Monday, August 30, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: COOLEY HIGH (1975)

Back To School...

Directed by: Michael Schultz
Written by: Eric Monte
Starring: Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs, Garrett Morris, Cynthia Davis.
Produced by: Steve Krantz (for AIP).
Music by: Freddie Perren.




Do you want to know the importance of franchises in motion pictures? George Lucas had a massive hit movie which is largely forgotten today and ends up a footnote in his career... a hit film that changed pop culture and opened the door for other huge hit films that imitated it or were inspired by it... a hit that is alluded to in other films and gets a whole subpolot in Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and surely spawned BACK TO THE FUTURE. But because there wasn’t really any potential for a franchise and the sequel they tried to use to cash in on the massive success of the original flopped (the original’s concept was only good for one story, as opposed to STAR WARS which was originally planned as a 9 film series but still left room for dozens of other films like the upcoming YOUNG JABBA and the next film in the current trilogy). Elton John’s hit “Crocodile Rock” only exists because this film created that mass change in pop culture that brought back the music from the 50's and early 60s. I’m talking about the film that spawned the HAPPY DAYS TV show, that huge hit AMERICAN GRAFFITI. I was in High School when it came out, and suddenly every school dance was 50's themed, Prom and Homecoming Dance, and what kids were wearing - we were all dressed the way our parent’s dressed when they were in High School! The film’s sountrack (of old 50's and 60s’ hits) went Triple Platinum and landed at #10 on the Billboard charts (the STAR WARS album didn’t make it to the top 100... though the disco version of the theme song was a hit single). Did STAR WARS change music or fashion or slang?

The tagline for AMERICAN GRAFFITI was “Where were you in ‘62?” and the film we are going to look at this week takes place two years later in a galaxy far, far away - instead of the suburban high school experience with school dances and cruising and malt shops, we get the urban high school experience. It was also a hit and spawned a TV series (WHAT’S HAPPENING), launched a bunch of careers, and created one of film’s greatest unsolved mysteries...

Where were you in ‘64?

The Chicago Projects?



This Black urban version of AMERICAN GRAFFITI swaps joy riding in stolen cars for cruising, the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago for suburban tract homes, a crappy diner (Martha’s) for the malt shop, Garrett Morris for Terry McGovern as the favorite teacher, a new girl in school for that girl in the white T-Bird, and Motown hits for The Beach Boys and Buddy Holly. Factor in a dangerous neighborhood and you have a cross between AMERICAN GRAFFITI and one of my favorite films MEAN STREETS, directed by a pal of Lucas'.

Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton Jacobs) are best friends and seniors at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School. They’ve grown up in the slums, and are likely to stay in the slums unless some miracle occurs. The miracle for Cochise comes in the form of a possible basketball scholarship to some college - he’s the star player in their high school and if he can get out of the projects and into some college he has a chance. Preach would also like to get into some college, but despite being probably the smartest kid at Cooley, he doesn’t apply himself - skipping class constantly. Preach is a dreamer - a writer and poet. Black kids can get basketball scholarships, but poet scholarships? What college needs a bunch of Black poets to win anything? So Preach sees graduation from High School as a possible dead end... and that scares him. There’s a great scene where Preach tells the others of his dream of going to Hollywood and becoming a famous writer, and they laugh at him. Preach blows up and says he won’t work in any factory for the rest of his life. But he knows he probably will.


DEFAULT DRAMA


The film opens with a comedy scene where Cochise wakes up Preach so they can head to school, and we get most of the background on these two characters. I have a Script Tip in rotation about how every film, no matter the genre, is a drama by default. A comedy film works because there is drama underneath, and this film uses the conflict of their situation to create comedy. And like the current hit GIRLS TRIP, after a series of funny episodes the drama underneath comes to a head and things that began as comedy slowly turn more dramatic. But that’s after we’ve had a bunch of laughs as we become friends with these characters.

Preach and Cochise cut class along with two of their friends, Pooter (Corin Rogers) and Tyrone (Joseph Carter Wilson), and bumper surf on the back of the bus - hanging on to the outside! - across town to the zoo, where they hop the turnstile, con a girl at the snack shack into giving them some popcorn and candy bars, and just have a fun day goofing off that the zoo. Preach and Cochise have a method of cutting class without getting caught by returning for the last class of the day, so all of the fun they have is kind of against a ticking clock and sometimes it looks as if they aren’t going to make it. In their goofing off, a gorilla throws poop at Pooter - and a big bunch of poop gets stuck to his sweater. No matter how much he tries to clean it off, some of it’s still there. When time runs out, they hop the turnstile on the elevated train and head back - but Pooter’s gorilla poop sweater quickly clears the train car.

When they get to school, there is a chance for Pooter to sweet talk a cute girl, but the sweater ruins it. This film has a great tone - even though the background is the gritty city, the kids get into the usual high school trouble and have all kinds of fun. They are looking for love... and sex... and go to house parties where they break into the liquor cabinet. They have the standard High School romantic issues - Preach is going out with Sandra (Christine Jones) and fears she might get pregnant and he’ll end up as a factory worker instead of a writer. Where Cochise has his future mapped out with college and maybe an NBA career, Preach is a gambler - both with his life and his spare change. He’s constantly throwing dice with guys who are trouble.

Like a pair of neighborhood kids who have “Just Said Yes To Drugs” and “Just Said No To School”, Robert (Norman Gibson) and Stone (Sherman Smith) who are interesting antagonists, since they are childhood friends of Preach and Cochise whose lives have turned to crime. If Preach loses too much money to Robert and Stone, they won’t hesitate to beat the crap out of their childhood pal. It’s an interesting dynamic and kind of sums up the story. Nostalgia and fun... with a hint of danger in the background. In between Preach & Cochise and Robert & Stone is Damon (Maurice Marshall) who is a wanna-be gangster. Damon is a good kid who sees crime as the only future where he’s not broke. Preach is both well read and literate, and a gambler - which brings him into contact with dangerous people.

And gambling at Martha’s Diner is where Preach and Cochise first see the new girl at school, Brenda (Cynthia Davis), who is beautiful and aloof and smart as a whip. AMERICAN GRAFFITI had the blonde in the T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) who was the ideal but unattainable dream girl, and here we have Brenda. She’s out of *everyone’s* league.

But when the guys go to a house party on Friday night, Preach spots Brenda and makes a play for her (hoping Sandra doesn’t notice). Brenda is impressed that he is a poet and writer... but just when you think things are going Preach’s way, Damon starts a fight that pretty much destroys the house. The girl who threw was worried that her parents might find out... and now the door to the bathroom has been broken off its hinges!


COMEDY CAR CHASE


Preach and Cochise leave the party and Robert and Stone pull up in a Cadillac they borrowed from a friend - would the guys like to go for a drive? Sure! Preach ends up behind the wheel, and they drive around town having a great time. When they stop at a light next to a police car, Robert and Stone tell Preach to be cool... the car isn’t exactly “borrowed” - it’s stolen. We go from comedy to more serious - but still fun. Preach jumps the light, the police give chase, and now we have a comedy car chase - but with serious repercussions if they are caught. The car chase goes through a series of amusing obstacles, ending when they drive through a warehouse and the police car chasing them gets picked up by a forklift! As the two police officers demand that the forklift driver lower them, Preach and Cochise and Robert and Stone zoom away... laughing at the two cops.

On Saturday Preach, Cochise, Tyrone and Pooter study for a history test... get bored... and decide to go to the movies. But the guys are broke - so they go up to a couple of hookers pretending to be cops, “busting them” and confiscating all of their money. Unlike the movie scene in another High School coming of age movie, DINER, there is no popcorn bucket with a hole in it... but there is a fight Pooter accidentally starts which causes them to race out of the theater.

The story has an episodic structure, with comedy scenes like the zoo and the house party and the car chase and the hookers and movie fight loosely connected together - each is a comedy adventure in Preach and Cochise’s life. One of the issues is that the episodes don’t really add up to anything and don’t escalate in any meaningful way. AMERICAN GRAFFITI has a character arc for each of its characters, and the scenes with each are pieces of those larger arcs. Here we get pieces... that are amusing and have you laughing, but don’t seem to be building to anything larger - even though there is something larger.


BETRAYALS


That changes around halfway into the story when Preach and Brenda hook up. After several scenes where we think it might happen and then it doesn’t, and we’ve given up on this potential romance, Brenda agrees to go back to his place. Where she tells him she’s a virgin. Oh, boy! It’s bad enough that he’s cheating on Sandra, but he’s looking for a one night stand... what is Brenda looking for?

Afterwards, Preach lets slip that when he first saw Brenda he bet Cochise that he could sleep with her, and this doesn’t win him any points with her. She storms out, past Preach’s little sister, and there goes any chance of a rematch.

Monday at school, Preach and Sandra are getting ready for class (and that history test) when Brenda comes up to him and gives him a big passionate kiss... then leaves. This starts a fight between Preach and Sandra... and she breaks up with him... secretly rebounding with Cochise. There is a big moment where Cochise considers the repercussions of sleeping with his best friend’s girl - then does it anyway.

Just as Preach and Cochise get ready to take that history test... the police arrive and arrest them for stealing that Cadillac. Robert and Stone have also been arrested. They are taken to the police station and split up, where the police try to turn them against each other. But even though Robert and Stone actually stole the car, they decide not to snitch on them. They’ve known each other since they were kids, right?

Their history teacher, Mr. Mason (Garrett Morris), comes to their rescue. Many of the other teachers know these kids have little or no future so they just go through the motions of teaching them - but Mr. Mason is different. There’s a great scene where Mason and one of the policemen share a confiscated joint and he tells the cop that Robert and Stone are criminals - too late for them, but Preach and Cochise are good kids with futures. Both are headed to college. If they are charged with car theft, no scholarships and no college and no future. The cop decides to let Preach and Cochise go and arrest Robert and Stone.


SET IT UP!


Two of the greatest scenes in this film are with minor characters who are never really set up... and that makes them feel more like plot devices than people. If Mr. Mason had been part of the story before this scene, it would have been a much stronger scene. And that doesn’t mean you’d have to spend a lot of screen time with Mr. Mason - just introduce him early and keep him in the background of some scenes. Maybe even make him antagonistic at first, warning Preach and Cochise not to goof off so much. That way when he came to their rescue it would have had more impact. But this is one of those great scenes and characters that could have been used better in the story.

The other character that just pops up out of nowhere and steals a scene is Preach’s Mom (Mary Larkins) who works three different jobs to pay rent and keep food on the table. After hearing about Preach’s arrest and that girl he had up in his room and all of the other things that are against house rules, she tells Preach to go get the belt - the one she has been threatening to use on the kids for years - and prepare to get his ass whooped. Preach goes up to get the belt and prepares for his punishment, but when he gets back downstairs his Mom has fallen asleep. So he kisses her gently and goes out. This is a great moment, but it’s also the only scene that his Mom appears in! Hey, he had a Mom from the very beginning, right? Why not set her up in an earlier scene, instead of just have her show up here as kind of a plot point?

SPOILERS!

There’s a reason why this film is remembered today, why they are talking about remaking it, why it is referenced in songs by the Fugees and others. We’ve laughed, but now it’s time to cry...

Spoilers for the ending of COOLEY HIGH follow.

You have been warned.

Preach discovers that Cochise has slept with Sandra and they get into a huge argument - their friendship is over.

Meanwhile, Robert and Stone - out on bail - believe that the reason why the police let Preach and Cochise go is because they two snitched on them...

Preach escapes Robert and Stone, bumps into Brenda - who tells him that Cochise is waiting under the elevated train tracks. Preach knows that Robert and Stone might find him, and races to save him...

But Robert and Stone and their toady Damon *have* found Cochise, and are taking turns punching him. When it’s Damon’s turn, he wants to show off in front of the real gangsters, and punches Cochise so hard his head hits the train trestle... and dies.

Preach discovers Cochise dead, and breaks down. This is a very serious and unexpected ending to what has up until now been a comedy. We have had hints of danger all along, but no one expects the hero to die.

There’s a great final scene, as Preach waits until Cochise’s funeral is over - and when everyone else has left, says a personal goodbye before heading to Los Angeles.



Just like AMERICAN GRAFFITI there is a “where are they now” credit sequence that tells us Preach became a successful Hollywood screenwriter, Brenda became a librarian and has three kids, Robert and Stone were killed in a liquor store hold up, etc.

Though the film is a lot of fun, that ending is what haunts me to this day. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll fall in love... and even if you're a white guy from the suburbs you will identify with these characters and share in their high school experiences - which were similar to mine in many ways. Heck, I saw this movie at the drive in when I was the age of these characters.

Screenwriter Eric Monte went on to create GOOD TIMES and WHAT’S HAPPENING? and write for MOESHA, director Michael Schultz is one of the great directors - he followed this up with CAR WASH and GREASED LIGHTNING and SARGENT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and one of my favorites BUSTIN’ LOOSE! and he directed Denzel Washington’s first film - over 100 directing credits including lots of my favorite TV shows (ROCKFORD FILES to CHUCK) - how come he’s not famous? You know what happened with the two stars - they continued being stars! But the big mystery is Cynthia Davis who played Brenda - and steals every scene that she is in. Drop dead beautiful, can deliver a comedy line, great in the dramatic scenes... and this is her only credit. She just vanished off the face of the earth! Did she really become a librarian and pop three kids like her character? How did this great talent just vanish?

- Bill

PS: There's an internet site that says Cynthia Davis is a married grandmother - even has pictures.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Teresa Wright on SHADOW OF A DOUBT

Teresea Wright talks about SHADOW OF A DOUBT in this interview clip...

You may find this shocking, but SHADOW OF A DOUBT was Wright’s 4th film... and she was the star. She was born in Harlem, parents divorced, bounced around as a kid... but her uncle wasn’t a serial killer, he was a serial person - a professional stage actor, and Wright was interested in trying that as a profession. She worked in various theater companies in New England and then landed a small role in the New York Company for Wilder’s OUR TOWN, as well as understudied for the lead. When the actress playing the lead was whisked off to Hollywood to play the lead in the film version of OUR TOWN, Wright stepped in to play the lead on stage... and was great. That lead to being cast in the Broadway run of LIFE WITH FATHER, and then she was whisked away to Hollywood to be in Hellman’s THE LITTLE FOXES... and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in her first film! In her next film she played Gary Cooper’s wife in PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, and was nominated for Best Actress! Her next film was MRS. MINIVER... and she WON the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

So SHADOW being her 4th film isn’t as surprising as her career up until this film. This was Hitchcock’s favorite film, and the combination of small town story and quiet suspense when there’s a potential killer at the dinner table is great. If you haven’t seen this movie, check it out - I would say that it’s unusual for a Hitchcock, film, but Hitchcock was one of the most experimental filmmakers in history, so many of his films were unusual and experimental. Hitch always said that he wanted to take murder fro the dark alleys and bring it back to the typical home and kitchen... and this is a movie that does that.



One of the great things that Hitch does in this film is to compare and contrast the two Charlies.


When we first see Uncle Charles he’s sitting up in bed smoking a cigar, maybe remembering a pleasant experience (which may have included murdering someone). When we first see young Charlie, she is sitting up in bed in the exact same position (though not smoking a cigar), dreaming of having an adventurous experience (though probably not murdering anyone). Both shots are the same composition and have slow dolly ins. Even though whether the camera dollies or not is the director’s job - the writer had to come up with the scenes of both sitting up in bed. Creating that similarity for the director to photograph. Our job is to set up the story and characters so that the director can find the perfect shot(s) to show that these two are very similar people. The writer also decided to give both protagonist and antagonist the same name - which makes the audience automatically look for those similarities between the two. There are many other things Uncle Charles and young Charlie have in common... and this helps us compare the two in order to find their differences.

- 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!

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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.

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- Bill

Thursday, August 26, 2021

THRILLER Thursday: The Prisoner In The Mirror

Best Of Thriller: Prisoner In The Mirror

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



Season: 1, Episode: 34.
Airdate: May 23, 1961

Director: Herschel Daugherty
Writer: Robert Arthur
Cast: Henry Daniell, Lloyd “It’s a cookbook” Bochner, Marion Ross.
Music: Morton Stevens
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The hand of death strikes suddenly, and without regard for the plain, the beautiful, the bad or the good. For when the hand of death is controlled by a force of evil the consequences can defy belief. Our story tonight concerns just such a force and it features a most unusual star: This mirror. In it you will see our players caught in a strange reflection. Mr. Lloyd Bochner, Miss Marion Ross, Mr. Jack Mullaney, Miss Pat Michon, and Mr. Henry Daniell. So be prepared to gaze through a glass darkly. But don’t! Please don’t stand too close! I should hate to see this happen to any of you.”

(Break to continue the prologue story in 1910)

“Young Robert was no murderer, nor was he mad as he may have seemed. He was a victim of one of the most diabolical practitioners of black magic ever known, Count Alessandro Cagliostro. Only a legend you say? Well, perhaps, but that’s for you to decide. Now we resume our tale, more than half a century later.”

(Now to present day)



Synopsis: Paris, 1910: The elegant Robert de Chantenay (David Frankham) and woman Marie Blanchard (Erika Peters) sip champagne in a restaurant. Robert does some amazing slight of hand magic producing a bouquet of roses, a bird, a diamond necklace! She is amazed and amused and wants more. He uses the diamond necklace to hypnotize her... but the end of his hypnosis is a frightening: “Life transformed into death.” He suddenly turns into a skeleton, and puts the necklace around her neck with a boney hand! Who is Robert de Chantenay? A sorcerer? A demon?

Later, Robert paints the mirror in his room black... when there is a knock at the door. It is his Mother (Frieda Inescort), who says there are men downstairs who want to speak to him... *police*men! They have a warrant for his arrest for the murder of Marie! Robert tells his Mother that he is innocent, but could never prove it... so he jumps out a window to his death! Splat! On the cobblestones below.

Back to Karloff for the second half of his introduction, then...



Paris, Today: In the Societe Curiosites Historiques, Professor Harry Langham (Lloyd Bochner) is investigating the historical figure known as Count Alesssandro Cagliostro but is warned not to by Professor Thibault (Peter Brocco) because Cagliostro was pure evil... undying evil. They are interrupted by Harry’s research assistant Fred Forrest (Jack Mullaney) who reminds Harry of an appointment. Harry tells Thibault that his research has lead him to look for a large mirror owned by Cagliostro that was acquired by Robert de Chantenay and sold soon after his suicide in 1910. Thibault suggests he look through the records at Armand’s, where every valuable antique bought or sold or stolen in Paris has been catalogued. Professor Thibault still wants Harry to abandon his quest for information about Cagliostro and offers to take him to the tomb of Yvette Dulaine, a favorite at the court of Louis The Sixteenth who fell under the spell of Cagliostro which lead to a strange and terrible fate. A dark tomb of a beautiful woman who suffered a terrible fate? Who could say no to that?

The Tomb: downstairs, gated and padlocked. Dark and creepy. Harry asks, “How did she die?” Thibault answers, “Did she die at all?” He opens the coffin and... Yvette (Patricia Michon) looks exactly the same as when she died in 1780. Is she dead or under a spell? Harry looks at her, she’s young and attractive... forever. Also probably dead. Is he falling in love with a dead woman? How could she remain so well preserved?



Harry talks to Mssr. Armand (Louis Mercier), who has a huge collection of antique mirrors... including one covered with black paint which was once owned by Robert de Chantenay. When Armand steps away to speak with someone else, Harry begins to remove the paint seeing the reflection of himself... and Yvette standing behind him!



Boston, Today: Professor Harry’s house, Fred and his sister Kay (Marion Ross looking nothing like Richie’s mom on HAPPY DAYS) are unpacking the mirror that Harry paid a fortune for in Paris. Cagliostro’s mirror? Fred wants Kay to hurry up and marry Harry so that he’ll settle down and stop these obsessive searches for weird historical artifacts. That’s when Harry comes home, kisses Kay, and asks Fred to help him carry the mirror upstairs. They place the mirror in the bedroom, and as soon as Fred and Kay are gone, Harry looks into the mirror for Yvette. He scrapes off the rest of the paint, until it’s a normal mirror again. No reflections but his own. Harry pulls up a chair to watch the mirror... and as darkness falls outside, he goes downstairs to dinner.

Professor Fred has dinner with his fiance Kay, who asks why he’s so distant. He tells her the story of Yvette... forever young and dead in that crypt. Kay wonders if he’s fallen in love with... a corpse. How can she compete with that? After dinner Harry goes up to his room and look at the mirror again. He is *obsessed* with Dead Yvette! Kay’s fears are not unfounded.



In the middle of the night, a weird reflection in the mirror: a flame? Yes! It’s Yvette lighting candles on “her side” of the mirror. Her side of the mirror is another room in another time, and Harry is not reflected there. It’s as if the mirror is a portal into another world. Harry talks to the mirror, on “her side” Yvette shakes her head when asked if she can speak... he wants to help her. Maybe he wants to kiss her, too, but Kay knocks on the door. She was worried about him. He was acting strangely at dinner, and then raced upstairs afterwards. Is he okay? Harry opens the door, but wants to keep her away from the mirror (and Yvette, the other woman in his life)... Then asks her to look in the mirror and tell him what she sees. Kay moves to the mirror, looks straight into the glass... but only sees her own reflection. The world on the other side of the mirror has vanished! “She’s gone! You scared her away!” He yells at Kay to get out of the room. She thinks he may have gone a little crazy and splits. He *has* gone a little crazy...

When Harry goes back to the mirror, instead of Yvette’s reflection in that other world he sees “another victim of Count Alexander Cagliosto” (the awesome Henry Daniel) who claims Cagliostro’s evil spell has made him and Yvette prisoners in this mirror... and Harry can help them escape. Harry looks at the beautiful Yvette, he can help her escape? All he has to do is repeat aloud one of Cagliostro’s spells... and then the Man hypnotizes Harry. Hey, that’s not a victim of Cagliostro, that’s the evil man himself! As Harry speaks back the spell, Cagliostro orders his soul to join them in the mirror... and Harry’s soul gets up from the chair (his body left behind) and walks *into the mirror*! Joining them on the other side! This is done in one shot, by the way: which is totally cool. A “how did they do that?” moment.



Harry wakes up in the mirror world...

Where Cagliostro tells him that he has left his body unoccupied by a soul, which will allow Cagliostro to occupy it! Harry watches as Cagliostro exist the mirror and enters Harry’s sleeping body on the other side... and then his body awakens! Harry has allowed the evil of Cagliostro to be release once more upon the world! He is trapped in the mirror with Yvette while his body goes on an evil rampage!

The body of Harry picks up some hot babe named Laura (Pamela Curran) in a sleazy waterfront bar, does some slight of hand magic to make flowers appear and gives them to her. He takes her for a walk in the moonlight...

Wakes up the next morning and has a conversation with Harry’s soul, trapped in the mirror. A knock on the bedroom door... and Kay says there’s a man downstairs to see you... a Policeman (echo from the opening scene!). Harry/Cagliostro tells Key he’ll talk to the Policeman in private, and then apologizes to her for acting strange these past few days. When Kay leaves, Harry/Cagliostro goes to the mirror and tells Harry that he plans on nailing her later. Why wait until after the marriage for the honeymoon? How can Harry get out of the mirror world and stop him?



Harry/Cagliostro goes downstairs and talks to Sgt. Burke from Homicide (Walter Reed) who wants to know where he was at 3AM this morning. Harry says he was here, working. Burke says that a cop on the beat saw him enter the house at 4:15 AM. Harry explains that he took a walk at 4AM. Well, Sgt Burke say it seems that one of his students saw him leave the bar with Laura... who was later found murdered. Harry/Cagliostro says he isn’t exactly the type to hang out in bars like that, and his students shouldn’t be, either. I mean, he’s a college professor! What would he be doing in such a place? Obviously a case of mistaken identity. Sgt. Burke leaves, agreeing that it’s most likely a case of mistaken identity.

Then Harry/Cagliostro lays a massive kiss on Kay. Rotor rooter tongue action!

That night Harry/Cagliostro and Kay leave for a night on the town, passing Fred... who has a copy of the paper with the murder headline in his hands.

In the mirror world, Harry is trapped... worried about Kay.

Fred goes up to Harry’s room to look for clues to Harry’s recent strange actions (is he the killer of that woman?), but as much as Harry yells from inside the mirror, Fred can not hear him. Fred eventually falls asleep in the chair facing the mirror...



Harry/Cagliostro and Kay come back from their night out and Kay wants a cigarette, looks in Harry’s coat pocket and finds some women’s ear rings... which match the ear rings in the newspaper photo of the murdered girl that Fred left on the table. Suspense: is her fiancĂ© a killer? What should she do? Run? Wimpy women run, Kay confronts Harry/Cagliostro... who takes the ear ring out of her hands and uses it to hypnotize her!

Fred hears a noise and goes downstairs, finding Kay... murdered! Fred chases Harry/Cagliostro upstairs into the bedroom. They have a big fight, and *the mirror breaks*! Harry/Cagliostro dies... and Harry’s soul is trapped with Yvette in the mirror world forever!



Review: That might be a happy ending, since he gets the girl, or a frightening ending because he should have been more careful what he wished for!

On a message board we’re talking about how amazingly high concept TWILIGHT ZONES were, considering they were made on sixties TV show budgets. This is another example of what you can do on a very limited budget. We not only have the idea of the mirror world, we have *body swapping* years before FREAKY FRIDAY! The great thing about body swapping is that it’s just two actors acting like each other. What does that cost? Here it’s particularly sinister because we have an evil man taking joy rides in other people’s bodies and leaving the body owner to clean up the mess (or commit suicide because there is no way to clean it up). It’s a frightening idea, and it’s dirt cheap to film.



The Mirror World is another great idea that costs nothing (but talent) to film. The “sells it shot” where Harry’s soul detaches from his body and walks into the mirror is done with two simple shots. One is a double exposure with the camera locked down and Harry sitting in the chair, then a shot of harry getting up and walking away from the chair. Marry them and you have one Harry sitting as a translucent Harry gets up and walks away from his sitting self. The other shot is a little more complicated, but still not a budget buster. We see Harry *walk into the mirror* and disappear from this side as he exists only in the other side! All one shot. Of course, this is a $1.98 special effect where the mirror is just a frame with the “mirror world” on the other side. Harry just walks up to the frame, steps over it, and continues walking on the other side where Yvette is. Then he turns and looks out at a shot of his body in that chair. The Marx Brothers did a more complicated version of this in DUCK SOUP for laughs. When the mirror world disappeared, they just put a mirror in that frame! Though they didn’t do this for the episode, if you wanted to do this now I’d get a semi silvered mirror (two way mirror) and you could make a real reflection fade out into the mirror world without any cuts at all. (It looks like they might have done this in the episode, but the fade is too quick.) If you are doing a low budget movie you have to use much more imagination... that’s what you have instead of money. Same was true in television when this episode was made.

The echo scene of the police coming to talk to Robert in 1910 Paris and later Harry in present day America is great because we know the outcome of the Robert scene and fear that this will be the outcome for Harry as well. Things like this work in any genre and create suspense and dread... at no cost.



Henry Daniell was in five episode of THRILLER and is one of those great hambone British actors who just stole every second he was on screen. No one could be as deliciously evil as Daniell. He was an excellent Professor Moriarty in the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies and costarred with Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER in 1945.

Marion Ross, Mrs. Cunningham from HAPPY DAYS, is a that young wholesome woman you’d take home to the parents and marry. She’s young and attractive, but not in an overt sexual way. This totally works for the story, because it’s one thing for Cagliostro to rape and murder some slutty bar girl, but much more shocking if it’s the super nice virgin. I realize that’s just plain wrong to say: it’s awful either way. But the in visual shorthand it’s one thing to kill a growling pittbull and another to kill a cute puppy. Yeah, both are dead dogs, but audience’s make value judgements and sometimes we use those value judgements for dramatic purposes.



Lloyd Bochner is one of those actors who are *everywhere*. The year after this he would be on TWILIGHT ZONE in Richard Matheson’s TO SERVE MAN, and he’s *everywhere*. He’s in my favorite film POINT BLANK, he’s a villain on THE WILD WILD WEST, he’s on both THE MAN and THE GIRL FROM UNCLE, he’s on HOAGN’S HEROES and IT TAKES A THIEF, he’s on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and COLUMBO. He has 202 show credits on IMDB and some of those are TV shows where he was a recurring character, so it’s *hundreds* of total credits! This is a guy who could play heroes and villains and everything in between. This is his only THRILLER episode, and TO SERVE MAN was his only TWILIGHT ZONE episode, but he is memorable in both.

Though this episode isn’t as scary as some of the other horror eps, it has a creepy idea that sticks with you. What if someone could take your body for a joyride?

Bill



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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Film Courage Plus: Big Screens Need Big Ideas

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?

It's a big screen, you need ideas big enough to fill it!



You say you have an idea for a movie... but do you? Maybe you have an idea for a TV show or a novel or a short story or a mini-series or a stage play or a ... How can you be sure that your idea is a *movie*?

In the clip I talk about the problem with many of my early screenplays - they were too small for the big screen. The story ideas would have been better suited to TV. Even though longform cable shows like GAME OF THRONES might make this theory a little confusing, for the most part the size of the average screen reflects the size of the idea necessary to fill that screen. So when you are coming up with ideas for movies - the big screen - you need larger than life ideas. That average FBI profiler chases serial killer idea is fine for a smaller screen, but you need something with a larger scope to make it big enough for the big screen.

"Look, there’s no question that we are heading toward a future where event films are only going to become more event-sized. You’ve got so many options in your home for viewing content that there has to be a need for you to leave your home, and what is going to drive you to do that?" Joe Russo - AVENGERS ENDGAME.

A movie is seen on a big screen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world at the same time (more or less). You sit in a crowded cinema to see a movie, so it is not a small intimate story. You are sharing it with 300 people when you see it. The story needs *scope* (not the mouth wash, the spectacle) - as I say in the clip, people have to spend a small fortune to go to the cinema these days, it needs to be an *event* in order to get them to leave their homes and drive and park and spend all of that money. Just a regular story is going to be a tough sell to the producer and a tough sell to the audience.

I know that many of you are mentally coming up with a list of movies that prove me wrong, and that’s fine... but the business is changing as I write this. The middle has fallen out and medium budget films are failing at the box office. There was an article a while back in Variety about movies like LONG SHOT that have two stars, a great funny story, and even though it deals with a Presidential race... the story was too small to attract the kind of audience it needed to make back it’s money. Low budget films can still work because they don’t have to make as much money to recoup their costs, but everything else needs to be a big enough event to get a mass audience. The middle movies end up being “we’ll wait for Netflix” - which seems to be where those mid-range romantic comedies are being made these days. So the bigger the screen, the bigger the idea needs to be...

Yeah, you have a wall sized TV and comfy cinema seats with built in cup holders at home... but the average person is watching a 32" TV set in their livingroom. They watch those kind of small, intimate, personal stories that fit that screen size. Cop shows and comedies and other things about real people - rather than larger than life characters. Of course, even TV has shows about witches and aliens and zombies - because even on a small screen people want to watch escapist stories. But in a cinema? Larger than life stories are expected. So is your idea big enough to fill the screen?

COMING UP WITH BIG IDEAS

When I had my day job working in the warehouse for a decade, I wrote a good page a day - and that's 3 scripts a year for a grand total of 30 scripts. One of my current spare time projects (like I have spare time) is to rewrite all of these old scripts and make the ideas big enough to fit the screen. One that I finished rewriting a few years ago was about a bodyguard and a woman pregnant with the President's kid - and the President's people want her dead so that he can be re-elected. THE BODYGUARD meets what's in Bill Clinton's pants. This was pre-Clinton though, and was kind of a JFK-like Prez and a Marilyn Monroe type. There always seemed to be some movie with a similar idea, just as I prepared to send it out. First we had THE BODYGUARD, then we had all of those Clinton scandal movies like ABSOLUTE POWER and MURDER AT 1600 where the President is having an affair and kills the girl himself. Not exactly my script, but kind of the same idea. Just when those had run their course we got a half dozen Bodyguard-Protects-Pregnant-Babe movies, at least two or three of which starred Clive Owen. My script needed something that really made it different! That made it big enough for the screen.

One of those Clive Owen movies had the *only pregnant woman in the world* - after babies just stopped being born. That’s a big idea! I wrote my script back when I didn't understand that high concept isn't just doing search and replace to make it The President or make the bad guys into Vampires or have the story take place In Outer Space. I had a weak concept - one that was obvious instead of inventive. The more unique your concept is, the less likely someone else will come up with it and the more likely it will be something personal.

What I needed was *more* imagination to make it more unique (and more personal) (and bigger in scope).

So, what I needed to do was give this old script a high concept injection that would change the core of the story. To take the basic plotting and characters and overlay a new high concept. Add a new weird element. Make it a bigger story. The bodyguard protecting the pregnant babe is still there - but instead of her pregnant with the President's kid, I raised the stakes and changed the genre by having the father be someone even more powerful. So the story is *now* about the Vatican's version of Indiana Jones who unearths the key to cracking a code in the missing Dead Sea Scroll... and discovers that the second coming is about to take place - the Second Son will be born in a certain hospital on September 29th... So the archeologist jets to the hospital to find and protect the pregnant woman from Satan's minions - who want to kill her before she gives birth. Various forms of demons attack (instead of The President's handler's secret hit squad) and each form of demon is some cool kind of monster. I tried to make the demons all kind of high concept. Coming up with them was fun. And the new end twist - she gives birth, and it's *Satan's* son! Okay - kinda RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK meets THE BODYGUARD meets DAVINCI CODE meets CONSTANTINE meets THE OMEN... but much better than the stale script it began life as... and it examines faith and responsibility, a couple of things I've been thinking about lately. I'm hoping they hire Clive Owen as the lead.

TWO TOOLS FOR SISTER SARA



Here are two basic tools for making your idea bigger - MAGNIFICATION and SUBSTITUTION. The above is an example of substitution - I rewrote a script with a small idea about assassins trying to kill a woman because she is pregnant with the President’s child, and substituted God or Satan as the father. That only changes everything. Basically substitution is a “high concept injection” - you can take a small or smallish story and substitute a larger or more cinematic conflict. I really like 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE - which is the story of a woman who gets into a car accident and wakes up in a stranger’s house... and the stranger is pretty damned strange. Does that sound like MISERY? A man gets intro a car accident and wakes up in a stranger’s house? Same basic story concept. MISERY is about a novelist who wakes up in his Number One Fan’s house - and she wants him to write a new novel just for her... or else. A snow storm keeps him trapped in the house, until... In 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE it isn’t a snow storm, it’s an alien invasion. Substitution. The weirdo doesn’t want her to write a novel, but she may be needed to help him propagate the human race. Eeew!

The great thing about 10 CLOVERDFIELD is they use the alien invasion as a mystery element - she doesn’t believe it happened and thinks this old guy is just a pervert... until she sees what is going on outside the bunker. Substitution is kind of a cosmetic change - though you still have to do a page one rewrite to turn a story like MISERY into a story like 10 CLOVERFIELD, the story conflict remains about someone being held captive inside a building and the cat and mouse relationship between them. The snow storm or alien invasion is the background.

MAGNIFICATION is going to change the story conflict itself. Make the conflict larger. This is a tool that can be used to find your “doorway” into a story - so you probably don’t know what it feels like to be wrongly accused of murder and going on the run from the police... so how can you write about that authentically? How can you get into that character? But you probably have been wrongly accused of doing something at work - stealing Milton’s red stapler or maybe someone’s lunch or maybe screwing up when really it was someone else who screwed up. And you have had to hide from Milton (or whoever’s lunch went missing) for part of the day - avoiding them in hallways. So you can magnify those authentic emotions - blow them way out of proportion - to understand how it feels to be wrongly accused of murder and write something like THE FUGITIVE.

But you can use Magnification not only to understand how the wrongly accused character feels in THE FUGITIVE, but to magnify the problem in a smaller story idea until it is big enough to fill a cinema screen. To take a core conflict like being wrongly accused and magnifying it into something much bigger... and maybe high concept. In SALT Angelina Jolie's character is accused of being a deep cover Russian spy - working in the CIA! So now we have a big spy thriller with all kinds of action scenes filling the screen. But can we make it bigger? There's an old British science fiction movie, THE CREEPING UNKNOWN about an astronaut who returns from space... different. He is slowly becoming an alien. That story is told from the government's point of view as they chase and try to capture him, but let's Switch It to the astronaut's point of view...

(Switching It is another great idea tool - in the Idea Machine Blue Book I have an idea about an actor up for a role as a hit man who pretends to be a hit man in a mob bar... and accidentally takes a job killing someone. And the mobster will kill him if he doesn't!
Then I Switch It to a mobster accidentally taking a job as an actor. A casting agent looking for "authentic bit part actors" goes into the same mob bar and meets this entertaining guy who has the look and attitude of a mobster, and casts him in a small role with only two lines. Except this guy is *great*! So they write a larger part for him... not knowing that he's actually a mob hit man. Well, when the Oscar nominations come out, he is one of the 5 up for Best Supporting Actor! And he has a unique way of dealing with competition! Okay, that's your mini lesson on coming up with ideas by Switching It)

So our protagonist is an Astronaut who comes back from outer space... different. He feels a little strange. And while in quarantine he notices strange scales growing on his chest - like a lizard! He tries to keep the medical team from noticing it, because he wants to go home to his wife and kids rather than be stuck even longer in quarantine. Maybe it's just a rash? But the scales begin to spread, and he escapes from the NASA quarantine facility and goes on the run... accused of being an alien invader. And now our idea is even bigger that SALT's deep cover Russian agent! And our Astronaut hero who just wants to get back to his family, finds himself doing things against his will - breaking into military installations to find out about any secret defenses we might have in place in case of alien invasion.

Okay, is that still THE FUGITIVE or borrowing Milton's stapler at work and forgetting to give it back?

We have MAGNIFIED the conflict and now it's much bigger than the small story idea we started with. The great thing about Magnification and Substitution is that the emotional story remains intact. Though Richard Kimble in THE FUGITIVE wanted to prove that he was innocent of murdering his wife, our astronaut story has a man who wants to prove he's innocent and also just wants to return to his family again. Question: What do you think his wife's response will be when she sees his lizard skin? His kid's response to his lizard skin? See how we are not sacrificing emotional scenes once we make the story bigger?

I actually used both MAGNIFICATION and SUBSTITUTION in my Bodyguard script rewrite - magnifying the importance of the child that the woman was pregnant with. Once you magnify it from the President's illegitimate child to the Second Coming, that changes absolutely every word in the screenplay... Which is why it's better to *start* with the big idea... Like Joe Russo says in the quote.

You can do the same thing with a small idea - use magnification to blow the conflict out of proportion so a small conflict is now a huge conflict. Big enough to fill the screen.

ACTIVE LIFESTYLES

In one of my Script Tips in rotation I look at one of the keys to an *indie* drama - give the protagonist an “active lifestyle”. BREAKING AWAY is one of my favorite films, about four blue collar kids about to graduate high school and wondering what comes next. A typical coming of age film. So what makes it a *movie*? What gives this story “scope”? Well, our protagonist is a cyclist and there is a world championship bike race in the city nearby - and he can race against the professionals! Now we have a protagonist who competes in a visually exciting sport, and a race that has cyclists from around the world - it’s a world event, not a small town event. In THE WRESTLER we have a story about where Mickey Rourke plays an old has been who is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter... but he’s an ex-wrestler (active lifestyle) who wants to prove his worth by climbing in the ring again. Now we have something visual and interesting. More cinematic.

So think about changing the character's *occupation* to something more interesting and exciting. Does The Vatican have a version of Indiana Jones looking for lost religious artifacts?

You always want to come up with story ideas that are big enough to fill the screen, but also personal - so that you can write authentic emotions and not go crazy writing draft #27 because you have a connection to the story.

A year ago I had a project where I needed to come up with a bunch of pitches for sequels to movies in a studio's library. After selecting some movies, my next step was to let my imagination run wild and find interesting and unusual story ideas for a sequel - to take the unique idea from the original and add another unique idea. More high concept injection. While doing this, I looked for stories that were personal to me - things the protagonist could wrestle with that were things that I have wrestled with. Some of the ideas I came up with are really cool - personal and completely wild... and large enough to fill the big screen. One of my ideas was to add Parallel Universes to an existing science fiction film in the vault. Another was a horror movie where I magnified the stakes and turned it into a crazy supernatural disaster movie. I *added* another high concept to whatever was in the original film! Part of the reason for that was in case this deal fell through, my second high concept made the story so original that few people would even know that the story began as a sequel to an existing movie. I added a concept that changed everything so that it was a completely different story.

Having a Big Idea at the core of your screenplay is important once you boil it all down to a logline, because the logline is all about the concept. If it's a small, unimaginative concept that is probably an automatic "no". Like it or not, movies are an *event* and need to have big ideas. This is one of the reasons why I like to come up with the logline before writing the screenplay - it insures that I have that big idea at the core. Hey, most of my movies were for independent Production Companies making movies for cable networks, and *they* didn't want a standard action script if they could get one with a high concept!

So, if you use your imagination and stay away from small stories, which puts your script in a good stack - there may be another script in there that has the same idea as yours, but there aren't hundreds of them. Then, if you make it personal, you have a script that may have the same idea as another script, but is still a *unique* take on that idea. And we get ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT. And if there is still a script in the stack that has the same general idea as yours, find all of the ways that your idea is different and do a major rewrite focusing on those elements... and if that doesn't do it, twist the concept even more and do a page one rewrite. If someone just sold a script with a similar idea as yours - just make yours different. And make sure that your story is big enough to fill the screen!

Good luck and keep writing!

More on this in the Idea Machine Blue Book!

- Bill

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Thank you to everyone!

- Bill

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973)

KNIVES OUT looks great, and made me think of this film...

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



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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

- Bill

Friday, August 20, 2021

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Hal Hartley on NOTORIOUS

HAL HARTLEY ON NOTORIOUS.

Another one of the uncovered 1997 clips with famous filmmakers discussing the impact of Hitchcock’s work on their own work. I think they were trying to find people who might seem odd choices, like Mike Leigh who talked about REAR WINDOW, which is why Hal Hartley was their choice rather than someone more mainstream and commercial. Hartley was one of those indie filmmakers from the 1980s who is best known for his independent films from the 1990s. He broke onto the scene with THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and subsequent films were in competition at Sundance and Cannes and won a few awards.



I think he has an interesting point of view - coming from the indie world which seemed to think that Hitchcock’s movies were cold and precise and unemotional. There is an odd belief that precision and competence is somehow mechanical and unfeeling. That art must be ragged and spontaneous. But his comments on NOTORIOUS show that this just isn’t true - he sees the deep emotions at play in the big end scene of the film, and how the specific choice of shots and angles and pacing is what makes these emotions powerful on screen. I like when he talks about the length of time and deliberation of the scene on the staircase - how this is stretched out to make it a big moment, when it could have been a chase scene or designed to highlight the suspense of the scene (which is there) instead of the connection between these two people... with the third trying to push his way into the scene.

NOTORIOUS is my favorite Hitchcock film because of these emotions - in this scene and all of the others. It’s a romance film disguised as a spy movie. When I did the two day class I had a clip of all of the scenes on the park bench in Rio where they met so that she could report to him - and those scenes showed the relationship changing as she moves further and further away from him on the bench... until she just doesn’t show up and he is alone. That sort of precise writing (Ben Hecht) and directing is what makes those scenes emotional scenes - not just scenes where she reports her undercover work. The idea that Hitchcock is cold and unemotional because he plans his shots and uses specific angles and framing and movements is the opposite of the truth. Ragged and spontaneous doesn’t make it art - it just makes it ragged and less emotional. An interesting look at the film from the other side of the film world.

- 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

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OTHER COUNTRIES:

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And...




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



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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.

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- Bill
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