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.


- Bill


The White Wolf said...

Just for fun:

C) she could predict the officer's wanting to know about the tarp, and prior to his asking, fit a cigarette between her lips and *pretend* to search for a lighter... when the officer asks what's under the tarp, she can ask for a light -- he lights it -- and she asks him something like: are you married?

I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know what her character is all about. But as a viewer, I wouldn't question the scene playing out as above and the officer 'completely' forgetting he had wanted to know what was under the tarp.

Dodging a bullet.

Richard J. McKenzie said...

re: WW's C) --> This would make the policeman look stupid and incompetent.

The police are searching for suspicious behavior. Bacall acts innocent, and the policeman has no reason to doubt her.


It's always good to see references to chess - I'll put a comment on the board (message/chess board symbolism!) hopefully today.

wcmartell said...

WW: That would fit her character, and she does some flirting with the cop... but he still wants to search.

And even after insisting he search, he *still* opens the back door and takes a look. But he doesn't pull back the tarp - there are visible painting supplies, which matches what she said.

Richard: I was in my high school chess club... which means I can *maybe* win a game against a 12 year old.

yyyyyyyyy said...

From Baby Bones

I can think of two possible distractions.

When the policeman informs her of the manhunt, she claims to have just seen someone fitting that description not more than a mile back. "He tried to flag me down. I guess it's a good thing I didn't stop."

The policeman, if he's alone, which would be likely in 1947, would be compelled to check it out himself. He couldn't bring her along with him because of the danger. He might order her to leave the area immediately. If he orders her to stay there while he checks out her story, she could actually comply. Bogart could exit the car, and she could pick him up past the roadblock after the cop comes back and says he found no one. He could then check the car all he likes. He could even follow her, still suspicious. She stops the car, gets out, and looks at him seductively once he pulls up behind her car. He gets out of the patrol car, approaches her, a swagger in his step. "Why are you following me officer?" At that point, Bogart could attack the officer from behind, or wait until what transpires between them.

Another idea is to simply distract the officer by being a "silly woman". She immediately complains of car trouble, gets him to check the car's engine and he checks her legs out at the same time.

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