Arsenic and Old Lace: Dramatica Story Analysis

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace “. . . is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen and it usually does.” Mortimer Brewster, dramatic critic and main character, finds himself in the situation (mc domain-universe) of “The guy who wrote the bachelor’s bible finally getting hooked himself.” Standing in line to obtain (relationship story concern) his and his intended’s (Elaine Harper, the influence character) marriage license, he attempts to avoid (mc solution) publicity by whispering: “I don’t want this to get out for a while” to the court clerk (mc thematic issue of delay), and dodging photographers by wearing dark “cheaters” and ducking (mc approach-doer) into a telephone booth.

Exasperated by the problems this endeavor (rs domain-physics) has created, Mortimer sounds off to Elaine: “Don’t you understand (rs signpost 1)? How could I marry you? Me, the symbol of bachelorhood! (rs thematic issue of self interest) I’ve sneered at every love scene in every play! I’ve written four million words against marriage! Now I’ll be hooked to a minister’s daughter (rs thematic counterpoint-morality)! . . . I won’t go through with it and that’s that (rs inhibitor-commitment)!” Elaine, dewy-eyed faithfulness (rs response), patiently waits out his tirade and they go on to get hitched.

The newlyweds taxi over to the Brewster sisters’ house. Elaine is the proverbial girl next door, having grown up in the parsonage next to Mortimer’s maiden aunts (“they’re like pressed rose leaves”). The young couple’s intention is to announce the marriage to their respective relatives, then set off for a honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Meanwhile, the aunts and Reverend Harper are taking tea, discussing Mortimer and Elaine’s relationship. Reverend Harper voices his disapproval of Mortimer’s book, Marriage: A Fraud and a Failure: “No man with this published attitude on marriage should take any man’s daughter any place, anytime.” (mc symptom-oppose)

Reverend Harper departs. Mortimer enters and reveals his newlywed status to Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha. They are thrilled, as this is what they had hoped (ic thematic issue) for Elaine and their nephew all along. When Mortimer asks for the hidden notes on his forthcoming novel, Mind over Marriage, the critic’s concern for his future indicates conflict between private and public persona—yes he may be a married man, at least on paper, but in the eyes of the public he is the quintessential bachelor. In the search, Mortimer discovers a dead body in the window seat (story driver-action). Further, his aunts are the ones responsible (os catalyst) for killing him and a dozen or so others with kindness in the form of arsenic in elderberry wine. From this point on the objective story is emphasized, particularly in the storytelling, to the near exclusion of the main characterinfluence character, and relationship story throughlines.

The objective story domain is psychology, and the characters’ different ways of thinking are what causes problems. “Charge” is the battle cry of Mortimer’s brother, believing himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. Long lost other brother Jonathan is a psychopath with a cold body of his own and no qualms about rubbing out immediate family. Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha’s pursuit (os problem) of lonely old gentlemen to poison (“Murder Incorporated”), thinking it the charitable thing to do, is a dilemma—Mortimer scolds: “I don’t know how I can explain this to you, but it’s not only against the law, it’s wrong! It’s not a nice thing to do! People wouldn’t understand. . . . this is developing into a very bad habit!”

The story goal of becoming is somewhat nebulous, however, becoming as an objective story concern is quite evident. Elaine becoming part of a wacky family: “You wouldn’t want to set up housekeeping in a padded cell . . . insanity runs in my family—it practically gallops!”—Jonathan becoming the “prodigal son”—his Boris Karloff countenance undergoing a physical transformation at the tremulous hands of Dr. Einstein–the burly cop on the beat becoming a playwright, and so forth. The thematic conflict of commitment vs. responsibility is also quite marked. O’Hara takes over Officer Brophy’s responsibilities for protecting the neighborhood, a nephew’s responsibilities to his family take precedence over the commitment to a new bride, much discussion is given to committing Teddy to Happydale.

“Egads!” Mortimer comes across a new body (Jonathan’s victim) in the window seat and demands an explanation from Aunt Abby. She’s outraged: “It’s a stranger. . . . It’s getting so anybody thinks he can walk in this house . . . That man’s an impostor! And if he came here to be buried in our cellar he’s mistaken!” Mortimer is exasperated: “Aunt Abby how can I believe you!” (os symptom-disbelief) He feels he must prevent (os solution) his aunts from becoming Sing Sing inmates for their well-intentioned misdeeds. He takes the necessary steps (mc mental sex-male) to commit Teddy sooner than originally planned. Mortimer’s thinking is, if anyone becomes wise to the bodies buried down in Panama (the cellar), Teddy can take the rap “. . . everybody knows he’s crazy.”

The nocturnal activities of Jonathan and his henchman, weaselly Dr. Einstein, skulking about with their body (Mr. Spinoza), and the aunt’s fussy preparations to hold funeral services for their murder victim (Mr. Hoskins), not to mention a near hysteric Elaine running in and out of the household (ic benchmark of preconscious) alerts Officer O’Hara. He stops in—but instead of clueing into how things are going (forewarning of progress), he pitches his play to Mortimer (os inhibitor of self-interest). Madness, mayhem, double takes and pratfalls continue until Teddy’s blasted bugle brings in Lieutenant Rooney.

Temporary sanity sorts out the confusion—Jonathan is carted off by New York’s finest—Mr. Witherspoon packs up Teddy’s duffel for Happydale (after pitching his play to the dramatic critic)—Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha avoid the slammer by committing themselves as well, but not before letting Mortimer in on a family secret. He is not really a Brewster, but the “son of sea cook”—a happy fact he shouts to the world as he kisses his wife for all to see (mc resolve-change) and starts (mc growth) his happily ever after (outcome-success; story judgment-good).

Postscript: I once spotted Abe Vigoda “Fish” at Diablo Valley College “The Rock.” His nephew was in a school play.

Things That Go Bump in the Noir

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

“Kind of a crazy story with a crazy twist to it. One you didn’t quite figure out.”—Double Indemnity

“A puzzle you won’t ever solve.”—Memento

Christopher Nolan’s intricate trick of a movie Memento, belongs to the legacy of Billy Wilder’s film noir, Double Indemnity. Wilder’s 1944 award-winning classic, co-written with hard-boiled crime fiction author Raymond Chandler, and based upon James M. Cain’s novella, set the screen standard for all aspects noirish—amoral characters, ambivalent themes, taut plots, and an atmosphere colored by shifting shades of drifting gray.

Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff and Memento’s Leonard Shelby are both in the insurance game—an industry perceived to be a necessary evil, employing as many scam artists as the clients who file false claims. Each film’s main character skirts around the edges of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley—where Santa Anas blow ill winds and nobody is quite whom they seem:

Neff: Where did you pick up this tea drinking? You’re not English, are you?
Phyllis: No. Californian. Born right here in Los Angeles.
Neff: They say native Californians all come from Iowa.

Teddy: Leonard, you don’t have a clue what’s going on. You don’t even know my name.
Leonard: (triumphant smile) Teddy!
Teddy: You read it off your fucking photo. You don’t know me, you don’t even know who you are.

Neff’s “movements are easy and full of ginger.” He utters street-smart patter as he slouches against doorjambs, coolly waiting for beguiling blondes dolled up in slit summer dresses and cheap anklets to flounce down a staircase with the right proposition. In Phyllis Dietrichson’s case, it’s the disposal of her husband and collection of cold hard cash:

Phyllis: Could I get an accident policy for him—without bothering him at all?
Neff: . . . You want him to have the policy without him knowing it. And that means without the insurance company knowing that he doesn’t know. That’s the set-up, isn’t it? . . . And then, some dark wet night . . . You want to knock him off, don’t you, baby?

Crocodile tears slither out from Phyllis’s come-hither eyes. The look is enough to hook Neff—this gun’s for hire:

Neff: . . . It all tied up with something I had been thinking about for years, since long before I ever ran into Phyllis Dietrichson. Because, in this business you can’t sleep for trying to figure out the tricks they could pull on you. You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don’t crook the house. And then one night, you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself. . . . And suddenly the doorbell rings and the whole setup is right there in the room with you. . . . The stakes were fifty thousand dollars, but they were the life of a man, too, a man who’d never done me any dirt. Except he was married to a woman he didn’t care anything about, and I did . . .

Memento’s Leonard also has a fatal obsession. Retaliation for his wife’s rape and murder:

Teddy: You really wanna find this guy?
Leonard: He took away the woman I love, and he took away my memory. He destroyed everything; my life and my ability to live.
Teddy: You’re living.
Leonard: Just for revenge.

The pursuit for vengeance is problematic for Leonard, as he suffered a head injury during the incident and has no short-term memory:

Leonard: I know who I am and all about myself, but . . . I can’t make any new memories. Everything fades. If we talk too long, I’ll forget how we started. I don’t know if we’ve ever met before, and the next time I see you I won’t remember this conversation.

Leonard is damaged and damned—a man with no context:

Leonard: I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed the world’s still out there.

Walter Neff and Leonard Shelby do their dirty deeds, but in true cinema noir cynical fashion, they fail to attain any measure of gratification:

Neff: I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?

Teddy: . . . We found him and you killed him. . . . I’ve never seen you so happy—I was convinced you’d remember. But it didn’t stick, like nothing ever sticks. Like this won’t stick.

Dialogue that interlocks like a zipper’s metal tabs creates complicity between the audience and anti-heroes of Double Indemnity and  Memento. Yes, they’re killers, but killers wry and witty:

Neff: Where would the living room be?
Maid: In there, but they keep the liquor locked up.
Neff: That’s okay. I always carry my own keys.

Leonard: So how many rooms am I checked into in this dump?
Burt: Just two. So far.
Leonard: Well, at least you’re being honest about cheating me.
Burt: Yeah, well you’re not gonna remember, anyway.
Leonard: You don’t have to be that honest, Burt.

Walter and his paramour, partner-in-crime Phyllis, mortally wound each other, a strategic decision in obtaining script approval from the Hays Office because the “. . . Production Code still demanded that criminals pay onscreen for their transgressions.” Before his death, Neff confesses all to Barton Keyes—the man who plays the part of Neff’s conscience:

Neff: I wanted to straighten out that Dietrichson story for you. . . . And now I suppose I get the big speech, the one with all the two-dollar words in it. Let’s have it, Keyes.
Keyes: You’re all washed up, Walter.
Neff: Thanks, Keyes. That was short anyway.

In this new millennium, (particularly in independent film), Nolan has no such morality constraints. He is not limited to black and white—literally, in the aesthetic of the film’s look, or figuratively, in the ambiguity of the story’s outcome. Cool blue hues saturate Leonard’s world of loss. Users and losers are on hand to lend menace and pathos. They slink on the sidelines of salvation—no chance or care for redemption. Femme fatales look vaguely the same: opaque-eyed and contemptuous. Including Leonard’s dead (if she is indeed) wife. Tragedy thrives in the burnt embers of her mementos—the love he “can’t remember to forget”:

Natalie: What’s the last thing you remember?
Leonard: My wife.
Natalie: Sweet.
Leonard: Dying.

Beyond avenging his wife’s death, Leonard becomes a killer for his own convenience. Once Teddy, Leonard’s untrustworthy and unreliable sidekick, accuses him of deliberate memory fidgeting to continue the quest for: “a dead wife to pine for and a sense of purpose in your life,” Leonard blows him away.

Tossing Teddy’s car keys into the bushes, Leonard Shelby metaphorically kisses the “keys” to his conscience good-bye, and Christopher Nolan ushers in his version of neo-noir. Much to the delight, one may well imagine, of Billy Wilder’s grinning ghost.

Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity (original shooting script dated September 25, 1943), reproduced in Double Indemnity/Billy Wilder; screenplay by Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler; with an introduction by Jeffrey Meyers. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 26.
Christopher Nolan, Memento (screenplay dated October 4, 1999), pp. 3-3A.
Wilder, Double Indemnity, p. 11.
Ibid., pp. 28-29.
Ibid., pp. 36-37.
Nolan, Memento, p. 30.
Ibid., p. 9.
Ibid., p.118.
Wilder, Double Indemnity, p. 11.
Nolan, Memento, p.115.
Wilder, Double Indemnity, p. 14.
Nolan, Memento, p. 25.
Kevin Lally, Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), p. 134.
Wilder, Double Indemnity, p. 116.
Nolan, Memento, p. 57.
Ibid., p. 87.
Ibid., p.116.

He’s a Real Nowhere Man: Memento Film Review

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

ₚₕₒₜₒ by ⱼₐₙₑ ₘ. Gₐᵣᵣᵢₛₒₙ

How can you read that again? . . . You’ve read it a hundred times.

I enjoy it.

Yeah, but the pleasure of a book is in wanting to know what happens next. 

Ironic words coming from writer/director Christopher Nolan. The thrill of the unusual, yet captivating, storytelling style of Memento, based upon brother Jonathan Nolan’s short story, is in wanting to know what happens first.

The story backtracks, end to beginning. It sidesteps, omits, and misleads as well. Leonard, an insurance claims investigator, is determined to avenge his wife’s rape and murder. Problematic, as he suffered a head injury during the incident and has no short-term memory.

I know who I am and all about myself, but . . . I can’t make any new memories. Everything fades. If we talk for too long, I’ll forget how we started. I don’t know if we’ve ever met before, and the next time I see you I won’t remember this conversation.

Cool blue hues color Leonard’s world of loss. He navigates his “romantic quest which [he] will not end” with tattoos, handwritten notes, charts, and Polaroids. Users and losers are on hand to lend menace, pathos, and sardonic humor. Femme fatales look vaguely the same: opaque-eyed and contemptuous. Including Leonard’s dead (if she is indeed) wife.
Tragedy thrives in the burnt embers of her mementos—the love that he “can’t remember to forget.”

What’s the last thing you remember?
My wife.

Leonard is damaged and damned—a man with no context.

I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still out there.

Certain to become, at the very least, a cult classic, Memento is reminiscent of other noirish films like Blade RunnerBlow Up, and Double Indemnity. The line between reel and real life blurs after I exit the movie theater, right into Memento’s world. You see, the Limbo Land in which Leonard chases ghosts, is the neighborhood I live in.

All quotations from the Memento shooting script.

“Natalie’s House”

This dilapidated house located on Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank is inhabited by a cranky old man who does not take well to nosy parker neighbors peering in his windows. Look closely in the film and you can see his pastel portrait hanging on the living room wall. (By the way, that’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia Blvd., as well.) The neighborhood is also home to Memento film crew member Corey Geryak, a dynamo (Lunge Queen JoDee), and their towhead sons.

(pictured at top of page)
Local watering hole where Natalie tends bar. In reality, it’s Burbank’s The Blue Room, where Lew pours lethal Lemon Drop cocktails—and Judi serves them up with a side of bitter. The Blue Room is (in)famous for its annual New Year’s Eve shindig.

Just Look at Them and Sigh: Jumping Into The Deep End Film Review

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

How do parents react to the notion their child may be homosexual? In Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, a film that aspires to be high camp, a young cheerleader suspected of Sapphic yearnings is sent straight to “straight camp” for deprogramming.

With the exception of the fab faux 50s set design and cameo-worthy stars like Bud Cort and Mink Stole, it’s utterly cheerless.

Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s The Deep End takes a more somber view of Sex Ed. Once main character Margaret Hall discerns her son Beau’s sexual orientation, immediate suppression is the task at hand. Margaret runs errands and runs interference in Beau’s extracurricular activities. When she discovers his sleazy lover’s impaled body on the family dock, it’s anchors away as the offending corpse is disposed of right into Lake Tahoe’s chilly depths.

One more to-do item crossed off her list.

What Margaret deliberately avoids is alerting authorities, or asking Beau about the dead man. This efficiency model does not use her common sense—instead she leaves herself vulnerable to the melodrama of blackmail and potentially, jail.

That a mother’s lot is filled with many and mundane details—enough to cause one to go off the deep end—is the only way to fathom the implausible premise. Tilda Swinton, with her crisp competence and precise manner does manage to nicely button up the film. Goran Visnjic, the brooding blackmailer she swiftly puts to shame, is quite good (not to mention good-looking), as well.

Film bleu is the new film noir as The Deep End is awash in turquoise water symbols. Apologies for the pun, but it’s difficult to restrain oneself when virtually every single frame from Sparkletts to Swan Lake contains a H20 allusion. Stylish, yet distracting. Perhaps the imagery is intended to divert the audience from contemplating the irrationality of a mother who, under the guise of protector, cannot confront her child on critical issues of innocence or guilt.

Ignorance is not always bliss. It is often the agony of intolerance.

Boy Wanderers: A.I. Artificial Intelligence Film Review

by Katharine Elizabeth Monahan Huntley

As the frozen supertoy boy stares fixedly at the Blue Fairy reciting Pinocchio’s mantra, I too begin a silent chant: Let this be the final scene, let this be the final scene, let this be the final scene . . .
It’s not, of course. For director Steven Spielberg to allow a mainstream film end in a moment of melancholia is far too great a wish.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence relates a futuristic story of a robotic boy’s love for his adoptive mother. Advanced technology enables “mecha” David to operate fully loaded—with logic and emotion. He is sent to live with one of the manufacturers, Henry Swinton and his grief stricken wife, Monica, ostensibly to replace their comatose son, Martin.

Once Martin—insecure and inhumane—miraculously regains consciousness and comes home, David has exceeded his usefulness and is abandoned to the grim fairy tale forest.
Imprinted with an obsessive Oedipus complex, the robot child is certain if he were only transformed into a real boy, his mother would welcome him back. David and his irritating walking/talking teddy bear set off on this quest, by way of Shirley Jacksonesque “flesh fairs” and mad scientists.

Visually, A.I. a cinematic astonishment: Manhattan drowning, Gigolo Joe jubilantly tap dancing, wizardly Rouge City beckoning.

As a story, the problem lies in its key characters. They are not complex in an interesting way; rather, their actions confound. Examples: The seemingly intelligent Swintons do not recognize their only offspring is an obvious bad seed; and doesn’t anybody realize David’s highly respected creator, Professor Hobby, cloned his own deceased son?

Stanley Kubrick’s ghost floats about A.I., haunting the unrealized potential for a sophisticated psychodrama. The weird happy ending (extraterrestrials are involved), however, is unmistakably Spielberg—more artificial sweetener than artificial intelligence.

An inevitable waltz into schmaltz.