Friday, February 23, 2024

Fridays With Hitchcock: Hitch 20: Banquo's Chair (s3e3)

This is a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that I am a "guest expert" on. The series looks at the 20 TV episodes directed by Hitchcock and here is the third episode of the third season, which looks at the terror of the unseen in Hitchcock's work.





off!

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

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

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

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

Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

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- Bill

Of course, my first book on Hitchcock...




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



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.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

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Canadian Folks Click Here.

Bill

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Thriller Thursday: THE PURPLE ROOM

The Purple Room

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



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


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




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

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



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

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

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



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

Where something lurks in the shadows.

A knife flies at him, sticking into the floor.

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



Closer and closer and closer!

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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



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

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

Bill

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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Film Courage: Writing From Desperation.

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. There were 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?

WRITING FROM DESPERATION

So you have quit your day job and given yourself a year or two years or whatever is in your bank account to make it as a professional screenwriter... and as that deadline gets closer and closer and you haven’t sold anything, panic and desperation begins to set in... and you realize that low budget horror always sells, and even though you absolutely hate horror, you decide to write a horror screenplay so that you can make enough money to avoid having to work for a living... Good idea?

Terrible idea.



One of the unwritten rules in screenwriting is to never write about screenwriters or writers or Hollywood - it’s incestuous and the general film audience usually can’t relate to the characters... and being a screenwriter is not a common fantasy, like being a superhero or being a tough guy or falling in love or any of the other things that are part of the “dream fulfillment” of the movies. But every once in a while, a Hollywood insider does a “tell all” movie about their experiences in the business (carefully turned into fiction) and sometimes those films are successful... like the great SUNSET BLVD () directed by Billy Wilder (a screenwriter) and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. It’s one of the handful of Film Noirs about screenwriters, and a great example of what can happen to you when you are writing from desperation.

In the opening scene, screenwriter Joe Gillis is dead in the swimming pool of a decaying Hollywood mansion, then we flashback to how he came to be in this pool... A crappy Hollywood apartment where he is 3 months behind in his rent and about to be evicted, when there is a knock at the door - a couple of guys from the collection agency who have come to reposes his car, and would like him to hand over the keys. Joe tells them that he loaned his car to a friend who drove it to Palm Springs, sorry. Check the apartment garage if they don’t believe him. After they leave, he goes to the parking lot where he has hidden his car, and heads to the Paramount Lot where he has a meeting with a producer named Sheldrake, who might buy his script and get him out of this financial mess... He pitches the script to Sheldrake, who is skeptical - it doesn’t sound very good. Gillis lies, and says that 20th Century Fox is also interested in it. Sheldrake buzzes his Development Girl, who comes in with the coverage. “I covered it, but I wouldn’t bother. It’s from hunger. It’s just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” (That’s about 6 minutes into the movie - it doesn’t waste any time.) Gillis pleads with Sheldrake for any kind of assignment, he needs the money. But he is sent on his way...

Because when you write from desperation, it shows.

When you just hack out something for a buck, it shows.

When your heart isn’t in it, it shows.

One of those things that producers often say that they are looking for in a screenplay is “passion” - they want this to be the story that you have to tell (not just for money), the story that is a part of you, that has soul. All of the things that tend to disappear when you are writing from desperation, when you are writing from panic. Though the cliche of the serious writer in their garret with only beans to eat while they complete their masterpiece is romantic, in real life that’s no way to write anything that’s actually good. I have a Script Tip called “Projectors” about how whatever we write can’t help but show our feelings and attitude and emotions - our writing *is* who we are - so if you are a bitter angry person, you will be writing bitter angry stories that are probably not going to be entertaining.

After I sold COURTING DEATH to a company at Paramount and moved to Los Angeles, I had 2 years worth of rent and expenses plus a production bonus when they made the film. Except they didn’t make the film. I spent two years like Joe Gillis - holed up in my apartment writing screenplays - and had done absolutely no networking or work to get some other screenplay sold. I could have written all of those screenplays in my hometown of Concord, CA and saved a bundle! Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live. So when my two years of rent and expenses was almost spent, I went into panic mode and tried to figure out how to sell a screenplay. But I was trying to sell the screenplays that I had written from my heart and soul (even though they contained explosions) before I realized that I was running out of money. And I sold one, that managed to get made. And there were others that got me studio meetings and a couple that ended up optioned. I realized that I needed to spend more time on the business side of the screenwriting business and from that point on I actually became a professional screenwriter (as in, I continued to sell screenplays and land assignments).

Another writer I knew was not as successful, and called me in the middle of the night asking if he could crash at my apartment because he’d just been evicted and everyone else he’d called had turned him down. I didn’t know this guy very well, and was probably at the bottom of his list of people to call, and I turned him down as well. I realized that I never wanted to be in that position, and decided that if I was getting close to running out of money again, I would just get a day job. And at one point back in those early years, I had one - working in a wine shop in the Brentwood district, a few blocks from where O.J. Simpson would later murder his wife and her friend. Allegedly. But I realized that it was better for me to write with confidence and heart and soul instead of writing from panic and desperation.

Better for you to do that, too.

So if you give yourself some arbitrary deadline like 5 Years Until I Make It or whatever, don’t quit that day job! You can write 1 page a day and have 3 first drafts in a year... which is what I did when I was working at the warehouse. That’s how I wrote COURTING DEATH (which sold and got me to Los Angeles) and a bunch of other screenplays, some that sold, some that got me assignments, and some that nothing happened with. Lots that nothing happened with! That’s how screenwriting works - you will write a stack of screenplays in order to sell one or land one assignment. So you need something to pay the bills in the meantime.

DAY JOBS FOR SCREENWRITERS

You don’t want to be writing from desperation. It’s difficult to write when you are worried about financial problems, so it’s best to have an income while trying to break in. What you want is a “disposable job” rather than a career. A career will get in the way of your career! I always picked jobs that I wouldn’t want to do for the rest of my life, as an incentive to write and not do it for the rest of my life. If I got too comfortable at my day job, it became my real job. So I looked for jobs that would pay the rent, didn’t require me to think much (so that I could be figuring out scenes at work) and had regular hours so that I could plan my writing around it. I know people who work in advertizing and do other things that are writing based day jobs and that’s good news and bad news; the good news is that you are writing and getting paid for it, the bad news is that you might use all of your creative energy writing ad copy for a toilet cleaner. But if you have a steady and stable job that is paying the bills, keep it until you have made enough money to survive for at least a year...

And then don’t be afraid to go back to work. There’s no shame in not being evicted and panic calling some guy you know in the middle of the night to see if you can crash at his place, you know, just until you sell something.

But once you get to Los Angeles, there are some day jobs that put you into contact with peopel in the business, and are better than working in a warehouse. In the “Breaking In Bluer Book” I have 15 ways to make connections in Los Angeles, and some of them are day jobs like working as an Office Production Assistant, Reader, Writer’s Assistant or Personal Assistant, and a bunch of others. But jobs that put you in contact with people in the business can be helpful - I know a limousine driver who takes people back and forth to the airport (and other places) and often has celebrities in the back of his limo... and became a Film Producer because he managed to option a screenplay and sign some second tier movie stars from the back of his limo, and then give the package to a few investors and producers and distributors in the back of his limo. Only in Hollywood! But the kind of job that puts you in contact with upscale clients that is in that “disposable” classification is a great way to make connections while you are paying the rent, and because it’s disposable you can quit when you sell a screenplay and then come back to it later if you need to. That was part of the reason why I choose working in the wine shop in Brentwood - celebrities and producers buy wine and I might meet them. That was the plan. I learned that movie stars and producers had personal assistants that did all of their shopping for them... so that’s maybe a better job choice.

But aside from the “disposable jobs” that put you in contact with people in the business, there are also disposable jobs that you can just pick up and drop whenever you want, and those are also good if you have moved to Los Angeles and suddenly find yourself in need of a job to keep from worrying about paying the bills so that you can concentrate on your screenplay and put your heart and soul into it. Scott Frank, writer-director of QUEEN’S GAMBIT (based on the Walter Tevis novel), told me that he trained to be a bartender because that was a job that you could do anywhere and there was always someone hiring. Lots of actors and actresses wait tables between acting gigs, and Kathleen Turner went back to waiting tables after filming her star-making role in BODY HEAT... she has talked about waiting tables when the posters with her picture started going up around town. If you ask any waiter in Los Angeles what they are auditioning for, they will have an answer!

IT’S GOTTA HAVE HEART!

But the main thing to do is find a way to be able to focus on your writing, and not be worried about looming eviction like that writer who wanted to crash at my place just, you know, until he sold something. He never had another film credit, so maybe he never sold anything? He might have become like Joe Gillis in SUNSET BLVD - just writing ‘From hunger. It’s just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with,” and being so desperate and panicked that they are unable to put your heart and soul into your work.

You don’t want to just hack out what you think they want, because they don’t want hack work - they want something that you care about, that you are passionate about... that is also wildly commercial and will sell a bunch of tickets. What you write from hunger and desperation is going to smell of hunger and desperation - it’s not going to be that story that you needed to needed to tell. Later in SUNSET BLVD Joe Gillis bumps into that studio reader who trashed his script at a New Year’s Eve party, and she tells him that she read over all of the scripts he had submitted to the studio and found one with a great supporting character that she thought should have been the main character. Joe says that he knew someone like that character, and that subplot was personal and emotional to him... and the reader said that showed, and he should break off that character and write a new script about them... and he does. And that’s also what you need to do - find the stories that you are passionate about that also have commercial appeal and write those. Write the kind of movies that you regularly pay to see every week in the cinema - that you would stand in line to see! And you can’t write those from desperation! As writers, we are our “instrument” - we create from within, and it’s difficult to do that if you are worried about something else... so find the ways to be comfortable enough that you *can* create.

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill



BREAKING IN?
bluebook

405 Pages!

*** BREAKING IN BLUE BOOK *** - For Kindle!


Should really be called the BUSINESS BLUE BOOK because it covers almost everything you will need to know for your screenwriting career: from thinking like a producer and learning to speak their language, to query letters and finding a manager or agent, to making connections (at home and in Hollywood) and networking, to the different kinds of meetings you are will have at Studios, to the difference between a producer and a studio, to landing an assignment at that meeting and what is required of you when you are working under contract, to contracts and options and lawyers and... when to run from a deal! Information you can use *now* to move your career forward! It's all here in the Biggest Blue Book yet!

Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is over 400 pages!

Only $4.99 - and no postage!



USA Folks Click Here.



UK Folks Click Here.

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Other countries check your Amazon websites... it's there!

Seriously - TEN TIMES larger than the paper version (still on sale on my website)! That's just crazy!



Thank you to everyone!

Bill

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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, February 16, 2024

Fridays With Hitchcock:
HITCH 20: POISON (s3e2)

This is a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that I am a "guest expert" on. The series looks at the 20 TV episodes directed by Hitchcock and here is the second episode of the third season, which looks at the terror of the unseen in Hitchcock's work.



Notes on the episode:

First off: How cool is the Poking The Tiger graphic? That totally made my day!

Many things get cut for time, so let’s talk about them here...

1) Once again, sorry for the sound issues - I think that’s why so little of my comments end up in this episode.

2) Though this story takes place somewhere in the tropics it was shot on the Revue Lot in Studio City (now CBS Radford) on a soundstage. The next three episodes covered were shot when the show had moved a couple of miles down the street at Universal, so that’s where I’ll be for those episodes.

3) This story by Roald Dahl is probably best known as a famous radio drama from Escape Radio Theater starring Jack Webb and William Conrad - that show’s most famous episode. Because this story deals with the unseen, radio is a perfect medium for it... our imaginations are already primed because we have to imagine everything else... so when you add that poisonous snake we can easily imagine the worst. Here is a page with a link to that episode: ESCAPE RADIO THEATER - POISON.

4) Hey, speaking of the unseen and that clip from JAWS - one of the cool things about this episode is that it deals with *dread*, which is a cousin to suspense. I think I talk a little more about that at the end of the episode. Dread is the “fuel” for horror because it’s roots are in “fear of the unknown” - we know that something terrible may happen but we don’t know when that will happen: it’s the Hitchcock bomb under the table and ticking clock... with no clock. When we can’t see the threat and we don’t known when or where it will strike, this creates unease in the audience and fear. Though people often credit the mechanical shark breakdown with the success of JAWS (because without the shark they had to depend on dread) I’m fairly sure that Spielberg is a smart enough filmmaker to know how dread works and had probably seen CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (from the same studio as JAWS) and knew that it’s more effective *not* to show the monster before the attack to create dread... which is fear of the unknown, and often unseen.

By the way - even in a monster movie you eventually must show the monster (as this episode eventually shows us the snake) because the audience needs to know that it actually exists. Seeing is believing. Watch JAWS again and note how the *fin* is in almost every scene just before the shark attack. Just because the shark is below the surface and can not be seen before the attack doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist - you still need to show it, so that the audience will know it. The monster is there - in the shadows - and eventually you must show it when it attacks!

The technique of dread may be an element of horror movies, but it can be used in any genre. One of the Trailer Tuesdays in rotation is on the noir film GUN CRAZY which uses dread in it’s final scene - where our protagonist couple are trying to escape from the police and end up huddled together in a foggy swamp with the *sounds* of the police and their barking bloodhounds all around them. Because we can not see these threats, they create dread. It’s not suspense - a known threat (ticking clock or something we can see) but dread which deals with fear of the *unknown* and/or *unseen*.

This episode of HITCHCOCK PRESENTS uses elements from other genres - like dread from horror movies and the heist genre. I think that’s important for filmmakers to remember - just because your story is in one genre doesn’t mean you can’t use the tools and techniques of other genres. You want to use every tool and technique to make the best possible movie... so know the techniques and how they work!

5) As I said in the episode - whether it’s suspense or dread, you need to poke the tiger and remind the audience that the threat is there, so they don’t forget. You may think, “of course they won’t forget, that’s what the story is about!” but suspense (and dread) will *dissipate* if you don’t keep reminding the audience... and when something is unseen you have to keep those tiger pokes coming. The character’s coughing is a great way to poke the tiger - think of how often something like a sneeze is used in comedy films to do the same thing. Come up with a list of “pokes” to keep your suspense bubbling! “The chloroform will be very cold, but don’t move!” Coughing, sweating, his buddy poking and prodding, the chloroform, the tube, and everything else that can keep the suspense in the forefront of the audience’s mind! Keep poking that tiger!

6) In Hitchcock’s explanation of how suspense works, he talks about the bomb under the table that we know will go off at a specific time and the clock on the wall counting down the minutes... and the two people at the table talking about something innocuous like *baseball scores*. That last part is often forgotten or misunderstood by filmmakers and screenwriters... and of course, development folks. You not only don’t want any conversation that will distract from the suspense, you also want conversation that is *pointless* - if someone is saying something important or interesting or with purpose then the audience will understand why they aren’t focusing on the bomb under the table (or whatever the suspense generator is). That dissipates the suspense because there is other important information in the scene. So suspense *increases* if the conversation is meaningless... like that wrong number when phoning for the doctor in POISON. Not just the wrong number, but *talking about it* afterwards instead of getting right back to dialing that phone and getting help. Frustration is an element of suspense - “Don’t just stand there, do something! Do something!” One of the notes I’ve gotten in suspense scenes from clueless Development Execs deals with dialogue like those baseball score conversations... they just don’t understand the basics of how suspense works! You *want* that wrong number and then the silly conversation about making the mistake before dialing it again - that ramps up the suspense!

7) The Heist Genre element that I mention in the show: Heist movies usually have a scene where the plan is discussed step-by-step, and this episode uses that technique with the doctor’s plan to knock out the snake. He explains exactly what he is going to do, so that the audience can *anticipate* each step and its effect before it happens. Suspense is the *anticipation* of a known action... so the audience is now able to anticipate the outcome of each step in the plan... and wonder if things will go wrong. If they don’t know what is going to happen, there is no suspense - just things happening. Because we know what is *supposed to happen* in a heist scene, when something doesn’t happen as planned the audience worries that it will cause larger problems. Here, each step in the plan to knock out that poisonous snake has the ability to go wrong and cause larger problems (well, the guy will be bitten and die - that’s a pretty big problem), so as each step is meticulously done and small problems occur, the audience is on the edge of their seats worried that even small deviations in the plan may have fatal consequences.

8) Love the ironic twist ending!

Next episode of HITCH 20 I’ll be a couple of miles down the street at Universal Studios, where the show moved to after this season.

- Bill

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




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



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.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Bill

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Thriller Thursday: ROSE'S LAST SUMMER

Rose’s Last Summer

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



Season: 1, Episode: 5.
Airdate: 10/11/1960


Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Marie Baumer, based on a novel by Margaret Millar
Cast: Mary Astor, Lin McCarthy, Jack Livesey
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: John L. Russell




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Rose French. In the blur of memory the face grows dim, but do you remember the name? Twenty years ago, Rose French... the remarkable Rose French.. As a servant girl or as a princess? She was a quicksilver star in a celluloid heaven. If a woman would sell her soul to achieve such fame, what wouldn’t she do to get it back? Poor Rose, that was all she wanted, to relive the past. And those who loved her, Frank Clyde for instance, could do nothing to stop her. For the comeback trail could lead to strange and sinister places. To a lonely garden, into a night of terror, it could even lead to the face of a painted doll. For the comeback trail is a journey without maps, sure as my name is Boris Karloff. Poor Rose French, and her last desperate summer. That’s the name of our story: Rose’s Last Summer. Let me assure you, my friends, this is a thriller.”

Synopsis: Mary Astor famously explained the Five Stages Of Stardom: “Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor Type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?”



Rose French (Mary Astor) is a once famous movie star, a real doll; now a washed up drunk living in a crappy apartment in Los Angeles... forgotten by time. She was married to three men... and divorced by them. Two were pretty boy actors who lived off her fame, one was a Howard Hughes like millionaire who may be the only man she has ever loved. But now she is alone. When she gets an unusual acting job out of the blue, she takes it... No fame or fortune involved, no spotlights and red carpets; that’s not what Rose is looking for. Just a chance to practice her craft... in some town in California called LaMesa. What’s the role?

A few weeks later, Rose French is found dead in LaMesa, in the garden of some dead millionaire’s toy manufacturer’s mansion. The young doctor at the rehab facility where she once dried out Frank Clyde (Lin McCarthy) and that Howard Hughes like ex husband Dalloway (Jack Livesey) show up at the inquest, where it is revealed she died of a massive heart attack, and had been in poor health for years. The two men team up, because the doctor had examined Rose not that long ago, and she had *no* heart condition and was in pretty good health for a boozer. Did someone kill her? Poison her and make it look like a heart attack? They head to LaMesa to investigate.



The garden of the dead toy manufacturer’s mansion is accessible from the street, did she just wander in and die? While poking around they spot an old woman watching from the window, and ring the bell. They talk to the son of the toy millionaire, Willet Goodfield (Hardie Albright) and his wife Ethel (Dorothy Green), about Rose’s death, and they claim they know nothing. She was just this strange woman who wandered into their yard and dropped dead. When they ask to talk to Willet’s mother, who may have seen something from her window, Willet tries to dissuade them. When they insist, old Mrs. Goodfield yells from upstairs that she will see them.

Mrs. Goodfield is heir to Horace Goodfield’s Sweet Marie Doll fortune, and old woman who walks with a cane and spends much of her time confined to her bed. She’s cranky, but answers Frank and Dalloway’s questions. She didn’t see anything, but it’s a tragedy that the woman died on their property. When Dalloway continues with a bunch of follow up questions, Mrs. Goodfield orders him out of the room, she needs her rest. While this is going on, Frank pokes around the house and discovers a piece of evidence that makes it look like Rose may have been inside the house. Frank and Dalloway leave highly suspicious of the family, and do further investigation...



Now we get our big twist, much like in the classic thriller MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, the role Rose was hired to play is playing is a real person... Mrs. Goodfield. Millionaire toy maker Horace Goodfield left his fortune in an odd trust: his widow must live to her sixty fifth birthday for she and Willet to inherit... but the widow has a bad heart, and the family is afraid she will pass away before her birthday. So they hire Rose to play the window in the event she dies before her upcoming birthday. Rose does an amazing job, and Willet and his wife have trouble telling them apart. But when Mrs. Goodfield does die before her birthday, they have to figure out some way to get rid of the body... and decide to dye her hair, put her in Rose’s clothes with all of Rose’s ID and place it in the garden. Plan worked: nobody thought it was Mrs. Goodfield, and when her birthday rolled around Rose played the role perfectly and Willet got his hands on his father’s fortune...

But when Rose wants her money so that she can go back to her life, Willet asks, “What life?” You see, Rose is *dead*. Rose has nowhere to go, no life to live... nothing. Willet gives her a bottle of booze to wash away her depression... and when she’s passed out drunk they carry her out to their car to dispose of her. But Rose was *acting* passed out, and she escapes, running for her life as Willet and Ethel chase her in the car trying to run her down. A nice suspense scene, ending with Frank and Dalloway arriving at the Goodfield mansion with the police, hearing the screams from the car chase a few streets over, and rescuing Rose. Nice ending as Rose and Dalloway walk off together.



Review: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS is about an actress who gets trapped in the role of a real person who was murdered, and can’t escape after she discovers they are setting her up as a suicide. This episode tells a similar story, but through characters outside the conflict who are investigating the mystery. This works fine, because by the halfway point we switch POVs and get Rose’s story, the character who *is* inside the conflict. What’s great is that Mary Astor gets to play duel roles, and pulls off both of them. When she is playing Mrs. Goodfield, you don’t recognize her at all and think she may be part of the conspiracy to kill Rose. And in the flashback sequence, she gets a *third* role, playing the real Mrs. Goodfield under the name “Helen Quintal” in the opening credits so that the audience won’t jump ahead of the story... the way Hitchcock did publicity shots with the chair for Mrs. Bates. She does a great job of playing the real Mrs. Goodfield against Rose playing Mrs. Goodfield, and manages to make each distinctive. So we get a great performance by Mary Astor at that time in her career she was probably the latter “Who is Mary Astor?”



The episode does some stock footage jet setting, from Dalloway’s yacht to San Francisco (where Horace Goodfield died) and from gritty downtown to the luxurious gated estate. All of this is very convincing, and gives the show some scope. Though the car chase and attack scene is tame compared to what we might expect on a TV series today, it’s great for the time. The novel it’s based on is by Margaret Millar, who was Mrs. Ross Macdonald (“Archer” filmed as HARPER with Paul Newman) and a great crime novelist in her own right. Again we get PSYCHO cinematographer John L. Russell shooting the episode, and Arthur Hiller who would go on to direct the hit LOVE STORY as well as critical favorite THE HOSPITAL does a good job... but on a show like this it’s all about pacing, and this episode works well.



Though not on a par with some of the great edge of your seat suspense episodes or the creepy horror episodes of the show, this is a solid entry that really showcases the talent of Mary Astor... and makes you realize there should *never* be a time when Hollywood asks “Who is Mary Astor?” just because an actor or actress is older. Mary Astor doesn’t play a 30 or 40 year old in this episode, and looks great... no crazy plastic surgery. For an actress who was a star in the silent age, and the femme fatale in the Bogart version of THE MALTESE FALCON, she gives a great star turn here and shows that she could still act circles around most actors half her age. What is the reason for that? Oh, yeah: *Experience*.

FADE OUT.

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Film Courage Plus: Researching Locations

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. 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?



LET'S TALK LOCATIONS!

One of my early movie crushes when I was a kid was Leslie Ann Warren, who played CINDERELLA in the TV version of Rogers & Hammerstein’s musical back in 1965. I was 8 years old! It’s not that she was cute (she still is) but the song she sang “In my own little corner in my own little room I can be whatever I want to be” - that was (and is) me! So maybe I really have a crush on Oscar Hammerstein? Only he’s definitely not as cute. But I was a clumsy unpopular kid who lived in my imagination - and could be whatever I wanted to be. I think that’s a major part of being a writer, whether you have seen the musical version of CINDERELLA or not. We imagine ourselves doing exiting and amazing things... while we sit at our laptops or tablets or whatever we write on. But how do we write about being a cowboy or astronaut or spy or whatever exciting life of we have never lived that life? How do we write about all of those exotic places that the story takes place in (the old west, space, cool international cities) if we have never been there? We need to combine our imaginations with research.

One of the things that I talk about in the clip is my script that takes place in Finland - a country that I have never been to. About ten years ago, I landed an assignment with a company that had connections to a company in Finland and was looking to do a co-production that was similar to TAKEN - a fast paced action revenge film. They called me, and I pitched them an idea that was similar to TAKEN but different. Everything I write has some autobiographical thread in it, so my idea was: what if a guy who writes spy novels, and knows all kinds of things about the spy world, went to a big event with his wife, and she wore the exact same dress as the President’s wife... and got kidnaped by mistake? Now our novelist hero has to get her back before the bad guys realize that they have the wrong person and kill her. He writes about spies, but can he live that life for real? (I can be whatever I want to be!). The whole deal was to take advantage of shooting in Finland, but I have never been there! And the Finish co-producers *live there*.

In the old days, when I had to write about some foreign country, I bought a bunch of travel books. I found that the “Let’s Go!” books were great because they were designed for backpackers and usually had interesting “non tourist” places to check out. They also had really good descriptions of places, even if they didn’t have pictures. This was in the pre-internet times, where you couldn’t just Google someplace. So I had to find other books (usually in the library) that had photos of places that sounded interesting in the books. The problem always was - these were glamor shots of buildings and streets, made to look as beautiful as possible. And I was sure that in real life those places didn’t look as nice. But I wrote a giant stack of spy and thriller screenplays and even a couple of novels using the “Let’s Go!” books and travel picture books and the occasional travelogue film. Worked fine, some of those screenplays sold and were optioned...

But for the Finland screenplay? Since the internet had been invented, I went online. I discovered that Helsinki often doubles in movies for St. Petersburg, Russia - so that’s where I began my story. I found the sections of the city that they used in other movies and the sections of St. Petersburg that they were supposed to be. I found everything I needed online. In the clip I talk about looking at people’s vacation videos of Helsinki online - Google search. Made me feel a little like the crazy killer Frances Dollarhyde in “Manhunter” (1986) who works at a film developing lab and selects his victims by watching their home movies. Creepy! But watching a bunch of family’s home videos of their fun Finland vacation gave me multiple angles of locations and all of the small things that never made it into those pretty pictures in the travel books. One of which was a guy with a push cart who sold fish snacks (and sodas and everything else). In two different home videos! This guy is always there! So I put him in my screenplay.

DETAILS

Which is a great lesson in research. Find the details that make it seem real. Look for the things that are unusual and distinctive about the location... and look for locations that are different than anywhere else on earth. If you are writing a scene in Finland, don’t have scenes take place at a location that could be anywhere else. Not only do the details create a vivid image in the reader’s minds, they add a level of reality that your slugline can’t do on its own. Details are like anything else in your “description” - they need to be part of the story and “action”. So my guy with the push cart who sold fish snacks wasn’t just part of the description, he was critical to the scene. My spy novelist hero, when searching for his kidnaped wife, asks the street vendor questions that will help him find her or the people who took her. You don’t want to include *pointless* details in your screenplay, so you need to find a way to make all of the details important to the story... and the great part about that is that it makes the details memorable.

One of the odd things with my guy with a push cart is that the production companiy’s readers who *lived* in Finland knew exactly who I was talking about. That guy is a fixture in that neighborhood. Though you may not have a producer who is familiar with the details that you use as part of your story, details are convincing. A vague description of something sounds less credible than one with a specific detail that makes you feel as if you are there. One distinctive details is worth hundreds of words about something general. And words are gold in screenwriting. You don’t want to spend words on worthless things... or use too many words.

Thanks to the internet we can be virtually anywhere. Google Street View allows us to see those great details anywhere in the world. I think I might have mentioned my screenplay that takes place in Detroit, a city I have never been to, and finding a You Tube video that gave me a guided tour of one of my locations. I also used Street View when I did a recent rewrite to improve the description of a specific location. I wanted to make sure that people in Detroit wouldn’t think I had never been there. I had written a screenplay ages ago, “Recall”, about the auto industry and even though I had read some books I had managed to get some things wrong (reading about a location isn’t nearly as good as seeing it with your own eyes). Though it might be nice to actually go there, as writers we end up writing about places all over the world... that we have never been to. My “Hours Of Darkness” screenplay takes place in Seattle, a place that I hadn’t been to since I was 5 years old. I had seen multiple pictures of one of my locations... but none of them showed the railroad tracks that ran behind the building.

That came from a *map* - another great tool when dealing with places that you never have been. One of the great moments in Wesley Strick’s “True Believer” screenplay is when our lawyer hero realizes that two locations that seem far from each other are actually close to each other and connected by an alley. That’s the clue that helps them prove their client innocent of murder. So grab a map for locations where you have never been and look for the details that may not be in pictures. Maps are great research tools!

UNIQUE LOCATIONS

Unusual locations make it look as if you are very familiar with the city or country that you are writing about. As someone who was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area I get bored with the generic locations in most movies (and the Golden Gate Bridge... which is the *second* most important bridge in the city - nobody ever shows the Bay Bridge that connects Oakland and San Francisco). There’s a travelogue element in going to the movies, so I want to show the audience places that other films haven’t shown them. If I’ve seen it in another movie, I want to find someplace else to set the scene. So in my “Past Lives” screenplay I have a scene in Tommy’s Joint - a bar and restaurant that’s kind of the DMZ - where a cop might be having lunch at a table next to a crook. It’s a fascinating place that I have never seen in a film. My big suspense ending takes place at one of the *two* Dutch Windmills in Golden Gate Park. You probably didn’t even know there were Windmills in San Francisco. So I am showing you something that isn’t in the usual “Welcome To San Francisco” montage.

Every city has “tourist places” and places that the residents know of, and part of making your story seem real is finding those places that don’t usually end up in films... and making them part of the story...

Though the way that can backfire is if they shoot your screenplay in Vancouver.

But think of the “Travelogue” element when writing your screenplay - where can you set a scene that shows the audience someplace fun and exciting to visit, so that the audience feels as if they have been on a vacation while watching the film? Growing up, I loved how the James Bond movies took me to exotic places around the world, and set scenes in those places so that I could see more details than if it were just that “Welcome To Tokyo” montage. In YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE a scene is set at a Sumo Wrestling Match - the wrestling is going on in the background, but you feel as if you are right there! Because every word is gold in a screenplay, you want to *incorporate* these interesting locations into your story, so we get the “travelogue” in the background... and it’s required to go to that exotic location by the story itself.

One of the things that I found in my Finland screenplay research was an ancient island fortress that is now a park. I asked if we could film there, and found out that parks are an “easy permit” and inexpensive. There were rules - I couldn’t have explosions or fires or anything else that might damage the old fortress, but I could have scenes where people are chasing each other and fighting hand to hand. Great!

But while researching the island fortress, I discovered many things that made it into the story, including a fairly new emergency tunnel *under the sea* that was built in the 1970s. Ambulances and fire equipment could quickly get to the island, now... but that also meant there was a way to get there other than the ferry boats. And usually long tunnels have places to turn out and maintenance rooms along the way... so I had my villain using a maintenance room as his hideout, and when they triangulate a cell phone call it shows that the villain is in the middle of the sea! On a boat? They look for a boat and there isn’t one. So how is it possible? Our hero eventually finds out about the new tunnel - and finds the villain. Researching locations finds story possibilities that you didn’t even know existed. You *need* to research locations!

LOCATION IS CHARACTER?

My COWBOY NIGHTS script is kind of "cowboy noir" and takes place present day. The protagonist gets fired from a dude ranch and heads to the city, where he becomes involved with a femme fatale who has a robbery scheme. In order to make the protagonist's choice to hook up with the femme fatale something we could see - visual, and not just words on the page - I created a nice cowgirl as a potential romance. That meant there *was* a choice - the femme fatale wasn't the only woman available. The protagonist now must make a physical choice between the two women, and that nice cowgirl he doesn't end up with becomes a physical symbol of his wrong choice when things go south in the robbery scheme. Also, she allowed me an ending where our protagonist gets a shot at redemption and a future.

There are several scenes in the script where the protagonist and femme fatale have sex, and one where the protagonist and nice cowgirl make love. Now, you can see the distinction between those two things on the page - I've used different words - but how do you make sure those words show up on screen? How do you turn words into something visual so that they do not stay on the page? In both scenes, the protagonist has sex with a woman. Sounds like the same scene... but what if I used *Locations* to help tell the story?

The first thing I did was look at what made the two female characters different. The femme fatale was a city girl and the nice cowgirl was a country girl - and all of the basic character things and specific character things that come from that. I wanted to use location as one of the elements to explore character - even if it was so subtle most people wouldn't consciously notice. The sex scenes with the femme fatale were all rushed and in urban locations. The rushed element matched the hustle of city life, but also fit the story - the femme fatale is the wife of a small time gangster and these sex scenes are cheating on her husband, so they have to be fast so they don’t get caught. But the scenes could have taken place in beds or anywhere - I decided to use previously established urban locations that would make these sex scenes part of the city. One takes place in an alley, one is in a car parked in a busy parking lot, one is in the husband's place of business. None of the scenes take place in a location that is *not* obviously a city.

The nice cowgirl love scene takes place in the country - which fits her character - and is also relaxed and unrushed. They have a picnic in a beautiful outdoor location after a horse ride. Where the femme fatale’s sex scenes are surrounded by car horns and buildings; the nice cowgirl scene takes place surrounded by trees and wild flowers without a building in sight. I high-lighted all of the simple beauty of nature, and the simple beauty of the cowgirl. When they make love, they take their time, and are surrounded by the best scenic location the location scout can find. Because the location is beautiful, the audience will subconsciously find the sex scene to be beautiful as well. The location is doing its part to tell the story and reveal character.

The other difference between the two types of sex scenes was also designed to show that the tone of these scenes was different: The sex scenes with the femme fatale always took place at night and in darkness. The love scene with the nice cowgirl took place is bright daylight. Bad girl and nice girl, darkness and light. Hey, seems obvious when I say it, but how often do you *consciously* notice the time of day in a sex scene? This is something that the audience *feels* more that *realizes*. A simple thing we do in the slugline that changes the tone of the scene and changes the way the audience sees the actions. As different as – NIGHT and – DAY!

Locations can be instrumental in telling your story - and researching them is easier now than it ever has been. So takes some time to think about the best location for your scenes. The best location for your story. Locations that are evocative and distinctive...

Then they will probably film it in Vancouver.

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill





Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Trailer Tuesday: THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973)

Two years ago the new KNIVES OUT film GLASS ONION made me think of this film...

Directed by: Herbert Ross.
Written by: Anthony Perkins & Stephen Sondheim..
Starring: Richard Benjamin, Raquel Welch, James Coburn, Ian McShane, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Joan Hackett.
Produced by: Herbert Ross .
Music by: Billy Goldenberg, with the song “Friends” by Bette Midler.
Production Design by: Ken Adam - all of the great James Bond films.



THE LAST OF SHEILA is one of my favorite films, and arguably the best mystery film ever made (and if you want to argue about it - head to the comments section!). Mystery films are a dead genre now, and even in those years when they were popular, they were not that popular. This film comes from a point in the 1970s where MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and CHINATOWN were hits on the big screen (with a bunch of Agatha Christie films popping up afterwards), and shows like ELLERY QUEEN on the small screen. Whenever I say that Mystery Films Are Dead, a bunch of people chime in with the titles of cop shows... which are not mysteries. Mysteries are an audience participation genre - and the best example of that is probably the ELLERY QUEEN show, where just before the final commercial Ellery or the announcer would tell the audience that they have all of the clues to solve the crime - all of the evidence - and during the commercial break you were supposed to be the detective and explain to your family who did it and why and what all of the evidence that *proves* that they are the killer before the commercials are over and Ellery Queen brings all of the suspects together and does his version. You didn’t *guess* who did it, you *deduced* who did it using the evidence you were shown. Your job as a reader or a viewer in a mystery is to pay attention to the clues and motives and knowledge of means and each suspect’s opportunities and figure out who done it...



Which is why the genre is either dead or back for a few years and then dead again. The audience has to *work at it*... and most people don’t really want to think in the cinema. In fact, most development executives don’t want to have to think while reading a script. Every time I sell a mystery script, the first thing that happens in rewrites is a “mysterectomy” where the mystery and clues are removed and it is turned into a straight thriller. That way the director and prop guy and everyone else doesn’t have to worry how many martini glasses on the table have lipstick marks in every scene. But for some reason, in the 1970s, the genre was hot and people *wanted* to solve the puzzles... and THE LAST OF SHEILA was made.

It’s an original Screenplay by Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates) and Stephen Sondheim (a bunch of Broadway musicals like WEST SIDE STORY) who may have been a couple at the time, and if you look at the relationship between the Richard Benjamin character and the James Coburn character, you might wonder if there may be some autobiographical elements in there. I have no idea, but Sondheim *was* a puzzle nut - and so is Coburn’s character. The film was directed by Herbert Ross, FOOTLOSE, GOODBYE GIRL, PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, and a million other big hits... And the cast is amazing - you may not realize that Richard Benjamin was a *huge* movie star at the time, he was the lead in WESTWORLD! The *star*! You know who James Coburn and Raquel Welch and James Mason are, Dyan Cannon was a star - and once married to Cary Grant - she is still alive and *hot* at 81!, Joan Hackett played the “nice girl” lead in a bunch of movies like SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF, and the fairly young new face was some intense British actor named Ian McShane... The plot is clever, the dialogue is clever and it’s a blast to watch. And it’s a movie industry story as well as being a mystery!



Egomaniacal and cruel big shot film producer Clinton Green (James Coburn) has a party at his mansion in the Hollywood Hills... he is probably the most hated man in Hollywood, and lives to make people squirm. There’s a great shot where we start in a luxury car where the driver is smoking a joint, and it is passed from Parking Valet to Parking Valet until we can see through the mansion window, where Clinton and his wife Sheila (Yvonne Romain) are fighting... then storms out of the house and down the winding road... where she is hit and killed by a car. Great shot of her corpse reflection as the car backs up to see if she is dead or alive before speeding off. The police never find the car or discover who was driving. It is an unsolved crime, and the seed from which this whole film grows.

One year later, Clinton invites a group of Hollywood types to spend summer on his yacht in the Mediterranean playing games and soaking up the sun... all of them were at that party where Sheila was killed... all of them are suspects in her death. Clinton types the name on the invitation, and then we are introduced to the character in their natural habitat...

Big time agent Christine (Dyan Cannon) used to be fat, and this is a great performance - she *acts* fat, even though she’s hot. The role may have been written for a plump actress, but Cannon plays it as a recent Jenny Craig grad who just knows she’s going to put on all of the weight in the near future - she’s hitting on all of the men, and acting really insecure. This counters her tough-gal occupation, and she is introduced in her office barking orders followed by “Kiss, kiss” - insincere manners. Totally Hollywood!



Alice, (Raquel Welch) as the hot movie star who is no longer in her 20s, but is still a star. But for how long? Welch will remind you of Julia Roberts today - at that strange age where you don’t know what’s going to happen to her career. Is she going to play *moms*? Is she going to become a character actor? What happens when you hit your “hot babe” pull date? She is recently married to...

Anthony, (Ian McShane) is Alice’s super intense Manager/Husband and great as a brawler, an insecure slice of beefcake. They are introduced in the airport and Alice is mobbed by Paparazzi... and Anthony actually slugs a photographer and breaks his camera and then slugs someone else. This guy can not keep his temper under control, and when Alice tries to be apologetic, he scolds her - these people will ruin her image!

Philip (James Mason) a once famous film director who is now doing TV commercials and not liking it. Introduced shooting an oatmeal commercial with a bunch of bratty little girls, one of them sits on his lap... and pees on him. Philip is always aloof but never mean - and Mason is one of those actors who can deliver any line and make it sing. Philip is floating along on some higher level than everyone else - he’s a director! that’s a step down from God - but at the same time, he is afraid he might not land a job directing Clinton’s next film.

Tom (Richard Benjamin) is the screenwriter, who is broke and really needs a job... his last gig was doing on set rewrites on a low budget spaghetti western. It’s strange to think that Benjamin was a star once because he’s so unlike what we think of as a star today... but he’s an everyman when that was popular. When I first saw this film, I was a kid and wanted to be a screenwriter - so this was the perfect hero. But his character Tom is a “cautionary tale” about screenwriters. He has a stack of scripts that haven’t sold - including “Freak Show”, which he would love to sell to Clinton. He is currently living off his wife...

Lee (Joan Hackett), whose family has been in the film biz for generations and she has childhood memories of sitting on Mason’s lap. Lee’s family money ($5 million in 1973 money) has been supporting Tom while he tries to sell a script. She says paying for everything isn’t a problem... but you can see on both of their faces that it really is. Both characters are introduced at her luxurious home, where he’s laying around on the sofa instead of writing and she is drinking non-alcoholic beverages.



So those are the guests on the cruise, our suspects - each was there the night Sheila was killed by the hit and run driver, and did I mention the games? On the first day of the cruise everyone is given a card with the name of a criminal on it, like “The Shoplifter” - none of the other players knows what criminal is on your card. When the yacht docks at some exotic locale, Clinton gives the group a clue at exactly 8pm, and then each of them scrambles to follow the clue to some other clue and find the Shoplifter’s Lair before everyone else. So the clue in the Shoplifter game is a silver key marked Sterling 18k. What does it mean? This is a French port, so one of the players realizes that French for key is “Clef” - and there’s a jazz club with that name... Others think the “sterling” on a silver key is the clue. Everyone has a theory... and they follow the clue leads to a clue leads to a clue.

There’s a great bit in this game where a tourist couple wandering through the village keeps crossing paths with each of the players - connecting them with each other.



Once you find the Shoplifter’s Lair there is a clue with the identity of whoever holds The Shoplifter card. It’s a crime scene with a dead detective (dummy) and clues to the killer. You know that the criminal is a Shoplifter, because all of the clothes and other items in the room still have their price tags on them. Follow the clues and you will find which one of our players has the Shoplifter Card... and you get points. “Everything with Clinton is points,” Tom says. Once the person holding The Shoplifter card finds the Lair, the game is over - a sign is placed at the Shoplifter’s Lair that says The Game Is Over - and everyone else is a loser. No points for them! Oh, and there’s a time limit - when the boat headed back out to the yacht leaves, you’d better be on it!

There is a chart of who has won and lost each round in the yacht’s cabin, and the person who solves the most games is the ultimate winner (and may end up with a job on Clinton’s next film). If you have The Shoplifter card, you want to solve it before everyone else so that the game is over and you are the only winner of that round. A fun little game for rich Hollywood types to play, except - did I mention the cruel streak?



Each of the crimes on the cards are things a member of the group has actually been accused of. As is explained a bit later - Clinton wouldn’t give the actual shoplifter The Shoplifter card, because everyone would get angry and quit. So no one knows the cruel element of the game until enough games are played that the pattern appears. And that is when the real fun begins... because some of the crimes on the cards are more than just embarrassing, they are blackmail material.

You are a Shoplifter.
You are a Homosexual.
You are an Informant.
You are an Ex-Convict.
You are a Little Child Molester.

Oh, and one of the cards says You are a Hit And Run Killer on it.



So Clinton’s real game is to expose Sheila’s killer at the end of the cruise, while ruining everyone’s lives along the way. “That’s the thing about secrets. We all know stuff about each other, we just don’t know the same stuff,” as Alice says... she was actually once busted for shoplifting early in her career, and it was covered up. Tension builds and soon there are attempts on people’s lives - a really frightening scene where someone turns on the ship’s propellers while Christine is swimming near the rear of the yacht and she is swept towards the giant rotating blades!



But this story isn’t just a murder mystery, it’s also a showbiz story! And each of these folks being tortured by Clinton’s game also wants to be in his new movie - the story of his dead wife to be titled “The Last Of Sheila”. Each of the players is competing with each other for the attention of the most hated man in Hollywood, and backstabbing each other to climb over each other’s corpse to reach the top - a job on this proposed film about the murder victim. If you are in the business, or just a big enough movie fan to get the jokes, it’s a lot of fun as it skewers the film business... especially those second tier studio flicks with stars who are trying to hold on to their stardom and directors and writers who are no longer on their way up...

Super intense Anthony is not very good at kissing ass, but does his best...” My aspirations do run closer to the production end of things, if you know what I mean. What would you say, and please be absolutely frank, to me asking you for an associate producership on this upcoming film?” What Clinton would say is - a humiliating fake crying sound, boo-hoo-hoo, that morphs into laughter. He cuts off Anthony’s balls in front of everyone else. And that makes the others both afraid of Clinton and happy that with Anthony out of the running, maybe they will win Clinton’s favor. It’s vicious!

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Okay, someone is murdered in addition to long dead Sheila (or it wouldn’t be much of a movie) at the halfway point, and the director and screenwriter partner up to solve the murder in a Holmes & Watson kind of thing. The screenwriter, Tom, leading the investigation... which only makes sense because the screenwriter is the brains of any film. But the director, Philip, actually finds the big clue at an unexpected moment. The way these two work together is great, and James Mason has played Watson a few years later in MURDER BY DECREE.

The great thing about this film is that it completely plays fair - the audience can play along and solve the murder themselves. The clues are all there. In fact, the great thing about the ending when Tom and Philip are taking it clue-by-clue explaining who did it and how, is that they show you a clip from the movie you have already seen... and this time you notice the killer picking up the murder weapon! Before, you saw the exact same piece of film and didn’t notice it. (Though the new piece of film continues to show the killer actually pocketing it... the original clip stopped just before they put it in their pocket.) But everything was right there on film and you could have easily followed the clues to the killer. Ellery Queen could have popped up before the end and said you had all of the information to solve the crime. The film clips we have already seen are the reason why I love this film because I was paying attention and missed some of the clues. In the cinema, you wonder if the clip is the same in the denouement on video you can literally zip back and compare! Dang - the killer used that amazing skill earlier in the film!

And one of the great things about how this story plays fair, is that there are three different solutions to the murder in the film - the first one makes sense if you noticed some of the clues, the second one if you noticed most of the clues, and the last if you noticed all of the clues. That way we have different prime suspects you can build a case for, and we can have an obvious suspect and a least likely suspect and still have a twist ending with the actual killer. We also have Sheila’s murder and the victim halfway through the story - they may or may not have been killed by the same person. So even if you are a mystery fan, there are all kinds of variables that have been carefully set up to throw you off the track!



There is a great scene where they lay all of their cards on the table and we see the secret crimes for the first time... and Tom asks each to pick the card that is their secret. Needless to say, no one wants to admit to being any of those things. So there are disputes over who *wants to be* the Homosexual - which isn’t nearly as bad as a Child Molester or a Hit And Run Killer. And then there’s a fight over who gets to be the Ex-Convict! These characters are all clever and witty, but none are very nice (except Welch’s Alice, who is way too sweet to be a sexy movie star... and that’s what makes the character interesting). Each character is well rounded to begin with, and once you discover who has what secret, you see realize small things in their personality have set these revelations up. They are twists, but completely logical. Once the Hit And Run Killer is revealed, you can watch the film again and if you focus on that character you not only can see all of the clues... you can see a great performance by that actor. In the background of scenes they react to discussion of Sheila differently than other characters. You don’t notice this first time through, but it’s an amazing performance.

Another great element of this screenplay is that the title, “The Last Of Sheila”, is kind of “punned” throughout the story. It has different meanings at different times. So it’s the death of Clinton’s wife, it’s the title of the movie he is planning to make, the yacht is the “Sheila” so it is where Christine is almost mangled by the propellers, and a secret clue to the killer... part of Clinton’s cruel games.



This is one of the films I use as an example in SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING along with THE VERDICT on how to not lose the audience when your identification character becomes a suspect. When the hero may be the villain. Usually in a mystery, like MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, the detective is not a suspect. But here, both our Holmes and our Watson have great motives and enough clues to make us wonder if they are going to be revealed as the killer. And because we have a shallow suspect pool, there is a character in this story who we have grown to like... who ends up being a killer. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but the film manages to pull off the seemingly impossible task of *not losing the audience* after this killer is revealed. This story walks a dangerous tight-rope and doesn’t fall, which is a miracle. Great writing skills involved in this.

And the locations are fantastic - one of the games takes place in an abandoned monastery on a tiny island at night, with only candles to illuminate the dark spooky hallways. It's a great creepy location, and all of the players are dressed as monks so you can not tell them apart. This sequence is almost like a horror story - lots of spooky atmosphere and scares. Though most of the story is on a yacht in the Mediterranean - beautiful and fun - the games are at night and in interesting locations like the monastery.

And quotable dialogue: “The harder you try to keep a secret in, the more it wants to get out.”



What is frightening is that Hollywood wants to remake this film... as a comedy! Huge mistake! The best way to remake this film - use the original screenplay and do not change a single word. Maybe hire a typist to change any anachronisms, but DO NOT HIRE A SCREENWRITER because they may change something that is already perfect. Of course, Hollywood doesn’t do that, so they will probably hire some version of this movie’s Tom to do a rewrite that isn’t nearly as good as the original. The recent remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS turned it into an action flick at times, because mysteries are a hard sell today... so maybe they should just put off any remake until mysteries come back into fashion? Then they don’t need to make it as a comedy or an action film, they can just make it as a mystery?

THE LAST OF SHEILA is a great mystery film, but if you don’t want to play along and solve the crime like Ellery Queen, it’s a vicious look at Hollywood with a bunch of great performances... and starring that guy who starred in WESTWORLD. Warner Archive has it on DVD, sold at Amazon and other fine retailers.

- Bill

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