Hollywood Character Arcs ~ 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


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.

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Hollywood Character Arcs ~ White Heat

White Heat
Released September 3, 1949
Warner Bros.
114 minutes

Screenplay: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, based on a story by Virginia Kellogg
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien
Adding Character: Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell, Fred Clark


As big-screen mama’s boys go—and real-life ones, for that matter—James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat has no rivals. He rocks the T-shirt and will punch you out if you, even silently to yourself, downgrade his devotion to his mother to something in the area of loves her to death, for he loves his mother even more than that. He loves her enough for it to lead to your death.

Usually, such a character would exist as a juxtaposition to the Strong Protagonist Hero (SPH), there to underscore what the SPH isn’t: weak. Such characters are so far from compelling, they’re almost criminal in the storytelling arena for committing vapidity. In the case of Cody Jarrett—an actual criminal—it’s his weakness for his mother that makes him strong. No spoilers, but he’s a heister with a powerful posse that stretches across various states. He does time on purpose for a pretty significant crime to throw the cops off the scent of his guilt in a very significant crime. The time is no sweat to him. He’s gaming the system and getting away with something, which is all he needs to feel—and in his world, be—successful.

And he has all the fixings and side dishes of a crime boss. He’s married to a fur-wearing Virginia Mayo, in her gorgeousness prime, young and trophy-esque, while being just a few months into “years of experience” to give her a cagey, sexy wisdom. They drive decent cars. Jarrett has access to a few safe houses and does business with a Big Deal Criminal who has the luxury of using a leisurely faux fishing trip as a cover for a meeting to plan the next big job.

This all sounds pretty formula, right? Crime boss. Gun moll. Shady deals. Hard time. What makes White Heat as different from those clichés as The Wizard of Oz is from Raging Bull is Cody Jarrett’s unusual devotion to his mother, played by Margaret Wycherly, who is Cody Jarrett’s heist muse and raison d’etre. She’s also proud to be the antithesis of Virginia Mayo. She’s elderly and plays it that way, but you get the sense that even when she was seventeen, she presented “old” (which is actually kind of true—photos of a young Wycherly reveal a haunting pair of eyes set in a pleasant but plain face, the result of which is an intriguing, older-than-her-years beauty). She’s bossy, controlling, and just plain mean. She can’t stand having Mayo as a daughter-in-law, not because she’s jealous, but because Mayo is largely useless and brings no crime skills to the game. She’s the last option off the bench, and Ma Jarrett treats her like the rookie that she is, showing her a modicum of a modicum of respect because Cody chose her to be on the team, and because she’s comfortable with the pecking order of the gang: Cody is first, Ma Jarrett is second. Nobody is third. And just in case we weren’t sure Cody thrives as his mother’s child and not just as her son, the script gives him horrible migraines that only his mother can massage away, as though she were patting a baby to get it to burp.

In Jarrett’s world, any man this reliant on his mommy would be a patsy who was dead by the second reel. But this is James Cagney we’re talking about, and he’s nobody’s patsy. He shoots a guy through the trunk of a car, orders another killed when his slow, painful, cold death takes too long, and grabs a hostage to…well, no spoilers. And while it’s taking everything this writer has not to spoil something else huge, suffice it to say that in all of James Cagney’s moments on the big screen—all of them—his most dramatic, over-the-top, raging bit of footage involves his devotion to his mother.

The result of this strange and surprising relationship is that we have no way of knowing what Cody Jarrett will do. He’s not driven by the standard motives of jealousy or trying to impress his woman or needing to prove himself with his men. He has every reason to “throw down” with Steve Cochran over Virginia Mayo but instead does so on behalf of his mother. That stretch in prison he volunteers for almost makes sense in light of how his mother factors in, which is to say that she remains outside and runs the gang in her son’s absence. And as Edmond O’Brien worms his way into the gang in a capacity not revealed here, he does so as a surrogate mother to Cody, looking out for him at every turn and even massaging away a migraine.

The possibilities for surprise are endless, and White Heat taps into as many of them as 114 minutes will allow. Although this post has been about James Cagney as Cody Jarrett, his unusual mother is an equally rare and compelling character, making them arguably the most enthralling mother-son combination ever portrayed on the big screen. The casting is key, to be sure. Who else in those days but Cagney could play a convincing crime boss who is driven by keeping his mother happy while remaining Top Alpha Dog? Maybe Humphrey Bogart. For sure Edward G. Robinson. Nobody else. But it’s also the fabulous writing that closes the deal. Cody’s devotion to his mother is obvious but still subtle. We’re exposed to just the right doses at the proper times. We’re treated to a fabulous cast of other lead and supporting characters who are also well-drawn and consistent. This isn’t a film about a man who is too attached to his mother. It’s about a criminal who does all kinds of interesting things motivated by his love for his mother. To steal an analogy from the publishing world, as movies go, it’s a page-turner. EL

White Heat / City for Conquest / Each Dawn I Die / G Men available here.

Deborah Leigh is not an Amazon Associate.

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Hollywood Character Arcs ~ Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven
Released December 20, 1945
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
110 minutes

Screenplay: Jo Swerling, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Director: John M. Stahl
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Stars: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde
Adding Character: Darryl Hickman, Jeanne Crain, Ray Collins, Gene Lockhart, Reed Hadley, Chill Wills


As sociopaths go, Gene Tierney as a wife fatally attracted to her own husband in Leave Her to Heaven is not only one of the big screen’s best, but she’s way ahead of her time. Much of the psychosis we see seep out bit by bit until a river of madness flows by the end of the film is more ‘90s edge than ‘40s noir. It’s not so much what we see Tierney’s Ellen Harland do that reminds us of a grittier, more-modern-with-profanity-permitted, disturbed, felonious female. Women with criminal tendencies were not new to film by 1935, let alone 1945. It’s how she approaches blasé insanity like she’s exercising her right to breathe that makes us feel transported back to the future, to our own time, when Hollywood had learned to let the crazy sneak up on us. Whether Single White Female or L.A. Confidential, many modern film villains make that area below the radar their playground, whereas their early-film counterparts proclaimed their bad behavior from the first reel.

Producer Darryl Zanuck luring us into an ‘80s trap set with ‘40s bait is something that, well, Darryl Zanuck would do. He did, after all, give us The Public Enemy (1931) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) in the same career and turn out such diametrically positioned films as Little Caesar (1931), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Apartment for Peggy (1948), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). In 1950 alone, he ran the gamut from No Way Out and The Gunfighter to Cheaper by the Dozen. He brokered in out-of-the-ordinary. A character like Ellen Harland, who lives up to none of the promises of Tierney’s sweet-seeming beauty, the colorful eye-candy world in which she maneuvers, or the relaxing scenery that sets the stage for her sociopathy, arrived right on Zanuck’s schedule.

The unstable wife played by Tierney ran in a pack of one. Her big-screen company, while compelling characters, were obvious-from-frame-one villains like Jane Greer’s bad-girl-waiting-to-happen in Out of the Past (1947), Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), Mary Astor’s cagey, crying criminal in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and, to shorten this post, Hundreds of Others in Names of Movies. In examining how Zanuck achieved the singularity that makes Ellen Harland such a well-drawn character, the answer comes down to one thing: character motive. No spoilers, but as it becomes clear that Ellen Harland has an abnormal and chilling approach to matrimony, we also see that she is so well-intentioned, so righteous in her incorrect indignation, that she never sees herself coming, so there’s just no way we can either. Worse—which is better for us—when she arrives, she believes she’s in the right place and that everyone else has lost their senses.

It helps that she’s married to a guy played by Cornel Wilde, who talks in one key, moves only when necessary—and then, within a range of just a few millimeters—and is Patient Zero for cluelessness. That’s not to say that Tierney’s motives are obvious. It’s that Wilde is literally criminally disconnected. It also helps that Tierney’s sister is played by the borderline cherubic Jeanne Crain, who provides the cotton candy in the carnival, but who, like the fluffy treat that dissolves in your mouth, may not be what you think she is. Does she give Tierney’s insanity a leg to stand on, if not a chair to recline in? For a good enough while, we’re not sure. From a plot standpoint, we’re pretty clear, but from an analysis of Tierney’s character, we don’t know, making Tierney more complex than caricature, and Ellen Harland’s actions more reason-based, from her perspective, than reactive.

Add 14-year-old Darryl Hickman in his best role as Cornel Wilde’s disabled younger brother, the perfect foil for a female sociopath—a young teen who plays like a child—and Tierney’s fate unfolds with all the right juxtapositions in place to make it enthralling. The brilliance of Hickman’s performance is that he never telegraphs that he knows where his character is headed, which is crucial to the plot. The Other Darryl (yes, Zanuck) thought Hickman’s turn in Leave Her to Heaven was the finest he had witnessed in 30 years in the business, prompting him to send Darryl the Younger a telegram expressing just that.

John Wayne said about the television series “Gunsmoke” that it was “adult”, meaning it wasn’t a lightweight “cowboy” show with the Saturday matinee pop and crackle of gunfire designed to keep viewers entertained if not engrossed. It dealt in heavy themes and tackled early in its run issues such as rape and child endangerment. A similar sentiment can be expressed about Gene Tierney’s troubled Ellen Harland. She’s no noir femme fatale. She’s you and I come unhinged by an unhealthy attachment to her father that leads to a narcissistic view of her role in her relationships. She’s inexplicable in a compelling way, and you relish it as you realize there’s nothing to do but leave her to heaven. EL

Leave Her to Heaven is available on DVD here. Ben Ames Williams’s novel on which the film was based is available here.

Deborah Leigh is not an Amazon Associate.

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Hollywood Character Arcs ~ The Searchers

The Searchers
Released March 13, 1956
Warner Bros.
119 minutes

Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent & Alan Le May, from the Alan Le May novel
Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood
Adding Character: Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Henry Brandon, Harry Carey, Jr., Hank Worden, Olive Carey


Schools of thought governing Westerns can usually be narrowed down to two: (1) Westerns are films that display simpleminded, plot-driven, thin stories used as vehicles to glorify a white-hat-wearing cowboy, who is good because the script loudly dictates it. (2) Westerns are character-driven chronicles that, out of all film genres, best explore the depths of the human condition due to their stripped-down nature.

Both schools are valid—there are a lot of bad, bad Westerns out there—but because of the nature of the first school, it is difficult to prove to those who subscribe to it that the second one exists. For members of the second school, John Ford’s The Searchers may be the best tool available to shift paradigms and maybe even win friends. The primary reason for the ability of The Searchers to sway even the most cynical Westerns “hater” is not John Ford—who, by 1956, had been directing films for 39 years, and who had given us, to name just a very, very (very) few, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), They Were Expendable (1945), and The Quiet Man (1952)—as well as several quality Westerns that aren’t offered as evidence of the excellence of John Ford while trying to convince of the virtues of The Searchers, for that argument would be circular.

It is the character of Ethan Edwards, one of the title’s searchers, portrayed to robbed-of-an-Oscar® perfection by John Wayne, who provides the shades of paint for Ford to use in The Searchers to make it a masterpiece. Granted, there is an equally die-hard contingent as those who dislike Westerns who find putting John Wayne and acting in the same sentence dubious. They may even believe, without knowing much about his career, that he’s the white-hat-wearing cowboy in those thin Westerns, who wins all the time and gets no dirt on his pants in the process. Wayne’s career is a debate for a different post, but looking at his work in this film, it is safe to say the Wayne doubters are wrong. If the character of Ethan Edwards weren’t drawn—and played—so well, The Searchers would be just another Western. Not a thin one, but not a great one either.

In Ethan Edwards, Wayne gives us a dark loner with racist leanings. Ethan is mistrustful of indigenous peoples and makes no attempt to hide it. But rather than offend us by presenting Ethan as one who is put upon because he must tolerate sharing the planet with people he doesn’t like—and who aren’t like he is—Ford, as early as the first scene, gives us a sympathetic antithesis to Ethan in the form of Jeffrey Hunter, as Ethan’s adopted nephew, Martin, who is one-eighth Cherokee. The juxtaposition—charming, harmless, and proud-of-his-heritage Martin versus a vagabond, disconnected, and disgruntled Ethan—tells us right away that Ethan’s world view is the one that is suspect.

Although it feels good to watch The Searchers, it is not a feel-good film. That last truth means Ford doesn’t subject us to sugar-coated epiphanies by Ethan Edwards that turn his prejudices into minor lapses in judgment quickly corrected by the script. On the contrary, Ethan remains steadfast in his beliefs that indigenous peoples have no business mixing with whites, and this consistency and the willingness of Wayne and Ford to allow Ethan to be so easy to disagree with are what make him such a well-drawn character.

In real life, it can take years for one’s paradigm on any issue to shift. Dogs versus cats. East Coast versus West Coast. Private or public school. Democratic or Republican. Immigration. Healthcare. Abortion. Religion. Affirmative action. Gun control. It often requires a delicate, perfect, and ripe set of circumstances—with a heavy dose of happenstance thrown in—to create a major shift in one’s beliefs. In The Searchers, Ford takes not a sledgehammer to Ethan’s views, in an attempt to demolish them. Nor does he use a scalpel to carefully slice away the unappealing parts of Ethan’s character so that he can refit him with a big white hat. Instead, Ford uses a very dull chisel to chip away at Ethan’s outlook. It proves to be a clunky tool. It knocks away a few ugly corners, but it also bumps into stone too hard to be removed.

The less than ideal tool makes the journey much richer. While conducting the search the film’s title references, Ethan is challenged by circumstances, criminal minds determined to thwart him, time, and his own short-sightedness. Key is that Martin, his one-eighth Cherokee adopted nephew, is the primary other searcher of the title. They’re looking for a kidnap victim, to whom they’re both related and who was taken by someone who plays right into Ethan’s beliefs. On the one hand, Ethan feels he’s been saddled with an interloper who won’t keep his place. Martin isn’t simply along for the ride. He’s riding for his own reasons and figures he might as well travel with Ethan as he does so. He refuses to go away or even ride half a horse length behind Ethan. On the other hand, the search lasts five hard years. The ensuing familiarity of two-man campouts, cold winters, investigation, trading for questionable information, and crouching on the same side of several shootouts breeds…respect.

No spoilers, but Ford shows in the tiniest of gestures—a hand placed on a shoulder, an attempt by Ethan to secure Martin’s financial future, respect for a Comanche woman the two searchers encounter on the road who is later found dead—that as time and the men march on, it gets harder for Ethan to hold fast to his narrow views. We see this not just in Ethan’s relationship with Martin. The change in Ethan’s micro attitude about Martin creates a macro transformation in his approach to the search and who he is willing to partner with, how he feels about the kidnap victim, and even the reason he exacts retribution on the guilty. It becomes much less about who they are and far more about what they did.

And just as how, in real life, the makings of change are often present all along, waiting to be tapped, we learn in the first scene that it was Ethan who rescued Martin as a baby, all the while aware of his Cherokee heritage, and who deposited him with his brother and sister-in-law, to become the oldest of their children. This is made more significant by the fact that there appears to be an unspoken history between Ethan and his sister-in-law, Martha. We feel that it is no coincidence that out of all the places Ethan could have left an orphaned Cherokee baby, he chose the house of a woman for whom he cared deeply. It is this soupçon of goodness, this tenderness coming from a big, stubborn, prejudiced man, that forms the realistic foundation for Ethan’s slow metamorphosis and helps makes the case for why Ethan Edwards is one of the best-drawn characters in film history.

The film opens with a freewheeling Martin dismounting an unsaddled horse he never pulls to a full stop and strolling through a doorway in the dark shadows of the eaves of the house where he lives with his adopted family. Inside the house is a hostile Ethan. Martin’s walk into the dark foreshadows his five-year mission with Ethan. The film ends with a different character leaving the dark doorway of a different house and heading into the bright hot sunlight. It provides the perfect metaphor for the long, uneasy trek into enlightenment experienced by Ethan, several supporting characters, and maybe even John Ford himself. EL

The Searchers / The Wild Bunch / How the West Was Won Blu-ray™ triple feature available here.

Deborah Leigh is not an Amazon Associate.

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Hollywood Character Arcs ~ On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground
Released December 17, 1951
RKO PicturesWord
82 minutes

Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides; based on the novel Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler
Adaptation: A.I. Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray
Directors: Nicholas Ray; Ida Lupino (uncredited)
Stars: Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino, Ward Bond
Adding Character: Charles Kemper, Anthony Ross, Ed Begley, Ian Wolfe, Olive Carey

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Any film with the title “On Dangerous Ground” calling itself “noir” could fall back on preconceived notions held by the movie-going masses and take audiences down dark alleyways on the heels of hard-bitten cops chasing criminals of the Underworld—the purported and proverbial “dangerous ground” of the title. Nicholas Ray, who surprised 1950 filmgoers with Humphrey Bogart’s mental instability in In a Lonely Place—showcasing a Bogart Breakdown of epic, Gloria-Grahame-slapping, lover-stalking proportions—and who made teen angst the centerpiece of 1948’s They Live by Night, an unusual focal point for the time that he would repeat in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, doesn’t allow On Dangerous Ground’s title to lure him into plot-feeding Big City Tenements full of desperate types whose actions provide the dangerous ground or through Twist-and-Turn Gun Crimes. Nor does he threaten the movie’s population with a cop gone so bad, he locks up anyone who gets in his way, another kind of dangerous ground, and a cliché one at that.

Instead, Ray takes us through what is arguably more perilous territory than anything described above: the stressed-out, burned-out mind of a cop, played here by Robert Ryan. In fact, if Ray had swapped the title of this film and that of In a Lonely Place, both films may have ended up more aptly titled, for Bogie set those around him on dangerous ground in his vehicle, and the world of Ryan’s mind in this one borders on treacherous—causing him at one point to beat up a suspect and scream, “Why do you make me do it?!”—because, well, he’s in a lonely place.

No spoilers—we’re concerned only with well-drawn character- and story arcs and the occasional event that demonstrates them, and not plot reveals or summaries—but the film opens with three plain-clothes policemen—partners—preparing to leave home for a long night shift that will include hunting for a cop-killer. One of the men is surrounded by his seven children and a wife who practically “tucks him into” his night duty, while the other, who is stoic and aloof, nevertheless leaves a concerned wife who clings to him all the way to the front door as he heads out for his shift. There’s a cop-killer out there, and these women want their husbands to return home at the end of their shift.

Ray juxtaposes these men’s lives with an eerie detail from Ryan’s life that shines a quick light on Ryan’s isolation. We’re introduced to Ryan at his dinner table. He sits alone and reviews several mug-shot cards as he eats and waits for his ride to work to show up. When his partners honk the horn for him, Ray first shows Ryan scrape the remnants of his dinner plate into the tiny garbage can of his almost dingier apartment, and then Ray shows Ryan slide the remains from a serving plate into the same can. It’s not a casual moment, for it is repetitive and eats up (pun apologies) a valuable bit of screen time.

With this gesture—the scraping of a second plate—Ray has gone out of his way to show us a free-wheeling bachelor who took the time load up one plate, then quaintly serve himself from it using another. It’s as if Ray wants us to see that Ryan desires a domestic life he can share with someone with whom he could engage in the niceties of eating from a common serving dish at a formally set table. He almost self-consciously glances around the room as he cleans the second plate. Aside from looking a tad distracted by the “nothing” going on in the room, it’s as though he knows we’re there and just caught him in a moment of unnecessary domesticity he doesn’t want us to see, for we’ll know right away that he’s lonely before we’ve even gotten to know him.

The second plate furnishes an excellent story-telling shortcut. One plate makes the Ryan introduction perfunctory: a bachelor is headed out for work and cleans up before he leaves. Two plates tells us the bachelor has the capacity to share his life but no person actually sharing it. This is all the more highlighted by the fact that the mug shots occupy the space where a live mate would sit. Ryan is stuck with the perpetrators he chases down at night. (We also see that he started his meal far too late since much of it is scraped away once he must leave for work, something a mate may have helped him avoid. To be sure, Ryan’s life is less organized than are the lives of his attached partners.) We’re no more than four minutes into the movie, but there will be nothing Ryan can do in the medium-term to convince us he likes his life and that he doesn’t long for more. Looking at character arcs, Ray has set up Ryan’s brilliantly within the span of just a few minutes of screen time.

Quickly building on that foundation, Ray doesn’t imply there’s nothing wrong with Ryan and ask him to try to cajole us into accepting his isolated and brusque ways, in noir-cop, “I’m bad, but I’m good at what I do” fashion. Ray shows us a Ryan who is almost determined to make us not like him so that as others in the film reject him, we’ll know he expected it and we won’t pity him, even as Ryan displays an almost child-like wonder and dismay at any disapproval sent his way. His face says, “You mean me?” when he’s scolded by a colleague or a superior. Ray’s approach also reinforces Ryan’s malcontent. He’s so irritated that he’s too irritated to hide it.

Ray breaks with other noir stereotypes to draw a non-clichéd cop. Ryan isn’t “disappointing dames”, sparring with criminals in smooth-detective fashion, or lighting the cigarettes of femme fatales he later arrests. Instead, On Dangerous Ground is a visceral look at a strong man in undefined—at least to him—emotional pain that’s all the more threatening for that lack of definition and that places his temperament on tenterhooks. He’s like no other cop moving about in upper-case Noir, a culture in which, no matter how toughened the detective, cop, or unwilling do-gooder, there’s a sense that the person enjoys his or her plight to do right, even when it’s dangerous. Rarely in the land of Noir do we see a cop griping about being one. It’s the perps, the dames who won’t cooperate, and the interfering police chief/captain/lieutenant who form the source of the grumbling, who are the reason for any turmoil. It’s not the act of being a cop that causes the traditional noir hero grief. It’s the people around the policeman who make life miserable.

In On Dangerous Ground, we sense that at any moment, Ryan may snap because he’s a cop. Yes, it’s those same folks who agitate him, but his response is to blame the job and not the people it brings him in contact with. It’s a bit of chicken-and-egg hair-splitting that in the hands of Ray becomes a distinctly different complaint. The people bothering the cop aren’t the problem. Being a cop who has to deal with bothersome people is. As Ryan laments and rants about “the job”, we see a personally tortured cop, whose job is doing a number on him, and somewhere in the back of our minds, we factor in, even if we don’t outright remember, the lonely scene at the dinner table, the meal Ryan shared with mug shots in the dank apartment and sense doom. We also don’t notice outright but “take in” that while On Dangerous Ground is a cold, wet movie—it takes place in winter—Ryan never takes off his coat, not even in the car, in the squad room, in a pharmacy where his partner, the tucked-in father of seven, removes his shirt and receives a cozy rub-down for a very sore shoulder, or, later, in Ida Lupino’s house. The coat doesn’t just function as armor. Ray’s sensitive approach gives it away that the coat is keeping Ryan in a safe place as much as it is repelling those around him.

Just as Ray shocked us a bit in In a Lonely Place when he cut open Bogie and let his psyche bleed all over the reels, Ray adds a refreshing and noir-unusual touch of the elements often seen in female friendships to the interaction between Ryan and his partners to add to Ryan’s isolation. For starters, there’s three of them and not the traditional yin-yang of two cops “working a beat” together. The two make Ryan’s one stand out and allow Ray to bolster his portrayal of Ryan’s cop: One partner criticizing Ryan is a disagreement between the partner and Ryan. Two form a consensus about Ryan—and they are close to determining he’s too unhinged for the job.

It is obvious the men, who go straight from their living rooms to a shared car ride to work each night, have a track record of “sharing their feelings” with each other in the safe, dark, small vehicle, but, of late, in movie time, Ryan is stilted and struggles to keep up. Ryan’s relationship with his two partners is full of subtle affection (it is Ryan who insists his partner get his sore shoulder massaged—right in the middle of a response to a burglary), but it is fraught with forced introspection—Ryan’s, upon the demand of his partners—one of whom tells him, “You don’t like people much.” We see glimpses of hurt when Ryan is set on the figurative doorstep like sour milk by his boss (Ed Begley) and his partners, but Ryan uses those incidents as both fodder and excuses to lash out about how tired he is of police work, heartrendingly lecturing the others, trying to make them see what he sees. He’s all the more poignant because he’s right. Those around him, however, view him as a cop who refuses to come to terms with the deep-seeded disconnection he has from everything in his life.

In drawing a sad, hurt, scared, bitter, and sympathetic noir hero, Bezzerides and Ray get an assist from a few sources, chief among them Ryan, who delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career. With not a lot of action to hide behind, Ryan must use facial expressions, silence, and timing to communicate the complexities of cop Jim Wilson’s internal torture and good intentions. Ryan is one step ahead of every shift that the compelling Bezzerides-Ray adaptation requires, so much so that we can’t wait for it to catch up to him so that we can soak up the anticipated culmination of the moment. All movie long, Ryan’s face and body tell us where we’re going, and, minute-by-minute, we can’t wait to get there.

On Dangerous Ground also surprises with its score. Watch the film with your eyes open, and you see Ray noir, even Ray Noir, a culture unto itself within the realms of noir and Noir. Close your eyes, and you hear Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. That’s because Bernard Herrmann, who scored Vertigo, also scored On Dangerous Ground. Since the music for both films was composed long before the days of DVD and DVR, Herrmann was free to liberally borrow from himself when he composed the score to Vertigo in 1958 without reminding audiences of On Dangerous Ground, although, to be sure, the two films clearly have different scores.

Still, there are several points of instrumentation that are eerily similar. Herrmann gives us many of the same emotional, sweeping, yet minimalist strains that make Vertigo such a wonderfully draining journey, rare for a noir film. Noir and raw go well together. Noir and raw emotion are strange bedfellows between whom Herrmann orchestrates a sweet coming together. Even as Ryan wears his coat to keep us out, Herrmann’s visceral music brings us right back in. Again, no spoilers, but as the plot takes a hard right turn and Ryan’s journey becomes something even he wasn’t expecting, Herrmann’s music ushers us in seamlessly with its healthy doses of vulnerability, the same kind that whispered into James Stewart’s ear, “I know that falling for Kim Novak will give you a very different and more dangerous form of vertigo than the physical version you suffer from, but do it. Do it!” Herrmann’s music pushed Stewart over the precipice in Vertigo just as it pushes Ryan here headlong into his destiny. If Ryan’s mind is the vehicle that drives him to face his lonely life, Herrmann’s music is the roadway, the supporting characters the map.

Add to all of the above one of the most realistic depictions of a distraught and infuriated parent ever committed to the screen, courtesy of Ward Bond; the performances of Charles Kemper and Anthony Ross as Ryan’s partners, who provide just the right combination of touchy-feely friendship with hard-reality, co-worker truths; and Ida Lupino, who could play a scene with a rock and exude chemistry, and Ray’s unconventional Noir world is complete. To say more about Lupino both as an actor in and as an uncredited director on On Dangerous Ground would be to spoil the film, for her character is part of the aforementioned hard right turn Ryan’s life takes, and the scenes she directs actually change the trajectory of the plot. Suffice it to say that while Ray directs most of the film, the combination of his work with Lupino’s work behind the camera results in a thorough depiction—with completed arcs, courtesy of Lupino’s contribution—of characters whose inner turmoil sets them on dangerous ground. EL

On Dangerous Ground available here on DVD.

Deborah Leigh is not an Amazon Associate.

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Wake Not the Hangman

“…palpable atmosphere and…seat-gripping suspense scenes. Energetic and spirited storytelling make this…an entertaining read.” Kirkus Reviews

“…thrilling…. Engaging from the start, Leigh pushes the story forward with exciting force, particularly with her crisp, clean sentences that shine with vivid detail. With great perception, Leigh masterfully develops her characters…with honest reflective writing…. Heartbreaking, nerve-wracking, and triumphant at times, Wake Not the Hangman is a deeply satisfying novel.” San Francisco Book Review

“…a fast-paced read with a lot of action…” Apex Reviews

A “Notable 100” Novel for 2015 Shelf Unbound Magazine

Available on Amazon Kindle here. | Available on Amazon in print here. | Available in bookstores using ISBN ~ 978-0-692-44768-0.

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World-Building in Your Historical Novel

history-booksThink world-building is only about sci-fi locales three universes over, where the days are 61 hours long, only the rich may drink the red water, and babies not born in sets of identical triplets are killed at the age of five?

Think again.

If you’re writing historical fiction—comfortably defined, for world-building purposes, as any story set anywhere from a few years before the time of publication to farther back—you must build a time-quirky realm that is as thorough and consistent as what we see in chapter 12 of Book I and chapter 34 of Book III of your sci-fi series. Add to that the requirement of maintaining historical accuracy, while not giving in to false perceptions of what we think is historically accurate, and you’ve got quite a job on your hands—with sometimes only half the fun coming up with the red water’ll give you.old-fashioned-phone

Depending upon when your story is set, world-building for historical fiction can be both exhilarating for the things you learn (like that Washington Irving was already a wildly popular international storyteller in the 1820s) and tedious for the minutiae you’ll have to examine to get it right (like that call-waiting didn’t exist in 1973, making emergency breakthroughs, sending someone to knock on the door, or calling repeatedly until the line was clear the only way to reach a person who wouldn’t get off their phone).

So, how do you go about it?

Have fun first. Write your story as it comes to you, without worrying about minor details like the kinds of birds that inhabited 1820s France or the length of a woman’s dress in 1860s Chicago. Plug in what works to keep your creativity flowing. “A bird shat on Pierre,” or “Mary-Margaret had no clean clothes and wore yesterday’s dress to meet Mr. Matthews,” will do for now. Later, you can add “sparrow” or tell us it was a maxi-dress (if it’s relevant to the story).


Woman’s dress in 1840s Norway

Yes, you will do the critical research for anything necessary for the premise of your story before you write a word. You’d certainly want to know whether women were permitted to work as bankers in 1920s Norway before you tell the story of a female banker who takes down the Norwegian economy in 1921. You can tell your story either way, but you’ll need to know that key historical fact so you can realistically spin your yarn and find a legitimate way to get your star female into that bank. When it comes to smaller details, though, just write what works for your flow and make a note to check and change minor facts in future rounds of editing.

Make history stand out. Remember, you’re world-building. The only way to build an historical world is to make the history come alive. Readers should hear the wood creaking on your seventeenth century ship, smell the horse manure in your Western town, work sixteen-hour days in your loud 1890s factory, die grotesque deaths devoid of medical and modern comforts if they caught the Plague in 1345, and otherwise eat, wear, live in, shun, adore, worship, and despise the things of the period in the manner of the period.

Never miss an opportunity to remind the reader when the story takes place. Maybe your village idiot is “missing a few sails on his boat” or your hero walked 12 miles over nasty, unpaved terrain to save his friend after the hero’s horse died on him. No one should drive, work, sleep, poop, or die without you sprinkling the event with some touch of your book’s historical world, even if it’s as simple as your heroine paying ten cents for a cup of coffee or your protagonist’s mother standing in line to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on opening night.

Stay out of the rabbit hole. In the quest to build your world, the more you research things like what type of tea or perfume existed in an earlier time, what kind of gun a person might have toted, or how a person may have traveled, the more likely you are to click your mouse down into depths only rabbits explore and gather specks of minutia dirt that don’t drive your story forward. Research is a contagion unto itself. Find out one thing, it leads you to another, and then ten million others.

rabbit-holeThe length of the average German shepherd’s hair is much less interesting than the fact that one such beast is guarding the prisoners who hope to escape. Resist the urge to tell the reader, “Shep shook the snow off his two-inch-long coat.” And the reader probably doesn’t need to know that it snowed 182 days in Boston in 1785, no matter how hard you scrounged and scraped and clicked for that tidbit. An “endless winter” or “it snowed again” may paint a better picture. Study your subject as much as you need to in order to tell a good story, but don’t take your reader behind the scenes and show them the “making of your novel” by bogging them down with interesting but irrelevant facts that you’re sharing mostly to substantiate how you got the interesting and relevant facts.

Watch your mouth, or rather your characters’ mouths. One word showing up too early for its time can distract the reader and destroy your credibility as a competent writer who’s going to take good care of the reader. Make no assumptions. It’s easy to drop the word “lunch” into your prose and keep moving, but in, say, 1822, people ate dinner at noon and not lunch. They ate supper in the evening and not dinner. They suffered from consumption not tuberculosis.


Your Viking should not “push the envelope” since the term comes from the concept of aviators pushing aircraft to perform at or beyond safety limits, and, last your reader checked, there were no aviators during the time of Vikings. Is it a train or a trolley? Or a streetcar? Is it a buggy or a wagon? Or both? Has it always been called a “nickel”? Did women carry purses in 1859 or was “purse” a way to describe the little bag men used for their coins? No refrigeration in your novel? The fish should smell bad. Really bad. And what about “mounds of evidence”? Were there “mounds” of evidence in 1673, or did we start envisioning “mounds” when we could see a prosecutor waving his or her hands to describe them in movies and on television? Maybe it’s a term from British law dating back to the time of the Magna Carta. Find out. Don’t assume. A word as simple as “boat” can get you into trouble if the common reference in 1742 was ship or vessel. The good news is, most dictionaries not only give you the origin of the word, but they also name the year the word first appeared. It can take less than a minute to check and avoid embarrassment.

Ignore “history”. Write history. Most readers watch movies and television, two media that haven’t always placed a premium on accuracy in the portrayal of historical periods of time. Meanwhile, all readers live now. Unfortunately (well, not the living now part), this means your reader carries into your book lots of Faux History Baggage and stubborn perceptions about “how things were” based on how they are now, or how they are portrayed now.


This photo shows that bicycles freely used roads that streetcars and/or trolleys also used. This is a fact that an author might use that a reader might question (“Bikes and streetcars? The bicyclists would get hit!”) that is nevertheless true.

It may be hard to convince Jane Reader that churches owned slaves or that women disguised as men sneaked into the Civil War or that women had to fight to work as secretaries when it was an all-male profession since these concepts are rarely depicted in the visual arts or discussed in line at the grocery store. (I wrote a book about 1830s Missouri farm slaves and received a 4-star review in which the reviewer withheld the fifth star because of a perceived failure on my part to have the slave characters talk in a broad dialect “more reflective” of slavery. Presumably, the reviewer drew his/her notions of the way slaves talked from TV and movies that focus on Southern slavery. In real life, there were city slaves, mid-western slaves, and farm slaves on small farmsteads, who spoke the mainstream English of the city folks and farm-/slave-owners. I’m glad I wrote it the way I did because my way was historically accurate. While I left that reader thinking I fell short, I exposed others to a different slice of history who said, “I didn’t even do the math on slavery that wasn’t in the south and what that looked like.” I like to think their time was a little better spent for getting to walk away with something they didn’t know before.)  Copping to misperceptions about facts and history because you think it will make an easier read or you’ll face less resistance from the doubtful reader robs the reader of one of the best reasons to read: learning. The average reader would much rather find out some cool, fun fact they never knew than have you perpetuate the myth so that they don’t have to think while they read. Meanwhile, you’re bound to be busted because some reader out there is going to know their history and throw your book against the wall when you say something that’s inaccurate.

researchkeyHave fun. Some more. Take as much time as you desire (or as much time as your deadline permits) researching the history that will be on full display in your fiction. Sift, grift, and lift facts out of the crevices of the Internet, encyclopedias, newspapers, and lexicons at your disposal. Rub your palms together with glee when you discover some morsel you know it will delight your readers to learn.

So much of what you find won’t make the final cut, but in order to get the best nuggets, you have to dig like nobody’s watching (even that editor who has you on the aforementioned deadline). Take the pressure off to find the right textures and tidbits and enjoy the journey of fact-gathering. You may not get to invent red water, but you’ll have just as much fun helping your serial killer disguise his actions under cover of the events at Pearl Harbor. Just make sure they happen on December 7, 1941. EL


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