Friday, January 30, 2015

Hitchcock 20: BREAKDOWN

There's a great new documentary video series focusing on the 20 TV episodes that Hitchcock directed called HITCH 20. This episode of the show is a great HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episode called BREAKDOWN with Joseph Cotten as a ruthless businessman who downsizes a loyal long time employee... and then ridicules him for breaking down and crying. It's really a lot of fun, so take a look:

Of course, I have my own book focusing on Hitchcock...



The perfect holiday gift!

Click here for more info!


We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 53 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

Films Examined: “Rear Window”, “Psycho”, “Family Plot”, “Topaz”, “Rope”, “The Wrong Man”, “Easy Virtue”, “Lifeboat”, “Bon Voyage”, “Aventure Malgache”, “Elstree Calling”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Stage Fright”, “Champagne”, “Spellbound”, “I Confess”, and “The Trouble with Harry”, with glances at “Vertigo” and several others.

Professional screenwriter William C. Martell takes you into the world of The Master Of Suspense and shows you the daring experiments that changed cinema. Over 77,000 words.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Well Of Doom

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

Season: 1, Episode: 23.
Airdate: February 28, 1961

Director: John Braham
Writer: Donald S. Sanford based on a story by John Clemons
Cast: Ronald Howard, Henry Daniell, Torin Thatcher, Richard Kiel.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith being awesome.
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Imagine meeting two suck netherworld creatures on your wedding night. Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial. All names that men have given to Satan. Or is it possible that Robert Penrose has actually encountered the evil one himself? Or was this violent incident the start of some monstrous practical joke conceived by the young man’s friends? Or by his enemies? Well, perhaps a glimpse of tonight’s players will give you a clue? Mr. Ronald Howard, Mr. Henry Daniell, Mr. Torin Thatcher, Miss Finton Minor, and Mr. Richard Kiel. Impossible to guess, you say? Very well, let’s turn back the clock and pick up our young bridegroom before the start if tghis fateful journey. But I warn you ladies and gentleman, if you have a faint heart, tune away, because it may stop in your throat, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff.”

Synopsis: Kind of the horror version of THE HANGOVER...

Robert Penrose (Ronald Howard) and his servant Teal (Torin Thatcher) are heading to Penrose’s bachelor party in a limousine on a foggy country road... and running late. Penrose asks the Chauffeur (Billy Beck) if he can drive any faster, and is told not unless they want to end up in a ditch. That’s when the Chauffeur sees something through the fog on the road in front of them and hits the brakes hard. Standing in the middle of the road is a giant, Styx (Richard Kiel)... next to him is Moloch (Henry Daniell) holding a pair of ancient pistols. The Chauffeur says it’s a *monster* on the road, and then monster Styx yanks open the limo’s door and pulls out the Chauffeur!

Penrose climbs out of the Limo, and calmly tells Moloch to have his man release the Chauffeur so that they can get to the bachelor party. He’s sure that his jokester Best Man Charlie has paid them well to pull this prank, but they are running late and they have to go. Moloch says that this is no prank, he is Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial... Satan! And Penrose has a price to pay for his past sins. Penrose compliments the man’s acting but insists that they must be going... and that’s when Styx seems to kill the Chauffeur! Casting his body aside on the country road, forcing Penrose back inside the limo and then climbing into the driver’s seat and popping open the door for Moloch! They have been kidnapped!

After Karloff’s intro, we flash back to a few hours before the kidnap...

Penrose is at home on his family estate, when he gets a call from his bride to be Laura (Fintan Meyler) and they discuss the upcoming marriage (tomorrow) and the Bachelor Party tonight. She warns him not to let his Best Man Charlie get him into trouble... that guy is a loose cannon joker, and they all might end up in jail... and Penrose would miss the wedding. Penrose says that won’t happen, he’s wise to his Best Man’s tricks.

After Penrose hangs up, his servant Teal comes in... and there is tension between the two men. Teal used to work for his father, and basically *raised* Penrose. But somewhere along the line Penrose treated Teal poorly and the two have been estranged for years. Penrose apologizes to Teal for whatever happened in their past and says that even though when his new bride moves in, his plan *had* been to let Teal go... he has decided to keep Teal on. The problems of the past can be set aside. Teal is almost a father to him. Teal thanks him for this... then Penrose asks if he’ll be a part of the wedding and come with him to the Bachelor Party, unknowingly putting his servant’s life in danger.

Bride Laura goes to bed early, probably resting up for her honeymoon night... when someone breaks into her bedroom and sneaks up to her bed. When she wakes up and looks at her assailant... it’s the giant Styx!

Now back to the kidnap in the car where we began...

Penrose is sure this is all Best Man Charlie’s practical joke... and Moloch fires one of this antique pistols at the seat neat Penrose. The gun in very real. Penrose now wonders if this is a real kidnap. He tells Moloch he’d gladly pay the ransom if they would just get out of his car so that he could go to his Bachelor Party. He offers half a million dollars... but Moloch says that’s just not enough. Styx turns onto a dirt road, stops the limousine and they get out.

Styx has a pair of torches, and Moloch snaps his fingers at them... lighting both! They take Penrose and Teal through the foggy moors. Teal recognizes the area as part of Penrose’s estate... an area that is no longer used. Moloch does a couple of other completely supernatural things... is he really Satan? They are lead to the “Block House”, and Moloch tells Penrose that he has been here before when he was six years old... and gives details that *only Penrose could know*. Freaky! Teal and Penrose attack! Fighting for their lives! But Moloch turns and points at Teal and WHAM! Teal drops dead! He turns to Penrose and asks if he’ll be more cooperative, now.

The Block Room was used for prisoners and torture centuries ago... but also, maybe decades ago by Penrose’s father. In the cell where they lock up Penrose is an old well... and many of his father’s enemies ended up thrown into that well to die. Moloch wants Penrose to pay for his father’s sins. Not just with money, but with a deal with the devil... a contract with Satan. All his worldly goods, his estate, his money, his soul... and his bride. In exchange for his life. Just sign on the line. Then Moloch goes to the cell on the opposite side of the room... where they have Laura in chains!

After Moloch and Styx leave, Penrose has a cell to cell conversation with Laura. He has a plan: he will make a rope from his blanket, attach it to the inside of the well where they can not see, sign the contract and once Laura is released... throw himself into the well to commit suicide. Once they have left the dungeon, he’ll climb out of the well, escape the cell, and rescue Laura. (The cell has a loose bar, Penrose snuck out, then snuck back in when he heard them coming down the stairs.)

The plan works kind of according to plan, except instead of faking his suicide Styx picks him up and throws him into the well!

Penrose wakes up in the well, grabs the home made rope and starts climbing out of the well... but the peg attaching the rope to the well is pulling out of the ancient well. Suspense... will he be able to get out before the peg pulls out? He gets to the top, gets out of his cell, Laura is not in her cell, so he climbs the stairs out of the dungeon to rescue her...

At the top of the stairs, he spies Styx in street clothes and Moloch taking off his wig and make up... talking to someone who was behind the whole scheme. When the mastermind turns around, it’s Teal. The servant was afraid that Penrose was going to ditch him once he got married after all of the damned work Teal has done... so the plan is to kill Penrose, kill Laura, claim they have gone away on honeymoon... and just take over the estate. But Styx doesn’t have the guts to kill Laura. Then Styx (or whatever his name is) asks how they can trust Teal to give them their cut of the fortune when he’d turn against the boy he raised into a man? Moloch and Teal draw on each other... shoot and kill each other! Then Penrose comes up the stairs and Styx freaks out... trips and falls down the stairs and dies. Penrose rescue Laura from the next room and they have to race to their wedding!

Review: Great Goldsmith score... very atmospheric locations and scenes. One of the great things about a story that takes place on the foggy moors of England is that all of that fog not only makes it spooky, it hides Studio City just beyond the backlot at Radford Studios. The interior sets are great.

Henry Daniell is great, but I wish they had kept the “is this a joke or isn’t this” going for longer than a minute. When we see the Bride To Be kidnapped at the top of the episode we *know* it isn’t a joke, and that lessens the impact. Much like the suspense generated by not knowing if a character is or isn’t a killer, not knowing if the situation is a practical joke played by the Best Man or a real kidnap... or really Satan... would have kept us guessing and uneasy because we did not know.

They also seem to downplay some of the tricks Daniell does which make him look like Satan: the lighting of the torches, etc. Those should have been amped way up. Daniell is a great hambone actor who seems to be reined in here, when he’s playing *Satan*. If there was ever a role for overacting! There’s a way to present supernatural magic on screen that shocks the audience, but here it’s kind of matter of fact dull.

One of the nice scenes that could have been better was the cell to cell communication in the dungeon between Bride To Be and Groom. For some reason she taps her foot (because she’s gagged) when a panicked conversation would have been much better. The foot tapping makes me wonder if the original story was designed to make us doubt that she was really in there, think that even at this late stage it might all be a practical joke played by the Best Man. I can see no other reason to have her mute.

I do love how Penrose’s plan is to pretend suicide by jumping into the well, and then Styx *throws him* into the well. We get the same result, by an unpredictable and unplanned method. One of the techniques for making your story unpredictable is to have a character with a plan, and then have things not happen according to plan. Penrose still ends up in the well.

The plan that goes wrong was also used earlier when Penrose and Teal are being taken to the block house and make a plan to attack Moloch and Styx and escape... and that ends with Moloch killing Teal by magic just when it looks like they are winning their fight and will escape.

This was a pretty good episode which could have been much better. The great thing here is how a large scale ghost story is told on a TV budget using some establishing shots and a fog machine.


Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Interview

No, not that silly Seth Rogen movie that brought us to the brink of war with North Korea, but an interview with me on Dave Bullis' Film podcast.

Here's the link:

Podcast #35: William C. Martell.

Plus, here is a full hour of my interview with Film Courage, after doing a day of teaching and needing to take a nap!

A full hour, so make sure you pack a lunch first!

I am available for podcast interviews, email interviews, and birthday parties (though all of my balloon animals look like snakes).


For Your Consideration Screenplays

As we close in on the Oscars, I thought I'd post all of the For Your Consideration Scripts to date. These are *free* and *legal* screenplays for the movies the studios and producers thought had a shot at an Award. These are the production drafts, so they will be what ends up on screen rather than what sold as a spec script (in the case of original screenplays). Sometimes the difference between sales draft and production drafts are just insane! Almost everything has been changed except for the core idea! Though no award winner, the comedy HANCOCK began as a dark, gritty, morose screenplay about a heartbroken drunk superhero titled TONIGHT HE COMES. What's interesting with that film is that both versions have the same core story, just one is taken as a comedy and the other as a tragic drama...

Fox Screenplays.

Universal Screenplay.

The Weinstein Company Screenplay.

A bunch of links at Go Into The Screenplay.

And some of the links broken out...

"Belle" by Misan Sagay

"Birdman" by Alejandro Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo

"Boyhood" by Richard Linklater

"Box Trolls" by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava (Based on the book "Here Be Monsters" by Alan Snow)

"Calvary" by John Michael McDonagh

"The Fault in Our Stars" by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (Based on the novel by John Green)

"Get On Up" by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth, story by Steven Baigelman and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth

"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn (Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn)

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" by Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness

"Kill the Messenger" by Peter Landesman (Based on the books "Dark Alliance" by Gary Webb and "Kill the Messenger" by Nick Schou

"Locke" by Steven Knight

"St. Vincent" by Theodore Melfi

"The Theory of Everything" by Anthony McCarten

"Wild" by Nick Hornby (Based on the memoir "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed)


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Trailer Tuesday: Gun Crazy (1950)

Gun Crazy (1950)

Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis.
Written by: MacKinley Kantor and Dalton Trumbo (Millard Kaufman as Trumbo's "front").
Starring: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Rusty Tamblyn

I probably first saw this film at the UC Theater in Berkeley a couple of decades ago, and was blown away by it. First, like most noir, it’s an adult story. Not Hollywood fluff. It’s dark. It’s sexy. Probably the thing that impressed me the most when I first saw it were Peggy Cummins’ *very* tight black trousers. Women in 1940s movies always wore skirts and dresses. If they did wear pants they were non-sexual - often mannish. But here we have pants so tight it’s almost as if she’s naked.

The three boys look at the bobcat
The story is about a boy (eventually played by John Dall) who has a gun fetish. In the opening scene he steals a gun from a shop window, admires it while the alarm blares, then takes off running... tripping on the wet street. The gun goes sliding across the wet street until it hits a man’s boot... tilt up... a *Police*man’s boot. Next scene - the boy in court explaining to the judge how much he just loves guns. He doesn’t feel whole unless he has a gun in his hands. We’ll leave that up to Uncle Sigmund... but that’s what drives the film - this guy needs a gun to feel like a man. At the trial we meet his two best friends - one is the policeman’s son, the other wears glasses so you know he’ll grow up to be a writer - and they tell the judge that our hero isn’t a killer, on a camping trip he couldn’t shoot a wildcat that was hanging around their campsite (great flashback). He couldn’t bring himself to shoot at it. Wow, same problem as Jon Voight in DELIVERANCE! Boy is sentenced to reform school, from there he goes into the army, then he comes home.

Now we have adult John Dall and his two pals - one is now a cop and the other is a writer for the town newspaper. The carnival is in town, so that’s where they go.
Peggy Cummins - trousers so tight there's a visible panty line
The great thing about this film are the set pieces. In case you missed that Script Tip, a set pieces is a big scene. In the old studio days, it was a scene so juicy the studio would pay for a new set to be built. You don’t need a new set for a set piece, you just need a big juicy scene... and even though GUN CRAZY was a low budget film, probably shot on leftover sets that had been used a million times before and real loactions that could be got cheap - and in the case of one set piece, probably shot without any set at all - the film is full of amazing set pieces.

sure - shoot at my head
The Carnival - maybe the same one from THE RING (1927) - has a sharp shooter as it’s main attraction. Sexy Peggy Cummins in those skin-tight pants. She shoots balloons from around her assistant, shoots a cigarette out of her mouth, and all of the other carny tricks you usually see with a knife thrower. The Barker, an aging pretty boy, announces that for a mere $50 you can test your shooting skills against the master... and possibly win $500. Kind of the same deal as THE RING, just with guns instead of fists. John Dall’s buddies put up the money, and we get a great set piece as Dall and Cummins try to out shoot each other... and fall in lust in the process. Because Dall is an amazing shot, the Barker keeps upping the ante in order to win the bet. Eventually it comes down to this insane trick where a crown that holds a half dozen matches is put on Dall’s head and Cummins *lights the matches* with her bullets. All but one. Then it’s her turn to wear the crown. Dall lights them all. Look, I don’t want even the best sharp shooter in the world to be aiming a gun at my *head* from across the room, let alone firing at me six times. That’s just crazy! Dall ends up with a job at the carnival...
sex and violence - the film was made in the 40s, how old are your grandparents - could this be them after doing it?
Now we have a great scene - not a set piece, but a juicy *dramatic* scene that deals with the romantic triangle between the Barker and Cummins and Dall. One of the interesting things is how they used a metaphor to tell us who was sleeping with who. When Dall first joins the carnival, the Barker asks if he has a car... he says no. Cummins wants him to ride with them, the Barker says there isn’t room in their car... Dall can ride with the clown. If you watch who rides with who in the carnival scenes, you can see Cummins and Dall getting together and the Barker riding alone. Which brings us to the big juicy scene where all of this blows up. Real good. The Barker has a claim on Cummins and tells Dall he’s out of here if he doesn’t honor it. The result of the big blow up is *Cummins and Dall* leaving together (in the same car), which leads us to some relationship stuff where they realize they are broke, and then Cummins’ plan to make money...

By armed robbery.
John Dall exits the bank as Peggy tries to sweet talk the cop - all from the back seat of the getaway carNow we get one of the greatest set pieces in low budget history - the “backseat bank robbery”. It’s a single continuous shot - several minutes - taken from the back seat of their car as they drive down the street of a town, find the bank, hope that there is a parking spot, Cummins pulls into a spot near the front of the bank and Dall gets out. After Dall goes into the bank, a cop walks down the sidewalk, stops near the front of the bank! Cummins pulls the car up, gets out, flirts with the cop, and tries to steer him away from the bank. Not happening. This builds suspense. She keeps trying to get the cop out of the way, but he won’t budge. Then the alarm goes off. She hits the cop, just as Dall bolts out of the bank doors with the money.back seat cameraThey get in the car, Dall driving, and now we get a shoot out and car chase from the back seat of the car. All one shot. The great thing about this is that it was probably dirt cheap - we don’t need the bank interior and extras and setting up lights in the location. It’s *one* camera set up. But it gives you the feeling that you are right there - in the getaway car with them. When the cop fires at the car, he’s firing at *you*. And it’s all one cool shot.
John Dall with a bag full of guns and steaks
The big set piece is the armed robbery that will make them rich. Dall thinks this means they can retire to some exotic location and just be together for the rest of their lives. Cummins thinks only about how much money they will end up with. The target for the armed robbery - the Armour meat packing plant payroll. Well before anyone thought of product placement, we get a *real* company name and a *real* meat packing plant. Again, this was probably due to the low budget. They found a practical location and probably couldn’t afford to change all of the signs.

This is one of those split second timed robberies where all kinds of things can go wrong... and do. It’s a tense scene, then it blows up and becomes a big action scene. The great part about it are the pieces of the set piece...

All of the details make the scene real... and build suspense!

everyone tells him hes in the wrong area including this armed guard

Dall drives up in a truck filled with beef on hooks. He gets some steaks from a butcher and puts them in his bag, then walks to the offices and has to get past a half dozen people who tell him he’s in the wrong area. Dall tells them he has the steaks for the boss’s barbeque. Everyone tells him there’s no refrigeration here - he should take the steaks back to the plant. The deeper he gets into the office, the more he and the steaks are out of place. Eventually he gets to the boss’s floor... where Cummins is working as a secretary, Here it’s Cummins who tells him he’s in the wrong place - as she leads him right into the boss’s office, where they kidnap him and have him fill the steak bag with payroll money. And here’s where we see the beginning of the end - Cummins gets trigger happy and shoots a whole lotta people on the way out. It’s a great big run and gun scene - lots of action to break the tension that has come before.

After that set piece they are on the run, and we get a great sequence where they have their last night out as a couple. They go to the Santa Monica Pier and go on carnival rides - bringing us back to the beginning of their relationship. Then they go to a dance hall, and have a nice, tender, relationship scene... not knowing that the police have traced them to California and are waiting outside. They manage to escape with nothing - they even lose some of the clothes on their backs. Only one place to go...

Back to Dall’s home town. Now we get a great scene with the criminals and Dall’s sister’s family.... trying to act normal when people come over. Dealing with kids playing in the yard when you are harboring a pair of fugitives. And eventually a great scene with Dall and his two childhood friends - the cop and the reporter. A low budget film needs big scenes like this one - juicy drama where childhood friends are on opposite sides of the law... and Dall is kind of in the middle. Cummins is all for just killing them- in fact, she’d kill anyone if it allowed them to escape. She’d kill the kids (and that is in the film). In fact, there’s a great unseen scene where Cummins does *something* to Dall’s sister and her entire family - maybe she just locks them up, maybe she kills them all. We never find out which it is, because we come to the other big amazing set piece...

The one that probably has no set!
smoke and tuleDall and Cummins end up chased by every cop in the state, and blood hounds, and posses and probably villagers with pitchforks... but since they are chased through a foggy swamp, we just *hear* all of these things. I’m not sure if we see a single dog - though there may be a stock shot of dogs chasing - but we *hear* packs of blood hounds chasing them. We hear hundreds of cops searching the foggy swamp for them.

The swamp is... well, it’s 99% fog and 1% a couple of thatches of tule grass.
can you hear all of those cops and dogs?
The big scene where they hide and the cops and dogs search - is just them behind a thatch of tules surrounded by fog. And it works! It’s an amazing scene. Probably shot in some warehouse with a smoke machine. Just goes to show you, *imagination* and *inventiveness* can create production value if you don’t have any cash.

GUN CRAZY still holds up, mostly due to the amazing set pieces and great sequences and fairly obvious sexual overtones... oh, and Cummin’s skin tight trousers.

- Bill

Nothing sexual about this...

Nothing sexual about this Gun Crazy - the DVD

Monday, January 26, 2015

Lancelot Link: More Danged Awards!

Lancelot Link Monday! The weekend was all about Awards! We had the Producer's Guild and the Screen Actor's Guild and Miss Universe. So here's my question: Does the Miss Universe Award seem rigged? All of the entrants are from Earth! Is that giant asteroid coming towards us fiulled with angry alien contestants? While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 American Sniper................. $64,365,000
2 Boy Next Door................... $15,001,000
3 Paddington...................... $12,391,000
4 Wedding Ringer.................. $11,600,000
5 Taken AGAIN!..................... $7,600,000
6 Imitation ....................... $7,136,000
7 Strange Magic.................... $5,534,000
8 Selma............................ $5,500,000
9 Mordecai......................... $4,125,000
10 Into James Woods................. $3,886,000

Note: AMERICAN SNIPER has made over $200,000,000 domestic so far! Just over a week.

2) Producer's Guild Awards Winners... LEGO MOVIE?

3) Screen Actor's Guild Award Winners.

4) Miss Universe Awards Winners.

5) Yes, there will be another PIRATES movie... Why? I do not know.

6) Screenwriter David Koepp on megabomb MORDECAI.

7) Duplass Brothers make deal with Netflix.

8) Screenwriter William Monahan on the bomb OBLIVION.

9) Jarvis from the IRON MAN movies talks about the new AVENGERS movie.

10) Harvey Weinstein on Sony Hack and QT.

11) Reggie Hudlin On Oscar's White Out This Year.

12) Most Hollywood Screenwriters Were Women! WTF Happened?

And the Car Chase Of The Week:

From the French film DOBERMAN.





Friday, January 23, 2015

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)

Screenplay by Thornton Wilder, Alma Reville, and Sally Benson.

One of Hitchcock’s favorite films, a quiet little story of small town life and a visit from a larger than life relative who may or may not be a serial killer. Very low key - no chase scenes or fight scenes and all of the suspense is built around whether that adventurous relative is just an interesting guy or a criminal hiding from the police.

Though the pacing may be a little slow for 2015, the performance by Joseph Cotton is still great. Cotton is one of those underappreciated actors - he worked with Hitchcock and Orson Welles and Carol Reed starred in a great technicolor noir film with Marilyn Monroe as the femme fatale. He is not one of those Burt Lancaster larger-than-life actors, and you might think someone like Lancaster might have made a good Uncle Charles - international businessman who has been to Paris and Venice and the Orient. But Cotton’s performance in SHADOW OF A DOUBT is amazingly layered - he is both avuncular and adventurous. Charming and fun... but with an undercurrent of violence. When he smiles, you wonder if he’s ever ripped out someone’s throat with those teeth. He manages to do both things at once - so it’s not like there are two sides to Uncle Charles - he is always both charming and dangerous.

The key to the film is thinking that his character is that cool Uncle who brings you gifts and is fun to be with and tells these amazing stories of his exotic adventures... and also may be a serial killer. There are interesting scenes where he says inappropriate things (like at the bank) and that strange dinner table rant about how the world is really much uglier than it appears. Cotton goes from smiles to barely contained anger and insanity and back to a smile before anyone can react. He manages to give off conflicting vibes in every scene - nice guy and lunatic. Between this film and THE THIRD MAN you wonder why Cotton wasn’t a big star.

Nutshell: Charlie (Theresa Wright) is a young woman in small town Santa Rosa, California who is still living at home with her parents and siblings... and bored. She wishes something exciting would happen, like a visit from her Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton) - a charming, wealthy businessman who travels the world and has an adventurous life. Her wish comes true when Uncles Charles comes to visit, with gifts for everyone in the family, and a beautiful ring for her. Uncle Charles plans on staying for a while, and has $40,000 in cash he wants to deposit in the bank where Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) works. If having $40,000 in cash in your pocket seems a little suspicious in 2015, imagine what that meant in 1943! Uncle Charles is a man of mysteries - he does not want to be photographed or have strangers know about him... and sometimes he behaves strangely. Charlie begins to wonder what her favorite uncle might be hiding... and when a pair of men show up claiming to be interviewing the family for a magazine article, Uncle Charles begins acting even more secretive. Young Charlie investigates, and discovers the two men are actually FBI Agents on the trail of a serial killer - the Merry Widow Killer - who targets wealthy widows. Is her favorite uncle a serial killer?

Experiment: Though the use of music and shots of people dancing is kinda weird, I'm going to save that for the section on soundtrack...

What is interesting about SHADOW is that it’s all about small town life and small town dreams. Hitchcock had adapted novels by famous writers in the past, and worked with some important writers (like Dorothy Parker) on screenplays, but this was the first of two movies that began with stories by big name writers - in this case, Thornton Wilder who wrote OUR TOWN... and Hitch followed this with a story by John Steinbeck for LIFEBOAT. I think it’s an interesting idea to use a famous writer as one of the “stars” of your movie - and in the case of SHADOW OF A DOUBT Wilder not only gets a story credit, he gets a special up front credit as well. Both SHADOW and LIFEBOAT were not adapted from previous material, they were original stories commissioned by Hitchcock (and the producers) for the film.

The general public read back then - this was before television, and even though there were dramas on the radio, there wasn’t a lunch box in America that didn’t have a fiction magazine inside. This was the pulp era - when some construction worker or plumber or store clerk would read short stories or a serialized novel or a chapter of a pulp novel on their lunch break... and after work, and maybe on the bus or trolley or train on the way to work. And their wives and girlfriends might read romance pulps, plus some upscale magazines like Blue Book or Saturday Evening Post which featured stories by people like Steinbeck and Wilder and other important writers of the time. This was a different world than today - when everyday people who barely got out of high school with a diploma - or maybe went to a trade high school where the focus was on *shop classes* - was still an avid reader. Of course, what they read might be the written equivalent of a Chuck Norris movie or an A TEAM episode, but they were readers. The cliche for a stupid, uneducated woman at the time showed them *reading* a romance or celebrity scandal magazine. The average person knew who Thornton Wilder was, and had probably read one of his stories. He was a *star* in the world of fiction - and that was part of the average person’s world.

So commissioning a story by the expert on small town life, Thornton Wilder, was kind of an experiment. What other movies were using *writers* as stars? This film feels related to THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, another film about small town life... and murder. It has a casual pace, so if you pop it in the DVD player - be prepared. Think of it as a story of small town life with a touch of murder, rather than a thrill ride.

Contrast Concept: Probably one of the reasons why this is one of Hitchcock's favorites is that it's an illustration of his theory that murder should not be in some dark alley but in some suburban kitchen. Contrast is conflict, and using sweet small town America as the location for a dark serial killer story makes the story much more interesting than if it took place in the big city.

Hitch Appearance: Look for him on the train to Santa Rosa playing cards, near the beginning of the film.

Great Scenes: As a story about small town life, it’s set pieces are small as well. This is a film about details. The suspense scenes are realistic rather than operatic. We don’t get crop dusters and cornfields or fights on the Statue of Liberty’s torch, we get scenes where someone hums a tune at the dinner table and can’t remember what it is and scenes where a character needs to read a newspaper story at the library, which closes in 5 minutes. It’s almost like a Hitchcock film seen through the wrong end of a telescope - instead of being larger than life, it’s about those small things in life... like the faint engravings on the inside of an old ring.

Character Connections: In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, villain Belloq tells Indy, "You and I are very much alike... Our methods are not as different as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would only take a nudge to make you like me; to push you out of the light." The protagonist and antagonist are the two most important characters in a screenplay, and showing their similarities is a great way to highlight their differences.

When we first see Uncle Charles he’s sitting up in bed smoking a cigar, maybe remembering a pleasant experience (which may have included murdering someone). When we first see young Charlie, she is sitting up in bed in the exact same position (though not smoking a cigar), dreaming of having an adventurous experience (though probably not murdering anyone). Both shots are the same composition and have slow dolly ins. Even though whether the camera dollies or not is the director’s job - the writer had to come up with the scenes of both sitting up in bed. Creating that similarity for the director to photograph. Our job is to set up the story and characters so that the director can find the perfect shot(s) to show that these two are very similar people. The writer also decided to give both protagonist and antagonist the same name - which makes the audience automatically look for those similarities between the two. There are many other things Uncle Charles and young Charlie have in common... and this helps us compare the two in order to find their differences. Belloq and Indiana Jones may be similar, but it's what makes them different that is important.

Uncle Charles lives a life of travel and adventure, going from one big city to another... and that is what young Charlie dreams about. She wants to get out of boring Santa Rosa and see the world. But all of the similarities between the two just serve to point up the differences. Uncle Charles has seen the world and hates it... hates the people in it. Charlie loves people. The more we see these two together, the more we see that they are not the same at all, but opposites. This is a great way to bring out character, and a great way to create conflict - Uncle Charles does something negative and Charlie does something positive to correct it.

Did He Or Didn’t He? The odd flaw in the film is one of point of view - we begin with Uncle Charles seemingly on the run from the law, and this make him seem guilty from the get-go... and robs the film of some suspense and emotion.

The keyword is *doubt*. The “did he or didn’t he?” plot is often used in thrillers, and we’ll take a closer look at it when we discuss SUSPICION, but since it is the central question in SHADOW it deserves a mention. In movies like MUSIC BOX and JAGGED EDGE (both written by Joe Eszerhas) the suspense is created by the protagonist (and audience) not knowing if the person they are emotionally involved with is guilty of a crime or not. In JAGGED EDGE workaholic attorney Glenn Close is hired to defend hunky Jeff Bridges on charges that he murdered his wealthy wife. Close falls in love with him... and the rest of the script explores that central question by bouncing us back and forth between believing that he's guilty as sin and a lovable hunk falsely accused of murder by an overzealous D.A. (the great Peter Coyote). We hope that he's innocent so that she can find love but fear that he's guilty. Did he or did he not commit the murder? Guilty or innocent? That is the central question in JAGGED EDGE and in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

At the heart of every screenplay is the central question. It's what propels the story forward and keeps the audience involved. In a romantic comedy, the central question might be: Will they hook up or not? In a disaster movie it might be: Will they survive, and *who* will survive? The story begins with the introduction of the central question and then keeps us wondering how it will be resolved for the next 100 pages. This question is what keeps the story going - and will not be answered until the end of the movie. It is the fuel that propels the story, and the moment the question is answered, there is no more fuel for the story - which is why the opening scene where Uncle Charles seems to be on the run from the law makes this film less effective.

To keep the question “alive” and keep the suspense growing, we need to keep that question in the foreground - and not let the audience forget it. Which is where the doubt comes in. We need to doubt that Uncle Charles in innocent, and then when a dark cloud of evidence casts a shadow over him, doubt that he is guilty. The film is all about doubt!

SHADOW OF A DOUBT accomplishes this by having young Charlie discover evidence that Uncle Charles is guilty... and just when she has no choice but to confront him, counter evidence is uncovered that makes him look innocent. Doubt and doubt. There is also a shadow motif in the story - Uncle Charles seems to always be in the shadows - at the top of the stairs or in the corner of the room... and in the opening scene his landlady lowers the blinds on his window, casting a shadow over his face. When Uncle Charles comes to Santa Rosa on the train (pretending to be an invalid) he is in a dark sleeping compartment the entire trip... and when the train pulls into the station, dark smoke from the smokestack covers the station.

Doubt and doubt: Uncle Charles has gifts for everyone, but gives Charlie a special gift - a beautiful ring. Charlie notices that there is engraving inside the band - and wonders where Uncle Charles got the ring (is it stolen?). Uncle Charles says he bought it from a jeweler - and they must have sold him a used ring! Imagine the nerve of the jeweler! Later in the film Charlie discovers the initials are of one of the Merry Widow Killer’s victims... is her favorite Uncle a serial killer... or is it just a coincidence. We can never be sure one way or the other, because then the film would be over.

Doubt and doubt: Uncle Charles needs to be the first to read the newspaper, and one night *tears a story out* so that no one can read it. But he covers this by making a newspaper castle for Charlie’s little brother and sister. Was tearing out the story part of making the castle, or something else? Later, Charlie spots a torn out section of the newspaper in Uncle Charles jacket pocket... but he’s right there in the room with her so she can not grab it and find out what Uncle Charles doesn’t want the rest of the family to know. Is it an article about a criminal at large... or an advertizement for some fine wine on sale that he plans on buying to surprise the family? We don’t know.

Doubt and doubt: When the two Magazine Guys come to interview the family because they are the “typical American family”, Uncle Charles does not want to be interviewed - he says he doesn’t really live in the house, he’s just a guest. This is a great scene because the two Magazine Guys keep insisting that Uncle Charlie *is* part of the family so they want to interview him, which means Uncle Charlie must keep finding new and better reasons not to be interviewed... and this becomes suspicious.

Later, the older Magazine Guy takes a picture of Uncle Charles, and he *freaks* and demands they give him the roll of film, even though it will ruin *all* of the pictures they have taken (including mom baking a cake). Then he calmly explains that he just doesn’t like people taking pictures of him without permission - isn’t that his right? This ends up being a big moment for young Charlie, because asking for tyhe whole roll of film just seems like overkill. Why not just ask that they not use or print that picture? Young Charlie begins to wonder what Uncle Charles is hiding.

Doubt and doubt. Back and forth throughout the film - one piece of evidence makes Uncle Charles look guilty and then another piece of evidence is discovered that makes him look innocent. Just when young Charlie is *sure* that he’s guilty, the other prime suspect in the case runs from the police... right into the propellor of an airplane! Case closed - they are sure he ran because he was guilty. Charlie was wrong to doubt her Uncle Charles... or was she?

Because we are never sure if Uncle Charles is guilty or not until Act 3, we don’t know if we can trust him... and we don’t know if young Charlie is in danger or not. Throughout Act 2 we go from thinking Uncle Charles is guilty in one scene to believing he is innocent in the next scene. Back and forth - until we get to Act 3 and *know* he is the killer... and know that he will do anything to keep that information secret. Even kill his favorite niece.

The Subtle Art Of Murder: But even the murder attempts may just be accidents - that’s what they seem to be at least. Plenty of room for doubt.

Charlie has taken to using the back stairs of the house to avoid Uncle Charles... and one day on her way to the store one of the stairs breaks and sends her toppling down the staircase almost killing her. The step just broke. Later that night she examines the broken step - was it cut? Doesn’t seem to be, but *might* have been. Lots of doubt. Is Uncle Charles trying to kill her... or was it just an old step?

A couple of days later the whole family is going to an event where Uncle Charles is giving a speech, and there are too many people for their one car. Uncle Charles suggests they call a taxi for the family, and he will ride in the family car with young Charlie. Charlie knows Uncle Charles is planning something - but can’t just come out and say it - all she has are suspicions. The shadow of doubt falls over everything. She tries to get her mother to come with her in the car, knowing that Uncle Charles couldn’t do anything with a witness. But Mom wants to go with the rest of the family in the taxi - how often do they get to ride in a taxi? Charlie does everything to get her to come, finally convinces her, and goes out to get the car... But when she gets into the garage, someone has left the motor running and the garage is filled with exhaust. Big black shadowy smoke! When Charlie tries to turn off the car’s motor, the garage door swings shut and get stuck - accident, or murder attempt? Charlie is trapped in the garage and the exhaust overtakes her.

By this point, we know it’s Uncle Charles... and Charlie is pretty sure he’s trying to kill her, but all of these things seem like accidents. How can you accuse a family member of trying to kill you when it’s a stuck garage door?

Unusual Characters: One of the great things in SHADOW OF A DOUBT are the characters - when we have a story that is about small town life, we tend to focus on the characters... and usually the *quirky* characters. If you read my Script Secrets website, you may be familiar with my “Dog Juice” theory - that all dogs have the exact same amount of energy no matter what size the dog is. A Chihuahua has the same amount of energy as a St. Bernard - but what is too much energy for that small dog is not enough energy for the enormous dog. This is why a normal dog like a Retriever or a Shepard is a perfect match of dog and energy to run the dog. Movies are the same - you need the same amount of energy no matter how big the movie... and that often leads to more interesting and quirky characters being *required* in smaller films. As much as people may bitch about the stylized dialogue and unusual characters in JUNO, remove those elements and what do you have? You *need* interesting characters in a small story.

SHADOW takes many characters that might seem common and either turns them on their head or adds some quirk that makes them fascinating. By taking small town people and showing what makes each of them different and unusual, Wilder has created a story that is kind of a predecessor of TWIN PEAKS.

Charlie’s little sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) is not sugar and spice and everything nice, she is not playing with dolls... she is reading books that are adult in nature and knows all kinds of things little girls just should not know. In one scene she’s playing, and says “step on a crack and break your mother’s back”... then *steps on as many cracks as she can*!

Charlie’s best friend Catherine (Estelle Jewell) is not some sweet small town girl or even some boy crazy 20 year old - she makes a pretty obvious play for Agent Saunders (Wallace Ford), the older FBI Agent... a man easily old enough to be her father and possibly old enough to be her grandfather. She flirts with him big time! Um, WTF is going on here?

Charlie’s father is not some boring small town bank teller, he has a hobby... he and his best friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn) read murder mysteries and try to come up with the perfect way to murder each other and get away with it. Most of their dialogue in the film is about killing each other and avoiding arrest - talk about TWIN PEAKS characters!

None of the characters in the film are cliche - they are as strange and individual as the characters from NORTHERN EXPOSURE and TWIN PEAKS... though they still seem “realistic” members of a small town. They may be exaggerated a little, but film characters tend to be a little larger than life anyway.

Small Suspense: Because this is a small story of small town life, it also has small suspense scene. Charlie searching Uncle Charles’ room while he’s downstairs to find the torn piece of newspaper... and when she can not find the article, she races to the public library before it closes at 9pm... running across a street against a light and almost getting hit by a car. She makes it to the library just as they are closing, but this is a very low-key race against the clock: getting to the library before it closes? But at the library Charlie reads a newspaper account of the Merry Widow Killer and one of his victims... who had the same initials that are engraved in the ring Uncle Charles gave her... and we get a great pull back and up shot making Charlie seem small and vulnerable.

Sound Track: Dimitri Tiomkin - a good score, the highlight of which is Franz Lehar's Merry Widow Waltz. It’s Uncle Charles’ theme song... and when Charlie’s mother is humming it at the dinner table one night and can’t figure out what the tune is, Uncle Charles says it’s the Blue Danube... but Charlie corrects him... which creates an awkward moment that Uncle Charles covers by spilling a glass of blood red wine. Throughout the film, we get the waltz and dancers when Uncle Charles feels murderous.

Hitchcock used music in many of his films, from Mrs. Froy’s tune in THE LADY VANISHES to the Mr. Memory theme in THE 39 STEPS to this interesting signature for a character. Uncle Charlie is not just the Merry Widow Killer, the Merry Widow Waltz is his theme, something he whistles or that plays in the background of some of his scenes.

Unfortunately, by the end of the film you will be unable to get the danged tune out of your head!

SHADOW OF A DOUBT is a nice little film about small town life... and murder. Not the kind of big spectacle movie we might expect from Hitchcock, but an enjoyable film about the truth behind that favorite uncle of yours.

- Bill


More Fridays With Hitchcock!



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Thursday, January 22, 2015

HOOK 'EM IN TEN Birthday Party!

A month ago, the 9th in my Blue Book expansion project was born! I know, it’s still in the crying and drooling stage... as am I. But why not celebrate anyway?

In lieu of gifts or money or a spanking, could you do me a favor and either write a review on Amazon on the new book or any of the other books you have not yet reviewed or post about one of the books on Twitter or Facebook or some other social media?

I’d love to have the book be #1 on Amazon in Screenwriting for Thursday through Monday. The whole weekend.

When I post a picture of one of my books next to some other book on FB, the other books all have hundreds of reviews... and mine have fewer than fifty! As Popeye would say: It’s embarrrasking! And someone said the other day that books with more than fifty (and then more than 100 reviews) get bumped onto the You May Like section, which helps keep the book in front of people.

Telling people about the books on social media helps inform people that the books exist without me doing my daily sledge hammer posts about where the books are in the rankings. Though, um, if the new book is #1 for the weekend, I may post about that. But this is about *all* of the books, so if the STORY Blue Book is your favorite... tell people!

Wait, you are thinking, what do we get? At a real birthday party, there would be cake!

I have no cake. But for anyone who buys a book over the weekend (Friday through Sunday) my short story and novella will be free...

And for those of you who already have those, the first of the Vintage Screenwriting Book series is coming out soon, and will be free for five days after it comes out. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you about it. So you will get a free full length book.

Thank you to all who help me celebrate this birthday!

Amazon says HOOK 'EM IN TEN is 312 pages. I watched a ton of movies so that I could use them as examples, and I think part of the fun with this book is seeing how many different ways there are to start a story. But I also looked at both GODFATHER movies to see how their first pages tick: GODFATHER is used to show how almost every character and plot thread get introduced at that first scene at the wedding. GODFATHER 2 is used to show how theme and motifs are established in the first 10 pages (which is really fast paced!). I also look at World Building, and use both CASABLANCA and INCEPTION as main examples (plus a bunch of sci fi movies). And there are a bunch of James Bond movies in the chapter on Teasers, along with some horror flicks. Mostly for fun I have a chapter on first lines of dialogue in movies, with hundreds of examples. Plus a dozen different basic ways to start your story... and page 1 kickers and page 10 kickers. Oh, and why an emotional opening is better than explosions.

When I first looked at expanding the old booklet version I was going to get rid of the last chapter, which was the first 8 pages of one of my screenplays that got me a ton of meetings... but the odd thing about an ebook is that it costs the same whether that chapter is there or not (no paper costs), so I left it in and let you decide to skip it or not.

<<< USA People, Click The Book Cover!

There's a dude with a series of screenwriting books around 20 pages for $2.99, and another dude with a screenwriting books in the 20 page range for $5... I can't imagine who buys those. I'm aiming for 200 pages (and overshoot to 312 pages) and am still selling the book for under $4.

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