Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lunching Toward Gomorrah

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I've been reflecting on the state of publishing, and I suspect these reflections also apply to movies. As these industries go through their endless dance of mergers, acquisitions, re-structuring, down-sizing, and bankruptcies, becoming newly "re-booted," and "leaner, meaner, and now (finally) relevant!," has anyone noticed how deeply they've all descended into self-delusion?

In New York, there once was half a hundred truly independent publishers producing distinctive books. Today are there even twelve? The editors for those earlier publishers had their own viewpoints, and their books were sufficiently recognizable that an astute observer could tell you who published a book based solely on its description. The editorial prototype was Maxwell Perkins, a guy who was known for developing writers from raw talent into colossal literary figures. If there was anything close to a film-equivalent it might be a studio head like Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, or Darryl F. Zanuck, though those guys were notorious in their distrust of writers. John Calley, Robert Evans, and Alan Ladd, Jr. might have fit the bill in later years. Lately, they've been replaced by producer/directors (Steven Spielberg, for example), MBAs from the Ivy League schools, and, as always, former agents.

But who've we relly got in publishing today? The book business has gotten so in-bred I suspect only rarely does an editor even have time to emerge before the inevitable down-sizing, lay-off, buy-out, or jump the other way, to becoming an agent. As a former literary agent who did not come from publishing, I once chased the CEO of the largest publisher in the world across a golf course by phone to get a decision during a book auction. He won the book for mid-six figures. Next thing I knew he was an agent. The only constant is change.

Some bright cynics in the media like to portray the public as lemmings happily following the one in front as he, too, blithely chases his fellows off the cliff. Others see a slightly different video: editors waddling, lemming-like, after one another, through the doors of the latest over-priced eatery, eager to find out what they're supposed to think today.

In movies it used to be, that you were "only as good as your last picture." Now it's "You're only as good as your next!" "Your last," apparently, is such ancient history that nobody gives it any real credence. So now, fortunes are made on the hype alone.

In publishing, editors go to lunch. That's true for development execs in movies, too. There, these titans of consumer entertainment hold forth, discussing "the business," asserting "their" ideas and opinions, even as they gather those of their colleagues for re-statement at tomorrow's lunch. In fact, I wonder how much new opinion really gets on the tables in these lunches. Recycling seems to be big when it comes to editorial judgment, based on what I keep hearing everyone is "looking for." Warner Brothers was once the studio for hard-hitting contemporary drama and suspense, MGM for musicals and family fare. And, in publishing, Random House was known for cutting edge literary quality. Today who can say who does what? Everyone is so busy re-using that opinion from yesterday's lunch that no one says what's really on their mind: finding some way, any way, to keep the job.

But it's okay. We can always go to dinner, and then lose ourselves in the next superhero flick. Who reads books anymore, anyway?#


Lee A. Matthias

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

VERTIGO Past Fifty—An Appreciation

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I began this blog-site with a post on re-makes. Among other observations, I made the point that beyond the profit motive at the heart of most studio decisions to produce a new version of an earlier film, re-makes were worth doing under certain circumstances. These included scenarios in which a new actor or actors “born” for the film are capable of making it new or better; and/or technology that could do the same. In effect, any element that could make the resulting film substantially better and refreshed is reason enough to re-make the film. The best ideas are worth re-examining, re-stating. Of course, the definition of my use of “substantial,” is arguable. I mean that the film is both uniquely freshened—not just the same thing with different people—and is seen as a strong candidate for both box-office and later (DVD/Download) success—in other words, it’s “pegged” as one they’ll want to see again and again.

Yet, loyal to their favorites, many would still ask, why? Why not leave well-enough alone? The answer to this is at the heart of the matter: filmed stories have a “cultural shelf-life.” No sooner do they appear but they begin an inevitable aging process moving them from culturally relevant to historical artifact, and this no matter their personal relevancy to us. Who among us has not had the experience of “showing” a favorite older film to someone of a different generation and watching the inevitable look of perplexity or eye-glazed boredom appear on their face? What was a great film for “us” ever since “we” first discovered it is nothing but a “weird old movie” to them.

Once we’ve reached a certain age, most of us have been on both sides of this scenario. Haven’t we all watched a film we were supposed to find profound only to wonder what the big deal was? You may have found this kind of thing happened a lot back in school. Remember those English classes in which we read a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, a play by Shakespeare, or a poem by Homer, and wondered at the weight assigned the work by our instructor? Without the educational background, and without an awareness of the work’s historical context, we were unable to appreciate the work’s innovative and unique accomplishments. So, too, then, never achieved, is our appreciation of such material’s profound worth. Eventually, if we persist, we gain the perspective to begin to value such works. But I question any assertion that we can ever appreciate them to the same degree as their original audiences. Our “zeitgeist” can never be theirs.

In college I recall a year of film history in which I finally saw CITIZEN KANE, a film that is on many lists as the greatest film of all time. But I didn’t see it until I had already covered the birth of film. I’d already seen Porter’s GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY and Melies’ A TRIP TO THE MOON; analyzed Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and von Stroheim’s GREED; covered German Expressionism and appreciated the purely visual comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, and Langdon; studied Renoir’s LA GRANDE ILLUSION and Lubitsch’s MERRY WIDOW. I appreciated where films were when director/screenwriter, Orson Welles, co-screenwriter, Herman Mankiewiecz, composer, Bernard Herrmann, cameraman, Gregg Toland, and the actors of Welles’s Mercury Theater rocked Hollywood’s world (the entire media’s, for that matter) with CITIZEN KANE. I knew what had been done to that point, and the effect the film had by its particular employment of so many admittedly previously-used innovations, “employed” there in a wholly fresh, artistically-rigorous, and organically-consistent way. KANE wasn’t so much a ground-breaker as it was perhaps the most visible example of an art form—narrative sound films—emerging out of adolescence.

Without the context I might have regarded CITIZEN KANE in much the same emotional way screenwriting guru Robert McKee has: “a bloated exercise in razzle-dazzle spectacle, populated by stereotypical characters, twisted with manipulative storytelling, stuffed full of self-contradictory Freudian and Pirandellian clichés, made by a heavy-handed showoff out to impress the world...”—STORY. In his otherwise excellent book, Mckee, however, goes on to undermine his argument by elevating CASABLANCA—a film I like, by the way—which had some of those very same traits, traits which once removed from narrative films would probably reduce the field by over 90%. “Razzle-dazzle” alone would disallow nearly all films since STAR WARS. “Stereotypes” are present only in films one doesn’t like. And all media is “manipulative”—it’s a question of whether it is honest and worthwhile manipulation or not. CITIZEN KANE deserves a better quality of analysis than such “bloated…razzle-dazzle” from a “heavy-handed showoff out to impress” his deeply-invested academic flock of wannabes.

A film that has become for some (such as director, Martin Scorcese) a seminal work is Alfred Hitchcock’s film, VERTIGO. I suggest you see it, if you haven't yet, before reading further. But for those who cannot, a description of the first two acts without too many spoilers would go something like this:

Former police detective, Scottie Ferguson suffers from a pathological fear of heights and the resulting vertigo. After being asked to follow a friend’s wife, Madeleine, with a bizarre fixation on a dead woman, he reluctantly begins following her. Eventually he finds her strange behavior culminating in a suicide attempt. He saves her and begins to get to know her. Ultimately, they fall in love.

They visit an old Spanish Mission. But the dead woman haunts her. Distraught, and wrestling with her obsession, she runs to the top of the bell tower, pursued by Scottie, who becomes almost paralyzed by the climb. Before he can get himself to the top, she falls to her death. He’s shattered, having lost her just as they had fallen in love, and he believes that like the cop who died trying to save him, it’s because of his vertigo. He is institutionalized, unable to come to grips with his loss and the guilt. Slowly he recovers, and then re-visits the places they had been, the only way to contend with the loss.

Then, on the street one day, he sees a woman who, despite a different hair color and style of dress, is the living image of the now dead wife. He pursues her, begins a relationship, and finally tries to re-make her into his lost love…

That should be enough to get a sense of the story without giving away too much. Or you could see the Wikipedia synopsis, spoilers and all.

VERTIGO is a film that takes a visual theme Hitchcock had been exploring throughout his career, perception, to a profoundly personal level. The director had, over the course of his career, explored the process of perception in narrative film, both within his characters, and within the audience itself. This was particularly true of ROPE, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and REAR WINDOW. Earlier in his career, with BLACKMAIL, SABOTAGE, and later SABOTEUR, he investigated and then perfected one feature of perception, visually-based suspense, making it, in effect, a signature Hitchcock trope.

Suspense as a dramatic tool rooted in perception is found in the tension between the perceived and the potentially-perceived. Hitchcock demonstrated this with his famous example of the two people talking at a table. By itself, this is boring. But if a ticking bomb is shown, hidden, taped to the underside of the tabletop, suspense is introduced: will they discover it in time? If, in another scenario such as is found in ROPE, one introduces elements such as sympathetic, initially-innocent protagonists, who go on to commit murder, and one adds to it by making us, the audience, effectively a participant, complicit by our being in the room (no apparent cuts, and all action in real time, as in ROPE), one explores the effect of such undercut sympathies on those doing the perceiving, the audience. Though now regarded as a failure, ROPE was a bold experiment, especially for stodgy old Hollywood.

VERTIGO takes this exploration of perception to its deepest psychological level, desire. And not just desire, but forbidden desire: a man desires a woman, the wife of his friend and whom the friend has hired him to follow. Now, if this is done, as in VERTIGO, by pulling us, the audience, into a parallel desire, making us partner to the protagonist, as with ROPE, we again become complicit. In our case the goal is solving and consummating the mystery and allure of this woman whom our trusted, former-policeman hero pursues, and that through winning her love. Said solution can only resolve through the hero’s downfall, the betrayal of his friend and employer. And some substantial portion of us, those attracted to Kim Novak as Jimmy Stewart’s object of desire, are even more complicit: they are voyeurs, partners in Stewart’s growing forbidden obsession. For many in VERTIGO’s 1958 audience, the film was a haunting and disturbing experience. A film that achieved over the years, repeat-viewing upon repeat-viewing, as its “victims” wrestled with its forbidden mysteries, and its intellectual and emotional rewards.

The problem is, inevitably, the world has passed VERTIGO by. Seen today, the film is, to put it bluntly, clunky in the extreme, today a better idea for, rather than an actual film. For a contemporary audience, it suffers from a quality of artificiality: a static approach to the cinematography with its fixed-position camera, its occasional less-than-real traveling matte, its location-to-studio dis-continuity, its annoying use of fog filters, and its conventional and non-evolving image system, unreflective as it is, of Stewart’s psychological descent toward madness. The dream sequence by Hitchcock consultant, John Ferren, is, unfortunately, laughable. Rather than pulling us in by visually rendering Stewart’s contention with his adulterous and inadequacy-based guilt, his fear of heights, and his desperate obsession, the sequence’s crude technique (particularly with Stewart’s floating head, the flashing colors, the posed tableau, and the Disney-esque animated flowers), sorry to say, not only fails to pull us in, but instead, serves to embarrass us. For today’s audience it ends up looking more like a kind of cynical, Saturday Night Live sketch of a dream, than it does a psychologically-accurate rendering of Scottie’s psychosis.

Of course, none of this is really Hitchcock’s fault. VERTIGO is a product of its time: the artistic atrophy that was the studio system, and the level of film technology, circa 1958. This was before the advent of the Steadicam™, lightweight cameras, and faster film stocks, not to mention the cutting and overall mise en scéne seen in films today as the result of the influence of the French New Wave and international cinema. It was at a time when symbolism was all the rage, and Freudian thinking still dominated psychoanalysis and so, the culture’s grasp of it. In truth, it’s a testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s skill as a director that VERTIGO still resonates with some portion of its audience at all!

Many, most notably screenwriter, William Goldman, have attacked the film for its use of Kim Novak, complaining that her lack of acting ability hurt the film. It is true that Novak’s career never demonstrated great acting. And it’s true that her physical features were somewhat more “substantial” and “voluptuous” than is thought acceptable for actresses today—Alma Hitchcock even commented on it during editing, back in 1958. But, such observations have also been made for Novak’s contemporaries, such as Marilyn Monroe and even Sophia Loren. Few will deny that Monroe was, nevertheless, perfect for SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, among others. Like it or not, acting is only part of the package. There’s also presence, and Novak, with those shining-moon eyes, like mad pools, inviting us in, had it.

Despite her “pulchritude,” Novak floated through her role as Madeleine with just the right touch of ghostly, ethereal mystery. She delivered her more important lines (such as “If I were mad, that would explain it.”) with sufficient restraint to avoid the greater danger of over-acting. In fact, her entire performance, light as gossamer, was admirably and appropriately under-stated. And her physicality, despite Hitchcock’s famous Rawhide-inspired direction (“actors should be treated like cattle”), was never as stiff as it might have been, given her character’s motivation: “you believe yourself to be a ghost!” Her movements are quite at ease, in fact. So, I’m afraid, her negative reviews for VERTIGO, come encumbered by her other (and even later, hindsight-based) work, rather than her efforts on the Hitchcock film, wherein she rose to the film’s demands.

Unlike its source story, the French novel, Sueurs froides: d'entre les morts (“Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead”), by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Hitchcock’s film of (hardly) Alec Coppel’s and (mainly) Samuel Taylor’s screenplay for VERTIGO, understood something not even the novel’s authors had, chained as they were, to the page and its non-visual written medium. The story was about voyeurism, obsession, and madness, visual and emotion-laden elements well-suited to film. Stewart (as Scottie) was drawn by a developing love (and then, in his efforts to re-make her, an almost ravening obsession) rooted in, and enhanced by Novak’s (as Madeleine) mystery. The audience was drawn by both her mystery and a voyeuristic desire to see Scottie regain his (and, as our surrogate, our own) love. Therefore, in our stead, he would have to take the fall--pun intended. So we are given a gift, that of knowing what Scottie is yet to learn, that Madeleine is lying, partner, in fact, to murder, and though she has, in turn, fallen in love with him, it is now a love of the damned.

Here is the Hitchcock touch in action. These parallel needs allowed the director to orchestrate his dénouement such that while the character of Scottie must, of necessity, descend perhaps to the point of no return, the audience need go only so far into the mystery, and no further, before they then, unlike Scottie, are allowed to know the truth. There, they regain their footing sufficiently to appreciate the danger and the madness awaiting. Hitchcock likened it to the difference between mystery and suspense. In mystery (as it was in the novel) the truth emerges at the end, a shock of mere seconds. In suspense, the truth emerges for the audience in advance of the end, and only later for the protagonist. This yields deliciously-long minutes of anticipation and suspense, as the audience watches breathlessly to see the protagonist uncover it, and then what he does about it. Screenwriter, Taylor claims to have arrived at this pivotal revision of the novel’s story himself, and when he suggested it to the director, recognizing the signature technique for what it was, he even called it “Hitchcockian.” Of course, Hitchcock claims he alone thought of it. Whatever, this was a sublime narrative insight, exponentially empowering the story, here told on film. Who among us has not wanted desperately for that second chance? Here, for Scottie, and for us, it awaited.

This is the potential of film, the power of VERTIGO. The key to understanding VERTIGO’s lasting appeal (for those of us who feel it) is that it be seen as a promise to the heart about getting a second chance at our deepest, thought-lost desires. This is a universal human yearning. It resonates at our very core. Kim Novak embodies a kind of “woman unknowable,” an impossible, inscrutable, unreachable, yet somehow irresistible Everest-like thunderhead of challenge and enigma. We’ve been seduced, become voyeurs, complicit in the fall of our hero, so that we may have, if only for a moment, that second chance. We watch again and again, not to find out what happens in the film, but to find out what happens in us.

Despite its age, over half a century, now, the fact remains that VERTIGO has a powerful and compelling premise. Forbidden desire, as a resonant theme, will never go away. The mystery evoked by Kim Novak’s ethereal and haunting Madeleine still draws us in. I believe the same could not have been said had Hitchcock’s first choice for the role, Vera Miles, instead played Madeleine. There was something in Novak’s physicality, something in her eyes, in her body language, that was beyond the power of an actress like Vera Miles. There’s a widely-held belief in Hollywood that great films are made in the casting, and with VERTIGO, William Goldman’s opinion of Novak notwithstanding, this is borne out. Jimmy Stewart’s vulnerability, the sympathy he engenders in us as his character, Scottie, loses his grip while retaining enough to see through her betrayal and deception at the end, is beyond the capability of any other Hitchcock leading man, especially Cary Grant. Barbara Bel Geddes even manages to make us believe. But the idea behind VERTIGO is the real strength of the film. With the death of Madeleine, it has the power to evoke in us a quality of loss and a desperation to get her back that rings true for everyone who has ever really loved and then lost. What film fan would not sell his soul to see VERTIGO done with current cinematic technology and sensibilities, by a Hitchcock in his prime, today?

Re-making VERTIGO would present nearly impossible challenges. The film would need an actress as rarified and antiseptically haunting as Novak, an actor as smart, vulnerable, and attuned to the less-is-more maxim as Stewart, and a director with the visual potency and astute narrative cinematic instincts as Hitchcock, to pull it off. It would need a fluidity of camera and editing, and an image system that evolved from objective normalcy to subjective instability. It would need a musical score as evocative of Madeleine’s mystery and Scottie’s tragic loss as the one composed by Bernard Herrmann. Echoing our notion about second chances, Martin Scorsese said about the score:

"Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again ... And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfillment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.”

Finally, it would need a contemporary sensibility, an approach that brings it up to the state of culture and films today. Perhaps lightning cannot strike twice. The re-make of SABRINA failed for me, but only in the casting. On all other fronts, it was a worthy effort. (Interestingly, Samuel Taylor also wrote the original SABRINA.) Re-making VERTIGO would demand that that failing of the casting also be overcome. But, if achieved, it would restore the original’s power for new generations.

So, risking “blasphemy,” I believe there is room today for a new approach to the story in VERTIGO. I don’t mean a variant such as Brian De Palma’s film of Paul Schrader’s script for OBSESSION, a film many derided as a poor copy of the Hitchcock film. And I don’t mean a PSYCHO-like re-shooting of the original script with “any old” new actors. I mean a film that is faithful and true to the original’s haunting tale of loss, a film that has the production “chops” to match and then transcend its predecessor, and a film that echoes and re-echoes for today’s audience. Just as Scottie needed that second chance to restore his lost love, so, by regaining VERTIGO, do I.#


Lee A. Matthias

Get Dan Auiler's excellent book on the making of VERTIGO here.

There are some interesting blogs on VERTIGO here and here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Can’t You Write Something Nice?

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I’ve heard that I may be becoming that angry guy who’s always frowning and muttering to himself, never happy, no matter what happens. You know the guy: never up, never positive. Dare I say he’s often a retired former member of one of those organizations that shall remain nameless?—if you guessed it, then you’re just as biased as me, so there! Well, I’m not that guy, honest. In the interest of getting to a more balanced presence in this space, here are some things I’d like to see:

I want to see the original road-show version of Billy Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES! The film was three+ hours long with an intermission, and consisted of, I believe, four individual segments or storylines, "a symphony in four movements," Wilder called it. That version was shipped and did “screen” in a few places. But the studio saw what happened to the ill-fated Julie Andrews road-show picture, STAR, and pulled their film for re-cutting. Somewhere in a vault or projection booth in some backwater test market there’s a print slowly turning to mush. Somebody, find it! When it was finally officially released, it was a three-segment, two hour film that is much-diminished. I’ve searched for the original full-length script—I’ve got the shorter version—but the original? No luck, so far—though I haven’t checked any institutions or libraries. There was a novel produced of the movie by Michael and Mollie Hardwick, but that’s been elusive, as well. Anybody got these? Get in touch, I’ll swap with you!

>>>Addendum to the above:

The latest DVD of the film has on its special features two interesting items. First, there's an interview with the original editor, Ernest Walter. Walter recounts details of the missing tales and offers lots of insights about the production. One thing he describes is what he preferred for the film's ending. It was a scene tagging the episode in which the Russian Prima Ballerina asks Holmes to father her a "brilliant" son, and rather than hurt her, he explains that he's actually secretly gay, and that his and Watson's partnership is greater than people know. Later, the Ballerina's "major domo" arrives at Baker St. and presents Holmes with a magnificent violin as a memento from his employer. Then he turns to Watson and presents him with a bouquet of flowers, implying his own attraction to the doctor. After the way the earlier scene played, it is a highly funny moment, and Walter suggested Wilder insert it as the ending of the movie, in line with his other signature endings: "Nobody's perfect" (from SOME LIKE IT HOT) and "Shut up and deal" (from THE APARTMENT), among others.

This sequence never even made it into the reconstruction material described ahead. Wilder chose to retain the ending as it is in the release version, a melancholy one. But he saw the greater story, that Holmes, for all of his brilliance, was a tragic figure, fated never to have the relationship even his friend, Watson, had more than once during their partnership. When Holmes learns the woman who bested him had died, he can only retreat to the cocaine. Sad, but true to the greater story.  

Second, the missing portions are reconstructed from multiple drafts of the original screenplay and the "cutting continuity" based on the shooting script. Essentially, each of the missing sequences are shown via a good deal of surviving footage, sound-track recordings sans film, script pages, and still photographs. This yields a Prologue, two complete story segments, and a short digression on a train-car told by Holmes and shown in flashback.

The "Prologue" is ten full pages of script (and minutes of screen time) in which Watson's grandson, a Canadian veterinarian, comes to Cox & Co., the London Bank, to claim a tin box owned by his grandfather, our Dr. Watson, released by stipulation fifty years after his death. The box contains various Holmesian totems like the deerstalker, a magnifying glass, and a hypodermic needle. It also has four manuscripts detailing recountings of cases Watson couldn't release due to their "delicate and scandalous nature." Parts of this played during the four minute opening credits of the final release version.

Then there's "The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room," a tale representing a full fifty pages of script in which Watson attempts to distract Holmes from the cocaine by rigging a locked-room mystery involving a corpse in a room with the furnishings all upside-down and on the ceiling. Of course he fails, and Holmes figures it all out in the end, though Inspector Lestrade is left in the room standing on his head. This, of course, "anticipates" Nicholas Meyer's own story about Holmes and his drug habit, "The Seven Per-Cent Solution." It's interesting that Wilder and Diamond beat him to the issue.

That's followed by "The Adventure of the Dumb-Founded Detective: Holmes Recounts an Affair of the Past." Holmes lies in his bed in a sleeper car telling the woman, "Gabrielle," posing as his wife in the Loch Ness segment of an incident when he was a student at Oxford on the rowing team. His mates fixed him up with a prostitute. This short digression comprises five pages and about as many mintes.

Finally, there's "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners," in which Holmes and Watson, returning from Istanbul by ship are asked to investigate the murders of two passengers. Just prior to being asked, Watson was speculating that he might be able to solve a case himself, having learned at the feet of the master for several years. So Holmes suggests he try this one. But Watson mixes up the location of the room, and they find themselves in a cabin with two naked people, a man and a woman, apparently dead. Watson goes about deducing the events, until the woman awakens, followed by the man, and we learn Watson mixed up the deck and the cabin letters. One interesting things about this segment is that the woman's bare breasts are fully exposed--perhaps Billy Wilder's first nude scene! This segment runs around thirteen minutes, and an unknown number of script pages.

So, in all, upwards of 80 - 85 minutes of screen time (in the form of two complete stories, an opening Prologue, a digressive flashback, and a wholly missing scene involving a violin and flowers) were taken out of the film, leaving a 125 minute remainder. The original, then, ran about 210 to 215 minutes (3 1/2 hrs.), plus Intermission. Ernest Walter claims the original Road Show version was almost 4 hours long, so either he's exaggerating, or there is still other missing material.

The observation I can make about these excisions is that they were really terrific in their own right, not poorer sections as one might have suspected after the cuts. They had the collective effect of both lightening and spicing up the total effect of the film, as they were very funny (not to mention sexy, in a Victorian kind of way).

Ultimately, however, the film suffered from a lack of real star power. Robert Stephens' acting was certainly serviceable, but, for me, he never rose to the level of Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or even Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. So, the mystery of the missing segments is at last solved and shown to be fully up to being restored, should all the missing footage ever be found.

End addendum.<<<

Back to the original post:

I want to go back in time and either convince Columbia Pictures to approve the earlier draft of Paul Schrader’s DÉJÀ VU, or “detain” the moron(s) who decided to produce the version that became Brian DePalma’s film, OBSESSION. The earlier version was a wonderful re-imagining of the VERTIGO story. I have copies of both versions of the Schrader script, and what happened to that project was worse than killing it, because now we have a picture that should be locked up in one of those gothic novel-attic rooms! Even my daughter guessed the ending half-way through!

I also have a copy of Schrader’s script for his planned film, QUEBECOIS. This was a great story about the French mafia set in Montreal in the ‘70’s. It went down because it happened to appear when THE GODFATHER was happening. Paul! Put aside your “personal,” introspective subjects for the moment! Revive this thing! There’s room for more great organized crime pictures.

I want to see the third film in the CHINATOWN film series. The films were each to be set against backdrop stories involving the impact of Los Angeles on water, oil (out of the land), and air. The stories set against these backdrops were to be metaphors paralleling man’s rape and abuse of each of the elements. Everyone always says that the second film, THE TWO JAKES, was bad. But I believe it had three things going against it. Number one, the first J.J. Gittes film’s incest plot probably should have been in the final film (set against the backdrop of the third story’s air pollution, rather than the first’s, water rights). It was the most profound. It had the best mystery. Because it was first, nothing could top it or even just bring back the magic of that mystery in a new story. Second, Jack Nicholson’s direction of TTJ was serviceable, but not in the front rank of directors. Love him or hate him, Roman Polanski's was. Polanski understood and directed the tragedy as maybe only a great European director could. Even screenwriter, Robert Towne has finally conceded Polanski was right about the ending of that first film. And third, the underlying theme of the failure of a friendship in THE TWO JAKES as a metaphor played against the rape of the land, while powerful to Robert Towne, was essentially a yawner to many. He, in fact, may have done the friendship story better in TEQUILA SUNRISE, a film everyone who likes film noir should see.

The third film was to be set in the fifties, a time of oppression and abuse of power; actually the perfect decade for the plot of the first film in which is exposed a family’s darkest secret, the oppression and abuse by a father of his daughter. Jack Nicholson recently commented about wanting to do a third film. Previous rumors had described it with the title, CLOVERLEAF, set in the ‘50’s, and about the murky deal-making in building the L.A. freeway system, which sounds suspiciously like the plot behind WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (released 15 years after the first CHINATOWN film). Nicholson describes it with the title, GITTES VS. GITTES, sets it in 1968, and says it’s about no-fault divorce. Hmmm. Sounds irresistible! So this version probably had to be worked up after the earlier one was usurped by Roger Rabbit. As it stands, unless he and Towne can get something made, we’ll have to settle for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL to substitute in that role. It approaches the level of CHINATOWN, but I feel it dilutes its potential with its too-large cast of characters.

When will someone make Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION trilogy? This is a thinking person’s STAR WARS. Instead of Darth Vader, there’s one of the most intriguing villains ever devised, called in the novels, “The Mule.” This isn’t about zap guns and evil emperors, it’s about the future (and past) of humanity. These books were written two thirds of a century ago, and pre-figured LOTS of what George Lucas threw into his Skywalker films, including that entire-planet-as-city, Coruscant; the real name is Asimov’s: Trantor.

And, while they’re making the Asimov films, they should follow them with Arthur C. Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END and the lately lamented canceled production of RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA; then they should throw in Alfred Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION and THE DEMOLISHED MAN. All of these have been in the works, but they’ve all gone down for reasons of—you guessed it—money and ego.

I want to see Alfred Hitchcock’s original “knockabout comic thriller” planned to follow VERTIGO, entitled, NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE. It would have starred Audrey Hepburn as a barrister defending her father (John Williams), a high court judge, accused of killing a prostitute. Laurence Harvey was also aboard as a thief. And it would have come at the peak of Hitchcock’s career, with, perhaps the dark humor of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY combined with the suspense of REAR WINDOW. As it stands, we’ve got in its place NORTH BY NORTHWEST and then PSYCHO, so we can’t complain. Oh, yes we can!

I wish we could’ve seen the original script for THE PARALLAX VIEW produced. While Alan Pakula’s version scripted by David Giler was very good, it failed to really develop the government conspiracy element as had the Lorenzo Semple Jr. script (I have a copy—it’s even an improvement on the original novel). Semple also did THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, a modern classic whose plot of an amateur having to survive against professionals (a serious take on the Hitchcock NORTH BY NORTHWEST idea) has been re-used so much since, it’s now become a cliché.

I want to see a film of Walter Brown Newman’s screenplay, HARROW ALLEY, the original “greatest movie never made.” The script is Shakespearean in its writing, its grand scope, and its depth (though it's not everyone’s cup ‘o tea). George C. Scott considered the script so good that he bought it in the late ‘60’s for, some have said, a million dollars. He could never get it financed unless he agreed to cuts, and he held it almost all the way to his death rather than ruin it. It was supposed to happen in the '90's, and Emma Thompson even has written a tighter draft that she's been trying to get made, but so far no progress. I found a copy of the original (the link above has one for download), and I can only say that, like Shakespeare’s works, it is fine wine, and likely never to be shot in these days of CGI and super-heroes to the exclusion of everything else (not starring Meryl Streep). Its biggest problem is that it’s a high-end comedy… about the Black Death.

So, why can’t there be a Criterion Collection Film Production division? These kinds of films are becoming ever rarer, and Criterion’s own selection “criteria” are, of necessity, becoming wider and wider. So if caring film-makers donated—yeah, fat chance—1% of their film’s profits into a fund for such projects they could share in as producers, we might see some alternatives to this endless rotation of:

• Impossible exploding car chases with monsters and/or super-heroes, followed by…

• Outrageous adolescent male nerds “getting lucky,” followed by…

• Preposterous wrongly-accused everyman (and/or woman) on the run from killers…

• Repeat.

Please, someone, make something different!

Here are some others, once planned, that I wish we could’ve seen:

• Stanley Kubrick’s NAPOLEON.


• The collaboration between Walt Disney and surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, DESTINO.

• Alfred Hitchcock’s serial killer P.O.V. film, KALEIDOSCOPE, and his comic thriller, RRRR, about a rare coin heist at a hotel (RRRR is the highest rating for collectible coins).

• Joe Orton’s subversive and racy film starring the Beatles, UP AGAINST IT.

• Billy Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s idea for the final Marx Brothers movie, THE MARX BROTHERS AT THE U.N.

• David Lean’s film of Joseph Conrad’s novel, NOSTROMO and his version of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY.

• Special effects wizard, Ray Harryhausen’s “history of the planet,” EVOLUTION.

• Special Effects wizard, Jim Danforth’s pre-JURASSIC PARK dinosaur film, TIMEGATE.

But, take heart, there’s still slim hope for these:

• Bernardo Bertolucci’s film of Dashiell Hammett’s heavily-imitated, RED HARVEST.

• THE WILD BUNCH writer, Waylon Green’s hyper-violent historical epic, CRUSADE.

• George Lucas’s originally planned films for episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the STAR WARS saga.

• Lem Dobbs’s (THE LIMEY, DARK CITY) script said to rival CITIZEN KANE, EDWARD FORD.

• Francis Ford Coppola’s long-rumored epic, MEGALOPOLIS.

• Neil Gaiman’s (STARDUST, CORALINE) film of his legendary “adult comic,” THE SANDMAN.

Terry Gilliam’s (BRAZIL, 12 MONKEYS) THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, and his intriguing project which he calls his “most personal,” about a burned out retired New York cop tracing a lost little girl in a parallel fantasy world, THE DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE

And, finally, there’s news about the two sequels to Robin Hardy’s and Anthony Shaffer’s original film of THE WICKER MAN: film two, entitled THE WICKER TREE, set in the U.S., and having to do with a Texas cult (in production as this is written); and film three, entitled TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, set in Iceland, and involving the Norse pantheon of gods.

There will always be films that get away. Every so often somebody puts out a list of the greatest scripts never made. There’ve even been a couple of books on the subject. And then there’s this list, a list that has such gems as, NO SHIT, SHERLOCK, with Dame Judy Dench as Queen Victoria, Mickey Rourke (!) as Sherlock Holmes, and rapper 50 CENT as—are you ready?—Dr. Watson(!!!). There’s even a film that wasn’t made and its sequel that also wasn’t made. Okay, so these have gotta be a hoax.

But the films I’ve described earlier are sad losses because there are so many produced films that shouldn’t have been made, and most of us can agree on a lot of these. They’re one of the reasons I write the scripts that I write: because I wish I could see a film like the one that’s in my head. And I work in what are considered popular genres, niches that even have car chases and special effects, believe it or not! But I always try to give such genre tropes a little thought and freshness. And, probably to my detriment, I leave out the salacious pandering, CGI-based excess, narrative contrivances, and flat-out absurdities found in much of Hollywood’s recent product.

If there are readers out there who can tell us about other such unproduced scripts, please let us all know about them in your comments. Feel free to champion unproduced scripts that you feel could become legends, if only the bean counters would shut up for a minute and remember why stories are written in the first place.

Now back to the “nice” blog.

Okay, so I’m not there yet. Give me some time. I’ll get to the happy talk eventually.#


Lee A. Matthias