Reader Caution - Deadfully Long Post! Plot Twists Ahead!
I still wonder why Hitchcock’s bad guys called their spy ring the “39″ steps. Wasn’t 15 or 16 enough? I don’t know about you, but there is no way I would remember all 39. Even the amazing Mr. Memory admitted that he had trouble keeping them straight. Looking on the bright side, perhaps my dim memory saved me from a life of treachery.
In fact, films often celebrate things that real people could never do. Like hitting a moving target with a rifle shot while riding side saddle (Tombstone). It is a visual media, and directors like to give us great visuals. Indeed, these days, the visuals are so over the top (I was thinking of the last Batman film) that one forgets that there is a story line at all.
But these technical “achievements” obscure a more basic fact of movie story telling. It’s pretty basic stuff, and it has to be. Otherwise, the audience would get confused, or even worse, bored. To make a simple story work, the director has to use a strong anchoring technique. It works like this —
Anchor the audience’s attention onto a problem (usually a really, really, really bad thing). You know, like the impending end of world, or an invasion of ants,an attack of killer tomatoes, or something else that would merit a reasonable person’s attention for a few hours. A bad case of halitosis probably would not qualify — unless it was really, really bad. You know, life threatening.
Then, after considerable difficulty (the more the better) allow the hero(es) to save the day. Remember — the considerable difficulty is the important part. Injuries incurred in the course of duty can be helpful, but no embarrassing groin injuries please!
Optional Step 3
Oh, it may help to ”distract” the audience with an improbable love interest that brews between major characters while the above is playing out. Not too much, or the movie gets sappy. And …. sorry … romance between minor characters is less distracting and therefore doesn’t work as well.
As Hitchcock pointed out, it really doesn’t matter whether the anchor (the McGuffin as he called it) is realistic — it is the effect we are after, not the realism. So the film Notorious still works as a story, even though we now know that warehousing radioactive uranium ore in a basement wine cellar would not be such a great idea. “More glowing champagne my dear?”
Let’s try it. Here is a good anchor — The Germans may take over all of Africa during the first war. Hey! Let’s start off with a scene where they burn down a village, kidnapp all of the natives, and indirectly cause the death of a British minister. Great! And — Humphrey Bogart and Kate Hepburn save the day by struggling down river in a rickety old boat to blow up the ship that prevents the British from defending. Errr … with homemade torpedoes?? (I hope my 13 year old son doesn’t get any diabolical ideas) And yes, slowly but surely, they discover some sort of weird inner beauty in themselves, and so fall in love as they go down the rapids. Voila — The African Queen.
How about a second one. Here is a good anchor — A wife endangers her marriage when she can’t stop herself from competing with her husband. Sounds silly? That’s ok, we will make it a comedy. Let’s make them lawyers trying the same case. Great! And — the husband saves the day by slowly overcoming his ponderous sense of injustice and finally figuring out that competing can be fun. And yes, as this plays out, Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn make lots of google eyes at each other. Voila — Adam’s Rib.
By now Hollywood has solved so many problems, killed so many bad guys, saved so many days and kindled so much romance, that it can be a bit disorienting to walk out of the theatre and see a world still in conflict and people unattached. But this misses the point. Movies are not learning devices because of the story line. The story line takes second place to other things. Like the old steam engine in the African Queen, it just putters along getting us into the flow — as long as the director knows how to handle it.
Hmmm …. In the African Queen, Bogart found that a good swift kick helped release the steam and keep the engine going. Plot twists, anyone? Yes, I was thinking of that great film with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine with so many plot twists that my head is still spinning, Sleuth.
FOLLOW - The films The Thirty Nine Steps, Tombstone, Notorious, The African Queen, Adam’s Rib and Sleuth are all there on the Classic Film list. Enjoy!