Understanding Screenwriting #103: Argo, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, & More

In comparison with movies like the recent Taken 2, Argo is more about suspense than it is about action.

Understanding Screenwriting #103: Argo, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, & More
Photo: Warner Bros.

Coming Up In This Column: Argo, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, Seven Psychopaths, The Conspirators, The Racket (1951), but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein thought I was getting too much into the mise-en-scène of The Master, but I read the item again and I don’t think so. There are many other items over the years that you say that about, but most of the material in the Master item is about story, character and themes. In other words, the stuff that writers contribute.

Since David is such a devoted reader of this column and asked that I tell the story of my meeting with Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, here it is. It was the fall of 1967 and I had just started graduate school at UCLA. I would take our 2-½ year old daughter out on Sundays so my wife could clean the house. One Sunday we were on the beach just north of the Santa Monica Pier. I was carrying my daughter on my shoulders, and a beautiful woman came up to gush about how pretty my daughter was. As we were talking I noticed off to her right was a little guy who was drawing a large dragon in the sand. What was so interesting was that he was drawing it with great loops right near the water’s edge. As the waves came in, they would cut the dragon into pieces. When he was satisfied with that, he turned to the beautiful woman. I realized then he was Roman Polanski and she was Sharon Tate. Of course Polanski would draw a dragon that the ocean would dismember, and of course Tate would be interested in kids. She got pregnant a year or so later, but as we all know, that ended badly.

Argo (2012. Screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on the article “How the C.I.A. Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran,” listed in the credits as “Escape from Tehran,” by Joshuah Bearman. The credits in the film also list another source as well, but I did not write it down, the IMDb does not have it, and I have been unable to locate it anywhere else. 120 minutes.)

No superheroes: No one in this film wears their underwear outside their clothes. Nobody wears a cape. Nobody wears an iron suit. Nobody flies, except on an airplane. And Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg don’t appear anywhere in the picture. This movie is about real adult human beings doing exciting stuff. It is a more or less true story. See the Wikipedia entry here for all the quibbles by different people about its accuracy, but, hey folks, we’re making a movie here. “Hey folks, etc” means the writer is taking the real material and shaping it into a script. That’s what writers do. The film is about the rescue of six American Embassy personnel who escaped from the Tehran embassy during its takeover in November 1979. With all of that, as you might expect, I was very much looking forward to seeing this.

There was another reason I wanted to see it. You may remember from my assorted discussions of various spy movies and television shows that I have a few acquaintances who were, as one of them described it, “source(s) with several years experience working closely with the intelligence community.” One of those acquaintances was an advisor. Not on the movie. On the original operation. He was an American who worked in Iran for several years up to and including the Revolution. He got out of Iran before the November takeover, and in the months of the hostage situation he showed up in Washington once a week to, as he described it to me, “give them advice whether they wanted it or not.” He knew the Embassy people and most of the Iranian leaders as well, so it was not surprising that Tony Mendez, the “exfiltration” specialist, contacted him. My daughter, after seeing the movie, wondered where Mendez got all the information about what was going on in Iran. Now she knows; that’s the kind of scene Terrio felt he did not need. One area my acquaintance discussed with Mendez was the three checkpoints for passengers leaving through the airport. In the actual event, getting through the airport turned out to be a lot easier than it is in the film, possibly because the Americans were well prepared. The sequence in the picture is a lot more suspenseful and filled with twists than the original event was, but hey, we’re making a movie here. My acquaintance loved the movie, by the way.

The film starts with what some critics have called an “Iran for dummies” prologue. The events leading up to the Revolution are told against what appear to us first to be drawings from a comic book, but you may realize later that they could also be storyboards for a film. The prologue begins with the C.I.A. engineering the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and his replacement with the Shah of Iran. This is first implied to be a bad thing, but the narration undercuts it by pointing out that the Shah was bringing western values to Iran, including the education of women. So we are on the Shah’s side, but then on the Revolution’s side after a mention of the Savik, the Shah’s secret police. But then the Revolution turns violently against the Americans, so we are back on the Americans’ side. In other words, the prologue is a little sneakier than the “Iran for dummies” line. I have no idea if the prologue is part of Terrio’s original script or was added late in production. I suspect the former, since it seems a piece with the tone of the rest of the film.

By the end of the prologue we are into the takeover of the Embassy. Terrio is here, as throughout the script, very precise about the reactions people have. He stays with the six rather than showing a lot of other Embassy personnel. People often assume that reaction shots are all from the director (Ben Affleck here, showing his first two directorial jobs, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), were no flukes), but there are so many that they had to be in the script. Affleck knows how to get the most out of them. We then go to Washington as they try to deal with the situation. Terrio’s government people talk and act like real government people. And Terrio distinguishes between them. There is a scene in which various State Department and C.I.A. types discuss options. Most of the options are bad, but the script does not make the people pitching them idiots. They are pros trying to work out a solution. It is in this meeting that we meet Tony Mendez (Affleck), and we watch him watch and listen to what’s going on. We know the star has arrived, but his first scene keeps in mind both what has been established and how Mendez is going to be a watcher as well as a man of action.

It is Mendez who comes up with the idea of using a fake movie with the six listed as Canadian production people on a location scout. As Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s “boss” at the C.I.A. points out to the Secretary of State, “It’s the best bad idea we’ve got, by far.” Terrio gives O’Donnell some great lines throughout the film. Then Mendez has to set up the false production, and he goes to Hollywood. Some critics have complained that there is too much Hollywood satire in the film, but I disagree. Yes, you maybe don’t need all of it, but it’s a terrific counterpoint to the suspense of the main story. It’s also more than that. Terrio has written a great montage midway through the picture that contrasts the humorless Iranian woman revolutionary reading a statement to the press with the table read, in costume, of the sci-fi script. Yes, the table read is silly, but it, like the whole plan, shows the inventiveness of the Americans. I am not sure we should let this montage stand in completely for the differences between Iran and the United States, but it makes the point in an entertaining, off-beat way.

In comparison with movies like the recent Taken 2, Argo is more about suspense than it is about action. Action is easy to do, suspense a lot harder, and Terrio and Affleck do it extremely well. Particularly striking is a location scout by Mendez and the six to the bazaar, which did not happen in reality, but, hey folks, well, you know the drill. The six are only just getting into their production roles, and they are accompanied by a cultural official who wants to tell them what he hopes the movie will be about. Then the “Canadians” are verbally attacked by people, but we are not sure why. Nothing the Iranians say is translated: it may be political, it may have to do with the bazaar, but we and the six have no idea. The lead-up to the flight out is also mostly suspense, although with some action on the runway added in. Check the Wikipedia article above for details.

The film ends with a couple of terrific ironies. The first involves the maid at the Canadian ambassador’s house. We and they don’t know if she is a spy, and we find out the truth but they never do. Finally we see her escaping from Iran, going across the border to…Iraq. Because the operation was classified until 1997, Mendez and the C.I.A. were unable to take public credit for it at the time, and we see the Canadians get and take all the credit. Read the Wikipedia piece and see how some Canadians are reacting to the film.

The Sessions (2012. Written by Ben Lewin, based on the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’ Brien. 95 minutes.)

The Sessions

A good thing: You may remember from US#98 that I was blown away by the trailer for this film when I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild. Well, the film is almost as good as the trailer, and that may only be that the freshness of the trailer has worn off. It is still a terrific movie, for some of the reasons I suspected when I saw the trailer.

Like Argo, this is a movie by, about and for adults. Adam, Andy, Paul and Jesse don’t show up here either. Also like Argo, this is based on a true story. Mark O’Brien was a poet and writer who lived most of his life in an iron lung. He decided at age 38 to lose his virginity. He had several sessions with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a licensed sex therapist. And he indeed lost his virginity. It will not take you much time to think of at least 50 ways this could have gone south as movie.

Fortunately, it all goes right. Movies are made up of a lot of moving parts, and they are all in place here. Lewin had polio in his youth and still uses crutches, which gives him an advantage in his writing the character of Mark. Mark is sexy and funny, or as much as he can be in an iron lung. We are first introduced to him when he gets a new assistant, Amanda. He falls in love with her and proposes marriage, which she runs away from. We are not really introduced to his second assistant, Vera. She just is there, and while she is great looking as well (she is played by Moon Bloodgood, who has mostly been in action/sci-fi stuff, and this is the best thing she’s done), Mark does not seem that interested in her romantically. As in Argo, Lewin has written in a lot of great reactions for her to the goings-on, especially in her scenes with a hotel clerk.

So we get Mark established as a character we are sympathetic with. He’s not just a horny teenager who wants to lose his virginity before the end of high school; he’s a grownup. He visits his Catholic priest, Father Brendon, who is understanding, and, referring to a statue of Jesus, says, “I think he will give you a pass on this.” Helen Hunt said in a recent interview that Lewin, who also directed, did not realize until he was shooting the scenes between Mark and the priest how funny the material was. Lewin called up Hunt, who had not started her scenes, to tell her that they were making a comedy. We are well into the movie before Cheryl Greene shows up. She is very straighforward, explaining the difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate. A sex surrogate is a teacher and a coach. A prostitute just satisfies you enough for you to want to hire her again; a sex surrogate wants you to go out on your own after her strict limit of lessons is done. Cheryl’s job is to teach Mark how to understand sex. She tells him not to read the sex manuals he has been perusing (great advice, by the way). The writing of Cheryl and Mark is just as matter of fact as Cheryl is, which helps us get into the treatment. And the treatment is equally matter of fact.

As I mention in my note in US#98 on the trailer, it is the charming Helen Hunt that shows up as Cheryl, and she nails a very tricky role. A lot has been written about how much she is nude in the film, but it’s natural in the context. What she captures is Cheryl’s open and helpful attitude. I can see why several critics have thought that John Hawkes’s performance as Mark is even better than Hunt’s, and they may be right. Because of Mark’s medical condition, we are always seeing his face horizontally rather than vertically. Which means we can’t “read” his face the way we normally do. Lewin is very daring to write and direct this character this way, and Hawkes is up to the challenge.

There have been several articles, theses, dissertations, etc. on how sex is shown in American films. Sex generally is portrayed rather badly in American movies, like it’s an evil, awful, ugly, dirty thing. Most male American directors (Coppola, Scorsese, Stone, De Palma, just to name a few) hardly ever show sex in a positive way. In this film, sex is a good thing. A very, very good thing. Yes, Mark and Cheryl stumble around some times, but that happens. And they are both open and free about what they are up to, especially Cheryl. Even though the film is rated R, it really ought to be shown in every high school sex education class.

The sessions end, actually at four sessions rather than the usual six, because Mark had learned what he needs to. Both Mark and Cheryl know that it might be emotionally dangerous for them to continue and agree to stop. A little later Mark meets a hospital volunteer named Susan and falls in love. And he assures her he is not a virgin. Nice touch.

Cloud Atlas (2012. Written for the screen by Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell. 172 minutes.)

Cloud Atlas

Well, it’s not Love Actually: This has got to be one of the most ambitious films of the last few years, even more than Inception (2010) of The Tree of Life (2011). Inception just jumped between several different dream states involving the same characters, while The Tree of Life stuck with one set of characters, plus of course the creation of the universe. Cloud Atlas tells six different stories in six different time periods and parts of the world. Some characters do appear in at least a couple of the stories, but connections between all six stories seem to be thematic rather than narrative. The film Cloud Atlas most closely resembles is D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance. In case they did not show Intolerance in your film history class, Griffith and his co-writers Frank Woods and Anita Loos tell four stories set in four different time periods. Well, it’s really more like three stories, or two and a half. The section on the life of Christ is a couple of scenes rather than a story. And the French story (the massacre of the Huguenots in 1572) is severely truncated in the final film, probably because it is the least interesting of the remaining stories. Griffith focuses on the spectacle of the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C. and the melodrama of the modern story of a young man wrongly convicted of murder. The overriding theme of the film was intolerance through the ages, but you have to hunt to find it. You have to hunt very, very hard. It’s most obvious in the French story, but only makes cameo appearances in the others. Against the advice of his éminence grise Frank Woods, Griffith insisted on telling the stories not sequentially, but intercutting between them. Cloud Atlas does the same thing.

Mitchell’s novel doesn’t do it that way. He tells one story after another. It apparently was Lana Wachowski who came up with the idea of intercutting. Based on the story material in the movie, my guess is that none, or at least not all, of the stories would hold enough interest on their own. Or it may just be that they all thought it would be flashier and more fun to make if they spent a lot of time figuring out how to cut between the stories. I suspect they may have storyboarded the whole thing to keep in mind how the shots would work together. David Lean used to figure out the first and last shot in each scene in advance so he would know how each cut between scenes would work. And I have to admit that the editing flow of Cloud Atlas is impressive. Griffith in the opening scenes of Intolerance spent a lot of time on each story before moving on the next one, but here the writers, who also directed, know modern audiences can make the jumps faster. After all, we have had years of channel surfing to train our eyes and brains. The filmmakers here start with an editing pace closer to the end of Intolerance.

Cutting between a lot of storylines can be confusing, as it was for the 1916 audiences in Intolerance. Some audiences were baffled by Inception. If you are cutting between narrative elements of the same basic story, your model is the 1962 film The Longest Day. If you are doing it on a thematic basis, the film that I think works best is Richard Curtis’s 2003 Love Actually, which I wrote about in some length in the book Understanding Screenwriting. Curtis is following nine stories, and those were selected out of many more than he thought up (good writers are surprisingly prolific with ideas, while others simply repeat themselves). The theme of /film/love-actually/799 is love, but not just romantic love. There is the love Sarah has for her mentally damaged brother, and rock star Billy Mack’s love for his manager. Curtis has recurring elements (it’s Christmastime in London), but lets you into connections between the characters at different points in the film.

The major theme of Cloud Atlas is the connection of all mankind. So how are you going to show us that? The writers start off with one of the characters in the post-Apocalyptic segment mumbling about connections, so we are clued in. Although the writers, and perhaps Mitchell, have created a pidgin English language for this storyline that is mostly annoying. You’re asking us to follow six stories and an invented language? I am sure there are those linguistics students who will love the challenge, but for the rest of us… Then we get what amount to short scenes from each storyline, which establishes that there are going to be multiple stories and timeframes to follow. As I hinted at above, the stories are not that compelling on their own. Some work better than others. The story of composer Robert Frobisher in the 1930s is almost as tightly drawn as the Wachowski’s 1996 Bound, which I still think is their best film (I also deal with that one in the book). The 1973 section on reporter Luisa Rey feels very much like the 1979 nuclear thriller The China Syndrome. The 2012 segment on an aging book editor sent to a mental hospital by his brother brings something to the table that none of the others do: a sense of humor, which is very welcome.

On the other hand, the futuristic segment set in Neo Seoul owes more and more to the Matrix films as it goes along, and not in a good way; see what I mean about writers repeating themselves? The post-Apocalyptic story is like almost every post-Apocalyptic movie you have ever seen. The sick young man on the ship in 1839 is the least interesting of the lot.

Curtis in Love Actually gave us a great gallery of characters, and the writers here do not. They decided somewhere along the line to cast their actors in several different roles in the various episodes, but then generally did not give them characters to play. The actor who works best is Jim Broadbent, which may be because he is a character actor and used to giving his all in a short space of time. He also looks enough like himself so that we get what I think was the filmmakers’ idea that the casting would re-enforce the idea of us all being connected. Halle Berry gives a good star performance as Luisa Rey, but it’s a star performance, and she doesn’t shape her other characters. And too often the multiple casting is just a gimmick, with the actors covered in a lot of makeup. I liked Hugh Grant, of all people, in his cameo as an aboriginal warrior, but too often the casting comes off as just actors’ exercises rather than characters. Historically, the best use of one actor in multiple parts was Alec Guinness playing eight members of the D’Ascoyne family in the 1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets. Guinness was still a character actor then, and he and the writing made each one distinct, while Guinness’s looks made you believe they were all members of the same family. The writers here have not really thought through how to create interesting characters for their actors to play.

As I mentioned, the connections in this film are not narrative, but thematic. The problem is that we get the idea early on, from the first monologue, that everything is connected. Then it becomes a “guess the connection” sort of game: Oh, yeah, we have seen that birthmark before, or yes, the book manuscript the editor is reading in the 2012 story is written by the kid in the 1973 story. Since we know by the end of the film that everything is connected, the writers can’t come up with the kind of satisfying ending that Griffith did with the intercutting between the fall of Babylon and the race to save the boy. Curtis also does in better in Love Actually, where we delight as the elements fall into place. Here we already know they are in place.

Seven Psychopaths (2012. Written by Michael McDonagh. 110 minutes.)

Seven Psychopaths

8 ½ with guns: McDonagh is primarily a playwright, but he wrote and directed the terrific In Bruges (2008). His plays and movies tend to be talkfests (well, he is Irish, after all), often with a lot of blood spilled. Seeing this film within a week of seeing Trouble with the Curve (see US#102), I was particularly dazzled by the dialogue. Yes, a lot of it is foul, violent and grotesquely sexist, but you can’t not listen when McDonagh’s characters get going. Unlike in In Bruges, McDonagh calls himself on his own dialogue.

As we have talked about before (see the discussion of Ruby Sparks in US#100), watching writers write and especially not write is boring. This film is an exception that proves the rule. Or else just shows that McDonagh is one smart writer. The lead character, also named Martin (although with a different last name) is a screenwriter working on a screenplay. Well, trying to work. He’s come up with a great title, Seven Psychopaths, but now he is looking around for some psychopaths to put into the film. He gets suggestions from his friend Billy, who’s a little wacky himself. Billy points out that there is a serial killer on the loose who seems to kill only Mafia people, leaving the Jack of Diamonds playing card at the murders. We see one of “Jack’s” murders in the opening scene before we find out it may be something Martin is writing. So very early on we learn this is going to be a very self-reflexive film. Hmm, a writer with a creative block, maybe writing the film we are seeing, only not really. Or maybe really. It sounds like we are in 8 ½ (1963) to me. There’s also this similarity. Fellini’s Guido is obviously based on Fellini himself, but the film makes us very aware, unlike the 873 imitations of it, that Guido is a deeply flawed character who is often full of shit. McDonagh makes sure we know that his on-screen Martin is very imperfect as well. Martin insists he is not an alcoholic, but Billy is constantly ragging on him about that and other flaws. But why should we trust Billy? Well, we shouldn’t necessarily, but everybody else in the movie also tells him he drinks too much.

Martin is collecting stories about psychopaths, many of which we see acted out, and some of which may be true, but many of them are given several variations over the course the film. While he is doing that, Billy and his partner Hans have a nice little racket going kidnapping dogs. When they see a lost dog sign, they take the dog to the owner. They refuse payment until the grateful owner insists they take it. What could possibly go wrong with that? Well, they kidnap a Shih Tsu, who happens to belong to a psychopathic gangster. I told you there were guns in this. So folks are shot, killed, beat up and not generally treated very nicely.

Just when you think the film is going to be nothing but shootouts, Martin, Billy and Hans drive out to the desert at Joshua Tree. And talk about how they are going to talk about how the script is going, and how it should go. It’s Martin and McDonagh analyzing what they are doing and what we are seeing, and because it’s McDonagh’s dialogue as well as a relief from the previous violence, we watch and listen. Don’t worry, there are still some plot twists and a funny shootout to come.

Seven Psychopaths has opened better than In Bruges did, but it may be too convoluted to catch on. The sort of people who wallowed in the violence and not the dialogue in In Bruges may not want to sit through all the dialogue here. For the rest of us…

The Conspirators (1944. Screenplay by Vladimir Pozner and Leo Rosten, based on the novel by Frederic Prokosch. 101 minutes.)

The Conspirators

More moving parts: Let’s see. We are in World War II. Paul Henreid is active in the anti-Nazi Resistance in Europe. He escapes his native country to an exotic neutral city where he has a romance with a beautiful woman, and has to deal with Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. And the cinematographer is Arthur Edeson. What could Warner Brothers possibly have been thinking about in making this movie? Were they trying for another, hmm, perhaps, Casablanca (1942). Ya think?

I mentioned above that movies are a collection of moving parts, and what is amazing about one that works is that all the moving parts fit into place. Casablanca is the classic example of that. Julius J. Epstein, one of the writers of Casablanca, was amazed to his dying day that the film was so highly thought of. He thought it was just another Warner Brothers melodrama they were cranking out. Not unlike The Conspirators, which is an example of all the moving parts not fitting together. It’s not a terrible movie, just not a very good one.

This time Henreid is Vincent Van Der Lyn of the Dutch underground. He has escaped to Lisbon to try to get to London, but the writers, unlike those on Casablanca, don’t get much suspense out of whether he is going to get out. No fictional letters of transit here. Vincent gets involved with an underground cell as he is supposed to prepare one of their members to go back to Holland. But that guy is killed, early in the film, so we know long before the film recognizes it that Vincent is going to go back. Here the love interest is Irene Von Mohr, married to a German diplomat. The affair is not central to the Resistance story, so those scenes take away from the drama rather than add to it. The secondary characters have none of the richness of those in Casablanca. Peter Lorre has much more screen time here, but nothing like his great scene with Bogart near the beginning of the earlier film.

The director here is Jean Negulesco, who does not have Michael Curtiz’s ability to “visualize,” as Curtiz called it. Anton Grot’s art direction here is probably as good as Carly Jules Wyel’s and Edeson does what he can, but Negulesco doesn’t have the feel for it as Curtiz did. Finally, the producer here is not Hal Wallis, who knew how to hold “The Whole Equation” of a film together, but Jack Chertok, who is best known for later producing The Lone Ranger for television. You really need a good producer to hold all the moving parts together.

The Racket (1951. Screenplay by William Wister Haines and W.R. Burnett, based on the play by Bartlett Cormack. 88 minutes.)

The Racket

Tom, didn’t you just write about this in the last column?: No, what I wrote about in US#102 was the 1928 film version of the play. A month or so after it showed up on TCM, they ran this remake of the film. Well, I can’t not compare them, can I?

The first version of The Racket was the second film produced by Howard Hughes when he got into films. Hughes owned the rights to the material and when he took over RKO in 1948, he announced a new version of the film. The first writer was Samuel Fuller and he brought the story up to date to post-World War II from its original Prohibition setting. Unfortunately he came up with a completely original script that had nothing to do with the play. Hughes fired him and hired William Wister Haines to do the script. Haines had been writing screenplays since the mid-’30s, but he is best known for his 1947 hit play Command Decision, which was made into a star-studded MGM film the following year. Haines did not work on the script for the film. Haines, working with director John Cromwell (who had starred in the original Broadway production), stayed closer to the play, but updated the setting. Hughes, as I talked about in the discussion of The Las Vegas Story in US#45, was also a producer who had trouble keeping “The Whole Equation” in is his head. In the middle of production of The Racket, Hughes hired W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle [1950]) to revise the script, which lead to $500,000 of retakes. (The background on the making of the film is from the entry on the film in Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward. Or as I refer to it, The Big Book of Film Noir, since even the paperback edition is not small. The essay on the film is by Dennis L. White, who had done an oral history with Burnett for the American Film Institute.)

In the play and 1928 film Nick, the gangster, is the top dog of gangsters. Since Hughes thought that one way to bring the story up to date was to refer to the Senate Crime Commission hearings that were being held in 1950 and 1951, Nick is no longer the boss, but has to answer to the Old Man, whom we never see. It is clear from the Old Man’s underlings, especially the smooth Connolly, that the Old Man thinks Nick’s strong-arm methods are out of date. In the play and first film, the conflict was strictly between Nick and the cop McQuigg. The addition of an upper level of hoods adds a little more tension to the script.

McQuigg, in the 1928 film, is very much on his own, but in the 1951 version, the writers have included from the play Patrolman Johnson, who is incorrupt, like McQuigg. There is more in the later film about the cops working together, which may be from Haines, since that was what Command Decision was all about, although in a military setting. The two reporters from the play and earlier film are nowhere to be seen, since the heyday of newspaper comedies was over by the early ’50s. We still get a younger reporter who is infatuated with the girlfriend of Nick’s brother, but she is now a lot softer and more vulnerable than the character in the earlier versions. Neither of the two lines of dialogue I mentioned in my item on the 1928 film show up in this version, but there is some good dialogue between the young reporter and the girl. It could easily have come from either Cormack or Burnett, since there is plenty of great dialogue in each man’s other work. Although the mentions of the Crime Commission get dropped after the opening scenes (an example of Hughes’s hodgepodge approach to making movies), the cynicism of Cormack’s original about political corruption adds a layer to the film that still holds up, but it’s a darker cynicism of the postwar Film Noir era than the cheerful cynicism of the late ’20s and ’30s.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

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