Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Film Courage Plus: What Unsold Screenwriters Need To Learn!

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015, around 36 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?


I love when they put me on the spot like this? Are professional writers just better writers than those who haven’t broken in yet? And the answer is: Maybe. A screenplay has so many moving parts and getting them lined up for a professional isn’t going to happen always. I have screenplays that just don’t work - and when I figure out how to make them work I will rewrite them and have something. But many new writers either don’t see the flaw in their script or see it and try to market the script. Hey, there is a chance that the flaw won’t matter to some specific producer - it’s not an issue with their company. And an amateur becomes a professional. But often there is some issue with the screenplay that stops it from going all the way.

There are three elements to a screenplay: The story itself, the way that story is told, and the writing itself. New writers often struggle with the first one and when they master that don’t even look at the other two items. The way the story is told is what I call “structuring” and it’s not three acts or saving cats, it’s when information is revealed to the audience. I look at it in the STRUCTURING Blue Book and in the STORY Blue Book. When is the best time to reveal this information? For a story to unfold it must be folded by the screenwriter first - we need to plant the information that will be revealed later. So this can be a difficult element. The writing itself is how well you write and your individual voice - your writing style. We look at that in the DESCRIPTION & VOICE Blue Book. Part of the reason why they hire one writer over another is that their voice gives the script a feel that other similar screenplays do not have. So one thing that the professional has are those last two elements, and unsold writers may not have mastered those yet. They have told a great story, but how they tell it and how they write it may not be at a professional level, yet. Hey, they’ll get there!


I tell the Garage Band story in the clip, as well as the story of the Temp Receptionist. Some other danged writer (too lazy to Google) said you could drop a great script on Hollywood Boulevard and it would find its way to a studio... and I believe that is true. I believe that once you get all of those moving parts in a screenplay to work together, nothing is stopping that script! It will travel!

My first "Hollywood sale" was a screenplay called COURTING DEATH that sold to a company at Paramount. I was living in my home town, and had zero connections. But I had scripts.

I had a low budget drive in flick called NINJA BUSTERS made in my home town by a local director... and then went back to the day job for a decade. I wrote 3 scripts a year - which is just a page a day. After around 7 or 8 years back at the day job I optioned a script called TREASURE HUNTER to a company in Beverly Hills for $5k. I had read an advert in the back of Variety - this company was looking for a jungle adventure script. I sent logline and they requested the script. Though I had an agent at the time, he was the worst agent in the business and he almost screwed up the option deal.

The director of NINJA BUSTERS was making direct to video movies after drive ins closed down, and worked with a local actress who was, um, very attractive, and single. And so I gave her my new screenplay and said, "There's a role in here that is perfect for you." She took the screenplay, read it, and promptly moved to Los Angeles. I am unlucky in love.

In Los Angeles she was hired to play Victim #5 in a low budget horror film. Her role was basically taking off her top and being killed. She gave my script to a guy on the crew (!) and told him there's a role in here that is perfect for her. Now my script began traveling around Los Angeles - everyone gave it to their best connection in the business. As I say in the clip, this is a business where people do favors to advance their careers. So my scripts floated around town, and three years later I am putting on my steel toed boots to go to work at my warehouse day job when the phone rings....

The guy on the phone says he's Daniel calling from New Century/Visions Entertainment at Paramount, is my screenplay COURTING DEATH still available?

Okay - obviously my friend Van Tassell playing a practical joke on me. We play practical jokes on each other all the time (still do). We had just gone to a party where Van had drank way too much, so on Monday while he was at work, I had every woman I know call his answering machine and say, "Hello, this is Heather, we met at that party Friday night and I'd really like to see you again, I gave you my number, call me." So he comes home from work and there are a dozen women who want him to call them, and he calls me in a panic and says, "Bill, did you see what I did with all of these phone numbers?"

So I figured this was payback.

"If you are really at Paramount, Daniel, how about giving me a number and I'll call you back." Daniel gives me a number with a 213 area code. Van really did his homework on this one!

I call back expecting to get a pizza parlor or a payphone, and realize it is not a joke. I ask where they got the script, and Daniel says a name of someone I don't know. This script traveled all over town and ended up at this company at Paramount.

Sold it. David Fincher was attached to direct at one point in time. I hated the idea because all he'd done was a couple of Madonna videos. He backed out to do ALIEN 3 and my project fell apart. They tried to put it together with some other directors but it was never made. Only 10% of the screenplays they buy ever make it to the screen.

But here's the thing: You need a script that travels. And that’s how things work in this business.

People think it’s all about who they know, but a great script opens doors for you.

Everyone wants to know the secret handshake or be introduced to the guy in charge... but none of that is going to matter if they don’t have a great script! So focus on writing a great screenplay - not a screenplays that you think is great, but a screenplay that people who hate you and want you to fail think is a great screenplay. You want a screenplay that strangers who are slogging through a stack of screenplays will read and think, “This is the one!”

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: TOGETHER & ALONE (1998)

This movie doesn't take place at Thanksgiving, but it seems like a great film to watch on a windy fall day...

My friend Duane made this film, and ever since seeing it on a borrowed VHS, I have made sure to see it every time it plays in some Los Angeles cinema, which is fairly often, because once the programmer at the New Beverly or American Cinematheque saw it *they* also want to see it again and again. And now it is finally hitting Blu-ray for a 20 Year Anniversary. So here's my review from one of the times I saw it in the cinema...

Director: Duane Whitaker.
Writer: Duane Whitaker.
Starring: Casey Siemaszko, Stacie Randall, Daniel Roebuck, Tim Thomerson, Joe Unger, Duane Whitaker, Mariah O'Brien, Joe Estevez.
Produced by: Nell Isgate, Patricia Anne Isgate-Hayward.
Cinematographer: Sean Hughes II.
Music by: Matt Davis.

TOGETHER & ALONE - I had seen it once on DVD or VHS, but never on the big screen. This film is the bridge between Robert Altman and Mumblecore. When I'd seen it earlier, I got a little teary at the end. This time, other parts got to me as well. Big ensemble cast playing people living on the fringe in Hollywood who know they are not going to make it. The hope has been pounded out of them. Like in Duane's EDDIE PRESLEY, they all hang at the same greasy spoon diner - and that is where their lives intersect. Very funny, very sad - this is one of those films that some critic somewhere needs to discover and champion. Duane wrote the script, directed, and plays one of the roles. The film was made for pocket change, and I suspect some of the stuff shot on the streets of Hollywood was done without permits (there’s a bit at the end where an unsuspecting person ends up part of a scene where a character goes crazy and starts yelling). The one problem with the film is that it does not have the flow of Duane's EDDIE PRESLEY (directed by the great Jeff Burr) and there are abrupt and jarring cuts between scenes... but that kind of fits right into the whole Mumblecore thing, so we’ll just say this film was ahead of its time.

This is the old trailer, new one for the Blu-Ray release further down.

Here are the story threads in this tale of one day in the life of Hollywood hopefuls who lose all hope...

Billy (Casey Siemaszko) is a guitar player with real talent in some garage band that plays all kinds of low rent clubs. He’s dating a rich girl from a wealthy Texas family, and is about to be introduced to her father (Tim Thomerson) for the first time, and is a little nervous. So nervous that he misses a sound check with his band - who are about to cut a demo record. That demo record might be Billy’s big break...

Zevo (Duane) is the leader of the band - all of them have really big hair - and gets pissed off when Billy’s a no show, and tries to turn the rest of the band against Billy and vote him out of the band. Problem is, the rest of the band are idiots, and Billy is a good guitar player, and Billy also brings beer to rehearsals sometimes. Zevo is so cheap that he goes into a strip bar to borrow the phone when there’s a perfectly good payphone outside. After the band stops being distracted by strippers, they decide to vote Billy out of the band - leaving them without their most talented member and leaving Billy adrift and without hope. There’s a nice scene where Billy and his girlfriend end up at the base of the Capitol Records Building, and he talks about his dreams of a recording deal... and how they are probably never going to happen.

In the Greasy Spoon Diner where their lives intersect...

Chad the screenwriter (Tom Denolf) lays out his pens in a specific pattern on the counter and opens his legal pad to write... when a pair of pests sit on either side of him. An older dude who keeps asking him what he’s doing... and eventually starts to hit on him with the weirdest pick up lines you’ve ever heard, and Dougie Westa (Danny Roebuck) the worst actor in the world - his car is plastered with his headshots in a parody of Dennis Woodfruff’s car - sits on the other side of Chad and asks if there’s a role in the script for him. These three guys provide some great comedy bits throughout the film.

At another table are burned out actor Roscoe (Joe Unger in an Oscar calibre performance - really, this is one amazing piece of acting) and just out of film school young director Gene (Thomas Draper) who is buttering up Roscoe to be in his short film about a door-to-door bible salesman who kills people. Though I have no idea what % of the film this story thread is, it *dominates* the film due to Unger’s performance as a guy who knows he’s a has-been without ever really being somebody. He’s spent his life being a bit part player with his best roles on the cutting room floor (in real life, Unger’s big break-out role in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK ended up on the cutting room floor). He has this great rant about how Hollywood just screwed him over, and how lesser talents went farther. Unger manages to be angry and vulnerable and sad all at the same time... and Gene has to put up with all of this in order to get Roscoe in his short film. Gene has a girlfriend, who is an actress....

Buy Together & Alone BlueRay

Laura (Stacie Randall) is taking an acting class from blowhard acting teacher Blaine (Joe Estevez - Martin Sheen’s brother) who has a big showcase for his acting class coming up where big time agents and big time talent scouts are supposed to be in the audience. There will be wine and cheese after the showcase, but only if the acting students bring the wine and cheese, because Blaine sure as hell isn’t paying for it. When Roscoe talks bout those guys who got undeserved breaks, he mentions Blaine’s name - Blaine was once in an episode of LASSIE in a featured role. Blaine has a photo of him and Lassie in his scrap book... that he shows to Laura after class... just before trying to rape her. See, she’s the only one in his class with any talent, so obviously they were meant to be together, right? Laura kicks him in the nuts - hard - and splits for the diner and Gene.

The part that made my eyes damp the first time I saw it was Janet (Harri James) the female comedian who goes to open mike night and bombs. Bombs big time. And realizes that she is not funny at all, and her dream is never going to happen. After being booed off stage, she gets in her beat up old car... which blows up! Now she has no car, no dreams, no nothing. She wanders to a bus stop where she meets Rusty (John Bishop) a shaggy guitar player who hasn't really made it, but sold some songs. As they wait for the bus - which never comes - they tentatively hit it off... and decide to take a cab to her place, where they do not have sex... but share some powerful moments where they talk about their failure to crack Hollywood. Then, as she sleeps, he writes a song about her. A sad song. The funny part about this is that I started getting misty eyed at the friggin’ bus stop scene! I knew that song was coming, and it was already working on me! Anyway, that is one great scene.

There are two “glue characters” who also connect these story threads... Buffy the free-spirit waitress at the greasy spoon cafĂ© (Mariah O’Brien) and the chatty philosopher / taxi driver (Larry Lyles) who picks up Rusty and Janet and a few of the other characters and transports them from one location to another. Chad the screenwriter works up the nerve to flirt with Buffy, and eventually asks her out. This is a great little scene. Afterwards, there’s a funny scene where Gene and Laura are talking and he jokes about a 3-way with another woman. Laura puts him on the spot by calling over Buffy and asking why she thinks men want that kind of stuff. Buffy thinks it’s just because they’re dogs, thinks the whole 3-way thing is gross... except for the time she did it, oh, and the other time she did it, oh, and the time before that when she did it, and...

The taxi driver guy talks a mile a minute and has a theory about everything and is funny as hell - he practically steals the show! You keep wanting one of the other characters to flag down a taxi! He has this crazy story he tells about how his ex-wife ran away with some clown... a real clown. Guy who does kids birthday parties. Worst thing was that she got custody of his little girl, and he wasn’t around to be a father to her... some clown was. When Buffy flags down the taxi, and it’s his cab, we can’t wait to hear whatever rambling monologue he’s going to do while he drives her home after her shift. Along the way, they pass Roscoe - who has flipped out and is wandering the streets of Hollywood screaming, then when he pulls up in front of her apartment she kisses him and it’s revealed that she is his daughter. Cool moment that brings all of the story threads together.

This is a pocket change movie that I enjoyed much more than any of the Mumblecore films I've seen - some critic needs to discover and champion this film so that it can find a larger audience...

And it seems that has happened enough that we finally have a Blu-Ray!

- Bill

Buy Together & Alone BlueRay

Friday, November 08, 2019

HITCH 20: The Crystal Trench (s3e5)

This is a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that looks at the 20 TV episodes directed by Hitchcock and here is the last episode of the third season on THE CRYSTAL TRENCH and the importance of locations in story.


In this episode we look at the relationship between story and location, and how a location can be a character in your story. In an old article in Script Magazine called HITCHCOCK’S CHOCOLATES we sweated the small stuff and looked at the relationship between characters, their tools, and their environment. Using location and props to help tell your story. How do you keep all of these elements organic, and even explore theme through location?

"One of the interesting aspects of "The Secret Agent" is that it takes place in Switzerland," Hitchcock says in HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (1967 Simon And Schuster). "I said to myself, What do they have in Switzerland? They have milk chocolate, they have the Alps, they have village dances, and they have lakes. All of these ingredients were woven into the story. Local topographical features can be used dramatically as well. We used lakes for drowning and the Alps to have our characters fall into crevasses."


Most of us give little thought to our locations, using them only as backgrounds for our stories. They end up little more than theatrical flats - a two dimensional painting of a street our characters act in front of. But location can influence story, and story elements can grow from a location.

A man walking down a dark alley.

A man walking in a park filled with children.

Both scenes show a man walking, but each 'background' will have a different effect on the audience, and on the character's mood and actions. The location changes effects the character and the character effects the direction of the story.

Orson Welles' brilliant THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (based on a novel by Sherwood King) takes place in San Francisco and uses the location to advance the story. The story of a yacht captain (Welles) who becomes involved with a beautiful woman (Rita Hayworth) and her evil husband (Everett Sloan) in a strange fake murder for life insurance scheme is like a check list of San Francisco landmarks. From Chinatown to Sausalito to Steinhart Aquarium to Playland At The Beach amusement park.

In LADY FROM SHANGHAI locations are not just background to the story, they help shape it. When the scheme goes wrong and Welles is hunted through the city by the police - no one to turn to - he hides in a Chinatown theater. Surrounded by people speaking a strange language, laughing at jokes he doesn't understand, the character is out-numbered and alone simultaneously. The choice of environment strengthens the emotions in the scene.

My DEAD RUN script is a fast paced thriller about a conspiracy to keep a murdered political candidate alive through CGI computer animation. The logical location for this story was someplace where the computer industry has deep roots. Silicon Valley was the obvious choice, but I went with the second city on my list: Seattle, Washington.

What do we find in Seattle? The Space Needle, the logging industry, gourmet coffee shops, grunge-rockers, the monorail, Puget Sound, trolley cars, and Ballard Locks Park all made my list.

Then I decided what scenes would gain the most from each of my locations. The sunny Ballard Locks Park seemed like a perfect place for a sniper attack, my end action scene would be on the Space Needle, and I could use the monorail in a chase scene. My candidate would be involved in logging and environmental issues. Everything on my location list helped to shape the final script. The plot helped me choose the city, but each individual setting influenced the way scenes played. I used the location not just as a background, but to help tell the story.

It's important to make sure your story matches the location, that the story grows naturally from the location and vice versa. You want to find the most effective setting for your story. If you are writing a script about a pair of doomed lovers, can you think of a better location than a sinking ship? The minute Jack and Rose meet each other on the Titanic, the clock is ticking. We know their relationship will be over as soon as that ship sinks. Doomed lovers, doomed location. The location is an organic part of the story.

In THE CRYSTAL TRENCH that glacier *is* a character in the story, as is the mountain the men are climbing. How could this story work in a desert? In a city? On a farm? The story is all about the glacier!


"In Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, James Stewart plays a doctor, and behaves like one throughout the whole picture," Francios Truffaut says in HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT. "His line of work is deliberately blended into the action. For instance, before telling Doris Day that their child has been kidnapped, he makes her take a sedative." Stewart's character prepares the sedative calmly, professionally. He's using the tools and methods familiar to him to solve the immediate problem.

Characters will always use familiar tools, given the choice. Tools are an extension of occupation, and occupation is an extension of character and theme. A plumber with a slide rule or a nun with a machine gun seems strange. A character s choice of tools gives us insight into his or her personality and background. They are more than just props.

In Robert Benton's KRAMER VS. KRAMER Dustin Hoffman's wife runs off to find herself, leaving him to take care of his young son. The first morning without Mom, Hoffman has to prepare breakfast. Hoffman is used to grabbing a cup of coffee on the way out the door... that's the extent of his breakfast knowledge.

His son wants french toast. So Hoffman grabs the tools he is familiar with to make the french toast. Instead of using a bowl and a whisk, he uses a coffee cup and a spoon. Breaks the eggs into the cup, beats the eggs with the spoon, then tries to dip the bread in the egg batter. His attempt to make french toast is a complete failure. He will have to learn how to use new tools as a single dad.

In my NIGHT HUNTER film, Don "The Dragon" Wilson plays the last of the vampire hunters, drifting from town to town on the trail of blood suckers. I envisioned him as a man without friends, without family, without a home. Homeless.

In the script when all of his vampire killing tools are taken away from him by the police, he is forced to find new equipment. Would he go into a store and buy it? Not in character. He's homeless, he dumpster dives. He turns discarded items found in the trash into lethal killing tools. Tools that fit his character. One hundred percent organic.

In CRYSTAL TRENCH we not only have the mountain climbing tools, we have that great telescope focused on the side of the mountain that features in scene after scene. The great thing about that telescope is that it’s not only a tool, it’s what I call a “Twitch” in my “Secrets Of Action Screenwriting” book - it’s a physical device that symbolizes an emotional conflict. It’s focused on the dead men, right? So the telescope *becomes* the dead men - a way to have them in a scene when they are actually on the side of the mountain many miles away.

Make a list of your character's "familiar tools", those things they're most comfortable using. These will be the first thing they reach for when they're trying to solve a problem. Tools they know how to use. Tools they know how to use. Tools which help illuminate character through actions.


In previous episodes of HITCH 20 we’ve talked about Hitchcock’s “stock company” of actors, and I look at Hitch’s loyalty to cast and crew members in HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE. Though many of the HITCH 20 episodes feature John Williams (the actor, not the composer) these past two episodes have featured THE AVENGERS’ Patrick Macnee. In ARTHUR he was the town constable, and here he’s the glacier expert - two very different characters!

This brings the third season of HITCH 20 to a close...

Of course, I have my own books on Hitchcock...



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!


Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

(links actually work now)

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.



Click here for more info!


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

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

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.


Thursday, November 07, 2019

THRILLER Thursday: The Fingers Of Fear

Fingers Of Fear

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

Season: 1, Episode: 22. Airdate: February. 21, 1961

Director: Jules Bricken
Writer: Robert Hardy Andrews (based on a story by Philip MacDonald)
Cast: Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Middleton, Ted DeCorsia, Thayer Roberts, Terry Burnham.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “No one will wake that little girl ever again. She was the victim of the most reprehensible type of criminal. The child murderer. So long asx he stalks the streets unnoticed or lurks in the shadows near the playground, no little one is safe. He preys on the innocent and trusting child. Tonight we tell the story of a community in the clutches of just such a monster. All terrified of the fingers of fear, that’s the title of our play. Our leading players are: Mr. Nehemiah Persoff, Mr. Robert Middleton, Mr. Kevin Haven, and Mr. Thayer Roberts. Join us now for a desperate manhunt, a race against time where a lost hour or wasted minute might result in another vestial senseless killing.”

Synopsis: The story begins with a bunch of kids at recess playing volleyball, but one kids hits the ball too hard and it bounces across the street and into the bushes of the city park. The teacher Miss Spencer tells the kids that she’ll get the ball, because crossing the street might be dangerous. While searching the bushes for the ball, she finds a little girl’s shoe... then finds the little girl. Dead. Murdered by some fiend.

The newspaper headlines scream that this is the fifth little girl murdered, and has a sketch of some fat creepy dude who was seen in the park the night before. That creepy dude looks just like Ohrback (Robert Middleton) the dish washer in a greasy spoon diner. The cook Sid (H.M. Wynant) teases Ohrback about having a double...

At the scene, Detective Wagner (Nehemiah Persoff) and his team examine the evidence. They find a strange piece of curved porcelain with some blood on it.

Back at the police station, Wagner wants all of the forensic tests done ASAP. Meanwhile the Commissioner (Ted DeCorsia) pulls him aside and tells him they need this case solved yesterday because Amity is a tourist town and tourist season is coming up. (Okay, all of that is true except this isn’t Amity... but it’s the whole JAWS scenario for no real reason... when a madman is killing little girls, I guess that isn’t bad enough.) They discover the new victim had two different blood types on her body: hers, and a very rare blood type they believe belongs to the killer. All of the little girls have been killed with a very sharp knife...

Ohrback drives his beat up old black car to the lake, pulls out his knife and scabbard, and throws them both into the water... not knowing that a little boy is just out of sight fishing. The boy sneaks a look at the man and the car and then hides as Ohrback gets into his car and drives away. Then the boy dives into the water and recovers the knife.

Meanwhile Detective Wagner has a new witness, an upper middle class married businessman, who was at the park and saw the fat creepy dude who is on the front page of the newspaper... while he was, um, waiting for a friend. Oh, and he got the plate number of the creepy dude’s car and it’s...

Ohrback’s beat up old black car has the same license number. Ohrback paints his car a lighter color, drives it to a used car lot and swaps it for another car. Then he goes to a cinema where his pal Zimmer (Dick Wessel) works as a projectionist and tells him he was playing hooky from work and needs an alibi for his boss. Zimmer agrees to help him.

Detective Wagner finds out who sold the knife and that gets him to Ohrback at the diner... where he beats the living hell out of Ohrback. This is the killer of all of those little girls, and Detective Wagner has a little girl. After more than enough punches, Wagner’s men pull him off of Ohrback.

They do a line up for the boy and the businessman... and both ID Ohrback.

But here’s the problem: Ohrback does not have that rare blood type. The Commissioner (and everyone else) says forget the details that don’t fit... we’ve got the killer.

Wagner goes home, hugs his daughter Kathy (Betsy Hale) and then forbids her from going to the park with her friend Joan (Terry Burnham). He’s afraid they may have arrested the wrong man. In fact, he decides to go back to the police station...

Detective Wagner and little Joan leave the house at the same time. Wagner gets in his car and drives to the police station... and Joan walks to the park, where a man in a car asks her if she likes dolls... he has a doll that is a princess, and she even laughs (when you pull a string). Joan is fascinated by the laughing doll... and gets in the car with Merriman (Thayer Roberts) the *real* serial killer of little girls.

Wagner takes that strange piece of porcelain they found at the crime scene to a doll store, where it perfectly matches the foot of a very expensive imported doll that laughs when you pull a string on its back. They have only sold 3 of them... one was sold to the parents of the first little girl murdered. From here the story cross cuts between Detective Wagner tracking down clues and Merriman in the park with little Joan and the doll.

Wagner takes a doll and a police psychiatrist to the jail to interrogate Ohrback. Ohrback says he hates little boys because they make fun of him, but really likes little girls because they are kind to him... but has never had a doll like that. He had a teddy bear... but a man did something terrible to his teddy bear... and that made him cry. Ohrbach did see a man with a doll like that at the park the night he was there...

Is Ohrback a *witness* rather than the killer? The police psychiatrist thinks that’s possible.

Meanwhile, in the park, Merriman is getting really creepy with little Joan... he's watching her eat hot dogs, pushing her on a swing, and other things that just plain wrong.

Detective Wagner goes to Mrs. Salerno’s (Nina Varela) Doll Repairs and gets the clue to who brought in the expensive imported doll with the broken foot... not a man, but a little girl. They go to the little girl’s house, where her mother says they don’t own a doll like that... but the little girl says that the man across the street Mr. Merriman has a beautiful doll like that, and when the doll was hurt, Mr. Merriman asked her to take it to the doll hospital for him. They get the call little Joan has been reported missing by her parents, and Wagner says that she was at his house just a few hours ago! She’s his daughter’s best friend!

Just as creepy Merriman is getting ready to do really nasty things to cute little Joan, and is walking with her into a wooded area of the park... School Teacher Miss Spencer leads a class out of the wooded area on some sort of field trip, and Joan runs away from Merriman to say hello to the teacher. When Joan explains she’s here with an adult man who has a very pretty doll, Miss Spencer decides to check this guy out... and Merriman and his doll run the heck away.

Detective Wagner and his men go to Merriman’s house and find him talking to his doll... and they arrest him. He has that rare blood type, and he’s the real killer.

Review: A pretty good episode, and kind of shocking subject matter for a TV show. Even today it’s kind of rough to watch the scenes with the child killer and the little girl. There’s some real suspense built in the cross cutting between Wagner trying to find the clues to the killer and Merriman and Joan in the park.

Ohrback is played by Robert Middleton, who stars in my favorite THRILLER episode GUILLOTINE, which we will get to in a few weeks. He specialized in huge creepy guys, and played the most violent of the escaped convicts in THE DESPERATE HOURS... and the police chief in THE BIG COMBO. One of those character actors who was in everything, and has at least *fifteen* other credits in the year this episode was made! The great thing about Middleton’s performance is that you really feel sorry for this guy... even though you also are pretty sure he’s killing little girls. Being able to play both creepy *and* sympathetic seems almost impossible, but he does a great job of making us hope he isn’t the killer (even though we’re pretty sure he is).

Nehemiah Persoff is interesting casting: he’s a serious actor in films like ON THE WATERFRONT and THE HARDER THEY FALL and Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN... so playing this Dirty Harry like relentless and violent cop is kind of shocking. I’m sure as an actor, he loved getting the chance to totally lose it and beat the crap out of the suspect. As an actor, he’s great in the role (he’s great in everything).

One of the elements of the episode that is interesting is the focus on the procedural aspects of police work, parts of this show would seem at home on CSI. Even when they match the broken piece of the doll to the discarded doll leg at Mrs. Salerno’s Doll Repairs the camera focuses on how perfectly they fit together. The episode is filled with detectives looking into microscopes at blood samples and even the police psychiatrist (whose analysis is kind of lame) is all about the use of science to capture criminals... and works in contrast with those moments where Detective Wagner goes ape shit and starts beating on someone.

I also like how our prime suspect, who acts suspicious as can be... is innocent. Other nice touches are that married businessman who was waiting for his, um, friend in the park in the middle of the night (you wonder how many people back in 1961 wondered if the friend was male or female) and even the cook in the diner who just verbally tortures Ohrback is a great throw away character. He makes you feel sorry for the big guy... who may be a child killer.

This is a big cast, and all of the characters get their moments to shine. In two scenes the actress who plays Mrs. Salerno makes an impact. The movie projectionist character who is just an alibi is well written and well played (Guys like us are always getting into trouble) and you get a picture of his life outside the story. The teacher is in two scenes and seems like a real person. The actress who plays Joan was also in the MARK OF THE HAND episode as the kid who may be a killer does a better job here with probably less to work with. Hey, she was a few months older.

Though this isn’t one of those great episodes that everyone talks about, it’s a solid entry in the show. You wish it had been expanded into a feature (because there are places where they could have stretched the suspense even further). You could colorize this and slide it into the CSI rotation and no one would guess it was made in 1961.


Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Film Courage Plus: Myth Of Overnight Success

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015, around 36 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?

Dispelling the myth of the Overnight Success:

No one ever tells you this: Prepare to start at the bottom and work your way up.

You aren't going to sell the first script you write.

So you probably shouldn't quit your day job.

You’ve read the stories about someone who sold their first script for a pile of money and kissed their day job goodbye - from nobody to the hottest writer in Hollywood! Well, 99% of the time, those stories are BS - created by a publicist somewhere to turn this script sale into a Cinderella story, instead of that gritty real story of struggle and hard work that got them to that point where they could sell a script for a pile of money. The article says it was their first script... but that just means it was their first script that *sold*. We know from that old WGA survey that the average screenwriter wrote (and rewrote) 9 screenplays before they made a cent, so even if this is the story of the 1% who actually was some sort of overnight success, that screws up the odds for everyone else - the average number of scripts that you will have to write goes *up* for everyone who isn’t that person.

One of the reasons for publicists to ignore the truth and give us the Cinderella stories is that they want everyone to ignore the past credits of that new million dollar screenwriter. Because no one starts at the top, that means those early credits are often at the bottom. And maybe a little embarrassing. When Jeff Maguire sold IN THE LINE OF FIRE back in 1993, there was all kinds of publicity about how this was his first script and how he turned down Tom Cruise’s offer, because Cruise was too young for the role... but this was not his first script sale. Not even close. His first produced credit was in 1975, and we’ll get back to that in a minute. He had written the successful family adventure film TOBY McTEAGUE in 1986, and wrote VICTORY starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine in 1981. Before that he had been writing low budget exploitation movies for a living, like RECKLESS (1979 version) and the actual first screenplay that he sold (not the first script that he wrote - remember that average) was VAMPIRE LUST back in 1975. So only 18 years to become an overnight success!

I met Jack Nicholson at the San Francisco Film Festival sometime between 1975 and 1979 - I had snuck backstage past security and found him in the green room before he was supposed to go on stage - and he told me that it only took him 25 years to become an overnight success. His first TV role was in 1955, his first movie role was in 1958, and his breakthrough role was FIVE EASY PIECES in 1970 - so it was really only 15 years, right? But those 15 years were spent working in low budget movies for Roger Corman, have you seen the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS?

Everyone starts at the bottom and works their way up.

Because there’s a new TERMINATOR movie out, the last successful TERMINATOR was RISE OF THE MACHINES in 2003 and that was written by the two guys who wrote THE GAME... and THE NET with Sandra Bullock, and that was their first script sale according to the publicists. But not in real life. Like Jack Nicholson, those guys began by working for Roger Corman - they wrote BLOODFIST 2 starring Don “The Dragon” Wilson and around a dozen other movies before they sold THE NET. And here’s a bit of encouragement from all of that struggle that the publicists left out of the story - the reason why they were hired to write TERMINATOR 3 is because the director who was hired to make the film had worked with them in their low budget days and thought that they were great writers. So that time you are working your way up from the bottom you are making connections that can put you on top!

I often mention my ill-advised Super 8mm feature film, made in my home town when I was in my early 20s. I cast the movie out of the Diablo Valley College drama department, and my female lead was the most beautiful and talented actress there. I believe that she was super disappointed to discover that I was not some big Hollywood producer, just some guy in the Film Appreciation class who owned a Super 8 sound camera and some lights and was the entire crew for the movie. Just me. Well, she moved to Hollywood and was cast in a low budget T&A comedy called BEACH GIRLS as the lead - the girl who didn’t get naked until the end. That film was a drive in and grindhouse hit, which lead to her starring in some other films and a guest star gig on T.J. HOOKER. Many years later, when I had moved to Los Angeles and was an active member of Scriptwriters Network, our guest speaking is the writer of Mr. HOLLAND’S OPUS and COURAGE UNDER FIRE, Pat Duncan, and afterwards I talked with him... about his first produced credit - BEACH GIRLS, starring that actress in my Super 8 feature! Pat had spent years writing low budget films and Saturday morning cartoons before he became the serious writer whose scripts got actors Oscar nominations. He did rewrite work on my favorite Chuck Norris movie...

Speaking of Chuck Norris, Oscar winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian (SCHINDLER’S LIST, THE IRISHMAN) got his start on a Chuck Norris movie. I’ll bet the publicists leave that off his resume!

The point of all of this is that a writer writes. The door that opens for you is probably not going to be a big studio film, it’s most likely going to be something at the bottom. Just like any other job, you don’t walk in after you have graduated high school and fill out a job application for CEO of the company. You start at the bottom and work your way up.

If you plan on writing TV, you don’t start by selling a pilot script. That pilot script is what may get you hired as a writer’s assistant on a low end TV show, or maybe get you work writing Saturday morning cartoons (check the credits of your favorite TV writers - a lot began in cartoons, that’s where they hire new writers). But writers write, so you will be learning on the job - writing against deadlines and working your way slowly up the ladder until you are hired on staff for a hit TV show and someone at the network pulls you aside and asks if you have any ideas for new TV shows... and you whip out that pilot that got you the job on that cartoon many years ago. Or, more likely, a new pilot that incorporates what you have learned over those many years. You aren’t going to start at the top.

You will grab hold of that first cartoon job or Roger Corman film (or whatever) job and give it your best shot, because you are a writer and love writing and want to do as much writing as possible. Paid to write? Heaven! You are getting paid for what you love! Up until this point you were working some possibly crappy job that you may have hated... and now you are writing for money!

Being a screenwriter is not a single screenplay, it is writing maybe 100 or more screenplays over your career. So you need to get used to writing screenplay after screenplay after screenplay. You’d better love that, or at least like having finished writing those screenplays - because that’s what being a screenwriter *is*. Writing a stack of screenplays. Writing screenplays for a living. Writing screenplays for others, based on an existing property (book, movie remakes, board games) or for specific requirements (we have Adam Sandler signed to a 5 picture deal! Or Chuck Norris wants to do a low budget horror movie where he kicks a monster’s butt!) because that’s what a professional screenwriter does. Spec screenplays are job applications for assignments like that. This is a job. You write for a living, on deadlines, with crazy bosses, and have to do great work no matter what the assignment - or you will be fired. More writers than jobs, maybe someone else can do what you can not? But if you love writing, you will look at any challenge as a chance to show your creative stuff. Embrace those entry level jobs, because you are WORKING. Getting paid for writing. Is there anything better?

And the thing that I didn't mention in the clip: All of those terrible writing jobs on cartoons or low level TV shows or non blockbuster films? Are JOBS! Writers are needed to write those - and you may end up writing cartoons for the rest of your life. Guess what? That's writing for a living. It's better than doing that horrible day job that you had to do before you broke in. Is there anything better than writing for a living?

Good luck and keep writing.

- Bill

PS: In the clip I also talk about keeping screenplay copies in the trunk of my car. These days, I would just ask for the person's e-mail and ask if I can send them a logline.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019


While watching TERMINATOR: DARK FATE Friday night, I so hoped that the replacement for Skynet was called Colossus...


Directed by: Joseph Sargent.
Written by: James Bridges based on the novel by D.F. Jones.
Starring: Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallert, Georg Stanford Brown.
Produced by: Stanley Chase.
Cinematography by: Gene Polito (WESTWORLD, PRIME CUT).
Music by: Michel Colombier (MAN ON FIRE, NEW JACK CITY).

This was one of those movies I caught on TV as a kid, probably on NBC Monday Night At The Movies With Victor Bozeman, and I loved it. It was about computers and was science fictiony and had naked parts that they showed on TV! It was one of those movies that stuck with me, and when I found it on DVD I bought it and watched it again... and though it doesn’t hold up to memory, it’s still an okay film. Seems like a TV movie today, and since it was directed by Joseph Sargent who made a mile of TV movies and was directing TV episodes (IT TAKES A THIEF) just before this, that’s probably one of the reasons why. It was obviously made low budget by Universal (no real stars) and maybe it *was* a made for TV movie in the USA that was released theatrically to the rest of the world. It’s a movie about *ideas* rather than special effects.

Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden from RAT PATROL, though your mom may know him from YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS soap opera) has created the ultimate supercomputer the size of a city block. Probably the first time a film discussed artificial intelligence, because Colossus can learn. The computer itself is deep in a Cheyenne Mountain type bunker that is impenetrable to missiles from those Ruskies. There’s a cool opening scene where Forbin starts the computer and then walks through hallways, setting electronic booby traps behind him, over a bridge that retracts behind him... basically al of the stuff Indiana Jones has to go through at the beginning of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Forbin leaves the mountain entrance as thick steel doors close behind him. Army guys guard the doors.

A JFK like President Of The United States (Gordon Pinsent) addresses the nation on every TV channel (all 3 of them), and says that human error will no longer be a fear when it comes to our nuclear missiles. From this point on, all of our defenses are now being controlled by Colossus. The computer can sense an attack and instantly plan a retaliation. It collects data from millions of sources (did someone at the NSA see this movie as a kid, too?) and know more about a situation than any human. It is safer than having a human at the controls of our nukes. The Prez introduces Forbin who uses all kinds of words the country doesn’t understand: dude is an aloof genius. They press the button and a computer is the most powerful person in the world. Head of the CIA (William Schallert, Patty Duke's dad on that TV show) thinks this is all a mistake, we should do things the old fashioned way.

But the minute Colossus is activated it asks about the other computer. What other computer? Well, it seems that the Russians have their own version of Colossus and didn’t tell anybody. There’s a tense scene where the two computers hook up despite both Forbin and the Ruskies trying to stop it. And then the two computers become one... one computers that is more intelligent than anyone else on Earth... and decides that humans lie and cheat and steal and can not be trusted. So, before you can say HAL 9000 or Skynet, the computer threatens us with our own nukes. Actually firing nukes at both the USA and Russia in a tense scene after they have tried to separate the two computers. One of the interesting things from a film standpoint is that most of this story takes place in the computer command center: a big room filled with consoles like NASA mission control. There are a bunch of scientist types at the consoles, including James Hong, Georg Stanford Brown, and Susan Clark... all wearing labcoats and getting a line or two of dialogue.

Except for Susan Clark as Dr. Markham who is the driven female in the group. When Colossus demands that Forbin install cameras *everywhere* so the computer can keep its eye on everyone, Forbin comes up with a plan. He tells Colossus that he needs the camera in his bedroom turned off for a few hours a night, four days a week because he has a mistress and they need some privacy when they screw. Colossus has access to all of the information in the world, checks it out... and humans *do* screw and prefer to do it in privacy... but it will only allow one hour of privacy. Colossus asks who is mistress is, Forbin answers Dr. Markham.

Best Movie Ever Made

Forbin needs someone who is believable as a mistress, but also understands all the technical stuff he needs to communicate. Colossus accepts this - she's single and young and attractive to humans. This gives Forbin and Markham one hour 4 days a week to plot against Colossus... but also requires those nekkid parts I mentioned.

Dr. Markham shows up for her hour of information exchange... and Colossus wants to watch them all the way up to the sex part. So they can have dinner together, a drink or two... and then Colossus demands that they both strip *before* going into the bedroom. Now Forbin and Marham have to strip in front of each other, then exchange information while naked in bed. Of course, in typical AUSTIN POWERS style, the naughty bits are always covered in these scenes. But it's funny to see two naked people trying to be business-like while the camera gives us shots through wine glasses with the wine covering the crotch and all sort of other silly lurid shots that were exciting when I was a kid.

While standing with their naughty parts obscured by an assortment of things on the table, they not only figure out a way to stop Colossus from taking over the world (it wants to build a factory that will make robots to keep us in line... SKYNET!!!) They also manage to fall in love. And almost the whole story takes place in that control room, the President’s briefing room, and Forbin’s living quarters. It’s an okay movie, but the first half has a handful of ticking clock scenes and the last half has people with their naughty bits obscured. Becomes less exciting as it goes along (unless you are a 12 year old boy). It really does remind you of Skynet and TERMINATOR and I wonder if James Cameron saw this around the same time he watched those OUTER LIMITS episodes that Harlan Ellison wrote?

I wasn't the only one who saw this movie as a kid, it has quite a following.


Best Movie Ever Made

Friday, November 01, 2019

Fridays With Hitchcock: HITCH 20: ARTHUR (s3e4)

This is a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that I am a "guest expert" on. The series looks at the 20 TV episodes directed by Hitchcock and here is the fourth episode of the third season, which looks at point of view and breaking the fourth wall in Hitchcock's work and in ARTHUR...

Not the great Dudley Moore movie nor the terrible remake, but an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS directed by Hitchcock and starring that fellow who was the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE...

Once again I am in front of Universal Studios where this episode of HITCHCOCK PRESENTS was shot... and yes, they brought hundreds of live chickens and some chicken wranglers onto the lot and into the soundstage (this episode was shot indoors with some awesome background paintings making it look as if were out on a farm in the middle of the UK somewhere). Check out the shot where the police are searching - that’s an indoor set!

The episode focuses on breaking the fourth wall, but underneath that is something pretty common in film - the use of Voice Over Narration to get us into the head of a potentially unsympathetic character. If a character may be difficult to identify with, one of the techniques often used is to allow us to see the world through their eyes by giving them a running commentary - usually funny and amusing and entertaining. Adding an extra layer of story. So in a movie like DOUBLE INDEMNITY where our protagonist is a murderer, it helps to know their motivations and understand them... and it also helps that Walter Neff is amusing so that the narration is entertaining. The example I often use is another film from the same director, SUNSET BLVD, where protagonist and narration Joe Gillis is not just a screenwriter, his narration is filled with amazingly witty lines. You could remove the narration and the film still works perfectly, but it is so much better with that added layer of entertainment... plus it turns Gillis and Neff (and Arthur) into our friends and confidants. They are telling us their secret thoughts.

As I said in the episode, having Arthur talk directly into the camera also turns this into an odd satire on cooking shows, which were popular at the time. We watch Arthur prepare some meals, his presentation is beautiful, and he’s charismatic. Because cooking shows were inexpensive to produce in studios (still are) there were a bunch of them at the time, and the narration is just part of that.

But the narration doesn’t let the writer off the hook for telling the story visually - we see the dishes in the sink, the disk as the ashtray, the broken cup... and the audience wants to kill her, too. She has disrupted his orderly life. The narration might get us closer to Arthur, but all of those images, plus Helen herself, make us fully understand the chaos she has brought to Arthur’s life.

The actress who plays Helen, Hazel Court, may look familiar to you because she was a regular in all of those Corman Poe horror flicks we looked at last year during Halloween. THE RAVEN, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and PREMATURE BURIAL among others. This episode even feels a bit like a Poe story. A UK actress who came to Hollywood and played all kinds of roles in lower budget movies and TV. I love her in this role - she manages to be irritating when doing minor things.

One of the fun things is the noise the chicken makes in the opening scene of the film is the same noise that Helen makes when Arthur strangles her. You can decide whether it’s the chicken or Helen’s strangulation sounds.

Which brings up strangulation - interesting, because that was the murder method in Hitchcock’s ROPE as well, and in both we side with the killers who then play a game of cat & mouse with an authority figure who is also a very close friend. In ROPE it’s their professor played by Jimmy Stewart, and here it’s the local constable played by Patrick MacNee who is his best friend. This is one of two episodes directed by Hitchcock that MacNee was in, what is that? 10% of the 20 episodes Hitchcock directed? The other episode is next up on HITCH 20, I think (this episode is Season 5 Episode 1 and that episode is Season 5 Episode 2). But the relationship between Arthur and the Constable is interesting because they are both close friends and on opposite sides of the law. There’s a great conversation about being alone, and therefor in control of your life. This gets to the core of what the story is about, aside from running your wife through an industrial strength grinder.

Hitchcock often experimented with giving the audience a walk on the wild side by telling the story from the “villain”s point of view. ROPE and PSYCHO and this episode put us in the shoes of the badguys and show us the world through their eyes, and make us worry that they will be caught be the authorities. And just for the trivia side of things, the female lead in PSYCHO, Janet Leigh, was the female lead in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE which starred Lawrence Harvey... the star of this episode ARTHUR. Everything is connected!

- Bill

Now to plug my Hitchcock books...



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!


Only 125,000 words!

Accidentally still at the May Price of $3.99

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.

- Bill

Of course, my first book on Hitchcock...


Click here for more info!


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

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

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.


Thursday, October 31, 2019



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

Season: 2, Episode: 19.
Airdate: January 29, 1962.
Director: John Brahm.
Writer: Donald S. Sanford based on the story by August Derleth.
Cast: Patricia Barry, John Baragrey, John Fiedler, Herbert Rudley, Linda Watkins, Pamela Searle.
Music: Morton Stevens - though it's really Jerry Goldsmith's score for GUILLOTINE.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Well, that was a gruesome surprise even for a hangman. A stunningly beautiful courtesan is dropped into the pit, and a moment later, her executions discover a withered hand, claw-like, clutching a wig. Well, of course the noose usually does have a disastrous effect upon the human body, but nothing like this. (Picks up wig) How strange. I should think it must have something to do with this wig. There is something weird and frightening about it. Look my friends, look! It’s only clothe and hair. Lustrous red hair to be sure, but hardly very mysterious. At least, that’s what the characters in tonight’s story thought. Unfortunately for them. My I introduce Sheila Devore, played by Patricia Barry. George Machik, played by John Baragrey. Herbert Bleake, played by John Fiedler. Arabella Foote, played by Linda Watkins. And Max Quinke, played by Herbert Rudley. We call our story A Wig For Miss Devore, and naturally I refer to this particular wig. Now my friends, you know all about the magic that the sorcerers of the silver screen put on film for your entertainment. Well tonight, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, you will learn that sorcery can be performed without celluloid. Behind the cameras, and perhaps even in your own livingroom.”

Synopsis: In mid-1700s England, a beautiful young woman is escorted to the gallows. No crowd of onlookers, no official doctor to pronounce the death, this execution will be in private - because this woman has been accused and convicted of witchcraft. Part of that witchcraft charge against Meg Payton (Pamela Searle) includes the murder of six men. The Man whose job is to remove the corpse after the hanging wants Payton to remove her wig - even if they were to execute the King himself, he would have to remove his wig. She refuses, and the Hangman allows her to keep it - she won’t be needing in a couple of minutes. As the Hangman prepares to pu the noose around her neck, she says: “Your hands are trembling, let me help you,” and slides the noose around her own neck. As the Hangman prepares to pull the lver, she says, “Meg Payton does not die here.” Then, the trap door opens and she does the long drops with the hard stop. Dead. The Man goes down to collect the body... and screams! The wig has fallen off, and Meg Payton has become a withered old monster.

1962 Los Angeles: Blonde Bombshell way past her pull date Miss Sheila Devore (think Marilyn Monroe if she had made it to her mid-forties - but she died 7 months after this episode aired) thinks that she has found the perfect screenplay for her comeback - the epic biography of witch Meg Payton who was hung 200 years earlier. Her loyal assistant, Herbert Bleake (the always great John Fiedler who gets a mention in our entry for “Yours Truly Jack The Ripper”) tries to talk her out of it - it’s an expensive period piece. Maybe she should look through all of the scripts one more time, just to be sure? It’s obvious that Bleake is secretly in love with her... but too shy and mousy to say so. Bleake used to be a studio production accountant who worked on all of her films. As her assistant, he knows that she’s too old for the role and the studio would never spend that kind of money on a movie starring her - his job is to always protect her. But she *insists* on doing the witch script, and for authenticity (and publicity) wants to use the actual wig that Meg Payton wore. Studio Chief Max Quinke has been regularly sending her flowers and begging for her to come back to work since she retired... Bleake says he will go to the studio and set up the deal.

Studio chief Max Quinke (Herbert Rudley) says no way! How old is she? It’s alluded to that Quinke had an affair with her... when she was younger. Bleake says Quinke has been sending her flowers regularly since she retired begging her to come back, and this script is her comeback. Quinke hasn’t been sending her flowers all of those years - Bleake has. You see, as production accountant, Bleake knows that when big star Devore and producer Quinke and director George Machik formed a production company together and made all of Devore’s biggest hits, they had him do some “Hollywood bookkeeping” so that Quinke and Machik could steal all of the profits from 32 of her films. Millions. So it would be to Quinke’s advantage to greenlight Devore’s comeback instead of deal with the police and IRS and probably end up in prison.

And that is how film deals are made.

The Comeback: On the set, director George Machik (handsome John Baragrey) warns the crew to behave when Miss Devore comes on set - she has been retired for a long time, and this is her comeback, and she may have... aged.

But when Devore comes out, dressed in the costumes and Payton’s actual red wig, she’s young and hot! She looks 25 years old! And she acts the hell out of her scene - she’s still got it! Watching from the side-lines is Hedda Hopper inspired gossip reporter Arabella Foote (Linda Watkins), who can’t believe this is the middle aged Miss Devore. Devore has been in seclusion since her retirement, but she must have had a bunch of face lifts to look this good. Foote is the villainess of the story - trying to find the secret of Devore’s good looks. She’s in the background of almost every scene.

After the day’s shooting, director Machik hits on Devore - they had an affair when she was younger as well. Maybe they could go out to dinner tonight? Devore says she can’t - there’s a party at studio chief Max Quinke’s mansion in Hollywood. Machik wasn’t invited to the party? Machik tells her that Quinke stole from her - skimmed the profits on 32 of her films. Though Machik knew about this, he was afraid to go up against the powerful producer. Maybe Devore should ditch Quinke’s party and go to dinner with Machik?

Devore arrives at Max Quinke’s marvelous mansion for the party... and she is the only guest! Quinke wants to rekindle old flames. His mansion has an indoor fountain, and he puts on music so that they can dance around the fountain. Quinke asks her why she is still wearing the wig after the day’s filming is over. Has she gone method? He’d love to see her beautiful blonde hair....

Meanwhile, assistant Bleake knocks on the door of the mansion, which is opened by a butler. Bleake has a letter that he must give to Miss Devore - very important that she read it. The butler turns him away - he’s not going to interrupt his boss when he’s trying to score.

Quinke keeps asking Devore to take off the red wig... and he gets his wish. Quinke screams in horror! She tells him she knows about skimming the profits from the 32 movies, then pushes him back... into the fountain... where he hits his head and drowns.

We never see Devore’s face without the wig - but the arm that pushes Quinke was withered and old, as if the energy keeping Devore looking young was sucking years off her life. Devore puts the wig back on... just as director Machik shows at the mansion.

Devore tells him that she and Quinke were dancing and he tripped and hit his head on the fountain. Machik says that she shouldn’t be involved because Quinke stole all of that money from her - that can be misconstrued as a motive. Also, that they need a way to keep Machik from being forced to testify against her if it ever comes to that... hey, why don’t we get married? A wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband. She agrees.

Last Day Of Production: They film the last scene of the movie, as Devore playing witch Payton is lead to the gallows, and tells the Hangman, “Your hands are trembling, let me help you,” and puts the noose around her neck. I love how we go back to the opening scene of the episode, here. After filming the scene, it’s a wrap - and the party begins!

Bleake shows at her dressing room with the letter, and she tells him that she doesn’t want to read it. When he keeps pushing, she breaks his heart by saying that she never really cared about him. He was just someone who did things for her. He leaves, practically in tears.

Gossip columnist Foote follows Bleake to a bar, and gets him drunk. A shoulder to cry on. He shows her the letter from the museum where they got the wig, claiming that it is cursed - and the previous owners murdered men who did them wrong. Foote leaves so fast Bleake’s head almost hits the bar when she pulls her shoulder away.

In director Machik’s luxurious penthouse apartment, the newlywed couple discuss their future together on the balcony overlooking the city of Los Angeles at night. Now that the film has wrapped, he wants her to take off that silly wig. She tells him she knows that he was part of embezzling profits from those 32 films, and now that they are married, she can’t testify against him on embezzlement charges. He tries to talk his way out of it, he’s good at that... but she takes off the wig. We don’t see her face, but we see his. He screams in horror and steps away from her - over the balcony railing and all the way down to the street. SPLAT! Now she has inherited all of the money he embezzled.

THE LEGEND OF MEG PAYTON is a huge hit - lines circling around the block. Devore is a big star again, sought after by every producer at every studio.

In her dressing room, a burley security guard catches ex-assistant Bleake trying to break in. She tells the security guard to let him in, and Bleake tells her about the cursed wig. He doesn’t care that she broke his heart, he just wants to help her. He truly cares about her. But she doesn’t want his help - she has everything she wants. “After a while, the wig grows on you.”

At The Wrap Party For The Next Film, Devore is twisting the night away with a much younger man. Gossip columnist Foote and a Photographer watch from the sidelines, and she explains her plan to him: she is going to enter Devore’s dressing room and confront her with the letter from the museum about the cursed wig. At a certain point, the photographer bursts into the dressing room and takes a picture of Devore without the wig...

In the dressing room, Foote confronts Devore with the letter. The wig has dark, demonic powers. Foote accuses Devore of murdering the two men, and who knows how many others, to get to where she is now. “A frowsy old bag puts on a wig and overnight mind you, becomes a ravishing beauty.” Foote manages to grab Devore’s wig and rip it off her head. Devore screams. The photographer breaks in and snaps a picture. Devore runs out of the room with a towel over her head - hiding her face. Leaving the wig on the floor.

Bleake (and everyone else) chases Devore through the studio lot between sound stages. She turns and one point, sees Bleake behind her, and tells him, “Don’t let them see me!” Bleake tries to help her get away, but she trips and falls and is surrounded by everyone else. They turn the lights on her - exposing her withered, ugly face. She looks at least 100 years old. She screams and dies in Bleake’s arms... and he still loves her.

In the dressing room, a plain-jane Maid sees the wig on the floor and snatches it up. When no one is looking she puts it on and looks at herself in the mirror - a hot young woman looks back at her. The end.

Review: An episode that takes on the issues of Ageism, sexism, and #MeToo... in 1962?

After getting off to a rocky start - I sure hope that Pamela Searle was the producer’s girlfriend and that she wasn’t chosen for her acting abilities - this turns into a great episode that combines elements of Grand Guignol and Hollywood (a marriage made in heaven, or maybe hell). This episode is fun, and skewers movies from Hollywood bookkeeping to more serious subjects like women being aged out of the business while older men are promoted. We’ll get to the serious subjects in a moment, because I think that’s what makes this one topical today.

But first, an appreciation for Patricia Barry, who only has 145 credits and was working up until 2014 - two years before her death at 93 years old. Her first film credit is in 1946 (she only made 6 films that year) and she’s in freakin’ SEA OF LOVE, one of my favorite films. She’s in a couple of other episodes of THRILLER, but this is an amazing performance. She plays both versions of Devore, and they are completely different people with completely different looks. She was 40 years old when she made this episode - basically the older Miss Devore - but perfectly played the young hot Miss Devore. Here’s the thing about those 145 credits on IMDB - her three episodes of THRILLER count as 1... and this episode alone is like playing two roles. She seemed to be one of those great dependable actors that you could hire for 6 films in the same year and she did her best work in all 6. Once TV became popular, she was doing multiple episodes on multiple shows within the same year - so she was dependable and professional. This episode made me want to binge watch a whole bunch of movies and TV stuff that she was in, just to see all of the different characters she played - because even if all of those 1946 movies were playing the love interest, I’ll bet they were different people. Her work here is great, and there could not be an episode without someone of this talent playing Devore.

There is a whole subgenre of horror movies about people who have been taken advantage of by others getting their revenge through some sort of supernatural method that they seemingly can not control. From Oliver Stone’s THE HAND (where Michael Caine’s hand lost in a freak accident tracks down those who wronged him) to CHRISTINE (which may have introduced the self driving car) and lots of other movies feature the Dr. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE tale with a supernatural item like Miss Devore’s wig. Spielberg did a similar episode - though nuttier - on his AMAZING STORIES show in the 1980s called HELL TOUPEE and written by a couple of 12 year olds (seriously) about a hairpiece that gets revenge for the meek fellow who wears it. DEVORE does a great job of taking a powerless person and giving them the power that they need... at a price.

Okay, time to talk about that powerless person - and why this episode resonates sixty years later. Back in 1962, this was an episode about Hollywood (and the world’s) seeing women as second class citizens and how agism in Hollywood only matters if you are female. No one wants to hire Devore because she’s old... but they regularly hire male actors who are even older. When you watch a movie today and the male lead is over sixty and the female lead is half that age, something is wrong. Why do older actors get to keep working and older actresses become unemployed? Take your favorite movie from the 1980s - is the male lead still starring in movies? Is the female lead? It’s strange that Stallone still gets to play ROCKY and RAMBO, but how many 73 year old actresses are starring in movies? Sharon Stone is my age, in great shape, and still working... in small supporting roles (she steals the show in DISASTER ARTIST). Why isn’t she *starring* in big movies like (over a decade older) Stallone is? Hollywood has an ageism/sexism problem... and this episode of THRILLER is all about that. Devore is over the hill and un-hireable in her 40s. It always amazes me when an issue like this is explored on a TV series in the 1960s and is still with us today. Is nobody paying attention?

The other issue this episode explores that is still with us today is #MeToo - and maybe it ties in to the ageism/sexism thing... and that bad taste joke I made about the actress who played the witch being someone’s girlfriend. The two powerful men in this episode each had a previous relationship with Devore when she was a young, hot, actress. Though this episode never mentions casting room couches, both men had no problem sleeping with Devore when she was young... but now neither wants to touch her... until they see her in the wig. Then, they are all over her. Both men not only make passes at her, they seem to feel like it’s part of their job description to sleep with the talent. They are powerful men, and that gives them the right to make these advances. Compare those characters with Bleake her assistant - who is in love with her and even has power (the knowledge of the embezzling) but never pushes Devore into any sort of relationship. The moment Devore shows up at producer Quinke’s mansion and she is the only guest, that’s a #MeToo moment. He has lied to her with only one intention. Again, here’s a 60 year old TV episode that focuses on an issue that is still with us today. How many years have there been jokes about the casting room couch? We knew that was wrong all of those years - that’s at the core of those jokes, yet did nothing about it. Being a leacher was never a good thing. The plot of this story has these powerful men taking advantage of a woman - by ripping her off, but also by trying to control her, and by using their power to sleep with her. Yeah, this is a revenge story, so she goes along with their seduction to kill them, but the minute both the producer and director see that she is still hot - they are all over her. Assistant Bleake is kind of the “control” in this experiment - he never stops helping her. Even at the end, he is the one protecting her while all of the others *want* to out her as a disfigured old hag.

If you think older movies and older TV shows didn’t get “political”, it’s just because you were too young to notice... and maybe have a Warner Brothers movies deficiency.

But aside from exploring a couple of issues that I’m sorry to say are still with us today, this is a FUN episode.

It grows on you.

Next time, another horror tale - this one about a killer scarecrow.

- Bill

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