Summer FAN: Thriller Comedy
FAN Thriller/Comedy Nights in Summer
Written by Bren Smith
Film Appreciation Night (FAN) at Epiphany Space is a time to relax, review and discuss a movie we love. As our resident script analyst, I do some research, bring insights (potentially) to the discussion, and at the very least, everyone enjoys an evening talking about a subject we all like: movies!
Thriller/Comedy is an odd subgenre considering Netflix and Box Office Mojo tend to organize these movies differently. Specifically, I wanted stories with a strong thriller or crime spine, but with a heavy dose of comedy.
Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz
July 23, we began with the discussion of Edgar Wright. His critically-praised Baby Driver was still hot in theaters, and Hot Fuzz makes many viewer’s top list of “Buddy Action” movies, a close cousin of the thriller comedy.
As I explained, the two subgenres have many things in common, but there are still differences. A buddy action movie has typically trained heroes (cops, detectives, military) chasing baddies, so they’re uniquely qualified for the task before them. A thriller protagonist, however, is usually uniquely UNqualified for the conspiracy in which he finds himself.
For example, Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is an advertising man and social drinker, but finds himself pursued by thugs who think he’s an international spy!
For Hot Fuzz, Angel is a qualified London cop placed in a “fish-out-of-water” conspiracy when he’s transferred to a country town, making him unqualified. Edgar Wright drives this home with a silly partner, Danny, who loves buddy action films.
Another concept I discussed with the group involves the thriller’s “close/open” concept. It breaks down as follows:
- Open Thrillers: one in which the audience knows who the villain is. Movies like Single White Female and TV shows like Columbo fit this model.
- Closed/Open Thrillers: one in which the audience and protagonist discover at around the midpoint what the real stakes of the movie are, and who the main villain is. Movies like North by Northwest and LA Confidential fit this model, and it’s the most common.
- Closed Thrillers: ones in which the villain is kept a secret until the final act, typically called “Whodunits” because they end with the detective assembling the clues, addressing the room of suspects and ultimately pointing the condemning finger.
What made Hot Fuzz stand out was its glorious “cascading” closed/open reveal. We think it’s one person and discover the whole town council is in on it!
The other thing that everyone remarked about was empathy. While some movies don’t elicit our sympathy, we quickly cared about Angel and Danny, and invested in their quest for justice. Edgar did this in many subtle ways, including making the protagonist witty, passionate, and positive.
Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
July 30, we couldn’t do a thriller/comedy series without tipping our hat to the man who handed us the modern buddy action template: Lethal Weapon. But as funny as Murtaugh and Riggs are when they’re not shooting bad guys, the one that fit the thriller/comedy mold was Shane’s first directorial effort, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
In it, our protagonist Harry (and unreliable narrator) is a bumbling crook sent to Hollywood for a screen test. He gets a buddy too – an actual gumshoe, Gay Perry – and that twisty conspiracy plot (closed/open, though it opens late) gave us the chance to see them insult one another and slowly uncover bizarre clues.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a “screenwriter’s movie,” full of inside jokes, beats that go against expectation –this actually becomes a distraction after a while – but for those familiar with Raymond Chandler and other private eye fiction, this film is candy.
I personally thought that the story was weak in several places. Major plot turns occur without Harry’s intervention (protagonists are supposed to be prime movers in their story) and one sequence turns while Harry is unconscious. Then the ending confrontation with Gay Perry and Harmony’s dad should have been with Harry instead. He is the moral center for the audience so it’s his job, not Gay’s.
Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
August 6, we tackled the Guy Ritchie crime farce. This is a different kind of thriller/comedy because a farce requires such tight plotting.
A farce involves a trickster protagonist entering into a scheme that inevitably goes bad. The trickster spends the rest of the tale trying to keep the clockwork of mayhem from blowing up. But the plot will have its way, becoming the true resolver, as multiple forces contend, clash, and ultimately crash.
We also expect from farce more physical and cruel comedy than its witty comedy cousins.
Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock fits that bill, as its protagonist enters a card game with all the money he and his friends can scrape together in the world, with the hope of gaining 20%. They end up a half million pounds in debt and one week to pay it back before the crime boss starts cutting off their fingers. So, they try to rob the next-door criminals who are in a plot of their own.
The result is a jaw-dropping finale that left many of us in stunned silence. Truly a great example of how to structure farce.
Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges
August 13, we bounced to the other end of the spectrum – though truthfully, there isn’t that broad a spectrum within thriller/comedy – to Martin McDonagh, an Irish writer whose black comedy chops garnished an Oscar nom for best screenplay and a host of other awards for In Bruges.
As I explained after the film, Martin, unlike Guy Ritchie, doesn’t focus on plot. He creates hitman characters with interesting wounds and motivations, and feels his way along. He allows the comedy to come through the arguments between Ken and Ray, and how their particular worldview conflicts with others caught in their path.
The result: In Bruges feels like a drama, albeit a very funny drama, until the third act, when the thriller kicks into high gear.
While researching, I also discovered that Martin’s greatest influences include the playwrights David Mamet and Harold Pinter. Pinter’s defining work, The Dumb Waiter, stood out:
The Dumb Waiter is about two hitmen waiting for the next assignment in a basement. They discuss the newspaper and banter jokes about until the dumb waiter arrives with the message, after the younger one leaves. Their next hit is about to reenter. The younger hitman reenters, revealing that he is the intended victim. Curtain falls.
I made the point that Martin must have been dissatisfied with the play, and decided to go one better by extending the drama. Bruges replaces the basement, and becomes purgatory for his hitmen, Ken and Ray, waiting for Harry’s judgment.
Ken’s choices to help Ray make him a sacrificial hero in the story. That scene in the tower is powerful, though it was also clear that Harry took an awfully long time to get down those stairs.
Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man
August 20, we turned our attention to the man who started the witty gumshoe detective trope, the father of Film Noir, the writer of The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, and The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett.
Dashiell ran away from home at 13, worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a Union Buster, caught TB in WWI, and after years of writing stories – and supporting left wing communist causes – got blackballed in Hollywood. He died in 1961, 25 years after writing his last novel, The Thin Man.
The 1934 movie of a happily married, alcoholic detective quipping his way through a murder case with his bubbly wife and little dog, Asta caught Hollywood off guard. Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) went on to make six sequels, with Dashiell as a script consultant.
Of the movie itself, our group noticed that Nick and Nora were not only funny, but were also part of the coming naturalistic style of acting we’re used to. Most of the other actors were stuck in melodrama, a stagey over-acting – and it showed. As such, The Thin Man doesn’t age well except for Nick and Nora, but the spirit of thriller/comedy is intact. This was also an example of a “closed thriller,” where the detective reveals the murderer at the end.
Stanley Donen’s Charade
August 27, we reviewed the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn classic, Charade. The movie is considered a unique hybrid of whodunit suspense thriller, spy thriller, romantic comedy, and screwball comedy. It has also been referred to as “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made.”
Director Stanley Donen was a studio choreographer for Hollywood musicals in the 1950s, became a director of musicals, and advanced the integration of songs as a continuation of the story. He directed Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, among others. By the end of the 1950s, Donen saw musicals declining, and so he made the shift to comedy. But first, as a lover of Hitchcock films, he wanted to make his own North By Northwest. That was Charade.
Audrey plays a widow who can’t find the $250k her husband left her. Too bad three thugs, the CIA, and a charming but mysterious Cary Grant are also after the money.
Interesting tidbits: Audrey used the word “assassinate” twice in the movie, but because Charade’s 1963 release was too close to the Kennedy assassination, the words were redubbed as “eliminate.”
Also, the “screwball” elements came about in a rewrite. The original script had Cary pursuing Audrey, but Grant felt uncomfortable with the romantic interplay because at 59, he was 25 years older than Audrey (33). So, the writers used a screwball defense and made Audrey the pursuer. (In Hollywood, a screwball comedy is one in which the life-affirming woman resurrects a calcified man. Bringing Up Baby – also with Cary Grant! – is the textbook example)
Our group thought the change worked. While Audrey’s character is a bit scattered, her falling for Cary Grant made sense.
We did have a bit of discussion over the timeline, however. If these former soldiers pursued Voss for almost 20 years, how is it they never ran into Dyle before? How did Dyle manage to sneak into the hotel and kill Scobie (spoiler!) without anyone noticing? These are things people think about on the ride home.
That said, Charade‘s fabulous ending chase, reveal, chase finale, resolution and second reveal, come together perfectly to end our thriller/comedy series.
The FAN series is ongoing! Join us Sunday nights at 7 and commune with like-minded story nerds.
Bren Smith is a story analyst and screenwriter in Hollywood. To share his story obsession, Bren taught workshops through the Haven in New York, the Act One Program in Los Angeles, and right here at Epiphany Space. Together with Peter Bishai, Bren co-wrote the award-winning comic adventure, The Dueling Accountant, and Rapid Eye Movement (now in post-production). To hire Bren as a script consultant, visit Bren.us
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