Tag Archives: Billy Wilder

Building Urban Fantasy — Part III

When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.

Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:

Make It Criminal

Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.

In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.

On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.

Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.

Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.

 

Bring on the Horror

Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:

Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.

Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?

Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.

Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.

Here’s an example of description employing coded language:

Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.

Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?

Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.

Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.

A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.

Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.

Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.

In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.

As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.

What’s at Stake

The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.

In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.

However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.

In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.

Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.

 

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Story Genius: Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder

As many of you know, I’m a rabid old-movie buff. This week was exciting because I showed my students a 1957 courtroom thriller called WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Based on a play by Agatha Christie, the idea was subsequently translated to the screen by genius writer/director/producer Billy Wilder. Christie supplied the plot and the dynamite twists; Wilder fleshed out her characters. (I think I read somewhere that Christie was paid about $450,000 for the film rights. Not bad in 1950s-era money! Even today’s money would do.)

Over the years, whenever I have coached students wanting to write a courtroom drama, nine times out of ten they make the same mistake:  they establish the defendant as their protagonist. In theory, this should work. After all, the protagonist is supposed to have the most at stake and be at the heart of the story.

Well, the defendant has the most at stake, but otherwise is stuck passively in a jail cell, unable to drive the story action. Therefore, the defendant can not be an effective protagonist.

In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the protagonist is Sir Wilfrid, an experienced and wily defense barrister considered to be the best in the Old Bailey, but he is recovering from a serious heart attack and his health remains uncertain. His doctors have forbidden him to conduct any more defense trials, yet he cannot resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole who has been accused of murder on circumstantial evidence.

Wilder, directing the film, is smart enough to take his time. We don’t meet the accused, Vole, right away. Instead, Sir Wilfrid is introduced first and shown pitted against his nurse who is determined to make him follow doctor’s orders to take it easy, get plenty of rest, and avoid cigars and brandy. Their conflict starts in the first movie frame and continues to arc over the entire duration of the movie. And that arc about whether Sir Wilfrid will achieve his goal of resuming his trial career is the spine of the story. The primary subplot centers on the trial itself and attempts to gather sufficient evidence to exonerate Sir Wilfrid’s client. And although the trial is gripping–not to mention twisty, thanks to the devious imagination of Dame Agatha–it is the characters that make this film stand out.

Therefore, it is these characters that I use as classroom examples of design, introduction, and revelation of true nature. They have vivid and distinctive entry actions, usually in plot conflict or in dramatic contradiction to audience expectation. They wave numerous distinctive tags–e.g. the nurse Miss Plimsoll in her uniform, carrying her small medical bag, wielding her syringe for Sir Wilfrid’s calcium injections; and Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, his wig, his thermos of coco, his pills, and his cigars. Each of them with possibly the exception of the murder victim is designed with complexity. True nature is revealed and concealed in various ways. At first we think of Sir Wilfrid as a sick old man long past his prime, even a bit of a mischievous buffoon who is rude and unnecessarily gruff, but then we learn how intelligent, how clever, how determined to save his client, how wily, and how caring he is. The characters’ clashing goals and motivations bring all of them to life.

Although several characters are introduced through characteristic entry action, some are brought in differently. One such alternative method is through discussion, whereby two characters are talking about a third character about to appear in the story for the first time. The introduction of the defendant’s wife is done through character discussion. Sir Wilfrid, before meeting her, makes an assumption about her that proves to be entirely erroneous the moment she first appears. His mistake emphasizes our dominant impression of her vividly and unforgettably.

The mystery clues are planted through dialogue and character behavior. In watching the film for the first time, you sense something is off and yet you find yourself doubting your judgment. Is it the actor’s performance? Is the character lying? What’s wrong? As Sir Wilfrid says in frustration, “It’s too symmetrical. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it!”

I love how the plot is put together. There is comedy and broad exaggeration. There is audience manipulation. There is the buildup of anticipation and the creation of suspense. The two ticking clocks–Sir Wilfrid’s worsening health and the trial’s verdict–keep your attention hooked to the finale. Even the flashback–always a risk to pacing–works beautifully in planting more clues and pointing to motivations.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. I don’t care, because every time I am struck anew with how well-written it is, how well-plotted and paced it is, how well-acted it is, and how well-directed it is without any reliance on fancy-schmancy special effects. The sets are limited and very tight–reflecting its origins as a play. I’ve read a modern-day review that pokes a hole in the storyline, criticizing it for allowing Vole to exclaim and interrupt during the trial, but I don’t know enough about British courtroom procedures in the 1950s to understand if this is a valid criticism or not. All I perceive as a writer is that Vole’s comments serve a specific plot purpose, and from that restricted perspective they work.

Beyond my enjoyment of the movie’s skillfully employed techniques, I love the reactions of my students. At first they’re delighted to watch a movie in class instead of sitting through a dull lecture. But then they realize it’s an old movie. Even worse, it’s in black and white. They’ve never heard of any of the actors–Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester–and the cars are weird, the clothes are weird, the setting is a London from an era they don’t recognize so it’s also weird. I watch them stiffen in their seats, rolling their eyes and sighing a little. The movie starts with the comedic bit they find cheesy. I can feel them wishing they could ditch class and check their text messages. I know they’re wondering how long this torture will take.

(This time, one brash young man actually asked me if we were going to watch the whole movie. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “You have to stay with it to the end.”)

And then, as always, there comes that moment when I sense a change in the room. The silent intensity in the class tells me they’re absorbed. I know the movie has grabbed my young students by their throats. They are captured by the story question. They want to know what will happen and how it will turn out. And that capture has nothing to do with technicolor, a soaring soundtrack, special effects, wild stunts, exploding buildings, or CGI. It has everything to do with plot and characters–with story.

And that is what writing should be about.

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Scene Check: Part Who

In planning the scene you’re about to write, consider who will be involved.

Your first decision should be whom to choose as the scene’s protagonist and viewpoint character. (They should be the same!)

The scene protagonist should be
-the character at the center of the action
-the person most affected by the outcome
-the one with the most at stake
-the individual with the most to lose
-the character acting upon an immediate goal

Your next decision is to choose the scene’s antagonist. This character will be
-someone also at the center of the action
-the one who most wants to thwart or oppose the protagonist
-the person who will actively oppose the protagonist’s goal.

Now, who else should be in your scene?

No one.

I’ll repeat that: NO ONE.

Optimally, you need only two characters in a scene. These individuals are opponents. They are either in competition for the same thing–i.e. two track stars in a race for the Olympic gold medal–or they’re in disagreement over an issue–or one is trying to stop the other from accomplishing her objective.

Therefore, if Amanda wants the last piece of cake, her cousin Irmengarde also wants it.

John wants to tame the wild mare and break her to ride in order to impress his father. But his brother Tom–already Dad’s spoiled favorite–sets the horse free just to spoil John’s plan.

Helen thinks there’s only one way to land the Gregson Company account, but her co-worker Hans disagrees in favor of a different approach.

What we’re aiming for in setting up a scene’s dynamics is two characters in direct opposition to each other.

A scene can’t work with a single character. It needs two. And the two individuals you select from your cast should be antagonistic to each other … at that moment.

A scene doesn’t have to contain mortal enemies. Just two people in disagreement or opposition. Remember when Solo and Chewbacca squabbled over how to operate the ship? They were friends and allies, but they could still be in mild conflict at times.

Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock of the original STAR TREK series sometimes disagreed mildly and sometimes bitterly, but they remained allied in their loyalty to the captain and Star Fleet.

Since the whole point of a scene’s existence is to dramatize conflict, the best basis for selecting its participants is, who gets along the least?

Now, you may be thinking of several other members of your story cast that you want to include in the scene you’re about to write. In fact, you really want them to be present.

My first response to your plan is WHY?

Why do you want them in the room? What purpose will their presence serve?

To show readers that the protagonist has multiple friends?

Why not have the protagonist glance at his friends before he steps out in the hallway with the antagonist?

To give the protagonist some backup?

Are you trying to convey to readers that your protagonist is a wimp unable to solve his or her problems?

To add plausibility to the backdrop?

Okay, sure. If the protagonist walks in on a board meeting, there will be several suits sitting at the conference table.

Or if the protagonist enters the audience chamber, the king will have advisers or courtiers present.

If you absolutely must have a crowd of onlookers in the scene, can you keep them quiet while conflict is raging between the scene’s protagonist and antagonist?

If you can’t–and about 90% of the time if a third character is present, he’ll butt in–then your two major participants should step outside or go to a corner of the room where they can argue undisturbed.

That’s why so often the CEO will dismiss the suits from the meeting or will step into her private office to confront the character who’s interrupted.

Not always. Not if the onlookers can stay quiet. In the climax of Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy SABRINA, David interrupts his older brother’s meeting for a big confrontation in front of their father and other members of the board. No one leaves, but neither do they interrupt the scene.

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Casting Characters

Writing references offer all sorts of strategies for devising characters, describing characters, and deepening characters, but it’s easy to get so caught up in creating individual dossiers that we may neglect thinking about the whole cast and whether it works effectively.

Let’s say you have a strong, vivid protagonist and a sly, snide, creepy antagonist. But will they work together? Or rather, I should say, will their personalities clash? Not because you’ve read that they should be in conflict but because their essential natures are like magnets repelling each other.

Or, you may have a strong, vivid heroine who’s to be the lead player in your romance story. You’ve concocted a hero who’s broad-shouldered, handsome, and possesses smoldering eyes. But is the chemistry right between them?

Is this pair going to ignite the pages or fizzle? Do you have Humphrey Bogart paired with Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart paired with Audrey Hepburn? (If, by chance, this example makes no sense to you, compare the film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT with SABRINA. You’ll see what I mean. SABRINA is a Billy Wilder gem that sparkles in all directions except for no spark between Bogart and Hepburn. It’s a baffling casting of those two actors.)

If you’re creating two characters who are best friends, do they have rapport? Let’s hope so, but if they do, why?

Ask yourself, how did they become friends? When did they meet? What happened then to create a bond between them? Why are they friends now? That isn’t to say you’ll be inserting all those answers into the story. But you need to know such information and keep it in the back of your mind so you can write the interaction of your characters from that foundation.

In the Dashiell Hammett story, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Ed are lifelong friends who work together until they both fall in love with the same girl. Paul becomes a primary suspect in a murder. Ed wants to help him until he finds out Paul is lying to him. The men quarrel, but Ed’s belief in Paul’s innocence is never shaken. Achieving that kind of closeness–even between two tough guys in a noir novel–requires the creation of background. Hammett knew what it was, even if he didn’t share much of it in the story.

Presently, I’m working on a novel that involves a triangle. It’s hard enough working out the relationship of a couple, making sure they have the right traits to create sparks while being “right” for each other where it matters. A triangle complicates that task even more. I don’t want an obviously uneven group, where Mr. Wrong is so totally, obviously WRONG that only a blind, deaf, and senile bat would be attracted to him. I want Mr. Wrong to have good qualities and I want Mr. Right to be troublesome and unsettling to Miss Protagonist. Yet I must avoid going so far out on the unsettling scale that when she eventually chooses him it screams AUTHOR CONTRIVANCE.

While there are many variants of love triangles, I prefer to divide them into two basic categories: simple and complicated. These are only labels for author convenience. Don’t judge the merits of a story by them because either type can be effective.

SIMPLE: Let’s consider the Tolstoy novel, ANNA KARENINA. It’s been adapted into at least two films–one starring Vivian Leigh and a recent one starring Keira Knightley. Tolstoy is convoluted and enamored of many entwined subplots, but basically the triangle consists of the beautiful Anna, her elderly and distant husband, and the dashing young officer she falls in love with. Anna is torn between love and obligation. If she follows her heart, she will destroy her marriage, her social standing, her financial security. She will be denied access to her only child. She will be ostracized by society.

Simple? Yes, in that it’s clearcut and direct. We understand it immediately. That detracts in no way from its powerful effect. The very simplicity allows the emotional costs facing these characters to be potent indeed.

The modern novelist Danielle Steel can’t be likened to Tolstoy, but she has used the simple triangle numerous times, with a great deal of success.

COMPLICATED: Consider an old romantic comedy film called THE TALK OF THE TOWN, starring Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, and Ronald Colman. Grant’s character has been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and is on the lam, hiding from authorities. Colman’s character is a pillar of the law, under consideration as a Supreme Court judge. Jean Arthur is attracted to both men, and the audience is kept guessing which one she’ll choose right up to the very end. If you watch the film inattentively, you’ll miss the turning point and what factor decides her. Each man is very different from the other, yet they have a great deal in common. Both are equally intelligent, rational thinkers. Both are handsome and appealing. Both men need Miss Arthur’s help.

But perhaps you aren’t writing a triangle. Instead, you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters. Let’s examine the group in the science-fiction film, GALAXY QUEST. The characters play actors who once were on a hit television show and now they survive through residuals and paid appearances at conventions. We have the following basic types:

*The big ego
*The sexy babe
*The jealous neurotic
*The grown-up child
*The stoner
*The clown

All of them, except the clown, have issues with the big ego. Those issues fuel the personal conflict crisscrossing the storyline. Such conflict keeps the story advancing quickly because it either fills points in the main plot that would otherwise sag or it adds complications to the trouble the group is in. Who in the group are allies? Who in the group is the most exasperating to the others? Who nurtures? Who goads? Who whines and complains?

If at least some of the group can serve as foil characters to the others, this can be useful to keep conflict and chemistry going. Foils, as I’m sure you know, are opposites in personality and behavior. Besides the human actors, GALAXY QUEST serves up additional ensemble groups in secondary roles–the alien group and the kids who are devoted fans. The script pulls on these secondary groups as needed to serve as comedic contrasts to the actors.

What you don’t want, in an ensemble cast, is a row of similar types–for example, all shy introverts–who are going to sit still in perfect agreement. BORING!

Other film examples of lively ensemble casts would include STEEL MAGNOLIAS, I REMEMBER MAMA, and TWELVE ANGRY MEN. The latter is focused on twelve jurors locked in a non-air-conditioned room on a hot summer’s day, forced to work together in order to reach a verdict in a murder trial. They’re all quite different and distinctive from each other. Their roles clash terrifically as they attempt to sift through contradictory evidence.

Don’t let these considerations overwhelm you. Create your lead characters–your protagonist and antagonist–first. Build their personalities and check their chemistry of antagonism to be sure it works. Then build their ring of friends or cohorts, one at a time. Minimize the number of characters as much as you can. You’ll find it easier to handle.

Ask yourself, if I were a casting director in a movie, would I hire these characters? Do they have chemistry enough to carry their roles?

If you’re inexperienced at writing, especially long fiction, you may not be able to judge in advance the potential chemistry combinations between your characters. At least, not until you’ve written a big chunk of rough draft. That’s okay. As the characters speak and take action in scenes, they’ll grow more definitive–or some of them will crumble from weak design.

You’ll discover as you go who needs to be reworked. Just keep the sparks flying.

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What Is There to Say?

What kind of dialogue are you assigning to your characters?

The snappy kind that zings back and forth?

The erudite, intellectual kind that calls forth rolling periods of rhetoric?

The mundane chat of reality?

Maybe you’re using a combination of the three, depending on the design of your characters.

Or possibly you aren’t sure what to do with dialogue–let alone how to punctuate it–so you’re relying instead on narrative and description to carry your tale forward.

Commercial fiction–the kind that I write–relies heavily on dialogue between characters. I was trained to set up fiction scenes to be a combination of dramatic action and dialogue. Doing so allows the story to advance and keeps the pacing quick.

An important thing to remember about dialogue is that it’s in the story to either display character personality, share reaction from a non-viewpoint character, or heighten the conflict. Any of those three purposes results in story advancement.

The worst kind of dialogue is aimless chatter between two characters in agreement, where they say nothing but social amenities. I can get that drivel at any time in real life. I want my fiction to be heading somewhere to deal with something that matters!

It helps if you have what is known as an “ear” for dialogue. Are you born with that talent? Maybe. Can you develop that skill? Sure you can.

How?

Listen to the best dialogue in the best films. Shut your eyes in front of your television and just listen. Don’t watch. (Ideally you should view the movie in its entirety first before you try this exercise.) What makes sense? What doesn’t? Start the track over and listen again.

This kind of listening exercise is hindered a bit by actor voice inflection and the soundtrack, but you can overcome such distractions.

It’s helpful if you can read the script as you listen.

Pick the films carefully. I recommend the classic movies–the old b/w ones–because many of them featured such strong writing. Screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday were pioneers of certain types of dialogue. I believe His Girl Friday is the first film to allow characters to talk over each other. Bringing Up Baby pushed the speed of delivery.

Another, possibly less famous, film is Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three. It was the movie that drove James Cagney into retirement. One of the scenes requires Cagney’s character to speak extremely rapidly as he issues orders to solve the mess he’s in. Take after take forced Cagney to talk faster and faster, until he was exhausted. The effect onscreen is hilarious.

Any Billy Wilder film is going to feature superb dialogue. Another master is Preston Sturges. I’m sure you can think of an entire string of favorite movies that you admire.

Beyond listening, you should also develop your “ear” by reading good dialogue in novels. If you’re going to write prose, you have to focus on that medium and observe how writers get inflections and tone of voice across with words alone.

A great deal of it has to do with the character’s vocabulary. Other factors include the rhythm of the sentences, their cadence. Are they clipped and staccato? Are they drawling, slow, and loquacious?

Compare the varying speech patterns among the cast of Key Largo. Again, part of this has to do with the actors, but you can adapt those rhythms to your own passages.

Look at the stripped dialogue of a writer like James Cain. It’s as naked as a bare wire suspending a light bulb from the ceiling. It gets the story across in a raw, almost brutal kind of way.

Maybe you’re writing a romantic story instead. How tenderly, then, can your characters converse with each other?

Or, if you’re into urban fantasy, can your characters achieve the snarky sarcasm of a Jim Butcher protagonist?

Enjoy mysteries? Agatha Christie’s stories are almost entirely dialogue.

To quote one of the best movie lines ever (in Singing in the Rain when Lena Lamont proclaims in her varnish-stripping voice): “Well, of course we talk! Don’t everybody?”

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Films I Like … and Why

Who can resist listing fave picks?  Of course, what galvanizes and inspires my imagination probably makes yours snore.  Even so …

THE HEIRESS, staring Olivia de Haviland & Montgomery Clift.  I love the sets.  The parlors filled with antiques are magnificent, if you happen to like pre-Civil War furniture and architecture.  Beyond that, the story itself is compelling, with nuanced characterization.  None of the three principal players is drawn simplistically.  You expect stereotypes, but you don’t get them.

THE WOMEN, starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford, and Marjorie Main.  Although there’s a newer version of Clare Booth Luce’s story now on film, nothing beats this version.  These actresses deliver their zingers, barbs, and witticisms with awesome skill.  The humor balances the drama of a once-happy marriage that’s breaking up.  The fact that no men appear on the screen at all is amazing.

CASABLANCA, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  I would say, who hasn’t seen this wonderful movie?  Except I keep meeting people who haven’t.  One of the best WWII movies ever made (not to mention one of the best films ever), it offers a solid central story plus charming–sometimes heartbreaking–little overlapping subplots.  A magnificent film.

THE LITTLE FOXES, starring Bette Davis and Teresa Wright.  I like almost all of Bette’s movies because she rarely chooses a flat or simple role.  The title of this movie is taken from the Biblical verse about the little foxes that spoil the grapes.  Bette and her brothers are horrid, greedy people eager for her invalid husband to die so they can get their hands on his fortune.  The best moment in the film is a shot of her expression as she lets her husband die without trying to help him. 

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, staring Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Maureen O’Hara.  It’s an early film, and the staging of the story reflects that.  Even so, Laughton’s portrayal of Quasimodo is compelling, especially once the hunchback falls in love with Esmeralda and realizes he’s too monstrous-looking for her to ever love back.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, staring Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Margaret O’Brien.  Simple story filled with bright musical numbers and gentle family dynamics.  I want to live in that house.  I want to be a member of that family.  It’s a feel-good film, like wrapping up in Granny’s quilt.

MIDNIGHT, staring Claudette Colbert, John Barrymore, Mary Astor, and Don Ameche.  A sophisticated little romantic comedy about an American chorus girl masquerading as a baroness in Paris.  Light, sparkling, witty.  Oh, to have those clothes!

A PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, staring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, and Ethel Barrymore.  A surreal, haunting love story based on one of Robert Nathan’s wonderful novels.  The concepts of alternative dimensions, time relativity, people caught in endless loops of tragedy are all here.  Even better, woven through the love story is the struggle of a young artist trying to find his inspirational subject.

REAR WINDOW, staring Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Raymond Burr.  Forget that it’s considered a cinematic masterpiece and just let it slowly pull you in as it builds suspense frame by frame.

PALM BEACH STORY, staring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea. If you’ve never seen a Preston Sturges film, then you’re in for a comedic treat of rapidfire plotting, zany characters, unpredictable twists, and masterful dialogue.

AMADEUS, staring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham.  When this film first hit the theaters, I went and saw it seven times.  Never mind that I love Mozart’s music.  The contrasts of raw genius packaged in stupid vulgarity versus mediocrity wrapped in so much yearning to achieve more are just sublime.

ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.  A terrific love story between two honorable people deeply attracted to each other in an era when divorce isn’t possible.

IN NAME ONLY, starring Cary Grant and Carole Lombard.  Despite the casting, this isn’t a comedy.  Instead, it’s another love story between a woman of conscience and a man unable to get a divorce.  (Looks like I’ve got a common theme running here! The two films are set 100 years apart, but human nature doesn’t change.)

TOVARICH, starring Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, and Basil Rathbone.  A comedy about exiled White Russians taking jobs as a butler and maid in Paris.  It turns serious near the end, when the grand duchess must make an important decision.  This film’s a bit hard to find, but well worth the search.

THE UNINVITED, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey.  It’s often billed as the best ghost story ever filmed.  I have to agree.  Some terrific special effects, considering it was made in 1944.  There’s also a nice love story plus the most gorgeous house.  I want to live there–without the ghosts, of course!

THE AFRICAN QUEEN, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.  Setting: Africa at the start of WWI.  Situation: a boozy Canadian and a prim English missionary must escape the Germans along a dangerous river.  Objective:  turn a modest river craft into a floating torpedo and sink the German ship terrorizing Lake Victoria. A love story woven with terrific adventure, featuring truly indomnitable characters.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.  Novelist James Cain knew how to write about nasty people you wouldn’t want to meet under a rock.  Watch Fred MacMurray succumb to Stanwyck’s evil seduction; then wait for the plot to start twisting!

STEEL MAGNOLIAS, starring Shirley Maclaine, Sally Fields, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Darryl Hannah, and Olympia Dukakis.  A terrific women’s story about friendship, both comedic and tragic.

SCARAMOUCHE, starring Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer.  The best kind of old-fashioned swashbuckler centered around love triangles, revenge, and the search for identity.  It features a marvelous sword duel at the finish.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW, starring Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, and Daniel Day Lewis.  Filled with enchanting sets and costumes, this love story is set amidst a charming comedy of manners.

THE WINSLOW BOY, starring Rebecca Pigeon and Jeremy Northam.  Based on a true story, this film is about a man’s quest to achieve justice for his young son.

LITTLE BOY LOST, starring Bing Crosby.  Neither a musical nor a comedy, this story will tug at your heart as an American searches the orphanages of post-war France for his young son.

A LITTLE PRINCESS, starring Shirley Temple and Arthur Treacher.  What can I say?  I love this story in all its versions, book and film.  Shirley does a good job coping with the cruelty of Victorian England.  But the Wonderworks mini-series is even better. 

LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY, starring Freddie Bartholomew and C. Aubrey Smith.  This pair of fine actors really make this simple story shine.  Look for a small role played by Mickey Rooney.

MRS. MINIVER, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon.  Greer is a marvelous actress.  This story is about a family trying to get through WWII, and yet it offers so much about kindness, decency, courage, and conscience.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.  Although there are numerous versions, my preference is this older, BBC-produced mini-series.  The casting is perfect, and their performances really capture the satirical wit of Jane Austen.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power.  Billy Wilder was a genius, and here he serves up a stunning courtroom drama with some plot twists that will astonish you.

GALAXY QUEST, starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman.  “Never give up!  Never surrender!”  A brilliant parody of the original STAR TREK and its continued popularity at science-fiction conventions, this film is not only funny but very well written.  You don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy the jokes.  An additional bonus is that it’s the kind of movie that makes you walk around, spouting lines of dialogue.  (My favorite: “Whoever wrote this scene should DIE!”)

MIRACLE ON 39TH STREET, starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwen, and Natalie Wood.  Do you believe in Santa Claus?  Natalie Wood steals the show as a sophisticated little girl who doesn’t believe in fairy tales of any kind . . . until she meets a charming old gentleman.  Is he really Santa Claus?  (I believe . . . I believe . . . I believe.)

STALAG 17, starring William Holden.  Another Billy Wilder film, this story centers on a German prison camp where successful sabotage maneuvers and escapes are being masterminded by the American inmates.  But someone is a snitch, in league with the Germans.  A fascinating array of characters.

I suspect this list might well stretch to infinity if I let it, so I’m stopping even while I’m tempted to keeping adding just a few more (PHILADELPHIA STORY, A TOUCH OF MINK, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, MCCLINTOCK, BALL OF FIRE, GILDA, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, etc).  My list may contain some of your favorites or perhaps it will lead you to some films you haven’t seen before.   Happy viewing!

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