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Understanding Screenwriting #58: The Switch, Paisan, Black Bart, Mad Men, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #58: <em>The Switch</em>, <em>Paisan</em>, <em>Black Bart</em>, <em>Mad Men</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Switch, Paisan, Black Bart, The Badlanders, A Cold Wind in August, Mad Men.

The Switch (2010. Screenplay by Allan Loeb, based on the short story “Baster” by Jeffrey Eugenides. 101 minutes.)

What would you do with head lice?: We have discussed on a couple of recent occasions the necessity of getting a movie off to a good start. This one, following the short story it was based on for the first half-hour, establishes a nice edgy tone right away. Not in the voiceover narration, which we don’t need, but in the first scene between longtime friends Wally, a Wall Street trader (yes, the story was originally written in 2000), and Kassie, a television producer. He’s grumbling about a homeless guy he ran into on the street and shows her a picture on his phone of a growth on his testicles. She’s telling him she’s decided to have a baby with a sperm donor. This is not a typical Hollywood romantic duo, although it is clear that Wally sort of hopes she’ll ask him to donate sperm in the old-fashioned way. Kassie and her friend Debbie have a party in which the donor, a married man named Roland, will make a deposit in a cup and then, well, you saw the title of the story the film is based on. Look at how uncomfortable Roland’s wife is at the party. Wally gets drunk and it’s clear to us if not to him that he replaces Roland’s sperm with his own. Which is where the short story ends. Well, it did appear in The New Yorker, after all.

The script now jumps ahead seven years. Kassie has left town, had the baby, and returns to New York. The rest of the film is Wally getting to know the son, Sebastian, realizing he is the father, and eventually telling Kassie. What was edgy in that first half-hour shifts to a slightly more conventional film. The characters still have some of their edge, and Sebastian is a wonderfully dry creation on the part of Loeb. On the other hand, look at the sequence that begins with Wally having to pick up Sebastian from a sleepover when Kassie is out of town. Sebastian has developed head lice and the sleepover mom wants him out of her house. So Wally has to take him home and de-louse him. It is written and played as gentle slapstick, missing a lot of edge Loeb could have given it. What does Wally really think about having to do this? A lot more could be done with this.

The story turns into a romantic triangle (well, quadrangle if you include Sebastian) with Wally, Kassie and Roland. Wait a minute, Roland was married. Yeah, but now he’s divorced. That’s a little lazy on Loeb’s part, and it makes the film even more ordinary than it started out. Loeb does write some good characters, especially Wally, for the actors to play, and Jason Bateman is as wonderful as you would expect. Jennifer Aniston is Kassie, and she’s not afraid to let Kassie’s flakier side show. Aniston has been accused of repeating herself, but I don’t think she does. My guess is that she is like Gregory Peck. People used to say Peck gave the same performance, but if you look at several of his films in a row, you can see how he makes them different. Try it with a bunch of Aniston’s films and see what happens. Unfortunately, the directors, Josh Gordon and Will Speck, fall into the same habit that the director of Knight and Day did earlier this year (see US#50) by larding on the close-ups of the two leads. Let them breathe, guys. As for the supporting parts, Loeb has made Debbie a typical Juliette Lewis-ditz and that’s whom they hired. Wally’s friend Leonard is played by Jeff Goldblum, and I have no idea how much of what he says and does is in the script and how much is Goldblum. Let’s just say the script gives him opportunities.

Paisan (1946. Screenplay and dialogue by Sergio Amidei & Federico Fellini & Robert Rossellini and collaboration by Rod Geiger, story by Sergio Amidei & Klaus Mann & Federico Fellini & Marcello Pagliero & Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini (uncredited). 126 minutes.)

Paisan

The really full version: When this neorealist classic was first released in Italy, it ran 115 minutes. When it was released in America, it ran 90 minutes. In the ’70s, when I ran it in my History of Motion Pictures class, the longest version I could get was 85 minutes. I had read enough about the film to know that one entire episode (the Florence story) was missing, as were bits and pieces of the other episodes. It was not a satisfying experience, and I never ran it again. So imagine my delight when browsing on Netflix and discovering they had a 120-minute version. It’s from Criterion, and it actually runs 126 minutes.

The director, Roberto Rossellini, was coming off the enormous international success of Open City (1945) and was able to get money to make a slightly bigger film. Rodney Geiger was an American hustler who tripped over a cable during reshoots on Open City and later sold the film in the United States. He assured Rossellini he could get the money as well as big American stars. He came back to Italy with only some of the money and a bunch of complete unknowns. Meanwhile, Rossellini had been talking with a lot of people about stories for the new film. He wanted to show the relationship of the Americans and the Italians in the last year of the war, and he wanted to show how war was a corrupting influence. Many of the writers listed in the credits contributed stories or story ideas, but the script, such as it was, kept changing throughout the production. Fellini, who had worked in several capacities on Open City, did most of the screenwriting work with Rossellini.

There are six episodes in the final film. The first shows (through newsreels—Rossellini did not have that much money) the Americans landing in Sicily. A small group of soldiers take Carmela, a village girl, who leads them through a minefield. She and Joe, an American G.I., stay at a deserted castle while the rest of the unit goes on. Neither speak the other’s language, but they sort of connect, until the Germans show up. They shoot Joe, Carmela takes up his gun, kills some Germans and is in turn killed by them. The heart of the script for this episode is the Joe-Carmela scene, but it is not well-written. The scenes between the American and the French girl in The Big Parade 21 years before handle the same situation better. The American dialogue was probably written by Alfred Hayes, a young American writer in Italy, but it’s standard-issue. Another flaw in the episode is the acting. Unlike his neorealist counterpart Vittorio De Sica, Rossellini was not as good directing non-actors as actors. Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi blow everybody else off the screen in Open City, and we will see something similar in a later episode here.

The second episode is better. We start out with something of a cliché. A black American soldier is drunk on the streets of Naples, and a young kid keeps him from being mugged by the Italians or caught by the Military Police. The American sits down on a pile of rubble and talks about how wonderful everything is going to be when he gets home. As the scene evolves, he talks about how bad it is still going to be after the war. I have no idea if Hayes wrote this dialogue, or if the actor, Dots Johnson, improvised it, but either way, it is a striking scene. The soldier is eventually about to fall asleep and the kid warns him not to, telling him he will steal his shoes if he does. The script jumps ahead and we learn the soldier is in fact an M.P. and he catches a kid trying to steal from a truck. He eventually realizes the kid is the same one who stole his shoes. He chases him and eventually sees the squalor he lives in and lets him keep the shoes. Rossellini, the director, is on firmer ground here. He had wanted Paul Robeson for the part, but that was one of the many stars Geiger could not deliver. Johnson was not a star, but he had appeared in one film before this and went on to make a few more films. The scenes in the streets in Naples have the kind of immediacy we expect and love in neorealist films.

Episode three takes place in Rome. Six months after the liberation conditions are still bad. The prostitute Francesca picks up Fred, yet another drunk G.I., and takes him back to, well, not exactly a bordello, but a cheap hotel where the owner rents out rooms, probably by the hour if not the quarter hour. Fred talks about arriving in Rome during the liberation and meeting a sweet young Italian girl. In the flashback we see she was a much more innocent Francesca. He is so drunk he does not notice she is finishing his sentences about their first meeting. When she sends him on his way, she writes down an address he is to go to. In the morning he is getting on a truck to leave town. He looks at the address and throws it away. At the address, a more innocent-looking Francesca is waiting for him. The structure of this episode is inventive, as the writers let us know things the characters do not. It also helps that Francesca is played by Maria Michi, who played the actress in Open City. She is great here reacting to what the soldier is telling her. The episode handles both of Rossellini’s stated themes (communications between the Americans and the Italians and the corruption of war) in more subtle and interesting ways than the other episodes.

By episode four, we are up to Florence. Harriet, a U.S. nurse who lived in Florence learns that what we take to be her lover is now with the partisans fighting the Germans and the Fascists. With the help of another man, she tries to find him in Florence. This episode came from Fellini doing research on the battle for Florence, talking to partisans who had been part of the battle. Of all the episodes, it is the closest to an outright action sequence. There are not the twists of the Rome sequence, nor the characterization of the Naples sequence. Rossellini’s direction (and there are rumors that Fellini directed some of the sequence—my source for that and a lot of the information in this item is from Hollis Alpert’s solid if somewhat stolid 1986 biography Fellini: A Life) captures the immediacy of the battle, but also the elegance of Florence.

When I first saw the truncated version of Paisan, I felt episode five was probably most influenced by Fellini. It felt the most Felliniesque. The tone is lighter and funnier than the other episodes. Three American chaplains ask to spend the night in a monastery. The monks agree. The chaplains give the monks food and Hershey bars. The monks are horrified to discover only one of the chaplains is Catholic; the other two are Protestant and Jewish. Should they allow them to stay and have dinner with them? The head of the monastery asks the Catholic chaplain if he has tried to convert the other two. He says he has not and cannot. Dinner is served, but only to the Americans. The monks fast, but why? Are they upset at the other two chaplains? At the Catholic chaplain for not converting them? Or are they just being humble monks? We are never quite sure. The Catholic chaplain is impressed by their humility and tells them it reaffirms his Catholicism. But he does not say he will try to convert the others. Fellini did indeed write this episode, based on a monastery he found on the film company’s travels and remembering his own youth dealing with the Catholic church. But looking at this episode now, it also seems to be very much the work of Rossellini as well. After all, Rossellini took a lot of flack from his left-wing friends for making a priest the hero of Open City, and he later returned to more serious looks at religion. Well, more serious than Fellini, anyway.

Episode six is one of the weakest of the film. It follows a group of partisans and Americans fighting the Germans and the Fascists, but it does not have the shape of the Florence episode, and we learn virtually nothing about the characters, either American or Italian. The Americans and Italians do speak the same language by now, but it does not do them that much good, since they are all killed by the Germans at the end. Wait a minute. We drove the Germans out of Italy and won the war. I suppose the point is that war kills and corrupts even the winners, but the film has made those points a lot better earlier.

Like most episodic films, Paisan is uneven. This usually happens because of the scripts, and that is true here. Open City, based on two true stories (the kids and the priest), is a much more satisfying dramatic whole, but there are more than enough strong elements here to earn Paisan its place in film history.

Black Bart (1948. Screenplay by Luci Ward and Jack Natteford and William Bowers, story by Luci Ward and Jack Natteford. 80 minutes.)

Black Bart

Is that little Willie Goldman sitting in the dark taking notes?: Either individually or in collaboration Luci Ward and Jack Natteford wrote about half the B-westerns Hollywood every made. Natteford started as a screenwriter in the early ’20s, Ward in the ’30s. I do not know when they got married, but they started collaborating in the mid-’40s. One of their first joint efforts was Badman’s Territory (1946), and it was so good and so successful they followed it up two years later with Return of the Bad Men. They did seem to have a fondness for outlaws and in 1948 they wrote the story and first draft screenplays for Black Bart. There was a real stagecoach robber in California in the late 19th-century nicknamed Black Bart, but as the website for him notes, the only things we know about him for sure are that he lived, he robbed stagecoaches, and he went to prison for it in 1883. In Ward and Natteford’s version, he splits up with his former partners Lance and Jersey and goes off to California. He gets some inside information on the Wells Fargo stage runs and starts robbing them. Lance and Jersey show up and end up working for Wells Fargo. Meanwhile, Bart and Lance both fall in love with Lola Montez, now on an American tour. Well, sure, why not? Bart turns Lance back to the dark side and they collaborate on one more robbery. They are trapped in a cabin and killed. Standard western stuff: stage robberies, shoot-outs and Yvonne De Carlo as Lola Montez. You may prefer Ophuls’s Martine Carol, but I prefer De Carlo. She was in her young, luscious stage, before anybody thought to ask her if she had a sense of humor, but still, very watchable.

So what makes this one special? That third name on the screenplay, William Bowers. Look at his Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). Or the first twenty minutes of The Sheepman (1958). While Bowers could do serious (The Gunfighter [1950] or Split Second [1953]), he was best at funny. And it’s a very dry kind of funny. In the opening of Black Bart, Lance and Bart are about to be hanged. Not because of their robbery, but because the handsome Lance was diddling the sheriff’s daughter. They are saved by Jersey. He blows up the tree they are about to be strung up on, figuring that if there is no tree there is no hanging. And so it goes. In the final scene, Bart and Lance are trapped in a cabin with townspeople, deputies, etc firing away at them and setting the cabin on fire. And Bart and Lance are exchanging witticisms about their situation.

Some filmmakers, like Brian De Palma, are so obvious about borrowing from other films that you just want to vomit. Screenwriter William Goldman is a lot subtler. As you were watching Lord Larry as the sadistic dentist in Marathon Man (1976), did it ever occur to you that he was stealing from the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much? As Butch and Sundance jump off that cliff in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), did any of you remember the horse jump off the cliff in Jesse James (1939)? Before you watch Black Bart, get out your DVD of Butch Cassidy and look at the final scene.

But then Goldman, like any great artist, steals from everybody. Charlie Chaplin actually meet Oona O’Neill at a dinner party. Read my biography of Nunnally Johnson, which tells how he met his third wife, Dorris Bowden. Then watch Chaplin (1992) and see how Chaplin meets Oona in Goldman’s script. When my wife jokingly asked if I was going to sue, I was reminded of Chaplin in another context. When his Modern Times came out in 1936, more than a few people noticed similarities between the factory scenes in it and those in René Claire’s À Nous la Liberté (1931). Some of those people were lawyers, who encouraged Claire to sue. He replied that if an artist as great as M. Chaplin stole from him, he could only be honored. End of lawsuit.

The Badlanders (1958. Screenplay by Richard Collins, based on a novel by W.R. Burnett. 85 minutes.)

The Badlanders

And what novel would that be?: This is a western, and Burnett wrote mostly urban crime stories, like Scarface (1932) or This Gun for Hire (1942), but his credits do show up on an occasional western, like San Antonio (1945). So what’s the story of this film? Peter gets out of the territorial prison and comes up with a scheme to rob a gold mine he had been an engineer on in the past. He gets a tough fellow ex-con, Mac, and an explosives expert Vincente to help. Peter’s plan is to sell the gold back to the mine operator privately so he can use it to pay off his debts. The plan goes awry, but the Mexican-Americans turn their annual celebration into a defense of the robbers, who get away. Sound like any Burnett novel you know?

This is officially an adaptation of…wait for it…The Asphalt Jungle. It bears so little relationship to either the novel or the great 1950 film that I am not sure why they even bothered to list it as an adaptation. And Collins’s screenplay has none of the characterization of the earlier film, which has one of the best balances between character and plot of any thriller I know. Being a western, it is lot more expansive, which cuts down on the suspense. On the upside, the producers hired the great John Seitz to photograph it. Seitz was a master of mixing light and dark (look at his work on Sunset Boulevard [1950] if you don’t believe me) and puts that to work here in the juxtaposition of the mine and above-ground scenes. Seitz did not shoot that many westerns, but the cinematography adds a lot.

The big finish, where the Mexican-Americans protect the outlaws, appears to want to be a political statement, but it is rather half-hearted. You may understand why when you learn that Collins was one of the Hollywood Nineteen first called by HUAC in 1947. He did not get a chance to testify then, but after years of unemployment he became a friendly witness. He admitted to Victor Navasky in Navasky’s book Naming Names that he handled his testimony badly and regretted it. It obviously took some of the fight out of him, but there was enough left for the finish of this film, as cautious as it is. After The Badlanders he worked mostly in television as both a writer and producer on such shows as Bonanza and Matlock.

A Cold Wind In August (1961. Screenplay by Burton Wohl, based on his novel, treatment by John Hayes. 80 minutes.)

A Cold Wind In August

Not living up to its reputation: I saw this film when it first came out and like many people I was impressed with it. A stripper in her thirties flirts with a seventeen-year-old boy, has sex with him, falls in love, and then is dropped by the boy when he discovers she is stripper. It seemed so wonderfully sleazy and serious at the same time, with what everyone agreed was a knock-out performance by Lola Albright as the stripper, Iris. In her notes on the film in her 1968 book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Pauline Kael mentions that when people in the industry talk about little offbeat movies that seem to promise what can be done on that scale, this movie usually comes up in the discussion. In their 1979 book on American television directors, The American Vein, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi consider this film the one that defines its director, Alexander Singer, who later had a long career in television. Let’s just say the film does not hold up well.

The problem begins with the script, which is definitely not as “economical” and “well-organized” as Kael thinks. Burton Wohl appears to have been primarily a novelist, and it shows. The opening scene has Iris’s ex-husband and manager drop by her apartment to ask her to do a week’s gig as a replacement for a stripper who bailed on him. The scene goes on and on and on. We eventually get to the son of the building super coming to her apartment to fix her air-conditioner and the affair slowly begins. Wohl does not really make it clear what Iris or Vito’s motivations are. The relationship is simply not that sharply observed on either side. Singer’s direction does not help much (this was his first film and he obviously got better), since like some directors we have talked about it (see above) he lards on the close-ups. That’s OK if the script gives the actors specifics to play, but Wohl’s script does not. His dialogue is also way too on the nose. Albright was much better in the more suggestive role as Edie in the television series Peter Gunn, which she was starring in at the time.

The production does not help. The story is supposed to take place in New York City, but it is obviously shot in Los Angeles. Iris’s apartment looks much more LA-1961 than NYC-1961. The cinematographer is the great Floyd Crosby, but there is not much he can do with the shots Singer gives, although he captures some of Albright’s heat. The jazz score on the soundtrack simply emphasizes the melodrama rather than playing against it. The film is an early example of “Cougar” films, and the ones that came later, such as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone the same year, The Stripper (1962), and of course The Graduate (1967) do it much better.

A recent viewing (on TCM, which seemed to have a “Cougar Night” one Saturday) did answer one question Pauline Kael had. She criticizes a scene where Vito’s father is sitting reading a book and giving him advice. The scene has very little texture to it, but Kael’s question was: what book could the father possibly be reading? If you listen closely to one of the earlier scenes, Vito mentions that it is Boccaccio. Which is why the father does not seem particularly concerned about his son’s fling with Iris.

Mad Men (2010. “The Suitcase,” written by Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes.)

The Suitcase

Easy: I’ve always said that making movies is easy. You get a great script, great actors and a director smart enough not to get in anybody’s way. This episode is exhibit one for the prosecution.

I have not written much on Mad Men so far this season. Partly that is because Luke De Smet is doing such a nice job covering the episodes. Partly it is because, unlike many writers, if I don’t have anything particular to say, I tend not to say anything. But this episode was too good to pass up. Excuse me if duplicate some of what Luke did in his coverage.

This episode is what is known in the trade as a stand-alone episode, meaning for it to work for you, you do not have to have watched and memorized all the previous episodes, as most of us Mad Men fans are wont to do. Unlike most episodes, we are not going to get a lot of the large cast in a lot of scenes that advance a lot of stories. The setup is simple: Most of the agency guys are going off to the Clay-Liston fight on closed-circuit TV in a theater. Don earlier received a message about a call from Stephanie in California, but he has not returned the call, since he knows it means that Anna, the wife of the real “Don Draper,” has probably died. So he gives Peggy a hard time for not having come up with any ideas for Samsonite luggage. The “guys” she works with have been less than useless. Don insists she stay and work with him. So what Weiner has set up is a mano-a-mano with Don and Peggy.

And boy, does he deliver. Peggy is pissed because it is her birthday, although it is way late in the episode before she tells Don. Duck Philips has tried to a) get her to come to the new agency he is starting, handling women’s sales, and b) get her back into his bed. Peggy is smart enough to realize a) Duck is drunk as a skunk, and b) is more interested in the bed than the job. She was headed out for a nice birthday dinner with Mark, her new boyfriend, but she calls and tells him she will be a little late. Another call, a little later. Another call, and, whoops, Mark has arranged to have her whole family at dinner as a surprise.

Don, meanwhile, is just pissed, in both senses. He has been drinking most of the day, avoiding calling Stephanie. He is irritated that Peggy cannot come up with something. Peggy breaks up with Mark on the phone and takes it out on Don. Maybe it is because we know and like both Peggy and Don, but I found their argument one of the scariest moments I have ever seen on television. They are like family and they go at each other like a truly dysfunctional family. Both are drawing blood, and Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are spectacular, going well beyond what they have shown us in these roles before (yes, as Luke suggests, it’s very likely this episode will be Weiner’s effort to get Hamm and Moss Emmys next year). And then the writing and the acting get even better. Both Don and Peggy cool down, as happens in family arguments, and they have what is for them a personal discussion, a much subtler scene. Hamm and Moss handle those turns beautifully. Don and Peggy also listen to one of the tapes Roger has been dictating for his memoirs. Who knew that Bert Cooper lost his testicles in an operation? And surely nobody knew that Miss Blankenship, the old shrewish secretary Joan has wisely assigned to Don, was a real hottie when she was younger. Well, if you know the actor playing her is Randee Heller, who was Daniel’s MILF in The Karate Kid (1984), you might have guessed.

So Don and Peggy go out to dinner. At a diner, not a fancy restaurant. And Don barely gets back to the office when he has to vomit. Peggy takes him into the men’s room—look at both her hesitation about which restroom to enter and her perusal of the graffiti on the walls while he is praying to the porcelain god. And Duck shows up, as drunk as Don, and wants to literally shit in Don’s office. But as Peggy points out, he is in Roger’s office. Duck and Don get into a fight, which Duck wins. Peggy sends him out and does not go with him, although it has come out he has offered her a job. She returns to Don’s office, and they fall asleep on his couch. He wakes up and calls Stephanie. Anna has indeed died. Don cries, telling Peggy that she was the only person who truly understood him, which we know is true. Then Peggy puts a hand on his shoulder and tells him that is not true, i.e., she understands him. And she’s right. Luke De Smet and others have talked about the similarities between Don and Peggy (both outsiders trying to make a place for themselves in the world), and this episode and this scene nail it down. Their relationship is both the same and changed after this night.

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.