Category Archives: Classics

But This Isn’t a Detective Story: Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, the Film

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I’ve loved detective fiction since I was 6 and discovered the Nancy Drew mysteries in the bookmobile, preferring Nancy and her pals to the Hardy Boys and their adventures. Later, I dove into Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery stories without even realizing that Poe is credited with the invention of detective fiction in English, with his 1841 publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which appeared before the word “detective” even existed. Without even knowing that I was reading a specific genre, I tore through all the works of Wilkie Collins and Agatha Christie, loving the casts of strange and fascinating characters even more than I cared about “whodunnit.” Little did I realize that Agatha Christie was considered the star of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920-1949) when the whodunnit was the primary genre of crime fiction. Nor did I realize that Christie was one of the bestselling novelists of all time: I just knew she wrote lots of books and the bookmobile seemed to have all of them. Most importantly, I liked her books very much.

Gillian Anderson as Magda, and Julian Sands as Philip, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

I wasn’t as interested in Christie’s plots as much as I was in her flawed but vitally interesting characters. I often guessed whodunnit and was unimpressed with many of the detectives, not realizing that the amateur or inept investigator is one of the tropes. Gosh, I didn’t even know what a “trope” was, let alone that genre authors used recurring types of characters, themes, or plot devices in their books. And I certainly didn’t realize that many of the detective stories I read had “several classic features,” such as a large, rambling country estate where a group of equally suspect characters distracted the sometimes amateur investigator (and readers) while the least suspicious character continued to commit the murders. I did, however, learn to ignore “red herrings” before I realized there was a term for it, if only because I concentrated instead on the characters themselves, little caring who had actually committed the crime. It wasn’t the murder or the initial victim that I was interested in. I liked all the people involuntarily pushed together after the crime, where they flailed and fought against their lives, against fate, and against each other.

Crooked House, First British Edition, 1949 ©

I still read mystery fiction, though these days I prefer the hard-boiled or noir genres. Again, it’s the characters that interest me, not the crimes or even the process of solving the murder. So it was with great surprise that I saw a 2017 film version of one of Agatha Christie’s classics, Crooked House, which she herself listed as one of the favorites of her own works. I’d heard of the book, and have it on my TBR list, but I hadn’t heard of the film, and I tend to notice films that are adapted from books pretty quickly, especially when the screenwriter is Julien Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame since I so love his work. With a cast of excellent actors playing atrociously selfish and seriously flawed characters, Crooked House is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Perhaps because I had not read the Agatha Christie novel of the same name on which it is based, I came for the actors and stayed for the characters, watching it again immediately afterward to see all the delightful ways the author — and the screenwriter — give clues, scatter red herrings, and create the kind of ambivalent characters that I adore.

Stefanie Martini as Sophia Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Dark and moody, the film begins with the detective’s office, where an unnamed lady is waiting, without an appointment, and where viewers immediately learn that she and the private investigator have some prior relationship. Beautiful, young, vastly wealthy Sophia Leonides (Stefanie Martini) requests that her former lover Charles Hayward (Max Irons) come to her family’s estate because she believes her grandfather’s recent death may have been murder. Further, she is afraid that the murderer is still in the house.

Max Irons as Investigator Charles Hayward, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because the investigating business is not going so well and he needs the money, because Charles doesn’t want to work at Scotland Yard in the shadow of his own famous father’s career nor under the eye of his father’s colleague, Chief Inspector Taverner (Terence Stamp),

Terence Stamp as Chief Inspector Taverner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

who constantly reminds Charles of how his father sat, leaned forward, looked, acted; and perhaps because he’s never gotten over being summarily and without explanation abandoned by the lovely Sophia, Charles goes to the house — the big and gorgeous country estate house — to talk to the Leonides family members.

What a group! Charles immediately meets the family matriarch, Aunt Edith aka Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close) who wields s shotgun like a pro and laughs at Charles’ delusions that he “saved Sophia” when the two were in Cairo.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Aunt Edith came to the Leonides’ English estate years ago, from America, to nurse her dying sister. After her sister’s death, Edith stayed on to run the household, and raise the murdered man’s two sons, Philip and Roger.

All grown up, with wives and children, the boys still live at their father’s home, on their father’s money, though each has his own reasons for doing so.

Julian Sands as oldest son Philip Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Sophia’s father Philip (Julian Sands) is an author and a playwright, who had some minor financial troubles that forced him to return home and live under his father’s controlling and manipulative domination.

Gillian Anderson as Philip’s wife Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Philip’s wife — Sophia’s mother — Magda (Gillian Anderson) is a once-glamorous, heavy-drinking, stage actor who has delusions of grandeur and talent. She’s convinced she could become a film star if only her father-in-law would give them the funds to produce her husband’s brilliant screenplay, written specifically for her as the lead. Now that her father-in-law is dead, however, she fears that she will continue to wither away in relative obscurity on the estate, albeit in the company of her husband Philip, her eldest daughter Sophia, her disgruntled and angry teenage son Eustace (Preston Nyman, below), and her youngest daughter Josephine.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, and Preston Nyman as Eustace Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Twelve-year-old Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), who loves ballet and wanted to become a dancer, welcomes Charles to the estate because she loves to read detective fiction almost as much as she loves to spy on family members via a telescope from her treehouse.

Honor Kneafsey as Josephine, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because she then writes everything down in a journal that she never shows to anyone, her family is convinced that she is writing down their secrets.

Christian McKay as younger brother Roger Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Youngest brother Roger (Christian McKay) also lives at his father’s home, ostensibly because it is he, rather than his older brother Philip, who runs his father’s business.

Amanda Abbington as Roger’s wife Clemency, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Roger is an angry young man, and though his prickly wife Clemency (Amanda Abbington) attempts without success to keep her husband’s outbursts under control, it is soon clear that both of them resent their father’s new wife more than anything else.

Christina Hendricks as the new, much younger wife, Brenda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Of course, the new, much younger wife is everything you’d expect in a story like this. A former Las Vegas showgirl, Brenda (Christina Hendricks) is naïve, voluptuous, and rumored to be having an affair with Laurence (John Heffernan),

John Heffernan as the tutor, Laurence, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

the tutor of Philip’s children Eustace and Josephine, as well as the ghost-writer of the deceased patriarch’s memoir, the only copy of which seems to have been stolen.

Roger Ashton-Griffith as the family attorney, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Now, just for fun, throw in a bumbling family attorney (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who’s no doubt best known as the bumbling Mace Tyrell in Game of Thrones, who suddenly realizes that, inexplicably, the Old Man Leonides’ will most recent will, where everyone in the family was equitably and reasonably provided for, was never actually signed. That means everything — the estate, the businesses, the vast fortune — goes to the widow. That American, that dance-hall trollop, that Brenda, who probably — insists virtually everyone in the family — knew all about the unsigned will and so had the most motive of anyone to commit the murder in the first place.

Jenny Galloway as Nanny, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

And for even more fun and intrigue, stir in old Nanny (Jenny Galloway), who fears that she’s soon to lose her comfortable job and home because the widow, who is without children, won’t need a nanny, and because Nanny’s youngest charge, Josephine, is now too old to have a nanny anyway. Now make Nanny obsessed with getting that nasty journal away from Josephine because… well, just because… it’s a nasty, dirty book. And Nanny hasn’t even read it.

The family dinner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

By the time Charles’ third-hand car won’t start and he has to stay the night and we get to the family dinner — the first time we actually see all the family members in the same room actually interacting with each other — this party is roaring dangerously, combustibly hot.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith de Haviland, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

When Lady Edith asks Charles to tell them what a murderer is really like, he rather smugly lists a murderer’s traits as “vanity, distorted morality, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to believe they’re above the rules that govern others.” The rest of the family’s rather bored expressions, along with Lady Edith’s boisterous laughter as she quips “that description fits every member of this family,” are no surprise. After all, no one knows villains so well as their fellow villains.

A few critics felt that the cast of accomplished actors in Crooked House  “promised… more than it could deliver” or that the the film was “flawed” though a “top-notch period piece.” Emily Yoshida of Vulture described the the film as “directed with slightly sleepy, but entertainingly morbid style” and said that, ultimately, Crooked House knew what its job was and did it: “to set up a tangled web of colorful characters, throw in a few red herrings, set off its dynamite, and make its exit while the smoke is still in the air.”

Stefanie Martini as Sophia, Julian Sands as her father Philip, and Gillian Anderson as her mother Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

From the bumbling, naïve, inept investigator to the thoroughly despised former-showgirl young wife, from the two bickering, resentful, completely spoiled brothers to their angry or utterly vain yet bewildered wives, it is this tangled web of deliciously twisted characters that makes Crooked House worth watching. If you haven’t read the novel on which it was based, even better: then everyone in the film can surprise you.

Like me, you may find that you don’t actually care who committed the murders. Yes, murders, because, as detective-fiction fan Josephine points out, there’s always another murder. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll be both delighted and horrified when you finally learn who, actually, done it all. And while the younger stars are certainly talented, it is Glenn Close, as Lady Edith, and Gillian Anderson, as Magda, who shine as hot and bright as their characters’ falling stars.

Unfortunately, although this film is free to watch for Amazon Prime members, it is not yet available via rental, only purchase ($14.99) from Amazon, YouTube,and GooglePlay. If you do buy it, you won’t regret it.

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Walking Around in Someone Else’s Skin: The Classic Film, To Kill A Mockingbird

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Usually considered to have originated with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was subtitled “A Gothic Story,” Gothic fiction is literature that attempts to combine elements of romance, mystery, and horror — without becoming either too fantastic or too realistic. Initially featuring decaying castles, curses, ghosts or other supernatural creatures and events, madness, murder, and “oft-fainting heroines,” Gothic fiction was hugely popular entertainment.

About a generation after Walpole, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding Gothic villain in her novel A Sicilian Romance: a tempestuous, moody, sometimes secretive, and extremely passionate male who usually encounters a heroine that completely upsets his life. Later this type of “villain” would be called the Romantic era’s “Byronic hero.” Radcliffe also introduced more independent heroines to Gothic fiction with her bestselling The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though Radcliffe’s heroines are still pretty helpless and faint far more than anyone I’ve ever encountered, they inspired “gothic feminism” which critics claim the author herself expressed as “female power through pretended and staged weakness.” Further, Radcliffe changed the infant genre of Gothic fiction by introducing the “explained supernatural,” where all the apparently supernatural events, from ghosts and moving furniture to strange knocks and cries in the dark, turn out, eventually, to have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations.

Gothic fiction and its various, evolving components spread into the literature of the Romantic era, appearing in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Poe. In the Victorian era, Gothic elements were more prominent in fiction, and are found in the work Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre).

Many of these Victorian authors added strong moral elements to their Gothic fiction, producing novels that questioned everything from man’s relationship with newly developing technologies and medical advances to man’s responsibility for feeding and educating the poor. Gothic literature became more than entertainment to pass the long hours of a dark and rainy night: it explored the meaning of life, morality, social responsibility, and man’s relationship to the Divine.

As Gothic fiction spread to authors in America, especially in the South, it became a sub-genre called Southern Gothic. Authors like Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, and Percy examined family relationships, sexuality, poverty, race, and the Southern myths of an idyllic antebellum past. Southern Gothic is filled with

deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters… ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.

With its particular focus on the South’s history of slavery, Southern Gothic became a vehicle for fierce social critique.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of both American fiction and Southern Gothic. A coming-of-age story set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama from 1933-1936, during the Great Depression, the novel examines everything from family relationships and mental health to societal responsibilities, poverty, violence, and crime. The 1962 film version, adapted from the novel by Horton Foote, eliminated some of the novel’s childhood adventures to concentrate on the aspects of its storyline that make To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American literature and film: the ugly and intractable racism between whites and blacks, a bigotry and intolerance that still exists over most of the country.

Mary Badham as Scout (forefront) with author Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

The film’s (unseen) narrator looks back on her six-year-old self and on the events that changed her from an innocent to a more mature child. In 1933, Scout (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck).

Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and Phillip Alford as Jem, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Together with a visiting neighbor, Dill (John Megna, modeled after Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers next door to the Lees with his aunts), Scout and Jem roam around the neighborhood and create their own adventures.

John Megna as Dill, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

One of their most exciting “games” is scaring each other with stories about the never-seen Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut),

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

who lives just a few doors down and who is rumored to be a crazed, scissors-wielding psychopath, once locked up in the courthouse basement jail.

Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Late one night, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) comes over to request that Atticus serve as the appointed defense counsel for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters),

Gregory Peck as Atticus, and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

a black man who has been accused of brutally beating and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox).

Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell (foreground), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Atticus agrees, but despite his attempts to shield his children from the consequences of his decision to represent a black man in a racially charged crime, Scout and Jem soon become involved in the racial “war” brewing around them.

Collin Wilcox as Mayella, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell (both, foreground), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

In particular, the father of the ostensible rape victim, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) tries several times to intimidate Atticus into quitting the case. When that doesn’t work, Ewell threatens violence against Atticus and his children.

Phillip Alford as Jem, and Mary Badham as Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the children continue to find “gifts” in the hollow of a nearby tree, these gifts and their former adventures pale in significance to the events surrounding the crime concerning Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

By the time the trial starts, most of the town is divided and angry. Though Atticus warns his children to stay away from the courthouse completely, Jem refuses to be barred from the biggest event in the county, and Scout refuses to be left behind at home if Jem and Dill are going to the courthouse.

Phillip Alford as Jem, Mary Badham as Scout, and John Megna as Dill (L-R, foreground), with William Walker as Reverend Sykes (background, wearing suit and tie) To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Without Atticus’ knowledge or permission, Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the gallery, in the “Negro section” of the court, and watch the entire trial.

William Windom as District Attorney (L), James Anderson as Bob Ewell (center), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background R), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Judge Taylor presides as the District Attorney (William Windom, in his film debut) badgers witnesses and makes his opinions about Tom Robinson’s guilt clear. Despite the fact that viewers can have no doubt whatsoever about the jury’s eventual verdict, the courtroom scenes are intensely riveting, especially when Atticus cross-examines Mayella herself.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the verdict is not in question, Mayella’s father, angry at the Atticus’ not-so-subtle accusations of incest and child abuse, provokes Atticus repeatedly in an attempt to draw him into a physical confrontation. Then, he decides to provoke Atticus by going after his children.

Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars:
Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction (set design, Black-and-White).

The film also won Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama (Gregory Peck), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein), and Best Film for Promoting International Understanding (to director Robert Mulligan).

When released, To Kill a Mockingbird was an overwhelming critical and popular success, earning more than 10 times its budget in 1962. To Kill a Mockingbird has gone on to become a classic, with the film listed 25th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2007 list) [#34 on the 1998 list], and taking the top spot in AFI’s Top 10 Courtroom Dramas. Gregory Peck’s character Atticus Finch reigns as AFI’s 100 Greatest Heroes.

Everyone should see this film, though children under 12 may need to be cautioned about the subject matter and the language as this film deals openly with rape, clearly suggests incest, and uses language appropriate to the time and place of its story.

Be sure to watch the black-and-white version of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the colorized one: those who colorized it obviously completely missed the symbolism behind the story’s being filmed in black-and-white instead of in color. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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How to Read the Classics to Become a Better Writer

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How to Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.

DON’T DO THIS.

Don’t do this either.

AND DEFINITELY. DO. NOT. DO THIS.

Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

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The Sweet Smell of Murder: The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity

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In 1925, Ruth Brown Snyder, of Queens NY, who was having an affair with a married salesman, Henry Gray, decided to kill her husband. With the assistance of an insurance agent, who was later fired and imprisoned for forgery, Snyder purchased an insurance policy in her husband’s name, a policy that paid extra — double indemnity — if her husband died in an act of “unexpected violence.” Snyder then attempted to kill her husband at least seven times, finally succeeding with her lover Henry Gray’s assistance, and subsequently staging the murder as a robbery gone bad.

Snyder’s inconsistent stories about the robbery-murder, along with the police discovery of the stolen items hidden in the house, caused detectives to investigate Snyder more thoroughly. When police located her lover, Gray, he confessed in great detail. Snyder was found guilty and imprisoned. In 1928, she became the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Tom Howard’s dramatic photograph of Snyder in the electric chair mid-execution was printed on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Ruth Brown Snyder, photographed mid-execution by Tom Howard, © New York Daily News

Many celebrities and reporters covered Snyder’s trial, including crime reporter James M. Cain, who subsequently based two of his novels on Snyder’s story: The Postman Always Rings Twice, about a woman who murders her husband with the help of her ex-con lover; and Double Indemnity, which more closely follows Snyder’s story.

The novel is a crime fiction classic, and the 1944 film of the same name, co-written by director Billy Wilder and crime fiction author Raymond Chandler, has since become one of the defining classics of Noir Film, with all the genre’s requisite essentials: a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over narration limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous but always beautiful and sexually alluring femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a Dictaphone message for a colleague, Keyes, a brilliant claims adjuster noted for ferreting out insurance fraud. Walter’s confession becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, seems to be seriously offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With Phyllis’ ostensibly reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Edward G Robinson as Keyes, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man instead of as a criminal or gangster) is immediately suspicious about the husband’s accident. Keyes intentionally stalls payment on the insurance policy to aggravate Phyllis, complicating Walter’s relationship with her.

Jean Heather as Lola, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Further, the victim’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) knows some secret about Phyllis’ past that makes Lola also suspect foul-play was involved in her father’s death. While simultaneously side-stepping his colleague’s ongoing fraud investigation, Walter spends more time with Lola to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions. Though still sexually involved with Phyllis, Walter begins to have feelings for Lola. When she tells him that she thinks her stepmother Phyllis is involved with Lola’s own boyfriend Nino, Walter’s guilt about the murder and his burgeoning fear of Phyllis make him anxious for his own life.

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Fred MacMurray as Walter, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity is a “moody, pessimistic crime story with strong overtones of spiritual bankruptcy and moral cynicism” and is considered both a model and an archetype of the Noir Film genre.

Filmed in black-and-white, and

[b]rilliantly photographed by John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity’s use of ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting (creating a jail bars effect that foreshadows the likely, if not actual, fate of its protagonists) was to go on become a staple of the film noir look.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, regarded as a “template” for Noir films, and considered by most critics and archivists to be one of the best American films of all time, Double Indemnity is available for rent for $2.99/3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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