Tag Archives: Tyrone Power

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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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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