Friday, February 26, 2021

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Jamaica Inn (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Bill

The other Fridays With Hitchcock.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

THRILLER Thursday: Girl With A Secret

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

Season: 1, Episode: 9.
Airdate: 11/15/1960

Director: Mitchell Leisen.
Writer: Charles Beaumont based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong.
Cast: Faye Bainter, Paul Hartman, Myrna Fahey, Victor Buono, Cloris Leachman.
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “An attache case. A classic ingredient in tales of cloak and dagger. Was the young lady correct? Was it switched on purpose? As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, the contents of that case will soon trap these two young people in a web of terror. Alice, the bewildered bride, doesn’t yet know that her husband’s life will depend upon her silence. She’ll become a girl with a secret. That’s the name of our story. Our principle players are Miss Faye Bainter, Mr. Paul Hartman, Miss Myrna Fahey, Mr. Rhodes Reason, Miss Cloris Leachman, and Mr. Harry Ellerbe. I assure you my friends, this is a thriller.”

Synopsis: After a couple of great episodes in a row, we go back to...

At an airport, newlyweds Anthony (Rhodes Reason) and Alice (Myrna Fahey from Corman’s HOUSE OF USHER) wait for their baggage and she talks about the pressure of meeting her (wealthy) inlaws for the first time. When Anthony sets down his attache case for a moment to grab his suitcase, a Stranger sets down his *identical* attache case to do the same and grabs Anthony’s attache case by accident when he leaves. Or was it an accident? Alice seems to think the Stranger did it on purpose. She points out the Stranger to Anthony and says to stop him before he drives away... but Anthony tells her it’s no big deal, he’ll just open the Stranger’s attache case, find his ID, and call him and swap cases later. They’ve had a long flight and Anthony just wants to get home to Pasadena and relax.

When they leave the airport, an evil looking Henchman (Rex Holman) is following them...

On a narrow, twisting road in the hills (probably where the 134 Freeway would end up) the Henchman tries to pass them on a particularly dangerous curve and “accidentally” hits their car, almost forcing them over a cliff! Alice is scared and confused, did that guy *try* to kill them or was it an accident? Seems like weird stuff is happening around her new husband! Why?

The family estate in Pasadena looks oddly like the Munster’s house from the outside (same backlot house), but the inside is a luxurious mansion where the entire family seems to hang out night and day, with Cousin Beatrice (Cloris Leachman) playing the piano for the entertainment of her boyfriend Walter (Harry Ellerbe) plus Uncle Gregory (Paul Hartman) and Aunt Hortense (Anne Seymour) and matriarch Geraldine (Faye Bainter) who is Anthony’s grandmother. The whole family meets the new daughter in law, and give her the normal third degree you would give a new wife... which kind of adds to Alice’s paranoia. Anthony excuses himself for a moment to get the luggage out of the car... but instead goes to the car to open the Stranger’s attache case... which is empty except for a cryptic note... which Anthony decodes!

He starts up the car and goes to the Stranger in a public library... where we discover that Anthony is some sort of spy and the Stranger is a fellow spy, who warns him that the bad guys are onto him. Anthony tells the Stranger that he knows: an attempt was made on his life earlier.

Cut to our evil badguy played by Victor Buono (King Tut from BATMAN), as the Henchman enters his evil lair to report that his attempt on Anthony’s life *failed*. Buono needs to know how much Anthony knows about his evil operation, and keep him from stopping whatever the heck that evil operation is. It’s kinda vague.

Anthony gets back to the Munster House, and nobody seems to notice he was missing. He and Alice are unpacking in their room... when she discovers an airplane ticket in his coat pocket. To Mexico City. She confronts her new husband... is he cheating on her? Anthony quiets her, opens the bedroom door... and there’s the Maid (Esther Dale) listening in on the conversation. He tells the Maid to please keep this little domestic dispute to herself, then closes the door and whispers to Alice... that he’s a spy! He has a secret mission to Mexico City to do things that will help foil Victor Buono’s evil operation... and while he’s gone she must keep his secret. No one can know that he has gone to Mexico City, *no one*. Not even family members. Alice will keep the secret while Anthony is away.

Anthony tells his family that he’s been called back to New York on business for a while, and to please take care of his new wife. Cousin Beatrice is already planning ways to mess with Alice in order to make matriarch Geraldine hate the new bride. And that, folks, is the set up!

And the halfway point.

After Anthony leaves on his secret mission, Alice is “alone” in the house with all of these strangers... and the Maid, who asks for some hush money or she’ll tell everyone that Anthony has gone to Mexico City. Alice gives her ear rings (which are expensive as heck) to the Maid to keep her quiet... but when Cousin Beatrice notices the Maid wearing Alice’s ear rings she accuses the Maid of stealing them, and this brings in matriarch Geraldine who insists the Maid return the ear rings... and creates a larger problem as the Maid now wants $300 to keep her mouth shut.

Alice brings the money to the Maid... and there is a knock at the Maid’s door! The evil Henchman! Alice hides in the murphy bed folded up against the wall and listens as the Henchman questions the Maid, doesn’t get any answers... so he kills her and then searches the room for some clue as to where Anthony may have flown to... almost finding Alice hiding in the folded up bed! The Henchman leaves, heading back to...

Victor Buono’s evil lair, where Buono is talking to... Walter! Cousin Beatrice’s boyfriend! They have blackmailed Walter into being part of the evil operation and spying on Anthony. It was Walter who gave the information that sent the Henchman to the Maid’s apartment. Twist!

Back at the Munster House, Alice returns and is freaked out... afraid she’ll be accused of the Maid’s murder and won’t be able to tell anyone that it’s all because her husband is really a spy. Walter hammers away at Alice about the murder of the Maid... did she do it? Why did she give the Maid those ear rings? Alice walks out... leaving the rest of the family to scheme. Walter and Uncle Gregory think Alice needs to get some rest and suggest giving her some tranquilizers... Walter wants to give her a whole bunch! Then take her to a friend of his who will give her some sodium penathol so she will tell the truth about the Maid’s murder and the family will know how to handle it. They don’t want to be harboring a murderer, do they? Think of the scandal!

A few weeks later Anthony gets back from Mexico City with all of the info to stop Victor Buono’s evil operation... and asks Grandmother Geraldine where Alice is. Geraldine says...

Alice never gave up your secret. They were going to drug her and make her talk, but Geraldine smuggled her out of the house and to a friend’s place in Los Angeles. She’s safe... and Geraldine thinks she’s a danged good wife.

Anthony gets to the address where Alice is hiding out... and it’s a drug store where she is working behind the counter. Just as they embrace, turncoat Walter and the evil Henchman come in with guns... but the Drug Store Owner shoots them both in the most boring action scene ever on television. Meanwhile Victor Buono is being arrested. Anthony and Alice live happily ever after.

Review: Actually, the problem here is the difference between what works as a thriller on that page versus what works on the screen. I can easily imagine this as a nail biter on the page, but it’s all internal... most of the suspense concerns what the character is *feeling*, and we can’t see that. In a way we have a story like REBECCA, about a shy new bride dealing with her new husband’s secret... and you’d think the hubby being a spy instead of a dreamy rich dude with a dead first wife would, but it doesn’t. Hubby is off screen doing spy stuff in Mexico City... and the only thing close to Mrs. Danvers is Leachman’s character, who is just a stuck up rich girl (instead of a foreboding frozen faced Maid who has the real power in the house). The Maid in this story is old and frail... not much of a physical threat. Also not much of any kind of threat because she knows the secret but really can’t do anything with it. And for a story that’s mostly confined to the family house, there isn’t even the sort of suspense and intrigue from REBECCA or NOTORIOUS. The family is mostly just sitting around doing nothing. None are really threats, no real suspense... Alice is just an outsider when it comes to the family rather than a target.

I suspect the story also loses something from whatever scope the novel may have had versus the confines of a TV budget and shooting schedule. This gets into my Dog Juice Theory: when the story gets smaller you need to increase the “juice” to keep it exciting, and in this case the juice would be suspense. Add to this the stiff acting and massive overacting of the villains (they’re on screen for so little time they only have time to be evil without any time for actual characterization).

So the whole episode comes off as kind of bland and boring, and that car chase scene can’t really make up for it. The suspense set piece with Alice hiding in the Murphy bed is also kinda dull... though there is a moment where she is almost discovered. And the reveal that Walter is working with the badguys is nonexistent! He’s just in a scene with Buono. No *twist* to it. Part of this is the writing isn’t finding ways to amp up the suspense and part is the director, Mitchell Leisen (who’s contract requires his *signature* as his credit), who was a famous director of big glossy studio films in the 1930s to1950s and doesn’t seem to be at home in the thriller genre... even though he directed Cornell Woolrich’s NO MAN OF HER OWN in 1950 (which ended up more soap opera than thriller). Leisen directed episode 3 and this one... and then was off to some other TV show and get that nifty signature title card.

After two good episodes in a row we go off track again with this one... but next week? Karloff takes a role in a weird tales type story!


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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Film Courage Plus: Let The Actors Act!

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 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?

At the first Writer’s Guild “Words Into Pictures” Conference in 1997 I was one of the hundreds of people who watched Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau perform I.A.L. Diamond’s short play “Quizzically” about a pair of writers debating a “wrylie” - a parenthetical to tell an actor how to deliver the line. Due to chance and maybe the stars aligning correctly, I was in the front row, only a few feet away from these two great actors. It’s one of those things that I will remember forever... and Diamond’s short play is hysterical if you are a screenwriter. Diamond was a co-writer with Billy Wilder on SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT and many more films, and Matthau and Lemmon were the perfect team to bounce the clever lines off of each other. I haven’t read the play, but I will bet there were very few parentheticals in it, because those things are usually the sign of a problem in a screenplay... which is what we will be talking about today.


New screenwriters often litter their screenplays with “wrylies” (parantheticals) for a couple of reasons which are both part of not trusting the actors to do their jobs. One of the things that is difficult for new writers to remember is that even though writing that spec script is an individual accomplishment and you *are* all of the other people involved in making the film at that point, it will eventually become a team effort and other very talented people will work to create the finished film. There’s a line that is often blurry between that individual accomplishment and team effort, and new writers tend to micro-manage their screenplays instead of creating what TAXI DRIVER screenwriter Paul Schrader calls the “Invitation to others to collaborate on a work of art”. Our job as screenwriters is to give hints to the other participants in making the film, rather than give orders. We want to nudge them in the right direction, because if we try to shove them they will do the exact opposite of what we want. When you push, people push back. I often say that part of our jobs as screenwriters is to make the director think that it was their idea. So we need to let the actors do the acting, the cinematographer do the lighting, the casting director figure out what the actors look like, the set designer figure out the specifics of what the locations look like, etc. We can hint, but we can’t demand. And if we are good at hinting in our screenplays - everyone will think that it was their idea. So let’s look at letting the actors act...

Though we are imagining the performance in our minds as we write, we still want to leave room for each of the other creative people involved to do their jobs - and they are the experts at those jobs. If we use a “wrylie” to tell the actor that the character is supposed to be angry when delivering the line, that often means that the line itself is not expressing anger - and that’s a flaw in *our work*. Often “wrylies” are used to prop up weak dialogue that isn’t doing it’s job to demonstrate that emotion. There are better word choices or a better order to the words that will make that line show the anger of the character. Often the problem is sentence length - angry people don’t have long winded sentences, they are quick and to the point, and adding a wrylie is not going to change the length of the sentence. The shorter the sentence, the more energy in that sentence. Longer sentences dissipate the energy. So, as the writer, our *writing* needs to demonstrate the emotions so that we do not need a wrylie. Telling an actor to deliver a line with anger doesn’t make the line sound angry - and the line is our job, performance is the actor’s. Let the actor choose the delivery of the lines.

Here’s why: The 1964 version of THE KILLERS has a scene where assassin Lee Marvin is threatening Claude Akins, who has information on where his target is hiding. Now Marvin is playing a violent and impatient man, whose catch phrase is “I don’t have the time”, so you might think that (angry) is the perfect “wrylie” for his threats to Akins. When you wrote the dialogue - these were angry lines, right? But if they are angry lines, you don’t need to identify them as such - the dialogue *demonstrates* the emotion in the way it is written....

Plus, the actor might make a brilliant choice, as Lee Marvin did in this scene - he delivered the lines quietly and calmly, which made the threats even more chilling. He removed the anger from his voice, so we got control - and that makes this scene stand out. This is a man who kills people for a living and has as much feeling about it as an assembly line worker feels about doing his job. Awesome choice by the actor, and you don’t want to limit those choices by micro-managing their performance. Just as we have our skills as writers, actors have their skills. They understand how to play the scene better than we do, they play scenes for a living.

Trust the actors to do the job that they are experts at!

Also trust the director and everyone else to do their jobs. Directors like to be in control, they like to be the person who came up with the genius idea... so if you write CLOSE UP: they will not want to shoot that in a close up, because it wasn't their idea. And if it needed to be a close up? You just screwed yourself by writing CLOSE UP instead of using language so that the director reads the scene and imgaines a close up. In the DESCRIPTION AND VOICE Blue Book there's a section on how to use language to create a specific picture in the reader's mind. No need to type CLOSE UP if all they can imagine is a close up. I once had a meeting with a director on one of my screenplays and he was excited by "his idea" of how to shoot an action scene. I told him that he was a genius to think about shooting it like that... but I purposely described it so that you would imagine those shots and angles. I created the images in the reader's mind from those angles. I hinted.

So let the people do their jobs... and secretly be the puppet master pulling theor strings.


Make sure that your dialogue is doing its job, and doesn’t need to be propped up with a wrylie. The one place where a wrylie might be required is a sarcastic line of dialogue, but even then the delivery should be completely obvious by the situation and the character. The situation and character are also the writer’s jobs, so you still should not need a wrylie if you are doing your job. Sarcasm is a character trait - something that you can mention when introducing the character, and then their dialogue throughout the screenplay will reflect this. If a character who has never been sarcastic before suddenly becomes sarcastic, that’s a little odd - and maybe you should rethink that dialogue? Actors are going to question when a character does something out of character... and you should be questioning that before they ever get a chance to read it. So even with sarcasm, you don’t need wrylies. If the character is introduced as being sarcastic, and the dialogue in this situation can only be sarcastic? No need to micro-manage that. Trust the actor to figure it out. You do your job and allow them to do theirs.


The other way that new writers often micro-manage a screenplay is by telling an actor what expression they should have on their faces. My personal rule is that I control the actor’s bodies and the actor gets to control their expressions. Let the actors act! One of the problems with either a wrylie that says (smiles) or a line of description that tells the actor to smile is that some actors aren’t the smiling types. When was the last time you say Clint Eastwood giving a big toothy grin in a movie? So if you are trying to get that emotion to the audience, it never gets there. It’s depending on the actor to do the writer’s job - either through the line of dialogue that demonstrates happiness or and action (using their bodies) that shows happiness. If the situation that the writer creates is all about joy and happiness, the actor doesn’t need to smile - the *audience* will be smiling... and that’s the key to emotions and emotional scenes.

Frank Capra said, "I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries." Your job as a screenwriter is not to make the characters cry, it’s to create a situation where the audience cries. Or laughs. Or feels anger. Or feels joy. One of the things that I have noticed in some films is that when the character cries, the audience doesn’t have to... but if the character tries to remain in control in a scene where they would normally cry, the audience feels as if they need to do the crying for the character.

The same holds true with expressions - sometimes an actor knows that if they *don’t* show an expression when the situation calls for one, it will create stronger feelings in the audience. The actor understands what expression will be best for the scene, and sometimes they make an interesting choice that we, as writers, would never have thought of. I don’t know if Richard Widmark’s character laughed with joy when he pushed an old woman in a wheelchair down the stairs to her death in the screenplay for KISS OF DEATH or whether it was the actor’s choice (I suspect the latter) but that really odd choice given the situation is what made that scene famous. Actors can take our characters and find the behaviors that we never imagined - and that’s why we want to trust them to do their jobs.

There are times when a character nods or smiles as an important response - it's story related, so you will write that smile or nod or whatever. But try to find a better way to do that, if possible.

Um, I am guilty of this: I had a screenplay where the producer thought the protagonist was too dour, so I added a (smiles) wrylie a couple of times in the first ten pages, problem solved! Yes, I did everything that I just told you not to do. But only in self defense. I knew that whoever played the protagonist was going to be a charismatic movie star, and for some reason the producer was imagining some sad sack loser... I told the producer that I completely rewrote the character, but all I did is add a couple of (smiles) and it solved the problem. Tools not rules.

Some new writers think that the “description” part of a screenplay is just there to break up the dialogue, but that is not its purpose. The difference between Movies and TV when it comes to screenplays is that TV is a growth of radio - and tends to be more dialogue driven, and modern movies are a growth of silent films - and tend to be stories told visually. Through the actions of the characters. What their bodies do. So find the way to demonstrate the emotions with actions, rather than with expressions. Read through your screenplay - skipping the dialogue - and make sure that the story is told through the actions of the characters, the situations, the images. One of the things in my Action Screenwriting Book and I believe the Visual Storytelling Book are “twitches and touchstones” - creating a physical object with an emotion built into it, so that a character can create emotions in the audience just by touching that watch that their dead father gave them, and the audience knows that they are thinking of their father. Our job is telling stories visually through the actions of the characters - so we don’t need to tell them what expression is on their face... the actor can provide that.


Though we control the actor’s bodies, another place where writers often micro-manage is “business”. Business is what an actor does with their hands during a scene - that’s an oversimplification, but it’s any normal actions that aren’t changing the course of the story. “Kurt takes a sip of wine.” These are like “physical wrylies” - actions that really don’t have anything to do with telling the story, they are telling the actor what to do. “Sandra shakes her head” before the character saying “No” is redundant. When we are talking about the actions of the characters, we aren’t talking about little things that they do. One of my short films had a scene where a woman returns from the grocery store and is putting away groceries. Putting away the groceries was all of the action required for that scene, and the actress pulled out a bag of potato chips, opened it, and munched on a few as she put the groceries away. Brilliant! That was business. She did what someone normally does when putting away groceries - snack a little on something that she bought. I didn’t need to write that in the screenplay or tell her to do that - she is an actress and she did what the character would do in that scene. Eating a few potato chips didn’t impact the story in any way - so it wasn’t something that I would write in the script. Just as taking a sip of wine at dinner is just normal - unless the wine was poisoned or something, it doesn’t impact the story. A friend of mine worked on a film where the actor developed an amazing trick with a cigarette lighter for his character - not in the screenplay. But the actor thought that if his character had smoked their entire life, they would have developed fun ways to do it. Actors bring things like this to the characters. That lighter trick didn’t advance the story in any way - it was business.

You want to focus your action lines on physical actions that *do* impact the story, and let the actors do the natural stuff. If your screenplay is just a bunch of people standing around talking - that is a problem. Adding “Kurt takes a sip of wine” or “Sandra shakes her head” or even that cigarette lighter trick is not going to solve the problem of a static scene where nothing is physically happening or characters use words instead of actions. Often the story itself is the culprit, here - you have a non-visual story in a visual medium. A radio play that you are trying to pass off as a SCREENplay. Instead of adding business, go back and rethink that scene - how can you show the feelings and emotions? How can you demonstrate the story through actions instead of exclusively through dialogue?

Movies are words and pictures, and if you only have the words, a picture of “Kurt takes a sip of wine” tells us *nothing*. So let the actors do the acting - let them choose the delivery of the lines, chose what expression is on their face, choose what to do with their hands. And you as the writer create situations and physical actions that impact the story itself. Trusting the actors to do their jobs, trusting the cinematographer to do their job, trusting the costume department and set designers and everyone else to do their jobs.


- Bill


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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: YELLA (2007)

YELLA (2007)

Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold.
Starring: Nina Hoss, Devid Striesow, Hinnerk Schönemann.
Produced by: Florian Koerner von Gustorf.
Cinematography by: Hans Fromm.
Music by: Stefan Will.

German movie star Nina Hoss is one of my movie crushes, and I stalk her whenever one of her films plays in the cinema or is released on DVD. Very soon I will have exhausted all of the USA releases and have to figure out how to see her work that hasn’t been released here. Hoss is an unbelievably beautiful woman... who looks as if she hasn’t slept for a week. I have no idea whether she looks this way in everyday life, or if it’s just a method to offset some of her beauty, but she is usually cast in roles where the look adds to the character. She is often in thriller films (why I know that she exists) and YELLA is an interesting example. It’s made with frequent collaborator writer-director Christian Petzold, and she won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for the role. The last movie that I saw that both worked on was PHOENIX (2014) which had a CASABLANCA vibe... and the same year she was in a great spy flick with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright and Rachel McAdams: A MOST WANTED MAN based on a novel by Le Carre. I have seen several other Nina Hoss movies like BARBARA and JERICHOW and may write about them later.

YELLA is a slow burn thriller, and probably more drama than thriller - it’s a small personal story with a hint of suspense. Last year I wrote an article about slow burn horror films using MIDSOMMAR as an example, and the same principles apply to thrillers or any other genre: A slow burn is always on fire.

A “slow burn” story, instead of being action-action-action like your standard Hollywood film, has the story develop slowly and methodically towards a explosive boiling point. So all of the action is usually “back loaded” - with the story building and building and building until a big climax. Those writers with a story where nothing happens until the end may be okay, right? Probably wrong, because the main thing to remember about a slow burn story is that it is always on fire. Always. The water may not be boiling until the end, but you can still burn your finger if you put it in the pot. Things are happening from the very beginning and building. And “slow burns” usually start strong to make up for the slow burn. There are slow burns in every genre, from Horror to Thrillers to Romances to Dramas. They aren’t stories where nothing happens until the end, they are stories where things are simmering and eventually boil over, and YELLA is a good example.

Nina Hoss plays Yella Fichte, a woman from a small town who married her high school sweetheart Ben (Hinnerk Schnemann) a successful businessman who is young and handsome. But when his business goes south, he begins physically abusing her. She leaves him and files for divorce and goes into the city to look for a job so that she won’t be stuck in the same small town as him. But Ben does not accept the end of their relationship, and begins stalking her.

When she finds a job as an accountant, she returns home to pack her things and move... and Ben is waiting for her. He follows her to her father’s house - walking on the opposite side of the street (protective order) but when there is some construction he is *forced* to walk behind her on her side of the street... explaining how he has changed and that there’s no reason to go through with the divorce. He is both charming and creepy... and dangerous. With a hair-trigger temper.

The threat is set up in the very beginning of the story - the first scene or two. Ben is a violent young man and can’t accept that Yella would want to divorce him. This scene where they are walking down the street is filled with tension. It’s an explosive situation. Tension is a present but unresolved conflict - and this scene is packed with that simmering conflict just below the surface of every line of dialogue or movement that Ben makes. You are afraid that he might strike her...

She gets to her house, and Ben must walk away due to the protective order.

After packing her things and telling her Father (Christian Redl) that she will stay in a hotel until she finds an apartment, and pay for the hotel room with her first week’s earnings; her Father gives her a hidden stash of cash. She declines the money, but he sneaks it into her coat pocket. This is a great moment. It’s always important for the audience to care about the characters, and one of the techniques I look at in the Protagonist Blue Book is giving them “someone to love”. Here the father / daughter relationship is shown in a very simple moment that we can instantly understand. Widowed father loves his daughter and wants to look out for her and help her even after she moves to the big city... so we also know that he will miss her when she is gone. That “money for later” is all about the later - he is worried about her living alone. Within the first ten minutes of the film we get this great emotional moment...


Which is shattered when Yella leaves the house to find Ben waiting outside for her. He apologizes, and offers to drive her to the train station. She accepts, figuring there will be less conflict - and once she is at the train station? It’s over. She starts life new in the big city. Except all the way to the train station, she is trapped in the car with this violent man. More tension! One of the things I looked at in the MIDSOMMAR article is “poking the tiger” - frequently reminding the audience that there is conflict present to keep the tension and suspense alive. There is no suspense or tension if Ben is kept offscreen - he must be constantly pushed into the same scenes as Yella to keep the threat active. So instead of Yella just going to the train station in a taxi, she is stuck in this car with her violent ex-husband taking her to the train station... and no matter how polite the conversation, the tension is simmering away... threatening to boil over into violence.

A major part of that simmering in the car: Ben makes his last ditch effort to “win her back” (as if she’s some sort of human prize?) and when she declines... he drives his car off a bridge into the river where it sinks like a stone!


Shocking twist!

One of the things about Slow Burn stories, no matter what the genre, is that they tend to start with a bang. The audience gets a jolt right up front, and that “tides them over” while to suspense or horror or drama or romance or whatever the genre is continues to simmer in the background. It reassures the audience that this *is* a thriller (or horror or whatever) - and if they are patient there is much more to come. MIDSOMMAR has a big horror moment about ten minutes into the film, and then simmers until the ending’s big horror scene. You need that big jolt in the first ten minutes... it’s what shows the audience the things to come later. Here, the car crashing off the bridge and sinking doesn’t just show us how far Ben will go to get Yella back - which infuses every scene afterwards with suspense - it shocks the audience. This is a film that isn’t fooling around - it’s going to eventually get very dark. You want a big scene like this or the one in MIDSOMMAR around the ten minute mark to show that fire burning just below the surface for the rest of the film.

Yella breaks out of the sinking car and swims to shore... and moments later Ben follows, laying on the shore of the river next to her. Both are exhausted and pass out.

When Yella comes to a few moments later, she sees Ben and finds her floating suitcase and purse and races away - soaking wet - to catch her train. She needs to escape from Ben and this small town, and can’t be late for her first day at work!

Though I didn’t time the car crash, it seemed like around the first ten minutes of the movie... and it sets up most of the story as Yella tries to avoid the violent stalker she was married to and start a new life in the big city. We know that no matter how far she runs, Ben will go to extremes like this to find her. The conflict that Ben brings will always be lurking in the background of every scene.


She barely makes the train, is soaking wet, and when she opens her suitcase? All of her clothes are soaking wet. Great way to start out at a new job, right? When she gets to the hotel in the big city, the clerk takes one look at her - still wet and bedraggled - and insists she pay a deposit. Money that she doesn’t have... until she finds the roll of bills her Father put in her pocket. A hint of hope after the car crash and wet clothes.

After dropping off her suitcase, she rushes to work - not wanting to be late on her first day, but still looking like hell. The executive who hired her is waiting for her in the parking lot. He asks her if she will go up to his office and grab an envelope from his desk and bring it down? This request seems odd, but it’s her first day. The feeling that something is wrong with this request gives the audience that of-kilter feeling that is often part of a thriller story.

After grabbing the envelope from the desk, she is stopped by Security - it seems the Executive was fired for embezzling, barred from entering the building, and because he hired her - she has no job! She is escorted out of the building... where she finds the Executive hiding behind a tree. She hands him the envelope - which is filled with stolen money! He gives her a couple of bucks for her trouble.

Even though this is a slow burn thriller, we have escalating conflict. Her escape from Ben to the “safety” of the big city may not be safe after all! This is part of the slow burn simmering below the surface.

Jobless, in the big city, with her estranged and violent husband hunting for her, she has no idea where to go or what to do next. In the hotel’s restaurant, she’s probably eating the cheapest thing on the menu when she notices a handsome businessman Phillipp (Devid Striesow) studying spreadsheets on his laptop. He notices her and asks with a trace of anger why she is so interested in his business... again, conflict in the big city that shows how it is not the safe haven that she thought it might be.


The next morning, Phillipp knocks at her door and asks if she’d like to earn some money. Um, she’s not that kind of girl. He explains that he’s going to a business meeting and needs an assistant - mostly as a prop. Her job will be to pretend to study the spread sheets as if there is something wrong with them, and on his signal - whisper something in his ear so that the other businessmen become worried... and Phillipp gains the upper hand in the deal. She agrees - she needs the money.

This is kind of a con, and now she is part of it... and that creates some more simmering suspense. What if these businessmen that Phillip is trying to fool realize that something is wrong? She has already helped an embezzler steal money, now she is helping Philipp con some businessmen? What should she help this stranger? More suspense!

But in the meeting, she becomes distracted by kind of an aural flashback of Ben’s car crashing into the river and sinking. Her past - and Ben - reaching out to grab her even in the safety of this business meeting! Will she blow the deal? Will her past ruin her future? But when she snaps out of it and looks at the spreadsheets there really is something wrong with them, and she mentions it out loud, and the deal goes better than expected for Phillipp! She may have a new future working for this man!


But back at the hotel, Ben is waiting in her room. Twist! Once more the threat of Ben simmers to the surface. He has found her! He wants her back - now. The divorce isn’t final, yet. She’s his wife - his property.

When she runs away from him through the maze of hotel hallways, Ben gives chase... So we get a nice little chase scene - some low key action and suspense.

Through the rest of the film, whenever Yella catches a break in life, something goes wrong and / or Ben shows up to drag her back to the small town. You just want this woman to get away from her estranged husband and find happiness - but the story keeps throwing up some great roadblocks.

Though this is more of a slow burn drama than thriller - you want things to start going Yella’s way. Instead, it seems for every step forward in her new life something happens that sets her two steps back. Hoss’ combination of beauty and that haggard look of someone who hasn’t slept in days works perfectly for this character, and in deal after deal her accounting skills save the day for Phillipp - she’s more intelligent that the big businessmen who sit across from her in these deals. There is hope for her escape from the past because she is very good at accounting and Phillipp provides a chance for a new life for her...


But Ben keeps stalking her... and there’s a twist ending (which you may see coming from a mile away - but that just creates dread, so it still works).

The key to any Slow Burn story is that it is always on fire... and eventually that fire erupts and burns everything down. The simmering threat below the surface boils over in Act Three... and causes all kinds of serious damage. And that is what happens in this story. Yella’s escape from her violent ex husband comes to and end... and things get very very explosive and not everyone survives. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but all of this tension and suspense that have building pay off in action - and that action is big enough to satisfy an audience that has been waiting throughout the film for it. Which is another key to Slow Burn stories - when you save all of the action for the end, yoiu have to deliver as much action as there would have been had this been a conventional story with a “genre juice” scene around every ten minutes... but you need to have that all at once!

Til death do they part.

If you are looking for a conventional thriller, this probably isn’t it. If you are looking for an arthouse slow burn story, this will probably keep you interested.... and Nina Hoss gives a great performance.

- Bill

Friday, February 19, 2021

Friday's With Hitchcock: Dial H Interview With Hitchcock

DIAL H FOR HITCHCOCK is an interview and examination of Hitchcock's work.

Interview With Hitch.

- Bill

Of course, I have my own books focusing on Hitchcock...



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!


Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

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UK Folks Click Here.

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USA Readers click here for more info!


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 52 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.

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