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Understanding Screenwriting #56: The Other Guys, Edge of Darkness, Great Day in the Morning, & More




Understanding Screenwriting #56: The Other Guys, Edge of Darkness, Great Day in the Morning, & More

Coming Up in this Column: The Other Guys, Edge of Darkness, Great Day in the Morning, The waning of the summer 2010 television season, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein came up with some nice additional details about Henri-Georges Clouzot and L’Enfer. You can always rely on David for that sort of thing.

The Other Guys (2010. Written by Adam McKay & Chris Henchy. 107 minutes)

I am not a Will Ferrell fan: Not of his Saturday Night Live work, nor of his films. But then I have never been a fan of the man-child performers. I always thought Harry Langdon was creepy. Jerry Lewis seemed mostly silly. I want to slap Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider upside the head and tell them to grow up. I did not go out for a walk while Grown Ups was playing earlier this year, just in case it rained and I had to take refuge in a theater where it was on.

In the book Understanding Screenwriting, Ferrell’s film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004, co-written by Ferrell and McKay) is in the Bad Script section of the book. You can read the section for yourself, but among the problems I had with the script was that it made no sense, either in terms of plot or character or tone. I still have no idea what Christina Applegate’s Veronica sees in Ron. I avoided most of Ferrell’s films since Anchorman. But this one sounded like it had possibilities: two cops who are not the hot shot cops we always see in movies try to make their mark and eventually solve a big case. And this one actually, sort of, works. I did not laugh that many times, but I smiled a lot. Why is this one better?

First, the characters are more consistent. Ron Burgundy is just a blowhard, but Ferrell’s Allen Gamble at first just seems like a typical accountant who prefers his desk to getting out on the street. But there is more to him than that, as we learn over the course of the film. He has a very interesting relationship with his wife. Most reviewers have just stuck with the fact that he does not notice she is Eva Mendes-gorgeous. But listen to the later scenes in which we get more into their lives. All of that provides a context for the great running gag of several beautiful women coming on to him. We also get some good character scenes that suggest why he does not want to get into typical cop work.

Needless to say, his partner, Terry Hoitz, wants to be one of the supercops, and he is increasingly frustrated by Gamble, especially when the women come on to Gamble. And Hoitz is baffled as we all are about how Gamble got such a hottie wife. Look at the bits that gives us. So there is a dynamic to that relationship as well, with Gamble behaving like an accountant, and Hoitz doing repeated slow burns. Hoitz is Oliver Hardy to Gamble’s Stan Laurel. And Mark Wahlberg, who plays Hoitz, actually does not have to do a lot in the reaction shots because we can read how frustrated he is. Who ever thought that Lev Kuleshov’s famous experiment of getting audiences to read reactions into Mouzhoukine’s face would be so useful to comedy? Well, Buster Keaton of course realized that in the ‘20s: look at the reaction of the general to the bridge collapsing in The General (1926).

The one Will Ferrell film I liked before this was Stranger than Fiction (2006), and that was because his acting was so subtle, at least in comparison to his other films. In Anchorman, for example, he yelled virtually every line. In The Other Guys he is generally restrained, which makes the moments when he breaks his restraints much more vivid. I hope Ferrell learns from this film not to go back to loud.

Edge of Darkness (1943. Screenplay by Robert Rossen, based on the novel by William Woods. 119 minutes)

Edge of DarknessPolitics and art: This film is part of a five-pack of Errol Flynn movies recently released on DVD as part of the TCM Spotlight series. As you might guess it also showed up on TCM itself. It is probably the least well-known of the five. There are reasons for that.

This is one of those movies cranked out by the studios, Warner Brothers in this case, during World War II at the government’s request. It’s about a small Norwegian fishing village dealing with the Nazi occupation. It gets off to an interesting start. A Nazi army unit shows up in the village to discover all but one of the people in the village dead, including the previous Nazi occupation soldiers. The incoming commanding officer finds the former commanding officer at his desk, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The new commanding officer then proceeds to dictate a report on what happened, although it is not clear how he knows. The bulk of the story is how the villagers came to fight the Nazis. Unfortunately, we don’t get any wartime action until the last 15 minutes or so, in spite of the picture of Errol Flynn holding a machine gun on the DVD cover. Mostly the film has scene after scene of the villagers agonizing over what to do. I suspect this worked a lot better in the novel, where the author could get into the minds of the characters, but in the script they just seem kind of, well, namby-pamby. Which is too bad, because you don’t expect namby-pamby from this cast, certainly not Flynn, but also not Walter Huston as the town doctor nor Judith Anderson as a woman villager who may have romantic feelings for one of the Nazi soldiers. The one cast member who gives great ambivalence is Ruth Gordon as the doctor’s wife, and she delivers the best performance in the film.

Flynn is wasted, up until the big action finish, and we do not even see that much of him. The script tries to look at a variety of villagers and their feelings, which makes it more of an ensemble piece than a star vehicle. As befits a wartime studio movie, there are a lot of speeches about unity in the face of the enemy and the need for community in opposition to the Nazis. Unfortunately, those issues are not particularly well dramatized but rather just stated. The Moon is Down, also from 1943, handles a similar situation in much more dramatic terms. It is a Twentieth Century-Fox film, and whereas the Warners style was to pack a lot of scenes and characters into the film, the Fox style was to focus on the narrative line.

The screenwriter in his case was Robert Rossen, who after an unsuccessful Broadway play in the ‘30s, had come to Warners as a contract screenwriter. He had also joined the Communist Party and was active in the war effort in Hollywood. Both of those facts may be why the film is a little more preachy than it needs to be. The morality of the characters is more cut and dried than it is in The Moon is Down.

Rossen became disillusioned with the Party and left it in 1944, the year after this film came out. In 1947 he started directing, most notably with Abraham Polonsky’s script for Body and Soul, which is a little more nuanced about characters than Edge of Darkness. Rossen was also one of the Hollywood Nineteen subpoenaed by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities in 1947, but he was not one of the Hollywood Ten who testified. Rossen continued to work while the legal cases against the Ten wended their way through the courts. He wrote and directed the Academy Award winner for Best Picture for 1949, All the King’s Men. (That film’s final editor, Robert Parrish in his memoir Growing Up in Hollywood, says the script materials he saw included stuff from Norman Corwin, John Bright, Hans [I think he means Peter] Viertel, Walter Bernstein and the author of the novel, Robert Penn Warren). As opposed to Edge of Darkness, there is more edge to the drama in All the King’s Men as the characters, particularly Jack Burden, face moral choices. Rossen was coming up to making the biggest moral choice of his life. In 1951 he was called to testify before HUAC. He refused to talk. And he was out of work. In 1953 he returned to talk to the committee and wanted to just talk about his own experiences without naming any others. The committee was not buying that. Victory Navasky points out that while the committee already had lists of names, the naming by witnesses was part of the degradation process. Navasky wrote Naming Names, a brilliant look at the nuances of testifying or not testifying, which is where much of this material on Rossen comes from (as well as the entry on him in Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia). So Rossen named names and regretted it the rest of his life. As his widow Sue told Navasky, Rossen wanted to tell the committee back in 1947, “I’m a member of the Communist Party and fuck you,” but the party lawyers came up with a disastrous plan of not answering while pretending to answer. It was a public relations debacle for the party and only encouraged the committee. By 1953 Rossen had thought about the situation a lot. Sue Rossen said, “It ended up with [being a choice between] Bob doing what he did or dying by attrition—because Bob couldn’t get a job writing, and in my book if he couldn’t write, he couldn’t live.”

The whole experience may have made him a more nuanced screenwriter. His biggest success after his testimony was the 1961 classic The Hustler. Look at the stock figures in Edge of Darkness and then look at the characters in The Hustler.

Great Day in the Morning (1956. Screenplay by Lesser Samuels, based on the novel by Robert Hardy Andrews. 92 minutes)

Great Day in the MorningWho wrote this movie?: On the surface, Lesser Samuels and I have no evidence that any other writer actually worked on the screenplay. But there are influences of several writers floating around. Robert Hardy Andrews had been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood since the early ‘30s, mostly on low budget action pictures, but occasionally on A movies like Bataan and Cross of Lorraine, both 1943 films. The novel Great Day in the Morning was published in 1950, and it looks from the cover on as though the unevenness in the film may come from Andrews.

Owen Pentecost (how obvious a name do you have to give him?) arrives in Denver in early 1861. The Civil War has not started, but the town is divided into North and South factions. We come to learn Owen is there to help a group of Southern miners—who have dug up a bunch of gold—get their haul to the South when the war breaks out. Owen ends up owning the Circus Tent Saloon, which he wins from the previous owner, Jumbo Means, in a card game. Along with the saloon comes Boston, an accordion-playing saloon girl. She is a tough cookie, and not without a hint of the good-bad girl that Jules Furthman whipped up at a moment’s notice in his scripts. A triangle develops between Owen, Boston and Ann, a nice lady who has come down to sell women’s clothes. Boston had drawn the card that won Owen the bar, and he knew immediately she had deliberately let him win. So when Boston is fighting to keep Owen from Ann, she says, “I cheated to get you and I won’t let you go.” See what I mean about the Furthman influence?

It turns out that Kirby, who we thought was just another cowpoke who came into town along with Ann and Owen (Kirby saved Owen from an Indian attack while traveling with Ann), is a Union officer sent to try to keep the gold from getting to the South. He reports to Col. Gibson, who is pretending to be a civilian writer. His wife thought that he was wrong to disguise himself as a writer, since “She claims a writer should be depraved and romantic, like Lord Byron.” Gibson is also mildly upset that President Lincoln has not already started the war and thinks he is “too namby-pamby for the job. They say the man prays.” Later he tells Kirby not to mention that to anybody since, “I’m praying to be a general.” Gibson thinks the war is inevitable, because “North and South are natural enemies, like husbands and wives.” Preston Sturges, anyone?

So we are in a very adult western. Owen is staking miners to their claims, but when one of them does not pay up, Owen shoots him. In self-defense, but still. And then the dead miner’s ten-year-old son shows up, since his mother died back east. The boy is featured on the cover of the book, so I suspect this subplot is in the novel, rather than added by a producer, but he just sucks the air out of the script. The kid is not that interesting a character (I was rooting for more scenes with the colonel rather than the kid) and badly played by the child actor. So for twenty minutes or so in the middle of the film we have to watch Owen feel guilty over killing the boy’s dad and try to be a father figure to him. Which is weird, but not in an interesting way. Especially since the kid doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction when Owen tells him the truth late in the picture.

The Civil War breaks out in a chintzy montage, and Owen is selling his wagons to the miners to ship the gold. The miners appeal to his patriotism towards the South, and he says, “I don’t belong to anyone except myself. I’m not joining any parade—yours or theirs. I like walking alone—no ties. Don’t ask questions; no one to answer to. Man’s gotta be sentimental to fight a war; gotta have a lump in his throat about God and country and home and mother, all the pretty things.” When they appeal again, saying “Blood’s thicker than water,” he replies “Mine’s more expensive.” Do you catch more than a hint of the Epstein twins and Howard Koch’s Rick Blaine?

Owen eventually helps the miners get away. Kirby tracks him down, and Owen tells Kirby to tell Boston, whom neither of them know at this point has been killed by Jumbo Means, that he does indeed love her. Kirby, one of those sentimentalists, is in love with Ann, and so relieved Owen does not love Ann that he lets him live.

In our search for an authorial influence on this script, listen to this line early in the film. Someone asks Owen if he intends to stay in town a while. He replies that he has to, since “It takes two weeks to get your laundry back.” Who does that sound like to you? It sounds like Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole (1951) to me. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole? Yep, but look who one of the other writers is. Yep, Lesser Samuels. Now, did Samuels learn how to write like that at the feet of the master? Or did Wilder hire him after Wilder broke with Charles Brackett because Samuels had co-written with Joseph L. Mankiewicz a tough edgy script the year before called No Way Out? And what are we then to make of the fact that between Ace in the Hole and Great Day in the Morning Samuels wrote one of the worst movies of the 1950s, The Silver Chalice (1954)? The history of screenwriting in Hollywood is filled with many mysteries, some of which we may never know the answers to.

Oh, the director on this one is Jacques Tourneur. As you may remember, I mentioned in some of the fan mail discussion on Tourneur that the film was being run on Turner Classic Movies, which is where I saw it. I said that Tourneur was one of those directors to whom if you give a good script, he’ll give you a good film. This is an uneven script, and it’s an uneven film. The best-written scenes work the best, and Tourneur gets some good work out of the actors, especially Robert Stack as Owen. Unlike some other directors—yes, I am talking about you, Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend and your direction of Strangers on a Train (1951)—Tourneur understands how to use Ruth Roman, who plays Boston. Unfortunately he cannot do much with Virginia Mayo as Ann, but it’s a mediocre role. The “Denver” location shooting was done in the great little mining town of Silverton in the southwest corner of Colorado. Silverton also shows up in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950) and Run for Cover (1955) and Tourneur uses it and the area around it very well. Sometimes Tourneur makes it a little too pretty for the story, but never turn down a chance to see Silverton. If you are ever in the area, take the Durango to Silverton steam train, one of the great scenic railroads in the west. This message was not sponsored by the Durango-to-Silverton Scenic Narrowgauge Railroad.

The waning of the summer 2010 television season.

Summer TelevisionJust to catch up as the leaves begin to turn, although in Los Angeles the leaves don’t actually begin to turn until November:

Burn Notice: Jesse has really fit into the team, but he has not yet discovered that it was Michael who burned him. Remember that he told Michael he would kill whomever it was that burned him? Meanwhile Michael had a couple of heart-to-heart discussions with Simon, who ended up giving him some information on who the big boss is, although they had to dig it up in a graveyard.

White Collar and Covert Affairs are tooling along nicely. The writers on Covert Affairs are managing to convince us that this beginner spy is going to get these missions that might otherwise go to the veterans. In “The Houses of the Holy,” written by Dana Calvo, Annie is one of a group of young agents sent to investigate a leak in the Senate Intelligence Committee. As Joan tells them, they are being used because “You’re young and you’re nobody. You’ll fit right in.” Needless to say, the leak comes from the office Annie is assigned to. I also like that that episode spent a little more time with Auggie, the blind agent nicely played by Christopher Gorham. Always useful to fill in the backstories of your supporting characters. We get the same thing in the “In the Red” episode of White Collar, where Neal and Peter are taking down an adoption agent cheating his clients. Mozzie feels passionately about helping out. So you’d think he was adopted. No, he had been in foster homes and was never adopted. Nice detail.

Rizzoli & Isles is getting better, defining the relationship of the two leads, although not as well as they could. In the “I Kissed a Girl” episode, written by Alison Cross, there is a lot of banter between them, but it is not very interesting banter. Better banter, please.

Hot in Cleveland is still uneven, not trafficking in quite as many “Oh, we’re so old” jokes and focusing a bit more on character. The writers are good at writing for the voices of Wendie Malick (self-absorbed), Betty White (snarky) and Valerie Bertinelli (adorable), but they have only occasionally found the range for Jane Leeves, who mostly gets reaction shots to zingers from Betty White.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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