24in48 ~ 2017 Is Here! (Scroll for updates as to hours read.)

ReadingMy favorite read-a-thon is back! If you’ve never participated in 24in48, go here for the details. I’m strictly a participant, so I’ll defer to the good folks who are running the show to tell you more about it at the links provided above. The gist, though, is you read for 24 hours over a 48-hour period. For some, that may happen anyway, but this is a great excuse to settle in if you don’t want to go out.

This year’s event will happen over the weekend of July 22-23.

I’ve signed up and will post my progress here. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books that were made into classic films (my other love). I’m thinking about starting with Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.Mildred Pierce Gray Flannel Suit

Watch this space. Happy reading! ♠EL

 

July 22 @ 9:15 p.m. PDT:Higdon's Book

I’ve clocked just a few minutes over the 10.5 hours mark. And, the best part is that the book I’m reading at this stage of the game…has reached the best part. The reason I picked it up is for the section I just hit. I anticipate clocking one to two more hours before shutting it down on Day 1.

Leopold & Loeb: The Crime of the Century by Hal Higdon ~ Fascinating non-fiction that reads like fiction, similar to Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s a slower read, but not because it’s boring. It’s full of dates and details, and it has chapter notes. Most of them can be skipped, but, occasionally, I do have to flip to the back of the book to see the source noted or to gather more information, if the note is “blown out”. Despite these “tasks”, this is still a pretty straightforward read. It was a great choice for 24in48. (And, everywhere where I’ve been compelled to google something fascinating, I have stopped my stopwatch. I’ve clocked pure read time, only.)

July 23 @ 9:30 a.m. PDT:

13 hours, flat. Have to step away. Hoping to get five to seven more hours in, much later today.

July 23 @ 10:15 p.m. PDT:

I started in the eleven o’clock/almost midnight hour, PDT on Friday, July 21. I’m knocking off a bit early, with a final tally of 17 hours. I’m feeling pretty good!

Great 24in48 this year! ♠EL

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Hollywood Character Arcs ~ The Heiress

 

2017-01-20-26Mic-dropping over how dazzling Olivia de Havilland’s portrayal is of Catherine Sloper in The Heiress is too easy, not because there’s no “there” there, but because the part is so well-scripted, -directed, and -acted, it—and de Havilland’s Academy Award®; Golden Globe Award®; and New York Film Critics Circle Award® for Best Actress for the role—speaks for itself.

It’s Catherine’s father Dr. Austin Sloper, played by Ralph Richardson, I’m interested in. To be clear, Ralph Richardson also delivers a pitch-perfect performance—and drops an anachronistic mic of his own—but his character is less easily summed up because he’s both drawn and plays to type, meaning, the script calls for him to behave a certain way, and within the story, the character also “plays up” how he is perceived by other characters, which works to disguise…a lot.

On the surface, he’s a snobby, wealthy, reluctant single father, who accepts his child in his household because, well, he was part of that whole conception thing, in wedlock. Catherine’s birth cost Dr. Sloper his wife, something for which he’s never forgiven Catherine, we think. We come in at the point when Catherine’s childhood is over and are left to imagine the many ways her father’s resentment has played out over the years. What we are told is that by this point, Dr. Sloper sees an unbridgeable dichotomy between his intellect and what he thinks of as his daughter’s simplemindedness.

the-heiress-1949And yet there’s more going on. In fact, I call bull**** on Dr. Sloper’s entire shtick. Don’t get me wrong. Watching him in this movie on TV a bunch of times, he almost had me fooled. It wasn’t until I saw him on the big screen—where his subtle body language, facial expressions, and bits of acting business gave him away—that I realized Dr. Sloper, as a well-drawn character, was running a serious game on folks both inside and outside of the movie. As I exited the theater, I struck up a conversation with the stranger whom I’d been sitting next to and compared notes with her. Twenty minutes later, we were still at it. We had noticed what I’m guessing whole bunches of folks who left that theater had noticed. In fact, we had likely just exited a huge Big-Screen Revelation Fest.

Taken at face value—coming through a smaller television screen, with the coffee table, a pet, the family, good food, a phone, a blanket, a book, and a remote causing distractions—we can all be forgiven for “falling for” the ruse part of the screenplay, the layer that tells us Dr. Sloper is…a snobby, wealthy, reluctant single father. On the big screen, though, where one can see the details on a fingernail and catch a meaningful eyebrow lift, Dr. Sloper’s story doesn’t quite add up.

ralph-richardson-olivia-de-havilland-heiress-1949

For easy starters, Sloper appears to be perennially tired of Catherine, and yet he’s tailored his entire life around her, including never remarrying. He’s a wildly successful physician in a bustling New York City, with two sisters who have a Meddling Quotient of 100, and yet, somehow, he has not managed to find another wife. He never really makes the case that it’s because he still misses his late wife. At social gatherings, he spends the entire time monitoring closely whether his daughter is fitting in, and it’s not because he wishes to spare the family any embarrassment and save his reputation. He’s an established Cantankerous Rich Man. He doesn’t care what people think beyond the top layer. No, it’s because his primary preoccupation is Catherine and the state of her existence. He presents as “dreadfully put upon” by her but tends to her minutest needs, retrieves party punch she never drinks—leaving him holding the cup by the dance floor—and displays perfect manners before her always, including refusing to sit down until she has. For a guy who can’t believe he ended up with the likes of Catherine for a daughter, he slots her into a whole lot of his life.

the-heiress-2Where catching the red herrings gets a little more complicated is when a young suitor named Morris (Montgomery Clift) begins to circle over Catherine. Dr. Sloper wears his mask well, adding consternation to his façade and pouring on the uppity. He appears to disapprove of Morris solely because he believes him to be a shiftless grifter after Catherine’s fortune. She is, after all, an heiress. Here, we say, “Yes. Yes. Her father doesn’t really care about her. He’s worried about his money.” Except…the big screen reveals some very telling body language by Dr. Sloper. Considering the time period (19th century), it’s more than a little awkward when he physically leans into Morris’s space. He drops the social grace of social distance, not so much because Morris doesn’t warrant the better behavior—one gets the sense, maybe falsely, but nevertheless, that social graces tended to be unilateral in those days and displayed regardless of who the recipient was—but as if to say, “Back away from what’s mine.” He reluctantly, you can tell, because he knows it gives him away, betrays deep irritation with a smirk or a raised eyebrow, and it’s always at those moments when Morris is making romantic headway with Catherine. It’s the romance that’s bugging Dr. Sloper, not the headway. The headway, alone, could ultimately be crushed. It’s the romance that will edge out Sloper as Catherine’s Number One Guy.

Then there’s minor stuff: Upstairs, in his Washington Square mansion, Dr. Sloper has one sister (Miriam Hopkins, above, l.), and across town, living with her husband and children, another (Selena Royle, above, r.). When the one not under his roof summons him one morning, he’s so busy with his patients, he arrives still wearing his stethoscope, claiming he barely has a few minutes to give her. But when he senses Morris is about to close in on Catherine for the kill, on no notice, he shuts down his medical practice for six months to travel around the world with Catherine. Again, the auspices offer one explanation: He’s so eager to keep his money away from Morris that he’ll take the bait—his daughter—overseas and out of reach.

But, hold up. Isn’t she dead-boring, unsophisticated, and dull? Isn’t monitoring her inability to recognize her own station in every room she’s in exhausting? Isn’t Morris such a reprobate he is easily outmatched and disposed of in, say, a week spent working at the task? Is a six-month trip around the world necessary to Sloper’s goal when he kind of (or more like purportedly) can’t stand Catherine? And, yet, he’s willing to spend half a year with her, and only her. We get a glimpse of that time on the road, and the only thing we see is his ordering for her at a cold outdoor café her hot drink of choice richardsonthat he makes sure is ready before she arrives and is subjected to the cold air. He hasn’t ditched her for society parties or dropped her in a fancy art school. They’re hanging. When he senses she’s miserable, you see genuine disappointment in Dr. Sloper’s entire countenance. It’s like a six-month date gone bad and cut short at the three-month mark. When they return home, and he discovers that his in-house sister has let Morris make himself at home in Dr. Sloper and Catherine’s absence, the camera is on his face, but his back is to the room, where his sister and daughter are. For now, he can drop the mask, and we see from his expression that a deep loss has set in, and it’s not the financial one he’s thinking about. Nor is it the blow to his ego for having lost the figurative chess match to another male. He knows he’s lost Catherine. Morris isn’t going away. (This is just one of many moments when William Wyler, who was nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Director for The Heiress, proves he’s the best director who ever lived.)

When the reality that he’s lost to his rival becomes undeniable, like any jealous man, he unleashes on Catherine. The cruel things he tells her are things he could have packaged gently throughout her childhood to correct the flaws he accuses her of having. But if we know that, under the mask, those things don’t really bother him, then we see the tirade for what it is: a panicked, jealous outburst, wherein he cuts Catherine to the quick out of frustration and to cause pain to the one he’s losing. He doesn’t want to see Catherine leave, plain and simple. To be clear, there’s nothing untoward, unseemly, or unchaste about Sloper’s feelings for Catherine. He simply loves his daughter more than he allows anyone, most of all, himself, to realize.

montgomery-clift-olivia-de-havilland-the-heiress-1949-2To be sure, if he were in the witness stand offering up testimony about what a needlepointing disappointment his daughter is, he’d be easily impeached on cross-examination with his own actions. In closing to the jury, one could submit that what’s really going on is that, after the death of his wife at Catherine’s birth, it made Dr. Sloper feel needed to have Catherine so dependent on him. He both fed the mediocre tendencies of and created a pared down daughter to end up with a situation in which he was clearly supreme—and could dictate most or all her interactions, relationships, and assessments of herself in good and bad times. His attitudes throughout the film betray that he did so because he cared about the daughter who was the product of an enduring love-match and not merely to demonstrate control of or status over a weaker being. Along the way, he created a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum in determining whether he wrote or merely reads the label of inadequacy slapped on his daughter. By the time she’s grown up and fulfilled his negative prophecy, he has no idea he’s the culprit, so solidified is Catherine’s insecurity and low estimation of herself. His narrative has taken hold.

ralph-richardson-1But in a triple-agent kind of way, he created Catherine’s inadequacies to justify his distance, which masks his genuine love and need for her. (When, later, for reasons not revealed here, they experience a real rift, he’s distraught, and, for the first time since we’ve known him, subdued. He’s flummoxed by both the situation and the fact that he’s in the situation.) From a writing standpoint, it’s genius. Certainly, Ralph Richardson’s Academy Award®–nominated (Best Supporting Actor) and National Board of Review®–winning (Best Actor) performance delivers the subtext of the character brilliantly. But without the screenplay (nominated by the Writer’s Guild of America® for Best Written American Drama), there’s only so much that geniuses like Wyler and Richardson can do. It’s one thing to write a character one way, and, with a convenient plot twist (“He’s really a spy.”), transform him into something else. It’s another, much-more-difficult-to-write thing to use a character’s own psyche to hide who he is from himself and the audience, and reveal him slowly, through conflict and tripping-up of oneself, all the while making us—and him—wonder if he knew he was in there all along.

goetz

Augustus and Ruth Goetz [From the Billy Rose Theater Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundation]

Yet, like Cary Grant, who always made it look too easy to win an Oscar®, The Writers Goetz were maybe too smooth for their own good. They refused to bludgeon us with faux-good writing or give de Havilland and Clift and Richardson scenery to chew so they could remind us they were “ack-tors”. The Goetzes wove a complicated tale about human nature using the subconscious parts of human nature to mask that the story was about human nature. Huh? That triple-agent thing, again. They won no household-name awards for their efforts, but in a way, that proves they should have. We never saw them work their magic. That kind of sleight of hand with the pen makes for the best stories. EL

The Heiress is available on DVD here.

Deborah Leigh is not an Amazon Associate.

 

hangman3D1

 

 

 

 

Posted in Hollywood Character Arcs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book vs. Film Wars ~ The Postman Always Rings Twice

Another installment in the blog battle between a classic book and the film it spawned.

 

lana-turner-and-john-garfield-on-setThe book is always better than the film, they say. I say it too. All the time. So, with this truism in mind, I couldn’t wait to read The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. I mean, the original film stars Lana Turner and John Garfield, who, separately and together, exude a kind of cerebral sensuality that’s irresistible (and who were followed up by Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson at the height of their respective hot phases in the 1981 remake). And the original movie was made in 1946, my own personal 1939 (the reigning champ for Best Film Year) when it comes to film greatness. (See sidebar for 1946’s 15-round challenge to 1939, which wins on a TKO.)

I figured a book published in 1934 that waited patiently to spawn a movie in a year when the standard was gold had to have been oozing with subtext and angst and social commentary Hollywood’s Motion Picture Code wouldn’t allow film director Tay Garnett to display. This book had to be better than the movie, with its First Amendment freedoms Lana Turner and John Garfield couldn’t express. The premise of the novel may be cliché now, but it wasn’t when Cain used it in 1934. You’ve seen it: A middle-aged man marries a much younger woman with a rough and hidden past that doesn’t catapult but instead edges her with prolonged hard knocks somewhere beyond her years to a place where she still has her looks, but they don’t come as automatically. Marriage—and slinging the man’s hash—are daily distractions from, though not deterrents to, beauty. The man then invites a young grifter to live under their roof and somehow doesn’t expect trouble. Cain’s imitators turned this particular brand of pulp into a hackneyed theme. But Cain? He was onto something new.2016-12-31-15

james-cainAnd, yet…and, yet (sigh), it’s difficult to say whether Cain knew it. On the one hand, he went out of his way to give the love rivalry that turns into something I can’t spoil an atypical backdrop—a countryside diner with a broken sign outside—instead of using a more overtly sophisticated location, such as noir-y downtown Los Angeles or New York or a mob-embattled but elegant Chicago. And the aforementioned middle-aged man, Nick Papadakis, is no uptight establishment deviant whose “lust for a younger woman” contravenes the norms of his world thereby making him (also cliché but) intriguing. He is, instead, a much more compelling hardworking, honest immigrant sometimes referred to as The Greek. It’s his wife Cora’s fault, and not Nick’s, that Cora is an opportunistic adventurer who, with her marriage to Nick, came in out of the rain before the real storm of a hard-lived life washed her up. Nick’s rival, Frank Chambers, is a young upstart who gets off to an ashamed start for taking up the space of a loser he knows he doesn’t deserve to occupy and remains chagrined throughout. Frank is never not a little embarrassed to be living his downtrodden existence in front of others. It’s a wonderful artistic and literary touch—a character who is watching us watch him and who is self-conscious about his figurative darned socks, stained tie, and worn shoe soles, hoping we won’t ask him to put his feet up for fear we’ll see the holes. Cain, thus, lays engaging groundwork for the story of two men, unlikely friends, who find themselves desiring the same aloof woman, each with something to offer that the other covets: Nick has money, Frank, youth.

cecil-kellaway-and-john-garfieldBut from there, Cain rushes us. Frank and Cora are implausibly signaling behind Nick’s postman-ringsback in the first chapter (truly), reducing them to stick figures with unclear motivation, moving about as that cliché that would later come along would have them move about. Frank might as well say to Cora, “You’re hot, I’m young, we’re both scandalous. Let’s remove the obstacle by committing a murder in sloppy fashion so that we can fear the cops catching us. Along the way, we’ll betray each other, and no one will win.” More than that occurs, to be sure, especially in that “along the way” phase. In fact, murder may not be where we end up. But as Cain maps out his characters’ plans, he gives us impetus without reason, whether emotional, logical, or sometimes even situational, as hard as that is to fathom, for their actions. They simply do the next thing one would expect an empty caricature to do, making it hard to care, without the “why”, about Nick and Cora’s marriage pretending to portray a real relationship, Cora shifting from Nick to Frank, Nick trusting his new friend Frank, who is plotting to betray him, or the plight of Cora and Frank once their plans literally go over a cliff.

lana-turner-john-garfieldWhere Cain gets it right—and therewith still disappoints because he doesn’t fulfill it—is with his earthy, straightforward dialogue and tone. His pictures are vivid. The stakes, if rushed, are nevertheless clear. His peek into 1930s police interrogation tactics, district attorney maneuverings, and press manipulations are a kind of history lesson that is juicy, catty, and enthralling. It’s the book’s deepest dive into storytelling for the sheer campfire aspects of it and where Cain almost forgets we’re there, which is when some of the best writing happens, when an author politely ignores his or her reader and just writes. When the police-D.A.-press triumvirate runs headlong into Frank, the book picks up tremendous speed. I’m convinced it was those pages Hollywood optioned, in spirit, for a better-drawn Cora and Frank in the forms of Lana Turner and John Garfield. (There’s a bitter irony though: The movie never quite gets there and is most disappointing, when compared to the book, at the crescendo that likely inspired the desire to make the movie. To be sure, the first half of the film is better than the first half of the book, when Cora and Frank begin their dance, but the second half of the book crushes its movie counterpart. The casting of a usually perfect-for-the-role Cecil Kellaway as Nick, instead of a more realistic Paul Douglas–type second lead doesn’t help. An actor like Douglas would have punched dialogue where Kellaway merely recited it. Kellaway’s artful underwhelming…underwhelms.)

Where writer Cain also beats out director Garnett is in the surreal and surprising landscape cain-mildred-pierce-acehe uses as part of his foreground. We’re trapped primarily with three characters, but Cain gives us lots of exteriors, remote locations, desolate roads, and even double-indemnitythe Malibu Canyon, to help us breathe.

Still, those literary visuals, the pace, and the palpability are not enough to overcome what Turner, Garfield, and Garnett give us in the film, even considering the earlier-noted shortcomings of the movie. For starters, the decision to clothe Lana Turner only in white for most of the movie is a tough act to beat. Not only does she slay from a sheer looks standpoint, but the juxtaposition between her angelic countenance and her true temperament is more striking for all the stark-white garb than what Cain can depict on his pages. Garfield, meanwhile, can deliver a soliloquy with a facial expression. He makes every scene in every movie he’s ever been in hotter, whiter, brighter, heavier, dirtier, darker, sadder, happier. In other words, describe it and add er to that adjective, and you’ve got what John Garfield does to individual micro-moments in a movie. The triple-threat of Turner, Garfield, and Garnett gives us subtext in a look, a beat, clever lighting. With tones of voice, silence, and even fabulous hair, Turner infuses Cora with far more humanness than Cain manages. Garfield soaks it up and reflects back a Character Albedo Factor of 100, adding flesh and depth to Frank that Cain mostly only hints at. Even if Cain had known his words would one day have to compete with Turner and Garfield and he had tried to pivot, adjust, and preemptively take ’em out with keener writing, he still would have lost.

postman_main1520It’s a shame. A little—okay, a lot—more character depth at the beginning of the book would have made the novel a lasting masterpiece, in my humble opinion. Cain was almost there, with something unique and fresh, and with dialogue and description that revealed a lack of fear of political incorrectness that’s necessary to provide meaningful commentary about how people end up like Cora and Frank and Nick. Instead, he sort of short-sheeted his own bed. He reduced his work to pulp. The lesson for the writer is that no matter how good one’s premise, if one doesn’t hit certain visceral and philosophical beats along the entire arc of the novel, with realistic and fleshed-out moments that are carefully paced and spaced, and which possess logical motivation, readers may feel a vague kind of lack of fulfillment and overall disappointment, even if the author turns a fabulous phrase in a wonderful setting.

This one’s closer than usual. Cain never accepts the great American novel that lurked just below his typewriter keys, and Garnett falls flat at what should have been a stunning unfolding of Cain’s stellar third act on the big screen. In the end, and by the end, Garnett edges Cain, though.

Advantage, movie.EL

hangmanpho3

 

Posted in Book vs. Film Wars | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book vs. Film Wars ~ Laura

Another installment in the blog battle between a classic book and the film it spawned.

I consider “classic film fan” as much a part of my description as my height and eye color. Unlike my weight, the part of me that is a classic film fan never changes. So, it always pains me to recognize aloud what we all know: Talking strictly and only about that aspect of film that purports to reflect real life, classic films sometimes do us a disservice as they give us a cleansed, Motion Picture Production Code–abiding, faux-pristine or just outright fake view of the time in which they were made. Yes, this can be true of modern films as well, but the defining category here isn’t classic films. It’s the untruths of visual media, with a focus on the classic film version of that concept. And, yes, films are designed to present a contrived view of the world. A story is pulled out of thin air, placed into a script, and pushed out in the form of a film. But there’s no getting around that the impressions we form about society—and about earlier times to which we have no contemporary access or the ability to form our own opinion based on observation—are very much connected to what we think we’ve learned from films and television. If those visual media are whitewashed by a stringent and subjective set of guidelines for what may be shown onscreen, such as those promoted by the aforementioned Code, then “fiction” can become “skewed portrayal”.

psycho_029pyxurzThe most obvious example of the power of visual media is that anybody arrested by the police today would expect to have their Miranda rights read to them before the cuffs closed, not because we all learned in school that this should happen, but because we watch TV, where this is par for the course. And yet…many people don’t realize that unless police custody is accompanied by interrogation, the police do not have to read an arrestee his or her rights, and statements made voluntarily by the arrestee will likely be admissible. We think we’re so right about something we’ve got completely wrong because the power of decades of visual media telling us “what’s true” overcomes fact.

laura-121156015-large

Lane Chandler and Gene Tierney

That same kind of influence is at work up and down classic films. While the specifics of the makeup of our perspectives form a very complex question better left to sociologists, anthropologists, historians et al., I think it’s safe to guess that some of our notions about “how things were” come from what classic films tell us. “People back then” did things differently, we say, and we use as the comparison to now what we see in films from then. We take what was depicted in older films to be a reflection of the times in which they were made instead of merely a concurrent art form, again, being very simplistic to make a broad point.

gene-and-vincent-in-laura

Gene Tierney and Vincent Price

If misrepresentation of contemporary times is a crime committed by some classic films—or by some aspect of most/all classic films—an obvious choice for Culprit No. 1 is the Motion Picture Production Code. In another post, I touched on where the Code had value, especially as it regarded the protection of children, but otherwise, the Code literally wrote the book on skewing representation to achieve a desired impression. That was its whole point and purpose. One of the stated objectives of the Code was preventing a film from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it.” If we don’t show sympathy for criminals, then lack of exposure to same will prevent it from existing, went the thinking. Simply put, the Code scripted lies into movies by scripting out (entirely subjective) undesired behaviors and omitting norms it disapproved of.

dolores-del-rio-reading

Dolores Del Rio

Thus, the Code makes reading books written during the classic film era that much more valuable and enriching, for the Code didn’t carry over to books, where the First Amendment instead ruled the day. People in books written in the 1930s said, “Goddammit.” They got away with crimes. They abandoned their children without storyline comeuppance. They drank. Too heavily. They had sex with people they never married. If for no other reason than to get a bit of a fact-check on a decade long gone (because, admittedly, turning to fiction to verify other fiction only goes so far), it’s worth it to read classic books, and more to the theme of this post, books that were later made into classic films in order to gather a kind of juxtaposition.

I recite the above preamble because its notions stuck out glaringly when I recently read Laura by Vera Caspary, a book published in 1942 (but set primarily in the 1930s) that was made in 1944 into a film directed by Otto Preminger. The film starred Gene Tierney as Laura, and Dana Andrews as Det. Mark McPherson, which may cause some confusion for those who don’t recognize the actors and their unisex names. Anecdotally, the film is much beloved in the classic film fan community. As I write this, it has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 60 reviews counted. Alas, the film was watered way down from the book. Way down. Many books take a beating in film form, but this particular book abuse by a film did exponential damage as it perpetrated and perpetuated false norms.

laura-25

Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney

The book tells the story of a young career girl, Laura, who is murdered (by page one, so, no spoilers there), and the week-long investigation into the crime. While the film has loose narration and blurry shifts in perspective (which works excellently—I’m in that “anecdotal” group who loves the film), the book is starkly divided into five sections and uses to wonderful effect a different first-person narrator for four of the sections. We hear from Waldo Lydecker, a lifestyle and crime journalist who mentored Laura in the early stages of her career; Mark McPherson, the detective assigned to the case; Laura, herself; and Mark McPherson again. Squeezed in there is a section consisting entirely of the transcript of an expository and illuminating police interrogation.

Caspary seamlessly shifts from one narrator to the next, but that deftness is not what’s most impressive about the book. It’s that this structure becomes a tool used to provide far more insight laura-pageinto all the characters as we see them through the very different lenses of the three narrators than if Caspary had used one narrator, even an omniscient one. As Caspary hands off the storytelling baton to the next narrator, he or she feels no loyalty to the earlier storyteller. There’s something illuminating about Character A telling you what he thinks of Character B while trying to stay in the reader’s good graces since he knows you’ll soon hear B’s side of the story, only to have B take a turn at narrating and rat out A. Caspary skillfully keeps track of not only details (in a fairly fact-driven crime novel—a feat) but also of characters’ attitudes about those details. She revisits events only when she needs to draw a stark distinction in characters’ perceptions of them or to illuminate a character’s delusions and can best do so by reviewing the same event through a different narrator. When characters contradict each other, their motives for doing so reveal secrets about themselves they probably wish the reader didn’t know. They’re little sacrifies the narrator makes in order to get his or her side of the story told. The reader ends up getting at least two layers out of every moment, which makes the shifting, competing narrators a far better storytelling device than simple all-knowing exposition. Because the book focuses on just a week’s worth of events, the characters don’t have a lot of time to pivot while dealing with an enormous and perplexing crisis. This adds psychological layers as three people reporting—and solving—the same crime through their own self-serving narratives feel crowded in by their fellow storytellers, all the while themselves less practiced and polished in their narration for the shortage of time needed to get their stories straight. The format makes for a claustrophobic, taut week.

 

laura-dana-andrews

Dana Andrews

Caspary wastes no time getting to the gossipy telling of events. She begins on page 1 with Waldo’s snarky version of Laura’s history. Waldo paints himself in a positive light as a mentor who doted on a single girl in the big city, even as he calls himself “the most mercenary man in America”. Along the way, we get a nice portrait of 1930s New York. Waldo not only provides a charming picture of the lower-upper crust of the city, but he lays out for us where the land mines are in Laura’s life so that we can begin to guess which one she stepped on.

Leapfrogging two narrators (Mark McPherson and the interrogation scene) for a second, it is not until Laura’s eerie version of events that we begin to see how hard life has been for her forging a career in the 1930s while maintaining a romantic life. By the time Laura gets her turn to talk, we’ve heard from three men who have attempted to define her, something she’s not only aware of but that she resents. Whether it is an accurate depiction or wishful thinking on Caspary’s part, through Laura’s blunt narration about all of what she’s sick of, we get a frank, non-Code view of women’s rights, sexual freedoms, dating expectations, and attitudes about career versus marriage that is far broader than what classic films of the Code Era offered. While Waldo describes Laura as a hardworking blank canvas waiting for him to paint culture and access onto her life, we learn from Laura that, in some ways, every single day of her new, successful existence has been a struggle because she has helmed her own life, forged her own way, made her own decisions and discernments, and benefitted or paid prices along the way. Caspary, again, achieves two goals with one narration moment: We hear Laura’s version of events and we observe a general sexism that Laura had to wait in line behind three men to tell her own story.

laura-gene-tierney

No spoilers, especially as to how Caspary approaches the murder victim narrating events, but at least four men factor into Laura’s outlook on romance, a number that is carried over to the film but in a way that makes Laura less a participant in relationships with these men and more an observer of their purported admiration of her, a Code-washing, so to speak. In the book, Laura has been a mentee who’s been used, and a friend and a girlfriend who’s been royally dissed. It is this mistreatment that humanizes her, a quality the film never quite manages to get across, arguably because everywhere where the film brings Laura to the edge of what makes a character more relatable—infidelity, dishonesty, murder—it pulls only Laura back from the precipice and no one else, working hard to give the impression she’s above the fray, merely an observer in the unilateral actions of others. This technique—or tactic—somewhat backfires, as it only laura-mirrorworks to disengage Laura from the other characters and strip her of some of the humanity we want to see as we watch everyone else in the film drain her dry. Indeed, although Laura is dead, everyone regularly convenes in her apartment to hash out every possible grievance and throw accusations of murder at one another. Even in death, they relentlessly take from her and offer almost nothing in return, not even to her memory.

If there is a book exception to the above film dynamic, it is Detective Mark McPherson, who factors significantly into all five sections of the book, and who, with his ever-presence and his job as a cop, forms the moral compass and the barometer of the book. If you want to knowtumblr_nfgyedmyy21sr1ki0o1_500.gif what’s really going on, and what’s right, you look to Mark McPherson’s hard-boiled take on events. It is very hard to describe well, without also spoiling many of the moments that make Laura an enriching read, the deep, seemingly way ahead of its time, dumpster dive into the lives and psyches of everyone in Laura’s orbit McPherson makes when he’s batter up for narration, but we see it all here: normal things like gay existence, premarital sex, parties, love, familial ties, the art of going to work every day, and wealth, and twisted things like stalking, obsession, delusion, betrayal, murder, and not just whodunit, but the strange whydunit, almost none of which comes through in the film, either at all or, if so, in the same way as in the book, as good as the movie is.

laura-posterIn fact, if you’ve only seen the film, it turns out, through no fault of your own, you don’t know the half of it. The book starts out as “Clifton Webb light” as the film does (Webb plays Waldo to snarky, snotastic perfection and delivers an airy voiceover as he describes his mentor relationship with Laura), but Caspary was freer than Preminger to explore the darker side of the lives of socialites that might lead to murder. Through a wealthy aunt, an irreverent housekeeper, a friend, and a butler, we’re treated to an intriguing supporting cast that drives the story in the book more than in the film. Caspary’s version of “the people surrounding the victim” mimics that messy part of real life that the Code couldn’t control in terms of fringe relationships, dodgy co-workers, sneaky boyfriends, jealous older female relatives, wannabe husbands, the nosy, nosy tabloid-reading public, and dirty old men. Not only does Caspary let us glimpse the underbelly of how a woman with four men in her life could end up dead, but the sensibilities of the players in Laura’s world are far less vanilla than the Code would want you to think was possible. You realize, when reading the book, that people have pretty much always been the same. “People back then” were like people now.

 

dorothy-adams-07

Dorothy Adams

When watching the film, you get a different take, and it’s a shame the Code interfered, as it did, with Caspary’s supporting cast of characters (two of whom are played by Dame Judith Anderson and Vincent Price—an embarrasing waste of an embarrassment of riches). These folks are woefully missed in the film, in terms of the layers they should be bringing from the book but aren’t. Most strikingly different is Bessie, Laura’s housekeeper, who is a delicious level of mouthy in the book that the Code wouldn’t allow, presumably because it demonstrated a woman in one station or class (a servant’s) speaking uncomfortable truths to power, to men, to authority. Book Bessie reveals an acuity about life, about people, about bullshit that the Code would rather you not see. Film Bessie is played by Dorothy Adams, who made a career playing kind at-home mothers and housekeepers. Before Adams opens her mouth, by virtue of her casting, Film Bessie is diluted. It makes for some awkward moments when Film Bessie tries to talk tough with Detective McPherson. It sounds ridiculous, contrived, fake, especially if you know (but even if you don’t know) that Book Bessie talks like film Barbara Stanwyck. After she’s killed somebody. To put it another way, watching Film Bessie is akin to seeing June Cleaver “speak jive” in a “Leave It to Beaver” episode. Reading Book Bessie is on par with observing Barbara Billingsley slay speaking jive in a perfectly hilarious scene in Airplane (1980; at 0:58).

Suffice it to say that Book Supporting Cast is Asian, gay, divorced, duplicitous, ambitious, self-sufficient, witty, slutty (women and men), and murderous. The film goes out of its way to obliterate that diversity. Film Supporting Cast is present and prickly but also proper and homogeneous. It gives the false impression that the complex humans that populated Laura’s life “didn’t really exist” in real life, or, in the alternative, that even if they did, we don’t need them for the film. “We don’t need to expose the public to this diverse range of people,” says the Code. It’s both, “They don’t matter,” and they don’t matter.

Meanwhile, Book Laura could fairly kick your ass. She may internally diatribe about how hard it was, about how much she hated being forced to do it, but also about how willing she would be to kick it again if you made her. Film Laura observes asses being kicked and thrives in the radiance emitted from those who kicked ass. She works hard but she mostly just runs with strong types, and a little of that imputes over to her. She needs Waldo to introduce her to her best business contacts. (He brags that, “I began securing other endorsements for her,” and Film Laura is never given an opportunity to dispute that claim.) No spoilers, but Film Laura considers standing by a disloyal man and relies on another to protect her and resolve what’s messy in her life. In essence, she keeps her place as a woman in Code World. She is that canvas waiting for Waldo to paint substance onto her life. Book Laura comes painted in. She’s shy and young in the beginning, but she’s only there because of guts she brought to the game. She is far more in charge and actually waxes furious about the pushy men in her life when she’s driving the narration train. She’s out-loud aware of their intrusion, and her sensibilities about why it bothers her are those of a feminist.

Caspary used the freedom the First Amendment gave her to structure Laura in a way thatlaura-webb-price led to surprising reveals about darker psychological themes. It’s a fast, deep read that sheds some light on what the 1930s were possibly like. Indeed, the book’s very existence and Caspary’s having written it in the first place already debunk positions taken by the Code. By the end of the book, one thinks, “This would make a great movie.” And it did. But it could have been a more edifying, more broadening, richer journey if the Code hadn’t forced Hollywood to leave out so much truth.

Advantage, book. EL

hangman3D1

Posted in Book vs. Film Wars | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hollywood Character Arcs ~ 12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men
Released April 13, 1957
United Artists
96 minutes

Screenplay: Reginald Rose, based on his teleplay
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Sr., Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall
Adding Character: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber

MBDTWAN EC017

If you’ve ever seen 12 Angry Men, you know it’s Henry Fonda’s movie. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you know from lore and the DVD cover that it’s Fonda’s domain, One Angry Man against 11 others, some angry, some just getting their serious people-watching on, at least at first, in a jury room.

The obvious stakes at the center of the story are the probable death penalty for an 18-year-old on trial for murder. The more hidden ones include everything from the glib hope of getting on with life as unbothered as possible by putting a teenager in the electric chair to the definition of one’s entire existence based on winning the game played to reach the verdict. (Seriously. One juror’s whole identity is caught up in what the verdict will be.)

In Reginald Rose’s script, the characters are referred to not by their names but by their juror numbers. Fonda is Juror No. 8, but Rose finds a way to so distinctly draw all 12 men, that we actually sometimes forget that a teenager’s life is at stake, so engrossed do we become in the men who are deliberating his destiny. The deftness with which Rose infuses each numbered man with a spate of characteristics so unique that you begin to anticipate what Juror No. 6 will say to Juror No. 9 is worthy of its own microscopic examination into the craft behind the effectiveness.

But we’re not here for that or for Fonda’s Juror No. 8, the man drawing the Xs and Os of that aforementioned verdict game. We’re here to focus on an in-film bench player, portrayed by an excellent acting bench player whose time on the field of any film he’s in results in a positive when running the plus-minus analytics on his game.mk37o1-b781083494z.120130322171107000geh1d40ve.2

I’m talking about Juror No. 10, played by Ed Begley, Sr., a Tony Award®–winner (Inherit the Wind; 1956) and Academy Award®–winner (Sweet Bird of Youth; 1962), who “rains threes” from the backcourt every time he opens his mouth in 12 Angry Men. To be sure, as the guy playing the most overtly disagreeable man on the jury—even Juror No. 3, played by big and brusque Lee J. Cobb, starts out with a calm recitation of the facts of the case taken from a tiny notebook he had the temperament to use throughout the trial—he has more of a character and acting platform from which to display breadth, than, say, poor Juror No. 2, who almost behaves like an alternate juror who’s not allowed to vote, so little do we hear from him. But Juror No. 10 is far more than what his crankiness would allow in a lesser screenplay with a lesser actor in the imaginary parallel lesser role.

Juror No. 10 starts out amiably enough, offering jokes to pass that perfunctory space of time he has to live through until the men all take a seat and he can vote for the electric chair. He is suffering from a cold, and his hide—and tissue-raw nose—are chapped because of it. He’s a man in charge in his own world who doesn’t have quite what he needs to take charge of the jury room. That’s Fonda’s Juror No. 8.

And yet, where Rose and Begley could let No. 10 pipe up and down at well-placed intervals, like a stick figure controlled by a predictable hand that moves it up and waves it around when the script calls for grouchy and pulls it back down when it’s somebody else’s turn to talk, they instead draw on those caricature-like moments to form the deep, thorough arc of No. 10’s character.

Reginald Rose once said, “Facts may be colored by the personalities of the people who present them.” I believe that in 12 Angry Men, he uses that edict to his best advantage with Juror No. 10, with Fonda’s No. 8, calmly presenting a position against the grain and, by that calmness, lending it credence, running a close second. For a long time, we don’t see just how onerous Juror No. 10 will become, even when he telegraphs it with early invective because, from the beginning, No. 10 displays the temperament of a child. It colors the fact of who he is and somewhat disguises that he’s on a dangerous mission. As children do, he interrupts what he doesn’t like or understand. He calls people names, taking extra care to spell out for the jury foreman that he’s acting like a K-I-D kid. He paces the room when it’s his turn to talk and when it’s not his turn to talk and is the only juror unable to wait his turn when the group decides to deliberate in order of juror number. He makes a point and asks, “Whaddya think o’ that?!” When he believes he’s caught Fonda’s No. 8, among a few others, getting something wrong, he asks No. 8, his biggest rival and the room’s parent figure, with unmistakable petulance, “I thought you remembered everything. Don’t you remember that?” When his bad manners are attributed to the way he was brought up, he appears scolded and sulks, despite a clearly demonstrated ability to speak his mind. Somehow, when his childhood is challenged, it’s as though the child, too, is challenged. Like most children who are called out on misbehavior, he remains silent.

Begley not only convinces us these dichotomous versions of his character are nevertheless realistic, but he deftly draws on this trait that puts No. 10 just on the fringe of the adult circle formed by the other 11 men to add a kind of bewilderment and befuddlement to the character, rapidly looking back and forth at the men on either side of him, trying to keep up with what’s being said, all the while grasping at a tissue and wiping his nose, a bit of business that cements his childlike air (and steals the scene). It’s not quite endearing, though, from a character standpoint, because No. 10’s outlook is too mean and narrow not to mitigate what charm there might be in a fusty old guy blowing his nose and looking around to see what’s going on. But it does serve a keen purpose: For all of his bluster, we know No. 10 is a little unsure of himself and capable of being at the mercy of others to gain understanding, which becomes crucial to the authenticity of the film’s final act. (More critical, without an actor as talented as Begley in the role of Juror No. 10, Rose and Lumet would have a much harder time conveying these layers. As the film crescendos, we see that of the 12, including Fonda’s Juror No. 8, Begley, as Juror No. 10, is the least negotiable casting.)

Running alongside Juror No. 10’s lack of sophistication are an unabashed hatred for certain racial groups and the ability to stare daggers into any man in the room who disagrees with him or shows him up. At the beginning of the film, No. 10’s two sides—one childlike, one dangerously mean—hide one another, aided by Begley’s skill, but as Fonda’s side of the ball gains yards in the deliberation, and No. 10 is forced to play defense, we see his seeming straightforward outlook for what it is: a determined drive for one outcome. At first, he expects it, firing off the occasional pop-gun insult (the child). As he realizes he may not get it, he brings out the flame-thrower, and we remember, even as the childish demeanor erupts into a juvenile tantrum, that it is a man who’s aiming fire all over the room.

12-angry-men-pic-4But it’s Juror No. 10 who gets burned. As he capitulates, it is his more grown-up self who not only sees reason, but who comes to understand that he wasn’t just incorrect in his facts earlier. He was wrong, in spirit and in motive. About many things. And the same childlike but dangerous bewilderment we see throughout is what allows him to give in when overwhelmed by just how wrong he is and let the adult admit it. At his lowest point, he is too chagrined to speak, taken down by his own bluster, and, yet, he’s somehow smart enough to know it. With embarrassed but mature reluctance, he does the right thing. In effect, he grows up.

The takedown is plausible not only because it’s delivered by an actor who skillfully takes us through each of No. 10’s nuances (Have I mentioned I believe Begley steals this movie?), but because it mimics No. 10’s whole way of being: He runs down the street like a child who’s old enough to be out after dark but who lacks the savvy to know he’s headed for trouble. It is also so absolute, that we know in that moment, the film has turned a permanent corner. The other 11 men, even Fonda’s compelling No. 8 and Cobb’s bullying No. 3 and E.G. Marshall’s erudite Juror No. 4, basically are who they are throughout the film. Their attitudes change, but their characters follow interesting but flat lines.

Juror No. 10, on the other hand, follows an arc, thus the casting of an actor of Begley’s caliber, and is the only one of the 12 in the jury room to do so. (Interestingly, the mostly off-screen defendant is the only other character to travel along an arc—neighborhood punk, domestic violence sufferer, family member of a murder victim, orphan—shaped by the men who deliberate his fate.) Juror No. 10  begins as a grumpy child, transitions into a desperate adult, and comes down on the other side having been hit upside the head by some harsh epiphanies about his nature. His journey is so acutely depicted and his arc so much a metaphor for the entire film, that when he falls—and matures—you can almost hear the squeaky sound of the curtain coming down. If the rest of the film (just four more minutes of deliberation plus a few minutes of polite wrap-up) didn’t include a stunning moment by Cobb, to stay with my sports analogy, we’d be in garbage time. Even with Fonda and Cobb on the field, Rose winds up the figurative final two minutes of the fourth quarter pretty quickly. The reference-arc in the film—No. 10’s—has come to a close, and it’s time to shake off the peanut shells and head for the parking lot. EL

Postscript ~

tumblr_mpa860oo8K1rwqiuko1_1280

Posted in Hollywood Character Arcs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Table for One ~ why orienting your reader at the front of your book will lead to more pages read, not fewer

Confused

By now we’ve all heard: Amazon has cracked down on authors and publishers who design their Kindle books with the table of contents (TOC) at the back instead of the traditional front. This has sent authors and publishers whose books are enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, paid-per-pages-read program into various versions of tailspins. Instead of allowing their plane to crash, they should see this decision by Amazon for the beacon on the self-publishing horizon that it is, pull up, and fly headlong into the Valley of Better Publishing.

Let’s digress. Almost from the moment the technology existed for The Everyman to sell a book online through a major retailer without having to go through the gates of an agent, who escorted the book through the doors of a Legitimate Publisher, who vetted it and beat it into shape for the Major Bookseller, who made final demands for tweaks for the best experience for The Reader, creative folks—both the talented and the developing—began offering some pretty astounding works online, with the adjective applying to good and bad works. In too many cases, it led to a typo-riddled, poorly formatted, and overall horrible reading (and, arguably, shopping) experience for end-users who hoped to purchase a quality book and settle in and enjoy the read. The pendulum of publishing swung so far away from traditional norms, it was as though independent publishing were an indictment of the latter as opposed to a high-quality alternative.

But Amazon remembered what many indie publishers forgot: the above-noted gates and doors and vetting—in the form of agents, publishers, and bookstores—set the everyday standard by which readers have measured the books they’ve purchased since “buying books” became a thing. Readers haven’t been in the custody of those who maintained standards; they’ve been in their care, and Amazon’s general requirements that independent publishers not cause any undue harm to innocent readers is a healthy thing for the entire industry. Good books sell more books. The traditional system that has existed forever is what has kept readers interested in buying books, an interest that feeds the indie publisher, who shouldn’t then turn around and tank the standard that supports the system that feeds the indie publisher. Dizzy yet? Poor logic—scuttling what has worked while you use and need what has worked—usually is confusing.

Which brings us back to tables of contents, which are, by definition, orienting devices. They tell us where we’re going and how long it might take to get there, while allowing us to use backstreets to cut across town, if we wish. They get us ready for our journey through the book and provide a little peek into what we’ll see on the road.

That anyone would find a tool designed to familiarize a reader ahead of time helpful if it’s placed at the end of the road is its own kind of astounding. More germane to the subject of this post, a back-of-the-book TOC could cost the author readers because a table of contents at the back of the book is not helpful. Some readers will find “leaping to the back” over unread material anytime they want a contents refresher—essentially reading from back to front—counterintuitive to normal front-to-back reading and either give up or just refuse to buy the book. Indices at the back of a book are helpful because they are designed to allow a person to find one standalone item, and they keep an endless list of book minutiae from interfering with getting the read on and getting on with the read. A reader using an index may have no interest in the overall book. He or she may just need to read the section on such-and-such topic and forever close the book. The continuity and clarification provided by a table of contents is superfluous in those cases.

Tables of contents, however, tell a reader who intends to stick with the book from start to finish what’s ahead. For that reason, readers love them, which is why they’ve existed since books have. That last fact makes it safe to say that the average reader confronted with a table of contents in sample pages is not going to consider the table an interference with deciding whether to purchase the book. She is likely going to find the table a wonderful addition to the sample pages because she will be better able to assess whether she is going to enjoy the read. Are there just four sections for a 500-page book (a possible slog), or is this 300-page page-turner broken up into 35 quick-read chapters? A reader who has to hunt around for this information and guess that your table of contents is at the back of the book and not just missing altogether may skip your book altogether. Imagine if the Periodic table were just a mish-mash of elements thrown onto a chart, forcing scientists to figure out each time they encountered an element how it related to the other 118 (at the time of this post). It makes more sense to be able to read across the top of the table, find a group, and say, “Okay…Noble gases…yep! Helium, Neon. There they are.”

Meanwhile, if you hide your TOC, you’ve lost an opportunity to entice the reader with wondrous and wonderful chapter titles. Let’s take J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Here’s a smattering of its TOC: I. An Unexpected Party; II. Roast Mutton; …V. Riddles in the Dark; …VIII. Flies and Spiders; …XVI. A Thief in the Night, and so on. Why on Middle Earth would you hide such fictioney-good hooks in the back of the book? A good TOC is your first chance to tell story and gain a reader.

And if a back-of-the-book table of contents is designed to “get your money for pages read, no matter the quality of the material”, then that seems in violation of the implied term in every contract to deal honestly and fairly. If you agreed to be paid for pages read, shouldn’t those pages actually be read? Akin to the discussion above, cheating the system doesn’t help the system. Readers will not flock to a system that cheats them. You might make short-end money on one book, in “this time around” fashion, but you’ll be spoiling future…spoils, not only for yourself, but possibly for a whole lot of other honest folks.

Tell the reader where they’re going and let them decide if they want to take the journey. If you’ve followed the other tenets of publishing and have a catchy title, a great cover, a well-formatted book, and superb writing, the average reader will likely be willing to get through your table of contents to read those first juicy sample pages, even if there are fewer of them because the TOC squeezed out some. Most readers are so used to seeing TOCs, they might even just skip over yours for the sample read, feeling comforted that it will be there when it’s needed for the Big Read. Indeed, the reader may even realize they’re in the capable hands of a pro, who published—independently—a book that met the standards of tradition, and click the “Buy Now” button.

Sally forth. (And tell us where we’re going. We can’t wait to get there!) EL

Amazon’s table of contents policy can be found here.

Posted in Uncategorized

Hollywood Character Arcs ~ M

M
Released May 11, 1931
Nero-Film AG
110 minutes

Screenplay: Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Otto Wernicke
Adding Character: Inge Landgut, Theodor Loos, Gustaf Gründgens, Friedrich Gnaß, Fritz Odemar, Paul Kemp

peter%20lorre%20m%20trial

The German word for “murderer” is Mörder. (Seems more like “murder”, but, nope, it’s “murderer”.) It stands to reason, then, that the standalone M of the title of Fritz Lang’s 1931 Expressionist, terror odyssey is the cousin of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter A, and that somebody, some Mörder, has not only behaved badly, but, as with A-for-adulteress Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s novel, been labeled accordingly.

Turns out, we’re actually dealing with a Meuchelmörder, an assassin, or, in the vernacular, a murderer so evil, he rates an entirely different noun, one that separates him from, say, a robber-killer. A Meuchelmörder is a dangerous psychopath prone to a cold-blooded and wicked sociopathy that gives the psychopathy freedom to roam about and wreak mayhem. It makes one wonder if Lang resorts to an M as much because the deeds of the Meuchelmörder are so hideous, we have to hush and not say too much about them. M, and that is all.

Well, not quite. We have a doozy of a Meuchelmörder on our hands, one that resonates almost 85 years later, mostly because of the way the Meuchelmörder’s psyche is “unboxed” by Lang and, ultimately, Peter Lorre. Lang goes out of his way to hide from us much of what Lorre’s bizarre Hans Beckert perpetrates, but to do so, he doesn’t detract with overblown makeup, wild hand gestures, or unreal and overlarge shadows cast over Lorre, techniques that are typical of German Expressionist films. Instead, he borrows from the fantasy and fantastical elements of Expressionism and slips Hans Beckert’s actions into the shadows and out of sight. We are left to imagine the worst, even possibly exaggerating what we can’t see.

Still, we know that what is obscured is ruthless. The aftermath is undeniable, even if we can only imagine how it resulted. Beckert’s victims are young. They’re lured away with classical music and balloons. Once ensnared by Beckert, they have no way out. When one child’s mother calls for her, Lang subjects us to, in agonizing real time, the realization that there will be no answer. When one child or the other or another doesn’t make it home, the hunt for the Meuchelmörder becomes a fury unto itself that whips into an uncontrollable frenzy. Lang, who later made a film called Fury (1936), which dealt with an out-of-control mob, is a genius at the exponents of mob formation. While nobody is looking, one becomes three become eight become 20 become 50 become the entire town. To be sure, we, the audience, are at the front of the pack, swinging whatever we can find over our heads as we call the loudest for the Meuchelmörder’s head.

And then an astonishing thing happens. Hans Beckert is forced out of the shadows but into the dark of the bright light of guilt, and Peter Lorre delivers a soliloquy that becomes the opening salvo to his colloquy with the mob, and we…sympathize and almost advocate for Beckert’s life, if not for Beckert’s position.

With Lorre’s Hans Beckert pinned down, Lang reminds us that a mob is never all righteous. There comes a point in every mob’s actions when the line between punishment and abject persecution becomes unclear, when it’s more about the mob winning than it is about the mob achieving the so-called common goal that brought it together. It’s as if the mob’s numerosity shames it into insisting its members must be right, or else why are so many engaged in such outrageous behavior? Why are several against one? Instead of seeing what unfolds as a pile-on, they look to their numbers for validation that they’ve backed the right cause. Thus, the good of the many becomes much more important than the rights of the one. From the mob’s perspective, as a collective body, it must prevail for the notion of righteousness to be true.

It’s that little bit of wrong in the right that breathes life into Beckert’s plea for his life. The rest of any hope comes from Lorre’s tour-de-force performance as a trapped man trying to explain how he can’t help it, the mitigating circumstances we hear about in modern trials during the sentencing phase. Every time I watch that scene, with Lorre down on his knees begging for mercy, hoping to explain himself to the ironic mob of fellow criminals who stage a mock trial in a dank basement, complete with a homeless man “appointed” to be Beckert’s defense attorney, I notice the silent, silent extras observing a genius nail his craft. What must it have been like, I wonder, to have worked on that set watching Peter Lorre scream about Hans Beckert’s compulsion to kill, “Will nicht! Muss! Will nicht! Muss!” (“Don’t want to! Must! Don’t want to! Must!”)?

There is much brilliance in the lynch-mob trial scene, for it is embedded with commentary about unemployment, unfair persecution, the death penalty, the right to mental healthcare, and misguided crime and punishment, some of which comes straight from the mouth of our Meuchelmörder. It transforms Lorre’s character from being an evil caricature to an evil enigma, something much scarier because it is human, real. It could live next door. It may have rights. It might even feel guilt or pain or sympathy with its opponents, for it knows what it has wrought and will work again, if given the chance. Even more compelling is the fact that Hans Beckert is a timeless character who could exist and subsist today. He is well-drawn by Lorre and Lang, to be sure. But he is also crafted and scripted in a way that allows you to close your eyes and wonder when you are as you realize Beckert’s humanness, presented through his evilness, transcends the confines and constructs of era. EL

The Criterion Collection™ Blu-ray™ of M is available here.

Deborah Leigh is not an Amazon Associate.

Posted in Hollywood Character Arcs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,