Friday, May 27, 2016

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE

LAST FEW DAYS TO GET IT AT DISCOUNT PRICE!

Let's start with a bonus episode from the third season of HITCH 20 titled THE NEEDLE IN THE HAYSTACK SHOT starring *me*...





Now on to the NEW book!
This is the "pre-launch" date, there will be an official Launch Party soon, with party hats and noise makers and clowns and balloons and... Okay, maybe none of those things (unless you buy them yourself). But from now until the end of the month the book is $2 off!

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

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!

Films Included: NOTORIOUS, SABOTAGE, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, THE 39 STEPS, REBECCA, TO CATCH A THIEF, FRENZY, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE LODGER, THE BIRDS, TORN CURTAIN, SABOTEUR, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1955), SUSPICION, and NUMBER SEVENTEEN. 17 Great Films!

Only 125,000 words!

May Price: $3.99 --- June Price: $5.99

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- Bill

Of course, my first book on Hitchcock...




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



Click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

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.

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Canadian Folks Click Here.

Bill

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Parker: THE OUTFIT

From 3 years ago... because I was talking with Ramesh about this film at 3 RIVERS SCREENWRITING CONFERENCE over the weekend...

Countdown To PARKER continues with THE OUTFIT. One of the interesting things about all of the previous Parker movies is that none of them have called their character "Parker" - I suspect part of that is to allow them to make a stand alone movie that isn't related to any of the others.


THE OUTFIT (1973, written & directed by John Flynn) is one of those no-nonsense action films from the 1970s - kind of a studio B movie. This was the tail end of the studio system, when they were still making movies just to fill screens. Studios were like giant factories with employees, and it would cost them more to shut down between movies than to just make some “programmer” movies. Now studios are just banks and distributors, and they do not have any full time employees, but in the early 70s they had actors under contract and film crews and directors who they paid a salary to whether they were working or not... so why not keep them working making B movies? Some studios, like Universal, became big TV producers with their employees on salary. But they all made “programmers” - basic meat and potatoes genre films often starring second string stars or TV guys like James Garner. Garner starred in all kinds of programmers, from the comedy-western GET TO KNOW YOUR SHERIFF movies to some action flicks like MARLOWE. The great thing about these movies is that the studios still had all of these great character actors under contract, so you’d get a bunch of familiar faces in every film.

The “programmers” served a handful of purposes - they kept the studio employees working, they filled screens with movies to watch until the studio’s next *big* film like THE STING came out, they often played as the “A feature” at rural drive ins and big city grind houses (in “second run” - after they had already played in normal cinemas as “screen fillers”) they were kind of the farm team for actors and directors and stars - grooming them for bigger and better films, they helped “amortize” the big budget films, and every once in a while one of these little studio B movies became a big hit - and the studio made a ton of money from a very small investment.

The great thing about the action films from this period is that without Paul Newman or Steve McQueen or big budgets, they had to entice the audience with what Blockbuster video used to call “Super Action” - fist fights and car crashes and hot women. In order to get you into the cinema, they’d make the fist fights more visceral, and the shoot outs might be fewer... but more savage, and you weren’t getting the car chase from BULLITT, but they’d crash some junker cars and there would be a nice explosion. These were studio exploitation films. The quality of a studio film crew, the subject matter of some drive in action flick. This time period also gave us all of the great studio Blaxploitation films like SHAFT (also from MGM).

Part of my love for these films is that they are not about rich guys with good jobs in nice office buildings, none of these guys would be caught dead as the love interest in a rom-com. These films are about guys who work for a living, and seem to either take place in the big city or somewhere rural... Charles Bronson played a *watermelon farmer* in one of these films!

THE KILLER SET UP



So THE OUTFIT stars Robert Duvall, from those GODFATHER movies, as a version of Richard Stark’s Parker named *Macklin*, who gets out of prison and discovers his brother has been murdered by the mob and wants to get himself a little revenge. The guy who wrote the novels thought Duvall was closest to his creation, and this is Duvall playing deep fried tough guy to perfection.

Film opens with a Priest in a taxi cab driven by Felice Orlandi - who you would recognize as the low level pock-marked crook in at least a dozen films (including BULLITT!), stopping at a gas station to ask for directions. So you know something is wrong...

Orlandi isn’t just playing a taxi driver like Duvall did in BULLITT, he’s some sort of bad guy. It’s like casting Gary Busey as a waiter. When they get to this house out in the middle of nowhere (rural setting), there is a guy fixing a fence with his dog... And Orlandi and the Priest show up with guns and blow him to pieces. Violently. They just keep firing at him while the dog barks and yelps. The dog is a great touch - when it howls for its dead master, we feel its pain.

Then Duvall gets released from prison, where his ex-girlfriend Karen Black is waiting for him. She tells him she has not been at all faithful, and he says that’s okay - he was away for a while. Then she tells him that his brother was killed by some mob guys...

That night in some crappy roadside motel, a bunch of mob guys including Orlandi try to kill Duvall. But he’s one tough bastard and blasts them all and gets the name of the guy behind it. But he also knows that Black set him up by picking that particular crappy roadside motel.

SOME CASUAL VIOLENCE


Duvall braces Black, she pulls back her sleeve and there are at least a dozen big infected cigarette burns. Guy who did it to her? Same guy who hired the killers who killed his brother. Seems the bank robbery that Duvall was busted for was a mob owned bank. They killed his brother for being part of it, they tried to kill Duvall, and they tried to kill the third guy in the robbery - Joe Don Baker. So Duvall and Black drive to the big city hotel where the lead bad guy is playing a 24 hour poker game...

While Black sits in the car with the motor running, Duvall walks into the hotel, goes up the elevator, pokes his gun in the face of the guard at the hotel room door, takes him out to the balcony and SLAMS him with his gun, then goes back to the hotel room, kicks open the door, slams the inside guard in the face without even slowing down, and robs the poker game - taking guns and cash. The great thing about this sequence is that it’s *suddenly violent* and the film never makes a big deal about it. If this film had been made today, they would make it a big deal... and it wouldn’t be nearly as cool. By downplaying the importance of the violence without downplaying the level of violence, it makes it seem like it is all in a day’s work for Duvall. Before Duvall slams the outside guard with his gun they have a casual conversation and the outdoor guard requests to be slammed with the pistol on his right side because of a previous injury to the left said of his head. These guys get hit with guns and shoot people for a living - no big deal.

The lead bad guy at the poker table is played by the great Timothy Carey - from THE KILLING - who is a big fat a-hole. Timothy Carey is one of those guys who shows up, gives a great sneering performance that gives you nightmares, and collects his check. There are actors who you can see working, Carey isn’t one of them. Hard to believe that this complete a-hole is the same actor who was so sympathetic in THE KILLING.

Carey taunts Duvall as he robs them - he’s got a gun pointed at him, and he’s still spouting crap. Duvall tells him that the mob has to pay $250k for the death of his uninsured brother... who leaves a widow behind.

Then, just when you think the whole thing is over and Duvall is about to leave, he calmly shoots Carey through the hand for using Black’s arm as an ashtray. Danged brutal!

Duvall connects with Joe Don Baker in some rural cabins that are owned by an ex-whore played by Marie Windsor from THE NARROW MARGIN, one of many great bit parts played by actors and actresses from classic noir and action flicks. This film is a who’s who of Noir actors... Elisha Cook Jr from THE MALTESE FALCON pops up in a bit part and Jane Greer from OUT OF THE PAST is the widow! Over some beers they decide to take the mob for $250k - even if it means they get killed. They are already on the mob hit list, right? What’s the worst that could happen? The plan is to rob every mob place they can find until they get $250k or they mob pays them. Then the $250k goes to his brother’s window.

DANGEROUS ADAPTATION


One of the interesting things about this film is how they turned what was book #3 in the Parker series into a stand alone movie. Unfortunately, THE OUTFIT is too much like POINT BLANK to be a good double bill. In the books, after Parker gets his money back from the mob there is one mobster left alive - Bronson. Bronson wants Parker dead, so in book #2 Parker gets plastic surgery. In book #3, Bronson tries to kill Parker... and Parker decides to show the mob who has more power by getting the word out to all of his armed robber friends across the USA that robbing the mob is now okay - as long as they mention Parker’s name. So in the novel THE OUTFIT, all across the USA robbery teams are knocking over mob businesses (casinos, drugs, prostitution, loan sharking, etc) and eventually Bronson decides to leave Parker alone.

The film manages to stay faithful to the book and still change the core story. One scene that’s lifted right from the book - but they completely change the location: When Duvall and Baker go to buy weapons, in the book the characters go to a hobby shop and the guns and rifles are hidden in model car kit boxes. In the movie they pick up a salesman with a sample case on the side of the road, and the sample case is filled with guns - kind of like the gun salesman in TAXI DRIVER. They drive around the highway and do siome shopping at the same time.

The dead brother thing is how they make THE OUTFIT work as a stand alone, and this gets used in a great scene from the book where Parker shows up at these redneck brothers rural chop shop, and they don’t recognize him because of the plastic surgery... and there’s some tension where they may kill Parker because with that new face he’s a stranger to them. Same scene in the film, but it was Duvall’s *brother* who knew the redneck brothers, so he must convince them he’s trustworthy. In this scene there also an angry dog that’s a threat throughout the scene - I have no idea how much a growling dog costs compared to an explosion, but the dog turns even the quiet moments in the scene into potential danger... And there aren’t many quiet moments.

I love the redneck brothers in both the book and the film. These guys are moonshine hot-rodders who know more about cars and how to make them go fast than all of those NASCAR mechanics combined. They build getaway cars for a living. The idea that people like this exist as peripheral occupations in the world of professional armed robbers is really cool - it’s like being taken into the armed robber’s world and shown details that you never knew existed. One of the cool things in this scene (both book and movie) is the VW Bug getaway car with the hidden V8 - looks like it would have trouble going up hills, but can do over 120 mph. Only problem? It doesn’t *sound* like a VW... and the brothers are trying to find the right muffler combination to get the sound right.

This part is *great* in both book and film, because while Duvall is off with the brothers (played by Richard Jaeckel and Bill McKinney - the hillbilly rapist from DELIVERANCE) looking at cars, Joe Don Baker is left with McKinney’s superhot wife played by Sheree North (who was kind of a Suzanne Sarandon earthy type) who tells him they have time for some luvin’ before her husband comes back. And she does everything possible to get him interested. And it gets *us* interested too (at least, the male target audience for this film).

THOSE BRA-LESS BABES


Now, I have no idea what was going on in 1973, but bras seemed to be completely out of fashion. No woman in this film is wearing a bra. Karen Black is wiggling around, even Marie Windsor was braless. Heck, the old waitress in the coffee shop is wiggling around! That’s actually kind of gross, but I guess it’s a small price to pay because a bra-less Sheree North? Yikes! She is already a mega-busty woman (real ones, too - this was made back when all big breasts were the real thing), add the lack of bra and the tight tops and... well, um, it’s easy to forget what the plot is. Anyway, she offers Joe Don Baker a little luvin’ and he decides that is a good way to get killed and refuses...

But when Duvall and Jaeckel and McKinney return with the car, North tells her husband that Joe Don tried to screw her. McKinney goes crazy and tries to kill Baker, and there’s a big fight, and Duvall and Baker dive in the car and barely get out of there alive. One of the great throw away lines in this bit is that brother Jaeckel *did* sleep with her! These people are all sleeping with each other - it’s Tennessee Williams country!

CONFLICT ON THE SIDE


Now, the cool part about this scene is that it isn’t one of the scenes where Duvall and Baker are taking on the mob... this is a scene where they *prepare* to take on the mob, and it is filled with tension and conflict and excitement. The great thing about lots of these meat and potato action films is that they make sure that even the scenes between the action scenes are exciting. They find the conflict in the little scenes - there’s a great bit where Black and Duvall are hiding out in a another crappy roadside motel and Black goes out to call her mom from a payphone and tell her that she’s okay... and there is a man watching her the whole time. Some mob flunky posted at that motel to look out for them. So the great character scene where Black talks with her mother and we get a glimpse of her white trash past and the way she hooked up with Duvall to try and climb out of it... is an incredibly tense scene. And there’s no shoot out or car chase or giant fireball or someone outrunning an explosion... it’s just some creepy guy watching her.

So, Duvall and Baker decide to talk to the local mob guy headquartered in a bar/restaurant who hired the hitmen, with Black as their getaway driver... and it’s a really cool scene filled with all kinds of side conflicts and one kick ass line of dialogue, “I don’t talk to guys who wear aprons.” Duvall gets in to the mobster’s office pretending to be a mob guy from Timothy Carey’s crew... accompanied by the guy in an apron - the bartender, and has this conversation with the mob guy about those hit men who got killed... and the mobster just looks at him and says - you’re Macklin. Knows it right away. And that’s when the bartender attacks. Sudden violence. One moment they’re talking, the next moment the bartender is trying to club Duvall in the head.

After Duvall slams them to the floor, he robs the mob safe - this is like a regional headquarters, so there’s a bunch of money. As Duvall and Baker escape there’s this big muscular cook with a huge meat cleaver in the kitchen who tries to stop them. That cook character was established when Duvall and the guy in the apron walk past the kitchen... using that cleaver. And you just know that cleaver is gonna be used on him later... or, at least the guy will try. That’s the kind of cool thing that happens in these films - instead of being some cook frying eggs, you get a guy with a giant meat cleaver.

BAD ASS HEROES


Another thing that comes directly from the book, with a bit of a change, is Baker’s character owning a diner... it’s in Maine in the books and in Oregon... but the town name remains the same. Baker and Duvall have this great conversation in the car about the shelf life on being an armed robber... and how getting old makes it more difficult. A very realistic version of the “I’m getting too old for this shit” conversation.

Black has gone home to her mom, and Duvall and Baker just start kicking major ass. They rob a sports betting place - and Baker savagely slugs a woman at the front desk. When they get inside, they can’t get anyone to open the safe and Duvall grabs the guy in charge and says he’s gonna blow off a toe for every minute the guy doesn’t give him the combination... then has one of the other hostages take off the guy’s shoe!

The Macklin character is what I call a Bad Ass Hero - not that there’s anything defective about his hindquarters. There are two basic types of action heroes: Superman and Every Man. The Every Man type is a normal guy who ends up fighting bad guys - like John McClane in DIE HARD. The Super Man is like James Bond - someone who is our fantasy figure. This has nothing to do with spandex or capes or super powers - Tony Stark is an Every Man, as is Peter Parker. And most roles played by Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris are Super Man types - tough guy fantasies. We wish we were that guy!

Duvall’s character is a Super Man type - kind of a blue collar James Bond. He’s tough, he says clever things we wish we could think of (“Die somewhere else!”), he’s ultra-confident, he is never afraid (or never shows his fear), he never shows any sign of weakness and never shows pain. He’s the kind of guy who gets shot and takes it like a man. He’s a man of violence, who *hurts people*. Seagal swiped his character from BILLY JACK, but does a great job with it. Seagal *breaks people’s bones* in fight scenes - he’s savage. He also does the great Bad Ass Hero speech thing - where he gives his super confident warning about how, exactly, he will beat the crap out of the ten guys surrounding him. No fear - he has it all planned out. He’s a Bad Ass. He’s gonna eff those ten guys up. Duvall’s Macklin has some similar Bad Ass moments - in Act 3 he’s *way* out numbered and tells the mob henchmen that they don’t have to die, they can just walk away. Um, that takes some major cajones! Shooting Carey’s hand and clubbing guys in the head with his gun without even slowing down - all of these are Bad Ass Hero moments. This guy kicks ass!

BIG BAD GUYS


The reason why this was “too much of a good thing” when doubled with POINT BLANK is that eventually it becomes Duvall and Baker climbing the ladder of mobsters to get the $250k for the widow... and that’s not that much different. In the book they were just robbing mob places until Bronson took the price off the Duvall character’s head. When they changed it into money, they ended up in POINT BLANK territory. Robert Ryan plays a version of Bronson named Mailer - the head of the mob... and a very young Joanna Cassidy as his hot (braless) trophy wife. Ryan is one of the film’s secret weapons - he’s not only one of those guys who has been in a bunch of old noir and crime films, he’s tough as nails. He’s a bad ass, too.

At a horse auction, Duvall and Baker brace Ryan - a very public scene with Ryan’s bodyguards right there and everyone trying to be on best behavior... but seconds away from shooting each other. Duvall and Ryan have a nice little chat that is all about the world of organized crime vs the world of independents - Ryan thinks Duvall is nothing more than a stick up artist... but Duvall has been hitting them hard. It’s a good hero and villain scene - and the little guy being smarter than the big guy... just not as strong. It’s what the film is all about - the theme in a tense scene with guns and the chance for a bunch of innocent bystanders to get killed. This idea of the little guy going up against the big guy is part of the appeal of these films. They are about underdogs who kick some ass that we wish we could kick. In a strange way, THE OUTFIT is kind of a Tea Party movie - normal people standing up and taking down The Man. I don’t think it’s an accident that the bad guys in lots of these 70s films end up being big time mobsters who live in giant mansions, or big business guys who live in giant mansions, or crooked politicians who live in giant mansions. It’s blue collar workers against rich a-holes.

Where POINT BLANK turns organized crime into glass and chrome skyscrapers and the 60s version of big business with junior executives in charge, OUTFIT makes it layers of sleazy mobsters with a John Gotti type at the top. Not as interesting, but works well for a straight action flick like this. A lot of the pulp paperbacks at the time, like the EXECUTIONER series, were about Viet Nam vets who take on the mob. Ryan, as usual, is brilliant playing Mailer: barking orders and always on the verge of exploding. He’s one of my favorite tough guy actors because he always had a trace of vulnerability.

After Duvall and Ryan have their little chat, the film becomes a series of action scenes setting one against the other until we get to Act 3 where Duvall and Baker buy additional weapons and bombs and anything else they can get their hands on and storm Ryan’s country estate for an Act 3 of wall-to-wall action. Dozens of mobsters guarding Ryan means dozens of shoot outs and fight scenes... and then all kinds of ground taken and lost once they get inside the house. Though big studio films often have wall-to-wall action in Act 3, in these 70s films it tends to be more personal and visceral - shoot outs with people in the next room... close enough to smell. In one scene, a character looks in a mirror and can see something happening in the next room... and uses his gun. It’s close fighting, rather than the big explosions of today’s blockbusters. And the close fighting ends up being more personal and more emotional. Though, um, there are some explosions. And I forgot to mention the car explosions that happen before the house raid - there’s a great country road car chase and shoot out ending with an explosion when Ryan sets Tim Carey after Duvall and Baker.

ACT THREE ACTION


The Duvall & Baker team seem like a predecessor for writer-director John Flynn’s next film - ROLLING THUNDER (written by the great Paul Schrader) where William Devane & Tommy Lee Jones team up to take down some scumbags in Mexico. That’s another great B action flick that I don’t think is on DVD. The shoot out in the whorehouse in THUNDER is much like the end shootout in OUTFIT. Two guys with guns take on a house full of trouble... and stay standing even after they have been shot multiple times. One of the great things about seeing THE OUTFIT on the big screen is that you don’t get that crappy TV print where they changed the end. Somewhere along the line, some network’s Standards & Practices (censors) decided that having Duvall and Baker get away at the end was immoral. They are armed robbers! They kill a whole lotta people! The people they do not kill, they aren’t very nice to! So the network cut the end where they escape, and end with the two laying wounded on the stairs of the country estate after all of the bad guys are dead, listening to the police sirens getting closer - seemingly resigned to do prison time. The great print the New Beverly showed had them cleverly slipping past the police, laughing.

THE OUTFIT isn’t a great film, but it’s a *fun* one. It seems like real people in real situations really hurting people. Not like the fake action flicks we get these days. I miss these meat and potatoes flicks - just meant to fill some screens and provide some great little action stories. The B movies today all seem to be chasing the A movies - trying to be big event films made for a nickle. The only time we get films like this seems to be those flicks that are either almost parodies of 70s action films or *actual* parodies of B action films. It’s too bad. Some studio should start making some little no-nonsense action films on low enough budgets that they can’t lose money. Just some guys kicking ass for 90 minutes. I’d watch that...

Buy THE OUTFIT at Warner Archives.

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Pacing - from NORTH BY NORTHWEST to ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
Dinner: Popeye's Chicken.
Bicycle: Short - didn't sleep well and riding didn't wake me up today... there wasn't enough coffee in Starbucks to wake me up today!
Pages: Not much got done on the new Blue Book.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Chess Moves

From 2010, because DARK PASSAGE is now on BluRay...

One of the techniques used in suspense stories is something I call the Chess Moves or Chess Dialogue - even though you may find it closer to Poker because it involves bluffing. I wrote about it in the Fridays With Hitchcock about I CONFESS, and it recently popped up in the film DARK PASSAGE, so I thought it would be a good “blog filler” for the day. No actual chess is involved in this technique, so don’t worry if you only know how to play checkers.

The reason why I call it the Chess Move is that, like in chess, the player is several moves ahead of the game, and what may seem like a foolish move now is actually a brilliant move. You are watching a chess game, and one of the players moves his Queen into a very vulnerable position - and the other player takes the Queen. Now, that particular move may look stupid, but when the other player made their move to capture the Queen, they created an opening that two moves from now will result in their being checkmated. Now that stupid move where the Queen was moved onto a square where they were captured doesn’t look so stupid, does it? That player was thinking moves ahead of the other player, and without sacrificing that Queen could never have won the game.

In a story this technique is usually used either to create a trap or to look innocent when the character is, in fact, guilty.

Buy DP BR The trap version you’ve seen a hundred times and probably needs no explanation, but often a character will appear to be vulnerable in order to spring a trap. And sometimes a character will *actually* put themselves in a vulnerable position to spring a trap - they volunteer to be “bait” because it is the only way to make sure the adversary show themselves. Think of John McClane with that gun taped to his back raising his hands and giving up to Hans in DIE HARD. Or the Princess in John Woo’s RED CLIFF and her female archers fire on the enemy army even though they are outnumbered... and are chased into the desert... where the Princess’ much larger army awaits. You may think at first that it’s stupid for McClane to give up to Hans, but how else will he get close enough to attack him? How will he get Hans to let down his guard, thinking that McClane has lost? Though McClane *is* vulnerable - what if Hans just shoots him? - it is a calculated move where McClane is playing several moves ahead of Hans (who has no idea about that gun taped to his back). And even if the Princess in John Woo’s RED CLIFF ends up being killed by the enemy soldiers before they fall into the trap, she will have died so that the trap could be sprung on the enemy soldiers - and the plan still succeeds. Just without the Princess. Sometimes when you’re “the bait” the fish eats you - but you still hook them.



The other version of the Chess Move is also one you’ve seen a hundred times - it’s when a character does something that will make them look innocent when they are guilty. There’s a bluff involved in this - and a “poker face”. There’s a great example in DARK PASSAGE... Humphrey Bogart escapes from San Quentin Prison, and there’s a huge manhunt for him. Lauren Bacall offers him a ride - knowing that he is an escaped prisoner. She has a reason for this, that we won’t know about for several more scenes. Bogart doesn’t know her, but there are a million cops looking for him and this woman has offered to help him escape. When they come to a roadblock, Bogart hides in the back seat which is full of paining supplies, including a tarp. He’s hidden under the tarp when Bacall pulls up to the roadblock. A Policeman tells her there is an escaped prisoner, and asks if she has seen anyone on the road. She says no. The Policeman notices the tarp covering... something... in the back seat, and asks what it is. Bacall says it’s painting supplies, and if he would like to search the car that’s okay with her. That line is the Chess Move. Bogart is hiding back there, and she *encourages* the Policeman to search! Is she crazy? Is she double crossing Bogart? Does she want him to get caught? Why would she ever *encourage* the Policeman to search the exact spot where Bogart is hiding?

Well, let’s look at the alternatives...

A) She could jam on the gas, crash through the roadblock, and speed away! Okay, if that’s her chess move, what does the other player do? Well, now everyone will be chasing for her car and searching for her car and eventually she *and* Bogart will be caught.

B) She could *refuse* to let the Policeman search her back seat, tell him he needs a warrant or a court order or something. Okay, if that is her chess move, what does the other player do? Well, the Policeman will *know* she has something to hide and detain her and get that search warrant and find Bogart and then they both end up in jail.

If you can come up with a C that would fit a 1947 movie, post it in the comments section and we’ll look over what the other player would do in response. Stripping as a diversion isn’t going to work for many reasons, so skip that. I can’t think of any other good alternative that doesn’t make her look like she’s trying to hide something.

And that’s the reason why she has to make the Chess Move - she needs to look innocent, even though she’s guilty as hell of hiding an escaped convict in the back seat. She must do exactly what an innocent person would do, so that the Policeman doesn’t become suspicious, even though that puts her in potential peril. If the Policeman *did* search the backseat and find Bogart, she is in no more trouble than the other alternatives. But because she acts innocent and encourages him to search the backseat, the Policeman figures there must not be anything under that tarp. Why would she *want* him to search if there was someone hiding there? Guilty people have something to hide, innocent people do not - she isn’t trying to hide anything, therefor she must be innocent and not hiding anything. By *encouraging him* she is actually causing him to not search. Hey, still an element of chance, but this is a calculated risk.

Buy DP BR For me, this sort of Chess Move often results in a note from a Development Executive asking me why the character would be so stupid as to invite the Policeman to look in the back seat. Is she stupid? Heard that dozens of times, and I wonder if they actually think through their notes? Here we have a character - a fictional person - who is more intelligent than the Development Executive. The character is several moves ahead, the Devo is several moves behind. And if they looked at the alternatives, they would see that there are not any. The only way scenes like this can play is if the character makes that Chess Move. Because everything in a screenplay (and in life) is cause and effect, you need to be able to see all the way down the line - several moves ahead - and understand that the *best* possible move at this point might be one that seems stupid on the surface - sacrificing that Queen - but is clever when you see a few moves ahead.

There’s a great scene in THE GRIFTERS where the master con man played by the late great J. T. Walsh *insists* that a reluctant investor follow him to the back room to look at all of the expensive computer equipment... which does not exist! The back room is empty. But Walsh must make it clear that he has nothing to hide and that the computer equipment does exist - and no one would ever *insist* that someone look at it unless it were actually there, right? Again, calculated risk - what if the guy went back there to look? - but the worst case scenario remains the same no matter what Walsh does... but only by making the Chess Move does he have a chance at success. Often, the only smart move a character has is something that may seem like a dumb move at the time it is made... but the character is a few Chess Moves ahead and this is really a clever move.

When Devos are unable to see that it is a clever move is when those Devos should be replaced. Unfortunately in my experience, instead it is when the clever move is removed and the script gets dumber.

Pisser.

- Bill

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Trailer Tuesday: KING OF HEARTS



KING OF HEARTS (1966)

This is a charming movie that may have fallen between the cracks today, but it’s out there on DVD and has a special place in my life... because it introduced me to director Philippe DeBroca who made comedy action films like THAT MAN FROM RIO (1964) and LE MAGNIFIQUE that would influence my writing. One of the things I find interesting looking back is how many movies and novelists have influenced *my* work, and I never know if that’s because I followed them or that they clicked with who I already was. I suspect the latter: that what appealed to me about directors like DeBroca and writers like Ross Thomas was that they shared my sensibilites... funny and action. KING OF HEARTS was probably the first DeBroca movie I saw, even though it wasn’t his first hit film in the USA.



The film stars Alan Bates and one of Geneveive Bujold's first movies. It's an anti-war comedy, made in the late 60s with a British star... and kind of became an anti Viet Nam War film. Probably wasn't even intended as such. The film has a strange history, because when it came out in the 60s, it flopped big time. Big time. It killed DeBroca's career... He had become famous for his action comedy films like MAN FROM RIO and then this film came out and died... and DeBroca was a has been in the USA. But a strange thing happened during the Viet Nam War, KING OF HEARTS started popping up in college area cinemas because of its anti war story. And was one of those movies that was playing *somewhere* up until 1975 when the war ended. In fact, there was one cinema that played it non-stop for *over five years* until the Viet Nam War was over. Imagine a film playing on the same screen for five years today! First time I saw it was at the UC Theater in Berkeley... and it played *somewhere* in Berkeley through the 70s... and brought back DeBroca's career in the USA.

The story is a light comedy that takes place in France during World War 1, the “Great War”. The German army has taken over a small village in France, but when they see a larger group of British soldiers (actually Scottish - kilts are funnier on film) approaching, they decide to evacuate... but hide a booby trap bomb in the town that will explode at midnight and kill all of the Scottish soldiers and their commanders. The next day, the Germans plan to return and re-take the town from any survivors. Great plan.

Best Movie Ever Made



Well, a French underground guy radios the Scottish Army and tells them about this plan... but tells them about it in French. So things get completely lost in translation. And the bomb is set to go off at midnight... and the town has a beautiful ornate clock in town square where a mechanical knight in armor comes out to strike the midnight bell with his mace. This information really loses something in translation - nobody knows what it means. The problem with a World War is that we don’t all speak the same language... and here it creates a massive problem that could end up killing the Scottish Army in their funny kilts.

The Scottish Army sends in a man to disarm the bomb before they occupy the town. Since none of the demolitions guys speak French, they send in Alan Bates - a communications officer. A geek. A non-heroic guy. He speaks French, but has no idea how to disarm a bomb... shoot a gun... win a fist fight, etc. I could identify with this guy. A clever, literate, non action guy in an action situation.

Once he finds the bombs, they will either send in a demo guy or have a demo guy talk Bates through disarming the explosives. That sounds like a plan that is doomed to fail. It also creates a great ticking clock, in a *comedy* film. Just as movie like M*A*S*H mixed comedy and the serious horrors of war, this film is both funny and serious at the same time. That odd tone may have lead to its failure when it was first released, and its later success when we had seen the horrors of the Viet Nam War on the nightly news in the 70s.

The whole village evacuates because of the bomb.
And they accidentally leave the gates to the asylum open.
And the crazy people venture out, don clothes of the townspeople, and kind of have a looney-bin holiday.

Best Movie Ever Made



So when Bates enters the town, well... the people are acting strange. And that's the set up. The rest of the movie compares the crazy people to the soldiers and the war... and guess which is crazier? And Bates has to figure out why the townspeople are strange, then figure out where the explosives are, then stop them from blowing up, then decide if this crazy-world is more sane than the war around it...

And he falls in love with Bujold in the process, and is crowned King of the crazy people.

The movie is charming. Not laugh outloud funny. What used to be called a "gentle comedy". It's kind of like going to the circus (hey, Bujold does tight-rope walking on power lines in a scene, and there are lions and bears!) - it's also a beautiful film... really well shot. DeBroca was one of those directors who could blend comedy and action and had a great sense of the absurd. After this film came back in the 70s, it revived DeBroca’s career so that he could go on to make a bunch of great action comedies like DEAR DETECTIVE and JUPITER’S THIGH and one of my favorites LE MAGNIFIQUE (about a nerdy action writer who fantasizes that he’s his macho action hero... and then has to become him). Hard to tell if KING OF HEARTS holds up - since it's already a period film, it can't really be dated. But it's a gentle film... kind of the anti-Michael Bay. And it still charmed me when I watched it on DVD before writing this entry.

- Bill

Best Movie Ever Made



Friday, May 20, 2016

Fridays With Hitchcock:
The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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


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




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



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

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




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




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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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



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


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


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



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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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




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


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

- Bill

The other Fridays With Hitchcock.


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