Thursday, September 23, 2010

THE BIG SLEEPYBYE by Dorian Tenore

Will The Met's Temple of Dendur be the Temple of Doom for our heroes? Read on....

I was considering running more chapters of my novel The Paranoia Club (PClub) here on the ol' blog site. I’m still polishing up PClub with ghost editor Nicole Bokat each month. I’d do it all ASAP if I had both the time and money all at once! But the thing is, there are apparently two schools of thought on posting one’s fiction online:
1.)     Some experts say it’s smart to run your fiction on your Web site, so you can build a platform for others to see your work and develop a fan base.
2.)     Other experts say that doing so would kill readers’ incentive to actually spend money buying your novel if/when it’s published. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free or get the stories online for free?For what it’s worth, I’ve been wondering about an alternative that my husband Vinnie suggested: running my short stories and my outtakes here—that is, polished scenes I’ve written but couldn’t quite fit into PClub or the other novel I’m almost done writing, Suburban Outlaws. Here's a tongue-in-cheek short story that appeared in the magazine Alternative Motifs in 2006.
Warning: Comical Violence and Spurting Bodily Fluids -- No, Not Blood!

The Big Sleepybye
Dorian Tenore

Clicking her mouse, Kate Bonaventure opened her New Death City document.  A wave of apprehension crested in her gut.
Dominic’s mischievous voice calmed the wave into a ripple before he nuzzled her neck.  “You should just call it The Private Dick and The Sexy Chick.”
“Too long, babe.”  Kate smiled.  “The best hard-boiled mysteries have pithy titles.”
Caitlin tugged Dominic’s sleeve.  “C’mon, Daddy.”
“We got time, kitten.  Mommy needs nuzzling.”
“I’ll help.” Caitlin plowed her face into Kate’s neck. Her five-year-old fervor tickled, unlike Dominic’s slow, sensual approach.
Four-month-old Maggie gurgled in her carrier.  “You want in on this, too?”  Kate bent down to kiss the littlest Bonaventure, complete with the girls’ favorite “Eskimo nose kiss.”
“Huggles!”  Throwing her arms around Kate, Caitlin gave her their itinerary wrapped in an invitation. “Mommy, you could come to McDonald’s and Barnes ‘n’ Noble’s for storytelling, too.”
“Thanks, kitten, but today’s Mommy’s Writing Day.” Kate gave Caitlin the same nose-kiss treatment as Maggie. “That means it’s Daddy-Daughters Fun Day.”
Dominic wrapped Kate in his arms. “It’ll be a fun day for Mommy, too, right? We’re not gonna come home to find you in front of a blank screen eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, looking like you’re gonna cry?”
Smiling, Kate shook her head.  “I promised myself I’d write something, anything instead of staring at the computer holding out for the perfect phrase.”
“Now you’re talking, babe. Just write whatever comes to mind and have fun with it.”  Dominic winked. “You can always rewrite it later.”
“That’s what I do best.”  Kate squeezed him gratefully.  “Thanks for not thinking I’m wasting my time writing a hard-boiled mystery instead of sticking to my Riverdale Family columns.”
“If you enjoy writing it, you’re not wasting your time.” Dominic grinned. “Anything else I can do to help, like testing out your car chase scene?  Bet the girls would get a thrill out of it.”
Kate gave him a mock-scolding look. “No, thanks!  Let’s keep those kind of ‘thrills’ purely fictional, please.”
Dominic’s grin got sexier. “Okay, but after we tuck the girls in bed tonight, we’re reenacting that love scene you were gonna write today.”
“Now that’s the kind of motivation I like.”  Kate and Dominic kissed (not nose-kisses) until the girls’ antsiness level reached critical mass. Daddy and daughters rolled out the door, a moving bundle of noisy, happy energy.  Once their SUV drove out of Kate’s waving range, she parked herself in front of the computer, thinking jubilantly, Got my grownup time, my writing time, my computer and my brain working at the same time.  My favorite “writing songs” are cued up.  My answering machine’s in instant pick-up mode. I’m ready!
She’d have four hours of uninterrupted fiction-writing time for the first time since Maggie was born. She’d been getting back into a mystery-writing mindset, reading and revising her manuscript during Caitlin’s school hours as Maggie napped. With time and undivided attention to give her pet project, Kate was sure she’d have a new chapter ready for next week’s writers’ workshop.
She’d left off at Chapter Twelve. Time to start Chapter Thirteen — unlucky number?  She rolled her eyes. Excuses, excuses Start writing, Kate! The Kill Bill: Vol. 1 soundtrack blared from the jukebox CD player—perfect for writing action scenes.
Set in Manhattan, New Death City was the suspenseful (Kate hoped) story of private investigator Joseph “Clint” McClintock, hired to shadow the beautiful, enigmatic Sabrina Rosabella, newly widowed and newly rich.  Someone wanted Sabrina out of the way badly enough to put a contract out on her with Olaf Dietrich, the coolest, cruelest hit man on two continents. 
When Kate last worked on New Death City, Clint had confronted Sabrina, warning her to stay home behind locked doors.  She’d agreed, then slipped out to a gala fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unaware that Clint had set up surveillance. Tailing Sabrina, Clint spotted her in the Met’s Egyptian exhibit, cornered by Dietrich.  Sneaking around the sides of the Temple of Dendur, Clint looked for an opening to jump in and overpower the evil bastard….
The fear in Sabrina’s sherry-colored eyes undermined her imperious pose. Her whisper echoed in the room’s vastness.  “You…”
Kate blanked.  “You…”
Damn!  “You” what?
Kate said it aloud. “You…you…”  Her fingers punched the appropriate keys.
“You jerk!”
Hmm…yeah, Dietrich’s definitely a jerk.  Not exactly clever, sophisticated dialogue, though.  But how many people are clever and sophisticated when they’re cornered by a knife-wielding jerk?  Ah, but this is fiction, Kate.  You’re always saying fiction dialogue should be like real speech, only better….

“You asshole!”

But Sabrina’s cultured, well-bred — would she really call somebody an “asshole,” even a killer?

“You blackguard!”

C’mon!  Who talks like that, no matter how well-bred they are?  That’ll teach you to dive into Agatha Christie for a change of pace from Hammett and Chandler.  What would people you know say in this situation?  Once they stopped screaming, crying, and begging for their lives, I mean?

The first thing that leapt to mind was Caitlin yelling at her pal Tyler after he’d rubbed purple paint in her favorite Barbie’s hair.

“You doodyhead!”

Yeah, that’s exactly what Sabrina would say. Totally in character!  Kate was giggling too hard to type.

Okay, pretend you’re cultured, well-bred, and trying to talk down a knife-wielding doodyhead….

“You can’t just kill anyone who gives you trouble. What if everyone was like you, just murdering anyone who gets in your way? What kind of world would this be?”

“An underpopulated one, madame,” Dietrich sneered.  The spotlight illuminating the Temple glinted off his silver hair and the stiletto that had claimed so many victims, mere millimeters from Sabrina’s throat.

Dietrich’s knife arm moved like lightning. So did Clint. He leapt out from behind the column, wrenching Dietrich’s muscular arm hard enough to dislocate his shoulder. 

The assassin howled in pain, his stiletto clattering on the floor.  Sabrina grabbed it as Clint and Dietrich slammed into the Temple’s hieroglyphic-engraved stone walls.  Dietrich scraped his skull, his blood smearing against some ancient soldier’s centuries-old graffiti. “Owie!”

“You’re getting a time-out, mister!” Clint grunted.

“I’m telling,” the hit-man whined, snapping his dislocated shoulder back into place.

Kate peered at what she’d just typed.  Owie? A time-out?!  I’m telling?!  “Where the hell did all that come from?!”  She deleted those lines, shaking her head.

Clint barked at Sabrina, “Run!  Get security!”

She nodded furiously, pocketing Dietrich’s blade.  The staccato tapping of Sabrina’s Manolos echoed through the exhibit as she tore past the Temple’s enormous artificial moat.

That’s better. Keep going, Kate!

Dietrich sucker-punched Clint in his six-pack. Dazed and gasping for breath, Clint’s one coherent thought was: Shit, gotta work on my abs!

His head cleared in time to see Dietrich sprinting downstairs towards the moat. Clint scrambled to his feet, launching a flying tackle at the hit-man. Hunter and hunted hit the shallow moat as one, splashing and crashing in a tangle of limbs and concealed weaponry.

Clint’s rock-solid fist plowed into Dietrich’s gut, but his foot slid on the moat’s bottom.  As he lost his balance, Dietrich pounced upon him, his sinewy hands squeezing Clint’s throat, shoving his head underwater. 

The moat was six inches deep, just enough to drown Clint if the moat hadn’t doubled as Manhattan’s classiest wishing well. Clint scooped up a handful of coins from the moat floor, slinging them hard into Dietrich’s merciless eyes. 

The assassin roared in surprise and pain as wet, slimy pocket change stung his eyes. Dietrich’s hands flew to his face. As Clint sat up, coughing and swinging, his fist connected hard and fast with Dietrich’s Germanic jaw.

Dietrich’s head snapped back briefly, but the son-of-a-bitch still wasn’t down for the count. “No fair!”  Temporarily myopic from the onslaught of loose change, Dietrich flailed at the water, blindsiding Clint with a huge splash.

“You got water in my ear, stupid-head!”  Clint swept his arms through the water, smacking Dietrich with sheets of water left and right while shaking his head sideways to get that damn water out of his ear.

“You’re just a big cheater,” sneered Dietrich, pushing Clint back into the moat.

Clint pushed Dietrich right back. “I’m rubber, you’re glue, everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

Dietrich kicked furiously, pelting Clint with water.  “Shut up, you big retard!”

“Make me, you big baby.” Clint drew his gun, but it wasn’t even a good water pistol after the bath they’d just had.  He sucked up a mouthful of water, spit it in Dietrich’s face, then made a face of his own. “Ewww! Yucky pool water!”

Kate stared in disbelief at what she’d just composed. She rubbed her eyes and stared harder, as if that would magically make it sound like it belonged in the Mystery/Suspense section instead of Children’s Books. “How’d my tough-guy action scene end up sounding like a wading pool party gone out of bounds?”

She stood up, stretched, and walked around the living room, hoping the improved circulation would make the writing part of her brain function like a mystery-writing adult again.  Then she read over what she’d written, cringing—but laughing, too.

The jukebox CD player switched to the music from North by Northwest’s romantic train scene. Good cue!  Kate put aside the fight scene, moving on to the next step in Clint and Sabrina’s relationship….

“You’re lucky I came along when I did, princess,” Clint growled. “For a smart, sophisticated girl, you’ve made some lousy judgment calls. What the hell were you thinking, slipping out to that museum shindig after you promised you’d stay put?”

Sabrina tilted her face up, a blush spreading over her high, proud cheekbones. “But I’m bored. I wanna play. You’re not the boss of me!”

Kate gave her monitor the gimlet eye, as if the glowing screen itself were responsible for what she wrote.  “Uh, no. Sabrina isn’t five, she’s twenty-six.”  She deleted everything after “cheekbones.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. McClintock…”

His anger cooled enough to let a grin slip through.  “Oh, hell, call me Clint. I just saved your life; I think that rates a first-name basis.”

Sabrina smiled sheepishly.  “I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you, Clint. I guess attending the gala wasn’t one of my best ideas. But you wouldn’t take no for an answer. You forced me to give you my word. I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don’t do of my own free will.”

Kate nodded approvingly.  Not bad!  Reading the paragraph again, her approval evaporated.  Yeah, it’s not bad because Gene Tierney already said those lines in Laura.  Paying homage to my faves is one thing; plagiarism is something else again. Damn!

Just as she was about to hit “Delete” again, Kate realized she’d already deleted a lot of what she’d written today.  She’d promised herself she’d complete a rough draft of this chapter before the gang came home.  That won’t happen if you delete every other thing you write, kiddo. You’re the Revision Queen of Riverdale; just keep going and fix it later.

The word count climbed as Kate put her inner editor on hold. Before she knew it, her protagonists were back in Sabrina’s townhouse, yielding to their mutual attraction. She smiled to herself. C’mon, Kate, this part shouldn’t be hard. You and Dominic still find time for romance. When Caitlin came along, Kate and Dominic promised each other never to end even the busiest day without at least cuddling and kissing. They’d kept it up even after Maggie was born. Face it, Clint and Sabrina have morphed into noir-ish versions of you and Dominic anyway….

Clint bent his long, lean body down towards Sabrina’s face,  gently kissing the tip of her nose, then nuzzling it in an “Eskimo kiss” while Sabrina’s giggle tinkled like silver chimes.  “Who’s Daddy’s kitten, huh?”

“Me!”  Sabrina threw her arms around him.  “Huggles!”

Whoa!  Excuse me, that’s how you and Dominic kiss the girls, not each other.  Show that to your writers’ workshop and they’ll think you’re a perv and put your children in foster care. Get your head out of “parent mode” and into “couple mode.” Just type in the first real-life romantic antics that leap to mind….

Clint planted his lips upon hers. Sabrina yielded to the tender strength of his embrace, her hands sliding up his arms, her curvaceous body softly meeting his. Clint felt her warm, moist lips parting under his as they kissed more urgently….

That’s more like it!  Beaming, Kate deftly typed the lovers into Sabrina’s boudoir and out of their clothes….

The only things softer than Sabrina’s Egyptian cotton sheets were her long cinnamon hair and her creamy naked skin. A trace of Angel perfume wafted into Clint’s nose as his kisses drifted from Sabrina’s lips to her swan-like neck to her full teardrop-shaped breasts. Cupping her soft, fleshy orbs in his strong hands, he nuzzled her nipples and began to gently kiss and suck them. Sabrina raked her slender fingers through Clint’s thick dark hair, moaning with pleasure. “Ooh, just a little bit harder, please,” she begged, “but still gentle.”

Happy to oblige, Clint sucked Sabrina’s breasts harder, but still gentle. Or so he thought.

Sabrina winced. “Ooh, babe, that’s too hard.”

With a start, Clint realized his mouth was filling with warm, sweetish liquid.  Luckily he reflexively swallowed instead of ungallantly coughing up mother’s milk all over her. “Gah!  Jeez, hon, I thought you already fed the baby.”

“I did!  My breasts must be working overtime today.  Sorry.”  Sabrina’s lovely face clouded with embarrassment.  “I—I guess you’re too grossed out to keep going, huh?  Just as well, my stretch marks look even worse in this light.”  Pouting, she drew the sheet over herself.

Clint hated to see her so disappointed.  “No, babe, no, it just caught me off guard, that’s all.”  He gently lowered the sheet until she was completely bare. It would take more than a little mammary juice to break the spell woven by her angel face and her mesmerizing curves, stretch marks or not.
As their eyes met, a smile spread across her face like a sunrise, beckoning him.  “How does this feel?”  Her fingers slid sensuously down his chest, continuing south until they found their target.

In spite of himself, Clint gasped faintly at her touch. “Oh, yeah…that feels great….”

Kate triumphantly continued along more adult, non-parental lines.  She even managed to make putting on Clint’s condom erotic instead of a necessary evil.

Clint was inside Sabrina now, losing himself in her warmth, feeling her writhe ecstatically as they made love in long, languorous strokes.  Talk about making beautiful music together…their moans blended like sweet harmony.

The bedroom door crashed open.  A cheery voice chirped, “Hi, guys!”

Clint and Sabrina threw the comforter over their naked bodies before Caitlin’s curls bounced into view. “Mommy!  Daddy! You’re awake!” Caitlin’s bright smile twisted into a puzzled scowl. “Daddy, why’re you lying on top of Mommy?”

“Uh…Mommy and I are hugging.”  
“Yes!”  Sabrina nodded like a bobble-head doll in an SUV speeding over a rugged mountainside.  “Daddy and I are hugging because we love each other soooo much.”

Caitlin clapped her hands joyfully. “I love you so much! I wanna hug, too.”

Clint thought fast.  “Uh, sure, sweetie, in a minute. You gotta go back to your room first.”


“Because…Mommy and I have to make sure our pajamas are on. Uh, on right.”

“But why?”

“We’re shy, kitten,” Sabrina said. “Just give Mommy and Daddy a moment and we’ll give you all the hugs you want, okay?”
Kate roared with laughter as the phone rang.  The answering machine played as she crossed the living room.  After the beep, Dominic’s voice boomed, “It’s me, babe!  How’s my favorite crime novelist?” 

Chuckling, Kate picked up the receiver.  “Hi, babe.  What stop on the Daddy-Daughters tour are you guys at?”

Kate heard Dominic shouting cheerfully above the din of rowdy children: “Just checking in from the fabulous ballroom of the exclusive McDonald’s playplace! Caitlin’s already climbing through that giant hamster-trail thing.”

“How about Maggie?  Is she happy or already on sensory overload?”

“No, Maggie’s real happy!  Sounds like you are, too. Makin’ progress with the private dick and the sexy chick?”

Kate clicked “Save,” smiling.  “More than that—I’m having fun with them.”


Feedback is always welcome, be it constructive criticism, lavish praise, or burning questions! :-)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Part 2 of 2 - Movies That Need Remaking: How STILL OF THE NIGHT Could Have Been a Quality Hitchcock Pastiche

The maddening thing about Still of the Night (SotN) is that there were so many things director/co-writer Robert Benton and company could have done to make SotN a truly exceptional thriller as well as an affectionate salute to Alfred Hitchcock. If by some bizarre twist of fate, some producer gave me unlimited money and resources to remake SotN as the sleek, suspenseful thriller it could have been, here are the changes I’d make:

1.)    More emotion, please! What SotN desperately needs is more warmth, urgency, wit, passion—in short, more emotion! The cast tries hard, but the combination of aloof direction and a script with more emphasis on set pieces than characterization leaves them (and the audience) cold as a corpse in the Antarctic. Even the Spartan art direction, with its muted color scheme of blues and the occasional earth tone, adds a distinct chill to the emotional climate; more about that shortly.

2.)    Fill in those plot holes! For instance, I know Con Edison bills are high in NYC, but doesn’t anyone in this movie ever turn on their lights? How did Gail Phillips (Sara Botsford) get from Manhattan to Glen Cove so darn fast? (Was North by Northwest’s Roger Thornhill driving?) Speaking of Glen Cove, would a fiercely private person like the enigmatic, easily spooked Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep) really have a big sign outside her house with her last name on it for all to see? For that matter, would she allow her name to be listed in the Manhattan White Pages, where Sam finds out her address? Which brings us to….

3.)    Fewer “idiot plot” devices, please! Most of SotN’s “idiot plot” devices (as coined by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel back in the day) involve our love-struck hero Dr. Sam Rice. Since Sam was played by Roy Scheider—who I’d always liked because he came across as tough, suave, sensitive and sensible all at once—the actions the script required of him seemed that much sillier. The things Sam must do simply because it’s in the script include sitting alone in a dim, creepy basement laundry room when a killer’s on the loose (with the lights going out to boot); sneaking into Brooke’s office during the auction (“This is dumb,” Sam mutters to himself. No argument from me!); and after dark, following a woman across the street who he thinks might be Brooke, never mind that the distance and her scarf render her unrecognizable. But Sam has to follow this mystery woman despite his better judgment so he can tail her to Central Park at night, so his coat can be stolen, so the mugger can wear it, so the killer can kill the mugger thinking he’s Sam…c’mon, that’s just lazy writing! And many of these idiot plot devices wouldn’t have been necessary if the script had….

4.)    More scenes with Sam and Brooke together, deepening their emotional bond and adding some much-needed romantic sizzle. Whenever Hitchcock made a romantic thriller in which one of the lovers seemed to be up to no good, among them The Lodger, Spellbound, Suspicion, Notorious, and North by Northwest, he made sure he threw the lovers together at every opportunity, leaving audiences titillated and terrified at the same time. Until SotN’s denouement, the so-called romantic leads are in surprisingly few scenes together, only kissing two or three times, tops.

For crying out loud, Sam and Brooke don’t even have a real date over the course of the film. The auction doesn’t count, as Brooke is working and thus separated from Sam. A friend scored me the novelization of SotN, and there was actually more romance and sex between Sam and Brooke in the book than in the movie; they should have filmed that! If I was in charge of a remake, I’d give the lovebirds more “getting to know you” time. For example, we find out Sam once wanted to be a Major League baseball player. How about a scene with him taking Brooke to a ball game? Let’s have fun with this; maybe Sam and his therapist pals play ball every weekend in Central Park. It’d be a great opportunity for humor (Brooke had a privileged upbringing; maybe she could call on her polo skills) and revealing banter as our protagonists get more comfortable with each other. Another opportunity for suspense: someone (Gail?) could follow Sam and Brooke after the game. Maybe Brooke panics when she sees something that reminds her of being nearly murdered by her dad, such as Delacorte Castle. A little heartfelt yet tastefully-rendered sex couldn’t hurt, and I don’t mean Sam’s comfy psychiatrist couch. One evening, Sam could sub for Brooke’s masseur, one thing can lead to another….

5.)    Better foreshadowing! If Benton and Newman had their hearts set on Gail being the killer, they should have given her more scenes and therefore more foreshadowing. Make Gail a three-dimensional character, not just a plot convenience. Drop more hints about Gail’s relationship with that cad Bynum, since it turns out that philandering Bynum had dumped Gail for Brooke, setting jealous Gail off on her murder spree. Why don’t male filmmakers think women can handle broken romances without turning violent? Anyway, Gail and Brooke could be out on their lunch break on payday and run into Sam, who’d accompany Brooke to the bank while “Greenbacks” declines; psychiatrist Sam could offer to cure her bank phobia. Gail could even run into our happy couple on the street and chat, maybe after following them in the park: “Oh, I was just on my way from lunch at the Boathouse, and I couldn’t help noticing your exciting ball game…”

6.)    Hell yes, we want Jess! Benton and company should have given the indomitable Jessica Tandy more screen time. SotN’s coldness thaws beautifully every time Tandy is onscreen. I would have loved to see Tandy and Streep share a scene or two; think of the give-and-take in Spellbound with loving but worried psychiatrist heroine Ingrid Bergman, her kindly old mentor Michael Chekhov, and tormented amnesiac hottie Gregory Peck.

7.)    A little less conversation, a few more visuals! Remember that long monologue wherein we learn Brooke’s shattering secret? Meryl Streep’s intense emoting was superb as always, but since film is a visual medium, this scene still cried out for more visual interest. (Granted, the sight of the luminous young Streep might be enough visual interest for fans.) In the film, it’s just Streep standing against the starless night sky, smoking, crying, and occasionally gesturing. If Streep’s monologue was indeed the result of a new last-minute ending as mentioned in Part 1, that would explain it. If I could remake SotN, I’d opt for a new scene, maybe even a suspenseful flashback or prologue, that would show—not just tell—what happened in Florence. Brooke’s big speech might even be kept in the scene as a voiceover.  More foreshadowing throughout the film would give this part of the plot more momentum and impact. For instance, let’s see those pictures of young Brooke (a.k.a. the little girl in Bynum’s dream) and her family at various points in SotN. Maybe Sam could see them during a little tête-à-tête at Brooke’s place in one of those hot new romantic scenes from Suggestion #4.

Sam and mom solve murders the family way!
8.)    Color SotN’s world! Speaking of visual interest, the usually capable Mel Bourne could have dressed up his sets a bit. No one in SotN seems to have heard of primary or pastel colors. Okay, Streep wore a dark blue dress toward the end of the movie, but that’s about it. Even the occasional bloodstains are invariably seen in dim light, so they could have used chocolate sauce a la Psycho for all I know. Were these dark colors intended to show off Streep’s shiny Hitchcock blonde tresses? Benton and company used similarly stark art direction in Kramer Vs. Kramer (except for the pastel sky in young Justin Henry’s bedroom), which helped dry out some of that sentimental tale’s overly soap-opera-ish elements. But if you’re aiming to emulate Hitchcock, you’ve got to go for his visual sense as well, and he usually provided plenty of eye appeal with handsome and colorful sets, costumes, and locations, except in his glorious black-and-white films, of course.

9.)  Lighten up, Meryl! To be fair, it’s hard to tell how much of leading lady Meryl Streep’s jumpiness could be attributed to her character Brooke Reynolds, Streep’s acting style, or Robert Benton’s direction. I wouldn’t be surprised if the most likely culprit was Benton and Newman’s script; Bynum has a line about how *ahem* “tense” Brooke is, and Sam wonders about it himself. Or maybe it is all those cigarettes. But seriously, the end result is that Brooke comes across as so afraid of her own shadow that she not only gets on one’s nerves, but any mystery buff worth his/her hemlock knows she can’t possibly be the killer; she’s just too obvious a suspect. It’s a relief when she finally smiles!
Yes, I know I should probably be using all this time, space, and ink to write more of my own stories instead of going into all this detail about a 28-year-old movie (I’m editing my first novel now). It’s just that I hate to see a project with such potential turn out so disappointingly. Even as is, SotN has enough glimmers of gold (hard to see through all those dark colors and dim lighting, but they’re there) to put a little ache in my thriller-loving heart. Well, who knows, maybe there really is some parallel universe where The Beatles filmed Joe Orton’s Up Against It, Winona Ryder played Mary Corleone in The Godfather: Part III…and Still of the Night turned out to be a crackerjack romantic suspenser after all. Anyone got a time machine they’re not using? I’ll bring it back in one piece, I promise!

For the record, if a SotN remake was green-lit today and I was in charge, I’d cast Adrien Brody as Sam, Nicole Kidman as Brooke, and as a tip of the hat, Meryl Streep as Grace. Any fun dream-casting choices you’d like to share? Don’t be shy!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Part 1 of 2 - Movies That NEED Remaking: How STILL OF THE NIGHT Could Have Been a Quality Hitchcock Pastiche

(Caution! Still of the Night Spoilers Ahead!)
With Alfred Hitchcock having long since gone to that big movie set in the sky, it seems like every filmmaker and his Aunt Lillian have tried their hand at a Hitchcock pastiche, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.  Sometimes they’ve even succeeded, with such stylish entertainments as Stanley Donen’s Charade and Arabesque, Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill, and Mark Robson’s The Prize, the latter borrowing liberally and gleefully from Ernest Lehman’s North by Northwest screenplay.
You don’t need to slavishly imitate Hitchcock to make a quality suspense film inspired by The Master of Suspense, unless you’re doing so for the purposes of affectionate spoofing, as with Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety, Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train, or even D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia.  But you do need a director and writer with a real sense of the theatrical, even a gonzo touch. Failing that, make sure your characters are as engaging as all get out. Your audience has to identify with your protagonists—which, of course, does not have to mean they must be squeaky-clean goody-two-shoes types. The characters Cary Grant and James Stewart played in Hitchcock’s films weren’t always 100% lovable. Even the characters played by the bewitching Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman were complicated women, not just window dressing.  Hitchcock had a knack for tapping into the dark side of his glamorous stars.

That’s why it frustrates me when a promising suspense story, especially one that goes out of its way to evoke Hitchcock’s style, misses the mark. Of all the unsuccessful off-brand Hitchcock wannabes I’ve seen and found wanting, the one that disappointed me most was Robert Benton’s 1982 Hitchcock salute, Still of the Night (SotN). I wanted to like it, really I did; it came so close! To paraphrase North by Northwest, it could tease a moviegoer to death without half-trying. The trouble was that it stopped trying, or at least didn’t quite try hard enough. Despite a great cast and several promising moments, SotN had too many promises and not enough moments.

No one will be seated during the
Weird Guitar-Shaped Shadow in the
Elevator scene!
For those who may not remember that far back, SotN was directed and co-written—with David Newman—by Robert Benton, fresh off his Oscar-winner Kramer Vs. Kramer. Benton also made one of my favorite films of the late 1970s, The Late ShowSotN’s original, more pulse-pounding title was Stab, but it didn’t fly with preview audiences. The way I heard the story, Stab supposedly began life as a slasher movie spoof that would reunite Benton with his Late Show leading lady Lily Tomlin, but it evolved into a straight-faced Hitchcock tribute re-teaming Benton with Kramer…’s Meryl Streep. SotN had a helluva cast going for it; Streep was joined by one of my favorite actors, Roy Scheider, as well as The Birds star and future Oscar-winner Jessica Tandy, not to mention such fine character actors as Josef Sommer, Joe Grifasi, and Sara Botsford. Plenty of talented people behind the camera with Benton and Newman, too, including director of photography Nestor Almendros, production designer Mel Bourne, and composer John Kander, whose piano-heavy main title theme has always been one of my favorites. To top it all off, SotN was filmed in and around New York City. Those who know me well can attest that I’m a sucker for New York-set films, especially when the filmmakers go to the trouble of actually filming on location!

Bynum's recurring nightmare. Little kids with eyeballs
painted on their eyelids: Instant Creepy!
The film starts promisingly in classic Hitchcock style: after a simple but elegant opening credit sequence showing the phases of the moon, the film opens in, appropriately enough, the still of the night on a quiet midtown Manhattan street. (Yes, even midtown Manhattan streets can be relatively quiet if it’s late enough.) A car thief attempts to ply his trade, discreetly trying the handles of each parked car. He finally finds one that’s unlocked, and opens the door—but his triumph is short-lived as a bloodied corpse falls out. See, folks, crime doesn’t pay! 
From then on, the viewer gets to play “Name That Hitchcock Flick” as The Master’s familiar beloved tropes parade across the screen. The dead man is George Bynum (Sommer), a bigwig at the auction house Crispin’s, and a patient of psychiatrist Dr. Sam Rice (Scheider). You can tell Sam is a decent, down-to-earth guy because he likes baseball and insists on treating a financially-strapped patient gratis. After Bynum’s murder, Sam has a visitor: Brooke Reynolds (Streep), a soignée, aristocratic blonde. Unlike Hitchcock’s usual cool, unflappable blonde ice maidens with hidden fires, poor Brooke is a jumpy bundle of nerves. Maybe the nicotine from her ever-present cigarettes is getting to her. Maybe it’s the fact that Brooke and her boss, the married Bynum, were having an affair; Brooke claims she dropped by so Sam could give Bynum’s widow a wristwatch he’d left at their love nest. Or maybe Brooke’s so nervous because NYPD Detective Vitucci (Grifasi) is on the lookout for an aristocratic blonde who, according to witnesses, was arguing with Bynum a few hours before he was murdered.

Sam goes over his notes/flashbacks on his therapy sessions with Bynum. We see that Brooke’s reputation preceded her. Seems that Bynum, another chain-smoker, was a sleaze in gentleman’s clothing. (In fact, all the smokers in SotN have terrible emotional problems. Were Benton and Newman trying to give audiences some kind of anti-smoking message?) Turns out Bynum had discussed Brooke with Sam at length during their sessions, with tales of mysterious goings-on in her apartment (“She moved into the building behind mine, which I find very significant,” Bynum intones dramatically. Sheesh, everybody’s a therapist!). Shades of Rear Window as Bynum sees Brooke’s window across the way and spots her stripping before a portly gent (sorry, fans, this dude is Asian, not British). Bynum hints that he’s learned a terrible secret about Our Miss Brooke. Need I say it involves murder?

"Sam, your collar needs
my lipstick on it. Come here, you
big sexy psychiatrist you!"
This ominous hint is accompanied by one of the film’s highlights, a dream sequence (you can never have too many Spellbound homages, I always say!) in which Bynum finds himself trapped in a big old house at night. There, a small green box slips through his fingers, and a little blonde girl with a bleeding teddy bear and unnerving stare terrorizes Bynum without saying a word. Bynum even tauntingly implies that Sam himself has become obsessed with Brooke. Score one for Bynum: against his better judgment, Sam finds himself falling in love with the gentle, fragile Brooke, and it seems the feeling is mutual. That makes Sam all the more determined to prove Brooke isn’t the killer. Quiet, methodical Sam becomes an increasingly obsessed amateur sleuth, snooping around in Brooke’s drawers (in her desk at work, smarty, though snooping in the other type of drawers might have added more sizzle to the story), and following her around Manhattan on a trail leading him to Central Park—and a mugger. Sam gives the creep his coat in hopes of leaving the park alive. He does, but the mugger isn’t so lucky. Detective Vitucci points out that the pattern of the dead mugger’s wounds is the same as Bynum’s. Sam’s gonna need more than a new coat to get out of this mess!

Brooke looks less and less like Ms. Right as Vitucci deduces that the killer is a woman. With the help of his spunky mom and fellow therapist Dr. Grace Rice (Tandy), Sam decodes Bynum’s dream. Sam isn’t the happiest of campers when the dream evidence seems to prove that Bynum must have been afraid of a jealous woman. Grace asserts that this woman “seems childlike and innocent but is capable of extreme violence.” Sam walks in on a naked Brooke during one of her meetings with the Asian man. Turns out he’s only her masseur, treating her chronic back problems. As Brooke mmms and oohs over his magic hands and Sam somehow manages to maintain a gentlemanly demeanor, she invites him to an auction at Crispin’s that night. While Brooke fields bids, Sam swipes her keys, goes through her desk, and finds pictures of Brooke and clippings from an Italian newspaper about a man’s suspicious death. Now it’s Brooke who’s the unhappy camper when she walks in on Sam and the clippings. Still, when Vitucci arrives with a bartender who can I.D. Brooke as the lady who’d quarreled with Bynum, Sam goes north by northwest, bidding on a Jim Dine painting in order to pass Brooke a warning note on his receipt.

Brooke flees so fast, even Sam doesn’t know where she went, until Brooke’s coworker Gail Phillips (Botsford), who’d given him a tour of Crispin’s earlier in the film, reveals that Brooke probably went to her Glen Cove weekend home. Sam arrives to find an upset Brooke sitting in the dark, smoking. She still feels betrayed after the way Sam went through her desk. The increasingly fed-up Sam gives her the ol’ “Come to Jesus” talk in my favorite bit of SotN dialogue:
Now listen to me! On account of you, I’m an accessory to something—I don’t know what. I’m withholding evidence. I’m obstructing justice. I’m gonna get my license revoked if I’m not thrown into jail first. And on top of that, I’ve just spent fifteen thousand dollars for a painting I don’t even like!”

Relieved, Brooke falls into Sam’s arms. As they embrace, she finally spills her guts—no, not literally! For a movie almost titled Stab, SotN doesn’t have much bloodshed (or suspense, I’m afraid, but more on that in a moment). Brooke’s subsequent lengthy monologue could have come off like a speech in an student actor’s handbook, but Streep performs it quite poignantly and made me feel for her.

Brooke explains that the man in the Italian newspaper was her father. Papa married alcoholic Mama for her wealth and moved to Florence with young Brooke after Mama’s demise. In a note among her personal effects, Mom revealed that Pops was a charming but dangerous schemer who’d do anything for the money Brooke inherited. Daddy Dearest brought Brooke to a bell tower, never a safe place for any Hitchcock character. When he found out about the incriminating note and tried to push her to her death, she leapt aside in time for Bad Dad to take the fall. Despite surviving the murder attempt, Brooke has been racked with guilt (and cigarette coughs?) ever since Bynum found out and held the guilty secret over her head, hence her nervous loner nature.

SotN gets a much-needed jump-start when Brooke finally turns on the lights, and Sam realizes that this is the house in Bynum’s dream, which he proceeds to recount to his beloved. Brooke has a different interpretation of the green box in the dream. Her Crispin’s coworker Gail has a bank phobia (nowadays, who could blame her?), and she carries her entire cashed paycheck around with her, leading Bynum to nickname her “Greenbacks”! Sam tries to call Vitucci with this info, but the knife in the detective’s back makes it awfully hard to reach his beeper. Yes, Gail was the killer after all, and now that she’s bumped off poor Vitucci, she’s on her way to Glen Cove to kill Brooke. Looks like it doesn’t pay to make friends with your coworkers, either!

The climax takes us viewers into slasher territory as Brooke runs from a knife-wielding Gail while Sam lies unconscious from a stab wound. “Jump!” Gail growls as she pins Brooke against her balcony overlooking the surf. Luckily, Sam regains consciousness before Gail gets too into her Mrs. Danvers routine, startling the murderess into conveniently falling over the side. Brooke tries to save Gail by grabbing her sleeve a la Saboteur, but perhaps Gail’s Crispin’s salary wasn’t enough to buy really well-made clothes. Sleeve rips, Gail plummets to her death, and the movie ends on a lingering shot of a weeping Brooke and an exhausted Sam embracing as the theme song timidly starts up again.

"How many times do I have to tell you:
there's nobody named 'George Kaplan' here!"
To paraphrase the old NYNEX Yellow Pages commercial, SotN could have been beautiful in the right hands; unfortunately, in this case, Benton didn’t seem to have the right hands.  I could have forgiven the killer’s identity coming out of left field if only the film had more life of its own. All too often, I got the feeling that Benton figured all he had to do was trot out the Hitchcock homages, and the nostalgic audience would be so enthralled that they’d add the spark and emotion themselves. If only it were that easy!

It seemed to me as if Benton and Newman, stuck for an ending, happened to peer over somewhere in the middle of the screenplay and, snapping their fingers, said “Hey, Gail doesn’t have much to do. Let’s make her the killer!” Since then, however, I’ve been told by usually reliable sources that on an awards show, Streep had jokingly spilled the beans before the film’s release, revealing that Brooke was indeed the killer. Oops! Back to the drawing board, er, editing room!

Next Time: Part 2, in which I suggest what I'd do if I had the money and clout to remake Still of the Night!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"It's a Perfect Fall Day! How Could This Happen?" A Brief Remembrance of 9/11/2001

Today, instead of my usual movie/writing/pop culture topics, I wanted to take a moment to remember that other date that will live in infamy: Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, also known since then as Patriot Day. It’s hard to believe ten years have passed since then. As a native New Yorker, I think that for those of us who lived in New York City on that terrible day, it’ll always be fresh in our minds no matter how much time passes. Our family lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx at the time. I remember hearing on my car radio that a plane, American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston, had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. As the tower burned, I was sure it had to be a freak accident. How the hell could any pilot miss the Twin Towers? The awful reality of the situation sunk in fast when the radio DJ announced, with growing shock and disbelief in his voice, that a second plane from Boston, United Airlines Flight 175, had plowed into the south tower.

And what momentous occasion was I driving to while terrorists ruled the skies and lives were lost? Would you believe a Weight Watchers meeting in nearby Yonkers, NY? Ironically, we of Team Bartilucci had already been preparing to move to northeastern Pennsylvania, since the PR firm where my husband Vinnie worked at the time had decided to move to his boss’s town, Bethlehem, PA. In fact, Vin was already working at the PA office. I managed to get ahold of him on the phone before the lines went dead for hours, telling him, “Believe me, you are so glad you’re not working in the city today!” Hell, under the circumstances, I was glad he wasn’t in the city as well!  Unsurprisingly, our Weight Watchers meeting was cut short. We talked, all right, but it sure as hell had nothing to do with losing weight. Our WW branch was at the Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers, just a fifteen-minute drive from our apartment house. As I passed the shopping center’s plate-glass storefronts, I saw people watching TV in shock, all of us making stunned, sad eye contact with each other.

The waterfall aspect of the 9-11 Memorial
Our niece Jen was living with us at the time. That day, she was in the city attending classes at the Katharine Gibbs School. In the wake of the WTC carnage, she was stuck in the city for hours because the police and FBI were checking motorists’ I.D.s, with nobody allowed in or out of Manhattan for hours. Luckily, Jen’s bosses at the Ben & Jerry let her and the other young folks working there hang out until things calmed down.
Our buddy Jason still remembers what a gorgeous, sunny fall day it was. When we caught up with him, he said, in sad amazement, “It’s a perfect fall day! How could this happen on such a beautiful day?” Cabs had become hard to find, especially with people getting enraged at every swarthy person they came across. Jason found himself walking across Manhattan, shocked and dismayed as he passed scores of stunned people coated with the ashes of the dead. On top of that, our daughter Siobhan, then five years old and diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome, attended her first day in the Inclusion Class at the Bronx elementary school she was attending at the time—a proud, triumphant day that turned scary and tragic once news of the terrorist attacks broke. After leaving WW, I drove straight to Siobhan’s school to see if it was closing early. I was the very first parent there. I’d barely begun signing the early dismissal form when the doors flew open and a swarm of panicky parents raced inside! Luckily, Siobhan was so young she was more bewildered than full-tilt scared of the hubbub. Now that she’s 14 (15 in October), she's grasping that the tragic events of 9/11/2001 were/are more than just another lesson in her History class at school.

When we came home, the phones were on the mend at last, and I found eleven messages on our answering machine from frantic friends and loved ones across the country, as well as plenty of e-mails (this was well before Twitter, of course). It took a couple of days for us to catch up with everyone and assure them we were alive, well, and safe. We were luckier than most that day; our family was soon home together in our Riverdale apartment, safe and sound, and our friends and loved ones were okay, too. Like most of us who lived in New York City at the time, we've never forgotten, and each year we turn on the reading of the names as a reminder that life and freedom should never be taken for granted. Personally, during the reading of the names in 2010, I had both smiles and tears for the lady who read the poem about her lost loved one, a science fiction fan, and his love of sweet potato pie. Amazing, the little things you take for granted that begin to matter when you least expect it.

The names of the people who died on that terrible day.

The 9/11 Memorial, unveiled in 2011
The 9/11 Tribute in Light