How I Fell In Love With How I Met Your Mother And Why The Break-Up Hurt So Much

(The beginning of this post features very minor and general spoilers from How I Met Your Mother, however, half way through I launch into total spoilers of the last season, and I recommend you don’t read it until you have seen the finale. The point at which I start this section is marked clearly.)

Ted's such a douche he won't let anyone else sit on his sofa

Ted’s such a douche he won’t let anyone else sit on his sofa

Kids, I want to tell you about why I fell in love with a show called How I Met Your Mother and how it ended up breaking my heart…

Relax. I’m not going to make you sit down for 9 years while I tell you a long drawn-out story with no satisfactory conclusion in the way that one of my favourite TV shows had a character do with his (fictional) kids. But I do want to talk about what made the show so great, why it was unappreciated and why it fell at the last hurdle.

First of all, a brief recap. How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM for short) was a sitcom launched into a post-Friends landscape. It featured 5 friends who regularly met in a bar, rather than a coffeeshop (Friends) or diner (Seinfeld). It was the story of their struggles with growing up from post-college through marriage and families and various career decision. In that sense it is completely unlike Friends… No, wait a moment…

how-i-met-your-mother-how vs friends

Actually, Friends is probably the worst thing for HIMYM because while superficially they have the same DNA, they are thoroughly different shows in the ways the are written and contructed, but HIMYM was launched at a time when every network was scrabbling to find The Next Friends. It was also a time when mainstream (in the US, Network) TV was dying. It’s a death which is still going on, ever so slowly. In the decade since its launch TV services such as Netflix, Lovefilm, and Hulu have meant people don’t watch live, people downloading TV shows via Bit Torrent has eaten into revenues, and even at the base level, PVRs (like Sky+) mean that people skip adverts and ratings can’t be measured. Now no one can say what a hit show is. Something getting 5 million viewers on one channel is a disaster, while for another network 5 million is an unbelievable hit. Up is down. Dogs are living with cats.

So HIMYM could never become Friends. It could never conquer the globe in the same way. Equally, it was too smart to be Friends. And I’m not down on Friends, there were some seasons of that show that are among the funniest I have seen, but it was always playing to the widest audience possible. That’s not a criticism. Things can have a wide audience and also be good. See also Cheers, Seinfeld, Sherlock and many others.

But Friends was always a joke delivery device. It was an efficient machine. Sure, it delivered some dramatic moments, but it was never about the story, it was about the laughs. It was a sitcom, that was its raison d’être. From the very beginning HIMYM set out its stall differently. It would be funny, but the point was that the show was telling a story.

More specifically, its nominal lead character, Ted, 20 years in the future is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. We see his tales spring to life. This was a sitcom where jokes were not the most important thing. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. In fact, I would argue that it made HIMYM a funnier show. Friends needed to cut to the chase. At the very least every other line had to be a zinger of some kind. Cutting to the chase like that meant the creativity had to be a little lacking. HIMYM could take detours, it could be different, inventive, and sure, maybe you didn’t get as many one-liners in your half hour as you did in Friends, but you got a lot more jokes you couldn’t see coming.

HIMYM Challenge Accepted

Here is a choice – you can:

A) Give someone a 5 on the laugh scale right now


B) Meander at laugh level 1 or 2 for 20 seconds and then slap them with an unexpected 8 or a 9.

Friends always took route A (though some of those laughs inevitably climbed higher) while HIMYM would regularly go down route B and deliver a Slapsgiving to remember.

But it’s not just about being a story. The fact that the story is being told 20 years hence means that linearity goes out the window. Friends was always told in the now. There might have been the odd flashback, but each story, generally, had to after last week’s story and before next week’s story. HIMYM would regularly flash forward or backward in time, overlapping with incidents past or future, with promises that “I’ll get to the story of the goat”. And this is where the true genius in the story-telling lay.

It’s quite a regular occurrence for a TV show (in America) to get greenlit on the basis of a concept but for the writers to have no idea where it is heading. Lost is the prime example. Every week the writers were making up more questions with no idea what the ultimate answer was. But HIMYM always seemed to know. When they promised to get to a story, the got to it. Things that were small details in one episode became the focus of another. There were never any contradictions, everything added up. And in doing so it became something more than a story, it became human. It allowed the audience to truly become invested because we knew these characters and their worlds added up.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the show had was turning Barney Stinson – the pick-up artist breakout character played by Neil Patrick Harris (and played brilliantly, I might add) – into a real boy. When the show started he was one-dimensional. He cared about suits, sleeping with women and the bro-code. But as his popularity grew he earned more screen time and needed depth, and the show found it for him.

Barney - Legen-wait-for-it-Dary

Barney – Legen-wait-for-it-Dary

Ted, our ‘hero’, had been searching for love since day one. While the show was ostensibly about his search for The One, it actually became his journey through a lot of potentials who could never be The One. Barney was never looking for The One. He was looking for a different one every night. But the journey the writing team took him on to fall in love was perhaps their greatest triumph. They slowly filled in the details as to why he was the way he was, why he treated women the way he did. The show indulged him at times, but mostly it condemned his ways.

As funny as his sleeping around and trickery was, it was also always frowned upon, but as the show coloured in his background, Barney started to feel and slowly grew his extra dimensions. This was a big risk for the show. Stinson was the marquee character and by adding the shading they risked taking away the alcohol from Fun Bobby. The remarkable thing is that they didn’t. Barney was always Barney, even as he became more human in front of our eyes. Of course, this wasn’t all down to the writers, Patrick Harris is brilliant in the role, but the skill it took to pull off this manoeuvre is not to be sniffed at.

And then we come to perhaps the longest joke in television history. In season 2, episode 9, Barney has a bet with Marshall and the winner will be able to slap the other 5 times, at times of his discretion. A ‘Slap Bet’, if you will. I won’t go into it too much, but this was a joke which kept paying off right until the final episode of the show, and was regularly sitting as an idle threat in the background. It was a beautiful thing whenever the next slap was revealed, and the fact that one joke could run so perfectly for seven and a half seasons is a real credit to the show.

So that is why I fell in love with How I Met Your Mother, and why you should watch it if you haven’t already. Now I shall move on to what happened at the end of the relationship.

This is where the real SPOILERS kick in. I will literally talk about the very end of the show. Seriously – don’t wanna know, stop reading.

So episode one starts with a classic bait and switch. Ted starts telling his kids the story of how he met their mother and proceeds to tell the story of how he went on a date with their “aunt Robin”. Robin becomes the newest member of the group and, over time dates Ted, then Barney, and come the final season, is preparing to walk down the aisle with Barney.

In fact, the final season of HIMYM is one of the most daring things to be put on in a mainstream, popular show, up there with Seinfeld’s season 4 arc where Jerry and George are trying to sell a pilot to NBC. It came about because the show was due to end after season 8 but the network wanted to get one more season out of the producers and cast. Patrick Harris was still hot, Jason Segel was starting to hit in Hollywood (having written and starred in the Muppets revival movie), and they had nothing coming through to take its place. So what was going to happen in the last 3 weeks of season 8 instead became the whole of season 9.

That right there is a recipe for disaster. Stretching a few episodes to fill a 24 episode arc. More than that, the whole season would take place over the course of just one weekend. The weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. This is a show that plays with time all the time, so there were plenty of flashforwards and flashbacks, but generally, we were watching the weekend. And for the first 22 episodes they pulled it off. It wasn’t perfect – Marshall (Segel) couldn’t join the cast for the first half of the season so was stuck in his own story line – but they did callbacks to so many great moments, they played with the emotions of all the characters, they resolved issues, and they got past the problems. Throughout we have the spectre of a love-lorn Ted still filled with feelings for Robin, the woman he met in episode 1, that he fell for, hard, that he mourned. That he was still mourning. He struggled to let he go. But while all that was going on, the most important thing is that we got to meet the mother, Tracy.

That’s right, throughout the season we followed the mother’s course to meeting Ted. We saw her side of numerous near-misses that called back to episodes we’d seen years ago – the yellow umbrella, Ted’s mistaken lecture, a meeting with Barney in a convenience store. We got to find out what type of person would fall in love with the douche (but loveable) Ted, and we got to find her as adorable as Ted did. We got to fall in love with her too. And that is why the ending hurt.

You see, the ending wasn’t really about how Ted met the kids’ mother. After they meet we skim forward and the story takes a melancholy tone. Ted and Tracy have some wonderful years together and they have a family, but then we find out that Tracy has passed away and Ted is alone again.

At the same time we are learning about the lives of the other characters and, especially, about the marriage and divorce of Barney and Robin. This is followed up with the kids asking him if the whole story was an excuse for him to ask them if they’d be ok with him asking ‘Aunt’ Robin out on a date…


The problem with this isn’t so much the story as the execution and the confounding of expectations. Coming into the last episode we have one expectation – that Ted will meet the mother, nothing else. We have seen the two orbit each other all season. We’ve seen how close they came to meeting in years gone by. We’ve seen how they perfectly match each other. In fact, the writers have done such a good job that we now know that Tracy is a far better match than Robin ever was. We get to see the pair on their first date. We get to see them on honeymoon and anniversaries. Time plays inwards to the point at which they met so we’re seeing before and after until eventually they converge, two halves of the same whole.

It’s beautiful story-telling and by the end of it we’ve not just fallen in love with Tracy, we’ve fallen in love with Tracy and Ted.

And then it is ripped from us.

Without the burden of an extra 24 episodes, without the decision to have the audience meet Tracy before Ted does, without the chance to fall for her, maybe this blow isn’t so crushing and maybe they get away with it.

Maybe there could have been some more hints. I mean, in retrospect maybe we should have guessed. Ted has been telling this long story to his kids since 2004 and he has never been interrupted by his wife; there has never been a reference to her in the present tense. Looking back, perhaps there were a few “Your mother was…” comments in the voiceover, but even if there were it wasn’t enough. This is nine years of build-up to a supposed meet-cute and happily ever after and then we’re told that happily ever after ended a few years past. There is no happily ever after.

Perhaps if Robin and Barney hadn’t got together so convincingly, perhaps if we hadn’t been sold so totally on the idea of them as a couple, we could still have wanted Ted and Robin together. Was this supposed to be fan service? Did the fans long for Ted and Robin to end up together? I spent the whole of season 9 wishing Ted to move on from Robin, to drop those thoughts and prepare himself for the love of his life to arrive.

The ultimate resolution felt like a stab in the heart. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that the season was written to push all of our hopes and desires and expectations in one direction and it was pulled out from under us. That’s not a bad thing – if you’re making Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Mad Men – but this isn’t those shows. This is a 9-year long romantic comedy and there are certain expectations that are part and parcel of that commitment. I, the viewer, do solemnly swear to fall in love with these characters and to will them together and you, the writers, do solemnly swear to put ample obstacles in their path but ultimately let them live together forever and ever in our hearts and minds. Nowhere in your side of the contract does it say that you will kill her off and replace her with the biggest obstacle that we have spent the past 11.5 hours (23 episodes of a half hour show) getting over and past.

As I said, there are ways this could work, and that make a degree of sense – Ted and his children are mourning the passing of beloved wife and mother and so Ted tells the story of all that he loved about her and how they came to be – a way to ensure that his wife and his love can live on in eternity. But in this circumstance he’s too close to the tragedy for us a) to not know before we get there (a good thing in a story like this) or b) for him to be able to be contemplating dating Robin. So this approach would perhaps have changed the show beyond recognition, though it would have been able to confront mortality in a way that mainstream television is all too afraid to do. I doubt, however, that audiences would have watched for 9 years the moment they got an inkling that the mother was no longer with us.

If Tracy hadn’t been written so well as the yin to Ted’s yang, the slutty pumpkin to his hanging chad, then perhaps we could have been more accepting too, but then this would seem like bad writing. We might have been accepting of the Robin resolution but we never could have accepted Ted with someone who wasn’t the woman of his dreams. And beside’s how would that play to the kids? “Kids, I want to tell you the story of how I met the woman I mistakenly married when I should have been with your Aunt Robin all along” isn’t the best intro to a story.

Ultimately, the finale failed because HIMYM tried to have its cake and eat it. It wanted Ted to have the woman of his dreams and the woman he obsessed over for most of the previous 9 years, but failed to realise that to do so meant killing someone the audience had not only grown to love, but had fixated on, which isn’t bitter-sweet, it’s just bitter.

But does any of this matter? In the grand scheme of the universe, no, obviously. But neither should it in terms of television of the show. In a way, the finale reminds us that it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey. The destination is, for all of us, the ground, just as it was for Tracy.

What mattered for us wasn’t where we got to, it was the road we took to get there, and HIMYM gave us 8.95 seasons of brilliant television which managed to do things that no show has managed to do before and, it’s highly likely, no show will even attempt to do again. It gave us 5 great characters (of variable douchey-ness), it brought Neil Patrick Harris to the world’s collective consciousness (and if you’ve not seen any of his Tony or Emmy song-and-dance numbers you have been missing out), it gave us Robin Sparkles, it gave us Slap Bet, it gave us Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel’s love for the ages, and it gave us so many more wonderful memories that no matter where the story went in that final half hour, it went somewhere else for me.


Endings – How do you create a satisfactory ending?

I recently spent a brilliant day at Mountbatten School in Romsey talking to groups of children about my book and writing in general. Much of that time was spent taking questions and trying to present some semblance of a useful answer, especially to the group of young creative writers. I failed to answer one question in a way I felt was adequate and so I’m going to try to do so here.

As you may have guessed, the question was How do you create a satisfactory ending? It’s something I’ve found at the front or back of my mind since I left the school. I felt bad for failing to give a good answer at the time, but I was also kind of curious as to what the correct answer is.

As with so many things in writing, the answer is (at least partially) that there is no correct answer. Every rule you can come up with there will be a story that breaks it somehow, and besides, if there were hard and fast rules the audience would know the ending early on because the rules say that is how the ending must be.

That said, there are two types of ending: the closed ending and the open ending. Most stories will feature some kind of combination of the two because, unless your story ends with the destruction of the universe, there will always be some things that aren’t wrapped up in a nice little bow. However, the two can be summed up as [closed ending] the hero is triumphant and the bad guys are punished or “and they lived happily ever after”, or [open ending] our lead character(s) is/are left with a dilemna, the resolution of which is left up to the audience to decide upon, or a character is left to think about and understand their situation and how they came to be the authors of it, while life continues around them.

The former is clearly more typical of genre fiction while the latter would be more likely considered either literary fiction (in the book world) or arthouse (in cinema). As an aside, some notable examples of the latter would be No Country For Old Men and The Long Good Friday, but also more mainstream fair like The Italian Job and the TV series The Shield.

Now, if you are working within a genre, there will be some conventions to uphold or subvert. A detective will always get his man (unless he doesn’t – see Sherlock Holmes and Moriaty). Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back, or vice versa (unless he or she fails to do so). So to a certain extent your ending will be defined by the genre you are working in. You know that in a detective story you must have some red-herrings but also must have a suitable ending with enough clues dotted throughout the story that the resolution will make sense to your audience when they look back. However, this could be subverted by casting some doubt over the veracity of the arrest – this would perhaps be effective in an ongoing series of detective novels, adding a nagging doubt or guilt to a detective that s/he may have done the wrong thing.

But whatever you do in a genre novel, there is clearly some kind of finishing point that you are aiming for, and even a subversion of the conventions will still be referencing those conventions in some way or another. In, for wont of a better all-encompassing term, literary fiction you have a broader canvass to play with and your ending can go in any direction you like.

But then, that’s not strictly true, is it? Your ending can’t go in any way you like because, if it is well written, your characters won’t allow it to go in just any direction. Your characters, who must come alive to your audience, will behave in certain ways and will direct the story in a certain direction, and this is key to creating a satisfactory ending. The first and most important thing is that whatever happens at the end must be true to your characters and so be believable to your audience. The most unsatisfactory way for a story to end is to be left saying “But s/he wouldn’t do that!”

However, that still doesn’t tell you how the story should end. Well, there are two keys here, to my mind – and again, as with every other rule, they are there to be broken. The first is that, generally speaking, there will be a unity of theme flowing throughout the piece, something which is reflected in your characters and the through-line of the story, something which supplies some semblance of an answer to the question “What was that about?”. In a genre piece this will typically be just “a jewel heist”/”a murder”/”a blossoming affair between two rival cheese-merchants”/whatever. In literary fiction (again, used as a generic term), this might be “the class rivalries in rural England”/”the way that power can corrupt even the most innocent”/”the ethics of modern meat production as told through the eyes of star-crossed cheese-makers”/whatever. The point is, in this more open type of story you are looking to put a cap not on your plot but on your theme. Your resolution could instead be considered akin to the conclusion of an essay – you are looking for a sequence in which your characters can embody the sum parts of the argument you are constructing about your theme earlier in the story.

But, and here’s perhaps the most crucial part, there should be a sense of dramatic resolution to it. You don’t want your resolution to be didactic. If you end up just telling the audience what the point of everything that went before was, that’s not satisfying for anyone. Instead, your summary needs to shine through in the actions of your characters.

Of course, there’s a second part to this question, and that’s the more immediate How do you end a story? By which I would take a more literal reading – literally how do you write the final page, the final full stop? How do you make that last sentence work? And the answer to that is… I don’t know. It it will completely depend on what has gone before. You may want to leave your reader/viewer in the seat of your protagonist by ending on their final thought on all that has gone before. You may want to leave them more abruptly at the culmination of all that has gone before – when the girl is swept off her feet by the boy, when the detective announces the villain to the room, when the white-hatted cowboy shoots the black-hatted cowboy – it is, after all, the most dramatic moment of the story and could send your reader out on a high.

But at the end of the day, as I said, it is particular to what has already transpired in your story and it is something that will probably come from a combination of instinct and trial and error. If you’re not sure, write an ending, leave it for a week and then come back to it. Re-read what you have written – if it works, keep it, if not change it.

And now I am just left with the puzzle of how to end this piece. Erm…

Does Tarantino Re-Establish Himself at the Top Table with Django Unchained?

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Before we go anywhere else with this review, let me just say that I’m not going to wade in on any of the ‘controversy’ over the depiction of slavery in this film. As a white, middle-class Englishman I don’t really feel I can offer much in the way of a meaningful opinion on the depiction here. Just to say that, firstly, I didn’t have an issue with the depictions within the film and, secondly, that if Jamie Foxx and Samuel L Jackson don’t have an issue with the writing or screen portrayal of such a sensitive matter (and one which they clearly have a genuine investment in, where I don’t), then that’s good enough for me.

Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk film. Or, more specifically, story. Quentin Tarantino will always have a special place in film lore for me. His break-out debut, Reservoir Dogs, came out at a time when I was just beginning to get into film in a big way. He managed to energise a medium which, until then, had predominantly existed as a Hollywood-only product. He was outside the mainstream and doing something different. That and Clerks made me think that film-making wasn’t something done by other people but something that could be done by anyone.

I first got hold of a pirate copy of Reservoir Dogs on VHS. There was a buzz about the film but a release date was still months away. The copy was exceedingly fuzzy, but in a way that only increased its charm. When the film made it to the cinema I saw it 4 straight weekends at midnight showings. It really was like nothing I’d ever seen before (though, of course, it was actually recycling many other films to create something new – something that has become a feature of Tarantino’s work).

On the back of seeing it I was inspired to write my own screenplay. And it was terrible, obviously. Like many of the reviews at the time, I concentrated on the dialogue – the scenes referencing pop culture – and the violence without really appreciating the art that was present in the story telling. This was all too obvious in my script. I think that script is long gone now, and I am pretty thankful for that – I wouldn’t want to read it again – I cringe just thinking about some of the things I put in it.

As everyone knows, Reservoir Dogs was followed up by Pulp Fiction. Where Dogs was tight, taut and cheap, Fiction was sprawling and expensive. Dogs felt like a black & white movie, Fiction was glorious technicolor. That’s not to criticise Pulp Fiction, just to say that now Tarantino had a budget he could indulge himself a little more with character and dialogue. The set-up of interlocking stories was always going to produce a more sprawling narrative and Tarantino handled the transitions brilliantly.

Next came Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. Leonard had been frequently name-checked when Tarantino was doing the interview rounds with Pulp Fiction and here he took one of Leonard’s novels and turned in something of a masterpiece. It was a great time for Leonard adaptations, with Get Shorty and Out Of Sight also coming around the same time, all imagining the Leonard’s world brilliantly, yet differently. (More recently, the excellent TV series Justified was adapted from a Leonard short story, Fire In The Hole).

Jackie Brown is an example of brilliant and mature story-telling, sensitively examining the life of the title character, a downtrodden black woman working as an air hostess. It was a long film, clocking in at 154 minutes, but it is one of the rare films that deserves that time to fully explore the narrative on offer.

Then came Kill Bill, parts 1 and 2. Originally intended to be one film (and what a film that would have been, what with part 1 being 111 minutes and part 2 136 minutes), this took sprawling to a whole new dimension. There were a lot of ideas here and, in a sign of what was to follow, Tarantino wanted to make sure he explored them all. This is where, for me, the problems begin.

Tarantino tends to love his characters and love the scenes he creates for them. And with good reason – he has created some great characters and he has created some amazing, enthralling, interesting and diverse scenes. However, the more he has fallen in love with the characters and scenes, the more he seems to have taken his eye off the story at the centre of his projects. Kill Bill is a revenge story. The Bride has been wronged by Bill and must take out each of his assassination squad (to whom she used to belong) before finally facing off with Bill himself. With 6 to be killed in a little over 4 hours, this is a sprawling mess. That’s not to say there isn’t brilliance within it – the sequence at the hospital when The Bride wakes from her coma, and the sequence when she breaks out of the coffin buried in the desert are both brilliant – but overall too much time is spent just being in the presence of the characters rather than driving the story forward.

I have not seen Death Proof so will have to skip past that and on to Inglourious Basterds, which includes possibly the greatest scenes that Tarantino has created, along with some of the worst, and which is compiled into an admirable mess, but which could have been sheer brilliance throughout.

The film opens on a dizzying, soaring high, with the interview between the Nazi ‘Jew Hunter’ played by Christoph Waltz and a French dairy farmer, played by Denis Menochet. Waltz believes that Menochet is hiding Jews form the Nazis and is intent on finding them, while being, outwardly, charm personified. It is an incredible scene – something that probably couldn’t be written or directed by anyone else. It is filled with power and tension, and it is evocative of the kind of fear the Nazis may have spread.

Two other scenes stand out – one between Waltz and Melanie Laurent, playing a Jewish girl who escaped the opening sequence while her family were slaughtered, and the other a clandestine meeting in a basement bar between an undercover British operative (Michael Fassbender) and a German agent and film star (Diane Kruger) which dissolves into a shoot-out.

These scenes all display a mastery of both character and narrative tension and it is a shame they are surrounded by scenes which are so incongruous. It’s not that the rest is necessarily bad (though some of it definitely is), but that so much of it seems to exist in a completely different film to those three standout scenes. There is a comic and comic-book tone to much of the movie – not a bad thing in and of itself – which sits entirely at odds with these other scenes. There are character introductions done with voiceover and in a style which is not returned to. There are caricatures of high ranking British and Nazi offices. There are ‘amusing voices’, not least Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine. There’s the stylised violence we’ve come to expect. But none of it fits with what’s gone before or comes after. There are scenes which go nowhere and add nothing and can only have been included because Tarantino loved them so much. It is a proper mess.

The film sits at 153 minutes and what is most frustrating is that there is a potential 100 minute masterpiece in there, were the rest chopped away.

And all of that brings us to Django Unchained. Just as Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds were revenger fantasies, so is Django, and just as the former movies were bloated and stuffed with scenes which go nowhere and caricatures which offer nothing, so is Django. Which is a shame, because, again, there is some great stuff amongst all the chaff.

Again Waltz stars, though this time he is protagonist Dr King Schultz, rather than ant. He is a bounty hunter in what I suppose is the wild west, although its wildness is never really tested. We open on him meeting some slave traders from whom he (rather nonsensically) buys Django. I say nonsensically, as he has just killed one of the traders and leaves the other to be killed by the remaining slaves.

Schultz wants Django because Django can identify 3 men who have bounties on their heads – the Brittle brothers. Over the course of their time together, Schultz grows fond of Django and while he has promised Django his freedom he wants them to keep working together. Django says he wants to get his wife back, Broomhilda, who is owned by someone unknown. Schultz offers to help if they hunt bounties for the winter.

It turns out that Broomhilda is owned by the sadistic Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, and so the revenge mission begins takes shape.

Ultimately it’s a pretty simple odd-couple story which somehow takes a full 165 minutes to tell, with the vast majority of the problems coming in the second half of the film. I shall try to dissect the film without going into too many spoilers, but you may wish to skip down to the final paragraph for a summary without any further plot details.

Firstly, let’s offer some praise: there are some great scenes, even if none of them can get close to the tension offered in the opening of Inglourious Basterds; Tarantino is just as good at drawing characters as he always has been; and there’s some good dialogue. There’s a fantastic little scene where Schultz offers to buy Django the clothing of his choice – Django can’t believe he gets to choose what he wears. We crash-cut to Django riding a horse in the most outlandish and foppish costume. Unfortunately, the film is not exactly brimming with these moments. That said, given the subject matter, that’s probably wise.

However, there are plenty of misjudgements and missteps.

There are little things which niggle, as when Schultz first outlines his requirements of Django, he says that he knows the area the Brittle brothers are working in but not the plantation so they will have to search far and wide for them. Their first stop, however, unearths their prey. It seems a little. Odd.

Early on in their partnership Django is called upon to fire a rifle. He is a perfect shot. We see him take a few more perfect shots. Then later we a sort-of-montage of him learning to be a sharp-shooter. Admittedly here he is shooting a pistol not a rifle, but even so, it feels like it’s out of order (and unnecessary, considering his first shot in the montage is a bullseye, as are all his others). In fact Django seems to have an uncanny and inherent ability with firearms, which seems odd and is never explained. Normally, even with a superhero, we need to see them fail and learn to master their skills, but Django is somehow above the ranks of superhero here.

There is a sequence where the pair are set upon by a prototype KKK which, amusing though it is, feels out of step tonally with the rest of the film and only serves to slow the narrative thrust. It serves no purpose in the grand scheme of the story – neither the sequence nor the KKK are mentioned again – it appears to only be there to acknowledge the influence of the KKK. That or because Tarantino had some jokes about the poor quality of the holes cut into the bags the members of the group wear over their heads.

These, however, are really minor quibbles. After around 80 minutes we meet Calvin Candie and get stuck in with the denouement. Which takes a further 80 minutes.

I’m going to go through every detail, but the problem again is that every idea has been put into the section. Tarantino (very proud of the authenticity of his portrayal of the horrors of slavery, as his interviews have shown) has made sure that he graphically shows all of the horrors and indignities heaped upon the slaves, from Mandingo fighting to forced servitude in the mines, but he has put all of this in at the expense of the narrative. It doesn’t serve a purpose in the story (except to double underline and highlight exactly how bad the slavers were). Tarantino might defend himself by talking about how this is the stuff that really went on and he is only being honest. That’s all well and good, but I don’t come to Tarantino for a history lecture. In fact, it could be argued that the nature of the film (especially given the laughs earned earlier in the film and the cartoon nature of much of the gun violence) is therefore exploiting these horrors for a certain degree of cheap thrills.

I don’t need Tarantino to explain all the ways in which slavery was bad, and I am sure you don’t either. After you accept that point you then have to ask whether the film needs to include all of the details it does, or whether they in fact hamper the story? The answer is very clearly the latter.

I was once told that every scene should either move the story forward or move a character forward, preferably both. There are plenty of scenes here which do neither. Now that is annoying in most films, but when you have something which, at its core, could be something really special, it’s very frustrating.

Earlier on I promised a summary paragraph for those who didn’t want spoilers, so here we go…. This is an interesting film. In parts it’s very enjoyable. It has magnetic lead actors. But there’s a lot of unnecessary scenes in there too, scenes which, on their own, might be amusing but ultimately serve to bog the film down and give it an uneven tone. If this was trimmed by an hour there could be a brilliant revenger-Western salvaged, but as it is, it’s a bit of a mess, just as Inglourious Basterds was. It fails to hit the highs of that film, but neither does it quite sink to its lows either. That said, Tarantino’s Aussie-accented cameo is truly awful.

6.5/10 (4 stars)

Homeland’s Roll For Women

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(Warning – this piece contains spoilers for those who have not seen up to and including series 2 episode 7)

A western woman rushes through a middle-eastern market bazaar, anxiously glancing over her shoulder towards a man trying to follow her. She reaches a dead end amongst local women looking at various headscarves. She switches her headscarf in a desperate attempt to disguise her appearance. It gains her a vital couple of seconds. The man is momentarily confused allowing her the opportunity to knee him in the groin, incapacitating him, before rushing back out of the market the way she came, in the clear. A manic, excited, exhilarated smile crosses her face. After too long she is back doing what she loves.

This is Carrie Matheson, former CIA operative and sufferer of bi-polar disorder, as portrayed by the wonderful Clare Danes, in the first episode of season 2 of Homeland, the often excellent, sometimes infuriating drama series from Showtime, the channel that brought us the initially excellent, latterly terrible and now resurgent Dexter.

Homeland’s first series was based on something that could easily be viewed as a simple high concept: Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a US prisoner of war, is returned home after 8 years in captivity to a heroes welcome, and Carrie believes he may have been turned to work for the terrorists who held him. Will she be able to find proof? Will anyone believe her? Is she right?

The show is adapted from an Israeli drama series Hatufim (Eng title: Prisoners of War) and, in its US guise, is run by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, two former 24 writers (amongst other credits). The AV Club had an excellent interview/deconstruction of the first season with Gansa where the processes and choices made throughout the season were discussed and taken apart. The first part is here. A telling question and answer came up very early:

AVClub: What had you decided at this point, especially about Brody’s true allegiances? 

Alex Gansa: Well there was a lot of argument at the beginning between Howard and me, frankly, about—first of all, whether you could be ambiguous about Brody’s allegiance at all, whether you had to know from the very beginning whether he had been turned in captivity or not. We had a lot of discussion about, if you decided not to reveal his allegiance at that point and keep the question open, how long can you sustain that over a series? So that kind of became the real big point of argument between us at the beginning of the show. As we discussed and talked our way through that, it became clear that at a certain point—midway, three-quarters of the way, a quarter of the way—through the season, we would have to come down one way or another. That’s how we made the compromise. My feeling was that you could keep the ambiguity going for a lot longer. Howard, schooled in 24 and in a very black-and-white universe, felt that we had to reveal in the pilot that he had been turned in captivity. And so, the compromise really came that we were going to keep it going as long as we felt it was feasible dramatically, and then reveal in a series of turns and twists where he stood exactly.

I think is perhaps the best way to highlight the (predominantly minor) issues that I have with the show, but also where some of the excellence comes from. The tension between the two sides – black & white vs shades of grey – means that you’re never entirely sure where the show is going to go or what turn it will make. There are plenty of surprises through season one, but they have nothing on season 2 which, in the first 2 or 3 episodes take you to places you thought would only be coming by the end of the season, leaving you asking “Where does it go from here?”

However, every so often a certain heavy-handedness appears in the writing, signposting something, or having a character make an irrational choice in order to further the story, or perhaps most egregiously, having a storyline appear to fill a character’s time, rather than further the overall story. This latter charge might be unfair given that the key examples I am thinking of haven’t yet had the chance to completely play out (specifically, Dana, Brody’s daughter, being involved in a hit-and-run incident with the Vice President’s son, and Brody’s former friend Mike starting his own investigation into whether Brody might be a traitor), but these stories certainly have a feel of Jack’s-daughter-gets-chased-by-a-puma in season two of 24.

However, some (hopefully) minor storytelling issues is not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to focus on Carrie Matheson and, slightly wider, on the female characters in Homeland. Film & television are often accused of not servicing women with a good enough range of roles to play, giving them an array of wives, girlfriends, hookers and mother-in-laws, while there are claims that shows with a woman at the centre won’t reach a big enough audience. A show with a man in the middle will be watched by everyone, goes the claim, while a show with a woman at the centre will only appeal to women. It’s nonsense of course, but that’s the argument. Homeland is the kind of show that will be held up as an example of how a modern thriller can have a woman at its core and be successful, both by the industry (see – we can do roles for women) and by critics. And, I must add, that the acting by Danes is absolutely superb and she deserves every accolade she gets for it.

However, if we look closer at the role, does it really represent a step-forward?

There is a fairly famous test for movies about how they treat women called the Bechdel test. It is not perfect, by any means but it’s an interesting place to start the conversation. The test consists of asking three questions about a film:

  1. Does the film have two or more women in named roles?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk about something other than a man/men?

Applying this rule strictly to a TV series is perhaps a little unfair. The typical film is, give or take, 2 hours long, whereas season 1 of Homeland was 12 episodes of 45 minutes each, or 9 hours long. It features many more characters than a typical film and covers an array of themes. It therefore has a lot more opportunities to ensure it answers these questions in the affirmative. However, with a couple of tweaks, we can try it out:

1. Does the TV show have two or more female central characters

Yes – as well as Carrie Matheson there is Morena Baccarin as Jessica Brody, Nick Brody’s wife. We could also add Dana Brody (Morgan Saylor), Nick & Jess’ daughter, but as she is a minor living in her parents’ home, I think we could put her to one side. These are the only significant, recurring female roles. There are several other female characters who get to appear in 2-4 episodes, but they are not central characters.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Carrie and Jess do talk to each other, yes, though not on an especially regular basis.

3. Do they talk to each other about anything other than a man/men?

I’m trying to cast my mind back over the 19 episodes so far and I think the answer has to be no. Carrie’s job at the CIA is, initially, around handling Brody and she only comes into contact with Jess when doing her job. Later she has a brief affair with Brody and ends up involved in a shouting match with Jess.

This in and of itself doesn’t mean that the show is in any way sexist. Would you accuse Band of Brothers (for example) of sexism for not being able to answer yes to these three questions? No, of course not. But let’s look at these roles more closely – what do they say about women? First Jessica Brody:

Jessica is a woman whose husband was captured by the Taliban and held for 8 years. He was presumed dead by the US. While he was gone she developed a relationship with Brody’s former army comrade Mike. Therefore when Brody returned she was left in an awkward position with her husband. She has two children, Dana and Chris.

We do not know if Jessica has had a career. She doesn’t work during the series as far as the audience is aware. The audience have not been introduced to any friends other than Mike and other former comrades of Brody.

Naturally, given the circumstances, Jessica has concerns about her family and has difficulty rekindling her relationship with her husband, having come to terms with his death many years before. However, in season two her role has often been reduced to pleading with Brody to tell her the truth, and when he mentions working with the CIA, making sure that Carrie isn’t one of those he is working with.

Season 2 also sees Brody rising up in Washington. He is now a Congressman and has been paired with the Vice President as a potential running mate for a future Presidential bid. With the new position in Washington, Jess has become involved in some fundraising activities alongside the VPs wife. I didn’t consider the VPs wife to be a central character earlier but there are signs she could become considered one. So far, the charity fundraising efforts have consisted of one dinner that Brody was supposed to appear at and didn’t. Baccarin did delivery a rousing speech but for most of the episode she was calling Brody and chiding him over not being present.

Ultimately, she is focused on Brody and her family and, while her extra-curricular activities are expanding, they are still centred around Brody’s life. Do I have an idea of what she would like to do or where she would like to go in her spare time? Of what makes her laugh? Do I have a sense of her as a real, 3-dimensional character? Unfortunately, no. She seems to primarily be there to act as something tearing at Brody, an obstacle for him rather than a character in her own right.

Now, I wanted to discuss Jessica first because hers is the simpler case. Carrie is much more complex, and, to be honest, I am still undecided on my feelings about her characterisation, but hopefully laying this all out will help clear it up.

So on paper, Carrie Matheson is a dream role: she is a CIA agent who is almost preternaturally good at her job. In the opening credits we hear her voice say “I missed something once before, I won’t… I can’t…”, her boss, Saul Berenson, replying “It was 10 years ago. Everyone missed something that day” (referring to 9/11), and Carrie saying “Everyone’s not me”. That’s how high a standard she holds herself to. But not just that, Matheson has a serious mental illness, she is bi-polar. In terms of an acting challenge, it ticks all the boxes. It practically has awards written all over it. As if to demonstrate that, Danes has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role, and as I said earlier, both are totally deserved. The real question is, I suppose, about the writing; about what the writers are making Carrie Matheson do.

So. Carrie is a strong character, and particularly strong-minded. She has little life outside of the CIA, because that’s what she’s dedicated to, but we do meet her father and sister in a couple of episodes. She can be quite a hard drinker at times. She can read people incredibly well. If she believes in something she won’t give up.

At the end of season 1 she has been driven almost mad by her belief that Brody was working for the terrorists and, ultimately, she underwent ECT to try to put her demons behind her. When we meet her at the beginning of season 2 she has re-established herself in a teaching career. Though hardly fulfilled, she at least has the drive to do something with her life.

There are two real issues for me, though, about the way her character is written in the second season. Firstly, in season 1 her character is quite level-headed. She is taking medication (illicitly, but taking it) in order to maintain her position with the CIA. If they knew about her condition she wouldn’t be able to keep her job. Later in the series she has her meds cut off from her and she unravels. It is a magnificent performance by Danes in the episodes where the contents of her brain become unpackaged and pretty much literally pinned up to her living room wall.

In season two, having got herself onto the correct medication properly, not illicitly, she seems much more emotional, almost explosive at times, while she is also regularly close to tears. This could be bad writing as the medication should, for the most part, remove this side of her nature – the point of bi-polar medication being to dull or remove the extreme emotions at either end of the scale. At the CIA, Carrie is surrounded by cool and calm men, Saul Berenson being the primary example. These men are all stable, steady, a complete contrast to Carrie. If her bi-polar disorder is under control then this just comes across as a portrayal of a moody, erratic, emotional woman.

In season 2 episode 3 she meets with Brody, trying to plant seeds with him so they can follow him and find out who his handler is. She is being monitored by CCTV. Brody makes a comment about the ECT he had heard she had been through and for a moment we see a flicker of anger run across her face. Carrie is convinced Brody saw it too. After Brody leaves to talks to Saul and Quinn (another CIA operative) and tells them she is sure he is on to her. They tell her to calm down to talk her away from where she is. They don’t want to ruin this. She is absolutely convinced and so, in an almost fit of pique, runs to confront Brody in his room, first acting like it’s a seduction before inviting armed men in to arrest him while shouting at him that she loved him and asking how he had felt about her. As an audience we don’t know if she genuinely thought he had worked it out or if this is just Carrie getting revenge on a lover who spurned her and threw her to the wolves.

The question of Carrie’s emotions towards Brody stays front and centre in the following episodes, with the key moments (to date) coming at the end of episode 6 and in the middle of episode 7. In episode 6, Brody gives some information regarding a location and Quinn and other CIA members go in to examine it. While they are there, terrorists come in and shoot them all (though Quinn survives), and remove a large black case. When Carrie gets the news she’s afraid that Brody tipped the terrorists off and confronts him but eventually breaks down crying and embracing him.

In episode 7 Carrie meets Brody in a clearing close to an election donor’s house (the episode is called The Clearing) and ends up kissing him. She says that she doesn’t want him to think that she’s taking advantage of him. It is clear by the end of the scene though that he is starting to wonder if she is, and if he really cares. Again, her motivations aren’t clear – is she manipulating him, messing with his mind, or does she genuinely have feelings for him?

So what is the problem I have with this? Well, it’s the fact that sex has to come into it at all. It seems that if a show has a male and female lead they should end up getting together. Here we have a woman who is outstanding at her job possibly being undone because she can’t keep her emotions in check, a woman who can’t help falling in love with the one man she shouldn’t – and while ambiguity is being maintained for the most part, I can’t believe that each of the numerous occasions she has declared her feelings towards him was faked for some undefined end goal.

She is becoming a woman who once lived for, and was defined by, her job but is now threatening to give all that up (or ruin it all) over a man.

Now, I have over-simplified in parts there, and I don’t think it is as black and white as I have described it – I have made the case for the prosecution and barely laid a finger on the case for the defence – but I do think there are some issues at play here regarding the depiction of gender roles. This was a show about a CIA spy who becomes convinced an American hero is actually a traitor, but it could be edging further towards being a love story between a spy and the asset she handles. Those are two different things.

The question I asked my partner after episode 7 was “Does the story of a US hero/traitor who almost blew up the VP need the love story to make it more dramatic?” This is an incredibly exciting story we are being told, but it seems like the writers can’t resist throwing everything into the mix. I was sceptical about the relationship side when it came up in season 1, I had hope it was behind us. It appears that it is here for good.

The Story of Sport

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The last 2 months in this country have been an amazing time for sport, and not solely because of the Olympic and Paralympic games in London. We’ve also seen a British winner of the US PGA Championship (Rory McIlroy) and, just last night, a British winner of the US Open tennis tournament in Andy Murray. Before the Olympics we had Murray in the Wimbledon final and also the Euro 2012 football tournament, though the less said from an English perspective the better really, and in a few weeks time we have the Ryder Cup which is quite possibly my favourite sporting event. Then, dotted throughout the summer, there’s been a great test series between the top 2 countries in the world of cricket, South Africa and England. It wasn’t as close as anyone had hoped. In fact, it wasn’t close. But it was still entertaining.

But why bring all of this up? It doesn’t seem like the closest fit with the other content of this blog. Not only that, but sport isn’t normally associated with the nerdier people in life* (Statto aside, perhaps) and I am a self confessed nerd (I mean, come on, I’ve written a science fiction book). But I have always held a passion for sport. When I was young I was always playing some kind of sport or other. Maybe not well, but I was playing it. And now I am forever rotating through a number of sports and trying not to get too distracted from the writing that must be done. But I have been thinking about what the true appeal of watching sport is, both in general and particularly to me, and I think it can be summed up in one word – narrative.

Yes, we look for moments of individual brilliance – Cisse’s goal for Newcastle against Chelsea and Usain Bolt’s 9.63 seconds in the 100m in London were both breathtaking – but what carries us through for the long haul are, one way or another, the stories. Those stories can be the course of the football season: The Premier League was Manchester City’s, then Manchester United’s and on the last day, seemed to vacillate between the two before, at the last possible second, coming down on City’s side. Or they can be the ebb and flow of test match cricket, with each session offering its own stories, and the bowlers and batsmen providing individual bouts of conflict.

The phrase’ soap opera’ is often used to describe some drawn out and unseemly saga – see the Kevin Pietersen fiasco currently raging in the England cricket team – but it would be truer to say that that is the role that sport as a whole has come to play, and the term shouldn’t be used in the derogatory manner in which it currently is, but as praise. These are the stories we cling to as a society. In many ways, they have supplanted Eastenders and Coronation Street.

The reason why both cricket and the Ryder Cup work so well for me lies in the combination of the micro and macro. They are team sports, but they are also individual pursuits, with those smaller battles against both foe and circumstance building to a greater whole. Batsmen and bowlers are battling each other and the conditions, golfers are head to head and against conditions and course. But perhaps the greatest beauty of the stories that unfold is that, more than fiction, anything can happen.

I recently saw the brilliant documentary The Imposter (this is going somewhere, I swear). I won’t reveal anything other than to say it’s about an imposter and should be seen. Beyond that, you should go I cold. Anyway, I heard an interview with the director where he related being asked why he had made the film as a documentary and not as standard film. His answer was that if he had made a ‘Based On A True Story’ film, no one would have believed it. The story is too ridiculous, too outlandish, that it couldn’t happen in real life. Except it happened in real life. By making a documentary the audience is prepared to believe the incredible circumstances presented.

The reason for this is that fiction has conventions. There is a narrative structure that is imposed, there are things you must reveal so that the story doesn’t fall foul of using a dues ex machine (Harry Potter can normally use magic to get out of his problems, but he must learn the right magic first, else it would feel like a cheat). Watch enough drama on television or in the cinema  and you become used to the conventions, you understand how the plot works, you can start to feel the twists coming. You can never be surprised.

What sport offers is a story that develops in front of your eyes that you can never truly predict. The best sports will always have that ability to surprise. As they say of American football, on Any Given Sunday any team can beat any other. And even if you can predict the overall narrative arc, such as in the England – West Indies test series earlier this summer (England won pretty easily), there will always be strands that surprise and delight, like Tino Best’s 95 not out.

And it’s all of this that makes me (a little) surprised that the nerd culture, which so often gets caught up in stories being told in one form or another, isn’t more caught up in sport*. I listen to The Nerdist podcast interviews with various ‘nerdy’ individuals and it’s noticeable how frequently both the presenters and guests will confess to having no interest in sports and yet be eating up so many other stories in so many other forms.

But over this sport-filled summer, I have noticed the frequency with which the commentators mention the ‘story’ of someone – “Mo Farah is such a great story, growing up in Somalia and moving to Britain aged 8…”. Sport used to be a niche thing, something it was easy to avoid and ignore, and it was often followed by people who were admirers of the feats the sportsmen and women could achieve**. Now sport is almost unavoidable (I don’t know how you could have avoided the Olympics over here, had you wanted to. Though why would you want to?), the appeal has to be broadened, it’s not just about the things people can achieve, it’s also about the journey they have taken to achieve it. Athletes are becoming actors in their own private Truman Show***.


*Yes, I am aware that ‘nerd’ can really be used to describe anyone who has an obsessive knowledge of pretty much anything, and hence you can have cricket (or baseball, for my US readers) nerds. Or nerds of any other sport. I’m using term in the more generic, mainstream sense here (alright, stereotypical), the sense that incorporates those obsessed by comic books, science fiction, fantasy etc and so on.

**I am also aware that there is a great appeal to the idea of belonging, of tribalism, around following a local sports team. One could argue that this is, in part, followers inserting themselves into the story. The ups and downs of a team’s performance are no longer ‘theirs’ and something for us to watch and unfold, but ‘ours’ and something to take part in.

***Brief Andy Murray digression. Andy Murray appears to be someone who refuses to take part in this Truman Show. He is often brushed off as being surly and miserable, but as Charlie Brooker pointed out, he’s not miserable, he’s just normal. All the other tennis players have done their media training and smile for the camera and answer the same bland questions over and over. Andy doesn’t seem to like that and so does what he needs to and gets on with his life. By all accounts he’s a funny chap and a bit of a pranker in his training sessions.

My Favourite Hitchcock

In honour of… a thing… The Guardian has been running a series of posts online called “My Favourite Hitchcock” in which their journalists write a short essay on their favourite Hitchcock movie, starting with their lead film critics Peter Bradshaw (Psycho) and Philip French (The Lady Vanishes). So I thought I would stick my oar in and have a go myself.

I like a lot of films and, being a bit of a film buff, will often get asked what my favourite film is. However, there are so many genres and so many great movies that picking just one is nigh on impossible. However, for the sake of these questions, my answer is always Rear Window and I shall tell you for why.

(Warning: This post will feature spoilers from the movie. If you haven’t seen it then you really should. Also, if you haven’t seen it, don’t read this just yet.)

A very simple plot overview to start with. Jeff (James Stewart) has broken his leg and can’t leave his apartment. He spends his days observing his neighbours out of his window. One stiflingly hot night he wakes and, in a bit of a daze, thinks he may have witnessed a neighbour Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murder his wife, but he can’t be sure. In the end he sends his girlfriend Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, to go and investigate. She finds the evidence and, ultimately, Thorwald is arrested.

The point of giving that very brief overview is to illustrate just how simple the story is. Hitchcock was known as the master of suspense for a reason. Here he takes a simple story and manages to slowly ratchet up the tension. If this were a modern film, this would be act one. “Not enough happens,” would be the cry from the executives, “make him a serial killer.” But this is a drama about real people in a real place. By taking his time and letting us get to know Jeff and Lisa, and become absorbed in the stories of all of the neighbours (not just Thorwald), we almost become a part of the film. As a viewer we have a direct surrogate on the screen. Jeff is stuck in his apartment – all he can do is watch – and so we become Jeff. By inviting us into the film, even the smallest details become more interesting, and the fear becomes more palpable.

And why is the fear heightened in this way? Well, it’s us investigating Thorwald, it’s we, the viewer, who sends in Lisa, sends in Princess Grace, to investigate. We put her in harm’s way and if anything happens to her, it’s our fault.

Hitchcock makes this point quite clearly as we enter the final section of the film. Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle has found supposedly conclusive proof as to Thorwald’s innocence and jeff and Lisa’s initial burst of disappointment is mirroring our own. We came to this film because it was a murder story. We wanted the viscera of death brought into our lives and Hitchcock tells us off in no uncertain terms:

Jeff, if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see … [Us] Plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known. You’d think we could be a bit happy that the poor woman is alive and well.

It is not Jeff and Lisa who are the ghouls but us, the audience. We paid to see someone die and we’ll be disappointed if we don’t get it. Hitchcock clearly knows this and there could be an unwritten addendum to that speech, an author’s aside, something to precede what occurs almost immediately after.

OK – if you want a murder, you can have a murder. If you want Thorwald to have killed his wife, I can give you that. But remember, this is what you wanted. You have Grace Kelly’s life in your hands and this is what you’ve decided. If anybody gets hurt, it’s on you.

Shortly after, one of the neighbour’s dog is killed and the culprit is quickly deduced to be Thorwald; the murder’s back on and pretty swiftly Lisa is sent to investigate.

The beauty of all of this is not just the story telling, though a brilliantly told story it is. The beauty is seeing Hitchcock’s fingerprints all over it. Throughout the film he is using his characters to tell off the audience.

We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.

I can smell trouble right here in this apartment. First you smash your leg, then you get to looking out the window, see things you shouldn’t see.

The film is a game to Hitchcock and he is toying with the audience like a cat toys with a mouse it has caught.

But not only that, the whole film is a lesson in story-telling. Each of Jeff’s neighbours has their own narrative which develops over the course of the film – Miss Lonelyhearts, The Songwriter, Miss Torso, The Newlyweds – they all have a mini-story of their own, all of which develop with only the slightest commentary from Jeff. These are like slimmed down silent films, vignettes dropped in to round out the neighbourhood. That we can get emotionally involved in the story of Miss Lonelyhearts, willing her to find love, is further testimony to the skills of a director on the verge of entering arguably the greatest purple patch any director has ever had, with To Catch A Thief, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds all to follow in the next decade.