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Understanding Screenwriting #18: Gran Torino, The Tall T, The Man Between, Ugly Betty, The Closer, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #18: <em>Gran Torino</em>, <em>The Tall T</em>, <em>The Man Between</em>, <em>Ugly Betty</em>, <em>The Closer</em>, & More

COMING UP IN THIS COLUMN: Gran Torino, Revolutionary Road, The Man Between, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ugly Betty, CSI, Burn Notice, The Closer, Monk, and Trust Me, but first…

Fan Mail: I agree with Harvey Jerkwater that there is great laconic dialogue in Ride Lonesome. You may find my comments below on the other three films in the set interesting.

As for Brock (thanks for the compliments) and Withnail, you appear to be right that “reading a magazine” is a euphemism for taking a dump rather than masturbation. My wife certainly read it the way you did. Ah, the things one learns doing this column.

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Gran Torino (2008. Screenplay by Nick Schenk, story by Dave Johannson & Nick Schenk. 116 minutes): Can Eastwood pick ’em or what?

In writing about Changeling (US#11), I mentioned that Clint Eastwood has generally shown great skill at selecting scripts. Changeling was one of the not-quite-so-good ones, but this one is perfect for him, both as star and director.

The character he plays is Walt Kowalski, a seventysomething Korean War vet who worked on the assembly line at Ford for years. He is the epitome of the grumpy old man, having driven off his two sons and their children (the one lumpy bit of exposition in the script is the conversation between the two sons at their mother’s funeral at the beginning of the film). He gets involved reluctantly with the neighbors next door, a family from the Hmong tribe of Southeast Asia, especially the son, Thao, and his sister, Sue. Walt’s dialogue, and not only his, is filled with racist language, but he comes to appreciate the family.

Sounds grossly sentimental, doesn’t it? It isn’t. Eastwood does grumpy better than anybody, and he has enough blue-collar cred with his audience that we accept his language. In fact, some in the audience may accept it too well. I saw the film at a multiplex in Marina Del Rey, a beach suburb of Los Angeles that is not quite as liberal as it pretends to be. At the same theatre 32 years ago, I saw Eastwood’s The Gauntlet, and it struck me then that the audience of mostly males laughed whenever Eastwood hit Sondra Locke, but didn’t laugh when she hit him. (For where that insight leads, look at the chapter on Eastwood in my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing.) The audience for Gran Torino laughed at the racist harangues, but some people seemed to be laughing in agreement, while others were just laughing.

As a few critics have noted, one of the best scenes in the film is the one in which Walt takes Thao to Walt’s barber to teach him how to talk like a man, i.e., to use racial epithets in the “right” way. It is a very funny, and a very perceptive, scene because it gets at how a lot of men talk, not only about race, but about other things as well. It is not a stand-alone scene, since there is a great payoff to it in the following scene where Walt takes Thao to a construction site to get him a real job. The film, as a lot of Eastwood’s films are, is very smart about American masculinity and about American multiculturalism, to use the fancy word for it. Walt is a classic American male, blue-collar variety, and he is dealing with a world that has changed. The same could be said of Eastwood’s Josey Wales; look at the band of “others” Josey ends up gathering around him.

The script also has the kind of slow narrative rhythm Eastwood seems to prefer as a director, which gives us time to meet the characters and learn about their culture, both white and Asian-American. Both Thao and Sue are interesting characters, with Sue being one of the more realistic Asian-American women in recent films. She is both Asian (devoted to and irritated with her family) and American (smart-mouthed to Walt and a group of guys who threaten her). The threats to the Thao and his family build up slowly, as do the details that Schenk layers in to make the ending work. We think we know where the film is going, but when we get there, it is a surprise (though not that much of a surprise because of how Schenk has prepared us for it).

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Revolutionary Road(2008. Screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the novel by Richard Yates. 119 minutes): We have lived on this road before.

Hollywood has not been shy about confronting the perils of suburbia, and I don’t just mean little aliens in E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial or ghosties in Poltergeist. Even in the fifties, there were such films as the interesting-but-now-rarely-seen No Down Payment and the more successful The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Richard Yates’s novel came out in the early sixties, and we have had a lot of cinematic suburbia since. So what may have seemed fresh at the time of the novel is familiar to us in film terms now.

This would not be a problem with Revolutionary Road if the script were sharper. Too much of it is very flat and on the nose, with the characters saying exactly what they think or feel. I gather from the promotional interviews given by the cast that Yates’s novel describes the characters’ mental states and emotional subtexts very effectively and that the actors used those descriptions as acting guides. Fine, and we do get a lot of interesting emotions from the actors, but the emotions are now all text with no subtext.

In a scene midway through the film, April is talking to her neighbor Shep about her problems with her husband Frank. She lays it out in a lot of dialogue that articulates the problem so well that Kate Winslet’s emoting is just repeating what we hear. We could listen to this scene on the radio and pretty much get what it has to offer. Shep, as we have seen earlier, has the hots for April, so he is listening intently, proving once again the truth of Ron Shelton’s great line in Bull Durham that “A man will listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay.” The tension in the scene is all surface. Haythe has not rethought the scene in terms of what sort of emotional give and take can go on in this scene. There is none as written and performed.

Haythe provides no interesting emotional textures to this scene, or to the dance scene that follows, or to the sex in the car that follows that. The scenes march in lockstep with no surprises and no nuances.

Haythe keeps the focus so much on April and Frank that the film becomes an acting exercise for Winslet and DiCaprio. They certainly get a workout and they are both never less than interesting to watch, and they use their off-screen friendship effectively to create the intimacy of the couple. Haythe’s scenes do often provide us with a shifting, and shifty, perspective on each of their characters, so that within a given scene we may start out being sympathetic to April, then shift our feeling to Frank, then back to April. Winslet and DiCaprio are not afraid to go to darker places, but too often the scenes simply have them yelling at each other relentlessly. Both Kate and Leo scream nicely, but a little of it goes a long way.

Because of the intensity of the emotions, the humorlessness of the film becomes a problem. The audience I saw the film with laughed at several places when Haythe had not provided safety valves of humor. You have to relieve the tension and if you do not, the audience will do it for you.

I mentioned shifting emotional allegiances among to the characters. There is an odd example of that in the last scene in the picture. Mrs. Givings is talking to her husband about Frank and April. Her husband, thinking she is silly, simply turns off his hearing aid. Nice laugh, but Mrs. Givings is not wrong about the Wheelers. It reminded me of the scene in Reds where Eugene O’Neill tells Louise exactly how stupid and shallow she and John Reed are and I for one was in complete agreement with him.

The film does not give us as much of a social context as Mad Men does, but then Mad Men is much better written all around. Haythe means to suggest the conformity of the life the Wheelers lead by having several shots of Frank going into the city in his gray flannel suit, surrounded by hundreds of other men in their gray flannel suits. Nunnally Johnson got the same effect in a more precise way in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit with a single shot of three men in the same suit walking down a hallway. Sometimes less is more.

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The Man Between (1953. Screenplay by Harry Kurnitz, based on a story by Walter Ebert. The Imdb lists Erik Linklater as an uncredited co-writer, but I am always cautious about those “uncredited” writers they list. If anybody has more information, feel free to let me know. 100 minutes): Not bad, but not as good.

As good as what? If you have never seen The Third Man, and I cannot seriously imagine that there are people among the readers of The House Next Door who have not, but if there are, then they may enjoy this one. If they can get to see it. It is not available on Region 1 DVD yet, but showed up recently on Turner Classic Movies.

The Man Between is directed by Carol Reed, who earlier directed The Third Man. This one is set in Berlin, instead of Vienna, and also deals with mysterious goings on. The problem is that Graham Greene’s script for The Third Man is perfect: beautifully plotted, filled with great characters, and written to take advantage of the seedy grandeur of post-World War II Vienna. There is no seedy grandeur to 1953 Berlin, just rubble. The script here is by Harry Kurnitz, whose main experience was comedy writing. So we get several good lines, but the plotting is not up to Greene, nor is the characterization.

The story begins with a young, almost-naïve English woman, Susanne Mallinson, arriving in Berlin to visit her brother-in-law. She is not as stupid as Greene’s Holly Martins, and she seems at first to be paying attention to what is going on. Her brother’s wife, Bettina, seems to be hiding something, particularly about Ivo Kern, a German they keep running into. Our curiosity is piqued as well as Susanne’s. Shortly after, we learn that Bettina was married to Ivo and thought he was dead; nice Kurnitz dialogue between Bettina and the brother as to whether they should just live in sin now. Then Susanne gets mistakenly kidnapped by one of the gangsters Ivo knows, who was aiming for Bettina to get to somebody else. Ivo now has to go into East Berlin (this was before the Wall) and retrieve Susanne. Susanne at this point loses definition as a character and becomes a damsel in distress to be rescued. OK, she’s in love with Ivo, but there is a lot more Kurnitz could do. Reed, who has focused on the expressive face of Claire Bloom (Susanne) through the first half of the movie is still focusing on the face, but Kurnitz has given her very little to express.

Ivo is interesting, but no Harry Lime. The brother is a block of wood. The head gangster has no distinguishing character at all, and neither do any of the other characters. There is a little boy who follows Ivo around, probably in tribute to the boy in Greene and Reed’s earlier The Fallen Idol, but without the characterization of the earlier boy. The film at least gives us James Mason as Ivo and Hildegarde Neff as Bettina and like Bloom, they are very watchable.

Once the rescue attempt begins, the plot mechanics take over. The rubble of Berlin is well used, but it’s not Vienna.

If you want slightly more interesting rescue-from-East-Berlin movies, Fox Movie Channel currently has in its rotation the 1954 film Night People, written and directed by Nunnally Johnson. This was Johnson’s first job as a director and he “gets the stuff,” as he put it, but since this was an early CinemaScope film, the views of Berlin, rubble and all, have a picture postcard look. And there is no chase at the end as there ought to be and as Kurnitz gives us.

When Nunnally got back from Berlin, Billy Wilder kept asking him about it, and Nunnally was convinced Wilder was collecting material for his later escape-from-East-Berlin movie, One, Two, Three (1961). Both Kurnitz and Nunnally were funny men, but Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond beat them both for sheer hilarity about the Iron Curtain. And ex-Nazis working for the Americans. And torture by pop music. And Coca-Cola.

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The Tall T (1957. Screenplay by Burt Kennedy, based on a story by Elmore Leonard. 78 minutes) and Decision at Sundown(1957. Screenplay by Charles Lang, based on a story by Vernon L. Fluharty. 77 minutes) and Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, Screenplay by Charles Lang, based on the novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward. The Imdb lists Burt Kennedy as an uncredited co-writer, which may make sense here, but see above for my comments on Imdb’s “uncredited” writers. 79 minutes by my count, 78 according to the IMDb): The other three in the “Budd Boetticher DVD Box Set.” (See US#17 for a discussion of Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.)

The Tall T is the prototype for the later Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station (see US#17), and it has not quite got it right. It is based on an Elmore Leonard story and so, as you might suspect, it is much talkier than the later films. There may be more dialogue in the first twenty minutes of The Tall T than there is in both the other films combined. Randolph Scott’s Pat is a very open and friendly fellow at the beginning, although he becomes more like his characters in the other two movies as this one progresses.

Kennedy and Budd Boetticher are still looking a little backward. At the beginning Pat rides up to a stage station (in the long shot it is the farm at the end of Comanche Station) like Shane in the movie of the same name. It takes a long time and lot of socializing to get to the beginning of the story. Kennedy would handle the openings of the later films much better. Once Pat and a married couple are held hostage by the outlaws, we are into familiar territory. The chief bad guy, Frank, is a more well-rounded character than Ben in Comanche Station. Although he is not as much fun as Sam in Ride Lonesome, he is scarier than both of them.

After the husband is killed, an actual semi-romance develops between the widow and Pat. It is very conventional and obvious, and you can see why Kennedy did not start any romances in the two films. Watching The Tall T is like watching a gawky teenager; you know he is going to grow up to be somebody good and you can like him for that, but the awkwardness is still there.

Decision at Sundown is in some ways the most conventional of the five films in the set. Bart Allison rides into town seeking to kill Tate Kimbrough for some reason. Tate is the town boss and the townspeople, who have knuckled under to him, begin to realize over the course of the day that Allison may get rid of Tate for them. If The Tall T puts in a nod towards Shane, this one was very much done under the influence of High Noon: the town (the discussions among the townsfolk could have been lifted verbatim from Carl Foreman’s script for High Noon), the limited time frame, the wedding, the groom having had an affair with a shady lady, and a woman who picks up a gun.

Decision at Sundown is a little more hard-edged than High Noon. Bart is first seen riding in a stagecoach. He pulls a gun on the driver and makes him stop the coach. Bart gets out and fires into the air, obviously a signal to his henchman. And the henchman does not immediately show up. What kind of stage robbery is this? Well, it’s not a robbery. The sidekick eventually shows up, and he and Bart ride off without robbing the stagecoach. Don’t tell me you’re not interested in Bart at this point. He is a darker and nastier character than the great Randolph Scott plays in the other films, and unlike Haythe’s script for Revolutionary Road, he does not need to yell to get it across. Like Revolutionary Road, we get moments when our sympathies shift from character to character. Look at what we find out about the backstory of why Bart wants to kill Tate. It’s a lot more complicated than you think it will be. And after he gets his revenge, Bart is not a happy man, since his reason for living for the past three years has been eliminated and he has learned a lot of things about the past he did not really want to know. Hmmm, maybe I was wrong about it being more conventional than the others.

Buchanan Rides Alone is described in the box notes on the set as a “change of pace” and “light-hearted” in comparison with the other four, which is not entirely inaccurate, but stretching a point. The plot may sound familiar to you: a stranger comes to town and gets involved in the disputes among the town leaders, playing them off against each other. Dashiell Hammett did an early version of it with his 1943 novel Red Harvest. Akira Kurosawa did the samurai version with his 1961 Yojimbo, which Sergio Leone copied in his 1964 western, A Fistful of Dollars. Buchanan Rides Alone is the minimalist version of the story without, as always with these five films, a wasted moment. But there is also nice characterization, especially of the members of the family that run the town. Amos, the semi-idiot brother, brings a nice set of off-center notes to the film, and is beautifully played by the character actor Peter Whitney. There is also an outdoor funeral of the sort that John Ford loved; Lang and maybe Kennedy give it a nice twist.

As you may gather from the plot, this is one of the “town” films, but whereas Decision at Sundown was rightly filmed on one of the claustrophobic backlot western streets, this one was filmed at Old Tuscon, Arizona, with the western landscape in each shot. Because it’s right for the script. Which fortunately gives cinematographer Lucien Ballard a chance to warm up for his work with Sam Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch. One shot alone, of a body in a river, with a horse and tree, is as evocative of the old west as anything in John Ford’s canon and reason enough to watch the film.

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Ugly Betty (2009. Episode “Sisters on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” written by Henry Alonso Meyers. 60 minutes): Talk about your transgressive!

O.K., Betty is trying to track down some photographs of Daniel and Molly, which she has inadvertently sent to a sleazy TV gossip fashionista, the flamingly gay Suzuki St. Pierre. Betty gets his New Jersey address, goes there and finds out that…

Are you ready for this?

Really ready for it?

He’s straight. And married. And a father.

Obviously in the word of fashion, straight is the new gay. Don’t worry, Betty is not going to out him.

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CSI (2009. Episode “The Grave Shift” written by David Weddle & Bradley Thompson. Episode “Disarmed and Dangerous” written by Dustin Lee Abraham & Evan Dunsky. 60 minutes): Langston’s first shifts.

So Langston is a doctor and a former professor and now he has had CSI training and is coming to work on his first shift. Wearing a necktie. Hasn’t he watched the first eight seasons? Didn’t they teach him anything in his training?

So here is the problem: we, the audience, are all up to speed on what CSIs do and how they do it. He’s a beginner. Except his background, and Laurence Fishburne’s presence, do suggest “beginner” in anything. “Disarmed and Dangerous” still struggles with the issue. And the decline in the show’s ratings for these episodes suggests the audience is getting fed up as well.

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Burn Notice (2009. Episode “Do No Harm” written by Matt Nix. 60 minutes): Michael is back and he’s angry.

Michael’s angry? Cool, funny Michael? OK, somebody did try to kill him, and this episode sets up that this half-season he is going to be looking for his attempted killer, since Carla is forcing him to. On the other hand, that colorful explosion at the end of the previous half season seems to have done virtually no damage to his warehouse loft. This is a problem writers often have with those great cliffhanger endings: they don’t know how to write themselves out of the holes they dig for themselves. So they just hit the reset button and hope for the best.

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The Closer (2009. Episode “Good Faith” written by Adam Belanoff. 60 minutes): Same problem.

Did Detective Sanchez die?

Nope, he survived the shooting and is more or less back to normal. Yes, there is a question of his mental readiness, but at least in this episode they are only mentioning it. (In the following episode, “Junk in the Trunk,” Sanchez is completely cleared for duty.) On the other hand, we are getting closer to Brenda and Frtiz’s wedding, which is providing a little comedy relief.

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Monk(2009. Episode “Mr. Monk and the Lady Next Door,” written by Hy Conrad & Joe Toplyn. 60 minutes): Old fashioned.

Monk is a very old-fashioned show. Like a lot of seventies cop shows, it is mostly about a single cop who cracks a case. We have a supporting cast, but it is not an ensemble show. We do not have the flashy camerawork or the complex story structures of the shows of the current decade. Because the show is on cable, the budget is smaller, and there are not very many elaborate stunts or special effects. What the show depends on is the obsessive-compulsive character of Monk, and the franchise of the show is what unusual person or situation he encounters that sets off his phobias.

In this episode it is a little old lady who helps him across the street when he keeps waiting for a stoplight that does not change. She gets him involved with her complaint about a noisy neighbor, whom it turns out is connected with the week’s case. At first Monk and the old lady get along, but then he suspects she may be involved in the crime, which connects with his feelings of loss of his late wife. The screenwriting is simple, focusing on Monk and the old lady in longer scenes than we normally get on cop shows these days.

And the old lady is played by Gena Rowlands. She and Tony Shalhoub, who plays Monk, have a field day with their scenes, getting everything they can out of them. This is big league acting at its best. As you watch it, you are perfectly happy not to have the bodycam shots of peoples’ innards like you get on CSI or the multiple plot twists Dick Wolf’s writers give you on the Law & Order mothership. Sometimes, just watching great actors at work is enough. Sometimes less IS more.

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Trust Me(2009. Episode “Before and After” written by Hunt Balden & John Convey. 60 minutes): Believe the hype. This is not Mad Men.

Trust Me is set in a contemporary advertising agency, and the pre-release hype emphasizes this is not Mad Men. Yes, it is set in an advertising agency, but it’s not Mad Men. It is set in the present, so it’s not Mad Men. It has two leading men, not one, unlike Mad Men.

Are you clear yet that this is not Mad Men?

No, it’s not, which would not be a problem if it were a better show. The two main ad men, Mason (art director) and Conner (copywriter) are best friends who argue a lot, and midway through the episode, Conner goes off on a sulk. Both of them sulk a lot. They are supposed to come up with an ad campaign, but the campaign they come up with is the weakest one of the ones we have seen over the course of the episode. Stick with, what was the name of that other show?

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.