"Sabrina". "The King and I". "Sweet Smell of Success". "North by Northwest". "West Side Story". "The Sound of Music". "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". "Hello, Dolly!". For any screenwriter, having any two of those titles to their credit would be the mark of a successful career. Ernest Lehman, though, wasn't just any screenwriter, and his career reflected that.
Lehman, who passed away a little over a week ago at the age of 89, had a keen sense of dialogue and character. Roger Thornhill, in "North by Northwest," is the epitome of Alfred Hitchcock's everyman placed in extraordinary circumstances. Never mind that there are few men on the planet with the charisma, class and look of Cary Grant. Forget that Thornhill is a wealthy, single womanizer -- something few people will ever experience. Easy to do? In another movie, not really. But in Lehman's hands, the Thornhill character is not only three-dimensional, he's totally and utterly believable. We can put our selves in those big shoes of Grant's Thornhill because Lehaman's design of the character creates a living, breathing person, not a two-dimensional celluloid cut-out.
Look, also, at "Sweet Smell of Success," one of the most biting, real movies ever created. The relationship between Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco and Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker is complicated, contentious, symbiotic, abrasive and unflinching in its complexity -- the way a lot of our relationships with others are. There is typically a great deal happening below the surface of most human interactions, and Lehman, along with co-writer Clifford Odets, bring those oft-hidden feelings blasting to the surface in a fiery, hellish explosion. "Sweet Smell of Success" is a tough movie to watch, but making it through means listening to some of the best dialogue ever recorded in a film. And, sure, Odets contributed greatly to the script -- he's the first-credited screenwriter, after all -- but Lehman conceived of and wrote the source novelette, and his contribution cannot be understated.
You could go on for a long time, taking each of Lehman's films and distilling them down to their beautifully written essence and dissecting how talented the guy was. But if you do that, you'll notice the most amazing fact of all of Lehman's career -- he only wrote 16 cinematic scripts! For someone who worked in the days, waning as they might have been, of the studio system and to have so little to his name is remarkable. To have some of the most revered films in cinema history among them, and to have worked with some of the best directors of all time (Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Alexander Mackendrick, Robert Wise), is that much more astounding.
Ernest Lehman had one of the most brilliant careers in Hollywood, even if he's not the most identifiable name connected to his works. Still, Lehman's contributions to the movies have been vast and there is no replacing someone of such talent. In the introduction to the screenplay of "Sweet Smell of Success," Lehman wrote of the movie, "Clifford Odets had done some brilliant rewrites, Tony Curtis gave the performance of a lifetime, and today, forty years later, I bask in the reflected glory of the work so many others did to make 'The Sweet Smell of Success' an historic film."
The same could be said for cinephiles, movie buffs or just afternoon movie watchers -- we can all bask in the reflected glory of the work Lehman did to not only make historic films, but make the cinema a better, more familiar place for us all.