Better Screenwriting Through B Movies
I am always astonished when I flip through the many new, solemn 'how to write a screenplay' advice manuals published each year, and confirm for myself, one more time, that almost none of them ever refer to the vast realm of B movies. Or, if they fleetingly do, it is only to dredge up some supposedly self-evident example of 'bad screenwriting practice'.
There is a flagrant 'disconnect' going on here which is a little hard to understand.
Because it has hardly been the case, for a long time, that B movies are generally disregarded or looked down on, at a cultural taste level, by cinephiles and critics.
Just look at the huge cults surrounding film noir or horror cinema: it is no longer a particularly cheeky or transgressive act for anyone to include Edgar Ulmer's Detour (1945) or The Black Cat (1934), Samuel Fuller's Underworld USA (1961), Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy (1950), Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker (1953) or Allan Dwan's Slightly Scarlet (1956) in a Best or Favourite Films poll.
We simply know — and can easily demonstrate — that these are good films, no matter how little money went into them or how few weeks or days they were completed in. There's no need to make concessions for them, apologise for them, or deride them in a superior, 'camp' manner. They are, quite simply, imaginative, inventive, exciting cinema. And, being so, one would naturally assume they could provide us with some good tips for screenwriting in any context: high- or low-budget, genre film or experimental narrative. Filmmakers including Raúl Ruiz, Olivier Assayas and Steven Soderbergh have always, rightly, believed so.
Here's the disconnect: when it comes to public training and advice for prospective screenwriters/filmmakers, some other, more conformist part of the teacher's brain — and sensibility — switches on. Suddenly, the 'dramatic norm' becomes law: relatable character psychology, plausible occurrences, and a hundred damning prescriptions (or interdictions) including 'action is character', 'confine your story to the hero's viewpoint', 'avoid blatant coincidence', etc, etc.
I have recently been catching up on the early films of Richard Fleischer. Like Robert Aldrich, Michael Powell and many others, Fleischer had the good fortune to learn his craft cranking out, at high speed, literal B pictures — movies of scarcely 60 minutes length designed for the first half of a double bill. (Those were the days!) Bodyguard (1948), Follow Me Quietly (1949), The Clay Pigeon (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950) are all films with unusual plot premises — shady old ladies running factories, the life-size dummy model of a murder suspect, an ex-Prisoner of War tortured by the Japanese to the point of amnesia — and, more particularly, lightning-fast plot moves.
The things that instantly alter the direction of the story come from anywhere: an envelope slid under the door, a cry or gunshot from the adjoining room, a sudden encounter in the street. Coincidence abounds. Not all the action is motivated by character psychology: much happens out of the blue, literally falling on top of heroes and villains alike. And these transformations of the narrative line come non-stop, without the dreary 'breathing spaces' deemed necessary for even an action movie today.
There's more. The generic mood of these films, from gothic horror to light romantic comedy, can switch in a moment, depending on whether incidents can be played for thrills or relieving laughter. And the central characters themselves are never — despite the spirited uses of stereotypes — only one-dimensional; rather, they seem to plunge through their adventures discovering their shadow selves, past lives, and instant, saving soul mates.
In all this artifice and surreality, another, deeper kind of 'universal psychological truth' can be experienced by us, the happy spectators. So I ask you: shouldn't that be part of the education offered by any decent screenwriting manual? Who knows, it might even help diversify the currently bland production of the mainstream...