Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: Death Machines (1976)

Four years ago I returned from almost a month working on a film written and directed by my friend Paul Kyriazi called FORBIDDEN POWER that’s a typical kung fu-hot alien babe-BASIC INSTINCT-biker bar fight-love story-THEY LIVE! Like conspiracy of businessmen-chess match-yachting--devil doll-car chase-noir-computer programming-supernatural-actual train wreck-country western-workplace drama-nuclear missile launch codes-piano bar-rubber run before a date-shoot out-dead body disposal-action flick. You’ve probably seen a million of them. A year ago I saw the finished film at a Festival in Las Vegas. Here’s a still from the film...



This is a low budget film, shot in Seattle in 3 weeks (was supposed to be 2) that I ended up “producer” on - which means any job that no one else wanted to do I got stuck doing. Paul promised short days, and I’d spend most of my time sitting in a chair doing continuity. Nothing strenuous. I arrived a few days early so that I could wander around Seattle (a city I passed through on my way to Vancouver a few years back to teach a class, but haven’t *really* been to since I was 5 years old and my parents went there on vacation). So I was put to work the minute I got off the plane building sets and moving heavy stuff for days that often went 17 hours and got *no* days off until the last week of the shoot when I got a day off an spent it doing that Seattle sight seeing... when I should have just stayed in bed and slept! It was a great adventure, working with old friends I’ve known since I was 18 years old and saw this movie...





DEATH MACHINES (1976)

Directed by: Paul Kyriazi.
Written by: Paul Kyriazi & Jow Walders.
Starring: Ron Marchini, Michael Chong, Joshua Johnson, Mari Honjo, Ron Ackerman - those are the first billed and none are the lead!
Produced by: Ron Marchini.
Cinematography by: Don Rust.
Music by: Don Hulette (director of Chuck Norris movies!


My connection to this movie? It was directed by Paul Kyriazi, who got me into the biz when he gave me 2 weeks to write NINJA BUSTERS. Paul went to the same community college that I did, and took the same film class. I would constantly bump into him at the movies - which was strange when it was some cinema 30 miles away from home showing some obscure samurai film. DEATH MACHINES was made for drive ins, shot on 35mm and probably Panavision (scope) for not much money. I saw it at the "premiere" at the Pleasant Hill Motor Movies... which is now a shooping center. No champagne at this opening, but beer was smuggled in, along with some friends, in the trunk of the car.

Paul tells a funny story about the plane explosion - they bought the plane from a guy, blew it up, then sold him back what was left for parts. The truck that drives through the restaurant? A real closed restaurant waiting to be torn down - they did it for real. The building that explodes - also set for demolition. That's how they could do this for pocket change.

The money for this film came from Ron Marchini, who wanted to be the next Chuck Norris. He wasn't much of an actor, so I think they made his character a mute. Ron has gone on to have a low budget career in action films.

DEATH MACHINES has so many bad lines, my friends and I quote them... and most of these guys worked on the film! "Hey, there go the guys that cut off my arm!" The Dragon Lady's accent is so thick you want subtitles. "I have him compweeetwy under my contwow!"

NEW TRAILER:


But here's the thing - this movie was made local, played drive ins, and was (I think) #11 in the USA when it opened in July 1976. It was a successful summer movie. Most of that is due to the big scenes on a small budget - which was creativity instead of cash. One of the things I learned from Paul, that's even in my article in the current Script Magazine, is to come up with a handful of "How Did They Do That? shots" - like the plane taxiing, starting to take off, then exploding. Did they kill the pilot for that shot? Doing something unusual or seemingly impossible on screen adds production value, and may not cost you very much money (just creativity).

And if you can sell back what's left of the plane as parts...

And now the film has been rediscovered and there's a new trailer and a Collector's Edition BluRay complete with extras and commentary track and cast interviews and other cool stuff. Paul did an introduction at Toho Studios Samurai Village backlot set. For some reason Paul's work has been rediscovered and is now playing festivals.

deathmachines
Click box for Amazon info.

So now Paul has made this new film, FORBIDDEN POWER, to capitalize on all of these blue ray special editions of his films from the 70s and 80s that are coming out. What was once drive in cheese is now some sort of low budget classic. NINJA BUSTERS being rediscovered is what started all of this. So blame me...

You can rent FORBIDDEN POWER on Amazon.

A couple more pictures from the Seattle shoot...











- Bill

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Film Courage Plus: Take This Job And Shove It!

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015, around 36 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?

Take This Job And Shove It:

What’s interesting to me about this clip is that the first question is about when you should quit your day job, but evolved into a story about my early career... and the troubled path TREACHEROUS took to get to the screen. What do they have in common? I had no idea at the time of the interview, but looking back on it I’ve realized that the TREACHEROUS story is a perfect example of how being a professional screenwriter is often not a dependable source of income. That’s one of the problems with any creative occupation - no regular paychecks.

Screenwriting is freelance - which means that you are the boss. Which means that you pay yourself. Which means that you need to find the jobs so that you can pay yourself. You will be an independent businessperson. Though you may fantasize about an Agent or Manager handling the business side, that is only a fantasy. Most of the deals you get will come from your hard work... and they will get their 10%. You are the only one who cares about your career, so you will need to get out there and find jobs.

One of the questions that new writers frequently ask is: when should I move to Los Angeles?

I thought for the longest time that I wouldn’t have to move to Los Angeles at all. My first script deal, back when I was 21 years old, was writing a comedy martial arts film NINJA BUSTERS for a guy from my hometown community college and it was made in Oakland, CA - the nearest big city to where I grew up - and even starred the World Champion Oakland Raiders. Cool! I believed that I could have a career in my hometown, and NINJA BUSTERS was the first in a three script deal with the guy who produced and directed it, Paul Kyriazi. Paul had made a few successful kung fu movies for the drive in circuit and set up a company that would make more drive in films. After writing NINJA BUSTERS I wrote the next two scripts... and then NINJA BUSTERS hit some financial snags and there would not be two more films. The weird part was that there was enough publicity surrounding the film that I found a couple more local jobs - one of the producers on NINJA BUSTERS had an idea for a movie, and a real estate guy my girlfriend at the time knew had a bunch of vacant properties he thought we could use as film locations. So even after NINJA BUSTERS hit a snag, there were two more deals to be had in the Oakland area. And then there was nothing. I was the big fish in the small pond and had eaten up all of the fish food. I spent ten years working in a warehouse...

And during that time I optioned a script to a company in Beverly Hills and eventually sold another script to a company at Paramount... and that is when I moved.

Looking back on it: I wish I had moved right after NINJA BUSTERS hit the snag, because I could have forklift jousted in Los Angeles as easily as I did in my home town. I was working for Safeway Grocery, and they had stores and warehouses in Los Angeles. Could have easily moved here much earlier instead of driving down once a year for American Film Market. One of the benefits of living in Los Angeles is that you bump into people in line at the grocery store and can easily go to a bunch of meetings. I had an agent for a while still living in my home town and had no idea how terrible he was until I optioned that script to the producer in Beverly Hills and saw his 8x8 windowless office above a motorcycle repair shop in the slums. I would have been a lot more proactive had I known that he was doing nothing for me. I was probably the oldest dude to sell a script to Roger Corman - and had I moved to Los Angeles earlier I probably would have written a stack of scripts for him in my 20s!

WHEN TO MOVE?

One of the questions people often ask is when they should move to Los Angeles - before they make their first sale or after? That’s a very good question and everything depends on what you have established where you live now. I moved after my first sale and once I got here wished I had moved earlier - all of those Corman scripts I could have written. All of those connections I could have made. And I probably never would have signed with that terrible agent!

But it is likely that you will move here at some point.

Los Angeles is where the business is located. All of the studios are here, all of the production companies are here, all of those meetings you will need to go to are here. Though there are other places in the USA where films are frequently produced and you can make connections there, those films are made by companies in Los Angeles. New York doesn’t seem to be doing much these days - Miramax is closed and most of the New York City companies dried up when the indie film business evolved into guys and gals in their backyards with digital cameras a decade ago.

I have friends who live out of town and come here a couple of times a year for a couple of weeks to do wall-to-wall meetings so that they can maintain their career out of town. The rest they do by phone or Skype. That is a possibility, especially if you have a family and a house and a life set up elsewhere.

If you are single? Why not be single here? Yeah, it’s so expensive you’ll probably be living in some terrible apartment with room mates, but when you are single and young it’s an adventure! And there are places you can live within driving distance of Los Angeles that are affordable if you are looking for a house and no roommates.

If you have a good job in your hometown, that can be an issue... but do they have a branch office or store or whatever in Los Angeles? Can you transfer? Keep the good job, just do it in Los Angeles? If not, then you might want to keep the good job. One of the problems with trying to re-establish yourself in a new city is that all of the “ground work” takes time. I got my job at Safeway Grocery because I bumped into a store manager at a business we both frequented, and his son knew my brother. That sort of thing is a lot more difficult when your brother lives in your hometown and that store manager’s son lives in Los Angeles. So if you have a good job, you may want to move after the sale... or not at all.

You don’t want to get into a position where you are stressed about money and can’t write. That defeats the purpose!

WHEN I QUIT MY JOB

After selling COURTING DEATH - a series of flights to Los Angeles - I put in my 2 weeks notice, and I think I ended up working even longer. I was a good employee. And that’s a factor that some people miss - if you are a crappy employee at your day job, how do you think you’ll do when you are the boss of your own one person company and have to make deadlines and show up to meetings on time and all of the other things you may have hated about the day job? I was always a hard working employee, always the guy who would take an extra shift if need be, always the guy that the other employees got along with. Always on time. All of the things that make you a good employee at your day job are the same factors that will make you successful as a screenwriter. If you are not the very best employee at your day job, the person they can trust to show up on time and get the work done without mistakes, you will never be ready to quit your day job and write full time... because how will you (as boss) get you (as employee) to do better? You have already proven yourself a terrible employee - why would you hire yourself? I was the great employee then, and a pretty good employee now. So when I quit my day job, they threw a big party for me.

I moved to Los Angeles to begin this adventure in screenwriting... which is still going! I haven't had to fire myself yet!

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill



Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: TIME AFTER TIME (1979)



TIME AFTER TIME

Director: Nicholas Meyer.
Writer: Nicholas Meyer based on the novel by Karl Alexander.
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen.


I’m sure when you read the title of this week’s movie you thought about the Cyndi Lauper song and wondered if the movie was named after it... well, it’s the other way around. Lauper’s song was inspired by a late night TV showing of this film.

TIME AFTER TIME is a great sci fi thriller romance, which seems like one genre too many, but like TERMINATOR (made five years later, but with many of the same story beats) it manages to balance all of these genres effortlessly. This was Nicholas Meyer’s (STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN) first film as a director, and you’d never know it. He was a novelist and screenwriter, hot off THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION and for some reason they let him direct a film and adapt the novel by Karl Alexander (whose dad wrote OLD YELLER). Okay, the real backstory is that Meyer read his friend’s novel and optioned it, wrote the script, and somehow bargained his way into directing. Wait, the backstory on that is that Meyer had been directing short films for most of his life, which lead to a job at Paramount doing publicity for movies like LOVE STORY. Even with the back stories, getting a shot at directing a film like this is amazing.

And with a cast that pits Malcolm McDowell against David Warner? Wow!



The story starts in 1893 London where a Prostitute staggers out of a pub and is brutally murder by Jack The Ripper... we never see his face, only his musical pocket watch.

A few streets away, H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell in cute mode) is having a dinner party for fellow scientists and intellectuals where he will unveil his latest creation. But they are waiting for Wells’ best friend Dr. John Stevenson (David Warner) who breezes in late, saying he had an emergency operation to perform. Wells believes that with civilization progressing as it has, there will be no war or violence or famine in the future... it will be a utopia. And his new invention will prove this... it is a time machine. He takes the group to the basement, where he has built the time machine, which travels 2 years per minute. Explains how it works, including that it will automatically return to the present if the key is not in the ignition. Wells is a little afraid to try the time machine...

That’s when the cops knock on the door... they have traced Jack The Ripper to this very house! When the police search, Dr. Stevenson has vanished but his medical bag contains... the bloody knife and souvenirs of Jack’s latest murder. Wells’ best friend is Jack The Ripper! Not finding Dr. Stevenson, the police search the neighborhood... but Wells checks the basement. The time machine is gone! When it returns automatically (because the key is in Wells’ pocket) he discovers that Jack The Ripper has escaped into 1979! Utopia will be destroyed by this serial killer!

Wells grabs all of his money and jewelry (from the maid) and chases Jack The Ripper into the 20th Century...

Ending up in an exhibit of H.G.Wells stuff (including the time machine) in San Francisco. There’s a great bit where he swaps his time travel damaged glasses for a pair in his desk drawer... part of the exhibit!

Now we have a *great* fish out of water story, as a guy from the late 1800s has to figure out how to navigate San Francisco in the 70s. Every small thing we take for granted becomes fuel for comedy as he tries to adapt. Oh, and there is heartbreak when he realizes instead of utopia, things have gotten much much worse!

Time After Time DVD - Buy it!

When he goes to exchange his British pounds for US dollars, he realizes that Jack The Ripper would have to do the same thing, and goes from bank to bank in San Francisco’s financial district until he finds the one... the Bank Of England... where cute Currency Exchange Manager Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) (who hasn’t had a date in ages find this British Gentleman *very* attractive) offers to show him around the city... if he’s traveling alone. So we start our love story, with all of the usual things you’d find in a romantic comedy, plus the “age difference”. Wells *does not* tell her he’s a time traveler from the 1800s, that would end the relationship in an instant... he lies. And you know that eventually that lie will be discovered and end the relationship.

Oh, but this isn’t just a high concept time travel romantic comedy... Jack The Ripper is lose in San Francisco and starts killing women! Amy tells Wells that the other oddly dressed British Gentleman was looking for a hotel, and she suggested the Hyatt Regency (which must have been base camp for the production because Justin Herman Plaza and the other surrounding locations get a work out!). Wells zips over to the hotel and faces Jack The Ripper... his friend John Stevenson.

And here we get what makes this film great. Because at the core it is about the relationship between these two men who are close friends... but this serial killer thing has come between them. There’s a great scene between the two, where Stevenson tells Wells that he belongs in this violent time period completely and utterly, just as much as Wells does not belong here. Wells is so crushed that his friend is downright evil that he’s practically speechless. When he threatens to take Stevenson to the authorities, the killer knocks him down and takes off running and we get an elevator chase in the Hyatt hotel (same elevators that were used in HIGH ANXIETY) and an interesting foot chase in the environs around the hotel. There used to be a cinema there that I may have even seen this film in back in 1979, and they run right past the entrance. Stevenson ends up being hit by a car and rushed to the hospital, where an administrator later tells Wells that he died. Jack The Ripper is dead.

Back to our romcom... until the murders continue and Wells realizes that Stevenson was not killed (it was an administration mistake, since none of these guys has any ID) and now Wells must find Jack The Ripper and stop his bloody reign of terror. Lots of nice chase stuff, and the “room mate is murdered and we think it’s the leading lady” gag that would later pop up in TERMINATOR.

Wells’ secret finally comes out, endangering his relationship with Amy... and when Wells goes to the police he sounds like an escapee from an insane asylum, which means he is on his own when it comes to capturing Jack The Ripper. The film has one of the most romantic endings of any film... rivaling SOMEWHERE IN TIME which would come out the following year.

One of the things I love about this movie is how we are put in Wells’ shoes and *learn* how things work in the 20th Century. There’s a great scene where Amy takes him on a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to the redwoods, kind of retracing the trip from VERTIGO... and Wells studies all of her actions as she drives the car, figuring out what everything does. He stares at her legs as she hits the gas and the brakes, and she thinks he’s just appreciating her gams. All of this comes into play later, when Wells is forced to chase after Jack The Ripper and a kidnaped Amy in her car... realizing how much easier driving looks when a cute woman is doing it. He manages to smash into half the cars in San Francisco. It’s a great chase because it’s both exciting and funny.

One of the places where this film hasn’t aged well is the score by the brilliant Mikos Rozsa, which just seems too big now. Rozsa is one of my favorite film composers, but I think a story about a man thrust into the 70s needed a more contemporary score. It just seems intrusive at times. But that’s a small thing in a fun film. I have no idea what the box office was like, but the reviews were all great, and the film is one of the inspirations for BACK TO THE FUTURE, to the point of having both films use the same date (November 5) in the story... and of course, Steenburgen is the romantic interest in BTTF3. Oh, and that Cyndi Lauper song!

Clever stuff: H.G. Wells second wife was named Amy Robbins, and the prime suspect in the ripper murders was Dr. Stephenson.

If you haven’t seen it, check it out... just for a “cute” version of Malcolm McDowell.

Bill

Friday, November 19, 2021

Fridays With Hitchcock: HITCH 20: One More Mile To Go (s2e2)

HITCH 20, Episode 7: ONE MORE MILE TO GO.

This is a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that I have been a "guest expert" on (season 1). The series looks at the 20 TV episodes directed by Hitchcock and here is the first episode of the second season, which looks at the importance of specifics on screen (and on the page, or it never gets to the screen). This new season is without me. I was juggling too many things and thought I'd squeeze it in, but just didn't have the time. But I'm still be featuring it here, because it's a great show.

This is one of the episodes I wanted to cover, because I have some interesting connections to it... and not just that David Wayne played Ellery Queen’s dad on the TV show that I loved as a kid.

First: I seemed to have accidentally homaged this episode with my DANGEROUS CURVES screenplay. When I was a kid, all of these shows were rerunning on non-network TV stations and I would watch them after school. THRILLER and HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and TWILIGHT ZONE and a bunch of others. They were great! Well, somewhere in my 20s I began writing DANGEROUS CURVES as a novel, and the scene that made my girlfriend at the time wonder if maybe she should break up with me was where the husband confronts his cheating wife while tending the fireplace and that barbed fireplace poker ends up going right through her... and it’s not easy to get out! In the screenplay version, she hits her head on the edge of the fireplace (the poker thing was way too graphic, and what could be alluded to in prose would be seen on film). My then girlfrirnd stuck around, but I never finished the book... which is why later I did the screenplay version, which has almost been made a half dozen times.

And after the fire pocker? He wraps his dead wife in a blanket and puts her in the passenger seat of *her* car and drives here across town to where he lover waits for her. Um, “homaged” from the THRILLER episode LATE DATE which was based on a Woolrich story called “Boy With Body”. It’s like all of these TV shows I saw as a kid went into my head, percolated, and then came out in this novel/screenplay.




Well, in my novel/screenplay the husband gets pulled over by a friendly cop for having a broken tail light (just like in this episode), but instead of the body in the trunk... it’s right there next to him in the passenger seat! He tells the cop that his wife is asleep... and the cop says his girlfriend snores like a chainsaw, unlike the quiet sleeping wife. I had a lot of fun with that friendly cop, building suspense because he’s talkative and nice and not seeming to be a threat at all... except the husband is sweating bullets because his wife is *dead*! After the cop gives him the ticket and tells him to make sure he gets the tail light fixed first thing in the morning, the husband drives away... and I stop “homaging” this episode and start to do something original...

Because the dead wife wakes up (she wasn’t quite dead) and this startles the husband so much he drives off a cliff and wakes up in the hospital where the doctor says: “I have good news and bad news. Good news - you came out of the accident with only bruises and scrapes. Bad news - your wife died in the accident.” So our husband has kind of gotten away with murder... end Act One. Then things go really really wrong. So, um, I subconsciously swiped some stuff from this episode, plus...

Second: The guy who plays the friendly Highway Patrol officer in this episode, Steve Brody? Well, he’s Robert Mitchum’s double crossing partner in one of my favorite movies OUT OF THE PAST... and he was the father of the director of my first “Hollywood movie” TREACHEROUS. How Hollywood works: if your dad was a famous character actor, they let you direct some movies... until you have so many flops that they don’t let you direct any more. But it was cool when the director told me his dad was Steve Brody, because I knew exactly who that was because he was in one of my favorite films. I had no memory of him in this episode, probably because he’d gained some weight between OUT OF THE PAST and this. But a weird connection to a HITCHCOCK episode... I’ve worked with the son of the actor who played the antagonist!

THE EPISODE...



One amazing thing about this episode is that the first 10 minutes of the 25 minute episode are completely dialogue free! It’s all visual storytelling. We begin *outside* the window of the house, spying on the couple who lives inside. We can discuss rear window ethics later, but the whole idea of the audience as voyeur which Hitchcock explored in many films is explored here as well. We watch the wife confront her husband (who is trying to read the newspaper) and see the argument escalate and the husband pick up the fireplace poker... but we can’t hear what they are saying. We are outside the house looking through the window. We don’t go inside until *after* the husband has struck his wife repeatedly with that firepoker. Once inside the house, and inside the *character* of the husband (we are seeing the story from his point of view, now) (not physically his point of view, but he is the character we identify with), the story remains without dialogue (well, who is there to talk to?) as the husband wraps up the dead wife and puts her and some chains and weights in the trunk of his car, then drives off to the boondocks to dump her in a lake... and our first piece of dialogue is when the friendly Highway Patrolman pulls him over for the faulty tail light.

The subject of that argument between the husband and wife is unimportant. The details might even be distracting, the story isn’t about if he left his dirty socks on the floor or flirted with a waitress or whatever... it’s about a dead body in the trunk of a car. The argument is like a MacGuffin, it causes the story but the specifics aren’t as important as people might think they are. Hey, husbands and wives argue. Why isn’t as important as what this leads to... that dead body in the trunk.



The friendly antagonist is also a great touch. Often writers think the antagonist has to be a bad guy, but an antagonist is just the person that comes between the protagonist and their goal... and our protagonist wants to find a place to bury the wife he just killed, so a cop is a logical antagonist. Doesn’t have to be an evil cop... in fact, the more helpful this cop is the better for the story. I have a script tip about nice antagonists like Cameron Diaz in MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING... she’s the nicest character in that movie! The great thing about this Highway Patrolman is that he’s nice and friendly and also an authority figure. So when he tells the husband that he needs to get that tail light fixed right away, to make sure he doesn’t get into an accident; the husband *must* do as the Patrolman says. The Highway Patrolman doesn’t want the husband to get into an accident, and those things can happen; he’s seen them first hand. The more the husband tries to avoid fixing the tail light, the more the Patrolman explains how dangerous it can be. The Patrolman and his tail light repair are right between our protagonist and his goal. He has to get the tail light fixed before he can bury his dead wife in the trunk.

Now we get some great nail biting suspense as the husband and Patrolman go to a nearby gas station, where the mechanic installs a brand new tail light bulb... which doesn’t light. Is it the bulb? The Patrolman looks at the bulb, looks good. So what could it be? Hey, probably a wire in the trunk... let’s pop it open and take a look!

And now it escalates. Whether it’s action of suspense, it’s important for it to escalate. After the husband hides his trunk key, the Patrolman says that’s okay... he can pop the trunk on these old cars by hand! When he fails at that, he asks the mechanic for a crow bar, because he can pop the trunk that way. When the husband says he doesn’t want his paint scratched, the Patrolman says he’ll be really careful. Thing just keep escalating! In the chapter in my HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR on ROPE I look at “poking the tiger”, reminding the audience about the suspense situation. In ROPE it’s a body in a shipping trunk, here’s it’s a body in a car trunk. But in both cases, people have to keep hanging around the trunk and trying to open it... and that’s what keeps the suspense going. And they have to keep poking around the situation itself, poking that tiger as well. The Patrolman asks why the back of the car is so heavy... what does he have in the trunk? “Tools.” What kind of tools? While the Patrolman is trying to get open the trunk (physically) he is also prying away verbally. This keeps that suspense escalating on two fronts!






Peaks And Valleys: nonstop action and nonstop suspense will result in diminishing returns... so your story needs peaks and valleys. Just when you think the Patrolman is going to pop that trunk open with the crowbar and discover the dead wife’s body... the husband realizes that the tail light has come one! All of this shaking of the car has “fixed” that wire problem, at least temporarily. The husband tells the Patrolman he’ll have it fixed first thing in the morning, is it okay if he drives home? The Patrolman says sure, and the husband hands the mechanic some money for the bulb, gets in the car, and gets the hell out of there. Away from the threat. Away from the conflict. We go from a peak to a valley, and the audience has a chance to catch their breath. We can relax... kind of. Just as the husband keeps looking in the rearview mirror for that Patrolman, so do we. There’s still a dead body in the trunk. There’s still a problem. The protagonist has not reached their goal, yet... one more mile to go.

Peak... just when we have relaxed, the Patrolman zooms up and pulls over the Husband. Poking the tiger again. The Patrolman says he zoomed off so fast, he forgot to get his change. Here you go! By being *helpful* the Patrolman is causing more problems than if he were a cliche antagonist. You can get mad at a cliche antagonist, you can lose your cool... but a nice guy? You have to remain completely calm and friendly, which isn’t easy when your wife is dead in the trunk of your car.

Valley... Husband takes the money and the Patrolman tells him to be careful.

Peak... That tail light goes out again, and the Patrolman pulls him over again...

Back and forth. By allowing the audience the relax, the next peak is that much more frightening.

Okay, those were my thoughts on the episode, now let me watch it and see what everyone else said...

Bill

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




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



Click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

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

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

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Bill

Thursday, November 18, 2021

THRILLER Thursday: The Poisoner

The Poisoner

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



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


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




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



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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

And the Judge dismisses all charges.



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

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



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

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

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

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

Twist!



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Film Courage Plus: How To Be Productive

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



HOW TO BE PRODUCTIVE
Writers write.

Sounds simple, right?

The problem is that it’s not about writing that one great screenplay that changes everything, it’s about writing for a living. Writing screenplay after screenplay after screenplay. Being a professional writer means writing every day (like any other job), writing on a deadline, writing screenplay after screenplay after screenplay. If you are looking for a Manager or Agent, they represent *writers* not screenplays. Once they send your screenplay out into the world and nobody buys it, it is a “busted spec” - a dead script. And that means you need to have another script to send out into the world, then another, then another, then another... until you sell a screenplay or land an assignment. Heck, to get that Agent or Manager you need to keep sending out query after query (each for a new screenplay) to Managers and Agents on your target list until they read one that makes them sign you. This probably sounds like a lot of work... and it is.

So, how do you do that? How do you keep writing screenplays until you land an Agent or Manager and then keep writing screenplays for them until you land a paying gig, and then keep landing paying gigs for the rest of your life?

That’s a very good question.

Complicated by, you know, life. You have a mortgage or rent to pay. You have a family. You have a job that eats up a minimum of 40 hours or your week (add in commute time and those extra hours you worked and all of the other parts of real life). How do you find any time at all to write all of those screenplays, and how do you find the will to stick with it? You barely have time to relax after work, let alone crank out screenplays. Well, here’s a ten point plan to help you get something done...

1) Don't depend on inspiration - it's a trap! At the end of the day, it's always going to be you and the blank page. So you have to figure out how to get yourself motivated. It's always going to be from the inside instead of the outside. You can’t depend on anyone else - motivation is *your* job. This is a business where, when they love your work and buy your work, the first thing they do is tell you everything they hate about it and want changed right away... instead of how much they like what you've written. So looking for or depending on external motivations aren't going to help you in the long run - you have to figure out how to keep writing through the crap that life hands out.

2) Set aside a specific time every day to write - can be as little as 15 minutes, but that is the time that anyone who bothers you gets punched in the face as hard as you can. There are plenty of success stories about people who wrote on their lunch hours or wrote on their commute to work (though most of those involve people who take a train or subway - if you drive to work, probably best not to have the laptop open). Find a half hour or an hour every day that is just for writing - and make sure everyone who might bother you understands that it’s your writing time and you *will* punch them in the face as hard as you can if they bother you.

3) If all you do in that 15 minutes (or half hour or hour) is just stare at the blank screen, it's a win...

4) But you'd rather write, right?

5) So be prepared to write! Outline your screenplay. A step outline is easiest - just bullet point scene-by-scene. The great part about an outline is that you can play around with it and solve all your story problems while it's just a page or two of outline... instead of 110 pages of screenplay. Less writing for the garbage can.

I think of screenwriting as “creative steps”, because that’s how things are done professionally. When you land an assignment, they don’t just cut you a check and send you off to write the screenplay, there are “steps”. In fact, it’s called a “Step Deal”. You do one step at a time, and are paid for each step. There are “reading periods” where the producer (or their intern) reads each step and then gives you notes and tells you what they want you to do in the next step. One of those steps is always a *Treatment* - a scene-by-scene version of the screenplay. Since you are going to have to work that way as a professional screenwriter anyway, might as well train yourself now. Work in creative steps. My first creative step is to get the overall story under control. I write an outline, and then rework the outline until the story part of the script works. That gives me a roadmap that gets me from the beginning to the end by the very best possible route. Now to the next creative step which is writing each of those scenes in my bullet point outline - and I know that Mary and John break up... but *how* do they break up? The outline may give me the basics of what happens, but not *how* it happens or any of the hundreds of possible details about how that scene plays out. That’s the fun part of the next creative step - once you have the outline, you still have all kinds of fun things to figure out during the “writing step”.

6) The other great thing about an outline is that it breaks your story down into bite sized pieces which are easier to write. You don't have to write a whole screenplay, just this one scene. A scene is about 2 pages, so you can knock that out in a day or two... but if it takes you a week, you are still making progress. Some scenes are easy, some are more difficult. What matters is that you make a little progress every day.

And that is the key to getting things done. You can become overwhelmed at having to write a 110 page screenplay (or a 100,000 word novel), and that may lead to you “choking” and writing nothing at all. But a scene? A couple of pages? Heck, even if you only write half of that scene - *one* page a day - you can handle that, right? And all of those pages add up. Slow and steady wins the race, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and any other cliches you can come up with - all true.

7) If you end up with only 15 minutes a day, it may make sense to outline the scene itself. This also works if you ever get stuck (and you will). Just start by writing down all of the things the scene needs to do for the story. Then figure out the most interesting ways those things can happen. Then figure out the most interesting order for those things to happen. Now you have a scene that is broken down int bite-sized pieces. If you only have 15 minutes, you can write one of those little pieces, right? Or at least part of one of those pieces. The key is to make progress every day, even if it's just a little progress. In the Film Courage clip I talk about how I wrote 3 screenplays a year while working a full time job by just writing one page a day. Hey, there are days when I was on a roll and wrote more than one page a day, but my goal was to write one page on *bad days* (and you will have plenty of those, every writer does).

8) "Nothing succeeds like success!" That may not make much sense, but if you write half a page, a quarter of a page, a sentence - you are making progress, and that will make you feel good and keep you "self-inspired" to write the next day. Momentum is everything, and if you write a page every day it becomes easier to write that page (or half a page or quarter of a page or sentence) as time goes on. You build up momentum. Today’s writing leads to tomorrow’s writing.

But sooner or later something will happen and you will miss a couple of days and all of that momentum will be lost. It will be hard as heck to get it rolling again - but that is what you have to do. If you fall off the horse, the best thing to do is get back on and ride again, and all of those cliches - which are also true. The next thing on our little list will help you to get back on the horse or dust yourself off or whatever cliche you have selected that best illustrates this...

9) Most important thing: Your Doorway Into The Story. Make sure your screenplay is personal. A piece of you. That way you won't want to abandon it. It would be like abandoning your arm or leg or head. "What right does my head have to call itself me?" I write action and thrillers and horror - and even if it is an assignment, my first step is to find that piece of me in the story. Most of my screenplays are just cheap therapy - and I either begin with the personal emotional conflict I want to work though in fiction form or I search for it and find it within whatever story idea I've come up with (or assignment I have accepted). We look at this in the Ideas Blue Book.

There are times when I've been offered paid writing jobs and turned them down because I couldn't find my story within their story. Better to wait until something comes along that I can find a "doorway" into than write something that I don't give a crap about. Here's one of my script tips about finding that doorway on a script of mine that got filmed *twice*: Writing BLACK THUNDER - Sibling rivalry is something I completely understand. I am not the favorite son. I'm the guy who has to work harder just to get noticed, and that's an issue I'm still working through... so I pitched a story dealing with that subject and ended up getting paid to write the screenplay.

Everything I've written has a "personal core" that keeps me from abandoning it, because it may be about fighter pilots and explosions - but it is still really about me. There will come a time when writing your screenplay that you want to abandon it. You hate it. You want to write something else instead. Don’t give in to this! There are people who have a dozen half written screenplays and not a single one that’s *finished*. You can’t do anything with a half written screenplay (okay, you can train puppies and line birdcages). So you want to get all the way to FADE OUT with your script! The best way to do that is have a personal connection to the story so that it’s difficult to let go of. Find your “doorway” into the story - that thing that makes it *part of you*. That not only makes it more difficult to abandon when the going gets rough, it also makes it a better story.

10) Now just write a little bit every day, and the pages add up. I used to write 1 hour a day before work, but really all I required myself to write was one page a day. That's it. One page. And 1 page times 365 days is 3 rough draft screenplays a year. Look, if you write a third of a page a day in 15 minutes, that a screenplay a year - and that puts you ahead of most people who would rather talk about writing than actually write every day and get progressively better and eventually sell something or land an assignment and have a handful of credits on IMDB that represents about a tenth of what they've been paid to do (only about 10% of stuff you sell or are hired to write ever makes it to the screen). (Which is another reason why you have to keep turning out new screenplays - when one project gets shelved you need a new screenplay to keep your *career momentum* going!)

When you are being productive, it helps keep you productive. Momentum. When you lose momentum, you need to push yourself to start moving again. It's not easy at first, but when you start rolling at 5mph it's much easier to roll to 10mph and keep increasing speed than it is from a cold start. Starting's a bitch!

And this may be what you are facing now - so just push yourself a little at first (even force yourself) and it gets easier. Forced writing can be rewritten, smoothed out, improved. But you can’t rewrite what isn’t written. So write! One Writers Block Breaker is to just write nonsense that doesn't matter to get started. That gets things rolling. Then just keep it rolling. Not easy... but possible. All of this is building good habits of regular writing, which comes in handy when you have a career and deadlines and need to write a certain number of pages a day to turn in your assignment on time.

Good luck, and keep writing!

- Bill



NEXT WEEK: THRILLER Thursday Season 2 - an episode directed by the awesome Ida Lupino!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)

One of my favorite films.

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

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

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



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

TEASER



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

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

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

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

IDENTITY

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

Introduction To Harry:



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

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

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

DIALOGUE





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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

WEIRD SHOTS



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

TANGLED WEBS



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

BRAIN WASHING



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

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

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

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

CHOICES



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

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

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

- Bill

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