Friday, July 29, 2022

HITCH 20: REVENGE (s1e1)

There's a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that I have been a "guest expert" on, and the new season begins in a couple of months. So here is the very first episode - the "pilot" - which is without me:

This episode is REVENGE, and the story is a corker: a man's wife is brutally raped and he extracts his revenge when she recognizes the attacker on the street. I actually prefer the remake done in the 1980s, due to casting: Where Ralph Meeker (who played Mike Hammer) seems like the kind of guy who would have no problem extracting revenge, the remake had David Clennon (who always plays geeks with triple chins) who has a great deal of trouble with the physical aspects of revenge... making it even more gut wrenching.









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

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

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

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

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

Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

Click here for more info!

OTHER COUNTRIES:


UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

And....

HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR






USA Readers 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 52 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

THRILLER Thursday: Masquerade

Masquerade

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



Season: 2, Episode: 6.
Airdate: Oct. 30, 1961

Director: Herschel Daugherty Writer: Donald S. Sanford, based on the story by Henry Kuttner. Cast: Elizabeth Montgomery, Tom Poston, John Carradine, Jack Lambert, Dorothy Neumann. Music: Jerry Goldsmith channeling Bernard Herrmann. Cinematography: Benjamin Kline. Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Well, it would seem that Charlie is not only an imaginative writer, but has another most unusual talent as well: peopling his stories with flesh and blood characters... or was that old man flesh and blood? No, don’t answer too quickly, for this is the sort of night where all manner of unnatural creatures crawl through the dark corners of the earth. When the full moon cowers behind the storm, and the wolfsbane reaches out with its evil, hungry brush. Yes, my friends, on just such a night as this who knows what masquerade the living dead may choose? Masquerade. That’s the name of our story. And the Masqueradrers: May I present Mr. And Mrs. Charlie Denham, played by Elizabeth Montgomery and Tom Poston; and John Carradine, Jack Lambert, and Dorothy Newman as the infamous Cartas. Now that you’ve been formally introduced I’ll make you a promise. Before this terrifying adventure has ended you’ll change some of your outdated ideas about vampires... as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. Don’t be alarmed, I can assure you the old faithful weapons are not outdated. And those of you who happen to have some silver bullets or sharp pointed wooden sticks around the house have nothing whatever to fear. As for you others, perhaps you’ll be prepared next time... if there is a next time.”

Synopsis: Writer Charlie Denham (Tom Poston) and his wife Rosalind (Elizabeth Montgomery) are on their second honeymoon... trapped in a rainstorm in a convertible with a torn roof in the middle of nowhere and stop at the most run down, decrepit bed and breakfast in the Southern half of the United States (the PSYCHO house making another guest appearance on the show). Charlie jokes that places like this are where travelers end up on the menu... and explains step-by-step what will happen to them beginning with the old fashioned door knocker falling off the door due to dry rot and the crazy old patriarch of the family inviting them in and warning them about the vampires in these parts...



When they get to the door there *is* an old fashioned door knocker, and then the door is opened by the crazy old patriarch of the Carta clan Jed (John Carradine) carrying an old fashioned oil lamp who invites them in. Jed is dressed in dirty rags, looks like a hillbilly cannibal’s poorest cousin. When the door closes, the knocker falls off - dry rot.

Rosalind keeps joking with crazy old Jed - about him eating them, and he responds by saying that they don’t eat the visitors, they just kill them and steal their money. A joke? Rosalind wants to get back in the car and drive to their destination - no matter the weather. Charlie counters that *she* was the one who insisted they stop. The old man is just joking, right?



Old Jed is building up the fire in the livingroom to warm them up, and tells them to make themselves at home. Charlie asks if they can borrow some dry clothes (WTF?) because Rosalind’s clothes are soaked. Jed says he’ll get something... then tells them about the local legends of vampires, and the recent suspicious deaths. When he leaves, Rosalind admits that she’s terrified... then strips out of her wet dress and wraps a blanket from the sofa around her. They have a conversation about hillbilly vampires - Charlie thinks that might make a good story idea, but Rosalind thinks no one would believe it... people have a preconceived notion of what vampires look like.

That’s when Lem Carta (Jack Lambert, from Don Siegel’s version of THE KILLERS) steps into the room with clothes, startling them. He’s creepy. Says that Mother is coming down to say hello later. Charlie tells Lem to leave, and don’t peek through the keyhole... which is weird because they are in the livingroom and there is no door. I suspect the script was written for a different location and nobody fixed it when they shot this scene in the livingroom - one of many weird disconnects in this episode between what people say and what we see. Lem is also supposed to be Jed’s grandson - except they are both similar in age... so they didn’t fix the script after casting, either. Lem leaves - there is no door - and Rosalind takes off the blanket to put on the dirty old dress (WTF?) - which is much shorter than what she had on. Charlie puts on the dirty checked shirt and overalls...



When Charlie hears a woman laughing... and it’s not Rosalind!

Then a bat flies through the livingroom startling Rosalind!

Charlie smells food, so they decide to creep deeper into the cobwebbed old house to seek dinner.

In the kitchen: Jed is sharpening a knife while Lem pleads to allow him to kill and butcher this one... Jed killed the last few. But Jed says he’s experienced in slitting throats , so he’s gonna do it this time.

Charlie and Rosalind follow the cooking smells to the kitchen... where Jed has finished sharpening the knife. Jed tells Charlie that Lem’s mother has been dead for a decade - found dead on her bed, drained of blood... legend was from vampires. Jed says that he doesn’t believe in vampires - they’d need to change with the times or they’d be discovered. Rosalind says she’s not hungry anymore and runs to the front door... which is locked! Charlie says they are locked in... and then that woman’s laughter begins echoing from the walls again!

Charlie decides they’re going to search for the laughing woman... and they run into more bats on the way to the kitchen where they discover a butchered pig in the pantry. They creep upstairs and discover Ruthie (Dorothy Neumann) in a locked room - a prisoner, chained to the wall. She says she’ll show them the way out of the house if Charlie releases her. But after he does, she runs away into the night... after locking them in the room.



They escape the room, get into a spat, have a make up kiss... and then try to find the way out of the house. They discover some muddy footprints that *begin* at a wall. Secret passage or vampires who can walk through walls? Secret passage - with steps going into the basement. So they go down the steps... to the basement, where Charlie finds some moonshine and the guest book - which contains names of people and what valuables they stole from them!

That’s when Jed and Lem discover them! Jed is angry that they let Ruthie go - she’s a vampire. Oh, and Lem has set up a bed for them. So they go into the bedroom, where they find a locked door with the clothes of the previous guests. There are rats and lightning and other scary things that require Rosalind to jump so that her short skirt flips up (I know that sounds pervy to mention, but I see no reason why these hillbillies would give her an Ellie-Mae outfit except to provide scenes like these).

Later that night: the storm ends and Rosalind wakes up... and walks out of the room as if in a trance! Charlie wakes up and searches for her - finding Lem dead on the floor, sucked dry of blood with a pair of fang marks in his neck! Jed is shocked, says the whole vampire thing was just a joke. Laughter from the basement - Charlie wants to investigate, Jed warns him not to go down there. Charlie discovers Ruthie with a knife!

Later, Charlie comes upstairs and finds Rosalind, explains to her that he had to deal with Ruthie - it was her or him. Rosalind has the front door key - she knocked out Jed to get it, and they two leave. Hop in their car, drive away.

Just before dawn: at the resort destination where they had previously been driving to, they are finally able to get some rest... in a king-sized coffin. They are the vampires!



Review: Novelist Don Westlake has this term for stories that don’t fit in any genre, or maybe fit in too many genres - The Tortile Tarradiddle. It comes from Lewis Carroll. This story tries to be all things to all people and ends up not working for anyone. Though we may look at something like this as “meta” now, I wonder at the time how following every single cliche in the genre played. As a short story, it probably worked - one of my favorite Richard Matheson stories, “Tis The Season”, is a clever comedy story that makes fun of post apocalyptic tropes. Because it’s cleverly written, we know that Matheson is making fun of these tropes. The problem with a TV adaptation is that we wouldn’t be able to read the writing and we’d just see all of the tropes, all of the cliches... and even with the comedy dialogue it still might not work. I don’t really think this episode works - but I’m fairly sure (without reading it) that the story it is based on probably does,



This points out a problem with adapted material - often a book or story is famous *for its writing* and none of that writing shows up on screen, only the physical things being written about. There are novels where the way a chair is described is laugh outloud funny, but on screen it is just a chair... or just a character... or just a simple action like a character sitting down. The humor (or whatever) of the novel is in *how* things are described rather than *what* is being described. And only the *what* ends up on screen. I’ve read screenplays that do this as well - a funny read, but nothing funny actually happening. The funny part is in how it’s described on the page.

So we have a story that’s a big bundle of cliches where they push the comedy to the point of it becoming obvious and less funny. Doesn’t really work. What’s kind of interesting is John Carradine’s character saying “She’s got spunk, I like a woman with spunk” years before Lou Grant would say that to Mary Tyler Moore. Also - is this the first time a married couple slept in the same bed on television? Elizabeth Montgomery and Tom Poston do a pretty good job of playing the Nick & Nora Charles of vampires - and maybe because they are undead they could share a bed on TV and the censors didn’t care? The cast is interesting because this was a pre-BEWITCHED Montgomery, and she’s cute and sexy and lights up the screen. But just as we know Montgomery as a sexy young woman, we mostly know Poston as a crotchety old man from that last Bob Newhart show. So it seems slightly weird to see them as a couple (of about the same age) in this episode. The other thing that’s interesting about this episode is that it uses the “car breaks down in cannibal country” trope long before TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE... long before it was a trope (at least in cinema). So we have an unsuccessful entry that wasn’t as much fun as they probably thought it was.

Next week, Ida Lupino returns behind the camera for an episode she wrote with her cousin.

- Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

ATLiH: Walking The Concrete Carpet

An ALL THE LOSERS IN HOLLYWOOD entry from 2006...

Thursday night I went to a movie premiere. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were no shows, and I didn’t get a chance to joke with Bill Murray or Jack Black. Entertainment Tonight didn’t scream for an interview with me, and I wasn’t blinded by a million flashes from press cameras. I didn’t get a chance to ask either recently single Kate Hudson or just divorced Denise Richards to ask if anyone was sitting next to them (and might I?). You see, this wasn’t one of those fancy red carpet movie premieres in Westwood or at Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood... this one was held at the Culver Studios (where David O’Selznick’s huge mansion offices sit, you’ve seen it in the credits before GONE WITH THE WIND and NOTORIOUS) - it’s part of Sony. That still sounds pretty good, right? But this was a rented screening room - no red carpet, just a concrete sidewalk. And the movie wasn’t some big studio blockbuster, it was the latest film from legend-in-his-own-mind Donny Vitamin.

I *have* gone to those red carpet premieres a couple of times. The late Chris Penn was a friend of an actor I’ve worked with a few times, so I walked the red carpet at the premiere of MULLHOLLAND FALLS as part of his entourage. On the real red carpet it’s mostly about not ruining any photographer’s shot of Nick Nolte - basically trying not to be seen on the red carpet.

Here, no one cared if I was on the concrete sidewalk except the security guard who made sure my name was on the list before pointing out where to park the car.

This was a Donny Vitamin movie.

I don’t know where I first met Donny. Might have been at the American Film Market, might have been at a Film Artist’s Network meeting. Donny is a character. He has this comb-over-fro.... kind of reminds you of Trump’s hair. Poofy. And he's always popping vitamins... I think he told me he gets regular B-12 injections. Donny has been around forever, working as a comic book writer and cartoon writer. His big claim to fame: he wrote the novelization of a huge hit movie because he went to college with the director. That novelization became a best seller in paperback due to the film being a massive hit... and a career is born!



I saw Donny’s first film on the big screen TV in a coffee shop (also a premiere with no red carpet) - it was a *musical* about a guy who gets transported back to cave man times and has to escape stop-motion dinosaurs left over from some other movie and a clan of amazon-like cave girls lead by a too-old-for-a-loin-cloth Karen Black. If you can get past the song and dance aspect, the film is... clumsy and not all that well made. Compare it to DINOSAUR ISLAND, co-directed by my friend Fred Olen Ray and my arch-enemy Jim Wynorski which is a fun 6 pack movie about Navy guys who get shipwrecked on an island filled with half nekkid women and man eating dinosaurs. ISLAND isn't going to win any Oscars or make any ten best lists, but it's a pleasant waste of time. It uses the same elements as in Donny's - just put to better use. ISLAND is like an R rated Edgar Rice Burroughs story (and, as a kid reading those books, the Frazetta covers and descriptions of what the women were hardly wearing - the books were R rated to begin with). ISLAND is a fun T&A film, Donny's movie is... a really inept musical.

Oddly enough, the cinematographer on DINOSAUR ISLAND was the cinematographer on Donny’s new film which is a sequel to his previous (low budget horror) movie that I watched on DVD - which was crudely made, but featured lots of naked women. The sequel is more of the same. Basically a soft core porn film about an aging museum curator who discovers an ancient amulet that allows her to recapture her youth as long as she has simulated lesbian sex with a different stripper-trying-to-act every night. Of course, the museum is some cinderblock building with a nick-knack shelf fill of Egyptian junk, and the editor’s office at a big tabloid newspaper is a desk and chair shoved up against the wall in some warehouse. In one of the first scenes, two strippers show up at the opening of the mummy exhibit at the museum. What were they doing there? They acted like strippers, with air-head dialogue about liking old stuff. You know what they were doing there? They were setting up a pointless simulated lesbian sex scene after they leave the museum. What does that have to do with the story? Nothing. Did they have to be air-head strippers? Nope - but, you know, all air-head strippers have lesbian sex in their free time. This is so far past lazy writing I don’t know what to call it!

The film had zero production value - as if it was thrown together at the last minute. The dialogue was awful and the story made no sense at all - in one scene a captured tabloid reporter is wrapped like a mummy for no apparent reason, except that it would be cool to have her unwrapped in the very next scene. They can't even come up with a *bad* excuse to wrap her up! Characters stumble into scenes without reason or motivation... and the whole film looks cruddy. Obviously shot in a warehouse, without anyone caring enough to make it look like whatever location it’s supposed to be in the story.



Before the film, Donny did a little intro where he told us the film was shot for $100k in a week. Now, that isn’t much time to shoot a film, but my CYBERZONE (DROID GUNNER) film was shot in 9 days (a week and an extra weekend) and it looks pretty good. It’s also a sci-fi action flick with space ship battles and all kinds of other time consuming production value elements. As for the $100k budget, afterwards I wondered what they did with the money. Seriously. I’ve seen films made for half that budget that looked much bigger and, well, competent. Since the whole thing was shot in a warehouse in a week, we aren’t talking much in the way of cost. Cast was non-SAG, crew was probably minimal... where did the money go? This terrible film a friend of mine made, SLAUGHTERHOUSE MASSACRE, was shot for a third of their budget in 12 days with lots of gore FX... and a couple of nekkid women. Oh, and we rented a small town location for a chase and did stunts and had a room full of sides of beef, plus a tower of pig heads and some other cool production value stuff. We *built* sets! Even when things went wrong, like losing the school at the last minute, they built a classroom set that looks like a real classroom. It was built in a warehouse, by the way. But there are classroom seats and a chalkboard and the walls are dressed like a classroom. This was all done at the last minute... and looks a million times better than anything in Donny's film.

It seemed as if the only reason this film was made was the simulated lesbian sex stuff. Now, I like nekkid girls as much as the next guy. I can understand why a middle aged man with a bad comb-over would want to make a movie filled with nekkid girls in their 20s. But why make it a *bad* movie? It seemed as if the film part was just an excuse for the nekkid girls. No effort was put into anything, except rounding up nekked girls. The thing that pissed me off the most was that tabloid office, because with a little effort they could have made it look like a real office - but they didn’t. Porn films have better production value - and who cares whether a location is convincing in a porn film?

Sure, this is just a cruddy T&A film, but why did it have to be a bad one? It’s being sold as a horror film, so why not spend a *minute* on the horror plot? Or some real horror? Or some suspense? Why not make the sets convincing? The story convincing? The characters more than moronic cliches (porn films have more characterization than this film - really!)? The leading lady’s acting was bad on purpose - she was given air-head dialogue and then played it so over-the-top that *cartoon characters* are more realistic. Why *try* to make it crappy? Why not make it the best it can be within the confines of budget and schedule and talent? Donny told me he spent twice as much time writing the script as he did making the movie - and the result is something that’s worse than a porn script! Those lucky plumbers and pizza delivery guys have better motivation and dialogue... and more realistic acting. If you’re going to go to all of the trouble to make a film, why not at least *try* to make it good?



You know that scene in ED WOOD where Johnny Depp watches the terrible scene and says “Perfect!” - that’s an untalented film maker who is passionate about his work. At least Ed Wood *cared*. The thing I don’t understand is when they don’t care. I once had a director *read the newspaper* on set, yelling “Action!” and “Cut!” when nudged by an assistant. What is this guy doing in the business? This is my big beef about Donny's film and many other films - the people making them don’t care.

I think you can have nekkid girls a third your age in the film and *still* make it a good film. Even if you have limited talent, if you *try* to do good work, if you *care*, at least the film will be the best you can make it. It may not be great, but it will be something.

After the film was over, there was a little reception with wine and veggie platters in the parking lot. Many cast members were there - including the strippers, who were more intelligent in real life than on screen (they had to be). I think more thought was put into the veggie platters than the film... but I was confused by the whole screening. Why would you rent a theater at Sony to show this film? Why not just collect your check and pretend you never made it? After a few minutes of mingling with sub-Z grade “celebs” (from the Rock Riddle cult - I will do an All The Losers post on them in the future), I bolted down that concrete carpet to the parking garage and got out of there.

Even if you are doing a low budget exploitation movie, you have to *care*. You have to make it the best movie possible at whatever your budget is. Donny only made one film after this... and then people stopped giving him money to make movies. I have no idea what he's doing now.

- Bill

Names have been changed to protect the... well, not exactly innocent!

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Trailer Tuesday: TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

RIP David Warner...

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, July 22, 2022

Fridays With Hitchcock: North By Northwest (1959)

Hey, end of my Birthday Week...


Screenplay by Ernie Lehman.

My three favorite Hitchcock films are NOTORIOUS, REAR WINDOW and NORTH BY NORTHWEST... And it’s kind of strange to think that the same guy directed them - because they might all have suspense, but all have very different tones. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a comedy chase film with so much clever dialogue and so many farcical scenes that you might forget about the cool plot twists and large scale set pieces. Though movies like SAN FRANCISCO had big set pieces before this, I can’t think of any film with *as many* set pieces.



This is where all of our action films came from, and many say where the version of James Bond on screen came from. Screenplay by Ernie Lehman, who is an amazing short story writer, an amazing novelist, an amazing screenwriter and producer and won a bunch of Oscars. If you’ve read any of his stories, or seen the film SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, you know he travels in some nightmare version of the TV show MADMEN - where you have to sell your soul to sell a product. Here we get the lighter version of the Lehman lead - Cary Grant as an ad man who lies to everyone, has a liquid lunch often followed by afterwork cocktails, too many girlfriends and not a single real friend... except his mother. He’s charming... but all surface - he doesn’t want to know what’s underneath. Who really cares?

Nutshell: If there was ever a boy to cry wolf, it’s Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) - what does the O stand for? Nothing. In the opening minute and a half, we get a quick sketch of adman Roger - momma’s boy, playboy, liar, drinker... before a silly mistake in identity has him kidnaped by two armed thugs who think he’s a CIA Agent. They take him to this big country estate owned by Lester Townsend, where he meets the man of the house (James Mason at his best) who has just a minute before dinner guests arrive to decide whether he should kill Roger or not. Mason’s secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau) is thin and impeccably dressed and single - you do the math - and seems to enjoy causing people harm. When Roger keeps saying he’s *not* this CIA Agent George Kaplan, and even has a driver’s license to prove he’s Roger Thornhill, Leonard answers: “They make such good ones.” Roger - who tells lies for a living - can’t get anyone to believe him. Mason’s threats are so sophisticated and urbane that it takes you a moment to realize they *are* threats. Mason has Leonard kill Roger - with Bourbon and a sportscar, but Roger escapes death... and now can’t get anyone to believe that spies are trying to kill him. Guess what? Lester Townsend is a big wig at the United Nations - and doesn’t look anything like James Mason. No one in this film is who they claim to be - and nothing is as it seems. Mason is really an enemy spy named Van Damm... and Roger ends up framed for the real Townsend’s murder. There is no one to turn to - so Roger runs. He must find the real George Kaplan so that Van Damm will stop trying to kill Roger. By trains, planes, and automobiles Roger heads North by Northwest looking for the real Kaplan... and becoming an accidental spy and man of action in the process. The man who took nothing seriously grows up - and becomes a man of his word.

Hitch Appearance: Right up front, trying to catch a bus... and failing.

Sound Track: A great Bernard Herrmann score! Also, by the way, a great opening title sequence.

Great Scenes: They’re all great scenes. Seriously. The great thing about NORTH BY NORTHWEST is that you can take the smallest and most forgotten scene in the whole film - and it’s great! Here’s an example - a junk scene where Roger leaves Kaplan’s hotel and takes a taxi to the United Nations to ask Townsend what the hell is going on and why me? A pair of assassins are following him. But here we get a comedy version - Outside the hotel a Doorman has secured a cab for a Tourist Couple, when Roger bolts out, pushed them aside, gets in the cab and takes off. The Doorman hails a second cab for them, opens the door for them... and the Two Assassins bolt out of the hotel, push them aside, get in the cab and take off. The Doorman looks at the Tourist Couple, then cautiously looks for another cab. That’s just one of those scenes that gets the character from point A to point B!

Here’s another junk scene - Roger is locked in a hospital room and needs to get out - basically, another scene that will get him to a location where a “real scene” will take place. So Roger opens the hospital window, steps out onto a narrow ledge, gracefully walks along the ledge to the next hospital window, opens it and climbs into the room. A sleeping woman - not bad looking - yells: “Stop!” Then puts on her glasses and looks Roger over... then says: “Stop” in a much sexier voice. Now Roger has to get out before she tackles him! Another funny scene that is basically there to get Roger out of a locked room.

Every scene in the script - even these funny ones - move the story forward. This is a *relentless* script - it’s always moving. It is always a fast paced film - there are screenwriters who complain that movies today are designed for the short attention spans of the MTV generation (wait - how long has MTV been around? When the Rolling Stones sing about their generation - that’s a bunch of AARP members!) and these danged kids don’t want to take the time to build up to a story for a half an hour or so before the plot kicks in. NORTH BY NORTHWEST - made in 1959 - not only kicks into gear a minute and a half in, it doesn’t let up!


Bourbon And A Sports Car: Three martini lunch Roger is held down by the Two Assassins as Leonard forces him to drink a full bottle of Bourbon, then they put him behind the wheel of a Mercedes convertible on a winding cliff-side road... and send him to his death. The great part about this is that it is smart on the side of the bad-guy spies - Roger’s death will look like a drunk driving accident. Problem is - Roger takes control of the car and manages to barely miss driving off the cliff... so the Two Assassins give chase in their car! Now we have a car chase with a very drunk driver. This adds an extra element to an already exciting car chase. One of the cool things about this scene is that Hitchcock gives up a driver’s POV through the windshield shot alternating with Roger behind the wheel so that *we* are driving the car on this dangerous winding road. Another thing he does is give us Roger’s *drunk POV* at times - with double vision (which road is the real one?) and blurry vision. Again - by putting us in Roger’s shoes and in the driver’s seat we feel like all of this is happening to *us*. If you’ve seen the car chase on the big screen - those POV shots as we head to a cliff or an oncoming car are scary! Any time you can find a way to turn the audience into the protagonist, you create an emotional scene.

Cops At Townsend’s: Roger manages to crash into a police car, which forces the Two Assassins to back off. But now Roger is in trouble with the law. When they ask him how much he’s had to drink, he raises his hands as if measuring a fish and says “This much”. By the way, the arresting officer is Corporal Emil Klinger - that’s where the M.A.S.H. character came from. He’s given a phone call, and calls his mother... “Mother, this is your son, Roger Thornhill” - as if she may have forgotten her son’s name. As an in joke only for my own amusement, when I call my mom I always say, “This is your son, Bill.” The next morning Roger tells the judge his story... and the judge sends a pair of Detectives with Roger and his Mother to the Townsend house... where Mrs. Townsend says Roger is “a little pink-eyed, but aren’t we all?” (a phrase I’ve taken up using the day after a party.) Then tells the Detectives that Roger was too drunk to drive... and the more Roger tries to prove he’s innocent, the more he just looks crazy. The sofa where they forced him to drink and spilled some booze on the cushions? Completely clean. The cabinet where Roger claims they got the bourbon - filled with books, not liquor bottles.

It’s important in a thriller script to remove the police and the authorities from the equation - so that the protagonist is alone against the world - and this scene does that. At *best* Roger looks like a drunk trying to get out of a police charge. At the end of the search of Townsend’s the Detectives apologize to Mrs. Townsend, and take Roger back to the police station. Roger’s mother tells him to just, “Pay the two dollars” - another phrase I often use to mean, quit arguing, you’ve lost and you’re looking silly.

The only way Roger can prevent himself from getting slightly murdered is to find the real George Kaplan... that is Roger's quest in the story.

Elevator with Killers: Roger manages to drag his Mother to the hotel where Kaplan is staying... and bribes her to get the room key. She won’t do it for $10 or $20, but $50 gets her cooperation. They search Kaplan’s room and discover they have Roger confused with a much shorter man... who has dandruff. But the strangest thing is that the Maid, the Valet and everyone else at the hotel has never actually *seen* Kaplan - they all think Roger is Kaplan. Then the phone rings - Van Damm’s Two Assassins! If Roger isn’t Kaplan, what is he doing in Kaplan’s room? And of course, the call came from the lobby phone - the Assassins are on the way up! Roger and his Mother race out of the hotel to the elevators... where the Assassins get off the up elevator and join Roger and his Mother going down.

Being trapped is one of the basic scenes in a thriller script - but Roger isn’t trapped *alone* with a pair of killers, his mom and a bunch of other people are on the elevator. Roger points out the Assassins to his Mother, who asks them: “You aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?” The question is so absurd, that people in the elevator start laughing... and soon *everyone* is laughing (including the Assassins) *except Roger*. He is the man alone - no one will believe him. The boy who cried wolf.


United Nations: Roger goes to the United Nations to find Townsend, has him paged... and this distinguished looking man introduces himself as Mr. Townsend, and Roger replies: “No you’re not.” And now Townsend must convince Roger he is who he is... more identity confusion! Roger still isn’t sure he believes him, and pulls out a picture of the guy who claimed to be Townsend (Van Damm) and shows it to Townsend - who gasps! Eyes open wide at the picture! Then he seems to faint! Roger grabs him to prevent him from falling, sees a big throwing knife in Townsend’s back and pulls it out... and that’s when everyone at the United Nations notices him - and people start snapping pictures. Roger sees one of the Assassins slip out of the room... leaving Roger, bloody knife in hand, trapped in the room! Roger escapes - and we get a great high overhead shot of Roger fleeing to a taxi - he’s like a chess piece or maybe an ant. Small, insignificant.

Seven Parking Tickets: Roger ends up at Grand Central Station - with just about everyone in the world looking for him. He tries to buy a ticket *North* and the ticket salesman pesters him with questions - it’s like everyone is against Roger. The ticket salesman gets Roger to wait for a moment... as he calls the police. Roger escapes, police chasing, and sneaks onto the train.

In the passageway, he runs into a pretty girl - Eve Kendall - flirts with her a bit... then the police enter the car. While Roger hides, Eve tells the policemen that she thinks he got off the train. After the police leave, Roger tells her he has seven parking tickets. After the train is in motion, Roger has no ticket so he has to keep moving... and goes to the dining car... where he’s seated at a table with Eve. He lies to her about who he is and where he’s from... but she stops him - she knows he’s Roger Thornhill and that he’s wanted for murder on the front page of *every* newspaper in the nation. The man who lies easily to women, can’t seem to lie to this woman. He has to be *honest* with her! Yikes! She flirts with him, says she has a bedroom car with plenty of room. Wow! Then she says he’d better hurry up. Roger thinks she's hot to trot... but the train just made an unexpected stop and a bunch of police just got on!

Eve’s Compartment: The police are doing a compartment-by-compartment search for Roger - and they enter Eve’s bedroom and ask if she’s seen him. Roger is hiding in a upper bed... and must be completely quiet and still while the police are in the bedroom. This is another one of those basic scenes in thrillers. Because Eve had dinner with Roger, they *really* question her. Take their time. She says they just shared a table, but don’t know each other. Eventually the police leave... and Roger can breathe again.

Now we come to the love scene - a kiss that manages to take them from wall to wall all the way around the car. Sure: “they kiss”, but how is *this* kiss different than any other kiss in any other movie? Here we have this romantic never-ending kiss where they use every surface of the room. A sexy, romantic idea for a kiss.

The next morning, when the conductor knocks on the door, Roger hides in the bathroom... and we get one of the big twists in the story. Afterwards the conductor walks down the passageway to a door, knocks on it, says the woman in compartment whatever (Eve) sent this message. A hand takes it, closes the door. The note says that she has Roger, what should she do with him. Reading the note? Van Damm and Leonard. Eve is a bad girl!

Redcap Spin: When the train pulls into the station, the police are waiting... so Roger disguises himself as a redcap, and we have another basic suspense scene, and we see an ocean of redcaps - dozens of them - one is Roger. A redcap in his underwear tells the police he was mugged for his uniform, so police start grabbing redcaps and spinning them around to look at their face. One-by-one the redcaps are spun around, and we know that any minute they will get Roger - and he’ll be caught. Suspense builds as there are fewer and fewer redcaps - because we know the next one will probably be Roger! It’s like a ticking clock - with redcaps instead of minutes passing.

When they spin the last redcap, it’s not Roger, because he is already in the train station men’s room changing and shaving... with Eve’s little woman’s razor. The big macho guy shaving at the sink next to him uses a straight razor - and gives Roger a look.

Crop Duster Scene: Eve tells Roger she’s gotten a message from Kaplan to meet him at Prairie Stop - take the bus, not a car. Roger gets off the bus in the middle of farmland for as far as the eye can see. Nothing but fields. Suspense is the *anticipation* of action - which means suspense can literally be nothing happening. This scene starts with Roger just standing in a deserted road, waiting for Kaplan to show up. Except we know there is no Kaplan, and that Eve (who sent him there) is a bad girl. That means this is a trap, but Roger doesn’t know it. That’s called “audience superiority” - the audience has information that the protagonist doesn’t have. We know Roger is in big trouble, he doesn’t. So while he stands there and an occasional cars zips by, nothing is happening... except we know any minute something *will* happen. And that creates suspense. In order to keep the suspense perking, Roger sees an old pick up truck driving toward him. Hey, that could be Kaplan! (Except we know it’s more likely someone who is going to kill Roger). The pick up truck stops, lets out a man in a suit, takes off. Now Roger is on the opposite side of the road from this man. And Roger waits for the best moment to cross the highway. Then asks if he’s Kaplan. The man answers “Can’t say that I am, ‘cause I’m not.” This guy talks stranger than Yoda! Then the guy sees a crop duster, starts a conversation about crop duster pilots... and how dangerous the job is, Many get killed. Wait... is that a threat? Just as the man’s bus is pulling up, the man notes that the crop duster is dusting where there ain’t no crops. Okay - the man was a potential threat, and the moment he is taken away, another threat is introduced... and the type of suspense changes.


We go from nothing happening, to the crop duster attacking Roger. Now our suspense is based on the anticipation of the crop duster killing Roger. Hitchcock alternates shots of the crop duster plane zooming at us, and shots of Roger running. This puts us in the protagonist’s shoes, just like the Bourbon and Sportscar scene. The cool thing here is that the shots of both the crop duster and Roger become shorter as the scene goes on, building up the pace and the anticipation/suspense. The shots of Roger also become closer - as if the plane is getting closer. When Roger hides in a cornfield, the crop duster sprays the corn - forcing Roger out into the open again. Eventually the plane sprays machinegun fire - and Roger is running for his life.

There’s a great little bit of simple visual storytelling at the end of this scene. Roger steals a farmer’s pick up truck with a refrigerator in the back... and we cut to the city at night where a policeman is writing a ticket on a completely out of place pick up truck with a refrigerator in back. This not only tells us Roger is in the city... but it’s a funny way to give us this information.

Eve’s Hotel Room: Roger realizes Eve sent him to his death, and goes to confront her. I use a clip from this scene in my 2 day class to illustrate how you can show complex emotions through the actions of the characters. When Eve goes to hug Roger, his hands tun to fists and he does not touch her. Everything Roger *says* in this scene has a double meaning: “Surprised to see me?” “There’s just no getting rid of me.” But it is all said in a friendly manner - so we need the actions to show Roger’s anger.

While Roger is in the shower, Eve leaves... but Roger wasn’t really in the shower. To link this scene to the next, they use a device: Roger rubs a pencil over the pad of paper next to the phone in the hotel room... exposing an address. Then we see the address on the outside of the auction house.

Auction: This is the first scene with Roger and Van Damm and Eve - our little romantic triangle. And that is how the scene is played - as a romantic triangle where the losing party gets killed. Because this is a scene where the characters are in public and can’t kill each other with guns or knives, they try to off each other with words. Roger and Van Damm (and sometimes Leonard) dig into each other with the most painful words they can find - and this becomes a battle of the wits. What’s cool is the other person in the room - the studio censor - who forces them to find clever ways to hit below the belt. When Eve says Roger followed her from the Hotel, Van Damm asks if he was in her room, and Roger replies that *everyone* has been in her room. Later Roger tells Van Damm that Eve does great work - she puts her whole body into it.

As they verbally spar, with Eve in the middle, Leonard is bidding on a piece of art. They outbid everyone else - they *must* have this little statue. Once they get it, Van Damm and Eve leave... And the two Assassins and Leonard block all of the exits. No way out. Here’s the kind of thing that separates good scenes from average ones - finding the completely different way to resolve the problem. The one we have never seen. As screenwriters we always want to find the unusual solution to the problem. Here we have Roger trapped - assassins at every door. How does he get out of it? He bids on the piece of art being offered... but bids weird. Now he has called attention to himself, and the assassins can’t really do anything to him. He’s in public. But Roger keeps bidding, and eventually ruins the auction to the point that the auction house calls the police. When the police arrive, Roger *punches* one of them. That guarantees that instead of ticketing him or warning him, they will have to take Roger to the police station and put him in a cell... which will make it close to impossible for the assassins to get him. Finding the usual solution makes the scene different and interesting and exciting... oh, and *funny*, since Roger gets to act like a crazy guy in the middle of a very dignified setting.

What Is A MacGuffin? The little pre-Columbian statue that Van Damm was so insistent to buy at the auction is one of the film’s two MacGuffins (the other is George Kaplan). When asked what a MacGuffin was, Hitchcock said it was a device for capturing the indigenous lions in the Scottish Highland... but there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands... hence, no such thing as a MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin is the physical device that drives the story - the thing that everyone is after. The Maltese Falcon is probably the most famous one. In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE everyone wants to get their hands on the Russian Lecter coding machine. Of course, the Lost Ark is a MacGuffin. Rare coins, rare books, murder weapons, plans to the Death Star, all kinds of things that both good guys and bad guys must own. In THE LADY VANISHES the MacGuffin is a *tune* that is really a code that Mrs. Froy has memorized - turning her brain into the MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin drives the story - where would THE MALTESE FALCON be without The Maltese Falcon? It is the most important element in the story... but Hitchcock noted that it may be the thing that drives the story, but what it is doesn’t matter very much. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we have this pre-Columbian statue, and inside is a roll of microfilm. Van Damm is smuggling this microfilm out of the USA - and delivering it to the Soviets... and the CIA must stop this from happening and recover that microfilm... and Roger ends up being the guy in the middle. So the fate of the free world rests on who ends up with the statue and the microfilm that is inside it by the end of the movie. This film is all about that microfilm! It’s what Van Damm has secretly been up to since the very first frame. It's why he has been trying to kill George Kaplan... the only man who can get Roger off the hook. So the microfilm is *really* why they are trying to kill Roger... and Roger’s only hope of survival after the auction scene is to get that microfilm!

But here’s the question: what’s on the microfilm? Guess what? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we will lose the Cold War if Van Damm delivers the microfilm to the enemy. And that’s why the MacGuffin is both the most important element in the story (it drives the story, and who ends up with it is what the story is *about*), but also unimportant (as long as we know people will kill for it, who cares what it really is?). The scene where the Professor tells Roger what it’s all about? Takes place on the tarmac of an airport (Northwest Airlines) and you can’t hear a thing that is said because a plane is taking off. We never find out what is on the microfim.

And George Kaplan, the MacGuffin that Roger is chasing, doesn't exist... but more on that in a moment.

Now, I think you can still have the MacGuffin be the thing that drives the story and yet not really care what’s on the microfilm - but we live in a post CSI world where people like to know the details. Today, they would want to know what’s on that danged microfilm. And the cool thing about a MacGuffin is that it makes a dandy high concept substitute. If the *MacGuffin* is some high concept device, then you can have a standard non-high con thriller (or action or whatever) movie. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a non-high con story... but the Ark can level mountains, and whoever controls it will win the war. Is that *lightning* shooting out of the Ark? So, these days, I would make the MacGuffin *something* rather than just a device - because it adds production value. I have a half finished novel from decades ago about good guy spies and bad guy spies all trying to get their hands on this lost microfilm. Could have been anything, but I decided it was the plans for the “freon bomb” that flash freezes anything in a 5 mile radius. Opening chapter had a test on a tropical island... that froze chimpanzees so that they shattered when you touched them. To me, that raises the stakes and makes the story more interesting. Better than “just microfilm”.

But the whole story is about that MacGuffin. You can’t abandon it midway, or just decide it’s not important. All of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is about getting that Ark, all of THE MALTESE FALCON is about getting the black bird, and by the time we find out what has been driving NORTH BY NORTHWEST, it’s all about the microfilm in the pre-Columbian statue and George Kaplan.

Mt. Rushmore Restaurant: After the Professor (I’m sure some relation to the Video Professor) tells Roger that the fate of the free world rests on that microfilm of, well, whatever’s on it, and that George Kaplan doesn't exist - he's a decoy to cover the tracks of the *real* CIA Agent... he also reveals another mistaken identity and twist - Eve isn’t bad girl at all, *she’s* the deep cover CIA agent... and Roger has given Van Damm reason to mistrust her. No one in this film is who they seem to be! So they hop a plane to Rapid City where Van Damm has a house near Mount Rushmore to try and set things straight.

Roger meets with Van Damm and Leonard... and Eve at the restaurant overlooking Mount Rushmore. This scene could have taken place anywhere - so why not this really cool location? NORTH BY NORTHWEST isn’t just a story that moves in that direction, it’s also a travelogue movie, where every interesting location anywhere near that route is a story stop. We are seeing America in this film. Mount Rushmore in a great background to a scene.

In the restaurant, Roger makes a deal - he will allow Van Damm to take the statue (and microfilm) to the Soviets in exchange for... Eve. She betrayed him, and he’s going to make her suffer. Van Damm sees that Eve is *not* working with Roger and the CIA, and they are no longer suspicious of her. Everything is back on track, right? Except Eve pulls out a gun and shoots Roger - again and again! Roger foes down, dead. Leonard and Van Damm leave the restaurant and escape in their car. Eve gets in her own car and races away. Leaving Roger dead on the floor. This is our protagonist. Played by a huge star, Cary Grant. And they kill him about three quarters of the way through the film! His body is put in the back of an ambulance and taken away...

Woods Goodbye: The ambulance is driven into the woods, where it stops. Trees everywhere. Beautiful. Then Eve’s car pulls up and stops. And Roger hops out of the back of the ambulance. Eve’s gun was filled with blanks.

The Professor tells Roger he only has a minute... and Roger and Eve slowly walk toward each other - meeting in the middle of the woods. This is the first time Roger has meet with the real Eve - neither is playing a role. And it’s a great love scene - because both are completely without defenses. They have their first real kiss, a small conversation... then she says she has to get back. Roger thinks this whole fake murder has been to pull her out of danger... but it has really been to make her a fugitive from justice so that Van Damm will have to take her out of the country with him when he delivers the MacGuffin... so that she can meet and infiltrate the Soviet side of the operation. Roger doesn’t want her to go - he loves her. When he tries to stop her, he gets KOed by a Park Ranger and Eve drives off to Van Damm’s house.

Van Damm’s House: Now we get that scene where Roger escapes the hospital... and goes to Van Damm’s house. Again - an amazing house instead of just some house. This place is on stilts and really cool looking. Roger climbs the stilts, ending up just under the living room window... where he overhears Leonard and Van Damm talking about the plane that will land soon to take them away... and Leonard tells Van Damm that there’s a problem with Eve.

And Leonard aims a gun at Van Damm.
And Fires.
And Van Damm isn’t hit.
It’s Eve’s gun - filled with blanks.
Now, there could have just been a scene where Leonard tells Van Damm that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. But that is the least exciting way to get that information across. Here we get the *most exciting* method to reveal that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. The most dramatic. The most inciting - because Van Damm *punches* Leonard in the face afterwards. Always look for the best way to reveal information - if there is a dull way, or even a traditional way - look for some other method. Find the most exciting way - the most unusual and different way.

Van Damm tells Leonard the best way to deal with Eve is from a great height - over water. They are going to throw her out of the plane! Roger overhears this, climbs to a section under Eve’s window and throws rocks at her window. What happens next? When she *finally* looks out the window, Roger is forced to hide from Van Damm and Leonard... and she doesn’t see him! Instead of things going according to plan - the opposite happens. No easy scenes, here. Roger climbs up to her room... just as she’s left her room and gone downstairs! Again - nothing happens the easy way.

So Roger is upstairs, hiding on the balcony, and Eve is downstairs sitting on the sofa in the same room as Van Damm and Leonard. How does he stop her from going with them? How does he tell her they know she’s a CIA agent?

We get a great bit of visual storytelling. On the train, she sees his monogrammed handkerchief and asks what the O stands for, and he explains “nothing”. He is ROT. Roger is looking for something to signal her with, pulls out his handkerchief, sees ROT - she knows him by those initials - and pulls out a monogrammed matchbook, jots a note inside, and throws it from the balcony to the ashtray on the table directly in front of Eve while Leonard and Van Damm are looking out the window as the plane lands. The matchbook misses the ash tray. It misses the table. It hits the floor halfway to Leonard’s feet. Nothing easy here... and it gets worse. The matchbook is a “focus object” - an object that creates suspense. Leonard turns and walks toward Eve, sees the matchbook, picks it up! Suspense - because we know if he opens the matchbook and reads the message, Eve is dead. We are focused on that matchbook... will he open it? Examine it? Realize that ROT stands for Roger O Thornhill? But here’s the thing - he thinks Roger is George Kaplan... so ROT means nothing to him. So he places the matchbook in the ashtray in front of Eve. But Eve knows ROT - and now must *not* look at the matchbook while Leonard is talking to her. When he turns away, she grabs the matchbook, reads the message... but the plane has landed, and Van Damm and Leonard hustle her out of the house so that they can leave... and they can throw her out of the plane later.

When they leave the house, Roger runs downstairs to rescue her... but a burley maid aims a gun at him and tells him to freeze. Guess which gun it is? The one filled with blanks! The gun-filled-with-blanks gets used three times in this story - and not once is it contrived or illogical.

Hanging From Lincoln’s Nose: Which brings us to Roger and Eve and the MacGuffin trying to escape by climbing down the face of Mount Rushmore while Leonard and the Two Assassins give chase. Whenever you can *combine* threats, you increase the excitement. Mount Rushmore is not only the coolest place for a chase scene, it’s easy to fall from - making it a chase at a very dangerous location (two ways to die!). In here somewhere Roger refers to the pre-Columbian statue as “the pumpkin” - which is a reference to the Pumpkin Papers from the 1948 HUAC investigation into communist spies in the USA - run by some guy named Richard Nixon who would eventually become President. They found microfilm in a hollowed out pumpkin in a farm in the midwest. America’s heartland - overrun by commies!


The big flaw in NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Roger doesn’t resolve the conflict! The Professor shows up with a sharp shooter and arrests Van Damm and shoots Leonard seconds before he would have killed Roger and Eve. William Goldman uses this scene as an example of wrapping up the plot and all of the subplots in about 30 seconds. Though it would be better if Roger had resolved the conflict, I cut the film some slack because of the very last shot: Roger and Eve take the train on their honeymoon, and after they get into bed together... the train goes into a tunnel.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a fun film - comedy, thrills, suspense, romance... but still some real emotions. If there was ever a film that opened the door for the biog summer blockbusters we have today, this is it.

- Bill

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Thursday, July 21, 2022

THRILLER Thursday: Mr. George.

BEST OF THRILLER THURSDAY: Mr. George.

(Though I have the next episode in season 2 ready to go - I haven't pulled all of the images, yet... and am exhausted today. So I'm playing hooky and doing a rerun.)

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



Season: 1, Episode: 32.
Airdate: May 9, 1961

Director: Ida Lupino
Writer: Donald Sanford based on a story by Stephen Grendon
Cast: Gina Gillespe, Virginia Gregg, Lillian Bronson, Howard Freeman.
Music: Sweet Jerry Goldsmith score.
Cinematography: John Warren.
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Our little friend Priscilla is obviously on urgent business. But in a cemetery, you say? Ah, my friends, this is no ordinary child as you can see, oh no indeed. You see, she has a very special friend and protector resting here. Oh yes, to the rest of the world her friend is properly deceased and quite quite cold. But since Priscilla is not aware of adult concepts of life and death she simply knows that Mr. George has changed his address. That’s the title of our story, Mr. George, and it concerns the fearful effect his untimely demise has on our leading players. They are: Virginia Gregg, Lillian Bronson, and Howard Freeman... and most importantly, Priscilla herself as played by Miss Gina Gillespe. And Mr. George. I warn you, hold tight to your own concepts of life and death because before the hour has ended Priscilla and her special guardian may change them.”



Synopsis: A mansion (Munster House) at the turn of the century. A little girl Priscilla (Gina Gillespie) watches from the top of the stairs until the adults have left the entryway to the house, then sneaks out to see Mr. George... at a graveyard. She goes to his tombstone and leaves a note on his grave... she wants him to come back and live with them.

Meanwhile, the adults are discussing their problem. Priscilla’s mother was wealthy and owned this house. When she passed away, the house and money was put in a trust for Priscilla with Mr. George (the family lawyer... and maybe Priscilla’s mother’s lover) as executor. Now that Mr. George has died, the trust will be passed to Judge Lambeau... who doesn’t trust these adults, who are Priscilla’s cousins: slightly crazy Adelaide Leggett (Lillian Bronson), stuffy Jared Leggett (Howard Freeman) and scheming Edna Leggett (Virginia Gregg). Edna’s dreams of wealth aren’t going to happen on the monthly allowance from Priscilla’s trust. Edna is already scheming: if Priscilla dies, they are next in line for the fortune. Jared goes upstairs...



Just as Priscilla returns. She waits until he’s gone before sneaking upstairs to her room... but she hits the squeaky step, and Edna races out to catch her. But Priscilla is already gone. Did she hear them plotting?

Edna tries to convince Jared to make sure Priscilla has some sort of accident. Jared tells her not to say such things, especially around Adelaide, since she’s crazy and there’s no telling what she might do... and if she did something and was caught, well, she’d be out her share of the inheritance, right?

In Priscilla’s bedroom, the rocking chair next to the bed begins to move and Mr. George’s ghost (voice of Les Tremayne) talks to her. He verbally tucks her in, wishes her a good night, and then the light goes out (by itself?). It’s a really sweet scene... with an unseen ghost.

In the morning, Priscilla runs downstairs to find the cook gone. Edna has fired her along with the rest of the staff. Priscilla goes outside and has a tea party with her doll. She tells her doll how much she misses Mr. George... then the wind blows through the trees and Mr. George’s voice says that he’s back, to watch over her. She thinks Mr. George is playing hide and seek with her, and looks all over for him.



In the house, Adelaide grabs Edna and points out Priscilla talking to herself. Is Mr. George out there somewhere? Or just the kid’s imagination?

At breakfast, Priscilla tells them that Mr. George was talking to her. Jared tells her she must go to her room, and when she is ready to forget this nonsense she can come down. When she’s gone, Edna tells Adelaide she read in the newspaper about some children who climbed in an old trunk and the lid locked... and they suffocated. If such a thing were to happen to Priscilla, they’d all inherit her money.

Adelaide goes to Priscilla’s room and says she thinks she knows where Mr. George might be hiding... up in the attic. Let’s go up and look for him. Adelaide and Priscilla go up to the spooky attic, where Adelaide tries to get Priscilla to look in an old trunk. But when she gets close enough to push inside, Mr. George calls for her to run to her room. Adelaide yells for her to come back... and the trunk lid falls on Adelaide’s neck and kills her!



After Adelaide’s funeral, George’s sister Laura Craig (Joan Tompkins) comes to visit. When George was ill and thought he might be dying he wrote to Laura... telling her all about the evil cousins. There’s a nice moment where Edna, dressed entirely in black from the funeral, and Laura, dressed in a white hat and light colors; do a sort of verbal tug of war over Priscilla. Edna orders Priscilla go upstairs to her room, and they escort Laura out of the house. Darkness wins.

When Edna goes up to Priscilla’s room, the rocking chair is moving and the little girl is talking to Mr. George. Of course, Edna can’t hear him and thinks Priscilla just has an over active imagination. Orders her to stop fooling around and go down to dinner. Now. When they leave Jared walks past... and sees the rocking chair moving on its own. Could George’s ghost be haunting the house? Could George’s ghost have killed Adelaide?



The next day, Jared sees Priscilla on the swing and thinks this might make for a good accident... so he begins pushing her on the swing. Tells her his arms are getting tired and she should get off, then tries to push the swing at her head! Mr. George tells her to run to her playhouse, quick! The swing blasts at her head, missing it. Jared yells for her to come back... then notices the swing has stopped midair. How is that possible? Then it shoots down and hits Jared in the neck... killing him. Great swing POV shot as it moves back and forth over Jared’s body.

Another funeral wreath on the front doors of the house.

Edna finds Priscilla playing hide and go seek with her “imaginary friend” and punishes her. Priscilla says it is Mr. George. Edna asks how can she know who it is if she can’t see him? It’s all in her mind. Is it? Edna sends Priscilla to her room, then there is a knock at the door... Laura Craig. Judge Lambeau has given Laura custody of Priscilla. Light and darkness face off again. Edna can stay in the house. Laura will come to pick up Priscilla at 10am tomorrow.



The next morning Edna ties a piece of string across the top of the stairs and calls for Priscilla to come down. Priscilla starts to run down, but Mr.George tells her to go down the *back stairs* and go to the playhouse. Edna keeps yelling for Priscilla to come down stairs this minute! When she gets no answer, she goes upstairs to grab her... making sure the string is disconnected first. Priscilla isn’t upstairs. Edna blows a gasket and races downstairs... but the string *connects* all by itself! Edna trips and falls down the stairs to her death.

Priscilla meets Laura at the playhouse and they board the streetcar for Laura’s house. Priscilla tells Mr. George that he’ll have to hurry or he’ll be left behind. Mr. George tells her that Laura will look after her now, so this will have to be goodbye. Priscilla says goodbye to Mr. George (dare you not to cry) and the streetcar takes Priscilla to her new home, as the front gate to the old home closes by itself.



Review: This is a strange little story! A tale of ghosts and murder and revenge... that’s charming and heart warming! How do you maintain that balance for an hour? In a strange way this is similar to last week’s episode, since it deals with an underdog character surrounded by schemers... except this underdog is a completely innocent little girl who gets her revenge through her best friend who is a ghost. Not an evil ghost, but a protective ghost. Last week we had an adulterous wife and no shortage of men who don’t mind that she’s married, this week we get Killing Cousins. Both stories feature dark humor and a whimsical tone. It’s impossible not to root for the happy little girl when these downright evil people descend on her and try to steal her inheritance. While they scheme, she has fun! While they fight amongst themselves, she plays in the play house! They are all about money, she is all about just having a great time. And guess what wins in this parable?

One of the great things about this episode is that all three cousins die *by their own schemes*. Adelaide tries to trap Priscilla in an old trunk, and the trunk lid drops on her neck and kills her. Jared tries to kill Priscilla with the swing, not realizing that what goes up (out?) must come down... and the swing slamming into his throat and killing him. Edna creates the tripline on the top of the stairs, and then trips on it herself. It’s as if their own evil is killing them (with a little help from Mr. George).

Hey, Mr. George is an amazing character! He is never seen, but manages to make a real emotional impression on us. We love this (dead) guy! He seems to be as happy and playful in death as Priscilla is in life.



I mentioned the score in the credits, it’s a sweet Jerry Goldsmith score that kind of reminds you of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The innocence of childhood with a touch of seriousness (for those lessons we learn in childhood). In fact, this is kind of the ghost story version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD... similar tone of small town (even though this is a turn of the century city where Priscilla knows the driver of the horse drawn streetcar). There’s a real feeling of a simpler time.

Though this is Ida Lupino’s second episode on the series as a director (of nine), this shows what a remarkable director she was. She manages to maintain that tricky tone for the hour without a single fumble. She also does some wonderful camera work for an hour long show shot in a week. Other directors seem content to just set up the camera in the easiest spot and let the action unfold in front of it. Here Lupino opens with a complicated moving shot and then continues to pepper the episode of with great angle (that shot of the two evil aunts) and does an amazing shot where the camera is *on the swing* with Priscilla’s POV on the swing, and later a Swing Eye View as the swing passes back and forth over dead Uncle Jared. Cameras weighed a ton back then, so I have no idea how she pulled off this shot. It’s also a *haunting* shot, as the swing drifts back and forth over Jared’s corpse.

I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m a huge fan of hers, and her work in Film Noir both in front of the camera and behind the camera is remarkable. But how could her work as director on THE HITCH HIKER prepare her for an episode like this? This sweet, tear inducing, ghost story? Before her stint on THRILLER she directed 8 episodes of my favorite western show, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL. This is such a sweet episode, that it’s hard to believe she was directing a manly man western show before this! Or that she would direct the ultimate edge of the seat suspense episode of THRILLER only a few episodes from this.

Next week an episode directed by Paul Henreid (Victor Lazlo in CASABLANCA) about a famous pianist and his rival... and a war that goes beyond the grave.

Bill

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Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Trailer Tuesday: THE OUTFIT (1973)

Hey, my Birthday week, how about some Richard Stark?


Directed by: John Flynn.
Written by: John Flynn (based on the novel by Richard Stark... who is really Don Westlake).
Starring: Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Joe Don Baker.




THE OUTFIT (1973, written & directed by John Flynn) is one of those no-nonsense action films from the 1970s - kind of a studio B movie. This was the tail end of the studio system, when they were still making movies just to fill screens. Studios were like giant factories with employees, and it would cost them more to shut down between movies than to just make some “programmer” movies. Now studios are just banks and distributors, and they do not have any full time employees, but in the early 70s they had actors under contract and film crews and directors who they paid a salary to whether they were working or not... so why not keep them working making B movies? Some studios, like Universal, became big TV producers with their employees on salary. But they all made “programmers” - basic meat and potatoes genre films often starring second string stars or TV guys like James Garner. Garner starred in all kinds of programmers, from the comedy-western GET TO KNOW YOUR SHERIFF movies to some action flicks like MARLOWE. The great thing about these movies is that the studios still had all of these great character actors under contract, so you’d get a bunch of familiar faces in every film.


The “programmers” served a handful of purposes - they kept the studio employees working, they filled screens with movies to watch until the studio’s next *big* film like THE STING came out, they often played as the “A feature” at rural drive ins and big city grind houses (in “second run” - after they had already played in normal cinemas as “screen fillers”) they were kind of the farm team for actors and directors and stars - grooming them for bigger and better films, they helped “amortize” the big budget films, and every once in a while one of these little studio B movies became a big hit - and the studio made a ton of money from a very small investment.

The great thing about the action films from this period is that without Paul Newman or Steve McQueen or big budgets, they had to entice the audience with what Blockbuster video used to call “Super Action” - fist fights and car crashes and hot women. In order to get you into the cinema, they’d make the fist fights more visceral, and the shoot outs might be fewer... but more savage, and you weren’t getting the car chase from BULLITT, but they’d crash some junker cars and there would be a nice explosion. These were studio exploitation films. The quality of a studio film crew, the subject matter of some drive in action flick. This time period also gave us all of the great studio Blaxploitation films like SHAFT (also from MGM).

Part of my love for these films is that they are not about rich guys with good jobs in nice office buildings, none of these guys would be caught dead as the love interest in a rom-com. These films are about guys who work for a living, and seem to either take place in the big city or somewhere rural... Charles Bronson played a *watermelon farmer* in one of these films!

THE KILLER SET UP



So THE OUTFIT stars Robert Duvall, from those GODFATHER movies, as a version of Richard Stark’s Parker named *Macklin*, who gets out of prison and discovers his brother has been murdered by the mob and wants to get himself a little revenge. The guy who wrote the novels thought Duvall was closest to his creation, and this is Duvall playing deep fried tough guy to perfection.

Film opens with a Priest in a taxi cab driven by Felice Orlandi - who you would recognize as the low level pock-marked crook in at least a dozen films (including BULLITT!), stopping at a gas station to ask for directions. So you know something is wrong...
Orlandi isn’t just playing a taxi driver like Duvall did in BULLITT, he’s some sort of bad guy. It’s like casting Gary Busey as a waiter. When they get to this house out in the middle of nowhere (rural setting), there is a guy fixing a fence with his dog... And Orlandi and the Priest show up with guns and blow him to pieces. Violently. They just keep firing at him while the dog barks and yelps. The dog is a great touch - when it howls for its dead master, we feel its pain.


Then Duvall gets released from prison, where his ex-girlfriend Karen Black is waiting for him. She tells him she has not been at all faithful, and he says that’s okay - he was away for a while. Then she tells him that his brother was killed by some mob guys...

That night in some crappy roadside motel, a bunch of mob guys including Orlandi try to kill Duvall. But he’s one tough bastard and blasts them all and gets the name of the guy behind it. But he also knows that Black set him up by picking that particular crappy roadside motel.

SOME CASUAL VIOLENCE


Duvall braces Black, she pulls back her sleeve and there are at least a dozen big infected cigarette burns. Guy who did it to her? Same guy who hired the killers who killed his brother. Seems the bank robbery that Duvall was busted for was a mob owned bank. They killed his brother for being part of it, they tried to kill Duvall, and they tried to kill the third guy in the robbery - Joe Don Baker. So Duvall and Black drive to the big city hotel where the lead bad guy is playing a 24 hour poker game...

While Black sits in the car with the motor running, Duvall walks into the hotel, goes up the elevator, pokes his gun in the face of the guard at the hotel room door, takes him out to the balcony and SLAMS him with his gun, then goes back to the hotel room, kicks open the door, slams the inside guard in the face without even slowing down, and robs the poker game - taking guns and cash. The great thing about this sequence is that it’s *suddenly violent* and the film never makes a big deal about it. If this film had been made today, they would make it a big deal... and it wouldn’t be nearly as cool. By downplaying the importance of the violence without downplaying the level of violence, it makes it seem like it is all in a day’s work for Duvall. Before Duvall slams the outside guard with his gun they have a casual conversation and the outdoor guard requests to be slammed with the pistol on his right side because of a previous injury to the left said of his head. These guys get hit with guns and shoot people for a living - no big deal.

The lead bad guy at the poker table is played by the great Timothy Carey - from THE KILLING - who is a big fat a-hole. Timothy Carey is one of those guys who shows up, gives a great sneering performance that gives you nightmares, and collects his check. There are actors who you can see working, Carey isn’t one of them. Hard to believe that this complete a-hole is the same actor who was so sympathetic in THE KILLING.

Carey taunts Duvall as he robs them - he’s got a gun pointed at him, and he’s still spouting crap. Duvall tells him that the mob has to pay $250k for the death of his uninsured brother... who leaves a widow behind.

Then, just when you think the whole thing is over and Duvall is about to leave, he calmly shoots Carey through the hand for using Black’s arm as an ashtray. Danged brutal!

Duvall connects with Joe Don Baker in some rural cabins that are owned by an ex-whore played by Marie Windsor from THE NARROW MARGIN, one of many great bit parts played by actors and actresses from classic noir and action flicks. This film is a who’s who of Noir actors... Elisha Cook Jr from THE MALTESE FALCON pops up in a bit part and Jane Greer from OUT OF THE PAST is the widow! Over some beers they decide to take the mob for $250k - even if it means they get killed. They are already on the mob hit list, right? What’s the worst that could happen? The plan is to rob every mob place they can find until they get $250k or they mob pays them. Then the $250k goes to his brother’s window.

DANGEROUS ADAPTATION


One of the interesting things about this film is how they turned what was book #3 in the Parker series into a stand alone movie. Unfortunately, THE OUTFIT is too much like POINT BLANK to be a good double bill. In the books, after Parker gets his money back from the mob there is one mobster left alive - Bronson. Bronson wants Parker dead, so in book #2 Parker gets plastic surgery. In book #3, Bronson tries to kill Parker... and Parker decides to show the mob who has more power by getting the word out to all of his armed robber friends across the USA that robbing the mob is now okay - as long as they mention Parker’s name. So in the novel THE OUTFIT, all across the USA robbery teams are knocking over mob businesses (casinos, drugs, prostitution, loan sharking, etc) and eventually Bronson decides to leave Parker alone.

The film manages to stay faithful to the book and still change the core story. One scene that’s lifted right from the book - but they completely change the location: When Duvall and Baker go to buy weapons, in the book the characters go to a hobby shop and the guns and rifles are hidden in model car kit boxes. In the movie they pick up a salesman with a sample case on the side of the road, and the sample case is filled with guns - kind of like the gun salesman in TAXI DRIVER. They drive around the highway and do some shopping at the same time.

The dead brother thing is how they make THE OUTFIT work as a stand alone, and this gets used in a great scene from the book where Parker shows up at these redneck brothers rural chop shop, and they don’t recognize him because of the plastic surgery... and there’s some tension where they may kill Parker because with that new face he’s a stranger to them. Same scene in the film, but it was Duvall’s *brother* who knew the redneck brothers, so he must convince them he’s trustworthy. In this scene there also an angry dog that’s a threat throughout the scene - I have no idea how much a growling dog costs compared to an explosion, but the dog turns even the quiet moments in the scene into potential danger... And there aren’t many quiet moments.

I love the redneck brothers in both the book and the film. These guys are moonshine hot-rodders who know more about cars and how to make them go fast than all of those NASCAR mechanics combined. They build getaway cars for a living. The idea that people like this exist as peripheral occupations in the world of professional armed robbers is really cool - it’s like being taken into the armed robber’s world and shown details that you never knew existed. One of the cool things in this scene (both book and movie) is the VW Bug getaway car with the hidden V8 - looks like it would have trouble going up hills, but can do over 120 mph. Only problem? It doesn’t *sound* like a VW... and the brothers are trying to find the right muffler combination to get the sound right.

This part is *great* in both book and film, because while Duvall is off with the brothers (played by Richard Jaeckel and Bill McKinney - the hillbilly rapist from DELIVERANCE) looking at cars, Joe Don Baker is left with McKinney’s superhot wife played by Sheree North (who was kind of a Suzanne Sarandon earthy type) who tells him they have time for some luvin’ before her husband comes back. And she does everything possible to get him interested. And it gets *us* interested too (at least, the male target audience for this film).

THOSE BRA-LESS BABES


Now, I have no idea what was going on in 1973, but bras seemed to be completely out of fashion. No woman in this film is wearing a bra. Karen Black is wiggling around, even Marie Windsor was braless. Heck, the old waitress in the coffee shop is wiggling around! That’s actually kind of gross, but I guess it’s a small price to pay because a bra-less Sheree North? Yikes! She is already a mega-busty woman (real ones, too - this was made back when all big breasts were the real thing), add the lack of bra and the tight tops and... well, um, it’s easy to forget what the plot is. Anyway, she offers Joe Don Baker a little luvin’ and he decides that is a good way to get killed and refuses...

But when Duvall and Jaeckel and McKinney return with the car, North tells her husband that Joe Don tried to screw her. McKinney goes crazy and tries to kill Baker, and there’s a big fight, and Duvall and Baker dive in the car and barely get out of there alive. One of the great throw away lines in this bit is that brother Jaeckel *did* sleep with her! These people are all sleeping with each other - it’s Tennessee Williams country!

CONFLICT ON THE SIDE


Now, the cool part about this scene is that it isn’t one of the scenes where Duvall and Baker are taking on the mob... this is a scene where they *prepare* to take on the mob, and it is filled with tension and conflict and excitement. The great thing about lots of these meat and potato action films is that they make sure that even the scenes between the action scenes are exciting. They find the conflict in the little scenes - there’s a great bit where Black and Duvall are hiding out in a another crappy roadside motel and Black goes out to call her mom from a payphone and tell her that she’s okay... and there is a man watching her the whole time. Some mob flunky posted at that motel to look out for them. So the great character scene where Black talks with her mother and we get a glimpse of her white trash past and the way she hooked up with Duvall to try and climb out of it... is an incredibly tense scene. And there’s no shoot out or car chase or giant fireball or someone outrunning an explosion... it’s just some creepy guy watching her.

So, Duvall and Baker decide to talk to the local mob guy headquartered in a bar/restaurant who hired the hitmen, with Black as their getaway driver... and it’s a really cool scene filled with all kinds of side conflicts and one kick ass line of dialogue, “I don’t talk to guys who wear aprons.” Duvall gets in to the mobster’s office pretending to be a mob guy from Timothy Carey’s crew... accompanied by the guy in an apron - the bartender, and has this conversation with the mob guy about those hit men who got killed... and the mobster just looks at him and says - you’re Macklin. Knows it right away. And that’s when the bartender attacks. Sudden violence. One moment they’re talking, the next moment the bartender is trying to club Duvall in the head.

After Duvall slams them to the floor, he robs the mob safe - this is like a regional headquarters, so there’s a bunch of money. As Duvall and Baker escape there’s this big muscular cook with a huge meat cleaver in the kitchen who tries to stop them. That cook character was established when Duvall and the guy in the apron walk past the kitchen... using that cleaver. And you just know that cleaver is gonna be used on him later... or, at least the guy will try. That’s the kind of cool thing that happens in these films - instead of being some cook frying eggs, you get a guy with a giant meat cleaver.

BAD ASS HEROES


Another thing that comes directly from the book, with a bit of a change, is Baker’s character owning a diner... it’s in Maine in the books and in Oregon... but the town name remains the same. Baker and Duvall have this great conversation in the car about the shelf life on being an armed robber... and how getting old makes it more difficult. A very realistic version of the “I’m getting too old for this shit” conversation.

Black has gone home to her mom, and Duvall and Baker just start kicking major ass. They rob a sports betting place - and Baker savagely slugs a woman at the front desk. When they get inside, they can’t get anyone to open the safe and Duvall grabs the guy in charge and says he’s gonna blow off a toe for every minute the guy doesn’t give him the combination... then has one of the other hostages take off the guy’s shoe!

The Macklin character is what I call a Bad Ass Hero - not that there’s anything defective about his hindquarters. There are two basic types of action heroes: Superman and Every Man. The Every Man type is a normal guy who ends up fighting bad guys - like John McClane in DIE HARD. The Super Man is like James Bond - someone who is our fantasy figure. This has nothing to do with spandex or capes or super powers - Tony Stark is an Every Man, as is Peter Parker. And most roles played by Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris are Super Man types - tough guy fantasies. We wish we were that guy!

Duvall’s character is a Super Man type - kind of a blue collar James Bond. He’s tough, he says clever things we wish we could think of (“Die somewhere else!”), he’s ultra-confident, he is never afraid (or never shows his fear), he never shows any sign of weakness and never shows pain. He’s the kind of guy who gets shot and takes it like a man. He’s a man of violence, who *hurts people*. Seagal swiped his character from BILLY JACK, but does a great job with it. Seagal *breaks people’s bones* in fight scenes - he’s savage. He also does the great Bad Ass Hero speech thing - where he gives his super confident warning about how, exactly, he will beat the crap out of the ten guys surrounding him. No fear - he has it all planned out. He’s a Bad Ass. He’s gonna eff those ten guys up. Duvall’s Macklin has some similar Bad Ass moments - in Act 3 he’s *way* out numbered and tells the mob henchmen that they don’t have to die, they can just walk away. Um, that takes some major cajones! Shooting Carey’s hand and clubbing guys in the head with his gun without even slowing down - all of these are Bad Ass Hero moments. This guy kicks ass!

BIG BAD GUYS


The reason why this was “too much of a good thing” when doubled with POINT BLANK is that eventually it becomes Duvall and Baker climbing the ladder of mobsters to get the $250k for the widow... and that’s not that much different. In the book they were just robbing mob places until Bronson took the price off the Duvall character’s head. When they changed it into money, they ended up in POINT BLANK territory. Robert Ryan plays a version of Bronson named Mailer - the head of the mob... and a very young Joanna Cassidy as his hot (braless) trophy wife. Ryan is one of the film’s secret weapons - he’s not only one of those guys who has been in a bunch of old noir and crime films, he’s tough as nails. He’s a bad ass, too.

At a horse auction, Duvall and Baker brace Ryan - a very public scene with Ryan’s bodyguards right there and everyone trying to be on best behavior... but seconds away from shooting each other. Duvall and Ryan have a nice little chat that is all about the world of organized crime vs the world of independents - Ryan thinks Duvall is nothing more than a stick up artist... but Duvall has been hitting them hard. It’s a good hero and villain scene - and the little guy being smarter than the big guy... just not as strong. It’s what the film is all about - the theme in a tense scene with guns and the chance for a bunch of innocent bystanders to get killed. This idea of the little guy going up against the big guy is part of the appeal of these films. They are about underdogs who kick some ass that we wish we could kick. In a strange way, THE OUTFIT is kind of a Tea Party movie - normal people standing up and taking down The Man. I don’t think it’s an accident that the bad guys in lots of these 70s films end up being big time mobsters who live in giant mansions, or big business guys who live in giant mansions, or crooked politicians who live in giant mansions. It’s blue collar workers against rich a-holes.

Where POINT BLANK turns organized crime into glass and chrome skyscrapers and the 60s version of big business with junior executives in charge, OUTFIT makes it layers of sleazy mobsters with a John Gotti type at the top. Not as interesting, but works well for a straight action flick like this. A lot of the pulp paperbacks at the time, like the EXECUTIONER series, were about Viet Nam vets who take on the mob. Ryan, as usual, is brilliant playing Mailer: barking orders and always on the verge of exploding. He’s one of my favorite tough guy actors because he always had a trace of vulnerability.

After Duvall and Ryan have their little chat, the film becomes a series of action scenes setting one against the other until we get to Act 3 where Duvall and Baker buy additional weapons and bombs and anything else they can get their hands on and storm Ryan’s country estate for an Act 3 of wall-to-wall action. Dozens of mobsters guarding Ryan means dozens of shoot outs and fight scenes... and then all kinds of ground taken and lost once they get inside the house. Though big studio films often have wall-to-wall action in Act 3, in these 70s films it tends to be more personal and visceral - shoot outs with people in the next room... close enough to smell. In one scene, a character looks in a mirror and can see something happening in the next room... and uses his gun. It’s close fighting, rather than the big explosions of today’s blockbusters. And the close fighting ends up being more personal and more emotional. Though, um, there are some explosions. And I forgot to mention the car explosions that happen before the house raid - there’s a great country road car chase and shoot out ending with an explosion when Ryan sets Tim Carey after Duvall and Baker.

ACT THREE ACTION


The Duvall & Baker team seem like a predecessor for writer-director John Flynn’s next film - ROLLING THUNDER (written by the great Paul Schrader) where William Devane & Tommy Lee Jones team up to take down some scumbags in Mexico. That’s another great B action flick that is now on BluRay. The shoot out in the whorehouse in THUNDER is much like the end shootout in OUTFIT. Two guys with guns take on a house full of trouble... and stay standing even after they have been shot multiple times. One of the great things about seeing THE OUTFIT on DVD is that you don’t get that crappy TV print where they changed the end. Somewhere along the line, some network’s Standards & Practices (censors) decided that having Duvall and Baker get away at the end was immoral. They are armed robbers! They kill a whole lotta people! The people they do not kill, they aren’t very nice to! So the network cut the end where they escape, and end with the two laying wounded on the stairs of the country estate after all of the bad guys are dead, listening to the police sirens getting closer - seemingly resigned to do prison time. The great print the New Beverly showed had them cleverly slipping past the police, laughing.

THE OUTFIT isn’t a great film, but it’s a *fun* one. It seems like real people in real situations really hurting people. Not like the fake action flicks we get these days. I miss these meat and potatoes flicks - just meant to fill some screens and provide some great little action stories. The B movies today all seem to be chasing the A movies - trying to be big event films made for a nickle. The only time we get films like this seems to be those flicks that are either almost parodies of 70s action films or *actual* parodies of B action films. It’s too bad. Some studio should start making some little no-nonsense action films on low enough budgets that they can’t lose money. Just some guys kicking ass for 90 minutes. I’d watch that...

Buy THE OUTFIT at Warner Archives.

Buy ROLLING THUNDER at Amazon.

- Bill
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