In this episode, Tyler and Reed discuss a recent Movieguide article about screenplay story and structure.
00:00:45- Intro, Alpha Omega Con, Hell or High Water review, Geek Orthodox
00:03:40- The Fear of God
00:07:33- Movieguide article
00:14:20- University of Vermont study
01:03:45- Episode wrap-up
In this episode, Tyler and Reed discuss Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.
00:00:44- Intro, The Fear of God
01:04:20- Mystic River
01:37:00- Episode wrap-up
dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The most common statement I hear after any first-time viewing of Vertigo (and I said it myself the first time I saw it) is, “That wasn’t at all what I was expecting.”
It’s an understandable reaction. Alfred Hitchcock is known for thrills and suspense, for political conspiracies and wrongfully accused protagonists. And with the opening scene in Vertigo, it’s hinted that you might be receiving more of the same. But the opening scene, a chase across rooftops, is not a narrative setup, but a character one. It’s meant to establish the condition of Scottie Ferguson — played brilliantly as usual by Jimmy Stewart — that gives the film its title.
Something of a critical and commercial dud when it was first released (it barely broke even at the box office and received mostly mixed reviews), there has been a distinct re-evaluation (and steadily increased admiration) of its merits since the late 70s. This makes rather good sense, as it is a film which rewards re-evaluation. If you saw it for the first time understanding that it is considered a masterpiece, you’re just as likely to leave the film scratching your head and wondering what you missed as you are to exit singing its praises.
We typically presume that a story’s plot is its defining quality, particularly when it comes to suspense films. But with Vertigo, the narrative is largely frustrating, and contains more than a few question marks as to how certain things happen and whether or not they resolve. Viewers are likely to try to follow the clues to the mystery when the mystery itself is largely a red herring. The mystery isn’t the point, the man at the center of it is.
Vertigo is a condition which causes its victims to become dizzy and light-headed as they near heights. It’s often accompanied by severe anxiety. Scottie Ferguson is haunted by the condition and by the cost it has brought to him (a drastic change in his career and the death of a fellow officer). The film is a measured examination of the power which our own limitations (whether they be internal, external, or psychological) have on how we understand and navigate through our little world. The film begins at one height and ends at another, with the man in the midst of both having taken a nightmarish journey through the treachery of obsession, phobia and paranoia.
The mystery of the film’s plot and the mystery of the film’s protagonist are both solved, but the film is only primarily concerned with one of them. Because ultimately the most compelling mystery of all is humanity, both the heights we will so often try to climb and the dizzying lengths we will go to in order to get there.
dir. Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton made nearly 60 films as an actor. As a director, he made only one. And it may very well be the crowning achievement of his illustrious career.
The Night of the Hunter is, on the surface, a classic suspense tale. But nearly every frame could potentially be studied to uncover new observations about the evils and virtues of the human condition. The fickle affections of the masses, the frailty of paranoia and guilt, the desperate loyalty of family, and the strength of humble faith each have their moment of focus in Laughton’s film, which is ultimately a fable about innocence and experience.
In the story, a preacher with homicidal and greedy vices sets his scope on a widow and her two children whose father was executed for murder and armed robbery, leaving a vast sum of money unaccounted for. The preacher charms his way into the hearts of the widow and the town, who are too blinded by his profession to discern his intentions. Once the real threat at hand becomes apparent to the two children, John and Pearl, they flee and eventually land in the home of a strong, older woman with a penchant for taking in new “mouths to feed”.
It is the inevitable confrontation between this faithful heroine, Rachel Cooper (played with determined grace by Lilian Gish) and the monstrous villain Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in one of his most charismatic and deliciously nasty performances) which anchors the themes of this dark fable. In their confrontation, the meek of the earth battles the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing and the film supposes that it is not the strength of mind or body which matters, but the strength of heart and spirit. The two of them even join in a duet of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, which becomes an extended embodiment of Harry Powell’s trademark “Love vs Hate” sermon.
While many characters in the film profess certain degrees of faith, it is apparent which characters are rooted in substantial understanding and which ones are hypnotized by their environment or by the charisma of those who say what they want to hear. The wolves are indeed among the sheep and it takes a good shepherd to strike down the threat and call out the deception. What strikes me as so profound is the form that shepherd takes in this story – not a knight in shining armor, but a “strong tree with many branches.”
Although initially disregarded by both critics and audiences, The Night of the Hunter has risen from the ashes of the past as a rightly praised and admired tale about good and evil, light and darkness, love and hate. But it’s also about the abiding of innocence amidst a dark and treacherous world, and that perhaps the greatest irony of wicked and predatory men like Harry Powell is that the story he tells is really true. “It’s love that won, and old left hand hate is down for the count.” Amen to that.
dir. Victor Fleming
When my wife and I showed our son The Wizard of Oz, he was barely 3 years old. He absolutely loved it. We both commented on how we could remember being nearly that young when we first saw it and had responded with just as much delight. What was even more astonishing was that when we mentioned this to our parents, they all said the exact same thing.
I don’t know if there is a precise measurement for the timelessness of a film. But if such a thing can be uncovered, it might just be buried in a yellow brick road somewhere right outside the gates of the Emerald City. For Victor Fleming’s 1939 film to still hold the same wonder, the same charm, and the same enchanted ability to bring joy to young and old alike after nearly 80 years in nothing short of a cinematic miracle.
The characters are so clearly defined and so colorfully realized that they almost transcend the confines of their story to become metaphors for longing, companionship, and the quests each of us find ourselves on for what’s missing in our lives. The troop of actors, from the American sweetheart Judy Garland to the versatile Frank Morgan (pulling at least quadruple-duty as different characters including the Wizard himself), each bring such specific creative talents to their roles that imagining anyone else in those parts automatically feels inferior.
The production design is a unique marvel as well. The colors leap from the screen in as vibrant and wondrous a collage as the rainbow of the film’s iconic theme song. Rarely, if ever, has there been a stronger narrative case for the shift from sepia to technicolor than in the journey from Kansas to Oz, which is fascinating considering certain critics at the time considered that shift to be gimmicky. The film is a visual feast of color and there’s almost never an uninteresting frame, let alone a dull moment or scene.
Then, we have the songs. The catchy and lovely little ditties that are as hummable as jingles, but strikingly rich in theme when you ponder their lyrics: from the comical “If I Only Had a Brain” and the celebratory “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!” to the universally recognized anthem for dreams, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But what strikes me as so wondrous is how their simple little reflections could be extended to touch the deeper places of our heart where we long for freedom, for fulfillment, and for home.
And lastly, I must say a few words about the ending — perhaps the only “it was all a dream (or was it)?” ending I’ve ever felt fully satisfied by. Because to me, the film is really about the pursuit of our dreams. We dream of being smarter, being braver, being more fulfilled, being validated, being in control, or being in a place where we finally belong. Perhaps this why the film resonates with such a broad age range.
It brings a tremendous amount of hope and comfort to hear a story where we discover that sometimes the dreams we’ve so longed for have been with us all the while, just waiting for us to click our heels and wake up after the cyclones of life has hurled us far, far away to discover that there really is no place like home.
dir. Alfred Hitchcock
I first saw Psycho when I was six years old.
I saw it before I knew anything about it. I saw it before I knew the fate of poor Marion Crane. I saw it without knowing what was really going on with Norman’s mother. I saw it without the cultural significance and iconic legacy of the infamous shower scene bouncing through my head.
The movie affected me so deeply that it has never dropped lower than my top five favorite movies of all time. It terrified and thrilled me as a child. It fascinated and surprised me with its twists. To this day, I am still slightly anxious whenever I step into the shower.
But, chances are, you have either already seen Psycho or already know most of the cards in its cinematic deck. Initial audiences were not allowed to enter the theater after the film had begun, but audiences today are so saturated with Norman Bates references, spoofs, and clichés (not to mention a popular prequel TV show) that a recent viewing with my friend’s teenage son provoked laughter when Marion finally took that fateful shower, even though he had never seen the film before.
I understood, though. In today’s climate where the shock bar for violence in horror films has elevated beyond the stratosphere, that shower scene’s restraint and calculated editing is seen by fresh audiences as a step backwards instead of as the groundbreaking, daring, and horrifying moment its first audiences found it to be.
It’s difficult to appreciate, apart from the observational distance of a museum patron examining a Rembrandt, just how influential and important Psycho is to horror cinema and to films in a broader way. The atypical narrative shift, the defiance of traditional protagonist treatment, the skin-of-its-teeth censorship approval, and the overly talkative final moments where everything is explained could be seen as detriments to the film’s impact rather than defining characteristics of it.
So my opinion is that the ideal time to watch this movie is when you’re 6 years old. If 6 sounds offensively young, then pick your own more appropriate age when your mind isn’t geared to watch for twist endings and your heart still trusts that things are gonna work out ok for all the good guys.
Because in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock — a director who had come to be known for sweeping suspense adventures and lavish mystery thrillers — focused his storytelling powers on a much more intimate and vulnerable tale about a woman who made one horribly impulsive decision colliding with a mother and her son whose secluded little world was a domestic venus fly trap. A director known for getting the heroes home safely put a lovely and impetuous heroine in the place where she’s most exposed and then unleashed a predator after her. He flipped the expectations on his standard “innocent man” trope and in the process shocked and horrified his audience, legitimized horror cinema, and created one of his most memorable and powerful masterpieces.