Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Treadmill

From 9 years ago...

So, I’m working on this script and I have a deadline. That means I must turn in a script by that deadline.

Now, I know writers who are always late turning in their scripts - and I think that’s not a way to keep getting assignments. They give you a deadline for a reason. Sometimes it may be arbitrary, but usually there is some purpose for the deadline. Because so many of my scripts have been for cable TV, there is usually an air date when the movie will be shown - and they usually know that date before I start writing! In this case, the producer knows he will shoot the film in June or July (and that will get locked down soon - he’s scouting locations now). That means I must have my script finished on time, or they will be on location with the cast and crew... and nothing to shoot! So the deadline has a purpose, and I can’t be late.

There are other writers I know who make their deadline by handing in 110 pages of typing - but not much in the way of a finished script. They just crap out something by the time the deadline hits. This is also a bad idea. You are turning in crap on time. The assignment isn’t to turn in crap, it’s to turn in a screenplay. Another thing about cable TV movies is that air date means they are gearing up to make the film while you are writing it - and your first draft will go out to talent. That means your first draft needs to *impress* talent. So it can’t just be 110 pages of typing on time... and it can’t be late. It has to be a really good, shootable, first draft. On this film, same thing - this first draft script will be used for casting (and probably everything else - scheduling, budgeting, the director will design his shots, etc) so the first draft has to be good and close to the final draft. Hey, it’s still going to go through changes, but we have a really good idea of what the script will be. The reason for turning in a good first draft isn’t arbitrary either.

No pressure there.

Every day I wake up and have to write.

It is my job, and I am on the clock.

I wake up, maybe do some warm up work - a blog entry or something else. Sometimes the warm up is figuring out what the heck I’m writing today, and scribbling some notes. Sometimes it’s setting up the Script Tip for tomorrow. But there is something I am doing while drinking the morning coffee (provided I remember to buy it) and trying to remove that layer of sleep fog. Now, here’s where humor comes in - after actually remembering to buy coffee yesterday, today I filled the Mr. Coffee with water and coffee grinds and started this blog entry... then realized somewhere along the way that I didn’t have a cup of coffee... then realized that I also hadn’t turned on Mr. Coffee. This happens often enough, that there are days I leave the house without any coffee, and still a little foggy. But I do all of the morning things on that list from THE LOOKOUT (shower... with soap), and go out into the real world.

Some days there are errands that must be done - post office, blue book folding and stapling, picking up blue books from copy place, and all of the normal stuff you have to do. I try to use that time to think of what I’m going to write - but sometimes the errand takes over, and I completely forget about the script.

Once I get to whatever coffee shop I am writing in this afternoon, I sometimes have to plan out the day’s work. I try to plan out tomorrow’s work at the end of the night, but that doesn’t always happen. Now, this plan can be anything from a few scribbled notes to a page-by-page outline to a scribbled dialogue exchange. Basically, I want to have some idea of what they heck I’m writing - the purpose of this scene at least. I’m not writing a first draft, I’m writing the draft that goes out to the stars, so I want it to be pretty good. Last week, I actually wrote all of the dialogue for a scene longhand, then did a rewrite of that dialogue *plus* plugged in the action when I typed it. The scene was the police interviewing the family of a missing woman, so they were looking for clues - and the family might even be suspects. While one cop did the interview, the other poked around the house looking for clues and chimed in every now and then when they found something interesting. You’ve seen this scene a million times on LAW AND ORDER, but every time it’s different because the crime and suspect and family are different. This is also an exposition scene - setting up information that will play out later. And, the police do not know at this time that the missing person was killed by a monster - so the scene has to work two ways: as the cops thinking it’s a normal case, and the evidence they uncover which is weird. Because they are cops, they don’t think “Hey! A Monster is behind this!” They have to think it’s a normal crime - and that means clues have to lead to a normal suspect (the red herring) *and* lead to the monster (when they look back later). So the questioning scene was kind of complicated, and writing it out longhand helped.

Now, I have to write 5 pages a day, rain or shine. If I fail, I must make up those pages by the end of the week (if possible). I like to begin each week fresh. That didn’t happen this week, but I hope it will happen next. I just don’t want the cloud of being behind hanging over me. If you reach a point where you are too far behind, it leads to despair.

I’m going to write 2-3 scenes a day on the average. Some days I have a lot of short scenes, but usually it’s 2 scenes of about 2 pages and a 1 pager. I try to break that up with a meal between the two main scenes, that way I can poke around on the next scene while I’m eating - scribble some notes or at least focus on it. This isn’t always easy, because I usually change venues, too - and end up at the coffee location where all of my friends are... and we all go to dinner. That can work sometimes, because it’s a real break in the writing - I’m thinking about something other than the script. But sometimes it kills momentum, and I have to figure out what the heck I was writing and why and get my head back into the game after dinner... Which is also tough because I’m at the coffee shop where my friends hang out. When everybody knows your name, it’s hard to get anything done.

Another thing that throws me off course is putting up tomorrow’s script tip - if I didn’t set it up while waking up, I have to do that now. That sometimes means doing a “polish” on an old tip to bring it up to date - and every once in a while it means a full fledged rewrite using a new film example. That takes time and takes me off course.

The other big distractions are message boards - I’ll take a break in the middle of a page and get involved in some message board discussion and forget what my script is about. I have to focus on the script again - and that can take a little time. This is why I try to get as much done before my meal as I can.

Now, some of you may be wondering why I write in coffee shops instead of at home. Several answers to that, but when I write at home I find that my sock drawers get ultra organized and I spend a lot of time digging through things in my office looking for that one notebook out of the thousand with the dialogue idea I had 10 years ago that might work in this scene. Basically - many more distractions at home, where all of my stuff is, than a coffee shop where all I really have is the laptop. My old laptop had a wifi card that had to be manually inserted, and that was great - it kept me off the internet. The new laptop has a built in wifi card - and that adds to the distractions.

But after my meal and all of this other stuff, it’s back to the script - usually for that second big scene of the day. Now, this is often the scene that gets the most outline work, because this is the scene that I write at the end of the day with the most distractions. When I’m on assignment like this, I often skip my regular coffee shop where everybody knows my name in favor of someplace else - and I do that maybe half the week or more. Problem is, you still need to be a human being while you are writing, and that means you still must have some contact with other humans. And your friends get pissed if you neglect them. So I usually cut down on meals with friends instead of cutout. This time I have a plan to do something really different - though I haven’t started, yet. I’m thinking about doing coffee shops in other areas of Los Angeles for 3 days a week. The problem with this may be that the new area will be a distraction. But I’m going to give it a shot next week. I’m hoping that mixing it up will inspire me... and as a writer, I can work wherever my laptop is, so why always take it to the same places?

Back to the second big scene - I work through that, and if I’m lucky, actually finish it and have enough time to think about what I’m writing tomorrow. Jot some notes while I’m still in the story.

Now, one of the things about the writing treadmill is that I’m so focused on the story that other things fall through the cracks. You know, I forget to turn on Mr. Coffee in the morning. So between the keys and screen of my closed laptop is a To Do List in a plastic sleeve. Actually, a pair of lists. One is the long range list, the other is kind of a weekly list - all of the little things I’ll forget when I’m so focused on turning out pages. Yikes... just like the Dymo labels in THE LOOKOUT. Right now there are 25 items on that list - some are producers I need to call or e-mail. Big problem often is that I don’t even look at the list when I open my laptop for fear I’ll get distracted. So the list of things that I’m afraid may fall through the cracks... often still falls through the cracks, But at least *some* of it gets done this way.

I stop drinking caffeine mid-day, because I already have enough trouble sleeping. But the difficult part of the writing treadmill is that you have to keep at the top of the game until the pages get done... and then, suddenly, it’s time to call it a day. Sometimes there is still enough time left to see a movie and unwind, but some days those 5 pages take the whole damned day, and there really isn’t unwind time - I have to go to sleep so that I can get up and go to work. Here’s where the insomnia strikes and screws up my schedule. Because even if I pop in a DVD, I’m still wound up and in the story. My brain hasn’t shut off. One of the things that helps is exercise - and that bicycle that I said I was going to buy a few months back is still at the bike shop unpurchased. I have been taking some long walks, lately - usually at my meal break. I am the only guy walking in Los Angeles (except crazy homeless people.) Problem is - walking takes more time than biking, so I have to get off my butt and buy a bike. I keep *not* walking because I don’t have the time, and that leads to insomnia, and that leads to screwing up a day and wasting even more time than if I’d walked. So, I have to get back to doing regular exercise - it helps when I’m doing a script on the clock.

My plan to make up the 2 days this week... hasn’t happened. It seems like I’m able to get up to my 5 a day, and keep that going... but the extra pages at the end of the day? Those haven’t happened, yet. Yesterday I spent more time walking than writing, and I needed that... but I’m now 2.5 days behind. That means every day next week I have to write 7.5 pages instead of 5 pages a day... and I’m not sure that I can do that. Maybe I can. But if I can’t, I’ve built in enough time so that I can *easily* make up those days before my deadline.

At the end of the day, when I’ve made my 5 page quota (and any make up pages) and I’m thinking back over that clever little bit of dialogue or character or action that really made that scene work, I feel like I really accomplished something... and then I have to go to sleep so that I can get up and go to work and keep doing that until the script is finished. It’s the treadmill - it’s the job - but I love doing it. A few months from now I will be watching them shoot this script in Hawaii - watching actors say my lines (or whatever they want to say instead of my lines) and all of this endless work will just be a memory.

But, until then, I have pages to write!

- Bill

PS: This whole deal fell apart! I finished the script on time, but the producer's money dropped out and he scrambled for a while to find another distrib that would finance him, which didn't happen. For a couple of years I thought this would get set up and start shooting... but now it is shelved forever.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: With A Friend Like Harry (2000)

After seeing THE GUEST I was reminded of this French film, and decided to pop WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY into the machine and watch it again. I had seen it in the cinema, bought the DVD... and it sat on my shelf in the shrink wrap ever since. The odd thing about those silly French folks is that while America seems to shun most thrillers, the French love them. One of my favorite Don Westlake non series novels, THE AX, is about the economic downturn in the USA and a mid level management guy who realizes there are a couple dozen guys applying for the same jobs that he is... everyone is out of work! Then he decides the only way to land a job is to eliminate the competition, and becomes a serial killer of downsized mid level executives. Great *American* story... but no studio in America seemed to want it, so it was made in France by none other than Oscar Winning director Costa Gavras... with French actors speaking French. Hey, things were tough all over. But why do great American thrillers end up being made in France?

HARRY is an original screenplay by Gilles Marchand and the director Dominik Moll, but it’s the kind of story that Patricia Highsmith (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) might have written.



I'm sure we all have had someone come up to us, call us by name, talk about some shared experience... and we don't know who the hell they are. We have forgotten them, but they have not forgotten us. They were nothing in our lives, but we were everything to them. Okay, that scene happens in a highway rest stop men's room at the opening of HARRY... do you want to be recognized while you are peeing? Do you want to shake some stranger’s hand, or worse: hug them?

Michael* (Laurent Lucas) and his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and their three little girls (one a perpetually crying baby) have been taking a road trip to the ramshackle country house a couple hours past the retirement community where his overbearing parents live. They have a beat up old station wagon without air conditioning... and France is in the middle of a heat wave. The kids are miserable, and so are Michael and Claire. They stop at the gas station to change the baby’s diaper and use the facilities... never thinking that Michael might run into some one he knows.

Or, pretends to remember.

It seems that Michael and Harry (Sergi L√≥pez) went to high school together years ago, and Harry claims that Michael collided with him on the soccer field once and broke Harry’s front tooth. Michael remembers none of this. Harry claims they were friends way back in high school because they had so much in common, but now one is a struggling teacher with a wife and his three little (always screaming) kids and the other has inherited his father's fortune after he and his mother died in that tragic accident and drives a Mercedes sports car with a hottie named “Plum” (Sophie Guillemin) in the passenger seat. Michael has a life full of problems... and Harry believes in solving problems... permanently. Harry would like to buy dinner for Michael and his family, but Michael says he needs to get to the country house before nightfall so his kids can get to sleep at their bedtimes. Harry says he has some bottles of wine in the trunk, why not follow them to the country house and have a glass or two with them? Have you ever had someone invite themselves into your life and you just didn’t have the balls to tell them “no”?

It just keeps getting worse!

This is a great set up for a thriller because it has happened to all of us, and opens our life to potential peril when we allow some sinister stranger into our home... our lives... our family.

Basically Harry and Plum move in, sleeping in the best bedroom (because Michael wants to impress him). And Harry begins helping the struggling teacher. When the stationwagon breaks down, Harry buys them a brand new SUV. Michael tries to turn down the gift, but Harry explains ever since his parents died he has had more money than he could ever spend, so why not help out an old friend?

Because they missed a planned stop at the retirement community so that Michael’s overbearing parents could see their grand kids, his father calls and *insists* that they drive over. Michael tries to dissuade them, his father really shouldn’t be driving at night, and ends up agreeing to drive out in the new SUV and pick them up, then deliver them back to the retirement community afterwards.

When he gets there, you understand why Michael keeps his distance from his father and mother, and does not accept any gifts from them... those gifts come with *many* strings attached. His father is a manipulative ahole, a retired dentist who *insists* on giving Michael a dental exam and teeth cleaning in the spare room where he has all of his old dental equipment! This is one of those brilliant absurdist thriller scenes which help the audience feel ill at ease as they suppress their laughter at how silly (but creepy) the scene is. One of the great things about this story is that they keep finding odd things that you can relate to... that person who recognizes you but you do not recognize them, this scene where the overbearing father offers something you do not want, but you can’t really decline without hurting his feelings, and later scenes where Michael and hottie Plum meet in the bathroom and have a strangely erotic moment... it’s filled with uncomfortable scenes that just get weirder and weirder!

Michael mentions Harry, and his father remembers him! In fact, his father tells the same story about how Michael *irresponsibly* ran into Harry on the soccer field and broke his tooth and Michael’s father had to repair it for free... always cleaning up after his screw up son...

When Harry meets Michael’s parents, he realizes that they are what is holding his old friend back. They seem to go out of their way to belittle him, they offer him help (but in such a way that Michael would be forever in their debt if he accepted), and they won’t just help him financially without a bunch of strings and lectures and shaming. Harry realizes that Michael would be better off if his parents had the same sort of tragic accident that befell Harry’s parents... and makes it so! He calls Michael’s parents and says it is an emergency, they must drive out to the country house... then Harry steals a delivery van and runs them off the road, killing them.

Eventually things come to the point that Michael realizes all of his recent good fortune is due to Harry’s help... and that he has become an accomplice to Harry’s crimes. Can he let this man continue to kill people... even if it means that Michael gets everything he secretly desires? Or should he stop Harry before it’s too late?



WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY is a great thriller with the genre’s required humorous absurdity. Like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN’s rocky relationship between two men, one who may secretly love the other, HARRY takes us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole until helping him bury a body just seems normal. An average man’s life suddenly spins out of control and he must step up to set it right... can he do that?

A couple of years ago they announced a US remake which would be directed by Kimberly Peirce with a script by Wentworth Miller, but according to a Variety story, she is no longer attached... which is too bad. After seeing Miller penned STOKER I would have lost Miller and kept Peirce. Though you can't judge a screenplay by its movie, I always worry a little about actors who write. Actors sometimes have a tunnel vision about *their* craft which results in a screenplay with good scenes that often don't add up to a story. STOKER's big problem was the script. We’ll see what happens if they ever make it.

Bill

* I've used the American spelling instead of "Michel" to avoid confusion.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Happy Memorial Day!

Today is the day in the United States where we honor our fallen soldiers: soldiers and sailors and marines and air force folks and everyone else who have died defended this country. I grew up during an unpopular war (Viet Nam) and the mistake then was to transfer feelings about the war to those people who were fighting it - usually poor kids who had no way to avoid the draft, and were doing their best to serve their country. I think we have all learned from that mistake - no matter what we think about war, the people fighting it who *gave their lives* to serve their country deserve our respect. Defending our freedom is the most important thing someone can do. Those who want to take away or limit our freedom must be fought, both abroad and in this country.

And note: Memorial Day is set aside for those who *gave their lives*, not those who are still alive (that's what Veteran's Day is for). So please, honor our fallen soldiers and sailors and air force and marines today.

These are from of my favorite war movies that show the courage of our men and women in uniform...

THE BIG RED ONE (1980) written & directed by the great Sam Fuller. Unfortunately this is the trailer for the re-release...



GO FOR BROKE (1951)...

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THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) directed by William Wyler. I cried while posting this... in a Starbucks.. I'm sorry.



A clip from STEEL HELMET (1951) directed by Sam Fuller...



FIXED BAYONETTES (1951) also directed by Sam Fuller...



THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (1978) directed by Sidney Furie...



Those are some of my favorites, and if there are any that you haven't seen - check them out. And take some time today to thank and be thankful to those people who have given their lives or gave their lives for this country.

PS: Lancelot Link will show up tomorrow (Tuesday)...

- Bill

Thursday, May 25, 2017

THRILLER Thursday: Dark Legacy

Dark Legacy



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



Season: 1, Episode: 35.
Airdate: May 30, 1961

Director: John Brahm.
Writer: John Tomerlin.
Cast: Harry Townes, Ilka Windish, Henry Silva, Ned Glass.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
Cinematography: John Warren.
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “A gloomy place, a library; filled with forgotten knowledge, undisturbed passion, suspended lives and deaths, sufferings and ecstacy. Many histories are written in all of these books, including an interesting record of the man who opened them. For what could we not discover ig we but knew what ones had amused, interested, or obsessed him? Suppose the owner of all these, a dying man, should choose just one book as his gift to the living? What sort of a book would it be? Well, that of course would depend upon the man himself. If he’s a very good man he might leave a very good book. A very evil man? Well his gift might be called a dark legacy. Our players tonight are: Harry Townes, Ilka Windish, Richard Hale, Doris Lloyd, and Henry Silva as Toby Wolfe. Each of these distinguished persons is fated to find out it isn’t the gift that counts... it’s the spirit behind it.”

Synopsis: The fog breaks and we see a massive country estate in the darkness. Inside, three people sit on opposite sides of the huge great room waiting... as an ancient Butler (Milton Parsons) comes down the stairway carrying a silver platter. He tells the three that the Master Of The House has asked them to write their names on the pieces of parchment on the platter to aid him in his decision for inheritance. Each signs the parchment with an ancient quill pen: monocled Cousin Lars Eisenhart (Richard Hale), elderly Cousin Edith Pringle (Doris Lloyd), and mid 30s Nephew Mario Asparos (Harry Townes) each sign and then return to their corners of the great room. They are distant relatives in competition for the inheritance. This is a family of Illusionists, and each of the three makes a living doing magic shows in night clubs around the world... and the inheritance is the old Master’s amazing magic act. How did he do those tricks? The Butler carries the silver platter upstairs and we follow him into the Master’s bedroom...



Which is filled with occult materials. The ancient Master, Radan Asparos (also Harry Townes completely unrecognizable) takes the three pieces of parchment and places them in a huge book, then casts a spell asking the Prince Of Darkness to choose his successor in cursed sorcery. Hey, the three relatives downstairs think they’re getting *money*! Or maybe the secrets of magic *tricks*! Smoke and flames and lightening and wind and two pieces of parchment burn while one flutters in the wind and returns to the huge book: Nephew Mario’s will inherit. Old Radan then climbs into his coffin, closes the lid, and dies!

In the city, at the crappy Nocturne Club, Mario Asparos is headlining as a Illusionist... and failing. The Club Owner Vince (Ned Glass) tells him he’s fired by the end of the week if he doesn’t come up with a new routine that fills the house. His assistant & wife Monika (Ilka Windish) is worried... the pay sucks here, but they can’t live without the money. In the dressing room is old friend Toby Wolfe (Henry Silva) an Illusionist turned “medical hypnotist” just back from Europe. Mario gets a phone call: they are reading Uncle Radan’s will tonight, he needs to get to the mansion. Toby offers to drive him.



At the mansion, Cousin Lars and Cousin Edith are waiting. Lars is a slight of hand Illusionist as well, and is doing coin tricks while he waits. Cousin Lars knows Toby... and wonders why the lawyer is late. Probably caught in the storm. The lawyer Pinchot (BATMAN’s Alan Napier) arrives and reads the will... boring money division stuff, and finally what they have all been waiting for: the secrets of his magic act. But that isn’t part of the will. The magic act seems to have died with the old man. His library has been willed to a university, except for one book... and the recipient will know who they are when they receive it. The phone rings on this dark and stormy night, call for Mario from his wife.

Monika is frightened. The storm has knocked out the lights in their house and the windows keep blowing open... and then this ancient book popped up on the desk. Maybe someone broke in and put it there? She wants Mario to return immediately.



Mario returns home and checks the doors and windows: all locked. No way someone could have broken in. The lights are back on, now, and it seems less frightening but Monika is still freaked. Where did the book come from? Hey, the old man was a Master Magician, this was just some kind of trick. Maybe there’s more about the trick in the book? Mario and Toby look at the book... and there are no magic tricks! Just some mumbo jumbo about spells and stuff. Toby heads home.

Monika thinks they may be able to sell the book and make a couple of bucks. They have an argument, Monika never liked Uncle Radan. He may have been the world’s greatest Illusionist, but he freaked her out... and the book freaks out their dog (who won’t come into the room when the book is there). Monika goes to bed and Mario continues to thumb through the old book... thinking it might be fun to try a spell. It’s all just nonsense, right?

Smoke comes out of the fireplace and washes over the dog... who falls over dead! Mario incants, “Princes of darkness, I welcome you!”

THREE WEEKS LATER: His magic act is held over at the Nocturne Club and *sold out*! The grand finale of the act: Monika stands on the other side of a pane of glass and Mario fires a gun through the glass and Monika catches the bullet in her teeth! Then he passes the bullet through the audience so they can see that it’s real.



After the performance Club Owner Vince (Ned Glass) wants to renew their contract but Mario refuses... they’re opening in Vegas next week. Mario has become full of himself and kind of a dick. Monika calls Toby, she’s worried. Toby stops by the club, and Mario becomes jealous (Monika used to be Toby’s assistant)... Toby thinks Mario’s new tricks are the result of finding a code that turned that silly spell book into the source of all of old Radan’s magic tricks. Toby is fascinated by the magic bullet trick, and wants to know what Radan’s secret trick was, because this is a *dangerous* trick and there are magicians who have gone through several assistants and still never pulled it off. The trick is done with mirrors and cotton batting and a bullet hidden in the assistant’s mouth, but even with a light load the bullet fired from the gun can accidentally kill the assistant. Mario tells Toby it isn’t a trick: Monika catches the real bullet in her teeth. “It isn’t a trick! Nothing I do anymore is a trick!” Mario didn’t find some code for the old book, he found the real secret of Radan’s powers... the mystery of the ages! Toby doesn’t believe in magic: it’s all tricks to him, and even this is a trick. Mario has tricked himself into believing that the book contains magical spells, but it’s just mumbo jumbo. Toby thinks Mario has been lucky so far, but someday he’s going to kill Monika. Mario says he can prove that it’s magic...



At the house, Mario is going to put on an exhibition for Monika and Toby. Mario has remodeled his study into a sorcery room (he’s obviously lost his mind) and puts on a wizard’s robes, preparing to call out the demon who grants him power. Once again, he accuses Toby and Monika of having an affair. They think he’s paranoid. He does his incantations and the smoke comes from the fire place and the demon Astroth appears! Toby yells from Mario to destroy the book, but Mario tells Astroth to take Toby and Monika. Toby grabs the book and throws it into the fireplace. The book bursts into flames. The demon comes after Mario...

When the smoke clears, Mario is dead on the floor...

Toby wonders if there was a demon in the first place? What if it was a form of hypnosis? What if Mario’s belief made Toby and Monika believe they saw the demon? It was never magic, just a trick?

Was it?



Review: Horror stories probably have their roots in Fairy Tales. I know that seems like a crazy statement, but Fairy Tales were usually magical stories with a point, often a cautionary tale... and that’s a subgenre of horror as well: The Cautionary Tale. This is one of them. All of these relatives wish they had the secret to the old man’s magic, but they should be careful what they wish for! The old man was an Illusionist who took a walk on the dark side and began a sorcerer... and the World’s Greatest Magician. Now his relatives want to know those secrets... or do they? Though this story is spooky and deals with demons, there are no real scares here... more a cautionary tale where a man trades his financial descent for a moral descent.

I think it’s interesting that the story focuses on the differences between “Illusions” and “Magic”... the difference between tricks and spells. From the audience’s point of view it may all seem the same, from the performers point of view one is a carefully practiced skill and the other is the work of demons or spirits or things from another world.



Harry Townes was one of those working actors you’ve seen on a million TV shows, usually playing doctors or lawyers or professors. When I looked him up on IMDB I expected him to be British or maybe Canadian ... but he was born and died in Alabama. Probably in that last generation of classically trained actors before Method came into vogue. And his work here is amazing, I did not know he played old Radan until the closing credits. He moves like an old man, and has that old person mouth thing going. All of his mannerisms are old, and his hands tremble convincingly. This is a journeyman actor, not a star, just the guy who usually plays that educated person role who may be in a scene or two... and he gives a brilliant performance both as the old man and as his young nephew. But his IMDB lists Westerns and Good Old Boys and just about every kind of character role imaginable. Somewhere, we lost most of the actors like this. Now instead of an actor who can play *any* character, we have actors who can only play *one* character, and when they need a guy to play the Good Old Boy they hire the guy who always plays that role. No actual acting required!



Henry Silva was probably a “get” for this episode, he’s done a bunch of Westerns and the original OCEAN’S ELEVEN just before this... and would really break through the next year in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Because of his skull like face which probably landed him all of those villain roles, it’s easy to forget that he’s also a great *actor*, and here he’s often stuck with exposition and manages to make it feel like natural conversation.

The special effects are amazing for a TV episode. I’m still trying to figure out how they did the slip of paper going from the fireplace to zipping back to the spell book and sliding between the pages. I suspect this was shot in reverse and in slow motion with the slip of paper between the pages of the book and then blown by a directional fan out of the book towards the fireplace. Shooting in reverse is a great old school FX trick! My friend Paul Kyriazi has a scene in a film where a man falls into the street and a car hits the brakes, front wheel coming to a stop *as it touches the man’s head*! It was just shot in reverse, with the car backing away from the man’s head, then they added the sound effect of skidding tires.



There is a great rack focus shot here where we see the bullet hole in the glass and then change focus *through the glass* to Monika snapping her head up with the bullet in her teeth. It appears as if we have actually *seen* her catch the bullet in her teeth, but it's just another no budget special effect with the rack focus making us think we are seeing the bullet.

The appearance of Astroth is also pretty good considering the budget and schedule. The room is filled with smoke and then a pair of eyes are superimposed over the smoke so that it appears as if the smoke itself grows eyes. For a cheap effect, it’s pretty scary. I’m sure they put some effort into casting the eyes.



This story also links bad weather to the supernatural, with thunder and lightning coming on cue. When Mario gestures, thunder and lightning answers. Talk about a cheap effect! But it completely works! He is *summoning* thunder and lightning! These are the kinds of effects you can still do for $1.98 in a low budget film, but few seem to take advantage of them.

Last but totally not least: another amazing Jerry Goldsmith score! He was working on THRILLER and TWILIGHT ZONE simultaneously at this time, and the next year would be his film break out with LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. His score here sets a spooky tone and really adds to every single scene. I wish all of these TV scores were available, because these great composers were at the top of their games and cranking out a new score every week (or maybe twice a week if they were working on two shows). This was a golden age for TV music.

Next week, Stephen King’s favorite episode... and what he believes is one of the most frightening hours of television ever made!

Bill



Speaking of old libraries with rare books with potentially spooky pasts, Fangoria Magazine’s British correspondent Philip Nutman passed away a year and a half ago, and his extensive library of horror books, film books, autographed comic books, and many other curios has just been placed on sale (yesterday!). Since this week’s THRILLER episode was about the terrors which might be found in the library of a book collector who has passed away, I thought some of you might be interested in these rare books and collectables from Philip Nutman’s Estate, being sold through Burnt Biscuit Books:

* The Philip Nutman Collection On Ebay.

* The Philip Nutman Collection At Amazon.

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Film Courage Dialogue Part 1 & 2 & 3!

Here are three Film Courage segments which belong together - the Barista Theory Of Dialogue and Character Vocabulary and now Bumper Sticker Dialogue - the first, second and third in a long conversation about writing dialogue. This is kind of a verbal extract from the Dialogue Blue Book.







- Bill

bluebook

41 Tips On Dialogue!

*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!

*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Nook!

Expanded version with more ways to create interesting protagonists! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 41 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 160 pages!

Only $3.99 - and no postage!



USA Folks Click Here.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Other countries check your Amazon websites... it's there!

The next 3 Blue Books will be DESCRIPTION, STRUCTURE, and BLOCKBUSTERs (all 3 in 2016 I hope). Everyone wants the OUTLINES Blue Book, and I've promised it for the past couple of years, but the problem is I don't have enough ideas for new chapters, yet... and I want to get it up to 200 pages. I hope that over the next year I'll come up with some new chapter ideas and get that out at the beginning of 2017.

Thank you to everyone!

Bill

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: THE OUTFIT

Directed by: John Flynn.
Written by: John Flynn (based on the novel by Richard Stark... who is really Don Westlake).
Starring: Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Joe Don Baker.




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 some 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 is now on BluRay. 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 DVD 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.

Buy ROLLING THUNDER at Amazon.

- Bill

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Directed by: Brian DePalma.
Written by: Brian DePalma, music & lyrics by Paul Williams.
Starring: William Finley, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, Paul Williams.


He sold his soul for rock and roll...

About two years ago Edgar Wright hosted the 40th anniversary of Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE to a sold out crown in the massive Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. Most of the surviving cast was there, but star William Finley had recently passed away; so this was also a bit of a memorial for him as well. Since PHANTOM is one of my favorite movies, one that I saw in its brief initial run back in 1974, and several times since then... I was in that packed cinema. Wait, you’ve never heard of the film? That’s great! You have something to look forward to!

Buy the border Brian DePalma is one of my favorite directors, and most people know him from BLOW OUT or maybe CARRIE... but those films were made in the middle of his career. He began making odd arthouse films and comedies... and kind of discovered Robert DeNiro (as well as many other actors who would later become famous). His first successful film was an anti (Viet Nam) war comedy starring Robert DeNiro, Gerrit Graham, and Jon Warden called GREETINGS (1968) about three friends who get their draft notices at the same time and each figures out a way to avoid being sent to Viet Nam where they will likely return in a body bag. It’s kind of a series of skits with these three characters that lampoons the time period and the social turmoil in the United States surrounding the war. Jon Warden was the star, with DeNiro and Graham as his sidekicks, and by the end of the film DeNiro is the only one who gets sent to Viet Nam... to return in the sequel HI MOM! (Introducing Charles Durning) which looks at the early 70s, and everything from Organic Food to the Black Power Movement (“Be Black Baby!”).

After a string of successful comedies, they gave DePalma a comedy studio film starring Orson Welles and The Smothers Brothers... which flopped. DePalma went back to indie films and played around with Hitchcock and horror (he had previously done a comedy with Hitchcock overtones called MURDER ALA MOD, starring William Finley... who was a member of his stock company of actors).



His brilliant Hitchcockian horror flick SISTERS was a big hit (I have the Critereon edition) and his next film was going to be called PHANTOM OF THE FILMORE, starring Finley in a mash up of every classic horror movie ever made, plus a satire of the music industry. After writing the script, he approached Paul Williams to write the music figuring he’d start at the top (Williams had written a string of hits at this point) but to his surprise this was *exactly* what Williams was looking for, When you’ve written a string of hit pop songs, you want to try the exact opposite. A rock opera that makes fun of the music biz? Sign him up! Williams also ended up playing the villain, Swan, who has made a little deal with the Devil to look forever young and be incredibly successful. Somewhere along the way, promoter Bill Graham had a lawyer inform them that they couldn’t use the name of his Filmore club, and the film became PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

This film came *before* ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and just about everyone believes it’s better... but it flopped, as did ROCKY HORROR. The difference? ROCKY HORROR’s distrib played it at midnight shows where it became the phenomenon that it is today. PHANTOM was distributed by 20th Century Fox and they didn’t even know what a midnight show was! So everybody was doing the Time Warp Again and nobody remembered PHANTOM. Well, that’s not exactly true. Those who had seen it the first time it came out kept it alive in revival houses where the introduced their friends to the film. I know I dragged friends to it whenever it played in Berkeley. I had the soundtrack on vinyl and played it frequently, and can sing along with every song if required. I also probably know every line of dialogue. Too bad they didn’t do midnight shows back in the day because then *everybody* would know about this film rather than ROCKY HORROR (though we wouldn’t know about Tim Curry, so maybe it’s good things turned out as they did). But what about the story?

Well the story is about a very talented artist who gets ripped off by The Man... something that screenwriters can identify with.

Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a struggling composer working on a rock opera version of Faust who manages to get a gig playing music between shows (when people are leaving the venue, glorified Muzak) for the multi platinum 50's nostalgia band The Juicy Fruits. Mysterious music producer Swan (Paul Williams) who represents the Fruits is about to open a new rock venue and is looking for a new sound... and when he hears Winslow’s music he thinks this may be it. He orders his tubby underling Philbin (the amazing George Memoli, who is also in Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS, ROCKY, Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR and a bunch of other great 70s stuff) to grab the music and ditch Winslow. Buy the border After “submitting his music to Swan” through Philbin and not hearing back, he tries Swan’s office building, where he’s on a “beat up on sight” list, and after recovering tries Swan’s mansion where he discovers a long line of female singers practicing one of his songs. The best of the bunch is the beautiful and talented Phoenix (introducing Jessica Harper) and Winslow learns from her that Swan has stolen his music, claimed it as his own, and is auditioning females singers for the opening of the Paradise Club. Winslow tries to see Swan (by dressing up as a female singer) and gets beaten up and dumped on the street, where a pair of cops plant some heroin in his purse and arrest him.

In Sing Sing Prison (everything in this film is musical) Winslow is volunteered against his will for a medical experiment funded by Swan’s company where they extract every tooth in your mouth and replace it with stainless steel.

Winslow escapes prison, discovers that the Juicy Fruits have recorded an album of his music done 50's style, goes to destroy all of the vinyl record at Swan’s factory... but trips and his head lands in the record press... smashing his face and leaving the offensive album permanently engraved in his skin.

After recovering, Winslow goes to the Paradise Club where the Fruits are rehearsing for opening night (as a new group: the Beach Bums, doing early 60s style music)... and dons a costume and mask from the costume storage room (becoming The Phantom) before planting a bomb that injures the Fruits and stopping them from desecrating his music. Buy the border Winslow is captured by Swan, who locks him away to complete the rock opera for Phoenix to sing... except Swan has no intention of having Phoenix open the club, she’s way too wholesome. And when Winslow has finished his rock opera? Swan walls him into the room faster than you can say Poe’s Cask Of Amontillado.

So Swan has to find a new opening night act for the Paradise in a great *one shot* audition scene that features a dozen music acts so unbelievable that they’re believable... and settles on glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham, stealing whatever movie he is cast in). One of the great things about this film, which came up in the panel discussion afterwards, is how well it *predicts* new music trends and even specific bands. It’s kind of like NETWORK in that regard, you see it now and think they are making fun of KISS when they use the Juicy Fruit band members dressed in black with patterns painted on their faces in black and white... but KISS didn’t even exist when this film was made! Though this is a satire of the music business, it’s crazy creations would eventually come true! Buy the border On opening night for the Paradise, Winslow as the Phantom breaks out and threatens Beef, telling him that only Phoenix can sing his songs, and anyone else who tries dies. Beef doesn’t want to go on, Philbin insists... and in the middle of Beef’s CALIGARI style opening number the Phantom zips a neon lightning bolt down at Beef, electrocutes him, and Beef fries on stage... while the audience calls for an encore. Swan has Phoenix go out and sing to calm the crowd... and she’s a massive hit!





Realizing it will take something really amazing to top a rock star burning alive on stage, Swan decides he will *marry* Phoenix on stage, and then have a sniper kill her dead. That’s entertainment! Now Winslow/Phantom must stop this from happening, even though he knows that the woman he loves has willingly agreed to marry Swan in exchange for stardom. No matter what happens, things will not end happily ever after.

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After the film, the panel spent about an hour talking about the making of the film (in Dallas Texas standing in for New York City) where their production designer Jack Fisk (his first film) had an assistant named Sissy Spacek who would later star in the movie CARRIE for DePalma after starring in some film called BADLANDS. Jack and Sissy married and are still together, and I bumped into them and chatted at some low rent Oscar party that made the mistake of inviting me. Jack and Sissy were not on the panel, but hammy GerritGraham, still hot Jessica Harper, Paul Williams, Juicy Fruits Harold Oblong and Jeffrey Comanor (who was carried onto stage, then got up and jogged around a little), plus the film’s editor Paul Hirsch, who learned how to edit films with DePalma who then introduced him to his Hollywood Brats friends where Lucas hired him to edit STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and he later edited MISSION IMPOSSIBLE GHOST PROTOCOL and SOURCE CODE and RAY and a zillion other big films, and William Finley’s widow Susan joined the panel later (she’s in the movie as an extra!). The always amazing Edgar Wright moderated. They had all kinds of great stories about making the film, and Williams talked about making this crazy decision to write music which was the opposite of what he was known for while trashing the industry he was a part of.

It was an amazing night, and the film is just as funny as the day it was made. A real gem waiting to be discovered by any of you who haven’t seen it yet. The songs have great pop hooks and subversive lyrics... you’ll be humming them later. Because it’s DePalma it is filled with all kinds of crazy film experiments and homages, including a recreation of the opening scene from TOUCH OF EVIL as a musical number with the Beach Bums band!



The Panel Discussion (someone videoed it!)

Bill

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Friday, May 12, 2017

The Lost Hitchcock Film

So here is some background on this “lost Hitchcock film” THE WHITE SHADOW...

When Hitchcock was 21 - the year was 1920 - he got a job with Famous Players Lasky, an American film company that opened a studio in England. That company would eventually become Paramount Pictures. Hitchcock was interested in film and studying advertizing art in college and submitted some art for title cards to the new studio... and was hired. In the silent era, movie title cards had the minimum dialogue to tell the story - hand lettered in an easy to read style - and a small illustration. Hitchcock’s example for Truffaut was: “George was living a fast life” and the illustration would be a candle burning at both ends. Writing title cards was part of post production, because often a film changed completely during production and the assembled shots might tell a completely different story. Hitchcock told the story of a drama that didn’t turn out well, so the title cards were comedy dialogue that transformed the meaning of the scenes so that the film became a crazy comedy.



Hitchcock did title cards on numerous films... and was curious about films, so he asked questions and learned about the various jobs. Part of titling a film was reading the screenplays, and he learned how to write scripts and occasionally wrote a last minute scene for the films - kind of production rewrite work.

During this time Hitchcock directed a short film, NUMBER THIRTEEN (1922) which he says was never completed.

When Famous Players Lasky left the studios, British producers took over and Hitchcock was promoted to assistant director. On a film called ALWAYS TELL YOUR WIFE (1922) the director became ill and Hitchcock and the star completed the film - Hitch was kind of coy when he told this story to Truffaut, so my guess is that the star actually directed the remaining scenes and Hitch just did his assistant directing chores and maybe made a suggestion or two.



In late 1922 producer Michael Balcon began producing films at the studio and hired young Hitchcock as his assistant director for a series of films to be directed by Graham Cutts, starting with WOMAN TO WOMAN. Hitchcock was ambitious, and when they needed a screenplay offered to write it... and had a spec script sample he had written to show what he could do. He wrote the script, was assistant director, did set design (art school background), did the title cards, and was Graham Cutts’ assistant. He performed these tasks on the entire series of films: WOMAN TO WOMAN (1922), THE WHITE SHADOW (1923), THE PASSIONATE ADVENTURE (1924), THE BLACKGUARD (1925), and THE PRUDE’S FALL (1925). Of the five, Hitchcock said WOMAN TO WOMAN was the best of the lot. Oh, the film editor and script supervisor on all of these films was Hitch’s future wife Alma - these are the projects where they met and fell in love.

Hitchcock had a falling out with Cutts on PRUDE’S FALL, but instead of being fired, producer Michael Balcon gave Hitch his first actual directing job on THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925)... which will be the *last* entry in the Fridays With Hitchcock series.



The “lost film”, THE WHITE SHADOW, was the second in that series. Directed by Graham Cutts, screenplay co-written by Hitchcock who also did sets. Hitch had nothing to say about it to Truffaut, so I’m guessing it was just a job. These films were all melodramas, shot in 6 weeks, and none of them were very popular. This one was about twin sisters: one good, one evil. Maybe the first time they did that story, but I'm guessing not. It got bad reviews when it opened... many critics pointing to the silly script (co-written by Hitch). It would take a few more years for Hitchcock to find his footing and make BLACKMAIL (1929) before he started to become the director we now know. I suspect when these three remaining reels are restored and shown at that screening in Beverly Hills... it will be kind of a let down. Interesting to see an old film that Hitchcock did some work on, but not really a Hitchcock movie (he didn’t direct it).



The guy who *did* direct the film, Graham Cutts, basically fired Hitch... and that allowed him to begin his career as a director. Later, when Hitch was gearing up to make THE 39 STEPS (the film that would get him to Hollywood) he needed a second unit director for some odds and ends establishing shots and the producer suggested... Graham Cutts. Hitchcock said he couldn’t hire Cutts, since he had basically began as Cutts’ assistant. The producer told Hitch that Cutts had fallen on hard times and really needed a job and was willing to do the second unit stuff. Hitch hired him. So it came full circle, and Cutts sort of became Hitchcock’s assistant. Or maybe Hitch was repaying Cutts for the on-the-job-training on films like WHITE SHADOW. Maybe we should do a retrospective of Graham Cutts’ films, as the man who created Hitchcock?

And here's the film, if you're interested: THE WHITE SHADOW.

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: How Many Stories Can One Movie Tell?
Dinner: A family New Years Meal.
Pages: No, recovery from drinking instead.
Bicycle: No. I'm in the Bay Area.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

THRILLER Thursday: THE HUNGRY GLASS

The Hungry Glass

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



Season: 1, Episode: 16.
Airdate: January 3, 1961


Director: Douglas Heyes
Writer: Douglas Heyes based on the story by Robert Bloch.
Cast: William Shatner, Russell Johnson, Donna Dixon, Joanna Heyes, Elizabeth Allen.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
Cinematography: Lionel Linden.
Producer: William Frye.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “A beautiful young face in the mirror, a pitiful old face at the door. Could they have been one and the same? Some people say that mirrors never lie. Others say that they do: they lie, they cheat, they kill. Some say that every time you look in one you see death at work. But most of us see only what we want to see. And perhaps it’s better not to see too deeply into the darkness behind our mirrors? For there live things beyond our imagination, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. But if you’re skeptical, stay with me and watch “The Hungry Glass” with those others who doubted. William Shatner, Joanna Heyes, Russell Johnson, and Elizabeth Allen. Oh, you’ll be perfectly safe, that is, if you turn your own mirrors to the wall... and make sure that your television screen casts no reflection.”

Synopsis: Have you ever looked into a mirror and thought you saw someone or something behind you, but when you turned there was nothing there?

This is one of those episodes from THRILLER that people often remember, and I like it better than Stephen King’s favorite PIGEONS FROM HELL. Oh, but the story...



It opens a hundred years ago with a beautiful young woman, Laura Bellman (Donna Dixon from BEVERLY HILLBILLIES), looking at herself in one ornate wall mirror after another... dozens of them! Every inch of the wall is covered with a mirror! There is an insistent knock at the door, and she goes to answer it; but the person who opens the door is a shriveled up old woman dressed exactly as that beautiful young woman. On the other side of the threshold are Laura’s sailor nephew who has a hook for a hand and a doctor... Laura hasn’t left the house and her mirrors in months. She says: “Go away! Leave me alone, can’t you? Leave me alone, with my mirrors.”

Present day: Gil Thraser (Shatner!) is a photographer who has finally gotten his Korean War post traumatic stress disorder under control, married a model who is probably close to her pull date Marcia (Joanna Heyes) and bought the Bellman House in Maine. A rambling old fixer upper on the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the Atlantic about 2 miles from town. They are escaping the city, and hope to turn this place into their dream house. Their belongings have been sent ahead to the house by a moving company and they are waiting in the town’s little general store for the real estate agent to arrive with the keys. A storm is raging outside... and a group of old farts are sitting by the store’s old wood burning stove, staying warm and playing checkers. When Gil tells the Store Owner that they just bought the Bellman House, the old farts joke about how the house comes with unwanted guests, and lots of people who lived there died there as well, and there isn’t a single mirror in the whole place because of, you know...



That’s when real estate agent Adam Talmadge (Russell Johnson, The Professor!) arrives and tells them his wife Liz (Elizabeth Allen) is waiting in the station wagon and he’ll drive them out to the house. But first they need to buy some light bulbs... none in the house. The Store Owner says bulbs won’t matter, there’s no power. Adam says he had the power company turn it on... the Store Owner says the storm turned it back off again. They buy bulbs anyway, and make sure they have candles and batteries for the flash lights as well.

In the car, Gil asks Adam if there are vampires in the house or something? Because of the lack of mirrors? Adam explains that you take an old house where there have been a couple of accidental deaths and the locals come up with all kinds of spooky legends. Ghosts and such. None of it is real, it just gives the people in the small town something to talk about.

When they get to the house, all of there stuff is packing crates in the entry area... to be unpacked later. Adam and Liz come in with them, because they have a little house warming gift... a chilled bottle of champagne and 4 glasses. Adam has got a fire going in the fireplace, too. The living room has an *amazing* view of the ocean. Adam pours the champagne while Marcia looks out the window, and when she turns her back to the window to say something... Liz SCREAMS! Adam drops the champagne bottle, breaking it and slicing open his palm. Liz says there was a man standing outside the window, reaching for Marcia! A man with a hook for a hand! Gil runs to the window and looks out: sheer cliff all the way down to the ocean, no place for a man to stand. Must have just been some freak reflection from the fireplace, right? Adam picks the glass out of his hand... a freak accident... like the glass shards were trying to attack him. As Adam and Liz leave, Gil closes the door and sees the reflection of an old woman in the stairway window... beckoning him.

The next morning, Marcia is putting on make up using her travel mirror when she sees a man’s reflection! It’s Gil, who cut himself shaving when she snuck up on him and he saw her reflection in *his* travel mirror. So they’re even, right? Except Marcia says she hasn’t left this room. They have a great discussion/argument about whether the old house was a good investment or a bad one. They decide either way, they’re kind of stuck with it so might as well make the best of it. That’s when the power comes back on, and all of the new light bulbs turn the spooky old house into... well, less spooky. Gil says he’s going to take a bunch of pictures of the house as it is now to give them something to compare with after they fix it up.



When Gil is developing those photos, he sees a strange image reflected in one of the windows: a little girl. Is it a double exposure? Meanwhile, Marcia pokes around the attic and finds that it’s full of old furniture and things... a gold mine in antiques! She spots a door hidden behind some things with a huge padlock on it. What could be inside? Using a rusty knife from the attic junk she unscrews the hasp and has to put some muscle into getting the door open. On the other side, a storage room filled with dozens of antique mirrors! For a moment she’s blinded by her flashlight reflection... Meanwhile, Gil decides *not* to show the photo of the little girl’s reflection to Marcia (in a great piece of visual storytelling). Then goes looking for her, finds her in the attic. Marcia shows him a couple of antiques that might pay for the whole danged house... it was a great decision the buy this place. Gil asks if she might have used his camera to take a picture of a little girl, she says no. Then she shows him to weird room full of locked away mirrors and asks him to bring one down so that she can get ready for the dinner they’re going to host for the Adam & Liz. When Marcia leaves, Gil looks into one of mirrors and sees an old woman beckoning him... screams and faints!

Gil is afraid that his post traumatic stress has returned, and next he’ll be seeing all of dead people from Korea again. Marcia tells him to just calm down, it was just his imagination playing tricks on him. They have company coming for dinner and they both need to get ready. But Gil worries that he’s losing his mind. Again.



After they have finished dinner with Liz and Adam, Marcia offers to give Liz a house tour and Gil and Adam stay behind... so that Gil can ask about the reason the townspeople might think this place is haunted. Adam doesn’t want to spread silly rumors, but Gil pushes it... and Adam relates the Legend Of Bellman House.

And what a legend! Basically, everyone who has ever lived in the house has been killed by accidents involving mirrors or windows. As Adam explains death by death, including a sailor with a hook for a hand that was Mrs. Bellman’s nephew, we realize that no one has ever gotten out of this place alive. That’s when Gil tells him about the strange double exposure, and they go down to his basement darkroom. Gil shows Adam the photo... and Adam identifies the little girl as a kid who fell off the cliff to her death when the sun’s reflection in the house’s window blinded her. So, not a double exposure... a ghost reflected in the window. Now *Adam* believes the house may actually be haunted, and Gil knows he’s not crazy.

That’s when Liz interrupts them (lots of good jumps in this episode in addition to all of the creepy suspense), to bum some cigarettes. When Gil asks where Marcia is, she says Marcia was showing her the odd storeroom full of mirrors. Then they hear Marcia SCREAMING! Both men bolt up the stairs, Adam stopping to tell Liz *not* to follow them up to the attic. When Gil gets to the mirror room, he sees all of the dead people from the legend PULLING Marcia into a mirror. She screams for Gil to help her. Gil grabs an old fire poker from the attic and hits the mirror again and again until it shatters. When Adam comes in, Gil says they have taken Marcia into the mirror... but Adam points to the floor, where Marcia lies dead... beaten to death by the fire poker!



Adam and Liz try to calm and console Gil... who keeps trying to convince both of them that he saw dead people in the mirror grabbing Marcia and pulling her inside the glass. That he’s not losing his mind, it’s the mirrors! The windows! Any glass that reflects! The police will never believe him, even though it’s true!

Then Gil sees Marcia reflected in the huge living room window, and runs to embrace her... crashing through the window and falling all the way down that rocky cliff to splat on the rocks below, as the waves crash over him. Liz faints, and Adam carries her out of the house, seeing the reflection of Marcia and Gil beckoning to him from the staircase window!



Review: Wow! This episode really delivers. It’s spooky, has some great scares, is wall to wall dread (a great job of building with small spooky stuff), and is *witty* and filled with great dialogue. In fact, if you took away everything else but the dialogue, this would still be a great episode. People don’t just say things, they say it in the most amusing way possible. After Adam drops the champagne bottle and slices open his palm, he says “At least I christened the carpet”. This crackling dialogue makes the episode fun, and adds to the dread... we’re having such a great time when something scary happens it ends up twice as scary! I haven’t read the short story in a couple of decades, but Bloch is an incredibly witty writer who loves to make you smile just before he makes you scream. All of this great dialogue may have been his, or maybe the writer/director used Bloch’s tone as a guide and went with it. I don’t think there’s a bad line in the entire episode.

Director Heyes was responsible for the previous best episode, THE PURPLE ROOM, and here he makes sure every inch of that attic makes you want to get the hell out of there. When Marcia is poking around the antiques, you are waiting for something to jump out and grab her! The basement dark room is also spooky. This is a *great* haunted house story. It’s also *packed* with story... there isn’t a dull *second* in this episode, when they aren’t being scared by the windows and mirrors they are having relationship issues caused by the house or Gil is having a breakdown caused by the house. It’s almost like a feature film squeezed into an hour of TV. Never a dull moment, and the great thing about mirrors and windows and reflections is that they’re *everywhere*! When they walk past a window, you worry!



The cast is *great*, with Shatner gearing up for his TWILIGHT ZONE episode 2 years after this. He does a great job in the quiet moments, as well as going full Shatner in some of the more dramatic scenes. Russell Johnson is a charming real estate guy, completely making you forget that he was the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. He not only gets laughs delivering the quips, he give you chills telling the legend. Joanna Heyes is the director’s hottie wife, and does a great job holding her own opposite scene stealer Shatner. Elizabeth Allen probably has the least interesting role in the episode, but screams like a pro and does a great job playing “the wife”. Donna Dixon who was Ellie May on BEVERLY HILLBILLIES is eye candy in her brief role as the reflection of Mrs. Bellman in the mirror.

Aside from the witty dialogue and great pacing, this script has some great visual storytelling (like when Gil wordlessly decides not to show the picture to Marcia) and some awesome exposition hiding... we know the house is 2 miles from the nearest neighbor because of a line about having to walk down to warn them if Liz plans on screaming again. The big chunk of exposition that comes with the Legend Of Bellman House, is a great little ghost story with twists and thrills... so you don’t notice it’s exposition... it’s a campfire story. Great writing, acting, direction...

The creepy thing about this episode is that after watching it, you start seeing things in *your* mirrors... or maybe it’s just my imagination?

Bill

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