Monday, January 22, 2018

Lancelot Link Monday: And The Winner Is....

Lancelot Link Monday! There are now more awards shows every year than there are movies. As we lead up to the Oscar *nominations announcement* we have a ton of award shows from critics and guilds, and lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and... When will it end? Soon, everyone will have an awards show for 15 minutes! While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...




Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...


1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Jumanji ........................ $20,040,000
2 12 Strong ....................... $16,500,000
3 Den Of Thieves .................. $15,320,000
4 Post ............................ $12,150,000
5 Showman.......................... $11,000,000
6 Paddington 2 ..................... $8,240,000
7 Commuter ......................... $6,685,000
8 Star Wars TLJ .................... $6,566,000
9 Insidious TLK .................... $5,945,000
10 Forever ......................... $4,703,000


The JUMANJI reboot/remake/rewhatever has now made $317 million domestic... which is amazing. The film only dropped 28% from last weekend, and has made $768m around the world on a $90m budget. When it drops out of the #1 position, it may still hang around the top 5 long enough to crack a billion bucks. So look for a sequel, and maybe an Extended Jumanji Universe. Meanwhile flop GREATEST SHOWMAN dropped only 11.8% and has secretly made $114m domestic and $231m globally on an $84m budget... so it's not a flop afterall.

2) The Screen Actor's Guild Awards!

3) The 63rd FilmFair Awards (India)

4) The Producer's Guild Awards

5) The Writers Guild Award Nominations.

6) The Image Awards.

7) BAFTA Nominations (British Film Awards)

8) AFI Awards.

9) IDA Awards (Documentaries)

10) IDA Awards (Furniture)

11) New York Film Critics Circle Award Winners.

12) Critics Choice Awards.

Oscar Nominations will be announced tomorrow morning while I am sound asleep!

And the Car Chase Of The Week:





Bill

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IMPORTANT UPDATE:

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Dinner:
Pages:
Bicycle:

Movie:

Friday, January 19, 2018

Fridays With Hitchcock: FRENZY (1972)

FRENZY (1972)

Screenplay: Anthony Schaffer based on the novel by Arthur La Bern.
Starring: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Anna Massey, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Alec McCowen.

Hitchcock’s second-to-last film manages to combine many of his most popular elements into one story: We get the wrongly accused man story - this time very similar to one of his other lost gems, YOUNG AND INNOCENT. We also get a STRANGERS ON A TRAIN story of guilt transferred. Plus we get a sexy, violent, shocking serial killer story like PSYCHO. Hey, add a twist ending and you've got quintessential Hitchcock. Oh, and it's funny and clever, too - screenplay by the brilliant Anthony Shaffer...writer of the original SLEUTH, the original WICKER MAN, and SOMMERSBY. This is the best Hitchcock film in the post-PSYCHO period.




After a bunch of interesting failures after PSYCHO - movies that only Robin Wood could love - Hitchcock needed a hit... and here it is. FRENZY is a return to England and to London. The business had changed, and Hitchcock - who always seemed ahead of the curve - had coasted on past brilliance in the 60s until he stopped dead. This was the film that restarted him - and probably the film he should have gone out on. Though it’s about a man who is wrongly accused, he isn’t on the run like in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, instead he’s kind of “a man on the hide” - trying to find some safe place to hole up or some scheme to avoid the police by being smuggled out of the country. After years of sly winks from Hitchcock about sex - trains entering tunnels - the new permissive world of cinema practically demanded that he do a film full of nudity and sex. This is Hitchcock’s only R rated film. Instead of those glossy Hollywood “personality” stars like Cary Grant that he had used in the past, or the new method actors and low-key guys like Paul Newman - who didn’t match his style, FRENZY stars a bunch of fine British stage actors. You don’t know their names, but you may have seen them in movies or on TV before. The hostess of Masterpiece Theater, Jean Marsh, plays a role. Whether Hitchcock was returning to his roots or his comfort zone, the results are a fun and frightening little film that is still fun to watch.




Nutshell: Bitter bartender Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) seems to have lost everything in his divorce, including many of his friends. The one pal who took his side was Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) who runs a produce company at Covent Garden. These two are polar opposites. Where Blaney's life is a mess, Rusk is on top of the world.

London is plagued by the Neck Tie Killer - who strangles swinging single women with neck ties. When Blaney’s ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) becomes the latest victim only a day after they had a very public fight, he finds himself on the run from the police. Unfortunately, everyone sided with the ex-wife in the divorce, and no one will believe he's innocent. And when another Neck Tie Killer victim can be traced back to Blaney? Even his old pal Rusk thinks he’s guilty... and turns him in to the police. Lots of twists and turns, and one of those great end twists where the real killer is revealed.




Hitch Appearance: In a crowd listening to a political speech - right
at the beginning of the film... then someone spots a dead woman floating in the Thames River, naked except for a neck tie. “Is that my club tie?” someone asks.

Hitch Stock Company: Elsie Randolph who plays the Hotel Clerk was also in RICH AND STRANGE (1931).

Birds: One of the few Hitchcock films without birds - though there are some seagulls in the opening shot and a quail is served at dinner.

Experiment: Hitchcock plays it safe as far as story is concerned. FRENZY is a great example of taking us into a world, Hero & Villain “Flipsides”, character flaw creating story, set ups, and traditional twist endings. There are also some visual experiments in the film that we look at in MASTERING SUSPENSE.

A great summation of Hitchcock's thrillers that also works as kind of a little tour of London and a behind the scenes of Covent Garden market. Lots of suspense, twists, and a fun look at what happens when you lose all of your friends in the divorce... except for the bad boys you used to hang out with as a bachelor. Great script by Shaffer, great cinematography by Gilbert Taylor. Marred by iffy music by Ron Goodwin (replacing Bernard Herrmann after he had a falling out with Hitch). Hitchcock's best film in the Post-“Psycho” era (after he began to believe all of those critics that called him a genius - and made mostly cruddy films). A modern film, that holds up really well and has some great lessons on protagonist and antagonist relationships and twists.

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

- Bill

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!

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

Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

OTHER COUNTRIES:


UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

And....

HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR






USA Readers click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

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

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 52 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

THRILLER Thursday:
THE PREMATURE BURIAL

SEASON 2!!!!

The Premature Burial.

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



Season: 2, Episode: 3.
Airdate: Oct. 2, 1961

Director: Douglas Heyes.
Writer: William Gordon and Douglas Heyes, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe.
Cast: Patricia Medina, Sidney Blackmer, Scott Marlowe, William Gordon, and Boris Karloff
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: Bud Thackery.
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The boundaries which separate life and death are shadowy and vague. Who is to say where exactly the one ends and the other begins? In certain mysterious maladies all functions of vitality in the human body seem to stop. And then, some unseen force sets that magic pinions and the wizard wheels in motion once again. The silver cords has not been cut, the golden bowl has not been broken. And the soul? One wonders. What meantime has happened to the soul? Many years ago, Edgar Allan Poe pondered the questions of mysterious sleeps and strange awakenings in a story entitled ‘The Premature Burial’. Well, we’ve prepared a new adaptation of that story for you to enjoy tonight. And tonight, Poe’s characters will be brought to life by... Patricia Medina as Victorine Lafourcade, Sidney Blackmer as Edward Stapleton, Scott Marlowe as Julian Boucher, William Gordon as Dr. March, and this sinister gentleman as Dr. Thorne. And as sure as his name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!”



Synopsis: A rainy day. A funeral. Dr. Thorne (Boris Karloff) and Dr. March (William Gordon) watch as their friend Edward Stapleton (Sydney Blackmer) is laid to rest in his family crypt... today was to be his wedding day, but instead is his funeral. Thorne doesn’t understand how a 50 year old man in good health suddenly dies. He was Stapleton’s physician, but was away for few days so Dr. March attended to his sudden death. Was he poisoned? Dr. Thorne plans on pulling the coffin from the crypt and doing a post mortem... whether his bride-to-be Victorine likes it or not.

As everyone leaves the cemetery, the coffin inside the crypt begins moving... Shaking! It falls over and a hand breaks out from within and attempts to *open the coffin*! Failing, it becomes motionless.



Thorne and March bring the coffin back to the hospital, where Thorne is amazed that Stapleton’s skin is still pink... and he twitches a bit. March thinks perhaps a poison used to kill him may have also preserved the body. Thorne decides to try the galvanic battery on him - an early version of defribrillator paddles - to see if they can restart his heart. And it works! The dead man suddenly lurches to his feet, speaking gibberish... some sort of Frankenstein’s monster? He passes out - but his heart is beating, he’s alive! Alive!

Stapleton recovers in a hospital room... Dr. Thorne has diagnosed him with a form of catalepsy. Stapleton says he was never unconscious - he was aware of every moment he was trapped in that coffin. Aware of being pronounced dead when he was alive. It was worse than hell - completely paralyzed and unable to tell anyone that he was alive! He worries about Victorine, his bride-to-be. How is she taking his death?



Victorine (Patricia Medina) is busy making out with her lover Julian (Scott Marlowe), the painter hired by Stapleton to paint his soon-to-be wife. Unfortunately, Stapleton died *before* the marriage, so she is not a wealthy widow... and will be unable to continue paying for his artist loft and their secret relationship. There is an interesting age dynamic here - Julian is younger than Victorine (her boy-toy) and Stapleton is older than Victorine (making her his trophy wife). The age differences in the relationships bring out all sorts of character conflicts in both couples - it’s an important element in the story. Just as they kiss, the doorbell rings...

Dr. Thorne tells the widow that she may put away her grief... Edward Stapleton is alive.

At the hospital, Thorne tells Victorine that Stapleton is terrified that he will be buried alive again, so he has notified every doctor in the county of his condition and shows her a medical bracelet and neck medallion he has created for Stapleton to wear which say “Do Not Bury Me” with information about his condition, this way there will be no mistakes... no reason for Stapleton to fear a premature burial again. Thorne believes that Stapleton over-exerted himself in an attempt to impress his younger fiancé, and that lead to his attack. So please - when he is discharged from the hospital, make sure he does not over-exert himself again.

Julian sees a second chance at inheritance - Victorine can now marry Stapleton, and if he dies they’ll become rich.



Wedding bells. A strange honeymoon night - Stapleton shows her the crypt in the backyard of his estate that he designed and had built while he was in the hospital recovering. The stone door can be opened automatically by pressing a lever. There is ventilation, and water and food and blankets... and a dram of good brandy. The coffin is designed for comfort, and there is a cord which she is to *personally* place in his dead hands - if he revives inside the coffin he can pull the cord and ring a bell on the roof of the crypt. If she hears the bell, she is to come to the crypt and rescue him. He makes her promise that he will not be buried anywhere but in this crypt, with the cord in his hands. He will not live through being buried alive again.

As they settle into marriage, Stapleton takes it easy in his library - playing his lyre and reading Sir. Walter Scott... and Victorine finds ways to prod him into over exerting himself again. She suggests they travel...



While on holiday she does everything in her power to push him to his limits, and finally he collapses in the woods. She carefully removes the medical bracelet and medallion, rolls a stone away and buries them underneath... then calls for a doctor.

Stapleton is *not* taken home to be buried, but buried in that foreign land. Not in his special coffin, in his special crypt... but in a standard coffin (with a small glass window for viewing the body) buried in the ground. Awesome shot from inside the coffin at Victorine and the other mourners as the dirt is shoveled over the small window.



Wealthy widow Victorine Stapleton visits her lover Julian and tells him that now she can give him *everything* she has promised him. They get it on!

Dr. Thorne visits the widow , he is executor of Stapleton’s estate. He wonders why (and how) the medical bracelet and necklace were missing from his body... you see, he’s been doing a little investigating. Victorine believes the medals - made of silver - were probably stolen. “Are you certain that Edward was dead when they buried him?” She gets angry at the hidden accusation in that question - isn’t Thorne’s reason to be here a discussion of Stapleton’s will? Yes - Stapleton left his entire fortune to her. Just one thing - for her to inherit, Stapleton’s body must be buried in that special crypt with that cord in his dead hands. No inheritance until his body has been moved. Yikes!



Dr. Thorne will oversee the transportation of the body - all she has to do is sign the exhumation request. If she refuses, Stapleton’s fortune goes to his cousins. She signs.

The special crypt. The coffin he was buried in is opened, and his corpse transferred to his special coffin. Dr. Thorne places the cord between his dead hands... closes the coffin lid. Victorine watches, repulsed by all of this. Before the crypt’s stone door is closed, she places a picnic basket of canned food inside.

That night, Julian comes to the house to celebrate their new fortune, their new relationship... but that crypt in the backyard is a huge buzz-kill. How can they have a relationship with her dead husband out there? Julian laughs, “Let the old jack in the box deteriorate where it pleases him. We probably owe him that, darling.” Victorine relaxes, drinks to her dead husband... and the soon-to-be husband across from her. But before they can kiss, the bell tolls.

Not Wedding Bells...

The bell from the crypt...

The bell with the cord in Stapleton’s dead hands.

Julian believes it’s just the wind... until the crypt’s door opens!

Julian and Victorine creep into the vault to make sure he’s still dead in his coffin...



But the coffin is empty.

In the moonlight, Victorine sees a man in a shroud wandering the grounds in the distance. Impossible! Impossible! The man had been buried for six weeks! No food. No water. He can not have still been alive! Victorine freaks out.

Julian is still trying to find some rational explanation - but there really isn’t any.



In the library, Stapleton’s Sir Walter Scott book is open on his chair, his lyre nearby. Did these things get there on their own? Julian believes it is Dr. Thorne - who suspects, doesn’t he? - pretending to be Stapleton, placing these things in the library. It’s all Thorne’s evil trick! In the window behind Julian - the corpse of Stapelton in its shroud! Freak out moment! As the corpse glides away from the window, Julian yells for Thorne to come back - to take off the shroud and show himself.

Julian takes Victorine upstairs to her bedroom - she needs to rest. But on the bed - the medical bracelet and necklace! How could they get there? No one knew where she buried it... except Stapleton! His eyes were open as he lay there... he saw her! Only he knew where she buried them!

Then the lyre music drifts up from the library.



When they get to the library, the lyre is there but no shrouded corpse. But then Victorine sees him in the window watching them. She grabs Stapleton’s pistol and hands it to Julian, “You’ll have to kill him.” Julian takes the pistol, aims it at the shrouded form, “I see you Thorne, now leave us alone! Leave us alone, or so help me I’ll shoot!” Before he can fire, a voice behind him... Dr. Thorne. Then who was that in the window? Victorine looks from the corpse in the window over to Thorne - two different people. “It was never you... it *was* Edward!” Then she faints.

Julian and Thorne carry her to her bed... then Thorne asks Julian if Stapleton is alive? The crypt door is open, the bell rang? Julian says it is impossible... but Dr. Thorne says it is possible - men have survived long periods of cataleptic coma, like a bear in hibernation. He and Julian go downstairs... where the front door opens and Stapelton enters. Wrapped in his shroud. He slowly approaches Julian - close enough that the artists can see his face. It *is* Stapleton! He slowly walks upstairs. A hand on Julian’s shoulder - Thorne. The doctor says that Stapleton is alive and wants to be with his wife. He wants to share his joy of being alive with the woman who loves him. Julian says that she never loved Stapleton, she just married him for his money... so that she and Julian could be wealthy together. Dr. Thorne asks Julian if Victorine knowingly buried Stapleton alive? Yes! “The necklace and bracelet - she took them off him and buried them under a stone.”

Upstairs, Stapleton’s shrouded corpse wakes up Victorine... who is now close to insane.

Victorine comes downstairs holding the necklace, says she tried to persuade Stapleton to put it back on... maybe Dr. Thorne can help her. She’s gone over the edge.



That’s when Stapleton’s corpse glides to the top of the staircase. Thorne asks him to come downstairs... and Julian freaks out. Tries to run away. But Thorne grabs him. As Stapleton’s corpse slowly comes down the stairs, Julian admits to everything - Victorine drove Stapleton to another attack, hid the necklace and bracelet, did not tell the doctors of his condition, had him buried in foreign soil... all of this so that they could be together and inherit his fortune! Stapleton keeps climbing down the stairs, closer, closer, closer! His face a pale mask - skin white! After Julian has confessed to everything, implicated Victorine in murder; Stapleton’s corpse touches him... the Stapleton reaches up and *takes off his face*.

It is a pale white mask - Stapleton’s death mask. Underneath it - Dr. March.

When Dr. Thorne went to retrieve the body, he went to the place in the woods where he had died... and found a stone with no moss on it. Moved. Underneath the stone - the bracelet and necklace. And inside the coffin? Stapleton had been buried alive and tried to claw his way out! Died a horrible death from suffocation inside that coffin. Murdered by Victorine. The only way to prove it - get Victorine and Julian to admit their guilt.



Review:One of the most interesting things about this episode is how it uses the raw material of Poe’s story in unusual ways. The Karloff introduction is almost taken word for word from Poe’s introduction in the story. Though the narrator in Poe’s story is the fellow who is buried alive, he tells us of previous incidents of people buried before their time - including the story of Victorine and Julian (a writer in the story instead of a painter & sculptor) - she was the one buried alive in that story. Also the story of Stapleton, who broke open his coffin inside his crypt... but was unable to escape the stone slab which walled him inside... they later discovered his skeleton! By taking all of these pieces and reforming them into a Weird Tales type story of murder and revenge, we have a great Season 2 entry... and great roles for both Karloff and the screenwriter as doctors!



The story has traces of Poe’s TELL TALE HEART mixed in around the halfway point, where the dead man haunts his two killers, and that’s what makes this episode more than just the original Poe story... turning it into something that will make you squirm and scream. All kinds of nice horror moments, and that great moment where they think it’s Thorne pretending to be Stapleton... but Thorne is in the room behind them. Kind of a jump moment and a twist all in one.

That idea of having the corpse return for revenge is a stroke of genius, and we have to give a bunch of credit to screenwriter William Gordon (who gets to play the corpse) for coming up with a way to turn the creepy Poe story about being buried alive into an all out scare-fest. The great twist that it’s a scam to force the killers into admitting their guilt is icing on an already delicious cake. This episode was made a year before the Corman AIP version, and I think they did more in an hour than the feature did in half again as much time. Here’s the link to that movie.



Some great direction in this episode as well, with shots like the one from inside the coffin as the dirt is being shoveled into a grave a stand out. Some great low angles and high angles and moving camera shots and reveals. One of the things the elevate the good episodes of the series is the *cinema* style direction (based on specific shots) and often is present in the bad episodes is the “TV style direction” (master shot, close up, coverage - but no specific shots). It seems like there was a secret war of direction styles going on behind the scenes, between old school like television style and movie style on this show... which points out the importance of directors. Even with the same DP, one director turns in a pedestrian episode and another turns in an amazing episode.

And this is one of the handful of episodes where Karloff gets to do more than hosting duties. He’s basically the lead character, here, and gives a great performance again. Karloff’s deal on the show involved getting the chance to act in some of the episodes, and even though he was an old man at the time he always seems to give it his all when he could have easily coasted. This was the guy who played the monster in the original FRANKENSTEIN back in 1931... and thirty years later he’s using electricity to bring a dead guy back to life.

Season 2 of THRILLER is on a roll! And next week is another great episode - the weirdly twisted Robert Bloch story about a custom made suit... where the custom is demon worship!

- Bill

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Film Courage Plus: My First Pitch

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. As they have been releasing the interview segments from 2015 every week or so, I have dug back into their archives and tweeted some of the segments from 2014... so they won't be forgotten. There were something like 12 segments from 2014, and probably around 24 segments for 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

So here is the first one. I'm still not sure whether the article should come before or after the clip, so this time around it's *before* the clip - you can tell me which way you think would work best in the comments section.

MY FIRST PITCH


Shall we talk about pitching?

For some odd reason, new writers seem obsessed with pitching... maybe because they are shy by nature and worry that they will have to become performers, or that they believe all they need to do is tell someone their amazing idea and they get to meet Spielberg and date underwear models and live in a mansion. Neither of those is really true, but the last one is pure fantasy. If you are a new writer you will not be pitching unwritten screenplays, you will be pitching to get someone to read one of the stack of screenplays you have already written. And even though statistically some writer somewhere might be dating an underwear model, that’s probably never going to be you. Sorry. We’re writers. We date normal people, if we’re lucky. There is some chance of meeting Spielberg, though.

The shy by nature thing probably isn’t as large of a problem as you may think, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

THREE TYPES OF PITCHES


There are at least three types of pitches: Elevator, Pitching Takes, Pitching Projects. There may be more, but this is just a short article to accompany the film clip!

ELEVATOR PITCHES: That’s the common term, but basically it’s when you briefly pitch a written screenplay. You’ll do this at Great American Pitchfest or some film festival or screenwriting event. Thought they give you 5 minutes at GAPF and most other events, but that’s *total* time in front of some junior development executive - you won’t be pitching that whole time! You’ll need time to introduce yourself and for a little small talk. These events are really more about making connections than selling screenplays - so you want to get to know them and for them to get to know you, *then* pitch. And that only gives you a couple of minutes for your pitch. I’ve been on the panel at Raindance Film Festival’s pitching competition Live Ammunition! and they start out giving the contestants 5 minutes, then it goes down to 3, and sometimes it gets down to 1 minute. So think 2 minutes, you can always go longer if they give you more time. Basically - think of how you will pitch your screenplays if you are on an elevator and Steven Spielberg steps on after you. You have to get the story across before you get to his floor! That means you will be focusing on the *concept* of your story and not actually telling the story. The key elements in your pitch will be the concept, the protagonist, and the conflicts (emotional and physical). Basically an elevator pitch is like a logline... but with a few more sentences. The seed of idea, not whole tree and all of its branches! Never bore people with the details. Keep it focused! Big idea, person, problem.

PITCHING TAKES: I have a whole Script Tip on pitching your take - basically that’s what you do when a producer has read a couple of great screenplays you have written and think you would be perfect for an assignment, so they give you the Intellectual Property to look over and have you come back and pitch how you would adapt that property into a movie screenplay. I have a stack of books and magazine articles and even a bunch of old VHS tapes (old movies a producer owned the rights to and was interested in remaking) from these meetings... and each one I came back and pitched my take for. If you complain that so many movies are remakes and sequels and you just wish someone would give a new writer a break and buy something original, you haven’t yet realized that even remakes and sequels are written by *somebody*, and that somebody might be you. Pitching your take is all about how your would adapt the material - and your unique spin on the material or the way you would crack a difficult book or the theme within the material you want to explore. One of the magazine articles I was given (a producer at Universal whose Oscars were on display in the lobby of his office) was a xerox of a xerox of a xerox - and every single screenwriter in Hollywood had been given a copy to pitch. So they aren’t looking for a standard, “Well, I’d just put it in screenplay format and then clean it up” type of pitch - they are looking for what *you* as the writer will bring to this... what you will do that makes it unique and interesting. I was up for a sequel at once, and what they were looking for was an *additional* amazing high concept idea to graft onto the one from the first film. These pitches range from something similar to an elevator pitch where you just explain your angle, to a full telling of the story scene-by-scene. Everything depends on what the producer wants - just ask.

PITCHING PROJECTS: You have sold a screenplay or landed an assignment or two and you are now an in demand screenwriter... with a cool idea for a movie. Now, you could write the screenplay on spec and sell it to a producer, but your reps decide it would be more advantageous for the producer to hire you to write the screenplay. There are all kinds of reasons for this, including keeping you on the project for rewrites... because they have originally developed the screenplay with you. This is a long form pitch that goes scene-by-scene and can include everything from props to flip charts to images and “look books”. You are basically performing the story to the executives, and they will decide if they want to pay you to write this script or not... after they give you notes (Does it have to be on a ship? Why couldn’t the Titanic be a *space* ship?).

Though we already had a screenplay on the HOUSE remake, it was decided to do a longform pitch at each of the studios we had meetings with... and I’d never formally done this before at the studio level. I’d done longform pitches to producers I’d worked with in the past - in fact, I’d pitched several different versions of this story. But it’s different when you’re pitching to a studio VP for a producer. More pressure, less casual. One of the things I did was use a Hot Wheels car as a prop in part of the pitch, and at the end of the pitch I would zoom the car across the conference table to the executive. If he caught the car before it went off the end of the table, I figured he or she was interested. Not many cars hit the floor. But this was kind of a frightening situation for me because I’m not a performer, I’m a writer - and these pitches depend to some degree on the performance.

You may think that pitching your project is great because you will get paid to write it, but the fact is - you pretty much have it already written (at least a very detailed outline) to pitch it in the first place. Much of the really hard creative work usually has to be done first. I really prefer to spec a script than pitch it and hope someone says yes. That way, the script goes all over town and I just stay home and wait by the phone... instead of me driving all over town having to do a bunch of performances in hopes someone says yes. I kind of hate pitching.

THE PITCH ITSELF


Wait, Bill, you said we shouldn’t be worried about performance when pitching... and now you say you hate pitching? Both can be true, you know. I hate longform pitching because it requires some performance skills, but chances are you won’t have to worry about longform pitching for a while (if at all). You will mostly be pitching scripts that you have already written in order to interest someone in reading them, or pitching your take on some project (which is usually short and to the point and not doing a one man show in front of a bunch of bored studio suits). Those are more about the concept than the performance. The Live Ammunition Pitch Competition at Raindance is a great example of how performance doesn’t matter that much. The panel are a bunch of top Executives from British film companies - BBC, Channel 4, and others. Here’s a picture of me sitting next to the producer of THE CRYING GAME on the panel.



There are usually 75-100 people pitching at the event, and many are nervous writers who screw up their pitches or get stage fright or whatever... they are far from perfect. But they may have an amazing idea or a character we’ve never seen on film before, and that’s what is interesting. The “judges” are people looking for a great story, not looking for the actor to star in that great story. One year, a writer actually got an actor friend to pitch their screenplay. This was an amazing performance by a talented actor... and it wasn’t even in our top ten! Why? The story was bland - something that no one would stand in line for an hour in order to pay to see. The winner that night was a writer who stumbled through their pitch and gave a *terrible* performance - but had a great story! And that’s really what matters - the great story. So don’t worry about performance, worry about have a great *concept* - something that is both unique and universal. Worry about have a great star role, that will attract an A-lister who can open the movie. Worry about having an idea that can generate a bunch of big, juicy, emotional scenes... and will also generate big spectacle scenes that can be used in the trailer along with that amazing concept to sell tickets. Don’t be afraid of the performance side of pitching - just make sure you have a great story to pitch! When you hear 75-100 pitches in a single night at something like Raindance’s Live Ammunition, you realize how many bland ideas are out there.

And now the Film Courage clip...

My First Pitch:




Good luck, and keep writing!

- Bill

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Thank you to everyone!

Bill

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Trailer Tuesday: THE HITCHHIKER (1953)

Directed by: Ida Lupino.
Written by: Ida Lupino, Collier Young, Daniel Mainwaring (uncredited), adaptation by Robert Joseph.
Starring: Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Tallman.
Director Of Photography: Nicholas Musuraca.


THE HITCH HIKER is a low budget film from 1953 that just kicks all kinds of ass. Basically it’s three men, a car, and the great outdoors... but like the three person, two rooms ALICE CREED, you never notice that it’s a low budget movie because it’s so well made, well written, and intense. They gave a damn when they made this film! They knew they didn’t have money, so they made up for it with suspense and drama and some amazing *ideas*. A great idea costs nothing, but has a ton of production value. The amazing idea here is... an eyelid that is scarred so that it permanently open. Yes, that actually is a great idea. Wait until we get to it, and you’ll see its brilliance.



The film opens with a title card telling us this is based on a true story, and that this same thing could happen to you. So I did a little googling and discovered it really was based on the true story of Billy Cook, a notorious killer. Cook’s mother died when he was five years old, and his loving father took all of the children to live in an abandoned mine and fend for themselves while Daddy exercised his new found bachelorhood. Billy and his siblings were eventually discovered by child protective services and put into foster homes... except for Billy. Because Billy had a deformed eyelid... it never closed. The whole side of his face was a mess. He ended up under state care and eventually tried his hand at crime and was arrested at age 12 and sent to a reformatory for boys. He enjoyed hurting others, and when he turned 17... was transferred to a state prison. While in prison, he beat a few fellow inmates with a baseball bat... showing really poor sportsmanship. He was released at 22, found his father and told him he planned on buying a gun and making his living through robbery, armed. Billy drifted into El Paso, TX just before Christmas, 1950, bought a gun, and went out to the highway and hitchhiked. He robbed and killed anyone who would pick him up, stealing their cars until they ran out of gas and then hitchhiking for a lift into the next town to buy gas. He killed an entire family: father, mother, three kids and a dog, near Wichita Falls, Texas and dumped the bodies in a mineshaft in Missouri. He hitchhiked and killed to Blythe, California, where he killed a traveling salesman from Seattle and threw his body in a ditch. By this point in time he was wanted throughout the USA and every cop in the Southwest was actively looking for the hitchhiking killer. Hitchhiking, Billy kidnaped two men on a hunting trip, James Burke and Forrest Damron, and forced them to drive him south and across the border into Mexico... and on to Santa Rosalia. Once they reached Santa Rosalia, Burke and Damron knew they would be killed, but an odd thing happened: The Chief Of Police of the small Mexican town had been reading the American papers and recognized Billy Cook and captured him without a gunfight. Handed him over to the FBI, and he spent the rest of his life in prison. Cool true story, huh? And... that eyelid!



The film changes the names to protect the innocent and guilty, turning Billy Cook into Emmett Myers (William Tallman, DA Hamilton Burger on PERRY MASON) but keeping that creepy deformed eyelid. The movie opens with a (face unseen) Myers hitchhiking, getting picked up, killing the drivers and taking off in their cars. Again and again.

Then we cut to garage mechanic Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien from DOA and THE WILD BUNCH) and his best friend draftsman Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy from IN A LONELY PLACE) getting away from the wives for a week of fishing and camping, tooling along the back roads of California, when they spot a hitchhiker next to his car... and stop to pick him up. Hell, it’s *miles* to the nearest gas station and this is a back road. Who knows when another car will pass by?

The Hitchhiker sits in the darkness in the back of the car, not very communicative. When they ask about things like a gas can he becomes argumentative, but people can be grumpy if they’ve been standing there waiting for a ride for a while. It’s frustrating. Bowen decides to offer him a cigarette, but when he turns around he sees the gun pointing at him. They have picked up the notorious Emmett Myers who kills *all* of his victims. It’s only a matter of time before they are dead.

But Myers has made the most wanted list and needs to get across the border into Mexico... and since everyone is looking for one man, he figures he has a better chance as one of three buddies going on a fishing trip. He keeps the gun on Collins and Bowen and makes it pretty clear they are alive only as long as he needs them. This begins the road trip from hell, where Myers does everything he can to torture the two on their way south of the border to Santa Rosalia where a ferry boat will take him to the Mexican mainland... where he can vanish.



Simple story, but what makes this work are great performances by Tallman (who can go from unassuming gangly guy to crazed psycho in an instant) and the other two leads who are regular guys faced with a terrifying experience, plus intense pacing. This story comes up with a million things that can spark violence...

When they stop for gas at a service station, Myer demands minimal conversation... but the service station attendant is friendly and that means they have to be rude to him. Then they drive off without taking their change.

When they pull over in the middle of nowhere so that Myers can chart his path to Santa Rosalia with the least chance of being caught, he has Collins pop the trunk... and in there with the fishing equipment is a rifle. As Collins reaches for it, Myer *taunts* him to try something... he’ll be dead before he gets it out if the trunk.

The gun belongs to Bowen, who was in the army and says he’s an okay shot. So Myer arranges a little target practice. He has Collins walk way out in the desert with a tin can, and when Collins tries to set it on a rock, Myers tells him just to hold it... no, hold it closer to your body... closer. Then sees just how good a shot Bowen is. He either shoots the can out of his friend’s hand from hundreds of feet away with a 22 calibre rifle, or Myer shoots him. Bowen has no choice but to shoot... and hits the can! Of course, Collins practically pisses himself. Myers keeps having Collins hold the can closer and closer, and you just know that one friend is accidentally going to kill the other. Really intense! But all a game to Myers, who laughs and takes control of the rifle.

Though Myers is no criminal mastermind, he’s also not an idiot. He has a method to get both men in and out of the car so that he can keep the gun on them the whole time and they have little chance of escaping or trying to overpower him. He has thought this through. They keep to back roads in Baja, avoiding cities or large towns. And they pull way off the road to camp...





And here’s where the tension kicks in. Because due to that eyelid defect, Myers always sleeps with one eye open. Who knows if he’s asleep or awake? There are three camping scenes, and each one is filled with tension as they can’t figure out if they should make a break for it or not. The always open eye is starring at them. Every time they think they might be able to sneak away because it seems like Myers is sleeping, that always open eye looks right at them! The three scenes are filled with tension just because of the *idea* of that defective eyelid. Yes, it's from the real guy... but realizing that it could be used for scenes like this was purely the work of the writers. Cost of all of this suspense? A little make up around the eye.

Some of the other fun: Stopping for provisions at a Mexican grocery store: Bowen speaks Spanish but Myers doesn’t want him to be speaking any Mexican to anyone! Except the store owner speaks no english. Bowen almost gets shot, as does the store owner's cute little girl who wants to talk.

Myers takes Bowen’s expensive watch.

When they hit a bump, Collins hits the car horn and it *sticks*, drawing attention to them! Now Collins has to stop the car and repair the horn under the gun (literally) so they can get back in the car and zoom off before a man with a donkey reaches them.

Collins gets pistol whipped when he can’t find a working radio station in the middle of nowhere that has US news bulletins so that Myer can find out if the police are closing in one them. Collins is beaten so bad he can no longer drive and Bowen has to take over.

Myers wants them to move faster, and the car gets a blow out and almost wrecks... then they have to change the tire and a young Mexican couple driving by asks if they need any help (and almost gets killed). Again, Collins and Bowen have to be very rude to them in order to get them to drive away.



Things escalate until Collins just loses it. He breaks and becomes such a loose cannon that Bowen is afraid Myer will just shoot him. But Myers *loves* that Collins has broken under the pressure: proves Collins is weak and Myers is in control. That night when they camp, Collins decides to make a break for it and Bowen goes along. They wait until Myers’ eye is closed, worried that the other eye is still staring right at them. And race into the bushes... but Myer’s other eye pops open, and he chases the two running men... in the car! A great low budget NORTH BY NORTHWEST scene, and then Collins is hit by the car and they are recaptured.

They drive to an abandoned water well, and Collins and Bowen are sure they are about to be killed and dumped into the well. Lots of tension. But eventually they move on, by foot after the car’s gas tank is torn open by a rock, and get to Santa Rosalia, which both men know is the end of the line for them. This is where they die...

Made on a very low budget, this film with a limited cast that takes place either inside the car or in the desert has all kinds of thrills, May seem tame compared to THE HITCHER, but still intense. Lupino is one of my favorite directors, a great actress from the golden age who gave an Oscar calibre performance in one of my favorite films THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, was amazing as the *tough* blind woman in another favorite film ON DANGEROUS GROUND, and the tough bank robber’s girl in HIGH SIERRA... who decided to direct and stepped in when the director of a film she was starring in became ill. From that point on, she and her husband (magazine and screenwriter Collier Young) formed a production company The Filmakers, and began making films with Lupino as director. She just did it. Their first films were social issues movies that are still relevant and kind of shocking. OUTRAGE is a movie about rape that is more cutting edge and honest than any film on the subject made since. Somewhere along the line she worked with another one of my favorite directors, Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY, THE LINE UP), and learned all of his cinematic tricks... and she became what she called “the poor man’s Don Siegel” making hard hitting crime films like this. (Siegel's other protege was an actor named Clint Eastwood.)



Her direction style is like Siegel’s: deceptively straight forward. Nothing showy or flashy, yet still completely in control of the story, using angle and composition and movement to amplify the emotions. She also knew how to create suspense and tension, and soon on THRILLER Thursday we will get to her amazing episode GUILLOTINE. In HITCH HIKER she manages to give the film a documentary feel (it *is* based on a true story) and still use cinematic techniques to amp up the tension. For a film made on a budget it still packs a punch.

Oh, and I guess I should mention this film was secretly cowritten by my favorite screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST... now on BluRay! and the original INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS, and from Oakland!) who had his credit snatched away by producer Howard Hughes because Mainwaring did not share his politics (he was a friend to blacklisted writers and “fronted” for a couple of them). Lupino and Young ended up with screenplay credit. So here we have one of my favorite directors with one of my favorite writers and a buck fifty budget making a nifty little low budget thriller. Hey, it’s public domain, so you can watch it free!

Bill

Monday, January 15, 2018

Happy Martin Luther King jr's Birthday

From 2008....


Long ago, when DUMB & DUMBER came out and became an unexpected hit, Rolfe Kanefsky, a film director I know (I think I’ve talked about him before) came up with a movie idea called BLONDE & BLONDER - basically a collection of “dumb blonde” jokes dramatized into a comedy story. This is a great example of Terry Rossio’s “Mental Real Estate” theory. Rolfe wrote the screenplay, sold it to a producer... and about a decade later they got around to making it with Pamela Anderson and Denise Richards. The film was released on this long MLK weekend, I have no idea how it’s doing against CLOVERFIELD.

Decades after Dr. King’s death, we still have serious racial divisions in the United States. Whites are under-represented in our prisons. Whites are also under-represented in the lower income levels and lower paying jobs... and the unemployed. Whites are under-represented in the military. Last year we had the Jena Six - a great example of how race enters into the decision to prosecute one crime over another. And in Jena today we have a rally - not for racial equality, but for the KKK and racial hatred. Hey, it’s the United States, even racists have rights.

Okay, some of you are wondering what BLONDE & BLONDER has to do with a KKK rally in Jena, LA, and here’s the answer:

Why is it that color of eyes and color of hair don’t really matter in our society, but color of skin does? It’s all pigmentation. We may joke about dumb blondes, but nobody really takes that seriously. There isn’t any serious hiring discrimination against Blondes. There is no version of the KKK that wants Blondes to go back to where the came from (those Nordic countries). There was no time in history where Blondes had to use different drinking fountains than people with other hair color. Prisons are not over-flowing with Blondes.

There also doesn’t seem to be much discrimination against people with Hazel Eyes, even though they are clearly a minority. No one tries to exclude Hazels from their country club. Why is that?

Why is skin pigmentation different than hair pigmentation or eye color? All are just one little piece of genetic code. Someone with Hazel Eyes is the same as someone with Brown Eyes - except for the eye pigmentation, that is. Someone with Blonde hair is no different than someone with Red hair - except for the hair pigmentation, that is. Someone with Black skin is no different than someone with White skin - except for the skin pigmentation, that is. Why the hell would anyone hate someone just because they were Blonde? How does that make any sense?

I think the real problem is hatred. People need someone to be pissed off at, so they make some strange arbitrary decision to hate people with Hazel Eyes. All of my problems are caused by those damned Hazel Eyed people! My failure is their fault!

Hey, there *are* bad people out there who are Blonde or who have Hazel Eyes or have some skin color different than yours. And there are bad people out there named Bill. But imagine how silly it would be to decide that all people with Hazel Eyes are bad, or all people named Bill are bad, based on those few. That’s dumb and dumber.

So, on this Martin Luther King Day, let’s not look at what makes one person look different than another, let’s look at what makes us look the same as each other. We are all part of one race - the human race. Don’t hate. Forgive. Help people. You know, we’re all stuck on this planet together, why not try to make it a pleasant experience - even a fun experience?

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Symbolism. .
Yesterday’s Dinner: Sandwich at Togos.

Movies: NATIONAL TREASURE 2 - there's a place in this film where Ed Harris' character identifies the problem with the movie's script, when he says that there is only one way to go. This film seems predictable because it's "too linear". In the first film, every clue to the treasure was open to interpretation. Sometimes the clues would lead in one direction, unless you knew the other piece of the clue - which lead you in the opposite direction. And there were points in the first film where there was a fork in the story road and the characters had to decide which path to take... and often took the wrong one. In the sequel - no forks in the road. Every clue is exactly what it is, and only leads in one direction. In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK we have that headpiece on the staff with directions on where to place the staff on the map and how long the staff should be... but on the opposite side of the headpiece are more directions that *change* the length of the staff - and that only changes everything. Things like that make the story seem alive and unpredictable. When we come to a fork in the story road and the character makes a choice - if it's the wrong choice, that makes the story seem unpredictable... it also makes the story seem exciting, because the hero now must scramble to get back on course. But there is only one direction in NATIONAL TREASURE 2 - only one way the story can go. That makes it seem prectable and dull.

DVD: COLT 45 with Randy Scott. Okay, here's the weird thing - as a kid, I did not like Westerns. I watched a bunch of Western TV series, and liked them, but never really got into Western films. That may be because of RIO LOBO, a really cruddy John Wayne movie I saw in the cinema. So, except for a handful of classics, I'm not that familiar with the genre. Leone, Ford, Hawks? Big fan. But I'm trying to fill in the blanks on the others, and finding some gems and some stars I like. I know Randy Scott from a couple of great films - RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, so now I'm watching some of his other films.

COLT 45 is about a war hero gun salesman who has his personal Colt 45s stolen by the completely evil Zachary Scott (I don't think any relation) in a jail break. Now that Zachary has superior firepower, he and his gang start a major crime spree across the west... and no one can stop them. When Randy goes after them to get his guns back, he is mistakenly thought to be the leader of the gang by local sheriffs. Now he must get his guns back and clear his name and catch the bad guys... and in Randy Scott movies there is always a girl. Usually a girl on the wrong side of the law who changes sides and ends up with Randy for that closed mouth kiss at the end. Here we have Ruth Roman from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN who plays Lloyd Bridges wife. Bridges has joined Zachary and the bandits to make enough money to open a saloon. One of the strange elements of this film is that the desperados take over a town (where Alan Hale is the law... who knows how to take a bribe) - so Randy ends up facing off against "businessman" Zachary at the end. Oh, and there are Indians - Zachary kills some Indians, steals their clothes, and robs the stage coach disguised as Indians. The tribe is wrongly accused, just like Randy, and they work together to set things right. As you can see - lots of plot twists, lots of action... and an entertaining film.

One thing that I wondered about was this "superior firepower" thing, so I did a bit of research after seeing the film, and was surprised to discoiver that the "six gun" we think of as part of the old west, came kind of late in the game. The Colt 45 was the first modern revolver - and didn't really come into use until *after* the Civil War (the guns became popular in 1873). Hard to imagine that a gun that could fire 6 shots in a row was "superior firepower" - but it was. There were no "six guns" before the Colt 45.

Pages: No.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Fridays With Hitchcock: Family Plot

Fridays With Hitchcock is returning this year in a slightly different form. For the whole year we will be counting backwards through his films with a synopsis and some fun production details. The more detailed synopsis and look at each film will only be in my books (the third one won't even come out until early 2018... but you'll get a preview here). Since we are starting at the end, that's...

Family Plot (1976)

Screenplay: Ernest Lehman based on the novel “Rainbird Pattern” by Victor Canning. Starring: Bruce Dern, Karen Black, William Devane, Barbra Hershey. Director Of Photography: Lenny South... who had an office on Lankershim in the Valley and I met him! Music: Great John Williams score!



Hitchcock's final film. I have a soft spot for this film - it was the only Hitchcock movie I saw in a cinema during it's initial release. I was too young to see the others when they came out, my parents wouldn’t let me see THE BIRDS in the cinema as a kid... had to wait for the cut down TV version. Though FAMILY PLOT isn't Hitchcock at his best, it's a fun film... written by the multi-Oscared Ernest Lehman who also wrote NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Though not a chase film, both films share the same sense of humor.

I sometimes think Hitchcock should have quit after FRENZY - that was a good film to go out on. The great thing about FRENZY is that it’s a 70s film - gritty and raw and really performance oriented. It seems like an unusual film for Hitchcock. FAMILY PLOT is kind of a return to his comfort zone. It’s like an old studio movie, and much of it *looks* like it was shot on a sound stage. It seems very tame compared to FRENZY, and even the sexy dialogue seems like something from a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie instead of a movie made in the 1970s..



Hitchcock had a bunch of projects crash and burn, and some he cancelled himself because they required extensive location shooting and he wasn’t up to it. He’d just had a pacemaker installed and was getting back up on his feet. One of the projects he was working on that didn’t pan out was an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Unknown Man #89" - which has a very similar plot to this film. “Unknown Man” is about a recovering alcoholic process server - famous for once serving a rock star on stage - hired to track down a missing heir by a freakin’ evil lawyer. This lawyer obtains lists of missing stockholders, tracks them down, makes a deal to get them their stock in exchange for a large percentage. In this case, it’s the son of a chauffeur who inherited some stock that is now worth millions. The problem is, that kid has grown up to become an armed robber who does not want to be found. The great thing about the book is the process server falls off the wagon big time and has to scrape his life back together again... and along the way finds some missing self respect and kicks a little ass. He goes from doing what he’s told, to standing up to that freakin’ evil lawyer and his trigger happy bodyguard... and we discover the true meaning of “Chinese And Canadian Food”. Anyway, Hitchcock made this film instead.



FAMILY PLOT is a great experiment in storytelling, but also offers experiments in casting and an interesting technical experiment that Hitch had done once before on NORTH BY NORTHWEST (so maybe it was really an Ernie Lehman experiment).

One of the great things about FAMILY PLOT is the strange cast - it *stars* Bruce Dern. Dern played psycho Viet Nam Vets and twitchy villains and is probably most famous for being the only actor to ever *kill* John Wayne on screen. Shot him in the back in THE COWBOYS. Not a leading man... but has a great sarcastic delivery like his pal Jack Nicholson. Dern had played a role in Hitchcock’s MARNIE early in his career, and played characters on the “Hitchcock Presents” TV show. In MARNIE he was the rapist - not the kind of guy you cast as your romantic lead. One of the reasons why I was interested in this movie when it first came out was Dern as the *hero*. Totally weird casting. Gotta see that!



On the villain side we have Karen Black, who was probably the biggest star in the cast when this was made. Karen Black was *the* leading lady of the 1970s. From EASY RIDER to FIVE EASY PIECES to PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT to the Redford version of THE GREAT GATSBY to NASHVILLE to AIRPORT 75 to TRILOGY OF TERROR, Karen Black was in *everything*. She had that great combination of animal sensuality and tough vulnerability that allowed her to play wealthy Southern Belles or Truck Stop waitresses. She always seemed *real*. I mentioned in the Protagonist Blue Book that FIVE EASY PIECES is one of my favorites, and she shines in that film. You feel for her.

Her partner in crime was played by the always suave William Devane, who replaced Roy Thinnes halfway through shooting - you can still see Thinnes in long shots. Devane had played JFK on TV, and was considered a leading man... not a villain. One of the great things he brings to the film is his charisma - early in the film you are rooting for him and Black to get away with their crimes - they are so clever and elegant and cool. Hey, and the great Ed Lauter plays a childhood friend of Devane's who will kill anyone for a buck fifty. This is an eclectic cast, unusual for a big studio film.



The reason behind the odd casting experiment? Hitchcock came up through the studio system where stars were under contract with the studio and didn’t really cost the production anything, the studio would assign a star to a movie or the star might select a movie based on script and director. Hitchcock was a name director and all of the stars wanted to work with him. He could pick and choose. But when the studio system began to disintegrate in the 1960s, stars became free agents and began demanding high salaries... and getting them. Hitchcock *hated* paying a huge chunk of his film’s budget to stars, after paying half of his budget on the stars for TORN CURTAIN in 1966 (when stars were still “cheap”) he never made another movie with a star in the lead. TOPAZ, FRENZY and FAMILY PLOT all use character actors in their lead roles. Karen Black, the only one who might be considered a star in this cast, was never the star of any of those films she was in. The closest she comes to being the main attraction in a movie are FAMILY PLOT and DAY OF THE LOCUST, where the rest of the cast are character types. TRILOGY OF TERROR was a TV movie, where she was big enough to carry the movie.

Though the cast of FAMILY PLOT is more edgy/indie than a typical studio film, that may have also lead to it’s relatively poor box office. Great to see Bruce Dern play the romantic lead... but few people did.

Hitch Appearance: Silhouetted in a window at city hall's bureau of records.



Nutshell: Fake psychic Harris learns that a wealthy client’s sister gave up a kid born out of wedlock when she was a teen, and now wants to find the kid and put him in her will. If Harris and Dern find him, the wealthy client will pay them a huge chunk of money. Only one problem - that bastard child is now a notorious jewel thief known as “The Trader” who is the top story on every TV news program. How do you find a man who is doing everything in his power not to be found?

Dern is a failed actor who drives a cab, and throughout the film gets to use his acting abilities to play everything from a private detective to a sympathetic friend in order to get information.

Meanwhile, suave criminal Devane and his accomplice Black have a novel way of getting rich - they steal wealthy *people* and ask for famous jewels as ransom. Hey, aren’t you supposed to steal jewels from wealthy people? By twisting that around, it makes Devane’s “Trader” an unusual jewel thief.



The film contains some great Hitchcock set pieces, including a Bishop kidnaped in the middle of Mass, a crazy out of control car going down a winding mountain road, a car chasing our couple who are on foot, and several other great scenes.

There’s more on this film in my HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR book where we look at its use of *Intersecting Story Lines* and Extreme POV Car Chase and Double Entendres and the Puzzle Set Piece and the Arthur Adamson Montage and using Weird Weapons in the Thriller Genre and Start/Stop Story Issues. Check it out!

- Bill

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

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!

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

Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

OTHER COUNTRIES:
(links actually work now)

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

And....

HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR






USA Readers click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

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

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 52 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

THRILLER Thursday: GUILLOTINE

SEASON 2!!!!

Guillotine

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



Season: 2, Episode: 2.
Airdate: Sep. 26, 1961

Director: Ida Lupino.
Writer: Charles Beaumont based on the story by Cornell Woolrich.
Cast: Robert Middleton, Danielle de Metz, Alejandro Rey.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The early dawn. The gleaming knife. A man seized in his cell by armed guards in his stocking feet, snatched from a dream of freedom to be thrust into the waiting embrace of Madame Guillotine. Altogether an unenviable experience. Not however inevitable. It is related that there have been certain criminals, cutthroats and murderers all, who have by one means or another evaded this chilling fate. Well, the efforts of one such fellow to alter his ordained destiny form the substance of tonight’s story.

“The location: France. The year: 1875. And the theme? Well, you might call it togetherness. The normal association of a body and the head it comes with. You’re about to meet three people who enjoy seriously conflicting viewpoints on the subject. (The guillotine blade slices down, dropping a head into the basket which Karloff retrieves.) Here is the condemned man, Robert Lamont, who desires to keep his head while others about him are losing theirs. Enacted for us by Alejandro Rey. (The blade slices and the next head.) His good wife and the chief source from which his present dilemma obtains, Babette. Played by Danielle de Metz. (The blade slices and the next head.) And the third figure in this grisly triangle, the estimable and much maligned Mssr. De Paris. Public servant par excellence, portrayed by Robert Middleton.

“This drama may be considered, not to raise a tribute to the march of civilization, but also for the unconquerable spirit of convicted murderers. Of course, such practices may soon become things of the past. With modern methods of scientific liquidation instant death is now available to the masses without fuss and in most cases without undue delay. The old traditional ways were always so much more quaint.”



Synopsis: The Executioner “Mssr deParis” (Robert Middleton) tests the guillotine. They raise the blade, he locks the “trigger”, then pushes the lever with his foot to release the trigger. The blade glides down in a flash - through the neck stockade where a prisoner will soon be. The Executioner smiles. They place a cabbage in the neck piece and the Executioner pushes the trigger lever with his foot again. Wooosh! The cabbage is cleanly sliced in half. Half falls into the “head basket” below. The device is ready for it’s next victim...

Hours before dawn: In the darkest cells of the prison, two Guards have removed their shoes and creep to a cell where two condemned men sleep. Professional gambler Robert (Alejandro Rey) wakes up when the cell door opens. Are they coming for him? No, the Guards grab the other prisoner, who screams for his life. Robert watches through the cell door as they take him away...

Just before dawn: The cell door opens again and Robert turns - are they coming for him as well? No, it is his wife Babette (Danielle de Metz) who has bribed a guard for this visit. We get a nice piece of dramatic exposition on how he got to this place: he discovered Babette was cheating on him and killed the man. He claims he has forgiven Babette, but seems to rub in her indiscretion again and again, which makes her attempts at last minute reconciliation difficult. He kisses her and tells her that he has forgiven her, but can not forget. That her testimony against him may have damned him to this fate, but he knew they would force her to take the witness stand. That any other jury would have come back with a “not guilty” verdict, because of the “unwritten law”. There is all kinds of baggage in this relationship - and love and anger are in equal parts.



Cheering from outside the cell, and Robert and Babette look out the window to see the prisoner being escorted to the guillotine. Woosh! Plop - the head falls into the basket.

Robert tells her that soon it will be his turn, and Babette asks what can she do? Robert tells her that tradition, an unwritten law, that if the Executioner dies on the day of an execution the condemned man is set free. So if she can find out what day Robert is to be killed, and then kill the executioner... they can be together again. Babette isn’t all that hot on killing a man... will she do it or not?

The Executioner is given his next assignment from the warden... Robert. The clock is tricking... but ticking until *when*?



A Few Days Before The Execution: Outside a café, Babette carries a basket of flowers, selling boutonaires... and approaches Executioner. He is amazed by the bright colors of her carnations, and asks where she buys her flowers. She says she grows them herself, this is a family flower that has been in her family for generations. The Executioner’s hobby is gardening, and he asks her to sit with him for a moment and discuss flowers. She flirts with him as they discuss flowers - and there’s no shortage of words and phrases with double meanings here. He is a lonely older man, a sad man, and she is a beautiful woman. She offers him clippings of her family’s carnations... and asks when she can come by with them... cleverly finding out that he must get up very early on Thursday to work. So they make a date for Wednesday afternoon.

After he leaves, Babette accepts a drink from one of the other customers - a carriage Cab Driver (Gaylord Cavallaro) who informs her that man she was talking to was the Executioner. The most hated man in Paris. This is more sly exposition, as this guy is trying to pick her up by giving her some information... including that the Executioner will cut off a man’s head for money, but he wouldn’t hurt a cockroach without being paid...



This episode is filled with great matchcuts, and on the word “cockroach” we go from an empty saucer in the café to an identical saucer in Babette’s flat with a cockroach eating some poison on it and keeling over onto its back - legs convulsing. Babette is timing the roach’s death as she brushes her hair. She pours the poison into an ornate little tin, wraps it in her lace handkerchief and...

The Day Before The Execution: Her lace handkerchief on her lap as she sits in the Executioner’s garden on Wednesday afternoon. He plants the clippings while she flirts with him. When he’s finished he sits with her and breaks the bad news that he knows will break his own heart - he tells her that he is the city’s executioner. But she doesn’t seem to be repulsed like everyone else... like every other woman he has ever met in his life. “I am not under sentence, Mssr. And until I am, I don’t see why I should fear you.” Wait... is this a chance for the executioner to find love? Romance? This young woman knows his secret and continues to flirt with him.

This is a great scene, because she is flirting with the man who will take off her husband’s head... unless she poisons him dead. And he is a charming, shy, sympathetic man... who dislikes his job, but someone must do it.



They are close to kissing when they’re interrupted by his housekeeper Mdm LeClerc (Janine Grandel), who is calling him to dinner. The housekeeper is stern, abrasive, and reminiscent of Danvers from Hitchcock’s REBECCA. Oh, and slightly jealous. She tells Babette that she must leave now. Babette grips the lace handkerchief with the poison cannister as he walks her to the front gate. How will she poison him now? She offers to take a stroll with him later that night, but he says he must get up very early for work tomorrow. She says his dinner smells delicious and he gets the hint and asks her to dine with him.

Dinner for three. No shortage of tension as Mdm LeClerc snipes at her the whole time... while Babette tries to figure out some way to drop her poison into his food while the housekeeper isn’t looking. Had it just been the two of them dining, it would have been much easier. His wine glass is right there... but the housekeeper is watching her like a hawk. The tin of poison stays wrapped in the lace handkerchief.



After dinner, the Housekeeper steps into the kitchen for a moment and Babette asks the Executioner for a glass of water as a way to distract him so that she can pour the poison into his brandy snifter. But the moment his back is turned for a moment and the tin is out of her lace handkerchief the Housekeeper returns. Dinner is over, time for her to leave... and she still hasn’t poisoned him!

Time is ticking away until dawn and the execution!



The Housekeeper mentions that she is preparing the Executioner’s favorite breakfast for his pre-dawn breakfast - apple pancakes (pastry). Babette asks Mdm LeClerc if she will show her how they are made, and the two women go into the kitchen. On the counter is a big bowl of chopped and seasoned apples next to the dough. Babette asks her to write down the recipe, and while Mdm LeClerc is doing this she dumps the tin of poison into the apple mixture and quickly stirs it. The poison looks like the cinnamon. Babette quickly sets the stirring spoon down as the housekeeper hands her a folded piece of paper with the recipe.

In the prison, a guard slides a folded piece of paper to Robert. A note from Babette saying that he need not fear the dawn, she has completed her assignment.



The Morning Of The Execution: The Executioner’s Assistant (Peter Brocco) preps the bladeless guillotine for Robert’s execution.

The two Guards take off their shoes and creep to a cell where condemned men sleep... this time they have come for Robert. The Warden (Gregory Morton) enters with a Priest (Guy deVestel) for Robert’s final confession. Robert apologizes for getting the Priest up so early in the morning, but he has nothing to confess.

The Executioner finishes a big plate of his favorite breakfast, the apple (poisoned) pancakes. Checks his watch - time to go. Grabs the guillotine blade in it’s leather carrying case and checks the blade - very sharp. Puts on his coat and leaves the house - briskly walking across town in the pre-dawn light.



In the pre-dawn light the Warden and Priest and Guards escort Robert through the prison hallways to his death. Robert continues to turn down the Priest - if he dies without final confession he will be sent to Hell. Robert wonders why everyone is so sure that he will die today, and makes a 2 to 1 bet with the Warden that he will live to see the sun set again.

The Executioner continues briskly walking across town - almost marching - to Robert’s execution. But he halfway down this street he stops for a moment, removes his handkerchief and wipes sweat from his brow. Is the poison finally taking effect? Or is it just a warm morning? He checks his watch...

The Executioner’s Assistant checks his watch - the Executioner is running a little late this morning, but there is still plenty of time.

The Warden and Guards escort Robert downstairs, Robert almost tripping at one point. “Watch your step, Mssr.”



The Executioner almost trips... he is now feeling sick. He holds his stomach, has to stop for a moment to wipe the sweat again. Passes a bar with a sign advertising Cognac...

The Warden pours Robert a snifter of Cognac, and one for himself - the condemned man’s final drink. A philosophical conversation... then Robert asks if it is true that if the Executioner dies on the day of the execution the next man in line is pardoned? Yes... but this Executioner has never been late, never been ill... never had so much as a stomach ache.

The Executioner holds his stomach, leaning over a fountain - sick. He staggers down the street, face sweating, sees a pharmacy and pounds on the doors. No one answers - it’s before dawn. He continues staggering forward, hanging onto the pillars of a building to stay upright. Marching forward to Robert’s execution, the case with the guillotine blade at his side. He passes a barber shop...

The Barber (scene stealer Marcel Hillaire) arrives to shave Robert and cut his hair - must look good for his execution, right? A very macabre conversation between the two: they talk of going to Hell, and the Barber says it is a myth that he draws the line on the neck for the Executioner to follow, and he has never loaned his razor to a prisoner so that he wouldn’t have to face the national blade... all myths.

The Executioner continues forward in agony. He *will* make it to the execution. Nothing can stop him... even though he is sweating like a horse.



A sweaty horse and the cab behind it stops at the prison’s side gate. The Cab Driver helps Babette down from the carriage, joking with her about being front row for the execution. Flirting with her in an odd way. She shoots him down, he drives away. Babette asks the Gate Guard if she can enter here to see the execution. Nope - this gate is only for the Executioner. The public gate is around the corner. Has the Executioner arrived yet? Not yet. She smiles.

The Warden tells Robert that the Executioner is here, now, testing the machine. He has never been late. “I can assure you that at this very moment he is raising his hand in a signal to his assistants.” For the first time Robert looks worried.



The Executioner raises his hand to hail the taxicab as it comes towards him. The Cab Driver stops, climbs down to where the Executioner is doubled over in agony. “Something I ate...” The Cab Driver offers to take him to a doctor, but the Executioner says he *must* get to the prison to fulfill his duty. The Cab Driver says he will take the man to a doctor because that is the right thing to do, but he will *not* take him to the prison to take another man’s life. One of the great things about this episode is that it manages to keep you on the edge of your seat while discussing capital punishment. If the Cab Driver takes the Executioner to the prison, Robert dies. If he refuses, Robert has a chance at living. So the stakes in this conversation are the stakes in the story. And it’s dramatic, because the Executioner is seriously ill... but still arguing that he must do his sworn duty. And the great side-effect of budget constraints in television is that this is the same Cab Driver from the café, the same one who just took Babette to the prison and was on his way back from the prison when the Executioner flagged him down. So we *know* this character. His earlier conversation with Babette about how the Executioner wouldn’t kill a cockroach but sees nothing wrong with killing a man tints this conversation. The Cab Driver tells him that his conscience will not permit him to take him to the prison, but it is only a few hundred yards away, and drives off.

The Executioner continues staggering towards the prison... towards Robert’s death.



Ten Minutes Before The Execution: The Assistant tells the Warden that the Executioner has not arrived yet, not even a message from him. There will not be time for a test before the execution. Robert is no longer worried... the Warden is worried.

The Executioner staggers relentlessly towards the prison - it is within sight now. He leans up against a wall, sick. A Policeman approaches, thinks he’s a drunk, tells him he should go home and sleep it off. The Executioner says he *must* get to the prison... then keels over.

Robert and the Warden have a conversation about execution versus rehabilitation - again, this is perfectly in context for the story and even adds to the suspense because the longer they stall the execution the more likely that the Executioner will finally stagger into the prison with the guillotine blade and Robert will lose his head. Robert - the gambler - asks if he shouldn’t be taken to the execution platform about now. Hey, the spectators must be disappointed. The Warden has Robert taken out to the courtyard, knowing that if the Executioner doesn’t show up it will be a major public embarrassment for him.

That Policeman wants to get the Executioner to a doctor, but he *must do his duty*... so the Policeman helps him to the prison.



They bring Robert out to the courtyard - the spectators go wild. Robert looks through the crowd for Babette - can’t see her. The Priest makes one final effort to get Robert’s confession, but he refuses. Minutes tick away - if they get to the time of the execution and the Executioner has not arrived, Robert goes free.

Babette is not in the crowd because she is still at the prison’s side gate - counting down the minutes there, worried that the Executioner still may arrive. He is a big man, did she put enough poison in his food for such a big man? What if he is *not* dead? What if he is still coming to the execution?



And then the Executioner appears across the street, held up by the Policeman (Vance Howard, Opie’s dad). The Policeman yells for the Gate Guard to give him a hand. Babette backs up, hiding in the doorway. Terrified that the Executioner will fulfill his duties. The Policeman and Gate Guard practically carry the Executioner to the gate, leaning him against the wall only inches from Babette as they open the door. The Executioner looks right at her and asks, “Why?” She tries to get away from him, but is trapped in the doorway - trapped with the man she murdered. A shy and lonely man... now close to death. “I thought you were fond of me. For the first time in my life someone who... Why?” Big dramatic moment. Babette says she has never seen him before in her life and walks away.

The Executioner tells the Policeman to stop her, and she is taken into custody. The Executioner tells her that he *will* keep his appointment, and there’s an echo here of her earlier line about not having to fear him because she is not under sentence. Well, she will be now!

The Executioner’s Assistant and the Prison Doctor (Charles LaTorre) come out, and they take the Executioner into the courtyard... and the guillotine... and Robert.



Robert is preparing for victory, when the Executioner is carried into the courtyard. The spectators cheer - the show will not be cancelled! Robert realizes this can go either way - his confidence vanishes.

The Executioner falls to the ground. The Assistant takes the case with the guillotine blade from him and attaches the blade. They help the Executioner to his feet.

Robert says, “He will never make it,” but he’s not sure he believes that.



The Executioner’s legs no longer can hold up his stout body, but they carry him towards the platform... closer... closer... closer! Robert repeating, “He’ll never make it!” with less confidence with every foot closer to the platform.

Robert is taken up to the guillotine, his neck placed in the stockade, his head dangling over the head basket. He yells that no one but the Executioner must touch the trigger.

Only the Executioner and the Prisoner are allowed on the platform, so they lay the Executioner down at the base of the steps.

“No one else! You hear me, no one else!” Robert is screaming and crying and...

The Executioner is *crawling* slowly up the stairs to the platform. Each step is agony.



The spectators are screaming.

Robert is screaming.

The Executioner is slowly crawling across the platform to the guillotine. One inch at a time. Closer... closer... closer.

Robert is screaming, “He can’t kill me! He can’t kill me!”

The Executioner crawls right up to the guillotine trigger! And then drops to the platform - unmoving.



Robert’s screaming turns from terror to hope.

The Prison Doctor climbs up onto the platform, holds up the Executioner’s arm to take his pulse. Conforms that he is dead.

Robert’s hope turns to triumph, to joy - he will be set free! “He’s dead! I win! I win! I win!”

The Prison Doctor lets go of the Executioner’s wrist... and his arm falls... and hits the trigger... and the blade falls... and so does Robert’s head.

The end.



Review: Another perfect storm for me - Ida Lupino *and* Cornell Woolrich! When I first watched the THRILLER show as a kid, this is the episode that stuck with me. It had me on the edge of my seat for a full hour. Would the executioner make it to the prison? I was a little concerned when watching it again that it wouldn’t hold up to my memories... but it was just as great as I remembered it.

As I’ve said before, Woolrich is known as one of the three fathers of modern Noir fiction, and the films made from the work of those three and their contemporaries are what we know as Film Noir. Woolrich is the guy who put the Noir in Noir thanks to his “Black Series” of novels, including BRIDE WORE BLACK, BLACK PATH OF FEAR, BLACK ANGEL, and many others. And if you are wondering how Noir can have three fathers and no mothers, Woolrich is probably closest to taking that mother role... not because he was Gay, but because he specialized in female lead stories. Noir from the woman’s point of view. Many of his stories, including this one, deal with women doing terrible things to save the men in their lives. Since Noir is about good people doing bad things... and discovering the darkness within that they wish they’d never uncovered, the idea of an “innocent” housewife stepping over the line to help her husband out of a jam is prime Noir territory and Woolrich mined it throughout his career.



I have always wanted to do a more faithful film adaptation of his novel BLACK ANGEL about a basically quiet and subservient suburban housewife whose husband is accused of murder and there is so much evidence that he *will* be convicted... so comes out of her shell and becomes a detective, going undercover to trace his steps on the days leading up to the murder in order to uncover the real killer. But this quest creates one line after another that she must cross - creating a spiral of descent into the darkness. How far will she go? Will she start using drugs in order to be accepted by addicts as she goes undercover following a lead? Yes! Will she become a prostitute and sleep with a bunch of strange men in order to follow a lead? Yes! As the quiet housewife spirals down and down in search of the evidence to clear her husband of these charges - degrading herself again and again - we begin to wonder if this man is worth all of this. If *anyone* is worth all of this. And also - if she proves him innocent, will he want whatever is left of her back? This is an awesome Noir story that Hollywood cleaned up for film - robbing it of all of its darkness. In the novel she proves that he is innocent and they live happily ever after... but Woolrich, like Raymond Chandler and many other pulp writers of the time, based his novels on short story material he’d previously had published... and in the short story version, “Angel Face”, she degrades herself only to discover that her husband is guilty, was always guilty, and their whole marriage was based on her believing his lies. And that’s the Noir ending I would use on a new film version. Darker than dark.

A similar ending to this story GUILLOTINE - where our wife character Babette must seduce and murder the executioner in order to save her husband’s life... and after she does all of these terrible things, it ends up being all for nothing. How dark can you get?



Though this is a fairly simple story - will Babette be able to poison the Executioner for the first half and then will the Executioner make it to the execution for the second half - it is all about suspense. Both of those situations are focused on suspense and the episode (and Lupino’s direction) are relentless in keeping us on the edge of our seats in anticipation. This is another Woolrich trait - where Hitchcock was the master of suspense on screen, Woolrich was the master of suspense on the page. Where they two intersect - the movie REAR WINDOW and the TV episode 4 O’CLOCK - we end up with classics. Woolrich knew how to keep the suspense escalating on the page, and in his novel PHANTOM LADY (which also needs a more faithful remake) the chapter titles tell us how many days until the protagonist will be executed for a murder he did not commit - even before the murder has occurred in the story! Talk about a page turner! You can’t finish one chapter without seeing the title of the next chapter with the number of days left... and you end up continuing to read. Can’t put it down! This episode uses those same suspense tools. We know when Robert will be executed and count down the days, hours, minutes, seconds until that happens.



One of the reasons why the suspense works in this episode is what I call the “THUNDERBALL Theory” in my Secrets Of Action Screenwriting book. In the James Bond movie THUNDERBALL the villain Largo has *two* nuclear weapons, and “tests” one on an island before hiding the other somewhere in Miami. That way the audience can see the destruction this weapon causes so that they know what would happen if the one in Miami detonates. If the audience doesn’t understand what will happen, if it remains abstract, there is less suspense generated. In GUILLOTINE we open with the title device being tested so that we understand what will happen later if Robert’s neck ends up meeting that hurtling blade. We get some great visual exposition showing us step-by-step how the device works - including that trigger which will become very important at the very end of the episode where there is no time to explain anything. You always want to get exposition up front so that it doesn’t get int the way of the ending. We don’t want to be explaining how that trigger works moments before the Executioner’s arm drops on it! Plus, knowing the full scope of the “event” gives the anticipation of that event (suspense) more weight. It’s not an abstract concept, this execution by guillotine, we have seen what that blade can do to a cabbage. And they *do* use this blade on the necks of men - which we know because that test at the beginning of the episode is for Robert’s cellmate... who loses his head soon after that test.

Hey, that brings up another great storytelling tool used in this episode - repeating the events that lead up to the execution. The episode opens with the Guards taking off their shoes and sneaking up to the death row cell to take the next victim of the guillotine... and grabbing Robert’s cellmate. By showing this procedure early in the episode, when we see the same procedure happening again we *know* that Robert will suffer the same fate. It makes the execution *real* and amps up the suspense in the situation. It’s a cousin to the THUNDDERBALL Theory - by showing what happens early, we turn an abstract idea into something tangible and that creates suspense later. This isn’t just some vague idea of a bad thing that might happen, we’ve *seen it happen*.



But the key to this episode and the key to this being effective as Noir is Robert Middleton’s performance and the way his character is portrayed. The Executioner must be both a serious threat *and* a sympathetic victim. Simultaneously. That’s a tough thing to pull off for a writer and a director and an actor - and here all three manage to walk that razor’s edge without being cut. Middleton, a character actor probably best known for the brutish escaped convict in DESPERATE HOURS, probably does his best work in this episode. When his blurry vision clears for a moment at the prison doors and he recognizes Babette, we genuinely feel for him. “Why? I thought you were fond of me. For the first time in my life someone who... Why?” That’s a heartbreaker!

The amazing thing this episode does is make up both want the Executioner to succeed in getting to the prison to do his job, and *not* make it to the prison so that Robert won’t lose his head. Ida Lupino manages to pull that off (with the help of Middleton and TWILIGHT ZONE screenwriter Beaumont - 22 episodes!) masterfully. Lupino is one of those great directors who somehow has slipped through the cracks and is not studied today. Part of that may be because she had to fight for every credit and ended up directing a bunch of silly TV shows like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, but her work was always imaginative and amazing. Here she gives us POV shots from the Executioner that replicate the blurry fever vision of a poisoned man. Her THRILLER episodes and films are often filled with amazing visual experiments (frequently mentioned in this series), but she also knows exactly how to create suspense through editing and angle and camera movement. Her film THE HITCHHIKER is edge of the seat suspense. Here we have a simple story which is just a guy walking to work, right? Some other director might have made it just as exciting as some guy walking to work, but Lupino turns out an episode that was my favorite as a kid and still holds up as an adult.



Oh, gotta mention the amazing Jerry Goldsmith score! One of the major components in creating the suspense in this episode is his relentless score makes us feel the determination of the Executioner. Goldsmith was my favorite composer of film music from my lifetime, and long before he became one of cinema’s greatest composers of the 70s and 80s, he cut his teeth doing weekly scores for TV shows like THRILLER. His music elevates many of the weaker episodes and turns great ones like this into classics.

Okay, I’ve probably oversold this episode, but it’s still my favorite after all of these years and Stephen King and his PIGEONS FROM HELL can go suck it. Next week the streak of good episodes continues with an adaptation of Poe’s THE PREMATURE BURIAL, and after that another great creepy episode based on Robert Bloch’s THE WEIRD TAILOR. Stay tuned!

- Bill

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