Reviews: The Magic Lantern: The Climactic Moment

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By Adam-Troy Castro

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Dr. Samuel Sheppard on trial

Okay. We’ll get to genre film in a little bit. Actually, after most of the column. But have patience, we’ll get there.

Once upon a time there was a man called Dr. Samuel Sheppard. He was a well-established Cleveland osteopath married to a woman named Marilyn. One night in 1954, they were the hosts of a neighborhood gathering. As it broke up, Sam fell asleep on the downstairs daybed. Marilyn escorted the neighbors out.

Late that night, Marilyn was bludgeoned to death in her bed. Sam always maintained that he saw, chased, and grappled with an intruder leaving their home. A bag containing some of his valuables was found outside their home, where, presumably, the burglar would have lost it in his zest to escape. But no intruder was ever found. Although no murder weapon was ever found, authorities proceeded directly to him as the most logical suspect.

Whether or not Sheppard was guilty, what is undeniable is that his first trial was poisoned by a tabloid race to judgment. The newspapers called for his blood, running stories alleging an inflammatory history of scandalous behavior that was either provably false or completely baseless; playing up anything that made him look like the kind of guy who would murder his wife. Some of this was reported on the local radio by commentators who fulminated for his conviction; this was heard by members of the jury, who quite rightly reported it to the judge, but there was no mistrial. The antics of the press and the spectators at the trial were so disruptive that the U.S. Supreme Court later compared the mood to being more like a carnival than a trial.

It was, in short, one of those trials where the focus is less on achieving justice than punishing the monster of the day; a trial like the one the Central Park Five, convicted of beating and raping a female jogger, endured decades later. (For those who don’t remember that latter case: the public perception was that they were inhuman monsters, deserving of having the book thrown at them . . . and it was only after they spent a few years in prison that the case fell apart, completely and utterly. They were innocent, completely insheppared-newspaper-300wnocent. But they were also the perceived villains of the day, and so they had to be destroyed.)

Sheppard was convicted. His mother shot herself a month later. His Dad died a few days after that. He spent ten years in prison, maintaining his innocence and fighting for a retrial, before he got his wish, based in part on the outrageous behavior of the original Judge, who had, among other things, called him “guilty as hell” before the trial even began. During the second trial, the jury was sequestered, the judge was impartial, the media was kept out of the courtroom, and Sheppard’s new attorney, F. Lee Bailey — who would someday be on O.J. Simpson’s team — made mincemeat of the medical examiner, who was forced to admit that he had found no evidence, none, tying Sheppard to the murder. This time, Sheppard was acquitted. And many, many years later, DNA evidence documented that the blood at the scene did indicate the presence of a third person, not just Sheppard and his wife.

Sheppard’s life went on to some even stranger places — he made a name for himself as a professional wrestler — but, in the meantime, it left a shadow on American pop culture.

For instance, there’s this TV series The Fugitive, that ran from 1963 to 1967.

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Starring David Janssen, a mostly one-note actor whose pained, gravelly delivery exemplifies the dictum that sometimes a subpar performer can be spectacularly right when plugged into the correct role, it told the story of Dr. Richard Kimble, a Chicago physician whose own wife is murdered by an intruder (“the one-armed man.”) Accused of the crime and sentenced to death, Kimble escapes in a freak accident, and spends the years of the show drifting from job to job, evading authorities, changing the lives of every deserving person he meets for the better, fleeing the obsessed police Lieutenant Gerard, and seeking the murderer in order to avenge his wife and prove his innocence.

(An anal zen for accuracy forces me to admit that show creator Roy Huggins always denied that he was in any way inspired by Sheppard, maintaining that he was in fact doing a modern-day Les Miserables, with that classic’s relentless Inspector Javert swapped out for a just as relentless Gerard — they even sound a little alike — but it’s still hard to not see some of the Sheppard Case’s DNA spliced into the show. Just a little.)

In any event, the show, which remains one of your friendly commentator’s all-time favorites, influenced any number of subsequent series that are at least partially clones of it (see: The Incredible Hulk, and other shows in which the lead must constantly flee a perennial pursuer).

The series was a small masterpiece of escalating frustration. Kimble is a good man, but the authorities think he’s a monster. He can help others, but he can never help himself. He forms new families around himself, but must leave them behind for the lonely life of the hunted. He saves Gerard’s life on five separate occasions, by precise count, but each time must go unrewarded, because Gerard is still dedicated to bringing him in. Multiple times, he gets caught up in another local crisis, multiple times, he helps out, multiple times, he has to leave in a hurry. Multiple times, he comes within inches of confronting or even catching the one-armed man, and multiple times fails at the last minute, and must start again.

The audience became wildly invested in his fate. And so when the show ended, as shows must, it did with something that had never happened before — an actual finale, resolving the conflict. Hot on the trail of the one-armed man, Kimble is finally caught. He begs Gerard for a chance to follow one last lead. By this point, he has earned enough points that Gerard agrees to give him a few days, in his custody. In the end, a wounded Gerard allows Kimble to confront the one-armed man in a thrilling fight that has been years in coming. Years. And with the addition of a new witness, they prove Kimble’s innocence. He goes free (as he would not in real life, but never mind).

More people watched that finale than had watched any prior show in TV history. It was one of the most satisfying moments in the history of the medium, and it was in large part because it took so long to get there.

In 1993, Harrison Ford was in a film version that couldn’t give you that long-delayed gratification. There was no way a two-hour movie could drive you to the same heights of frustration the show had, not in the same way, so it just concentrated on telling a propulsive story built for those two hours, one where the confrontation between Kimble and one-armed man was just another moment on the path to vindication. And it was a terrific film, because it existed in its own space, forging its own emotional beats. It managed to work in some of the pleasures of the show. It had Kimble save multiple lives and not get credit for it, and ended with Kimble saving the life of the man chasing him. It even managed to make its Gerard’s admission to Kimble that he knew Kimble was innocent almost as powerful as the admission the TV Gerard had to make eventually — and that was mastery of the medium; the TV Gerard took years to reach the same moment, and it was thrilling. But the movie, great as it was, certainly wasn’t built around having the great narrative consummation play out the same way. It couldn’t be. Not when the TV series was, with its 120 episodes, approximately, sixty times longer, minus commercials.

And here, my friends, is where we get to the point.

One major thing Hollywood’s current spate of reboots and comic book movies often fail at, even in acceptably good movies, is reproducing the emotional climax that took years to arrive in the original format.

The reason it was so shocking that Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes came back as the Winter Soldier, in the Captain America comics, is that by then we had seen Cap mourn Bucky’s death at the end of World War Two for *decades*; the loss was a primal fact of the character, the tragedy that he never quite bounced back from, the thing he actually whined about a little too much, to tell the truth. It was therefore understandable when, in stories written by one Ed Brubaker, the revelation that Bucky had in fact not died during World War Two, that he’d been captured by the Soviets and reprogrammed as a merciless assassin, revived every few years whenever they needed something particularly awful done — rocked Cap, and through him the readership, to their foundations.

But it took decades of stories to get there.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bucky was just a barely-remembered guy who returned one movie later.

So what?

Similarly, the reason the death of Spock was so overwhelmingly powerful in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan was that, by then, we had seen Kirk and Spock work together for years, and had reason to be as devastated by Spock’s (as it turned out, temporary) death as Kirk was. These guys had been virtual family, their canonical friendship developed in finely tuned gestures for years. At the moment, it felt like an era was ending.

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In the movie reboot, a mirror of that scene occurs one sequel in, between two guys who have no such long-established history. It doesn’t work nearly as well, in part because nobody watching it believed that Kirk would still be dead at the end of the movie. It was just a reproduced moment, one that had no power of its own. But it also doesn’t work because at the point it happens we have no particular reason to believe that Kirk and Spock are particularly close.

The groundwork has not been laid.

In the comics, the climactic fight between Superman and Batman in The Dark Knight Returns was as stunning and as memorable as it was because it had decades of stories behind it, and established for the first time that Batman was prepared to take on Superman, giving fans a frisson they never even knew they wanted. I suspect that the upcoming cinematic battle will be a pale echo, even if it involves more property destruction, because in the movie universe these guys are meeting for just about the first time, and that frisson does not exist.

The people making these current movies badly want to reproduce the moments, not necessarily the stories — and they make the mistake of thinking that the moments can be airlifted out of their prior context and put in place in some other narrative, and have the same effect without being properly prepared for.

A great story can be told in two hours. Or three hours. Or in ninety minutes. (Or in seventy-five minutes. See The Ox-Bow Incident sometime; it’ll rip your heart out.) What you can’t do, most of the time, is precisely duplicate the dramatic impact of a scene that blew you away once, by transporting it into a story where the surrounding structure does not support it. You do that, you get reactions like, “Remind me, who was Bucky again?”

Or, “Oh, they’re doing a twist on Wrath of Khan. That’s clever. Look, Spock’s going all Dirty Harry. It’s fun that they could shoehorn in such a tribute.”

Which is not an emotional reaction. Just a moment of recognition.

The scenes are not going to have the same impact unless, like the makers of the cinematic The Fugitive, you ask the hard questions: “Why did this work? Can I make it work again? And if I can’t, what else can I do, that’s just as good or even better?” Which are the questions a storyteller asks. If the question that gets asked instead is, “How can I make this scene look just like it looked in the comic book, or in that other thing we’re remaking?” then it’s just an act of model-building. And the drama is blunted; the impact is flattened.

The moral is this:

Even if you’re following a prior creator, you still have to bloody tell the story yourself.

In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.

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