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Understanding Screenwriting #36: An Education, Amelia, Bitter Victory, Ride the High Country, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #36: <em>An Education</em>, <em>Amelia</em>, <em>Bitter Victory</em>, <em>Ride the High Country</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: An Education, Amelia, The Great Locomotive Chase, Bitter Victory, Ride the High Country, Mad Men, A CSI Trilogy, A Couple of New Series, but first…

Fan Mail: Well, here’s an example of why I love doing this column: Matt Zoller Seitz’s taking exception to my views of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Unlike some writers, I love to be challenged, especially by somebody as smart as Matt. He did not mind what I felt was the lack of enough plot. He liked it as an “absurdist spectacle,” which it was certainly trying to be. It fits in with the type of film that the great film scholar Tom Gunning called the “Cinema of Attractions.” He first used the term to describe very early, pre-storyline films, but the term has come to refer to those films that put the emphasis on spectacle, such as any recent sci-fi film. As a pro-writer fellow, I tend to prefer a little more plot, but there are certainly joys to be found as a viewer in a spectacle. Matt also picked up on something else when he said the filmmakers want to “fill up [the movie] with sight gags.” As I have mentioned on other occasions, comedies live or die by the jokes, and if the jokes are funny can get along with less plot. You make us laugh and we will forgive you almost anything. Make us laugh and enjoy it and we will forgive you anything. And just to assure you that I am not a complete stick in the mud, one of my guilty pleasures is one of Matt’s: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I agree with any criticism anybody has ever made about it, and I still love it.

“James” raised the question as to whether my teaching at a community college made me too close to the subject to find Community funny. He’s right, although part of it is having heard community colleges traditionally dissed in our culture—I am a little tired of it. He mentioned that other shows have inaccuracies, including 30 Rock. I agree, and it bothers me on those shows as well, particularly the current story arc on 30 Rock about hiring a new performer. Surely if they were hiring a guy for a sketch comedy, somebody would have talked to him when he was not in his robot makeup.

A couple of things left over from my article “Talking Back to Documentaries.” Todd Ford was “amazed” that I get students to talk, since he has found students reluctant to speak up. I have always had students who spoke up, especially at LACC, although I did have a bit of a problem the semester I taught at UCLA. I got the impression students there were afraid to speak up because they might be wrong. It took a little while to open them up.“Cranky” had an interesting look and noted that he/she found the younger students’ comments “quite frustrating.” They can be, but that’s part of the game.

And now, some movies:

An Education (2009. Screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber. 95 minutes): Balance.

An Education is a potentially dangerous piece of material. Lynn Barber’s memoir, first in a short form in Granta magazine, later as a book, tells of her affair with a man in his thirties. When she was sixteen. You can count up on your own all the different ways a film version of this could turn to merde, to use the heroine’s favorite language. Hornby, who is better known as a novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch) whose books have been made into films, had only done one screenplay before, the adaptation of the 1997 English film of Fever Pitch. He read the short version of the memoir and decided he wanted to do it. He understood immediately the problems. As he told Peter Clines in the September/October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting, “We were really careful all the time about balance, because nobody wanted to make a Lolita. It had to be comprehensible. You had to stay a little bit on [the older man] David’s side, at least. I knew what I wanted tonally, and it wasn’t something that made an audience shriek in horror.”

So David is charming, but not in a sleazy way. He seems enchanted by Jenny, as we all are. They get together not just because he is seductive, which would be the easy way out, but also because Jenny is tempted by the upscale life he seems to lead. He takes her out of her dull suburban life. They go to nightclubs. They visit Oxford, which she is hoping to attend. Since she had decided to lose her virginity with him, he takes her to Paris for the weekend. And then Hornby is smart enough not to show us them having sex. And their morning-after conversation is fresher than any other conversation of its kind in the movies. Hornby beautifully hits the balance between David’s seduction and her temptation.

Hornby does not just balance the two main characters, but all the supporting ones as well. We can see her father, who can be very cranky, charmed by David as well. The father agrees to David and Jenny’s Oxford trip because he thinks it will help her get into Oxford. David’s friend and partner, Danny, has a beautiful girlfriend who is stupid about intellectual things, but smart about dresses and men. The headmistress of Jenny’s school has been described in most reviews as anti-Semitic, which she certainly is, but there are other sides to her as well, and in her final scene with Jenny, she is right as often as Jenny is. Likewise, Jenny’s favorite teacher, Miss Stubbs, has several layers to her as well.

Yeah, I know you see where I am going with this. All together now: You write good parts and you get good actors. Peter Sarsgaard as David, Alfred Molina as the father, Rosamund Pike as the dumb blonde, Olivia Williams as Miss Stubbs and Emma Thompson as the headmistress are all at the top of their forms. You can decide on your own which ones give the best performances of their careers. The film of course stands or falls on the actor playing Jenny, and as you know if you have read the reviews, Carey Mulligan has charmed everybody. I do have to admit that she kept reminding me of the American actress/singer Jenny Lewis, who was a student of mine when she was about Jenny’s age. The same names did not help. Unless you are big Jenny Lewis fan as I am, this will not be a problem for you.

Amelia (2009. Screenplay by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the books East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell. 111 minutes): Writing for Hilary.

With all that screenwriting talent and all that source material, this one should have been much better. Ron Bass, the first writer on the project, wrote Rain Man (1988) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), just to name two. His take on the material here, as he told Peter N. Chumo II in the September/ October 2009 issue of Creative Screenwriting, worked with the then-director, Phillip Noyce, and focused on the love triangle between Amelia Earhart, George Putnam and Gene Vidal. Bass wanted to “bring her incredible daring and recklessness and skills as a pilot together with her very forward, daring view of how women should be equal in society and her view of how independent she wanted to be in her marriage.” Noyce left the project and Mira Nair came on, replacing Bass with Phelan (Mask [1985] and Girl, Interrupted [1999]). She and Bass have been friends for years and discussed the script. They agreed on a shared credit. What Phelan focused on was Earhart’s yearning “to be free” and “to prove to her father that she would fulfill a dream bigger than anyone had imagined for her except for him.” O.K., you can see how Phelan could have bounced that off what Bass had in mind, but we simply do not get those juxtapositions in the final script.

The script seems to wander and the individual scenes do not dig very deeply. Late in the picture Gene Vidal tells Amelia that many people are saying she is spending too much time on her commercial projects. We may have had our own suspicions, but nobody else in the film has even hinted at that, and it is not really brought up again. Gene was the father of Gore Vidal and we get a couple of potentially charming scenes with young Gore, who is about ten. Gore Vidal told Phelan that he adored Earhart. Fine, but what do you get by putting it in the film? Phelan loves the scene where young Gore gets upset that he is sleeping in a room with jungle wallpaper. Amelia comes in and tells him she had the wallpaper installed to help her get over her fear of the jungle. Which tells us something about her, but on a fairly obvious level. But when Gore asks her if she can marry his father, she replies that she is already married to Putnam. Gore then asks why she can’t marry both of them. A logical question from a ten-year-old who is going to grow up to be Gore Vidal. So what do the filmmakers do with it? Nothing. Amelia just smiles and leaves the room. Team, if this movie is about her ideas of freedom and marriage, you should be able to get at the very least an interesting reaction shot from her. And an equally interesting reaction shot of him. And a sense of connection between the two, based on their unusual views of life. A smile and closing the door does not cut it. The rest of the picture has this same problem: No interesting reaction shots of people to Amelia or Amelia to the other people. Boy, could you tell a lot about Amelia, her attitudes and the attitudes of the times by backtracking through the script and writing in reactions.

When I first heard that Hilary Swank was going to play Amelia Earhart, I thought that, like Julia Roberts and Erin Brockovich, this was the part she was born to play. Swank is a dead ringer for Earhart and she has certainly proved she has the acting chops for it. Of course, Swank is an almost impossible actress to write commercial scripts for. She is not cute and adorable in the Julia Roberts/Cameron Diaz kind of way. Efforts to put her in conventional scripts, such as The Affair of the Necklace (2001) and P.S. I Love You (2007), simply don’t work. She is simply too butch, which I love about her, for those kinds of roles. Given the real Earhart’s androgynous look, she fits the part. Her two Oscar-winning parts, Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), give her a lot of detail to work with within that quasi-masculine range. The script for Amelia does not have that kind of detail. Phelan knew she was writing the script for Swank, but she may well have figured that the part and the actor were so well matched she would not have to write the details that would make it possible for Swank to work her magic. For whatever reason, the film is a real missed opportunity.

The Great Locomotive Chase (1956. Written by Lawrence Edward Watkin. 85 minutes): Disney, not Keaton.

I saw this Disney live-action movie when it first came out and enjoyed it as a mildly entertaining Civil War story. I have not seen it since, but years after I saw it, I began to regularly watch Buster Keaton’s The General (1927), which is based on the same true story. So I was curious to finally catch up with this one again. Relax, I am not going to claim it is anywhere near as good as The General. Among Keaton’s other talents, he had the strongest story sense of all the silent comedians, and the narrative line of The General is flawless. As many times as I have seen the film, I have never been able to find a single shot that was not needed. Each scene establishes the characters and then moves the story forward. Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer on a southern railroad. A group of Yankees steal his train and head north, intending to tear up track and burn bridges so the Confederate Army cannot bring up replacements and supplies when the big Union attack comes. Johnnie takes out after the engine and his resourcefulness convinces the Yankees there is an army following him. Midway through the film he finds his engine and steals it back. Now he is the one being chased as he tries to warn the South of the Union attack. Oh, and his girlfriend, who is not speaking to him, was on the train that was stolen. She thinks he came only to rescue her. Well, would you tell her the truth?

Watkin’s script focuses on James J. Andrews, the northerner who leads the raid. He’s a blockade runner who also works for the north, so he should be a delightful con man, like David in An Education. There are moments in the script where that might have been the intention, but he is played by Fess Parker, who came to stardom as Davey Crockett in the Disney miniseries a few years before. He is stolid and heroic, which is not what is required. Watkin spends way more time than needed to set up the group who go with Andrews. Once the train is stolen, there really is not much time to develop with them.

The southerner who leads the chase is not the engineer, but the conductor of the train, William Fuller. Keaton goes to great length to show how Johnnie loves his train. Watkin does not do anything like that with Fuller. However, his setting out on foot along the tracks, like Johnnie, suddenly turns him into the most heroic and the most interesting character in the film. Which reduces Andrews and his crew in our sight. Keaton was right to start with Johnnie and make him the main character. In Watkin’s version, as in the real incident, the Yankees are captured and sent to prison. Watkin gives us what could have been an interesting scene in which Andrews asks Fuller to come to see him before he, Andrews, is hung. Fuller reluctantly agrees and they at least shake hands. If the script had been better written all along and focused on the battle of wits between the two men, and if it was not Fess Parker as Andrews, the scene might have had some heft.

Stick with the Keaton version. It is not as historically accurate, but who really cares about that.

Bitter Victory (1957. Screenplay by René Hardy, Nicholas Ray, Gavin Lambert, (with Vladimir Pozner, uncredited, and additional dialogue by Paul Gallico), based on the novel by René Hardy. 103 minutes, although other versions run 82, 97, and 100 minutes): The French they are a funny race.

The British film critic, the late Leslie Halliwell, in the earlier editions of his Halliwell’s Film Guide, accurately describes this as a “Glum desert melodrama, turgidly scripted and boringly made.” Sometimes I disagree with Halliwell, often violently, but he is right on the money on this one. Which may be why the film has been dropped from later editions of the book.

The Brits are going to run a commando raid on Rommel’s headquarters in Benghazi. Not to kill Rommel (see the pre-credit sequence in Nunnally Johnson’s elegant 1951 film The Desert Fox for that story), but to capture some documents. Which documents and why? We have no idea, even after they capture them. There seems to be some urgency in setting up this raid, although we see there is a commando group that has been training for it for a long time. But the high command does not have a leader already selected. So the command selects two. First, Major Brand, who appears to be a desk jockey, but who also appears to have spent enough time in intelligence work to identify and understand the documents in question. That is even though they are in German and he says at one point he does not speak any foreign languages. His second-in-command is Captain Leith, who, unbeknownst to Brand, had an affair several years before with the woman who married Brand. Doesn’t the British high command check into these things? Look at the setups for the commando raids in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Guns of Navarone (1961) to see how these scenes ought to be written.

Guess who has show up in the British compound? Yeah, Brand’s wife, and the night before the raid takes off, Leith runs into her in the bar. They sort of recognize each other. Look at Casablanca for how THAT scene ought to be written. Brand sort of realizes something is going on between them, but never really discusses it with his wife.

So off the commandos go, parachuting into the desert. This being a relatively low-budget film, we don’t see the airplanes or the jump, just the guys on the ground burying their parachutes. Their plan of attack on the German compound is to go in shooting, which causes some casualties, and their method of getting the safe open once they have done that is to…let the resident safecracker in the team crack it. After the gunfire has started and the German soldiers are alert? Who planned this mission, Rommel himself?

So they escape to the desert and even though there was some urgency about getting these documents, they now have to trek through the desert to a meeting place. Couldn’t they have been picked up sooner? The place where they are supposed to get camels to ride has only one camel, and when they see two Arabs on horses, they shoot the Arabs, but then don’t chase down the horses. So they march through the desert, talking, talking, talking, mostly philosophy about war, i.e., the sort of thing the French would love if they read it in subtitles. Brand proves to be a coward, Leith dies along the way and, when they do get the papers to the Brits, the general riffles through them a bit and immediately awards Brand the Distinguished Service Cross. Well, in a script in which Brand repeatedly says, “Fall in the men” rather than “Have the men fall in,” it should perhaps not be surprising that no one apparently knows that awarding the DSC is a long and complicated process. The Brits do not hand them out like candy. (Anthony Bushell, who plays the general, was in the tank corps during the war, but who listens to actors?)

O.K., stupid script. But surely a director can make something out of it. Not this time (and not ever—you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?). Look at how Lean, Thompson and Curtiz handle the scenes mentioned above, and then look how they are staged and directed here. In the Ur-Casablanca scene, the director seems to be fascinated with a minor actor who recreates a military attack unrelated to the film with just his hands and sound effects he makes with his mouth. The attack on the Germans is one of the shoddiest pieces of action filmmaking you will ever see. The desert is reasonably nice to look at, but the scenes there are not a patch on the desert war scenes in The Desert Rats (1953) or The Young Lions (1958). Do not even mention Lawrence of Arabia. Please.

So why am I bothering about this film at all? Partly to exorcise the 103 minutes of my life I will not get back. But there is more to it. In January 1958, when the film was first shown in Paris, a young French film critic, writing a review of the film in an obscure film magazine, said, in reference to the film’s director, “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” The critic was Jean-Luc Godard, the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.

It just makes you rethink the whole idea of the auteur theory, doesn’t it?

Ride the High Country (1962. Written by N.B. Stone Jr.(and, uncredited, William Roberts, Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Creighton Williams. 94 minutes): Now this really is cinema.

After writing the above screed against Bitter Victory, I went out for a walk, then settled down with a batch of popcorn to watch this film on Turner Classic Movies. I was not intending to write about it, but watching it in this context made me more aware than I had ever been on previous viewings how good the script for it is. Steve Judd is a retired lawman picking up odd jobs in his old age. He hires on to go up to the mining camp of Course Gold and bring back the gold to the bank. He runs into his old friend and partner Gil Westrum and Westrum’s young friend Heck. When Gil finds out there may be as much as a quarter million dollars in gold, he and Heck agree to go along, intending to take the gold either by persuasion or more violent means. Along the way, they end up escorting Elsa, a young girl escaping a tyrannical father to marry one of the miners at the camp. He and his brothers turn out to be pigs and our guys rescue her and take her down the mountain. The Hammond brothers follow and we get a final shootout in which Steve is killed and Gil, who has shown his hand, agrees to deliver the gold to the bank.

Unlike Bitter Victory, the setup of the mission and the characters is clear, efficient, precise, and colorful. Steve thinks the crowds on the town street are cheering him as he rides in, but they are only there for a race between a camel and horses, run by Heck. Steve has to go into the bathroom to put on his classes to read the contract with the bank. Even before the journey starts, Steve and Gil learn that they can only expect about $20,000 instead of a quarter million. When they get there, it’s only $11,000, mostly from the madame of the local bordello, who tells them, “Honey, it’s gold mine.” The talk on the journey up is not philosophy, but Gil talking about the old days and how Steve is owed for all his public service. Steve figures out what Gil is up to and is not surprised when Gil and Heck try to steal the money. The characterizations are rich and full, even with the minor characters, like the justice of the peace who marries Elsa and Billy Hammond. Listen to his drunken speech about marriage. And the script is written to take advantage of the great locations in the Eastern Sierras near Bishop, California. Even though for budgetary reasons, Course Gold was built (the tents were made out of the sails of the replica of The Bounty that MGM had made for its 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty) in Bronson Canyon in the Hollywood Hills.

It is in some ways surprising that the script holds together as well as it does, since there were four writers who worked on it. The credited writer was N.B. Stone Jr., who had only one other feature film to his credit, the 1955 Man With a Gun. He spent most of his career writing for television, particularly for westerns. His friend, William Roberts, had a greater career in features, mostly notably the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven. Roberts talked about his work on the film in an extended interview in the 1978 book Blueprint on Babylon by J.D. Marshall. While Roberts is not listed in the IMDb as one of the writers, Mariette Hartley, who played Elsa, calls the screenplay the “Bill Roberts/N.B. Stone script” in her memoir Breaking the Silence, so at least some of what Roberts said in the interview may be true. Roberts was working on another project at MGM when producer Richard Lyons kept bugging him about possible ideas for movies. One day Lyons mentioned that he knew that Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two friends who had separately appeared in about a million westerns, wanted to do a picture together. Roberts mentioned this to Stone to see if he had any ideas. Stone mentioned a story he had stolen from Ernest Haycox about an older man and his young delinquent partner who go up to get the gold. Roberts asked if he could make it two older guys instead of just one. Stone allowed as how he could. Roberts suggested their meeting the girl. Pretty soon Roberts was helping Stone write the story. It was Roberts who took the meeting with Lyons, McCrea and Scott, since Stone had a drinking problem. The deal almost fell through when McCrea refused for religious reasons to play Gil. Scott didn’t care and they switched roles. Stone and Roberts did the script, although Roberts was never paid for his work and could not ask for a WGA credit. He was happy to get his friend a job. Unfortunately for Stone, the picture turned out so well he was inundated with offers. His alcoholism kept him from doing any more feature work. Roberts said in the interview, “So the final irony was that here I was thinking I’ll do my old buddy Beau (Stone’s nickname) a favor and it was anything but a favor. It was probably the worst thing I could have done to him.” No good deed goes unpunished.

The director assigned to the picture was Sam Peckinpah, who had made only one feature, but had written and directed westerns for television, most notably The Westerner in 1960. Peckinpah had family that had lived in the California gold country for generations and undoubtedly a lot of the rich texture of the character and locales comes from him. The fourth writer was Robert Creighton Williams, who under the name Bob Williams had written a pile of B westerns for such stars as Rocky Lane, Rex Allen and Monte Hale. I don’t know what his actual contribution to the script was, but I suspect it was to keep it clean and clear, like a good B western.

That’s all you need to make true cinema: talent (I haven’t even mentioned the supporting cast or the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard), collaboration and a sense of what makes it a movie. Even if you had never seen a Joel McCrea western before, the final shot will take your breath away.

Mad Men (2009. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” episode written by Matthew Weiner & Erin Levy. 60 minutes): More structural variety.

In the last column, I wrote about how the writers of the previous episode had beautifully structured the use of the Kennedy Assassination and how the writers of the episode before that had dared to break the structural rhythm of their episode by having a couple of scenes that ran longer than the scenes in this show normally do.

So what do the writers of this season finale do? Yet another changeup. We get a lot of short scenes, moving the storylines ahead at what seems for Mad Men a lightening pace. Do you suppose that is Matthew Weiner zinging all of us who complained about the slow pace of this season? We get enough plot turns in this episode to fill out any five previous episodes. This works here because we know these characters and their stories, so, for example, when Don says he wants Pete to come to the new company because he is looking ahead, we have seen Pete stumble into the “Negro market,” as Don calls it. When he goes to Peggy’s apartment, it does not surprise us that she turns him down, because we have seen her unhappiness with him.

The speed of this episode, and the changes it suggests for all the characters, also follows nicely in the wake of the Kennedy Assassination. We are now two weeks after the assassination and things are both returning to normal and not returning to normal at all. The assassination is only mentioned a couple of times in the episode, since, yes, people have a lot else on their mind. It does come up in a wonderfully indirect way in Don’s speech to Peggy about how something terrible has happened to people who buy things and how they now think about themselves. He says that Peggy understands that, and we know that she does from everything we know about her.

I will leave it to Todd and Luke to sort out all the meanings of this episode, since that may be a full-time job, but Weiner and Levy have set up next season, whenever it will take place, beautifully.

A CSI trilogy: Sweeps weeks tricks.

You can see the network thinking at CBS. We have three CSI shows, why not have a multiple crossover for the November sweeps?

The story begins on CSI: Miami with “Bone Voyage” written by Barry O’Brien. The CSIs find parts of different people out in the swamps where they usually finds body parts. One of the parts, a foot, turns out to belong to a girl who had gone missing in Las Vegas. So Ray Langston, now of the Mother Ship, goes to Miami and trades stares with Horatio Caine. With the release of several of the longtime supporting actors on CSI: Miami, this is more Caine’s show than ever. Based on what has happened with the show, and the billboards CBS put up around LA, CBS seems to think people watch this show because of David Caruso (Caine) rather than in spite of him. The story is moderately interesting, and provides many opportunities for shots of babes in bikinis (God forbid you should be fat in Miami and die; nobody would care) and shots of the lab with all kinds of color lights on glass panels in the foreground so that we can barely see the actors. Ray does connect with the mother of another missing girl.

The story continues on the CSI:NY episode “Hammer Down” written by Peter M. Lenkov & Pam Veasey. An overturned truck turns out to be one used in the interstate trafficking of young (and thin of course) women for prostitution and body parts. Evidence shows that the missing girl Ray was interested in was in the truck. So Ray comes up to New York and trades stares with Detective Mack Taylor. They meet a woman convict who tells them what she knows about the trafficking operation. And where do they meet her? In prison? Nope. In what I think (and you New Yorkers can correct me) is Battery Park. Why out in the open? Well, this episode was first broadcast on Veteran’s Day and Taylor and Ray have a little heart-to-heart talk about vets and surviving the traumas the CSIs go through. A minor, one-off scene and it makes you aware of how underused the talents of Gary Sinise (Taylor) and Laurence Fishburne (Ray) are in the scene. They are better served by some of the scenes that are more important to the plot. CSI:NY has been the one series of the three that has had the most trouble finding its own style. In this episode at least its two stars, Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes, play second fiddle to some of the supporting players.

At the end of the episode, the missing girl is in a truck on her way to…Vegas of course, since that’s the one city left in the franchise. So Ray is back on his home territory in “The Lost Girls” episode, written by David Weddle & Bradley Thompson, and the storylines run a little bit smoother. There are still the problems I have mentioned before about the writers not really letting Catherine step up and take charge, but they are less of a problem in this episode. The girl is eventually found, alive, but we don’t get a reconciliation scene with her mom, whom we have followed through the three episodes, but only with Ray, whom she has never met. But he is the star of the show.

Being plot-driven shows, the three series do not have enough time to get the most out of Ray visiting the other shows. His character is just as hardworking as the characters on the other shows, and they get along fine, but the styles of the three series are so different he does not fit in that well. As opposed to the world of the Law & Order shows, which are stylistically a whole and have successful crossovers all the time. There was no necessity, from the point of view of writing, to bring Ray to the other CSI shows. But that’s network television in November.

A Couple of New Shows: Yeah, what I just said.

I was going to mention these shows earlier in the season, but am only now just getting around to them.

As I wrote in US#16, I haven’t watched NCIS that much, but last spring I did catch the episode that was the pilot for NCIS: Los Angeles. I have managed to catch a couple of episodes of the new series. The setup is of course similar to the original: a group of Navy Criminal Investigators look into crimes connected with the military. The original works because of the chemistry between the characters, which has helped turn it, late in its run, into one of the most popular shows on television. The characterization is not as sharp in the spinoff. The focus is less on the group as a whole, and more on the buddy-movie pairing of Special Agents G. Callen and Sam Hanna. By the time I caught the “Endgame” episode, written by Gary Glasberg, that had become the major focus of the show. I complained that in NCIS the head of the group and the main lead, Jethro Gibbs, always knows better than anybody else. It gets annoying with him. In the spinoff the head of the unit is Henrietta “Hetty” Lang. No, she’s not a statuesque blonde. She’s Linda Hunt, costumed to remind us that Edna E. Mode in The Incredibles was based at least in part on Hunt. Hetty knows more than just everything, and the way Hunt reads the lines, it’s funny. And strange. And a wonderful change of pace from the series plotting. William Goldman, in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, recounts writing a scene for Hunt in the feature version of Maverick (1994) that was spectacular. It was also so good and so bizarre they had to cut it from the film, since the rest of the movie could not live up to it. That’s a problem with Hunt: she gets so much out of her lines that you never want the camera to leave her. When Howard Hawks said that there were some people the camera loves, he and we generally thought in terms of good-looking people like Cary Grant. Hunt is not a beauty by any conventional standard, but try not watching her when she is on. So far the writers for the series have used her well in that “change of pace” role. The other good thing about the series is that the main office does not look like an office. It makes me think the unit has bought and refurbished Norma Desmond’s old place on Sunset Boulevard.

White Collar is a new show on USA, and it’s a retread of the old series It Takes a Thief: F.B.I. guy Peter recaptures con man Neal, who he earlier put away, and puts him to work helping him break up scams. The “Pilot” episode, created and written by Jeff Eastin was, as most pilots are, rushed in trying to set up the basic situation. It also established that Neal was going to live in a room in a mansion owned by June, but she was dropped in the subsequent episodes, as was the black, lesbian assistant to Peter. The assistant was replaced by Agent Lauren Cruz, who is Latina and straight. Make up your own comment. The plotting has settled down to focus on the scams and on the “bromance” between Peter and Neal. Both sort of envy the life the other leads and the writers have given them a lot to play off against each other. They have particularly written an interesting character in Peter, who is different from most TV law officers. I would not exactly call him soft, but he is not as hard-edged as most of his clan. Tim DeKay, who plays Peter, has been around as a journeyman actor for 15 years or more, but he is showing some star quality here. In this part, at least, the camera loves him.

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.