Monday, July 31, 2017

Children of DIE HARD

Here's a partial list of films that DIE HARD inspired.

Let's examine the DIE HARD template:

1.  Lone protagonist trapped in a confined space;

2.  Hopelessly outnumbered, protagonist is separated from a crowd of people who are then taken hostage;

3.  There's a personal relationship between the protagonist and one of the hostages (helps "Up the Stakes" later in the movie);

4.  Protagonist is now the 'fly in the ointment' and only one is a position to foil the plan of the villain and his team;

5.  Authorities eventually arrive, but can't get in the confined space.   So they are forced to rely on the protagonist.  

6.  Protagonist kills off one after another of the villains and eventually there's a confrontation with the lead bad guy.

7.  Villain finds out the personal relationship with a hostage and that hostage is with villain to the end.

8.  Protagonist wins.

Not all of those elements (the personal relationship hostage, for example) but they are usually all there.

Here are some movies using the formula.   (See if you can envision the 'pitch' the writers gave selling each project).

The "It's DIE HARD in a ____________" formula....











I once met Jeb Stuart (co-author of the DIE HARD screenplay) and asked him if he got a cut from all the films that used his template and he said, "Unfortunately, no."   Jeb said he'd read an early draft of the script (before de Souza became involved) and it has the most famous line the series:  "Yippee-ki-yay m-----f-----!"  

Writing about the novel yesterday, I neglected to mention the book the line is "Geronimo, m-----f-----!"

I also took a seminar with Chris Soth (writer of the movie FIRESTORM - "DIE HARD in a forest fire" - a script he sold for $750,000).   Chris said, "I knew my career was in trouble when I went into a production company to pitch and they said, 'We don't want to hear any DIE HARD in a blank' scripts."

They seem quite marketable once again.  

NOTE:  Chris' book MILLION DOLLAR SCREENWRITING is available now on Kindle.  It has a beat-by-beat breakdown of DIE HARD if you've found yet another location to set such a story.

The Novel That Inspired the Film DIE HARD

Many fans of DIE HARD may not realize that it was based on a novel and is actually a sequel.  NOTHING LASTS FOREVER was written by Roderick Thorp as a sequel for his novel THE DETECTIVE.   THE DETECTIVE was turned into a film and starred Frank Sinatra.   It was released in 1968.

This post will cover similarities to the novel and changes made during the adaptation process.  It will contain SPOILERS for both the novel and film.  

1.  Joseph ("Joe") Leland is the name of the protagonist of the novels.   John McClane, of course, is the DIE HARD hero.

2.  Both the film and novel are set during Christmas Eve/Christmas and in one primary location - a high rise office building.  Wikipedia mentions that Thorp was inspired by the success of THE TOWERING INFERNO.   Notes in the latest edition of the novel indicate Thorp's family felt he was inspired by a tall building on Wilshire Boulevard that he could look out his window and see.

3.  Leland is traveling in the novel to see his daughter who works for an oil company which owns the high rise.  He's presented as older (mid-40s) and his daughter mid-20s.

4.  There's both a cab driver and later limo driver Leland befriends in the novel.  They both disappear though, unlike the film, and don't play a role further in the novel.

5.  The POV for the novel is through Leland's eyes.   No parallel narratives or changes in the POV.  In this respect, the film is superior.   Seeing the villains' at work, McClane, the hostages, the police, and the media is more entertaining and increases the stakes.

6.  The Villains.  Anton Gruber is the name of the antagonist of the novel, but he has a henchman named Hans.  Anton is a young Communist fighter from Central America and the entire group of antagonists are leftists in their 20s, including three females.  

The film is superior again here with Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman) one of the most compelling villains in film history.  Calculating, erudite, charming, and deadly, Hans has a brilliant plan and he's a great 'fun to hate' bad guy.

Hans takes hostages in the film and asks for political prisoners and terrorists to be released, but this was done to bring in the F.B.I.  They cut the power to the tower, which was part of Hans' plan.  Hans' team is actually after the bearer bonds worth hundreds of millions.

Leland kills several female villains in the novel.  Easy to see why film producers changed this.  Bad guys are a dime a dozen and we feel nothing when they are killed off.  Likely alienating to audiences to see young women killed, even if they are part of a terrorist group.

In the novel, the goal of the antagonists never changes.  It is to expose the oil company as selling arms under the guise of a bridge building construction deal to a central American dictatorship.  There's also six million in cash in the company safe along with evidence of the deal.  The group say they plan to return the money 'to the people.'

By making the goal a pure heist, the film removes any sympathy or notion of a 'noble goal gone wrong' from the mind of viewers.   Greed is the only motive for Hans Gruber.   The supporting group for Hans is more uniquely drawn and diverse.

7.  The Action.  NOTHING LASTS is a page-turning novel and much of the action in the film DIE HARD is already present in the book.   Detailed action beats are there already.   Examples are the use of the gun and strap to swing inside air vents; riding elevators from above and use of the shafts (and getting dirty from the grease and grime); protagonist leaving his shoes off as the assault starts and having his feet cut later because of it; using the elevator to deliver a C4 explosive "present" to the villains taking out a floor of the building; and the gun taped to his back in the final protag/antag confrontation.

Both the film and novel have the protagonist befriending a police officer and not liking that officer's superiors.  

8.  The Ending (SPOILERS).   Both have a confrontation with Gruber in the finish.  In the novel, Anton has Leland's daughter.  In the film, Gruber has McClane's wife.

The ending of the novel has Leland killing Anton Gruber after taping a pistol to his upper back prior to their confrontation.  However, in falling off the building Anton Gruber grabs Leland's daughter and drags her down with him forty stories to her death.   Perhaps Thorp believed readers would feel the daughter was 'in on it' with the oil company's fraudulent bridge deal, or she had been corrupted by the quest for wealth.  Honestly, it lost me as a reader and I felt Leland failed at his only real goal.

The novel adds an element not in the film.   A crowd gathers to watch the spectacle.  Leland places the six million cash at the top of the tower with wind blowing.  Authorities can't prove if he did it, or the kidnappers.  This allows the six million to be blown out into the crowd and surrounding area.  A nice touch.

The film, of course, ends with McClane saving his wife and that story arc (they had been separated) completing happily.  Hans Gruber is dispatched with a great final shot as he tumbles into the abyss.    

Overall, DIE HARD is the rare film superior to the novel on which it is based.   It became a template for an entire series of films.   I'll explore that in my next post.

NOTE:  Amazon Kindle has a version of NOTHING LASTS FOREVER which includes Thorp's outline for the book as well as a copy of his original handwritten notes.

NOTE 2:  "Bearer bonds" were such a great McGuffin, they were used in the film PANIC ROOM.  PANIC ROOM has a fun end where the bonds blow away in a TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE-style finish.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

In the early 1950s, a struggling TV writer named Reginald Rose got stuck with jury duty. He later recalled:

"It was such an impressive, solemn setting in a great big wood-paneled courtroom, with a silver haired judge, it knocked me out. I was overwhelmed. I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room. I was writing one-hour dramas for Studio One then, and I thought, wow, what a setting for a drama."

The drama Rose got out of his jury duty turned out to be 12 Angry Men.

While everybody has seen the 1957 film version, not everyone knows the piece got its start on live TV. On September 20, 1954, Studio One presented the world premiere of 12 Angry Men.

Directed by Franklin Schaffner (Patton) -- he, Rose, and leading man Robert Cummings would all win Emmies for their work.

This broadcast was lost for almost half a century, until a complete copy was unearthed in 2003.

There are some technical glitches here (at one point a CBS camera moves into shot) and it runs less than an hour minus commercials, but there are some aspects of the production that are interesting and even superior to the famous film. Let's compare the casts and see how they stack up:

Foreman Norman Fell vs Martin Balsam --  Fell doesn't have a whole lot to do, so I'm tempted to go with Balsam almost by default. But I'm going to call it EVEN

Juror #2: John Beal vs John Fiedler -- Beal, the onetime Hollywood leading man (The Little Minister w/Katharine Hepburn) isn't bad, but Fiedler is perfectly cast as the mouse who becomes a lion ("You said we could throw out all the other evidence!"). Here, at least, on-the-nose casting works. FIEDLER

Juror #3: Franchot Tone vs Lee J. Cobb -- I generally like Tone, but he overplays his villain role so much he threatens to jump out of the TV screen. Cobb hams a bit himself, but nothing compared to Tone. COBB

Juror #4: Walter Abel vs E.G. Marshall -- Marshall is the cliched old-line intellectual: aloof, curt, and (sexually?) repressed. This on-the-nose playing seemed unimaginative to me. Mild-voiced Abel would at first seem like perfect casting as the crusading #8. Even as the leader of the fry-the-kid side, he still seems relatively open-minded and
understanding. This interpretation was probably not what Reginald Rose intended, but it makes for a more interesting character. His performance may not be "better" than Marshall's, but for me it enhances the material in a way Marshall's does not. Edge, ABEL

Juror #5: Lee Philips vs Jack Klugman -- Philips was the male lead in Peyton Place, but somehow that blockbuster gave him no career boost. Within a few years he would give up acting and move into TV direction. As for 12AM, his Ivy League manner would have better suited the adman. He's never really believable as a product of the slums. Klugman, a better actor and more comfortably cast, easily owns the role.

Juror #6: Bart Burns vs Ed Binns -- I don't know much about Burns (he would go on to play the cop sidekick on Darren McGavin's Mike Hammer TV series). He isn't all that physically imposing, and he seems curiously mild mannered. I'm not totally crazy about Binns here -- he sometimes overdoes the dumb ox shtick -- but he sort of wins by default. The most interesting thing about this character in either version is that on TV he, NOT the old man, is given the showstopping bit of coming up with the evidence. This was a mistake Rose fixed in the film.

Juror #7: Paul Hartman vs Jack Warden -- like Beal against Fiedler, it isn't so much that Hartman is bad, it's just that Warden so completely nails the part it's pointless to compete. Warden makes the role so much his own that the differing details of the earlier version (his tickets are for the Broadway production of The Seven Year Itch!) somehow seem "wrong". What would be fascinating is if through some magical spell we could somehow see Warden and Klugman switch roles. Warden's one-of-the-boys and Klugman's Garfieldish chip-on-the-shoulder make them perfect for the parts they did play, but how would they have done with different characters?

Juror #8: Robert Cummings vs Henry Fonda -- And here we go... I like Fonda, but here he's his usual crusading everyman right from the beginning, an intrepid warrior struggling against injustice. Robert Cummings -- a talented light comedian who usually came across as bland or smarmy in drama -- actually
seems like a guy who is sincere but confused, and not quite sure how he should go about doing the right thing, whatever that is. This may be due to Cummings' acting  ability, or it could be Bob's trouble remembering his lines gives his performance an extra if unintended dimension. And he DID win an Emmy. Edge... Wait for it... CUMMINGS

Juror #9: Joseph Sweeney vs Joseph Sweeney -- Man's eternal struggle against himself... I'm glad Sweeney got to repeat his TV role, achieving a bit of immortality in the twilight of his career and his life. There may have been other actors who could have been as good in the part, but few if any would have been better.

Juror #10: Edward Arnold vs Ed Begley -- Arnold usually played smooth characters (whether good or evil). He doesn't seem comfortable cast against type here as a working class lout, sometimes straining for a Noo Yawk vibe ("Whatzat gotta do widda price o' kawfee?"). Begley easily inhabits the character, smiling (and quite amiably too -- ironic, given Arnold's earlier interpretation) at the start, but quickly turning when Fonda points out his bigotry. He has the film's phoniest moment (when all the backs are turned on him), but even so, BEGLEY

Juror #11: George Voskovec vs George Vos-- er, I did that bit already. Voskovec is okay. But there were probably dozens of actors who could have done it better. Comparing him to Sweeney, the other holdover from TV, he seems easily replaceable.

Juror #12: Will West (aka Larkin Ford) vs Robert Webber -- this is the easiest decision. West makes so little impact it's difficult to even remember what he looked like. In fairness, it must be said that Rose gave his character almost nothing to do, but even so West makes virtually nothing of his (admittedly few) opportunities (as I wrote, Philips would have been more comfortable here than in the role he ended up playing). Webber is at least given a few moments, though IMHO it's not enough -- I wish Rose could have given him some more dialogue (I could have lived with a shorter Balsam-Fonda scene at the window). Still Webber manages to at least register, even if he comes across as a bit too mature for the Mad Ave yuppie. WEBBER

If you have never seen the original, live TV version of 12 Angry Men, watch it and see what you think.


If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Arthur Hailey was a British RAF officer who emigrated to Canada after WWII. He became a writer, specializing in aviation stories -- his 1956 CBC-TV play Flight Into Danger became the 1957 Hollywood film Zero Hour, which would later be the basis for Airplane.

In the early 1960s Hailey took an extended stay at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, then owned by the colorful Seymour Weiss, former barber and Huey Long crony. This stay would result in Hailey's bestselling novel Hotel.

Hailey did not use the story of Weiss (son of immigrants, born in the Central Louisiana town of Bunkie). Instead he invented Warren Trent, from an old New Orleans family, to be the owner of the St. Gregory Hotel. His assistant manager, Peter McDermott, is a transplant to the city from the Northeast. Together they attempt to fight off a takeover bid by hotel magnate Curtis O'Keefe (based on Conrad Hilton).

Hailey's contribution to the old Grand Hotel formula was to pay as much attention to the details of running the hotel as the characters and their melodramas. Thus we get page after page describing the routines of washing silverware, disposing of garbage, preparing meals in the hotel restaurant, etc... This stuff is as much a Life magazine article as it is fiction, but it is admittedly interesting.

McDermott, not Trent, is the main character, and we follow the story mostly through his eyes. Other characters include Christine, Trent's secretary (another non-Orleanian, from Wisconsin); Aloysius Royce, Trent's black surrogate son he is putting through law school; the Duke and Duchess of Croydon, a seemingly perfect diplomat and his wife, who turn out to be less than perfect (a nod by Hailey to the fallen nobility of the old Grand Hotel school); Keycase Milne, a burglar working the hotel; Herbie Chandler, a sleazy bell captain; Ogilvie, an equally sleazy house detective; the rather too on-the-nose named Dodo, O'Keefe's mistress; and Marsha Prescott, a local debutante who falls for McDermott.

This sort of story seemed to be falling out of favor with Hollywood, but nevertheless Warner Brothers bought the right and produced a film version.

The old-fashioned, even archaic vibe starts with the credits, which consist of a pan up a drawing of the hotel, an illustration that looks like it was taken from a 1950s magazine ad.

Screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Anatomy Of A Murder, Advise And Consent) wrote and produced, making some interesting changes. The characters of McDermott and Royce have been merged. The film McDermott is now Trent's surrogate son, and a New Orleanian. This gives a sense of bonding and attachment, both to the hotel/city and to Trent, that wasn't present in the novel.

The character of Marsha Prescott was eliminated, while Christine and Dodo were combined into Jeanne, O'Keefe's secretary who has an affair with McDermott. Also, Peter McDermott is already the General Manager, having started at the hotel as a bellhop when he was a teenager.

Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor) greets Jeanne Rochefort (Catherine Spaak) upon her arrival at the St. Gregory.

Rod Taylor is solid as McDermott, while as for the performance of Catherine Spaak, let's just say she is very beautiful.

St. Gregory owner Warren Trent is played by Melvyn Douglas, in many ways repeating his Hud characterization as an old-school individualist unable to adapt to the modern American way of doing business. 

Melvyn Douglas

His nemesis is Curtis O'Keefe (Kevin McCarthy), a Conrad Hiltonish mogul who ostentatiously prays for divine intervention in his business deals and often walks around barechested and slapping himself on his belly, in the manner of General Buck Turgidson.

Kevin McCarthy

These peccadilloes of O'Keefe (taken from Hilton) seem out of place. especially the praying, which doesn't come across as sincere enough to be lampooned. In fact the casting of McCarthy itself doesn't really work. The role demanded a much more aggressive, over-the-top type.

The part of O'Keefe was first offered to Karl Malden, who turned it down to play the burglar Keycase Milne, a role with little dialogue.  This section of the film was apparently intended as light relief, though it isn't funny at all.

The Duke and Duchess from the novel show up, here renamed Lanbourne and played by the underused Michal Rennie with stonefaced Merle Oberon as the Duchess -- you know an actress has thespian limitations when she is outacted by her jewelry. The Duke and Duchess are blackmailed (over the Duke's hit and run DWI) by sleazy house detective Richard Conte -- here renamed Dupere (pointing up a curious fact about the novel, the lack of French surnames -- the hotel owner is named Trent, and even the debutante, dropped from the film, is named Prescott).

The whole Duke & Duchess subplot is pretty boring, as is Keycase Milne's burglary adventures. This leaves the takeover plot, involving not only O'Keefe and his mistress Jeanne but a Jimmy Hoffa-ish union boss and a section depicting an attempt to desegregate the hotel (the clerk refusing to register a black couple is played by Roy Roberts, who 20 years earlier had refused to register Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement -- was this casting intentional? In GA Roberts was a straight heavy, but here the situation is softened by making his handling of the situation almost comically inept). In the novel this section involves a black dentist at a convention being denied a room, and is unplanned; in the film, the incident is orchestrated by O'Keefe to publicly embarrass the hotel and scare off its financing.

Another of O'Keefe's ploys is using Jeanne to romance McDermott.

McDermott and Jeanne at Pat O'Brien's restaurant, one of the very few scenes shot in New Orleans.

McDermott takes Jeanne to his awe-inspiring French Quarter apartment.

That apartment reminds us mention must be made of art director Carey Odell and set director George James Hopkins, who also gave us the St. Gregory lobby.

Eventually there's a deus ex machina plot device involving an elevator crash at the hotel, giving director Richard Quine the chance to shoot some Vertigo-inspired shots.

The fate of The St. Gregory is resolved when Trent "defeats" O'Keefe and sells out to a conglomerate tat will tear down the hotel and put up a parking lot -- a strange "happy ending" even for the '60s, and perhaps Mayes' oddest alteration of all. In the novel the hotel is actually saved, deus ex mach-style, by a benefactor who wants to repay the hotel for treating him well during his time as a guest.

Hotel must have seemed old fashioned even when it was first released. Even Hailey's next and biggest success. Airport, would emphasize not royal couples and four star hotels, but the workers of an airline company. Just how out of date Hotel was would be shown by another Warners release a few months later. Bonnie & Clyde. Jack Warner had sold the sudio earlier, to Seven Arts, who a couple of years later would sell to Kinney, a company that made its money in parking lots.

If you want to read more about Hotel, check out my favorite movie blog,  John McElwee's always fascinating and superbly illustrated Greenbriar Picture Shows . Even the comments there are interesting; see Dan Mercer's perceptive analysis of why Rod Taylor never became a bigger star.


If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.