Great Scene: “Withnail & I”

February 8th, 2014 by

One of my absolute favorite comedies is Withnail and I (1987). Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the movie features amazing performances by several actors including Richard E. Grant as Withnail, Paul McGann as I (Marwood), and Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty. Here’s a summary (IMDB) of the plot:

London 1969 – two ‘resting’ (unemployed and unemployable) actors, Withnail and Marwood, fed up with damp, cold, piles of washing-up, mad drug dealers and psychotic Irishmen, decide to leave their squalid Camden flat for an idyllic holiday in the countryside, courtesy of Withnail’s uncle Monty’s country cottage. But when they get there, it rains non-stop, there’s no food, and their basic survival skills turn out to be somewhat limited. Matters are not helped by the arrival of Uncle Monty, who shows an uncomfortably keen interest in Marwood…

The movie is full of great scenes, but I chose the sequence featuring Danny “the headhunter”. As far as I know, there’s no script available online, so we have to make due with a transcrip:

The Bathroom

[I is in the bath shaving.]

I:
Speed is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off
the plane. Timechange. You lose, you gain. Makes no difference so long
as you keep taking the pills. But sooner or later you've got to get
out because it's crashing then all at once the frozen hours melt out
through the nervous system and seep out the pores.

[Withnail enters with their lunch from the chippy]

Withnail:
The bastards. Justice suck. It's a miserable cheap cigar and the
bastards won't see me.
I:
Why are we having lunch in here?
Withnail:
It's dinner and Danny's here.
I:
Danny!? How did he get in?
Withnail:
I let him in this morning. He lost one of his clogs. He's come in
because of the perpetual cold. I hope the buggers sales plummet.
I:
I've got your savaloy. Here. I don't want it.
Withnail:
Then stick it in the soap tray and save it for later.

[He scrunches up the paper that was holding his chips and puts it in the
toilet]

I:
Don't vent spleen on me. I'm in the same boat.
Withnail:
Stop saying that. You're not in the same boat. The only thing you're
in that I've been in is this fucking bath.
I:
Danny's here. Head hunter to his friends. Head hunter to everybody. He
doesn't have any friends. The only people he converses with are his
clients and occasionally the police. The purveyor of rare herbs and
prescribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?

[I comes out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel.]

I:
Danny.
Danny:
You're looking very beautiful man. Have you been away? St. Peter
preached the epistles to the apostles looking like that. Have you
got any food.
I:
Mmm, As a matter of fact, got a savaloy.
Danny:
How much is it?
I:
You can have it for nothing.
[Danny sniffs the sausage. Withnail enters from the kitchen gluing the
sole back on his shoe. He is wearing a rather expensive looking suit.]

Danny:
I see you're wearing a suit.
Withnail:
What's it got to do with you?
Danny:
No need to get uptight man. I was merely making an observation. I
happened to be looking for a suit for the coal man two weeks ago. For
reasons I can't really discuss with you the coal man had to go to
Jamaica. Got busted coming back through Heathrow, had the weight under
his fez. We wored out that it would be handycarma for him to get hold
of a suit but he's a very low temperature spade the coal man, went
into court wearing a kaftan and a bell. This doesn't go down at all
well. They can handle the kaftan but they can't handle the bell. So
there's this judge sitting there sitting in a cape like fucking batman
with this really rather far out looking hat
Withnail:
A wig.
Danny:
No man, this was more like a long white hat. So he looks at the
coalman and says 'what's all this. This is a court man. This ain't
fancy dress' and the coal man looks at him and says 'you think you
look normal, your honour?'. Cunt give him two years.

[I laughs a little. Withnail looks on unamuzed.]

Danny:
I'm afraid I can't offer you gentlemen anything.
I:
That's alright Danny. We'd decided to lay off for a bit.
Danny:
That's what I thought. Except for personal use I concur with you. as a
matter of fact i was thinking of retiring and going into business
Withnail [Scoffing]:
Doing what?
Danny:
The toy industry.

[There is a strange looking contraption on the table involving a bottle.]

Withnail:
Thought you were in the bottle industry.
Danny:
No man, that's a side line. You can have that. Instructions are
included. Yeah. My partner's got a really good idea for making dolls.
His name's 'Presuming Ed'. His sister give him the idea. She got a
doll on Christmas what pisses itself.
Withnail:
Really.
Danny:
Then you've got to change its draws for it. Horrible really but
they're like that the little girls. So we're going to make one that
shits itself too.
Withnail:
Shits itself!?
Danny:
He's an expert. He's building the prototype now. [To I] Why's he
behaving so uptightly.
Withnail:
Because a gang of cheroot vendors consider a hair cut beyond the limit
of my abilities
Danny:
I don't advise a hair cut man. All hairdressers are in the employment
of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from
the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the
reason bold-headed men are uptight.
Withnail:
What absolute twaddle.
Danny:
Has he just been busted?
I:
No.
Danny:
Then why's he wearing that old suit?
Withnail:
Old suit? This suit was cut by Hawke's of Saville row. Just because
the best tailoring you've ever seen is above you fucking appendix
doesn't mean anything.
Danny:
Don't get uptight with me man. Because if you do I'll have to give you
a dose of medicine and if I spike you you'll know you've been spoken
to.
Withnail:
You wouldn't spike me you're too mean. Besides, there's nothing
invented I couldn't take.
Danny:
If I medicined you you'd think a brain tumour was a birthday present.
Withnail:
I could take double anything you could.
Danny [removing his sunglasses]:
Very, very foolish words man.
I:
He's right Withnail. Look at him . His mechanisms gone. He's had more
drugs than you've had hot dinners.
Withnail:
I'm not having this shag-sack insulting me. Let him get his drugs out.

[Danny gets a doll out of a bag.]

Danny:
This doll is extremely dangerous. It has voodoo qualities.

[Withnail snorts. Danny takes the head off the doll and extracts a handful
of pills.]

Danny:
Trade: Phenodihydrochloride benzelex. Street: The embalmer.
Withnail:
Balls. I'll swallow it and run a mile.
Danny:
Cool your boots man. This pill's valued at two quid.
Withnail:
Two quid! You're out of your mind.
I:
That's sense Withnail.
Withnail:
You can stuff it up your arse for nothing and fuck off while you're
doing it.
Danny:
No need to insult me man. I was leaving anyway. Have either of you got
shoes?

Such inanity! Fantastic stuff! Actor Ralph Brown, who played Danny, reprised a variation of the role in Wayne’s World 2 (1993) as Del Preston, the ultimate roadie who was prone to dispensing sage advice like this:

Listen, sonny Jim. Sleeping like this will add ten years to your life. I learned it from Keith Richards when I toured with the Stones. This may be the reason why Keith cannot be killed by conventional weapons.

Any Withnail and I fans out there?

[Originally posted February 26, 2010]

UPDATE: I have been chastened by @ToWitLudo for using a transcript as s/he has a hard copy of the script for Withnail & I. To wit, here is a sample of the wonderful screenwriting skill of writer-director Bruce Robinson:

Now I’m off to “send a case of the finest wine known to humanity to Bruce Robinson to atone.”

Great Scene: “Wall Street”

January 25th, 2014 by

Today as we consumers gorge on holiday sales, I thought how appropriate to feature this famous speech from the movie Wall Street (1987). The setting: The annuals shareholder’s meeting for a corporation called Teldar. The speaker: Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) who has been allowed to take the floor to make his pitch to the shareholders against the current corporate leadership represented by Cromwell (Richard Dysart). This monologue, along with the rest of the script, was written by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone, and features one of the most famous movie lines in the 80′s: “Greed is good.”

	Gekko is now at floor level with a microphone. He's calmer,
	makes his pitch to the stockholders, looking up at the
	management.

				GEKKO
		...I appreciate the chance you're
		giving me, Mr. Cromwell, as the
		single largest stockholder in
		Teldar, to speak.
			(gets some laughter
			and applause, loosens)
		On the way here today I saw a
		bumper sticker. It said, "Life is a
		bitch... then you die".
			(gets another laugh)
		...well ladies and gentlemen, we're
		not here to indulge in fantasies,
		but in political and economic
		reality. America has become a
		second rate power. Our trade
		deficit and fiscal deficit are at
		nightmare proportions. In the days
		of the 'free market' when our
		country was a top industrial power,
		there was accountability to the
		shareholders. The Carnegies, the
		Mellons, the man who built this
		industrial empire, made sure of it
		because it was their money at stake.
		Today management has no stake in
		the company. Altogether these guys
		sitting up there own a total of
		less than 3% and where does Mr.
		Cromwell put his million dollar
		salary? Certainly not in Teldar
		stock, he owns less than 1%.
		You own Teldar Paper, the
		stockholders, and you are being
		royally screwed over by these
		bureaucrats with their steak
		lunches, golf and hunting trips,
		corporate jets, and golden
		parachutes! Teldar Paper has 33
		different vice presidents each
		earning over $200,000 a year. I
		spent two months analyzing what
		these guys did and I still can't
		figure it out.
			(a big laugh)


	Cromwell is pissed.

				CROMWELL
		This is an outrage Gekko! You're
		full of shit!

				GEKKO
		One thing I do know is this paper
		company lost $110 million last
		year, and I'd bet half of that is
		in the paperwork going back and
		forth between all the vice
		presidents...
			(increased laughter,
			he's getting them)
		The new law of evolution in
		corporate America seems to be
		'survival of the unfittest'. Well
		in my book, you either do it right
		or you get eliminated. Teldar Paper
		is doomed to fail. Its
		diversification into casualty
		insurance has not worked. Its crown
		jewels are its trees, the rest is
		dross. Through wars, depressions,
		inflations and deterioration of
		paper money, trees have always kept
		their value, but Teldar is chopping
		them all down. Forests are
		perishable, forest rights are as
		important as human rights to this
		planet, and all the illusory
		Maginot lines, scorched earth
		tactics, proxy fights, poison
		pills, etc. that Mr.
		Cromwell is going to come up with
		to prevent people like me from
		buying Teldar Paper are doomed to
		fail because the bottom line,
		ladies and gentlemen, as you very
		well know, is the only way to stay
		strong is to create value, that's
		why you buy stock, to have it go up.
		If there's any other reason, I've
		never hear it.
			(laughter)
		That's all I'm saying...it's you
		people who own this company, not
		them, they work for you and they've
		done a lousy job of it. Get rid of
		them fast, before you all get sick
		and die. I may be an opportunist,
		but if these clowns did a better
		job, I'd be out of work. In the
		last seven deals I've been in,
		there were 2.3 million stockholders
		that actually made a pretax profit
		of $12 billion. When I bought the
		Ixtlan Corporation it was in the
		exact same position Teldar is
		today -- I turned three of its
		companies private and I sold four
		others -- and each of these
		companies, liberated from the
		suffering conglomerate has
		prospered. I am not a destroyer of
		companies, I am a liberator of them.
		The point is, ladies and gentlemen,
		greed is good. Greed works, greed
		is right. Greed clarifies, cuts
		through, and captures the essence
		of the evolutionary spirit. Greed
		in all its forms, greed for life,
		money, love, knowledge, has marked
		the upward surge of mankind -- and
		greed, mark my words -- will save
		not only Teldar Paper but that
		other malfunctioning corporation
		called the USA...Thank you.

	Much applause as he sits. Now a standing ovation; shouts of
	approval. Cromwell knows he has lost the day, tries to
	continue the meeting by calling for "order".

	Bud watches, impressed.

And here’s the actual scene:

A tour du force performance by actor Michael Douglas.

[Originally posted November 28, 2008]

Great Scene: “The Verdict”

January 18th, 2014 by

Courtroom dramas. A staple of Hollywood cinema for decades. From a string of great films nearly a half-century ago Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to more recent hits including Presumed Innocent (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), and Erin Brockovich (2000), movie-going audiences have shown a sustained interest in legal dramas.

One staple of courtroom dramas is the closing argument. I think it’s fair to say that most screenwriters would tend to go over the top and have their lead character ratchet up the drama through their dialogue. But in the fantastic movie The Verdict (1982), starring the late Paul Newman as alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin, screenwriter David Mamet resists that temptation to go bigger. Instead the power of Galvin’s words form from their simplicity and honesty.

               
               INT. COURTROOM - JUDGE HOYLE'S P.O.V. - FULL COURTROOM - DAY

               All looking slightly to their right.

               ANGLE

               JUDGE SWEENEY Mr. Galvin...?

               ANGLE - GALVIN

               In front of the full jury box. Beat.

                                     GALVIN
                         You know, so much of the time we're 
                         lost. We say, 'Please, God, tell us 
                         what is right. Tell us what's true.  
                         There is no justice. The rich win, 
                         the poor are powerless...' We become 
                         tired of hearing people lie. After a 
                         time we become dead. A little dead.  
                         We start thinking of ourselves as 
                         victims.
                              (pause)
                         And we become victims.
                              (pause)
                         And we become weak... and doubt 
                         ourselves, and doubt our 
                         institutions... and doubt our 
                         beliefs... we say for example, 'The 
                         law is a sham... there is no law...  
                         I was a fool for having believed 
                         there was.'
                              (beat)
                         But today you are the law. You are 
                         the law... And not some book and not 
                         the lawyers, or the marble statues 
                         and the trappings of the court... 
                         all that they are is symbols.
                              (beat)
                         Of our desire to be just...
                              (beat)
                         All that they are, in effect, is a 
                         prayer...
                              (beat)
                         ...a fervent, and a frightened prayer.  
                         In my religion we say, 'Act as if 
                         you had faith, and faith will be 
                         given to you.'
                              (beat)
                         If... If we would have faith in 
                         justice, we must only believe in 
                         ourselves.
                              (beat)
                         And act with justice.
                              (beat)
                         And I believe that there is justice 
                         in our hearts.
                              (beat)
                         Thank you.

               He stands still a moment, then surveys the still courtroom.

Here is the scene from the movie:

Paul Newman takes these words and with his voice barely above a whisper, leaving plenty of room for silence, he drives home his point, one human to twelve other humans on the jury — making it a truly great scene.

[Originally posted November 7, 2008]

Great scene: “The Usual Suspects”

January 11th, 2014 by

The ‘big twist!’ Is there any movie ending more satisfying than a scene sequence where you realize the writer has totally played you, set you up to think one thing, then through the course of events in the scene, methodically let you in on the secret the writer has carefully crafted and kept to him/herself. One of the best ‘big twists’ in recent memory is in The Usual Suspects (1995). Written by Chris McQuarrie, the movie is a nifty crime noir story with an odd angle to it: the real or mythological crime lord Keyser Söze.

Here in the final sequence, Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, a limping weakling played masterfully by Kevin Spacey, prepares to leave a lengthy interrogation with Dave Kujan (Chaz Palminteri), U.S. customs agent.

         Kujan pulls the microphone out from under his tie and puts
         it on the desk. Verbal actually manages to snort a laugh,
         but only briefly, overcome by an apparent wave of nausea.

                               KUJAN
                   You're not safe on your own.

                               VERBAL
                   You think he's..?

                               KUJAN
                   Is he Keyser Soze I don't know,
                   Verbal. It seems to me that Keyser
                   Soze is a shield. Like you said, a
                   spook story, but I know Keaton - and
                   someone out there is pulling strings
                   for you. Stay here and let us protect
                   you.

                               VERBAL
                   I'm not bait. No way. I post today.

                               KUJAN
                   You posted twenty minutes ago. Captain
                   Leo wants you out of here a.s.a.p.,
                   unless you turn state's.

                               VERBAL
                   I'll take my chances, thank you.
                   It's tougher to buy the cheapest bag-
                   man than it is to buy a cop.

                               KUJAN
                   Where are you going to go, Verbal?
                   You gonna run? Turn states evidence.
                   You might never see trial. If somebody
                   wants to get you, you know they'll
                   get you out there.

                               VERBAL
                   Maybe so, but I'm no rat, Agent Kujan.
                   You tricked me, that's all. I won't
                   keep my mouth shut 'cause I'm scared.
                   I'll keep it shut 'cause I let Keaton
                   down by getting caught - Edie Finneran
                   too. And if they kill me, it's because
                   they'll hear I dropped dime. They'll
                   probably hear it from you.

         Verbal stands, mustering his shattered dignity and walks
         towards the door. Rabin opens it for him from outside.

         For once Kujan cannot bring himself to look at Verbal. Verbal
         turns to the door, stopping to look Rabin in the eye.

                               VERBAL
                   Fuckin' cops.

         He steps out of the room and into the hall. Rabin follows
         him.

         INT. HOSPITAL - DAY

         Daniel Metzheiser comes out of Arkosh Kovash's room with a
         single sheet of 15x20 inch paper in his hand. He inspects
         the sketch with great interest. He folds the edges of the
         paper back to make it smaller.

         INT. HOSPITAL RECEPTION ROOM

         Metzheiser walks behind the reception desk without asking
         the nurse for permission and helps himself to the fax machine.

         INT. DEPOT - LATER

         Verbal is downstairs in the depot of the police station
         picking up his personal belongings.

         A FAT, WHITE-HAIRED COP is checking off the items as he takes
         them out of the tray in which they are kept.

                               COP
                   One watch: gold. One cigarette
                   lighter: gold. One wallet: brown.
                   One pack of cigarettes.

         Verbal collects his personal items and shuffles on his lame
         leg toward the exit.

         INT. DISPATCHER'S OFFICE

         Jack Baer stands by a fax machine. A green light comes on
         next to a digital display.

         THE DISPLAY READS: RECEIVING

         INT. RABIN'S OFFICE

         Kujan stares solemnly at the bulletin board, drinking from
         Rabin's coffee cup. Rabin sits at the desk, sifting through
         the mound of gapers as though considering organizing them
         once and for all.

                               RABIN
                   You still don't know shit.

                               KUJAN
                   I know what I wanted to know about
                   Keaton.

                               RABIN
                   Which is shit.

                               KUJAN
                   No matter. He'll have to know how
                   close we came.

                               RABIN
                   Keyser Soze or not, if Keaton's alive
                   he'll never come up again.

                               KUJAN
                   I'll find him.

                               RABIN
                   Waste of time.

                               KUJAN
                        (to himself)
                   A rumor is not a rumor that doesn't
                   die.

                               RABIN
                   What?

                               KUJAN
                   Nothing. Something I - forget it.

         Kujan shakes his head. He gestures to the desk.

                               KUJAN
                   Man, you're a fucking slob.

         Rabin regards the mess of his office.

                               RABIN
                   Yeah. It's got its own system though.
                   It all makes sense when you look at
                   it right. You just have to step back
                   from it, you know? You should see my
                   garage, now that's a horror show...

         Kujan is not listening. He has been staring at the bulletin
         board, lost in thought, his unfocused eyes drifting across
         the mess of papers, not looking at anything at all.

         EXT. STREET

         Verbal steps out into the sunlight, putting on a pair of
         cheap sunglasses. He looks up and down the crowded street.

         People on their way to and from lunch, no doubt.

         Cars choke the street in front of the police department as
         they wait for pedestrians to clear the way.

         INT. DISPATCHER'S OFFICE

         A single sheet of paper comes out of the fax machine, face
         down.

         INT. RABIN'S OFFICE

         Kujan still stares at the bulletin board.

         SUDDENLY, Kujan's face changes. He leans in closer to the
         bulletin board and squints his eyes. His face changes again.

         First a look of puzzlement, then confusion - finally
         realization.

         The coffee cup tumbles from his hand. It hits the floor with
         the SMASH of cheap porcelain. Coffee splatters everywhere.

         Rabin snaps out of his droning and looks up in surprise.

         KUJAN'S P.O.V.

         Kujan is staring not at what is on the bulletin board, but
         at the bulletin board itself.

         His eyes follow the aluminum frame, mounted firmly to the
         wall. One might note it's sturdy construction and it's
         convenient size. Big enough to hold a lifetime of forgotten
         and disregarded notes and facts. Years of police trivia that
         has been hung and forgotten with the intention of finding a
         use for it all someday. One might want such a bulletin board
         for one's self. One would look to see who makes such a
         bulletin board.

         Kujan's eyes are locked on a metal plate bearing the
         manufacturer's name.

         It reads: QUARTET - SKOKIE, ILLINOIS Kujan's eyes flash all
         over the bulletin board. He finds a picture of Rabin in the
         far corner.

         He stands beside a scale in fishing gear. He proudly holds a
         hand out to his freshly caught marlin. His eyes skim quickly
         over and stop on an eight and a half by eleven inch fax sheet
         of what must be a THREE HUNDRED POUND BLACK MAN. Kujan glazes
         over his name, it is irrelevant. His aliases stand out.

         Slavin, BRICKS, Shank, REDFOOT, Thee, Rooster...

         KUJAN'S EYES WIDEN with sudden realization. He runs for the
         door.

         His foot crushes the broken pieces of Rabin's coffee cup.
         The cup that hovered over Verbal's head for two hours.

         Kujan is in too much of a hurry to notice the two words
         printed on the jagged piece that had been the bottom of the
         cheap mug.

         KOBAYASHI PORCELAIN.

         EXT. HALLWAY

         Kujan is sprinting wildly down the hall for the stairs.

         EXT. STREET

         Verbal looks behind him and sees ANOTHER COP standing just
         inside the doorway, lighting a cigarette. The cop notices
         Verbal and watches him in the way that cops look at people
         they cannot place in the category of idiot citizen, or stupid
         criminal.

         Verbal smiles politely, meekly at the cop and walks down the
         steps into the moving throng.

         INT. DEPOT

         Kujan runs up to the desk where Verbal had only moments before
         picked up his belongings. Rabin is right behind him, a look
         of absolute confusion on his face.

                               KUJAN
                   WHERE IS HE? DID YOU SEE HIM?

                               COP
                   The Cripple? He went that way.

         The cog gestures towards the door.

         Kujan runs outside looking around frantically.

         EXT. SIDEWALK

         Verbal limps his way carefully across the sidewalk, avoiding
         people as best as he can.

         He looks over his shoulder, getting farther away from the
         police station. He can see Rabin and the cop on the steps,
         looking around with strange, lost expressions on their faces.

         He does not notice the car creeping along the curb beside
         him.

         INT. CAR

         DRIVER'S P.O.V.

         The driver's hands tap the wheel patiently. His eyes follow
         Verbal as he fumbles through the crowd.

         EXT. SIDEWALK

         Kujan pushes and shoves, looking this way and that.

         EXT. STREET

         LOW ANGLE on the feet of dozens of people. Verbal's feet
         emerge from the crowd on the far side. They hobble along the
         curb.

         SUDDENLY, the right foot seems to relax a little, the inward
         angle straightens itself out in a few paces and the limp
         ceases as though the leg has grown another inch.

         CRANE UP VERBAL'S BODY

         Verbal's hands are rummaging around in his pockets. The good
         left hand comes up with a pack of cigarettes, the bad right
         hand comes up with a lighter. The right hand flexes with all
         Of the grace and coordination of a sculptor's, flicking the
         clasp on the antique lighter with the thumb, striking the
         flint with the index finger. It is a fluid motion, somewhat
         showy.

         Verbal lights a cigarette and smiles to himself. He turns
         and sees the car running alongside.

         INT. DISPATCHER'S OFFICE

         Jack Beer pulls the sheet out of the fax machine and turns
         it over, revealing the composite sketch of Keyser Soze.

         Though crude and distorted, one cannot help but notice how
         much it looks like VERBAL KINT.

         EXT. STREET

         The car stops. The driver gets out. IT IS KOBAYASHI, or the
         man we have come to know as such. He smiles to Verbal. Verbal
         steps off of the curb, returning the smile as he opens the
         passenger door and gets in.

         The man called Kobayashi gets in the driver's seat and pulls
         away.

         A moment later, Agent David Kujan of U.S. Customs wanders
         into the frame, looking around much in the way a child would
         when lost at the circus.

         He takes no notice of the car pulling out into traffic,
         blending in with the rest of the cars filled with people on
         their way back to work.

         BLACK

                                   THE END

Now compare to the way the scene plays out in the movie:

Notice how much dialogue didn’t make it into the final cut. As they say, “Less is more.”

Do you remember the moment you realized the truth about Keyser Söze when you first watched The Usual Suspects?

[Originally posted August 22, 2008]

Great Scene: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

January 4th, 2014 by

I’ve been going through my various Lists and was shocked to discover that in Great Scenes, I currently do not have anything from one of my favorite movies of all time To Kill a Mockingbird. I determined there and then to do something about it – now!

The problem is – which scene? So many great moments. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) shooting the rabid dog. Scout (Mary Badham) inside the family car, threatened by a drunk and surly Bob Ewell (James Anderson). The night that Atticus stands guard outside the local jail to keep a mob from lynching Tom Robinson (Brock Adams). The assault on Scout and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) by Ewell only to be saved by a mystery figure. The reveal of Boo Radley (Robert Duval) lurking in the shadows of the Finch house to make sure that Scout and Jem are safe – for it was he who saved them from Ewell, killing Ewell in the process.

As I say, so many profound moments in the movie. But it is impossible for me to watch the film and to this day not be moved by the closing argument Atticus gives at the trial:

INT. COURTROOM - CLOSE SHOT - ATTICUS

ATTICUS
Gentlemen, I would like to use my
remaining time with you to remind
you that this case is not a
difficult one.

We see the jurors from Atticus' P.O.V. They watch with no
show of emotion. These are the faces of farmers -- lined
and careworn.

BACK TO ATTICUS - As he talks, he looks into the eyes of
the men of the jury as if to find one to encourage him.

ATTICUS
To begin with, this case should
never have come to trial. The
State has not produced one iota of
medical evidence to the effect
that the crime Tom Robinson is
charged with ever took place. It
has relied instead upon the
testimony of two witnesses whose
evidence has not only been called
into serious question on cross
examination, but has been flatly
contradicted by the defendant.
There is circumstantial evidence
to indicate that Mayella Ewell was
beaten savagely by someone who led
almost exclusively with his
left... and Tom Robinson now sits
before you with the only good hand
he possesses... his right hand.
I have nothing but pity in my
heart for the chief witness for
the state. She is the victim of
cruel poverty and ignorance -- but
my pity does not extend so far as
to her putting a man's life at
stake which she has done in an
effort to get rid of her own
guilt. I say guilt, gentlemen,
because it was guilt that
motivated her. She has committed
no crime, she has merely broken a
rigid and time honored code of
our society, a code so severe that
whoever breaks it is hounded from
our midst as unfit to live with.
She must destroy the evidence of
her offense. What was the
evidence of her offense? Tom
Robinson, a human being. She must
put Tom Robinson away from her.
Tom Robinson was her daily
reminder of what she did. What
did she do? She tempted a Negro.
She was white, and she tempted a
Negro. She did something that in
our society is unspeakable: She
kissed a black man. Not an old
Uncle, but a strong, young Negro
man. No code mattered to her
before she broke it, but it came
crashing down on her afterwards.
The witnesses for the state, with
the exception of the Sheriff of
Maycomb County, have presented
themselves to you gentlemen, to
this Court, in the cynical
confidence that their testimony
would not be doubted, confident
that you gentlemen would go along
with them on the assumption -- the
evil assumption -- that all
Negroes lie, that all Negroes are
basically immoral beings, that all
Negro men are not to be trusted
around our women, an assumption
one associates with minds of their
caliber, which, gentlemen, we know
is in itself a life I do not have
to point out to you. And so a
quiet, respectable, humble Negro
who had the unmitigated temerity
to "feel sorry" for a white woman
has had to put his words against
two white people's. The defendant
is not guilty, but somebody in this
courtroom is.

THE JURY -- ATTICUS' P.O.V.

Their faces haven't change expression. One man's chin
itches, and he scratches it. One man brushes a fly off
his knee.

BACK TO ATTICUS

His face is beginning to perspire. He wipes it with a
handkerchief.

ATTICUS
In this country, our courts are the
great leveler, and in our courts
all men are created equal. I'm no
idealist to believe firmly in the
jury system. That is no ideal to
me...It is a living, working
reality. Gentlemen, a court is no
better than each man of you
sitting before me on this jury. A
court is only as sound as the men
who make it up. I am confident
that you gentlemen will review
without passion the evidence you
have heard, come to a decision,
and restore this defendant to his
family. In the name of God, do
your duty. In the name of God,
believe Tom Anderson.

Why is this speech so powerful? Its words work on many levels, but perhaps none more than this: Atticus puts racism on trial. “The defendant is not guilty, but somebody in this courtroom is.” The subtext goes beyond Ewell and his daughter; not just generalized bigotry, but the institutionalized racism that existed in the South at the time. Listen to Peck’s brilliant delivery of these words, how he rises in defense of Tom Anderson – and indicts bigotry:

Why do certain movies cling to us throughout the years, so profound in their impact that they lurk just barely beneath our consciousness, scenes and moments that we can replay in our minds in an instant? In terms of To Kill a Mockingbird, I have a straight line from my own life-experience — through Scout.

At the time of the movie’s trial, Scout is 9 years old. My family moved from California to Montgomery, Alabama in 1963 when I was 10 (my father was an officer in the Air Force and attended the Air War College in Montgomery from 1963-1964). Although the movie To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1962, I didn’t see it until a few years later, but when I did, I was completely sucked into Scout’s journey because of my experience of the institutional form of racism I witnessed in Montgomery – segregated schools, segregated Little League baseball, “Colored Only” water fountains and bathrooms, “No Negroes Allowed” signs at restaurants, and on and on. A white youth for the first time in an overt segregated world.

In 1963, George Wallace was sworn in as Governor of Alabama. In June of that year, he stood in front of the entrance to an auditorium at the University of Alabama, attempting to block the entrance of two African-American students. Every Sunday I attended church in downtown Montgomery – directly diagonal to the church Wallace attended.

File:Wallace at University of Alabama edit2.jpg

Also that summer, President John Kennedy sent what came to be known as the Civil Rights Bill to Congress. He didn’t live to see its eventual passage as Kennedy was assassinated that November. When a school official entered our classroom to announce the news of the shooting, many of my classmates applauded.

In 1964, the Kennedy half dollar was first minted. The only physical altercation of my life occurred when one of my schoolmates spit on a shiny, new Kennedy coin and incensed, I jumped him.

As a 10 year-old boy, I grew to loathe Alabama. To this day, I can not think of the state without recalling a host of negative associations. And these were the experiences of a white person, standing on the periphery of the segregationist system, not a person of color subjected to its degrading impact on a daily basis.

To Kill a Mockingbird became an important place for me to go to try process my experiences in Alabama. But it also serves as a reminder that it’s possible to write a compelling, entertaining story that can at the same time hold up a mirror to expose social ills and cultural ignorance. And oh yes, to give us one of the most memorable cinematic heroes of all time — Atticus Finch.

Any other fans of Mockingbird out there? If so, why does the movie resonate with you?

Are there other movies that speak directly to something in your own life experience?

[Originally posted December 4, 2009]

Great Scene: “This is Spinal Tap”

December 28th, 2013 by

The ‘mockumentary This is Spinal Tap was released 25 years ago this month, so it seemed only fitting to feature one of the movie’s most
memorable scenes. Since most of the movie’s dialogue is improvised, I also thought it would be interesting to see the script, written by
Christopher Guest & Michael McKean & Harry Shearer & Rob Reiner, from which the cast worked. The entire script is written this way, so
it’s only 60 pages long.

Here is the famous “Ours go to 11″ scene featuring documentary director Marty (Rob Reiner) interviewing rocker Nigel (Christopher Guest)
amidst all the guitars and amps he’s acquired over the years.

INT. DETROIT CONCERT VENUE

During the soundcheck, Nigel is showing Marty
DiBroma his large collection of guitars, including
a cordless model which plays through its amp by
means of a tiny radio transmitter. It's like
watching a kid show off his toys. He points out
that he has his amps customized with special dials.
Unlike most amps, whose highest volume level is
indicated by a "10" on the dials, Nigel's dials go
up to 11.

Here is a transcript of the last part of the scene’s dialogue from the movie:

Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...
Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?
Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.
Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?
Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. 
You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go 
from there? Where?
Marty DiBergi: I don't know.
Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.
Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?
Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.

And now the scene as it plays in the movie:

My movie Alaska was a Castle Rock production, so I was hanging around their offices doing rewrites when Christopher Guest and company were shooting Waiting for Guffman. As a bonus, I got to see some of the dailies and read the script. Guest uses pretty much the same approach with every one of his movies which include Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration: Work out the story with each scene’s beginning, middle and end, cast the movie with skilled improvisational actors, try out a variety of takes, edit the best story possible. Spinal Tap was in effect the proof of this particular concept – and it has proven to work wonderfully.

[Originally posted March 20, 2009]

Great Scene: “There’s Something About Mary”

December 21st, 2013 by

So back in 1998, I was at CAA when my agent pulled us into his office: “You have to see this!”

Grinning wildly, he informs us it’s a rough cut clip from the new movie the Farrelly brothers are working on. He turns on the VCR and we all watch the now famous “hair gel” scene from There’s Something About Mary.

After we all stop laughing, our agent says, “That one scene will make that movie a hit.”

Now that’s a great scene.

Here’s the scripted version:

INT. TED'S HOTEL BATHROOM - SAME

Ted has a newspaper splayed out on the counter (open to the bra
ads) as he furiously FLOGS THE DOLPHIN (chest-high side view.) We
see some balled-up tissue nearby. After several frantic strokes,
he takes a deep breath and slowly and loudly EXHALES, clearly
having COMPLETED HIS MISSION.

He draws a few more breaths, picks up a face cloth, and goes to
clean up.

But something's missing: The Load. Ted looks down, checks his
hands, pants, shoes, looks in the sink, finally glances at the
ceiling, with no luck.

The Load IS MISSING!!!!

That's when the doorbell RINGS. Ted couldn't look more HORRIFIED.
As he buckles his pants, he makes a last, panicky reconnaissance
of the area. The doorbell RINGS AGAIN and Ted reluctantly goes to
answer it.

INT. TED'S HOTEL ROOM - SAME

Ted opens the door and Mary is standing there looking as lovely as
ever.

                        TED
           Hey.

                        MARY
           Hi, Ted.

                        TED
           You look great.

                        MARY
           Thanks.

She notices something.

                        MARY (cont'd)
           What's that?

                        TED
           Hm?

                        MARY
           On your ear, you've got something.

MARY'S POV - a HUGE LOAD is hanging off of Ted's earlobe like a
drop earring.

                        MARY (cont'd)
           It looks like a gob of...

Mary leans forward for a closer look. Ted is terrified.

                        MARY (cont'd)
                 (making face)
           Is that....hair gel?

BEAT.

                        TED
           Sure.

                        MARY
           Oh great, I ran out.

Before Ted can stop her, Mary grabs The Load off his ear and WIPES
IT IN HER BANGS.

----

INT. BAR - NIGHT

Ted's rolling a little wine around in a glass. He takes a sip,
nods his approval.

                        TED
           Thanks, that's great.

The WAITER turns to Mary.

                        WAITER
           Madame?

ANGLE ON MARY - The light, puffy bangs that Mary started the
night with are gone, replaced by a glazed, ACE VENTURA-STYLE WAVE
up front.

And now for the film version:

Wait. There’s no film version of the scene on the Web?

Sigh.

Well, there are these comments by Cameron Diaz:

American actress Cameron Diaz has revealed that she was not in favour of doing the infamous hair gel scene in There’’s Something About Mary: “I didn’t want to do it because I was so worried it would discredit Mary,” Fox News quoted her as saying. “My agent and manager thought that doing this film was an insane move I was told it would be the end of my career,” Diaz said before the screening.

From a script written by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly, There’s Something About Mary was a rarity for two reasons: (1) It was an R-rated comedy that grossed a ton of money ($369M worldwide) and (2) it made more money internationally than domestically. And I think the explanation for both is the fact that the humor is largely visual, this scene a case in point.

[Originally posted November 13, 2009]

Great Scene: “There Will Be Blood”

December 14th, 2013 by

The last scene of There Will Be Blood is one of the most gut-wrenching, memorable finales in recent film history. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the scene features just two characters: Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Eil Sunday (Paul Dano). We pick up the action about midway through the scene:

ELI
I would like a one hundred thousand dollar
signing bonus plus the five that is owed
with interest.

DANIEL
That's only fair.

ELI
...I am a false prophet and God is a
superstition. If that's what you
believe, then I will say it.

DANIEL
Say it like you mean it.

ELI
Daniel...

DANIEL
Say it like it's your sermon.

ELI
This is foolish.

DANIEL
...

ELI
"I AM A FALSE PROPHET. GOD IS A SUPERSTITION."
Is that fine?

DANIEL
Those areas have been drilled.

ELI
...what?

DANIEL
Those Areas Have Been Drilled.

ELI
No, they haven't.

DANIEL
It's called drainage. I own everything around
it.......so I get everything underneath it.

ELI 
But there are no derricks there. This is
the Bandy tract. Do you understand?

DANIEL
Do you? I drink your water, Eli.
I drink it up. Everyday. I drink
the blood of lamb from Bandy's tract.

ELI
ahuh.

Eli take another drink...and then begins to break down and CRY
and CRY and sob like a baby...

ELI
Oh, Daniel...please...
I'm in desperate times...I need a
friend...I feel the walls closing in...
I'VE SINNED...I NEED HELP...I'm a SINNER...
I've let the Devil grab hold of me in
ways that I never imagined! I'm so full of sin.

DANIEL
The Lord sometimes challenges us, doesnt' he?

ELI
ohhhh yes he duz.  yes he duzzzzzaaa!
aaaaawhoa.  HE'S COMPLETELY FAILED
TO ALERT ME TO THE RECENT PANIC IN OUR
ECONOMY AND THIS.  I MUST HAVE THIS.
...I must have this...I've invested...my investments
have...oh, Daniel, I won't bore you, but I -
IF I COULD GRAB THE LORDS HAND FOR HELP
I WOULD, BUT HE DOES THESE THINGS ALL THE TIME,
THESE MYSTERIES THAT HE PRESENTS AND
WHILE WE WAIT...WHILE WE WAIT...wait for his word...

DANIEL is HOLDING A LOOK ON ELI;

DANIEL
You're not the chosen brother, Eli.
It was Paul who was chosen.  He found
me and he told me about your land.
You're a fraud.

ELI
Why are you talking about Paul?
don't say this...don't say this to me, Daniel.

DANIEL
I did what your brother couldn't.
I broke you and I beat you.
It was Paul who told me about you.
He's the prophet.  He's the smart one.
He knew what was there and he found
me to take it out of the ground.

He SMACKS Eli across the face.

DANIEL
STOP CRYING YOU SNIVELING ASS.
STOP YOUR NONSENSE.

You're just the younger brother,
and you'll always be the younger
brother, Eli...and that land has
been had...YOU HAVE NOTHING.
YOU LOSE. YOU IDIOT, YOU LOSE.

ELI
If you take this lease on the Bandy lot,
the Church would -

DANIEL
DRAINAGE!  DRAINAGE, ELI!  DRAINED DRY, YOU BOY.

If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake
and I have a straw and my straw reaches
ACCCRROSSSSSSSS the room starts to drink your
milkshake:

I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!  I DRINK IT UP.

ELI
Don't bully me Daniel, please.  HELP ME.
PLEASE.  MY FAITH HAS BEEN LOST AND I NEED
A NEW WAY.  I ASK FOR YOUR HELP --

IN A FLASH: DANIEL is UP AND HAS GRABBED ELI AND THROWN HIM
HALFWAY ACROSS THE ROOM.  Eli flails about as Daniel closes in,
hysterical/crazy/kicking/pushing,etc...

DANIEL
I TOOK WHAT I WANTED WHEN YOU WEREN'T LOOKING
AND THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB IS IN MY POCKET.
DO YOU THINK GOD IS GOING TO BALANCE
YOUR INVESTMENTS?  GOD DOESN'T SAVE IDIOTS, ELI.
YOU ARE BROKE AND YOU ARE LAME AND
YOU ARE DONE FOR.

ELI
No I'm not.

DANIEL
DID YOU THINK THAT YOUR SONG AND DANCE
AND YOUR SUPERSTITION WOULD SAVE YOU?
I AM THE THIRD REVELATION!  I AM
WHO THE LORD HAS CHOSEN.  BECAUSE I'M
SMARTER THAN YOU.  I AM OLDER AND WISER
AND I AM NOT A FALSE PROPHET, YOU
SNIVELING BOY.  YOU'RE DONE FOR.

ELI
Not done for, no.

DANIEL
Yes.

ANGLE, DANIEL.
along the way, he picks up a HEAVY SILVER TUMBLER...

DANIEL
I AM THE THIRD REVELATION!  I AM THE
THIRD REVELATION!  I TOLD YOU I WOULD EAT
YOU UP, I TOLD YOU I WOULD EAT YOU.
HOW DARE YOU COME TO ME?   HOW DARE YOU?

WHAT DID I TELL YOU?

ANGLE, ELI.
inching back on the bowling alley floor...back from Daniel...

DANIEL
WHAT DID I TELL YOU?

ANGLE, DANIEL.
advancing on Eli...

DANIEL
I TOLD YOU I'D EAT YOU UP.

ANGLE, ELI
crawling and looking for somewhere to go...

DANIEL
How dare you come to my home?

DANIEL is over HIM, AND SITS DOWN ON HIS CHEST, PINNING DOWN HIS
ARMS... AND DRIVES THE TUMBLER STRAIGHT DOWN INTO ELI'S FACE.

CAMERA looks STRAIGHT DOWN on the GORGEOUS WOOD FLOOR...

...very slowly, BLOOD COMES OOZING INTO FRAME.  It spreads and
moves like a slow land slide...covering the floor...CAMERA moves
back a bit to reveal;

...blood pouring from Eli's skull and this head wound...he's curled
in a fetal position and not moving...

CU. DANIEL
his eyes wet and out of breath from the struggle, looking at
what he's done.  HOLD.  He gets up --

Daniel drags Eli's dead body down the lane of the bowling alley,
leaving a streak of BLOOD...

HE THROWS HIM INTO THE BOWLING PINS AND DOWN OVER THE LIP INTO
A CELLAR.

FROM BELOW, LOOKING UP.

BOWLING PINS AND ELI'S BODY COME CRASHING THROUGH INTO THIS
CELLAR.

ABOVE, IN THE BOWLING LANE.

Daniel slumps down onto the floor...breathing heavy and covered in
blood... HOLD WITH HIM ON HIS FACE.

ANGLE, AT THE STEPS LEADING TO THE BOWLING ALLEY.

CAMERA pulls back with AL ROSE coming down the
steps...slowly...slowly...revealing to him the horrific scene:

...and sees the BLOOD spilled across the floor...and sees Daniel...

HOLD on Al's face and the reality of this mess...

Daniel turns around...satisfied:

DANIEL
I'm finished.

The movie version is even more violent.


A bowling alley. Drainage. Milk shake. The mind boggles at how Anderson combined those disparate elements into such a powerful scene.

[Originally posted September 10, 2010]

Great Scene: “Thelma & Louise”

December 7th, 2013 by

A great ending to a movie is (in my view) the only ending it should have. Oh, a movie could have multiple endings, but a well-constructed plot should lead to the story’s only real ending. And when that ending is both logical and shocking, then you have the makings of a great scene — like the climax of Thelma & Louise (1991), written by Callie Khouri.

Think about it: What other ending could T&L have? They turn themselves in? That would have been a false choice, going against everything these two women had been doing and saying for the bulk of the movie. Clearly the idea of turning themselves in is sparking through their minds as they look at “each other really hard,” but both of them know they can’t turn back now. They’ve gone too far and learned too much, about each other, themselves, and life.

The movie’s ending was a critical component, too, in the movie’s box office success because everybody talked about it when it was released.

Here’s the scripted version of the ending to Thelma & Louise:

             
            INT.  CAR - DAY

            Louise and Thelma are looking at each other.

                                  POLICE (O.S.)
                           (over loudspeaker)
                      Turn off the engine and place your
                      hands in the air!

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            Hal is about to crawl out of his skin.  He can't believe
            this thing is getting out of control.  He jumps in front of
            Max.

                                  HAL
                      Max!  Let me talk to 'em!  I can't
                      believe this!  You've gotta do
                      something here!

            Max goes around Hal and continues walking.  Hal jumps in
            front of Max again and blocks his way.

                                  HAL
                      I'm sorry to bother you, I know you're
                      real busy right now, but how many
                      times, Max?  How many times has that
                      woman gotta be fucked over?  You
                      could lift one finger and save her
                      ass and you won't even do that?

                                  MAX
                           (grabbing Hal)
                      Get a hold of yourself!  You are way
                      out of your jurisdiction, now come
                      on!  Calm down!  Don't make me sorry
                      I let you come!

            Max lets go of Hal's lapels.

                                  HAL
                           (under his breath)
                      Shit!  I can't fucking believe this!

            Hal walks along with a look of total disbelief on his face.
            He's shaking his head.  Slowly he breaks into a trot and
            starts heading toward the front line.

                                  MAX
                           (shouting)
                      Hey.  Hey!

            Hal is running now and clears the front row of cars.

            There is a lot of confusion among the officers on the front
            row.  Some shout, some lower their guns to look.

                                  ARIZONA COP #1
                      What in the hell?!

                                  ARIZONA #2
                           (lowering his rifle)
                      The son of a bitch is in my way!

            INT.  CAR - DAY

            They are still looking at each other really hard.

                                  THELMA
                      You're a good friend.

                                  LOUISE
                      You, too, sweetie, the best.

            SHOOT WITH OR WITHOUT.

            MUSIC:  B.B. King song entitled "Better Not Look Down" begins.
            It is very upbeat.

                                  LOUISE
                      Are you sure?

            Thelma nods.

                                  THELMA
                      Hit it.

            Louise puts the car in gear and FLOORS it.

                                                                 CUT TO:

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            Hal's eyes widen for a moment at what he sees, and then a
            sense of calm overtakes him and he mouths the word "alright."

                                  B.B. KING SONG (V.O.)
                      I've been around, I've seem some
                      things, People movin' faster than
                      the speed of sound, faster than a
                      speedin' bullet.  People livin' like
                      Superman, all day and all night.  I
                      won't say if it's wrong or I won't
                      say if it's right.  I'm pretty fast
                      myself.  But I do have some advice
                      to pass along, right here in the
                      words to this song...

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            The cops all lower their weapons as looks of shock and
            disbelief cover their faces.  A cloud of dust blows THROUGH
            THE FRAME as the speeding car sails over the edge of the
            cliff.

                                  B.B. KING SONG (V.O.)
                      Better not look down, if you wanna
                      keep on flyin'.  Put the hammer down,
                      keep it full speed ahead.  Better
                      not look back or you might just wind
                      up cryin'.  You can keep it movin'
                      if you don't look down...

                                                                FADE OUT

                                      THE END

And here’s the movie version. Sans B.B. King and with slightly different dialogue between Thelma and Louise:

Great scene. Great ending.

[Originally posted April 24, 2009]

Great Scene: “Sunset Blvd.”

November 30th, 2013 by

It’s one of the most famous endings in Hollywood film history with one of the most famous last lines of dialogue as well: Sunset Blvd. (1950), co-written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, their 17th and final collaboration, and directed by Wilder. Here is a plot summary from IMDB.com:

In Hollywood of the 50′s, the obscure screenplay writer Joe Gillis is not able to sell his work to the studios, is full of debts and is thinking in returning to his hometown to work in an office. While trying to escape from his creditors, he has a flat tire and parks his car in a decadent mansion in Sunset Boulevard. He meets the owner and former silent-movie star Norma Desmond, who lives alone wit her butler and driver Max von Mayerling. Norma is demented and believes she will return to the cinema industry, and is protected and isolated from the world by Max, who was his director and husband in the past and still loves her. Norma proposes Joe to move to the mansion and help her in writing a screenplay for her comeback to the cinema, and the small-time writer becomes her lover and gigolo. When Joe falls in love for the young aspirant writer Betty Schaefer, Norma becomes jealous and completely insane and her madness leads to a tragic end.

In the final scene, Norma (Gloria Swanson) is coaxed down to be arrested by the illusion that she is filming a movie scene. Max, played by famed German director Erich von Stroheim, is perceived to be Cecille B. DeMille by the now deranged Norma. Here is the script:

  E-47    STAIRCASE AND LOWER HALL

          Max makes his way down the stairs through the crowd
          of newsmen to the newsreel cameras, which are being
          set up in the hall below.

                            MAX
                  Is everything set up, gentlemen?
                  Are the lights ready?

          From the stairway comes a murnur.  They look up.

          Norma has emerged from the bedroom and comes to the
          head of the stairs.  There are golden spangles in
          her hair and in her hand she carries a golden scarf.

          The police clear a path for her to descend.  Press
          cameras flash at her every step.

          Max stands at the cameras.

                            MAX
                  Is everything set up, gentlemen?

                            CAMERAMAN
                  Just about.

          The portable lights flare up and illuminate the
          staircase.

                            MAX
                  Are the lights ready?

                            2ND CAMERA MAN
                  All set.

                            MAX
                  Quiet, everybody!  Lights!
                  Are you ready, Norma?

                            NORMA
                      (From the top of the
                       stairs)
                  What is the scene? Where am I?

                            MAX
                  This is the staircase of the palace.

                             NORMA
                 Oh, yes, yes.  They're below,
                 waiting for the Princess ...
                 I'm ready.

                             MAX
                 All right.
                      (To cameramen)
                 Camera!
                      (To Norma)
                 Action!

          Norma arranges the golden             GILLIS' VOICE
          scarf ebout her and proudy    So they were grinding
          starts to descend the stair-  after all, those cam-
          case.  The cameras grind.     eras.  Life, which can
          Everyone watches in awe.      be strangely merciful,
                                        had taken pity on Norma
                                        Desmond.  The dream she
                                        had clung to so des-
                                        perately had enfolded
                                        her...

          At the foot of the stairs Norma stops, moved.

                            NORMA
                 I can't go on with the scene.
                 I'm too happy.  Do you mind,
                 Mr. DeMille, if I say a few words?
                 Thank you.  I just want to tell
                 you how happy I am to be back in
                 the studio making a picture again.
                 You don't know how much I've missed
                 all of you.  And I promise you
                 I'll never desert you again, because
                 after "Salome" we'll make another
                 picture, and another and another.
                 You see, this is my life.  It always
                 will be.  There's nothing else -
                 just us and the cameras and those
                 wonderful people out there in the
                 dark...  All right, Mr. DeMille,
                 I'm ready for my closeup.

          FADE OUT.

                         THE END

And now the movie version:

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia about the movie’s equally famous opening scene:

Originally opened and closed the story at the Los Angeles County Morgue. In a scene described by director Billy Wilder as one of the best he’d ever shot, the body of Joe Gillis is rolled into the Morgue to join three dozen other corpses, some of whom – in voice-over – tell Gillis how they died. Eventually Gillis tells his story, which takes us to a flashback of his affair with Norma Desmond. The movie was previewed with this opening, in Illinois, Long Island, New York, and Poughkeepsie, New York. Because all three audiences inappropriately found the morgue scene hilarious, the film’s release was delayed six months so that a new beginning could be shot in which police find Gillis’ corpse floating in Norma’s pool while Gillis’ voice narrates the events leading to his death. Distortion caused by water meant that this scene had to be filmed via a mirror placed on the bottom of the pool.

If you haven’t screened Sunset Blvd. recently or ever, do yourself a favor and watch it.

[Originally posted November 20, 2009]