As you may know by now, I’m a major fan of the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Being a fan of director of such notoriety has it’s benefits: namely, there are tons of reading material about him out there. The two I have read thus far, Hitchcock/Truffaut and Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light were highly informative reads. In both books, a number of films Hitchcock wanted to make but never did came up. There are actually a great number of projects that never came to pass for various reasons. The one that managed to come up over and over again in the books was an adaptation of the play Mary Rose.
From descriptions, it seems as though the play was a festering obsession of Hitchcock’s. He seems to have first seen the play in 1920, during the original run, and it stuck with him from that time. Numerous times throughout his career, attempts were made to make the film. His first pitch came early in his US career in the 1940s. After being denied then, Hitchcock had Jay Presson Allen, writer of Marnie, write a screenplay following the finish of that film in 1964. Again, he was denied. Hitchcock even later claimed a future contract said he could make any film, except for Mary Rose. And yet, he still thought of making it always.
What kept Hitchcock so perpetually obsessed with it? Having read the screenplay written by Allen, I completely understand. The complete plot summary (spoilers, obviously) I will sum up here:
The script opens with a narrator informing us of a mysterious island, after filling us with a sense of dread that something is wrong with the place, we then turn to an old house connected to the island somehow. Kenneth, a prisoner of war for many years, returns back to his childhood home. It’s rundown, and in the old drawing room he finds an elderly caretaker. She warns him not to go into the room that once was his bedroom. After much prodding, she admits there is a ghost there, and leaves Kenneth alone to look inside if he wishes.
From there, we jump back in time to when the drawing room was active. Mary Rose, age 18, informs her parents that she wants to marry a man named Simon. Simon comes in to speak to them alone, and they inform him they must let him know a secret about Mary Rose she is not aware of. The story jumps back in time yet again.
Mary Rose and her family visited the island we saw earlier as a small child. She was on the smaller island while her father was fishing in between the two islands. The father turns his back to the water to begin rowing, and when he reaches the other side, she’s gone. The whole island is searched, and she is not found. Weeks later, she is found in the spot she disappeared from, not harmed and having no memory of being gone. To her, no time as passed. The only adverse sign as she grows up is that she sometimes “hears” things.
Years later, Mary Rose and Simon have a young child. They visit the little small island from her childhood. A local man, the narrator who began the story, tells them of the legend of a girl who went missing and came back unharmed, Mary Rose and Simon talk about odd things: fearing growing old, wanting to stay young, hoping that her child Kenneth will one day hold her when he’s grown up. Suddenly, Mary Rose hears voices calling her, and she disappears again.
Eighteen years later, the family holds out hope that Kenneth will come home one day alive. A call comes in that Mary Rose is alive and is on her way. Simon kisses her outside in the darkness, and then notices with horror that she has not aged at all and has no concept that any time has passed. She equally reacts with horror upon seeing that Simon and her parents are much older. Panicking, she demands to see her son, and when she is told he was taken away, she dies.
Now we’re back to where we started. Kenneth opens the door and finds himself looking at the ghost of Mary Rose. At first, she does not know who he is, and then becomes suspicious that this man must have taken her son away. She pulls a knife on him, but he is eventually able to convince her that he is Kenneth, her son now grown. Kenneth holds her as she once requested, and afterwards she hears the voices again and vanishes off to the island.
And that is how it ends.
It is truly unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is at times horrifying, suspenseful and touching. The final act, Mary Rose’s return to the conclusion is all incredibly heartbreaking and moving. The final scene with her reunion with Kenneth is particularly touching. It’s hard to express just how engrossing this surreal tale is. It has stuck with me and I don’t think I’ll soon forget it. It’s a powerful story dealing with love, loss, death and trying to hold on to youth.
If there was any doubt that Hitchcock could have turned this is into a wonderful film, consider the work he did and what he had planned: he procured the original music used in the play, and intricately planned out a way to shoot the ghost of Mary Rose with lights lined inside her dress.
The play has, somehow, never been adapted into a film. Allen attempted to get it made later on, but gave up in 1987. An attempt was also made to get it off the ground in 2000 as a Melanie Griffith vehicle, but that never materialized.
How good could this have been had Hitchcock made it? With his passion for the subject, his meticulous planning and his obvious skill, I have no doubt it would have been great. One thing I know is that like Hitchcock, I will likely never forget this magical story now that I have read it. Hopefully one day it is given the proper film treatment.
I cannot recommend reading the script enough. It can be read here.