Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Learning From Giant Ants (Conclusions)

Right about now you might be thinking to yourself, “Okay, I get it. But why Them! instead of, I don’t know, Citizen Kane or Sunset Blvd. maybe Psycho. Or Night at the Opera for crying out loud.”

Those would work. Matter of fact, trying this with a Hitchcock movie is very interesting; turning those complex visuals back into words. But I picked Them! for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a favorite of mine and a really good movie. Made by Warner Bros. in 1954 it came early the cycle of major studio monster movies and is one of the best. Them! contains no clichés, rather it is the first use of some of the basic building blocks that went on to become clichés in a hundred lesser films trying for the same audience and success. One of the most interesting things about Them! is that it derives its structure from outside the conventions of monster and science fiction movies. Them! is a police procedural in which the bad guys happen to be atomic mutated ants.

If you don’t know the picture, do yourself a favor and get acquainted. Take special note of the flowing logic of the first act, how the mystery in the desert is developed, how making the first victim a vacationing FBI agent effortlessly lets them bring the Feds into the case. This is the kind of solid, no-frills storytelling that looks easy, but is always the result of deliberate, economical choices of incident and character.

The film is a celebration of economy. The fate of the vacationing family is the event that starts the movie. It could have been any family, we only see the one little girl. But by making the father a vacationing F.B.I. agent, Sherdeman can collapse exposition and pull the Federal agency directly into the story. We’re introduced to Agent Graham after he’s visited the crime scene with Ben. We don’t have to go back there, only Graham does. The two men come in after a long day on the desert and we know Graham is up to speed without having to watch and listen to him finding out everything we already know. I’ve always admired the simple, elegant trick of making the first victim an F.B.I. agent.

I don’t know if the idea came from Sherdeman, or the producer (I know Director Gordon Douglas didn’t come on to the project until after the unexpected death of screen writer Sherdeman), but one way you can come up with a double-duty element in something of your own is by looking at each scene, each character, each event in a script and testing it in your mind. “I know it does what I want it to do, but can it do something else? Can it carry a little more of the load? Can it make my job a little easier down the line? This script don’t carry no passengers, so is this particular element chipping in for gas?”

A perfectly acceptably answer is: Yes. But every once in awhile you’ll find something that can take a little more stress, do some more hefty lifting, and, oddly enough, by doing more work, both jobs end up appearing more organic. Examples of that from a master, next time.


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