February 03, 2012

The Power of Throwaways Compels You

To borrow (and then wreck) a line from Wallace Stevens, I don't know which to prefer, the beauty of a primary plot device or a throwaway line.

I've started to mull this minor musing after revisiting John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre last night, which I watched specifically for a few scenes in which Humphrey Bogart's no-goodnik bum asks a well-to-do gentleman on no less than three separate occasions for money. For some reason, I find these exchanges hilarious, as it points to the knee-jerk freeloader quality of Bogie's character...but it also doesn't seem to drive the narrative. Instead, it's just an aside--a bit of texture that helps make the film.

I guess I'm in love with these little throwaway moments.

Oftentimes, I mark the finesse of a movie by the inclusion of such character development. Some other examples:

  • North by Northwest: Cary Grant's Roger O. Thornhill has an incredibly natural exchange with his mother over the phone after his arrest by a policeman. When Thornhill tells his mother the sergeant's name, Emile, there's a slight pause, and then the amused ad executive says, "No, I don't believe it, either." No further explanation...but none needed. Just funny.
  • WarGames: Two techies in a computer lab are reviewing some information Matthew Broderick's hacker character, David Lightman, passes along for opinions. One of the techies, played by expert character actor Maury Chaykin, chastises the other with these immortal words when the fellow gets out of line: "Remember you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively? Remember that? You're doing it right now." Where did this come from? It doesn't matter; it adds tang to the script...and suggests a history that these two have. Brilliant.
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Ken Murray's usually intoxicated Doc Willoughby is summoned to determine whether Lee Marvin's cruel Liberty Valance is really dead. "Whiskey, quick," the good doctor says, receiving it. But instead of giving it to Liberty, he takes a swig. Then he kicks Valance. "Dead," he says casually. Just wonderful--a bit of comedy that suggests the morality of the doctor's character...as well as the disdain he has for Valance.
  • Time Bandits: "Mm?" queries the musician, as he is given unfamiliar sheet music by Charles McKeown's beleaguered theater manager, who is being pressured to provide adequate entertainment for Napoleon. The musician then proceeds to play--dreadfully--"Me and My Shadow." Probably the tersest throwaway moment in this list, but one of the most hilarious.
  • Kagemusha: After witnessing the massacre of his clan's army, commanded by the rash Takeda family heir Katsuyori, Nobukado Takeda, portrayed superbly by Tsutomu Yamazaki, observes his defeat in a quick, short frame. The dismay and waste are conveyed so totally in this snapshot that we don't need any words. Yet another great moment from a great director, Akira Kurosawa.

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