Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: THE OUTFIT

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

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

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

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

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


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

Film opens with a Priest in a taxi cab driven by Felice Orlandi - who you would recognize as the low level pock-marked crook in at least a dozen films (including BULLITT!), stopping at a gas station to ask for directions. So you know something is wrong...
Orlandi isn’t just playing a taxi driver like Duvall did in BULLITT, he’s some sort of bad guy. It’s like casting Gary Busey as a waiter. When they get to this house out in the middle of nowhere (rural setting), there is a guy fixing a fence with his dog... And Orlandi and the Priest show up with guns and blow him to pieces. Violently. They just keep firing at him while the dog barks and yelps. The dog is a great touch - when it howls for its dead master, we feel its pain.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Buy THE OUTFIT at Warner Archives.


- Bill

Thursday, April 25, 2019

THRILLER Thursday: Late Date

Best Of Thriller: LATE DATE

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

Season: 1, Episode: 27.
Airdate: April 4, 1961

Director: Herschel Daugherty.
Writer: Donald Sanford based on the story by Cornell Woolrich (REAR WINDOW)
Cast: Larry Pennell, Ed Platt, Jody Fair.
Music: Great Jerry Goldsmith score.
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Put yourselves in young Larry Weeks’s shoes my friends. You’ve just come home from a carefree day at the beach. Mind and body exhilerated by the sun and water. And what awaits? The tragic evidence of murder. Now ask yourself: What would you do next? Remembering always that the one person you love most in all this world, your own brother, was the killer. Would you phone for the police? Would you run from this terrible scene? Or would you have the courage to do what Larry Weeks will do? But before you answer, let me introduce the people who you will meet in tonight’s excursion with a corpse. Mr. Larry Pennell, Mr. Edward Platt, and Miss Jody Fair. Now for those of you who are still undecided let us see exactly how young Larry did handle this grim problem.”

Synopsis: Summertime, and everyone is at the beach. Mid 30s Larry Weeks (Larry Pennell) walks back to his suburban home, expecting to find it empty... but his middle aged brother Jim (Ed Platt from GET SMART) is back a day early... and looks like hell. It’s Thursday, and Jim works in the city during the week, staying at an apartment there, and only comes home on Friday for the weekend. When Larry asks if Jim’s wife Doris is upstairs, Jim mysteriously answers yes, but don’t go up there. Larry climbs the stairs to the bedroom to find Doris dead on the bed... neck broken.

Jim says he discovered she had been cheating on him, and just snapped... as did her neck. Larry says she began cheating a week after they were married, met a guy named Syd in a beer joint and with Jim away all week...

When Jim wants to go to the police, Larry talks him out of it. And by accident, Jim has caught a break: he forgot his train punch card and had to buy a ticket at the station, round trip, so he could go back in the morning. No one on the Thursday train recognized him, because he always comes home on Friday. Larry convinced Jim to sneak back to the station, take the next train to the city, and hang out with friends the way he usually would on a Thursday... to create an alibi. Then, using his punch card when he comes back on Friday, make sure that people *do* remember him on the train. Meanwhile, Larry will deal with the corpse.

But before Jim can leave, his daughter Helen (Jody Fair) returns from the beach. Larry tries to get rid of her by saying her boyfriend Gordon went to the beach to pick her up, but Helen says she’s already talked to Gordon... they’re going to the movies tonight and she can’t very well go in her bathing suit. She slips past Larry into the house. Will she discover Jim and ruin the plan? Helen takes off her wrap and is headed for the hall closet when Larry spots a coat tail hanging out of the closet door... is this where Jim is hiding? Larry tries to take her wrap for her, but she refuses. Opens the closet door: nobody there. Then she asks Larry if Doris is home. Larry says no, and Helen says: great, I can break into her room and use her make up and perfume. That’s where the corpse is!

Larry heads her off at the door to Doris’ room, makes sure it’s locked. While Larry and Helen are talking upstairs, Jim sneaks out downstairs. Helen goes into her bedroom, then sticks her head out and says to Larry: Doris probably didn’t lock the door to the shared bathroom, so Helen can still get in and use her make up and perfume. When Helen ducks back into her room, Larry scrambles to unlock the door to Doris’ room, slip inside, and then tries to close and lock the connecting bathroom door before Helen can try the door... but Helen goes into the bathroom first, turns on the light. Larry hides next to the door, unseen... but Doris’s corpse is in plain view sprawled on the bed!

That’s when the doorbell rings. Helen yells for Larry to answer it, it’s probably Gordon. But Larry can’t move or make a sound without being discovered. When Gordon keeps ringing the doorbell, Helen goes out to the hall (next to the door to Doris’ room) and yells down that it’s open, and Gordon enters. While Helen is on the other side of that door, Larry grabs Doris’ corpse and tries to hide it in the bedroom closet, but the door is locked. Helen goes back into the bathroom, and Gordon yells from downstairs to put on some of that expensive perfume that Doris uses... and Helen enters Doris’ bedroom!

Larry and the corpse hide behind the bed as Helen puts on make up and perfume, then steps back from the full length mirror to check herself out... almost stepping on Dead Doris’ foot! The phone rings. When Doris leaves the room, Larry sneaks out into the hall and says he’s got it, answers the phone downstairs... it’s Doris’ boyfriend Syd! Wants to know if she’s home. He says she’s out, call back later. Helen and Gordon leave for the night.

That night: Larry goes out to the car, pops the trunk, pulls out everything and puts it in the garage... including the spare tire. Doesn’t notice the nosey next door neighbor woman sitting on her porch, watching him. Back in the house, the phone rings... it’s boyfriend Syd again asking if Helen has come home. Larry comes up with a plan: says she’s having dinner with some friends at the Paradise Club and will meet him there at 8:30. But he should park in the back of the lot so that her friends don’t see him. Syd says he’ll be there. Larry checks his watch: 8:00. The ticking clock has begun. He lights a cigarette, gets ashes on the livingroom rug... and figures out a plan. He pours some ink on the rug, wraps Doris’ corpse in the rug, then calls a cleaner and says he’s spilled ink on his carpet, can he drop it off tonight? The cleaner is closed, but the guy says to ring the bell and he’ll open the door for him. Larry picks up the rug to carry it out to the car... and a shoe falls out. He stuffs the shoe back inside, plugs both ends of the rolled carpet with pillows, an carries it out to the car...

Where the Nosey Nextdoor Neighbor asks what he’s doing.

Larry tells her he spilled ink on the rug. She wonders why he’s taking it to the cleaners *now*, why not wait until morning? Larry explains that he doesn’t want the ink to set in. Then, in front of the NNN he has to put the rug in the trunk of the car. But it doesn’t bend like a rug, because it has a dead person inside. Suspense! He gets it in the trunk, closes it, gets in and... the car has trouble starting. He needs to getout of there *now*, the clock is ticking the Nosey Nextdoor Neighbor is watching. The car finally starts and Larry starts to drive away... when a police car cruises down the street! He *follows every possible law” as he backs out and drives off...

A winding mountain road with a sign for the Paradise Club announcing that it’s only 2 miles away. Larry turns the corner, clock ticking, he’s going to make it... then runs over something and gets a flat tire. Pulls the car to the shoulder and takes out the rug/corpse, slinging it over his shoulder. That’s when a car pulls up next to him. Two friends of Larry’s who want to help him. Change the tire? No spare. Drive you to a gas station to get a tire? He has to get this rug to the cleaners. Drive you to the cleaners, rug in the backseat? Um, no... it’s not that far, I can walk it. The rug is light. (He’s sweating like crazy, trying to make the rug look light). Will they discover the body? They say, “Your funeral” and get back in the car and zoom away.

Larry lugs the rug up the winding road, wondering if he’s going to get there in time.

On the road, a pick up truck pulls up next to him. The driver offers him a ride, he’s going past the Paradise Club. Larry puts the rug in back, climbs in. The driver asks him all kinds of questions about what he’s doing out at this hour with a rug. Larry tells his ink story and the driver says that’s bunk: he *stole* the rug. He’s hoping to sell it to someone at the Paradise Club, right? Right? Larry has no idea which way to answer... but the driver starts speeding up... faster and faster and faster. Larry says he wants out. The driver *throws him out*! Larry manages to yank the rug out of the back of the truck before hitting the shoulder with his shoulder and rolling down the side of the hill.

When he comes to, he’s messed up, but alive. His watch is broken. No idea what time it is. He climbs the hill, realizes he’s at the Paradise Club... and there’s Syd at the back of the parking lot in his car! Larry backtracks, finds the rug, puts it on his injured shoulder and carries it to the bushes behind Syd’s car.

Syd looks at his watch, impatient, then gets out of his car and goes into the Paradise Club looking for Doris. Meanwhile, Larry unrolls the rug, revealing Doris. How long will it take Syd to find out Doris isn’t in the club and come back to his car? Another ticking clock. Larry gets the corpse into the back seat of Syd’s convertible, makes sure her purse and identification and everything else that will make it look like she was out with Syd and he killed her, then slips back into the bushes *seconds* before Syd returns to his car, pissed off. For a moment, Larry is afraid Syd will look in the backseat and this whole thing will blow up while Larry is hiding a couple of feet away. But Syd pulls out a pint of booze, downs it, gets behind the wheel and drives off.

Larry rolls up the rug, goes to the Paradise Club and flags a cab, tells the driver he has to get this rug to the cleaners before the owner splits... puts the rug in the cab and they drive off...

Syd speeds down the winding road in his convertible, unaware that Doris’ corpse is in the backseat. He’s drunk and angry and speeding and...

When the cab drops Larry off at his house, he realizes that he’s done it. He’s saved his brother Jim from going to prison for murder! Now the Dead Doris Problem is Syd’s. Larry goes inside... and someone is inside, hiding in the shadows!

Jim. He tells Larry he couldn’t go through with it. He killed Doris and he wants to go to the police and confess. Larry says you can’t do that, Doris isn’t upstairs, she’s in the back seat of Syd’s car. How do you expect to explain that to the police? Jim still wants to confess, no matter what. Jim leaves the house, with Larry chasing behind him, trying to talk him out of confessing... when a police car stops in front of the house and two officers step out. “Are you James Weeks?” Jim says he is. The Police Officer is sorry to have to tell him that his wife was killed in a car accident along with another man. The Officer shows Jim some of the personal effects that Larry planted in the car. “Are these your wife‘s?” Jim says they are. The Officer says he can come down to make a formal identification in the morning, and they get in the police car to drive away.

Jim is completely off the hook.

But Jim walks down the sidewalk to the police car and gets into the back seat... and Larry follows him.

Review: I first saw this episode as a kid, and was blown away. It is *intense* edge of the seat suspense, and *relentless*. It never lets up. I had no idea who Cornell Woolrich was when I first saw the episode, and it was only later that I put two and two together and realized the same guy who wrote the short story that REAR WINDOW was based on wrote the short story that this episode and my other favorite from the series GUILLOTINE was based on. Around that time, Ballantine Books began republishing all of the Woolrich novels and short stories and I consumed them like a starving man. Woolrich was one of the three fathers of Noir and this episode fits right into the Noir genre: all about the darkness within and the descent of a good man into evil. This episode and an episode of HITCHCOCK PRESENTS called ONE MORE MILE TO GO were the inspirations for my DANGEROUS CURVES script, which is always a bridesmaid and I wish someone would just buy and make. The end of the short story this episode is based on, THE KID AND THE CORPSE (aka BOY WITH BODY) from 1935 is basically the end of Act One in DANGEROUS CURVES... and I wondered what happened if you got away with murder?

Before we look at the great stuff in this episode, let’s look at what almost sinks it. The short story has two titles (common for stories to get a new title with each new magazine publication back then to trick readers into thinking it was something they hadn’t already read), and KID and BOY are right there in those titles. Instead of Larry being the hunky younger brother of Jim in the story, he’s Jim’s shy son just out of high school... and not hunky at all. The idea of a *kid* doing all of this stuff to protect his *father* is a hundred times more involving than some studly mid 30 year old doing it to protect his middle aged brother. The age change also robs the story of it's Noir roots: a *boy* doing these things to protect his father is a descent into darkness, a grown man doing it makes the character seem bad from the start (which is a crime story but not Noir). Larry Pennel was just bad casting... and the muscle T didn't help... but this is the lead character, and somewhere someone thought they should get someone who looks like a movie star, and cast the muscular star of RIPCORD who would later play a parody of a hunky movie star named Dash Riprock on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES who keeps getting set up with Ellie Mae. Instead of worrying that this boy will never be able to pull this off, we get this strong and overly confident guy who we *know* will pull it off. Instead of the father/son bond, we get this brother thing which still kinda works... but the consequences of having your brother go to prison and having your *dad* go to prison are completely different. If dad goes to prison, you are homeless and your whole future changes for the worse. This casting screw up almost sinks the episode: the story is kid of father, son, daughter and wicked stepmother... the episode loses all of that. Maybe they were afraid to cast a kid for censorship issues? An adult hiding a body is bad enough, but a kid?

That censorship thing is no doubt the reason for the complete cop out ending. In the story, after the police tell them that Doris died in the car accident, the story is *over*. They’ve gotten away with murder! Time for celebration! But they probably couldn’t have that ending on TV in the early sixties. I just like to pretend the episode ends before Ed Platt goes out to the police car to confess... that’s a much happier ending.

Now for the great stuff: this episode is a textbook on suspense. There isn’t a scene or moment that doesn’t have suspense!

The moment when Helen wants to put her coat in the closet and Larry sees the tail of a coat sticking out between door and jam and we *know* that’s where Jim is hiding. Every chance for suspense is used... and this is a great lesson! When you have a scene in your thriller, look at all of the little ways you can milk it for suspense. The ways to turn the feeling of suspense into tangible things like that coat tail in the door. We know that Jim is hiding *somewhere* which is a vague suspense element. That can work, but it works *better* if we have a concrete suspense element like that coat tail sticking out of the closet. The great part of this is that as soon as the closet door is opened and Jim is *not* there, Helen asks if Doris is home... switching the suspense to someone else, something worse, she can discover! Escalating the suspense!

An other cool thing is when Larry is taking everything out of the car trunk so that he can fit the body in there, and takes out the spare tire. At the time we think nothing of it: he needs as much room as he can get. But that’s really a great set up for the problem with the flat tire later. When he gets the flat, we remember that he has no spare and realize he’s *really* screwed! The audience is always trying to jump ahead, and part of our job is to *hide* those set ups and plants so that they can’t figure out what happens next. Even if you do worry about him taking out the spare tire, there’s enough suspense afterwards (with the nosey neighbor, the car not starting, the cop car) to make it slip your mind until he gets the flat tire.

The episode uses a great “clock” or “time lock” with the meeting set at 8:30 at the Paradise Club. Woolrich frequently used this suspense device, in one of my favorite novels PHANTOM LADY the chapters are all titled with the number of days it is before the protagonist is put to death for murdering his wife... and it counts down chapter by chapter until they send him to the electric chair! Here we know Larry has a half hour to get Doris’ corpse to the Paradise Club, plenty of time! But then things go wrong. Things like the sign telling us the club is 2 miles away when he gets the flat help escalate the tension with that ticking clock. The broken watch is a great tool as well.

We also get to see Larry *think*. When he gets cigarette ashes on the rug, then looks down at the rug... we know he’s thinking that taking the rug to the cleaners is a great way to get the body out of the house, and create an alibi for himself.

One of great things in thrillers is that characters often have to do things completely against their nature and against logic, which often enters into the absurd. Here we have Larry broken down on the side of the road with this damned heavy carpet to carry to the Paradise Club and the clock ticking... and his *friends* offer him a ride. He’d have to be crazy to say no, right? But there’s a dead body in that rug, so he must fight against people offering to *help him*! It makes no sense. It’s a great scene, because he must say and do absurd thing to get rid of them. The rug is light as a feather... but he’s sweating like crazy!

One of the things I note in my Thriller class is how *the world* seems to turn against protagonists in thriller stories, and here Larry finally gets a ride with the pick up truck driver... only to have that driver accuse him of being a thief and then try to steal the rug! Larry is being accused of one crime, and can’t very well explain his innocence without exposing that he’s guilty of a far worse crime! So he just takes the driver’s abuse.

There’s also a great lesson in set ups and pay offs with Syd, Doris’ boyfriend. He’s been waiting in some bar for her all night, and when he heads to the Paradise Club he’s been drinking in his car waiting for her... and getting more angry every minute. This is completely logical behavior for this character. When he comes out of the Paradise Club and thinks Doris has stood him up, speeding away in a rage is logical behavior. The winding road to the Paradise Club has already been established with Larry, so it’s not some crazy coincidence that Syd would drive off the road and crash. We never feel like that ending is contrived, because it’s been set up so well there’s almost no other possible ending. Which is why it’s a shame that the episode felt the need to have Jim confess after we get that great plot twist.

This episode was directed by Herschel Daughtery, who is probably most famous as a regular director on the show filming on the same lot, HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. Though not on the same level as Hitch, he was a really good TV director who knew how to make suspense work on the small screen and worked on all of the great action and drama shows of the time. The script by Sanford does a great job of putting Woolrich’s relentless suspense on screen, and Daughtery makes sure those suspense situations and scenes make it to the screen. Next week we’ll look at one of Robert Bloch’s most famous stories, YOURS TRULY JACK THE RIPPER, and the sequel to that story he wrote as an episode of STAR TREK. Two for one!


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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Still Standing

From almost exactly this time of year in 2010...

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I didn’t get much writing done because I ran into some old friends at my local Starbucks and we just hung out all night. The very first question everyone asked me was, “Where’s Craig?” And I ended up telling each person as they arrived and asked me that question, “He moved back home”, which was an amazing conversation killer. Moments of silence as people processed this, and wondered if they would move home someday.

The group consists of people from the neighborhood who shop at the local Ralph’s Grocery and often eat at City Wok or Tortas across the street and grab a coffee on their way to work at Starbucks and a beer after work at Residuals Bar. Some of the folks have known each other longer than others - three of them all lived at the Oakwood Apartments (where Jay Leno knocks on doors sometimes as part of a gag) at the same time. The lynchpin that holds it all together is one guy who was one of the Oakwood guys - who would come home from work and go straight to Starbucks, sitting outside by the front doors whether it was summer or winter. We called him the Mayor of Starbucks. He’d say hello to you when you passed him - said hello to everybody. Knew most people by name. And when I hit a snag on a script and needed to step away from the laptop before I smashed it to pieces, I would take a break and sit outside with him for a while. And that’s how I became part of this loose group. We all knew this one guy, and we all started to hang out together.

Two or three times a week - no schedule and no set dates and no real organization - a bunch of us would be at Starbucks at the same time and go to dinner together at City Wok and then go back to Starbucks and sit around and BS. There were directors and stunt men and writers and cinematographers and FX people and a puppeteer. You read that right - a guy who puts on puppet shows. Oh, and actors. For a few years, this loose group would meet and have dinner and BS - sometimes our table at City Wok would be for 4 people, and sometimes they’d have to put a whole bunch of tables together. I often work in that Starbucks, as did a couple of others, so we would always be part of the group. Others came or went or whatever.

Sometimes people would move to the other side of Los Angeles, and we might not see them for months... and then they’d drop in one night out of the blue. Sometimes they moved and just never made it back. And sometimes they would go home in defeat.

Mostly guys, but one ultra hot gal who lived in my building landed a big deal - a TV show - and moved into a luxury pad by the beach on the other side of town and... then it all fell apart. She ended up going home. It was tragic.

One of the guys had the hots for this cute Barista gal, but was kind of scared to ask her out. Every time he was there he would flirt with her and she would flirt with him. She was single. She was dating. She was dating men. But this guy just couldn’t work up the nerve to ask her out. Every time he was there for dinner we would encourage him to just do it - what’s the worst that could happen? She says no. One night, he decides he’s going to do it. We’re all there - over a dozen of us - I think the puppeteer was even there - when he flirts with her for a while and she flirts with him and then he asks her out... and she BRUTALLY shoots him down. You could hear us gasp all the way in Long Beach. It was like a body blow to all of us. He grabbed his tea and sat back down with us and pretended like nothing happened. He was joking about something a few minutes later.

A couple of years ago the group began to dissolve. One of the guys got married (his wife is now expecting), some of the guys moved, and the lynchpin guy who kind of held the group together had some personal problems and doesn’t go out of his house much anymore. I seldom go to that Starbucks, because it became very crowded (difficult to get a table) and too many people know my name (so it’s hard to get anything done). Some days I check to see if there’s a table, some days I just get on the bike and go somewhere else without even checking. But a couple of weeks ago I showed up for the evening shift, the place was almost empty, and I grabbed a table and started working...

When one of the guys came in and said he’d gotten a call that some of others were going to show up later... and we ended up with around 8-10 people. All of whom asked me: “Where’s Craig?” And I had to answer that he’s moved back home.

Craig was one of those other guys in Starbucks with a laptop open writing something. To hear him talk, he had it all figured out. He had quit a high paying job back home and moved to Hollywood to make it big. Make millions. He drove a sports car - leased. He was one of those guys who could talk their way into just about anything - super confident, aggressive about business, a real hustler, cocky but also funny. That was really his biggest gift, because he could make you feel at ease - like you were an insider in his world, joking at the losers on the outside. He had cajones. He would just go up and talk to some movie star or producer and often get them to take his scripts. He landed a deal, that worked out well for him... and it seemed like this was the first step to bigger things. He was walking on air - king of the world - sure that he would just be climbing that Hollywood ladder rung after rung until he got to the top. But after that initial success, he stumbled a bit before he landed his next deal. The stumbling part he shook off, telling us that those deals weren’t met to be and not getting them was a good thing because it cleared the way for the big one. Then he landed his second deal, which looked like the big one... and that did not go as planned at all.

I read one of his scripts once, and it was wild and energetic and had no act 2 and kinda didn’t really come together at the end. But filled with cool stuff. I tried to give him some feedback on it, but he thought it was fine... good enough to get him though the doors. And it was. You know, it’s not easy to get through those doors. But once they tried to make a movie out of it all of the problems became apparent and it crashed and burned horribly and something happened to him - maybe he realized he could get through the door, but when it came time to make the movie he didn’t have those skills. Or maybe he had this dream that making it big would be easy and it wasn’t. Or maybe it was something else.

Anyway, after that second one crashed, he tried to set something else up and nothing happened at all, and then, while I was out of town for the holidays, he called me and said he was going home, I thought just for the holidays.... but he never returned.

The first or second year I was at the Santa Fe Screenwriting Conference, William Kelley who wrote WITNESS said that you don’t know anything until you’ve had a script produced. You *think* you know something, but actually having that script turned into a film changes everything. I think that’s true. I think when it’s a screenplay, it’s all still kind of make believe and the decision to change something isn’t going to cost a pile of money or put production behind by a few days or make the ending impossible. You may have a script that’s an amazing read, but when it is time to put that script on screen most of the cool stuff stays on the page and the film doesn’t work. Or maybe can’t even be filmed. Once your dream becomes something that is going to be scheduled and budgeted and rewritten for budget and schedule and available talent and all of the other physical issues that come along with production (not even bringing in the artistic stuff), it often turns into something so real it is not enjoyable. That scene where he teaches her how to surf while they are on vacation in Hawaii and they fall in love? Well, we are shooting this film in New Mexico because of the tax incentives - Can he teach her how to ride a horse instead? Stuff like that destroys some people. And having to make something that only works on the page due to some fancy word-dancing, work on the screen where there is no dancing allowed, may be outside of some writer’s skill set. They may discover that they are not good enough for that next step.

There are 5 steps to screenwriting, and each is a chance for all kinds of failure.
1) Learning to write the screenplay.
2) Learning to write the screenplay that someone wants to buy.
3) Learning to write the screenplay that gets made into a film.
4) Going through the hell of production.
5) Remaining a screenwriter over a period of time.

I have seen a lot of “big talkers” come and then go. Maybe they are embarrassed because they told everyone how great they were and how great their work was and how easy it was for them to get their first thing set up someplace... and then it didn’t turn out easy after all. Maybe all of that talk is what *made them* go back home or make some low budget film that can’t find a distrib and drop out of sight so that they don’t have to answer questions about it. Maybe they have told everyone they are going to be Kings, and when they end up just pawns, they can’t deal with that.

But here’s the thing - you can get depressed or frustrated or heart broken and go back home, or you can stick it out and figure out what isn’t working and fix that. If you don’t brag about what hasn’t happened yet, no reason to be embarrassed when it doesn’t happen or takes much longer than expected.

At the TALES FROM THE SCRIPT panel, one of the writers said that screenwriting is a job where you get punched in the face again and again and again. And that is the truth. If you haven’t been punched in the face yet, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen... it means when it does happen you’ll be hit twice as hard. Maybe five times as hard. It will happen.

Best thing to do: Feel the pain, then get up and prepare to be hit again.

The best line in the last ROCKY film: “It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”

Same is true in Hollywood, as I’m sure Stallone can tell you. You want to go the full ten rounds and take a bunch of hits and still be standing at the end of the fight. A setback is just a setback - shake it off, stay in the ring.

"Hello, I'm a screenwriter.... I want you to hit me in the face as hard as you can."

- Bill

I'm sorry, one of my movies is invading the UK again...
Movies For Men Channel: 4/27 - 16:20 - Steel Sharks - When a United States submarine is seized by terrorists, a rescue attempt by Elite Navy Seals goes awry. The submarine crew wages a silent war beneath the waves in this tense undersea thriller.

(oddly wrong synopsis - it's a germ warfare scientist who is kidnaped by Iran, and a rescue attempt by Navy SEALS that goes wrong, etc.)

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: The Terror Of Act 2 - How to keep act 2 exciting... even if the conflict is with unseen forces.
Dinner: Arroz con pollo.
Bicycle: Medium-long ride deep into the valley.
Pages: Yesterday? Nothing but this blog entry.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: The Great Santini


Director: Lewis John Carlino.
Writers: Lewis John Carlino based on the novel by Pat Conroy
Starring: Robert Duvall, Michael O'Keefe, Blythe Danner, Stan Shaw.

I was joking around about Father’s Day movies on twitter and suggested this film... then realized that this may be one of those films which has fallen through the cracks and many people have no idea it exists (and didn’t get the joke). This is arguably Robert Duvall’s finest performance (he was nominated for an Oscar); and that says something, doesn’t it? It’s a drama, a coming of age movie... except you are never quite sure if it is that son or the father who is coming of age. Probably both. The reason why I first saw this movie was because it was written and directed by Lewis John Carlino, the screenwriter who adapted SECONDS (one of my favorite movies.) For a while there I saw everything Carlino did, which included some great work like RESURRECTION (1980) and THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA and he wrote the original THE MECHANIC. I liked this movie so much that I tracked down the novel by some guy named Pat Conroy and began reading his stuff. That guy can write!

The story takes place in 1962. Duvall plays Bull Meechum (nicknamed The Great Santini) , a hard ass Marine fighter pilot who is a bit of a contradiction: he wants those in his command to be disciplined, tough as nails, unemotional, and fearless... but he’s a man child who is constantly pulling practical jokes on his superiors and is secretly afraid that he is losing his edge due to age. He is a warrior without a war... and ends up fighting those around him. *He* is a discipline problem, so he gets shipped from his base in Spain back to a training base in the South Carlolina in the USA... and his family. And begins to fight them.

His wife is played by Blythe Danner (who you know as Gwenyth Paltrow’s mom, but she was a stage and TV star at the time), a religious woman who has learned to put up with Bull’s verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse. Oldest son Ben, who is our protagonist, played by Michael O’Keefe whose next role would be the lead in CADDYSHACK the following year. And three other children, including teen daughter Mary Anne played by Lisa Jane Persky and a preteen boy and girl. The whole family is packed up pre dawn to drive to the new military base somewhere in the South. Bull does not stop if you have to go to the bathroom or are hungry or thirsty. You need to be *disciplined*. And if the family wants to sing some song he doesn’t like, he sings over them as loudly as possible... he is in command!

Rounding out the cast is the great Stan Shaw, and this may have been the first film I noticed him in. He plays Toomer, a stuttering Black man who sells honey and flowers and becomes Ben's best friend in their new town. But this is the deep South in the 60s and whites and blacks don’t hang out together... and the antagonist in this subplot is Red played by David Keith (who should not be confused with Keith David). This also may have been the first time I ever saw Keith in a role, and he would go on to become a star and play the lead in LORDS OF DISCIPLINE (also based on a Conroy novel) as well as a bunch of other movies... before falling into B movies. When Jim and I were doing our Russian film, he was one of the guys we looked at to be the lead. He played *Elvis* in a Chris Colombus film, then ended up in B movies. No idea why. There are only so many leading men slots and maybe someone else came along and knocked him out of his position. Anyway, he gives a great performance as a complete racist dick in this film.

Here’s Bull pulling a practical joke when a superior officer wants him and his men to quiet down because they are disturbing the officer’s dinner...

Eldest son Ben is a senior in High School, about to turn 18, and has just made the Varsity basketball team in his new school. All he wants is the love and respect of his father... who is genetically incapable of giving him those things. You know all of those bastard Marine Basic Training Drill Instructors in movies? Now imagine that’s your dad. He shows you his love by belittling you and maybe even hitting you (to toughen you up). Ben’s problem to some extent is that he is his father’s son, and is competitive and strives to be the best (looking for his father’s respect). Well, that brings the two of them into conflict again and again, as Bull wants Ben to follow orders like a good Marine and Ben is struggling to become an adult. Early in the film, Bull tells Ben *exactly* what his adult life will be. He will go to college. He will join the Marines. He will meet a woman and start a family. He will do at least two tours of the Marines, after that he will stay because it is his destiny... or he will disappoint his father and do something else. Ben feels trapped in all of this.

One of the ways this conflict is demonstrated on screen is a father and son game of basketball. Hey, a place for Ben and his father to have a good time together. Only Bull does not lose at anything, ever. So when his son beats him, he does not take it well...

Ben continues to battle his father throughout the movie. No matter what he does, he can not live up to his father’s impossible expectations. There is a scene at the big basketball game where Ben is playing an amazing game, and a member of the other team intentionally fouls him, knocking him to the floor. Bull tears out of the stands and orders his son to knock that player down. Screaming at his injured son! Ben fights back by purposely missing both free throws. Which *infuriates* Bull, who paces the sidelines as if he’s the coach. When the opposing player gets the ball, Bull ORDERS Ben to take him to the floor. Again and again, until Ben finally knocks the player down... and breaks the player’s arm in the process. Ben is ejected from the game...

And gets chewed out by his coach for not being able to stand up to his father. Yeah, coach, you try it.

There’s a major subplot where Ben becomes involved in the fight between Toomer and racist Red. Bull orders him to stay out of it, but Toomer is his best friend and Bull has to do something. This subplot thread comes to a head when Red and his racist pals all grab guns and go to Toomer’s shack to show him who is boss... and Ben races across town to help his friend. Defying Bull’s orders. Bull decides it’s best to punish his son for doing the right thing.

When Ben turns 18, Bull takes him to the Officer’s Club on base... and we end up with a macho drinking battle between the two...

THE GREAT SANTINI is filled with great performances and manages to be funny and heart warming and heart breaking all at the same time. All of the characters are clearly drawn (Mary Anne uses sarcasm to deal with her problems fitting in to a new school every time Bull gets transferred, and will Bull himself), and you get a glimpse of the pre Civil Rights South where segregation was the law of the land and white people didn’t befriend black people without paying the consequences. The movie was made with the cooperation of the Marine Corps, and there are plenty of air combat drills in the film. I neglected to mention all of the airplane stuff because for me the movie is about the two Meechum men battling it out. Another one of those films I fear is forgotten...


Friday, April 19, 2019


MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT was the first time the same director has been brought back for a second film. When they began the series the plan was to bring in a different director for each film, so that each movie had a different feel. The slightly amusing part of this is that the first director, Brian DePalma, set the tone for all of the rest of the films in many ways including his reverence for Hitchcock. My latest book, STORY IN ACTION: MISSION IMPOISSIBLE looks at how Hitchcock has influenced most of the films.

The previous film by Christopher McQuarrie, ROGUE NATION, has a great scene at the Vienna Opera where Ethan Hunt spots *three* assassins aiming sniper rifles at the Chancellor or Austria! The scene is reminiscent of the assassination scene from Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much", but director Christopher McQuarrie says it's actually inspired by a Freixenet Sparking Wine commercial. Say what? But the commercial was directed by some guy named Martin Scorsese and supposedly based on a script by Alfred Hitchcock, and is definitely in the style of Hitchcock. So the scene in ROGUE NATION is inspired by a commercial that was inspired by THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH!

And here is that commercial!

The Key To Reserva: A Short by Martin Scorsese from Ben Grossmann on Vimeo.




All Six Movies analyzed! All of the mission tapes, all of the “that’s impossible!” set pieces and stunts, the cons and capers - and how these scenes work, the twists and double crosses, the tension and suspense (and how to generate it), the concept of each film as a stand alone with a different director calling the shots (broken in the sixth film), the gadgets, the masks, the stories, the co-stars and team members (one team member has been in every film), the stunts Tom Cruise actually did (and the ones he didn’t), and so much more! Over 120,000 words of fun info!


Here's the plan: I want this book to be #1 on Amazon's Screenwriting List on Wednesday 2/27. So if you guys tell your screenwriting and film fan friends about this book - and the plan to make it #1 on Amazon on Wednesday - I think we can make it! And they get the VINTAGE SCREENWRITING #1 book for free...

NO KINDLE REQUIRED! Get the *free* app (any device, except your Mr. Coffee) on the order page on Amazon!

UK Folks Click Here.

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



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!


Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

(links actually work now)

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Click here for more info!


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

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 53 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Thriller Thursday: The Twisted Image

There was supposed to be a new entry this week, featuring Ursula Andress as a witch, but that will end up being next week....

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


Season: 1, Episode: 1.
Airdate: 9/13/1960

Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: James P. Cavanagh, based on a novel by William O’Farrell.
Cast: Leslie Nielsen, George Grizzard, Natalie Trundy, Dianne Foster.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon.

Buy The DVD!

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Her eyes. They were often upon him. Candid, admiring, possessive. Her eyes. Her extraordinary eyes. Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes. And used to them. In the lunch counter. In the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month. And they were to lead him into guilt and terror and murder... as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. Our story is about a watcher, and the watched... and a not so innocent bystander. There’s an outsider, too: Alan’s wife. Four pairs of anxious eyes. But no one could see the shattering effect of... the Twisted Image. Well, I’ll say no more, but I promise you one thing: this is a thriller!”

Synopsis: Successful executive Alan Patterson (Leslie Nielsen) has a pair of stalkers: Lilly (Natalie Trundy), an attractive female employee who has some crazy fatal attraction crush on him... and will do anything to ruin his marriage so that she can become his next wife; and Merl (George Grizzard), an envious mail room employee at the company who wants to take over Alan’s life... once Alan is out of the way, of course. So we have a hybrid of FATAL ATTRACTION and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, decades before either of those movies were made.

Lilly shows up at Alan’s office at lunchtime, and insists he take her to lunch. His secretary sees them together, and assumes... and when they go to lunch, another business associate sees them together and assumes... But during the lunch, Alan is a bit freaked out by Lilly: she flat out says she’s going to marry him. When he says he is already married and has a kid, she is not deterred at all. She’s crazy! She calls him at home and leaves odd messages with his wife... who thinks he may be cheating.

When Alan has lunch with Lilly to tell her to just leave him alone, she *loudly* professes her love for him in the company lunch room... and is overheard by Merl, who now has some leverage against the boss he love/hates. It’s hinted at that Merl is Gay and also has a strange crush on Alan... he’s very similar to Bruno in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in some respects. When delivering the mail, Merl steals Alan’s watch from his office.

The more Alan tells Lilly to leave him alone, the more she calls his home and office. His marriage is eroding, his wife (Dianne Foster) is sure that he is cheating on her with Lilly. His life is falling apart!

One night Merl seeks out “Alan’s mistress” Lilly, telling her he has a message from Alan. Merl has a cheap bottle of wine and soon we have *two* drunk mentally unstable people in Lilly’s apartment... both in love with the same man. When Merl puts the moves on Lilly, trying to live out his Alan fantasy, she pushes him away... and he kills her. Oops!

That’s when Alan knocks on the door to demand that Lilly leave him the hell alone. Oops!

But Merl knocks him unconscious, steals his wallet, and wipes away all of his own finger prints... making it appear as if Alan killed Lilly. When wakes up and finds the dead body of the woman who everyone thinks is his mistress, Alan leaves Lilly’s apartment, and he’s seen by the building manager... who then discovers her dead body. Now Alan has to find the real killer before the police catch him.

Merl goes out on the town, using Alan’s money and Alan’s identification.

Alan’s wife goes to have it out with Lilly... arriving just in time to see the police take her out in a body bag. Did Alan murder his mistress?

Alan decides Merl is #1 suspect, goes to his apartment... but Merl isn’t there. When Merl does come back, he sees Alan’s car on the street, and steals it... becoming more like Alan every minute. Wearing his watch, driving his car, dressed to look like him. The transformation is almost complete! But to actually *become* Ala,, Merl goes to Alan’s house and accosts Alan’s wife... *his* wife, now. Then takes Alan’s cute little kid! And holds a gun to her head! Now Alan must race home to save his wife and kid from the maniac pretending to be him.

Review: For the amount of talent involved and the number of great episodes this series would have, not an amazing first episode. Though you might only know Leslie Nielsen from comedies, he began as a serious dramatic actor... and that’s why he was perfect in movies like AIRPLANE! The audience expected him to be serious... as he is in this episode.

You may not be familiar with George Grizzard, but he was a hot actor at the time, cutting his teeth on TV before moving on to films (one of my favorite cop movies you’ve never heard of WARNING SHOT) like ADVISE AND CONSENT... but you would probably recognize the older version of him as the stern father of the bride in BACHELOR PARTY and the old version of Ryan Philippe in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. So we have a great cast.

Director Arthur Hiller was a TV veteran at the time, who would go on to direct huge Hollywood hits like LOVE STORY as well as great films like THE HOSPITAL and MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH... and comedies like the original THE IN LAWS.

Writer James P. Cavanaugh was a writer for Hitchcock Presents, and many other TV crime shows. So we have all of this talent, and the episode is kind of a muddled mess.

Novelist William O'Farrell was probably famous at the time for his novel REPEAT PERFORMANCE, which is kind of GROUNDHOG DAY as a thriller, about a man who must relive the year he commits murder over and over again.

I suspect the reason is that this hour long episode is based on a novel... and what might work over the course of a novel might not work well when condensed into an hour of TV. The two stalkers thing seems unrealistic; this isn’t a movie star, it’s a business executive! In order to flesh out each character we spend some extra screen time on scenes like Merl and his sister having a dispute... which was probably a fine scene in the novel, but here it seems to come out of left field and slow down the story. And compressing all of the things that happen into a couple of days makes it seem like Alan has the worst luck in the world. When the two stalkers come together, that just seems like a huge coincidence. So we have a story that probably worked well in book form condensed into too little time... and all of the things that could be either set up or glossed over in the book now seem abrupt. The story also ends up “too plotty”, so much going on that we don’t get enough time to really see the emotional impact on Alan. Things like Merl transforming himself into Alan are rushed, and often end up more exposition than demonstration. Adding to this is that the thriller aspects don't kick in until the last quarter of the show. Too much going on!

The music for this episode is basically variations on the THRILLER theme, which makes it seem a little cheap. The same composer will do *great* work on later episodes, like PAPA BENJAMIN (about a big band leader, which Rugalo was before doing TV scores) who must deal with a voodoo curse.

Despite all of this, it’s a competent episode... it just probably should have been a two parter or something. The acting and direction is fine, and the idea that an insignificant person in your life could turn your world upside down like this is scary. I almost wish they had split the story into two stories, one with the crazy FATAL ATTRACTION woman at the office and the other with the SINGLE WHITE FEMALE stalker who transforms themself into a clone of you... an unstable, violent, murderous clone. That way each idea could have been fully explored, and more time spent on the suspense of the situation. One of the reason why I loved this show as a kid were the episodes that take a simple situation and ramp up the suspense until it is unbearable. When we come to GUILLOTINE, you’ll see a great example of that: will a poisoned executioner make it to work today? This isn’t a bad episode... but it doesn’t display the brilliance this show will achieve in later episodes.



Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: DRAG ME TO HELL!

Directed by: Sam Raimi.
Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi.
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Ruth Livier, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Octavia Spencer.
Director Of Photography: Peter Deming.
Music: Christopher Young.

One of the best reviewed films of 2009 was a horror flick from Sam Raimi (no kidding, 92% on Rotten Tomatoes) and it was one of the best times I’ve had sitting in a cinema that year - a crazy funhouse ride at a disreputable carnival that has you laughing as much as screaming. Though I always stress the importance of having a unique idea, this film gives us horror plot #17 (the gypsy curse one, see THINNER and a few dozen other films) but shows us the importance of *execution*. A good script needs a great idea, well written. Here we just get some great writing and directing and it overcomes the tired concept. Oh, if you are wondering why SPIDER-MAN’s Sam Raimi directed  this film, the guy has a whole bunch of horror skeletons in his closet, including the EVIL DEAD movies. For more on the EVIL DEAD flicks, check out But The Third One Was Great blog, which features those films this week! 

In DRAG ME TO HELL, Alison Lohman plays a nice girl destined to always finish last. She used to be fat, has a white-trash Southern accent she’s desperately trying to lose, and is doing her damndest to move up a couple of rungs on the social ladder. She works as a loan officer at a bank, and covets the empty Vice President desk across from her - the name plate is empty as if to visually announce Your Name Here. Her boss is played by David Paymer, kind of the older male version of her... and to keep his job, the person he needs to promote to VP has to be someone strong and aggressive. That’s not Alison, but it is the new guy Reggie Lee who seems to have seen WALL STREET a few too many times and actually believes that Greed Is Good. Alison and Reggie quietly battle it out at the bank every day, each hoping to slide their name into that empty VP name plate.

When a really gross phlegm spewing one eyed old gypsy woman comes in, home in foreclosure, and begs for Alison to give her a third extension; she puts the promotion over compassion. The old woman begs... and Alison calls security on her and has her removed from the bank. This puts her at the top of the promotion list, and the top of the gypsy woman’s shit list.

On her lunch hour, Alison visits her boyfriend Justin Long at the University where he’s a first year professor, and I kept waiting for the “I’m A PC” guy to pop up behind him. Justin is arranging a meet-the-tight-assed-upper-class parents dinner, and Alison is afraid to go - she’s fat white trash. As she leaves his office, she overhears his half of a phone conversation with his mother... and knows his parents will hate her and maybe worries that Justin might be charity-dating her. One of the great things about this film is that it’s all about the characters... and still a horror film. There are so many little background thing on Alison’s character peppered through the film that we really get to know and care about her. Hey, she was in the 4H (or, that reasonable facsimile of the 4H the lawyers and E&O insurance folks signed off on). And the film is really about her character arc, from meek bank employee to bad ass demon fighter who will do things you and I wouldn’t dream of doing.

At the end of the work day she goes to the empty underground garage to grab her subcompact crapo car... and notices the old gypsie woman’s ancient rusted out 70s lemon in the garage. Now, you may not know this, but that car has probably been in more movies that David Paymer.  It was Uncle Ben’s car in SPIDER-MAN... and has been featured in every film Sam Raimi has directed. It falls from the sky in ARMY OF DARKNESS... It was Raimi’s personal car for years, and when he could afford better, he kept it and uses it in every film. Here it works wonderfully as the barely running gypsy’s car.

One of the great things about this funhouse ride of a film is that there are no shortage of jump moments. And great jump moments - not some silly cat (though, there are a couple of those) but real scares from unexpected sources. Be prepared to spend half of the movie about a foot above your seat. One great series of jump moments is in the spooky garage, when the gypsie shows up and puts her curse on Alison. This film manages to get us to jump over a handkerchief... and it’s the skill of Raimi that the handkerchief also manages to be creeps and suspenseful and build dread in other scenes. You are scared of a piece of cloth!

Once the curse is on Alison she will die within 3 days and be dragged to hell. But those three days will be hell on earth. And all kinds of sick fun.

One of my favorite scenes has Alison go to the gypsy’s daughter’s house to beg that the curse be removed. The daughter doesn’t live in some magical castle with dark windows - this is Los Angeles, she lives in a typical house in the city with no yard and an ally running down the back where the garbage dumpsters are. It’s plain. She goes there, wants to see the gypsy woman, the daughter says she has caused enough trouble - getting the woman kicked out of her house... but Alison barges in... and she’s in some stranger’s house. And this is uncomfortable. And Raimi finds ways to ramp up the feelings of discomfort, including having the entire gypsy family there for dinner. She’s completely out numbered, and all of these people hate her. This could be a scene from a drama... and it *is* a big dramatic scene... but this is also a horror film. Drama *and* horror. And after the drama scene, we get some horror. Sick, disgusting, and funny horror.

Raimi does a great job of building dread with some very simple things. When Alison comes home one night, she is alone in a dark, spooky... but completely normal house. There is these terrible noise - link fingers on a chalk board - that ends up being the wind blowing open a rusted metal gate. So many everyday things are turned into terror by Raimi that you worry about going home after the film. By creating terror and building dread with normal things you’d find in almost every house, he gets us where we live. This isn’t some alien world - this is a house just like the one you live in. Raimi did this in the EVIL DEAD movies with tree branches in the wind... which become something else entirely. He can make the raisins in a cake creepy and threatening.

By the way - one of the cool things about the film is how ex-fatty Alison seems to constantly be attacked by *food*.  It’s like the curse knows her weakness, knows what scares her on a more emotional level (that she’s going to gain the weight back, or maybe people still think of her as the fat girl) and finds ways to attack her using the things she *emotionally* fears most. Food becomes scary in this film... in that wacky funhouse way.

Oh, and there’s some between the lines social message in this film. Alison is white trash who is social climbing and hopes to marry wealthy Justin. To do that, she must foreclose on the home of someone one rung beneath her in society... turn against someone similar to her, the same way she is turning against her accent and her 4H past and everything that made her who she used to be. Trash the poor so that she can become rich. Again - this is a horror movie, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more going on in it... in fact, there should always be more than just the surface story.

DRAG ME TO HELL Is rated PG-13, and many horror fans have discounted it before even seeing it. How can you make a good horror movie that isn’t R rated? Well, Raimi knows how to do that. He substitutes gross for gore - and keeps the gross coming! If you’ve seen the trailer, you know there’s a scene where the gypsy woman vomits all kinds of bugs and worms and icky stuff on Alison Lohman’s face. In her eyes, in her mouth, up her nose, in her ears. This is worse that seeing a half gallon of blood spraying from someone’s neck. Your brain knows the blood geyser is fake, but these insects and worms in her mouth and nose? Um, they probably really did that. Yech! You won’t see severed limbs in this film, but you will see things that are worse. This film doesn’t wimp out at all - it just has a different kind of horror. It’s gross (in a fun way).

Which I think brings us to another thing those pimple faced horror fans have complained about on several of the message boards I frequent - that somehow this subgenre of horror is less valid than SAW and FRIDAY THE 13th. That funhouse horror movies are lesser films because they make you laugh. Hey! BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN! Plus a million other flicks, some starring Vincent Price, some starring the late great Bob Quarry (in one of my films, lived in my neighborhood, just passed away, miss that guy!), and of course the Raimi EVIL DEAD movies. If anything, the funhouse style horror films are *more* legit than torture porn and slasher films - they’ve been around longer. These films are crazy scary rides with all kinds of sick laughs.

And DRAG ME TO HELL is full of sick humor. “Here, kitty kitty...”

One of the cool things about this film is the Multicultural Curse. The film opens in the 1940s when a child has been cursed by a gypsy and the immigrant parents take him to a female Hispanic medium who tries to lift the curse... and fails. The boy is dragged to hell by all kinds of demons. That’s what Alison is in for. After she is cursed, she goes to an Indian store front psychic played by Dileep Rao. Dileep plays the role as if he always has one eyebrow raised quizzically. As if *he* doesn’t believe what is happening. He manages to be both the psychic *and* the skeptic at the same time. He also manages to be funny with the non-funny straight man lines. And he manages to play his store front psychic in such a way that we do not know if he’s for real or just a scam artist. This is like the Whoopi Goldberg role in GHOST - does this mean Dileep will be nominated for an Oscar?  Oh, wait, this is both a horror film *and* a comedy. When Dileep is overwhelmed by the curse, he knows right where to take Alison - to the female Hispanic woman from the opening scene, who is now an old woman.

And this is where we get the real star of the movie... a goat. It’s always funny when there is an animal in a long scene filled with special effects and crazy horror stuff, because the animal has no idea what is going on. There is a long seance scene with the goat tethered to the table, and it was funny to watch the goat’s reactions (when I was supposed to be watching Alison or Dileep). The goat was completely confused at all times.

Okay, now I don’t want to spoil the film if you haven't seen it (almost 10 years old!), but I want to talk about one of the great things in this film - the Twist On A Twist.  This is one of those great techniques that Raimi uses which elevates this film from your standard horror film to one hell of a great ride that you probably want to take again. There is a twist in the film that you see coming from a mile away. It is set up, it is confirmed, and you suddenly know exactly what is gong to happen. You figure out the twist... and want to yell at Alison that she is making a big mistake, because there’s this twist thing she hasn’t figured out but you have. Here’s the thing - Raimi *wants* you to figure out the twist. That creates audience superiority and creates suspense. You know what’s going to happen! You know the very very bad thing that Alison hasn’t figured out yet! But what you haven’t figured out is the twist on the twist - because what you think is going to happen is *half* right. But if you were really paying close attention, you would realize that the twist you think is going to happen isn’t going to happen... something even stranger is. And that’s the part you don’t see coming at all. The twist on the twist. So, Raimi sets it up so that you know *part* of what will happen, but still be shocked and surprised by the other part. Great technique!

One of the strange things about DRAG ME TO HELL is that it was one of the best reviewed films of 2009... but didn't do great box office. Broke even, but didn't break box office records. You would think a fun film with great reviews would have opened at #1 and done great business. So why didn't it tear up the box office? My guess is that the sophisticated audience member who would see any other film with this many great reviews is staying away because it’s a horror movie... The average audience member is also staying away because it’s a horror movie - those films are crap made for hard core horror fans. And the hard core horror fans stayed away... because it’s one of the best reviewed films of the year! Hey, that stamp of society’s approval means this can’t be a dark, edgy, nasty horror film... it’s probably some watered down safe movie!  The critics *great* reviews may have doomed this film! If you look at horror films the critics have loved in the past - SLITHER, BLACK SHEEP, etc - all of those films died at the box office. Good reviews scare away the horror audience. Yet films with *awful* reviews like FRIDAY THE 13th and BLOODY VALENTINE did great business in 2009... maybe even because of the bad reviews. If the critics hate this film, it’s gotta be good!

So DRAG ME TO HELL slipped between the cracks... only remembered by Trailer Tuesday and a bunch of fans.

- Bill
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