Friday, July 28, 2023

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Robert Towne on REAR WINDOW

Robert Towne was the top screenwriter in the 1970s, doing uncredited rewrites on BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE NEW CENTURIONS before breaking out with THE LAST DETAIL in 1973, THE YAKUZA and CHINATOWN in 1974, SHAMPOO in 1975, and uncredited rewrites on a bunch of big films after that. In the 80s he gave us TEQUILA SUNRISE and then THE TWO JAKES in 1990... followed by DAYS OF THUNDER, THE FIRM, LOVE AFFAIR, and the first MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie - which was a Hitchcock homage. A few years back he sold his remake of Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS for a small fortune. Though I always think of him as that 70s screenwriter who was the go to writer for both Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, like almost everyone in the film business he is a fan of Hitchcock. So here he is talking about one of my favorite Hitchcock films REAR WINDOW....



Of course, The Washington Post called me "The Robert Towne of made for cable movies" and I have a couple of books about Hitchcock, one that includes a hefty chapter on REAR WINDOW...

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:
(links actually work now)

UK Folks Click Here.

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Canadian Folks Click Here.

And...




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



Click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

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

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

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

- Bill >

Thursday, July 27, 2023

THRILLER Thursday: The Man In The Middle

Man In The Middle

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



Director: Fletcher Markle
Writer: Howard Rodman from the novel by Charlotte Armstrong.
Cast: Mort Sahl, Sue Randall, Frank Alberson, Werner Klemperer, Burt Remsen.
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: John L. Russell.
Producer: Fletcher Markle




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The departing eves dropper is Sam Lynch, the conversation he has just overheard will change his life abruptly. It may even finish it. These two men, Mr. Clark (so called, he hasn’t used his real name in years), his good friend Mr. Baby Hoffman, take their work quite seriously. As you would have overheard, their current enterprise concerns the kidnaping and murder of a very beautiful Miss Kay Salisbury. Mr. Clark and Mr. Hoffman know that Mr. Lynch has overheard them. And Mr. Lynch knows that they know that he knows. Mr. Lynch also knows that if he talks, no one would believe him no one would believe him and he would be murdered. But if he doesn’t talk, Miss Salzbury will be murdered. This is the predicament of The Man In The Middle. That’s the name of our story based on a prize winning novel by Charlotte Armstrong. Our principle players are: Mr. Mort Sahl, Miss Sue Randall, Mr. Frank Alberston, and Mr. Werner Klemperer. As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, eves dropping can be very dangerous. You will agree fervently, as you enjoy this... Thriller.”

Synopsis: Sam Lynch (Mort Sahl) is having a beer in a booth in the back of his regular bar when he overhears a conversation from the next booth... two men plotting to kidnap a young society woman named Kay Salisbury just before her wedding and hold her for ransom... but kill her after they get the money. The two men are Mr. Clark (Werner Klemperer from HOGAN’S HEROES) and Baby Hoffman (Julian Burton), career criminals. Sam doesn’t know what to do... and that’s when Clark spots him listening in a mirror on the bar’s wall. He is confronted by the two men, says he didn’t hear anything... but they don’t believe him. Sam sits at the bar, knowing the two will listen to *his* conversation with the Bartender, and tells a heck of a long story about the time he saw a dog on the freeway and wanted to save it, but realized *he’d* get hit by a car in the process and it made more sense to just let the dog die. It wasn’t his dog, why should he care? When Sam gets up to leave, he bumps into another bar patron who hits him up for some drink money (to show Sam is a good guy after that speech).



Sam goes to his job as a TV writer... doesn’t realize that Clark and Hoffman are following him. In the writer’s room everyone is trying to write a skit, and Sam pitched a skit that is *exactly* what just happened to him in the bar. In minute and boring detail. The other writers don’t like it, and instead of Sam explaining what just happened to him, he gets all defensive and leaves... And Clark and Hoffman follow him again.

In Sam’s apartment, there’s a knock at his door: Clark and Hoffman! Clark watches as Hoffman beats the crap out of Sam as a warning to keep his mouth shut. If the police become involved, they will kill him.

Sam goes to warn Kay Salisbury’s father that she is in danger. In the elegant entry hall he bumps into Kay (Sue Randall) who is a sheltered young woman, and cute. When Sam gets his audience with millionaire Charles Salisbury (Frank Alberson) and Kay’s lawyer fiancĂ© (who is just a raging ahole), they mistake his warnings that Kay is in danger for some sort of shake down and refuse to pay him. Now, instead of just explaining the situation, Sam decides it’s time for one of his rambling monologues... this time about pacifists during the war. I’m sure it’s making some point, but neither I nor Mr. Salisbury got it... and still think Sam’s trying to get money from him based on some vague threat of danger that Kay might be in. When Salisbury agrees to cut him a check for his time, Sam storms out... without ever explaining the situation.



Sam bumps into Kay near his car, tries to warn her that she’s in danger but comes off sounding completely crazy. Then he notices Hoffman talking with the Maid at the servants entrance, and points him out to Kay. Kay says that’s the Maid’s boyfriend, nothing to worry about. Sam could explain that Hoffman is really a kidnaper, but it just seems easier for him to kidnap Kay himself and drive off with her unconscious in his car. That way she’ll be safe, right?

At Sam’s mountain cabin, he tries to calm Kay... but again doesn’t think that just telling her what is going on is a good idea. So she thinks he’s a kidnapper.

Meanwhile, Hoffman tells Clark that Kay has vanished unexpectedly, and the family has not called the police. They decide to call Mr. Salisbury and go through with their ransom demands even though they don’t have Kay.

Salisbury rounds up $80k of the $100k ransom and can’t get any more. When the kidnapers call, he says all he can get is the $80k and they reluctantly agree to accept $20k less than they asked. They give Salisbury directions for the drop and say they’ll release Kay 12 hours after they have the money. Salisbury delivers the money, gets knocked out by Hoffman, and makes it home when he comes to.



Meanwhile, Sam is pacing in the cabin and talking to himself as Kay listens. More boring monologue stuff. He decides to lock Kay in the cabin and go to a payphone to call Mr. Salisbury so that he won’t worry about his daughter. Except Salisbury misunderstands and thinks that Sam is the kidnapper and hasn’t released Kay because of the $20k. Now, all Sam would have to do is tell the truth at this point, but instead he decides to get offended and mention Clark and Hoffman’s names before he hangs up.

Sam calls the bar, asks to talk to that guy he gave some money to in the first scene and asks him to find Clark and Hoffman and tell them that he wants to deal with them, as long as they don’t kill Kay (or Sam). That guy says “sure” and Sam says they can meet in some other bar later. Who knows what Kay is doing all of this time.

Sam is sitting in the bar waiting for the guy he called, who is late. When the guy finally staggers in, Sam gives a speech about being drunk (because there’s always time for that) and then the guy says Hoffman *shot* him and he’s dying and Clark says: no deal, Sam & Kay both get killed. Then he dies. At no time does Sam ever think to himself that if he hadn’t have done that long speech about getting drunk the guy might have lived long enough for an ambulance to arrive. Nope.

Sam leaves the dead guy in the bar booth and goes to a pawn shop and buys a gun. Where we get a conversation about the price of an illegal gun in this city.

Meanwhile, Salisbury has called the police, and the police have rounded up Clark, who has an alibi for the time of the ransom drop... so the police let him go. But follow him.



At the cabin, Sam gives Kay his car keys and tells her to drive home. She wants to know what is going on, and instead of just explain, he argues with her or a while (which is mostly another one of his speeches). Eventually she takes the car keys and drives off, and Sam finds the best place to hide the gun in the cabin so that it will be easy to get to when he needs it.

Kay drives down the road... passing Clark and Hoffman who are headed to the cabin (I don’t know how they knew where it was) and Hoffman sees her and they turn around and chase after her. There’s a short car chase, they run Kay off the road, she escapes on foot and Hoffman chases after her while Clark drives to the cabin to deal with Sam.

Clark shows up at the cabin, and Sam tries to put him to sleep with another speech, and when that doesn’t work he pulls his hidden gun and aims it at Clark... which is when the door opens and Hoffman and Kay come in. When the shoot9ing starts, Kay dives for cover. Sam kills both Clark and Hoffman, and gets a flesh wound in the process. Because a TV writer who has never used a gun before is a better shot than two career criminals. The police show up, and it looks like Kay and Sam might hook up. The end.



Review: Where do I begin? This episode has a great concept, in fact... I seem to have accidentally ripped it off for a short story called “Rear Booth” that is coming soon. I”m sure I saw this decades ago and the only thing I could remember was overhearing the bad guys conversation... and my memory of that combined with “Rear Window” sparked *my* story idea (which is not the same as this story). But with this great concept, the story misfires again and again. There is no suspense, and way too much speechifying. I have no idea what Sam’s job was in the book, but I’ll bet it was not a TV writer. That just seemed like incestuous writing. The story manages to keep Sam and Clark on different story tracks most of the time, too. Oh, and the idiot plotting where Sam would rather get frustrated and walk away than just explain what is going on.

Mort Sahl (who is still with us) was the biggest comedian of the time, and they must have been incredibly happy to get him... and maybe they shouldn’t have been. Sahl was a low key political comedian who didn’t rely on punchlines, and had a vocal delivery that kind of reminds me of Norm MacDonald. Kind of a monotone with a little bite. All of that works great on a comedy stage, but doesn’t work at all in a dramatic role. He plays this whole thing in a sad sack monotone with almost no emotions. He’s too low key for these situations, and I wonder if they wrote all of those speeches because Sahl’s comedy routine was basically telling a long story about something from the headlines. He just sinks this episode.

And Colonel Klink also gives a very subdued performance, playing the brainiac crime planner who never gets emotional. So we have both protagonist and antagonist speaking in a monotone!

I suspect that the ahole fiancé was in on the kidnaping in the book, otherwise there would be no reason for his character to exist.

Director Markle was one of the staff producers on the show, and this was his last episode... and the only one he directed. He was responsible for many of the episodes up until this point that I didn’t think worked.

What could have been an interesting thriller ends up not working, due to a misfire script and bland direction and a terrible performance by Mort Sahl (admittedly out of his element). But next week we get a weird tales story about glasses that allow you to see... well, THEY LIVE may owe something to this episode.

Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Hunger Games Is A Rip Off Of...

From 2012... (since we have a new HUNGER GAMES movie coming out!)

THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) is based on a novel from 4 years ago - and happened to be the #1 film of the weekend again.




So there’s a funny little picture being passed around on Facebook with a shot from PULP FICTION and the question - “Do you know what they call HUNGER GAMES in France? BATTLE ROYALE with cheese.” Amusing, but shouldn’t it be Japan?

The thing that I find most amusing about this are the people who think that HUNGER GAMES is just a rip-off of BATTLE ROYALE - as if the history of cinema began a dozen years ago. Hey, this story has been around almost as long as film! At least 80 years ago they made the same basic story!

"Do you like Gladiator Movies?"

So I thought ot would be fun to look at some of the films that came before HUNGER GAME and added to it’s story...

We’ll get to CONDEMNED (2007) when we look at the movies about prisoners who get chosen to play the game where they fight to the death, but first let’s take a look at innocent school children who are chosen in a lottery to fight to the death...

You are probably thinking about BATTLE ROYALE, and we’ll get to that, but about the same time as BATTLE ROYALE came out one of my favorite movies that no one has ever seen came out - SERIES 7. This indie flick is about a hit reality TV show where random people are chosen to fight each other to the death as SURVIVOR-like camera crews follow them. Instead of an island or an abandoned part of the city or a wooded area these contestants play in the city. They hunt and kill each other in the real world. The film follows a handful of contestants including the pregnant champion and a *cheerleader* who is driven to kills by her parents. I love this movie! It’s savage and funny and looks just like an episode of SURVIVOR.

SERIES 7 (2001)


Just before SERIES 7 we had the Japanese version of the story which seems most similar to HUNGER GAMES... except the tone is completely different and the characters and motivations and reasons for the game and even the details of the game are completely different. The parts that are the same? Kids as contestants. If you consider how many times this story has been made and how many other variables there are that are direct-connections to HUNGER GAMES... plus LORD OF THE FLIES which was remade the same year (2000) and was *originally* made in 1963 (Peter Brooks) and based on a novel that predates the BATTLE ROYALE novel by *decades*, why the heck is this the first film people think of when they are looking for a HUNGER GAMES source?

BATTLE ROYALE (2000)


By the way, BATTLE was directed by the same guy who gave us GREEN SLIME (not the pink stuff). The novel was written in 1996... which is long after Stephen King’s RUNNING MAN (published in 1982) which was made into a movie 3 years before BATTLE ROYALE. Hey! How come no one points to RUNNING MAN as the source for HUNGER GAMES? Probably more similarities between the two - the major difference being prisoners instead of just kids... but if you have read the book you know the prisoner thing was an invention of the screenwriters, in the book the protagonist was an out of work guy from a District called Co-Op City which is very much like the coal mining world of District 12, who volunteers for the game to save his daughter. A poverty stricken dystopian future, a game to the death, a family member playing for another family member. That's RUNNING MAN! The tone and feel of the book is similar to HUNGER GAMES - they almost share the same dystopian future. The HUNGER GAMES books are a complete ripoff of King's novel! So how come nobody ever brings that up? Are these folks illiterate? Probably. Though the novel is exactly like HUNGER, the movie?

RUNNING MAN (1987)
>

Though there are plenty of battles to the death on an island (HELL IN THE PACIFIC, 1967) and people hunting each other flicks (RUN FOR THE SUN (1956), NAKED PREY (1966), and the cheese-fest DEATH CHASE from 1988), but if there was ever a source for HUNGER GAMES it’s a crazy Italian film from 1965 based on a novel by Robert Sheckley called THE TENTH VICTIM. The film is about a TV reality show where ten normal people are chosen at random and given guns in order to hunt each other through the city. There is an MC, there is a TV audience, there are bets made on the outcome, just about everything in HUNGER GAMES is in this film... including the “star crossed lovers” aspect! Because the strangest part about THE TENTH VICTIM is that it’s kind of a rom-com! Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress are contestants who fall in love along the way - even though they must kill each other in the end. Will they change the rules so that two can survive?

TENTH VICTIM (1965)


I love Ursula’s bra-gun! My James Bond parody film FOR SORE EYES ONLY featured a villainess named Greta Goodtits who had machineguns surgically implanted in her breasts - a pair of blazing 38s! The most amazing thing about this film is that it was made in 1965 and predicts reality TV shows... but the Sheckley story was published in 1953! How the heck could he have predicted reality TV shows in 1953?

I mentioned that RUNNING MAN changed the unemployed everyman who would have fit right in working in those District 12 coal mines with a prisoner played by Ah-nuld, but for the past 20 years or some we have had many versions of this story as junky action films about *prisoners* who get a chance at freedom if they kill each other on live TV. CONDEMNED was a recent version where prisoners fought to death on an island (like in BATTLE ROYALE), and the DEATH RACE remake they fought to the death in cars. There are a zillion steel cage match movies like THE OCTAGON which feature fights to the death, and lots of movies like HARD TARGET and SURVIVING THE GAME where the game isn’t televised - but still is played to the death,

I believe I am probably the only one who has seen this Prisoners Battle To The Death On A TV Game Show flick in a cinema - DEATHROW GAMESHOW directed by Northridge’s Mark Pirro... who makes films on Super 8mm, though this was shot on 16mm. I saw this flick at AFM one year...

DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987) - caution: boobies!


But all of these films go back to that film shot at the same time and on the same sets as KING KONG, the amazing MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) based on a story by Richard Connell published in 1924. Here we have the island, the hunting of people, the star-crossed lovers... and the hounds! Those killer dogs in HUNGER GAMES? They are in this version of the story, too! Not the DNA mutants from HUNGER GAMES, but dogs specially breed to find humans. I was looking for a trailer or good clip of the film, but could only find the whole damned movie (it’s in public domain). So don’t click on the clip below unless you have over an hour to kill watching people hunting people on an island.

MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932)


So there you go - 80 years ago the first film that could be called a source for HUNGER GAMES was made, and in every decade since there have been a handful of movies with the same basic plot. Like all basic stories, this one is as old as time. There were probably cave men telling the story of fighting each other to the death... Hey, wait a minute - how does 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY begin?

If you want the most similar story, that's obviously RUNNING MAN (the novel). If you aren't illiterate, you already knew that. If you didn't know that? Try reading a book now and then - it's not like Stephen King is an obscure writer.

But what's important about a movie or screenplay isn't the similarities, it's the differences. Every story is like a bunch of other stories, but what are the elements that make *this version* unique?

- Bill


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Friday, July 21, 2023

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 20, 2023

My Birthday Gifts To You !

This is my birthday, and I am NOT in Las Vegas getting a sunburn and giving the Casinos all of my money (will be next month)...

But I AM putting some books on sale at Amazon!

CLICK HERE!

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Scene Of The Week: DIRTY HARRY

Tomorrow is my birthday, and this week’s scene is one of my favorites, and it does a great job of introducing the protagonist... using *visual* exposition rather than the often clumsy verbal kind. I use it as one of several examples of protagonist introductions in THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING, and because that book works for all genres let’s snag that scene for discussion here.

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Though the "Hot Dog" scene in "Dirty Harry" (1971) isn't the first time we see the character (it’s his third scene), it is a good example of how to pack lots of information in a single scene. Harry is sitting at the counter in a blue collar diner eating a hot dog when he spots a car idling in front of a bank across the street. Harry tells the diner owner to call the police, then unholsters his 44 Magnum and stops the bank robbery single handed, destroying anything which gets in his way. Finally he threatens the downed bank robber, and gives his signature lines from the film: “Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

A great scene, huh?

So let's take a look at that scene and then tear it apart to see how it works:



One simple little scene - what do we learn about Harry from this scene?

1) He's a blue collar guy. When Harry says he’ll have the usual, the fry cook asks “Usual dinner or usual lunch?” Harry asks what does it matter... and the fry cook makes him a hot dog. Not only is Harry a regular here - he’s a regular here twice a day sometimes. San Francisco has all kinds of great restaurants, he’s more comfortable eating a hot dog at some neighborhood joint. We’ll look at the scene that follows this one in a moment for more of Harry’s blue collar side... and a simple thing that helps us identify with this Bad Ass Hero.

2) He's incredibly observant and smart. He sees the smoke from the tail pipe of the car parked in front of the bank, and figures out that there is a robbery in progress. Harry is kind of like Sherlock Holmes - he sees all of the small details that others miss. Everyone else sees a busy city street - Harry sees the car idling in front of the bank. We’ll look at the actual introduction scene to Harry in a moment, which has more Sherlock Holmes elements.

3) He carries a non-regulation gun. A HUGE gun. A gun that isn't designed to wound, but to kill. That was one of the “selling points” of this film - that huge gun. It’s the most powerful handgun in the world. It’s a *hand cannon*. There’s a chapter of SECRETS OF ACTION called “Weapons For Weirdos” about how a character’s choice of weapon can give us character information and create a way for us to identify the character. If everyone uses the same (regulation) gun, they become bland. We want our characters - even the henchmen - to stand out. Have a “personality”. If giving Henchman #2 a cross bow helps turn a minor character into someone more memorable, go for it! That same theory applies to your protagonist. Don’t give them a bland weapon (or wardrobe or whatever) when you can give them a distinctive one.

4) He faces the robbers alone. He is fearless. He tells the fry cook to call the police department and tell them there is a 211 in progress. But the moment he hears the alarm go off, he gets off his stool, eating the last of his hot dog, and pulls his gun and starts shooting. There are two bad guys, one of him - and he’s still chewing on his lunch - and he just strolls out and engages them in a shoot out.

5) He doesn't wait for back up. He's a lone wolf, not a team player. He could have easily just waited for the police cars to come after the fry cook called in the 211. It’s his lunch hour, right? But that isn’t Harry. Harry isn’t really part of the police department, he’s his own man. In the second scene with Harry, he’s reporting to the Chief Of Police (John Larch) and the Mayor (John Vernon) and he’s paired with toady team player Lt. Bressler (Harry Gardino) to bring out Harry’s independence. Where Bressler is doing everything possible to kiss the Mayor’s ass, Harry is holding his disdain in check. He’s a guy who does his job but hates office politics. He is not a team member, nor is he a show off. He’s *independent* and *interdependent*, which matches the cowboy character Eastwood played in many films.

6) He continues eating his lunch as he brings down the robbers. This is just another normal occasion for Harry. He’s calm while everyone else (robbers included) are running and screaming. Cars flip over! Shotguns are fired at him! At one point he looks down at his leg and sees red drops, and you can see him wondering: ketchup or blood? He is not afraid or hurt or affected. He is a bad ass. Everyone else has their adrenaline pumping like crazy, Harry is just trying to finish his lunch. While shooting bad guys.

7) Nothing gets in his way on his quest for "justice". He trashes the entire block while catching the criminals. Talk about collateral damage! There’s a great shot where Harry walks through the wreckage, past the flipped car and blasting fire hydrant, through the “rain”, passing a civilian car where people are screaming, directly to the injured suspect with the shotgun. Harry is a juggernaut. All of this destruction isn’t even on his radar, only the perp. This is an important character trait, because Harry will cause all kinds of destruction in his wake later in the story that will get him almost thrown off the force.

8) He doesn't give the wounded robber the Miranda-Escobito warning... He threatens to KILL him. No kid gloves, here. This guy treats criminals like scum. Here’s where he gets his signature line, and informs us that the gun will blow the bad guy’s head clean off.

9) For being such a bad ass, he has a sense of playfulness. Though the “Six shots or only five” line is a threat, it’s a *clever* threat. Harry isn’t some on-the-nose tough cop, he’s the kind of cop who is going to say things like “When a naked man is chasing a woman with a butcher knife and a hard on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross” to explain why he shot a suspect. Harry always has some amusing way of saying things - and the target of his wise cracks tend to be authority figures like the Mayor. This is a great way to balance out a character who is mostly seen in violent action.

10) Harry is always in control. After he threatens the wounded bank robber, who gives up and lets Harry take his shot gun rather that have his head blown clean off by that 44 Magnum, the robber says: “I’ve got to know.” Did Harry fire 6 shots or only 5? Was Harry’s threat just a bluff? Remember, Harry has that Sherlock Holmes element - of course he knows how many shots he fired in all of this excitement. But instead of Harry saying it was all just a bluff and his gun is empty, he walks up to the robber and aims the HUGE gun point blank at his face and pulls the trigger. Click. Harry smiles and walks away. Remember that actions not only speak louder than words, they are more visceral - and can be more clever. Of all of the ways Harry could have shown the bank robber that his gun was empty and this was a bluff, *this* method packs the most punch. Look for the small ways you can make an impact in your scene. The *beats* in the scene are important, and need to be just as creative and interesting as the scene itself. It’s not just the scene idea, but all of the little ideas within the scene.

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We learn many other details, and also get audience identification with Harry: This interrupts his lunch. Not even a sit-down lunch, but a lousy hot dog. Anyone who has ever had their lunch interrupted by work knows how Harry feels. I know that seems like a minor point of identification, but Harry is what I call a Bad Ass Protagonist, kind of a superhero without the tights. Though I go into much more detail in the book, the problem with protagonists like this is that they are more characters we wish we could be than characters we can identify with - so anything you can do to give us a point of identification helps. Being interrupted at lunch by work may seem minor, but it’s something. The writer was *thinking*.

This is a “fun” scene. At no time do you think it’s any form of exposition. You probably weren’t aware that you were learning anything at all about this character. It was a big shoot out and the protag’s signature line. A fire hydrant gets hit! A car flips over! And Harry’s reaction is *irritated* that his lunch has been interrupted! This is an *entertaining* scene, and we never realize that it is really and *information* scene. You never want the audience to realize you are establishing something that will pay off later or giving them critical plot information - you want them to be in the moment, enjoying the story. Storytelling is basically giving the audience information, but we don’t want them to be aware that they are getting that information - we want them to be wrapped up in the story.

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THE NEXT SCENE: After this shoot out, the red drops on Harry’s pants end up being blood rather that ketchup, and he goes to the emergency room. The doctor, Steve, grew up in the same neighborhood as Harry - establishing that Harry is a San Francisco native... and once had a childhood. (One of my favorite lines of dialogue is from ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ when Eastwood is asked how his childhood was and answers “Short”.) We also find out some personal information - the doctor tells Harry that if he has discomfort after being stitched up to have his wife... then stops cold and apologizes to Harry. And Harry has a flash of pain. The shotgun blast didn’t even register, but the mention of his wife does. This creates some character mystery which will be solved later in the story. Always great to withhold some information about your characters to keep the audience wondering (and involved) for a few scenes. This works especially well with Bad Ass Heroes because they tend to be mysterious. But when the doctor gets ready to cut off Harry’s trousers to remove the shotgun pellets, we get some character gold. Harry *painfully* removes the trousers, “For $29.50, let it hurt.” This guy lives on a budget, and that reinforces the blue collar aspects of his character and helps to create some identification with a character completely unlike us.

INTRO SCENE: The very first shot is the Scorpio Killer’s sniper rifle aiming right at the viewer! Then we see, through his sniper scope, a woman at a rooftop pool taking off her robe and diving in. Swimming laps. She’s beautiful, sexy, and the killer admires her through his sniper scope. Then fires - killing her - blood staining the water.

A door opens and Dirty Harry walks up to the rooftop pool. He’s silhouetted in the evening light - this is THE MAN. He studies the crime scene for a moment - and what we have is kind of a locked room mystery. Who could have gotten onto the rooftop to kill her? Who had access? Why didn’t she notice? Did she know the killer? But Harry is like Sherlock Holmes - he looks around at the other rooftops.

Harry walks down the streets until he comes to a skyscraper in the business district. On the rooftop, he walks around the perimeter - the city far below. Cars look like ants. You can’t even see people from this height. This is great, because we get a bird’s eye view of the city - and Harry is on top of it. There’s something subliminal about showing Harry looking over the city, not lost on Christopher Nolan. Harry walks around the top of the building until he comes to the side overlooking the rooftop swimming pool - way in the distance. We get a great telephoto shot of them removing the woman’s body that gives us a sense of how far away it is - just a blue rectangle from here. Harry searches the roof, finds a shell casing, uses his pencil to pick it up to preserve finger prints... then sees the paper flapping on an antenna and moves to read it. The Scorpio Killer’s note.

All of these actions in this opening scene have set the duel between Harry and the Scorpio Killer and shown how both are worthy adversaries. Harry has been established not just as a guy who uses the most powerful handgun in the world, but as a true detective like Sherlock Holmes. He can spot the clues where others can’t. A couple of minutes in and we have set up the entire story... and set up many elements of both protagonist and antagonist.

And in the Hot Dog Scene we learn at least ten very important things about Harry from this one brief scene. By the time Harry gets a new partner and is set out after the Scorpio Killer, we know exactly how he will react in every scene, because it was all set up in this character introduction scene. What we don't get in this scene – that Harry was married and his wife died after being hit by a drunk driver, but do we really need to know that to understand the character and their actions when the plot kicks in?

Do you feel lucky punk? Well, do you?

- Bill

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Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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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