Monday, July 31, 2017

Eyes Bigger Than Their Budget

From this time in 2008...

A few years I got a call out of the blue from a director I had never worked with (and never heard of) who said I came highly recommended as a screenwriter... but never told me who recommended me. We met in a coffee shop across from the DGA. He was this charismatic guy, almost as tall as I am, and was wearing a formal vest - which is unusual for Los Angeles. He was interested in my available scripts. He told me he was in post production on his first indie feature and it was already getting all klnds of great buzz around town and he was sure that a studio would set him up with a big feature deal... but while that was being negociated, he had an investor lined up with $1.2 million to do a genre film, what did I have? I pitched him a couple of stories, he gave me his fancy silvery business card with his e-mail address and I told him I’d send him some synopsis.

Okay, I have to admit that I’m not so much looking at the $1.2 million film as that big feature deal. The $1.2 million deal is less than half of the budget of the films I’m used to working on, but a bird in the hand pays the rent. So I go home, look through the script inventory, select the ones that can be made on this budget... and there are a couple of really good ones that can be made for that, including one of my favorite scripts of mine - DANGEROUS CURVES. It works as a showcase for a male actor, and has a bunch of cool plot twists - kind of a cross between Hitchcock and BLOOD SIMPLE with a hint of strange Roman Polanski. And the personal thing - it’s about an architect whose clients keep wanting him to change his plans in ways that can not work... while his dead wife haunts him and a corrupt cop blackmails him. I’ve always wanted to see this one on screen, and it could be a director’s showcase, too. There were a few other scripts on the list, too, some other really good ones that could be made on his budget - and I included the URL for all of my other available scripts.

Okay, I have to admit, the reason why I sent that URL wasn’t for the $1.2 million project, but for that big studio project. I wanted him to find the script for the studio film on my website, and bring that into the studio when they make his deal.

A week or two goes by, then I get a call from the director - he wants to read a script, could I meet him at that coffee shop across from the DGA on Thursday. And then he tells me what script he wants me to bring... DANGEROUS CURVES? No. One of the others on my list of scripts you can make for $1.2 million? No. This guy wants to read one of my big budget studio scripts. One that I really like. One that got me a few studio meetings and I was kind of saving for later - it’s kind of a dream script. Bur maybe this director is either planning ahead to his big studio deal... or maybe he’s skipping the $1.2 million project because something has happened with his indie film already? What if this is the big deal... and he wants my script?

So I make up a couple of copies and drive over Laurel Canyon to the coffee shop. I hand him the script, ask him how his film is going... and he tells me great, but it’s still in post. I ask if there’s been any studio interest, yet, and he says there is a lot of great buzz, and everyone thinks he’s a genius and the next big thing, and after this film he’ll really be hot. After this film? Well, he has to read the script, first. Of course....

As I’m zooming back over Laurel Canyon, passing the house that rolled down the hill, I wondered what the hell was going on. It seemed like he was thinking this *huge* budget foreign location chase script he was looking at for his $1.2 million budget... and that wasn’t going to work. But, he’d figure that out once he read it, right? And then he’d look at the other scripts and pick one that fits the amount of money he has, right?

Wrong. A few days later he calls to tell me he just loves this script. And he has some ideas on how he might be able to make it for $1.2 million. And I want to scream, but instead I calmly say that I don’t think this film can successfully be made for that budget. I mean, even if there is no star in the film, he’d have to have some sort of great connections - like a facility deal - to pull this off at that budget. Plus, you’d have to scale down the action, which, I guess is possible, but.... He tells me he thinks he has it all figured out, and he wants to meet me to talk about my next draft.

I politely say that maybe he should write up his ideas and e-mail them to me before we meet, so that I can have some time to think about them. He doesn’t seem to want to do any typing, just talking, but he agrees to do this. Over a week later I get his suggestions for “the next draft” and I almost smash my computer monitor in anger. First - he has a facilities deal... here in the USA, in a Southern state, that means completely changing the concept of the script - no longer will it be about a guy in a foreign land on the run with no one to turn to, and language issues... unless it’s maybe a guy from California who can’t understand thick Southern accents. And the action scenes get mostly cut out completely - so it’s a chase film with almost no chase. There were a couple of scenes where the hero found places to hide - kind of like the THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR scenes with Faye Dunnaway - and he wants to make that the main part of the story. So instead of a chase film, it’s a hide film... which is a completely different movie. Basically this big script gets hacked down to nothing - and loses everything that was cool about it. And the “machine that drives the story” - the MacGuffin - doesn’t work if this story takes place in the American South at all. I’d have to come up with something else that drives the story.

Okay, bird in the hand that pays the rent, right?

Wrong. I e-mal him back and say that I really don’t think this script can possible work at this budget. He still wants to meet and talk about these changes and “the next draft”.

I meet him at that Coffee Bean across from the DGA and he’s talking a mile a minute about how this could be a great film with all of these changes and will guarantee his big studio deal. This guy is a great talker... and almost convinces me. I wish I had that gift - that charisma and ability to make complete nonsense sound great. But I’m good on the page, not that good in the room. My scripts can get places that I can’t. The other side of this is that when people do all of this big talk, I can usually see through it. I can smell the BS through the charm. So I wait until he’s done and say that I still don’t think this script can be done on this budget without completely ruining it. I ask him what he likes about the script, and after he mentions a few things, I note that those things will either not exist in “the next draft” or will be changed so much they may not be and interesting. Of course, he says there’s no way to know until after I finish that “next draft” and he reads it. He tells me to go home and think about it, this could be a great film.

I drive past that tumbled down house on Laurel Canyon... It was once a multi-million dollar view home, then the slides tumbled it down the hill until it came to rest on the edge of Laurel Canyon - a broken mess. Imagine being the owner of that home. You have this great house, everyone loves it and wishes it was theirs, then one day it rolls down the hill and turns into a bunch of junk waiting to be demolished and hauled away. And everyone who drives over Laurel Canyon gets to see what’s left of your luxury home and snicker. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Fallen right down the hill and smashing on the side of the road.

Did I want my script to be that house?

I looked over the notes again when I got home, and decided that it couldn’t be made on $1.2 million without trashing it. But what made this director pass up scripts that *could* be made on his budget - and *good scripts*, not trash - and select something that didn’t have a chance at surviving the budget rewrite surgery? Couldn’t he look down the line and see how his notes would change the script? Why didn’t he want to make a script that could actually be made for his budget? What is the motivation there? Is it that I said it couldn’t be done, so he had to do it?

I e-mailed the director, saying I didn’t think this script would work in the cut down version - that many of the things *he* liked about the script would be removed, so it wouldn’t even be the same script. So if he wants to do *this* script, maybe he should consider doing it when he gets his big deal, rather than try to make it fit his budget and kill it in the process. And I re-sent the list of loglines for the scripts that *could* be made on his $1.2 budget. I figured this was the end of it - no more bird in the hand, and I’d have to find some other deal somewhere. But instead, he requested another script. Not DANGEROUS CURVES, but one that has almost been made at least 3 times. I sent him the script - instead of meeting him at the coffee shop - and thought this might all still work out, right?

A couple of weeks he e-mailed me notes on the script. Everything that was “wrong” with the script. I read over the notes, and instantly wanted to e-mail the director with the rebuttal. You know, we all want to do that. In this case, it would have been easy, because everything on his list of problems was not a problem at all. Most of the “problems” were things that seemed due to skimming the script - I could have just listed the page numbers of where these things were set up, but he seemed to have missed them. This script had almost been made three times - and all of those people read the set ups and didn’t find any problems. Oh, sure, they had notes - but all of the past notes had made sense or been practical issues. I think he was *looking* for reasons to dislike this script, because...

The end of his e-mail of what was wrong with this script that could actually be made for $1.2 million was that he still thought the big script could be successfully trimmed down, and I should reconsider doing that “next draft”. He *still* didn’t want to make the one he could afford to make, he wanted to make the one he couldn’t.

And he’s not the only one. Every year or two some big talk director or big talk producer - and they always seem to be new - looks over the list of scripts they can afford and would rather do the script that they could never afford to make on their budget. And chop out everything that they like about it so that they can afford to make it on the money they have - which turns it into crap. There’s no way this can work. I know it. A director or producer who does a movie a year knows that biting off more than you can chew usually results in a movie that is one big problem after another to shoot - all compromises and doesn’t work when you cut it all together. Hey, maybe some freakin’ genius director at the top of his game might be able to make this work on that budget, but that’s a lot of stars aligning in ways they have never aligned before. That’s a big chance to take with someone else’s $1.2 million. Why not take the script that’s a slam-dunk at $1.2 and use the easy schedule to spend more time being creative? Give the films some style? Use a dolly and crane? Design some amazing shots? Why would you want the script that will be living hell just to get on screen at $1.2 with master shots and a couple of close ups?

What makes these people pick the script they can’t pull off? Are they trying to set themselves up for failure? Do they want the project to crash and burn before it ever happens? Are they trying to prove something (and if so, to who)? Was their first film a miracle and they’re hoping that lightening strikes twice? Why set out to do something that can’t be done?

Right now I have two producers reading scripts they can’t afford on their budgets. If either one wants to me chop it down to what he can afford - ruining it in the process - I’m just going to say no. I have enough *really good* scripts that can work on these guy’s budgets - why would I want to ruin a script that won’t? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

I never heard back from the director with that indie film who wanted to turn my big chase thriller into a small hide film, so I decided to look him up on IMDB. They demolished that house that was on the side of Laurel Canyon and taken away the debris a couple of years ago - now it’s hard to even remember that it was there. Last year I had 2 films released on the same day - both ended up in the top 10 DVD rentals in the USA - neither of those deals had even been made when I was meeting this director at the Coffee Bean across from the DGA. So, I wonder what he’s been up to? I wonder what his big studio film is?

Well, according to IMDB he has that one indie film... and nothing else in the works at all. And according to IMDB his indie film has yet to be released... Anywhere. There are no consumer reviews - no one has seen it at a festival and posted a review or anything.

Now, IMDB is not always accurate - so maybe it was released somewhere, and maybe it played festivals somewhere and maybe people liked the film... but this big talking director seems to have nothing going right now (and I read deals in the trades, and haven’t seen his name). My guess is that he had a window to do something for $1.2 before his film was finished... and that window has closed. That’s kind of a business tip, by the way - the time when you want to seal a deal is *before* your film is released. You may think your film might become a huge hit and studios will be fighting over you... but what if it flops? Lots of films everyone thought were going to be hits just didn’t click with the audience for some reason. Though you can predict which films have a better chance of becoming hits, there’s no “hit formula” where you can be sure a film will work. So you want to make a deal while there is still hope that your film is a hit. If it *is* a hit, you’ll get other offers. Hey, you may have to make that $1.2 million film before you make the studio’s $120 million film, but if you’re hot, the studio will still want you. But if your film flops? Well, if you have that $1.2 million film already in production or preproduction, it’s like a second chance at the big studio project! Not to mention - income.

Heck, that’s why I was willing to sell a script to a guy with less that half the budget I’m used to - income (my bills must be paid whether it’s *the* project or not) and as a writer you never know if this is going to be the combination of director and cast and perfect timing that makes this film the next SAW - some low budget genre film that gets picked up for theatrical release and ends up becoming a huge hit. I can’t plan on any of the scripts I have circling at studios to ever land.

If this guy had just taken the *good* script he could afford to make at the time, he’d have *two* films on his IMDB listing... and probably would have been released by a major label (Sony, LionsGate, etc)... and if I liked the way it came out I’d try to get it shown at some film fest that I’ll be speaking at... and try to get coverage in one of the magazines that I write for or have written for in the past. Basically, by promoting a good film version of my script I also promote the director, production company, cast members. And who knows? Maybe that $1.2 million film could have been the new SAW? We will never know.

If I had a limited amount of money, I would want the *best script* I could find which could easily be made on that budget... then I would pull out all of the stops to design interesting shots and do some great casting and make it the best film version of that best script.

And then sign a deal on the next project while this one was in post.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Something.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Something.

MOVIES: KUNG FU PANDA - Okay, here’s what I know is absolutely true: Pixar movies make me cry and really make me feel, Dreamworks movies are surface comedies that take my $11 and I get a laugh or two. Both studios make animated films that look good. The art in KFP is amazing - and the opening and closing titles in 2D animation are so amazingly drawn you kind of wish there was a traditionally animated version of this film. Nothing wrong with the 3D animation, though - great backgrounds and fantastic detail. Technically both studios are tied - but Dreamworks just doesn’t seem to want to go for the emotions. They’d rather go for the laughs.

Jack Black plays a fat panda named Po who dreams of being a kung fu fighter, but as his father James Hong (who must be in every US film that has a Chinese character by Federal law) tells him that they are noodle people - broth flows through their veins. When the evil martial arts Panther voiced by Ian McShane breaks out of prison, only the chosen one - the Dragon Warrior - can defeat him... but who is the Dragon Warrior? Wise old turtle Oogway will select the warrior from martial arts instructor Dustin Hoffman’s star pupils - Tigress Angelina Jolie (not as hot as in BEOWOLF), Monkey Jackie Chan, Mantis Seth Rogen, Viper Lucy Lui, and Crane David Cross. Hey, noodles can be sold at this event, so Black is sent with a push cart. Due to a mistake, *he* is chosen as the Dragon Warrior... and this pisses of the “Furious Five” and causes no shortage of headaches for Dustin Hoffman, who must train him to be a great warrior before the evil Panther arrives. And hijinks ensue. We get a grab-bag-o-gags, and not much else. Okay, maybe a pretty lame message that everything you need to be special is within yourself - but no *heart*. The Pixar films are filled with heart. If you don’t cry at a Pixar film, there’s something wrong with you. I cried at THE INCREDIBLES! And even if I hadn’t welled up when Mr I told Mrs I why he’s not strong enough (hell, I’m misting up thinking about it) the film would still have great characters and characterization and scenes that cut deeper that 98% of films with real people in them. Pixar films are all about characters and emotions - that’s what makes them great... better than most Hollywood films. But KUNG FU PANDA - a couple of laughs for adults, probably fun for the kids. I wonder what happens when Dreamworks goes Bollywood?

Bicycle: Not much biking lately because it's, like, 109 degrees in the Valley (seriously) and I would die. Though Friday I took an ill-advised walk while I was in the West Valley (going to the movies in Northridge - one of the guys lives there).

Friday, July 28, 2017

Fridays With Hitchcock:
The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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


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




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



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

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




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




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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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



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


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


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



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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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




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


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

- Bill

The other Fridays With Hitchcock.


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Thursday, July 27, 2017

THRILLER Thursday: The Cheaters

The Cheaters

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



Season: 1, Episode: 15.
Airdate: Dec. 27, 1960


Director: John Brahm
Writer: Donald Sanford based on a story by Robert (PSYCHO) Bloch.
Cast: Henry Daniel, Mildred Dunnock, Harry Townes, Jack Weston, Paul Newlan.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith takes over from Rugolo.
Cinematography: John Russell from PSYCHO.
Producer: William Frye and Maxwell Shane.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “When a man shuts himself off from his neighbors, when he conducts mysterious experiments behind locked doors, there’s bound to be talk. There were those who whispered that Dirk Van Prinn was a sorcerer, and worse. He might never have been remembered at all, had he not his research lead him to the discovery of a most unusual formula for making glass. Dirk Van Prinn hanged himself before dawn. His story might have ended there if he’s had the courage to smash those spectacles. But like many another scientist he could not bare to destroy his own creation. Too bad, because years later others tried them on. In The Cheaters, our story for tonight, a junk man named Joe Henshaw played by Mr. Paul Newlan, a little old fashioned lady named Miriam Olcott played by Miss Mildred Dunnock, her nephew Edward Dean played by Mr. Jack Weston, and finally a man who discovered the real purpose of the spectacles Sebastian Grimm, played by Mr. Harry Townes. What they saw through those yellow gold lenses they never forgot. And neither will you my friends, because as sure is my name’s Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller.”



Synopsis: Two hundred years ago, inventor Dirk Van Prinn creates a special type of glass after many failed experiments, and fashions a pair of glasses. These are not rose colored glasses, kind of the opposite. When Van Prinn looks in the mirror while wearing the glasses, what he sees drives him mad and makes him kill himself.

200 years and a commercial break later, junk man Joe Henshaw (Paul Newlan, who was also in the Big Blackout episode) has paid $100 for the contents of the long abandoned house where some crazy inventor used to live. It’s kind of like the sixties version of STORAGE WARS. His wife Maggie (Linda Walkins) and partner Charlie (Ed Nelson, who is almost as many episodes as Karloff) think he was crazy to pay that much! $100? What if there’s nothing inside?

Henshaw and Charlie go to the spooky old house and poke around inside... nothing worth anything in here. Henshaw climbs upstairs to Van Prinn’s laboratory... where the door is locked. Must be something good inside? They break open the door, and all of the lab equipment has already been taken away. There are shelves of books... which turn to dust when you open them. An old desk may be worth something... but the wood is rotted. The only thing Henshaw can find is a pair of glasses hidden in the desk... and he could use a pair of glasses.



When Henshaw gets home, Maggie is all dolled up and has an impressive meal laid out. What’s the occasion? It was Henshaw’s birthday a few weeks back and they never celebrated. Charlie comes over with some booze and it’s a party. But when Henshaw puts on the glasses he found in the old house, he can *hear* what Charlie and Maggie are thinking... he can see the truth. Maggie has been cheating on him with Charlie and they plan to kill him and take over the business. He pulls off the glasses, and they’re both just having a normal conversation. He notices a word etched in the old fashioned frames: Veritas... “truth” in Latin. When he puts the glasses back on, they’re planning his murder so that he can be together... get him drunk enough and... Henshaw takes off the glasses and walks outside to his junk yard, finds a crow bar, comes back inside and kills them both. A policeman (John Mitchum, Robert’s brother) hears the screams and arrests Henshaw.

A couple of years later and after the commercial break, Miriam Olcott (Mildred Dunnock) is an old woman confined to her bed and her room by her nephew Edward Dean (Jack Weston) and his wife Olive (Barbara Eiler). She wants to go out, but Olive says she should just take a nap. But Miriam sneaks out of the house and goes on an adventure. She goes wandering through the town, stopping in stores to look at things. She eventually ends up walking past Henshaw’s place, where some other junk dealer has bought the contents and is hauling it away. She spots a pair of antique glasses and buys them for a quarter from the junk dealer. Shopping excursion over, she heads back home...



Where Edward and Olive are waiting for her, worried. The reason why she must stay in her room is because if she wanders off she may just get lost and forget where she lives. Miriam says she was out shopping and tries on the glasses... and hears what they are really thinking. That’s she probably stole the glasses, she’s a senile old problem and they only reason they take care of her is that she’s worth a fortune and when she dies they inherit... except they hoped that she would already be dead by now. What’s keeping her so long? She takes off the glasses, shocked, and they tell her that her doctor is on his way, and Edward and Olive are heading out for the night.

When the doctor arrives, Miriam tries to tell him her nephew and his wife want to kill her, but the kindly doctor just believes it’s dementia and tries to calm her. He goes downstairs to get some brandy to calm her, returns and pours her a glass. Miriam puts on the glasses and discovers that her kindly doctor is in on the murder plot, and plans to get her drunk and push her down the stairs tonight while Nephew and Wife are out tonight establishing an alibi. She grabs a knitting needle, and when the doctor brings her the glass of brandy, stabs him to death.



A couple of years later and after the commercial break, Edward and Olive have inherited all of that money and are attempting some social climbing with their new found wealth. They have a costume party at their house and have invited all of the wealthy important people in town, including a judge and a semi famous writer, Sebastian Grimm (even though he’s a prick). Edward dressed as Benjamin Franklin, hoping to impress everyone, but Grimm (Harry Townes) does nothing but ridicule him because everyone knows Franklin wore spectacles.

The men go into the parlour to play poker, and Edward is trying to impress them with large bets... and losing money to everyone. Olive brings in some muchies... and Aunt Miriam’s antique glasses. Edward puts them on, and really looks like Ben Franklin! Even Grimm says those antique glasses make him look perfect. Edward is happy for a moment, until he hears what the other men are really thinking... they want to keep playing so they can take away all of Edward’s money that they don’t think he deserves. One of the players is cheating, and has hidden a pair of aces under his arm. Edward can’t believe these guys are cheating at cards, and calls the guy on it. The guy manages to make the accusation backfire on Edward... and make him look like a sore loser who is making false charges. This turns into a fistfight between the two men, and Edwards gets punched in the face, falls over and hits his head... dying.

Grimm scoops up the glasses...



A few months and a commercial break later, Grimm tells his wife Ellen (Joan Tompkins) that he has been researching the glasses and has discovered all of the past deaths, starting with Van Prinn’s suicide, and believes these glasses show anyone who wears them the truth. But he has not put them on because he believes the glasses were invented not to learn the truth of what others think of you... but the truth about yourself. Grimm has written a new book about the glasses, except for the last chapter. The last chapter will come after he learns the truth about himself.

He goes to Van Prinn’s spooky old house, climbs the dark staircase to his laboratory, sits in front of the same mirror where Van Prinn put on the glasses... and puts the glasses on and looks in the mirror. And sees the truth about himself. And screams and goes mad, ripping nis face off with his bare hands. And just before the fade out, he drops the glasses and crushes them beneath his shoe. Then probably hangs himself.



Review: Now that’s more like it. A nice little Weird Tales type story about how dangerous the truth can be, written by the dude who wrote PSYCHO. I’ve read this story (and most of Bloch’s stuff) and it’s interesting how an episodic short story is a perfect match for a TV show with commercials. Each segment ends at the commercial, so we begin the new segment with different characters. This makes up for those early episodes with glacial slow pacing. Though the show is still kind of blandly directed, it moves quickly, has a cornucopia of stars, and wit (from Bloch’s story... that guy was a sick comedian who wrote lines like this one from PSYCHO. “It was the face of a crazy old woman. Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream... And her head.”). The puns on “cheaters”, from the reading glasses to the cheating card players and couple elevate the story.

My bland direction comment is mostly about the scenes in the spooky old house, where production design did a great job of hanging cobwebs and covering everything with a believable 200 year old layer of dust, but the shots end up bland angles so the all of the spooky stuff goes to waste. The Brahm and Sanford team did well with PREDICTION and WATCHER, so maybe there was a time crunch with this episode? It is 4 stories with 4 casts and that might have lead to the pedestrian haunted house stuff. The cast has fun with their roles, especially Weston, who is a comic actor playing a petty social climber and manages to give a nuanced performance. Mildred Dunnock also has fun playing a possibly senile old woman who turns into a sly killer. Townes and Daniel are always great, and here both play their roles to the hilt.

One of the nice touches is how they create “glasses vision” so that the audience knows we are hearing the thoughts of the characters rather than what they are saying. The lighting scheme is changed, with the lights low and angled up, creating a spooky look. This way they can cut from a shot in “glasses vision” of people speaking to a shot normal lighting and we know that now we are hearing what they are actually saying.



One of the things that doesn’t work as well is having the lines they are saying when we are hearing what they are thinking replicate the lines they are actually speaking... just with a few different words. This is a great concept, but in practice we end up hearing most of the same words twice in a row. They might have been able to make this work with some better dialogue editing, but they may have been afraid the audience might have become confused.

The December 27th airdate makes it almost a Christmas episode!

A good episode, and next week another Bloch based episode that features a dozen mirrors... and Shatner! Can he stop himself from looking into all of those mirrors?

Bill

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Scene Of The Week: CARRIE (1976)

There's a new documentary about Brian DePalma (does it surprise anyone that he's one of my favorite directors?) that purports that DePalma does not copy Hitchcock, he just speaks the same language. The language of cinema. That DePalma has made all kinds of movies - from comedies to horror to thrillers to dramas - and even though he's obviously a fan of Hitchcock, much of what critics see as Hitchcock in many of his films is just speaking the visual language of film. Of course you shoot it that way - you don't want to look illiterate, do you? You want to clearly communicate to the audience, right? Last week we looked at a clip from JAWS with techniques that were lifted from Hitchcock, but few people diminish Spielberg's talent for speaking the language of film, why do they always go after DePalma? Before we look at our scene from CARRIE, here's a look at DePalma's low budget horror flick SISTERS...



And now the CARRIE entry...

After last week’s very long take that was locked down in the back seat of the getaway car in GUN CRAZY, I thought it would be fun to look at kind of the opposite - a scene where the camera moves but the protagonist stays in the same spot... and this underappreciated shot from Brian DePalma’s CARRIE (1976). This was the first version of Stephen King’s first best seller to hit the screen, and so far the best. There was a TV version and a sequel/remake (RAGE) and now we are getting a remake by the talented Kimberly Peirce who directed one of my favorite indies BOYS DON’T CRY. I think she’s a great match for the material, and her version will end up different than DePalma’s because she has a different point of view...

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But the DePalma film made him a star director (it was his *tenth* feature film!) And also made many cast members into stars. It was John Travolta’s *second* film (after THE DEVIL’S RAIN) and Piper Laurie’s return to the big screen after a *15 year* absence after her Oscar nominated performance as the love interest in THE HUSTLER opposite Paul Newman, and Amy Irving’s first movie, and P.J. Soles’ (ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, HALLOWEEN) first movie, and William Katt’s first movie, and Nancy Allen’s first movie, and Betty Buckley’s first movie, and Edie McClurg’s first movie. What’s interesting about all of these young actors is that they were cast in CARRIE after auditioning for another film... called STAR WARS. DePalma sat in on Lucas’ auditions and picked people for *his* film... yes, that means John Travolta and William Katt might have played Luke Skywalker!

Usually when we think of *Exposition* we think of Basil Exposition from the AUSTIN POWERS movies (or his cousin Prompter Exposition who always asks those leading questions so that someone can spend a couple of minutes of screen time talking on-and-on about what has happened and why it happened and any other story information the audience needs to know. “As a scientist, I’m sure you know that...” Boring stuff that often brings the story to a halt *and* ends up silly. Part of a screenwriter’s job is to find ways to hide exposition so that the audience has no idea they are getting the information. In the Dialogue Blue Book I look at some techniques like using conflict in the scene to disguise the exposition, but Lawrence D. Cohen’s screenplay for CARRIE uses *actions* to give us the necessary exposition. Instead of that verbal exposition dump, we get an intense emotional scene packed with information... and all in one shot!

This shot *begins* at Tommy (William Katt) and Carrie (Sissy Spacek)’s prom table after they have just decided to go ahead and vote for themselves as Prom King & Queen even though they don’t have a chance in hell of winning. That’s when Norma (P.J. Soles) picks up the ballots from the table, and we follow her as she picks up other ballots from other tables. We see how the ballots are collected from all of the kids at the prom, and then we see Norma kiss her boyfriend and drop the ballots on the floor behind him, telling him to kick them behind the wall, then she grabs *fake* ballots from his coat as she pulls away from him. We see how they switch the ballots so that Carrie and Tommy will end up winning. All of this information we get visually, through the actions of the characters. No one has to tell us that they are switching the ballots...

And so far no one has told us *why* they are switching the ballots. This builds mystery.

Then we follow Norma to the faculty table where the ballots will be counted, and then she knocks on the window under the stage where Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy Nolan (John Travolta) are hiding... and Chris is holding on to a rope. This hands off the scene, and Nancy goes on as we hold on Chris and Billy for a moment. Chris pulls slightly on the rope, and we *follow the rope*... to the back of the stage where Sue Snell (Amy Irving) sneaks in and hides behind the stage. Sue feels the rope moving, and we follow the rope up to the rafters over the stage... and that bucket of pig’s blood directly over the King & Queen’s chairs on the stage, and then look past the bucket of blood - back to where the shot began - at Carrie and Tommy sitting at their table as their names are announced as King & Queen... and they head toward the stage.

We now know *why* the ballots were switched, and we also know what is about to happen. This creates tension and dread and suspense...

Carrie White, who begins this story in blood when she has her first period in the gym shower, and was doused over the head and face by a glass of water by her mother at the dinner table; now will be drenched with pig’s blood on prom night... and they’re all going to laugh at her. This creates emotions in the viewer - Carrie has gone from bullied weird girl in a sack dress to Cinderella prom queen... and now that her life seems to have turned around we don’t want anything bad to happen to her.

More exposition told visually. No one *tells us* what the plan to ridicule Carrie at the prom is, or how it will work. Instead we *see* the exposition. As the audience traces that rope to the bucket of blood, their terror builds. They wish they could find some way to stop the inevitable. Instead of some dry verbal exposition, we get an emotional experience.



I was looking for the earlier clip - a single amazing shot that shows the whole ballot-box stuffing scheme at the prom as Carrie and Tommy actually begin to have a relationship in the background, but that clip is nowhere to be found on YouTube. When I was looking for this shot on line, all of the clips available either began at the end of the shot or somewhere in the middle. It seemed as if no one realized this was all one single long take. The clip labeled “Full Prom Scene” started at the end of the shot! Another clip that was all about the camera work, managed to start in the *middle* of the shot! It’s as if no one noticed this was all one long take - they were too busy experiencing the story unfold. Finally I found a clip on YouTube that *linked* a clip of the actual entire prom scene, and I was able to start at the beginning of this shot (but had no way to end the clip). Here’s that clip of the whole prom - and it begins with a long slow take reminiscent of the ballroom shot from Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT. The purpose of the long takes is to slow down the pacing to create contrast and shock/excitement after the pig’s blood when the action and horror kick in. The same way we use long sentences to slow the tempo down and short sentences to quicken the pacing.

And in the next series of shots, Sue Snell will trace the rope to the rafters, realize what is going to happen, and try like hell to stop it. She becomes our surrogate in the scene. Her success would be our success, her failure becomes our failure. Here’s that scene:



Exposition doesn't need to be someone talking on-and-on to give us that dump of information, we can give the information to the audience visually... and make it emotional and exciting!

- Bill

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: TOUCH OF EVIL

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) (re-cut version)
Stars: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver.
Writer: Orson Welles based on novel BADGE OF EVIL by Whit Masterson.
Director: Orson Welles

Almost sixty years after its initial release, a recut version of Orson Welles' classic film noir is back on the screen, fifteen minutes longer... darker, more evil than ever before.

Based on the 58 page memo Orson Welles sent to studio chief Edward Muhl after seeing Universal's cut down version, resorter Rick Schmidlin, Oscar winning editor Walter Murch, and film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum have created the film as Welles envisioned it. A posthumous director's cut.

The plot of TOUCH OF EVIL plays as if it were written yesterday. A Mexican district attorney (Charlton Heston!) takes time out from prosecuting a drug cartel to get married. While on honeymoon with his sexy American wife (Janet Leigh) they witness a car-bomb murder. While Heston helps the bordertown detective (Orson Welles) with the investigation, Leigh is taken to a motel for safe keeping. Some honeymoon. Detective Welles instantly finds a suspect, searches his apartment, and finds two sticks of dynamite... But Heston KNOWS the evidence was planted, and that Welles is framing the poor Mexican shoe clerk for the crime. While Heston is busy compiling proof that Welles is a corrupt cop, the drug cartel kidnaps Leigh. Now Heston must rescue his wife AND find the evidence which will bring down crooked cop Welles.

This may sound like a typical cop drama, but Welles turns it into a tour de force, taking us into the strip clubs, whorehouses, and dark twisted alleys of the border town. Creating nightmare images so vivid, you can practically smell the raw sewage in the canal that runs through the slums. In 1950s America, at a time when Beaver was Ward and June's son, the raw sexuality sweating from every enlarged pore of this film must have been more than shocking. The grimy streets, the gang-bangs with bull- dyke gang girls who want to stay and watch. "Hold her legs!" Even the phone sex between a lingerie clad Leigh (looking good enough to eat) and Heston at a store's public phone is given the added perverse twist of having the blind store owner listening to every word... and smiling. This is the type of twisted film David Lynch wishes he could make.

Welles was constantly pushing the limits of film making, and you'd be hard pressed to find a director working today who could pull off half the amazing shots in this film. Visually TOUCH OF EVIL would be innovating if it had been made today, and many of the filmic elements we take for granted had their roots in this film.

The most obvious change in the recut version is the famous 3 minute opening tracking shot (the subject of the opening scene in THE PLAYER). In the old version, Universal used this shot as a title sequence, destroying the suspense and obscuring the amazing camera work. The re-cut removes the titles, so that you can see everything clearly. This amazing shot opens with an assassin setting a bomb timer for 3 minutes. The assassin spots the victim, then races to the victim's car and plants the bomb in the trunk, darting into the shadows just as the victim turns the corner. Then the camera pulls to a high overhead as the victim drives away. The camera follows overhead as the victim drives through town, lowering to street level as the victim waits for a couple (Heston & Leigh) to cross the street. Suspense builds as Heston & Leigh walk on the street next to the car with the ticking bomb. At the border checkpoint, both Heston & Leigh and the car with the bomb are stopped for the usual round of boring questions. Tick. Tick. Tick. Heston & Leigh are allowed through the border at the same time as the car. It's when Heston & Leigh stop to kiss that the car zooms away... and explodes into the sky. ALL of this is done in one continuous shot.

Like nothing you have ever seen before.

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Another amazing shot you may miss if you aren't watching carefully. It's so effortless, so smooth, you don't even realize you're watching one of the most difficult shots ever put on film. At the shoe clerk's apartment, there is a LONG continuous shot (X minutes) where the camera moves from room to room following Heston. In order to do this shot, the apartment set was built with break away walls and furniture on wheels. The camera glides through the apartment effortlessly, through a team of police investigators, into the bedroom, into a minuscule bathroom where Heston washes his face, then retraces its steps back to the living room through the crowd of investors to the front door of the building. More complicated than the long takes in Hitchcock's ROPE because of the break away walls, moving furniture, and sheer number of actors the camera must jockey around while maintaining a smooth glide.

Every frame of the film is meticulously composed by Welles and his DP Russell Metty (the camera operator was Philip Lathrop, who would go on to do amazing DP work himself in films like POINT BLANK). Giant shadows on buildings chase characters through the street. Deep focus makes hunter and prey clearly visible in the same shot, even though they are hundreds of feet away from each other. Characters are shown in shadow, from low angles, often with the neon from honky-tonk bar signs strobing across their faces. A scene in a file room using deep focus to underscore the amazing composition obtained when certain file drawers in the room have been pulled out, turning the shot into a fascinating visual puzzle.

One shot you may not notice is the conversation between Heston and an American District Attorney in a car moving through the back alleys of town at 60 mph. At the time this shot would normally have been done as rear projection, but Welles mounts the camera on the car and has Heston drive like a mad man. No stunt double. That's Charlton tearing through town, zipping through intersections without even slowing down.

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Though the rec-cut version is a vast improvement over the studio's 96 minute trimmed down version, the problems with TOUCH OF EVIL remain the same. The parallel plots seem unfocused, Leigh's kidnapping taking away much of the power of Heston trying to bring down Welles' corrupt chief detective. The plotting is light: we are given little in the way of actual investigation into the frame ups, Heston just goes into a file room and comes out with evidence. Lastly, there's Heston's performance as a Mexican District Attorney: he's laughably unbelievable.

But the amazing work by Welles as an actor (fat, ugly, sad), Joseph Calleia as his second in command (not wanting to believe that "the cop who taught him everything" might be a monster), Valentin De Vargas as the handsome gang member who organizes the gang-bang, Dennis Weaver as the whacked out motel night man who can't think of woman and bed at the same time without getting flustered, and Akim Tamiroff as the crime lord with the bad toupee make this film memorable.

The rocking score by Henry Mancini uses Afro-Cuban rhythms and seems as modern as the theme Mancini would write for PETER GUNN the following year. And the pianola music that plays in Marlene Dietrich's whore house sticks in your mind for days. Dietrich, as the madam who was Welles' lover twenty years and sixty pounds ago gets all of the great lines:

"You're a mess, honey. You ought to lay off those candy bars."

Welles amazing direction and Metty's crisp, styling camera work are more modern, more innovative, than anything you will see today. After almost sixty years, TOUCH OF EVIL is more powerful than ever.

Bill

Article on the restoration: PURE EVIL
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