Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: TOUCH OF EVIL

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) (re-cut version)
Stars: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver.
Writer: Orson Welles based on novel BADGE OF EVIL by Whit Masterson.
Director: Orson Welles

Almost sixty years after its initial release, a recut version of Orson Welles' classic film noir is back on the screen, fifteen minutes longer... darker, more evil than ever before.

Based on the 58 page memo Orson Welles sent to studio chief Edward Muhl after seeing Universal's cut down version, resorter Rick Schmidlin, Oscar winning editor Walter Murch, and film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum have created the film as Welles envisioned it. A posthumous director's cut.

The plot of TOUCH OF EVIL plays as if it were written yesterday. A Mexican district attorney (Charlton Heston!) takes time out from prosecuting a drug cartel to get married. While on honeymoon with his sexy American wife (Janet Leigh) they witness a car-bomb murder. While Heston helps the bordertown detective (Orson Welles) with the investigation, Leigh is taken to a motel for safe keeping. Some honeymoon. Detective Welles instantly finds a suspect, searches his apartment, and finds two sticks of dynamite... But Heston KNOWS the evidence was planted, and that Welles is framing the poor Mexican shoe clerk for the crime. While Heston is busy compiling proof that Welles is a corrupt cop, the drug cartel kidnaps Leigh. Now Heston must rescue his wife AND find the evidence which will bring down crooked cop Welles.

This may sound like a typical cop drama, but Welles turns it into a tour de force, taking us into the strip clubs, whorehouses, and dark twisted alleys of the border town. Creating nightmare images so vivid, you can practically smell the raw sewage in the canal that runs through the slums. In 1950s America, at a time when Beaver was Ward and June's son, the raw sexuality sweating from every enlarged pore of this film must have been more than shocking. The grimy streets, the gang-bangs with bull- dyke gang girls who want to stay and watch. "Hold her legs!" Even the phone sex between a lingerie clad Leigh (looking good enough to eat) and Heston at a store's public phone is given the added perverse twist of having the blind store owner listening to every word... and smiling. This is the type of twisted film David Lynch wishes he could make.

Welles was constantly pushing the limits of film making, and you'd be hard pressed to find a director working today who could pull off half the amazing shots in this film. Visually TOUCH OF EVIL would be innovating if it had been made today, and many of the filmic elements we take for granted had their roots in this film.

The most obvious change in the recut version is the famous 3 minute opening tracking shot (the subject of the opening scene in THE PLAYER). In the old version, Universal used this shot as a title sequence, destroying the suspense and obscuring the amazing camera work. The re-cut removes the titles, so that you can see everything clearly. This amazing shot opens with an assassin setting a bomb timer for 3 minutes. The assassin spots the victim, then races to the victim's car and plants the bomb in the trunk, darting into the shadows just as the victim turns the corner. Then the camera pulls to a high overhead as the victim drives away. The camera follows overhead as the victim drives through town, lowering to street level as the victim waits for a couple (Heston & Leigh) to cross the street. Suspense builds as Heston & Leigh walk on the street next to the car with the ticking bomb. At the border checkpoint, both Heston & Leigh and the car with the bomb are stopped for the usual round of boring questions. Tick. Tick. Tick. Heston & Leigh are allowed through the border at the same time as the car. It's when Heston & Leigh stop to kiss that the car zooms away... and explodes into the sky. ALL of this is done in one continuous shot.

Like nothing you have ever seen before.

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Another amazing shot you may miss if you aren't watching carefully. It's so effortless, so smooth, you don't even realize you're watching one of the most difficult shots ever put on film. At the shoe clerk's apartment, there is a LONG continuous shot (X minutes) where the camera moves from room to room following Heston. In order to do this shot, the apartment set was built with break away walls and furniture on wheels. The camera glides through the apartment effortlessly, through a team of police investigators, into the bedroom, into a minuscule bathroom where Heston washes his face, then retraces its steps back to the living room through the crowd of investors to the front door of the building. More complicated than the long takes in Hitchcock's ROPE because of the break away walls, moving furniture, and sheer number of actors the camera must jockey around while maintaining a smooth glide.

Every frame of the film is meticulously composed by Welles and his DP Russell Metty (the camera operator was Philip Lathrop, who would go on to do amazing DP work himself in films like POINT BLANK). Giant shadows on buildings chase characters through the street. Deep focus makes hunter and prey clearly visible in the same shot, even though they are hundreds of feet away from each other. Characters are shown in shadow, from low angles, often with the neon from honky-tonk bar signs strobing across their faces. A scene in a file room using deep focus to underscore the amazing composition obtained when certain file drawers in the room have been pulled out, turning the shot into a fascinating visual puzzle.

One shot you may not notice is the conversation between Heston and an American District Attorney in a car moving through the back alleys of town at 60 mph. At the time this shot would normally have been done as rear projection, but Welles mounts the camera on the car and has Heston drive like a mad man. No stunt double. That's Charlton tearing through town, zipping through intersections without even slowing down.

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Though the rec-cut version is a vast improvement over the studio's 96 minute trimmed down version, the problems with TOUCH OF EVIL remain the same. The parallel plots seem unfocused, Leigh's kidnapping taking away much of the power of Heston trying to bring down Welles' corrupt chief detective. The plotting is light: we are given little in the way of actual investigation into the frame ups, Heston just goes into a file room and comes out with evidence. Lastly, there's Heston's performance as a Mexican District Attorney: he's laughably unbelievable.

But the amazing work by Welles as an actor (fat, ugly, sad), Joseph Calleia as his second in command (not wanting to believe that "the cop who taught him everything" might be a monster), Valentin De Vargas as the handsome gang member who organizes the gang-bang, Dennis Weaver as the whacked out motel night man who can't think of woman and bed at the same time without getting flustered, and Akim Tamiroff as the crime lord with the bad toupee make this film memorable.

The rocking score by Henry Mancini uses Afro-Cuban rhythms and seems as modern as the theme Mancini would write for PETER GUNN the following year. And the pianola music that plays in Marlene Dietrich's whore house sticks in your mind for days. Dietrich, as the madam who was Welles' lover twenty years and sixty pounds ago gets all of the great lines:

"You're a mess, honey. You ought to lay off those candy bars."

Welles amazing direction and Metty's crisp, styling camera work are more modern, more innovative, than anything you will see today. After almost sixty years, TOUCH OF EVIL is more powerful than ever.

Bill

Article on the restoration: PURE EVIL

Monday, July 24, 2017

DESCRIPTION & VOICE Blue Book - Final Week!

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VINTAGE SCREENWRITING BOOKS


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ADVICE FROM #2 SCREENWRITER!
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***
Screenwriting books have been around as long as films have. This series reprints vintage screenwriting books with a new introduction and history, plus new articles which look at how these lessons from almost 100 years ago apply to today’s screenplays. Anita Loos book is filled with information which still applies. In addition to the full text of the original book, you get the full screenplay to Miss Loos' hit THE LOVE EXPERT, plus several new articles on the time period and women in Hollywood.

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"SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING is the best book on the practical nuts-and-bolts mechanics of writing a screenplay I've ever read." - Ted Elliott, co-writer "The Mask Of Zorro", "Shrek" and "Pirates Of The Caribbean".

"William C. Martell knows the action genre inside out. Read and learn from an expert!" - Mark Verheiden, screenwriter, "Time Cop" and "The Mask", head writer on "Smallville" and "Constantine".

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"Bill Martell is one of Hollywood's best action-adventure writers, with 19 produced films to his credit. His "Blue Books" on the art of screenplay writing are legendary and "Secrets of Action Screenwriting" is the best." - Best selling novelist Dale Brown.

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These links all lead to the USA store, if you are in some other country and want to write a review for your country, go to your Amazon website.

Thank you all again.

Bill

Friday, July 21, 2017

Fridays With Hitchcock: North By Northwest (1959)

RIP Martin Landau...

Screenplay by Ernie Lehman.

My three favorite Hitchcock films are NOTORIOUS, REAR WINDOW and NORTH BY NORTHWEST... And it’s kind of strange to think that the same guy directed them - because they might all have suspense, but all have very different tones. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a comedy chase film with so much clever dialogue and so many farcical scenes that you might forget about the cool plot twists and large scale set pieces. Though movies like SAN FRANCISCO had big set pieces before this, I can’t think of any film with *as many* set pieces.



This is where all of our action films came from, and many say where the version of James Bond on screen came from. Screenplay by Ernie Lehman, who is an amazing short story writer, an amazing novelist, an amazing screenwriter and producer and won a bunch of Oscars. If you’ve read any of his stories, or seen the film SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, you know he travels in some nightmare version of the TV show MADMEN - where you have to sell your soul to sell a product. Here we get the lighter version of the Lehman lead - Cary Grant as an ad man who lies to everyone, has a liquid lunch often followed by afterwork cocktails, too many girlfriends and not a single real friend... except his mother. He’s charming... but all surface - he doesn’t want to know what’s underneath. Who really cares?

Nutshell: If there was ever a boy to cry wolf, it’s Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) - what does the O stand for? Nothing. In the opening minute and a half, we get a quick sketch of adman Roger - momma’s boy, playboy, liar, drinker... before a silly mistake in identity has him kidnaped by two armed thugs who think he’s a CIA Agent. They take him to this big country estate owned by Lester Townsend, where he meets the man of the house (James Mason at his best) who has just a minute before dinner guests arrive to decide whether he should kill Roger or not. Mason’s secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau) is thin and impeccably dressed and single - you do the math - and seems to enjoy causing people harm. When Roger keeps saying he’s *not* this CIA Agent George Kaplan, and even has a driver’s license to prove he’s Roger Thornhill, Leonard answers: “They make such good ones.” Roger - who tells lies for a living - can’t get anyone to believe him. Mason’s threats are so sophisticated and urbane that it takes you a moment to realize they *are* threats. Mason has Leonard kill Roger - with Bourbon and a sportscar, but Roger escapes death... and now can’t get anyone to believe that spies are trying to kill him. Guess what? Lester Townsend is a big wig at the United Nations - and doesn’t look anything like James Mason. No one in this film is who they claim to be - and nothing is as it seems. Mason is really an enemy spy named Van Damm... and Roger ends up framed for the real Townsend’s murder. There is no one to turn to - so Roger runs. He must find the real George Kaplan so that Van Damm will stop trying to kill Roger. By trains, planes, and automobiles Roger heads North by Northwest looking for the real Kaplan... and becoming an accidental spy and man of action in the process. The man who took nothing seriously grows up - and becomes a man of his word.

Hitch Appearance: Right up front, trying to catch a bus... and failing.

Sound Track: A great Bernard Herrmann score! Also, by the way, a great opening title sequence.

Great Scenes: They’re all great scenes. Seriously. The great thing about NORTH BY NORTHWEST is that you can take the smallest and most forgotten scene in the whole film - and it’s great! Here’s an example - a junk scene where Roger leaves Kaplan’s hotel and takes a taxi to the United Nations to ask Townsend what the hell is going on and why me? A pair of assassins are following him. But here we get a comedy version - Outside the hotel a Doorman has secured a cab for a Tourist Couple, when Roger bolts out, pushed them aside, gets in the cab and takes off. The Doorman hails a second cab for them, opens the door for them... and the Two Assassins bolt out of the hotel, push them aside, get in the cab and take off. The Doorman looks at the Tourist Couple, then cautiously looks for another cab. That’s just one of those scenes that gets the character from point A to point B!

Here’s another junk scene - Roger is locked in a hospital room and needs to get out - basically, another scene that will get him to a location where a “real scene” will take place. So Roger opens the hospital window, steps out onto a narrow ledge, gracefully walks along the ledge to the next hospital window, opens it and climbs into the room. A sleeping woman - not bad looking - yells: “Stop!” Then puts on her glasses and looks Roger over... then says: “Stop” in a much sexier voice. Now Roger has to get out before she tackles him! Another funny scene that is basically there to get Roger out of a locked room.

Every scene in the script - even these funny ones - move the story forward. This is a *relentless* script - it’s always moving. It is always a fast paced film - there are screenwriters who complain that movies today are designed for the short attention spans of the MTV generation (wait - how long has MTV been around? When the Rolling Stones sing about their generation - that’s a bunch of AARP members!) and these danged kids don’t want to take the time to build up to a story for a half an hour or so before the plot kicks in. NORTH BY NORTHWEST - made in 1959 - not only kicks into gear a minute and a half in, it doesn’t let up!


Bourbon And A Sports Car: Three martini lunch Roger is held down by the Two Assassins as Leonard forces him to drink a full bottle of Bourbon, then they put him behind the wheel of a Mercedes convertible on a winding cliff-side road... and send him to his death. The great part about this is that it is smart on the side of the bad-guy spies - Roger’s death will look like a drunk driving accident. Problem is - Roger takes control of the car and manages to barely miss driving off the cliff... so the Two Assassins give chase in their car! Now we have a car chase with a very drunk driver. This adds an extra element to an already exciting car chase. One of the cool things about this scene is that Hitchcock gives up a driver’s POV through the windshield shot alternating with Roger behind the wheel so that *we* are driving the car on this dangerous winding road. Another thing he does is give us Roger’s *drunk POV* at times - with double vision (which road is the real one?) and blurry vision. Again - by putting us in Roger’s shoes and in the driver’s seat we feel like all of this is happening to *us*. If you’ve seen the car chase on the big screen - those POV shots as we head to a cliff or an oncoming car are scary! Any time you can find a way to turn the audience into the protagonist, you create an emotional scene.

Cops At Townsend’s: Roger manages to crash into a police car, which forces the Two Assassins to back off. But now Roger is in trouble with the law. When they ask him how much he’s had to drink, he raises his hands as if measuring a fish and says “This much”. By the way, the arresting officer is Corporal Emil Klinger - that’s where the M.A.S.H. character came from. He’s given a phone call, and calls his mother... “Mother, this is your son, Roger Thornhill” - as if she may have forgotten her son’s name. As an in joke only for my own amusement, when I call my mom I always say, “This is your son, Bill.” The next morning Roger tells the judge his story... and the judge sends a pair of Detectives with Roger and his Mother to the Townsend house... where Mrs. Townsend says Roger is “a little pink-eyed, but aren’t we all?” (a phrase I’ve taken up using the day after a party.) Then tells the Detectives that Roger was too drunk to drive... and the more Roger tries to prove he’s innocent, the more he just looks crazy. The sofa where they forced him to drink and spilled some booze on the cushions? Completely clean. The cabinet where Roger claims they got the bourbon - filled with books, not liquor bottles.

It’s important in a thriller script to remove the police and the authorities from the equation - so that the protagonist is alone against the world - and this scene does that. At *best* Roger looks like a drunk trying to get out of a police charge. At the end of the search of Townsend’s the Detectives apologize to Mrs. Townsend, and take Roger back to the police station. Roger’s mother tells him to just, “Pay the two dollars” - another phrase I often use to mean, quit arguing, you’ve lost and you’re looking silly.

The only way Roger can prevent himself from getting slightly murdered is to find the real George Kaplan... that is Roger's quest in the story.

Elevator with Killers: Roger manages to drag his Mother to the hotel where Kaplan is staying... and bribes her to get the room key. She won’t do it for $10 or $20, but $50 gets her cooperation. They search Kaplan’s room and discover they have Roger confused with a much shorter man... who has dandruff. But the strangest thing is that the Maid, the Valet and everyone else at the hotel has never actually *seen* Kaplan - they all think Roger is Kaplan. Then the phone rings - Van Damm’s Two Assassins! If Roger isn’t Kaplan, what is he doing in Kaplan’s room? And of course, the call came from the lobby phone - the Assassins are on the way up! Roger and his Mother race out of the hotel to the elevators... where the Assassins get off the up elevator and join Roger and his Mother going down.

Being trapped is one of the basic scenes in a thriller script - but Roger isn’t trapped *alone* with a pair of killers, his mom and a bunch of other people are on the elevator. Roger points out the Assassins to his Mother, who asks them: “You aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?” The question is so absurd, that people in the elevator start laughing... and soon *everyone* is laughing (including the Assassins) *except Roger*. He is the man alone - no one will believe him. The boy who cried wolf.


United Nations: Roger goes to the United Nations to find Townsend, has him paged... and this distinguished looking man introduces himself as Mr. Townsend, and Roger replies: “No you’re not.” And now Townsend must convince Roger he is who he is... more identity confusion! Roger still isn’t sure he believes him, and pulls out a picture of the guy who claimed to be Townsend (Van Damm) and shows it to Townsend - who gasps! Eyes open wide at the picture! Then he seems to faint! Roger grabs him to prevent him from falling, sees a big throwing knife in Townsend’s back and pulls it out... and that’s when everyone at the United Nations notices him - and people start snapping pictures. Roger sees one of the Assassins slip out of the room... leaving Roger, bloody knife in hand, trapped in the room! Roger escapes - and we get a great high overhead shot of Roger fleeing to a taxi - he’s like a chess piece or maybe an ant. Small, insignificant.

Seven Parking Tickets: Roger ends up at Grand Central Station - with just about everyone in the world looking for him. He tries to buy a ticket *North* and the ticket salesman pesters him with questions - it’s like everyone is against Roger. The ticket salesman gets Roger to wait for a moment... as he calls the police. Roger escapes, police chasing, and sneaks onto the train.

In the passageway, he runs into a pretty girl - Eve Kendall - flirts with her a bit... then the police enter the car. While Roger hides, Eve tells the policemen that she thinks he got off the train. After the police leave, Roger tells her he has seven parking tickets. After the train is in motion, Roger has no ticket so he has to keep moving... and goes to the dining car... where he’s seated at a table with Eve. He lies to her about who he is and where he’s from... but she stops him - she knows he’s Roger Thornhill and that he’s wanted for murder on the front page of *every* newspaper in the nation. The man who lies easily to women, can’t seem to lie to this woman. He has to be *honest* with her! Yikes! She flirts with him, says she has a bedroom car with plenty of room. Wow! Then she says he’d better hurry up. Roger thinks she's hot to trot... but the train just made an unexpected stop and a bunch of police just got on!

Eve’s Compartment: The police are doing a compartment-by-compartment search for Roger - and they enter Eve’s bedroom and ask if she’s seen him. Roger is hiding in a upper bed... and must be completely quiet and still while the police are in the bedroom. This is another one of those basic scenes in thrillers. Because Eve had dinner with Roger, they *really* question her. Take their time. She says they just shared a table, but don’t know each other. Eventually the police leave... and Roger can breathe again.

Now we come to the love scene - a kiss that manages to take them from wall to wall all the way around the car. Sure: “they kiss”, but how is *this* kiss different than any other kiss in any other movie? Here we have this romantic never-ending kiss where they use every surface of the room. A sexy, romantic idea for a kiss.

The next morning, when the conductor knocks on the door, Roger hides in the bathroom... and we get one of the big twists in the story. Afterwards the conductor walks down the passageway to a door, knocks on it, says the woman in compartment whatever (Eve) sent this message. A hand takes it, closes the door. The note says that she has Roger, what should she do with him. Reading the note? Van Damm and Leonard. Eve is a bad girl!

Redcap Spin: When the train pulls into the station, the police are waiting... so Roger disguises himself as a redcap, and we have another basic suspense scene, and we see an ocean of redcaps - dozens of them - one is Roger. A redcap in his underwear tells the police he was mugged for his uniform, so police start grabbing redcaps and spinning them around to look at their face. One-by-one the redcaps are spun around, and we know that any minute they will get Roger - and he’ll be caught. Suspense builds as there are fewer and fewer redcaps - because we know the next one will probably be Roger! It’s like a ticking clock - with redcaps instead of minutes passing.

When they spin the last redcap, it’s not Roger, because he is already in the train station men’s room changing and shaving... with Eve’s little woman’s razor. The big macho guy shaving at the sink next to him uses a straight razor - and gives Roger a look.

Crop Duster Scene: Eve tells Roger she’s gotten a message from Kaplan to meet him at Prairie Stop - take the bus, not a car. Roger gets off the bus in the middle of farmland for as far as the eye can see. Nothing but fields. Suspense is the *anticipation* of action - which means suspense can literally be nothing happening. This scene starts with Roger just standing in a deserted road, waiting for Kaplan to show up. Except we know there is no Kaplan, and that Eve (who sent him there) is a bad girl. That means this is a trap, but Roger doesn’t know it. That’s called “audience superiority” - the audience has information that the protagonist doesn’t have. We know Roger is in big trouble, he doesn’t. So while he stands there and an occasional cars zips by, nothing is happening... except we know any minute something *will* happen. And that creates suspense. In order to keep the suspense perking, Roger sees an old pick up truck driving toward him. Hey, that could be Kaplan! (Except we know it’s more likely someone who is going to kill Roger). The pick up truck stops, lets out a man in a suit, takes off. Now Roger is on the opposite side of the road from this man. And Roger waits for the best moment to cross the highway. Then asks if he’s Kaplan. The man answers “Can’t say that I am, ‘cause I’m not.” This guy talks stranger than Yoda! Then the guy sees a crop duster, starts a conversation about crop duster pilots... and how dangerous the job is, Many get killed. Wait... is that a threat? Just as the man’s bus is pulling up, the man notes that the crop duster is dusting where there ain’t no crops. Okay - the man was a potential threat, and the moment he is taken away, another threat is introduced... and the type of suspense changes.


We go from nothing happening, to the crop duster attacking Roger. Now our suspense is based on the anticipation of the crop duster killing Roger. Hitchcock alternates shots of the crop duster plane zooming at us, and shots of Roger running. This puts us in the protagonist’s shoes, just like the Bourbon and Sportscar scene. The cool thing here is that the shots of both the crop duster and Roger become shorter as the scene goes on, building up the pace and the anticipation/suspense. The shots of Roger also become closer - as if the plane is getting closer. When Roger hides in a cornfield, the crop duster sprays the corn - forcing Roger out into the open again. Eventually the plane sprays machinegun fire - and Roger is running for his life.

There’s a great little bit of simple visual storytelling at the end of this scene. Roger steals a farmer’s pick up truck with a refrigerator in the back... and we cut to the city at night where a policeman is writing a ticket on a completely out of place pick up truck with a refrigerator in back. This not only tells us Roger is in the city... but it’s a funny way to give us this information.

Eve’s Hotel Room: Roger realizes Eve sent him to his death, and goes to confront her. I use a clip from this scene in my 2 day class to illustrate how you can show complex emotions through the actions of the characters. When Eve goes to hug Roger, his hands tun to fists and he does not touch her. Everything Roger *says* in this scene has a double meaning: “Surprised to see me?” “There’s just no getting rid of me.” But it is all said in a friendly manner - so we need the actions to show Roger’s anger.

While Roger is in the shower, Eve leaves... but Roger wasn’t really in the shower. To link this scene to the next, they use a device: Roger rubs a pencil over the pad of paper next to the phone in the hotel room... exposing an address. Then we see the address on the outside of the auction house.

Auction: This is the first scene with Roger and Van Damm and Eve - our little romantic triangle. And that is how the scene is played - as a romantic triangle where the losing party gets killed. Because this is a scene where the characters are in public and can’t kill each other with guns or knives, they try to off each other with words. Roger and Van Damm (and sometimes Leonard) dig into each other with the most painful words they can find - and this becomes a battle of the wits. What’s cool is the other person in the room - the studio censor - who forces them to find clever ways to hit below the belt. When Eve says Roger followed her from the Hotel, Van Damm asks if he was in her room, and Roger replies that *everyone* has been in her room. Later Roger tells Van Damm that Eve does great work - she puts her whole body into it.

As they verbally spar, with Eve in the middle, Leonard is bidding on a piece of art. They outbid everyone else - they *must* have this little statue. Once they get it, Van Damm and Eve leave... And the two Assassins and Leonard block all of the exits. No way out. Here’s the kind of thing that separates good scenes from average ones - finding the completely different way to resolve the problem. The one we have never seen. As screenwriters we always want to find the unusual solution to the problem. Here we have Roger trapped - assassins at every door. How does he get out of it? He bids on the piece of art being offered... but bids weird. Now he has called attention to himself, and the assassins can’t really do anything to him. He’s in public. But Roger keeps bidding, and eventually ruins the auction to the point that the auction house calls the police. When the police arrive, Roger *punches* one of them. That guarantees that instead of ticketing him or warning him, they will have to take Roger to the police station and put him in a cell... which will make it close to impossible for the assassins to get him. Finding the usual solution makes the scene different and interesting and exciting... oh, and *funny*, since Roger gets to act like a crazy guy in the middle of a very dignified setting.

What Is A MacGuffin? The little pre-Columbian statue that Van Damm was so insistent to buy at the auction is one of the film’s two MacGuffins (the other is George Kaplan). When asked what a MacGuffin was, Hitchcock said it was a device for capturing the indigenous lions in the Scottish Highland... but there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands... hence, no such thing as a MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin is the physical device that drives the story - the thing that everyone is after. The Maltese Falcon is probably the most famous one. In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE everyone wants to get their hands on the Russian Lecter coding machine. Of course, the Lost Ark is a MacGuffin. Rare coins, rare books, murder weapons, plans to the Death Star, all kinds of things that both good guys and bad guys must own. In THE LADY VANISHES the MacGuffin is a *tune* that is really a code that Mrs. Froy has memorized - turning her brain into the MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin drives the story - where would THE MALTESE FALCON be without The Maltese Falcon? It is the most important element in the story... but Hitchcock noted that it may be the thing that drives the story, but what it is doesn’t matter very much. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we have this pre-Columbian statue, and inside is a roll of microfilm. Van Damm is smuggling this microfilm out of the USA - and delivering it to the Soviets... and the CIA must stop this from happening and recover that microfilm... and Roger ends up being the guy in the middle. So the fate of the free world rests on who ends up with the statue and the microfilm that is inside it by the end of the movie. This film is all about that microfilm! It’s what Van Damm has secretly been up to since the very first frame. It's why he has been trying to kill George Kaplan... the only man who can get Roger off the hook. So the microfilm is *really* why they are trying to kill Roger... and Roger’s only hope of survival after the auction scene is to get that microfilm!

But here’s the question: what’s on the microfilm? Guess what? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we will lose the Cold War if Van Damm delivers the microfilm to the enemy. And that’s why the MacGuffin is both the most important element in the story (it drives the story, and who ends up with it is what the story is *about*), but also unimportant (as long as we know people will kill for it, who cares what it really is?). The scene where the Professor tells Roger what it’s all about? Takes place on the tarmac of an airport (Northwest Airlines) and you can’t hear a thing that is said because a plane is taking off. We never find out what is on the microfim.

And George Kaplan, the MacGuffin that Roger is chasing, doesn't exist... but more on that in a moment.

Now, I think you can still have the MacGuffin be the thing that drives the story and yet not really care what’s on the microfilm - but we live in a post CSI world where people like to know the details. Today, they would want to know what’s on that danged microfilm. And the cool thing about a MacGuffin is that it makes a dandy high concept substitute. If the *MacGuffin* is some high concept device, then you can have a standard non-high con thriller (or action or whatever) movie. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a non-high con story... but the Ark can level mountains, and whoever controls it will win the war. Is that *lightning* shooting out of the Ark? So, these days, I would make the MacGuffin *something* rather than just a device - because it adds production value. I have a half finished novel from decades ago about good guy spies and bad guy spies all trying to get their hands on this lost microfilm. Could have been anything, but I decided it was the plans for the “freon bomb” that flash freezes anything in a 5 mile radius. Opening chapter had a test on a tropical island... that froze chimpanzees so that they shattered when you touched them. To me, that raises the stakes and makes the story more interesting. Better than “just microfilm”.

But the whole story is about that MacGuffin. You can’t abandon it midway, or just decide it’s not important. All of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is about getting that Ark, all of THE MALTESE FALCON is about getting the black bird, and by the time we find out what has been driving NORTH BY NORTHWEST, it’s all about the microfilm in the pre-Columbian statue and George Kaplan.

Mt. Rushmore Restaurant: After the Professor (I’m sure some relation to the Video Professor) tells Roger that the fate of the free world rests on that microfilm of, well, whatever’s on it, and that George Kaplan doesn't exist - he's a decoy to cover the tracks of the *real* CIA Agent... he also reveals another mistaken identity and twist - Eve isn’t bad girl at all, *she’s* the deep cover CIA agent... and Roger has given Van Damm reason to mistrust her. No one in this film is who they seem to be! So they hop a plane to Rapid City where Van Damm has a house near Mount Rushmore to try and set things straight.

Roger meets with Van Damm and Leonard... and Eve at the restaurant overlooking Mount Rushmore. This scene could have taken place anywhere - so why not this really cool location? NORTH BY NORTHWEST isn’t just a story that moves in that direction, it’s also a travelogue movie, where every interesting location anywhere near that route is a story stop. We are seeing America in this film. Mount Rushmore in a great background to a scene.

In the restaurant, Roger makes a deal - he will allow Van Damm to take the statue (and microfilm) to the Soviets in exchange for... Eve. She betrayed him, and he’s going to make her suffer. Van Damm sees that Eve is *not* working with Roger and the CIA, and they are no longer suspicious of her. Everything is back on track, right? Except Eve pulls out a gun and shoots Roger - again and again! Roger foes down, dead. Leonard and Van Damm leave the restaurant and escape in their car. Eve gets in her own car and races away. Leaving Roger dead on the floor. This is our protagonist. Played by a huge star, Cary Grant. And they kill him about three quarters of the way through the film! His body is put in the back of an ambulance and taken away...

Woods Goodbye: The ambulance is driven into the woods, where it stops. Trees everywhere. Beautiful. Then Eve’s car pulls up and stops. And Roger hops out of the back of the ambulance. Eve’s gun was filled with blanks.

The Professor tells Roger he only has a minute... and Roger and Eve slowly walk toward each other - meeting in the middle of the woods. This is the first time Roger has meet with the real Eve - neither is playing a role. And it’s a great love scene - because both are completely without defenses. They have their first real kiss, a small conversation... then she says she has to get back. Roger thinks this whole fake murder has been to pull her out of danger... but it has really been to make her a fugitive from justice so that Van Damm will have to take her out of the country with him when he delivers the MacGuffin... so that she can meet and infiltrate the Soviet side of the operation. Roger doesn’t want her to go - he loves her. When he tries to stop her, he gets KOed by a Park Ranger and Eve drives off to Van Damm’s house.

Van Damm’s House: Now we get that scene where Roger escapes the hospital... and goes to Van Damm’s house. Again - an amazing house instead of just some house. This place is on stilts and really cool looking. Roger climbs the stilts, ending up just under the living room window... where he overhears Leonard and Van Damm talking about the plane that will land soon to take them away... and Leonard tells Van Damm that there’s a problem with Eve.

And Leonard aims a gun at Van Damm.
And Fires.
And Van Damm isn’t hit.
It’s Eve’s gun - filled with blanks.
Now, there could have just been a scene where Leonard tells Van Damm that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. But that is the least exciting way to get that information across. Here we get the *most exciting* method to reveal that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. The most dramatic. The most inciting - because Van Damm *punches* Leonard in the face afterwards. Always look for the best way to reveal information - if there is a dull way, or even a traditional way - look for some other method. Find the most exciting way - the most unusual and different way.

Van Damm tells Leonard the best way to deal with Eve is from a great height - over water. They are going to throw her out of the plane! Roger overhears this, climbs to a section under Eve’s window and throws rocks at her window. What happens next? When she *finally* looks out the window, Roger is forced to hide from Van Damm and Leonard... and she doesn’t see him! Instead of things going according to plan - the opposite happens. No easy scenes, here. Roger climbs up to her room... just as she’s left her room and gone downstairs! Again - nothing happens the easy way.

So Roger is upstairs, hiding on the balcony, and Eve is downstairs sitting on the sofa in the same room as Van Damm and Leonard. How does he stop her from going with them? How does he tell her they know she’s a CIA agent?

We get a great bit of visual storytelling. On the train, she sees his monogrammed handkerchief and asks what the O stands for, and he explains “nothing”. He is ROT. Roger is looking for something to signal her with, pulls out his handkerchief, sees ROT - she knows him by those initials - and pulls out a monogrammed matchbook, jots a note inside, and throws it from the balcony to the ashtray on the table directly in front of Eve while Leonard and Van Damm are looking out the window as the plane lands. The matchbook misses the ash tray. It misses the table. It hits the floor halfway to Leonard’s feet. Nothing easy here... and it gets worse. The matchbook is a “focus object” - an object that creates suspense. Leonard turns and walks toward Eve, sees the matchbook, picks it up! Suspense - because we know if he opens the matchbook and reads the message, Eve is dead. We are focused on that matchbook... will he open it? Examine it? Realize that ROT stands for Roger O Thornhill? But here’s the thing - he thinks Roger is George Kaplan... so ROT means nothing to him. So he places the matchbook in the ashtray in front of Eve. But Eve knows ROT - and now must *not* look at the matchbook while Leonard is talking to her. When he turns away, she grabs the matchbook, reads the message... but the plane has landed, and Van Damm and Leonard hustle her out of the house so that they can leave... and they can throw her out of the plane later.

When they leave the house, Roger runs downstairs to rescue her... but a burley maid aims a gun at him and tells him to freeze. Guess which gun it is? The one filled with blanks! The gun-filled-with-blanks gets used three times in this story - and not once is it contrived or illogical.

Hanging From Lincoln’s Nose: Which brings us to Roger and Eve and the MacGuffin trying to escape by climbing down the face of Mount Rushmore while Leonard and the Two Assassins give chase. Whenever you can *combine* threats, you increase the excitement. Mount Rushmore is not only the coolest place for a chase scene, it’s easy to fall from - making it a chase at a very dangerous location (two ways to die!). In here somewhere Roger refers to the pre-Columbian statue as “the pumpkin” - which is a reference to the Pumpkin Papers from the 1948 HUAC investigation into communist spies in the USA - run by some guy named Richard Nixon who would eventually become President. They found microfilm in a hollowed out pumpkin in a farm in the midwest. America’s heartland - overrun by commies!


The big flaw in NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Roger doesn’t resolve the conflict! The Professor shows up with a sharp shooter and arrests Van Damm and shoots Leonard seconds before he would have killed Roger and Eve. William Goldman uses this scene as an example of wrapping up the plot and all of the subplots in about 30 seconds. Though it would be better if Roger had resolved the conflict, I cut the film some slack because of the very last shot: Roger and Eve take the train on their honeymoon, and after they get into bed together... the train goes into a tunnel.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a fun film - comedy, thrills, suspense, romance... but still some real emotions. If there was ever a film that opened the door for the biog summer blockbusters we have today, this is it.

- Bill

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

THRILLER Thursday: GUILLOTINE

MY BIRTHDAY! How many of my books are in the Top 20 today? Here's my favorite THRILLER episode...

Guillotine

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 2, Episode: 2.
Airdate: Sep. 26, 1961

Director: Ida Lupino.
Writer: Charles Beaumont based on the story by Cornell Woolrich.
Cast: Robert Middleton, Danielle de Metz, Alejandro Rey.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The early dawn. The gleaming knife. A man seized in his cell by armed guards in his stocking feet, snatched from a dream of freedom to be thrust into the waiting embrace of Madame Guillotine. Altogether an unenviable experience. Not however inevitable. It is related that there have been certain criminals, cutthroats and murderers all, who have by one means or another evaded this chilling fate. Well, the efforts of one such fellow to alter his ordained destiny form the substance of tonight’s story.

“The location: France. The year: 1875. And the theme? Well, you might call it togetherness. The normal association of a body and the head it comes with. You’re about to meet three people who enjoy seriously conflicting viewpoints on the subject. (The guillotine blade slices down, dropping a head into the basket which Karloff retrieves.) Here is the condemned man, Robert Lamont, who desires to keep his head while others about him are losing theirs. Enacted for us by Alejandro Rey. (The blade slices and the next head.) His good wife and the chief source from which his present dilemma obtains, Babette. Played by Danielle de Metz. (The blade slices and the next head.) And the third figure in this grisly triangle, the estimable and much maligned Mssr. De Paris. Public servant par excellence, portrayed by Robert Middleton.

“This drama may be considered, not to raise a tribute to the march of civilization, but also for the unconquerable spirit of convicted murderers. Of course, such practices may soon become things of the past. With modern methods of scientific liquidation instant death is now available to the masses without fuss and in most cases without undue delay. The old traditional ways were always so much more quaint.”



Synopsis: The Executioner “Mssr deParis” (Robert Middleton) tests the guillotine. They raise the blade, he locks the “trigger”, then pushes the lever with his foot to release the trigger. The blade glides down in a flash - through the neck stockade where a prisoner will soon be. The Executioner smiles. They place a cabbage in the neck piece and the Executioner pushes the trigger lever with his foot again. Wooosh! The cabbage is cleanly sliced in half. Half falls into the “head basket” below. The device is ready for it’s next victim...

Hours before dawn: In the darkest cells of the prison, two Guards have removed their shoes and creep to a cell where two condemned men sleep. Professional gambler Robert (Alejandro Rey) wakes up when the cell door opens. Are they coming for him? No, the Guards grab the other prisoner, who screams for his life. Robert watches through the cell door as they take him away...

Just before dawn: The cell door opens again and Robert turns - are they coming for him as well? No, it is his wife Babette (Danielle de Metz) who has bribed a guard for this visit. We get a nice piece of dramatic exposition on how he got to this place: he discovered Babette was cheating on him and killed the man. He claims he has forgiven Babette, but seems to rub in her indiscretion again and again, which makes her attempts at last minute reconciliation difficult. He kisses her and tells her that he has forgiven her, but can not forget. That her testimony against him may have damned him to this fate, but he knew they would force her to take the witness stand. That any other jury would have come back with a “not guilty” verdict, because of the “unwritten law”. There is all kinds of baggage in this relationship - and love and anger are in equal parts.



Cheering from outside the cell, and Robert and Babette look out the window to see the prisoner being escorted to the guillotine. Woosh! Plop - the head falls into the basket.

Robert tells her that soon it will be his turn, and Babette asks what can she do? Robert tells her that tradition, an unwritten law, that if the Executioner dies on the day of an execution the condemned man is set free. So if she can find out what day Robert is to be killed, and then kill the executioner... they can be together again. Babette isn’t all that hot on killing a man... will she do it or not?

The Executioner is given his next assignment from the warden... Robert. The clock is tricking... but ticking until *when*?



A Few Days Before The Execution: Outside a café, Babette carries a basket of flowers, selling boutonaires... and approaches Executioner. He is amazed by the bright colors of her carnations, and asks where she buys her flowers. She says she grows them herself, this is a family flower that has been in her family for generations. The Executioner’s hobby is gardening, and he asks her to sit with him for a moment and discuss flowers. She flirts with him as they discuss flowers - and there’s no shortage of words and phrases with double meanings here. He is a lonely older man, a sad man, and she is a beautiful woman. She offers him clippings of her family’s carnations... and asks when she can come by with them... cleverly finding out that he must get up very early on Thursday to work. So they make a date for Wednesday afternoon.

After he leaves, Babette accepts a drink from one of the other customers - a carriage Cab Driver (Gaylord Cavallaro) who informs her that man she was talking to was the Executioner. The most hated man in Paris. This is more sly exposition, as this guy is trying to pick her up by giving her some information... including that the Executioner will cut off a man’s head for money, but he wouldn’t hurt a cockroach without being paid...



This episode is filled with great matchcuts, and on the word “cockroach” we go from an empty saucer in the café to an identical saucer in Babette’s flat with a cockroach eating some poison on it and keeling over onto its back - legs convulsing. Babette is timing the roach’s death as she brushes her hair. She pours the poison into an ornate little tin, wraps it in her lace handkerchief and...

The Day Before The Execution: Her lace handkerchief on her lap as she sits in the Executioner’s garden on Wednesday afternoon. He plants the clippings while she flirts with him. When he’s finished he sits with her and breaks the bad news that he knows will break his own heart - he tells her that he is the city’s executioner. But she doesn’t seem to be repulsed like everyone else... like every other woman he has ever met in his life. “I am not under sentence, Mssr. And until I am, I don’t see why I should fear you.” Wait... is this a chance for the executioner to find love? Romance? This young woman knows his secret and continues to flirt with him.

This is a great scene, because she is flirting with the man who will take off her husband’s head... unless she poisons him dead. And he is a charming, shy, sympathetic man... who dislikes his job, but someone must do it.



They are close to kissing when they’re interrupted by his housekeeper Mdm LeClerc (Janine Grandel), who is calling him to dinner. The housekeeper is stern, abrasive, and reminiscent of Danvers from Hitchcock’s REBECCA. Oh, and slightly jealous. She tells Babette that she must leave now. Babette grips the lace handkerchief with the poison cannister as he walks her to the front gate. How will she poison him now? She offers to take a stroll with him later that night, but he says he must get up very early for work tomorrow. She says his dinner smells delicious and he gets the hint and asks her to dine with him.

Dinner for three. No shortage of tension as Mdm LeClerc snipes at her the whole time... while Babette tries to figure out some way to drop her poison into his food while the housekeeper isn’t looking. Had it just been the two of them dining, it would have been much easier. His wine glass is right there... but the housekeeper is watching her like a hawk. The tin of poison stays wrapped in the lace handkerchief.



After dinner, the Housekeeper steps into the kitchen for a moment and Babette asks the Executioner for a glass of water as a way to distract him so that she can pour the poison into his brandy snifter. But the moment his back is turned for a moment and the tin is out of her lace handkerchief the Housekeeper returns. Dinner is over, time for her to leave... and she still hasn’t poisoned him!

Time is ticking away until dawn and the execution!



The Housekeeper mentions that she is preparing the Executioner’s favorite breakfast for his pre-dawn breakfast - apple pancakes (pastry). Babette asks Mdm LeClerc if she will show her how they are made, and the two women go into the kitchen. On the counter is a big bowl of chopped and seasoned apples next to the dough. Babette asks her to write down the recipe, and while Mdm LeClerc is doing this she dumps the tin of poison into the apple mixture and quickly stirs it. The poison looks like the cinnamon. Babette quickly sets the stirring spoon down as the housekeeper hands her a folded piece of paper with the recipe.

In the prison, a guard slides a folded piece of paper to Robert. A note from Babette saying that he need not fear the dawn, she has completed her assignment.



The Morning Of The Execution: The Executioner’s Assistant (Peter Brocco) preps the bladeless guillotine for Robert’s execution.

The two Guards take off their shoes and creep to a cell where condemned men sleep... this time they have come for Robert. The Warden (Gregory Morton) enters with a Priest (Guy deVestel) for Robert’s final confession. Robert apologizes for getting the Priest up so early in the morning, but he has nothing to confess.

The Executioner finishes a big plate of his favorite breakfast, the apple (poisoned) pancakes. Checks his watch - time to go. Grabs the guillotine blade in it’s leather carrying case and checks the blade - very sharp. Puts on his coat and leaves the house - briskly walking across town in the pre-dawn light.



In the pre-dawn light the Warden and Priest and Guards escort Robert through the prison hallways to his death. Robert continues to turn down the Priest - if he dies without final confession he will be sent to Hell. Robert wonders why everyone is so sure that he will die today, and makes a 2 to 1 bet with the Warden that he will live to see the sun set again.

The Executioner continues briskly walking across town - almost marching - to Robert’s execution. But he halfway down this street he stops for a moment, removes his handkerchief and wipes sweat from his brow. Is the poison finally taking effect? Or is it just a warm morning? He checks his watch...

The Executioner’s Assistant checks his watch - the Executioner is running a little late this morning, but there is still plenty of time.

The Warden and Guards escort Robert downstairs, Robert almost tripping at one point. “Watch your step, Mssr.”



The Executioner almost trips... he is now feeling sick. He holds his stomach, has to stop for a moment to wipe the sweat again. Passes a bar with a sign advertising Cognac...

The Warden pours Robert a snifter of Cognac, and one for himself - the condemned man’s final drink. A philosophical conversation... then Robert asks if it is true that if the Executioner dies on the day of the execution the next man in line is pardoned? Yes... but this Executioner has never been late, never been ill... never had so much as a stomach ache.

The Executioner holds his stomach, leaning over a fountain - sick. He staggers down the street, face sweating, sees a pharmacy and pounds on the doors. No one answers - it’s before dawn. He continues staggering forward, hanging onto the pillars of a building to stay upright. Marching forward to Robert’s execution, the case with the guillotine blade at his side. He passes a barber shop...

The Barber (scene stealer Marcel Hillaire) arrives to shave Robert and cut his hair - must look good for his execution, right? A very macabre conversation between the two: they talk of going to Hell, and the Barber says it is a myth that he draws the line on the neck for the Executioner to follow, and he has never loaned his razor to a prisoner so that he wouldn’t have to face the national blade... all myths.

The Executioner continues forward in agony. He *will* make it to the execution. Nothing can stop him... even though he is sweating like a horse.



A sweaty horse and the cab behind it stops at the prison’s side gate. The Cab Driver helps Babette down from the carriage, joking with her about being front row for the execution. Flirting with her in an odd way. She shoots him down, he drives away. Babette asks the Gate Guard if she can enter here to see the execution. Nope - this gate is only for the Executioner. The public gate is around the corner. Has the Executioner arrived yet? Not yet. She smiles.

The Warden tells Robert that the Executioner is here, now, testing the machine. He has never been late. “I can assure you that at this very moment he is raising his hand in a signal to his assistants.” For the first time Robert looks worried.



The Executioner raises his hand to hail the taxicab as it comes towards him. The Cab Driver stops, climbs down to where the Executioner is doubled over in agony. “Something I ate...” The Cab Driver offers to take him to a doctor, but the Executioner says he *must* get to the prison to fulfill his duty. The Cab Driver says he will take the man to a doctor because that is the right thing to do, but he will *not* take him to the prison to take another man’s life. One of the great things about this episode is that it manages to keep you on the edge of your seat while discussing capital punishment. If the Cab Driver takes the Executioner to the prison, Robert dies. If he refuses, Robert has a chance at living. So the stakes in this conversation are the stakes in the story. And it’s dramatic, because the Executioner is seriously ill... but still arguing that he must do his sworn duty. And the great side-effect of budget constraints in television is that this is the same Cab Driver from the café, the same one who just took Babette to the prison and was on his way back from the prison when the Executioner flagged him down. So we *know* this character. His earlier conversation with Babette about how the Executioner wouldn’t kill a cockroach but sees nothing wrong with killing a man tints this conversation. The Cab Driver tells him that his conscience will not permit him to take him to the prison, but it is only a few hundred yards away, and drives off.

The Executioner continues staggering towards the prison... towards Robert’s death.



Ten Minutes Before The Execution: The Assistant tells the Warden that the Executioner has not arrived yet, not even a message from him. There will not be time for a test before the execution. Robert is no longer worried... the Warden is worried.

The Executioner staggers relentlessly towards the prison - it is within sight now. He leans up against a wall, sick. A Policeman approaches, thinks he’s a drunk, tells him he should go home and sleep it off. The Executioner says he *must* get to the prison... then keels over.

Robert and the Warden have a conversation about execution versus rehabilitation - again, this is perfectly in context for the story and even adds to the suspense because the longer they stall the execution the more likely that the Executioner will finally stagger into the prison with the guillotine blade and Robert will lose his head. Robert - the gambler - asks if he shouldn’t be taken to the execution platform about now. Hey, the spectators must be disappointed. The Warden has Robert taken out to the courtyard, knowing that if the Executioner doesn’t show up it will be a major public embarrassment for him.

That Policeman wants to get the Executioner to a doctor, but he *must do his duty*... so the Policeman helps him to the prison.



They bring Robert out to the courtyard - the spectators go wild. Robert looks through the crowd for Babette - can’t see her. The Priest makes one final effort to get Robert’s confession, but he refuses. Minutes tick away - if they get to the time of the execution and the Executioner has not arrived, Robert goes free.

Babette is not in the crowd because she is still at the prison’s side gate - counting down the minutes there, worried that the Executioner still may arrive. He is a big man, did she put enough poison in his food for such a big man? What if he is *not* dead? What if he is still coming to the execution?



And then the Executioner appears across the street, held up by the Policeman (Vance Howard, Opie’s dad). The Policeman yells for the Gate Guard to give him a hand. Babette backs up, hiding in the doorway. Terrified that the Executioner will fulfill his duties. The Policeman and Gate Guard practically carry the Executioner to the gate, leaning him against the wall only inches from Babette as they open the door. The Executioner looks right at her and asks, “Why?” She tries to get away from him, but is trapped in the doorway - trapped with the man she murdered. A shy and lonely man... now close to death. “I thought you were fond of me. For the first time in my life someone who... Why?” Big dramatic moment. Babette says she has never seen him before in her life and walks away.

The Executioner tells the Policeman to stop her, and she is taken into custody. The Executioner tells her that he *will* keep his appointment, and there’s an echo here of her earlier line about not having to fear him because she is not under sentence. Well, she will be now!

The Executioner’s Assistant and the Prison Doctor (Charles LaTorre) come out, and they take the Executioner into the courtyard... and the guillotine... and Robert.



Robert is preparing for victory, when the Executioner is carried into the courtyard. The spectators cheer - the show will not be cancelled! Robert realizes this can go either way - his confidence vanishes.

The Executioner falls to the ground. The Assistant takes the case with the guillotine blade from him and attaches the blade. They help the Executioner to his feet.

Robert says, “He will never make it,” but he’s not sure he believes that.



The Executioner’s legs no longer can hold up his stout body, but they carry him towards the platform... closer... closer... closer! Robert repeating, “He’ll never make it!” with less confidence with every foot closer to the platform.

Robert is taken up to the guillotine, his neck placed in the stockade, his head dangling over the head basket. He yells that no one but the Executioner must touch the trigger.

Only the Executioner and the Prisoner are allowed on the platform, so they lay the Executioner down at the base of the steps.

“No one else! You hear me, no one else!” Robert is screaming and crying and...

The Executioner is *crawling* slowly up the stairs to the platform. Each step is agony.



The spectators are screaming.

Robert is screaming.

The Executioner is slowly crawling across the platform to the guillotine. One inch at a time. Closer... closer... closer.

Robert is screaming, “He can’t kill me! He can’t kill me!”

The Executioner crawls right up to the guillotine trigger! And then drops to the platform - unmoving.



Robert’s screaming turns from terror to hope.

The Prison Doctor climbs up onto the platform, holds up the Executioner’s arm to take his pulse. Conforms that he is dead.

Robert’s hope turns to triumph, to joy - he will be set free! “He’s dead! I win! I win! I win!”

The Prison Doctor lets go of the Executioner’s wrist... and his arm falls... and hits the trigger... and the blade falls... and so does Robert’s head.

The end.



Review: Another perfect storm for me - Ida Lupino *and* Cornell Woolrich! When I first watched the THRILLER show as a kid, this is the episode that stuck with me. It had me on the edge of my seat for a full hour. Would the executioner make it to the prison? I was a little concerned when watching it again that it wouldn’t hold up to my memories... but it was just as great as I remembered it.

As I’ve said before, Woolrich is known as one of the three fathers of modern Noir fiction, and the films made from the work of those three and their contemporaries are what we know as Film Noir. Woolrich is the guy who put the Noir in Noir thanks to his “Black Series” of novels, including BRIDE WORE BLACK, BLACK PATH OF FEAR, BLACK ANGEL, and many others. And if you are wondering how Noir can have three fathers and no mothers, Woolrich is probably closest to taking that mother role... not because he was Gay, but because he specialized in female lead stories. Noir from the woman’s point of view. Many of his stories, including this one, deal with women doing terrible things to save the men in their lives. Since Noir is about good people doing bad things... and discovering the darkness within that they wish they’d never uncovered, the idea of an “innocent” housewife stepping over the line to help her husband out of a jam is prime Noir territory and Woolrich mined it throughout his career.



I have always wanted to do a more faithful film adaptation of his novel BLACK ANGEL about a basically quiet and subservient suburban housewife whose husband is accused of murder and there is so much evidence that he *will* be convicted... so comes out of her shell and becomes a detective, going undercover to trace his steps on the days leading up to the murder in order to uncover the real killer. But this quest creates one line after another that she must cross - creating a spiral of descent into the darkness. How far will she go? Will she start using drugs in order to be accepted by addicts as she goes undercover following a lead? Yes! Will she become a prostitute and sleep with a bunch of strange men in order to follow a lead? Yes! As the quiet housewife spirals down and down in search of the evidence to clear her husband of these charges - degrading herself again and again - we begin to wonder if this man is worth all of this. If *anyone* is worth all of this. And also - if she proves him innocent, will he want whatever is left of her back? This is an awesome Noir story that Hollywood cleaned up for film - robbing it of all of its darkness. In the novel she proves that he is innocent and they live happily ever after... but Woolrich, like Raymond Chandler and many other pulp writers of the time, based his novels on short story material he’d previously had published... and in the short story version, “Angel Face”, she degrades herself only to discover that her husband is guilty, was always guilty, and their whole marriage was based on her believing his lies. And that’s the Noir ending I would use on a new film version. Darker than dark.

A similar ending to this story GUILLOTINE - where our wife character Babette must seduce and murder the executioner in order to save her husband’s life... and after she does all of these terrible things, it ends up being all for nothing. How dark can you get?



Though this is a fairly simple story - will Babette be able to poison the Executioner for the first half and then will the Executioner make it to the execution for the second half - it is all about suspense. Both of those situations are focused on suspense and the episode (and Lupino’s direction) are relentless in keeping us on the edge of our seats in anticipation. This is another Woolrich trait - where Hitchcock was the master of suspense on screen, Woolrich was the master of suspense on the page. Where they two intersect - the movie REAR WINDOW and the TV episode 4 O’CLOCK - we end up with classics. Woolrich knew how to keep the suspense escalating on the page, and in his novel PHANTOM LADY (which also needs a more faithful remake) the chapter titles tell us how many days until the protagonist will be executed for a murder he did not commit - even before the murder has occurred in the story! Talk about a page turner! You can’t finish one chapter without seeing the title of the next chapter with the number of days left... and you end up continuing to read. Can’t put it down! This episode uses those same suspense tools. We know when Robert will be executed and count down the days, hours, minutes, seconds until that happens.



One of the reasons why the suspense works in this episode is what I call the “THUNDERBALL Theory” in my Secrets Of Action Screenwriting book. In the James Bond movie THUNDERBALL the villain Largo has *two* nuclear weapons, and “tests” one on an island before hiding the other somewhere in Miami. That way the audience can see the destruction this weapon causes so that they know what would happen if the one in Miami detonates. If the audience doesn’t understand what will happen, if it remains abstract, there is less suspense generated. In GUILLOTINE we open with the title device being tested so that we understand what will happen later if Robert’s neck ends up meeting that hurtling blade. We get some great visual exposition showing us step-by-step how the device works - including that trigger which will become very important at the very end of the episode where there is no time to explain anything. You always want to get exposition up front so that it doesn’t get int the way of the ending. We don’t want to be explaining how that trigger works moments before the Executioner’s arm drops on it! Plus, knowing the full scope of the “event” gives the anticipation of that event (suspense) more weight. It’s not an abstract concept, this execution by guillotine, we have seen what that blade can do to a cabbage. And they *do* use this blade on the necks of men - which we know because that test at the beginning of the episode is for Robert’s cellmate... who loses his head soon after that test.

Hey, that brings up another great storytelling tool used in this episode - repeating the events that lead up to the execution. The episode opens with the Guards taking off their shoes and sneaking up to the death row cell to take the next victim of the guillotine... and grabbing Robert’s cellmate. By showing this procedure early in the episode, when we see the same procedure happening again we *know* that Robert will suffer the same fate. It makes the execution *real* and amps up the suspense in the situation. It’s a cousin to the THUNDDERBALL Theory - by showing what happens early, we turn an abstract idea into something tangible and that creates suspense later. This isn’t just some vague idea of a bad thing that might happen, we’ve *seen it happen*.



But the key to this episode and the key to this being effective as Noir is Robert Middleton’s performance and the way his character is portrayed. The Executioner must be both a serious threat *and* a sympathetic victim. Simultaneously. That’s a tough thing to pull off for a writer and a director and an actor - and here all three manage to walk that razor’s edge without being cut. Middleton, a character actor probably best known for the brutish escaped convict in DESPERATE HOURS, probably does his best work in this episode. When his blurry vision clears for a moment at the prison doors and he recognizes Babette, we genuinely feel for him. “Why? I thought you were fond of me. For the first time in my life someone who... Why?” That’s a heartbreaker!

The amazing thing this episode does is make up both want the Executioner to succeed in getting to the prison to do his job, and *not* make it to the prison so that Robert won’t lose his head. Ida Lupino manages to pull that off (with the help of Middleton and TWILIGHT ZONE screenwriter Beaumont - 22 episodes!) masterfully. Lupino is one of those great directors who somehow has slipped through the cracks and is not studied today. Part of that may be because she had to fight for every credit and ended up directing a bunch of silly TV shows like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, but her work was always imaginative and amazing. Here she gives us POV shots from the Executioner that replicate the blurry fever vision of a poisoned man. Her THRILLER episodes and films are often filled with amazing visual experiments (frequently mentioned in this series), but she also knows exactly how to create suspense through editing and angle and camera movement. Her film THE HITCHHIKER is edge of the seat suspense. Here we have a simple story which is just a guy walking to work, right? Some other director might have made it just as exciting as some guy walking to work, but Lupino turns out an episode that was my favorite as a kid and still holds up as an adult.



Oh, gotta mention the amazing Jerry Goldsmith score! One of the major components in creating the suspense in this episode is his relentless score makes us feel the determination of the Executioner. Goldsmith was my favorite composer of film music from my lifetime, and long before he became one of cinema’s greatest composers of the 70s and 80s, he cut his teeth doing weekly scores for TV shows like THRILLER. His music elevates many of the weaker episodes and turns great ones like this into classics.

Okay, I’ve probably oversold this episode, but it’s still my favorite after all of these years and Stephen King and his PIGEONS FROM HELL can go suck it. Next week the streak of good episodes continues with an adaptation of Poe’s THE PREMATURE BURIAL, and after that another great creepy episode based on Robert Bloch’s THE WEIRD TAILOR. Stay tuned!

- Bill

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