The adventures of a professional screenwriter and sometimes film festival jurist, slogging through the trenches of Hollywood, writing movies that you have never heard of, and getting no respect. Voted #10 - Best Blogs For Screenwriters - Bachelor's Degree
Lancelot Link Monday! JURASSIC WORLD and INSIDE OUT continue to be neck and neck at the finish line, but newcomers TERMINATOR GENYSIS and MAGIC MIKE XXL both "underperformed". Why? Well both TERMINATOR and MAGIC MIKE contain scenes with shirtless men. This is obviously a box office problem. Shirtless men. Hollywood take note!
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 Jurassic World.................. $30,900,000 2 Inside Our...................... $30,105,000 3 Terminator: Phil Collins........ $28,700,000 4 Magic Mike XXSM................. $11,600,000 5 Ted 2........................... $11,000,000 6 Max (not mad).................... $6,610,000 7 Spy.............................. $5,500,000 8 San Andreas...................... $3,030,000 9 Me & Earl........................ $1,320,000 10 Dope............................. $1,098,000
Oh, and overseas where shirtless men are more accepted, TERMINATOR GENYSIS is doing great business and is on track to make $300 to $400 million just in those overseas shirtless countries. So this may actually be the start of a new trilogy (as planned).
There's a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that I have been a "guest expert" on, and here are the first five episodes. The series looks at the 20 TV episodes directed by Hitchcock. The new season begins next week... without me. I was juggling too many things and thought I'd squeeze it in, but just didn't have the time. But I will still be featuring it here, because it's a great show.
1) This episode is REVENGE, which I am not a part of. The story is a corker, though: a man's wife is brutally raped and he extracts his revenge when she recognizes the attacker on the street. I actually prefer the remake done in the 1980s, due to casting: Where Ralph Meeker (who played Mike Hammer) seems like the kind of guy who would have no problem extracting revenge, the remake had David Clennon (who always plays geeks with triple chins) who has a great deal of trouble with the physical aspects of revenge... making it even more gut wrenching.
2) 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:
3) This episode is on THE CASE OF MR. PELHAM about a man who is haunted by a double who is trying to take over his life! A really weird tale, which may have been more at home of the THRILLER TV Show which was shot on the same lot. It's really a lot of fun, so take a look:
Two important things I talked about were cut for time:
A) This episode is based on a book by the screenwriter of Hitch's YOUNG AND INNOCENT which had actually been adapted into a film *the same year* in England. It has even been made a few times since then, including a film with Roger Moore titled THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF in 1970. And someone should sue *Harlan Ellison* because his SHATTERDAY short story (made into one of my favorite NEW TWILIGHT ZONE episodes) uses the same idea. (kidding... but it would be funny payback for the TERMINATOR lawsuit.)
B) The *magic* shot. There's part of the shot in the HITCH 20 episode, we see a wide shot of the bar, move in to Pelham flagging down the Psychiatrist, then asking him to join him, and then the camera dollies backwards as they walk to a table and sit down... except that table could *not* have been there when they were dollying back! The camera would have bumped into it! So *off camera* the table was rolled into place as the camera was dollying backwards! It's one of those crazy furniture moves that Hitchcock used in ROPE so that the camera would be able to move fluidly "through" furniture and walls. By making the furniture and walls movable, they could dolly backwards "through" that table in the bar that Pelham and the Psychiatrist would be sitting at! A magic shot!
4) This episode is BACK FOR CHRISTMAS which stars Hitchcock regular John Williams (TO CATCH A THIEF) as a henpecked husband who finds a permanent solution to his marital problems. In my Thriller class, I talk about the importance of comedy in a thriller to balance the story and make the thrills even more thrilling (peaks and valleys), and this episode has a great light comedy tone which heightens the suspense. Hitch called PSYCHO a comedy... and this episode is as funny as a steel pipe to the side of the head!
5) This episode is WET SATURDAY which also stars Hitchcock regular John Williams (TO CATCH A THIEF), this time as the guy who has no idea he's being framed for murder. This is an interesting episode because it's a calm discussion of a violent act, which somehow makes the violence more violent. Hitch called PSYCHO a comedy... and this episode is as funny as a croquet mallet to the side of the head!
This was the last episode of HITCH 20 in this season... and by next Friday I hope to have a new entry for Fridays With Hitchcock on SABOTAGE. Followed by the not so great Hitchcock film THE SECRET AGENT (which still manages to have some great screenwriting lessons in it's muddled story) and then THE 39 STEPS, which is a great Hitchcock film.
Of course, I have my own book focusing on Hitchcock...
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.
From June of 2011, so the book is no longer on sale... but still worth buying.
So, I finished rereading Lawrence Block's THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART on the Kindle, and it is *still* available for 99 cents until the 15th (Wednesday) (tomorrow) if anyone is interested. It's one of his earlier books, but heck - Matt Scudder first showed up in SINS OF THE FATHERS in the mid-70s, so it's not like you're getting a book by a beginner. The story is about a con man who gets released from prison and tries to go straight... when an older con man from his past comes to him with the con of the century. Oh, and there's a woman involved who is part of the con (this was a paperback original at the time that paperback originals usually had some sex scenes because we didn't have internet porn yet). And the mark is a clever but not always law abiding businessman. It's similar to THE STING... only it was written a few years earlier. One of the cool things about it is that you get into the lead character's motivations, wants and desires. You understand him. And then, as usual, things begin to go wrong and they must scramble to keep the con from falling apart and the three of them from going to jail. Not only well worth the 99 cents, it was well worth whatever I paid for it in paperback years ago.
Oh, and the Kindle version has some interesting author photos in the back - Block has his baby pictures and all kinds of fun stuff back there!
But one thing that's interesting about the story is the strange ending, and I'd like to talk about it, but it's the end of the book and so it's all spoilers! What I've decided to do is to put up a huge spoiler warning, and then to keep it vague and not mention character names. But even then, this is a book where guns are fired and people are killed and even mentioning that a character *survives* is a spoiler. So, if you want to read the book, don't read anything after the spoiler warning, okay? If you have already read the book, or don't plan on reading it; I'm going to discuss the ending after the spoiler warning... and how it's weird but still works.
MASSIVE SPOILERS BELOW
THE END OF THE BOOK WILL BE DISCUSSED
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
Okay, I'm still going to be vague for those of you who may be reading this but still plan on spending the 99 cents and buying the book. The hero and his partner live. Of course, he has two partners, and I'm not going to tell you who dies... Except I am going to tell you that the villain gets away at the end. WTF? How can you have a conclusion if the villain gets away? Well, here's what Block does - he has the villain get away in such a way that the hero and that surviving partner are unable to give chase and get revenge without putting themselves in danger. So they *can not* capture the villain - ain't possible. But to keep it from being a blah ending, the conflict is changed to which one of those two surviving partners is responsible for the whole thing going wrong. And that conflict is resolved... with a bit of violence. Oh, and before the violent resolution to that conflict, there is a great Act 3 series of suspense scenes as they try to escape any possible police pursuit due to the con going wrong. And it is during these suspense scenes that the conflict goes from "get the villain" to "who screwed up". Because there is so much action going on, you hardly notice the shift in conflict. And Block doesn't try to pull a con on the reader - we know that the conflict has changed - it's mentioned by one of the characters. And the interesting thing is, by shifting the conflict the book is able to have a happier ending than if they just went after the villain and killed him. That path would solve the past but not give us a future. I think Block came up with a bold and inventive ending that would not have been the first thing any writer would think of... and I think we should be open to the strange story possibilities instead of just taking the path of least resistence. We should consider the strange ending, and strange middle, and strange beginning.
I rewatched THE THIRD MAN a couple of nights ago, and that has a strange ending, too - there is a strong romantic subplot in the film between Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins character and Valli's Anna Schmidt character, and we are sure that the two will hook up at the end... but they don't. She just walks right past him, ignoring him. The story is kind of a coming of age movie for an adult, and Martins learns that many of the things he thought were true are lies, many of the people and institutions he trusted were bullshit, and he falls in love for the first time... and gets his heart broken. The whole danged film is filled with broken hearts. But you figure that he will get the girl in the end, and he doesn't. I just imagine Martins thinking about her every day for the rest of his life... this big unresolved conflict in his life that can never be resolved.
And that's also what I think happens to the lead in LONG GREEN HEART - he spends the rest of his life haunted by that villain who is out there, somewhere. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think about that big unresolved conflict that can never be resolved. He just has to live with it. That's not the way to end a big summer movie... except the first SPIDER-MAN has a heart break ending. So I think in the right situation that strange ending is the best one.
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius. Written by: Jean-François Halin and Michel Hazanavicius. Starring: Jean Dujardin, François Damiens, Khalid Maadour.
Before there was the Oscar winning film THE ARTIST, the same team made a couple of silly spy movies starting with...
OSS 117: CAIRO - NEST OF SPIES - Imagine carefully recreating one of those 1960s James Bond rip-offs, even down to the cheesy rear-screen projection whenever anyone is in a car or on a motorcycle. The same lighting style and film stock and use of stock footage and the occasional model plane as in those old films. The same costumes and acting style and... well, it looks like a film they found in a vault somewhere and are showing it for the first time. That’s OSS 117: CAIRO - NEST OF SPIES. Because an early 60s spy movie would look silly, now, they give this film the full AIRPLANE treatment - the characters are dead serious, the film is absurd.
The OSS 117 spy series has been a staple of French cinema since 1956, when OSS 117 IS NOT DEAD was released, but really kicked into gear in the James Bond era with a film a year for a while in the 60s. OSS 117 TAKES A VACATION brought the series to an end in 1970... but this film brings back the character in a great mix of Bond parody and GET SMART. The spy (whose name goes on forever - even in the non-parody films) is this completely clueless moron who accidentally manages to save the day. His main talent seems to be saying the exactly wrong thing at the wrong time - angering everyone around him. Movie opens in WW2 where our hero and his best friend Jack steal the plans for the V2 from the Nazis in a scene that could be from one of those serials INDIANA JONES is lifted from. One of the silly things in this film are the title cards - we get a stock footage shot of the Colosseum... then the word ROME in huge letters. The Eiffel Tower stock shot lingers before we get PARIS in huge letters.
Our hero (Jean Dujardin) gives the crazy code phrase at a restaurant, gets the counter phrase, and is taken to a back booth to meet his boss, who tells him that Jack is dead! He was working in Cairo, where a militant Muslim group, the Soviets, a King’s niece, and a bunch of other bad guys are all involved in... something.
They’re sending our hero down to find out who killed Jack and what all of these bad guys are up to. But first - a flashback to our hero and Jack frolicking on the beach together... Which seems *very* Gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that... by the way, this is the 25th year anniversary of SEINFELD’s first episode). From here on, every flashback of our hero and Jack becomes more and more Gay until they are in that beach scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. And later in the film, a henchman has a flashback of him and another henchman on the same beach frolicking together.
Anyway, our hero flies to Egypt, where a dozen suspicious looking guys in the airport follow him, and we get every spy movie cliche... done to the comedy extreme. The French espionage agency’s cover in Egypt is a poultry company - with a warehouse full of chickens that crow when the lights are turned on, because they think it’s morning. This isn’t just a running gag - our hero can spend hours turning on and off the lights. Unlike other spy movies where the cover job is just a cover - there are shoot outs (and fights using chickens as weapons) with other countries spy organizations over the poultry business. It’s not enough that millions of dollars in Soviet arms were stolen... the German poultry business is losing money to the French poultry business in Egypt!
My favorite gag in the film has our hero wake up with one of the hot women from the story, with a terrible case of “bed head” - hair sticking up everywhere - but when he runs his fingers through his hair it ends up *perfectly* in place. Another gag has one of the fellows following him giving him the wrong code phrase again and again - each time our hero beating the crap out of him. Eventually, the guy gets it right - he’s not some bad guy spy, but his contact from the British Secret Service. He also shows the girl how his gun cocks... um, again and again. He causes an international incident when he stops a priest from calling people to prayer (and a dozen other times he is so insensitive to the locals that you wonder why they don't kill him). The double-triple-multiple crosses. An underwater scene where our hero holds his breath for about ten minutes. Enjoying a massage wayyyyy too much. And there’s a musical number that really gets out of hand. This movie has so many silly things going on in it, I was always laughing at something. Sometimes, just the way the movie gets some 1960s cheesy spy thing dead on is funny.
Lancelot Link Monday! Between TED and TED 2 writer/directer Seth MacFarlane made A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST... and it seems as if ticket buyers have not forgiven him for that stinker. The studio's *conservative* Box Office prediction for TED 2 was $45 million... but it only made $33 million (estimated) and I wonder if that figure will adjust down when the actuals come in. I think it would be wise at this time for MacFarlane to consider that maybe he isn't that funny and take his ego down a few notches (he has plenty of notches to spare). Meanwhile, Dinosaurs and Animated HERMAN'S HEAD were neck and neck at the finish line with both films doing great business. Summer has just begun and box office is *killing it*!
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...
Box office is breaking all sorts of records: 6.8% over last year, 6.6% over 2013, 4.7% over 2012, 13.8% over 2011, 4.9% over 2010... Make the kind of films people love and they will stand in line to see them. Even DOPE (which is an indie comedy) is doing great business.
Like REAR WINDOW, this is another “Perfect Storm” movie for me: Patricia Highsmith is another one of my favorite writers and it’s a shame that Hitchcock only brought one of her novels to the screen because they seem like a perfect match. Highsmith played in the noir playground, often taking the villain’s side and showing how difficult it is to lead a life of crime. Her short stories are often brutal, and she has a way of getting under your skin so that you can’t stop thinking about some scene or nasty plot twist. When you read one of her books and someone does something very very wrong, you often think, “I could do that. I can imagine myself killing someone like that.” And you *shouldn’t* be able to imagine doing these things yourself. But her books take you so far into that world, you can imagine crossing whatever moral lines you might have.
These days, Highsmith is probably best known as the writer of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY which was made in to a film with Matt Damon. That’s the first in a series about Tom Ripley, badguy, and by now most have been made into films. What’s ironic is that the best Ripley film is Wim Wenders’ excellent Hitchcock homage AMERICAN FRIEND... with probably the worst Ripley, Dennis Hopper. Just completely miscast. The best Ripley is John Malkovich - he was born to play the role - in the bland remake of FRIEND called RIPLEY’S GAME (title of the novel). I still haven’t seen Barry Pepper’s version in RIPLEY UNDER GROUND, the last of the original trilogy to be filmed.
STRANGERS was the first Highsmith novel to be filmed, and now they are talking about remaking it... a better idea would be to make THE BLUNDERER (filmed in France ages ago), a similar story about two men and two murders. But I don’t think anyone in Hollywood actually knows how to read, so we’ll just be getting remakes of the movies.
Oh, and add in that hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler took first crack at the script, and the “perfect storm” is complete. Chandler and Hammett and Carroll John Daly were the founders of the Hardboiled genre, and when I was in high school I read everything of theirs I could get my hands on. Chandler wrote the novels THE BIG SLEEP and MURDER, MY SWEET are based on, and the books are sarcastic and brutal and show a corrupt Los Angeles where the people in the mansions are often more dangerous than the thugs on the streets. Though Chandler’s name is on a couple of great films, he wasn’t very successful as a screenwriter. He didn’t get along with anyone, and had a drinking problem. On STRANGERS he was replaced by Czenzi Ormonde, one of Ben Hecht’s assistants.
Nutshell: Tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets spoiled heir Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) on a train, where Bruno tells him his plan for a perfect murder - in order to have a perfect alibi and not leave behind any personal evidence, two people with someone to kill *swap murders* - they each do the other’s killing. Though Guy has a crazy estranged wife knocked up by some other guy (she’s not sure who) he would like removed from is life, he laughs it off as a joke. But after his estranged wife (Laura Elliot) is strangled to death, Bruno shows up at his doorstep and demands that Guy kill his stern millionaire father who wants Bruno to, you know, get a job. When Guy refuses, Bruno threatens to plant evidence at Guy’s wife’s murder scene that points directly to Guy. Will Guy kill Bruno’s father... or be arrested and probably convicted for murdering his slutty wife?
All of this is complicated because Guy is leaving tennis for... politics! He is working for Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll) and dating the Senator’s hot daughter Ann (Ruth Roman) and adored by the Senator’s teenaged daughter Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock, director’s daughter). Guy thought his estranged wife was a problem while she was alive... wait until he’s accused of her murder!
Experiment This is one dark story, and the story experiment is the transference of guilt between Guy and Bruno (from the novel). The story frequently cross-cuts between both characters for suspense as well - and does it in interesting ways.
The film experiment is in sound design. There are several points in the film where a *sound* becomes the flashback. Instead of a visual flashback, we get the sound of a train or a calliope at the amusement park to remind us of a past event.
Also the use of visual symbols, from hands that are used to strangle to glasses that both Guy’s murdered wife and Guy’s girlfriend’s sister wears. If you just watch for the use of hands in the film, you’ll see they pop up again and again - aside from strangling, characters get manicures, they look at their hands, there are big close ups of *hands* doing things throughout the film. Things like this can be in a screenplay, but may be too subtle for most readers to notice. That’s no reason not to put them in, but don’t be surprised when 99% of the folks who read your script never notice.
Hitch Appearance: Carrying a massive string base trying to board a train.
Great Scenes: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN has a couple of iconic Hitchcock scenes that get swiped for other movies and homages. But even the lesser known scenes are packed with tension and suspense and just plain creepiness. This is a film that gets under your skin, because as Bruno says in a scene. Haven’t we all fantasized about killing someone? And haven’t you ever struck up a conversation with a stranger who becomes ever more stranger the more you talk to them?
The movie opens with two sets of train tracks joining into one... and two pair of legs (with very different taste in shoes that give us a clue to character) are on a similar collision course. One going right, one going left... both entering a train... then the shoes takes seats and bump into each other as both sets of legs cross at the same time. That’s the first time we tilt up to see Guy and Bruno’s faces... and Bruno insinuates himself into Guy’s train trip and his life... and comes up with his murder swap idea. Guy laughs it off and gets off the train, leaving his monogrammed cigarette lighter behind.
Listening Booth: Guy was taking the train to his home town to try and negociate a divorce with his estranged wife so that he can marry the Senator’s daughter. His slutty wife Miriam works in a music store with several glass-walled sound proof listening booths, and one of those booths is where they have their little conversation. It is a great location, because if we look at the booth from the outside we get picture without sound. That allows for some interesting choices for the way the scene is presented.
We begin inside the booth as Miriam refuses to grant Guy a divorce. He tries to hang on to his temper by asking her why she wants to remain married to him when she is carrying another man’s baby. Woah! This is a 1951 movie, can they talk about stuff like that? Even in a soundproof booth? What’s more, it’s later implied that she ha no idea who that other man is. She’s “playing the field” and dating a whole bunch of other men. We always think of movies from sixty years ago as being G rated, and some were... but not Hitchcock’s films. Sex was part of all of his films, and here we have a married man who is probably sleeping another woman while his wife is sleeping with just about everybody. And she thinks remaining married to Guy while his political star rises will put her in a much better position when she eventually does grant him a divorce. And what is he going to say? His wife got knocked up by some other guy? He *can’t* divorce her without looking like he’s running out on his pregnant wife.
When Guy loses his temper, we go outside the booth and see the scene from the music store manager’s point of view. Guy seems to suddenly explode with violence and attack his wife in a rage. The manager has to go pull him off of her. The great thing about this scene is that the manager has no idea what Miriam has said, no idea she’s blackmailing Guy and maybe even destroying his political career. He only sees Guy go crazy and attack his wife. If the audience is a little ahead of the curve and guesses that Bruno may act on his crazy scheme and murder Miriam, this scene ratchets up the tension. Now there are witnesses that have seen Guy attack his wife. All of these things will make Guy look guilty and probably get him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for murder.
Tunnel Of Love: The next time we see Miriam, Bruno is following her. She gets on a bus with not one, but two, hunky younger guys... and Bruno hops on the same bus. Miriam and the boy toys get off the bus at an amusement park... as does Bruno. When Miriam notices Bruno following her, he smiles...and so does she. What is clearly a killer stalking his victim becomes twice as creepy because she flirts with him. When they come to one of those carnival games where your strength is gauged by how hard you can pound a sledge hammer like mallet to ring a bell, the two boy toys just aren’t strong enough to ring the bell. Miriam looks around for the man following her... doesn’t see him, and is *disappointed*. Then spots Bruno grabbing the mallet. They smile at each other, then he easily rings the bell. She licks her lips. Most disturbing.
When Miriam and the boy toys get on a little boat that goes through the tunnel of love before berthing on an island in the middle of the amusement park, Bruno hops in the next boat. In the Tunnel Of Love - darkness and shadows. Echoes of laughter. Suspense builds. The killer and victim in the same dark place. Once the tension builds to the breaking point - what is happening in the darkness? - Miriam screams! We see the shadows of one figure grabbing another on the wall of the Tunnel Of Love - Bruno killing Miriam? No - one of her boy toys copping a feel.
The two boats are beached on the little island - filled with couples making out. Miriam runs through the moonlit trees, her boy toys chasing behind. She’s teasing them. She runs into someone in the darkness - Bruno. He flicks a cigarette lighter - Guy’s monogrammed lighter - to illuminate her face. When she sees it’s that older man who was following her through the amusement park, she smiles... and then Bruno strangles her. Miriam’s glasses fall to the ground - and in a great shot, we see the strangulation reflected in the lenses. She falls to the ground, dead. Bruno starts to leave, realizes he’s dropped Guy’s lighter, goes back for it. Picks up Miriam’s glasses while he’s at it. Then, we hear the boy toys scream when they find Miriam dead. More screams and panic as Bruno calmly pilots his little boat back to the amusement park. While everyone else at the amusement park is looking out at the island, Bruno is calmly walking in the opposite direction. The contrast is creepy.
Your Turn: When Guy returns home, Bruno is waiting in the shadows behind a wrought iron gate across the street, “I did it.” Guy joins him in the shadows, each on opposite sides of the gate - opposite sides of the bars. Bruno tells Guy that he killed Miriam, and now it’s Guy’s turn. Guy doesn’t believe him, so Bruno shows him the glasses. Guy thinks Bruno is crazy, threatens to call the police... But Bruno says he can’t go to the police. “Why would I kill your wife?”
And here we get the Transference of Guilt - Bruno’s guilt rubs off on Guy. Guy wished his wife were dead, and he gets his wish. Even though Bruno was the actual killer, that guilt is transferred to Guy. Not only will everyone else believe that Guy is somehow responsible for his wife’s murder, *Guy* will begin to believe he is responsible for his wife’s murder. And the more he tries to escape the guilt, the deeper he will sink. Evidence will begin to mount, and Guy will have to struggle to prove his innocence. Big problem - he *feels* guilty, and it’s much more difficult for an innocent man to prove what he *didn’t* do. Add to that - innocent men are often bad liars, and this is a situation where Guy *must* lie again and again to people who know him well enough that they can tell that he is lying.
While Guy is realizing that he can not go to te police without looking like an accomplice or worse, a police car pulls up in front of his apartment - police there to tell him that is wife is dead. Guy doesn’t want to be seen, and hides deeper in the shadows with Bruno, moving behind the wrought iron gate. Now both men are on the same side of the gate - the shadowed side. And the iron bars cast shadows over Guy’s face - like jail cell bars. This is a great bit, because the sides of the wrought iron gate give us a way to show the transference of guilt - a way to show that Guy is no longer in the light... and is now in the darkness. A cool device like the gate allows something internal to become external - we can see Guy’s guilt, and see the prison bars across his face.
When the police car leaves, Guy comes out from the darkness and tells Bruno he will *not* kill his father... and to leave him alone.
Bruno - Everywhere! Bruno does not leave him alone, the two are now connected by this murder. Everywhere Guy goes, Bruno is there - watching him.
Guy’s alibi for the time of his wife’s murder is a drunken Professor who was in the club car of the train with him. Note: trains again. The police find the Professor, who was on that train... but has no memory of Guy or anything else from that night. Not much of an alibi. And it would have been possible for Guy to murder his wife and then hop the train at a later station - still seeing the drunken Professor in the club car. The police label Guy as prime suspect and give him 24 hour police surveillance.
Guy befriends one of the detectives following him (they’re both going the same place, so why not split a cab?) but everywhere Guy goes... there is Bruno. Will the Detective notice Bruno and ask who that guy is? Since Bruno is the real killer, and killed Miriam *for* Guy, that last thing he wants is the police finding out about Bruno. The great thing about these scenes is that Bruno as been given a distinctive look, so we can have Guy and the Detective driving past the Lincoln Monument with Bruno standing at the top of the steps... and we *know* that’s Bruno’s silhouette. Paranoia builds... where will Bruno pop up next time? He seems to be everywhere!
Guy and Ann (the Senator’s hot daughter) are having a conversation in some public building when Bruno steps out of the shadows and beckons him over. Guy excuses himself and has a whispered conversation with Bruno about killing his father... not too loud - doesn’t want Ann to overhear. But Ann doesn’t need to hear the words - she can see the two men whispering together. I have no idea how popular Patricia Highsmith’s novels are in the Gay Community, but her stories often have a Gay undercurrent to them. Tom Ripley is obviously bisexual, and in STRANGERS we have two men who share a secret... and it’s almost a metaphor for a Gay affair that a straight man is trying to cover up. While Ann is watching them whisper to each other, you can’t help but feel you are watching a woman discovering that the man she loves... loves another man. After the whispered conversation, when Ann asks what that was all about, Guy lies that it was just a tennis fan... and she knows it’s a lie... and he worries that she knows it’s a lie.
A great example of contrast is a practice match Guy plays as a warm up to a big tennis tournament he’ll be playing in later in the film. This scene not only has Guy trying to act normal while Bruno puts the screws into him to kill his father and the Detective watching him is right over there... Bruno is in the stands! The stands are filled with people watching the match, all of them following the ball back and forth across te court. Except Bruno. As every head turns to follow the ball, Bruno remains focused on Guy. Bruno’s focus is so different than everyone else’s that you wonder if the Detective will notice.
He Was Strangling *Me* After the match, Bruno is chatting with Ann and some friends at the country club. Guy has no choice but to join the table... and be seen with the man he’s trying to avoid. Ann’s little sister, Barbara, asks Guy who the attractive man is... and he has to find some way to warn her away from Bruno without explaining how he knows about him. But when Bruno sees Barbara - and her glasses- the calliope music from the amusement park plays in his mind (and on the soundtrack), and he stares at her. Creepy.
Later, the Senator has a party... and there’s Bruno! Guy tries to avoid him... and Ann watches how both men behave when they are in the same room together. Bruno is the life of the party, chatting with a couple of society matrons about the perfect murder. They laugh at the conversation - he’s joking around. Who would they want to kill if they could? How would they do it and get away with it? The whole conversation is something we’ve probably joked about or thought about - which draws *us* into the guilt. And it’s the same thing as the film’s concept - isn’t there someone we wish were dead? Wouldn’t it be great if we could find some way to kill them and get away with it?
Bruno explains that the very best weapon is one that is easy to conceal and difficult to trace - your bare hands. He puts his hands on one of the matron’s necks to demonstrate... then sees Barbara watching him, and that calliope music plays in his mind again (and on the soundtrack so that we can hear it) and his hands tighten on the matron’s neck. Tighter. Tighter. Tighter! The other matron screams, and they pry Bruno off... and this is Guy’s worst nightmare. The man who murdered his wife, the man he wants to have nothing to do with, has just become the focus of attention. Guy has to find a way to get Bruno out of there before people start asking questions... and he knows that’s not going to happen. The can of worms has been opened. The big deep dark secret about his relationship with Bruno is about to be made public.
Afterwards, Barbara tells Guy that the entire time Bruno was strangling the matron, he was staring right at her. “His hands were on her neck, but he was strangling *me*!”
How Did You Get Him To Kill Her? The secret is out. Ann corners Guy and asks him, “How did you get him to kill her?” Guy can’t lie, can’t hide the truth... must confess everything to the woman he loves. What I think is interesting is that there is a similar scene in REAR WINDOW where Grace Kelly finally comes over to Jimmy Stewart’s side after spending much of the film disbelieving him. The male lead and female lead reach a point where they team up - and together they try to resolve the problem. Guy confesses everything, and even though Ann isn’t completely on his side, she’s getting there. Eventually she and Barbara will help him deal with Bruno.
Killing Bruno’s Father: But before things can get better they must become much much worse. Guy realizes there is no way out of this mess without dragging down the Senator and the woman he loves. Bruno has his lighter and Miriam’s glasses and will plant them as evidence that *Guy* killed her... unless Guy upholds his half of the deal and murders Bruno’s father. Bruno has given him a gun and a map of the house and a key to the front door. Guy makes the toughest decision anyone can make... and calls Bruno to tell him to make sure he has an alibi for tonight.
This scene combines dread and suspense... you don’t want Guy to do it. You also don’t want him to be caught doing it. There is no good way for this scene to end. Something should stop Guy from doing it... but that would mean Guy gets caught. It’s a great dilemma - and it draws the audience right into the scene. Guy crosses a huge lawn to get to the front door - will he be seen? Will he turn around and go back? By stretching it out, it becomes agony for the audience. We are on the scene-rack, and stretching the scene makes it more painful. Guy uses the key the door, and is now in Bruno’s house. At this point, he’s broken the law and is in big trouble no matter what happens. He has the gun in his pocket. He opens the map and finds the stairway leading up to Bruno’s father’s bedroom....
And on the steps is a guard dog.
Growling at him.
He must get past the dog.
Step by step as he climbs the stairs he gets closer to the growling dog.
When he reaches the dog, he holds his hand down for the dog to sniff... or maybe bite off. The dog sniffs him, licks his hand, allows him to continue up the stairs.
And this is more great dilemma stuff, because we *don’t want him* to continue up the stairs. If the dog had attacked him, he wouldn’t be able to kill Bruno’s father. But, now he can... and we don’t want that!
Guy follows the map to Bruno’s father’s room. Pulls the gun from his pocket. Approaches the bed where someone is sleeping. Suspense and tension and dread reaching a boiling point. You don’t want to see what’s going to happen next. And....
Guy whispers - more secrets - to Bruno’s father that Bruno has sent him up here to kill him, and Bruno is a very disturbed person, and needs to be locked away somewhere, and...
The light clicks on and the sleeping man swings out of bed - it’s Bruno. Nothing at all Gay about Bruno in bed having a whispered conversation with Guy at the foot of the bed. Bruno whispers that his father wasn’t home tonight - he tried to tell Guy this when he called. Bruno is not happy with the double cross - and not happy with Guy. He grabs the gun. Guy tries one last time to reason with Bruno, but that is impossible. Guy walks out of the room, down the hall, down the stairs... with Bruno aiming the gun at him the entire time. Will Bruno fire? The closer Guy gets to the front door, the more tension builds.. You *know* Bruno is going to fire. But that would wake mother...
Tennis Match/Lost Lighter: Now we have a great piece of cross-cutting suspense. Bruno is going to plant the monogrammed cigarette lighter at the murder scene the next night... and Guy needs to stop him. Only one problem: that’s the day of the big tennis tournament. So, if Guy can win his match early, he can hop a train and stop Bruno from planting the evidence. Ann and Barbara will help him evade the detectives watching him... which is good, because the police have decided to arrest him after the tennis match. Though all of their evidence is circumstantial, there are no other suspects, and Guy has been acting really guilty.
Guy playing the tennis match is cross-cut with Bruno going out to the amusement park to plant the lighter at the crime scene... But things go wrong on both ends. Guy plays like a lunatic, trying to win the game... but his opponent is much better than he thought and the match ends up tied and is not an easy win. Bruno accidentally drops the cigarette lighter down a drainage grate at the amusement park and has to retrieve it. We cross cut between both actions - will Guy win his match in time to stop Bruno? Will Bruno retrieve the lighter before Guy can win his match? Each action is drawn out to build suspense... and eventually Guy wins his match and Bruno recovers the lighter. Now, can Guy stop Bruno before he plants the lighter on the island?
Carousel Gone Wild: Guy gets to the amusement park *seconds* before Bruno gets on a boat to the island... but the police are in hot pursuit - following Guy. We get a chase and fight that ends up on that carrousel with the calliope music, which goes out of control when the police chasing guy accidentally shoot the operator - who falls onto the controls. As the carrousel starts moving at warp drive - throwing people off - it’s as if both Guy and Bruno are on the same bit of insanity. The carrousel becomes a metaphor for Bruno’s psychosis - and Guy is trapped in it. The two men battle it out on the carrousel as the police watch. The police have found the Tunnel Of Love boat rental dude - and eyewitness who has seen the killer - and ask him if the guy on the carrousel is the same guy. He says “yes”. Now the police are sure that *Guy* is the murderer. A fellow is dispatched to climb under the out-of-control carrousel and switch it off... so that they can capture Guy. Guy continues to battle Bruno... wooden horse hooves almost smashing Guy’s face at one point! The carrousel reaches the breaking point and “crashes” (pieces go flying) (closest thing to an explosion you can get with a carrousel). Bruno is crushed under the carrousel... dying. The police arrest Guy. Not the ending you expected, huh?
The Tunnel Of Love dude says, “No, that’s not him. The other fella.” Guy tells the police that Bruno killed his wife and came here to plant his lighter. They go up to the dying Bruno and try to get him to confess... but he pins it all on Guy! He says Guy asked him to go out to the island to retrieve Guy’s monogrammed lighter, that Guy left behind when he killed Miriam! Then, Bruno dies.
Did Bruno have time to plant the lighter on the island after-all? Is Guy going to be executed for *wishing* his slutty wife were dead?
Not the end you expected, huh?
Then, as Bruno dies, his hand opens... and there’s the lighter. The police let Guy go - he’s innocent. The end.
Sound Track: Another great Dimitri Tiomkin score. Dark, lush, and with that haunting Tiomkin rhythm. Though I prefer the Herrmann scores for Hitchcock, Tiomkin’s partnership with the director produced some great work... as did Rozsa’s (which we’ll come to in a couple of weeks).
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, and it really holds up. The transference of guilt is great in this film, and while watching it *I* always feel guilty. If you have ever fantasized about killing someone, or wished your enemy was dead... this movie will probably haunt you long after you’ve seen it.
If you didn't get the first in my new Vintage Screenwriting Series: HOW TO WRITE PHOTOPLAYS by Anita Loos during the free period when it was released 3 months ago, it's going to be free again this weekend...
Friday 6/26 thru Sunday 6/28.
But I would like you to think of this as a Buy One, Get One Free. If there are any of my books you don't have yet, please buy one and then get the Vintage Screenwriting Book FREE. If you have all of my books, please do something to promote my books (tweet, other social media, write a review on Amazon) and then download the book for free. If you already have all of my books, it would be cool if you could get someone else to buy one of my books in order to get your free book. And you can even tell your friends *they* can get the book for free if they buy another one of my books! Buy one, get one free!
There have been How To Screenwriting books as long as there have been movies. The earliest one I have is from 1911... and there were books before that. In 1913 there were at least 4 books on writing screenplays published! Movies didn't suddenly get worse: they got *better*. So I thought it would be fun to republish some of these old books as ebooks along with new material on the history of Hollywood and screenwriting at that time and a bio of the writer, plus a look at how these 1920 lessons apply to screenwriting today. When this book was published, half of all movies in Hollywood were written by women, so we look at women in Hollywood at the time... and find out *why* there were so many women in the film business back then.
You get the full text of the 1920 book, a complete screenplay by Miss Loos (one of her hits), and then a bunch of new articles (over a third of the book).
And it's free until 6/28. A thank you to those who have bought my books in the past. If you haven't bought one of my books yet, it's still free (but, come on! This of this as a Buy One, Get One Free. If you've already bought some of my books, just grab this one. If you haven't, grab this one for free and buy one of the others.)
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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.
Why pay $510 for a used version of the 240 page 2000 version that used to retail for $21.95? (check it out!) when
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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. Great for Directors, Screenwriters, Producers, or Hitchcock fans!
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Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is over 100,000 words - 312 pages!
What is a scene and how many you will need? The difference between scenes and sluglines. Put your scenes on trial for their lives! Using "Jaws" we'll look at beats within a scene. Scene DNA. Creating set pieces and high concept scenes. A famous director talks about creating memorable scenes.
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Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is around 210 pages!
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Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is around 150 pages!
This book takes you step-by-step through the construction of a story... and how to tell a story well, why Story always starts with character... but ISN'T character, Breaking Your Story, Irony, Planting Information, Evolving Story, Leaving No Dramatic Stone Unturned, The Three Greek Unities, The Importance Of Stakes, The Thematic Method, and how to create personal stories with blockbuster potential. Ready to tell a story?
Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is over 85,000 words - 251 pages!
Expanded version with more techniques to help you through the desert of Act Two! Subjects Include: What Is Act Two? Inside Moves, The 2 Ps: Purpose & Pacing, The 4Ds: Dilemma, Denial, Drama and Decision, Momentum, the Two Act Twos, Subplot Prisms, Deadlines, Drive, Levels Of Conflict, Escalation, When Act Two Begins and When Act Two Ends, Scene Order, Bite Sized Pieces, Common Act Two Issues, Plot Devices For Act Two, and dozens of others. Over 67,000 words (that’s well over 200 pages) of tools and techniques to get you through the desert of Act Two alive!
Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is over 208 pages!
Show Don't Tell - but *how* do you do that? Here are techniques to tell stories visually! Using Oscar Winning Films and Oscar Nominated Films as our primary examples: from the first Best Picture Winner "Sunrise" (1927) to the Oscar Nominated "The Artist" (which takes place in 1927) with stops along the way Pixar's "Up" and Best Original Screenplay Winner "Breaking Away" (a small indie style drama - told visually) as well as "Witness" and other Oscar Winners as examples... plus RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 200 pages!
Expanded version with more ways to find great ideas! Your screenplay is going to begin with an idea. There are good ideas and bad ideas and commercial ideas and personal ideas. But where do you find ideas in the first place? This handbook explores different methods for finding or generating ideas, and combining those ideas into concepts that sell. The Idea Bank, Fifteen Places To Find Ideas, Good Ideas And Bad Ideas, Ideas From Locations And Elements, Keeping Track Of Your Ideas, Idea Theft - What Can You Do? Weird Ways To Connect Ideas, Combing Ideas To Create Concepts, High Concepts - What Are They? Creating The Killer Concept, Substitution - Lion Tamers & Hitmen, Creating Blockbuster Concepts, Magnification And The Matrix, Conflict Within Concept, Concepts With Visual Conflict, Avoiding Episodic Concepts, much more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
Expanded version with more ways to create interesting protagonists! A step-by-step guide to creating "take charge" protagonists. Screenplays are about characters in conflict... characters in emotional turmoil... Strong three dimensional protagonists who can find solutions to their problems in 110 pages. But how do you create characters like this? How do you turn words into flesh and blood? Character issues, Knowing Who Is The Boss, Tapping into YOUR fears, The Naked Character, Pulp Friction, Man With A Plan, Character Arcs, Avoiding Cliche People, Deep Characterization, Problem Protagonists, 12 Ways To Create Likable Protagonists (even if they are criminals), Active vs. Reactive, The Third Dimension In Character, Relationships, Ensemble Scripts, and much, much morePrint version is 48 pages, Kindle version is once again around 205 pages!
Expanded version with more ways to create interesting protagonists! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 41 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 160 pages!
The amazing thing about JAWS is that it is so well made it stands up now... and is better than most current films. In fact, compare JAWS to JURASSIC PARK (same director) and JAWS still wins. Better characters and situations and more suspense. The novel JAWS is kind of a pulpy beach read - a big chunk of it focuses on the affair between Mrs. Brody and hunky young Matt Hooper. All of that was removed for the film, and some great scenes were added. In fact, what always impresses me about JAWS is how many great scenes and memorable scenes are in the film. Just for fun, why not write a list of the great or memorable scenes you can remember. Doesn’t matter how long it has been since you have seen the movie, in fact - the longer it has been the better! If you haven’t seen the film since 1975, those scenes you can remember now made an impression.
Got your list? Well, I know which two scenes are on the top, and we’ll be looking at one of those later in the series, but now let’s look at one that is probably further down your list... A memorable scenes.
This scene happens about 13 minutes into the film... you read that right! The movie begins with the teens on the beach, skinny dipping, shark attacking the girl. Great way to start a film! The audience knows there is a shark out there. Next we have a scene that introduces Martin Brody and his wife and kids - he’s new on the job. He was an NYPD cop, who came to Amity... and is not thrilled by the water. He’s also over protective of his kids - he warns them the swing set isn’t safe.
Next scene we have our missing girl, and the guy she was with is showing Brody where she disappeared... and then they find what is left of her. Shocking! The town’s medical examiner confirms it as “Shark Attack”. Brody asks where they keep the “Beach Closed” signs... and finds out they don’t have any.
So Brody heads down to the store to buy sign making supplies. Now, here’s the great thing - the bike shop guy wants Brody to deal with the kids at the Kung Fu class, because they keep kung fuing his fence and even his bikes. The small town problems he *thought* he was going to deal with! He gets to the store, and more small town problems are discussed as he buys the paint and brushes and signs. He tells his deputy to take the stuff back to the police station and have the *secretary* make the signs, she has better penmanship. This becomes an issue!
Then Brody gets cornered by the Mayor and City Council Members on a ferry - and is pressured to change the cause of death to “boating accident” and pressured to keep the beaches open. The Mayor gives that great little speech about how when someone yells “Barracuda!” no one cares, but when someone yells “Shark!” it creates a panic. Brody *knows* this was a shark attack, but bends under the pressure. It’s him on that ferry against a handful of others - his bosses - who press him to do what he knows is the wrong thing.
Which brings us to this scene, about 13 minutes into the film. See how fast paced this film is? But it doesn’t seem that way - we get a good introduction to Brody and his family, a feel for small town life, introduce Body’s deputy and secretary, a look at small town politics... all while dealing with the shark attack. These aren’t a bunch of quick-cut MTV scenes, these scenes are concise and do many things at once. Packed with information, and emotion...
And then we have our day at the beach...
This scene is all about Brody *knowing* that he was pressured to do the wrong thing. He’s on edge - watching the people in the water. We get to know some minor characters - the Kitner Boy and his Mom, the Boy and his Dog, the Woman on the raft... and Bad Hat Harry (Bryan Singer’s production company!). All of these people will be players in the scene.
This scene has two great Hitchcock techniques - the “Hitchcock Wipes” where a passing person bridges the cuts so that it all flows as if it is one piece of film. This technique was used in “Rope” and “Frenzy”. In JAWS each wipe takes us closer and closer to Brody - focusing on how intently he is watching the people in the water... worried about a shark attack. The other technique is the “Dolly/Zoom” from “Vertigo”, where the camera dollys at the exact same rate as the lens zooms to that we get an expansion or compression of the background.
One of my favorite bits is when the guy *blocks Brody’s line of sight to the water* in order to talk about red curbs or whatever mundane thing. This creates suspense and frustration for Brody’s character - and that perfectly transfers to the audience. Conflict is the key to everything, and here we have another person with a small problem getting in Brody’s way when there is a much bigger problem. The great payoff with this is the screaming girl and her boyfriend. This heightens the tension. Even though it’s a fake out, we *know* that something is going to happen for real.
Now we “make it personal” with his kids getting into the water. He’s concerned, but hold back - tries to act cool. His kids swim way out there... towards the Kitner Boy.
Now it’s Bad Hat Harry who blocks his line of sight. The conflict has *escalated* because Brody’s kids are out there... in potential danger.
Escalating the tension and building dread is the Boy unable to find his Dog. That stick he was throwing is floating in the water... but no Dog fetching it. Something is wrong.
Did you see that? One of the great things about the shark eating the Kitner Boy is that it happens *in the background* of the shot of Brody’s kids and their friends swimming. Instead of making it obvious, the shot puts it in the background so that we aren’t quite sure what we saw. That’s more ominous than if they made it obvious. The folks on the beach aren’t sure what they are seeing, as well. That’s when we get the great “Dolly/Zoom” and Brody - knowing this is all his fault for being spineless - runs to the edge of the water and yells for everyone to get out of the water.
Here’s where we get more wonderful conflict. The parents race *into the water* to grab their kids! Into danger! Now Brody is trying to get the parents back to the shore (unsuccessfully) as well as get the kids to swim to shore. Absolute panic! Once everyone is on shore and heading away from the water, one person is walking *toward* the water - Mrs. Kitner. The scene ends just over 18 minutes into the film... with the bloody raft brushing up against the shore.
That’s not even one of the top two scenes you wrote down, which were probably “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!” and Quint relating his experience on the USS Indianapolis during WW2.
Comments section is open for discussion of the scene.
Directed by: Tony Richardson
Written by: Deric Washburn (DEERHUNTER) Walon Green (WILD BUNCH) David Freeman (not the guru, the guy who wrote STREET SMART).
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates, Valerie Perrine.
I saw this movie when it was first released and was shopping in Best Buys or someplace where the DVD was on sale, so I bought it... and it remained on my shelf in the shrink wrap ever since. With the news filled with stories of refugee children crossing the border illegally, I thought it might be time to break the seal on the DVD and use the film as a topical Trailer Tuesday. Yesterday’s earthquake in Guatemala made it even *more* topical (and I had to add that line to the already written blog entry).
When I first saw the film back in 1982 I thought it had some great performances and scenes, but the story was trying to do too much at the same time and suffered because of that. Seeing it again in 2014... pretty much the same. There are three different writers on this, and they reshot the end after test audiences hated it. The problem with doing any screenplay around an issue is that the issue might overshadow the story and you end up with a mess... which is probably what happened here.
The story begins in Guatemala after a major earthquake levels a city and kills the young husband of a teen mother, Maria. With aftershocks bringing down any building left standing, Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) and her newborn finds her little brother Juan and they head North with a group of others left homeless by the quake.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Charlie (Jack Nicholson) is an Immigration Officer tasked with busting illegal workers. When he enters a sweat shop, the owner begs him not to close him down. All of the employees are illegals, because his business model for maximum profit is to pay employees no more than $6 a day. Busting all of the illegals will put him out of business, not to mention make it impossible for his employees to feed their families. Charlie has been doing this for years, knows how things work in the real world, and says he’ll take *2* employees... and then finds two without wives and families and busts them. The Boss assures the two that their jobs will be waiting for them when they sneak back across the border... both are good employees.
Nicholson gives a great performance in this film, *not* playing Jack Nicholson... but the character. He’s subdued, stuck in a rut at work and at home... and kind of a loser. Charlie and his wife Marcy (the great Valerie Perrine, nominated for Best Actress in LENNY) live in a trailer park, but Marcy dreams of living in her dream home... and goads Charlie into asking for a transfer to El Paso where her cheerleading friend from high school Savannah (Shannon Wilcox stealing every scene she’s in) and her Border Patrol husband Cat (Harvey Keitel) have a duplex... with the other side vacant. It could be their dream home!
El Paso is very different than Los Angeles: it’s the front lines in the illegal immigrant war. There is a constant flow of people being smuggled in by coyotes in vans and cars and delivery trucks... plus individuals who sneak across the Rio Grande. Add to that the drug couriers and mules offered free passage into the United States by coyotes in exchange for taping drugs onto their bodies. The boring job of busting illegal workers in Los Angeles is nothing compared to the chases and shoot outs along the border in El Paso.
Cat (Keitel) is his partner, and Red (Warren Oates) is the boss. My friend Gary Grubbs plays one of the other Border Patrol Officers in his first credited film role! Early on, Cat tells Charlie that illegals are a commodity, and like any commodity, you can make a fair amount of money for delivering them to the right people. Would he like some extra cash? Charlie turns it down, he’s compassionate but not corrupt.
After picking up a group of illegals and taking them to the giant outdoor pens where they wait for processing, Cat introduced Charlie to a slimy Border Officer from Mexico, Manuel. Cat seems to have some side deal going on with Manuel...
While chasing some illegals trying to sneak across the Rio Grande, a boy steals all of the hubcaps off his patrol truck and runs back across to the Mexico side. Charlie chases the boy (who is Juan) but loses him. One of his first days on the job and he’s going to get into trouble for bringing the truck back without hubcaps! That’s when Maria and her baby shows up on the bank of the river to return the hubcaps. Her brother shouldn’t have stolen them. Charlie thanks her.
When they bust a delivery truck full of illegals, Maria, her newborn, and Juan are in the group and get sent to the outdoor pens, which are separated by sex. One of the other illegals asks Maria if she would like her to take care of the baby while she went to get water... and this ends up a ploy to steal the baby. Manuel the Mexican Border Officer has a business stealing and selling babies, smuggling in drugs and illegals, forcing any attractive women into a life of prostitution or sex slavery, and *killing* any competition. The theft of the baby starts a small riot, which is quelled in time for the buses to come and transport the illegals back to Mexico. Maria *does not* want to be taken away from her stolen baby. Maria spits in Charlie’s face: now he has become the enemy to her...
Meanwhile, Charlie’s wife is spending more than he makes turning their half of the duplex into a dream house. Charlie is drowning in debt and asks Cat if there’s still a chance he can do some of that corrupt cop work? Of course! They next bust they make, they find two drug couriers among the illegals and Cat has Charlie load up the others while he deals with the two couriers... and then Cat just shoots them dead. They were not Manuel’s couriers, and part of the corrupt gig is killing the competition. Charlie says he didn’t sign up for killing people... Cat warns him he nets to get along to go along.
Later, when a group of illegals try to escape onto a freight train, young Juan attempts to jump onto the speeding train, falls between cars, and Charlie risks his life to save him. Maria changes her mind about him, he’s not the typical Border Patrol Officer (who would have just let Juan die). Maria says she will do anything to get her baby back... and this becomes Charlie’s mission.
When he goes to Red about Cat and the corrupt border officers group... he discovers that Red is part of it! In fact, Red runs the corrupt group. Now it’s basically Charlie vs. all of the other border officers. Red and Cat set up an ambush an attack Charlie in an interesting if poorly choreographed shoot out in a lots filled with giant earth moves and construction vehicles. Charlie kills both of them, goes to Manuel’s headquarters on this side of the border, kills the toothless dude in charge and rescues the baby... but Manuel gets away. The movie ends with Charlie crossing the Rio Grand to give Maria her baby back...
The story seems scattershot at times, not knowing if it’s an action film or an issues movie or a domestic drama or a SERPICO like corrupt cop saga. All of the acting is top notch, and the scenes between Keitel and Nicholson are a million times better than anything in TWO JAKES. It’s interesting to look up the young actress who played Maria on IMDB, because her career took off big time. She’s the rebel woman in PREDATOR! (And PREDATOR 2!) She’s in SEVEN POUNDS with Will Smith! She’s in the SOLARIS remake with Clooney!
Tony Richardson was a really odd choice for director, he’s best known for costume dramas like TOM JONES and JOSEPH ANDREWS and comedies like TASTE OF HONEY and THE LOVED ONE. It makes you wonder if some early draft of this was a straight drama and they added the action scenes to turn it into the kind of movie that would sell tickets... which might account for the patchwork feel of the story. The action scenes are not well done, even though you cam see the *intentions* by what the characters do. The big “ambush” shoot out is over in a minute, even though you can see that it was written to go much longer (Cat’s death is a cool idea... that isn’t set up in the shoot out at all).
What this film shows is that there is no easy solution to any of this. A few weeks back I watched the 40s movie BORDER INCIDENT with Ricardo Montalban about the same subject, with many similar scenes. Because RKO was one of the producers of THE BORDER I wondered if it was a remake of some earlier film, and when I looked up movies with similar titles on IMDB there were Mexican/American Border movies going back to the silent era! Couldn’t find one from RKO with “border” in the title, so it may have been based on some film with a different title. But there are over 200 movies with the word “border” in the title, and most deal with the Mexican/American border. I may do the Montalban movie sometime down the road because I really liked that one.
THE BORDER is a mostly forgotten film with good performances, but a story that’s all over the place.