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Understanding Screenwriting #80: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #80: <em>Amigo</em>, <em>Circumstance</em>, <em>The Debt</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Amigo, Circumstance, The Debt, The Guard, Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks (book), The Spy in Black, Contraband, Escape, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein took grave exception to my observation that The Help was not just another “white person saves the day for black” viewpoint. My point was that the film goes beyond that. I realize there is a great split on that point, as about the film as well. I always love it when a film stirs up the kind on controversy The Help has. I think in this case it is because the film has gone some places other films have not, even if it has not gone as far as David and many, many others think it should. I’m looking forward to films that do go further than The Help, as much as I love that film.

“Denvercash77” asks what the “official opinion” of Slant is on The Help. My own view of that, and others who write and edit Slant and the House are free to disagree, is that both operations encourage a great variety of opinion about whatever we write about. That’s what leads to the kind of ongoing discussions David and I have had about nearly everything since he discovered “Understanding Screenwriting.” One of the things that writing my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing re-enforced in me was the enormous variety of responses people can have to a single movie. And how even a single person’s response to a film can change over time, as we have seen in some of the “Summer of ’86” pieces. There is no “official opinion,” especially in a blog like the House. If you want an “official version,” read the New York Times. They specialize in that sort of thing. We don’t.

Amigo (2010. Written by John Sayles. 128 minutes)

Are water buffalos this year’s Ishtar? Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war and sex. You would think with a resume like that, she’d be big in pictures. Unfortunately, no. She is one of the goddesses prayed to in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, which was not a hit. And she lent her name as the title for Elaine May’s 1987 disaster. Well, water buffalos are turning into this year’s Ishtar. First there is a long series of shots at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee (2010), which you may remember from US#72 did not put me in the contemplative mood the film intended. Then a couple of weeks later oxen, the American equivalent, showed up in the opening of Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and that one ended badly, or rather didn’t end at all, but just stopped. So you can imagine my trepidation when one of the opening shots of Amigo has an honest-to-God water buffalo. Unfortunately water buffalo movies are 0-for-3 this season.

I love John Sayles, his scripts, and his films. His 1979 Return of the Secaucus Seven started the indie film movement of the last thirty years by being a fresh, inventive look at the ’60s generation. Aside from a bad experience with Paramount on Baby, It’s You in 1983, he has avoided dealing with the major studios, except for doing script doctoring on films like Apollo 13 (1995). He writes and directs on his own films, selecting the kind of stories that nobody else is telling. The hallmarks of his films are his ability to write an enormous range of characters and his great ear for dialogue. The flaws in his films is that he is not as accomplished a director as he is as a screenwriter, and he can get overly preachy on the liberal side of the pulpit.

Amigo has none of his virtues and all of his flaws. It’s the story of the involvement of the U.S. Army in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. We are with a small group of soldiers who are asked to pacify a village in the middle of the jungle. The Americans are very standard-issue ugly Americans, or if not ugly, certainly naïve. None of them pop off the screen the way Sayles’s characters usually do. Nor do the Filipino characters. The head man of the village and the leading man of the film is Rafael, played by Filipino star Joel Torre with, alas, a very 2010 movie star haircut. Sayles is ordinarily good at getting into characters from other cultures, but not with Rafael. The rest of the villagers are not particularly distinctive either. Compare them to the ensembles in Sayles’s films such as City of Hope (1991), Lone Star (1996) and Sunshine State (2002). So we spend a lot of time with the characters, both American and Filipino, but they are not very interesting to hang out with. The dialogue is alas Sayles in his preachy mode, and the insights Lt. Compton, the officer heading the unit, comes up with are about what you would expect and very bland.

Sayles’s direction does not make the best of what the script provides. I kept thinking of the hypnotic spell Terrence Malick cast with another group of American soldiers in the jungle in The Thin Red Line (1998). Were there any water buffalos in Thin Red Line?

So, John, sorry I didn’t like this one, but I will be there for your next one. Unless it is entitled The Water Buffalos of Ishtar. There are limits, even for me.

Circumstance (2011. Written by Maryam Keshavarz. 107 minutes)

Circumstance

Just your typical below-average Persian Lesbian romance: Although there are no water buffalos in this film, it still gets off to a bad start. We are in Tehran and hanging out with two teenage girls, Atafeh and Shireen. They are best friends forever, they dream of going away somewhere else where they will have more freedom (cue fantasy scenes), they flirt with boys, they flirt with each other. But their flirting with each other is written and more crucially directed by Keshavarz so that it seems more serious than it might be. So we get that there will be a lesbian romance. This is Keshavarz’s first feature as a writer and director, and she doesn’t get the tone right in this scene, which gives away way too soon what the movie is about. So the film then spends way more time than it needs to with the girls larking about while we are a good twenty to thirty minutes ahead of the movie. The first hour has a lot of stuff we don’t have to know. This is a typical first-timer’s mistake, assuming we need a lot more exposition than we do. How quickly do you think it takes Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson to do the following in the opening of Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Lawrence dies; there is service more him; we meet Brighton, Allenby, Bentley, the Medical Officer, and Murray; we learn they all have different views of Lawrence; and we get to Cairo? Five minutes and forty seconds, and that includes the credits.

We do get some amusing scenes with the two girls hanging out with sort-of boyfriends. The guys take them to a hidden video store where they watch Milk (2008), which leads them to a dubbing session (how? Not clear) in which they are dubbing the sex scenes of Sex and the City (2008) into Farsi. These are amusing scenes, but what movie are they from? They don’t seem to be from this one, at least as written and played. And they are not so good that you can’t not include them, although presumably Keshavarz thought so. You’ve got to kill all your darlings, kid. Several scenes give us a look at Iranian culture, but not with any depth or freshness. At the end of the film, some of the credits mention this was developed in the Sundance Institute. We know the development process in Hollywood can flatten out scripts for studio films, but the same thing can happen in indie development as well. The dubbing scenes probably played well in a workshop and the assumption was they would work in the film. Likewise, the assumption on the development level was that the story of two girls in Tehran who become lovers was going to be enough to carry the picture. It’s not, and a whole lot more sharpening of the script in terms of character and plotting needed to be done.

Having said that, the film begins to pick up in the last half hour. Atafeh’s brother, Mehran, has come out of either jail or rehab, and is now a member of the Morality Police. He rats out the girls (not for their lesbianism, but because they drive around in cars with boys) to the Morality Police. That’s even though he has the hots for Shireen (whom he has sexual dreams about—one nice shot in the film is his reaction to waking up from one of those dreams). Merhan manipulates the situation so that her family is glad to marry her off to Mehran to keep her out of trouble. Atafeh and Shireen are miserable about this, since it never occurs to them they can use their situation as sisters-in-law to continue their romance. Mehran has set up surveillance cameras in his house and he catches Atafeh being emotionally if not sexually intimate with Shireen. Atafeh finds the cameras and what he has recorded, but doesn’t do much with the information. She goes to Shireen and asks her to leave Tehran and go to their dream county, Dubai. (These are not worldly girls.) Their final scene ought to be a killer, but there is nothing there. Atafeh asks, Shireen doesn’t do or say anything, and we see Atafeh leaving in a car. I suspect part of the problem is that while Nikohl Boosheri, who plays Atafeh, has a lively presence on camera, Sarah Kazemy, who plays Shireen, is beautiful but completely unexpressive. She is not up to what should have been the demands of the scene.

The Debt (2010. Screenplay by Mathew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughn, based on the screenplay for the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum. 114 minutes)

The Debt

Finally, I picked a good one to go see: I have no complaints about the first ten minutes or so of this one. We are introduced to the young versions of Rachel, Stephan and David, three Mossad agents in 1966, who have come back to Israel after killing the notorious Dieter Vogel, the notorious “Surgeon of Birkenau.” Then we get introduced to the same characters in 1997, who are celebrating the publication of a book by Rachel and Stephan’s daughter about the mission. At the celebration Rachel reads aloud the passage where Vogel is killed and we see it acted out in flashback. And we see the older David throw himself in front of a truck rather than go to the celebration. No nonsense about us being twenty minutes ahead of the film, it’s way ahead of us, and we are running to catch up.

Finally we settle into a lengthy flashback sequence of the mission in 1965-66. The Israeli version this one is based on has less of the flashbacks and focuses more on the older characters. (I have not seen the Israeli film, but Michele Gendelman, a screenwriter and colleague of mine at LACC—she has taken over my screenwriting course—has, and points of comparison come from her.) The three younger agents are in East Berlin (West Berlin in the Israeli version; the writers of the new version are making it more difficult for the agents), and Rachel, on her first field mission, is required to identify Vogel, who is now a kindly gynecologist. The examination sequences, also in the Israeli version, are even more squirm-inducing that the dentist scenes with Szell in Marathon Man (1976). The plan is to kidnap Vogel, put him on a trolley stop in East Berlin that is nominally closed because it is part of the West Berlin rail system. See the advantage of East Berlin? In a great hair-raising sequence not in the earlier version, the transfer goes wrong and the trio is stuck with Vogel in a small apartment. The pressure on all the characters, including Vogel, builds up until he escapes, as we saw in the earlier flashback. Except this time Rachel does not shoot him. He gets away, and the trio decides to tell their bosses that they killed him and got rid of the body. They come home as heroes, which they remain to this day, telling their story to future generations. Yes indeed, this is a classic “When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend” situation.

Making a movie in which the same character is played at two different ages is enormously difficult. You have to write both versions of the characters so we believe them not only in their own scenes, but that the young ones will become the older ones. Movie after movie geeks that. In the 1994 version of Little Women, I just never believed that Kristen Dunst’s young Amy would grow up to be Samantha Mathis’s older Amy. The best example of it working is Kate Winslet as the young Iris and Judi Dench as the older Iris in Iris (2001). The Debt comes close to that standard, and does it with three sets of characters. The younger Rachel is on her first assignment, still a little green, but up to the job. The older Rachel is a tough cookie. We see the beginnings of that in the young Rachel, and the writers give us a one-off, a nice single scene set in 1970 in which we see the young Rachel, now married to Stephan, turning brittle. It helps of course that you have the fabulous Jessica Chastain (is there nothing this actress can’t do?) as the young Rachel, giving an even better performance than she does in The Help. It’s also useful to have Helen Mirren as the older Rachel, so that when we come out of the long flashback Mirren is there to grab us into the modern story.

The quality of the writing and casting extends to the two men. When I first saw Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington as the young Stephan and David, respectively, I thought they should have been playing the other parts. Worthington physically looks more like Tom Wilkinson, who plays the older Stephan, and Csokas looks more like Ciarán Hinds, who plays the older David. But the emotional temperature of the actors are perfectly matched. The casting works, as it does with Chastain and Mirren. The characters at both ages are so beautifully written (the film is as much a character study as a thriller) that we believe everybody at every age.

So then what happens? Why did David kill himself? Because he learned that there is an old man in a hospital in Ukraine claiming to be…Vogel. This happens a lot earlier in the Israeli version. Stephan, now high up in the Mossad, can’t go tie up loose ends because he is in a wheelchair. David is dead, and that leaves…Rachel. After all, she’s the one who had the gynecological exam from Vogel. So she goes off, breaks into several offices (I thought she was retired from the service, but once a sneaky one, always a sneaky one), and the hospital room and discovers the man…is not Vogel. Whew! Don’t get up to leave just yet…

The Guard (2011. Written by John Michael McDonagh. 96 minutes)

The Guard

And another entertaining one: You know a picture has you when you start laughing before anybody says anything. A carload of probably drunken young Irish kids are zipping down the highway, rock and roll blaring. Their car zips past a cop car. The camera stays on the cop in the car, Sergeant Gerry Boyle. He makes no move to give chase. We hear a crash off-screen. Boyle has no reaction. The audience laughs. He turns his car’s engine on and goes to investigate. There are bodies all over the road. He checks A) to see if they are dead, and B) their pockets to see which of their drugs he wants to keep for himself. What we have here is a small town Irish Andy Sipowitz, and he is going to be even more fun to watch.

John Michael McDonagh is the brother of playwright (Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman) Martin McDonagh. As a filmgoer you know Martin McDonagh best from his writing and directing In Bruges (2008). If that film’s combination of language foul and otherwise, comedy, and violence appealed to you as it did to me, you are going to feel right at home with The Guard. It helps that this McDonagh uses his brother’s favorite actor, Brendon Gleeson, to play Boyle. It appears that the McDonagh brothers and Gleeson are going to be one of those writer-actor combinations like Loos and Harlow (see US #79). Not only has this McDonagh written another great part for Gleeson, he has made it a little deeper than the ones his brother has given him.

Although it may seem like it at the beginning of the film, there is more to the film than just Boyle being a character and offending everybody with his language and behavior. We are afraid in the opening scenes this is going to be an old cop/young cop movie, but the young cop leaves the picture abruptly. Boyle is soon partnered up with a prissy—compared to him—African-American F.B.I. agent Wendell Everett. That produces scenes that are more interesting than the ones with the young cop. Everett is in Ireland investigating the possible landing of a drug smuggling boat with $500 million worth of drugs (and listen to the fun McDonagh has with that number in the dialogue). It turns out that for all Boyle’s vices, he is one of the few honest cops in the neighborhood, maybe in Ireland, which leads to a wonderful line about the impossibility of bribing Americans. At least compared to the Irish.

As the plot gets more complicated, we continue to laugh, especially at Don Cheadle’s reactions of Everett to Boyle’s excesses. McDonagh, who also directed, understands as did Buster Keaton that the reaction to something is just as funny or funnier than the thing itself. In addition, McDonagh is sneaking up on us. We begin to see that Boyle is facing some serious moral and ethical decisions, and since we like him as a character so much, we emotionally involved in his choices. He and Everett get into a shootout with the bad guys, and it appears that Boyle has either died in the fire on the boat, or else drowned. Except that a twerpy little kid reminds Everett of some stuff we thought was just one-offs and typical Boyle bullshit. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, and McDonagh leaves it very, very open at the end. Sometimes, and this time is one of them, not knowing is the most satisfying ending of them all.

Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard Brooks (2011. Book written by Douglass K. Daniel. 249 pages)

Tough as Nails: The Life and Times of Richard BrooksA disappointment: In US#73 I mentioned this book when I talked about two Richard Brooks films that showed up in a retrospective of Brooks films at the UCLA Film Archives. I finally got around to reading it and I have to say it is second rate. But that’s not third, fourth, or fifth rate as so many film books are.

As the subtitle says, it is about Brooks’s life and films. The films pretty much were his life, since he was a workaholic from the get-go. He was a journalist, both in print and radio before World War II, then wrote a novel called The Brick Foxhole while still in the service. It was eventually made into Crossfire (1947), but with the murder victim changed from a homosexual in the novel to a Jew in the film. Brooks’s first big credit, as I mentioned in US#78, was Key Largo (1948), and he soon landed at MGM and began directing in the early ’50s. His filmography includes Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967).

Daniel does give us a lot of details about the films, mostly about Brooks directing, since that produces lively quotes about him being a holy terror on the set. But there is also good material about the writing. Sinclair Lewis, the author of the novel of Elmer Gantry, told Brooks to read the reviews of the book, which Lewis thought had pointed out many legitimate flaws in the book. Brooks did and it helped him focus the material for the film. Daniel is good on the way Brooks dealt with the censorship of the time in adapting two Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), whatever you may think of the results.

Although Daniel had a researcher working on digging up stuff, Daniel, whose two previous books are about television, doesn’t seem that well versed in film history. He mentions that a minor Brooks script, To the Victor (1948) was filmed on location in Paris, “an extravagance for the time,” but that was a period when Hollywood was beginning to shoot on locations, particularly overseas ones, a lot. Daniel writes that “By the summer of 1947 the House Committee on Un-American activities…was preparing for hearings…” HUAC had been looking into Communism in Hollywood for several years, and in fact had some hearings in Los Angeles in the spring of 1947. And nobody seems to have caught the irony of Robert Black having a line in In Cold Blood about a bunch of trash being the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Blake appeared in the Huston film as a child actor.
Daniel is also a very sloppy writer. Blackboard Jungle was released in 1955. Daniel writes, “The biggest controversy erupted that fall when the Venice Film Festival selected Blackboard Jungle for exhibition. (It had been awarded a diploma of merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival the previous November.)” OK, what year did it go to Venice and what year did it go to Edinburgh? It’s not clear in the book.

This book is part of the Wisconsin Film Studies series from the University of Wisconsin Press, which produced the excellent Glenn Lovell biography of John Sturges I have mentioned. The series editor is Pat McGilligan, whom I think almost as highly of as I do John Sayles, but it looks like McGilligan and Sayles, like Homer, are nodding this time around. Make up your own water buffalo joke here.

The Spy in Black (1939. Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Roland Pertwee, based on the novel by Storer Clouston. 82 minutes)

The Spy in Black

The beginning of a beautiful relationship: Pressburger was a Hungarian screenwriter who worked in Germany before escaping to France in 1934 and then to Britain in 1936. He is best known for his long-time collaboration with director Michael Powell on such elaborate and exotic films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). But even they started small. This film is their first collaboration.

In the summer of 1938 Pressburger had already written one script for Alexander Korda, the Hungarian producer working in England. Korda called him into the office one day. Korda said he did not have any more work for him, unless (Pressburger later said, “I was soon to learn that with Korda there was always an ’unless’”) he might like to try to save a project called The Spy in Black. Korda and London Films had the great German actor Conrad Veidt under contract. Veidt’s place in film history was already secure with his classic performance as Cesare, the somnabulist, in the 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Veidt had also left Germany in the ’30s and ended up in London, but nobody could find a project for him. Korda and his American executive producer on loan from Columbia Pictures had tried to get a script, but nothing worked, probably because there was no obvious part in the novel for Veidt. Pressburger was given the latest script, by Roland Pertwee, and came into a meeting a few days later with Asher (the American), Pertwee, Korda and Michael Powell, who had already made a name for himself with the 1936 film The Edge of the World.

Pressburger proceeded to outline a totally new story that had almost no relationship to the novel. It not only was a better story, but it had a great part for Veidt. Asher and Pertwee were furious, but Korda assigned Pressburger and Powell to work on the script with Veidt. Pertwee’s name stayed on the credits, although very little of his work remained in the script. (This backstory is from Pressburger’s grandson Kevin Macdonald 1994 biography, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Macdonald’s comment on Pertwee’s credit is that “Throughout the Thirties the writing credits on British films are often better fiction than the films themselves.” True in America as well, as we have discussed.)

The story they came up with has Veidt as Captain Hardt, a German submarine captain in World War I. (There is no submarine captain in the novel; the spy is a minister.) He is assigned a mission to go to the Orkney Islands, off the upper tip of Scotland, and make contact with a woman who is a German spy (a variation on the minister in the book). She knows a drunken traitorous British Naval officer who will give her the sailing orders for the British fleet. She will pass this on to Hardt, who will then be able to torpedo the British ships. But the Brits have discovered the plot and replaced the German spy with a British one. And she and Hardt develop an attraction.

What Pressburger brings to the script is a wonderful light touch. The film is very much in the tradition of the British Hitchcock movies of the late ’30s, but there is more warmth and feeling than Hitch managed. We first meet Hardt when he is coming off a long mission, and he and his First Mate go into a fancy restaurant in Germany hoping for a great meal. But the restaurant is out of everything they want. We get that Hardt is cool and sophisticated as well as in charge. We are then introduced to Anne Burnett, the teacher going to the Orkney Islands that Hardt is to meet. Unfortunately, either the writing, or the cinematography, or just the print TCM showed leaves us very confused as to what happens to her. She’s kidnapped, but by the Germans or the British? And when she shows up on the islands, is it the same woman? The actresses look a lot alike, but they are different. The explanation of what happened comes much later in the film, and makes even less sense than the kidnapping scenes in the dark, as well as not being particularly believable. But then Hardt and the teacher, now played by a young and glowing Valerie Hobson, meet, and the movie takes off. Powell, whose Edge of the World was acclaimed for its location filming, wanted to shoot on the islands, but Asher, watching the American money that made up some of the budget, refused. Powell was eventually allowed three days of shooting on the islands, but with none of the cast.

When it turns out the teacher is in fact an English counterspy, Hardt becomes a tough, but not mean, military leader, trying to escape, commandeering a ferry, and trying to rescue some trapped German sailors. He fails of course, and the teacher looks noble as she realizes she has done the right thing for King and Country.

The Spy in Black was shot in late 1938 and released August 12, 1939. Within a month World War II had started and what had been a light thriller was now one of the first wartime propaganda films. And sometimes you get even luckier: In October the British battleship Royal Oak was sunk, probably by a German submarine, off the Orkneys. OK, not lucky for the men on the ship, but for the box office. Let’s keep our priorities straight here, folks.

Contraband (1940. Screenplay and Original Story by Emeric Pressburger, scenario by Michael Powell and Brock Williams. 92 minutes)

Contraband

We’ll always have the Three Vikings: Needless to say, after the success of The Spy in Black, Korda and everybody else thought the team should make another one. So Pressburger came up with the script for this. (I have no idea what the “scenario” credit is in this case. On Spy it was to give a credit to an earlier writer; here it may be something more like a shooting script that Powell worked out with Williams, a journeyman writer with no distinguished credits. See Macdonald’s comment above on screenwriting credits; he makes no mention of Williams in his book.) He could not make Veidt a sympathetic German after the war started, so he is now Captain Andersen, a Danish sea captain, whose cargo ship is stopped by the British Contraband Control. The first twenty minutes or so of the film is almost a documentary on the Contraband Control offices and how they work, part of the propaganda aspect of the film. Powell was now able to get outdoors, and the ship sequences are great to look at it. It helps of course that he has F.A. Young as his cinematographer. If you don’t know who he is and what he did later, look him up.

While the ship is at anchor, Mrs. Sorensen, a Danish woman who has been living in America, gets off the ship, along with Mr. Pidgeon, a talent scout who is always reading Variety. Mrs. Sorensen has snitched the leave papers the Brits gave to Captain Andersen. So Andersen goes ashore and tracks her down. We get a lot of scenes of Veidt and the still young and glowing Valerie Hobson doing all the charming stuff that Pressburger writes for them. By now the three knew each other well, and Pressburger put in stuff based on what he knew of them. The couple ends up at a restaurant called The Three Vikings; typical in-joke: Pressburger making fun of Veidt’s problem with English pronunciation, as he did in Spy, in this case with the word “viking.” The restaurant was a virtual duplicate of one Veidt and Hobson ate at in real life. The restaurant is run by the twin brother of Andersen’s first officer, although he and the staff seem more like natives of Pressburger’s Hungary than Danes.

About halfway into the picture, the spy stuff starts. Mrs. Sorensen and Mr. Pidgeon as well turn out to be spies, tracking down a German spy ring in London. Action ensues, including a fight in a warehouse filled with busts of Neville Chamberlain. Andersen uses one to knock out a bad guy, then says, “I always thought he was tough.” In both Spy and even more so here, Pressburger has written scenes that let Powell and his crew develop a German Expressionistic visual style. Well, if you have the star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it makes sense to surround him with a look that he will feel at home in. Here the film uses the fact that the blackouts have started at the beginning of the war to add to the visual subtlety. The film grossed more than Spy. Pressburger and Powell would move from these two into more expressionistic films. Hobson later went on to star in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and marry politician John Profumo, the swine. And what of Veidt?

Escape (1940. Screenplay by Arch Oboler and Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Ethel Vance. 104 minutes)

Escape

Round up the usual suspect: Veidt came to America. Contraband was released in England on May 11, 1940, but not in America until the end of November. In he meanwhile Veidt had made Escape, which was released in early November 1940. The film was based on a best-selling novel about an American who goes to Germany (although the country is never mentioned by name in the film; the Swastikas do give it away though) to try to track down his mother. She was German born, as was Mark, the American. She returned to Germany, but he has lost track of her. She is in fact not only in a concentration camp but soon to be executed. Mark makes friends with the Countess, an American woman who is the mistress of General von Kolb. Guess which part Veidt plays?

Arch Oboler was best known for the radio show Lights Out, which started in the ’30s and continued through the mid-’40s. Which may explain why the first hour or so of Escape, his first screenplay, is so bloody talky. The director is Mervyn LeRoy (see US # 79), who by this time had moved over to MGM from Warners. His directorial style had become more typically MGM: slow and stately, with lots of Jack Conway-type two-shots of actors talking nose to nose. LeRoy says in his autobiography Take One that Veidt was his original choice for the role, but was unavailable. LeRoy started shooting with Paul Lukas, but had to let him go, since the part was not right for him. Boy, that’s the truth. Von Kolb is a general, but not a Nazi, and is rather disdainful of the Nazis. In his earliest scenes, he shows the charm that Veidt showed in the two Pressburger films. Veidt was a hell of a lot more charming on screen than Lukas, who had other skills. The combination of charm and threat was necessary for the part, since the Countess was being played by Mrs. Thalberg herself, Norma Shearer. We have to see that von Kolb has some appeal, and Veidt gives him that. In terms of the balance of the film, he gives him too much. Mark is played by Robert Taylor, who never seemed more like a block of wood than he does here. Everybody else is livelier than he is, but Veidt especially. Pauline Kael, as she often did, pretty much got it right when she wrote that “the villain is so much more attractive than the hero that the whole thing turns into a feeble and overproduced joke.”

The film is a little better than that in the second half, which I suspect was written by Roberts, our old friend from Ambush (1950, see US#45) and True Grit (1969, see US#67). Mark, with help of assorted people, arranges to get his mother out of the camp. The camp doctor gives her a drug that makes her appear dead, then signs the death certificate. An old friend of Mark’s, who has been established as the person who carts the coffins out of the camp, arranges to take this coffin. Circumstances force them to go to the Countess’s house. Guess who shows up there? The scenes in the house should be a lot more suspenseful on screen than they are. Think of the final twenty minutes of Notorious (1946) and you can see what they could have been. I ping on Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend, but the son of a bitch could direct.

Veidt does get a nice death scene, with Shearer, livelier than usual, talking him into a fatal heart attack. MGM really was too genteel a studio for Veidt. He soon moved to Warner Brothers, where he went head to head with Humphrey Bogart, a more fitting adversary than, eew, Robert Taylor. And in his second to last film before his death at the age of 50, Cesare of Dr. Caligari got something not many actors get: a second role that secured his place in film history. He was Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).

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.