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JACK SMITH

Only in the Movies : Heroes Know What to Pay Before the Restaurant Check Arrives, Ignition Keys Are Left in Police Cars, and Women Emerge From Ordeals With Every Hair in Place

September 13, 1987|Jack Smith

"SUSPEND DISBELIEF" IS a phrase often used by movie critics. It is what a moviegoer must do occasionally to enjoy improbable scenes or stories.

It does not mean that one must suspend disbelief only to enjoy such fantasies as "Star Wars" but also for theoretically possible situations such as that in which the lovers Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner, in "Prizzi's Honor," accept assignments to murder each other.

I see few movies today of any kind that do not require the suspension of disbelief.

Meanwhile, I may be inventing a phrase when I observe that the movies also employ "improbable conveniences" to keep the story moving along.

One of the most common of these occurs when a character is dining out or having a drink and has to leave the table suddenly. Let's say that he is with another woman and his wife walks in. Or his nemesis walks in, looking for him with a gun. Or he sees his quarry leave and has to follow him.

What does he do? Call for his tab, extract money from his wallet and wait for change? Give the waiter his credit card and wait for it to come back with a slip to sign?

Even if he weren't in a desperate hurry, that business would take too long. The audience would grow restless.

That's when the improbable convenience turns up. What the man does is reach into his coat pocket, pull out a couple of crumpled bills, drop them on the table and depart.

I am always puzzled that (1) he carries his money loose in his pocket, (2) he always has the exact amount needed to pay the bill and the tip, and (3) he never looks at the bill or counts the money he has withdrawn from his pocket.

Usually the bill hasn't even been delivered yet. He just seems to know that the amount of money he has in his pocket will be exactly right--including tip.

The only alternative to this improbable convenience--or to waiting for the bill and settling with money from his wallet or a credit card--is simply to get up and walk out. But if he did that, the audience would scream, "Hey, you forgot to pay!" and the producers would get thousands of letters pointing out the lapse of propriety.

To accept the alternative improbable convenience, we have to suspend disbelief.

We see the same phenomenon when our hero leaves a taxicab. He withdraws a couple of loose bills and hands them to the driver without asking for the fare or counting his money. The cabbie always drives on without doing either himself.

One must pay the driver. This is a convention that occurs in every detective / mystery / private-eye novel. Whatever his hurry, the hero never leaves a cab without paying the driver.

In my youth I hoped to become a writer of detective fiction and often read such publications as Writer's Digest for tips. Almost every piece I ever read on writing the detective novel said that you must not forget to have your character pay the cabbie.

In a detective novel you will never see a character fail to do this, unless he is deliberately stiffing the cabbie, and that point is made.

I have an idea that there are editors who know nothing about the detective novel except that fares must not fail to pay the driver, and that they go through manuscripts looking for this malfeasance.

This is really pretty silly. Obviously, if you write that your character "left the cab at Sunset and Selma," you imply that in the act of leaving the cab he paid the fare. Why does every writer of the detective novel have to say that his character paid the fare? No matter how big a hurry the reader may be in at this point to get on with the story.

Because if the writer doesn't write that the character paid the fare, he will get 10,000 letters (if the book sells that many copies.)

Another improbable convenience is the ignition key left in the parked automobile. In many chase sequences either the hero or the villain, in a big hurry to catch someone or to escape, jumps into a parked car, starts it and roars off. Many times I have seen fugitives jump into parked police cars and roar off.

It is habitual with most people to remove their ignition keys before leaving their cars. We are all too conscious of car thieves to leave our ignition keys in. Most new cars beep if you open the door without first removing the key. I cannot believe that any policeman would walk away from a police car with the ignition key in it.

Yet in the movies, it happens every day.

It is not so much an improbable convenience as an improbable convention of the movies that women emerge from the most uncivilized, harrowing and physically oppressive ordeals without disarranging their clothes or disturbing their makeup.

We recently saw the 1950 version of "King Solomon's Mines," with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. For weeks Granger and Miss Kerr trek through the almost impenetrable jungles of unexplored Africa, fighting off snakes, spiders and rhinoceroses, only to fall into each other's arms in the end. Not only was there no sign that either of them had acquired a trace of body odor--but Miss Kerr hadn't even worked up a sweat.

And I don't believe that Stewart Granger paid the bearers.

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