Friday, September 18, 2020

Fridays With Hitchcock: Jonathan Coe on SABOTAGE

Novelist Jonathan Coe talks about Hitchcock's SABOTAGE in this BBC clip.

The media player is loading...



- Bill



Of course, I have a couple of books about Hitchcock, SPELLBOUND is in the one that is on sale today...

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

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

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

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

369 pages packed with information!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

OTHER COUNTRIES:

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

And...




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



ON SALE!!! $2 OFF!

Click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

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

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

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

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

Only $5.99

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

- Bill

Thursday, September 17, 2020

THRILLER Thursday: The Poisoner

The Poisoner

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



Season: 1, Episode: 17.
Airdate: January 10, 1961.


Director: Herschel Daugherty
Writer: Robert Hardy Andrews
Cast: Murray Matheson, Sarah Marshall, Brenda Forbes, Jennifer Raine, Maurice Dallimore.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith, kicking ass.
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline.
Producer: William Frye.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Thomas Edward Griffith, the man who made this lovely picture the destroyed it, really lived. He was a writer, a painter and a critic. Now, in each of these arts he displayed talent, but his real genius lay elsewhere. We have the testimony of Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and other famous witnesses that Griffith was the master of the gentle art of murder. A dabbler in the occult and a connoisseur of the exotic, Griffith was far ahead of the medical men of his time in the lethal science of toxication. In simpler terms, Griffith was a poisoner. That’s the name of our play, The Poisoner. And among those threatened by sinister gentleman played by Mr. Murray Matheson, are his wife played by Miss Sarah Marshall, her mother played by Miss Brenda Forbes, her sister played by Miss Jennifer Raine, and his uncle played by Mr. Maurice Dallimore. Oh, by the way, if in the course of our story someone brings you a cup of tea or a spot of brandy... I suggest you let *them* take the first sip.”



Synopsis: A somewhat unusual *true crime* episode, also unusual because it’s an Early Victorian Era period piece which takes place on London’s foggy streets. I’m sure part of the allure of this story was that it’s a Jack The Ripper type tale about a fellow who was very well known at the time who killed just about everyone he was related to by blood or marriage... and got away with it!

Thomas Edward Griffith (the actual fellow was named Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, and more on him in the review section) (played by Murray Matheson giving an amazing performance), was a social climber. Not born into a wealthy family, both parents dead, he desired the prestige and admiration of a member of high society... so he decided to “fake it until you make it”. He lived in a luxurious house filled with pieces or art and antiques. He threw lavish parties so that he could be seen with members of society much higher up the food chain than he was. His clothes were tailored by one of the best. He drank the best brandy and dined at the finest restaurants. Even though, he was close to broke.

Although he’d inherited from his father, his Uncle George (Maurice Dallimore) was executor, and detested his lifestyle... so he was kept on a tight allowance. Uncle George thinks he should sell all of the crap in his house and get a job... but Thomas has never worked a day in his life and has no intention of starting now. He spends his days as a catty critic for a newspaper known for his clever insults, painting watercolors that are good enough for a gallery show or two, and writing witty little booklets on a variety of subjects of interest to the social set. Things a member of high society would do. The problem is, his lavish lifestyle means that he is going deeper and deeper into debt...



Enter the beautiful society woman Francis Abercrombie (Sarah Marshall) , hot and half his age. She is sophisticated, well dressed and travels in the same elite social circles. Thomas marries her before anyone else has a chance to ask... planning to live on her fortune and wait for his Uncle George to die so that he can get his hands on all of his inheritance instead of just his month allowance.

At the lavish post wedding party, his water color painting of his wife is on display over the fireplace. All of the society men think she’s hot, and are jealous of Thomas... which is everything he has ever wished for in life. To further this adoration, he introduces his beautiful wife to all of those members of high society he wants to impress... Then the door opens and these two yapping white trash women and their cat enter: his mother in law and sister in law! You see, his wife is flat broke as well; and like him, was a social climber hoping to marry into money. He ends the party before he is completely embarrassed by these uninvited guests...



Mrs. Abercrombie (Brenda Forbes) is a drunk old woman with a loud mouth and all sorts of complaints about almost everything. There’s a shot where she bends over, most unladylike, and you half expect to hear loud flatulence. Maybe that was planned but the censors said no. New sister in law Helen (Jennifer Raine) is confined to a wheelchair for some reason, and has nothing good to say about anything. If mother complains, sister is an Olympic contender... bitching about everything. And they, of course, have a cat. Oh, and Mrs. Abercrombie has sold her house and all of her belongings to move in with Francis’ new rich husband.

That night, Thomas opens an ornate cabinet exposing a selection of items, selects a “Borgia ring”, fills it with poison and puts it on his finger... then, acting like the perfect host, secretly pours some poison from the ring into a brandy decanter and offers it to his new mother in law... not realizing sister in law Helen is watching from her wheelchair upstairs. Thomas goes upstairs, into his wife’s bedroom, and tells her that everything will be alright. That’s when Mrs. Abercrombie drinks the brandy and drops dead... and Helen screams, and calls Thomas a murderer!



After the funeral, Francis and Helen return with... the family attorney. Mrs. Abercrombie’s death was ruled natural causes, even though Helen believes that Thomas poisoned her. But instead of Francis inheriting the money... it goes to invalid sister Helen. Thomas will never get his hands on a cent of it. Thomas storms out...

How could things get worse? When he returns, Francis tells him that his Uncle is here, waiting for him in the guest room upstairs... and some creditors have come and threatened to cut off his food and booze and some other things if he doesn’t pay his long overdue bills. Wonderful...

Thomas gets a lecture form his Uncle George about those creditors... and how he should sell everything and get a job and live within his means. Thomas would have liked to ask for more money, but he can’t for fear Uncle George will cut his allowance and *force* him to work. He shudders at the thought of working. Before Thomas can poison Uncle George’s brandy, the old man takes a sip and keels over! Snoopy Helen is watching this from the doorway and once again gets to scream “Murderer!”



But Uncle George is *not* dead... he’s just had a heart attack and must remain in bed resting for a few weeks. Hey, and uninvited house guest... more fun for Thomas! The doctor tells Thomas to make sure he takes a pill every so many hours and that it can be taken with a glass of brandy as a stimulant (medicine has changed over the years). Thomas is not going to be subjected to *weeks* of lectures by this old man, so he poisons the brandy decanter, and when Uncle George wakes up, tells him to take his pills with a glass of brandy as per doctor’s orders. Uncle George takes his medicine... and dies... and snoopy sister in law Helen was watching through the keyhole the entire time!

Thomas discovers her spying, and walks towards her menacingly... she backs up her wheelchair in fear... going over the edge and down the staircase (like Arbogast in PSYCHO), breaking her neck when she lands. Thomas quickly hides in the room with his dead uncle, as his wife Francis comes out of her room and sees her sister dead at the base of the stairs. When she screams, Thomas comes out of the room and asks what’s wrong... but Francis isn’t buying it, she *knows* that Thomas killer her sister. Then she spots dead Uncle George on the floor behind him. Thomas says Uncle George must have had another heart attack and died... but Francis points to the *dead cat* next to the spilled brandy and accuses Thomas of killing both of the dead humans plus the cat plus her mother.



When the police come, Thomas has a packed bag ready for jail. He explains to the policeman that it’s probably a waste of time to arrest him, since the only possible witness against him is his wife, and a wife can not testify against her husband. They take him anyway... charged with three murders.

Jail. One huge cell filled with a bunch of smelly criminals. A bucket to poop in.



Thomas is immaculately dressed, sitting at a table writing; when the officers come to take him to the court room for his arraignment hearing.

At the hearing, the Prosecutor makes his case for triple murder by poisoning. When he’s finished, Thomas asks the Judge if he may speak... and then tears apart the Prosecutor’s case. There are no witnesses, one of the victims died of a broken neck, another was ruled natural causes, the third had just had a serious heart attack and no trace of any known poison was found in his system by the medical examiner. The Prosecutor says there are poisons that are *not* known that there is no test for at this time. Thomas counters that until these poisons are discovered and there is some way to test for them, there is not a shred of evidence and to waste the court’s time any further...

And the Judge dismisses all charges.



The officer who arrested Thomas comes to the jail cell release him, saying that some day he will find the evidence that convicts him. Thomas explains that it is no longer possible for him to be convicted of those crimes... it would be double jeopardy. Before being released, Thomas writes out a check on his dead Uncle George’s account and gives it to the officer... to be split among his cellmates. Thomas says goodbye to each of the cellmates, and hopes each uses their share to follow their dreams.

When he returns home, Thomas tells his wife Francis that now only she stands between him and the inheritance from her mother and sister. He prepares two glasses of brandy and lets her see him putting poison from his ring into one of them. Then tells her she has a choice: drink up now, or continue their marriage with each’s money pooled into one happy household account. Francis runs upstairs to her room...



Thomas looks at the water color painting of Francis over the fireplace, takes the poker, and crosses it out (his marks replicating the “spider web” used in the bumpers of the show, leading me to believe at some point they planned on fading from the “spider web” to the defaced painting, then didn’t do it). Then takes the two glasses of brandy upstairs, kicks in his wife’s bedroom door, and again gives her the choice between drinking poison and living with him happily ever after.

Before she answers, someone banging on the front door. The police Officer has come to arrest him. Thomas explains that he *can not* be arrested for any of those three murders, even if he were to admit that he committed them: double jeopardy. So the Officer is wasting his time... please go away.

The Officer smiles and says he’s not being arrested for murder, but for forging his dead uncle’s signature on that check. Which the Officer witnessed, so it’s open and shut. Thomas will be shipped off to Australia to prison where he will spend the rest of his life doing hard labor...

He asks for one final drink before he’s taken away, grabs the poisoned glass of brandy and downs it... falling over dead.

Twist!



Review: Based on the true story of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, and fairly accurate. His mother died in childbirth, so he went to live with his grandfather who was the editor of The Monthly Review, and grew up in a literary household. Thanks to a family connection he went to a private school (where that family connection was headmaster) and learned how to live amongst the wealthy, even though he was not wealthy himself.

He was a social climber on the fringe of high society and did have an exhibition of his paintings at the Royal Academy and wrote art criticism for several magazines and newspapers... as well as booklets on a variety of subjects. And he did poison all of those people and got away with it. In fact, he even poisoned at least one other person! In reality when those creditors came after him he and his wife *moved in* with Uncle George... who died shortly afterwards. He fled to France at one point, was arrested for carrying strychnine in that trick ring of his and spent six years in prison, then we he returned to England he was instantly arrested to stand trial for forgery. Instead of taking a dose of his own poison, he was sent to the Tasmanian prison colony. He worked on the road gang, later as a prison hospital orderly, and eventually was allowed to paint portraits of many important people and their family members... and those portraits exist in museums and collections today. The history of the Tasmanian Colony can be seen n his paintings. He was the subject of Charles Dickens’ “Hunted Down” and Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel “Lucretia”, Oscar Wilde’s “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”, and pops up as a character in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client”. The most famous poisoner in history!



Murray Matheson is perfect in this episode. He’s one of those actors who was on almost every TV show as a guest star, and you probably recognize his face. He was the bookstore owner who helped BANACEK in every episode. Here he gives an amazing performance where he’s both vain & dismissive and sympathetic. Oddly, you identify with his character and *want* him to knock off these white trash relatives by marriage. Matheson seems to have fun treating everyone as his inferior, and the audience wishes they were that clever and witty and stylish. This performance is similar to some of those great Vincent Price performances in Corman’s Poe movies. It’s a brilliant performance, and it turns this episode into one of the better ones.

All of the other performances are great, especially Brenda Forbes and Jennifer Raine as the mother and sister in law from hell. As I said, when Forbes bends over unladylike you can almost hear her loudly passing gas... even though that is not on the sound track.

The period setting and production design makes the episode seem lavish. There are horse drawn carriages and spooky foggy nights and that elegant house... it seems more like a movie than a TV episode.

The score by Jerry Goldsmith (CHINATOWN) is amazing. The Pete Rugolo scores had all been variations on the THRILLER theme music, and when Goldsmith took over it took him until this one to really leave his mark. This is a great score (on the DVD it’s an isolated track, so it may end up on my iPod eventually), and really gives us a look at the great film composer that Goldsmith would become in just a few years.

This is a fun episode that would have been at home on HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, which is a good thing... because we’re about to go back to spy novel adaptations for a while. Just when it was getting good, we go back to the ho hum!

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Film Courage Plus: Spec or Contest?

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

So here is the seventh one about having a great high concept spec *or* a high quality script that wins or places in a contest like the Nicholl. After doing all of my classes they grabbed me and interrogated me when I really wanted to just go home and take a nap.



In the clip I note two of the common ways to get into screenwriting - through spec scripts going out to market and through winning or being a finalist in one of the major contests. Spec scripts tend to get read due to their interesting concepts (“What’s it about?”) and contests are often more focused on the quality of the writing rather than the concept. Of course, there are a million spec screenplays in circulation in any given year and maybe 100 of those sell, so quality of writing is a massive component in spec screenplays as well. But whichever way gets you in, all roads lead to Hollywood... and Hollywood movies. You might write the awesome high concept screenplay which leads to an assignment writing that summer tentpole movie, or you might win a contest and land an assignment working on a summer tentpole movie. These days Hollywood is pretty much all tentpole all the time, so if you are a contest winner - be prepared!

There was a time - only about a decade ago - when Hollywood still made a certain number of mid-range movies, some of which were “prestige” films or dramas, but these days those films are made independently. Outside of the system, and usually written-directed-produced by the same person. They find the funding and make the film - no screenplay is actually sold (the film is funded). A movie like SPOTLIGHT doesn’t come from a studio, but from a filmmaker - Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film and secured the funding through his THE VISITOR producer Jeff Skoll. If you read my daily Script Tips you know that I've been a big fan of McCarthy since his first film THE STATION AGENT (which he found funding for). If you want to work outside the system and do your own thing, it has never been easier to do that. You can make a film for pocket change these days... and many people do. If you don’t want to write tentpoles and don’t want to make your own films, there are still some options available: TV is expanding right now, and even though many shows are high concept and similar to tentpole films (check out anything on the CW) there are still shows that are more low key and dramatic oriented like SHADES OF BLUE. The other option is to head to film festivals and find a director who needs a writing partner - some of my favorite genre films lately are the work of the director & writer team of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle. If you are a great writer there is a place somewhere for you in the business - studio or indie or TV or YouTube or whatever they come up with next. Every entertainment media needs *stories*, and that’s *us*. Finding your home will require that you open your eyes a little wider - if you are not writing the kinds of movies that are being made (and don’t want to write them), you’ll have to find the place where your type of writing is needed. Wait, how many ways to break in is that now?

The first thing you need to figure out is what your skill set is. You need to know what you do well, so that you can match that to a media and a method to break in. Heck, I have a book called BREAKING IN with dozens and dozens of ways to break in... but what’s important is what you are breaking in to... Studio films? Indies? Television? What are your skills and how do they match the media? If you want to break in to studio films, know that you will be writing studio films. There are people who want to write indie type stories for studios... and that seldom happens. Even if you win a contest, chances are if a studio based producer hires you it will be to do a rewrite on some high concept tentpole or comic book movie or maybe a board game turned into a script. That’s what Hollywood does - make big expensive mass audience films. No matter how you break in, that’s what you’re in for.

CONTESTS


I look at different contests in the Breaking In Blue Book, and note that the King of all screenwriting contests is The Nicholl fellowship, which is run by those people who give out the Oscars every year. These days the Nicholl pays up to five winners $35,000... but it’s not just about the money, Hollywood producers and agents and managers *fight over* the winners! In fact, even if you don’t win they will fight over you: finalists and even semi-finalists usually get meetings with producers and agents and managers. Of course, there’s a reason *why* semi-finalists are still pretty damned good... there are *thousands* of entries every year (over 7,500 in 2014) and only about 5% advance to the competition quarter-finals, and only about 2% make it to the semi-finals and about ten entries reach the finals.

The Queen of screenwriting contests is probably Austin, and danged if my friend Max Adams didn’t win both the Nicholl and Austin in the same year with two different screenplays! This is probably why you should grab Max Adams’ book (in addition to mine).

The Prince of screenwriting contests is probably TrackingB, because winners and runners up land agents and managers, and the finalist judges are often development people who end up fighting over the winning screenplays. Where Nicholl and Austin just get you on Hollywood’s radar, TrackingB gets you in front of the buyers. The Younger Prince is Tracking Board’s Launch Pad, which is the direct competition to the TrackingB contest... Again finalists are read by people actually in the business who read and buy screenplays for a living, which means if you have a great screenplay this contest will launch your career.

In you win the Final Draft Big Break Contest, you can have a drink with me, since I’m at the big party where they announce the winner every year... along with screenwriters much more famous than I am (last year Max Landis was drinking with my group... so nobody really cared that I was there). So, maybe have a drink with all of the more famous people first.

Other good contests: PAGE, Scriptapalooza, SlamDance, ScriptPipeline, Sundance, BlueCat... and probably some that I’m forgetting, since I’m not a contest guy. Since I was a professional screenwriter before all of these contests began, I’ve been ineligible to enter them.

The thing to watch out for with small contests are the ones which are just money making schemes. Do your research! There have been some interesting scandals in the contest world, including one a few years ago where a small contest run by a script consultant had one of the contest readers admit that they didn’t read all of the screenplays... and I don’t mean they just read the first 10 or 20 pages of each screenplay (which isn’t unusual for first round on small contests, since you can usually tell a really bad screenplay after only a few pages of poorly written sentences), but there were some screenplays that they never read a single page! I discovered that another contest that is part of a small film festival had *no* “celebrity” judges and every screenplay was “read” by the person running the fest/contest and she pocketed all of the entry fees herself. I have no idea if she read all of the screenplays or even if she read any of them! It was all about her making money. The good news about fly-by-night contests like this is that the internet spreads the warnings, so usually all you have to do is Google some contest to find out whether it has had problems in the past. Always do your research!

Since I can’t enter contests, I write and send out spec scripts.

SPEC SCRIPTS


Spec screenplays are the most versatile choice (even the screenplays you enter in contests are specs, right?) because there are so many different ways that you can submit them. In addition to contests, you can submit them directly to production companies (after a query and a request) and to managers (again - query and request) and agents (query and request), plus there are many other ways specs can open a door for you. One thing to keep in mind: the reason why anyone will request your screenplay is that the *concept* sounds interesting. Mangers and Agents and Producers are *business people* who only earn money when a script sells or a writer lands a writing assignment. (Producers are last paid, so they need a screenplay or writer who can create something that gets made if they want to get paid.) Even managers and agents who may be looking for writers they can send out for assignments will be looking for specs with great concepts (unless the writer is one of the handful who wins a contest). The way an Agent or Manager introduces a writer to potential employers is through specs - and the way they get people to read specs screenplays is the same way *we* get people to read our spec screenplays: a killer logline or killer elevator pitch that’s all about the concept. If your concept is dull or mundane or something that doesn’t sound like something millions of people worldwide will be lining up tp pay to see, it will be difficult to get and Agent or Manager to request your screenplay... and then difficult for that Agent or Manager to get reads for you. Yes - there are exceptions. Nothing is an absolute in this business. But you may have noticed that everything in the world is cutting frills and focusing on profit, and Agents and Managers and Producers are no different. Even with referrals, someone is going to ask, “What’s it about?” and then it’s up to the concept to sell them.

This is the reason why there is so much focus on that concept, and why so many new writers fail by writing a script that’s based on a dull or mundane idea. I used to say that TV was the only place where Private Eye and Cop stories were wanted, but if you’ve watched TV of late you may have noticed that the trend for *weird* cops and detectives has gone to extremes - a zombie who eats the brains of victims to solve crimes? So, unless you plan on using the contest method make sure you begin with a great idea! One of these Film Courage Interviews has my “100 Idea Theory” - where you should come up with 100 great ideas and then select the best of them all to script. A well written screenplay with a bland idea is going to be tough to get reads with... and a terribly written script with a great idea isn’t going to get you very far, either! As I’ve said before - there is no “or” in screenwriting. If the question is: which is more important, concept or execution? the answer is: BOTH!

But spec screenplays can also *travel*, and I think that’s come up in one of these Film Courage segments. This is a business of referrals, and there are referrals you know about and ones that you don’t know about. If someone reads your screenplay and thinks it’s great and passes it to someone else in the industry (“You’ve gotta read this!”) that screenplay can travel all over town, from one person to another, and eventually land somewhere that matters. I’ve said before that a great spec script given to the *wrong person* or just left on the street in Beverly Hills has a pretty good chance of being discovered and landing you a gig. There are so few screenplays that get everything right that one which does will go places. People who complain about the gate keepers in Hollywood don’t understand that those gate keepers are *actively* looking for that great screenplay that will earn them points with the boss and further their careers. Everyone wants to be the one who discovered the next big thing!

That next big thing could be *you*!

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Trailer Tuesday: THE UNDERNEATH

Last week the original, this week the remake...

Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh.
Written by: Soderbergh based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Peter Gallagher, Elisabeth Shue, Alison Elliott, Paul Dooley, the great William Fichtner.
Director Of Photography: Elliot Davis.
Music: Cliff Martinez.

The remake of one of my favorite films CRISS CROSS, Stephen Soderbergh’s THE UNDERNEATH (1995), which was his fourth film... and not a success. After the failure of this film he dove off the deep end, making some crazy low budget films... and found his soul again. It’s odd to think of Soderbergh as a crime film director, but when you look at the genre he keeps coming back to again and again it’s crime films... from OUT OF SIGHT to OCEAN’S 11. This is his first crime film, and he decided to remake a classic... which seldom works. My guess is that after SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and the *great* KING OF THE HILL and the equally interesting KAFKA, he decided to do something mainstream that would earn him the studio cred to do that Clint Eastwood thing where you make one movie “for them” and they allow you to make one movies for you. But all of that backfired. The “one for them” flopped...

Not because of the cast. Peter Gallagher plays the role Burt Lancaster played in CRISS CROSS. Sexy TV actress Alison Elliott played the ex wife played by Yvonne DeCarlo. The always creepy William Fichtner played the creepy Dan Duryea role. Paul Dooley played the “Pops” character. And Shelly Duvall pops up as the nurse in the hospital, and Joe Don Baker plays the guy who owns the armored truck company in cameos. These are all good actors, and Fichtner shines in his role. So, what was the problem?



Every screenplay is made up of millions of choices, and every movie ends up being those choices plus a million other choices. The problem is, if you make one major wrong choice it all falls apart. Though you may think the idea of remaking a classic film like CRISS CROSS was the wrong choice, there are plenty of remakes that work. The problems usually come with the choices made while remaking the film. For a while Warner Brother was planning on remaking one of my favorite films THE LAST OF SHEILA (which is a great mystery film) as a *comedy* and getting rid of the mystery element. That never happened. But the big problem with remakes in Hollywood is often that they come up with some crazy drastic change that kills the story. Hey, the reason why the story was successful in the first place was because it *wasn’t* a comedy (or whatever). Why not fix some of the little problems instead of screwing around with what made it successful in the first place?

The *good* changes in THE UNDERNEATH end up being instead of his younger brother getting married as the excuse he uses to himself for the reason he comes home again, it’s his *mother* getting married to the “Pops” character. This is great because “Pops” is going to be the casualty in the robbery, so in this version it’s his mother’s new husband who gets killed! More emotional, right? The other change is that instead of his old friend who is the cop who comes after him... it’s his *brother*! Again, upping the emotional ante. These were both great changes.

Another change was the addition of a “nice girl” to give Gallagher a choice between his exwife (who is nothing but trouble) and this nice girl played by Elizabeth Shue. He meets her on the bus coming back to town, and she works in the bank branch where the robbery will take place in this version. Part of the new robbery scheme is to use information he gets from her to help Dundee’s gang pull the robbery. That makes her an unwilling accomplice, cool idea!

But all of these good choices are undercut by the bad ones.

Instead of our lead leaving town because he’s still hung up on his ex wife and even Los Angeles isn’t big enough for the both of them, Gallagher is a gambling addict who spends every cent the couple has on sports betting, and when he loses so much that the mob is going to kill him, he leaves town... leaving his soon to be ex wife to deal with all of the crap he’s left behind. Not only does this make our protagonist not a sympathetic guy, it removes the core of the story... that he’s still hung up on his ex wife. That’s the engine that runs the machine, and they remove it. Oh, and he never worked for the Armored Truck company, so there’s this silly convoluted way for him to get hired. Oh, and since the ex wife isn’t really a fan of his, the really uncomfortable scene in CRISS CROSS where he’s caught by Dundee with his ex and comes up with the robbery thing as an excuse and then must go through with it... no longer exists. All of the big dramatic scenes from the original are gone.

And by making the protag a major screw up, having the cop be his brother this time around robs all of the drama from that! In CRISS CROSS the cop was his old friend, who really liked him and thought the ex wife was trouble... and that scene in the hospital when he confronts Lancaster and says he knows Lancaster had to be part of the robbery is a *heart breaker*. The cop knows his best friend became a criminal and has to deal with all of those mixed up feelings... and Lancaster has to deal with them, too. It’s like when your parents say you disappointed them... man, that’s tough to take! Now that the protag is a screw up, and *he* is the problem? No drama at all. The brother cop doesn’t have his heart broken because he never trusted his brother in the first place. He is *established* as hating his brother (Can’t believe you wore our father’s suit to mother’s wedding).

And the robbery is almost an anti set piece here, with Pop’s death being just another thing that happens. No drama.

The film uses different tints, as Soderbergh would later do in TRAFFIC, but here I could not figure out what the purpose was. Soderbergh also does a fractured chronology, a dozen times more fractured than CRISS CROSS but not as fractured as THE LIMEY. At first I though the colors (blue and green mostly) were past and present... but then we got a past scene that was green and I was confused. Then I thought it was story threads, with the robbery plot being green and the romance plot being blue, but it wasn’t that, either. There’s a scene that changes from blue to green midway, but then changes back. I rewatched that scene a couple of times but still can’t figure out why.

The other thing Soderbergh does is an extended POV shot when Gallagher is in his hospital bed. It’s not all one shot, but we don’t see Gallagher in the hospital, just his POV. The problem here is that it isn’t used to effect. Instead of creating paranoia, it’s just a long POV shot. Because there is no focus on people passing the pebbled glass and the man sitting in the hallway just out of view as in CRISS CROSS, there is *absolutely no suspense in this scene*. It’s like a stunt shot that undercuts all of the emotions! Instead of finding a better way to do the scene, it’s a *worse* way... which is just a show off shot. Michael Bay filmmaking.

And the film ends with a pointless and illogical twist that kind of undercuts the whole movie. I liked this movie more when I first saw it than I did when I watched it right after CRISS CROSS. It’s a misfire from a director who went on to do some really good crime films (THE LIMEY really is one of my favs).

- Bill

Friday, September 11, 2020

Fridays With Hitchcock:
THE BIRDS: Storyboards

THE BIRDS...



Alfred Hitchcock believed you didn’t want to be figuring out what the heck you were going to shoot and how you were going to shoot it with the entire cast and crew waiting around on the clock... The place to figure out your movie was before you had hundreds of people standing around waiting. So Hitchcock (and many other directors of the time) storyboarded their films. Sometimes just the tricky scenes, sometimes the whole film. You could shot list the easy stuff, but actions scenes or scenes that required trained birds or special effects of some sort? Better to have those boarded so that you could show each department what was required for them in each shot. So here are some of the storyboards for THE BIRDS.

BIRDS Storyboards and a swell article from BFI.

To read the Fridays With Hitchcock on THE BIRDS, click back there.

bluebook

- Bill



Of course, I have a couple of books about Hitchcock, SPELLBOUND is in the one that is on sale today...

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

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

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

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

369 pages packed with information!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

OTHER COUNTRIES:

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

And...




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



ON SALE!!! $2 OFF!

Click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

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

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

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

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

Only $5.99

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

- Bill

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Thriller Thursday: Knock Three One Two.



Knock Three One Two.

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



Season: 1, Episode: 13.
Airdate: Dec. 13, 1960


Director: Herman Hoffman
Writer: John Kneubuhl based on the novel by Frederick Brown.
Cast: Joe Maross, Beverly Garland, Charles Aikman, Warren Oates, Meade Martin.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline.
Producer: Maxwell Shane.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “A compulsive killer of women stalks a town. This man has seen the killer. He doesn’t know it yet, but as sure as my name is Boris Karloff he will meet the killer again and will recognize him. You or I would turn him in, but this man uses the murderer for a most bizarre purpose. Knock three one two, that’s the name of our story. And our principle players are, Mr. Joe Maross, Miss Beverly Garland, Mr. Charles Aikman, and Mr. Warren Oates. Knock three one two. That friendly knock will cause a lovely woman to open the door with terrifying consequences. Let me warn you ladies, if you hear that knock in the next hour, do not open your door. Just sit there and enjoy the tingling suspense of this thriller.”

Synopsis: This overly convoluted tale begins with gambling addict Ray (Joe Maross) making calls from a corner phone booth, trying to find *someone* to loan him the money to pay back the mob so that they don’t break his legs... with no luck. When he walks back to his car, a preoccupied MAN (Meade Martin) bumps into him, then continues on without an apology. Ray grumbles something, gets into his car and drives away... just as a dead woman is found in the apartment the Man just left! That Man was the Silk Stocking Strangler, the killer everyone in the city is afraid of... so afraid that Ray and his wife Ruth (Beverly Garland) have put extra locks on the door and have a knock code: 3, 1, 2 to make sure she only unbolts the door to her husband and not the crazed killer.



After Ray knocks the code, Ruth lets him in... and he begs her to give him the money to pay off his bets. He’s afraid this time they will really hurt him. She says last time she gave him money from her savings account he just gambled it away. She tells him never again, her $8k savings account went down to $6k, and now she has to work harder to bring it back up to where it was. Ruth is a waitress on the night shift, Ray is a liquor salesman. Ray keeps asking for money, says they might even kill him this time, she says no and goes to work...

On the way she bumps into Benny (Warren Oates) who is mentally challenged and runs the local newsstand, a friend of both Ruth and Ray’s. Benny tells Ruth that he’s done it again... killed another woman. He thinks he is the Silk Stocking Strangler. Ruth asks him where he was at the time of the last murder and Benny says he was working. Ruth tells him he *couldn’t* be the killer... and the last time he confessed to the police they said he couldn’t be the killer. Benny still wants to be punished for these crimes. Ruth tells Benny to forget about this nonsense, and that they both need to get to work.



Ray can’t find anyone to give him the money, accosts Ruth at work... and her nice guy boss George (Charles Aidman) breaks it up and comforts Ruth. Along with the Benny character, the George character is another somewhat pointless complication. George is in love with Ruth and wants her to leave Ray, but Ruth is still in love with Ray.

When Ray leaves the restaurant he’s followed down a dark alley by the mob guys he owes money to: they beat the crap out of him and give him 24 hours to get the cash... or they’ll kill him. By some amazing coincidence, Benny walks down that same dark alley later and sees beat up Ray, takes him to his little apartment where he takes care of his wounds and offers him some soup with pieces of chicken in it. Benny tries to convince Ray that he’s the Silk Stocking Killer, but Ray also does not believe him. Benny tells Ray about the latest killing... and Ray realizes he was *right there* and that the Man who bumped into him had to be the killer. He knows what the killer looks like! Once Ray is okay, he leaves to try and find the money again.

Ray ends up in a bar asking the owner for an advance on his order, gets shot down... and then notices the Man who bumped into him sitting at the bar... the Silk Stocking Killer! Ray sits next to him, strikes up a conversation... and now we’re in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN territory. This is the great part of the story, which is kind of lost in the all of the subplots. Highsmith’s third novel, THE BLUNDERER, is about a man who attempts to make his wife’s death appear as if it is the work of a serial killer... only to have the serial killer confront him. Here we get a similar story, as Ray shows the Silk Stocking Killer a picture of Ruth in a bathing suit to get his interest, then tells him their address and the knock code for the front door... and that his wife will be home alone all night.



When the Silk Stocking Killer leaves (to murder Ruth) Ray asks the bartender to pour him another drink. The bartender mentions they will be closing at midnight tonight instead of 2am... because the place is empty. Oh no, there goes Ray’s alibi! He begs the bartender to stay open later, the bartender gives him a funny look. He’s the only customer in the place!

So Ray calls Benny and tells him if he goes to the police *right now* and turns himself in for the murders, and has the police call him *right away* at this bar pay phone, he will come down and tell the police that Benny is the killer. Benny says “sure” and Ray goes back to the bar waiting for the phone to ring.



Meanwhile, the Silk Stocking Killer watches as George pulls up in front of the apartment and then walks Ruth to the door. They almost kiss. The George gets back in his car and drives away... and the Silk Stocking Killer comes out of hiding to kill Ruth. He knocks the code on the door, she unbolts and unlocks the door and opens in wide... then screams when he attacks her.

Ray gets the call from Benny, goes to the police station where he tells the two detectives that Benny *didn’t* do it (which pisses off Benny) and Benny needs mental help and can the police institutionalize him? Ray drags it out as long as possible to make sure he has an alibi: in the police station with the two detectives investigating the murders. He’ll be free and clear, Ruth will be dead, and he’ll be able to get the money from her savings account right away. The perfect crime!

George decides to turn around and go back to Ruth’s place for no apparent reason, and ends up finding the door open and the Silk Stocking Killer attacking her. George kicks some psycho ass, then calls the police.



When the detectives leave the room to take the call, Benny gets mad at Ray for betraying him... and *murders* Ray. When the detectives find out the name of the woman being attacked by the Silk Stocking Killer when he was captured, they realize it’s the wife of the man they have in their interrogation room, go in and find him dead. The end!



Review: Another episode based on a novel, and I suspect the novel did some fancy footwork to remove all of the coincidences. Compressed into less than fifty minutes, all of these strange coincidences stick out like a sore thumb! Plus, there are some things that the writer should have caught: Benny couldn’t have done the killings because he works every night until 2am... yet Ray calls him *at home* and needs him to be at the police station from 12 to 2am... how is that possible? The super locked apartment door that requires that knock code? George kicks it down in street shoes! There are a bunch of things like this in the episode that just make no sense at all.

There is a nice little conversation about Gambling Addiction, a public service message in the middle of the episode; and I think that’s a good thing. This was a genre show, and they managed to include a real social issue in the story without it seeming forced onto the story... it’s Ray’s motivation for needing the money bad enough to have his wife killed. No matter what your genre, you *can* have a serious issue in there... genre movies don’t need to be stupid.

Beverly Garland was beautiful, and played a blue collar waitress well. Though she had been a B movie star, she spent most of her career on the small screen... then retired to run a hotel a couple of blocks from where I live now. I did my 2 day classes there for a while, in the cinema decorated with posters from all of her movies.



Warren Oates is freakin’ Warren Oates! He did two episodes of THRILLER, and so many TV shows that I’m sure he couldn’t remember the number. Mostly westerns like THE RIFLEMAN ands RAWHIDE and THE VIRGINIAN and HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, but he did every other genre and pops up in THE TWILIGHT ZONE and OUTER LIMITS. Shows like this is where a young actor could earn a living while working on their craft, and Oates is completely convincing as this mentally challenged newsstand employee.

Charles Aidman is another actor you’d instantly recognize as “that guy from every TV show in the 70s”, but here it’s kind of strange casting since the character has an ethnic last name... and this isn’t an ethnic guy. I wonder if that was even a plot element in the story originally, Ruth and George’s romance would be forbidden... but this serial killer brings them together. That’s not in the episode.

The actor who plays the Silk Stocking Killer is some pretty boy in a leather jacket, unlike any serial killer I have ever seen. He’s more of a juvenile delinquent from a fifties film! Truly odd casting.

The other problem is Ray sending the Silk Stocking Killer after Ruth in the first place... how can he know that the psycho will go there and kill her? What if she isn’t his type? Again, coincidences kill this episode. It does have some suspense, but the story is not well plotted. Not one of the good episodes, but not the worst. Next week’s episode stars Mort Sahl as a TV writer who knows too much... and talks too much.

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Death By.... Encoragement!

(originally posted over 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, September 08, 2020

Trailer Tuesday: CRISS CROSS



CRISS CROSS (1949)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Writers: Daniel Fuchs, based on a novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, Dan Duryea.

This is one of my favorite movies, but I have no idea when I first saw it. Most likely on the Late Late Show. Back in the old days, when there were only 3 networks and a handful of local stations with local programming, they always had a late night movie. Networks like NBC would show some fairly new movie during prime time, kind of the way HBO has fairly new movies today. So the late show movies were always something old, from the 1940s or 1950s... stuff like CASABLANCA. After the late show movies there was... nothing. TV stations closed down for the night at 2 or 3AM and after the sign off (America The Beautiful over The Blue Angels flying in formation) there was a test pattern until the Farm Report the next morning. No infomercials. When I came home from working at the Movie Theater, I’d usually watch the Late Late Show on Friday and Saturday nights and catch some classic film... and that probably included CRISS CROSS.



CRISS CROSS is a film noir based on a novel by Don Tracy and kicks off our Don Tracy Appreciation Week. Don who? you ask... hey, me too! The only reason why I know this novelist’s name is from the opening titles of CRISS CROSS, but when I came to this week’s Thriller Thursday episode it was based on a novel by... Don Tracy. Hey! What a weird coincidence! So I looked him up online and discovered his two most famous novels ended up as this movie and that TV episode. Tracy was a journalist who hit it big with his second novel “Criss Cross” and then crashed and burned with his third novel “How Sleeps The Beast?” about racial conditions in the modern south... which was too controversial for the times. After returning from World War 2, he shifted gears and wrote some sprawling historical adventure novels like “Crimson Is The Eastern Shore”, “Roanoke Renegade”, and “Carolina Corsair”. He came back to noir with “The Big Blackout” (Thriller Thursday) and in the sixties he wrote a detective series about a military policeman solving crimes on base and off (kind of like NCIS). Because this was the Paperback Revolution, he also wrote a huge stack of TV and movie novelizations under a pseudonym. A recovering alcoholic, he wrote an AA self help book in the 70s. Oddly, I have never read any of his detective series, even though those were the kinds of books I hunted for in used bookstores. Now I’m going to try and track some down.

But CRISS CROSS...



The film opens with Steve Thompson (muscular Burt Lancaster) making out in a night club parking lot with his ex wife Anna (sexy Yvonne DeCarlo who you may know from THE MUNSTERS), who is married to some other guy now... Slim Dundee (the slimy Dan Duryea who improves every movie he is in) a local crime boss. They enter the club separately, but later that night Thompson and Dundee get involved in a fight in a back room of the club, and Thompson’s detective pal Pete Ramerize breaks it up and asks Thompson if he wants to press charges. Thompson says no, then ends up with Dundee and his gang in the men’s room washing up... and we discover the fight was just for the sake of the detective.... but got out of hand because Dundee thinks his wife Anna may be fooling around with her ex husband. Thompson is an armored truck guard who is the inside man for a robbery by Dundee and his gang scheduled for the next day.

When the Armored Truck goes on a pick up, the two guys packing huge bundles of money into bags are talking about how their wives overpay on laundry soap by 3 cents... this kind of contrast is one of the things that makes the film great.

About 13 minutes into the film, just before the robbery, the Armored Truck now filled with bags of money, Thompson remembers how he came to be here...

And we get to the meat of the story in a 50 minute flashback (in an 88 minute film)... which is not a crime story, but the story of a man with a broken heart. Thompson returns to Los Angeles after years of drifting from city to city, working a variety of odd jobs, trying to forget Anna... his ex wife who broke his heart. Film Noir is all about the four Ds: Darkness, Destiny, Despair, and of course Doom... and Destiny plays a large part in Thompson’s homecoming. When he gets to his family house, no one is home... so he wanders through the city ending up at... the night club where he and his ex wife used to hang out. He tries to call her several times, but something always gets in his way... like a warning.



The night club has a separate bar attached, and there are two great recurring characters in that bar that you will remember long after you’ve forgotten the plot of some recent hit film. The bartender (Percy Helton) who thinks Thompson might be an undercover checker with the Alcoholic Beverages Commission is a real character, and it’s fun to watch their relationship change as time goes on. The lush who sits at the end of the bar all day (Joan Miller) is one of those great characters and great performances that makes you feel as if you’ve known her all of your life. And it’s *unusual* to make that drunk at the end of the bar a woman... you feel like she was maybe Rosie The Riveter during the war and afterwards her life went south... and here she is. I looked up the actress who played that role and she worked consistently. One of the great things about writing during the studio system was that they had all of these great character actors under contract and you could write a role for them. In the Supporting Characters Blue Book I talk about some of the great characters who pop up as Pirate #7 or Cowboy #9 (and often played both roles in different movies) and how well developed those little roles were. You remembered them. There’s a nice bit in CRISS CROSS where the Bartender is trying to tell someone how much he appreciates the Lush, his favorite customer... and she doesn’t know if she should be insulted or not. It’s a great moment for both of them. Oh, and at one point in the night club Anna is dancing with some handsome young man... a no lines extra in the film... played by a not yet famous guy named Tony Curtis!



But Thompson and Anna are destined to bump into each other... and that happens. He knows that she is wrong for him, that if they get back together again he will just end up heartbroken again... and that’s what happens. As soon as they begin dating again, she hooks up with Dundee and *marries* the mobster, leaving Thompson stood up at the night club. When Dundee leaves on business, destiny brings them together again... but this time he’s fooling around with a mobster’s wife.

How destiny brings them together: Dundee has to catch a train on business and at the last minute *doesn’t* take Anna. Thompson is at the train station... after learning about their marriage he’s thinking about splitting town to avoid the pain of bumping into her. An employee behind a center counter bends down for a moment and Thompson gets a glimpse of the woman on the other side... Anna. Thompson tries to avoid her by going outside... but Anna has gone outside as well. She plans on getting in her car and driving home... but Dundee’s #2 man is in the car, driving it to the city where Dundee is going so that they’ll have a vehicle there. Which leaves Anna and Thompson the only two people with nowhere to go outside the train station. Destiny keeps bringing them together... and if Dundee finds out about it they are both dead.



Let me take a minute to mention the Los Angeles locations. Union Station is the train station, and they really shot there. I know that sounds silly, but movies were made on the backlot at this time, and there was some train station set that all movies used. CRISS CROSS went out on the streets of Los Angeles, and you get all kinds of great shots of places in the city that no longer exist. The trolley cars, Hill Street, the old houses, this film is a moving snapshot of Los Angeles in the late 40s. It’s fascinating to watch just for the scenery.

When they eventually get caught together by Dundee, Thompson tries to talk his way out of it... by saying that he actually was there to talk to Dundee. See, he has a job that needs some criminals. Thompson has gotten his old job as an Armored Truck guard back, and has a scheme to commit a robbery. Needs criminal help. Dundee and his gang come in on the robbery... and now Thompson’s cover story for being with Anna has turned him into a criminal. Maybe there’s a fifth D in Noir: degradation. Thompson would do anything to get Anna back, he has never gotten over her... she’s in his blood. And going from respected armored truck guard to criminal just to keep her in his life is a major fall for him. The problem is: he says it off the top of his head to pacify Dundee... but it all becomes too real when they bring in a planner and put together a crew and buy vehicles and explosives and fake uniforms and gear up to do the job.

Which leads us up to that sixty three minute mark with Thompson back behind the wheel of the Armored Truck as they head to the ambush... and our final twenty five minutes of the film.



Don Westlake writing as Richard Stark wrote a series of heist novels featuring a guy named Parker, and a handful of them are armored truck robberies... and no two are the same. The “high concept” in a heist story is the method they use to pull the heist. You need something original. The robbery here involves a monthly factory payroll delivery in cash, a tanker truck that will block the road to the factory to keep away the police, and other elements... but the main thing is the inside man: Thompson. He not only has to remove the third guard (who would stay in the truck and shoot the robbers) but put the second guard at ease when he thinks continuing the cash delivery might be dangerous for just two guards. In the planning scene we see how the plan *will* work, but execution is where things tend to go wrong...

And if you were Dundee and you had a chance to kill the guy who was sleeping with your wife during the robbery, what would you do? So instead of Thompson’s rule that the other guard (his friend Pops who is dating Thompson’s mom) and of course himself will not be harmed in the robbery; Pops is killed and Dundee tries to kill Thompson. The two exchange gunfire, wounding each other... but Thompson manages to kill a bunch of the other robbers... but the money and Dundee vanish.



Thompson wakes up in the hospital a hero... but his detective pal Pete Rameriz knows he had to be part of the robbery, and warns him that Dundee is still alive and will be hunting him. Which leads to a *great* sequence of complete paranoia as Thompson is trapped in his hospital bed, leg and arm in casts and elevated with cables... and suspicious people linger in the hospital hallways and shadows pass just outside his field of vision... often falling over the pebbled glass window. This has you on the edge of your seat. One particular guy is sitting in the hallway... and Thompson asks the nurse to bring him in. Ends up being a nice guy husband whose wife was in a car accident instead of one of Dundee’s thugs. Now Thompson *begs* the husband to stay with him (so that no one can sneak in and kill him in his sleep), but the husband says he needs to stay outside his wife’s door incase she wakes up... leaving Thompson alone.



Since this entry is now twice the usual length, I’m going to stop before we get to the ending... but what’s interesting is how it remains the story of a man with a broken heart, still in love with his ex wife, right up until the end. I think one of the things good films do is have an emotional throughline that is connected to theme. It’s Thompson still being hung up on his ex wife that drives the whole story... from the dramatic side of the story to the crime side of the story. These things are all connected. This is one of my favorite movies because all of the pieces come together perfectly... and I think we all still have some past love in our blood... and wish we could get over that long ago broken heart.

I suspect that CRISS CROSS is one of the Coen Brothers favorite movies, since Lancaster’s character often says “Sure, sure” a phrase said often by Paul Newman’s character in HUDSUCKER PROXY and there’s a dialogue from Anna, “I didn’t do anything wrong” which is echoed by Thompson later... and a very similar thing happens in BLOOD SIMPLE with the line “I didn’t do anything funny.” I think it would be fun to look at Soderbergh’s remake of CRISS CROSS next week...

Bill

Friday, September 04, 2020

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Under Capricorn (1949)

Screenplay by James Birdie and Hume Cronyn based on a play by Margret Linden and John Colton based on a novel by Helen Simpson.

That's a whole lotta based ons...

Still my least favorite Hitchcock film! Several problems, the biggest one is genre - this is a frilly shirt melodrama with no thrills at all and some sort of family secret, that when finally revealed ends up being a “So what?” moment. There’s a whole lot of acting going on and no real conflict... and though some scenery is chewed by the end of the story, most of the acting is realistic for the time period when the film was made, and until those end reveal scenes the acting is subdued. Not a bad story for a novel - the characters all make sense and it's interesting how one character's emotional issues trigger a bunch of other character's emotional issues... but all of that is internal. Stuff that shows up on the pages of a novel but not on screen. So we end up with a placid flaccid melodrama that takes place in 1831 in Australia but was shot on the backlot somewhere. This is a movie where everyone wears frilly shirts, outrageously tall top hats, and carries a waking stick... and no one has an Australian or Irish accent, because they are all played by Brits or Americans. Oh, and there are no Aborigines - Australia is an all white country for some reason.




Nutshell: Irresponsible and perpetually unemployed Irish Society Guy Charles Adair (Michael Wilding, who played the boring detective in STAGE FRIGHT but is okay here because he has a character to play) is shipped off by his family to live with his cousin, the new Governor Of Australia (Cecil Parker). They hope Adair will grow up, find a job, and get responsible... but that just doesn’t seem to be in his plans. He meets wealthy land owner Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotton) who was once a prisoner - Australia is a prison colony. He offers Adair a deal: since Flusky has purchased all of the (cheap) land from the government that is legally allowed, if Adair buys some property under his own name, Flusky will buy that property from him for more than he paid. Adair makes a profit, Mr. Flusky gets the government land he wants. Adair is invited to a dinner party at Flusky’s lavish, elegant, mansion that is really only a painting. There he meets Mr. Flusky’s drunken wife Henrietta Flusky (Ingrid Bergman, the only one even trying to do an accent in this film)... who he recognizes as a friend of his sister’s back home!



Thrown in here is an odd variation on the Maid from REBECCA who takes care of Mrs. Flusky and likes to take something hot up to Mr. Flusky in his bedroom (whatever that means). The kitchen staff are all female convicts, and the Maid whips them into submission on a regular basis (off screen, unfortunately). After the Governor discovers his cousin is doing business with an ex-con, he is forced to live in that mansion-which-is-only-a-painting with all of those crazy people. And stuff happens. And Adair tries to get Mrs. Flusky off the bottle and back into Australian Society (whatever that is) in some weird riff on MY FAIR LADY. And eventually the big secret is revealed - Mrs. Flusky actually committed the murder that Mr. Flusky was convicted of! No! No! How could that be? This perpetually drunken woman killed someone? Then some other stuff happens. Then, Adair is shot by Mr.Flusky by accident after he has to shoot Marnie’s horse after it breaks a leg. Oh, wait, it’s Mr. Flusky’s horse. Anyway, the Governor wants to send Mr. Flusky back to prison, but Mrs. Flusky steps forward and says her husband didn’t violate his parole because *she* accidentally killed that guy in Ireland many years ago that sent her husband to prison in the first place.



The Governor now has a two-fer, and is going to send both to prison... but our hero Adair survives and lies and saves the day! No one goes to prison! And, for a movie about Australia as a prison colony, there are no scenes in this film outside or inside the prison - we never see it. Oh, I left out the part where the Maid is discovered slowly drugging Mrs. Flusky and encouraging her to drink and leaving a *shrunken head* on her bed some nights, so that Mr. Flusky will divorce her and marry the Maid because she brings something hot up to him in bed every night (whatever that means). Um, what the hell are shrunken heads doing in Austrailia?

Experiment: In Hitch’s previous film, ROPE, he did a great experiment in long takes - every shot in that film was a full reel of film, and often the cuts between reels used a “human wipe” where an actor would pass in front of the camera at the end of one reel and then pass in front at the beginning of the next so the two reels would seamlessly cut together as one take. That was a brilliant experiment that we will talk about next time. Problem is, Hitchcock tried doing long takes in this film, but it just didn’t work. The reasons...



ROPE is a stage play which takes place in one large apartment. It makes sense to try to do long continuous shots in one room, with the camera gliding around from person to person. CAPRICORN takes place in a bunch of locations, so we are constantly cutting anyway. And even when we are at one location, there are cuts. So there really is no experiment that we are aware of as the audience. Just some long takes - some are interesting, most are infuriating, because...



In ROPE the story is filled with tension. The story has two college students murder their friend, throw his corpse in a trunk they use as a coffee table, then throw a party for all of the victim’s friends including their college professor. So the whole film is unrelenting tension - will someone discover the dead body in the trunk? We are trapped in that room, and trapped in those *shots*. The experiment isn’t just a whim, it fits the story and *builds tension*. In CAPRICORN there is no body in a trunk, and we are not trapped in a room, so the moving camera is just a bunch of moving camera. Because there is no tension, no real conflict, we *need* cutting between shots to create some action. Instead, nothing is happening in the story and nothing is happening technically to keep us awake. The long takes become sleep inducing.

The best long take of the lot is probably when Adair first goes to Mr. Flusky’s house and walks around looking through windows - spying on what is going on - then is caught and invited in, and we move through the door with him and then see all of the things we have seen through the windows from inside the house... oh, if those things had only been not what they appeared! But, it was just the same stuff from a different angle.




Hitch Appearance: Outside the Government House in a long shot. You can’t really see him on DVD unless you have a huge screen TV... and I watched this movie on my laptop in a Vegas Hotel room while on vacation.

Great Scenes: No conflict = no great scenes. This is a melodrama, all about shocking scandalous behavior and family secrets. Those things don’t age well, yesterday’s scandal is today’s normal life.

MOVIES NOT THINKIES: Add to that, these are intellectual rather than physical... and that this film is adapted from a novel, where we get all sorts of information that might make the family secret much more shocking. On film, we only get what we see and hear. So we first see Mrs. Flusky as a drunk, and eventually learn that she came from a wealthy family in Ireland. On the page, we can have our hero remember her in Ireland, and remember how elegant and refined she was. As we read the book, we will picture the elegant and refined version of the character and mentally compare it with this drunken woman... and that’s shocking! On film, we have never seen the other version of the character, and even when it is revealed that she was that refined woman once, it means nothing to us. They’re only words. We can’t compare the word “Lady” and this image of a drunken woman in a house coat in the middle of the day.

ABSTRACT CONCEPTS DON'T FILM WELL: Similarly, all of the melodrama’s big shocking reveals don’t really work on screen. This elegant, refined woman was having an affair with... the stable boy! That stable boy is now Mr. Flusky, not a boy, not a servant of any sort, not covered in manure... Mr. Flusky as we know him is one of the wealthiest men in Australia. So that reveal isn’t much of a shocker. Again, in the novel we can “see” him as the filthy stable boy, and understand that he is a servant and not of the same class as Henrietta. How do we *show* that someone is not of her class? We can’t see that. The closest we can get is maybe showing that he’s not in her league as far as beauty goes. Part of the problem with film is always going to be casting - Joseph Cotton is one of the male leads, so the studio doesn’t want an ugly guy playing that role... and even if they had cast someone ugly, this is the wealthiest man in Australia, and there are many attractive women who marry less attractive men who are wealthy. And if we were to do a flashback to before Flusky became the richest man in Australia, when he was just that stable boy? Problem there is that in a novel you can get inside Henrietta’s head so that we understand why this manure covered boy is strong and virile and sexy to a young woman... even if he was ugly. On film, if they found an ugly man we’d wonder why she had the hots for him, if they cast an attractive actor, the women in the audience might have the hots for him, too... and there goes the whole shocking forbidden love thing. There is no way to make this work well on film, even though it can be a real shocker on the page. Some types of stories just don’t translate to the screen, which is why as writers we need to match our stories to the mediums best suited for telling them.

After Flusky was sent to prison in Australia, Mrs. Flusky sold everything she owned and followed him... living in some vile place while she awaited his parole. This was in a huge chunk of exposition, camera not moving and not cutting, as Mrs. Flusky tells Adair her life up until now, every big shocking moment of it. I’m sure in the novel we got a bunch of flashbacks, but that would have made this movie all about *the past* and not about what we were watching on screen now. As dialogue, that vile place she lived in could be a Motel 6. On the pages of a novel we could have a 2 page flashback filled with details about rats and cockroaches and shared toilets and straw beds with worms, and... see, that was a single sentence that probably grossed you out. On screen you’d have to show all of those things over a long scene or series of scenes so it didn’t become overkill and wind up *funny*.

HOW DOES THE AUDIENCE KNOW THAT? The big twist that Mrs. Flusky was the killer and not her husband is a big problem transferring from page to screen because we can’t show it up front, when it is Mr. Flusky’s backstory, because of the twist. In a book Flusky can be the killer on every single page, because it can be part of the narration. That makes the twist a corker. But on screen we can’t have Flusky be a murderer in the narration - there isn’t any. Unless you have him wear a sign around his neck that says “Murderer” we are going to see him as the wealthiest man in Australia. There’s not much room for editorializing in film. It’s what we see and what we hear, and seeing is believing - so the visual part is most important. We could *show* Mr. Flusky acting like a savage killer all of the time, but there’s one problem with that - he’s innocent.

But the big problem with the story as a *movie* is that we can not show distinctions in society on screen. In a novel we can spell these things out, just like with Flusky as the murderer, we can have him identified as a servant class. And the shocking stuff about the Maid bringing hot stuff up to his bed at night would be shocking. And when Flusky shows at the grand ball, it could be shocking. And when Mrs. Flusky is transformed into the society woman every society man wants to dance with, and then it’s discovered that she was that drunken woman married to Flusky... all of these things work on the page but do not work on screen at all. On screen all men are men, there is no class distinction. All women are women, there is no class distinction. As awful as this may be to say, it ends up all about *looks*. You can have ugly men and handsome men, ugly women and pretty women. That ends up being the “class distinction” on film. Which is why Cinderella is *always* a babe, she just needs better clothes. And why every other makeover movie has the woman taking off her glasses, pulling her hair out of the bun and shaking it out and... instant hottie! A movie can’t show us inner beauty - we usually don’t have time to get to know an unattractive character well enough to understand why another character would fall in love with them in 2 hours. So it all comes down to looks, so we can’t use looks as class distinction in a cross-class love story. On the page, not a problem. On screen, we can’t see class distinctions - so the do not exist. Making this story impossible to tell as a film with anywhere near the same impact as on the page.

All of the conflict is in the past... until the end where Flusky begins to believe that Adair may have the hots for his wife. Then we get a confrontation scene in public and an accidental shooting. Oh, and probably the best scene in the film which triggers the confrontation, where Flusky has bought his wife a necklace and she rejects it. Nice bit of visual storytelling there, too bad it’s in a silly film.




SOAP OPERA TWISTS: But the bigger issue is - even if all of these “twists” would have worked 100% on film, they are “soap opera twists” - they do nothing to change the course of the story. They just tell us scandalous background information about the characters. Henrietta married a servant! Okay, how does that change her life in Australia? It doesn’t change *anything* in the present at all! The closest the film ever comes to using one of these false twists to change the story is when Henrietta confesses to the Governor that *she* committed the crime her husband was originally accused of in order to save him from prosecution for shooting Adair... and it doesn’t work! Flusky is still going to be charged in the shooting of Adair! It takes Adair’s testimony to save Flusky from being returned prison.

A plot twist changes the direction of the story - it impacts the story. In THE CRYING GAME when we get that twist that the chick is really a dude, that changes the direction of the story - now our hero realizes he’s fallen in love with a dude and has to figure out what to do next... and the rest of the story is about trying to deal with that twist. But UNDER CAPRICORN we get “soap opera twists” that just reveal scandalous information about a character which changes nothing. So even if all of these “twists” had translated to screen, they wouldn’t really be twists.

Bad choice of source material for a movie. This story works as a book, doesn’t work at all as a movie.

Sound Track: Kind of a bland movie melodrama score by Richard Addinsell. Forgettable.

This film even looks like a bad period melodrama - between the costumes and the stock shots of Australia and big grand balls interrupted by angry husbands... it just looks like a big dumb Hollywood movie - a bad GONE WITH THE WIND knock off, but without the production value or dialogue or performances or even the cinematography. Many Hitchcock films seem modern, even today. They have aged well. UNDER CAPRICORN looks old fashioned.

- Bill

BUY THE DVD AT AMAZON:









eXTReMe Tracker