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


  1. Lee, I tracked back from Go Into The Story to check out your blog. Great start! I'm going to add your blog to my Friends blogroll. Hope to continue the dialogue!

    Scott Myers

  2. Bad news my friend... they say that since Will Smith did such a bang up job with Asmiov's "I, Robot," the intention is to bring about FOUNDATION with him as well.


    Because, as any self-respecting Asimov fan knows, the first person one envisions when considering Hari Seldon is, of course, Will Smith.

    Lord help us all...