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Films for Thriller Writers, A Survey Course

06/15/2009

Thrillers on film and TV are research for me. Here are a dozen that taught me a lot:

The Third Man (1949). Old school. Joseph Cotten has no idea what he’s gotten into, and neither have we, except that we all know that nothing is what it appears to be. The Third Man is also among the original, and still one of the best, sources of that time-honored convention of thrillers — the major character we never see until the very end, when his presence and influence is suddenly obvious throughout the whole story.

The Day of the Jackal (1973). Another great book, another great movie. The clock is ticking, literally; throughout the film, the director keeps showing us shots of clocks, to increase our sense of urgency as the Jackal stalks DeGaulle. Also, this movie has no soundtrack music, after the first five minutes. We’re in the Jackal’s world, not in movie-world. We know nothing about the Jackal, and it doesn’t matter; what matters is what he’s doing now.

Three Days of the Condor (1975). Here’s something I didn’t realize until I looked this movie up on IMDb: the average shot length of this film is 5.8 seconds. No wonder it makes viewers breathless. It never lets you settle down, just as Robert Redford doesn’t get to stop moving. It’s remarkable how well this movie holds up, and the fact that much of it is set in and around the World Trade Center gives it special resonance.

Marathon Man (1976). Once Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) realizes how little he knew about his brother and his brother’s world, his own world is transformed into a menacing, sinister place. We’re dropped into the action with Babe, given only as much information as he has, and forced to run with him. (And who can forget those immortal words, “Is it safe?”)

No Way Out (1987). Surprise, reverse, reveal; it doesn’t matter how unrealistic a plot is, if you keep the action moving fast enough and you give the audience a reason to root for the hero. No Way Out is actually a remake of a classic 1948 noir film called The Big Clock, starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, except that No Way Out adds a great Cold War-era framing device, and one last astounding twist at the end. No Way Out is also an excellent example of how you don’t need to get the research right if the story is compelling enough: one key scene finds Kevin Costner fleeing his pursuers in the Georgetown Metro station, when everyone familiar with DC knows that Georgetown has no Metro station, and the station in the movie is actually one of Baltimore’s.

Fatal Attraction (1987). An example of how little you need to make a thriller – one man, two women, a child – and an example of how much we can learn about characters from small details: Alex Forrest’s hair, Dan Gallagher’s open-necked shirt, and need I even mention the little girl’s pet bunny?

The Vanishing (1988). The Dutch original, not the American remake. A couple stops at a gas station, and the woman disappears. Three years later, her baffled and grieving boyfriend starts to get letters offering to tell him what happened to her. We see the story almost exclusively from the boyfriend’s point of view, and learn the woman’s fate as he does – with one of the most terrifying final moments I’ve ever seen. The audience’s imagination is often more powerful than anything you can put on the page or the screen.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991). I’d put this on a list of top ten film adaptations. Like the book, the movie gives the audience only as much information as it needs, and – except for the scenes involving Catherine Martin’s kidnapping – keeps narrowly on Clarice’s point of view. It also gives us one of the most memorable villains in any genre, in Hannibal Lecter. I’ve watched this movie just to try to identify exactly what makes Anthony Hopkins so frightening. It’s his elegance, his politeness, his complete detachment and immunity from the squalor of his surroundings, and more … I’m still trying to figure it out.

The Fugitive (1993). Nonstop action, and our hero’s adversary isn’t a bad guy – he’s just a man doing his job. This is Man against the System, done perfectly. The Fugitive ups the tension by allowing us to root for the hero while we admire and sympathize with his adversary. Is any film scene better than the one where Harrison Ford says, “I’m innocent,” and Tommy Lee Jones says, “I don’t care”?

The Usual Suspects (1995). It’s hard to say too much about this movie without revealing its secrets to anyone who hasn’t seen it – but if you haven’t seen it, you need to. It is a quintessential tour-de-force, in which the villain – Keyser Soze – winds up being the central character, although we never see him onscreen (or do we…?).

Runaway Jury (2003). We don’t know until fairly late in the movie whether the main character, played by John Cusack, is a good guy or a bad guy; we’re just sucked into trying to figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing. When we do find out his motive, we learn it with a series of images and a bare minimum of narration. We also have more than one protagonist – Dustin Hoffman, as well as John Cusack – who may or may not be at cross purposes, and a terrific showdown of adversaries (Hoffman and Gene Hackman in the courthouse men’s room) that is not in the original source material. In fact, the driving issue of the movie – gun liability – is completely different from the driving issue of the book – cigarette liability – which makes last month’s point about story being much more important than the background details.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Arguably the best thriller of the decade so far. What’s so great is how it moves non-stop, and carries us along even though we barely know what’s going on. We identify with Matt Damon’s character from the first frame, racing with him from one heart-pounding scene to another, picking up information as he does, and just enough to understand what’s going on. This movie is a stripped-down, efficient machine, a model of showing rather than telling.