Archive for Jack Webb

Page Seventeen IV: Fast & Furious

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2022 by dcairns

The management of dialogue is important. There is a certain skill in making speech lifelike without it being a mere transcription from a tape recorder. Such a transcription never reads like fictional speech, which is artful and more economical than it appears. One could forgive Denis Wheatley, who wrote well-researched novels of the occult, a good deal if only his characters sounded like people. There is too much, in the novels of Arthur Haley and Irving Wallace, of the pouring out of information cribbed directly from an encyclopedia as a substitute for real speech. The better novelists write with their ears.

“Yes, Bella is a capital girl, and one can’t help loving her. I know you’ll get on, for, really, she is the most delightful little dunce. My mother’s ill health and Bella’s devotion to her have prevented our attending to her education before. Next winter, when we go to town, she is to come out, and we must be prepared for that great event, you know,” he said, choosing a safe subject.

‘No. It is murder only when the victim is killed. When the victim is not killed, it may be attempted murder, assault occasioning grievous bodily harm, any one of a number of officially listed crimes.’

“Yes, but don’t give yourself any trouble about it. Cold anything-you’ve-got.”

A whispered question from behind me–“Do you see me, red?”–and I turned, but there was no one there, though my ears still range from the boxing they had taken. I decided then that it was a bad day and I took to the roof for some thinking. A traffic-copter buzzed me later, and I was queried as to suicidal intentions. I told the cop that I was re-fribbing shingles, though, and that seemed to satisfy him.

When the detectives took over, they found they had a prisoner but that was about all. Bashor was mild enough, but he was too conwise to talk, or at least to tell the truth. Just tell enough, but not too much, and make it sound like there isn’t any more.

The critic Hugh Kenner writes about a moment in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Uncle Charles ‘repairs’ to the outhouse. ‘Repairs’ is a pompous word which belongs to outmoded poetic convention. Ir is ‘bad’ writing. Joyce, with his acute eye for cliche, would only use such a word knowingly. It must be, says Kenner, Uncle Charles’s word, the word he would use about himself in his fond fantasy about his own importance (‘and so I repair to the outhouse’). Kenner names this the Uncle Charles Principle. Mystifyingly, he calls this ‘something new in fiction’. Yet we know it isn’t. The Uncle Charles Principle is just an edition of free indirect style. Joyce is a master of it. ‘The Dead’ begins like this: ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.’ But no one is literally run off her feet. What we hear is Lily saying to herself or to a friend (with great emphasis on precisely the most inaccurate word, and with a strong accent): ‘Oi was lit-er-rully ron off my feet!’

Seven passages, as usual, from seven page seventeens from seven books I vaguely intend to read. Wood’s book on the craft of fiction is excellent, I did finish that one, and I’m currently re-reading the Zelazny, which is a fun romp, nicely written (except the Star Trek: TNG type dialogue, future man having lost the ability to use contractions), but weirdly male-centric. All the professionals are men and the only woman is a near-mute wife. I don’t recall noticing this as a teenager, but it’s glaring now.

Ninety-Nine Novels by Anthony Burgess; Behind a Mask, or, A Woman’s Power by “A.M. Barnard” from Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers by Louisa May Alcott; The Perfect Murder by H.R.F. Keating; The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne; Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny; The Badge by Jack Webb; How Fiction Works by James Wood

The Imperfect View

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2022 by dcairns

The teleplay Prescription Murder (1968) contains one of the earliest manifestations of Lt. Columbo — played for the first time by Peter Falk.

Here’s a bold touch by director Richard Irving, a typically prolific TV director who worked in that medium exclusively from the early fifties to the mid-eighties, having begun as an actor and then a dialogue director at RKO.

He has a gigantic scene to cover, a two-hander played out on a single set — the set of another, unknown TV show — I would assume they thriftily recycled something already built — eight and a half minutes long. Quite hard to keep something like that visually lively enough to sustain interest, though he’s helped by the fact that people rarely really WATCH television. So if you get bored of this one set and two faces, you can look at your kitchen or something.

But Irving CARES, he does something, as I say, bold. He lets both his actors turn their backs on us, and holds on a static wide for forty-three seconds. Continuous dialogue from Columbo, who is a bit meaner here than we’re used to seeing.

Irving escapes the charge of boredom with this prolonged and sort-of inexpressive angle, which robs us of much of his capable thesps’ performances (Falk and Katherine Justice). The reason there’s no tedium seems to me that a sustained shot creates its own kind of tension — we start wondering, even if only unconsciously, how long this is going to keep up. A sustained shot with no faces in it has a redoubled power, because we really can’t believe they’re holding on this.

“Cinema is just like theatre,” said Brit director David Leland, a one-hit wonder, “only there’s only one seat, and it always has to be the best.” Which is sort of true, but only sort of. It excludes all the stuff about camera movement and editing which makes cinema quite different from theatre, and it also implies, even if Leland didn’t intend it, that the director’s job is to provide a perfect view of the action, allowing the audience to feel they have the best seat. This holds true for much of the time, but is also pernicious nonsense. Think of cinematographer William A. Fraker’s account of this shot in ROSEMARY’S BABY:

Polanski had asked Fraker to set up a shot from Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) POV looking through the doorway at Ruth Gordon. Fraker set up something he thought was pretty decent, affording a nice view. Polanski looked at it and shook his head. He moved everything until he got the above composition. Fraker couldn’t understand it at all, until he saw the film with an audience and every head in the cinema tilted to one side to try to see past the doorframe.

Both the examples are from ’68 but that’s just one of those coincidences. I’m not setting that year up as some kind of golden age of the imperfect view, although maybe such a thing is possible. Maybe the influence of, say, Antonioni, who could hold a shot and exclude stuff… But Irving may have been influenced instead by Jack Webb, who churned out Dragnet with tremendous speed and simplicity, milking his shots until they squeaked.

Yes, I’ve bought a Columbo box set, seasons 1-7. May cut into my film viewing. But hopefully it will give rise to some more observations like this one.

Just the Facts

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , on November 14, 2014 by dcairns


Jack Webb’s TV show Dragnet, which he wrote (?), directed, produced and starred in for something like 300 episodes, is a good teaching tool. The cutting demonstrates a common error, whereby dialogue is snipped up into piece of film showing a series of people speaking: “My turn” — “My turn now” — “Me again.” Overlaps and reaction shots are banished, and the result is a deadening of affect so that even the most showboating of guest stars are crammed into compartments along with the rigid, robotic Webb himself as Detective Joe Friday.

But this is no beginner’s error — the choice is deliberate and it creates not only a distinct staccato style but a helpful effect. Since the show is a procedural, the cutting emphasizes the question-and-answer nature of police work. Psychology is denied. “Just the facts, ma’am.” What Hitchcock might have disparaged as “photographs of people talking” becomes an expressive tool in itself to depict what police work might actually be like — emotions tamped down, conclusions postponed until certitude is arrived at, just the assemblage or raw data gleaned from laborious legwork and mouthwork.






Repeat ad infinitum.