Friday, March 24, 2023

Fridays With Hitchcock:
The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Screenplay by the amazing team of Sidney Gilliatt & Frank Launder from a book by Ethel Lina White.

The second to last film of Hitchcock's British period is probably the film that got him to America – though it was one of a string of international hits he directed during this period. Along with THE 39 STEPS it is my favorite of his films from the British Period, because it is witty and fun and has some great suspense sequences and a clever storyline. I think one of the reasons why this film is beloved is that it's a two-fer – it's a great romantic comedy *and* a great thriller, complete with the standard Hitchcock big spectacle end. There's a TAMING OF THE SHREW vibe (the female lead is a spoiled rich girl) and the rom-com scenes *are* the thriller scenes – there's a great, *fun* scene where the couple is battling one the the villains and she kicks the male lead instead of the badguy. That scene is filled with fun, breezy dialogue – and it's an *action scene*! Most of the scenes do double duty – and it's difficult to imagine someone not liking this film. It's just a great time at the cinema. I probably first saw it at the old Telegraph Theater in Berkeley, which was upstairs from a laundromat. They once showed every single Hitchcock film, from silents through PSYCHO, and I was there for every single film. The funny thing was the number of people who only stayed until Hitchcock did his cameo – then they just got up and left! You know, Hitchcock shows up in the first ten minutes of many of his films. In LADY VANISHES he doesn't show up until the end, so those people saw almost the whole movie... and probably loved every minute of it. If you haven't seen it, the film is now public domain and there are many cheap (but good quality) versions out there, as well as a Criterion Edition... and many FREE copies online that you can stream.

Nutshell: Spoiled rich girl Iris Henderson (hottie Margaret Lockwood) and her bridesmaids (Googie Withers and Sally Stewart) have taken over a hotel for a bachelorette party on skis when an avalanche strands the passengers of a train in the very same hotel. Though many of the passengers are strange Eastern European types, there are a pair of British businessmen named Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) plus a “honeymoon couple” the Todhunters (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers). When a group of dancing elephants keeps Iris awake, she meets her next door neighbor Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) an elderly nanny. After bribing the hotel manager to throw the upstairs guest out, she meets him: flat broke music and dance historian Gilbert (Michael Redgrave – father of Lynn & Vanessa), a fellow Englander who becomes her nemesis/love interest in the film. Much of the charm of this film comes from his witty dialogue and their relationship.

The next morning when the train boards, Iris gets knocked on the head trying to help Miss Froy with her bags, and when she wakes up after a nap partway through the train journey Miss Froy has vanished and no one in the compartment or on the train remembers seeing her. Is Iris crazy? Did she *imagine* Miss Froy on the train? Or is there a conspiracy around the disappearance of this kindly old woman? With the help of Gilbert (who isn't riding in the coach section... he's riding in the baggage car) they try to solve the mystery of the vanishing lady.

Experiment: Though all but the first act of the story takes place on the train – a confined location – and this film might be seen as the predecessor for films like LIFEBOAT, the fun experiment wasn't Hitchcock's... it was the screenwriters Gilliatt & Laundner's. The witty writing team created these two businessmen, Caldicott and Charters, who are the R2D2 and C3PO of the film – we follow them into the story even though it is not about them, and like those two robots in STAR WARS they become our favorite characters in the film, showing up in scene after scene on the sidelines of the main story. Kind of a Greek Chorus. Though all of the characters in THE LADY VANISHES are witty and fun (even the villain!) these two characters steal the show... So Gilliatt and Launder carried them over into other scripts – and they show up in several films by the pair.

In NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940) they are once again on a train... with always hot Margret Lockwood again (playing a different role) in the early days of World War 2. When the Germans invade Czechoslovakia (a great scene of planes turning the daylight sky dark), top scientist Dr. Bombash escapes to England... but his daughter Anna (Lockwood) is captured by the Nazis and sent to a Concentration Camp... where she meets handsome rebellious prisoner Karl (a sometimes shirtless Paul Henreid from CASABLANCA) and they escape together... and fall in love along the way. Once in England, Karl and Anna try to find her father – who has been hidden away by the British government. Once they find him, Karl reveals that he is a Nazi agent who set this whole thing up in order to find Dr. Bombash and kidnap him back to Germany! Now Anna must team up with actor turned spy Gus Bennet (Rex Harrison... yes, Dr. Doolittle as a spy) and they go behind enemy lines into Germany to rescue her father with Bennet pretending to be a Gestapo agent and Anna pretending to be his mistress. But that means they have to convince Karl to release him into Bennet's custody – love triangle complications ensue – and all of them end up on that night train to Munich... along with Caldicott & Charters who are trying to get the hell out of Germany before England enters the war and they end up POWs. The two bickering businessmen end up pretending to be German soldiers and are part of a big action ending on an elevated tram car over a snowy mountain canyon. Caldicott & Charters become action heroes!

In MILLIONS LIKE US (1943) they are soldiers in World War Two – supporting players in a story about British women on the homefront. I got this film because I'm a Caldicott & Charters completest, and really liked it. Gilliatt & Launder not only wrote it, they directed as well. It's a story of three sisters and their widower dad during World War 2, while all the men are off fighting the war. Patricia Roc plays Celia, the middle sister, who ends up working in an aircraft factory while her older sister works as a secretary to a Colonel and the youngest sister stays home with dad... in a practically deserted town. Celia has never been away from home before, and is taken under the wing of a more worldly gal living in the barracks named Jennifer. The story focuses on the women living without men, doing “Rosie the riveter” type work, and constantly having to scramble for the bomb shelter when their plant is attacked by German bombing missions. One of their “duties” is to be bused to the nearby Air Force Base for dances with the young men... and Celia falls in love with a young pilot Fred (Gordon Jackson from one of my favorite films IPCRESS FILE) and the troubles of a wartime relationship... and eventual marriage. This is one tear-jerking movie, with all three sisters falling in love and dealing with various types of heart breaks... and dad back home trying to be needed in time of war when he is really too old to do anything. Caldicott and Charters are soldiers (on a train!) in a scene where people are being sent to fight and probably die.

Gilliatt & Launder created these two great characters and kept putting them in screenplays that were made into films... where they cast the same two actors to play the roles! These characters became so famous they ended up in a film they didn't write (CROOK'S TOUR) and had a TV series in the mid-1980s (played by different actors as Wayne and Radford were dead by then). Today I don't think you could write an original screenplay and reuse the characters in another script, let alone have them played by the same actors. The closest we get to something like this is Michael Keaton playing Ray Nicolette in both OUT OF SIGHT and JACKIE BROWN – both based on novels by Elmore Leonard.

Hitch Appearance: In Victoria Station near the end of the film, dressed in a black overcoat and smoking a cigarette.

Hitch Stock Company: Basil Radford from YOUNG AND INNOCENT and JAMAICA IN, Dame May Whitty from SUSPICION, Cecil Parker from UNDER CAPRICORN, and Mary Claire from THE SKIN GAME and YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

Bird Appearance: There's a bird in a cage in the hotel lobby, and no shortage of doves once they discover the magician's equipment in the freight compartment.

Screenwriting Lessons: There are so many great things about THE LADY VANISHES it's difficult to know what *not* to talk about! So I've picked a handful of things the script does particularly well... and some of you who are fans will complain that I've left other things out. This film is *also* one of the four main examples on my WRITING THRILLERS audio class, and I'm going to try my best *not* to duplicate any information from there. The lessons I've decided to concentrate on are the film's unusual Act One, the great Supporting Cast, the crackling Dialogue (some great rom-com exchanges), and the use of Clues.

Unusual Act One: Probably *because* this story is a mystery at its core, it has an unusual Act One... they don't even get on the train until 25 minutes into the film, and the thing we might call the “inciting incident” - Miss Froy vanishing – doesn't happen until 32 minutes into the film. Usually Act One introduces the conflict, but here we don't get to the conflict until Act Two. So what the heck is Act One? It's a not-so-grand-hotel comedy that sets up all of the suspects, plants some important elements of the thriller plot while you aren't looking; and moves so fast you never notice the plot hasn't kicked in yet.

The film begins with a great overhead shot of the train buried in the avalanche and moves down to the village, to the hotel, and through the window... without a cut! It's a great combination of very detailed and realistic miniature and set – with a dissolve in there somewhere. Hitchcock films always have amazing miniature work, and we'll talk about that in more detail in the YOUNG AND INNOCENT entry (coming soon). Once inside the hotel lobby, the very first thing we see is Miss Froy heading down the stairs to the front desk – the lady who will eventually vanish is in the first shot. When Miss Froy opens the front door to leave, it blows wind into the room and Caldicott and Charters close it... and like R2D2 and C3PO in STAR WARS, we follow them for the first half of Act One. They are our identification characters at this point in the story, and serve to introduce us to the other characters. Act One is based around the hotel, as if there will never be a train in the film.

Caldcott & Charters are sitting in the hotel lobby with a huge group of people when the manager (Emile Boreo) announces that the train will be delayed and anyone who needs a room should register now. This gives us a chance to meet some of our suspects, as Caldicott & Charters end up at the very back of the line at the front desk. The honeymooning couple Mr. & Mrs. Todhunter have a quiet disagreement – he insists on two separate rooms. What's up with that? A little character mystery that becomes an element in the conspiracy later. Before Caldicott and Charters can secure their room, wealthy Iris Henderson and her two bridesmaids blast into the hotel and the manager jumps from behind the desk to help them... leaving C&C standing in line wondering why she is more important than they are. Iris tells the manager to send up some champagne and food... When he returns to the front desk he tells C&C that there are no more hotel rooms, but he can let them sleep in the maid's room.

All of the dialogue in LADY VANISHES is great, and in Act One (the not-so-grand-hotel comedy) much of the humor comes from the language barrier between C&C and the hotel staff. The manager tells them the maid will have to come up and remove her clothing... and that the room has no 'eat. Though, after a great deal of confusion wondering about food in the room, they figure out that the room has no *heat*... they really aren't sure what to expect from the big-boned but attractive maid. Are they sharing a room with her? Will she be naked? They aren't interested in any hanky-panky.

Usually in order to remove confusion it's a good idea to have one character “introduce” the next character in an ensemble script, and this film is a good example. Caldicott & Charters act as an “introduction device” in Act One – as well as being hysterically funny. They climb the stairs to the maid's room, passing the middle aged waiter bringing the champagne and food to Iris and her bridesmaids... and we follow the waiter inside. Um, the scene in that room is something right out of THE HANGOVER! All of the gals are in their underwear, and Iris is standing on a table hanging her wet clothes on a chandelier – and it's like an obstacle course of half-naked women for the old waiter. He is not comfortable – and that's before Iris asks for help to help her down from the table and he has to touch her half naked body with her crotch in his face. While the waiter pours champagne, we find out that Iris is marrying a man she doesn't love, but is wealthy and will provide her with stability. It's *strongly* hinted that she's sowed a pile of wild oats in her past and is ready to settle down. When the waiter leaves the room, he bumps into the maid on her way up to remove her clothing...

The maid speaks no English, and when she comes into the room C&C have no idea what she is there for. When she grabs clothing for a night out, Caldicott explains she can not change in the room... and she smiles and proceeds to strip. C&C face the wall while she changes. There are a bunch of gags in these scenes with hangers and hat boxes and clothing articles. C&C go down to dinner – and find the restaurant PACKED. People are fighting over tables. When they see a couple leaving a table they make a run for it, and end up sitting across from... Miss Froy. Because they all speak English, they have a conversation which is 90% Miss Froy boring them to death with her life's story. Because this scene is from C&C's point of view, it's everything that could possibly go wrong *to them*. So instead of a pleasant conversation with Miss Froy, they get the worst possible conversation... which is funny, but also a great way to disguise an exposition dump from Miss Froy. After they order steaks and baked potatoes the waiter says something they don't understand, and Miss Froy translates – due to the avalanche the restaurant has no food left.

When Miss Froy leaves, we follow her – the baton has been handed off to her character – as she goes upstairs to her room... which is next door to Iris. Iris is in the hallway, saying goodnight to her bridesmaids and says hello to Miss Froy. Now we get to the dancing elephants. Miss Froy hears a guitar player serenading on the street below her window and goes to listen... but suddenly there is a pounding in the room upstairs. Miss Froy steps into the hallway just as Iris does. Iris tells Miss Froy that she will call the manager and get rid of whoever is making all of that noise. The Manager goes upstairs to an attic room where Gilbert is recording the dance moves while three hefty villagers dance. Now we've been introduced to our male lead – each character introducing the next (C&C to Froy, Froy to Iris, Iris to Manager, Manager to Gilbert). After some complications, the manager evicts Gilbert...

But meanwhile we go back to Caldicott & Charters in the maid's room sharing a pair of pajamas (Caldicott wears the bottoms) and the bed and that old newspaper... as the maid enters. Charter's cover's Caldeiott's naked chest from her view. She grabs her nightgown, and when she leaves Charters gets up to lock the door... when she enters to grab something from her dresser. Charters is undressed from the waist down and this gets milked for humor.

When the maid leaves, closing the door behind her...

Iris' room door opens and Gilbert enters, with his luggage. Iris is in bed, in her negligee, and we get the beginning of our rom-com story (about 20 minutes in). Some great dialogue here as Gilbert asks which side of the bed she wants – because he no longer has a bed for the night, he's *forced* to share hers. He unpacks some clothes, puts his toothbrush in the bathroom, runs a bath, starts to strip! This is the perfect rom-com couple – she's rich and beautiful and used to getting what she wants... and smart. He's a poor professor who is easy-come easy-go... and smart. All of the external, society things are at odds with each other, but underneath they have a lot in common. This is their “meet cute” and it is filled with sexual innuendo and some outright sexual comments. Margaret Lockwood is hot and sexy and smart – and in her negligee. He crawls over her in bed to get to the other side. The attraction is there – but both are pushing it away, because each is what the other *hates*. There's some great banter here, and even though a couple of the funny lines miss their mark, there are so many amusing lines that it really doesn't matter. From the other side of the closed bathroom door (naked?) Gilbert tells her that if she calls the manager to complain, he will tell *everyone* that she invited him into her room for the night... but if she tells the manager to give him his old room back he'll have a place to spend the night... other than her bed. Iris grabs the phone.

Next door, Miss Froy can now hear the man serenading below her window again, and hums along with the tune. What she doesn't know is the reason the music ends is that someone *kills* the man serenading. WTF? Hey, we're in a thriller! The next morning, as Caldicott and Charters are boarding the train, Miss Froy drops her glasses as she goes to get her bag and Iris picks them up to return them... but after giving them to Miss Froy someone *purposely* drops a planter from an upstairs window and it hits Iris in the head. Later we realize it was intended for Miss Froy – but we are definitely in thriller territory as a woozy Iris boards the train and says goodbye to her bridesmaids. As the train leaves the station, she passes out...

Supporting Cast: Iris comes to in a compartment with Miss Froy sitting across from her and most of the rest of our supporting cast in the other seats. We have the regal Baroness (Mary Clare) – who is a minister of culture for whatever country she is from. Senor Doppo (Phillip Leaver) and his wife (Zelma Vas Dais) and their little boy. We will later learn that Doppo is a magician whose famous trick is The Vanishing Lady. Because each of these characters is a potential suspect, they are fleshed out and distinctive.

The Baroness Atona is aloof and keeps to herself – but *doesn't* interact with others to such an extreme that we can feel how remote she is. This is an interesting character because it's what she *doesn't do* that defines her – while the little boy is cute and playful and Iris and Miss Froy watch him, the Baroness looks out the train window. Later, when she is questioned, it takes her a moment to turn away from the window and respond. She is above everything that happens in that train car.

Senor Doppo is one of the great minimal dialogue characterizations on film – he's got wild, expressive eyes and theatrical gestures and a massive smile. He always seems like he's having fun. Early on we see him doing a magic trick for his son (making something disappear!) and he looks as amazed as his child that the object has vanished. Throughout the film, Doppo has very little dialogue but manages to light up the screen whenever he's on – a flourish-wave and big smile are a threat in a later scene. This character may turn out to be one of the bad guys, but he doesn't let that stop him from smiling and having a great time in every scene that he's in. Characters like this are one of the reason this film is a favorite – he is *not* a traditional villain at all – you really like him and want to see him in more scenes... even if that means our heroes may get hit on the head a few more times.

Senora Doppo and the boy are almost symbolic of wholesome family Рand their apparent honesty is the most lethal weapon in the film. Again Рinstead of the clich̩, the characters in this film take characters who are up to no good and makes them wonderful people we wouldn't mind spending more time with. This makes it difficult for us to figure out who to trust Рand who might be in on the conspiracy.

When Iris wakes up, Miss Froy says she looks like she could use a cup of tea, and helps her into the dining car... in the hallway Iris falls against Miss Froy pushing her through an open door into Mr. & Mrs. Todhunter's compartment, and when they slam the door and pull the shades Miss Froy says that honeymooning couples can be so shy. We eventually find out this married couple are married to other people – having a *six week* affair/vacation while their spouses are back in England not suspecting a thing. Cecil Parker does such a great job of playing a manipulative stuffy prick that you hate him even before you find out he's a lawyer... and has no plan to divorce his wife and marry Linden Travers... he just told her that to get her into bed. The great thing about this character is that he has a logical story trajectory that plays through until the end. He's like Ellis (Hart Bochner) in DIE HARD – that guy who thinks because he's controlled everyone around him he can also control the bad guys... not realizing that he's completely out-matched.

Linden Travers has a great role as “Mrs” Todhunter – the bad girl who has been used and is about to be tossed aside and finds a way to get redemption *and* revenge in the same act! Though this is a subplot – and their reason for not wanting to get into any police inquiry about a missing woman, these scenes are incredibly well written and acted – and Travers' ability to show a brave face while we can see her crumbling within is amazing acting. This is a character who should *not* be sympathetic, but the script takes you inside her character and shows the scenes from her side – as she tries to out maneuver Todhunter's manipulations. He ends up bouncing her back and forth and she ends up emotionally battered every time she does the right thing. This is a Gloria Grahame type role, and she plays the hell out of it – giving you a strong impression in a handful of scenes.

The dining car is empty except for... Caldicott and Charters – our old friends! They are sitting at a table, discussing sports, and using all of the sugar cubes as little players as Charters tries to explain a play to Caldicott. One of the two waiters comes over, and Miss Froy pulls a box of tea and tells another of her endless stories – this one about how her elderly father and mother drink this tea every day, as do a million Mexicans. There's also a signature scene here where Iris asks Miss Froy her name, and the train whistle blows at the same time... so she writes her name in the dust on the window. Though we'll get to the clues in a moment, when you are writing a mystery based script it's important to make the clues *visual* and not call attention to them. When Miss Froy writes her name in the dusty window it is so natural that we never think it's going to come back later. Once the tea is served Miss Froy needs the sugar – and this ruins Charters' sports story... ruining his day *again*.

When they return to the compartment, the gentle rocking of the train puts Iris to sleep... and when she wakes up, Miss Froy is gone. She asks the other passengers in the compartment where the English Lady went, and they look at her like she's crazy – what English Lady? You were alone. The more insistent Iris is that there *was* and English Lady, the more they give her the funny looks and tell her she was mistaken, she came back from the dining car alone.

We are now 32 minutes into the film and the conflict has kicked in.

Iris goes to look for Miss Froy, stopping to ask the Waiter in the dining car if he has seen her. He has no idea who the heck she is talking about. She says: she gave you special tea – Harriman's Herbal. The Waiter says they serve their own tea, no special tea was made for anyone. They check the bill – Tea For One. Though the Waiters are bit players in the back of the scenes (except for this one) they still manage to have *characters*. The main Waiter has a perpetual snear and you aren't sure if he's up to no good... or is just pissed off at all of these pushy people he has to wait on. Why is Iris bothering him with this crazy story about an old woman and special tea? He has better things to do!

When you are writing a mystery, or any screenplay for that matter, you want to make sure the supporting characters are well drawn and memorable. Pat Duncan (COURAGE UNDER FIRE) once told me that the less time a character is on screen, the more vividly they need to be drawn... or they just become part of the scenery. In a story like this where some of these people may (or may not) be part of a conspiracy, they need to be memorable and fully formed even if they are only in a couple of scenes. We need to *know* these people, so that we can wonder if they are part of the conspiracy... or just people on a train. The mistake you might make in a mystery type screenplay is to create well drawn characters who are *guilty* but make the characters who will later be innocent sketchy and underdeveloped. Um, dead give away! One of the mistakes on my crappy film CROOKED is they *cut* the scenes with the innocent suspects (hey, why do we need scenes with these guys?) and then cast Gary Busey as the secret villain and cast *nobodies* in the other suspect roles. No secret there. They also changed everything else on that script including the *concept* - imagine THE LADY VANISHES without a lady who vanishes! So make sure even the innocent suspects are fleshed out and have real characters, some form of character arc or emotional conflict, and a subplot story in the background of the main story so they aren't just props.

Most of the supporting characters are also partially defined by their relationships, which helps with the rom-com aspects. Senor Doppo and his wife, Miss Froy who has never been married, the Todhunter “honeymoon couple”, the two long time bachelors Caldicott & Charters, Iris is going home to be married, and there's a Nun who comes into a film a little later. We'll look at her character and the Doctor who specializes in brain surgery in a moment...

Iris searches the whole train for Miss Froy, ending up in a baggage car at the end... which is filled with colorful singing and dancing hobo-types (poor villagers)... and her nemesis/romantic interest Gilbert. He says if he had known she was going to be on this train he would have stayed another week at the hotel. He hasn't seen Miss Froy and doesn't know who she is talking about...

Dialogue: One of the great things about this film is the clever dialogue. I can never understand why some people want boring realistic dialogue when you can have fun people saying fun things – imagine a comedy film filled with all of the “funny” things your co-workers say... would you really pay to see that? Part of what makes a film entertaining is crackling dialogue, and LADY VANISHES gives every character some juicy lines. Our male lead, Gilbert, has some great lines – smart ass responses to what everyone says. Hey, maybe this film is a *three-fer* because it works as a clever comedy in addition to a thriller and a rom-com.

Iris tries to get the heck away from Gilbert, but feels woozy and almost collapses. Gilbert comes to her aid and asks “What's the trouble?” “If you must know, something fell on my head.” “When? Infancy?” Iris is the straight man for Gilbert's banter – and he has a zinger for everything. “Can I help?” “Only by going away.” “Oh, no. My father taught me never to desert a lady in trouble... he even carried that as far as marrying mother.” So at 35 minutes in, the two team up to find Miss Froy – the train has not stopped, she must still be here somewhere.

In the hallway they see Senor Doppa talking to a distinguished gentleman, the brilliant brain surgeon Dr Egan Hartz (Paul Lukas) - Gilbert is impressed. “You flew over to England the other day and operated on one of our cabinet ministers.” “Yes.” “Tell me, did you find anything?” “A slight cerebral contusion.” “Well, that's better than nothing.” Dr. Hartz says he's picking up another case at the next station and accompany them to the hospital where he will operate.

You would never know that Dr. Hartz is the villain in this film – he's charming and witty and distinguished. If Gilbert wasn't the romantic lead, he could easily fit the bill (except he's a bit old) – he seems like he just stepped out of a country club cocktail party... somewhere in Prague. Lukas was a Hungarian actor who would win the Oscar for Best Male Actor for WATCH ON THE RHINE in 1943. His character is sympathetic to Iris, and wants to help – but also mentions that a knock on the head can create delusions. It's not that he doesn't believe Iris about Miss Froy, but that Iris may have imagined Miss Froy based on meeting her at the hotel... and Miss Froy was never actually on the train. Iris got knocked on the head, basically *dreamed* having tea with Miss Froy, and woke up in the compartment. The great thing about this character is that he's nice and polite and trying to be helpful... and what he says makes sense. Iris doesn't want to believe she *imagined* Miss Froy on the train, but it's possible.

When Gilbert questions the passengers in the compartment, they haven't seen her. When Dr. Hartz asks Iris what she looked like, she says that it's hard to describe her – she was a middle aged woman in oatmeal colored tweeds... and gives an amazingly detailed description, to which Gilbert quips that she must not have been paying attention. But the problem is, Miss Froy's description is kind of a generic middle aged woman wearing what generic middle aged women wear.

Dr. Hart offers to help Iris and Gilbert find her, but when they question Mr. Todhunter he says he has no idea who she is talking about. The reason why? Well, he doesn't want to get mixed up in any missing persons police business that might reveal his affair. Iris argues with him, but Mr. Todhunter doesn't back down, and Iris says *loudly* that she'll find Miss Froy if she has to stop the train to do it. This is overheard by Charters standing outside the restroom – Caldicott inside – knocks and enters and tells Caldicott that Iris is looking for Miss Froy. “Well, she's not in here.” The two realize if Iris stops the train they will miss seeing the big game, and decide to claim they never saw Miss Froy. Again, a character-related reason to deny Miss Froy's existence – which makes Iris look crazy. Dr. Hartz believes it's all an hallucination, thinks this is “Most interesting!” (his catch phrase) and excuses himself because they are about to stop at the station where he will pick up his patient.

Since this is the first time the train has stopped, Iris and Gilbert each take a side of the train to look for someone trying to smuggle Miss Froy off... but no one gets off the train. Instead only Dr. Hartz's patient (head wrapped in bandages, on a gurney from an ambulance, with a Nun/nurse in attendance) boards the train.

Though there is one more character who plays a pivotal role in the story (a woman dressed *exactly* as Iris described, but *not* Miss Froy), the Nun is the last important supporting character in the story. She is a deaf-mute – making communication impossible. But she also could not have seen Miss Froy, since she boarded the train *after* Miss Froy vanished. Later we will discover that the Nun is half-English/half-Eastern European – and this character has to make some tough decisions. She's what I call a *Pivot Character* - someone who starts out on one side and slowly changes to the other side. I've got a new chapter in the Action Book revision about this type of character – people like Tommy Lee Jones' Lt. Gerard in THE FUGITIVE. There are good guys who give in to the dark side and bad guys who see a chance for redemption. And the Nun is the latter – she is part of the conspiracy but slowly comes to realize she's on the wrong side and not only *helps* Iris and Gilbert, she eventually does what all bad guys who do good things (but still have an evil past) does – sacrifices herself so that others can live. Because of this change, the Nun is an interesting character with real depth. All of the supporting cast in LADY VANISHES are really well written.

There's a great dialogue exchange between the Todhunters where each tries to outsmart the other and gain the upper hand in their relationship – and the twists and turns in the conversation are amazing, and the wordplay is clever. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” “On the contrary, I've come to them.” These are two intelligent people battling each other with words – and these words are sharper than any sword and maybe just as deadly. A pair of supporting characters who get dialogue fit for a lead.

Clues: Now that Iris has been convinced that there was no Miss Froy, clues begin popping up that hint that maybe there *was* a Miss Froy. The great thing is that a bunch of clues have been planted already, and you didn't notice any of them! Remember Miss Froy writing her name on the dusty window? At the time there was a very good reason for that – the loud train whistle prevented Iris from hearing Miss Froy when she gave her name. You never suspected it was a clue, or that it would ever pop up again. It's was just a *visual* way for Miss Froy to relate information. Well, Gilbert and Iris are seated for lunch at the same table... but Gilbert lowers the window and we see the writing sink below their field of vision! This creates some great suspense, because *we* can see Miss Froy's name written in the dust but they don't notice it. We want to yell at the screen that the proof that Miss Froy exists is right there!

But they are engaged in a great conversation – because part of this story is a rom-com, and they are opposites (that attract) we get their first real conversation. Each lets their guard down and they reveal their true selves to each other. Iris is going home to get married to a man she doesn't love, but is dependable and financially secure. Gilbert is flat broke – when his parents died they left him straddled with their debts, and that is getting in the way of his dreams (his book on historical folk dance). Both are faced with unappealing futures – their common ground. And they genuinely enjoy each other's company. This is the key scene for the romantic subplot – after this scene, even though they each still have the same future (she's still going to get married) but they (quietly) acknowledge their attraction to each other. They end the scene as friends. All of this going on while that danged clue is right there on the window behind them! And just when Iris spots the writing on the window, they go into a tunnel and the smoke from the train engine obscures the writing forever.

In my Mystery & Noir Class, I explain many ways that clues can work in mysteries so that they are “invisible” the first time the audience sees them. The method used in LADY VANISHES is to give the clue a reason to be part of the story *before* it becomes a clue. Remember when Iris returned Miss Froy's glasses to her at the train station? Those glasses come into play later in the story when Gilbert finds them on the floor of a baggage car... and even then they don't seem to be a clue. He's fooling around, trying to cheer Iris up by doing impersonations using the things sitting around the baggage car as props. There's a Sherlock Holmes style deerstalker hat, there's a graduation cap, there's a pipe, there's a pair of glasses – he does an impersonation of a famous person with each prop... But when he gets to the glasses, Iris recognizes them as Miss Froy's. So she was *here* and she lost them in a struggle!

Remember Harriman's Herbal Tea? You thought that clue was finished when the Waiter said they did not serve her any special tea in that earlier scene. But later in the film Gilbert is standing by a window when the cook throws out the garbage... and a tea package sticks to the window – Harriman's Herbal Tea! This is actually the moment where Gilbert completely believes Iris – believes that Miss Froy exists, was on the train, was kidnapped (or worse), and there is a conspiracy involved to make Iris look crazy by denying that Miss Froy ever existed. The great thing about this clue is that the moment we see it, *we* know that Iris wasn't imagining things... without any clunky exposition. It's *visual* storytelling.

They realize the one person who can help them is Dr. Hartz, and go to his compartment, open the door, but only the Nun is there caring for the sick patient. Then Iris notices something odd - the Nun seems to be wearing high-heels. Is that allowed? Maybe she's not a nun after all? This leads them to wonder who is really under all of those bandages in Dr. Hartz's compartment? They go in and start to unravel the bandages when Dr. Hartz returns – busted! Hartz tells them this patient has no face – just raw flesh! That removing the bandages would *kill the patient*. And Gilbert and Iris realize they've gone too far and leave the compartment... But a Nun with high heels?

Okay, the biggest clue of all: Remember that guy serenading under Miss Froy's window who was murdered? Probably not – that was a long time ago. Well, he wasn't killed because he was singing off key or singing while people were trying to sleep – he was killed for the same reason Miss Froy was kidnapped (and will eventually be killed unless they can find her). That tune he was playing, the tune that Miss Froy hums in the train car while Iris is drifting to sleep? That is really a secret code and Miss Froy is a spy and Dr. Hartz is an evil villain and war is going to break out unless Miss Froy can get that code back to England! The tune is the MacGuffin! You just thought it was catchy as hell and kind of exotic. But it's actually what the whole film is about – a musical code.

And that's where you realize that Gilbert is an expert in traditional dance and music and that very first scene of his where he is playing a clarinet and taking notes on the overweight villagers dancing around his room was a set up for this pay off – eventually they will find Miss Froy who will hum the tune for him and he must memorize it... during one of those huge Hitchcock set pieces – in this case, a huge shoot out on the train between bad guy military types lead by Dr. Hartz and the passengers (our supporting cast). Caldicott and Charters are crack shots – they were in World War 1 – and trade quips while trading shots with the bad guys. All of the supporting characters fulfill their “story destiny” as Todhunter tries to manipulate and deal with the bad guys (like Ellis in DIE HARD), but first Mrs. Todhunter turns the tables on him and shows how tough she really is, the Nun risks her life to do the right thing, etc. Whether it's an arc or just a decision – each of the supporting characters is an important part of that big end scene... where Miss Froy is shot at while running from the train and falls down *hard* - probably dead. Now it's up to Gilbert to remember the tune in order to save the world!

Sound Track: That tune was written by Louis Levy, who does a great job of scoring the film. It's a little “big” at times, but not too obtrusive... never reaching Full Korngold status. Levy also wrote the music for THE 39 STEPS (another catchy tune that figures into the story), the original MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, SABOTAGE, THE SECRET AGENT... plus NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH and MILLIONS LIKE US. This guy composed the music for almost every British film you can think of pre-1958!

THE LADY VANISHES is a fun film that holds up pretty well today due to its humor, zippy pace, and sexual situations (PG, but lots of lingerie)... and because it's public domain, you can easily find a free copy online or a cheap DVD version. Check it out!

- Bill

The other Fridays With Hitchcock.


Thursday, March 23, 2023

THRILLER Thursday: The Return Of Andrew Bentley

SEASON 2!!! THRILLER: The Return Of Andrew Bentley

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

Season: 2, Episode: 12.
Airdate: December 11, 1961

Director: John Newland
Writer: Richard Matheson, based on a story by August Derleth
Cast: John Newland, Antionette Bower, Philip Bourneuf, Oscar Beregi, Reggie Nalder.
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: John F. Warren.
Producer: William Frye

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Can you hear me Andrew? Can you hear me? The frightened challenge of an old man, to who? Or to what? Questions. How does the old man know that he will soon be dead? And why does he fear that which may follow his death? Questions. Questions which will be answered before the night is done, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. But what of the questions that remain unanswered? Black secrets, carefully guarded and handed down. Spells, incantations, rituals, curses. The mysteries of the universe that have been revealed through the centuries only to a scattered unscrupulous few who thrive on evil. And aren’t too particular about the final disposition of their immortal souls. Such a man was Andrew Bentley. Our story tonight concerns the efforts of the living to combat his return from the world of the dead. Our players are: John Newland, Antoinette Bower, Philip Bourneuf, Oscar Beregi, and Reggie Nalder). Yes, my friends, there are those who believe in the occult arts. And it is said that even those who practice them, all that is required is the proper recipe, a gentleman’s agreement with the devil, and an unflinching faith in the supernatural. Can it really be true? I don’t think so... everybody knows there’s no such thing as magic.”

Synopsis: Sometime in the late 1800s. Newlyweds Ellis Corbett (John Newland) and his bride Sheila (Antoinette Bower) have been summoned to the rambling mansion and estate that Ellis grew up on by his last living relative - his Uncle Amos Wilder (Terence de Marney). Amos wants to meet the new wife. They pull up in a horse drawn coach on a foggy night, and ask the driver to wait for them. As soon as they are out of the coach the driver speeds away. The front door is opened by his uncle’s servant Jacob (Ken Renard) who is happy to see Ellis. This is where Ellis grew up, and Jacob is almost like a father to him. They go into Uncle Amos’ study...

Where crazy Uncle Amos seems just a bit paranoid. Though he seems in good health, he tells Ellis that he is going to die... and will leave the mansion and his sizable wealth to his nephew on one condition. That Ellis live in the mansion and check on Amos’ grave every day to make sure that someone... or something... hasn’t tampered with it. New Bride Sheila is trying not to shake her head - the mansion is creepy. But Ellis says yes - this is the house he grew up in.

In the middle of the night, Ellis and Sheila are awakened by organ music and follow it down to the cobweb filled basement where Uncle Amos is playing the organ... then collapses dead on the keyboard.

Uncle Amos’ coffin is taken down to the crypt, on a level even lowerr than the basement with the organ, because it is so easy to build *down*. Ellis seals the crypt according to Uncle Amos’ instructions, then draws an image on the crypt door in chalk - also according to the burial instructions. Weird.

Afterwards Ellis, Sheila and Dr. Weatherbee (Philip Bourneuf) have a drink, and the doctor tells them that Uncle Amos committed suicide by poison. Sheila remembers him saying the name “Andrew”. When Jacob the butler hears this , he tells Ellis that he wants to quit... after 33 years of service. Ellis talks him into staying for a couple of days... and asks Dr. Weatherbee who “Andrew” is. Was - Andrew Bentley died two years ago.

Before going to bed, Ellis and Sheila go down to check the crypt - not tampered with. See? Not a big deal. They leave the crypt... and Andrew Bentley (Nalder) floats into the crypt, sees the markings on the door, and floats away - looking very much like a vampire.

The next day there is a letter from Uncle Amos telling Ellis to get Burkhardt and check the book on the second shelf of the seventh compartment - Ellis and Sheila find a book: The Rites Of Protection. Knock at the door (not a shock moment, should have been) and Jacob tells him that Reverend Burkhardt (Oscar Berengi) is here... who tells them that he can not protect his Uncle, and to ignore the book... which Ellis reads a page of outloud - about demons lured on by man’s ignorance.

Ellis and Sheila have some relationship issues dues to the whole daily tomb check thing, and one night when Ellis goes down to check he bumps into the floating Bentley who scares him into a faint. Sheila goes down and finds him... he tells her he has seen Andrew Bentley.

Jacob the butler sees Andrew Bentley and drops dead.

Dr. Weatherbee shows up, and tells them Andrew Bentley is dead... and was “completely evil”. A sorcerer whom everyone feared. The only way to stop this is to destroy Bentley’s body - it’s somewhere in the cellar. They will need the Reverend to protect them. They get in the carriage and go to fetch him...

Spooky Bentley tries to scare the horses, but they just go around him. The wagon wheel breaks off, and they run on foot in the dark and foggy night. None of this is filmed in a frightening way.

They bring the Reverend back to the house where they have a running exorcism - chasing Bentley’s ghost through the house. They find his corpse in Amos’ laboratory and burn it. The end.

Review: Richard Matheson is one of my favorite writers, I discovered him as a kid due to all of his great TWILIGHT ZONE episodes and DUEL and those Corman Poe movies. So I was excited when I realized that he had written an episode of this series, even though it was an adaptation of someone else’s story (Derleth is also a famous horror writer, though I knew him through his mysteries). I didn’t remember this episode from my childhood... and there was a good reason. It’s thoroughly forgettable. Strange, because Matheson was coming off of HOUSE OF USHER and my favorite PIT AND THE PENDULUM - and he’d been writing scripts for a while (a dozen produced credits before this one). I have no idea what Matheson’s script was like, but the pieces of a spooky story are all present... and the direction seems to destroy all suspense and dread.

The director was the episode’s star John Newland, and he was no stranger to direction at this point in his career. Newland was host and director of all 96 episodes of the TV series ONE STEP BEYOND from the late 50s, which was “the TWILIGHT ZONE before there was THE TWILIGHT ZONE” - an anthology series about the supernatural and paranormal, often with a twist end. He was both the show’s “Rod Serling” host and the shows director. The show was interesting in that it was a docu-drama, and each episode was based on a true story. I tracked down some episodes and watched them - focusing on ARIEL because it starred MANNIX’s Mike Connors as a member of a famous trapeze family. In the episode he gets into an argument with his father (who leads the troupe) and that night his father slips out of his hands and falls to his death. He feels guilty and basically decides to commit suicide by trapeze and swings off the trapeze into the void... and his father’s ghost catches him and takes him safely to the platform. Based on a true story.

But watching the episode I could see where Newland might not have been the best director choice for THRILLER even though he had done 96 episodes of ONE STEP. Because ONE STEP was a docu-drama, it was mostly scenes of actors acting in front of a locked down camera - not much camera movement and not much editing. Kind of a filmed stage play. What made the show work was each of the episodes I saw had a few scenes at an interesting location - often using stock footage. So in this episode there was the whole big top circus trapeze scenes - one with a stock footage crowd and one without. But those scenes made up for the stagey scenes.

But this episode of TWILIGHT ZONE is all stagey scenes. There’s a sequence when they creep down to the crypt - and there are cobwebs and a spooky set, but the camera is stationary and there are no cuts or close ups. What I’m sure was written as the couple walking deeper and deeper into a dark and creepy basement is just two people walking... and avoiding all of the cob webs. Another scene is weird - there is organ music coming from the basement, but neither Ellis nor Sheila look towards the basement, so we don’t know where the music is coming from. Lots of non cinematic direction undercuts this story. So even though we have Matheson at his prime... we have kind of a lackluster episode.

Always great to see Reggie Nalder in an episode - his skull-like face is perfect for this evil enemy from beyond the grave, but for some reason (Newland's direction?) he over acts in this episode, which he did not do in the TERROR IN TEAKWOOD eoisode.

- Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Film Courage Plus: Remake Mistakes!

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

Hollywood loves remakes and reboots and sequels and adaptations. As a screenwriter, you probably hate this because you have written a bunch of great original screenplays and just want to see *your* stories on screen. You poured your heart and soul into these original screenplays, but Hollywood is remaking some Adam Sandler movie starring some new kid from Saturday Night Live, or is making FAST & FURIOUS 12 or adapting a trashy novel written by a book agent under a pseudonym or remaking a Stephen King novel for the third time or has decided it’s time to reboot IRON MAN or make THE MASK 3 with both Jim Carrey and Eric Stoltz (or to reboot that joke so that people in their 30s understand it). They only buy around 100 original screenplays a year, and only make a fraction of those! How is a screenwriter supposed to make a living if they keep making all of these remakes and sequels and adaptations?

Well, somebody still has to write those.

And that somebody might be you.

Most of a screenwriter’s income comes from assignments - those remakes and adaptations and reboots and sequels. It’s not uncommon to hire new writers to do the “grunt work” of writing the first drafts for remakes and reboots and adaptations, then hire a big name writer to do the rewrite and give it that “Barton Fink feeling”. I know a bunch of writers whose first jobs were working on some remake or adaptation, and doing several different drafts until they had found the very best way to tell the story... and then it was handed off to a big name writer. The new writer doing several drafts to “break the story” was much cheaper than the rewrite from the name writer. So it often makes sense to hire new talent to work on those remakes and reboots, etc. They have done this with sequels, too - a big hit series at Warner Bros once hired three different new writers to come up with a sequel, and then picked the best one. That’s frowned upon, because the real money is when the film gets made (production bonus) but even the writers who “lost” had a screenplay for a big hit franchise on their resume.

I have written a remake, adapted a New York Times Best Selling novel, been in the running for a bunch of sequels, and had a bunch of assignments where I wrote a screenplay to fit a production company’s specific needs (from my pitch, or sometimes from their idea). Early in my career I was in the running to adapt a big best selling novel (some other new writer got the job). So instead of seeing these endless remakes and sequels and reboots and adaptations as bad things, look at them as possible jobs in your future!


You may wonder why Hollywood is obsessed with remakes and sequels and reboots and adaptations, but it’s just basic business. Last time they released the numbers (probably a decade ago) the *average* film cost $107 million by the time it hit the screen, and these days people only buy tickets to see blockbusters - which often cost $250 million. That’s a lot of money to gamble on a single film, so they tend to look for “sure things”... like movies that have previously been hits or novels that have been huge best sellers. If they liked it before, they will probably like it again! And for the most part that theory works.

When people complain about remakes, I usually point out that the version of THE WIZARD OF OZ that they love is a remake of a remake of a remake of a remake. Hollywood has ALWAYS made remakes... the famous Humphrey Bogart version of THE MALTESE FALCON was the third version made in ten years! Some movies in the 1930s and 1940s were remakes of a film made the year before! One of my favorite private eye movies MURDER MY SWEET was the remake of a movie in the FALCON series made the year before (to be fair, both were adaptations of the same novel that the production company bought the rights to). Back then, there was no TV or video - the only place you could see a movie was in the cinema, so once a movie played in cinemas... it often went onto a shelf in a warehouse somewhere. Making it again a year or two later was a way to have a NEW movie with a story that had been popular before... and that’s still the plan and the plan usually works. Which is why they keep doing it.

And “franchises” have also always been part of Hollywood - there were 12 films in THE FALCON series, and I lost count when trying to count up the CHARLIE CHAN movies. In the 1930s and 1940s there were franchises and spin offs and reboots (with a different cast - Charlie Chan did that) and all of the things that people complain about today. If one film is a big hit, they make a sequel... if the sequel is a big hit, they think of it as a franchise. As I write this there’s a SAW reboot in cinemas starring Chris Rock. Sequels and franchises and reboots are good business decisions...

And this is a business.

And that means that these are jobs that you might be hired for.

So if you get hired for AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER what are the things to think about as a writer? How do you write that?


By now some of you are excited because you have a great idea for the next SILVER SURFER movie or MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie or maybe you have read a novel that you think would make a fantastic film or you have an amazing idea for SLINKY: THE MOTION PICTURE! (The exclamation point is part of the title) or you want to reboot some old TV show that was your favorite when you were a kid, and now want to know what to do after you have written the screenplay?

Well, that’s not how it works.

All of those reboots and remakes and novel adaptations and sequels like AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER are *assignments*. You don’t call them, they call you. Some production company or studio *owns the rights* to those movies that you might have a reboot or remake or sequel idea for - and they hire writers to write those screenplays. They don’t buy spec scripts for those. They own the characters and worlds and all of the rest of the stuff from the original film, so you can not legally write a spec sequel or remake or reboot or re-imagining or whatever. They own the Intellectual Property.

Think of that property like a car - they own the car. You might think that it would look great if it were painted bright orange and have a spoiler on the back and not just have white wall tires but 100% white rubber tires. But taking the car that belongs to them is probably not a good idea. Painting it orange and adding the spoiler and the all white tires? Really not a good idea. Trying to sell the car that already belongs to them back to them after you have painted it some color that they might hate and welded a spoiler to the back and added those all white tires that they think look silly and then trying to sell it back to them? That probably is going to land you in prison.

How it works: Someone at the studio thinks that it’s time for a new SILVER SURFER movie. They make a list of writers who they think would do a great job writing a new SILVER SURFER movie, call their agents or managers and bring the writers in to “pitch their take” - explain how they would write a new SILVER SURFER movie. They listen to all of the pitches and then pick one (or sometimes more) and hire the writer to write a treatment or screenplay... but often they want the writer's "take" plus the production company's ideas, and sometimes it’s just the production company's ideas (they don't want your ideas, just your writing skills). Often they have a plan for the SILVER SURFER that isn’t anything like what the writer pitched them - you see, they eventually want to do a SILVER SURFER/VENOM team up film, and have come up with a path for the SILVER SURFER to take to reach that eventual film. So they hire the writer to write the screenplay that THEY WANT. It isn’t orange and doesn’t have a spoiler or solid white tires!

They call you.

How do you get on that list?

I’ve been on some of those lists. You write a bunch of great ORIGINAL screenplays that use YOUR characters and YOUR worlds and YOUR everything else. Great ones. And they read one or two or three of those ORIGINAL screenplays and think that you are the person who should write the new SILVER SURFER movie. On a remake job that I had, the producer was looking for a writer and the head of production had read one of my scripts while working for another producer and suggested me. So they requested a more recent screenplay by me in that genre, and I sent it to them. They liked it! So they ask to read ANOTHER screenplay in that genre, just to make sure that the first one (well, second one) wasn’t a fluke. They liked that screenplay, too! They had me come in for a meeting to pitch my take on the remake (the original was made before cell phones and the prevalence of computers - how could I make the story work in today’s world?). Now, I have no idea how many other writers they called in to pitch their take. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one. But whatever I said or did, I was the one who they hired...

And even though they loved my take on the remake... they had their own ideas, and I was hired to write their idea of what the remake should be. Not my idea.

Because they own the Intellectual Property.

Adapting a book or anything that you do not own the rights to is a complete waste of time. You can never show it to anyone (it’s like trying to sell that stolen car you have painted orange) and in the case of a book - there’s a very good chance that a studio or production company owns the rights to that book and has already hired writers to adapt it. Usually, any book worth buying the film rights to has already sold those rights when the book was in “galleys” - before it was published. Basically a studio or producer is buying the AUDIENCE for the book - the millions of readers when it becomes a Best Seller. If a publisher is doing a huge print run and spending a ton on advertizing on the book, then it’s likely to be a best seller even before it’s published. A book that wasn’t a best seller? Well, why would Hollywood want to buy a small audience? So adapting a book that you haven’t bought the rights to is a waste of time. Again - they call you. I have adapted a NYT Best Seller and a couple of other books, and turned some jobs down and just didn’t get other book adaptation jobs. Someone else had a better take. They called me because they had read multiple ORIGINAL screenplays by me that they liked. They want to be able to judge MY WRITING, not my adaptation of someone else’s writing. So they want to read my original screenplays... and they’ll want to read your original screenplays before hiring you.

Hint: When you have an original screenplay go wide and end up on the “water bottle tour” doing a bunch of meetings on studio lots? Find out what movies owned by that studio you might want to remake or reboot or whatever and in your meetings mention that THE GLASS BOTTOMED BOAT is one of your favorite movies and you have an awesome idea of how to remake it for 2021! They might ask you for more - and you pitch your take. Maybe you get on the list of writers when they are calling people in to remake that film!

But what if they say “Yes!”? What if you end up writing a remake of THE GLASS BOTTOMED BOAT or writing AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER?


Which gets into the question in the clip... why do so many sequels and remakes and reboots and adaptations and all of that other stuff *fail*? If you are the writer who wins the competition and gets hired to write a sequel or remake, how can you avoid failing?

I’m so glad you asked.

I think the most important thing is to remember that Hollywood is looking for “The Same But Different” - and the reason why so many sequels fail is that they forget one of those two things. They are either nothing like the original hit film, or too much like the original hit film. Finding that sweet spot between the two is often difficult... but that’s the job!

I think the perfect example of doing it right is ALIEN and ALIENS. The first film was basically a horror movie on a space ship, with a creature relentlessly hunting an attacking the crew - and no way to escape the space ship. When crew members are poking around in the dark space ship where the creature might be hiding, it builds dread and terror... just like a haunted house movie. The sequel is a military action story - the same but different. Our group of tough space marines are going on a rescue mission, with Ripley along as a reluctant expert. The focus is more on action - though we still have all of those dark recesses of the “shake and bake” colony where a *bunch* of aliens might be hiding. But instead of running from the aliens, they are going to exterminate them! Until things go very wrong. “Game over, man!” By taking the basic elements of the story and presenting them in a different genre, we can get that great mix of The Same and Different that delivers the same excitement in a different way.

Because I am writing this soon after the death of Ed Asner, he starred in two TV shows that are another great example of this. On THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW he played Lou Grant, the news editor who was very prickly on the outside but had a big heart hidden deep inside. He was a great character for a situation comedy. Always growling about journalistic integrity in a business that was ratings driven. Their news anchor was an idiot... that the viewers loved and trusted. But LOU GRANT was a drama about a newspaper and a group of investigative reporters overseen by a prickly editor with a big heart hidden deep inside of him. The same character that we love - in a show with a different genre. The same, but different.

The big complaints about HANGOVER 2 was that it was a search and replace sequel. They seemed to just change the locations. To the point that Doug, the misplaced groom from the first film, wasn't part of the search for the misplaced brother in the second film... even though there was no reason for him not to be part of the search party! Too much "the same" and not enough "different". It would be like the Alien in ALIEN just attacking some other ship with some other crew... that Ripley just happened to be part of (you always bring back the star). The thing that made HANGOVER fun was the creative way that the story was told... so what they should have done is find a *different* way to tell the story in the sequel, which was also creative and fun. You can't just leave out the creative way the story is told, then there would be a "hole" in the story. It would be *less* than the original. You need to find a different *creative* way to tell the story. That way, what made the first film special (and made it a hit) would be replaced by something that will make the sequel special... rather than just the same as the first film. You want ALIEN and ALIENS.


The big problem with remakes is often that they charge something that made the original a success, which makes the film different in all the wrong ways. In trying to make the sequel a unique experience, instead of just a carbon copy of the original, they screw it up! This is where you need to be aware of *why* the original was a success.

TOTAL RECALL is a good example of this - the co-writer of the original, Ronny Shusett, was on a panel with me once and talked about the struggle they had coming up with a big ending... And then figuring out giving oxygen to Mars which was saving the world in an unusual way. That big ending - and the idea that this might all still be a planted memory rather than reality - is what made the original work... So the remake removed them. And didn't add anything to take their place. Leaving two big holes in the story! Which is why the remake doesn't work.

If you remove something from a story for the remake, you need to replace it with something even better!

The great 40s thriller THE BIG CLOCK was about a magazine reporter falsely accused of murder and trapped in the publishing company's NYC skyscraper. He must find the real killer and the evidence before the police catch him. Sort of THE FUGITIVE in a building. Great film! The 80s remake is just as great - the same but different - instead of a magazine reporter it's a Navy officer, and instead of a NYC skyscraper it's the Pentagon. And in addition to murder - there's possible espionage! A Russian mole deep inside the USA government! The story is still an innocent man trapped in a building trying to find the real killer and avoid being caught and arrested, still has all of the twists and turns of the original. But changing it from magazine publishing to the Pentagon (and the world of government and spies) was that "something even better" replacement. NO WAY OUT and BIG CLOCK can be watched back to back and both films hold up! Both are great!

The problem with "something even better" is that finding that idea isn't easy! It's like finding a second high concept that connects to the original concept in my sequel assignment (which I will talk about in a minute). You really need to take the time to find something great... and studio remakes don't always do that. So if you are "pitching your take" on a remake - find that amazing "different" element that doesn't screw up the "same" part that everyone loved in the original!

One of the fun things about MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT is that in the past all of the films in the series had a different director who used their own unique style... and this time around they had the same director, Christopher McQuarry, who said that he has to *become a different director* to make the second film. ROGUE is a stylish Hitchcock- influenced thriller, FALLOUT is more gritty and driven by a series of horrible choices that the protagonist must make. They *feel* like they were made by completely different people. The stories unfold differently - ROGUE being a traditional spy thriller and FALLOUT being completely unpredictable due to the choices offered. The stories work differently on a basic level. But both feature Tom Cruise doing his own insane stunts and the same cast playing their endearing (or endangering) characters. Different, but the same!


Over a decade ago, I was hired by a production company who had a deal to make DVD sequels to films in the vault at Sony / Columbia. My job was to find movies that were not on the list for theatrical sequels and come up with amazing and exciting pitches for DVD sequels. I ended up with 80 of them. My theory was to take a back-catalogue movie like SECRET WINDOW or BODY DOUBLE or THE ONE or HARDCORE and find a way to turn it into a franchise (so there could be multiple sequels) and then find a new high concept to marry to the original idea. The new high concept was the different part, and for a movie like SECRET WINDOW (based on a Stephen King story about a vengeful entity in a funny hat who came after artists who have stolen the work of others) I had a Phil Specter-like music producer who may have killed a songwriter or two in the past and stolen their music, who is visited by vengeful John Shooter and his unusual hat. For BODY DOUBLE I took the B movie actor who goes under cover as a porno producer to find a killer in the original movie, and have the FBI use his amazing make-up and acting skills to send him undercover as a terrorist accidentally killed during “enhanced interrogation” at Guantanamo Bay (oops!) when Amnesty International wants to check on him. But instead of being Amnesty International, it’s his old terrorist cell rescuing him - and now our actor is playing the role of a lifetime... if he screws up, it will be the end of his life! My idea was to drop the character from the original film into a story that would work if it wasn’t a sequel. The “different” part being what would attract the audience, the “same” part being kind of a “known brand” that will comfort the audience.

And if none of these 80 sequel ideas worked for this producer? I had all of these cool story ideas that I could use for screenplays that had nothing to do with those back-catalogue Sony / Columbia films! The ideas were interesting on their own.

So think about adding a new cool idea if you end up landing a sequel job!

You always want the story to be the same but different.

- Bill

PS: They never made any of my 80 remake ideas! Welcome to Hollywood!

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Trailer Tuesday: THE LADY IN THE LAKE (1947)


Directed by: Robert Montgomery.
Written by: Wild Man Steve Fisher, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan, Tom Tulley, Jane Meddows.
Produced by: George Haight for MGM.
Cinematography by: Paul Vogel.
Music by: Rudolph G. Kopp.

About a year ago I watched all of the REC movies again and think the first one may be the best Found Footage movie ever made (*much* superior to the American remake) because, even though the entire movie is seen from the perspective of the news camera, the shots are composed beautifully. The American remake (QUARANTINE) just didn’t seem to understand the degree of difficulty ... and is filled with sloppy framing and soft focus. REC manages to have *artistic* framing even when the camera is “dropped” in an attack scene. I often wonder how many times they “dropped” the camera to get that perfect framing of what would be seen in the action that comes afterwards. But the very idea of Found Footage from someone’s video camera all traces back to this film, THE LADY IN THE LAKE (1947), an interesting experiment that fails.

Robert Montgomery was a star at MGM, who played pretty boys and dashing romantic leads... but he was ambitious and knew the days of being a handsome guy were numbered and wanted to direct (where you could get old and nobody cared). This was his first film as a director... and he managed to make the most experimental film made by a studio at that time (actually, no one has done this since). The Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe novels were all told first person, so he thought he would make the *film* first person... as in “first person shooter games”. You see the story through Marlowe’s eyes. Sounds interesting doesn’t it?

Here are the problems:

1) The cameras at the time were huge and heavy, so instead of agile movements that mimic a human walking, we have limited dolly shots. Most of the time the camera moves into a position and then *sits there*, maybe with an occasional pan to follow a pretty receptionist. Unlike Hitchcock’s ROPE which features a story told in a single take (sort of) and a fluid camera that moves from one amazing angle to another, these shots seldom move. Once the camera dollies into a room, it just sits there and people talk to it. There are a couple of scenes where the camera does a limited dolly in the middle of a scene to “look at something”, but mostly it just sits there. So we have these static shots most of the time which are *dull*!

2) No cutting! Because it’s Marlowe’s POV we can’t cut from one shot to another, we are stuck with the same shot for the whole scene! This kills the pacing. In ROPE we also have no traditional editing, but the camera moves from “shot” to “shot” and angle to angle, giving us the feeling of different shots. It’s that “dog juice” thing, because there are no cuts in ROPE the camera has to do even more movement to make up for it. But here: no cuts... and no camera movement.

3) One of the side effects of the limited mobility of the camera is that the film ends up mostly set bound. That title LADY IN THE LAKE? Well, a big chunk of the novel takes place at Little Fawn Lake (Lake Arrowhead)... where a dead body is found in the lake... but the film never goes to Little Fawn Lake so we never see the murder victim or any of the suspects from there! The problem is: there's a reason for the novel's title. The body found in the lake, and Marlowe discovering it (along with cabin caretaker Bill Chess) is critical to the story. It's what the story is *about*. Instead, about 75 percent of this film is Audrey Totter looking at the camera talking. This is a private eye movie, and when you think about other Marlowe movies like THE BIG SLEEP and MURDER MY SWEET, they are filled with action scenes! Here, no action scenes! The closest we get is a car chase done with process shots (so it’s still in a studio) which ends with a car wreck... where Marlowe/Camera dollies to a bush and hides behind it as a police car arrives. The fistfight scene is *one punch*, and you wonder what a director more interested in the action elements of the story could have done with that fight scene.

4) Because we never go to Little Fawn Lake, we get these scenes where Marlowe talks *straight to the camera* as he sits in his office, telling us the story. What this means is when Audrey Totter isn’t looking RIGHT AT US and talking to us, Marlowe is LOOKING RIGHT AT US and talking to us! It’s all exposition, all the time! So with damaged pacing from the experiment we add boring exposition... we might as well be sitting in a room having Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter just telling us the story! But even that would probably be better because we’d get Chandler’s great writing. Instead we get a pile of plotty exposition.

Oh, in addition to Audrey Totter, some other cast members may look familiar to you from TV! Lloyd Nolan went from B movie cops to TV doctors, playing the doctor lead on JULIA (first TV series starring an African American woman) and played doctors on QUINCY and ELLERY QUEEN and a million other TV shows as guest star or recurring characters. Leon Ames also played doctors on TV, but you know him as next door neighbor Gordon Kirkwood on MR. ED. Hottie Jayne Meadows has also been in a million TV episodes and has even played Florence Nightingale... but she also looks just like her sister Audrey who was Jackie Gleason's wife on THE HONEYMOONERS. All of these actors look straight into the camera whenever they are in a scene!

The screenplay is by Steve Fischer, a pulp writer turned screenwriter (I WAKE UP SCREAMING) and his work is usually really good... but I think here he is shackled by the concept and Montgomery’s idea of how the story should be told. Somewhere along the way, Marlowe has been changed from Private Eye to Pulp Fiction Writer for this story... so, if all of the above wasn’t boring enough now we have conversations about writing and publishing! In the novel the missing woman Marlowe is searching for is the wife of a perfume and cosmetics millionaire, in the film this is changed to the publisher of pulp novels... so that we can have even more talk about publishing! This film is trying to put us to sleep! Add to that, it takes place at *Christmas* so the opening title cards are happy Christmas Card pictures over Christmas Carols! You wonder if you may have put in the wrong DVD! It *does* end with a gun, but instead of being kind of a twist, it seems to me like a tonal car wreck (and the rest of the film continues that wreck). The audience at the time knew who Chandler was, and had seen a couple of Marlowe movies and were expecting something like THE BIG SLEEP... and ended up with this!

Lloyd Nolan, who played MICHAEL SHAYNE on the big screen (one of those films was based on Chandler’s THE HIGH WINDOW which would later be made as a Marlowe film starring *George* Montgomery) plays the cop, here... and not only do we lose Little Fawn Lake in this story, we also lose Bay City (seeing only the inside of the police station). Hey, Bay City is a major part of the novel! Chandler’s Bay City is one of those great fictional locations, but not in this film. Though we get slugged in the eye and kissed, it’s really lame compared to the subjective camera work in DARK PASSAGE made the year before. In that film, the camera doesn’t stick with the lead’s POV, but cuts all over the place to keep the pace going. Just, when we have those shots in the story that would have been “over the shoulders” instead we get a full POV shot. DARK PASSAGE *works*! This film does not. And having the whole film being people LOOKING DIRECTLY AT YOU is really weird!

Another issue with LADY IN THE LAKE is that there are *a couple* of shots of Montgomery's reflection in a mirror, which I'm sure was tricky, but there are a half dozen shots with mirrors where Montgomery is *not* reflected at all! Once you establish that we will see him reflected in mirrors, you have to show his reflection in mirrors from that point on (or get rid of the mirrors from the sets!). They show a mirror in some scene where he *should* be reflected, and he's not! It's like an epic fail!

I think people underestimate the difficulty of just making a movie. In this case, Montgomery (who seemed to have not a clue about the language of cinema) tried to do a huge experiment right out of the gate... and it fails big time. It would be interesting to see a first person movie like this *now*, with the level of action we expect to see in a first person shooter game. This film is a curio: like most experimental films, it fails. But interesting to see... and you instantly learn how *not* to make a private eye movie.

Skip the film, read the Chandler novel instead.


Friday, March 17, 2023

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Dick Cavett interviews Hitchcock

On June 8, 1972 Dick Cavett had Sir Alfred Hitchcock on his late night talk show for a one hour interview about his films, his life, and his techniques. Though some of the interview is a bit frustrating for Hitchcock buffs (Cavett wasn't as well prepared as I wished he had been), this covers a lot of ground and has some classic clips. Eight years later, Hitchcock would pass away.

Next week we should have another of the "lost" BBC interviews from 1997.

- Bill

Of course, I have a couple of books about Hitchcock, SPELLBOUND is in the one that is on sale today...



Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!


369 pages packed with information!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!


UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.



ON SALE!!! $2 OFF!

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.

SALE: $3.99 !!!!

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

- Bill
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