Why this American is not writing a screenplay

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By Scott Ross

Esquire June 1980

The cover of the June 1980 Esquire famously asked, “Is Anyone in America Not Writing a Screenplay?” While I admit to once collaborating on just such an animal — a crazy-quilt, Python/Ernie Kovacs-inspired series of blackout sketches written with my then best friend during our early high school years — and while I further admit to being very much besotted with movies (of the 20th century, anyway) and to having a reasonably impressive inventory of published screenplays in my personal library, the form is not one I find especially alluring. Even in 1980, when Esquire was posing the question, I had a tendency to roll my eyes, figuratively if not literally*, whenever someone said that he (and it was always “he”) was “working on a screenplay.” By the mid-’70s the phrase had become as much a cultural cliché as “But what I really want to do is direct.” Indeed, if the truth be known, “But what I really want to do is direct” is the second clause of the statement that begins, “I’m working on a screenplay.”

Robert McKee, maintainer of something called “Story Seminar” in which he imparts to the credulous the secrets of screenwriting success (and, as always with these types, has never had a screenwriting success) is somewhat notorious for having noted, “Every epoch has a dominant art form, and the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century is the cinema. The people who create the stories of this art form will be recognized as the great story-tellers of the Twentieth Century.” So — quick! — name me the recognized great storytellers. I’ll wait.

Give up? You might have said William Goldman. Or Robert Towne. Or Arthur Laurents, Paddy Chayefsky, Paul Schrader, or — if you’re especially au courant in these matters — John Logan, Dustin Lance Black, John Ridley, Nora Ephron, Tony Kushner or, just possibly, maybe, Aaron Sorkin. You might even have gone as far back as Ernest Lehman, Betty Comden Adolph and Green, Frank Nugent, Ben Hecht, Phillip Dunne, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Leigh Brackett and Herman J. Mankiewciz. But I’m willing to bet few, if any, of those names occurred to you. Because, McKee’s overly optimistic wishful thinking to the contrary, movie writers are never, ever recognized as great storytellers. Movie producers made sure that never happened during the studio era, and movie directors (abetted by know-nothing critics) have made even more certain it wouldn’t in the decades since. And even if you came up with Woody Allen, Samuel Fuller, Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Richard Brooks, John Huston, Preston Sturges — or even George Lucas — I can almost guarantee you thought of them as directors first, screenwriters second… if you remembered they were scenarists at all. Despite which, Welles for one preferred the term writer-director. “With,” he said, “an emphasis on the former.”

Screenwriters have nearly always been the lowliest men and women on the proverbial totem pole; the bastard-children of the movie biz. Jack Warner may have been speaking for the entire industry (Darryl Zanuck possibly excepted) when he referred to his studio’s scenarists as “schmucks with Underwoods.” Even today, the notion of the screenwriter being available for consultation or (Good God!) actually on the set while his or her script is being filmed is one that places eyebrows just under the hairline and sets mouths to permanent sneers. And, as with directors, screenwriters, however successful, never own their own work.

Although Billy Wilder maintained that “In the beginning was the Word” the word, in movie circles, is worth little, if not actually worthless. Indeed, one waits in vain for a modern-day Robert Riskind to drop a ream of 20-pound bond on the desk of some self-aggrandizing director with the modern equivalent of “Give that The Capra Touch!” Had it not been for one meddling director interfering with, and usually demeaning, their words and stories, Wilder and Sturges would never have become directors in the first place. It is surely no accident that Joe Gillis, aspiring screenwriter, becomes a gigolo and ends up floating face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool. That’s a Wilderian metaphor if ever there was one. Screenwriter: Screw, and discard.

William Goldman says that no one tells the composer how to compose or the cinematographer how to photograph, since no one except a composer understands music and no one other than a DP fully comprehends cinematography. But everyone uses words and believes he or she knows how to write. Or at least, knows better than the writer. I think his axiom is, in the first clause, faulty, as the Hollywoods are full of the bodies of DPs and composers (and art directors, and set designers, and film editors and, for all I know, grips and best-boys) some director or producer or studio functionary thought he knew better than. But his second clause seems absolutely spot-on to me. In the theatre, there is a little thing called The Dramatists Guild, which entity exists to protect the playwright (and the composer or lyricist) from actors seeking to make up their own lines, directors cutting scripts wholesale and producers gutting entire plays that are, suddenly and well into rehearsal, no longer to their liking. In Hollywood, there is only the Writers Guild of America, West. This body can settle disputes between screenwriters assigned to the same project, and arbitrate generally for the overall protection of scenarists. But it is virtually powerless against studios, or producers, or directors, or even actors, doing pretty much whatever the hell they want to a given script before it reaches production, during the filming, and well into post-production. Screenwriters know this. They don’t like it, but they cannot change it. They are gadflies merely, at best annoying, at worst able, during periodic contract negotiations, to shut down anything not already before the cameras. The result of which is the occasional gain for screenwriters, a loss for the culture; the last time we went through that upheaval we ended up with allegedly script-less, alleged “reality” television. We are still suffering from the fallout of that one.

Show me a screenwriter with power, and I will show you a Screenwriter/Producer. There’ve been few of them. Damn few. Carl Foreman, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and William Peter Blatty come to mind, in the past, the Coen brothers in the present. Paddy Chayefsky did not produce his movies, but they bore a possessive that marked them as clearly his. But then, Chayefsky was the exception to just about every rule. And the Coens write, produce and direct their own work, which puts them in an unheard-of category anyway. A playwright has the power, through his guild, to shut down a production if he feels his work is being betrayed by it. A screenwriter is paid, dismissed, and likely never heard from again — unless the screenplay wins an award — which the director will likely claim was really due to him anyway — or brings suit of some kind, which is also rare. If he wins it (cf., Gore Vidal, Art Buchwald, Harlan Ellison) it’s even rarer. And a self-appointed auteur will almost never bring up the screenwriter in conversation, other than to denounce or deride him.

Television is alleged to be a writer’s medium, and perhaps it is. In England. There the play, movie or series episode bears the title “Written by” or just “By.” An Englishman Abroad is not “A film by John Schlesinger.” It is “By Alan Bennett.” In America, no one notices who wrote anything on television. The writer’s (or writers’) credit appears very much as it does in movies — usually, in episodic shows, followed by an interminable list of “Associate Producers,” “Executive Producers” and even “Associate Executive Producers.” † Then, finally, “Directed by.” Writer? What writer?

The fact is if you are a dramatist, there is only one venue in this country that allows you to be the author of your work: Theatre. And the ultimate irony is that theatre — dramatic theatre — is now as dead as Marley. Musicals, yes. Musicals by (you should pardon the expression) the score. Yes, some playwright usually takes home a Pulitzer every year for drama, but his or her plays don’t run. Even Off-Broadway. The working playwright in America now is the writer whose plays are usually done outside New York. And he or she is usually not making a living at it. A working playwright, if he’s lucky and has the requisite education, teaches at a prestigious university. Gone, seemingly forever, is the notion of an American whose sole employment is as a playwright. There are exceptions, but they usually make their real living as screenwriters (Tony Kushner comes to mind.) The days when a young Neil Simon wakes up one morning, sees lines at the Broadway box-office and knows he has made it, are over, presumably for good. There are times when a playwright — this playwright, anyway — wishes he’d never typed his first play-script.

For good or ill, however, those scripts are mine. They do not belong to CBS, or HBO, or AMC, or Universal, or Warners. I decide who can mount them (virtually no one past the initial production, but that’s more or less beside the point.) I decide when a line may be re-written, or a scene re-configured, and I alone will write, or revise, or re-configure. In consultation with the director and with input from the actors, certainly, but unilateral, wholesale revision of my work is not going to happen, unless I’m hundreds of miles away from the production and can only trust that the people who cared enough about my script to actually produce it will respect it, and me as the author, enough to refrain from “creative” meddling.

Would I like to make screenwriters’ wages? Damn skippy I would. Would I trade my autonomy, poor thing though it be, for the monetary compensation of an Arthur Laurents, knowing that both his biggest and most respected hits (The Way We Were and The Turning Point) are going to be utterly emasculated by their directors and their stars? I would not.

Yet one often reads amateur play-scripts whose writers would not only prefer to be writing screenplays, but who actually are. I’m not talking about the use of so-called cinematic techniques. My own preference as a dramatist is to keep the stage, and the action, as fluid as possible, without recourse to cumbersome scene changes and boring inter-act blackouts. This allows not only for ease of staging and design (which, among other felicities, might actually help get your work mounted by cost-conscious companies and producers) but for surprise and dramatic effect. The use of these techniques is debatable, of course; I only know that they work for me, and excite me, as a writer and as a spectator. But that, for good or ill, is deliberate intent, on my part, as a dramatist. What I’m referring to are stage plays that read like screen plays, replete with impossible effects, and equally impossible stage direction. In the otherwise admirable A Shayna Maidel the playwright, Barbara Lebow, includes two scenes, back-to-back, in which the leading character goes from one full costume at the end of the first scene to another, completely new, ensemble at the beginning of the next. No backstage dresser alive could get that woman changed with sufficient rapidity to avert boring the entire audience, and one is left scratching one’s head in perplexity that no one connected with the original production informed the playwright that this was simply not good stagecraft. Or — and this seems somehow worse to me — that Lebow herself did not know better.

The impulse to write screenplays when one is supposedly crafting a play is rampant. One such script I read in college contained not one but several full-scale historical ground and air battles. I’m not joking — or exaggerating. Another alleged “play” by an amateur I encountered a few years ago began with several women convening at a beach cottage (already a hoary device in itself, but let that pass.) At the end of this opener, the women — who are still in their everyday togs, please remember, as they’ve just arrived — decide to go for a swim. The next scene discovers the entire cast, in bikini bathing suits, painfully examining their collective, total-body sunburn. As Jerome Robbins once said to Stephen Sondheim about a static verse, “All right, then — you stage it!” Either the “playwright” knows nothing about stagecraft (in which case, why is he or she writing a play?) or holds the theatre itself in some sort of secret contempt. “But what I really want to do is write a screenplay.”

A personal anecdote that is to the point. When I met the critic David Denby at a local signing for his 1996 Great Books, the owner of the bookstore introduced me to him as a critic and a playwright who had recently won an award and a production for his play The Dogs of Foo. I appreciated her boost, but I knew something she didn’t: Namely, that Denby, whom I admire more than nearly any other contemporary movie critic, despises the stage. He once wrote a long, magnificently pig-headed and astonishingly spurious piece for The Atlantic (“Theatrephobia,” January 1985; look it up) in which, juxtaposing current movies and Broadway shows of the time, he came down fourscore for the worst movie over the finest play. He is a man who, despite his reverence for the plays of Shakespeare (Lear in particular) absolutely loathes theatre.

Denby asked me what the play was about. I replied that it centered on a 1930s movie director very much like George Cukor.

He responded, “Sounds like it might be a good movie.”

Like the prophet, the playwright has no honor in his own country. But he still has more than the screenwriter.

Billy Wilder’s epithet reads, “I’m a writer. But then, nobody’s perfect.” In 1986, while accepting his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award as a filmmaker, he defended his primary profession (screenwriting) and, criticizing the bottom-line perfidy of the Hollywood Suits, noted, “Theirs may be the kingdom, but ours is the power, and the glory.”

Who would ever have thought that Billy Wilder was an optimist?


*And no, Virginia, these two words are not inter-changeable.

†All of which means someone is getting a credit who pretty much did nothing.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross


Post-Script, February 2017
Anent my comments on “reality” television: Without it, would there — could there — have been a President Trump? I rest my case.

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Looking Back in Anger

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By Scott Ross

For the past two days, I have been listening to Quartet Records’ meticulous reconstruction of Miklós Rózsa’s exquisite score for the Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond masterwork The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in, if not exactly a state of rage, at least fits of reasonably manageable pique.

A note on the Quartet website explains, to a large degree, the reason for my fury: The company’s producers and engineers, it tells us, “spent almost three years searching for the best possible sources, but the original masters are, unfortunately, forever lost […]  We have used three different monaural music-only stems from the MGM vaults for this release — none of which was in ideal condition.”

This is, sadly, an old story, all too often replicated. It is an especially cruel irony that, while the loss of priceless soundtrack masters is not unheard of within the vaults of the major Hollywood studios, this deplorable state of affairs holds true with much more depressing regularity on movies produced outside the system — in those very places where the filmmakers and their collaborators had more freedom than anywhere else. Time after depressing time, we who love film scores are told that the soundtrack for X movie, the cherished LPs of which we’ve worn to hockey pucks over the years, is simply gone.

For older studio scores, the major problem is often that effects and music (and, occasionally, some dialogue) were stored on the same tracks. Nothing to be done about that… at least for now; who knows what digital magician of the future may arrive to perform some as-yet unknown feat of prestidigitation that will ameliorate that fissure? Fortunately, later scores were isolated, often with their stereo components intact, or their composers kept master tapes in their own collections, so many of the glories of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s can come to us more or less in full, sometimes with astounding aural freshness (Kritzerland’s release of the Les Baxter Black Sunday is a good example.)

In the case of an entity such as United Artists, however, home-from-home for so many gifted screenwriters, directors, actors and composers during that time, the elements were sometimes scattered to the four winds when not destroyed outright. (Often, the LP masters, which can differ markedly from what’s heard in the movies, are all that remains.) Varèse Sarabande just barely caught Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent Hawaii in time, after nearly giving up hope, and Quartet recently performed a miracle resuscitation on Burt Bacharach’s Casino Royale. Jose Luis Crespo has done a remarkable job with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and deserves the praise and thanks of so many who love Rózsa, and revere this movie, and its score. But the facts behind this release are intolerable. The London studio where the score was recorded in 1970 has since been demolished. Well, fair enough. These things happen. But much of its holdings were destroyed in the process. And that is damn near unforgivable. It’s very much akin to Warner Bros. in the ’60s quite literally bulldozing decades’ worth of its animation department’s irreplaceable history just to make more room for its publicity department.

Wilder and Diamond envisioned, and shot, Holmes as a three-hour “roadshow” presentation, with four distinct segments. By the time the picture was edited the Mirisch Brothers of U.A., leery of the shellacking Hollywood studios had been taking on so many big-budget flops, demanded Wilder cut the picture by an hour. Not that it mattered; the movie, a comic/melancholy exercise of rare beauty and rue, died anyway. Of the two trimmed episodes, one is extant only without sound while the other exists solely as soundtrack, the filmed footage having disappeared decades ago. If what exists were not, like Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons and Stroheim’s Greed, so exceptional, it might not hurt so much to know that the possibility of a true restoration is, in all likelihood, nothing more than a pretty but ultimately foolish dream. And so, the loss of Rózsa’s achingly beautiful score in its optimal presentation somehow just feels like the perfect capper to the entire, doomed project.

Wilder asked Rózsa to base the score on his alternately plaintive and exhilarating Violin Concerto, cannily equating both its moods and its primary instrument with Holmes. The result is one of the finest scores, not merely of the composer’s own impressive oeuvre, but in the annals of movie scoring. It should be said that Crespo & Co. have done wizard’s work, given what they had to work with, and that their sheer determination to present The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in anything like Rózsa original earns them a special seat in Paradise.

Still. The losses to music history, and to its future, are incalculable. So, if you’ll forgive me for it, and even if you won’t… I’m still angry.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Post-Script
If you didn’t order this one fast, I’m afraid it’s already too late; as with so many limited edition soundtrack releases, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is already sold out. But you can at least sample some of the music on the Quartet website.

http://www.quartetrecords.com/the-private-life-of-sherlock-holmes.html

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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By Scott Ross

One of Billy Wilder’s loveliest movies, cut drastically before its premiere. Worse, over time the sound has gone missing from at least one sequence and the picture from another, so barring a minor miracle no true reconstruction is possible. A genuine pity, since this autumnal masterwork deserves a much wider following.

Wilder and his compatriot, I.A.L. Diamond, conceived their Holmes (Robert Stephens) as a melancholy, acerbic misanthrope, both amused by and irritated at the fictions of Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely). Wilder and Diamond caught the ire of Sherlockians everywhere by implying that their Holmes might be homosexual (“You mean you and Dr. Watson — he is your glass of tea?” “If you want to be picturesque about it.”) but the matter is more or less settled when the consulting detective becomes entranced by a duplicitous double-agent (Geneviève Page.)

Also around to upset traditionalists is Christopher Lee as a very gaunt Mycroft Holmes and Irene Handl’s less-than-enchanting Mrs. Hudson. Lee later credited Wilder’s casting with lifting him out of the horror ghetto typecasting he’d been subjected to, although the filmmaker could not resist, on seeing a bat flying near Loch Lomand at dusk, remarking to Lee, “You should feel right at home here.”

Stanley Holloway also shows up as a gravedigger (a nod perhaps to his famous turn in Hamlet?) The exquisite cinematography is by Christopher Challis, the marvelously detailed production design is Alexandre Trauner’s, and Miklós Rózsa provides the sumptuous, haunting score; at Wilder’s request he adapted his own Violin Concerto, a canny move that dovetails beautifully with Holmes’ plangent choice of musical instrument.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Love in the Afternoon (1957)

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By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond began their razor-sharp collaboration with this utterly charming adaptation of the Claude Anet novel Ariane. Along with the team’s later, rueful 1971 movie of the Samuel Taylor farce Avanti!, Love in the Afternoon constitutes the most thoroughly Lubitschean of Wilder’s comic romances. The set-up (or as Wilder would call it, the “Wienie”) is a honey: Maurice Chevalier is a private detective specializing in marital infidelity, assiduously — and vainly — trying to guard his virginal daughter Ariane (Audrey Hepburn) from too much knowledge of the seamier aspects of his avocation. Naturally enough, the girl becomes involved with her father’s primary bête noire, a dissipated American roué (Gary Cooper) whom she begins meeting in the Parisian afternoons.

The “love” of the title is, bracingly for the movie’s period, really sex, and as long as it remains that way, Cooper is happy. Hepburn, of course, falls hard for her coeval, while maintaining a false soignée attitude that causes her intense emotional pain. While the movie holds the contour of a boulevard farce, that ache is its central concern; Love in the Afternoon may be the funniest romantic drama Billy Wilder ever made, a warm-up for Some Like it Hot and The Apartment.

Cooper, long past his sensual prime, still manages to conjure wispy echoes of his own history as the beautiful icon of 1930s stoicism, and the long sequence in which he listens to Hepburn’s voice on a recorder recounting her (wholly fictional) amorous past with an initial delight that turns into almost violent brooding is one of Wilder’s most memorable comic coups. Hepburn is her usual luminous self, veering from adolescent absorption (the old tune “Fascination” is the movie’s recurring melodic motif) to erotic and emotional enthrall with a delicacy and charm that can break your heart. Chevalier has his best-ever role as her solicitous father, and the supporting cast includes the peerless John McGavin as the adenoidal cuckold whose obsession with his wife’s unfaithfulness starts the whole ball of wax rolling.

The Wilder-Diamond screenplay is delicious, and includes one of their finest exchanges, when Chevalier asserts his need to keep the sexual excesses in his files from his daughter and Hepburn protests that her late mother knew what was in them:

Chevalier: Ariane! Your mother was a married woman!

Hepburn (Smiling ingenuously): I’m so glad!

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Double Indemnity (1944)

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By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder’s third movie as writer-director is one of his finest. With John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, it also helped set the tone and look for what would later be called film noir. (Although, technically, noir thrived due to the photographic tricks required to work around restrictive, post-War B-movie budgets, and these two studio products were definitely A-movies.)

This is the movie to point to when some critical ignoramus claims that Billy Wilder, for all his verbal acuity, was not a visual director. Despite its California setting, the movie has the look of an industrialized vision of Hell: shadows predominate, and machinery itself takes on the menacing aspect of deadly inexorability: an automobile makes the murder itself possible, a train helps disguise the act, and the often repeated motto of the sexually insatiable killers (Fred MacMurray and, especially, Barbara Stanwyck, who when kissing MacMurray looks positively carnivorous — she appears about to devour the man) is “Straight down the line.” MacMurray, cast against type, is revelatory. This was the first of his two great movie roles, both courtesy of Wilder (c.f., The Apartment) and he more than rose to the occasion.

Edward G. Robinson, also playing against his by-then accepted criminal persona, is the indomitable insurance investigator, unaware that he’s pursuing the man he regards as a kind of unofficial son — although you might argue his feelings for MacMurray are more akin to romantic love. Raymond Chandler, against his will, co-wrote the superb screenplay with Wilder from a James Cain novella he loathed. Miklos Rozsa composed the pluperfect score.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Irma La Douce (1963)

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By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond followed The Apartment with the riotous One, Two, Three. That one was no blockbuster, but this wild adaptation of the Paris, London and Broadway success (sans musical numbers) was a huge hit — the last the pair would ever have. Wilder later admitted that the movie isn’t nearly French enough, and it does feel like an American comedy with the occasional bit of Gallic street patois and European attitude tossed in. Of course, the Parisian milieu of mecs and poulles couldn’t work in any other social setting, particularly an American one, and part of the fun of this slightly overlong but immensely enjoyable farce is the matter-of-fact way prostitution is woven into the economic fabric of Les Halles, where the story is set. In brief, it involves an honest cop called Nestor (Jack Lemmon) who falls in with the sweet-natured whore of the title (Shirley MacLaine) and becomes her pimp. The joke is that he grows insanely jealous of her customers. To keep them both going — and himself from the loony bin — Nestor enacts a charade in which he pretends to be an impotent nitwit of a British lord (concocted from parts of all the English movies he’s ever seen) and becomes Irma’s sole client, while working himself to shreds at night in a variety of menial jobs. The trouble is, he quickly becomes inflamed with jealousy against his own doppelganger…

Note Lemmon in three keys: As flic Patou, mec Nestor and Monsieur X.

The movie is a racy variation on the old Molnar comedy The Guardsman, and a fine example of Wilder’s self-appraisal of his work as a mix of Lubitsch and Von Stroheim. Lemmon and MacLaine are dead perfect, as is Lou Jacobi as the story’s compere (a role Wilder originally intended for Charles Laughton.) Alexander Trauner’s main set is a superb evocation of Les Halles, and Marguerite Monnot’s songs were beautifully adapted (and enlarged upon) in Andre Previn’s exquisite score. Irma was Wilder’s first color movie since The Spirit of St. Louis, and it’s exquisitely photographed (by longtime Wilder confederate Joseph La Shelle), the pastels cheerfully offsetting the narrative’s essential sordidness.

The combined TV viewing of this and The Great Race (made a year later) when I was 11 introduced me to Jack Lemmon and started a one-way love affair with that absolutely essential American actor that will likely continue the rest of my life.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

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By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder’s savage, yet deeply felt, black mass on the Hollywood he both loved and — on the basis of this one — must have loathed a bit as well.

Few talking pictures crammed in so many quotable lines, but John Seitz’s visuals are equally striking: William Holden, face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool; the celebrated monkey funeral; Swanson standing up amid swirling cigarette smoke and a projector’s beam like some demented harpy direct from Hell; and that long descent down her mansion’s rococo staircase at the finale. (Wilder to Seitz on the set: “Just your standard monkey funeral shot, Johnny.”)

Holden’s performance as the doomed, tawdry screenwriter was his breakout, and 55 years later it’s still riveting. This was the movie that put an end to Wilder’s fertile but embattled partnership with co-scenarist Charles Brackett; D.M. Marshman Jr. shares a screenwriting credit, largely on the basis of having helped Wilder over a narrative hurdle by observing, “What if the old dame shoots the boy?”

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross