Problem/Need: The first thing we have to ask ourselves is, who’s the main character in the story? Dennis, the cop, appears to be the main character, but he doesn’t provide the driving force of the story.
We don’t really have a main character here. And that is about the biggest mistake you can make in a script.
Let’s look first at Dennis, because we do start with him. What problem does he have at the beginning of the story? He can’t write, and he’s out of money. He also is getting tired of police work.
What needs to be fulfilled in him at the beginning? What is lacking in his life at the beginning? He’s got to find something that can allow him to get back into the world and write and participate again. He needs some inspiration, some rejuvenation.
The question, though, is why? Why does he have to write? How is writing going to rejuvenate him? Why is he writing in the first place? It may have to do with money. But that’s obviously not his motivating force. Maybe he needs to understand what happens in the world or whatever he writes about.
That leads to the next question: how is doing an expose on a stranger going to improve his life besides give him some more product for another book? There’s no one-to-one connection there because the expose is not personal. Who cares if Dennis does an expose on this guy or not?
Does Dennis have a moral need ? No, he’s a pretty straight shooter. He’s a good guy.
What about Cleve? Very quickly Cleve comes into this story, and he’s actually got a goal. He says, “Dennis, I want you to write a book for me.” Which of course makes Dennis’ problem even greater; he didn’t even come up with the idea. So Cleve comes in with the driving force in this script. And immediately he takes over as the main character, structurally at least.
Does Cleve have a psychological need? He has a need for retribution against some guy, and I think more importantly the need for admiration and respect. The question is, why? Where did it come from? Just because he’s tired of being a killer and he wants everybody to know what a great killer he was?
This act of getting somebody else to write a book for him doesn’t really have much force for the audience. Who cares if this killer lets everybody know that he killed a lot of people and that he’s good at his job, or that this other guy is bad?
Obviously Cleve has a strong moral need. He’s a killer. Now, again, we ask the basic question of cause and effect. How is doing an expose on somebody else going to have any effect on Cleve learning not to be a killer, or learning some higher sense of morality? None. He continues to be a killer throughout the story, and the act of writing a book doesn’t seem to be having any effect on him at all.
In other words, the action of the storyline has to have a connection to the psychological and moral problems of the characters who are acting. The question again is going to be, what is the connection between the need to do something right and his sacrifice at the end?
Desire: Ultimately Dennis wants to sell books. Initially, he’s going to find out who Cleve is and find out if he’s telling the truth. And then he wants to write his book.
This desire line has a couple problems. First of all, it is a desire line provided by somebody else. Second of all, Dennis is a reluctant hero. For a long time he doesn’t want to do this thing at all. So in the early to middle part we don’t have much driving line in the story because Dennis doesn’t want to be a part of it. Also, doing a book on a stranger is just an abstraction to him.
What is Cleve’s desire? To get revenge by exposing this guy in the book. But that desire has some problems as well. First of all, Cleve has not been set up as the main character.
Even worse, the person Cleve is trying to expose is someone we know nothing about, and remains totally abstract for the entire movie. So again, it’s an impersonal desire line that has no force for the audience.
Opponent: Cleve is the first opponent, and he should be the key to the script. He’s certainly human. That’s one of the strengths of this opponent. He’s a strange guy, but he is human and complex, and he could be the double of the hero. They bring this up very early when Cleve says you and I are opposite sides of the same coin. Very intriguing idea. The question is, how is Cleve necessary to the hero? The most important point about any opponent. How will Cleve force the hero to grow?
What we’ve got here is the potential for an Othello/Iago story, the big righteous cop confronted by this very strange, scheming killer. Ideally we would have a story where the Iago character gets the cop to begin to participate as a killer. That would have been quite a story. Unfortunately, that’s not the story we have. But the issue is raised when they go back to the house to see Cleve’s family and they talk about the birth of an American killer.
How does somebody become a killer in America, especially with that kind of a family? Fascinating thought. What is the thin line between cop and killer? That’s the central issue, or what should be the central issue of this story. But that’s not developed. Because when we’re talking about Cleve we don’t really get his values. We don’t get any sense of his motives. We don’t get any sense of the history of how he became a killer and how he might convince someone else, a righteous person, to become a killer. And we get no sense of his vulnerability, except at the very end.
The second opponent is David Matlock. This is as opaque an opponent as you can find. What do we know about this guy? He apparently does nice things for charities, and that’s about it. Cleve says the man hired him to kill people. Matlock has no motive but money. He gives no justification for what he does. We learn none of his values. The man is rarely even there.
And since he’s the source of the entire storyline, the fact that we know nothing about him means that the motive line for the entire script falls apart. That’s how much trouble it is and how bad it is to put a stranger at the source of the script.
Plan: Standard tracing of the evidence.
The middle of the script should show the hero, Dennis, declining morally and crossing the line from cop to killer. And he should be declining as he becomes more and more desperate to get his man, to get the opponent. But that’s not present. So we don’t have any exploration of that thin line between killer and cop.
Battle: For many reasons the battle is anticlimactic. First of all, it’s between the wrong people, between Cleve and Matlock. Matlock hasn’t been present in the entire script. So who cares? And we have a battle over something that has never been explored. There are no values at stake.
Then we have a little contrivance where Dennis’s daughter runs out of her room, down the steps, right into the arms of the bad guy so that we can set up this sacrifice at the end. We have Cleve and not Dennis taking the big moral action at the end.
Finally, it’s a sacrifice that’s not believable. Can anybody imagine that this cold-blooded killer is going to say, “Take your daughter, I’ll let this guy blow me away.” This effort to prove that Cleve can do a decent act is not connected in any way with the fact that the man is still a killer and will always be a killer. This one act of self-sacrifice is not going to substitute for the fact that he has made no character change over the course of the story.
Self-Revelation: Does Dennis have a self-revelation at the end of this film? He learns that Cleve can be a heroic character, but that’s not a self-revelation. Does Cleve have one? Whether he’s as good as dead or not, the question is whether he learns anything about himself in the sacrifice. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time before he dies. But he’s been telling Dennis all along that he’s got some good qualities too. So he seems to already know that he can be a decent guy every once in a while. So nobody seems to learn anything at the end of this story.
What is so frustrating on a picture like this is when you see how good it could be. Here is the potential for a modern day Othello story that explores the small but crucial difference between cop and killer. It’s a major difference, but it’s subtle as well.
A picture like “Touch of Evil” is a classic exploration of that same problem, and I recommend it highly. But here is an ambitious story that wasn’t executed properly, and it wasn’t executed properly for one major reason. No one chose a main character. Because of that it was impossible to structure every scene that came thereafter.
Without choosing the main character, you can’t figure out the main opponent. Without knowing the main opponent you can’t get into what this battle is about. You can’t get into the major distinction, the cop-killer distinction. Without any of that you can’t have any moral decline on the part of the hero.
You can’t even have great dialogue because the opposition hasn’t been set up properly. So it’s like a domino effect.
Almost 99% of the time when you have weaknesses in the script, their source is right up front, at the problem, need and desire. If you don’t get these steps right at the beginning you will struggle and struggle and it won’t make any difference. The story won’t work.
I have great respect for the director of this film, and for many of the scenes in it. I felt, for example, that the scene where they go to Cleve’s home were fascinating. But again, just fascinating enough to make you think, God, what else could they have done with this. The soil of an American killer. What a fascinating subject. The anatomy of an American killer. But, unfortunately, this wasn’t the script to explore it.