Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"The (Im)Perfect Crime"

I flipped over to the USA Channel hoping for an SVU marathon and instead found a show I didn’t like, which is pretty much all the other ones so I can’t remember which it was.  Anyway, during the twenty seconds that it held my attention, I heard one of the show’s “regulars”, standing by two cadavers laid out on adjacent examining tables remark,

“This is like ‘Hitchcock’!”

I realized very quickly that the episode I was watching involved a storyline lifted from the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie Strangers on a Train (1951) wherein two people who meet accidentally on a train devise ”The perfect murder.” 

The proposed strategy is a “criss-cross.”  Each stranger would bump off someone the other stranger wants dead, eluding capture because neither of them has a motive for killing the victim they did in.  Plus, they have an unbreakable alibi for their whereabouts when the killing of the person they might have had a motive to murder was committed.

It’s a clever idea, originated in a crime novel by Patricia Highsmith, the screenplay written by Whitfield Cook, Czenzi Omondo and Raymond Chandler.  Sixty-some years later, some cheesy cable series rips it off and uses it as their own. 

Though not without explicit attribution. 

As if somehow, proclaiming the effective ripping off of another writer’s concept makes everything okay. 

Personally, I am not persuaded.

If something happens in real life that coincidentally duplicates the events portrayed in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, then, justifiably, you could say, with unabashed amazement,

“This is like ‘Hitchcock’!”

Because that would be unabashedly amazing.

But when fiction deliberately appropriates a plotline from other fiction, that’s not

“This is like ‘Hitchcock’!”


“We’re stealing from Hitchcock!”

What were they thinking?  Were they pretending that what they were participating in was real, in hopes that the audience would somehow surrender to the illusion?

“Isn’t this amazing.  It’s life imitating art!”

It isn’t.  It’s art imitating art.  (Actually, crappy art imitating good art.)

The wise and witty Oscar Levant had an observation on this matter:

“Imitation” he opined, “is the sincerest form of plagiarism.”

In comedy, there is a similar process, not so much when transparent pilfering takes place as when there’s an egregious implausibility in the script – a way way beyond unlikely coincidence, a screaming plot-turn implausibility or some behavior that is jaw-droppingly out of character. 

To relieve the stench of such scriptorial stooping, deemed essential for making the story work, comedy writers employ a “saving” device we call “Hanging a lantern on it.”

And here, unfortunately, I will let you and this narrative down.  I apologize in advance.  If there is a way I could make it up to you, I would.  If you think of one, I strongly encourage you to let me know.

At this point, a respectable blog post on this subject would provide hilarious, only slightly exaggerated, examples of “hanging a lantern on it” situations, moments in which some outrageousness occurs in the story, and, instead of racing past it and pretending it did not occur, a character in the show instead draws attention to the incredulity by saying, “Can you believe how outrageous this is?”

The problem is – and I have spent a considerable amount of time trying – I cannot think of one.

During the course of my career, I have written cheap jokes.  I have written easy jokes.  I have written formula jokes.  I have been guilty of my share and more of substandard workmanship.  I am, I hereby publicly acknowledge, hardly without sin. 

However, to the best of my recollection, in my extended and mostly accomplished career, I have never experienced a writing situation where I was required to “hang a lantern” on anything.  Not because I am above reproach, but because my mind lacks the capacity to imagine outrageous situations for which the balming strategy of “hanging a lantern on it” would then be necessary.

And so, when it comes time for examples, being unable to write what I can’t imagine, I cannot come up with any.

What can I tell you?  I am limited as a writer.

On the “Scrupulosity Front”, I have actually, some might say obsessively, gone the other way.  The storyline in the Major Dad pilot called for a six year-old girl to deliver a “Knock-knock” joke.  There are probably volumes of “Knock-knock” jokes.  My “Earlo Conscience”, however, insisted that I make up a new one. 

I have also co-opted things unconsciously, only to discover years later that I had done so.  The premise of Best of the West involved a Union officer meeting his Southern bride-to-be while he was burning down her planation during the Civil War.  Twenty or so years later, I am watching John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) – not for the first time – only to discover that that is exactly what happened there.

But “Hanging a lantern on it” involves a conscious abandoning of qualitative standards, the “lighthouse sounding” strategy intended to conceal the transgression in plain sight, therefore making it acceptable.  The same rationale behind “This is like “Hitchcock’!”

Acknowledging my own imperfections in other regards, I offer another label for this one.

Not good enough writing.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

First of all, I think those writers should lose points for not crediting Patricia Highsmith instead of Hitchcock.

The second thing, though, is that lots of plots and situations have been reused. Shakespeare and Chaucer stole from folklore, and on it goes. Come of think of it, the idea of swapping victims was reused by Alan Ayckbourn, England's most produced living playwright, in THE REVENGERS COMEDIES. Of course the story came out very differently. So the question is where you draw the line...


pumpkinhead said...

It's always weird now to see your name or Levine's pop up on a show I'm re-watching from 35 years ago. "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." Genius. I can only think of two John episodes, and you wrote them both. Why John?