Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Chess Moves

From 2010, because DARK PASSAGE is now on BluRay...

One of the techniques used in suspense stories is something I call the Chess Moves or Chess Dialogue - even though you may find it closer to Poker because it involves bluffing. I wrote about it in the Fridays With Hitchcock about I CONFESS, and it recently popped up in the film DARK PASSAGE, so I thought it would be a good “blog filler” for the day. No actual chess is involved in this technique, so don’t worry if you only know how to play checkers.

The reason why I call it the Chess Move is that, like in chess, the player is several moves ahead of the game, and what may seem like a foolish move now is actually a brilliant move. You are watching a chess game, and one of the players moves his Queen into a very vulnerable position - and the other player takes the Queen. Now, that particular move may look stupid, but when the other player made their move to capture the Queen, they created an opening that two moves from now will result in their being checkmated. Now that stupid move where the Queen was moved onto a square where they were captured doesn’t look so stupid, does it? That player was thinking moves ahead of the other player, and without sacrificing that Queen could never have won the game.

In a story this technique is usually used either to create a trap or to look innocent when the character is, in fact, guilty.

Buy DP BR The trap version you’ve seen a hundred times and probably needs no explanation, but often a character will appear to be vulnerable in order to spring a trap. And sometimes a character will *actually* put themselves in a vulnerable position to spring a trap - they volunteer to be “bait” because it is the only way to make sure the adversary show themselves. Think of John McClane with that gun taped to his back raising his hands and giving up to Hans in DIE HARD. Or the Princess in John Woo’s RED CLIFF and her female archers fire on the enemy army even though they are outnumbered... and are chased into the desert... where the Princess’ much larger army awaits. You may think at first that it’s stupid for McClane to give up to Hans, but how else will he get close enough to attack him? How will he get Hans to let down his guard, thinking that McClane has lost? Though McClane *is* vulnerable - what if Hans just shoots him? - it is a calculated move where McClane is playing several moves ahead of Hans (who has no idea about that gun taped to his back). And even if the Princess in John Woo’s RED CLIFF ends up being killed by the enemy soldiers before they fall into the trap, she will have died so that the trap could be sprung on the enemy soldiers - and the plan still succeeds. Just without the Princess. Sometimes when you’re “the bait” the fish eats you - but you still hook them.



The other version of the Chess Move is also one you’ve seen a hundred times - it’s when a character does something that will make them look innocent when they are guilty. There’s a bluff involved in this - and a “poker face”. There’s a great example in DARK PASSAGE... Humphrey Bogart escapes from San Quentin Prison, and there’s a huge manhunt for him. Lauren Bacall offers him a ride - knowing that he is an escaped prisoner. She has a reason for this, that we won’t know about for several more scenes. Bogart doesn’t know her, but there are a million cops looking for him and this woman has offered to help him escape. When they come to a roadblock, Bogart hides in the back seat which is full of paining supplies, including a tarp. He’s hidden under the tarp when Bacall pulls up to the roadblock. A Policeman tells her there is an escaped prisoner, and asks if she has seen anyone on the road. She says no. The Policeman notices the tarp covering... something... in the back seat, and asks what it is. Bacall says it’s painting supplies, and if he would like to search the car that’s okay with her. That line is the Chess Move. Bogart is hiding back there, and she *encourages* the Policeman to search! Is she crazy? Is she double crossing Bogart? Does she want him to get caught? Why would she ever *encourage* the Policeman to search the exact spot where Bogart is hiding?

Well, let’s look at the alternatives...

A) She could jam on the gas, crash through the roadblock, and speed away! Okay, if that’s her chess move, what does the other player do? Well, now everyone will be chasing for her car and searching for her car and eventually she *and* Bogart will be caught.

B) She could *refuse* to let the Policeman search her back seat, tell him he needs a warrant or a court order or something. Okay, if that is her chess move, what does the other player do? Well, the Policeman will *know* she has something to hide and detain her and get that search warrant and find Bogart and then they both end up in jail.

If you can come up with a C that would fit a 1947 movie, post it in the comments section and we’ll look over what the other player would do in response. Stripping as a diversion isn’t going to work for many reasons, so skip that. I can’t think of any other good alternative that doesn’t make her look like she’s trying to hide something.

And that’s the reason why she has to make the Chess Move - she needs to look innocent, even though she’s guilty as hell of hiding an escaped convict in the back seat. She must do exactly what an innocent person would do, so that the Policeman doesn’t become suspicious, even though that puts her in potential peril. If the Policeman *did* search the backseat and find Bogart, she is in no more trouble than the other alternatives. But because she acts innocent and encourages him to search the backseat, the Policeman figures there must not be anything under that tarp. Why would she *want* him to search if there was someone hiding there? Guilty people have something to hide, innocent people do not - she isn’t trying to hide anything, therefor she must be innocent and not hiding anything. By *encouraging him* she is actually causing him to not search. Hey, still an element of chance, but this is a calculated risk.

Buy DP BR For me, this sort of Chess Move often results in a note from a Development Executive asking me why the character would be so stupid as to invite the Policeman to look in the back seat. Is she stupid? Heard that dozens of times, and I wonder if they actually think through their notes? Here we have a character - a fictional person - who is more intelligent than the Development Executive. The character is several moves ahead, the Devo is several moves behind. And if they looked at the alternatives, they would see that there are not any. The only way scenes like this can play is if the character makes that Chess Move. Because everything in a screenplay (and in life) is cause and effect, you need to be able to see all the way down the line - several moves ahead - and understand that the *best* possible move at this point might be one that seems stupid on the surface - sacrificing that Queen - but is clever when you see a few moves ahead.

There’s a great scene in THE GRIFTERS where the master con man played by the late great J. T. Walsh *insists* that a reluctant investor follow him to the back room to look at all of the expensive computer equipment... which does not exist! The back room is empty. But Walsh must make it clear that he has nothing to hide and that the computer equipment does exist - and no one would ever *insist* that someone look at it unless it were actually there, right? Again, calculated risk - what if the guy went back there to look? - but the worst case scenario remains the same no matter what Walsh does... but only by making the Chess Move does he have a chance at success. Often, the only smart move a character has is something that may seem like a dumb move at the time it is made... but the character is a few Chess Moves ahead and this is really a clever move.

When Devos are unable to see that it is a clever move is when those Devos should be replaced. Unfortunately in my experience, instead it is when the clever move is removed and the script gets dumber.

Pisser.

- Bill

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: RIVER'S EDGE



RIVER’S EDGE (1986) written by Neal Jimenez, directed by Tim Hunter.

I have called Keanu Reeves “The Luckiest Actor In Hollywood” because he has been in so many hit movies. But maybe it *isn’t* luck? Maybe Keanu actually selects roles that he finds interesting or scripts that he thinks are mind blowing page turners? Keanu has not only been in a bunch of big box office hits, he has also been in a bunch of art house favorites like MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO and PERMANENT RECORD. Oh, and the now forgotten film RIVER’S EDGE which not only launched the career of screenwriter Neal Jimenez, it also brought back Dennis Hopper and probably paved the way for the films of David Lynch. The film is based on a true story, a murder that happened in the Sacramento area; and my friend Tom’s uncle was one of the investigating officers on the case. The story made the news because it was one of those “shocking how immoral our children have become” outrages, since all of the kids in the high school not only knew about the murder, they had visited the body for fun. Kind of like a field trip. Cool! A dead girl! Dare you to touch her!



My other odd connection to this film is the actor who plays the teen killer Samson, Danny Roebuck, is a friend of a friend of mine and I’ve met him a couple of times. Danny is one of those actors who is in *everything*, from being the cop on Matlock to the dad in the Cody Banks movies. He’s a great guy, a real fan of horror movies, and when I was trying to “earn” my producer credit on CROOKED I got my friend Duane (the pawnshop owner from PULP FICTION) to talk to him about playing suspects... except the producers decided not to hire them and to hire complete unknowns (who were their friends) instead. So, instead of a group of suspects that you recognized so that you didn’t know who the guilty party was because *all* of the suspects were recognizable actors... there were a bunch of unknowns and Gary Busey. Who do you think the killer is? I didn’t know Danny when I first saw the film, didn’t know Tom’s uncle investigated the case, and had never heard of screenwriter Jimenez. I just thought the film was great.

The movie is all about how this younger generation is desensitized and unemotional, and that carries through the film in several story threads in addition to the main story. High school kid Samson (Danny Roebuck) murders a girl in his class Jamie (Danyi Deats) after having sex with her at the edge of the (Sacramento) river, then stops to have a cigarette as if nothing has happened. Ten year old problem kid Tim (Joshua Miller) watches this happen from a bridge... but doesn’t go to the police. Later Tim tells a group of high school kids, including his older brother Matt (Keanu) and perpetually stoned Layne (Crispen Glover) plus a couple of Jamie’s friends including Clarissa (Ione Skye) about the dead body... and they take a field trip. All of the kids look at the dead girl, kick her to make sure she’s dead, etc... and even though they all knew her, none of them seems to care. It’s just kinda cool. They go back to school and their every day lives as if nothing had happened.

Except both Matt and Clarissa separately realize they feel terrible, Jamie was their friend... and even though Layne wants everyone to rally around Samson, can they really support the friend who killed over the friend who was murdered?

Matt’s home life is hell, his mother is a nurse with an unemployed boyfriend... his bother Tim makes that kid from THE OMEN seem well mannered (Tim takes baby sister Kim’s doll and chops it up) and steals cars, smokes pot, robs houses and eventually steals a gun with the intention of killing someone. This is a *ten year old*. The little sister’s “dead doll” runs an amazing parallel to the dead girl at the river’s edge, and the doll’s grave eventually triggers Matt to call the police anonymously about dead Jamie and Samson. And narking on Samson is what leads to Kid Brother Tim gunning for Matt.

The police question all of the kids, and ask Matt how he feels about Jamie’s death, and he answers: “I don’t know.” Even though he was disturbed enough to anonymously call the police, he is still desensitized to emotions. The policeman says he’s tired of hearing “I don’t know how I feel” from all of the kids he interviews. They all say the same thing: none of them feel.





Samson is hiding out at drug dealer Feck’s house (Dennis Hopper in a signature weird role), where Feck lives with his blow up doll Ellie. Yes, he has a long term romantic relationship with an inflatable girl. Feck is another parallel story: he once contributed to the death of the woman he loved and still feels guilt over it. At first Feck thinks Samson has much in common with him, but then he realizes Samson feels nothing and no longer wants to hide the killer.

Matt confesses to Clarissa that he called the police, and they realize they may be the only two people in their school who are disturbed by Jamie’s death. Both have been plagued by nightmares and guilt. This leads to romance: both care, and care about each other. While they are making love they hear gunshots...

Feck has taken Samson to the river’s edge and killed him. In the process, Feck’s inflatable doll Ellie blows into the river, later prompting one of my favorite lines in the movie when the kids spot the blow up doll in the water: “That's Ellie. Feck's girlfriend. I wonder what she's doing here?”

Talked to Danny last night, and he sent me this awesome shot from the set!



The chilling thing about this film is how what was true about the younger generation in the 80s being desensitized and not caring seems even more true today. There’s a TV commercial for mobile phones that talks about the joy of being alone... and isn’t the least bit ironic. We live in a world where people don’t interact with other people, we interact with *screens*. Think about how crazy that is for a moment. There are people today who text each other when they are sitting across from each other. Talk about desensitized! THE RIVER’S EDGE held a mirror up to the 1980s... and had no idea things would only get worse. Keanu gives a great performance, as does Danny Roebuck and Dennis Hopper and everyone else in the cast. Let me mention one of the greatest acting jobs in the film: Danyi Deats as the dead Jamie. Imagine having to play dead for an entire film! Deats is a TV and Music Video producer now (some of Sting’s videos). This is one of those lost movies where everyone gave an amazing performance, and screenwriter Jimenez would go on to adapt Tony Hillerman’s Native American cop mystery THE DARK WIND and write and direct the amazing film WATERDANCE after he became paralyzed. He was one of the team of poker playing screenwriters who contributed to the fun film SLEEP WITH ME (famous for the Tarantino speech about TOP GUN as a Gay love story). If you like gritty, edgy flicks, check out RIVER’S EDGE.

Bill

PS: That set shot has a digital watermark, so steal it and I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you!

Friday, July 26, 2019

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Jamaica Inn (1939)

Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison based on the novel by Daphne DuMaurier.

JAMAICA INN was Hitchcock’s last film in England and his first of three films based on a Daphne DuMaurier story. His next film would also be from a DuMaurier novel - REBECCA - which would win the Oscar for Best Picture. In doing some research for this entry, I read an article that said REBECCA almost didn’t happen due to JAMAICA INN. It seems DuMaurier - kind of the J.K. Rowling of her time - had seen JAMAICA INN and *hated* it, and was making waves about Hitchcock directing REBECCA.

And she had good reason to hate this film - it took me several viewings to make it all of the way through. It’s a Gothic Melodrama - which probably ends up being the second most common type of Hitchcock movie after Man On The Run Thrillers. That seems odd when you think about it, but so many of Hitchcock’s films end up in that genre: from MARNIE (sort of) UNDER CAPRICORN to SUSPICION to REBECCA. This films are usually about innocent women who come under the spell of men with dark secrets and suspense and drama ensues. On the paperback aisle these books have covers that show a woman in a nightgown running away from a castle or mansion that has the silhouette of a stern looking man in the window. Though these stories can be filled with suspense and intrigue like REBECCA, they can also be over-the-top melodrama like UNDER CAPRICORN. JAMAICA INN fits somewhere between the two, and the film’s major flaw seems not so much Hitchcock’s direction or even the subject matter... but the star.




Nutshell: In 1800 England, young Mary (a hot 18 year old Maureen O’Hara in her very first role) is an orphan sent to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss in a costal village in Cornwall, where Uncle owns a scummy tavern called Jamaica Inn. This place is so rough the stage coach won’t even stop *near* there and dumps Mary and her baggage in front of the Governor’s Mansion. Governor Sir Humphrey (Charles Laughton) offers to escort Mary to Jamaica Inn - a place so dangerous Sir Humphrey’s groom tries to talk him out of it. They ride to the Inn, and Sir Humphrey gets the hell out of there. Mary meets her Uncle (Leslie Banks) and Aunt (Marie Ney) and is shown to her room. Downstairs in the bar, a criminal gang - lead by her Uncle - are arguing over the loot from a bit of piracy. Seems these fellows have an inside man who tells them when ships are passing the rugged coast, and they cover the lighthouse light so that the ships crash into the shore, then steal the cargo and Uncle Joss takes it to his fence. Mary discovers all of this, saves a gang member Trehearne (Robert Newton) from death, Trehearne kidnaps her, she goes to Sir Humphrey for help, and gets kidnaped a couple more times before the film is over. Along the way, she meets a nice guy and some romance blossoms... the end.

We’ll look at the plot details in a few minutes.

Experiment: This is a case of “Be careful what you wish for”. Hitchcock had worked his way up from drawing title cards to directing films, and had managed to direct a string of hits that sold tickets not only in England, but in the world. His 39 STEPS and LADY VANISHES were massive international successes... but both were genre films and looked down upon by some critics. Hitch wasn’t working with top tier stars, he was often working with B level actors in the U.K. Hey, everyone knows who Nova Pilbeam is, right? She’s the *star* of YOUNG AND INNOCENT, the film he made just between LADY VANISHES and SABOTAGE. As soon as someone like Robert Donat became a star, he quit doing genre films (and moved to the America to do dramas like GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS). Hitchcock’s films were successes despite not having big name stars in the leads.

But just as LADY VANISHES resulted in a contract from GONE WITH THE WIND producer David O. Selznick and a ticket to America, it also attracted the attention of Oscar winning movie star Charles Laughton. Finally - a movie star who wanted to work with Hitchcock! Laughton was born in England, had become a star there, and then moved to America where the real money was. In America he was the star of prestige films like MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and LES MISERABLES. Having him in a Hitchcock film guaranteed both box office and critical success - and a chance for Hitchcock to be seen as more than just a genre filmmaker.

But everything has a price, and Laughton was the 300 lb gorilla - instead of JAMAICA INN being a Hitchcock movie, it ended up a Charles Laughton movie... and instead of the story being about an innocent girl sent to live in a den of scum and villainy... it became the story of Sir Humphrey the Governor of the district and his descent into madness (and over acting). I’m sure the reason why DuMaurier hated the film was that it was no longer about the lead character, but about a side character from her book who had now taken center stage. But let’s face it - the lead character of Mary was played by an actress who had never done a film before, and Sir Humphrey was played by an Oscar winner. Who do you think should get more screen time?



In the Hitchcock/Truffaut Book, Hitch has little good to say about Laughton, telling a story about how Laughton refused to be shot from the waist down until he figured out how his character would walk. Other weird elements are Laughton’s *eye brows* which have been shaved and replaced by crazy melodramatic eyebrows about halfway up his forehead. But the biggest problem are all of the endless scenes that feature Laughton but have little to do with the story - there is an additional writer credited and I wonder if Laughton brought in his own pet scribe to beef up his role. The character is supposed to be the villain (oops, spoiler!) but there are a bunch of scenes that show him descending into madness - which allow Laughton to chew through a whole studio full of scenery - so that by the end, instead of being the bad guy... he has a big end scene where we are supposed to feel sorry for him because he’s crazy. Even Mary, who he has tried to kill several times in the story, yells that the police should leave him alone because he doesn’t know what he is doing. They try to make the villain into the victim - and that manages to undermine the whole damned film! But it’s easy to image the Oscar winner Laughton insisting on the rewrite that turns him from bad guy into poor victim... even if it kills the film. Though I am no fan of the auteur theory and believe the *producer* should be in charge (though, maybe not if that producer is Selznick), I think actors are the last people who should be in charge. Most of them are vain and more interested in how many lines they have in the script than what the script is about. And this is a case where that prestigious star who could have turned a Hitchcock film into something critics may have respected ended up killing the film. It’s a great (over) acting showcase for Charles Laughton, but not a great movie. Watchable (it’s not drek like UNDER CAPRICORN) but coming between LADY VANISHES and REBECCA it’s kind of a disappointment. Hitchcock did not leave England on a bang, but on a whimper.

Hitch Appearance: I’ve seen the film several times now, and can not tell you where he is... but he claims he is in there!

Bird Appearance: Seagulls flying over the crashed ship as it is being looted at the beginning, also the woman with the duck on the stage coach.

Hitchcock Stock Company: Basil Radford from LADY VANISHES is one of Laughton’s cronies. Leslie Banks (Joss) was the husband in the original MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (freakin’ great actor... he was also Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME). One of the other cronies, George Curzon, is also in MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

Screenwriting Lessons: Even though this is not a great film, it *does* provide some great lessons. Part of the film’s problem is that it gets so much right that when it goes wrong it ruins everything - like a cigarette put out in a fried egg in a big British breakfast. The film has a great “experiment” in using “bumpers” between scenes, is a model of how to start a screenplay (first ten pages), shows us how to individualize supporting characters, and is a good example of the basic three act structure... and has some nice little suspense scenes.

Opening Scenes: Edgar Allan Poe said, "If the writer's initial sentence isn't effective, then he has failed in his first step," and the same is true with the opening scene of your screenplay. You want your script to hit the ground running and pull the reader, and later the viewer, into the story. JAMAICA INN has a great opening scene. And a great first image...



After the opening credit roll and a brief legend telling us about the treacherous coast of Cornwall, a wave crashes and *washes away the words*. Though this is direction rather than screenwriting, something like this might actually be in the screenplay. After you write the legend (similar to the one that begins STAR WARS) you could write that a wave crashes against the letters and washes them away. That would help illustrate that this is a savage place of action rather than words.

You want your opening pages to set the tone and mood and establish the world of your story in a way that is exciting and involving for the reader (and later viewer). My first experience at the American Film Market was at a screening where all of the buyers in the audience left after the first ten minutes... and every other film I saw at AFM had buyers splitting at about the ten minute mark. By that point they knew if they were going to buy the film (and it would be seen) or not buy it (and it would never hit a screen or video player or TV station). That was decided by the first ten minutes of the film. So if your script takes a while to get started, find a way to get the ball rolling earlier. Often the problem is just starting the story too soon - before anything happens. Start when the story starts.



JAMAICA INN goes from that crashing surf to the Inn itself - a strange German expressionistic building - at night, as a man scurries down the stairs, mounts a horse and rides to the beacon on the coast. The ride is done with a series of quick wipes, like in STAR WARS. Hey, transitions are not our job as screenwriters, but this gives you an idea of how *little* time was spent on the page for his ride. It’s not about riding to the beacon, it’s about what happens next...

Off the coast is a ship, using the beacon to navigate around the treacherous rocks on the coast. There is a great combination of models and real shots here - we see a model ship pitching in the rough waters, and cut to a real ship set where the captain and crew struggle to keep the ship on course. This looks real - it’s difficult at first to tell that models were used. Hitchcock has great model work in his films, and we’ll talk more about that in the YOUNG AND INNOCENT entry. But what the model and real life set combination does here is create some amazing spectacle in the first minute or two of the film. This is not some little story set in a house, this is a huge event!

The rider looks away from the ship, and takes a black cloth and completely covers the beacon! Now there is no way for the ship to navigate around the rocky coast! This is a great moment because it’s not at all what you would expect, and that *intrigues* us. On the page that’s a WTF? moment where you *must* read on to find out why someone would do such a thing. The most important thing to do in your first ten pages is *involve* the reader - all of the car chases and actions scenes and spectacle stuff in the world is meaningless if the reader isn’t pulled into the story. You want them to need to know what happens next.



Back on the ship, they have lost sight of the beacon and believe they are heading *away* from the rocky coast... Then the ship hits the rocks along the coast again and again - smashing and crashing! The mast breaks and comes down! The ship rolls to its side and crashes into the rocky shore. This is *huge* spectacle, and is impressive even today. Again, that combo of model and real ship with real actors allows Hitchcock to show the whole ship slam into the rocks and turn on its side... then cut to *real people* on a *real ship’s deck* (a set) react. Water washes over the damaged ship, and the crew jumps into the water and swims to shore. We are still wondering why that rider would black out the beacon, when...

The crew members make it to shore... and are attacked by armed men. WTF? Now we *really* want to know what is going on. The leader yells for the armed men to make sure there are no survivors. Soon the sea is filled with the floating bodies of dead sailors. Okay - why run a ship into the rocks just to kill the crew? Then we get the answer when the leader, Joss, yells at his gang to get the cargo before the ship is destroyed, and the armed men jump onto the ship and start passing down the cargo, which ends up on a horse drawn wagon. As they are ready to leave, a ship crew member staggers out of the water and Joss has one of his men murder him.

Usually a script will begin with either the protagonist or the antagonist, or the physical conflict. In this case we begin with the antagonist, Joss and his gang of thieves - pirates without a ship.

From here we cut to our protagonist, young Mary, on a stage coach rambling through the darkness of the countryside. She tells the people across from her - a man and a woman with a duck - that she is headed to Jamaica Inn and asks if they know of it. Both are evasive... This shows us that she is a stranger in these parts and naive. Each line of dialogue or action in this scene serves a purpose - it is all establishing her character, but also giving us information about Jamaica Inn. A two-fer! When the coach gets close to Jamaica Inn it *increases speed* and passes the point where Mary should have been dropped off! She yells at the driver that she wanted to get off there - and this shows that she is not a weak woman. She stands up for herself. Even if she is not worldly, she is also not a wimp. The coach stops in front of the Governor’s Mansion and they throw her trunk down and then roar away, leaving her in the darkness.

Creepy Dudes: Part of the Gothic Melodrama genre is the innocent girl in a world of creepy dudes. Mary is an orphan - her father is dead - and she is given two father figures in the story: Sir Humphrey and her Uncle Joss.



When Sir Humphrey is called away from dinner with his cronies by his butler because there is a young woman at the door, he waddles in to meet Mary... and goes into perv mode. He does everything he can to charm and flatter her, and asks for her to remove her coat so that he can get a good look at her. Um, total perv moment. When Mary says she is on her way to Jamaica Inn, he offers to put her up in his mansion. More prevy stuff. She doesn’t seem to notice - not worldly in the ways of men at all. Sir Humphrey insists on going with her to Jamaica Inn. When they arrive, he carefully lowers her trunk and then rides off... leaving her in the darkness in front of the spooky looking building.

She knocks on the door and it’s yanked open by Joss. Now, at this time we only know Joss as the leader of the gang that killed all of the sailors. Since he’s not dressed well, she believes him to be a servant or doorman and orders him to get her Aunt or her Uncle - the owner of the Inn. She has no idea how dangerous this man is. No idea that he is a cold blooded killer. This is a *good* example of audience superiority suspense - we fear for Mary because we know this guy is a killer and she just thinks that he’s a doorman or something, and is ordering him around. Then we get a good twist - he’s not a doorman, he is her Uncle Joss. Her Uncle is the leader of the gang of killers!



Now Uncle Joss shows what a great guy he is by trying to give her a big old incestuous mouth kiss... but Aunt Patience comes downstairs and Joss quickly moves away from Mary and puts his arm around his wife, trying to look innocent and failing miserably. Joss then orders his wife to grab the girl’s trunk or he’ll punch her... see what a nice guy he is! Once Patience is guiding Mary up to her room, Joss goes into the tavern where the gang waits...

Talk about creepy guys! The gang has seen Mary and are discussing who gets to rape her first. They are fighting about their place in the gangbang line when Joss enters the room and tells them to knock it off. The second in command, Harry, always trying to turn the others against Joss; asks why he wants her all to himself when there’s enough for everyone. After a bit more discussion Joss explains that she’s his niece... and one of the gang asks why he didn’t say that in the first place. It’s obvious that Mary is not safe here... there isn’t a single nice guy for miles!



The other pervs in the room are Alfred Hitchcock and *us*. Nudity and the hint of nudity have been part of cinema since the very beginning - and JAMAICA INN has the beautiful 18 year old Maureen O’Hara and isn’t above a bit of titillation. In a scene were Mary must escape the villainous gang she is forced to strip down to her slip and dive into the ocean... and later we get a wet slip clinging to her curves when she comes out of the water. This scene is completely innocent by today’s standards, but I’m sure back in 1939 it was completely pervy.



Bumpers: One of the interesting things done in the film (and probably the screenplay) is the use of a “bumper” between scenes instead of a fade out and fade back in. When we come to the end of a “chapter” instead of a traditional fade out we get a shot of the wooden sign for the Inn blowing in the wind. This is not only a unique way to marry scenes that may not connect to each other, it keeps the story moving forward. Every FADE OUT basically kills the pacing - putting on the brakes and bringing the film to a complete stop for a moment. By using the sign as a “bumper” we do not stop the story at all, we just move to the sign for a moment between chapters and then get back to the story. Because it is *always* the Jamaica Inn sign, we understand that it is an “end chapter” device and not just some random shot of the sign. If you do something like this, find a “bumper” that you can use throughout the screenplay.

Three Act Structure: Though the first screenwriting book was written in 1913 (and my Vintage Screenwriting #1 is from 1920), many folks think the three act structure is some fiendish device invented by Syd Field to sell books and shackle creativity. But the Three Act Structure predates movies by many years, being over 2,400 years old and the observation of that Aristotle dude. It’s kind of a story basic - a tool used to make sure you actually have a story. You can use the tool consciously or subconsciously - as long as in the end your story works. Let’s hear what 6 time Oscar winning screenwriter Billy Wilder (who made his last film years before Syd Field’s book came out) has to say about the three act structure...

Act 1: Introduce the conflict - get the cat up a tree.
Act 2: Escalate the conflict - throw rocks at the cat.
Act 3: Resolve the conflict - get the cat down from the tree.

It’s just that simple. No page numbers, no crazy rules. You have a person with a problem., the problem gets worse, the person solves the problem (or in a tragedy - the problem solves the person... Hamlet dies). Basic stuff.

JAMAICA INN was made when Syd Field was still a teenager, so he obviously had nothing to do with its three act structure, it’s most likely that Aristotle dude again. Whether the writers consciously used the three act structure or just wrote the screenplays and it ends up there subconsciously doesn’t really matter. It’s there, plain as day.

Act One has Mary coming to Jamaica Inn, surrounded by danger. No shortage of creepy guys who want to rape and murder her (in whatever order works) and because the Inn is in a remote area there is no place to run. Though she is not *locked in to the conflict* yet, she is surrounded by it. The conflict has been there from the very first scene.

When the gang in the tavern begins rumbling about not getting much from their haul, Trehearne (Robert Newton - who will also play a pirate later in his career) suggests that maybe the fence isn’t giving them good value. Maybe someone isn’t good at math. This forces Joss to defend his secret boss, and we see just how volatile this group is - several members think *they* should be running it, not Joss... especially second in command Harry (Emlyn Williams) who whistles his contempt for Joss.



But Joss shows why he is the leader in a scene that shows a clever way to introduce each of the gang members. He asks each how long they have been looting with him, and each has a unique way of answering. “Salvation”, the religious member of the gang, “We’ve been lost souls together for two years and seven months.” Dandy, the tattooed member, remembers the woman he was sleeping with, finds the heart tattoo with her name on his chest (filled with heart tattoos with women’s names) and answers “Four years.” Each member has a character related way of answering the question, so we not only get all of the information, but we learn who each character is. Finally it comes to Trehearne, and Joss answers for him: “Mr. Trehearne has been with us the *enormous* time of two months. Eight weeks. Fifty-six days. How’s that for arithmetic?”

The gang focuses on the new guy Trehearne, grabs him, searches his pockets, and finds some coins - proving that he is the thief among thieves. They decide to hang him right there in the tavern!



Mary’s room is above the tavern, and she has heard all of this - now she knows just how much danger she is in. Through a gap in the boards she watches as they grab a rope, make a noose, slip it around Trehearne’s neck... and hang him! One of the basic elements in a thriller is characters who spy on others, whether it’s Jimmy Stewart looking through binoculars in REAR WINDOW or Kyle MacLachlan looking through the slatted closet door in BLUE VELVET. Mary can’t just watch a man die, so she grabs the knife from her dinner plate (when they introduced the knife, you just thought it was for the meal) and pries off a board and cuts the rope - saving Trehearne’s life. But also ending Act One, because now the gang is after *her* as well as Trehearne! This is at the 30 minute point in the film.



Act Two has Mary escaping as the gang scrambles to find her. Outside the Inn (in the darkness) she tries to find a place to hide... can’t... and can hear the gang getting closer. When an arm descends from the roof, grabs her, and hauls her up... just as the gang storms out of the Inn. Trehearne has saved her life (just as she saved his) and they are on the run together. She has gone from being someone on the fringe of danger to the target for danger - and that’s why we are in Act Two. Now Mary is *locked into the conflict*. There are a handful of nice little suspense scenes were Mary and Trehearne must be quiet on the roof while the gang is right below them, one where they hide behind a boulder with the gang on the other side, and then Mary wakes up in a sea cave with Trehearne’s arm around her. Creepy dude alert! She tries to escape, finds a boat tethered outside the cave and unties it... when Trehearne pops up behind her. He drags her back into the cave, tells her she isn’t safe out there... but she thinks she isn’t safe in here with him and goes back out to the boat... which has now floated away. And on the cliffs above, one of the gang members sees the boat and yells for the others!



This is where we get the strip-to-your-slip scene so they can swim away (hiding behind a rock while gang members row past in a boat). Act Two is filled with conflict-conflict-conflict. They go to the Sir Humphrey for help (running from one father figure into the arms of another... and Humphrey is really creepy when she shows up in just a wet slip). And Trehearne and Sir Humphrey go back to Jamaica Inn to capture the gang... but end up captured themselves and tied to chairs where they await their deaths! Mary ends up captured by Joss, who takes her away to loot another ship. This brings us to Act Three, and it’s 100 minutes into the film.

Act Three has Mary grow a pair. She has been running for most of Act Two and now she is going to turn and fight. We get a replay of the opening scene - a gang member blacks out the beacon while the rest wait on the shore to kill the sailors and loot the ship. But this time, Mary is in the wagon. While the gang gets their weapons ready, Mary escapes and races up the cliff, fights the gang member at the beacon and *throws him off a cliff!* Then pulls off the cover so that the ship can see the beacon and steer away.



At the same time, Trehearne escapes and goes to the authorities about the gang. The gang is arrested, but the mastermind has escaped... and Trehearne and Mary team up to go after him... (even though Mary *does* managed to get kidnaped one more time - she is the most kidnaped person in the world!) This leads them to a ship in the harbor that the mastermind plans to escape on. From a production standpoint this is great, because I’m sure it is the exact same ship set they used in the opening scene. They corner the mastermind and we get a conclusion that resolves the problem. Act Three is all about resolving the conflict - and Mary becomes a kick ass heroine instead of the innocent woman surrounded by creepy guys. She and Trehearne are a couple... the end.

See how that works? Introduce the conflict. Escalate the conflict. Resolve the conflict. No page numbers, no formula, just kind of the basic way a story works.

Early Reveals: One of the issues with the film that can probably be traced back to Laughton is the early reveal that he is the villain. Instead of a twist later in the story, the reveal happens at the 23:30 minute mark. It’s a great scene where Uncle Joss goes upstairs to talk to his fence/boss and we do not see the mastermind’s face for a moment... just a roll of fine silk that is being pulled out by someone off screen... who asks for a pair of scissors so that he can cut off his share. That is obviously Laughton’s voice, and he is then revealed. Though this allows Laughton more screen time in Act Two (because we know he is the villain) it also wastes a twist at the end of Act Two when Laughton is revealed to Mary and Trehearne and everyone else as the villain. Though this may create some suspense from “audience superiority” when Mary and Trehearne go to Laughton for help, that is only a couple of scenes before his reveal, which means there isn’t much room for any suspense generated by the “audience superiority” to work. Instead, it kind of makes Mary and Trehearne look stupid.



Hitchcock does the same thing in VERTIGO when he reveals that Judy is actually Madeline - and that is controversial. People (including me) think by revealing the information instead of holding it for a twist, instead of creating impact on the audience it just makes us feel quesy and weird that Jimmy Stewart is making Judy over into Madeline. It’s off-putting. And I think that’s what happens in JAMAICA INN as well - instead of a great twist (which was probably in the novel) we get an entire Act Two where Charles Laughton gets to over-act and we think our leads are morons. When you reveal the information is an artistic choice, and there are times when an early reveal might intensify the suspense... but here it doesn’t serve much purpose at all. You have to weigh the decision and figure out whether your story is better served by and early reveal (and suspense) or a later reveal (and a twist).

Compare this to the later reveal that Trehearne is a policeman - something that really works. For most of Act Two Mary believes that Trehearne is a *criminal* and that she is in danger every moment that she is with him. Though he rescues her (and she rescued him), and protects her from the other cut-throats, he is still *one of them* and she doesn’t believe that she is safe. She spends much of Act Two trying to escape him, and it is only close to the *end* of Act Two when they go to Sir Humphrey’s mansion for help that he reveals himself to be an undercover police officer. At that point she believes that she is safe - and that would be a fine time to have revealed that Sir Humphrey is the villain. But throughout most of Act Two Mary is threatened both by Uncle Joss’s gang *and* by Trehearne who has kidnaped her. She is caught between a rock and a hard place. If Trehearne had been revealed as an undercover cop at the beginning of Act Two, it would have removed the conflict from them being together. She would have been between a rock and a comfy chair. Um, I pick the comfy chair.

Sound Track: Nice big adventurous score by Eric Fenby that fits the scope of the film.

JAMAICA INN isn’t a bad film, but Charles Laughton’s character and performance overshadow everything else making it a movie about a Governor going crazy instead of a movie about an innocent young woman in a world full of criminal cut throats. Laughton just knocks the whole thing out of balance, and you can’t stop looking at those crazy obviously fake eyebrows and wonder what the hell he was thinking. Laughton would later direct his own thriller, one of the best films ever made. But that’s for some other blog called One Friday With Laughton.

- Bill

The other Fridays With Hitchcock.


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Thursday, July 25, 2019

THRILLER Thursday: The Closed Cabinet.

MEW! SEASON 2!!!



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



THRILLER: The Closed Cabinet

Season: 2, Episode: 10.
Airdate: November 27, 1961

Director: Ida Lupino
Writer: Kay Lenard & Jess Carneol.
Cast: Olive Sturgess, David Frankham, Jennifer Raine, Peter Forster, Patricia Manning.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography: Benjamin H Kline.
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Evil begats evil. And the evil does not die. The sins of the fathers doom the children through generations yet unborn. Impossible, you say? The superstition from the dark ages. Well, perhaps our story tonight will help you change your mind. We start with a curse and a riddle, inexplicabily bound together. Somewhere in this room lies the clue that will solve the riddle and lift the curse. But 300 years have passed since Dame Alice pronounced that awful curse, and still the riddle is unsolved. Tonight we are concerned with two brothers - the last of the cursed Mervyns and the women who love them. Our players are: Olive Sturgess, David Frankham, Jennifer Raine, Peter Forster, and Patricia Manning. Turn off your lights. Close your windows. And even of the wind should rise, relax... if you can! While we pick up our story in the year 1880, during the reign of her gracious majesty Queen Victoria, and when our tale is told, you’ll believe in curses as sure as my name is Boris Karloff.”



Synopsis: A dark and stormy night. 1580. Lady Beatrice (Patricia Manning) discovers her abusive husband Hugh Mervyn is drunk, and using a dagger found in a secret drawer, murders him and then herself. The bodies are discovered by a Maid (Myra Carter), who finds the dagger next to Beatrice’s corpse and screams... Dame Alice (Doris Lloyd) comes running, takes the dagger from the Maid and then spots her son murdered on the bed... and puts a curse upon the family: “Out of evil comes death! In each generation there shall be a Mervyn who will bring shame and death to the family, for eternity... An end there shall be, but it is beyond the wisdom of man to fix it, or the wit of man to discover it. Who fathoms the riddle, lifts the curse. Pure blood, stained by the blood stained knife, heals the Mervyn shame, ends the Mervyn’s strife,” she says as she returns the dagger to its secret compartment.



1880: The Mervin Castle. A coach pulls up and Evie Bishop (Olive Sturgess) steps out and is welcomed by her cousins Lucy Mervyn (Jennifer Raine) and George Mervyn (Peter Forster) and enter the castle... where handsome Alan Mervyn (David Frankham) descends the staircase and takes Evie in her arms. Alan lives in London and avoids the castle completely, but when he heard that Evie was coming to visit he braved a stay. Eveie has heard that the castle is haunted, that there is a room in the castle that is filled with ghosts... and she would like to stay there. She has never seen a ghost. As she jokes about ghosts, George and Lucy look very uncomfortable. Evie insists on staying in the haunted room, and when Lucy shows her to the room, the two men seem less than happy.

In the “haunted room” (from the opening scene) Lucy tells Evie that several Mervyn relatives have died violent deaths in this room - which would account for the ghosts. The cabinet (where the dagger is hidden) is still there, and Lucy jokes about the legend of the curse. Though there have been a bunch of deaths in this room, Lucy believes it is due to the Mervyn men’s anger issues.



Alan and George have an argument - Alan believes that the curse is real, and staying in this castle is putting Lucy’s life at risk. George believes it’s just hokum - sure, there have been a lot of murders in the family, but whose family hasn’t had them?

As Evie looks around the castle, candles flicker where there is no breeze... and she sees the ghost of Lady Beatrice for a moment. Then the ghost vanishes. When Evie heads downstairs for dinner, she hears the two men arguing and listens in. When George leaves, she comes downstairs and talks to Alan - it’s love!

When George and Lucy come in, Evie asks if their houseguest will be joining them? Who? The woman upstairs. The ghost!



After dinner, Alan takes Evie on a tour of the castle’s hallways to look at the paintings of the family - stopping at Lady Beatrice. That’s the ghost she saw!

A dark and stormy night... awakens Evie. Blows open the windows. She gets up and closes them, and when she goes back to sleep the ghost of Lady Beatrice pops up in a doorway. Trying to communicate with her. Warning her that she is the next victim of the curse?

The next morning when Evie mentions the storm, she gets funny looks: there was no storm. Is she crazy? Alan takes Evie on a tour of the castle grounds, and she tells him that she wants to solve the mystery of the curse so that Alan will feel comfortable in his home. Evie wants to see the dungeon (doesn’t everyone?), but the door is locked to When Alan goes to get the key... the door magically opens as soon as he is gone. Nothing haunted about that at all.



Evie goes in alone - lots of cobwebs down here, but none get on her face. She manages to completely avoid all of the webs and maintain her perfect hair. Doors open one-by-one in front of her, taking her down to the crypt... where she comes face to face with Hugh Mervyn! Well, a bust of him. And finds a cat-o-nine-tails *whip* on his coffin. What’s that all about? Deeper in the crypt she finds a secret room with Lady Beatrice’s coffin... and Lady Beatrice’s ghosts makes an appearance and points at Evie. That’s when Alan runs in, and the ghost vanishes. But was the ghost pointing at her or the wall behind her? On the wall, and inscription under the cobwebs: “Where woman sinned, the maid shall win. But God help the maid who sleeps here-in.” Alan tells her that no one in the family ever knew where Lady Beatrice’s coffin was. No one had ever discovered this secret room until now.

George, with a riding crop in hand, tells Alan and Evie that they could not have found Lady Beatrice’s coffin - no one has found it for 300 years. Men in the family have looked for it and never found it, so how could Evie have found it? George loses his temper... and we get some angry exposition about how Lady Beatrice’s ghost appeared to their mother the night before she died... and now Lady Beatrice has appeared before Evie. George loses it and almost whips Alan. George’s temper is out of control! He storms out of the room.



Alan drops a few pages of exposition on Evie about the curse... and how Hugh was physically abusive to Lady Beatrice until she killed him one night during a violent storm. The storm that was brewing inside her for all of those years of abuse by a drunken husband?

That night, as Lucy plays the harp and George naps, Alan and Evie flirt... and then he sees her to her room like a gentleman... and they almost kiss. Victorian romance at its hottest! I believe this moment was put there to show that Evie was still a virgin - pure - and therefor able to lift the curse. But it’s not set up very well, and we don’t particularly care if they kiss or not - which is a mistake.

Evie does not go to bed - she sits up, waiting for the storm to come. The storm waiting or the storm without? When it comes, it blows open the windows violently. Meanwhile, Alan looks outside his window - no storm, clear skies. This is a nice moment because it shows that the haunted room really is haunted. Evie goes to sleep and the storm blasts the windows open again... and Lady Beatrice appears. She raises her hand to beckon Evie... and Evie is back in time, drunk Hugh Mervyn sleeping in the bed she just got out of. Lady Beatrice points to the cabinet, and Evie finds the secret lever to open it... And takes out the dagger! She is possessed by Lady Beatrice!



She moves to the bed, where Hugh is sleeping, raises the knife and... stops herself from stabbing him, but slices her hand in the process. She shows her bleeding hand to Lady Beatrice’s ghost, “The maid has won,” and the ghost vanishes, leaving Evie alone in the room. The bed is empty. The storm is gone.

She runs out into the hallway, yelling for Alan. He runs from his room and they embrace in the hallway. She tells him what happened, shows him her hand... and there is no blood on her hand. He thinks it might be a nightmare, but she convinces him that she has lifted the curse. In the haunted bedroom, she tells him how to open the drawer... and he finds the dagger with Hugh Mervyn’s crusted blood on it... and another drawer opens and there is a scroll with the curse and, heck, Evie did it and lifted the curse! So he finally kisses her. They can be married with very little chance that he will physically abuse her and maybe even kill her during an argument!



Review: The luck of laziness! I had intended on writing up all of these entries a couple of years ago, and had I done that I’m not sure I would have seen the subtleties in this episode or commented on them as much as will now that we’ve had the MeToo Movement. Though domestic abuse is not the same as inappropriately touching someone, they both fall under the umbrella of ahole male dominance. Though this episode doesn’t really work, I’m cutting it some slack because it’s “a very special episode pf THRILLER”, just like the alcoholism episode. It’s 1961 and domestic violence is a major problem in America (Time Magazine would do an article on the epidemic a couple of years later) and this episode is going to slyly get the message out disguised as a ghost story.



I’m sure that Ida Lupino was hired to direct this episode to give it a woman’s sensibility, but it is not one of her better episodes. I think the screenplay may be getting in the way - but I wonder about the lead actress. The scenes where she *avoids* the cobwebs just seem odd - did the actress not want to get messy? Or was that seen as “degrading” to a female and not done in this episode? Either way, it removes the spooky element from the haunted house story. One of the elements of horror is the “Eeeew!” Factor. If you think of all of those moments in horror movies where you have went “Eeeeew!” mentally (or even outloud), that feeling of revulsion is one of the things that add to the dread and creepy feeling of the film. In horror movies people *touch* gross things and *step in* gross things and *back into* gross things and maybe even sit in gross things. Horror movies are filled with rats and bats and worms and corpses and all kinds of gross things that the characters encounter. There are things that look as if they smell bad in horror films. Things that get on your hands that you need to wash off *now*, but you are miles away from running water. Horror movies put their characters through hell - even the survivors - and that is part of what makes them work, and what makes the survivors strong.

But for whatever reason, here we remove the revulsion and end up with a lead character who just wanders through a haunted castle and easily pushes aside cobwebs as if they are curtains dividing rooms. If someone thought that the women in the story have gone through enough abuse at the hands of their husbands that they needed to avoid abusing them with cobwebs, that was a mistake. It actually weakens a character if they don’t have to go through hell.



I have noted the used of cobwebs and spider webs in earlier episodes, and how sometimes they are just a piece of the background and sometimes there are the focus of the scene. Revulsion is a “no budget” special effect that packs a punch, so you want to make cobwebs part of the scene - something that can not be avoided. So removing the revulsion was a mistake - no matter what the reason.

Lupino does get a few of her creative shots in - and that’s one of the reasons why I love her in low budget films and TV work. Other directors will just do wide shot and close ups - coverage - but she gets those Hitchcock shots in there. Here we have a couple of great early shots - a nice shot through the coach windows as Evie arrives at the castle, and a creepy paranoid shot from a balcony above as Alan watches her enter the castle’s main room. Later in the episode is a great moving shot as the group relaxes in the castle main room at night, it circles them like a Brian DePalma shot. And there is a cool shot *through* the harp at George and Lucy. I suspect with so many locations, there wasn’t time for much else, and the rest is competently directed. I wish she had done more in the creepy dungeon and crypt scenes, but it’s TV. Made on a schedule with a hard deadline. They are okay.



One of the other problems with the episode is Jennifer Raine’s decidedly non-British accent. She has some sort of Southwestern twang, and every time she opens her mouth it takes you out of the episode. Though the others don’t go full-on-British accents, they have that mid-Atlantic sound that Americans can understand but still sound vaguely British.

Though I give kudos to the script for taking on an issue, the story is muddled and the curse and riddle are just a mess. Even after watching it several times, I’m not sure that either actually makes sense. And a clue to understanding the curse ends up written on a wall in Lady Beatrice’s tomb, but this is all still confusing. Too many moving parts to the curse. Too many foot notes. Instead of being something simple (and rhyming) it’s so convoluted you need to take notes through the episode... and even though I did that I’m still confused by it! The reason for the curse also is muddled - the mother of the murdered abuser curses her own family line? There was a better way to do it - having Lady Beatrice curse the family as she is being killed by her husband, but maybe the censors said no to that?



I do like that the curse of domestic abuse is “handed down” from father to son in this story. George’s anger issues are seen as the family curse. But that scene where he has the riding crop in his hand really needed to create suspense and fear that he might use it on his wife, and not in a kinky way. Again, that may have been a censors thing - we don’t want to offend all of the wide beaters in the audience! We need to protect our ratings!

So this episode isn’t very spooky or scary, even though it takes place in a nice haunted castle. Next episode works better - a “weird tales” story about people who communicate with the dead... and the dead aren’t happy with what is going on in the world of the living!

- Bill

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Indiana Jones And The Digital Danger

Since they announced another Indiana Jones movie, here's what I thought of the last one 11 years ago...

STAR TREK movies - even numbers, INDIANA JONES movies - odd numbers.

(Spoilers!)
Probably like most everyone else in the world, I couldn’t wait to see the new Indiana Jones movie. It opened on Thursday, but my friends and I saw it on the first Friday night. This was going to be the big event of summer, and I predicted that the film would still be playing by the time August rolled around - people would want to see it again and again. I knew the lines were going to be crazy, so my friends and I decided to go to the Arclight - where you buy a specific seat in the cinema. No reason to stand in line, you already know exactly where you are going to sit. I was in charge of buying tickets, and got absolutely perfect seats... a month before the film opened.

Now, I have to tell you there are movies that I liked so much I exited the cinema, stood in line, bought a ticket for the next available showing, and saw the film for a second time on the same night. And I wondered if we’d all want to do that with INDIANA JONES? Should I buy seats in the next available show on Friday night? Or maybe for the second weekend? Hard to plan a month ahead... I decided not to buy a second set of seats until after we’ve seen the movie. If it was great, it would be sticking around long enough to see it a second time. Heck, it’s a crowded summer - every weekend a new movie, and a bunch of them I want to see. So maybe a couple of weeks between INDIANA experiences would be a good idea.

Who would have guessed that none of us would want to see the new INDIANA JONES movie ever again?

OPENING - REVERSALS

The cinema is packed - everyone is excited - I’m excited. This is Indiana Jones! Now, here’s a strange little thing - if I were talking to my friends back home (the guys I first saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with) this wouldn’t be INDIANA JONES 4, it would be RAIDERS 4. It’s a sequel to the first film. As much as Lucas wants us to think of the first STAR WARS as A NEW HOPE and the first RAIDERS as INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, that isn’t going to fly with those of us who saw the first films on opening night... We know what we saw and trying to revise history is pointless. So I’m here to see the latest RAIDERS movie.

And it opens beautifully with that prairie dog hill. Gets a laugh... then we get out introduction to Indy - and it’s the hat and the traditional silhouette - that’s still cool. We get a line reffing that fact the Harrison Ford is old, and that’s okay... But what is wrong with Harrison Ford’s dialogue? Is not just wooden, his mouth doesn’t seem to be moving very much - it’s as if he has bad dentures or something. The longer the scene plays, the more I wonder if they ADRed his dialogue - basically did a post production rewrite - then did some digital nonsense to make his lips move with the words. The end result looks like bad dubbing... actually, not *bad* dubbing, but *almost* good dubbing, where it’s so close you don’t think it’s dubbing, but it just looks a little strange. So now I’m focused on his lips...

In the first 3 films, Indy is sarcastic, witty, clever. Here, he just says stuff. Every once in a while he makes some reference to his age - which is funny for a while, but part of being an action hero - even a self depreciating one - is to say the things we wish we were clever enough to come up with. I have a notebook in my pocket at all times just in case I come up with one of those lines.

So, eventually Indy ends up in that 1950s town full of mannequins from the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and we know what that means. Indy runs around the town pointlessly for a while, then finds a refrigerator with a massive sticker that proclaims “Lead Lined!” - because come moving day, refrigerators aren’t heavy enough already - we gotta add a layer of lead for no reason whatsoever. Oh, wait - to give Indy someplace to hide during a nuclear blast.

There’s a massive nuclear explosion - houses disintegrate - but that danged lead lined fridge goes flying like something from a Road Runner cartoon, then bounces around the desert for a while until the door opens and Indy falls out... and you half expect little animated birds to fly around his head. It’s so cartoonish and impossible and silly.

And I know we’re in big trouble.

I also start to wonder if Michael Bay directed this mess.

Let’s compare this to the first movie - RAIDERS - where we had that giant boulder... but what we really had were a whole bunch of little things that create reversals in that scene. From the moment he swaps the bag of sand for the gold idol... and it’s just a little bit too heavy, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Dozens of things. It’s not just running around some town pointlessly until he finds a fridge - it’s a few dozen different challenges where Indy thinks he’s going to get out of it... then there’s the reversal and it looks like he’s going to die... then he finds the solution to that problem which lands him right in the middle of the next problem. That’s what makes it exciting. The details. My favorite part of that great sequence - Alfred Molina swings across this bottomless pit (bottomless was legal back then) and leaves Indy behind. There’s a stone door slowly closing - it will trap them. Molina makes a deal - he’ll throw the whip (so Indy can swing across the pit) if Indy will throw the idol. Indy throws the idol, Molina drops the whip and splits with the idol. Indy looks at the pit... looks at the slowly closing door. He jumps. Doesn’t quite make it. His hands grab the crumbling dirt at the edge of the pit. He scrambles, looking for purchase as gravity pulls at him. Then he sees a vine coming out of the ground and grabs it, pulling himself up... but the vine starts coming out of the ground! Crap, he’s falling again! He lets go of the vine and grabs the edge, pulling himself up the side... and onto solid ground... but the stone door has almost descended all the way! Only a few inches before he’s trapped! See how cool that is - out of the frying pan into the fire - things just keep getting worse. And every time he escapes, he ends up in trouble again. It’s not pointless running around - it’s an exciting sequence of events.

This opening scene was more like that diamond kicking musical number from the second film... actually, much of this film was like the second film. More on that in a minute. By the way, had this been my film, Indy would have glowed green in every night scene after the nuclear blast.... in keeping with the Road Runner cartoon feel of the film.

VILLAINS & HEROES

One of the other great things about the opening to RAIDERS was introduction of Belloq. Not just a great villain, but a character who helps define Indy *and* sets up the theme. Belloq is the more successful version of Indy: suave, cultured, and ruthless...

BELLOQ
I know you despise me. We always hate
in others that which we most fear in
ourselves. You and I are very much alike.

INDY
Now you’re getting nasty.

BELLOQ
Archeology is our religion, yet we have both
fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not
differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy
reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to
make you like me. To push you out of the light.


The rest of the story will compare Indy and Belloq in scene after scene - how far will Indy go to get the Ark? And by the end, when Belloq will do anything to see what’s inside the Ark, Indy is able to curtail his curiosity and close his eyes. He can give up the Ark and Belloq can not.

In TEMPLE IF DOOM we get a cardboard villain - the head Thugee, but in LAST CRUSADE we get something different - a femme fatale. She uses her wiles to lure Indy into solving the riddle of the Grail’s location... then does a great double cross where she pretends to be in danger, but is really faking it to get Dr. Jones (sr)’s book. What’s interesting about this character is that she begins as a villain, realizes she is just a tool of the Nazis, and *doesn’t* scream for help when Indy confronts her at the Nazi rally. She ends up playing one side against the other to get what *she* wants - the Grail. Again, her character pulls drama and emotional conflict to the surface in Indy’s character. Behind her we have some evil Nazis and a Howard Hughes-like millionaire who also plays each side against the other so that he can get his hands on the Grail. The theme in LAST CRUSADE is faith and belief - it opens with Indy saying that the only thing that matters are *facts* and by the end he must make a literal *leap of faith* to get the grail. So having a villain who you don’t know whether you can believe or not isn’t just a great way to give Indy an emotional conflict - it’s a way to demonstrate theme through character.

But in RAIDERS 4, we get another cardboard character - a Russian scientist played by Cate Blanchett in a black wig. She wants the Crystal Skull for... what? So that she can read people’s minds... which may come in handy if you’re playing poker or on a first date, but how exactly does that matter to anyone in the audience? We must stop her before she finds out everyone thinks her wig looks silly! Even if she could *control* our minds - which we don’t really get any proof of - how would that help her control the world? I mean, what’s the plan? She runs around the USA forcing people to look into the skull’s eye sockets until she has all of us under her control, then she makes us communists? This isn’t a very good plan. Compare that to RAIDERS, where an army that leads with the Ark is *unconquerable*. The danged thing shoots bolts of lightning that fry anyone in front of it! Hey, if that fell into the hands of the Nazis, they could win WW2 and we’d all be eating bratwurst. LAST CRUSADE gives eternal life to anyone who drinks from the cup - which means Hitler can not be killed if he gets his hands on the Grail. Again, we’ll be eating bratwurst if Indy fails.

BANNED IN RUSSIA?

Some dude in the Russian government wants to ban RAIDERS 4 from their country because it’s anti-Russia. Before I saw the film, I thought that guy was crazy... but now I’m not so sure. The problem is, instead of some sort of actual demonstration of Soviet menace, we get a demonstration about Soviet menace - which means a whole lot of speechifying. All of these folks with signs saying the Soviets are evil and people making speeches that the Soviets are evil... and it’s just this big lump of crap in the film. I suspect it’s there to tell us who the enemy is in the film - but what it does is *tell* us. Instead of making the villain and the villain’s plan the enemy. Problem is - cardboard villain and pointless villain’s plan. So they use a bunch of script spackle to tell us that the Soviets are really really bad... but give us no reasons *why* they are bad. And we never really see them do anything bad. Sure, they kidnap Indy, but that’s what happens to characters like Indy. It’s expected. But no villain’s plan - and no *stakes*. No “or else factor”. If the Soviets get the crystal skull.... not much happens. They have no plans to use it in the cold war, nothing.

One of my favorite film is IPCRESS FILE - a Cold War spy movie. In it, the bad guys are kidnaping our top scientists... and erasing their brains. When we pay a bunch of money to get these scientists back, they can no longer function as scientists. “The brain drain” they call it. The Soviets can make all kinds of scientific advances - all kinds of high tech weapons advances - and our scientists can no longer *think*. At a time when the arms race was big news, the idea that they could incapacitate our scientists... after finding out everything they knew... was scary. If CRYSTAL SKULL had just had some sort of similar plan, some stakes, an “or else factor”, we would have known why Indy had to stop the Soviets and wouldn’t have needed a bunch of speeches about how evil the Soviets are. You know, it’s not that the villain is evil, it’s that they want to do something that will harm us, so our hero must stop them.

A *huge* problem with CRYSTAL SKULL is that it’s filled with huge chunks of exposition... and the exposition just keeps coming! They keep telling us stuff!

ACTIVE PLOT & PASSIVE PLOT

If the hero must stop the villain from doing something, we have an active plot. Our characters must do something. RAIDERS and LAST CRUSADE had active plots. But CRYSTAL SKULL seems to have lifted the defective plot from TEMPLE OF DOOM. One of the basic elements of an adventure story is a quest - a search. Whether we are looking for King Solomon’s Mines or the Elephant Burial Grounds, characters in adventure stories are *searching* for something. This is a basic of adventure stories. Heck, even the T&A knock-off PERILS OF GWENDOLINE had the busty leading lady searching for a rare butterfly in a jungle filled with topless Amazons. Adventure is about the quest, the search... and yet in TEMPLE OF DOOM there is no quest! They literally crash-land into a story where the plot is to return a sacred stone to a village. In CRYSTAL SKULL they get the skull in the freakin’ opening scene - and the story is about returning it... the same danged plot with the same danged problems as TEMPLE OF DOOM!

Because the villain has no plan, and there is no quest in the story, we end up with a kind of mystery style story about what the Crystal Skull really is. The problem here is that if we don’t know what the powers of the skull are, there is no threat of those powers - no or else factor. So we kill the story. The mystery has no real reason to be solved. Doesn’t matter what the skull is - same results no matter what it is. We end up with a pointless story. And the mystery format means people are always explaining things - exposition city! You can have a mystery that uses visual instead of verbal exposition. In fact, LAST CRUSADE has a swell scene where they are looking for Roman numerals in a church, and the number ten is the key to the mystery. They search - and we see many parts of the church - but no number ten. Then Indy climbs a stairway and looks down - and the light through the window has formed an X on the floor - the number 10. No one has to say it, we *see* it. But CRYSTAL SKULL gives us only people explaining things endlessly... which kind of brings the story to a dead stop (not a good thing for an adventure film).

One of the great things in both LAST CRUSADE and RAIDERS is that we get a legend up front, then we never have to explain anything. In RAIDERS we get the legend of the Ark... “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it... is invincible.” What’s more - we get *pictures*! They *show* us what the Ark can do! Once we have that legend, we don’t need to be told anything else. Same with the Grail - once we know the legend, we need no further exposition. Legends may be expositional, but they are designed to be fascinating. I’ve been watching a bunch of episodes of the old BORIS KARLOFF THRILLER TV show, and watched one last night starring William Shatner about a painting famous for killing its owners. Everyone who buys the painting has died a grisly death. When Shatner tells us this legend, it’s filled with entertaining grisly deaths... Each death is exciting to hear about. So in a brief and entertaining bit of expositional dialogue, we know people are going to die grisly deaths in this episode... and for the rest of the episode we don’t need to be told anything else. LAST CRUSADE gives us the legend of the 3 Knights... and that’s a very entertaining story, *plus* it gives us all of the information we need about the Grail for the rest of the film. When Indy gets to the “Grail chamber” and there’s a knight in there - we know exactly who he is.

In CRYSTAL SKULL we get a new chunk of explaination every ten minutes or so.

WHOLE LOTTA SCREAMING GOING ON

But the most annoying part of CRYSTAL SKULL is the characters. All they do is scream at each other for no reason. That’s another way this is like TEMPLE OF DOOM - a film that had the most annoying screaming woman ever put on film up until Dakota Fanning in WAR OF THE WORLDS. And Spielberg married her (not Dakota Fanning - that would be illegal - Kate Capshaw). Indy is reunited with the love of his life, Marion Ravenwood, and all they seem to do is scream at each other... about *nothing*. Pointless bickering. Doesn’t tell us anything about the characters or about theme or about their relationship. Just bickering. Compare this to the clever banter in RAIDERS between the same characters.

And compare the relationship and the scenes about the relationship. There’s a great scene in RAIDERS where Marion has been kidnaped and put in a wicker basket. Indy is chasing the basket to get her back - and we get a great rif on the Hitchcock Redcap scene from NORTH BY NORTHWEST (one of many cool scenes in RAIDERS swiped from great films - like the STAGECOACH chase scene) - where Indy is popping the tops off wicket baskets looking for her... and finally chases the basket down an alley where it is tossed in the back of a truck filled with explosives... that Indy causes to wreck and *explode* killing Marion. Wow! After that, Indy becomes a drunk. He’s an emotional mess. His eyes are teary. He’s sitting in a bar pounding down drinks. He killed the woman he loved. It’s *his* fault. And that’s where Belloq finds him and ends up accidentally nudging him back on course. But characters in RAIDERS have real emotions, and the story explores them. Hey, it’s still an adventure film - but the people don’t just bicker without reason, everything they do and say is about their relationships. Indy and Marion. Indy and Sallah (some of the greatest buddy exchanges on film).

In SKULL, when Mutt (stupid name - an in joke because Lucas’ dog is named Indiana) is revealed as Indy’s son, there is no real drama, no real emotions... just more pointless bickering. No real emotions. Hey - I find out I have a son, I’m liable to get a bit emotional about it - and get emotional with the kid. RAIDERS has real demonstrations of emotion between Indy and Marion - when he finds out that she’s alive, they have a big moment together... before he ties her back up and leaves the tent. Even their first meet at her bar is emotional - she slugs him. Then we get a chunk of scene about their past relationship, how she feels that he used her and dumped her... and he apologizes, and genuinely seems to feel bad about the way he treated her. They hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years in RAIDERS and they have this emotional relationship scene... in SKULL they haven’t seen each other in over a decade... and we get zilch. That’s not real human behavior.

Hey, Indy has a son... nothing emotional about that. Instead we get a quip about how he should stay in school or something. A gag, but no hug. Hey - I don’t want to turn this into some touchie-feelie chick flick or something, I just want the same level of father and son emotions we had in CRUSADE between Connery and Ford. Tender but prickly.

After that, the film turns into a film about a disfunctional family... when I paid to see an adventure film. Hey, you can do both... but SKULL doesn’t even give us a single real dramatic scene about the family... let alone incorporate the family into the adventure story (the way RAIDERS incorporates the Indy/Marion relationship into the adventure). We just get bickering. Cartoon characters and cartoon situations - no real people involved. You know, as a real person who paid real money to see this film, I want it to be about real human emotions. Hey, I want adventure, too - but I want to believe the people involved are real... not some sort of lifelike animation.

DIGITAL DANGER - DEATH OF ACTION?

Speaking of animation - I think CGI is the death of the action movie. First, I have to credit my friend Kris with the phrase “digital danger”. We were watching some movie - probably the second MUMMY movie (just to keep everything in the adventure arena) and he coined the phrase to describe that awful scene at the end where Brendan Fraser has to fight that CGI thing that used to be The Rock. Now, anytime the hero has to outrun a digital explosion or battle something that will be added later or deal with some sort of green screen terror, it’s digital danger. Not *real* danger. Danger that is added in post production.

The first three films were made before CGI existed. Everything you saw on film was “real” to some extent. That great STAGECOACH rip-off scene in RAIDERS where Indy on a horse gets involved in a chase that involves motorcycles and military vehicles and Indy ends up underneath that truck being dragged along the road... real stuntmen did that. Nothing in that scene seemed fake, because it was all real. Even that mine car roller coaster scene in TEMPLE OF DOOM was “real” - they build miniature mining cars on a track and filmed it, cutting to the real actors in real mining cars for close ups. But the miniature mining cars were real and only did what real things can do. Nothing fake. Nothing unrealistic. Nothing that pulls you out of the movie because it’s completely impossible.

Every action scene in CRYSTAL SKULL was just plain fake - impossible. Unreal.

Look, I’m an action guy - I love action scenes - but I don’t want them to be cartoons. You can create the most realistic CGI in the world, but if what that CGI shows is completely impossible, that CGI doesn’t work. Scene after scene didn’t work. It was fake because it just could not happen. We have very realistic looking people in a Road Runner cartoon. Instead of being excited by the action scenes, they bored me. I knew they were fake. Instead of being amazed at the stunts - knowing that a real person did them (a guy I know, Chuck Waters, did many of the stunts in the first 3 films) and knowing that there was actual danger - I didn’t care. What harm can post-production CGI do to a person? It was a cartoon.

This just shows you how out of touch Lucas (and maybe Spielberg) are with current films. These overblown and impossible fake action scenes might have played back in the early 80s when James Bond was fighting Jaws in outer space in MOONRAKER and dealing with whatever he was dealing with in OCTOPUSSY, but this is the gritty new millennium where every action scene in the Bond film CASINO ROYALE is ultra realistic - heck, Bond spends much of that film with his face ripped up. Didn’t they realize a little thing called BOURNE IDENTITY changed the way action scenes and action films work? Everything is gritty and real since BOURNE - even BATMAN is realistic! The action scenes from the first 3 INDY movies better fit what today’s post-BOURNE audience expects... Funny thing is, the producer of those realistic BOURNE movies is Frank Marshall... one of the producers of CRYSTAL SKULL (and all of the other INDY movies). You’d think he might have mentioned it to Lucas in passing. “Hey, George, big fake action scenes don’t play anymore.”

And the action scenes were also *meaningless* - they were junk action. That scene where they play hot-potato with the crystal skull will driving jeeps near a CGI cliff? Pointless. Just a bunch of CGI in a scene that has no story purpose and doesn’t explore the theme in any way.

Another thing about those action scenes - no “cool factor”. Okay - take the fist fight with the freakin’ huge guy in front of the out of control flying wing plane in RAIDERS. That flying wing plane was cool and a piece of real history. That scene also swipes from HITCHCOCK... the scene in THE BIRDS with the gasoline spill heading toward the fire. What was the cool and real thing in any action scene in SKULL? I got no feel for the Cold War era at all - nothing from the time period was integrated into the action scenes. These were bland, generic action scenes... that looked like cartoons.

Mark Verheiden (TIMECOP) and I once had a conversation about Jackie Chan movies, and what I call “action porn”. He’s a story guy, and wants the action scenes to be story related. I agree... but admit to liking “action porn” where the story makes no sense - and may just be an excuse for a bunch of cool action scenes. Jackie Chan usually tries to have a story, but some of the other Hong Kong stuff is just action without reason. But here’s the thing about those silly Hong Kong movies that are just excuses for action - they have amazing action scenes. Inventive action scenes. Maybe even high concept action scenes. You can watch those films just for the action scenes, because they are tremendous. If SKULL had scenes that amazing, it could be enjoyed just as a stupid roller coaster ride. But the action scenes are fake and unimaginative and boring and have zilch to do with story. They are crap action. And the characters are cartoonish. Actually, that’s insulting to Pixar - the characters in any Pixar cartoon are more realistic. In fact, the *danger* in INCREDIBLES is more real, and the characters and situations are more real, than in SKULL.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for RAIDERS #5 - odd number, it will probably be great!

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Exposition.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Pork Fried Rice at City Wok.
Bicycle: Yesterday I took an epic ride... by accident. I was going to ride to Priscillas in Toluca Lake and work, but there were no tables... so instead of just going across the street to the Starbucks, I rode down Hollywood Way, then across to a Starbucks in the Empire shopping center. Longest ride I have done so far. Then I rode back - Priscillas *still* crowded - and ended up at my local Starbucks for the night shift. My legs were fine yesterday - but this morning? They hurt. That was a good ride, though - and despite the sore legs today, I may do something similar tomorrow.
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