Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The uranium in the wine bottle

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In the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, readers were treated to the story “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill, which was set on an alien planet consumed by a war between two factions known as the “Sixa” and the “Seilla.” Its hero was a spy, complete with a prehensile tail, whose mission was to fly into enemy territory and destroy the ultimate weapon before it could be detonated. The story itself was undeniably mediocre, and it would be utterly forgotten today if it weren’t for its description of the weapon in question, an atomic bomb, which Cartmill based almost verbatim on letters from the editor John W. Campbell, who had pitched the idea in the first place. According to the physicist Edward Teller, it was plausible enough to cause “astonishment” at the Manhattan Project, which counted many readers of the magazine among its scientists, and after it was brought to the attention of the Counterintelligence Corps, both Campbell and Cartmill were interviewed to investigate the possibility of a leak. In reality, “Deadline” wasn’t even much of a prediction—Campbell, who was feeling frustrated about his lack of involvement in war research, had a hunch that an atomic bomb was in the works, and he packed the story with technical information that was already in the public domain. He evidently hoped that it would draw official interest that might lead to a real defense role, which failed to materialize. After the war, however, it paid off immensely, and Campbell found himself hailed as a prophet. Cartmill, the credited author, neatly fell out of the picture, and the fact that the story hadn’t predicted much of anything was lost on most readers. Campbell had essentially orchestrated the most famous anecdote of his career, planting “Deadline” in the magazine expressly so that he could point to it later, and across multiple retellings, the details of the ensuing investigation were exaggerated beyond recognition. As the historian Donald Spoto aptly puts it: “[His] calculated image of himself as a prophet does not coincide with the truth; inspired by his sense of publicity, he told a better story than the facts reveal.”

But Spoto isn’t writing about Campbell, but about Alfred Hitchcock, in his classic biography The Dark Side of Genius, and the story here isn’t “Deadline,” but the great romantic thriller Notorious. As legend has it, when Hitchcock had to come up with the MacGuffin, or the plot point that would drive the rest of the movie, he proposed a sample of uranium hidden in a wine bottle by a group of Nazis in Brazil. As he said to François Truffaut in their famous book-length interview:

The producer said, “What in the name of good­ness is that?” I said, “This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.” And he asked, “What atom bomb?” This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project someplace in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium Mac­Guffin. The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it.

In the end, the idea was approved, and Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht allegedly went to Pasadena to get background information from the physicist Robert A. Millikan. According to Hitchcock, Millikan responded: “You want to have yourselves arrested and have me arrested as well?” After this outburst, Milkian informed them—in something of a non sequitur—that the idea was impossible anyway, although others evidently felt that they had come too close for comfort. As Hitchcock confided in Truffaut: “I learned later that after­ward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months.”

Like many movie buffs, I accepted this story without question for years, but when you encounter it after the “Deadline” incident, it starts to seem too good to be true, which it was. As Spoto writes in The Dark Side of Genius: “The business of the uranium remained a considerable source of publicity for Hitchcock  to the end of his life. To François Truffaut, to this writer, and to many others, he always insisted that he had chosen the device of uranium ore in Nazi experiments quite coincidentally, far in advance of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Japan in August 1945…He always emphasized, in every discussion of Notorious, that he was virtually a prophet.” The truth, Spoto continues, was very different:

By the time Notorious actually began filming, in October 1945, Hitchcock had made yet another trip to London…and he had returned to Los Angeles for final script work in September—after the bombings of Japan, and after he had spent several weeks in New York testing actors, among whom were several famous German refugees he finally cast in the film. On the basis of news from these German contacts, and from the accounts that flooded the world press…Hitchcock and Hecht refined the last addenda to their script just before the first day of production…All the evidence suggests that in truth the uranium was included after the fact.

As for the allegation of government surveillance, it was evidently based on a general directive from the FBI that the producer David O. Selznick received in May, which cautioned that any movie that featured American intelligence would have to be cleared by the State Department. Like Campbell, Hitchcock liked to make people think that he had been given special attention, and over the years, in both cases, the stories only grew.

There are obvious similarities between these two incidents, as well as equally noteworthy differences. With “Deadline,” the description of the bomb is the story’s sole reason for existing, while Notorious would still be a masterpiece even if the MacGuffin had been something else entirely. (As Hitchcock allegedly told his producer: “Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.” He claimed to have later told a movie executive who had objected to the screenplay on grounds of its implausibility: “You were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story.” And even if he invented the conversation, his point still stands.) The other difference is the use to which each anecdote was put. For Hitchcock, the uranium incident, and the reputation that it gave him as a “prophet,” was just another way of burnishing his image, and although he enjoyed dining out on it, it was a minor part of his legend. Campbell, by contrast, used it as the basis for his entire postwar career. Just two weeks after Hiroshima, The New Yorker profiled him in a Talk of the Town piece titled “1945 Cassandra,” in which it credulously wrote:

If you want to keep up with, or possibly stay ahead of, the development of secret weapons in time of war, you had better…go to the pulps, preferably Astounding. One reason is that Astounding, which has for the past ten years or so been predicting atomic bombs and using them to liven up its stories, has been permitted to duck some of the security rules that made high-echelon government officials such halting conversationalists in recent months.

And that reputation hinged largely on the myth of “Deadline” and its creation. It bought Campbell tremendous credibility after the war, earned or otherwise, and it played a significant role in science fiction’s big push into the mainstream. Eventually, the editor would stake—and lose—all of that goodwill on dianetics. But for a few years, Campbell, like Hitchcock, got to play his audience like a piano, and both men liked to pretend that they had once been notorious.

One Response

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  1. I have always wondered how much of the Manhattan Project was known or suspected by those outside of the project, especially among physicists not working on it. I’ve never been able to get a straight answer on this, even when I’ve talked to physicists who were alive at the time (and not working on the bomb). Memory is a tricky thing.

    Robert Scherrer

    June 4, 2018 at 9:42 am

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