is something that plagues much film scholarship – indeed, scholarship in general – but is endemic in Hitch’s case.

Joan Harrison, screenwriter and producer smoking and reading a script in bed at her home in Los Angeles, 1945

Joan Harrison, a cigarette and a script, in bed in Los Angeles, 1945. Don’t do this at home, kids – or anywhere else for that matter. Smoking, that is.

Harrison’s only known onscreen appearance is discussing Presents in two 1964 episodes of Telescope (1963–1973), a Canadian TV documentary series. She was interviewed along with Bernard Herrmann (transcript), Hour co-producer Norman Lloyd and Hitch at the latter’s Universal Studios office during the production of Marnie. Collectively titled “A Talk with Hitchcock”, these excellent programmes have been issued as extras on most non-US releases of Lifeboat and a standalone US region 0 DVD that’s playable anywhere.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Phantom Lady aka Condemned to Hang (1944) US 1950 re-release lobby card

Phantom Lady was given the more lurid title Condemned to Hang for its 1950 US re-release, as evidenced by this lobby card. Yet more smoking, tut-tut.

Film noir means “black [or dark] film,” a reference to the often low key, black and white visual style of the films themselves, and to the alienation and morally compromised obsessions of the protagonists of these often crime-based stories.

Drenched in moodiness, rain-slicked streets and shadowy atmosphere, this film noir thriller revolves around Carol Richman’s (Ella Raines) attempts to clear her boss (Alan Curtis) of a murder he did not commit. His alibi, a woman who was with him at the time of the murder and has since disappeared, falls apart when no one who saw them together will admit it. As she stalks suspects to save the man she loves, Carol faces danger at every turn. There’s a bartender killed in a street fight, a jazz drummer strangled as he’s revealing information, an insane woman, and the psychopathic friend of her boss (Franchot Tone). Director Robert Siodmak, trained in German expressionism, combines his skills with those of producer Joan Harrison (trained under Hitchcock and later, producer of the Hitchcock TV series) to fashion stylish suspense. And the talented cast (this is early, and excellent, Ella Raines) “puts punch in every scene and sequence.” (Variety) – US Universal VHS (1998)

This essential noir is based on the eponymous 1942 novel by crime writer Cornell Woolrich, although it was initially published under his William Irish pseudonym. Woolrich was a prolific author and his works were adapted into dozens of big screen classics of the genre; others were Rear Window and François Truffaut’s Hitchcock homage, The Bride Wore Black (1968).

Licensed home video options for Phantom Lady are a straightforward choice between SD and HD renderings of the same decent transfer, which is quite heavy on DVD with with minor scratches and other signs of wear scattered throughout. That’s not entirely a bad thing; if anything its imperfections help evoke a suitably atmospheric noir mood.

Ella Raines – Life, Feb 28, 1944 + cover

The US DVD has three very brief featurettes totalling eight minutes, and extensive image galleries. The French has an interview with film historian Herve Dumont (18min, in French), a documentary on the director, Conversations with Robert Siodmak (60min, German w/French subs) and the original trailer (1½min). The German has a gallery, that trailer again and an optional original dub Meanwhile, the Brazilian set has a wealth of noir cast interviews, featurettes, trailers, etc, totalling 90 minutes, though they all relate to the other films in the set and none directly to Phantom Lady. Only the French and Brazilian have optional subtitles in their respective languages, and all discs are region-locked.

Aside from being coded for regions A or B and the UK sleeve’s added ratings logo, Arrow’s simultaneously released transatlantic discs are absolutely identical. They feature the same unrestored but generally good condition print as before but damage is much less apparent and in most regards it advances significantly over the DVDs. Two demerits are that it’s more cropped on the top and sides, though it reveals more info on the bottom edge, and is slightly too bright, actually losing some detail in certain highlights. But extras take a decisive leap forward with the Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir documentary (52min), another extensive gallery, an illustrated booklet and English subs.

The remaining extra is the March 27, 1944, Lux Radio Theater adaptation with returning stars Ella Raines and Alan Curtis (60min). However, it’s strange Arrow didn’t include the trailer and only other radio adaptation, from Screen Guild Theater, September 11, 1944 (30min). Never mind: they’re all freely available anyway:

Lux Radio Theater | Screen Guild Theater

The French discs have two French-language, unsubbed featurettes of 12 and 10 minutes, and this trailer:

Credits | TCM, #2 | Cine GratiaPhantom Lady: A study of film noir

Screenshots: Caps-a-holic BD vs French DVD | US Universal and French Carlotta DVDs, and Arrow BD

Lastly comes the depressingly predictable caveat: beware the bootlegs. Home-made DVD-Rs are all over eBay, iOffer and the like but the main offenders are discs from Italy (Golem Video, Sinister Film) and Spain (Suevia/Resen).

Dark Waters (1944)

Dark Waters aka Aguas turbias (1944) 1946 Spanish poster

1946 Spanish poster

Will she survive the terrifying secret?

The forbidding regions of the Louisiana bayous drip with cold, suspense and moody intrigue as Merle Oberon slips into Dark Waters. After surviving a torpedo attack at sea which kills her parents, a psychologically unstable young heiress (Oberon) decides to rest at the Louisiana plantation of an aunt and uncle she’s never met. Unknown to her, two of her parents’ assassins (Fay Bainter, John Qualen) have also murdered her aunt and uncle, assuming their identities. They are joined by their fellow conspirators—Cleeve, the plantation overseer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), and the mysterious Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell)—in an attempt to drive the nervous young woman to suicide in order to collect her estate. Aided by the oppressive vegetation, stifling heat and the deceptive silence of the swamps, the would-be killers methodically implement a series of terrifying ploys to suffocate the young girl in her own madness. – US Image LD (1992) eBay

This unjustly obscure noir was based on The Saturday Evening Post serial of the same name by husband-and-wife writing team Francis, sometimes billed as Frank, and Marian Cockrell. The latter also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Arthur Horman and Harrison, who produced the film. There was a tie-in novelisation by the authors, also published in Spanish as Aguas tenebrosas, though the domestic post-war release title was Aguas turbias. Marion also penned seven novels and several unpublished treatments and screenplays, and the pair had lengthy careers writing for film and TV, among which she worked on 11 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents . On his TV résumé, Francis has 19 episodes of Presents, only two of which were written with his wife, and for which he received his sole directing credits; and “Four O’Clock”, the Harrison-produced, Hitch-directed first episode of Suspicion (1957–1958).

  • Dark Waters (1944) – Frank and Marian Cockrell
  • US: New World VHS (19–)
    • Image DVD and VHS (1999)
    • Mr. FAT-W DVD (2012)

Some time ago, Panamint Cinema in the UK announced a BD but it failed to materialise and the label appears to be permanently on ice.

Nocturne (1946)

Nocturne (1946) US poster

US poster

George Raft plays a hard-boiled detective in Nocturne. A womanizing composer is found dead. The cops call it suicide, but Lt. Joe Warne (Raft) thinks otherwise. He’s convinced that the composer, a modern day Don Juan, was bumped off by one of his girlfriends. But which of the ten gorgeous dolls did it? His investigation leads to his suspension from the force as well as to a romantic tryst with his number one suspect, Frances Ransom (Lynn Bari). And if she didn’t do it, who did? The combination of film noir atmosphere with former Alfred Hitchcock screenwriter Joan Harrison’s (Rebecca, Suspicion) producing talents made Nocturne a major hit with 1946 audiences, as well as a film that still entertains today. – US Image LD (1990)

Okay, so Vincent was a womanizer. So he liked to have a good time with. the ladies. Does that make him a bad guy? He was also a pretty good composer. Well, now he’s dead. And everybody says it was a suicide. Everybody, of course, except Joe Warne (George Raft), that tough detective over in homicide. He doesn’t buy that suicide line for one minute. He says it was murder, plain and simple. He’s got suspects, alright—ten beautiful ones. It seems Vincent was dating every one of these girls, but they are a little shaky. Warne is in deep trouble. It’s the strangest, most dangerous case he’s ever worked on! If he’s not careful, he’s going to end up like Vincent! – US Turner VHS (1991)

Nocturne (1946) US ad

Whose legs are these? | TCM | clip, #2 | theme

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) US three sheet poster

US three sheet poster

Hollywood actor turned idiosyncratic auteur Robert Montgomery (Free and Easy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Here Comes Mr. Jordan) directs and stars in this striking crime drama based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. Ride the Pink Horse features standout supporting performances from Fred Clark, Wanda Hendrix, and especially Thomas Gomez, who became the first Hispanic actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for his role here. With its relentless pace, expressive cinematography by the great Russell Metty (All That Heaven Allows), and punchy, clever script by Charles Lederer (His Girl Friday) and Ben Hecht (Spellbound), this is an overlooked treasure from the heyday of 1940s film noir. – US Criterion BD and DVD

TCM | trailer

Three months before the release of the film, its three leads (Montgomery, Hendrix and Gomez) also featured in the 12 August, 1947, Lux Radio Theatre adaptation. Montgomery evidently liked the story a lot, as in 1950 he starred in a third version for the fifth episode of his eponymous TV show. Unfortunately, that’s MIA but at least the third and final remake to date, a 1964 TV movie retitled The Hanged Man, is available, albeit only on YouTube.

Your Witness (1950)


L-R: US and UK posters, and stills

Adam Heyward, a leading American lawyer, hears that the man who saved his life at Anzio beach is now facing a murder charge and decides to come to England to defend him. Arriving in a picture-postcard village, he learns of a female witness whose evidence might exonerate his friend, but who had fled the scene of the alleged crime in fear. In his efforts to trace her, Heyward faces a number of delicate and perplexing situations, all leading to a gripping climax…

An intelligent, well-made thriller both starring and directed by double-Oscar-nominated Hollywood veteran Robert Montgomery, Your Witness also features the magnificent Leslie Banks in one of his final roles, and appearances by Stanley Baker, James Hayter and Michael Ripper.

  • UK: Network DVD (2014)

Credits music

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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