The Lesson of Old Movies

Watching older movies can be interesting because you can see what used to work in the past and how older movies have changed from today’s movies.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movies is “Vertigo,” which is about a police detective who suffers from the fear of heights. The basic storyline is still interesting all these years, but the method of telling the story is much different than today. First, “Vertigo” begins well enough with Jimmy Stewart chasing a criminal along the rooftops of San Francisco. The criminal jumps across two buildings and Jimmy Stewart tries to follow, but slips and winds up dangling several stories above the ground. A policeman tries to help but falls to his death.

Unfortunately, the movie cheats us because we see Jimmy Stewart clinging to the roof, but we never get to see how he escapes his predicament.

Next, Jimmy Stewart and an old girlfriend are sitting in her apartment talking. Where most novices get it wrong and where most movies mimic stage plays is when characters tell us information that both characters already know about. In this case, Jimmy Stewart asks his girlfriend, “Weren’t we engaged to be married once?”

Obviously both Jimmy Stewart and his girlfriend know this information, so there’s no point in speaking it out loud. This would be like a husband telling his wife, “Haven’t we been husband and wife now?” Stating the obvious simply sounds phony and contrived, but it’s a method that stage plays often use to get relevant information to the audience.

Another oddity about “Vertigo” is how it focuses almost exclusively on Jimmy Stewart the whole time. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it also tends to drag. Most movies today break up the action by mixing the main story with subplots where each subplot reinforces the main story somehow. Even old movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Casablanca” use subplots to avoid focusing exclusively on one story the whole time.

By watching “Vertigo” focus so much time on the hero, you can see how your own screenplays need the variety of a subplot to make your overall story more interesting.

Finally at the end, the villain simply disappears. Jimmy Stewart never gets to confront or defeat him. This would be like Luke blowing up the Death Star while Darth Vader is out on vacation in Hawaii. Today’s movies need to show the hero personally defeating the villain. Letting the villain slip away makes the story feel incomplete and lacking.

By watching old movies, you can see the flaws they exhibit so you can avoid those same flaws in your own screenplay. Don’t have your characters state the obvious for exposition purposes, use subplots to vary the story to keep the main story from dragging and getting monotonous, and make sure the hero faces off against the villain and defeats him to make a satisfying conclusion.

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