Obituary : Marc Behm

Screenwriter (Charade, Help! The Party's Over.....)

by Christopher Hawtree

Tuesday October 30, 2007

The Guardian

When the opening credits of the Beatles' Help! zap across the screen while they perform that song, few may have noticed screenwriter Marc Behm's name superimposed upon Ringo's drum or recalled it from the equally distinctive credits of Charade (1963). Both films feature a beautiful woman -Eleanor Bron, Audrey Hepburn - caught up in plots generated by some men's quest for a valuable object.

Behm's script changed George Harrison's life; unlike his, however, Behm's death, at 82 in France, went unnoticed, and his quiet burial is redolent of his novels' plots. Best known is The Eye of the Beholder (1980). Their surreal and disturbing quality draws on such characters as an almost incestuous private detective, a bisexual woman preyed upon by the upper echelons of the Nazi party or a female vampire who traverses the 20th century.

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Behm had an early ambition to act. This was partly fulfilled with the comedian Ernie Kovacs, whose later off-the-wall TV performances, before a fatal car crash, made him a cult figure. His improvisations may have influenced Behm, who had meanwhile served in wartime Europe. There he stayed and married, duly finding that "resting" made acting so arduous that he turned to writing.

Success came quickly with the ingenious 1961 story The Unsuspecting Wife, written with Peter Stone (obituary, May 19 2003) and bought by Stanley Donen to film as Charade, written by Stone. Partly through the well-mannered badinage which was Cary Grant's stock-in-trade, Audrey Hepburn learns rather more about her late husband. Often likened to Hitchcock, but more charming, this plot is a succession of neat scenes rather than entirely convincing, but bravura and brilliant editing carry it along, and stood Behm in good stead.

He, in turn, became a screenwriter. Among early works was a harbinger of his fiction. Now vanished, Guy Hamilton's The Party's Over was delayed by objections to its subject: early Swinging London, with Oliver Reed, meets necrophilia. The original script became a book (1963) by Frank Clews, with stills, but by the time a mangled film had been released, Behm had become known for Help! Although director Dick Lester brought in playwright Charles Wood for idiomatic English dialogue, plot and scenes were Behm's, including the Beatles' only singing of Beethoven and an Indian restaurant where a sitar so attracted Harrison that he took lessons, with all that followed. Too madcap to gel, Help!'s best scenes were cut, said John Lennon (a DVD appears next month, with script annotated by Lester).

Other films included Twelve Plus One (1969), from the Russian story also filmed that year by Mel Brooks; Someone Behind the Door (1971), with Charles Bronson; Piaf (1974); and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981), with Sylvia Kristel.

Eclectic and a great admirer of Graham Greene, Behm turned an unfilmed script for producer Philip Yordan into a novel, The Eye of the Beholder. His first had been Queen of the Night (1977). Named Edmonde after her father's favourite villain, she declares: "I am Capricorn, wilful and remote, cold and lonely, and sufficient unto myself. But I hate astrology. It's so Germanic and tribal." A quest for that father becomes a lurid progress to the death camps and brings meetings with Adolf and Eva, while Goebbels "was a bent, swarthy gnome with tiny muskrat teeth. His eyes scrambled over me like cockroaches."

Even more troubling is The Eye of the Beholder. Fixated on his lost daughter, a detective tails across America, and gradually protects, a woman who murders successive husbands. "She was going to kill him. Her hips moved in a contortion so exquisitely gracious that his throat choked with tenderness." Readers, too, feel that disturbing allure which pervades a novel twice filmed - by Claude Miller, with Isabelle Adjani (1983) and by Stephan Elliott, with Ewan McGregor (1999).

Such implicit notions as free will and an all-seeing God are better appreciated, however, through the warped mind's eye of Behm's narrator. Although The Ice Maiden (1982) and Afraid to Death (1990) are a little less effective, Behm's work makes it thrilling to find that four more novels appeared only in French, during the 90s. Behm has not escaped; we shall be hearing more of him.

� Marc Behm, novelist and scriptwriter, born January 12 1925; died July 12 2007