Friday, June 28, 2024

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Jamaica Inn (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Bill

The other Fridays With Hitchcock.


Thursday, June 27, 2024



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

Season: 2, Episode: 18.
Airdate: January 22, 1962.

Director: Hershell Daugherty Writer: William D. Gordon, based on a story by MacIntoch Malmar.
Cast: Nancy Kelly, David McLean, James Griffith, Jean Carroll.
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: John F. Warren.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “George Herbert, rector of Bemerton once wrote, ‘By all means tale some time to be alone. Salute thyself. See what thy soul doth wear.’ One wonders if it is possible ever to heed that advice. Does the condition of safe solitude exist? Here, for example, we have a wide still space about us, and a curtain of heavy weather descended to cut off the rest of the world. Yes, we have the illusion of solitude. But here too are some witnesses who will attest that the illusion is grotesquely false: Janet Wilson whose character is portrayed by Nancy Kelly, Ben Wilson to be played by David McLean, and Ed Brandes played by James Griffith. And... dear ,em I think I’ve forgotten someone - of course, it’s Baba. (He picks up the black cat.) Baba who perpetuates the name of the Egyptian philosopher of the 18th Dynasty, 1600 BC. It’s a pity, wouldn’t you say, that Baba was the only witness to a murder? And such a brutal one. The victim so young, so beautiful, so helpless. The killer safe - free to roam the stormy night, perhaps to kill again. And again. As for little Baba, I suspect that only he knows the secret of solitude without danger. But the others? Seclusion will become the cradle of panic. The storm, from which the story derives its title from, has many ingredients: wind, rain, wickedness, terror. But I needn’t tell you anymore - you’ll be there to see it explode in all its glory.”

Synopsis: A storm rages. Outside a large country home - miles away from the next house - a black cat watches as a Man chases a Woman. We see neither’s face. The man catches the woman near a fence and strikes her... killing her... and she falls to the ground. Her limp arm tangled in a fence. We see that she is wearing a distinctive diamond ring.

There is a killer on the loose in the storm.

Janet Willsom (Nancy Kelly) pulls up in front of that large country home in a taxi cab driven by creepy Ed Brandes (James Griffith - more quirky than creepy) who warns her that the storm will be getting worse, there will be flooding and road closures, so maybe he should take her to the hotel in town. She says that she has been away, and just wants to get home. He offers to carry her bags inside...

Once inside, the cat (Baba) greets her... and Brandes the taxi driver continues to come on to her like a super lonely guy. You feel sorry for him. He offers to take the suitcases to the bedroom, he asks if she has anything alcoholic to drink, he asks if she wants him to spend the night to keep her safe. Janet tells him that she is expecting her husband any minute, pays him and gets him to leave.

Now she is alone in the house during the storm. Just her and the cat.

Lightning. Thunder. Wind. Rain.

The house is cold, so she turns on the furnace... but it isn’t working. Cold, So she puts on a jacket. Bundled up. She starts a fire in the fireplace, and goes to the phone to call her husband. This is a rural area, and every call goes through an operator, who Janet talks to for a while. The gossip line. She gets some information on the storm - which is getting worse - as the operator tries to connect to her husband Ben (David McLean). No answer at the office, he must already be headed home. Driving in this weather. Janet was going to warn him that she came home a day early after tending to a sick sister.

She hangs up the phone and we get an exposition filled flashback of her and Ben’s relationship. Even though both are middle aged, they have only been married a couple of years. They found each other late in life, and Ben swept her off her feet. This is the first of a couple of exposition dump flashbacks, and one major thing that it does is put a face on the offscreen husband.

The flashback ends when the power flickers... then goes out. Suddenly there is a loud banging from outside and the cat shoots across the room.

Janet looks out the window and discovers the noise is the cellar door banging open and closed. She grabs her raincoat and goes outside to secure it. Weird that it wasn’t latched closed.

Back inside the house, the power goes out. Darkness.

She grabs her coat and a flashlight, goes back outside and opens the cellar door, descending into the darkness. The cellar is creepy (but the spider webs never come into contact with the actress). She goes to the fuse box and checks the fuses - all are good. This is a downed power line somewhere. She goes back into the house, securing the cellar doors behind her. Grabs candles and hopes that Ben comes home soon.

The fire has died down, and when she stokes it with newspapers from a bin, she finds a letter addressed to her husband, and we get another flashback - this time to explain that in the past her husband kept getting letters from some woman named Agnes that he claimed was his cousin. Ben doesn’t open the letters in front of Janet and refuses to talk about them. All of this seems suspicious as hell in a brief flashback, but for some reason Janet just accepts it. We aren’t even at the first commercial and I already know who the killer and the victim are in this story.

She puts the cat outside, and then notices that the cellar window is open. It’s as if the cellar is beckoning to her. She grabs the flashlight and raincoat and goes down to close and lock the cellar window... and discovers a dead woman in a trunk! And the dead woman is wearing that distinctive diamond ring!

She races back inside the house and tries to call the police, but the storm has fouled up the phone lines - she can hear the operator but the operator can’t hear her.

She hears someone outside! She runs out to the garage, goes to the hook on the wall where the keys to the old pick up truck should be... but they are gone! She gets into the pick up, and the keys are in the ignition. She starts it up and drives away from the house, but a tree branch blocks the road. When she tries to get around it, she gets stuck in the mud. She runs back to the house, closes and locks the door, then notices an icepick on the kitchen table (earlier she had told the taxi driver that neither she nor her husband drinks, so what the heck is the ice pick for?). She grabs the ice pick to use as a weapon, and searches the house... finding the cat inside and wet shoe prints on the floor. Someone else is in the house!

The front door rattles. She goes up to the door, ice pick ready, and unlocks the door... daring the killer to come in. This does not seem like a safe thing to do, nor a sensible thing to do.

A man enters and when she tries to stab him with the ice pick, he grabs her... it’s Ben, her husband. She tells him about the dead woman in the cellar and he doesn’t believe her. He takes her down into the cellar to show her that it’s all her imagination... and there is no dead woman in the trunk. She imagined it all.

Back inside the house, she still wants to phone the police, and he talks her out of it. She mentions the letter that she found, but it isn’t where she put it. Ben says that he noticed it when he came in and put it in his pocket. When he pulls it out, that distinctive diamond ring comes with it, and falls on the floor. Ben is the killer!

Janet runs, Ben chases. She runs to the pick up truck, and we get a “cavalcade of bodies” scene when she pulls a tarp from the back and there is the dead woman! She screams, then keeps running. Ben stops chasing her for some reason, the end. Kind of a weird ending - it’s as if they ran out of film or time, so Ben just stops chasing her.

Review: This episode predates the classic Hitchcock Hour AN UNLOCKED WINDOW by a couple of years, and shows how the same idea can be a great episode and a bland one. This is the bland one. The one that keeps making mis-steps at the script stage.

Right from the beginning we get odd choices in the story. If the Taxi Driver is supposed to be our potential killer, he certainly doesn’t act like it. Though casting was a huge mistake here, James Griiffith seems like the guy at the top of the list when you look up “Taxi Drivers” in the casting directory, when the role really needs someone seriously creepy and strange; the real problem is the dialogue isn’t creepy and strange enough. He seems like a lonely guy hitting on a woman alone, instead of a potential murderer. This is where you want “two way dialogue” that has both a conversational meaning and a deeply disturbing meaning. Things that can be taken two ways. But you also want just straight out crazy stuff. If the Taxi Driver had talked about the dangers of the storm and how he once saw a new litter of puppies drown in a house basement... his house’s basement when he was a child... and he just watched them from the stairway... that would have made this guy a potential killer. He needed to be a serious threat that she must get out of her house... and then we fear that he might be waiting in the cellar for her. But he’s a lonely guy with lonely guy talk... pathetic instead of a threat.

Once he’s gone, it’s just Janet and the cat for most of the story - and it seems as if they have padded out the story instead of tried to create actual suspense and dread. Various noises keep sending her into the cellar... but because we have no idea that there is the body of a dead woman down there, it really doesn’t matter. Unlike the Hitchcock episode where we know that there is an escaped lunatic killer on the loose in the storm, here we have no constant warning that something bad might happen. Once we have negated the Taxi Driver as a threat, we just have the storm and that opening teaser where a woman is killed. Now, if that teaser had shown the killer taking the body into the cellar, where he maybe is waiting out the storm, that might have made those pointless trips to the cellar to latch a window more suspenseful... but minus a threat in the cellar, it’s just a woman in the dark securing a window - no big deal. And a huge chunk of this episode is her securing windows and being afraid of owls. They must have thought the storm was enough to be afraid of - but a storm is just rain, and it washes off.

The other issue with the script are these dead flashbacks designed to give us information that the exposition dumps on the phone with the operator didn’t cover. I’m sure in the story that this was adapted from, she sees the letter addressed to her husband and remembers their conversations about the letters... but instead of finding a way to *adapt* this scene to a visual dramatic medium, the script just does what the story does. It comes off as boring *and* an obvious exposition plant for the Husband Is The Killer Twist (which kills the twist). Instead, I would have had her read the letter and discover that her husband has a crazy admirer who is threatening to come to the house - making this mystery woman another possible killer in the storm.

If they had also made the mystery woman a threat, they could have had all sorts of fun with wet or muddy footprints in the house... a woman’s shoes... and now she tries to match her shoes to the prints. It would have given her something active to do, and built up the suspense.

It’s as if every time there is a chance to make the episode work, the script does the opposite of what it should have done.

Instead of racheting up the suspense and dread with actual things that are potential threats - things that are legitimate fears - if comes up with a bunch of excuses that just pad out the story until we get to the twist ending. This is where “poking the tiger” is important in a screenplay or story - whatever the actual physical threat is, it needs to be regularly shown in the story in order to remind the audience that it is there. Once we have that unlocked window in the Hitchcock episode, things begin to happen in the house that remind us of the crazy killer... and tell us that the killer is IN THE HOUSE. Not a potential threat, but an actual threat. Here, that noise outside is just an owl.

One of the other things that doesn’t work is that cat - which seems to exist only for scenes where she put the cat outside and then somehow the cat is inside. I didn’t even nothing this until she mentions it outloud close to the end. Was I supposed to be keeping track of the cat this whole time?

The end is also a complete let down. It seems like they just ran out of time or film and ended it with the husband in the storm. He could still have chassed and killed her. A better ending would have been to have a police car roll up (the operator had them do a check) or even the creepy Taxi Driver return because he stole something personal from the house and decided to return it an apologize. Something to actually resolve the conflict of the killer husband. But nope.

Next week we go to Hollywood for the story of a washed up old sexpot who gets one last chance at stardom... with a little help from a witch.

- Bill

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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Scene Of The Week: THE THIRD MAN

The scene of the week is a nice bit of threatening dialogue from THE THIRD MAN, and a reunion between two old friends Holly (Joeseph Cotton) and Harry (Orson Welles)... after one of their funerals. The great thing about this conversation is how charming and fun Harry makes his threats and his justifications for criminal activities. He's a bad guy you just want to hang out with.

The British Film Institute selected THE THIRD MAN as the Best British Film Ever Made - and it's hard to argue with that. It does a million things right, it has one iconic scene after another, some amazing lines (this scene doesn't have the film's best lines!) and is a great thriller with a huge action-chase set piece at the end which has been lifted in dozens of other films. If you haven't seen it - check it out. Actually filmed in the rubble of Post WW2 Vienna!

This is one of my favorite films - and I can watch it again and again. The characters, scenes, and story are all great. The story has a really messy and messed up romance - can you fall in love with your dead best friend's girlfriend and not have it be just a little awkward? I also love the humor in the film - like all great thrillers it straddles absurdity. The yappy little dog. Saved by a speech on cowboy literature. The misplaced slide in the slide show. It's a great example of how to balance a film.

Comments section is open for discussion of the scene.

- Bill

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Trailer Tuesday: YELLA (2007)

YELLA (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Shocking twist!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Til death do they part.

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

- Bill

Friday, June 21, 2024

Fridays With Hitchcock: Organic Storytelling

Jimmy Stewart in REAR WINDOW uses a camera to defend himself... He's a professional photographer, what else would he use?

I have a whole article on this, written for Script Magazine about a decade ago, called Hitchcock's Chocolates (now a chapter in one of my Hitchcock books) that gets into using the character and story to find all of the details of your screenplay. It always goes back to character - any question or problem you are having with your screenplay - think character, theme, story... and you will find the answers.

- Bill

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



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

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


Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

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Espania Folks Click Here.

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USA Readers click here for more info!


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

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 52 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

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

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

UK Folks Click Here.

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Thursday, June 20, 2024



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

Season: 2, Episode: 19.
Airdate: January 29, 1962.
Director: John Brahm.
Writer: Donald S. Sanford based on the story by August Derleth.
Cast: Patricia Barry, John Baragrey, John Fiedler, Herbert Rudley, Linda Watkins, Pamela Searle.
Music: Morton Stevens - though it's really Jerry Goldsmith's score for GUILLOTINE.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Well, that was a gruesome surprise even for a hangman. A stunningly beautiful courtesan is dropped into the pit, and a moment later, her executions discover a withered hand, claw-like, clutching a wig. Well, of course the noose usually does have a disastrous effect upon the human body, but nothing like this. (Picks up wig) How strange. I should think it must have something to do with this wig. There is something weird and frightening about it. Look my friends, look! It’s only clothe and hair. Lustrous red hair to be sure, but hardly very mysterious. At least, that’s what the characters in tonight’s story thought. Unfortunately for them. My I introduce Sheila Devore, played by Patricia Barry. George Machik, played by John Baragrey. Herbert Bleake, played by John Fiedler. Arabella Foote, played by Linda Watkins. And Max Quinke, played by Herbert Rudley. We call our story A Wig For Miss Devore, and naturally I refer to this particular wig. Now my friends, you know all about the magic that the sorcerers of the silver screen put on film for your entertainment. Well tonight, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, you will learn that sorcery can be performed without celluloid. Behind the cameras, and perhaps even in your own livingroom.”

Synopsis: In mid-1700s England, a beautiful young woman is escorted to the gallows. No crowd of onlookers, no official doctor to pronounce the death, this execution will be in private - because this woman has been accused and convicted of witchcraft. Part of that witchcraft charge against Meg Payton (Pamela Searle) includes the murder of six men. The Man whose job is to remove the corpse after the hanging wants Payton to remove her wig - even if they were to execute the King himself, he would have to remove his wig. She refuses, and the Hangman allows her to keep it - she won’t be needing in a couple of minutes. As the Hangman prepares to pu the noose around her neck, she says: “Your hands are trembling, let me help you,” and slides the noose around her own neck. As the Hangman prepares to pull the lver, she says, “Meg Payton does not die here.” Then, the trap door opens and she does the long drops with the hard stop. Dead. The Man goes down to collect the body... and screams! The wig has fallen off, and Meg Payton has become a withered old monster.

1962 Los Angeles: Blonde Bombshell way past her pull date Miss Sheila Devore (think Marilyn Monroe if she had made it to her mid-forties - but she died 7 months after this episode aired) thinks that she has found the perfect screenplay for her comeback - the epic biography of witch Meg Payton who was hung 200 years earlier. Her loyal assistant, Herbert Bleake (the always great John Fiedler who gets a mention in our entry for “Yours Truly Jack The Ripper”) tries to talk her out of it - it’s an expensive period piece. Maybe she should look through all of the scripts one more time, just to be sure? It’s obvious that Bleake is secretly in love with her... but too shy and mousy to say so. Bleake used to be a studio production accountant who worked on all of her films. As her assistant, he knows that she’s too old for the role and the studio would never spend that kind of money on a movie starring her - his job is to always protect her. But she *insists* on doing the witch script, and for authenticity (and publicity) wants to use the actual wig that Meg Payton wore. Studio Chief Max Quinke has been regularly sending her flowers and begging for her to come back to work since she retired... Bleake says he will go to the studio and set up the deal.

Studio chief Max Quinke (Herbert Rudley) says no way! How old is she? It’s alluded to that Quinke had an affair with her... when she was younger. Bleake says Quinke has been sending her flowers regularly since she retired begging her to come back, and this script is her comeback. Quinke hasn’t been sending her flowers all of those years - Bleake has. You see, as production accountant, Bleake knows that when big star Devore and producer Quinke and director George Machik formed a production company together and made all of Devore’s biggest hits, they had him do some “Hollywood bookkeeping” so that Quinke and Machik could steal all of the profits from 32 of her films. Millions. So it would be to Quinke’s advantage to greenlight Devore’s comeback instead of deal with the police and IRS and probably end up in prison.

And that is how film deals are made.

The Comeback: On the set, director George Machik (handsome John Baragrey) warns the crew to behave when Miss Devore comes on set - she has been retired for a long time, and this is her comeback, and she may have... aged.

But when Devore comes out, dressed in the costumes and Payton’s actual red wig, she’s young and hot! She looks 25 years old! And she acts the hell out of her scene - she’s still got it! Watching from the side-lines is Hedda Hopper inspired gossip reporter Arabella Foote (Linda Watkins), who can’t believe this is the middle aged Miss Devore. Devore has been in seclusion since her retirement, but she must have had a bunch of face lifts to look this good. Foote is the villainess of the story - trying to find the secret of Devore’s good looks. She’s in the background of almost every scene.

After the day’s shooting, director Machik hits on Devore - they had an affair when she was younger as well. Maybe they could go out to dinner tonight? Devore says she can’t - there’s a party at studio chief Max Quinke’s mansion in Hollywood. Machik wasn’t invited to the party? Machik tells her that Quinke stole from her - skimmed the profits on 32 of her films. Though Machik knew about this, he was afraid to go up against the powerful producer. Maybe Devore should ditch Quinke’s party and go to dinner with Machik?

Devore arrives at Max Quinke’s marvelous mansion for the party... and she is the only guest! Quinke wants to rekindle old flames. His mansion has an indoor fountain, and he puts on music so that they can dance around the fountain. Quinke asks her why she is still wearing the wig after the day’s filming is over. Has she gone method? He’d love to see her beautiful blonde hair....

Meanwhile, assistant Bleake knocks on the door of the mansion, which is opened by a butler. Bleake has a letter that he must give to Miss Devore - very important that she read it. The butler turns him away - he’s not going to interrupt his boss when he’s trying to score.

Quinke keeps asking Devore to take off the red wig... and he gets his wish. Quinke screams in horror! She tells him she knows about skimming the profits from the 32 movies, then pushes him back... into the fountain... where he hits his head and drowns.

We never see Devore’s face without the wig - but the arm that pushes Quinke was withered and old, as if the energy keeping Devore looking young was sucking years off her life. Devore puts the wig back on... just as director Machik shows at the mansion.

Devore tells him that she and Quinke were dancing and he tripped and hit his head on the fountain. Machik says that she shouldn’t be involved because Quinke stole all of that money from her - that can be misconstrued as a motive. Also, that they need a way to keep Machik from being forced to testify against her if it ever comes to that... hey, why don’t we get married? A wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband. She agrees.

Last Day Of Production: They film the last scene of the movie, as Devore playing witch Payton is lead to the gallows, and tells the Hangman, “Your hands are trembling, let me help you,” and puts the noose around her neck. I love how we go back to the opening scene of the episode, here. After filming the scene, it’s a wrap - and the party begins!

Bleake shows at her dressing room with the letter, and she tells him that she doesn’t want to read it. When he keeps pushing, she breaks his heart by saying that she never really cared about him. He was just someone who did things for her. He leaves, practically in tears.

Gossip columnist Foote follows Bleake to a bar, and gets him drunk. A shoulder to cry on. He shows her the letter from the museum where they got the wig, claiming that it is cursed - and the previous owners murdered men who did them wrong. Foote leaves so fast Bleake’s head almost hits the bar when she pulls her shoulder away.

In director Machik’s luxurious penthouse apartment, the newlywed couple discuss their future together on the balcony overlooking the city of Los Angeles at night. Now that the film has wrapped, he wants her to take off that silly wig. She tells him she knows that he was part of embezzling profits from those 32 films, and now that they are married, she can’t testify against him on embezzlement charges. He tries to talk his way out of it, he’s good at that... but she takes off the wig. We don’t see her face, but we see his. He screams in horror and steps away from her - over the balcony railing and all the way down to the street. SPLAT! Now she has inherited all of the money he embezzled.

THE LEGEND OF MEG PAYTON is a huge hit - lines circling around the block. Devore is a big star again, sought after by every producer at every studio.

In her dressing room, a burley security guard catches ex-assistant Bleake trying to break in. She tells the security guard to let him in, and Bleake tells her about the cursed wig. He doesn’t care that she broke his heart, he just wants to help her. He truly cares about her. But she doesn’t want his help - she has everything she wants. “After a while, the wig grows on you.”

At The Wrap Party For The Next Film, Devore is twisting the night away with a much younger man. Gossip columnist Foote and a Photographer watch from the sidelines, and she explains her plan to him: she is going to enter Devore’s dressing room and confront her with the letter from the museum about the cursed wig. At a certain point, the photographer bursts into the dressing room and takes a picture of Devore without the wig...

In the dressing room, Foote confronts Devore with the letter. The wig has dark, demonic powers. Foote accuses Devore of murdering the two men, and who knows how many others, to get to where she is now. “A frowsy old bag puts on a wig and overnight mind you, becomes a ravishing beauty.” Foote manages to grab Devore’s wig and rip it off her head. Devore screams. The photographer breaks in and snaps a picture. Devore runs out of the room with a towel over her head - hiding her face. Leaving the wig on the floor.

Bleake (and everyone else) chases Devore through the studio lot between sound stages. She turns and one point, sees Bleake behind her, and tells him, “Don’t let them see me!” Bleake tries to help her get away, but she trips and falls and is surrounded by everyone else. They turn the lights on her - exposing her withered, ugly face. She looks at least 100 years old. She screams and dies in Bleake’s arms... and he still loves her.

In the dressing room, a plain-jane Maid sees the wig on the floor and snatches it up. When no one is looking she puts it on and looks at herself in the mirror - a hot young woman looks back at her. The end.

Review: An episode that takes on the issues of Ageism, sexism, and #MeToo... in 1962?

After getting off to a rocky start - I sure hope that Pamela Searle was the producer’s girlfriend and that she wasn’t chosen for her acting abilities - this turns into a great episode that combines elements of Grand Guignol and Hollywood (a marriage made in heaven, or maybe hell). This episode is fun, and skewers movies from Hollywood bookkeeping to more serious subjects like women being aged out of the business while older men are promoted. We’ll get to the serious subjects in a moment, because I think that’s what makes this one topical today.

But first, an appreciation for Patricia Barry, who only has 145 credits and was working up until 2014 - two years before her death at 93 years old. Her first film credit is in 1946 (she only made 6 films that year) and she’s in freakin’ SEA OF LOVE, one of my favorite films. She’s in a couple of other episodes of THRILLER, but this is an amazing performance. She plays both versions of Devore, and they are completely different people with completely different looks. She was 40 years old when she made this episode - basically the older Miss Devore - but perfectly played the young hot Miss Devore. Here’s the thing about those 145 credits on IMDB - her three episodes of THRILLER count as 1... and this episode alone is like playing two roles. She seemed to be one of those great dependable actors that you could hire for 6 films in the same year and she did her best work in all 6. Once TV became popular, she was doing multiple episodes on multiple shows within the same year - so she was dependable and professional. This episode made me want to binge watch a whole bunch of movies and TV stuff that she was in, just to see all of the different characters she played - because even if all of those 1946 movies were playing the love interest, I’ll bet they were different people. Her work here is great, and there could not be an episode without someone of this talent playing Devore.

There is a whole subgenre of horror movies about people who have been taken advantage of by others getting their revenge through some sort of supernatural method that they seemingly can not control. From Oliver Stone’s THE HAND (where Michael Caine’s hand lost in a freak accident tracks down those who wronged him) to CHRISTINE (which may have introduced the self driving car) and lots of other movies feature the Dr. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE tale with a supernatural item like Miss Devore’s wig. Spielberg did a similar episode - though nuttier - on his AMAZING STORIES show in the 1980s called HELL TOUPEE and written by a couple of 12 year olds (seriously) about a hairpiece that gets revenge for the meek fellow who wears it. DEVORE does a great job of taking a powerless person and giving them the power that they need... at a price.

Okay, time to talk about that powerless person - and why this episode resonates sixty years later. Back in 1962, this was an episode about Hollywood (and the world’s) seeing women as second class citizens and how agism in Hollywood only matters if you are female. No one wants to hire Devore because she’s old... but they regularly hire male actors who are even older. When you watch a movie today and the male lead is over sixty and the female lead is half that age, something is wrong. Why do older actors get to keep working and older actresses become unemployed? Take your favorite movie from the 1980s - is the male lead still starring in movies? Is the female lead? It’s strange that Stallone still gets to play ROCKY and RAMBO, but how many 73 year old actresses are starring in movies? Sharon Stone is my age, in great shape, and still working... in small supporting roles (she steals the show in DISASTER ARTIST). Why isn’t she *starring* in big movies like (over a decade older) Stallone is? Hollywood has an ageism/sexism problem... and this episode of THRILLER is all about that. Devore is over the hill and un-hireable in her 40s. It always amazes me when an issue like this is explored on a TV series in the 1960s and is still with us today. Is nobody paying attention?

The other issue this episode explores that is still with us today is #MeToo - and maybe it ties in to the ageism/sexism thing... and that bad taste joke I made about the actress who played the witch being someone’s girlfriend. The two powerful men in this episode each had a previous relationship with Devore when she was a young, hot, actress. Though this episode never mentions casting room couches, both men had no problem sleeping with Devore when she was young... but now neither wants to touch her... until they see her in the wig. Then, they are all over her. Both men not only make passes at her, they seem to feel like it’s part of their job description to sleep with the talent. They are powerful men, and that gives them the right to make these advances. Compare those characters with Bleake her assistant - who is in love with her and even has power (the knowledge of the embezzling) but never pushes Devore into any sort of relationship. The moment Devore shows up at producer Quinke’s mansion and she is the only guest, that’s a #MeToo moment. He has lied to her with only one intention. Again, here’s a 60 year old TV episode that focuses on an issue that is still with us today. How many years have there been jokes about the casting room couch? We knew that was wrong all of those years - that’s at the core of those jokes, yet did nothing about it. Being a leacher was never a good thing. The plot of this story has these powerful men taking advantage of a woman - by ripping her off, but also by trying to control her, and by using their power to sleep with her. Yeah, this is a revenge story, so she goes along with their seduction to kill them, but the minute both the producer and director see that she is still hot - they are all over her. Assistant Bleake is kind of the “control” in this experiment - he never stops helping her. Even at the end, he is the one protecting her while all of the others *want* to out her as a disfigured old hag.

If you think older movies and older TV shows didn’t get “political”, it’s just because you were too young to notice... and maybe have a Warner Brothers movies deficiency.

But aside from exploring a couple of issues that I’m sorry to say are still with us today, this is a FUN episode.

It grows on you.

Next time, another horror tale - this one about a killer scarecrow.

- Bill

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