Thursday, July 31, 2014

THRILLER Thursday: Man In A Cage.

Man In A Cage.

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

Season: 1, Episode: 18.
Airdate: January 17, 1961

Director: Gerald Mayer (the FATAL IMPULSE episode).
Writer: Maxwell Shane and Stuart Jerome, based on a novel by John Holbrook Vance.
Cast: Philip Carey, Diana Millay, Barry Gordon, Theodore Marcuse, Eduardo Ciannelli.
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: John L. Russell
Producer: Maxwell Shane.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The frightened young man in the truck speeding away from death on a road in Morocco is Noel Hudson, and American. He fancies himself a soldier of fortune, running guns to a group of Arab nationalists. But now the adventure has turned to terror. Noel Hudson has goo reason to be terrified, there is some doubt that he will ever again be seen alive. Well what is the mysterious cargo that Noel is so frightened of? Sure as my name is Boris Karloff, you’ll learn the answer to that and many other mysteries in Morocco as you view THE MAN IN THE CAGE, from the novel by John Holbrook Vance. Our leading players are: Mr. Philip Carey, Miss Diana Millay, Master Barry Gordon, Mr. Theodore Marcuse, Mr. Al Ruscio, and Mr. Eduardo Ciannelli. Smuggling, murder and North African intrigue are the exciting ingredients in this Thriller.”

Synopsis: Noel Hudson (Guy Stockwell) is somewhere between Indiana Jones and Han Solo in a leather jacket and fedora, an American smuggler in Morocco. After delivering a shipment of guns, he is told at gunpoint that he’ll be taking a pair of boxes marked “soap powder” back to Tangier. He doesn’t want to take the mystery boxes, but they insist and even send one of their armed men with him. Noel is dead tired and wants to pull the old truck off the dirt road to sleep, but his armed passenger says he can sleep after they deliver the boxes. There’s a struggle in the truck cab, Noel twists the gun around and shoots his passenger by accident, dumps the body out of the truck and drives away into the night... never to be seen again. Both Noel and the truck completely vanish in the desert.

Just over 3 weeks later, successful businessman Darryl Hudson (Philip Carey) shows up in Tangier looking for his younger brother. When he checks into the hotel, a little Arab boy named Slip Slip (Barry Gordon giving the best performance in the episode while being just a little kid) helps him with the bags. Every one of the handful of extras in the hotel lobby looks obviously suspicious and listens in as Hudson checks in. There are no characters in this episode who act natural if there’s a chance to act shifty. Slip Slip tells Hudson that he helped his brother sometimes, and for a small price can show him where Noel’s apartment was.

The landlady (Danielle Aubry) tells Hudson that the apartment has been broken into a searched several times... and everything is in disarray. Hudson pokes around but can find no clues, and figures if there *were* clues they’ve been discovered and taken away by someone else. Hudson tells the landlady that he got a letter from his brother, and asks her if she can read the postmark. She can not. One thing Hudson does find is a picture of his brother and some blonde babe at the beach, which he pockets.

Back at the hotel, some Big Guy grabs Hudson at the front desk and says Mr. Upshaw wants to see him, and drags him into an alcove... where Upshaw (Theodore Marcuse) waits with his niece Ellen (Diana Millay). Upshaw was Noel’s “employer”, the fellow behind running the guns to Arab Nationalists... and he looks ethnic and speaks with some undefinable accent. But his daughter Ellen is blonde and looks and talks like she comes from Burbank. Upshaw wants to see the letter, Hudson refuses to show it to him. Upshaw says brother Noel split with his payment for the guns, and owes him a million bucks. Hudson manages to get out of there and heads to the hotel bar.

Everyone in this Tangier hotel bar seems to have come from New York City, judging by their accents. The Bartender says Noel was a regular at the bar, and some other New Yorker, a Car Salesman, says he hasn’t seen Noel for about 3 weeks. That’s when the Hot Girl from the beach photo sits down (Arlette Clark) another blonde in North Africa. What’s up with that? The Hot Girl says Noel stood her up 3 weeks ago, so she’s looking for a new boyfriend. Before Hudson can ask any more question, he gets a phone call from a Mystery Man (who actually looks like an Arab) and the Mystery Man says he has vital information about Noel, but of course can not give it to Hudson on the phone, so they must meet as Mystery Man’s apartment at 8pm tonight.

When Hudson gets there, Mystery Man has been tortured almost to death... bleeds all over Hudson’s suit... then Mystery Man jumps off his balcony to his death. When Hudson leaves the apartment, locals begin chasing him. Instead of getting an exciting chase, we cut to commercial.

After the commercial, Hudson is back in his hotel room trying to wash the blood out of his suit jacket when there’s a knock at the door. Inspector Le Boude (Eduardo Ciannelli) who questions him about Noel. Now, it seems as if the script may have built some suspense around the Inspector discovering the bloody suit jacket, but it’s fumbled so badly that no suspense is generated. The Inspector asks if Hudson talked to the dude who was tortured and Hudson says he didn’t and the Inspector tells him he’s gotta leave town in 48 hours and then leaves.

Hudson goes down to the hotel restaurant where he bumps into Upshaw’s blonde Burbankian niece Ellen, who tells him she’s supposed to use her womanly whiles to get her hands on that letter from Noel. She also spills the beans that the two cardboard boxes Noel was transporting back to Tangier for her uncle were filled her heroin. Hudson says his gun running brother would never transport heroin, that stuff kills people! But Ellen says it is true.

Slip Slip pulls Hudson away, saying he found a guy who knows where Noel is *now*. Hudson is taken to meet the guy in some office, and we recognize him as the Arab Nationalist guy who took possession of the guns and insisted that Noel take the two boxes of heroin back to Tangier as payment, Allah El Kazim (Al Ruscio) and his minon. They demand he hand over the letter from Noel, and when he refuses there is a 3 second knife and gun skirmish which ends in them searching Hudson and not finding the letter. Hudson says he mailed it to himself... so they take his passport (as ID to pick up the letter at the post office) and lock Hudson in a cage. Hey, you probably wondered when we’d get to the man in a cage part, right? Well, here it is!

Hudson gets out of the cage using a piece of rope and a branch and races to catch Allah El Kazim and his buddy before they can pick up the letter. Too late! But when Allah El Kazim and his buddy get into their product placement sedan in the post office garage, Hudson pops up from the back seat and takes their guns and the letter. He demands they give him information, and they tell him where Noel was last seen: a roadside hotel between the place where he delivered the guns and Tangier. Hudson then lets them read the letter... which has no actual information in it. Just a request for Hudson to send him enough money to fly back to the United States. So this letter from Noel that has been propelling the plot forward is actually pointless.

Hudson goes into the hotel bar, where everyone seems to be a New York City transplant and asks the Car Salesman guy if he can rent a car for tomorrow morning because he thinks he has a lead on where his brother Noel might be. Car Salesman guy says “sure” and that he’d like to go along and help.

When Hudson gets back to his hotel room, that blonde from Burbank is waiting for him for no apparent reason. He tells her he has a lead on Noel and has rented a car for tomorrow morning, she says “I have a car, let’s go now!” and they do.

At the roadside hotel, the desk clerk tells them that Noel spent a night there, sent the letter to Hudson from there, and also mailed these two boxes to his own address.

Hudson and Ellen the blonde Arab girl from Burbank drive back to Tangier, looking for the best place for someone to hijack Noel’s truck... why they never thought to do this much earlier in the story is a mystery. They find Noel’s truck at the bottom of a cliff. Noel dead behind the wheel. With zero emotions, Hudson says they need to get back to Tangier to find those two boxes of heroin!

Noel’s Landlady says, “Yeah, there were a couple of boxes mailed to Noel’s apartment, but I put them down in the basement rather than inside his apartment for no apparent reason except it would prevent all of those people searching the apartment from finding them.” Okay, she really didn’t say that... but it was something close. Hudson and the blonde Burbank babe go into the basement (do apartment building in Tangier even have basements?) and they find the boxes of heroin, and that’s when the Car Salesman shows up, because he’s the villain behind everything. The Car Salesman gets ready to kill Hudson and Burbank, when... the Inspector and a bunch of cops show up and save the day, because Slip Slip saw what was happening and called the cops. The end.

Review: Oh boy! After a few good episodes we return to the stinkers. It seems like every time they adapt a best selling novel on this show, it backfires. Here we probably had a big action packed foreign intrigue novel that got pared down for television until it’s a bunch of people acting suspicious in a hotel. Here it seesm like the novel might have been some wacky combination of THE MALTESE FALCON (that letter everyone is after, plus Marcuse playing some roadshow version of Sydney Greenstreet) and THE THIRD MAN (common man looking for killer of adventurous brother and in over his head). But the letter proves to be worthless, and our hero has *read* the letter and knows this. So the MacGuffin that moves the story forward has no value, and in the end no one really cares about it *or* the story. The main thing about a MacGuffin is that it needs to be the most important thing in the story. It’s what fuels the story. Here we have a lame MacGuffin and a lame story. Maybe in the novel the letter was more important and had a code or something, but here it’s just this false way to move the story forward. Bette Davis was after a more important letter...

The common man in a dangerous world element also doesn’t work, since the world here isn’t all that dangerous. Villains like Upshaw (Marcuse) politely leave when asked. Once they put him in that titular cage, he’s out in a minute. There is a real shortage of action for a story in this genre: even the fistfights are over in a flash. We end up with an episode filled with talking and people looking overly suspicious. The episode Mayer previously directed, FATAL IMPULSE, was a suspense episode that generated some real tension. Here he fumbles the scene with the bloody suit jacket and the Inspector... was this due to the director or was the scene just not written well on the page? Add to all of this Philip Carey is kind of an action guy, which undercuts the fish out of water element that Joseph Cotton had in THIRD MAN. You never feel that our hero is in any real danger.

The bigger issue for me was the lack of ethnic actors in the episode. It’s one thing to have only a couple of characters who looked like Arabs, but another to have so many characters obviously look and sound American and not even try an accent. Except for the stock footage, you’d think this whole episode *takes place* in New York City! This was obviously shot on the backlot, but even a movie like CASABLANCA had a cast that looked like they belonged in North Africa. Both of the women in this episode are *blonde* without a single ethnic looking woman in sight! The Bartender’s wife who we see in a couple of shots looks American. This works against the stock footage of Tangier, so that watching it you never believe it’s anywhere other than Studio City, California (which is where it was shot). Los Angeles was a cosmopolitan city back then, with plenty of actors who looked Arab... why not cast any of them?

No suspense, no clever lines, no twists, it’s just a completely bland episode.

Because we’re back to Rugolo doing the music, I wonder if this episode had been shot earlier and aired later? Maybe they made a bunch of novel adaptations, realized they didn’t work, and spread them out throughout the season so that we didn’t start the show with a bunch of stinkers?

I wish I could say next week’s episode is going to be better...


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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tofu Steak Tartar

From 2007...

I was going to do an entry about standing in line at the DMV, but what the hell could I say about that experience that would be original?

Then, Lindsay Lohan was arrested this morning for drunk driving again... and I was shocked. Didn’t she just get out of rehab about a week ago? How could she possible be driving drunk already? She had on some sort of ankle alcohol monitor - she displayed it for the paparazzi before entering some night club. How could she drink with that thing on?

In Hollywood, everyone goes into rehab. It’s almost a Get Out Of Jail Free Card - if you go on the Tonight Show and admit you screwed up but are getting help, and with the help of your family and your sudden interest in religion, you will get through it. You spend some time in rehab, and by the time you get out everyone has forgotten that you plowed into a family with your SUV, killing a few people. But a year after you get out of rehab... you do something stupid again, are arrested, and go back to rehab. The Promises rehab facility seems to have a revolving door - the same celebs keep checking in, cleaning up, being released... then checking in again.

Lindsay Lohan was hanging out in bars and clubs *before* she was 21 - I thought that was illegal. Plenty of kids have fake IDs, but we *know* how old Lohan is. So how did she get in...

And after she was released from rehab, and turned herself in to the police for her last drunken vehicular incident, and was released on bond, what does she do?

Go clubbing!

Everybody knows that the best place to go if you have a drug and alcohol abuse problem is a crowded nightclub filled with people drinking and doing coke in the bathroom.

The problem isn’t just drug and alcohol abuse, it’s the choice of lifestyle. Why would you continue the very behavior that got you into trouble in the first place - ankle bracelet or not? The *purpose* of a bar is to serve alcohol. So what the hell are you doing there if you aren’t supposed to drink?

In this grand and glorious country of ours, most people do not go out clubbing every night. They do not spend every waking hour going from one drinking establishment to the next. They have *lives*.

In my previous post I mentioned that when I was in my 20s I could drink and then function the next day... but I didn’t spend every night drinking! I had a full time job at Safeway Grocery working the swing shift (3-Midnight) and was also a full time student at Diablo Valley Community College (recently in the news due to a sex-for-grades scandal), plus I was writing scripts and making short films. Yes, every once in a while Larry, Juan, the crew and I would have a beer in the store parking lot after our shift was over and try to throw paper bags over the letters that spelled SAFEWAY on the awning over the doors... and sometimes on our weekends we’d meet in a bar somewhere and have a couple of beers... but our lives did not revolve around going from club to club drinking. We had lives! I was writing scripts and making movies and going to the movies and reading books. Larry was scuba diving and trying to sleep with every female over the age of 16 who came into the store. Juan had a bunch of kids at home and was constantly taking family camping trips. We all had better things to do than club hop. Like... laundry.

The problem with all of these folks that keep getting busted for drunk driving and going to rehab, only to be busted a couple of weeks after they are released: they need to change their *lifestyle*. If you want to remain sober, don’t hang out in places that exist to serve you drinks. Find some hobby, some purpose in your life, other than going clubbing.


In London, every McDonalds and Burger King has an extensive menu of veggie burger items. These burgers look and taste like beef - you wouldn’t know the difference if they didn’t tell you it was 100% vegetable - great for vegetarians! Over there they seem to have a high percentage of the population that have gone vegetarian, and the fast food chains are targeting them.

I have eaten many veggie burgers - not because I’m a vegetarian, but because I’m a fat guy with high cholesterol who loves hamburgers. I’m a meat eater, and I want to eat something that tastes like meat... but won’t send me to an early grave (well, *earlier* grave - I still eat too much bad food).

If I were a vegetarian I would never eat a veggie burger.... I’d just eat vegetables. There’s an intent thing involved. Making vegetables taste and look like meat is the first step to eating a real hamburger. As the vegetarian played by the great Gerritt Graham says to his supposedly vegan girlfriend in the movie HOME MOVIES: “First beef, and now this!” If you are a vegetarian, and your intentions are to only eat vegetables, then eat the friggin vegetables!

Personally, I’m against vegetarians for reasons spelled out by, I think, Sam Kinison: As humans, we need to maintain our place at the top of the food chain. So many people are becoming vegetarians that we are losing our place at the top of the food chain, and in the future Chuck Heston and his space ship crew will be captured by COWS! Cows! Cows that have evolved because we don't eat them anymore! And they will bring Heston to Daly City to be punished in front of the cow ruler... an evil Cow Queen who lives in... The Cow Palace! The only way to stop this is to keep eating those damned dirty cows....


When I should be writing, I’m often visiting screenwriting messageboards answering people’s questions. The ones that always confuse me are “I want to be a screenwriter, but I don’t really like writing” or “I can’t write” or “I want to be a screenwriter, but I need someone to help me come up with a story, or a character, or a scene idea, or a line of dialogue, or...” I don’t know how to answer these - because they are asking me to do their work for them. To do the creative part of writing. Um, if someone comes up with the story and all of the characters and scenes and dialogue for your script, doesn’t that make you just a *typist*? If someone else is doing the creative part, what is left?

Hey, we all get stuck and need someone to kick-start our imagination every once in a while, I’m talking about those people who want someone else to do their thinking for them - the writing for them. Look, if you want to be a screenwriting, you are going to write screenplays.

And screenwriting is work.

Lots of boring work.

Work that isn’t glamorous or exciting... and most of the time no one in the world will ever see your work.

If you are only after the glamor of screenwriting (whatever that is) and you don’t want to do the difficult, boring writing work part... well, you will never be a screenwriter and will never experience the glamor of premier screenings where the audience of celebs and stars applauds every single name in the opening titles... except yours (they never met you, they *did* meet the craft services person who supplied donuts on set every day). Or that guy gesturing for you to get off the red carpet and find another way into the theater. Or... well, there really is no glamor in a screenwriter’s life. There’s lots of boring work...

Or, maybe lots of exciting work. Depends on what you want in your life.

If you want to stay sober, change your lifestyle so you are not going to places where they serve drinks every night. If you want to be a writer, don’t hang out with people who just talk about writing and don’t *be* someone who just talks about writing - instead... Write!

If you really want to write screenplays, write some screenplays!

- Bill

Also from 2007...


Yesterday’s Lunch: Maple Oatmeal.
DVD: Another DVD I bought on my birthday was KELLY'S HEROES / DIRTY DOZEN double DVD. Kind of a Donald Sutherland & Telly Savalas double bill. I watched both, and realized that DIRTY DOZEN was the model for the movie S.W.A.T. - check it out! My friend Larry, who played the uptight Police Chief guy - same character as Robert Ryan in DD! Sam Jackson is Lee Marvin's character! The whole thing plays out pretty much the same in both movies - even though it isn't obvious. Both films have tough guys who don't deal well with authority given the task of getting a bunch of anti-authority individuals to work as a team... and the Authority guy hoping they screw up and trying to screw them up... only to be outsmarted by the end and look like the silly suit that he is... then the team has a mission that tests all that has come before.
KELLY'S HEROES is a text book example of putting two opposite characters together to create drama and conflict (and comedy) within the team. Donald Sutherland plays a hippy tank commander in WW2 (???) who ends up in scene after scene with tough guy Clint Eastwood. All you have to do is put those two guys next to each other and you have a scene! But the script has them constantly butting heads (and personalities) because they have to work together. This film was obviously the model for THREE KINGS - guys who start out pulling a robbery during war, but end up doing the right thing. In KH it's more *accidental* than in 3K, but the results are the same. Both are fun films - the kind of big team war flick they really don't make anymore.
Pages: None on the new spec, but I designed the labels for the Naked Class CDs and even ran some... plus I'm working on the bonus CD.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Trailer Tuesday: COPS & ROBBERS (1973)

Cops & Robbers (1973)

Directed by: Aram Avakian (11 HARROWHOUSE).
Written by: Don Westlake, based on his novel.
Starring: Cliff Gorman, Joseph Bologna, John P. Ryan, Martin Kove.
Produced by: Elliot Kastner (every 70s crime film plus WHERE EAGLES DARE).
Music by: Michel Legrand.

Most of the behind the scenes folks from 11 HARROWHOUSE worked on this forgotten film as well, so it’s a good follow up flick... plus it’s oddly topical. It’s based on a novel by three of my favorite writers, Don Westlake, and he wrote the screenplay as well. Wait, some of you may wonder how one man can be three of my favorite writers, so maybe I should explain. Westlake was a prolific writer who broke in during the paperback revolution writing soft core porn under various pseudonym’s, often with his poker pal Lawrence Block (hey, another one of my favorites!). He was writing 2 novels a month for a while, and when he broke into mainstream mysteries he was just as prolific... and wrote different styles of fiction under different pseudonyms. So he wrote his comedy caper novels like THE HOT ROCK and BUSY BODY and SPY IN THE OINTMENT and HELP! I AM BEING HELD PRISONER under his own name, and the violent world of Parker novels like POINT BLANK under Richard Stark, and these great mopey private eye novels about a guy named Mitch Tobin under the name Tucker Coe. Plus some other books under other names. But here’s the kicker... nobody knew he was any of these other guys. Okay, maybe his agent knew, but these weren’t “Don Westlake writing as” books, these were completely different writers with completely different writing styles as far as anyone knew. A book written as J. Morgan Cunningham features a cover blurb by Westlake that says, “I wish I had written this book!” and everyone just assumed he hadn’t. So he was three of my favorite writers, three different guys who wrote different types of crime novels in different styles until he “came out” in an interview in the mid 70s which included all of his other personalities... and I was shocked!

Anyway, Westlake had this term for novels that didn’t fit in any genre, “Tortile Taradiddles” which I believe comes from Lewis Carroll... and COPS AND ROBBERS is definitely one of those. It’s a caper film that isn’t quite a comedy and isn’t quite serious. Maybe light comedy, but even that makes it sound funnier than it is. What it is is *amusing* (cue the great speech from GOODFELLOWS). That’s probably why no one remembers this film and maybe why it wasn’t a hit when it came out. It’s an amusing film written by Westlake, based on his own novel... but not really a comedy.

Click For Trailer.

Joe (Joseph Bologna) and Tom (Cliff Gorman) are New York City cops who live next door to each other in some crappy ticky tacky suburb in Long Island and car pool to work together every day. Because both are *honest* cops, they have mortgages and mounting bills and are basically risking their lives on the job every day for not enough money to live on. Joe is a patrol cop, Tom is a detective. Neither wants to be a corrupt cop, but it would be nice to have enough money to pay the damned bills every month.

Joe’s partner gets shot during some stupid call and is hospitalized, Joe reaches a breaking point decides to rob a liquor store in uniform. Gets just over $200... enough to pay some of those bills that have gone to red notice. And here’s the thing: *everyone* says the robber was some guy masquerading as a cop. The liquor store owner says he didn’t act like a cop, the police department doesn’t want *anyone* to think that a cop might also be a robber, and the media warns the public about “fake cops” who rent uniforms from costume shops. So Joe completely gets away with it!

One morning while driving to work, Tom brings up the fake cop pulling a robbery and Joe admits that was him. Tom is not shocked, he’s curious... and the two begin planning one big heist that will set them up for life. Anything under a million bucks each isn’t worth it. One robbery means less chance of getting caught, the reason why robbers get caught is because they just keep doing it and the law of averages says they’ll eventually be caught or shot by a store owner. But who the heck has $2 million they can steal?

Well, these guys are *cops*, so they know *crooks*, and crooks know this kind of stuff, right? They have an endless supply of “technical advisors”. Tom knows just the guy to help them: “Patsy O’Neill” whose real name is Pasquale Aniello, and is biggest crime kingpin in New York City. Tom has his rap sheet, knows where he lives, knows his phone number, knows his criminal record. Never been convicted. An anonymous phone call later, Tom has a meeting with Patsy at his mansion. Wearing a bad disguise, Tom asks Patsy for his illegal advice in the crime lord’s private bowling alley. (There was a time when bowling matches were broadcast on network TV every week the way Monday Night Football is broadcast today.) Patsy tells Joe the easiest thing to steal pound for pound are barer bonds from a Wall Street brokerage house. But Patsy can only pay 20 percent of the face value, so for $2 million they have to steal $10 million... and Wall Street brokerage houses are like freakin’ Fort Knox! Impossible to rob!

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Hey, nothing is impossible. Joe and Tom come up with a clever plan to pull the impossible robbery... using their uniforms as a way past most of the security. But what they need is a huge diversion, and that comes with the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20th, 1969. On August 13th, 1969 the Astronauts had a huge ticker tape parade on Wall Street... the *perfect* diversion! There will be hundreds of cops on the street, so they can blend into the crowd, and most of the police force will be dealing with the parade! Plus, the brokerage house will be distracted by the parade as well.

Wearing fake mustaches, they enter the brokerage house in uniform saying there was a complaint that people were throwing objectionable material out the office window (near the vault). One of the managers takes them past all kinds of security almost all the way to the vault! Everyone is distracted by the parade, and these are cops... not crooks. Near the vault, Joe and Tom tell the manager they are not real cops, and they’re here to rob the vault. The manager cooperates (they are pointing guns at him) and takes them through the final security and into the vault. They handcuff the manager and his secretary and proceed to grab $10 million in barer bonds, easy as pie! Until the alarm sounds... and police flood the building searching for two guys dressed as cops. Realizing they will never be able to walk out with the $10 million in bonds, Tom comes up with a great plan: instead of stealing the bonds, all they have to steal is a *headline*. They shred the bonds and throw them out the window as part of the ticker tape parade (a suspense scene because the police are searching room by room for them). They walk out of the building pretending they were some of the police called to search for the two fake policemen. Heck, their badges are *real*! (More suspense as they have to get past the security guy at the front desk who thinks they are fake cops.)

The next day, the headlines are all about the two fake cops who stole $12 million in barer bonds. What? Where’d the other $2 million come from? That manager and his secretary each stole a million bucks and blamed them! So the danged manager ended up with more money than they did!

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But they have stolen a headline, and gangster Patsy believes they have $10 million in barer bonds and will trade $2m in cash for them. Now all they have to do is outsmart New York’s biggest crime lord and get his $2m in exchange for barer bonds they do not have. Of course, they manage to do this... but nothing is easy! And Patsy has to answer to his superior in the mob for losing the $2 million dollars.

The interesting thing about the film is that it takes place in the early 70s New York City that SERPICO and MEAN STREETS and FRENCH CONNECTION take place in. It has the same gritty look and feel as those films, even though it’s lighter in tone. The Michel Legrand music is often a little too upbeat, and I suspect it was trying to turn an amusing film into something they could sell as comedy. Cliff Gorman, who gets star billing in this film, was a 70s actor who was ain AN UNMARRIED WOMAN and ALL THAT JAZZ and a bunch of other NYC based films, and guest starred on every TV show that filmed there... then just kind of vanished from stardom, even though he continued working until his death in 2002. Bologna became the bigger star, and if you don’t know him by name you totally know him by sight. He’s Adam Sandler’s father in BIG DADDY and was Michael Caine’s horn dog friend in BLAME IT ON RIO. He has a movie shooting *now*. A tortile taradiddle like this would probably never be made today because it doesn’t fit in any genre and they’d have no idea how to sell it, but it’s a nice little film that is amusing if not laugh outloud funny. You want these two guys to get away with it.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Lancelot Link: Comic Con Job!

Lancelot Link Monday! While everyone else is in San Diego attending a convention that is supposed to be about comic books but seems to actually be about movie promotion, I am in Los Angeles making this list of tasty links for your post con pleasure. But when did Comic Con stop being about comic books and start being something The Man used to promote movies? And should they change the name to something that better describes the event? 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 baker's dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Lucy............................ $44,025,000
2 Hercules...................... $29,000,000
3 Dawn Of Apes.............. $16,400,000
4 The Purge 2.................. $9,869,000
5 Planes: Fire................... $9,303,000
6 Sex Tape...................... $5,975,000
7 Trans4mers.................... $4,600,000
8 And So It Goes............... $4,552,000
9 Tammy........................... $3,400,000
10 Most Wanted Man.......... $2,717,000

2) 4 Types Of Scripts. Many Types Of Hollywood.

3) First Look At MAD MAX: THUNDER ROAD trailer, is there too much focus on the male strippers Thunder From Down Under?

4) Christopher McQuarie Interview.

5) I've Sold A Screenplay! To Spielberg!

6) 12 TV Showrunners You Should Know.

7) What Gun Did That Character Use In That Movie?

8) The Financial Life Of The Indie Filmmaker.

9) Ed Burns On Making Your $9k Feature Film.

10) David Conenberg, John Landis, John Carpenter Talk Films.

11) Stephen King On How To Write.

12) Six Writers Discuss Their Process.

13) Writing James Bond.

And the car chase of the week!

From the best of Nolan's Batman movies.


Friday, July 25, 2014

Fridays With Hitchcock:
To Catch A Thief (1955)

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes based on a novel by David Dodge.

Though that crazy critic Robin Wood would disagree, Hitchcock hit his peak in the 1950s with a string of great films, most of them very popular with audience and critics alike. TO CATCH A THIEF is a beautiful film to look at for many reasons - it was shot on the French Riviera, mostly in Cannes, stars one of the most beautiful and sophisticated women to ever grace the screen, Miss Kelly... and one of the most handsome and elegant men ever to carry a film, Mr. Grant, plus the cinematography is extraordinary - deep, rich colors and amazing lighting... deep shadows - it won the Oscar that year for cinematography. The film works because of some great situations, some sexy dialogue and a story concept so cool that it’s been used a bunch of times since then in TV shows like IT TAKES A THIEF and T.H.E. CAT and too many movies to mention. TO CATCH A THIEF is a light, frothy comedy thriller that may stumble a couple of times but always seems to land on its feet - like a cat.

Nutshell: John Robie (Cary Grant at his most suave) is an ex-cat burglar who was paroled from prison to fight in World War 2 in a squad of fellow convicts. After the war, he has retired to a villa on the French Riviera where he raises grapes for wine. When a rash of burglaries of expensive jewels using John Robie’s M.O. has the police itching to make an arrest, he has no choice but to find the real burglar before the police catch up to him. Robie partners with the Insurance Company rep (John Williams the actor) who reluctantly provides him with a list of the most expensive jewels in town, the ones the burglar is sure to go after. So it’s set a thief to catch a thief. Top of the list are Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis, who played Grant’s mother in NORTH BY NORTHWEST) and her single attractive daughter Frances (Grace Kelly). While Robie tries to trap the real jewel thief, Frances tries to trap Robie and drag him to the wedding chapel.

Hitch Appearance: On a bus sitting next to Grant in the opening ten minutes.

Hitch Stock Company: John Williams from THE PARADINE CASE, DIAL M FOR MURDER, and a bunch of episodes of the TV show. Grace Kelly from REAR WINDOW and DIAL M FOR MURDER. Jessie Royce Landis from NORTH BY NORTHWEST... and Cary Grant.

Bird Appearance: Hitchcock ofter has birds in his films... When Cary Grant hops the bus (Hitchcock's cameo) there is a woman with two caged birds sitting next to him.

Great Scenes: We are going to look at the ALLIANCES and ALLEGIANCES and ADVERSARIES in the film - Hitchcock made a truckload of films about people who were falsely accused and on the run from the police, as have many imitators and other film makers. One of the things that often rings false to me in some of the films by others (and I have a script tip about the Wesley Snipe film ART OF WAR that focuses on this) is that the people on the run have no one to turn to... literally, It’s as if they were dropped on the earth five seconds before the film begins and have no friends or family. Heck, if I were a wrongly accused guy on the run, I’d start calling ex-girlfriends for help, and if they all told me to drop dead I’d start calling guys I used to work with... and eventually I’d find help somewhere. The police would probably be staking out my mom & dad’s house, but I’d find some way to get word to them that I was okay.

In TO CATCH A THIEF ex-cat burglar John Robie has a number of people he can go to for help with his problem, and they can be broken down into people he owes loyalty to (due to a past relationship of some sort), and people who are his friends because they are the enemy of his enemy.

Rooftops: It’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the opening sequence - it sets the tone for the entire film with its wit and elegance. Terra cotta rooftops at night... a cat creeps in the darkness from roof to roof. A jewel case is opened by a gloved hand, the jewels are taken. The cat continues creeping from roof to roof. The gloved hand continues to steal jewels. And the sequence ends with a woman screaming that she’s been robbed.

Opening Scene: There’s this strange belief that old films took their time getting started, that they spent maybe a half hour introducing characters before the story kicked into gear. As someone who has watched hundreds, probably thousands of old movies, I’m here to tell you nothing is farther from the truth. Old movies usually hit the ground running, and TO CATCH A THIEF is no exception. I’ve used it in a tip as a film that doesn’t waste the audience’s time before it jumps into the story... Film opens with a woman screaming. Her jewels have been stolen.

From 0:12 to 1:00 (minutes) We cut between cats on rooftops and women screaming that they've been robbed
At 1:00 there is a police meeting, ending with 5 policemen sent to arrest John Robie (Cary Grant).
At 1:30 We see Robie's maid cleaning up... and the black cat.
At 2:00 Robie hears the police car racing towards the villa. After he sees the police car, he runs inside.
At 2:50 the 5 policemen pull up, surround the villa.
At 3:25 Robie loads his shotgun, hides it.
At 3:50 Robie talks to the police - they're here to arrest him. He says he's innocent - they don't believe him. He asks if he can change...
At 4:30 Robie goes into the bedroom... and the shotgun fires! The police rush the door (locked).
At 4:50 we see Robie on the roof of the villa.
At 5:00 the police break down the door - the bedroom is empty.
At 5:10 the police hear a car roar away and run out of the bedroom - the chase has begun!
From 5:10 to 7:20 there is a car chase - the police chasing Robie's car around hairpin turns. There's a sheep obstacle, too. When they catch up with the car - it's driven by Robie's maid! The police turn around and go back to the villa.
At 7:20 Robie flags down a bus and goes to town.

Restaurant: Robie goes to a restaurant owned and operated by his pals from the French Resistence during World War 2... men he owes an allegiance to. But these are not your standard group of WW2 heroes - they’re kind of the Dirty Dozen - all were released from prison to fight the Nazis and pardoned for their heroism. Like Robie, they all have criminal pasts, and like Robie they have all promised to go straight. This new string of burglaries has brought the police down on *all* of them, and they see this as a betrayal on Robie’s part.

When Robie first arrives at the restaurant, elegant waiter Foussard is opening a bottle of champagne for some customers, and when he sees Robie, he pops the cork wrong and sprays champagne all over the place. This is an *action* rather than an expression on an actor’s face - a way of *showing* Foussard’s emotions.

Almost as soon as Robie steps into the kitchen area, someone throws an egg at him. Another one of the guys - a huge guy - comes at him with a jagged edged broken plate, and Robie cleverly throws a wine bottle to him, and the huge guy catches it - dropping the jagged plate. Not only has he let these men down, they are now gunning for him. They have become his adversaries. Even his buddy Foussard wants him to stop the burglaries, and none of them believe him when he pleads innocent. His *friends* have turned against him...

But when the police show up at the restaurant, they hustle Robie out the back door and put him in a speedboat with Foussard’s daughter.

Speedboat: Foussard’s daughter is maybe 20 years old, and wants Robie to just turn himself in so that everyone else can go back to their normal lives. One of the great things in John Michael Hayes’ script are all of the cat references - any phrase or homily that has to do with cats ends up in the witty dialogue - most of it from Foussard’s daughter, so when Robie pulls back after getting splashed by a wake, Foussard’s daughter says, “It’s true what they say, cat’s don’t like water”.

In a precursor to the crop duster scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, a police airplane zooms overhead, and Robie is forced to hide below decks. The plane keeps buzzing the boat, looking for Robie. From below decks he tells her to wave to the plane like a pretty girl out for a cruise, and she pulls her skirt *way* up, giving Robie a show. She continues to flirt with him throughout the film, and eventually this creates a love triangle.

I only regret one thing.

That you never asked me to marry you?

No, that I never taught you better English.

Instead of docking, Robie puts on swim trunks and swims to the shore at a crowded Cannes beach. Here is where costume design can sink your film - there is a woman on the beach in some overly designed swimsuit and dark glasses the size of a table and a hat the size of an umbrella, who watches Robie cross the beach. You have no idea who this person is under all of this costume, but it’s Grace Kelly, soon to be our female lead. I must have seen the film a half dozen times before I realized it was her. When you introduce a character in a film you have to make sure we can identify who they are!

Flower Market: Since Robie’s friends all believe he is back cat burglaring and have turned against him, he must find new allies to help him find the real thief. This is where the enemy of my enemy can be my friend - and Robie arranges to meet with the Lloyds Of London insurance man, H.H. Hughson (John Williams, the reserved British actor not the film composer). Because Hughson can’t be seen with a professional thief, and Robie can’t be seen anywhere there may be police; they decide to meet at the flower market. This is another great thing about this film - every single amazing location on the French Riviera becomes a setting for a scene. Robie’s house is a beautiful mountainside villa, the road into town twists along cliffs, and the flower market is a post card come to life. Robie and Hughson become reluctant allies - Hughson could turn him into the police, and Robie may use the information Hughson provides (a list of all of the most expensive insured gems in town) to pull a string of burglaries. But Robie’s plan is to find the cat burglar’s targets ahead of time and stake them out... to catch the thief.

The police crash the flower market and there is a chase with a comic ending - a flower fight - and Robie *is captured*! He makes bail, but has *10 days* before his trial, which creates a ticking clock. He has ten days to find the real burglar... and the police are following him everywhere!

But Hughson and Robie are now allies - unlikely partners trying to catch the thief. The stuffy insurance man and the suave cat burglar... and neither can trust the other.

Casino: The most expensive jewelry on the Riviera is owned by an American mother (Jesse Royce Landis) and daughter (Grace Kelly) on vacation. Robie wants to get close enough to them that he can catch the burglar in the act - and that means gaining their confidence. So he finds an interesting way to gain their attention at the casino - he plays at the roulette table across from them and accidentally drops a chip down the low cut dress of a female player... then wants it back. He can’t go digging around in her cleavage, she can’t really dig around in there in public, and it creates a funny moment - where the woman eventually just hands him some of her chips. But it catches the attention of Mrs. Stevens and her daughter Frances, and they end up having dinner together.

Mrs. Stevens and Frances are *unknowing* allies of Robie - they think he is a lumber man from Oregon in France on vacation. Robie is using them... but he isn’t the only one with a scheme, here - Mrs. Stevens has come to France to find a rich husband for her daughter, and a wealthy Oregon lumber man fits the bill.

Goodnight Kiss: Robie walks Frances to her door, and she is about the coldest and most unfriendly woman in all of Cannes... until they get to her door and she gives him one of those killer kisses that could bring the dead back to life... then slams the door in his face.

They’ve just met. He doesn’t know her. And she kissed him like that?

After the kiss, Robie cases the hotel - looking for ways the burglar might break in... or ways that *he* might break in? It’s a little ambiguous... which is cool because that night one of the other people on Hughson’s list gets burgled... and Hughson believes Robie did it. There’s a fun scene with Robie, Hughson, Mrs Stevens and Frances where allegations are subtle and alliances may be changing.

Beach: Robie and Frances go to the beach... and who shows up but Foussard’s hot daughter. She swims out to a diving platform and waits for Robie to follow. When he gets out there she accuses him of the robbery the previous night... then tells him the police are putting pressure on the guys at the restaurant, and they are turning on him - and may kill him if there are more robberies.

But all of this is leading up to Frances swimming out to the platform - the two people who Robie does not want to have meet each other are now in the same scene... And a verbal cat fight between the two women with Robie in the middle. Suspense builds - will Foussard’s daughter say Robie’s name (and spill the beans that he’s not the Oregon lumber man)? Will Frances ask how she knows Robie? Will Frances let slip that she’s a wealthy American tourist with a pile of jewels in her hotel room (which means Robie *is* back to his old tricks and endangering his old Resistence friends including Foussard)? This is a great suspense *situation* because we have our protagonist between two women who are politely tearing each other apart, and each has information about him that he doesn’t want the other to learn.

We only met a couple of minutes ago.

That's right, only a few minutes ago.

Only a few minutes ago? And you talk like old friends... Ah, well, that's warm, friendly France for you.


Say something nice to her, Danielle.

She looks a lot older up close.

To a mere child, anything over twenty might seem old.

A child? Shall we stand in shallower water and discuss that?

How can Robie keep the conversation *away* from anything that might allow either woman to learn information that incriminates him? How can he keep his secrets and keep these women from tearing each other apart? The great thing about this scene is the suspense keeps building, and the verbal cat fight is witty, and it’s all in creating a *situation* then placing the characters in it and letting them just be themselves.

Casing The Villa: Frances insists on spending the day with Robie, which is going to get in the way of his finding the real burglar... so he tells her he’s going to look at a villa to rent, and let’s her tag along. He’s actually casing one of the places on his list of jewel owners.

That list, by the way, is the focus of some suspense scenes. When he pulls it from his pocket while looking at the villa, Frances wants to look at it and tries to snatch it from his hand. At the end of the previous beach scene when Robie changed back into his clothes he found a wet finger print on the list - someone was looking at it. Who? That fingerprint is a great visual bit - and builds suspense! Who looked at the list? Who can Robie trust? Is one of his allies really an antagonist? Throughout much of the film, the list is an important part of the scenes, used to build suspense or conflict - and it’s just a folded piece of paper!

As Robie and Frances walk around the villa, she hammers him with questions - she is suspicious of him. This makes it more difficult for him to case the place - but we get some great visual storytelling where he looks from the roof of the villa to a ledge to a drain spout to a window... and we know how someone could easily get from roof into one of the rooms. We also get another tension situation as Robie spots the restaurant owner (Charles Vanel from WAGES OF FEAR and DIABOLIQUE) who is *also* casing the villa. Again - we have one character who knows who Robie really is in a scene with another character who thinks Robie is an Oregon lumber man... Will his secret identity be exposed? Hitchcock (and probably Hayes) drag this scene out to the breaking point - it takes *forever* for the restaurant owner’s path and Robie and Frances’ to intersect. When they come face to face, the restaurant owner just nods at Robie and keeps moving. Close call!

Twisting Road: After casing the villa, they drive on one of those narrow winding roads with a cliff on one side and a mountain on the other, to a picnic spot Frances has selected. The police are following them. Robie encourages her to ignore the speed limit (hoping to lose the police) and we get a scary chase on a road you wouldn’t want to drive *carefully* on. I believe this is actually the same stretch of road that Grace Kelly lost her life on. The cars speed down the narrow road, almost going over the cliff, almost hitting a bus, almost hitting a woman crossing the street... the whole time we see Robie applying the “passenger side brakes” and holding on for dear life.

Frances takes curves at high speed, almost drifting over the cliff... as she hammers Robie with questions about Oregon and logging - she not only doesn’t believe he’s who he claims to be, she’s pretty sure he’s John Robie, cat burglar. It’s suspense from three directions! The police chasing them, the narrow winding road, and Frances adding up the clues that proves he’s a wanted man. Eventually she loses the police - a chicken crosses the road - and she asks why the police would be chasing them if he was *not* John Robie. Busted. Now, is Frances an ally or an antagonist?

Picnic: They pull over on an outlook with the city below them, and open the picnic basket, Frances asking Robie, “You want a leg or a breast?” Takes a moment for you to realize they’re talking about chicken. Between the sexy flirtation, Frances ticks off more clues to Robie’s guilt - including casing the Villa. She knows the owners of the Villa, it’s not for rent, in fact - they have a big costume party every year and Frances and her mother are invited. Lots of people will be staying at the villa, lots of jewels for Robie to steal... Can she help?

Frances is bored being a rich girl, and would like to be a bad girl. This puts Robie is a strange position - he pretty much has no choice but to admit he *is* John Robie - jewel thief... but when he admits to *not* being responsible for this recent rash of burglaries, will she turn against him? When he says he’s retired from crime, she grabs the list from his pocket, sees what’s on it, and offers to help him with the next target... He says he’ll be watching fireworks instead, and she insists he watch them from her hotel room.

Fireworks: Okay, there’s no way we can talk about TO CATCH A THIEF without talking about the *amazing* lighting and cinematography by Robert Burks. Throughout the film his lighting is amazing - instead of that over-lit color cinematography we’re used to, Burks uses shadows and lighting to create deep, rich colors. It’s almost as if, instead of painting colors on a white background, he is painting colors on a black background. This gives the film a “color noir” feel (even though the story is a thriller rather than noir). I’m not a cinematographer, so I don’t know how this is done, but I’m guessing instead of using less light and opening the lens more, Burks used *more* light and then closed down the lens. Unlike “dark” cinematography today, where you sometimes can’t see anything, *everything* is lighted in TO CATCH A THIEF, but some things are more lighted than others. He is painting with light. I would recommend this film, just for the beautiful lush cinematography.

I’m not a big fan of the fireworks scene, which cuts between Robie and Frances making out on the couch and a fireworks display. After a couple of shots of fireworks, we get it... and the shots just become annoying to me.

The making out scene was probably pushing the envelope for the time, and is full of all kinds of sexy, witty dialogue. Frances is wearing a low cut dress with a diamond necklace and keeps pushing her chest into Robie’s face, ans asking him to “hold them” (the jewels, of course). Then we see more fireworks just when it’s getting good.

Snatched: During the night, Mrs. Stevens’ jewels were stolen, and Frances is quick to accuse Robie... and Mrs. Stevens asks if the jewels weren’t the only thing taken last night. It’s obvious from Frances’ reaction that sometime during all of those fireworks outside some sex was happening inside... and now Frances feels betrayed and has become an adversary to Robie.

Robie is forced to admit to Mrs. Stevens who he really is, and while Frances is searching his room for the jewels, he searches Mrs. Stevens’ room for evidence that might lead him to the burglar. He does a good reconstruction of the crime, figuring out how the burglar broke in and how they escaped. Because Frances is no longer an unknowing ally but an adversary, she calls the police to arrest Robie - but he manages an escape through the window and over the rooftops. Robie is back on the run from the police with no one to turn to - all of his allies have become adversaries.

The Trap: Robie convinces Hughson (who is in deep trouble because all of the jewels stolen have been from the list he gave a known jewel thief) that he’s innocent, and the two hatch a trap for the real burglar. The trap backfires, resulting in a fight in the dark between Robie and the burglar as the police close in. Robie throws the burglar off a cliff and escapes...

But the dead man the police find in the ocean at the base of the cliff is Foussard. Now all of his Resistence buddies are gunning for him - and Foussard’s daughter spits on him at her father’s funeral. Robie’s allegiance with these guys is dissolved - they are now his adversaries. Robie has not a friend in the world. The police close the case, and Robie is off the hook... except Foussard had a wooden leg, making it impossible for him to climb over rooftops like the Cat Burglar. The real burglar is still out there someplace, and Robie decides to capture him... at the big costume party at that villa he cased with Frances. To do that, he need the help of Hughson and Mrs. Stevens and Frances

Costume Party: Before we even see the party, we see the rooftop of the villa. Robie would never be invited to the party, because he’s a notorious jewel thief... so he goes in full costume - face covered with a mask - as Frances and Mrs. Steven’s servant. The place is not only crawling with cleavage and diamonds, it’s infested with cops in costumes. Oh, and guess who’s catering? The restaurant owner, Foussard’s daughter, and the rest of the ex-Resistance fighters. It’s like the entire cast at one location! The cops hear Robie’s voice, and now his disguise is more of a marker - the police keep their eye on him. Robie and Frances dance the night away with the police watching their every move. Of course, it’s not Robie in the costume, it’s Hughson. They have switched places and the police assume it’s still Robie in the costume.

Robie is on the roof, looking for the cat burglar.

Hanging By A Thread: Robie spots the cat burglar on the other side of the rooftop - and we have a tense game of hide and go seek coupled with a rooftop chase, where Robie tries to corner the burglar on the roof... but a falling tile alerts the police, shw blast a spotlight on... Robie! Now the police are sure that Robie is the burglar, and he must still capture the real burglar... while the police are shooting at him! The hide and go seek is more difficult with the spotlight, but Robie eventaully catches up with the real burglar - who falls off the edge of the roof! He catches the burglar, but they are hanging by a thread! He must now get the real burglar to confess to the police - or he will drop them!

Don’t miss the twist after the happily-ever-after with Robie and Frances.

Sound Track: Pre-Herrmann, the score by Lyn Murray is big and glossy but sometimes too light for the scene. Of course it was Murray who introduced Herrmann to Hitch, so those moments where the music needed tp be darker are forgiven.

TO CATCH A THIEF is a great piece of entertainment that holds up well. It’s fun to watch the shifting allegiances and the pairing of the stuffy insurance man and the suave gentleman thief. Sexy, witty dialogue (and a great bit where you realize *you* are as much a thief as Robie is, and maybe more!), and no shortage of suspenseful situations. Great cast, fun story, beautiful locations, and amazing cinematography.

- Bill





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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Low Budget Losers

From 2007...

For some reason, I know a bunch of stuntmen and special effects guys. My friend Rick’s friend Chuck rolled down the stairs at the end of THE EXORCIST and then, the next day, fell off the top of the Space Needle in PARALLAX VIEW. He’s an interesting guy - he’s worked on almost every Clint Eastwood movie and is still working now... even though he is no longer a young man. I’ll bet I know at least one stuntman on every U.S. movie that hits the big screen... and DVD. For this little story. I’m going to either change the names or leave them out... since these stuntmen want to keep working.

There is this low budget company that began by making low-end direct to video horror films. The company began as a distributor - and that’s really what studios like Paramount and Warner Brothers and Universal are - they distribute films. This company is way way way down the list from those studios. They “buy” a completed low budget film from an indie filmmaker (usually horror), then take it to American Film Market and sell foreign territories for as much as they can get... then release the film on DVD in the USA. They probably began with a boiler room, with out of work actors on the phone selling the movies to mom & pop video stores. Doing a hard sell, because these films have no stars in the cast, and probably no one who can even act in the cast. Plus, they were made on a shoe string and probably look like crap.

The problem these companies have is that they are dependent on the indie producers to make a film they can sell. As you know from my Trilogy Of Terror blog entries, most indie producers don’t have a clue... and end up making horror movies without any horror. I have no idea why they do this. But these really low end distribs have to wade through all of those movies, trying to find a horror film with some horror in it... at least enough to cut together a trailer. Eventually they find some indie filmmakers that have a clue, and they work with those guys - often telling them what sort of horror movie they would buy, so that the indie filmmaker can make that film. But people who have a clue tend to move on to bigger and better distribs... so eventually these low end companies decide it would be much easier to just make the films themselves.

And they start doing “in house” - making their own films.

Now, the creative force behind these films... are salesmen. The guys who sell the films at AFM or have graduated from the boiler room to VP Sales. They are not writers. They are not directors. They are not even producers. They are SALESMEN. They know what sells (boobs, blood) but know absolutely nothing about story or making movies.

They do know that if they are going to make a lot of money on these films, they have to be made for pocket change. So this company makes movies for $100k maximum and pays $1k for the screenplay. They started out paying $2k, but discovered the writer who would take $2k would take $1k. So why not pay the writer less and pocket the difference?

Now, here’s where it gets really good. At the company in this story, after they pay the writer $1k for the script, one of the salesmen does a rewrite. They don’t hire a writer to do the rewrite, because writers don’t know *what sells* the way a salesman does. This company makes over a dozen films a year - and has a deal with Blockbuster video. I have no idea how much Blockbuster pays them per film, but they make them for $100k. SAG signatory (extreme low budget deal) so they can get some names in the cast.


So one of my stunman friends gets hired to work on a film from this company. The company has decided horror movies are oversaturated, so they’ve decided to make an action flick. Hey, and they are going to spend a little more (because they have to). My friend is a stuntman who wants to become a stunt coordinator (a step up) and they hire him in that position. He reads the script, and it’s not great, but it’s okay.

He goes to the first production meeting and discovers there is very little money in the stunt budget, but a whole lotta action in the script. My friend doesn’t want to be stunt coordinator on a film with very few stunts, how would that look on his resume? He wants to get a bunch of great clips for his reel out of this film, so that he never has to work for a company this low on the totem pole ever again. That means he’s going to have to pull favors.

He realizes the best way to get good clips on *his* reel is to find other stuntmen friends who want good clips on their reels. So he asks all of his buddies what stunts they have always wanted to do... stunts they would do just to have them on their reel (so that other companies will hire them at top dollar to do the same stunts in much better films). My friend goes back to the “producers” with a list of “stunts at cost” and they work them into the script. This is easier than you might think, since action films tend to have the same basic stunts. There are car chases and a high fall and fist fights and things like that.

Now, at this budget, the most impressive “stunt at cost” he can get is a car doing a multiple roll and exploding. My friend knows a stuntman who has always wanted a big car roll on his reel. If you’ve seen THE KINGDOM, you know that a good car roll can be really impressive. The SUV chase and explosion in that film is just amazing. There’s a behind the scenes on HBO that shows how they did it - and *that* is amazing. Back in the 70s when John Wayne was losing popularity, he made a film called McQ where he played a Dirty Harry type cop - and to sell the film, they did a record breaking car roll. The only reason why I own that film on DVD - the car roll.

Now, the car roll stuntman has never done one of these before, so he pulls all of *his* favors - and gets five top stunt guys in Hollywood to help him with his first car roll (and be there to watch... so they might hire him or recommend him later). They buy a car, build a roll cage, do all of the prep stuff. These expenses come out of pocket, now - the stuntguy will be paid for after the stunt. The stuntguy gets a pyrotech friend of his to explode a second car for cost. They will need an ambulance and a water truck on set for this... but the “producers” argue that they can do without both. The producers are thinking they can save money... and pocket it. What’s more, the ambulance and water truck and Fire Marshal don’t show up on film, so why pay for them? If it’s not on screen, it’s not important.

Well, the law says differently, so the producers are forced to comply. The producers will take care of the water truck and ambulance and Fire Marshal... because they are afraid if my friend the stunt coordinator does it, he won’t get the best price.

A week before the film goes into production, one of the two salesmen who own the company does his script rewrite... and now the script is much much worse than when my friend signed on. Now it’s crap. But the two salesmen turned “producers” who own the company think it’s brilliant. They think they know what they are doing, and what is good... and they are wrong.

But my friend thinks that maybe all of the cool stunts will make up for the (now) really bad screenplay....


The call time is 9am. The stunt guys show up at 9am with the vehicles.... and no one else is there.

No one.

They wait around, and people start trickling in.

The pyro guy wants to run a test - explode the second car with a quarter of the pyro stuff... but there is no fire marshal on set. He asks when the fire marshal is supposed to show, and the Assistant Director says call time was 9am (even though he didn't show until after 10am himself). But he assured the pyro guy that there was a permit to explode stuff.

Well, the pyro guy *knows* the fire marshal who would be assigned to this film, and calls him. Guess what? There was never a permit. No one ever applied for a permit. This makes the pyro guy angry, but he’s already out here and set up... so he talks to the fire marshal. Smooths things over. Finds a way to make it work. The fire marshal will come out on set and they can fill out the paperwork and get a permit when he arrives. He will allow them to do the explosions (if they have a water truck on site) as soon as he arrives. By the way - this is a huge favor the pyro guy is pulling - he's getting a fire marshal to show up and do a permit on site... and it was the guy's day off.

The fire marshal gives them even a bigger break - he allows the pyro guy to do a test before he arrives.

My friend the stunt coordinator realizes that the test may provide an additional angle of the explosion (this is a low budget film - they have *one* camera to film the explosion) and tells the camera crew he needs a camera set up in 30 minutes. The camera crew seems to be working at their own pace, but assures him that the camera will be ready in half an hour.

Fifteen minutes later, my friend checks in with the camera crew, and they don’t seem to be working very fast. Part of this may be that my friend is the stunt coordinator, not the director... but it’s not like the camera crew is doing anything else. Today is a stunt day - it’s all about the stunt. The director, who is somewhere at the location on his cell phone talking to someone about something that has nothing to do with the movie. Seems not to care. I have no idea what they pay the directors on these films, but if the writer’s fee is any indicator, the director is probably making minimum wage. Now. I have this belief that what you are getting paid should have nothing to do with the amount of energy and enthusiasm you give a project. If you decide to do a crappy job because you are being paid crap... you won’t ever be offered a better job. Anyway, neither the director nor the camera guys seemed to give a damn.

This stunt man is going to risk his life by the end of the day, doing a dangerous car roll for peanuts, and the camera guys and director don’t care.

Half an hour later, the car is ready to explode... the camera is not ready to shoot. Now, my friend thinks the test explosion is pretty important on a low budget film... so he begs the pryo guy to give them another half hour to get the camera set up. Then he tells the camera crew that they have a half hour to get the camera set up and pointed at the car that is going to explode. If they aren’t ready in half an hour, they will explode the car anyway.

A half hour later, the camera is still not ready, and the pyro guy says he's going to do his test. The test is cool... and not on film.

When the camera finally is ready, the stunt guy gets ready to do his car roll. All of his buddies - big time stunt guys - are there to see the big event... and maybe pull him from the wreckage if things go wrong. They give him last minute advice on how to do the car roll, things to watch out for, things to remember... Then they all shake his hand. He’s about to do something very dangerous... roll a car over several times *on purpose*. Stuntmen are crazy.

The stuntguy asks when the ambulance is going to show, the Assistant Director says, “I don't know, but we're behind time, so just do it.”

The stuntguy thinks that is a very bad idea - they are *miles* from the nearest town out in the middle of nowhere. He asks how far the nearest hospital is - and the AD doesn't know. Folks, in case you don't know - the rules say they need to know where the nearest hospital is, and have directions on how to get there, even if all they are shooting is a *dialogue scene*. Usually the map to the hospital, along with all of the emergency numbers, is on the back of the call sheet. If a film is shooting a dialogue scene and someone gets hurt, has a heart attack, whatever, they need to know where the nearest hospital is.

This is a day where they are doing dangerous stunts *and* explosions and the Assistant Director has no idea where the nearest hospital is... not even the phone number!

Well, the stuntguy blows his top. The AD gets on the phone to one of the two salesmen turned film producers who run this company and explains that the stuntguy refuses to do the stunt unless they have an ambulance. The “producer” asks if an ambulance is really required? Maybe he can talk the stuntguy into doing the car roll without it, put him on the phone.

The stuntguy controls his temper as he explains how dangerous this stunt is. They have the car with the roll-cage, they have all of the safety equipment, they have a stunt team... it would be a shame to lose the stunt because they don’t have an ambulance. The “producer” tells the AD it's up to him to get an ambulance out there - free or dirt cheap.

Well, while the AD is calling ambulance companies, the fire marshal shows up - so they can blow up the second car. The fire marshal sees the water truck, and, for some reason, decides to tap the tank with his knuckles... it's empty. See, filling it with water would cost extra - somewhere between $20 and $50 - so they didn't do that. Well, the fire marshal blows up - what kind of morons are these guys? He's not going to let them do *anything* - even bullet hits - unless they get the water truck filled with water. The first AD calls HQ again, and the “producer” decides it's too much trouble to send a PA to fill the water truck, plus pay for an ambulance, etc.

So, they change the scene. They just want the car to drive up and down the dirt road, and they'll do everything else in post. They’ll superimpose some fake looking fireball on the car, and instead of the car roll, well... it just comes to a stop.

The stunt guys are all pissed off. The pyro guy is pissed off. The fire marshal is threatening an investigation.

Everyone has wasted their time, wasted their efforts, wasted their credibility... they’ve pulled all kinds of favors... for nothing. For want of a single horse a mighty empire fell... All of the cool stunts they would have had in their low budget movie for *free*? Not there.

This is why so many low budget film makers remain low budget film makers. They think it’s more important to save $20 than to make a better film. Who the hell would even *rent* a water truck and then not put water in it? These guys are low budget losers... the kind of people you never want to work for. They don't care, and they don't want to improve their work. The most important thing - the basic requirement - you have to care. You have to love what you do. You need to constantly be trying to do something better - to improve yourself and your work. Even if you are making a low budget horror flick, you need to try to make the *best* low budget horror film possible. If you don't have the money, use your imagination.

My friend and all of his stuntmen friends are never going to work for these low budget loser again, and have spread the word. No one will ever do them a favor again... no more free stunts, they'll have to pay full price. But the crappy film without stunts? On the shelves at Blockbuster.

Only in Hollywood, baby!

- Bill

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Trailer Tuesday: Panic In The Streets (1950)

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Richard Murphy (BOOMERANG, COMPULSION), Daniel Fuchs (CRISS CROSS), based on a story by Edward & Edna Anhalt (SATAN BUG).
Starring: Richard Widmark, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas, and the great Jack Palance and great Zero Mostel.

After seeing DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES sunday night, with it's opening montage showing us news footage of the plague that wipes out almost all human life on Earth, I thought it would be fun to look at a film from the past with a different look at the plague. 1950's PANIC IN THE STREETS stars Richard Widmark as a CDC doctor... not a crazed killer or a snarky hit man! He's the good guy in this one. The film takes place in New Orleans, and was shot on location (unusual for this time period) but was directed by Elia Kazan, the dude who took advantage of the new method style of acting and married it to a documentary style of cinema with great results. Kazan's *next* film was A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and a few films after that he directed ON THE WATERFRONT, and then EAST OF EDEN. Though most of his films dealt with a social issue, he was working in a time where the easiest way to do that was in crime films like this one.

Our story starts when a guy is murdered... but he would have died anyway because he had the plague. The plague! Now it's a race-against-time search for the killer (Jack Palance)... who also has the plague and is *spreading it* with every person he touches. Doctor Widmark and Detective Paul Douglas have 48 hours to find Palance before creates a city-wide epidemic. This is a great idea because "patient zero" is someone who does not want to be found (because he's a killer).

There are chase scenes and shoot outs and fight scenes and a plane chasing a plague ship and... well, it's danged exciting. It's a thriller. But it also really gets into police vs. doctors vs. city politics vs. freedom of the press vs. the public good. Because this crisis - the killer roaming the streets with the plague - requires all kinds of difficult decisions - and as they argue in a speeding car whether they should kill this guy (because he's a menace to society) or make sure they don't kill him (because they need to know everyone he came into contact with) we get to examine the way society works - and why our version may not work.

We get to look at what's right, what's wrong, what works and what doesn't work. Should they give the press the story to possibly save lives... even though that will force the killer underground and they won't capture him in time? Is freedom of the press more important than capturing a criminal? The film really digs into issues.

It also digs into character - Widmark is a low paid government doctor who hides in his work, causing problems with his wife Barbara Bel Geddes and their kid. There are some great family issues going on during the crisis, including Widmark's decision *not* to get his family out of town as they get closer and closer to the crisis point. (Some of the detectives gets their families out of the danger zone). The film works as a pursuit film, a gangster film, a cop film, a social issues film, and a drama... and *won* Best Screenplay that year. It manages to get everything right.

Plus there are a great pair of scenes between Widmark and Douglas, where Douglas completely takes responsibility for something Widmark did - to the point of endangering his future. Because it's what Widmark wanted, he doesn't notice the sacrifice. Later, when he realizes what Douglas has done, he kicks himself a bit... then later makes everything right by taking responsibility for something Douglas has done - that could really screw up Widmark's future.

The locations are amazing: coffee packing houses, ships, rooming houses, waterfront warehouses, and suburban homes. In a time where movies were shot in the back lot, this film explores New Orleans while avoiding anyplace you've ever seen in a tourist video. We get the places people live and work and avoid the tourist traps. It's a great, gritty look at the city. And there is an attention to detail that makes even the action set pieces very personal.

This is a really well written thriller, and when Widmark explains to the cops how Palance could hop a plane and spread the plague nation-wide within a day, it's really frightening. That's what could happen in the late-40s... imagine what could happen today?



Monday, July 21, 2014

Lancelot Link: Birthday Edition

Lancelot Link Monday! You are reading this on Monday, I am writing this on Sunday... and that was my birthday. So after I finish this it's off to Dennys for a free breakfast, then Krispy Kreme for a free donut and Starbucks for a free coffee and... eventually to an orgy of movies at the cinema (after I figure out some way to smuggle in a giant chocolate cake in my clothes). 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 twelve links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Dawn Of The Apes........ $36,000,000
2 Purge 2........................ $28,369,000
3 Planes: Fire Rescue...... $18,000,000
4 Sex Tape...................... $15,000,000
5 Trans4mers................... $10,000,000
6 Tammy.......................... $7,605,000
7 22 Jump Street............... $4,700,000
8 How To Dragon............... $3,800,000
9 Maleficent...................... $3,302,000
10 Earth 2 Echo................ $3,260,000

2) Women Directors Interviewed... including the great Kimberly Peirce.

3) THE SHINING Prequel Gets A Director!

4) The EYES WHITE SHUT Sequel Gets A Writer!

4) Universal Reboots Classic Monsters (again)!

6) When You Need Science In Your Sci Fi Movie, Who You Gonna Call?

7) Comic Book Films That Are Neither Marvel Nor DC...

8) Captain America Battles Superman In Epic Cross Over 2016!

9) New Faces Of 2014... next Week: New Elbows Of 2014, Followed By New Feet Of 2014.

10) 100 Famous Directors Rules Of Filmmaking.

11) Ben Wheatly (met him at Raindance!) Gives No Budget Filmmaking Advice.

12) Agent's Panel: Top 10 Mistakes Writers Make.

And the Car Chase Of The Week!

Thank's to pro screenwriter Todd Gordon for the suggestion!

Bill (going to get free stuff and see movies!)