Friday, June 28, 2019

Fridays With Hitchcock:
The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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


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




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



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

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




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




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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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



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


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


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



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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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




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


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

- Bill

The other Fridays With Hitchcock.


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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Thriller Thursday: THE PURPLE ROOM

The Purple Room

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



Season: 1, Episode: 7.
Airdate: 10/25/60


Director: Douglas Heyes
Writer: Douglas Heyes
Cast: Rip Torn, Richard Anderson, Patricia Barry.
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: Bud Thackery




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Don’t be alarmed. The woman who just screamed is perfectly quiet now, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. You see, she’s been dead for nearly a hundred years. Her bed is empty, and whatever it was that seemed to frighten her so is gone. *Seems* to be. But I can tell you this much: that bed won’t be empty much longer and other screams will soon be heard. Whose? Perhaps yours. Or those who will join us here: Mr. Rip Torn, Miss Patricia Barry, Mr. Richard Anderson, and... Well, it seems the rest of our cast can not be raised. They’re dead, you know. Spend a night with us in the Purple Room, if you dare! Let me assure you my friends, this is a thriller!”

Synopsis: Born skeptic Duncan (an impossibly young Rip Torn... who you know as the gruff boss from MEN IN BLACK) has just inherited an old house in Baton Rouge which has been in the family for years... and is supposedly haunted. Duncan doesn’t care, the house is on valuable property some big company wants to buy so he figures he’ll flip it and make a fortune. Nice plan, but the will requires him to live in the house for one year before he can sell it... and stay in the house one full night along with the other heir... his cousin Oliver (Richard Anderson from SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) and his wife Rachel (Patricia Barry). If he can not spend the full night in the haunted house his cousin Oliver gets it. So there’s a bit of a competition involved: who can stay the whole night in the house, Duncan or Oliver? Since Duncan believes in money but not ghosts, he sees no possibility of losing.



Oliver, Rachel and Duncan drive to the house, in a remote area near a swamp... heck, it’s the PSYCHO house on the Universal backlot along with the swamp from the film... the art of using existing sets. They enter the house, which has no electricity and no phone and hasn’t been lived in for decades. Candles do little to illuminate the house. It’s spooky as heck. They climb the stairway to the bedrooms, and Oliver dares Duncan to sleep in the Purple Room... where all of the deaths have taken place including that most recent one 100 years ago. Duncan isn’t afraid of no ghosts, so he takes the room, even after Oliver relates the legend of the room...

A hundred years ago Captain Jeremy Ransom and his wife of only seven days were alone in the house on honeymoon, when they heard strange sounds from downstairs. Ransom gave his gun to his new bride for protection and then went downstairs to investigate. After more strange noises, the new bride hears footsteps coming up the stairs... a strange shuffling and dragging that was *not* her husband. As the thing came closer and closer to her in the darkness, she fired the gun again and again... killing her own husband... who had been stabbed by a burglar downstairs and was staggering upstairs for help. Then she went mad and spent the rest of her life in an asylum.

Oliver smiles: “This place is all yours... and everything it contains.”



In the middle of the night Duncan hears strange noises from downstairs and wakes up. After he lights the candle, it blows out... and all kinds of weird things begin happening in the Purple Room. Things move all by themselves. Duncan believes it’s Oliver and his wife trying to scare him, they’ve just rigged the room ahead of time. When things keep happening and he sees a picture on the wall move, he pulls the picture away... and there is just the wall behind it. The *solid* wall. WTF? He hears more noises downstairs, grabs his gun and heads downstairs.

Where something lurks in the shadows.

A knife flies at him, sticking into the floor.

The thing in the shadows moans and starts shuffling towards him. It’s Ransom’s ghost! Face rotted, knife sticking from its bloody chest. Dragging its leg as it gets closer and closer and closer to him. Duncan fires his pistol at it again and again and again... and the things keeps coming towards him!



Closer and closer and closer!

Duncan screams, clutches his chest and falls to the floor.

The rotting corpse walks right up to him... and pulls off his mask, it’s Oliver. Rachel comes out of the shadows and checks his pulse... he’s *dead*. Not part of the plan at all! They were just supposed to scare him enough that he left the house, not *kill him*. Change of plans. They carry his body out to the car, drive down the road to the swamp and drive the car off the road into the swamp, put Duncan behind the wheel, and walk back to the house. Now they can claim that Duncan got scared in the middle of the night and ran... and Oliver and Rachel had not a thing to do with his death.

Back at the house they clean up and remove all of the planted tricks and devices to scare Duncan... and then go to bed in the Purple Room. It *is* the master bedroom in *their* new house, after all. But in the middle of the night they hear strange noises from downstairs. A prowler? Oliver grabs Duncan’s gun, pours out the expended blank shells and loads it with *real* shells, then starts out of the Purple Room. But Rachel is frightened, so Oliver gives her the gun and goes downstairs to confront the prowler.



In the dark and spooky house, Oliver tries not to be afraid... but some *thing* is creeping up the stairs towards him, dragging its leg just like the Captain Ransom legend. When the thing gets closer, closer, CLOSER Oliver stumbles and falls down the stairs... the thing continues up the stairs... to the Purple Room!

Rachel is terrified as the thing opens the bedroom door and stumbles inside. She fires the gun, again and again until it clicks dry. Killing the thing. She carries the candle to the thing... and it’s *Duncan*. Not a fatal heart attack after all, he was unconscious and weak... And she has shot him six times. She goes downstairs and finds Oliver, shook up but okay. Tells him that she has shot Duncan... and that’s when the police come after finding the abandoned car and hearing the shots. Oliver and Rachel are headed to prison.

Review: Not only do we get the PSYCHO house and swamp, we get a great Weird Tales type story! After last week’s talky crime drama, the show finally seems to get on track with an episode that fulfills the promise of the series’ name. My favorite episodes of the show are thrillers filled with nail biting suspense and the Weird Tales stories that creep into horror (though usually with a twist). I want to be on the edge of my seat or scared to death, and my favorite episodes deliver on this. Though nothing from THRILLER can ever beat the Hitchcock UNLOCKED WINDOW episode for sheer terror, some get pretty close.



This one is just okay. Not enough Haunted House stuff to build our terror before Duncan comes face to face with dead Captain Ransom downstairs, it needed several more “gags” up in the Purple Room when Duncan wakes up. Since Oliver and Rachel have had plenty of time to rig the room, you’d thing they would have come up with at least as many things as in THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. I’m guessing somewhere along the line the writer/director feared there wasn’t enough time to show *how* Oliver managed to do anything really weird after Duncan supposedly drops dead. But I think the audience would have gone with it, since we went with the blown out candle gag and the moving painting with a solid wall behind it. He should have gone whole hog and had all kinds of weird stuff happening in the Purple Room. Remember, this was made at a time when film special effects where often done with thread and smoke and mirrors. The audience would accept any crazy thing happening in the room, because they really had to do it for the episode. If the writer/director thought the audience might have questioned a bunch of weird stuff, all he had to do is have Oliver say he apprenticed under a magician when he was a kid or something.

The *direction* is also not doing much to ramp up the suspense and dread. Lots of great moving camera shots, but makes the mistake of not showing the POV of the protagonist, which is where all of the suspense and dread resides. I don't understand how there can be directors out there who don't get this, but in my blog entry on THE THING prequel I noted that was the big problem with the film... and used an example of how to do it right from DIABOLIQUE. Other THRILLER episodes have some great direction that really adds suspense and dread. Ida Lupino directed a bunch of episodes and hers are awesome. That woman knew what to do with a camera! Most of the creepy stuff here is done by keeping things bathed in shadows, and that *does* work a little.



The best thing about the episode is the great twist where Oliver and Rachel’s attempt to fool Duncan into believing the Captain Ransom ghost haunts the house mostly backfires... but then they replicate the legend without thinking when they hear the noises downstairs. Oliver gives her the gun the same way Ransom gave his bride the gun a hundred years earlier. Love the irony! That’s what we expect from a Weird Tales type story, the scheme bites the schemers on the ass!

Weird Tales this week, edge of the seat thriller next week!

Bill

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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Death By.... Encoragement!

(originally posted a dozen years ago)

Many pre-pro writers send out their scripts to agents or managers or producers and (usually as a result of hammering away for a response) get a nice rejection note saying that their masterpiece is “Well written, but not right for us”, or they “Loved it, but we have something similar in development”, or some other exciting and positive thing about how much they loved your screenplay. They celebrate how close they came to selling their script and brag to all of their friends that they are almost over that big wall that surrounds Hollywood. Everyone loved their script! They are great writers!

When I was living in my home town dreaming of Hollywood I had a chance to give a copy of one of my scripts to my idol at the time, Paul Schrader. He wrote TAXI DRIVER and OBSESSION and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and THE YAKUZA and ROLLING THUNDER and OLD BOYFRIENDS and other films I loved... and he took a copy of my script and read it (or had someone read it) and sent me a great letter of encouragement. I sent the same script to my favorite director, Martin Scorsese, and he had someone read it, and they sent me this great letter of encouragement on Columbia Pictures stationery! My script was the greatest script on the world!

Of course, when I read that script today I cringe at how awful it is and am embarrassed that people I admired had to read it - or get their assistants to read it. That script just sucked.

Pauline Kael once said, “Hollywood’s the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

No one will ever tell you that your script sucks. The reason why is simple - they read your current script, which sucks, but what if you keep working hard at this screenwriting thing and improve and a few years later you write a great script. One of those scripts that everyone in Hollywood is fighting with each other over. There are bidding wars - and the winner not only gets to pay you a huge amount of money, they get that amazing script you have written. But if Joe’s Productions tells you that your earlier script sucks, they won’t be part of that bidding war. You will not take your script there. What Joe’s Productions wants is for you to be the *first* place you go with that great new script - so that they can maybe buy it before there is a bidding war... or at least be the friendly producer that you want to sell the script to. So, instead of saying “Your script sucks” they come up with a euphemism like “Loved it, but we have something similar in development.”

That really means your script sucks.

Here’s how to tell if they *really* loved it:

1) They buy it or option it (for real money).
2) They want to meet with you to discuss other projects.
3) They offer you a writing assignment.
4) They *request* your next script or ask to read other scripts you have written.

I have a script tip on this floating around on my website, but you should even beware of producers who want to option your script for $1 or no money. Basically, you get what they pay for. If they have a dollar invested, that is what your script is worth to them, and tells you how hard they will work to bring it to the screen. In that tip, I talk about a producer I know of who literally options every script he can get his hands on for $1 and never reads any of them. He is a “material pack rat” and his theory is that if he options 100 scripts for $1 (sight unseen) one of them has to either be good enough to set up somewhere or has some strange elements that some real producer may be looking for. This guy has you write down “keywords” about your script, then takes your script to a warehouse where it will be forgotten like the Lost Ark, and if any real producer is looking for a script with the keywords for your script - this guy tries to set up a deal. If you’ve read any of those strange script requirements in InkTip listings, you know how oddly specific some producer’s needs are. And this guy has a warehouse full of scripts he *owns*, and one may fit those strange needs. If not, he’s only out $1. The thing about options - if they pay you $1, that’s what they think your script is worth, and most likely it’s not a real option. Sure, sometimes there are underfunded legit producers looking to have control over a script when they take it into a studio... but usually the $1 option isn’t much different than no option at all. And how much can you celebrate when all you have is $1?

If they read your script and did have something just like it in development, but thought the writing was great, they will ask to read something else or want to meet with you. If they actively pursue you, you have something they want (writing). If they say nice things but don’t *do anything*, they don’t think the writing is strong enough to follow up on.

Just like in a screenplay, in real life - actions speak louder than words.

Producers will tell you all kinds of nice things, but what they *do* tells you want they really think. If they do nothing, well...

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean your script *completely sucks*, but it’s just not there yet. Keep working at it, and eventually they *will* do something. They won’t just say, “We loved it but it’s not for us”, they will want to meet with you to discuss anything you may have that *may be* for them. Because producers need screenplays and they need screenwriters. Can’t make a movie without a script.

No matter how many great things they say about your script, look at what they *do* - that will tell you what they really think. And if they don’t do anything, all is not lost! You just need to keep writing until you get that script where they actually do something... not just tell you how much they loved it.

- Bill

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950)

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950) Directed by: Richard Fleischer.
Written by: Earl Felton and Gerald Drayson Adams.
Starring: Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens, William Talman, Don McGuire, Steve Brodie, Gene Evans.
Produced by: Herman Schlom.
Cinematography by: Guy Roe
Music by: C. Bakaleinikoff.


A couple of years ago at Noir City Hollywood they showed a restored version of a film called ARMORED CAR ROBBERY which featured the director and star of NARROW MARGIN, plus - to keep my movie connection string at the time going - William Talman from PERRY MASON. Afterwards I watched one of the FALCON movies that co-starred Barbara Hale who played Della Street. The “movie connection string” is a strange thing that I noticed happening by accident - I would see a film starring someone, and the very next film I saw would also star them... or maybe it would be movies that shared the same character actor in a supporting role. But random movies would have connections, and ARMORED CAR ROBBERY seemed to be the link between two other films due to Talman. But the film was amazing, so besides the random connection between films, it’s well worth exploring.

ARMORED CAR is like a 1950s version of Michael Mann’s HEAT, including a big end chase and shootout which takes place at LAX airport... probably before those letters meant anything. It packs a lot of story into a its brief running time and has plenty of twists and turns! One of those “lost” crime films that deserves to be discovered... especially by fans on the Mann movie.



Talman plays master criminal Dave Purvis who has never been caught because he is ultra cautious - he cuts the labels out of all of his clothes and meticulously plans his heists. He has no criminal record, not even a parking ticket. Perfectly clean as far as the police are concerned - almost a ghost. He changes motels every night - harder for the police to find him. He has contingency plans for every possible thing that can go wrong, and is ready to pull off the big one: He's going to knock over an armored truck at a baseball stadium - over half a million bucks.

The movie opens at Los Angeles City Hall’s police dispatch division as someone calls in a robbery in progress at Wrigley Field baseball stadium, and - because director Richard Fliescher’s previous film, TRAPPED, was a procedural about the Treasury Department, here we also get a procedural feel - and go from the emergency operator and follow the information card on a conveyor belt to the dispatchers, who call patrol cars and detectives... Including our lead Lt. Jim Cordell (the always gruff Charles McGraw) and his partner Lt. Philips (James Flavin).



At the baseball stadium, Purvis waits with a stopwatch, timing the police response time. When Cordell and Philips arrive, Purvis studies them - his opponents - and then hops in a cab, headed to a strip club. Cordell tells Philips that this is just another false alarm - the city has been getting a lot of them over the past week... they don’t know that these have all been part of Purvis’ “study” to find the best place to hit the armored truck. Like in HEAT - this film keeps putting these two opponents at the same location - it’s all about this cop and this crook.

At the Strip Club, Yvonne LeDoux (Adele Jergens) is dancing on stage as Benny McBride (Douglas Fowley) watches... and Purvis sits next to him. Yvonne is Benny’s estranged wife, and he wants to get back with her... but she is seeing some other guy. Benny needs money to win her back, so he makes him perfect for Purvis’ heist team. McBride brings along hot-headed get away driver Al Mapes (Steve Brodie - Mitchum’s double crossing partner in OUT OF THE PAST and the father of the director of my TREACHEROUS film) and another stick up artist Ace Foster (Gene Evens - from Sam Fuller’s STEEL HELMET). Purvis gives McBride his new phone number at his next motel, tells him to memorize it - never write things down. But as soon as Purvis leaves, McBride writes the number down in a matchbook. This is a story about intelligent people who plan ahead - and McBride is a loser.

Twist: That other dude who is sleeping with Yvonne the stripper? McBride’s estranged wife? Purvis. Who plans to kill McBride... maybe during the robbery. He is stealing the cash from an armored truck, and his partner’s wife! And part of that plan involves “accidentally” shooting his partner. We are 7 minutes into the film, and all of this has happened! This movie doesn’t have any slow spots!

The planning scene is cool - the rolling window shade in Purvis old hotel room has the plans and map drawn on it, he pulls it down and the heist team goes over the plan. The reason for taking the armored car at the baseball field is that it’s one of the last stops - it’ll be loaded down with cash - and the police response time was slowest there. They have 3 minutes to pull the heist - if there’s money left on the truck they leave it. The plan comes before the money - what good is an extra thousand bucks if the police catch you... or kill you? You must be able to leave any extra cash behind, the same way that Purvis is willing to leave all of his clothes behind in the room if the cops knock on the door.



(12:00 minutes into the movie.) The Robbery: The team is dressed like laborers. Mapes has the getaway car across the street idling. Ace pulls up directly behind the armored truck in an old clunker which stalls. Purvis and McBride go over to see if they can help. The two Armored Guards return from the baseball stadium with bags of money and unlock the back doors of the armored truck...

Wham! Ace sets off a smoke grenade under the hood of the clunker which covers the back to the armored truck in dense fog. The team puts on gas masks, knock out the guards and start transferring bags of money into the getaway car as Purvis starts his stop watch.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Someone calls the police. The card goes down the conveyor belt...

But Cordell and Philips are cruising in their car nearby - another false alarm? They get to the baseball stadium long before the three minutes are up, and there’s a big street shoot out that begins around 14:40 minute mark. Like the shoot out after the bank robbery in HEAT.

Purvis shoots Philips, Cordell shoots McBride... saving Purvis the trouble. But McBride is still alive - wounded. The robbers climb into the getaway car and Mapes speeds off. Cordell jumps into his unmarked car and roars after them.



We get a great car chase and moving shoot out through the streets of Los Angeles. Purvis shatters the rear window of their getaway car and shoves his pistol through the hole, firing at Cordell. Mapes pulls around a truck backing up and Cordell isn’t as lucky - crashing his police car. He immediately calls in the make and model and license number and an ambulance for his partner... and we see the inner workings of the police department again as they handle the information.

Hospital: Philips is dead. Cordell talks to the widow (Anne Nagel), and there’s a big emotional scene about how they were both Philips’ partners - day and night.

Then Cordell meets his new partner, rookie detective Danny Ryan (Don McGuire) and he’s no Philips. Just some punk kid who got promoted. Nobody does gruff like McGraw - he has the least sympathetic delivery of any actor in crime films and makes Clint Eastwood seem like a soap opera star. This is what makes him perfect for movies like this and ROADBLOCK because you don’t need to establish that he doesn’t give a damn about his new partner and you don’t need to have a long scene about how much he cared about Philips - he can speak *one* line about how Philips was his partner and it’s so different from his gruff default mode that it’s emotional.

Cordell and Ryan hear a radio report that the robbers dumped the getaway car under a bridge, and they drive out to the scene where a CSI Team is searching for clues. Smudged prints, gas masks and painter’s clothes - no clues. But somebody lost a lot of blood, just not enough to make Cordell happy. They are doing plaster molds of the tire prints of the new car they have switched to. Again, the procedural elements in this movie are great - this was decades before CSI hit CBS, but we get to see how a crime scene is actually processed for clues and information.



Meanwhile, McBride is bleeding like crazy in the new car... and ahead there’s a roadblock. All of the robbers are dressed in hard hats and work clothes - and look like a bunch of guys going to work at the docks. Mapes gets nervous about the road block ahead and tries to turn around, but a motorcycle cop cuts them off - they must go through the police checkpoint. This requires that McBride act as if he isn’t bleeding to death, and that they cover up the blood. All kinds of suspense in this scene as McBride keeps passing out... and a cop searches the interior of the car - around the bleeding McBride, then they can’t get the car to start for a very tense moment.

But they get through the checkpoint and are home free...

When one of the cops notices there’s blood on his leg. Where did that come from?

A motorcycle cop and a pair in a police car chase after the robbers... but the robbers evade them with some great driving by Mapes. One of the great things about this movie is that they probably didn’t have the money for big shoot outs and big car chases - it was a B crime movie, so they focus on suspense (which is basically free) and just when you think that the robbers have gotten away - TWIST - something goes wrong and we get a short piece of (low cost) action. There are no slow spots - it’s densely plotted and manages to uses suspense to keep it exciting without blowing the budget.

Now the police have a new search area - the harbor area - and Cordell and Ryan head to that division’s police station... where the Insurance Guy for the Armored Car Company shows up and wants to help... and Cordell tells him to get the heck out of his sight. He’s such a teddy bear.

Meanwhile the robbers are hiding in a dockside warehouse... where McBride realizes that he is dying. Purvis refuses to get him a doctor, and McBride pulls a gun - so Purvis kills him. Brutal. He shoots a dying man. If you thought Cordell was basically emotionless, Purvis tops him in this scene. What’s cool here is that McBride was supposed to be killed in the robbery, but by keeping him alive (and bleeding) the story uses him to create suspense and this brutal scene.

Ace puts the body in their car and drives it off the edge of the pier while Mapes stays with Purvis - afraid of a double cross. A guy who would kill a dying man would also just take off with the money. Purvis tells Mapes that McBride’s wife gets McBride’s cut... then beats up Mapes. Just for fun. Actually, I don’t think Purvis does anything for fun - this was to show Mapes who is the Alpha Male - so that Mapes doesn’t double cross him later. Everything with Purvis is calculated.

(31:30) Bad luck, as a pair of patrolling cops come upon the sinking car with McBride’s corpse in it moments before it’s about to vanish under water. They call it into dispatch, and Cordell and Ryan over hear it on the radio and ask for the make and model of the sinking car... it matches the basic information they have from the tire prints. What are the odds?

At the pier, Cordell and Ryan check the tire tracks against their plaster cast of the new getaway car - and it’s a perfect match. Ryan drives and Cordell stands on the running board of their unmarked car and they follow the tire tracks through the dark, spooky warehouse area. What makes this great is Cordell hanging onto the outside of the unmarked police car as it creeps through the industrial alleys - keeping his eyes on the tire tracks. It seems dangerous and like an action scene... and is an original way to “follow the trail” to find the badguys.

Another great HEAT type moment as Purvis, Ace and Mapes leave their hide out... and almost bump into Cordell and Ryan! They hide behind some equipment. And there’s a tense scene as Cordell, Ryan and the uniform cops search the area where Purvis and the robbers are hiding - it’s like a game of hide and seek. Purvis and the robbers must be super quiet as they move from spot to spot moments before Cordell and the cops moves to search the spot where they just were. Another great scene that builds suspense on a low budget - lots of close calls!



Purvis gets his gun ready and tells the others that they have to make a run for it - one at a time - to the boat at the next pier that is waiting to take them to Mexico. Mapes goes first and gets to the boat, but Ace loses his footing as he runs and trips - making a sound loud enough to attract Cordell and the cops! They chase after Ace and shoot him... Mapes hears the shots, starts the boat and gets the hell out of there. Cordell and the cops race to the pier and shoot at the boat, but it gets away. While they are shooting at the boat, Purvis sneaks away with the suitcase full of cash from the robbery. Was this his plan all along?

(36:00) A newspaper fills the screen, the robbery is the headline. When the newspaper vendor lowers the paper it exposes the Strip Club... as Yvonne leaves work. Great shot! We follow her into an all night diner, where she spots... Purvis. She heads to a phone booth on one side of the diner, Purvis heads to a phone booth on the other side of the diner. “How does it feel to be a free woman?” he asks her. “Just the same.” They arrange to meet at the new Motel - she has memorized all of the information that her now-dead husband couldn’t remember. She smiles at him through the phone booth window as she leaves - it’s a promise of things to come.

Valley Motor Court Motel. Yvonne and Purvis lock lips, then he pops open the suitcase full of stolen money. He warns her that due to her husband’s untimely death, the police will show up to question her - and coaches her on how to act. Also says that they can not see each other until it’s time for them to split the country.



(40:00) Cordell and Ryan look over McBride’s rap sheet - no shortage of arrests and convictions. Ace’s rap sheet - the same. And both men knew another convicted armed robbery get away driver named Mapes - and they look at his rap sheet. That’s 3 out of the 4 gang members, and Mapes and the unknown suspect are in the wind... and Cordell (being a complete hard ass) tells Ryan that these three are just stupid stick up men and Ryan shouldn’t care about them. It’s the Fourth Man who is important. He was the planner. He is the man they need to get off the street.

At McBride’s Apartment - while waiting for the finger print crew to show up - Cordell and Ryan do a search and question the landlady, who says that McBride had three friends over a couple of times during the last week. They find a framed photo of Yvonne and Ryan volunteers to check it out with modeling and talent agencies. She’s hot and Ryan *does* have time for women in his life. Cordell is poking around and notices something - asks the landlady what happened to the window shade? Stolen? That’s odd. Then Cordell finds the matchbook with Purvis’ new phone number. He dials the number... “Valley Motor Court.”

Valley Motor Court Motel. Cordell and Ryan drive up and go into the manager’s office...
As Purvis packs in his room, ready to go to the next place. He looks out the window and sees the unmarked car!
The Manager leads the Detectives to Purvis’ room!
Purvis grabs the suitcase full of money and hops out the back window just as the Manager knocks at the door!
Cordell tells the Manager to use his pass key. They enter the motel room and Cordell sees all of the packed clothes.
Purvis tries to get away, but Ryan is next to the unmarked car... blocking the exit. Purvis is trapped! He pulls out his gun and hides behind a car parked in a carport, just as Cordell and the Manager step out of the room - only a few feel away!
Purvis waits until Cordell goes back inside to continue searching the motel room and then slips away... leaving everything he owns behind, except for the money.



Another very tense suspense scene where Cordell and Purvis are within spitting distance of each other, which makes us focus on the HEAT-like cop vs. robber element of the story. It’s these two men in a chess match using guns - each trying to outsmart the other. Lots of tension in a scene with guns but no gunplay... just the threat of a shoot out erupting if Cordell spots Purvis.

Back at the police station: The CSI Lab Guy tells Cordell the height, weight, and other information about Purvis from the clothes they found in his room - and the hair on his comb that was left behind. There’s also some lipstick on one of the shirts - and it’s analyzed. A theatrical brand not available in retail stores. They now have a good description of the Fourth Man. That’s when Ryan calls with the name of the dame in the picture - Yvonne, a stripper (“You ought to see her in her work clothes”) and she’s McBride’s wife... er, widow. Cordell wonders if the theatrical lipstick may have come from the stripper.



(46:45) The Strip Club. Cordell and Ryan go to question Yvonne... but she’s working. “There she is, with bells on.” “Very few bells.” They decide to watch the show until she’s free... Ryan enjoys watching, Cordell thinks this is just a waste of time.

Outside, a man’s silhouette is looking at the poster of Yvonne. Purvis? No, Mapes! He enters the club... walking right past Cordell and Ryan to find a seat up front.

Cordell and Ryan spot Mapes and split up in order to box him in. Suspense builds as Cordell gets to Mape’s row and sits to his right... and Ryan sits to his left. Mapes knows something is up and tries to split, but Ryan pulls down his coat - binding his arms, and Cordell grabs Mapes’ gun from the shoulder holster.

At the police station: They question Mapes... Cordell wants him to fry for killing Philips. They bring in one of the Armored Truck Guards who I.D.s Mapes as the getaway driver. Oh, and they have his fingerprints from McBride’s apartment (more CSI procedural authenticity - in crime fiction the procedural subgenre is all about the actual procedures used in solving crimes - from CSI’s blood spatter charts to Ed McBain’s novels filled with police reports and crime scene sketches). Mapes says he was the getaway driver, but didn’t kill Philips - that was Dave Purvis. The Fourth Man. Also Yvonne’s boyfriend... why else would he brutally kill McBride but want to give money to the widow? But Mapes has no idea how to find Purvis. He has no convictions, no arrests, nothing. Purvis is a ghost - his name might not even be Purvis, who knows?

Ryan follows Yvonne in hopes that she leads them to Purvis.
They bug her dressing room at the strip club.
They bug her car.

(53:00) The Strip Club. Ryan reports to Cordell: “She comes in, hangs up her coat, puts on her make up, takes off her clothes.”
“How do you know that?”
“The zipper makes a noise.”

Then they overhear her telling the club owner that she is quitting... as of tonight. They are going to lose her! So Cordell sends Ryan undercover as Mapes to press Yvonne to contact Purvis so that he can get his cut. Has she ever met Mapes? What if she knows what he looks like? (This is a great suspense builder - it turns a meeting into a potential for danger.) “What do we got to lose? Only me.” Cordell is worried that the kid might suffer the same fate as his previous partner, who Purvis killed... but he doesn’t show it. What might be a whole scene in some other movie is just a glance from Charles McGraw that tells us he cares about the kid.

(55:30) In that all night diner: Yvonne sits alone at a table... and Ryan sits next to her, says he’s a friend of Dave Purvis... named Mapes. Ryan plays the role - roughing her up a little. Demanding that she get in touch with Purvis so that he can get his cut of the dough. Really convincing.

But guess who walks through the doors?
Purvis.

Like DeNiro’s character in HEAT who lives by: "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner" - and then can’t leave without Amy Brenneman’s bookstore clerk, Purvis leaves all of his clothes in the motel room... but can’t leave Yvonne.



Purvis goes to the phone booth on one side of the diner - as he did before. Yvonne tells Ryan that she will call Purvis so that he can get his money, and goes to the phone booth on the other side of the diner. Ryan insists on standing outside the phone booth and listening in, so that she can’t double cross him. Great suspense because we know that Purvis has seen Ryan and knows that he isn’t Mapes. Purvis says on the phone, “That guy’s not Mapes, it’s a cop.” Will she show it and blow it? She keeps her head. He tells her to stall him until he can get away, then she should run out the back door - there may be cops out front. She keeps talking, even though Purvis has hung up and left the diner.

She hangs up and tells Ryan that Purvis wants to talk to him. When Ryan gets into the phone booth next to her, she slams him, closes the door trapping him inside, and runs out the back door.

There’s a foot chase outside as she runs to her car, but Ryan catches up with her. Catches her. Prevents her from escaping. Good news!
Then Purvis jams a gun in Ryan’s back. Bad news!

Purvis takes Ryan’s gun and tells him to get into the front passenger seat. Yvonne gets behind the wheel, Purvis sits in the backseat behind Ryan - keeping his gun jammed against the cop’s neck.

In front of the diner, Cordell and another cop hear Yvonne’s car start up... and Cordell gets in the unmarked car with the receiver and they follow. They hear Ryan ask Purvis where they are going... and Cordell and the other cop follow after Ryan mentions the traffic on Figeroua Street.

Ryan is doing a great job of slipping in the street names so that Cordell can follow, but Purvis doesn’t trust Ryan - knocks him unconscious - and decides to find another car - the police know what Yvonne’s car looks like.

Cordell has lost them... and maybe gotten Ryan killed.

They pull into a lumber yard and Purvis and Yvonne get out of the car. Purvis tells her to find a cab - they are going to the Los Angeles airport where he has a plane chartered. Ryan hears all of this - he is not really unconscious. He waits until Purvis and Yvonne aren’t looking and then Ryan tries to run... but Purvis shoots him in the back! As Purvis gets ready to shoot Ryan in the head to finish him off... a police car creeps by a street away. Purvis can’t shoot without attracting attention... so he and Yvonne run. Find a cab, and head to the airport.



One of the things I like about how this story works is that things go wrong - which creates suspense and plot twists. Ryan would be dead if it weren’t for that police car creeping past. The police car isn’t some random accident - they are searching for Yvonne’s car in this area. But every time either Cordell or Purvis gets a step ahead, something goes wrong and the balance changes. Nothing ever goes wrong because a character is stupid and makes a mistake, these two men are experts at their jobs. It’s the things that they can’t control that go wrong.

Ryan - dying - crawls back to the car, climbs inside, gets next to the bug and says his name and location - the lumber yard. Cordell hears it and they head to the lumber yard...

They enter the lumber yard with guns drawn - they don’t know if Purvis is waiting for them, if this is a trap. Then they spot Ryan unconscious in the car and Cordell runs to him - and speaks to him softly, gently cradling him. McGraw still sounds as if he was gargling with gravel between takes, but just by not barking orders he sounds more emotional. Ryan tells him that Purvis and the girl have gone to the airport, where they have a chartered plane.

Cordell calls an ambulance for Ryan and then gets in his car and races to the airport. Just like Pacino in HEAT - someone he cares about may be heading to the hospital, but the crook is getting away! He has priorities. He radios in to have all private planes kept on the ground.



Purvis and Yvonne get into the private plane, the engines fire up, and they head to the runway... when the tower radios them to stay put. Purvis pulls his gun and tells the pilot that he only takes order from Purvis. The plane gets back on the runway - ready to take off. But the tower radios that there is another plane *landing* on that runway! The pilot stops the plane at the end of the runway... and then they hear the police sirens.

Cordell has arrived.

Purvis grabs the suitcase full of money and bails out of the plane, running like crazy down the runway.

Cordell rolls out of his police car and fires at him - and Purvis returns fire... then keeps running down the runway.

Where that plane that is landing runs over him and smashes him flat - busting open the suitcase full of money so that all of the cash flutters in the wind.



We end with Cordell visiting Ryan at the hospital, and the two men have become friends and partners.

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY is like a predecessor for Mann’s HEAT, and I wonder if he saw it before he did his TV movie L.A. TAKEDOWN (1989) - which HEAT is almost a remake of. Though the print of ARMORED CAR ROBBERY was a restored version, heck - these are the kinds of movies that I used to watch on the Late Late Movie at 1am, and maybe Michael Mann did, too. These are so many parallels that it seems impossible that he hadn’t seen it.

But even without the HEAT parallels, this film is a great little crime flick with a cat and mouse game between McGraw and Tallman through Los Angeles that brings to the surface how each treats their partners, with lots of great procedural stuff on both sides, from planting bugs and doing tire casts and showing how a 911 call (yeah, it wasn't called that at the time) goes from operator to dispatcher; to methods for crooks to contact each other and how to get past police road blocks. Oh, and there's a stripper! We will probably look at some more films from this director in the future, because he not only mad a bunch of great low budget crime films in the 50s, he directed FANTASTIC VOYAGE and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and MR. MAJESTYK and SOYLENT GREEN and CONAN THE DESTROYER. The most amazing career for a director you may never have heard of!

- Bill

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