Thursday, December 30, 2021

THRILLER Thursday: The Fatal Impulse

The Fatal Impulse

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



Season: 1, Episode: 11.
Airdate: 11/29/1960
Director: Gerald Mayer
Writer: Philip MacDonald based on a story by John D MacDonald.
Cast: Robert Lansing, Witney Blake, Elisha Cook, Steve Brodie, Conrad Nagle and Mary Tyler Moore.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “A phone call in the night. A threat to kill. And then a public announcement that the killing will take place. Is this man just a publicity seeker? Or will he be driven to kill? Will he succumb to the impulse? That’s the name of our story, “The Fatal Impulse”. Our principal players are Mr. Robert Lansing, Miss Witney Blake, Mr. Lance Fuller, Mr. Elisha Cook, Mr. Steve Brodie, and Mr. Conrad Nagle. Before very long, one of these girls unwittingly will be carrying a deadly bomb through the crowded city. As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, one man’s impulse will paralyze a great metropolis for six terrifying hours. I do hope you’re not addicted to biting your nails, because this, I’m quite sure you will agree, is a thriller!”



Synopsis: The episode opens with a campaign poster for Walker Wylie for Mayor next to a pay phone, then has a limping Harry Elser (Elisha Cook jr from THE MALTESE FALCON and just about every Film Noir ever made) dragging his leg to the pay phone, dialing a number, then putting a handkerchief over the phone to disguise his voice as he threatens to kill... Mayoral candidate Walker Wylie (Conrad Neagle, who manages to make everything he says sound like a lie, even his character’s *name*) who was sound asleep in his bed moments before. Wylie hangs up the phone and goes back to sleep. Elser puts some more coins in the phone and calls every newspaper, TV and radio outlet telling them that he will kill Walker Wylie, get those headlines ready!

Detective Rome (Robert Lansing who always reminded me of an alien) and his partner Sgt Hannigan go to Wylie’s office to question him... and his secretary just lets them through without even showing their badges! Rome chews out Wylie, who obviously doesn’t take the threat seriously. Wylie tells Rome he doesn’t have a single enemy in the world (but he’s so insincere that you know there must be millions of them)... Rome doesn’t believe it, says until they find out whether there is or is not a real threat, Wylie will have a policeman with him 24/7. Wylie argues that he’s running for *Mayor* and can’t have a bunch of stupid detectives interfering with his life. Plus, he’s the main guest on a late night talk show tonight! The interview will be shot here in his office at 11pm, can’t have a cop sitting next to him for that! Rome insists, leaves Hannigan behind for protection...



Elser in his garage carefully makes a bomb. It’s a small bomb with a mercury switch, about the size of a couple of packs of cigarettes. Gently places it in another box packed with cotton balls to keep it from being shaken, and...

At Wylie’s Office they are prepping for the TV filming. Crew guys are going in and out of the office... and Elser in a maintenance jumpsuit manages to sneak in with some, right past Hannigan, saying he’s there to change the light bulbs. . When the real crew guys leave, he sits in Wylie’s chair, opens a desk drawer, carefully takes the bomb out of the box and prepares to put in the drawer... when Wylie’s secretary steps into the office and yells for Hannigan! Elser slides the bomb into his pocket, tries to escape... But Hannigan rushes into the office and they fight. Elser tips one of the big TV lights onto Hannigan’s head, glass shattering and leaving Hannigan with raw hamburger for a face and completely blind. Elser makes his escape...



But the alarm has been rung. Rome and some detectives search the building for Elser (a limping man), who is hiding in a janitor’s closet. Elser changes out of the jump suit into a business suit and when the clock strikes 5 he leaves the janitor’s closet and joins the crowd of businessmen and secretaries leaving work for the day. He manages to squeeze into a packed elevator full of women and floor by floor suspense builds as people get on and off the elevator. We know he has the bomb in his pocket, and if it goes off? All of these innocent people will die.

When the elevator reaches the ground floor, everyone exits... and Rome and his men spot Elser and give chase! Elser races across a busy street with Rome and the cops right behind him... and then gets hit by a truck. Rome searches him for the bomb, can’t find it... and Elser’s last words are “girl in the elevator”. The figure the bomb was set to got off around 11pm when Wylie would be at his desk on the TV talk show... and there were around a dozen women on that elevator with him. But who are these women? One of them has a bomb in her purse that will blow up at 11pm tonight, unless she shakes it enough to blow up earlier. “There’s some girl walking around this city with a bomb” and she doesn’t know it.

Rome has his men track down the names of every woman on Wylie’s floor who left work at 5pm, plus any woman who had an appointment with a business on that floor who left at 5pm. Make a list on the squad room chalkboard. Find those women. Interview them. Search their purses for the bomb. Cross them off the list if they didn’t have the bomb. He knows that a couple of women got on the elevator at different floors, but has to start somewhere.



Meanwhile, Rome and his new partner Detective Dumont (Steve Brodie, who was Mitchum’s treacherous partner in OUT OF THE PAST and the father of the director of my movie TREACHEROUS) go to Elser’s house to search for clues. In the car on the way Dumont and Rome discuss Rome’s lack of love life after losing his wife, so we know these two guys have been friends or a long time. They discover that Elser was one of Wylie’s employees who was fired and denied his pension and holds a grudge (kind of like Dennis Hopper in SPEED). When Dumont goes to search the garage... booby trap! The whole garage blows up, killing Dumont right before Rome’s eyes. He’s lost two partners and the episode isn’t even half over!

8:15...

At the Squad Room, they are crossing names off the list on the chalkboard... it’s down to four *known* women who they have not been able to contact. Rome and another detective split the final four and try to find them. Rome tracks down an artist who had an appointment on that floor named Jane Kimball (Whitney Blake) who he finds in a night club with her boyfriend Robert (Lance Fuller). Robert is kind of combative to Rome, he’s on a date here and this cop is screwing it up. Rome explains about the bomb... and Jane and Robert become a lot more cooperative. Rome *carefully* takes the purse out of the crowded nightclub to the lawn in back and *cautiously* takes each item out looking for the bomb. Nothing. No bomb. When he gives Jane back her purse, Robert is mad as hell for ruining their evening... and then it gets *worse* when Jane says that she had been in the building applying for an artist job with her portfolio... and can *draw* all of the people in the elevator. Robert sits on the sidelines pissed off as Jane draws all of the faces.



The last girl on Rome’s list is a wife with a *very* jealous husband. They are fighting when Rome rings the doorbell, and the problem is... the wife was visiting her lover in the office building and lies to Rome about being in the building. But when Rome explains about the bomb, the wife must admit to cheating in front of her husband... and her husband grabs her purse looking for evidence! Now Rome must wrestle the bag away from the husband, and there may be a bomb inside! After the careful search of the purse... Rome finds nothing.

9:20...

At the Squad Room, *all* of the names are crossed off the list on the chalkboard. Rome is stumped. The only possibility is some woman *not* on their list. How can they find her?

In the night club, Jane remembers the woman in glasses who came into the elevator on a lower floor... and calls Rome.

Rome tracks down the woman in the glasses and goes to her apartment. The woman is played by a pre DICK VAN DYKE SHOW Mary Tyler Moore, who tells Rome she checked both her purse and her portfolio and no bomb in either one...

Rome realizes that Jane had her art portfolio with her in the elevator, and it was never searched. He tries to call her at the club, she’s left! He races to her home...

Almost 11:00!



Jane and Robert come home from the nightclub (to her house) and once the door is closed Robert’s hands are all over her... oh, and the bomb is there, too! It has fallen out of her portfolio onto the sofa... and is behind a cushion where it can not be seen. As Robert guides Jane to the sofa and makes all kinds of moves on her, the bomb is *underneath her head* behind that cushion. Jane is trying to get him to behave, when there’s a knock at the door. Detective Rome. He asks where her portfolio is, she tells him it’s in the bedroom, he carefully searches it... no bomb.

Tick tick tick... a minute before 11:00!

Rome has no idea where the bomb is... was there another woman on the elevator? Someone they missed? Robert wants him the hell out of there. Rome asks where she put the portfolio when she came home that afternoon, and Jane says on the desk.

Rome starts looking around the desk when Jane remembers it wasn’t the desk, it was the sofa. Rome carefully searches the sofa... finding the bomb! Tells Robert and Jane to get the heck out of the house and run like hell. Then carefully removes the bomb and as the clock strikes 11:00, tries opening the window and it’s *stuck*... breaks the window and throws it outside and explodes on the lawn!

A moment later Jane returns without Robert, and it kinda looks like she’s gonna hook up with Rome. The end.



Review: This was a good, tense, episode... really reminiscent of SPEED in many ways. The “shell game” of having one of 12 or 13 women be carrying around the bomb and not knowing it is a great device, and I’m guessing the John D. MacDonald story gets deeper into who these different women are (we only get 3 of them in the episode). They do a great job of showing us the clock every once in a while, and I wish they had done more of that... but there probably wasn’t time. You do get that ticking clock feel. And when we finally get to Jane’s house, that bomb becomes a great “focus object” ticking away under that sofa cushion as Jane’s boyfriend tries making out with her. The only hiccups in the episode are things that have to do with a limited TV budget: the night club that Jane and her boyfriend are in seems to be a set with one booth and no extras... so we really don’t get a scene where Rome has to carefully carry that bomb outside. And explosions are off camera. Also, some time restraints turn conversations like the one about Rome’s dating life into obvious expositional moments. But these are minor quibbles for an episode that keeps ramping up the tension and really has you worried at the end that they will not find that bomb that has fallen between the sofa cushions in time. This was a really good episode and shows the promise of what the show can do with purse suspense.

The show has finally found its footing, and for a while we’ll alternate between suspense and weird tales... though next week is more crime story, with a twist.

Bill





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Thursday, December 16, 2021

THRILLER Thursday: WELL OF DOOM.

Well Of Doom

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



Season: 1, Episode: 23.
Airdate: February 28, 1961


Director: John Braham
Writer: Donald S. Sanford based on a story by John Clemons
Cast: Ronald Howard, Henry Daniell, Torin Thatcher, Richard Kiel.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith being awesome.
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon.
Producer: William Frye.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Imagine meeting two suck netherworld creatures on your wedding night. Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial. All names that men have given to Satan. Or is it possible that Robert Penrose has actually encountered the evil one himself? Or was this violent incident the start of some monstrous practical joke conceived by the young man’s friends? Or by his enemies? Well, perhaps a glimpse of tonight’s players will give you a clue? Mr. Ronald Howard, Mr. Henry Daniell, Mr. Torin Thatcher, Miss Finton Minor, and Mr. Richard Kiel. Impossible to guess, you say? Very well, let’s turn back the clock and pick up our young bridegroom before the start if tghis fateful journey. But I warn you ladies and gentleman, if you have a faint heart, tune away, because it may stop in your throat, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff.”

Synopsis: Kind of the horror version of THE HANGOVER...



Robert Penrose (Ronald Howard) and his servant Teal (Torin Thatcher) are heading to Penrose’s bachelor party in a limousine on a foggy country road... and running late. Penrose asks the Chauffeur (Billy Beck) if he can drive any faster, and is told not unless they want to end up in a ditch. That’s when the Chauffeur sees something through the fog on the road in front of them and hits the brakes hard. Standing in the middle of the road is a giant, Styx (Richard Kiel)... next to him is Moloch (Henry Daniell) holding a pair of ancient pistols. The Chauffeur says it’s a *monster* on the road, and then monster Styx yanks open the limo’s door and pulls out the Chauffeur!

Penrose climbs out of the Limo, and calmly tells Moloch to have his man release the Chauffeur so that they can get to the bachelor party. He’s sure that his jokester Best Man Charlie has paid them well to pull this prank, but they are running late and they have to go. Moloch says that this is no prank, he is Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial... Satan! And Penrose has a price to pay for his past sins. Penrose compliments the man’s acting but insists that they must be going... and that’s when Styx seems to kill the Chauffeur! Casting his body aside on the country road, forcing Penrose back inside the limo and then climbing into the driver’s seat and popping open the door for Moloch! They have been kidnapped!

After Karloff’s intro, we flash back to a few hours before the kidnap...



Penrose is at home on his family estate, when he gets a call from his bride to be Laura (Fintan Meyler) and they discuss the upcoming marriage (tomorrow) and the Bachelor Party tonight. She warns him not to let his Best Man Charlie get him into trouble... that guy is a loose cannon joker, and they all might end up in jail... and Penrose would miss the wedding. Penrose says that won’t happen, he’s wise to his Best Man’s tricks.

After Penrose hangs up, his servant Teal comes in... and there is tension between the two men. Teal used to work for his father, and basically *raised* Penrose. But somewhere along the line Penrose treated Teal poorly and the two have been estranged for years. Penrose apologizes to Teal for whatever happened in their past and says that even though when his new bride moves in, his plan *had* been to let Teal go... he has decided to keep Teal on. The problems of the past can be set aside. Teal is almost a father to him. Teal thanks him for this... then Penrose asks if he’ll be a part of the wedding and come with him to the Bachelor Party, unknowingly putting his servant’s life in danger.



Bride Laura goes to bed early, probably resting up for her honeymoon night... when someone breaks into her bedroom and sneaks up to her bed. When she wakes up and looks at her assailant... it’s the giant Styx!

Now back to the kidnap in the car where we began...

Penrose is sure this is all Best Man Charlie’s practical joke... and Moloch fires one of this antique pistols at the seat neat Penrose. The gun in very real. Penrose now wonders if this is a real kidnap. He tells Moloch he’d gladly pay the ransom if they would just get out of his car so that he could go to his Bachelor Party. He offers half a million dollars... but Moloch says that’s just not enough. Styx turns onto a dirt road, stops the limousine and they get out.

Styx has a pair of torches, and Moloch snaps his fingers at them... lighting both! They take Penrose and Teal through the foggy moors. Teal recognizes the area as part of Penrose’s estate... an area that is no longer used. Moloch does a couple of other completely supernatural things... is he really Satan? They are lead to the “Block House”, and Moloch tells Penrose that he has been here before when he was six years old... and gives details that *only Penrose could know*. Freaky! Teal and Penrose attack! Fighting for their lives! But Moloch turns and points at Teal and WHAM! Teal drops dead! He turns to Penrose and asks if he’ll be more cooperative, now.



The Block Room was used for prisoners and torture centuries ago... but also, maybe decades ago by Penrose’s father. In the cell where they lock up Penrose is an old well... and many of his father’s enemies ended up thrown into that well to die. Moloch wants Penrose to pay for his father’s sins. Not just with money, but with a deal with the devil... a contract with Satan. All his worldly goods, his estate, his money, his soul... and his bride. In exchange for his life. Just sign on the line. Then Moloch goes to the cell on the opposite side of the room... where they have Laura in chains!

After Moloch and Styx leave, Penrose has a cell to cell conversation with Laura. He has a plan: he will make a rope from his blanket, attach it to the inside of the well where they can not see, sign the contract and once Laura is released... throw himself into the well to commit suicide. Once they have left the dungeon, he’ll climb out of the well, escape the cell, and rescue Laura. (The cell has a loose bar, Penrose snuck out, then snuck back in when he heard them coming down the stairs.)



The plan works kind of according to plan, except instead of faking his suicide Styx picks him up and throws him into the well!

Penrose wakes up in the well, grabs the home made rope and starts climbing out of the well... but the peg attaching the rope to the well is pulling out of the ancient well. Suspense... will he be able to get out before the peg pulls out? He gets to the top, gets out of his cell, Laura is not in her cell, so he climbs the stairs out of the dungeon to rescue her...



At the top of the stairs, he spies Styx in street clothes and Moloch taking off his wig and make up... talking to someone who was behind the whole scheme. When the mastermind turns around, it’s Teal. The servant was afraid that Penrose was going to ditch him once he got married after all of the damned work Teal has done... so the plan is to kill Penrose, kill Laura, claim they have gone away on honeymoon... and just take over the estate. But Styx doesn’t have the guts to kill Laura. Then Styx (or whatever his name is) asks how they can trust Teal to give them their cut of the fortune when he’d turn against the boy he raised into a man? Moloch and Teal draw on each other... shoot and kill each other! Then Penrose comes up the stairs and Styx freaks out... trips and falls down the stairs and dies. Penrose rescue Laura from the next room and they have to race to their wedding!



Review: Great Goldsmith score... very atmospheric locations and scenes. One of the great things about a story that takes place on the foggy moors of England is that all of that fog not only makes it spooky, it hides Studio City just beyond the backlot at Radford Studios. The interior sets are great.

Henry Daniell is great, but I wish they had kept the “is this a joke or isn’t this” going for longer than a minute. When we see the Bride To Be kidnapped at the top of the episode we *know* it isn’t a joke, and that lessens the impact. Much like the suspense generated by not knowing if a character is or isn’t a killer, not knowing if the situation is a practical joke played by the Best Man or a real kidnap... or really Satan... would have kept us guessing and uneasy because we did not know.



They also seem to downplay some of the tricks Daniell does which make him look like Satan: the lighting of the torches, etc. Those should have been amped way up. Daniell is a great hambone actor who seems to be reined in here, when he’s playing *Satan*. If there was ever a role for overacting! There’s a way to present supernatural magic on screen that shocks the audience, but here it’s kind of matter of fact dull.

One of the nice scenes that could have been better was the cell to cell communication in the dungeon between Bride To Be and Groom. For some reason she taps her foot (because she’s gagged) when a panicked conversation would have been much better. The foot tapping makes me wonder if the original story was designed to make us doubt that she was really in there, think that even at this late stage it might all be a practical joke played by the Best Man. I can see no other reason to have her mute.

I do love how Penrose’s plan is to pretend suicide by jumping into the well, and then Styx *throws him* into the well. We get the same result, by an unpredictable and unplanned method. One of the techniques for making your story unpredictable is to have a character with a plan, and then have things not happen according to plan. Penrose still ends up in the well.

The plan that goes wrong was also used earlier when Penrose and Teal are being taken to the block house and make a plan to attack Moloch and Styx and escape... and that ends with Moloch killing Teal by magic just when it looks like they are winning their fight and will escape.

This was a pretty good episode which could have been much better. The great thing here is how a large scale ghost story is told on a TV budget using some establishing shots and a fog machine.

Bill



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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)

One of my favorite films.

Director: Sidney J. Furie (BOYS IN COMPANY C)
Writers: James Doran, Bill Canaway.
Starring: Michael Caine, Sue Lloyd, Guy Doleman, Nigel Green.
Produced by: Harry Saltzman.
Cinematographer: Otto Heller (BAFTA (British Oscars) nominee for ALFIE, winner for this film... and the lighting is amazing.)
Music by: John Barry (the James Bond movies) - and it’s a great score!

Sort of the “anti-Bond”, but made by the producers of the Connery films. Harry Palmer is The Spy Who Does Paperwork in this predecessor to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. There is a form for everything - a form to get a gun, a form to fill out if you fire the gun... and if you manage to hit someone? No end to the amount of paperwork! This is the *government* - it’s all about filling out forms! Forms for stake outs, forms to requisition a car, forms for *not* discovering any information. Harry hates paperwork, but he’s a genius at sifting through it for clues - to find an enemy agent with no known address, he checks for parking tickets... because like Turner in CONDOR, Harry Palmer is brains rather than brawn. The other anti-Bond element here is that Harry is not great at fighting and when he shoots a gun he tends to screw up.

Oh, and this is a paranoid thriller, which we will talk about later.



There are so many great things about this film that I will never get to all of them, but you have young Michael Caine in his first starring role and amazing camera work by Otto Heller and a great John Barry score and a clever script and... well, let’s start at the beginning.

TEASER



The film opens with what you would call a “teaser” in television. A car driving down the streets of London with two men in the backseat: one is reading “New Scientist Magazine” and the other keeps looking behind the car and ahead of the car and generally building up the audience’s paranoia that something is going to happen. The car makes it to a train station where the paranoid man, Agent Taylor (Charles Rea), accompanies the scientist Radcliff (Aubrey Richards) to the train and his train compartment. A porter follows with the luggage. In the train station Agent Taylor is on high alert, looking for danger.

Once Radcliff is secure in his compartment, Agent Taylor goes back to the car... where he spots Radlciff’s camera, grabs it, and races to the train. When he opens the train compartment door, the man reading “New Scientist Magazine” lowers the magazine from his face, exposing that he is *not* Radcliff. What? This is a great reveal, because the imposter is wearing the same clothes and same hat as Radcliff. If you are going to show that the scientist has been switched, you want to find a way to do it that has maximum impact. We think the man reading “New Scientist Magazine” in the train compartment is Radcliff right up until the moment his face is revealed.

Next shot is the train leaving the station and the camera turns slowly to reveal Agent Taylor dead on the side of the tracks.

Okay, that’s a great way to begin a movie!

IDENTITY

Now that we have our problem, we need to introduce our protagonist, and we get a swell scene behind the titles: Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) wakes up in the morning and prepares for a day of work. It is a simple scene which tells us EVERYTHING we need to know about this character. He has to find his glasses before he can see the alarm clock. Everything is a blur! He grinds his own gourmet coffee beans, and uses a complicated coffee maker (kind of an in-film advert, since one of the producers owned the company that made the gourmet coffee making machine). Harry looks out his flat window while drinking his coffee. Later, he finds a woman's necklace in his bed... while searching for his misplaced gun. There’s a bit of a zoom shot to the gun - and guns get close ups in this film, which is unusual. And then Harry leaves his apartment, late for work. One of the reason why I think this is a predecessor for CONDOR is that Harry is an ordinary guy in a job that starts out boring in the story (Harry is doing stake out duty on someone) and then suddenly becomes dangerous. Can he handle that? He’s not just the spy who does paperwork, he’s an *underdog* spy!

Introduction To Harry:



The interesting thing about the Deighton novels are that they are told first person and we never learn the character’s name... he is a spy and has a dozen aliases. An element of the novels is the loss of identity - when you use so many different names, who are you really? And the film does a great job of illustrating this through story and situations. Never knowing the name worked on the page, but they needed something to call him on screen, so - legend has it - the producer asked Caine for the most boring first name he could imagine, and Caine responded “Harry” to Harry Saltzman. And he didn’t get fired!

IPCRESS makes the job of spying mundane: a bunch of stakes outs and surveillance jobs followed by paperwork, so that when it explodes with action it seems much bigger due to the contrast. Caine plays Harry as a problem child who probably needed a good spanking many years ago, but now knows exactly how far he can push authority before it pushes back.

His boss, Colonel Ross (Doleman), hates him and has him transferred to Major Dalby’s department where he has to fill out stacks of paperwork as they try to find the kidnapped scientist who has been put up for auction by an espionage agent for hire code-name, BlueJay (Frank Gatliff) an Albanian who sells secrets... and people. Dalby (Nigel Green) “doesn’t have the sense of humor that Ross has” (which was none at all) and cracks the whip on Harry again and again. Harry finds a friend in team member Carswell (Gordon Jackson) and a love interest in team member Jean (Lloyd) - who may be a spy for Ross’s department... but she thinks that Harry is a spy for Ross’s department. Neither trusts each other - though they sleep together. That’s the kind of paranoid movie this is - the spies are spying on other spies!

DIALOGUE





The film has all kinds of great dialogue, including this exchange when Harry shows up for his first day of work at Dalby’s department:

Harry: “The fellow whose job I'm taking, will he show me the ropes?”
Dalby: “Maybe - if you're in touch with the spirit world.”
Harry: “I beg your pardon?”
Dalby: “He was shot this morning.”

Great punchline! Not funny (well, maybe in a sick way), but adds impact to the end of the dialogue exchange. You always want to put the stinger in the tail.



In the commentary, director Sidney J. Furie says that the script was awful and they were rewriting it on the set... I always discount when a director says this, because it’s usually a power grab. The plotting and dialogue in the film is so well done that it’s difficult to believe Furie - even though he’s one of my favorite directors. There’s a great example of a “payback line” - when Harry goes to Ross’s office, he leaves the door open and Ross says, “Close the door.” When Harry goes to Dalby’s office he leaves the door open and Dalby says, “Shut the door”. Then at the end of the movie, Harry has taken control and knows that either Ross or Dalby is a traitor, and invites them to the villain’s warehouse. When Dalby enters, Harry tells him to “Shut the door.” Playing back to the authority figures now that he is in control. So many great pieces of dialogue in this film, “A word in your shell-like ear”.

When he comes home to find Jean searching his flat (is she working for Ross or Dalby?) he asks if she has finished searching and she says “Yes.” “Then you know where the whisky is?” “Yes.” “Fix us both one, will you?” And this begins a romance with absolutely no trust at all. By the way, Jean has a nice little character moment where she talks about her spy husband who was murdered... and how Dalby gave her a job so that she could support herself. It’s emotional... and expositional. We *think* we know that her loyalties are with Dalby. But are they?



In the middle of this mistrust, she asks Harry: “Do you always wear your glasses?” “Yes... except in bed.” And then she takes off his glasses and kisses him.

Plus we have great story related visual elements that had to be in the screenplay - a CIA Agent wears glasses with broken frames, taped together with bright white tape. Another CIA Agent smokes a pipe. Characters have what I call “instant identifiers” in the Action Screenwriting book - a prop or piece of costume that allows the audience to recognize and differentiate characters. The two CIA Agents are easy to tell apart. The other Agents on Dalby’s team each have a prop or costume element that helps us tell them apart. These are screenplay related things, not something you figure out on the set at the last minute. Those taped together glasses end up a clue used later in the story.

So much of the dialogue and plotting are story related, and the film was obviously shot out of sequence (even though Furie says otherwise) that it’s impossible to believe that this script wasn’t at least most of the way there when they began shooting. Hey, maybe one of the two writers was hired to punch up the dialogue during production, but this film has a complex plot where characters are often double agents, lying, duplicitous... and yet, when you rewatch the film you can see the “tells” in their earlier scenes. It’s based on a book, dammit! The story was always there.

WEIRD SHOTS



But director, Sidney J. Furie, and DP Otto Heller come up with the most inventive angles and shots I’ve ever seen - which is one of the reasons why this is one of my favorite movies. Almost every single shot has something in soft focus in the foreground or is “canted” or “dutch” - at a strange angle. What’s interesting is how much fuzzy foreground obscures the shots - there are times when 75% of the screen is someone’s out of focus shoulder or something in the way of the shot. This may sound as if it would be irritating, but it is actually fascinating. You feel as if you are watching the story unfold looking over that shoulder or peeking through that cell door. Just amazing original shots. The lighting is also amazing - Heller paints with shadows, here. One of my favorite shots is early in the film when Ross climbs a spiral staircase to meet with Dalby, there must be a dozen different kinds of shadows in that shot! All with a real light source. There are scenes in darkness that look really really dark, except due to classic lighting techniques you can see what is happening. This seems to be a lost art, today.

Harry’s parking ticket clue leads him to the Science Library where he discovers BlueJay and his henchman HouseMartin, and when he tries to follow them? There is a whole fight scene shot through the glass of one of those red British phone booth - mullion coming between Harry and this huge bodyguard - and every other interesting combination of foreground and background is used to make the fight scene really interesting. Furie re-imagines action scenes as chess matches or tennis games and stages them in unusual ways throughout the film.

I don’t think there is a single “flat” shot in the entire film, and nothing that looks like TV “coverage”. The above mentioned shot through the cell door is amazing, because cell door has a crossed grille that creates diamond like openings... and the scene plays out with characters moving from one diamond to another - the chess match idea.



One of the great visual clues is a piece of paper where BlueJay has written his phone number, but it’s a fake disconnected number. Flip the paper over and it’s a flier for a military band concert. Harry and Dalby meet with BlueJay to make a deal for missing scientist Radcliff... and much of the scene is shot between the cymbals!

Because Harry wears glasses, the element of sight is used in both action scenes (you know he means business when he carefully folds up his glasses and puts them in his pocket) and other scenes (Harry with glasses off looks over a blurry crowd of scientists after Radcliff is returned and sees a person who does not belong) - the glasses become part of the way the story is told. Though this may be vaguely racist today, the scientists scene has an audience of white scientists in white labcoats and an African American CIA Agent in a suit. Though the image on screen is a blur, we can see that one of these people is not a scientist - and when Harry puts his glasses on, he goes after the Agent... who tells him, “I’m going to tail you until I know you are clean... and if you are not clean... I’m going to kill you.”

Which leads to the African American CIA Agent being found dead in Harry’s apartment. He flips the light switch, and there the body!



Other great visual elements include one of the greatest twist-reveals ever put on film, a shot through the keyhole of Harry’s flat of an intruder with a gun, a Polanskiesque shot where a door is opened to hide one character so that we focus on the other, the camera mounted on an armored car that batters down a door - we see it all POV, a Busby Berkeleyesque choreographed prisoner for money exchange in an underground parking garage with a deadly twist, the whole IPCRESS brain washing sequence - which includes an amazing Christ-symbolism bit where Harry jams a rusty nail into his palm to try to avoid the brainwashing, a multi-level following scene in a building, and an amazing ending where a brainwashed Harry must decide who to kill and who not to kill... which we will look at in a moment.

TANGLED WEBS



The other way that this story is like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is that it has a faction inside the government’s espionage agency working against the government. We have no idea who can be trusted... and you can not trust the government itself.

Ross keeps trying to get Harry to hand over the file on their investigation, code named “Ipcress” because that word was written on a piece of audio tape found in the abandoned warehouse that they smashed into because they think BlueJay was using it for some mysterious reason. That scene in the abandoned warehouse (“Disused factory” a character calls it) is great for many reasons. Harry calls in the raid - with a British version of a SWAT Team - using “CC1 authority” that he doesn’t have. Dalby shows up before the raid... and Harry is in trouble. But Dalby tells the SWAT Team to go ahead, and they ram the door and storm the warehouse... which is empty except for a huge metal cross. Harry hits the metal cross and it makes a unique noise... which will be used as a sound cue to remind us when we see the same metal cross later. Lots of awesome sound design in this film! When the SWAT Team leader complains that their time has been wasted on an empty warehouse, Dalby covers for Harry - showing that despite all of the conflict between the two men, they are on the same side. Harry does a thorough search even though the warehouse was empty - and finds an old wood burning stove... still warm. Inside it: that audio tape with “Ipcress” written on it. Dalby offers to buy Harry and Carswell lunch.

When they play the bit of audio tape, all they get are strange noises - what do they mean? To add to the paranoia, there’s that CIA Agent with the broken glasses who is spying on Harry, and someone in one of the departments may actually be working for BlueJay. Jean who may be working for Ross. Ross who wants Harry to mictofilm the Ipcress File, and everyone else who may be working for the good guys or the bad guys... or may just be unaware of larger things going on. In a scene where Harry and Carswell go to interrogate a prisoner picked up by the police, Harry tells the police Desk Sargent, “Palmer.” The Desk Sargent replies, “Oh, Mr. Palmer’s just left, sir, with another gentleman. He said he’s be back soon, would you like to wait? Everything is under control, sir.” Harry flips open his ID, “I’m Palmer.” And their witness is dead in his cell - murdered by whoever had fake ID saying he was Palmer. You can’t trust *anyone* in this film!



Harry uncovers a plot to kidnap British scientists, brainwash them until they spill all of their secrets, then wipe their memories clean so that they are unable to function. 16 British Scientists have had their brain washed, 17 when you add in Radcliff. The cool thing about this 60s film is that it uses all of the real brainwashing devices from the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, which wasn’t made public until the 70s. How they knew about these things in this film, I do not know. Were there CIA leaks that ended up in (novelist) Len Deighton’s hands?

SPOILER: There’s a great scene where Carswell thinks he knows what “Ipcress” means and shows Harry a book. He asks to borrow Harry’s car to check on something. Harry puts the book and the Ipcress File in his desk and locks it. And then we see Carswell driving, stopping at a stop light... and when the light turns green the car doesn’t move. The cars behind it honk their horns. The car still doesn’t move. Then we get a shot of the front window... with a bullet hole from a rooftop sniper, and Carswell dead behind the wheel! There are rooftop snipers out there, just waiting for Harry!

This leads to a great emotional scene where Harry realizes that he is partially responsible for Carswell’s death, and there is some survivor’s guilt. He finds a place to be alone and grieve... and then Jean finds him and holds his hand. Great little scene! When he goes back to the office - his locked drawer has been pried open and the book and Ipcress file are gone. This is in a British secret service office! How can someone get passed the security to do that?

Harry tells Jean he’s going to hide somewhere...

BRAIN WASHING



Which leads to one of my favorite bits in the film where BlueJay kidnaps Harry... and he wakes up in a crappy cell in some old industrial building, and BlueJay tells him that it would be pointless to try to escape, because he's in Albania. How can he get help if he does not speak Albanian? Where would he run to? He has no passport, no identification. Even if he escaped, he's still trapped in this foreign land. The signs are in Albanian, the prison guards wear Albanian military uniforms, and everyone speaks Albanian. Harry is screwed.

The brainwashing scene is right out of MK-ULRA program - they begin with disorientation by feeding him at strange hours and keeping the same exact lighting in his cell so that he has no idea how many days have passed. He is often starved, because the food is too hot to eat and taken away if he doesn’t eat it. Harry finds a rusty nail that he uses to mark the “days” (period between meals being offered) on the prison walls - which are filled with th markings of other prisoners counting the days... some maybe hundreds of years old.

Then they proceed to brainwash him using the IPCRESS method... assaulting him with visuals and sounds (that Ipcress noise) that drive him crazy and lower all resistence. A form of sensory deprivation. Oh, and the suspended cube they wheel him into (strapped to a wheel chair) is suspended by a metal cross like the one from the warehouse... "Listen to me. Listen to me. You will forget the IPCRESS file, you will forget your name..." Harry jams that rusty nail into his palm, "My name is Harry Palmer. My name is Harry Palmer." But he loses the nail... and the brainwashing begins to work.

That's when Harry decides to escape... running out of the old industrial building where all of the signs are in Albanian, to... Downtown London! He was never taken to Albania! The whole thing was a ruse to make him not try to escape! This is one of dozens of little story touches that make IPCRESS FILE a really cool movie.

CHOICES



And now we come to an amazing twist that reveals who broke into his desk to steal the Ipcress File and book and who is the secret enemy agent working for BlueJay. Harry believes that either Ross or Dalby is the main enemy agent, and calls both to the “Albanian prison”, where he disarms both and has them stand under a light - so that we have a spotlight on our two suspects. Then he has them plead their case on why they are not the traitor. But is Harry brainwashed? Will he shoot the actual traitor, or has he been hypnotized to shoot the innocent man and let the real traitor walk free... and continue to work his way up the command of the British Secret Service?

I love movies where intelligent guys get sent into the field, where they are clueless, and must fight to survive. Harry gets in so much trouble, and the story is so clever and twisted and has so many double and triple crosses that I can watch it again and again... oh, and it’s visually really really cool.

A great clever screenplay coupled with great inventive direction and Michael Caine at the top of his game surrounded by a bunch of great British actors. Oh, and the musical score is one of John Barry’s best! They made two sequels in the 60s and a couple in the 90s (with an old Michael Caine) but the first one is the best. Check it out!

- Bill

Buy Ipcress DVD

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Elitism & Experience

From the beginning of 2011...

A few weeks ago John August had a post on his blog that got a rise out of me.

John wondered if the blog had become too advanced for a beginning writer, so he decided to read through his mail to see if he was too “inside baseball”... and printed a note from a writer that asked all kinds of stupid questions and then made fun of the writer. Ridiculed the dude. I posted in the comments section that I thought that even though many of the guy's questions could have been answered by spending some time searching John's site – at least the guy was asking questions, right? Yes, he probably should have searched the site first. Yes, he probably should have done a better job of Googling. But John could have guided him instead of made fun of him.

And on Done Deal Pro I said basically the same thing: Lots of new writers don't know where to begin, they Google “How do I write a screenplay” and find a website and don't know the first thing about screenwriting so they don't know what to search for – they don't even know what a screenplay consists of. They don't know what to Google.




In one of my favorite films IN A LONELY PLACE, a screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart says that people don't know screenwriters exist – they think actors just make up their lines... and when they become stars, they do. And that's where a lot of new writers are – what's on the page? Everything? If you just have a great idea – can you sell that? If you need an agent, can you tell me where to find one? On Done Deal Pro we regularly see new writers ask these questions and many more. And people on DDP ridicule them and make fun of how naive they are... but they also answer the questions and point them to places where they can read real screenplays and explain how the whole agent thing works. My theory is help them... then make fun of them.

Here's the thing – to me all of these questions sound silly. They sound like things people should just be able to figure out on their own, right? Things they could just find online, right? But when they land at someplace like John's site or DDP – they *have* looked online and ended up there asking questions. Things that we see as obvious. But that's because we forgot when we were them. Now that we know stuff, we think everyone else does!

Plus, there's that pecking order thing – I did a blog entry on that, and I think it's going to come up in this one, too. Nobody knows everything, and all of us are still learning and have things that we need to learn. Now, we can look at those who know less than us and make fun of them, or we can give them the information they need and send them in the right direction.

Or both.

The thing about writers is that many of us are smart asses and are just waiting for someone to say something that's a set up for our joke. I know I am. Yes, this makes me a partial asshole, but I also answer the questions so I figure I kind of earn my assholiness. But, if you just trash the person without helping them, you're building up some negative karma and eventually you will be the person who doesn't know something and someone will make fun of you. All of us are stupid about something.

AM I AN ELITIST?




One of the interesting things in life is how various different things happen at the same time... and all seem to add up to something larger. These random things are connected – which is just plain weird. Plate of shrimp. If I were crazy, I would imagine a giant conspiracy out to get me. But instead, it's just life.

Before the John August blog post, two other things happened back-to-back that connect to the concept of know-it-alls and know-nothings and screenwriting.

There's a message board I frequent that is filled with new writers – and many of them suffer from being overly artsie. This is a common thing. Many new writers think that Hollywood makes all of those remakes and sequels and comic books movies because there is a shortage of quality original screenplays... and *they* have the ability to write those brilliant screenplays!

In fact, when they compare the kind of crap Hollywood makes to what they are capable of, it's obvious that they are geniuses and the people who work in Hollywood now are all morons. Many of these folks believe that film is art, and Hollywood would make nothing but art movies if they had enough great artsie screenplays. Every film would be TREE OF LIFE, if they had a couple hundred similar (genius) (artistic) screenplays.

This is not true.

Hollywood makes movies that will attract a mass audience. That mass audience is more interested in being entertained than seeing some great piece of art... check out the grosses for this year's Oscar winner... and TREE OF LIFE while you're at it. There was a recent article on how the general public no longer goes to see the Best Picture Winner – they don't care about it and don't relate to it anymore. The “Oscar bounce” is gone! They've worked all week long and this film is their escape from all of the crap of real life – they may want to laugh so hard they pass out. What makes them laugh that hard may be the bathroom scene from DUMB & DUMBER.




That makes that bathroom scene from DUMB & DUMBER great screenwriting. I know that makes some of you think I'm crazy or a massive hack – but do you know how hard it is to find something that makes 60 million people around the world laugh? That is the art of screenwriting – making 60 million people around the world feel something. Some emotion. That may be fear from a horror movie or love from a romance or excitement from an action film – but finding that universal thing... and 110 minutes of those universal things – is so difficult that Hollywood pays great money if you can do that. They pay lots of money if you can entertain lots of people. The fewer people you entertain, the less money you get. Kind of trickle down.

Now, that doesn't mean that art films are bad, or TREE OF LIFE is bad, or PRECIOUS or A SERIOUS MAN or HURT LOCKER are bad... just that they may be really tough screenplays to get anyone to read, let alone buy and produce.

Well, on this message board full of artsie new writers a few people posted some stuff that was completely naive... and someone posted a well thought out reasoned response explaining why their theory of how Hollywood worked was incorrect and something an outsider might believe. Here's the amazing thing – this guy who posted has been nominated for awards, wrote a great critically acclaimed film which you have all seen, that got him a gig writing a couple of big Hollywood films you have also seen, and recently wrote critically acclaimed film that I really love and own on DVD. Dude is a great writer. He was lurking. He de-lurked to help this writer...

And got crapped on.
And argued with.

Nobody knew who he was. They thought he was just some other idiot hack like me who was defending Hollywood films. They trashed whatever he said. Now, I knew who he was from another board, but none of these jokers even tried to figure out who he was... or just respect what he said. The guy was using logic and reason and the people fighting him were defending their position without ever acutally *thinking*. They were too busy arguing with him.

For me, the amusing thing about this was that this guy *was* a legitimate artist as a screenwriter. And he was explaining that *in his experience* commerce was still a major issue and you will have to find the way to sell your screenplay. To businessmen. Who want to make money.




Okay, everyone on this board knows who I am – I do not lurk. I jump in to the discussion, with a different side than the famous writer. Based on my actual experience in the business – I used some real examples both from my stuff and some other well known and easy to Google examples. And my experiences lead me to very similar conclusions as the other writer. Because that's kind of the way things are. From the outside you might think "If only Hollywood had 200 TREE OF LIFE scripts they would make 200 films like TREE OF LIFE." From the inside, you know that a film like TREE OF LIFE is hell to get off the ground... and no one in Hollywood really wants a screenplay like that. In fact, TREE OF LIFE was not made by Hollywood!

If you were to take a hundred professional writers, we would all have similar experiences with slight differences. If you take 100 people who have gone to the DMV and taken a driving test, the main points will all be the same but there may be some individual differences due to that handful of variables there are. So I jump in and basically agree with the other writer – and so do the handful of other pros on the boards...

THEM AND US




And now we have an interesting dichotomy – those who earn a living writing screenplays vs. those who do not. Those with experience in the business and those who do not have experience in the business. The working writers are saying “this is the way it really works” and the new writers are saying “no – it doesn't work that way”. When I say, “Hey, I've been doing this for a while, that really is the way it works.” And the professionals are branded “elitists” for saying that “our way” is the one that works and “their way” doesn't work.

This confused me.

I thought elitists were all about having power over others and excluding them... when the reason we were there giving this advice was to *include* these folks – to show them the secret way into the business. To help them. “You know that wall? There's a doorway through it over here!” But it seems that knowing what you are talking about, having actual experience, is a big negative thing.

Who knew?

The issue becomes facts vs. opinions – and that's crazy. But this seems to be something that isn't just on screenwriting messageboards, the whole country seems to think that a fact is the same as an opinion. That they are equal. If 99% of scientists think the world is round and 1% think it's flat – those 1% are “equal” to the 99%. Crazy! That 1% are the lunatic fringe. In science as in anything else there are always a couple of nutjobs... but the *majority* of people who know what they are talking about agree with each other... and 1% is *not* equal to 99%. Those are *not* two equally valid viewpoints – because at the end of the day the majority rules.

Except, when you are in that 1% you'd much rather believe that it's equally valid to believe the Earth is flat and the space program is a conspiracy and they put something in our milk as children to make us see that curve on the horizon...

And that's *science* - when you're discussing screenwriting and there's an art component and as many different definitions of “good movie” as there are people? More difficult to even agree on what is a “fact”!

But add to this – screenwriting is strange in that it is both art and commerce wrapped into one. Sure – there are arthouse indie films, but even those get some form of distribution because someone thinks they will make money. They are more of a niche thing – and aimed at being popular with that niche. If you plan on *selling* a screenplay then it is a commercial endeavor – not just for you but for who you sell the screenplay to... and for the screenplay itself. There are so many elements of the *craft* of writing that tie into the commercial aspects that you can't really talk art and craft without at least touching on the commercial part. And, on a messageboard filled with artsie types, bringing up the money part brands you a sell out.

On another board there is an intelligent, articulate, artsie screenwriter guy who makes great arguments in favor of seeing screenwriting as an art. I often argue with him, but I also encourage him to keep making his case - because he isn't one of those just fighting for his point - he also *thinks* and *considers the other side* and argues using facts rather than opinions. I like this guy. We need this guy in the business. The funny thing about my art vs. commerce arguments is that if you drop me in a room full of artists I argue on the commerce side... but if you drop me in a room full of mercanaries I fight for art. Screenwriting is both.




The problem is – two people can write screenplays of equal artistic quality, but if one is about a farm boy in Ohio who dreams of moving to New York and getting a job as a street poet, and the other is about a farm boy on Tatooine who dreams of being a Jedi Knight and starfighter pilot and rescuing a hot Princess from an evil Black Knight... well, you can guess which screenplay is going to have an easier chance of selling.

There are commercial considerations involved with every screenplay that is bought – and that becomes part of the conversation on the experienced screenwriter side. It's not elitism, it's another danged lesson that most of learned the hard way – and we're trying to help others. Though everyone learns at their own rate, the biggest problem with many of these debates is that some people DO NOT WANT TO LEARN. Not just the commercial stuff (I mean, who really wants to learn that? I fought it) but much of the story stuff that's important. The artsie folks don't want there to be any elements that they can be judged by – so the concept of one script being better *even artistically* than another is some form of elitism.

Huh?

The real problem with this whole “Elitist” thing is that it makes people with experience and actual knowledge, and brands them with a negative for *trying to help*. That does not make them want to stick around on some messageboard and continue helping when they really should be writing. It also demonizes education and intelligence and experience – which seems crazy to me. It guarantees that those folks on messageboards will stay exactly where they are – because the *do not want to learn*. Knowledge is a negative - ignorance is bliss - stupidity is art.

They often seem to think they know everything – which I don't think this famous writer or myself or any of the other working pros who these folks argued against believe about themselves. I believe there are tons of things that I don't know – and a large part of my life and my website and my blog are trying to figure out how things work and share that knowledge... but mostly trying to figure it out because there are things I don't know.

Do you think you know everything?

WINO THEORY




I think for most of us, the more we know the more we realize we don't know... and need to learn. Writing screenplays is incredibly complicated, and requires that you get a bunch of different ingredients in the proper mix.

The problem on some messageboards (and with some executives) is they think that one 110 pages of typing is the same as another 110 pages of typing. That writing the pages is the hard part. And there are plenty of screenplays that get so damaged in development that their 110 pages of writing *is* equal to just about any other 110 pages of typing. But those scripts die a quick death – and if they are made into films due to some mistake, the films die a quick death.

The key is to write something that people think about a decade later... because it will be good (art!) *and* because a decade later you'll want them to call you and hire you for some project. If they read your 110 pages of typing and instantly forget it, you have a problem. Though scripts can be developed into crap, you don't want them to start out that way. My belief (hope) is that even when a script gets mangled there's enough good stuff left to hint that there was a great version they bought. Though, I have no idea what that good stuff might be in the filmed version of CROOKED.

Of course, even if they screw up your screenplay on the way to the screen, your actual screenplay still exists as a sample - and I get all kinds of calls years later based on someone reading a screenplay before it got ruined. I have also used those screenplays as samples. In fact, I have some people interested in hiring me now based on a screenplay they read in the past... which they remembered.




You see - art is involved in screenwriting. Even in popular screenwriting. It's not just "write a 110 page action script", it's writing a 110 page action script that is better than the other hundreds of scripts they have read and will turn out an okay movie once it goes through the meatgrinder. If anything, a popular commercial film really needs to be *artistic* and great more than the art film - since if the art film ever gets made it is most likely to be written and directed and produced by the same person (no meatgrinder). The martial arts star lead isn't going to rewrite all of his lines... so that the actions end up being the thing that carries the story and theme and emotional conflict.

There are great commercial scripts and stinkers. Some screenplays are better than others. Some writers have learned more than others - and that is reflected in the quality of their writing. Doesn't mean those other writers can't learn as much and write scripts of equal quality eventually. Just means *at this point in time* the more experienced writer is, well, more experienced. They've done it many more times and learned more.

I think one of the issues with those who think all 110 pages are equal is what I call the WINO THEORY. I once dated a woman who worked in the wine biz, and know some people in the biz (one guy who gets paid to drink!) and a sommelier – and wrote a script called ROUGH FINISH that was James Bond as a wine taster.

Wine ends up being a lot like screenwriting.

The average person can drink two different glasses of wine and think one tastes good and the other does not – but that's about it. If you give that average person two different glasses of *good* wine, they may not be able to tell which is better. Both are equal to them.




But “educate their palates” and teach them a little about wine, and they can easily tell a cabernet from a merlot from a zinfandel from a pinot noir. They may prefer one over the other. They also know what a cabernet is supposed to taste like (basically) and whether it tastes strange or even has been cut with some other grape. At this stage they can also probably tell you whether the wine was fermented in oak or steel or even redwood or acacia or pine.

The next step might be to refine their palates so that they can tell which region the grapes were grown in – each soil leaves a mark. And maybe even make a good guess at the year due to the amount of tanic acid in the wine. Now they can take a dozen “good” glasses of wine and tell you more about each one – and maybe even taste minor defects in some wine that the average drinker never knew were there. They “have better taste”.

And with each increase in education, with each piece of knowledge, they can taste little details that the average drinker may not even know exist.

My character in ROUGH FINISH was a “private palate” who would break into a winery and taste the wine “before its time” to help investors and wine connoisseurs know which Bordeauxs to buy. He tastes something in the wine that only a handful of people in the world would even notice – and becomes the man who knows too much. Fun idea for a chase action script – but it's based on the (real) idea that an expert wine taster would be able to denote things no one else could... is that Elitism or Experience and Education?

My theory is that the new screenwriter might think the difficult part is getting to FADE OUT – and that *is* difficult. But a hundred thousand people a year get to FADE OUT... and the more you know, the more you can see what is just a bit off on one script and right on the money in another – and the more you know how to write that better screenplay.

You don't just give every character a unique voice and vocabulary and world view and attitude... you realize that all of those different elements are connected in some way to theme... and theme is connected to universal truths that connect to the audience. It just gets more and more complicated! And I don't think you ever reach some point where you know it all. There is always something to learn.

But if you think just writing 110 pages is all there is to it, you have failed.

If you think you don't need to learn anything more, you have failed.

If you think that the 1% who believe the Earth is flat are just as correct as the 99% who believe it is round, you aren't thinking and are not trying to learn and better yourself.

If you think someone who has learned more than you know at this point in time and is trying to help you is an elitist, you have failed.

And, if you know more than someone else – help them. Costs you nothing.

I've found that most established screenwriters want to help new writers – they empathize. They were that new writer at one time, and want to help you avoid all of the pitfalls they stumbled through. So, on a messageboard or in person or whatever – thank them for the help and don't fight them until they just give up on *everybody* and leave. I think it's all about learning - and continuing to learn. Any writer who is giving you advice - even if you don't like what they are saying - is trying to help you. they don't have to do that. They don't get paid to do that. They have many other things they can do that either pay more or are more enjoyable.

Experience and knowledge are not elitism.

If people are trying to *help you* - that's the opposite of elitism.

And DAYS OF HEAVEN is one of my favorite movies... along with AIRPLANE!

- Bill

Friday, September 17, 2021

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Dick Cavett interviews Hitchcock

On June 8, 1972 Dick Cavett had Sir Alfred Hitchcock on his late night talk show for a one hour interview about his films, his life, and his techniques. Though some of the interview is a bit frustrating for Hitchcock buffs (Cavett wasn't as well prepared as I wished he had been), this covers a lot of ground and has some classic clips. Eight years later, Hitchcock would pass away.



Next week we should have another of the "lost" BBC interviews from 1997.

- 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.

SALE: $3.99 !!!!

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

- Bill

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Scene Of The Week: DIABOLIQUE (1955)

SCENE OF THE WEEK: DIABOLIQUE

Directed by: Henri Georges Clouzot (WAGES OF FEAR)
Written by: Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi based on the novel by Narcejac & Boileau (VERTIGO).
Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, and Charles Vanel (TO CATCH A THIEF).

This scene is a lesson in creating suspense, that can be used in both Thriller and Horror genres. It used to be basic film direction, but it seems to have been lost these days - people no longer know the basics!

Okay - someone is walking through dark, spooky room... what is it we (audience) want to see? The person *walking* or what might be skittering in that shadow in front of them? It's all about POV - what is important isn't the person walking, it's *what they see* (or think they see). Only an idiot director would keep the camera on the girl with the flashlight and not show us what the girl *sees* with that flashlight! If you look at 1955s DIABOLIQUE's end - there's more screen time spent on what Vera Clouzot is looking at, than on hottie Vera Clouzot looking. The long hallway, the sliver of light coming from the door - jeeze - is her dead husband in there *typing*? The key to creating suspense is to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes – and we can't be in their shoes and be looking at the shoes. The most important shots are *not* the star, but what the star is looking at. The problem with so many bad thriller and horror films is that we **never** see what the character is seeing – we only see the character looking. No suspense or dread in that at all.

That DIABOLIQUE scene works – not because we see *the star*, but because we see *what the star sees* - and by alternating those shots we feel like we are in her shoes looking through the shadows. Wait... I can describe that scene from DIABOLIQUE, but why not just show it to you and talk about it afterwords?

OKAY: MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR SPOILERS!!!!!!!
THIS IS THE **END** OF THE MOVIE!!!!!!




The story until now: Vera Clouzot is a shy (but hot) school teacher who has inherited this huge old private school. She has also inherited a heart condition, and could drop dead at any time. She's frail. Isn't supposed to get excited. And discovers that her slimy husband has found excitement outside of their marriage... with another teacher at the school played by the sultry Simone Signoret. Now usually these two would be fighting each other, but did I mention the husband is slimy? What happens is both women turn against the husband, and decide to kill him. Over a holiday break, Signoret lures him to her house where the two women drug his wine and drown him in the bathtub, and then take his corpse back to the school in a huge wicker basket and throw his corpse in the school's swimming pool that is closed for he season. A drowning accident. But the body is never discovered, and when they find an excuse to drain the pool... no corpse. WTF? The two women panic – what could have happened to his body? Did animals drag it away? If so, how can they prove that he's dead?

Which brings us to the scene....

(which appears to be missing!)




Okay, let's take a look at how it works.

1) She's sleeping and a sound wakes her up...

2) She looks out her window and there is a light on in her husband's office. Notice that she looks out the window, then we see out the window (and from her point of view – in Hitchcock/Truffaut they talk about the remake of THE 39 STEPS and how instead of using Hannay's POV looking at the two men watching on the street, they have a non-POV eye-level shot of the two men, which doesn't come from anywhere and takes us *out* of the protagonist's shoes, undercutting our identification – when people say “well, maybe the editor decided to do that”, the problem is that the editor can only work with the shots the director gives her... and if the director doesn't have a plan for the sequence and just shoots coverage, you end up with a bunch of junk shots that do not work). We see what Vera sees, then back to Vera looking, as she decides to investigate.

3) She opens the door and looks down the hallway... and WE see down the hallway from her POV. She walks down the hallway. She hears footsteps... and we see someone walking – this is a break in POV, and I think it doesn't work well. It splits us from knowing only what Vera knows and also having the additional knowledge that there is a man walking in the hallway. In the film there is a nosy cop – and I'm sure this was put here to suspect the nosy cop of setting her up... but *that* undercuts the scene. I think these shots are stumbles... but there are only a couple of them, and the rest of the scene just kicks ass.

4) She enters the next hallway. Looks down the long hallway... and WE see down the hallway from OVER HER SHOULDER at a faint light at the end of the hall. An Over The Shoulder Shot is a great combo of POV *and* Star – even though it's usually just the star's back. Sometimes there's enough of the side of their face that it's really the best of both shots.

5) The sound of the typewriter pounding away in the office. How is that possible? She walks down the long hallway, and this is the core of the scene. We cut back and forth between her cautiously walking to her husband's office and a POV shot of her getting closer to the office door... the light slicing from under it. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we get shots of Cary Grant running and looking over his shoulder alternating with the zooming crop duster heading right at him. One of the great things in that sequence is the *pacing* - the length of the shots (in frames) becomes shorter with each shot – making the scene more and more frantic as it goes on. This was a common suspense editing technique in the days of Stienbeck Film Editors where actual physical frames of film were part of cutting. You counted frames and created a rhythm... or created an anti-rhythm to throw the audience off. Now, with editing on digital media I'm not sure editors even think in terms of frames anymore. The technique of shaving a frame or three with each shot to build tension may be lost.

6) When Vera gets halfway down the hall, the office door slowly opens sending a slice of light down the hall towards her. We cut between the light and her – as if it's searching for her... and finds her!

7) She cautiously enters the office – and again we get shots of her alternating with her POV of inside the office – this puts us in her shoes and builds suspense up the wazoo. She sees the typewriter on the desk with a piece of paper in it – and that is two shots. She moves to the typewriter (shots of her, POV shots of the dark spooky room), pulls out the paper, and reads it – and we get a POV shot of the paper so that *we* can also read it. Her husband's name over and over again.

8) Footsteps coming from the darkness in her husband's room. She runs like hell.

9) Shots of her running all the way back to her bedroom, cut with shots from her position of her husband's office.

10) In her bathroom, she splashes water on her face... sees something and clutches her heart – this is a great tease shot, because we have not yet seen what she sees... THEN we get her POV shot of her dead husband's corpse in the bathtub. How did he get there? Who put him there? The nosy cop?

11) She backs up, looks... Her POV of her husband rising up!

And that's how you create a suspense scene on film. It's not just shots of the protagonist in the haunted house holding a flashlight walking from room to room – it's WHAT SHE SEES. That flashlight's pale beam searching the shadows and things skittering in the darkness. That’s what builds suspense... and that’s what is often missing from modern films. It’s as if current horror directors have never actually seen a horror movie! They probably think the audience wants to see the $20 million star, when what the audience really wants to see is what the character is seeing - the darkness, the place where the terror may be lurking!

- Bill

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Can't Judge A Zombie By His Poster

Another ancient blog entry (from 2007) that I'm reprinting instead of writing anything new, because I'm lazy.

A whole bunch of posts and half a year ago, I wrote that my friend Rod and I were stuck in bumper-to bumper traffic on the 405, trying to get to a movie playing in Santa Monica. That movie is now out on DVD, so I thought maybe I’d talk about it. The movie was....

FIDO



Imagine that perfect 1950s suburbia from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER... combined with the bright, well manicured 1950s soap operas of Douglas Sirk (like ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS)... and throw in that wholesome all American 1950s classic TIMMY AND LASSIE...

But Lassie isn't a dog, it's a domesticated zombie.

That's FIDO.

This is not some scary zombie attack movie, no friends, after we won the zombie war (which seems a lot like WW2 in the newsreel footage that opens the film) zombies have been domesticated and are a servant class. Every suburban family hopes to one day have a zombie of their very own - to take out the trash serve meals, mow the lawn, wash the car, and any other task that sophisticated people may find distasteful.

You end up with a send up of 1950s TV & films, zombie movies, suburbia, the class system, government, Douglas Sirk films, and all kinds of other stuff. I actually laughed so hard at one point that I almost lost consciousness. My stomach hurt. This was the best film I've seen in a long time.

Carrie-Ann Moss is mom, Dylan Baker is very repressed dad, Tim Blake Nelson is the next door neighbor and Henry Czerny (the asshole political aid who double crosses Harrison Ford in one of those Tom Clancy movies) as the pipe smoking perfect dad down the street... and Billy Connelly as the zombie Fido (an amazing performance, since all he does is grunt and growl).

The film is supposed to be the most expensive Canadian film ever made (cast, probably) but only played on a couple of screens in the USA and the showing we went to wasn’t crowded at all. The plan was to expand to more screens if the film is successful...

But it never came to a cinema near you. Instead it vanished, only to appear a couple of weeks ago on DVD.

And, just like HOSTEL 2, I think the problem was in the marketing. (That’s *twice* I’ve blamed marketing - really unusual). Here’s the thing - you need to get the people into the cinema on a movie like this, so that they will laugh and then tell their friends that have to see it. That’s where marketing comes in.

The first problem with this film is the title: FIDO. When I read a list of new films opening over that weekend, I saw FIDO and skipped right past it. G rated family film about a dog. Not even a good title for a G rated family film - tells us *nothing* about the story. LASSIE COME HOME - hey, Lassie is lost and has to find his way home! So FIDO not only makes you think it’s a family film when it’s really a horror comedy, it also doesn’t tell us anything about the film. Your title is like a mini logline - it needs to tell us what the story is about. Some of you may be thinking, “Hey, it’s about a zombie named Fido!” But we only know that *after* we have seen the movie. We want the title to tell us what the movie is about *before* we see it.

The target audience for FIDO would never see a film with that title.

Then we come to the poster...

What the hell is up with that? The poster is supposed to sum up the story in an image... Can you tell from the poster that this movie takes place in the 1950s? Or that it’s about a boy and his zombie? That it is a comedy? Or that Billy Connelly is even a zombie? He looks kind of weird in the poster, and has that punk collar thing, but that poster tells us *nothing* about the movie. The artwork that was on the NuArt Theater’s flyer was much better - it had silhouettes of the 1950s family (iconic images) and the boy holding a leash... with a zombie on the other end. That sums it up... but it’s not the poster.

The poster is in collage style - and I hate that. I was in a book store a while back and bought a Greg MacDonald book about Inspector Flynn. MacDonald created Fletch - the clever investigative journalist who always gets involved in some murder mystery - you may know the character from the Chevy Chase movie. If you haven’t read the books - check them out. Great writing and fantastically witty dialogue. The paperback versions in the 70s used to have a dialogue passage on the *cover* instead of art work. That was the selling point - really clever writing. Inspector Flynn pops up in the 3rd Fletch book, accusing Fletch of murder and chasing him throughout the book. He spun off into his own series, and this was a recent book I didn’t know existed...

Even when I saw it, I didn’t know it existed. Because the book cover was some sort of collage with the title written with every letter in a different font. It looked like someone dumped a bunch of stuff on a table, glued it in place, and that was the cover. Huh? I probably looked at this book a hundred times before realizing that it was a Flynn book. And the cover gives me *nothing* about the story - actually, under the crap there’s a sketch of a guy with a nail in his ear. That’s part of the story. But the sketch doesn’t look like a crime novel picture, it looks like something you’d find on the cover of a Gay romance. Cover doesn’t match the contents at all. Though there is a boy with a nail in his ear, the main story is something entirely different and much more exciting: someone is sending death threats to a Harvard professor and breaking into his house. Flynn has only a few days to stop the killer from striking. The nail in the ear thing is a minor subplot... but the cover of the book. Was that because they could find a sketch of a boy and add it to the collage?

When you look at old movie posters, they are amazing. They tell the story, set the mood, and usually feature the star’s face, The lower the budget of the movie, they less they could depend on the star and the more they had to find an *image* the sums up the story. I just did an article for Script about creating the poster image for your screenplay - because I think it’s important to know how they are going to be able to market your work down the line. When some producer says, “I love the script, but kid, I have no idea how the hell we’re going to market it”, you can pull out your poster. If you can’t figure out what the poster for your movie looks like, how the heck do you expect some non-creative guy in a suit to figure it out?

The thing about collage posters and collage book covers is that it’s just gluing together existing elements. It’s not creating the one iconic image that sums up the book or film, it’s using someone else’s stuff. The movie posters of the past were amazing, but somewhere along the line, movie posters have become all about star faces. Instead of finding that image that tells us what the story is about, we get George Clooney’s face. “I have no idea what the movie is about, but George Clooney is in it, so I’ll see it!” Hey, that’s great for Clooney fans, but what about everyone else? What about people who want to know what the movie is about before they plunk down their $11.50 (what I paid last night at the AMC in Burbank). What happened to those folks who created the amazing images that summed up the story?

Did collages - the concept of using pieces of *someone else’s* creation - squeeze them out? Have we been breeding humans to think “collage” instead of “creativity”?

I read scripts (and even see movies) that are just collages. Take existing elements from popular films and glue them together. Quentin Tarantino is the king of Collage Movies. Take a Ringo Lam Hong Kong cop film about a jewelry store heist gone wrong and the band of bandits in a warehouse aiming guns at each other and wondering which one of them is an undercover cop and add the color name thing from PELHAM 1-2-3 and the... well, eventually you have a bunch of scenes from other people’s films processed into a new movie. Check out Mike White’s WHO DO YOU THINK YOU’RE FOOLING and YOU’RE STILL NOT FOOLING ANYBODY (about PULP FICTION).

Tarantino is a genius - he can take the pieces of other people’s work and turn them into something uniquely his own...

The funniest thing are the collage scripts that use bits from Tarantino movies - for a while it seemed like every other script was someone pretending to be Tarantino.

None of the other “collage scripts” I read seem able to do what QT does (make it work). All they have done is lifted scenes from better films. No creation involved, just some cut & paste. These scripts have no soul, no point of view, no theme... but they often have all kinds of scenes that would look good in a trailer. I think that’s why they sometimes get bought and made.

Now, I’m not talking about those homage scenes, or those scripts that have been influenced by some other writer (FIDO is influenced by Sirk and Lassie and George Romero - three things that don't seem like they'd work in the same movie)... I’m talking about the ones that are just collages. Nothing original about them. They were made on some assembly line somewhere. Nothing was created, it was just glued together.

I think fan fiction is the ultimate in collage writing. They take someone else’s character, someone else’s world, someone else’s basic situation... and they put together some sort of story *based on those existing elements*.

For me, movies and stories are *about* characters. The most important thing is to create your own, personal, characters.

One of the message boards where I regularly answer screenwriting questions has a large number of fan fiction people, all writing INDIANA JONES and STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS and PIRATES movies. *Not* creating their own characters. Whenever I feel like tilting windmills and mention this, I get the “Every writer started off writing fan fiction” from a half dozen people. Well, I have no idea if that is true today... but it was not true when I began writing. The idea then was to create your own characters and stories and situations. Sure, you may have read a lot of Raymond Chandler (like me) and your early work is about a private eye and seems influenced by Chandler (mine was) but my stories were about a private eye in my home town area who had completely different character issues to deal with than Philip Marlowe and what was cool for me was to *create* his methods, his office, his weapons, his *world* and make it completely my own - based on things I loved and problems I was going through and the world I knew. My first stories were about a Private Eye named Nick Carrico who had an alcohol abuse problem after accidentally shooting his partner when he was a police detective. Now, none of that is Philip Marlowe. The idea of writing something back then - when dinosaurs ruled the earth - was to *create* something. To *create* your own characters and situations and worlds and dialogue and scenes. Not to write about the time Captain Jack Sparrow and Will went on a pirate adventure in Cuba... and fell in love.

How we went from that to fan fiction is beyond me. At what point in time did people say, “I’d rather not go through all of the trouble to create my own characters... I’ll just use somebody else’s work”? When did *not creating* become the norm? When did people begin thinking that someone else’s creation was better than theirs? That their original work wasn’t good enough, so they should use someone else’s? That collage is art?

Collage is not better than creation.

YOUR individual creation is YOURS.

George Lucas can send of C&D letters from his lawyers closing down fan fiction sites - because *he* owns those characters... but no one can take away original characters that you created. Original situations and worlds you created. Those are *yours*. The thing about fan fiction is that it diminishes the writer.

The collage poster for FIDO was used on the DVD box... what a mistake! Was this because no one in the marketing department is capable of creative thought? That evolution has created a generation of people who can cut & paste, but not create? Or was it just some lazy guy in marketing who thought the collage was good enough for the poster (that managed to kill a great film) so why not use it on the DVD?

Whatever the case - create your own material... and check out FIDO on DVD. It's really good on a bunch of different levels.

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Character Goals, The Hulk and Hulk 2 (with Ed Norton)... but not Hulk Hogan.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Fish Tacos at Islands in Burbank.

Movies: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD. Okay... Marisa Tomei is nekkid in about a quarter of the movie. That may be a selling point for some of you - I read an interview where she said she didn't wanther parents to see the film because she's nekkid all the time. That is damned good PR work for a film with a story that is very low key, and looks like they dug it out of a 1974 time capsule.

My friend joked that it looked like they ran out of money and couldn't color time it.

Good dramatic thriller that escalates as one thing after another goes about as wrong as it could. Story does this thing where it backtracks and takes another primary character's POV for a bit - but there's no connective tissue between the segments, so there's no flow. It needed visual linking (like Sayles used in LONE STAR - that stuff has to be in the script). And sometimes it pulls you out of the story - or, at least, pulls you out of a character just when things are getting juicy.

You can also see a bunch of stuff coming from *way* down the pike - which is kind of lame plotting (in one instance) - setting up something that solves a problem later in the story, but actually creates a logic problem.

But I forgive all of the problems because what you end up with is some really tense material - basically a family drama with firearms. It's relentless.

DVDs: PULP... not PULP FICTION, but the film with Michael Caine playing a writer. One funny thing of note were the sight gags - all kinds of them. Many having to do with taxi cabs. The *same* taxi cabs heep coming back throughout the story - more and more banged up. Film is one of those comedies where you smile, but don't bust a gut. Mystery-based, with clues you can follow.

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