SHAKING THE STICK…or THE STRICTURES OF STRUCTURE

Posted: April 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

Talking of screenwriting today—so those of you who believe movies are not a true art form (I’m somewhat among you, but that’s another blog) feel free to put this aside in pursuit of the real art of prose. If it helps at all, this particular film was first a novel by Henri Troyant.

Rosalind Russell said: “Movies are made up of moments.” What first appears obvious and elemental becomes more subtle and true the more you think about it.

One of the old time moguls—Louie B. Mayer, I think—said: “Chase ‘em up a tree, shake a stick at ‘em, and chase ‘em back down again.” He may have been onto something–or just on something, I don’t know—especially about the ‘shaking stick’ part.

Some films we love for their greatness, some for their potential.

As kids, my brother and I saw a lot of movies at drive-in theaters because my parents were thrifty. Most of the time I had no idea beforehand what the program (usually a double bill) even included. One that stood out, though, was a Paramount offering called THE MOUNTAIN.

I’ll never forget the opening. I was still on the drive-in playground right in front of the screen when the picture started and I looked up from the push style merry-go-round to see the bold Paramount logo dissolve into a singular V shooting out of the screen to dramatically spell out ‘VistaVision—Motion Picture Hi Fidelity’. This was followed immediately by some impressive special effects work (circa 1956) of a plane emerging from a swirling fog to crash into the jagged peaks and snowy escarpments of THE MOUNTAIN. Then we dissolve to an establishing shot of the mountain itself amid the glorious Swiss Alps (or the French Alps, or the Ozarks, the movie never says) and the supered jagged fonts of the stars’ names, Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner.

Tracy, in his fifties by then but looking late sixties, hair snow white and body less than nimble, played aging mountain climber Zachary Teller, now content to raise sheep and take care of young Robert Wagner: whippet thin, agile, baby-faced in his early 20’s and–we’re asked to believe–Tracy’s brother. Both characters are classically one dimensional. Tracy’s Zachary is the wizened good brother tottering about their small house/barn, one kindly hand on his sheep; Wagner’s Chris a spoiled snot-nose kid longingly watching area tourists pass through his picturesque village with sports cars and blondes he’ll never be able to afford. His only escape from anonymity and the gorgeous Swiss scenery he apparently can’t see comes in the form of the tragic plane crash on nearby Bald Mountain–but only if young Chris can convince the team of climbers selected to search to take him with them. Chris is turned down, his long suffering pride further sullied when pious older brother Zachary is chosen over him. To add insult to injury the always benign Zachary not only fails to see the opportunity for fame and notoriety, he doesn’t even want it. A legendary climber in the little village, Zachary took one particularly bad fall that killed his climbing partner, and feels the mountain no longer wants him; he’s content to stay at home now and count sheep. Wagner, who actually has the meatier role, is thus forced to hang about village and hovel on slow simmer, practicing looking irksome while playing catch-up to Tracy’s effortless acting. It’s left to others to pursue the dangers of the icy peaks and collect any mail and valuable papers—all of the aircraft’s passengers are assumed dead.

But when the rescue team returns in failure after the death of their best climber, the wily Wagner sees a game changer in the making. The coming winter season is now deemed too risky by the others, further official climbing is postponed until the spring thaw—the mail and bodies, after all, aren’t going anywhere. But neither, Wagner reasons, are the watches, jewelry and wallets among the dead. His bankroll for getting out of the suffocating village is lying right up there for the taking. Of course, only a fool, not to mention an inexperienced climber, would attempt the summit alone. But Wagner just happens to know the best climber around—his brother. Now all he has to do is talk the older, reluctant Zachary into guiding him. And suddenly we have something like a plot, albeit a simplistic one. Or is it?

I was always a sucker for linear narrative. And at the age of twelve, there at the drive-in with my parents and brother, I was a lot more interested in the gorgeous matte paintings and trick photography than in mundane things like plotting. Yes, Zachary reluctantly agrees to lead his nasty brother upward through a series of climbing shots that still manage to be both beautiful and suspenseful after 50 years. The 2nd unit location shots blend near-seamlessly with the ones shot later on sound stage sets, even in those involving an obvious Tracy double. A notorious hard drinker most of his life, it has been suggested that Tracy’s incredible naturalistic acting technique owed at least a passing nod to the bottle; there are moments throughout his career when, in close ups, Tracy would hold a slow blink and nod so long it appeared he might actually nod right off on camera. He was, by the time of the filming of THE MOUNTAIN, clearly not up to the rigorous physical demands of even some of the soundstage setups, a fact conspicuously compensated for by a very real Robert Wagner making a long, torturous climb, face clearly toward the camera in at least one location scene. Tracy was on the wagon though during filming, maybe even had the demon rum licked, until Ernest Hemmingway bullied him off sobriety with his next movie, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Good old Pappa; apparently you can’t be the world’s greatest writer and not an asshole too.

The disparity in the actors’ ages and physiques actually works to the benefit of some segments. Craggy Tracy looks wholly believable—confident and wisely afraid–when hugging-tight an icy ledge, and his fire plug build and facial tenacity convince us he’s actually able to haul up a limp Wagner’s dead weight hand over hand with rope-burned hands in an otherwise implausibly grueling scene (how those hands got burned is perhaps the single most teeth-gritting sequence ever filmed, aided by a stingingly appropriate musical score that nearly matches Hitchcock’s famed Psycho shower). Still, watching the film at home, I could scarcely imagine today’s audiences sitting still for so many long moments of silent deliberation without a car chase or two to break things up. THE MOUNTAIN was designed to impart the dragging weight of the climb on the viewer, and at times, perhaps, works too exhaustingly well.

Anyway, long story short, the brothers make it to the plane unscathed and intact. We now know that anything untoward can only occur during the descent. Louie B. Mayer’s ‘chase ‘em up a tree’ theory of filmmaking is almost perfectly analogous here–all that’s lacking so far is that ‘waving stick.’ Some 1956 audience members may have seen it coming–I didn’t—but its appearance had the potential to turn a routine action film into something more thoughtful than even the filmmakers may have foreseen–and something perhaps all of us can consider when our script or novel’s structure is complete and we’re flailing about frantically for an underlying theme or ‘meaning.’

Now remember that Tracy’s Zachary was wholly against helping his brother climb the mountain, and only does so after Chris threatens to attempt the climb alone (both men know such an effort would be suicide, especially for the inexperienced Chris). Yet once past the most dangerous peaks, Zachary is transformed by the experience. He smiles with pride at his young brother even as Chris, licked with exhaustion, finally insists they give up. “But it’s a shame,” Zachary encourages in a surprising turnabout, “a good climb–something to be proud of!” We can almost see the optimism of youth return to Tracy’s leathery face. Tracy, in fact, is so caught up in their accomplishment he nearly forgets, upon arrival at the crash site, why they came in the first place: to pick the pockets of the dead. Brother Chris, meanwhile, goes about this with unfazed abandon, not neglecting even the smallest trinket until he unexpectedly comes across Louie Mayer’s ‘waving stick’. It’s in the form of a single surviving passenger holed up within the wrecked fuselage: a Hindu woman, half conscious, seriously injured but still alive.

This can easily be dismissed as director Edward Dmytryk’s (THE CAINE MUTINY) device to underscore the disparate motives and morals of the two brothers: of course Tracy, the good one, will rush to help the woman, and Wagner, the bad one, won’t lift a finger. And at first this seems like all the filmmakers have in mind. But! Finding a live survivor creates a sticky problem, an unforeseen schism in the original plan.

Tracy only agreed to the climb when Wagner—desperate for a new start– threatened to go it alone. Wagner’s trapped animal persona—self-centered or not—is quite painfully real to him. He’s convincingly sincere when admitting to big brother he’d “rather die” than live out his life in that go-nowhere village. With his Elvis hair and James Dean pout this might well be a sneaky nod to the angst-ridden youth culture of the fifties—it would help explain Wagner’s casting against the clearly older Tracy. Was it the single intentional effort to soften Chris’ otherwise irredeemable nature, give him a much need extra layer? Even an alpine paradise might seem an inescapable trap to the normal hungers of a youth with his whole life ahead of him.

In any case, neither brother foresaw the possibility of a survivor. But Tracy, who just rediscovered his confidence as a climber (a man?) now finds the very best reason for making the trip after all, which he would not have discovered, by the way, without the original insistence of bad guy Chris! This is both a pivotal moment in the film and the place things go most wrong…or more precisely, aren’t taken proper advantage of. While good brother tends the injured passenger, bad brother continues blithely robbing the dead. He’s hardly a golden character to be sure, but neither, perhaps, worthy of Tracy’s pious scorn. Like it or not, Wagner is right when he says the trinkets aren’t doing the bodies any good. He may be acting unlawfully but isn’t Tracy equally guilty by association? He knew from the get-go why they were going up there. Does he still retain the right to somehow come off more righteous than Wagner?

What ensues is a wonderful narrative dilemma too quickly dismissed. Wagner can’t sneak his booty back down the mountain if Tracy intends to bring the Hindu passenger along; she’s a witness. For that matter so is Tracy. It’s a step-back-and-think moment—a chance for teaching and learning for both cast and audience. But it never materializes. What could have given Wagner’s character at least a passing chance for redemption and some much needed emotional depth and Tracy, perhaps, a small crisis of faith is sold out for knee-jerk reaction. Zachary appears lost emotionally just when he’s needed most. Chris not only never wavers from his original goal of thievery, he even attempts to murder the Hindu woman to cover his tracks! Zachary prevents this, of course, nailing his irrepressible brother with a right cross as he’s attacking the woman. He then fashions a sled from a plane door and attempts to take her back down the mountain unassisted, in effect leaving his young brother for dead—just as surely as Chris would have left the Hindu woman. Again, is the message here that cosmic morality somehow supersedes plain justice? That might have been thought provoking but it’s never pursued. Tracy, after years of raising his obnoxious younger sibling, going through the thankless hell of being both father and brother, seems, in a moment of childish haste, to dismiss their relationship altogether. “Where did I go wrong with you?” he asks Wagner earlier in the picture. Where indeed? It would have saved everyone a lot of misery if he’d clipped Chris a good one back when he was ten years old. Everyone but the Hindu lady.

Unconvincingly staged as Wagner’s attempted murder of the surviving passenger is, it does raise the stakes in the conflict between brothers and nearly saves the film.  For it forces Tracy into the aforementioned dilemma and brings his golden character down a notch. Not that the filmmakers took advantage of this. Within the strictures of the times there is only one way a fifties movie can end: by avoiding any and all later confrontations/forgiveness between brothers at the bottom of the mountain by arranging to have Wagner fall off it.  It doesn’t help things when good brother Tracy not only successfully rescues the woman but, in a somewhat cloying “hearing” at film’s end, deliberately lies to the townspeople about the above incidents, virtually trading roles (and personalities—come on!) with Wagner about looting the plane and retrieving the woman. Thus Tracy’s goodness is preserved while Wagner’s evil is forever sealed—and not just in the minds of the audience–not a soul in town believes Zachary’s clumsy “confession”.  Though Tracy gives it his best shot, the scene comes off about as realistic as it sounds and good Zachary rides  into the sunset in an ox cart with Claire Trevor in a thankless role whose only purpose in the film seems to be to assure audiences of the day there was nothing amiss with two grown men living together.

Looking back, the manner in which bad brother Chris dies seems another lost opportunity. There’s probably a million ways to fall off a mountain so it’s hard to believe the filmmakers weren’t being deliberately creative with Wagner’s demise. After decking Chris at the plane, Zachary starts down the mountain with the Hindu lady, getting a good head start on his dazed brother. Regaining consciousness in a scene of almost palpable panic, Chris quickly divines his chances of survival without big brother’s guidance and races off after him through the deep snow, stolen booty in tow. Zachary, meanwhile, has reached a crevasse in his glacial descent; the only opportunity for crossing lies with the existence of two snow bridges spanning the chasm. Zachary tests the left bridge with his axe but deems it unsafe. He tries the bridge on the right, which seems sounder and chances it, though he barely makes it across with his Hindu charge before it collapses into the icy depths.

Meanwhile, a desperate, hysterical Chris appears on the scene to confront the chasm and the one remaining snow bridge. “For the love of God,” he cries across to his brother, “how do I get across!”  An exhausted Zachary can hardly find his breath, much less voice a warning that the existing bridge is unsafe. Chris, abruptly (and unconvincingly) replaces abject fear with abject anger, accusing Zachary of lying on purpose so he, Chris, will be trapped forever on the other side. Of course bad brother then attempts the remaining bridge which dissolves under him, sending both his body and booty to a kind of figurative hell. It’s terrifically filmed, looking up from the bottom of the crevasse with the boulders of snow and tumbling Chris coming down at us—and it’s strangely satisfying, we’ve all had enough of bad brother by then.  Is the symbolism intended to be so pronounced? Are we to surmise that, as in life, there was a right path and a wrong path off the mountain? Maybe, but Zachary’s bridge collapsed behind him, so what’s the point–it’s not just how you talk the talk but walk the bridge? To his credit, Tracy does cry a last second warning but by then Wagner is committed. I can’t help wondering how the picture might have ended with both brothers still alive, staring at each other across the abyss between that dubious bridge.

But maybe the filmmakers got it right at that. After all, we all die, and Chris, booty still in hand, took it with him. And after repeated viewings I can still recommend the film if only for so many missed opportunities and the picture it might have been.

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