A Plotter-Writer Confesses
I am a writer. Plotting is part of my business. Which makes me a plotter-writer. Only — just sometimes — I forget it isn’t other people’s business too and they Don’t Want To Know.
When I got my first flat, I would go home every three or four weeks for a weekend. It was my one big opportunity to communicate with my father, who thought the telephone was for emergencies. Even face to face he didn’t chat much. So, after my mother had gone to bed, we would end up watching a late-night movie on television in affectionate but largely silent companionship.
The Golden Gate Murders
Late-night movies were a variable lot but, one night, we found a mystery that was very promising. Large numbers of people appeared to be killing themselves by jumping off a fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Gravelly-voiced David Janssen (the original Fugitive) was a disillusioned cop who wasn’t certain they were suicides. The last jumper was a visiting foreign priest and his amanuensis, a South African nun, cancelled her flight home in order to supply the San Francisco Police Department’s deficiencies and prove that he would not have endangered his immortal soul by self-slaughter.
So far, so classic. OK, the bridge looked a bit rickety. Apparently they couldn’t get permission to film on the real one, so they built a mock-up of sections and used a lot of studio fog. But the atmosphere was filled with menace, the acting was real first-division stuff and the plot was intriguing.
Character is Plot
For these characters are remarkable and their growing relationship is complex, mature and totally believable. Janssen, already the Thinking Woman’s Loner and now coming to the end of his career, inhabits the disillusioned cop as if he knows him to the core. The character lives alone in a shabby flat with a cat called Dirty Harry, allegedly a tribute to Janssen’s mate, Clint Eastwood. So I am more than ever convinced that this role was special to him.
Susanna York’s determined nun is a wonderful contrast to the grumpy cop — well-travelled, highly educated, articulate, passionate in her convictions and marginally less streetwise than a San Franciscan eight-year-old. She runs out of money, so ends up flat-sharing and grocery-shopping with the cop. And when he refuses to take her to the waterfront with him — because her nun’s habit will scare off the down-and-outs that he needs to talk to — she makes him take her shopping for ordinary clothes, too.
From what I recall, across the gulf of many years, he takes her to a department store and steams ahead impatiently. (Sound familiar?) She hesitates for a tiny moment at a strappy silver sequin number, and you see all the silly fun things she hasn’t done in an otherwise full life. Then she laughs and follows him to buy her sensible navy skirt and jacket.
It is a touching, truthful moment. “Ah,” I said, misty-eyed and knowing a set-up when I saw it, “he’ll be buying that for her, then.” My father harrumphed. She was a nun. There’d be no point. I was talking nonsense.
So the hooded horror who throws people off the bridge is identified and caught in an exciting, fog-swirling climax. Job done. Cop justified. Nun proved right. Also, these two are now definitely in love. Only nobody’s saying so.
Nun goes and books her flight home to Johannesburg. Cop takes her to the airport. Their conversation is both intimate and awkward. And neither of them even mentions the possibilities.
By now, I am on the edge of my chair. I would be screaming at the television if my father wasn’t bristling with expectation that I will do just that.
Her flight is called. Janssen rushes off, comes back with a crumpled grocery sack and thrusts it into her hands as she heads for passport control. No, no, no, he’s given her doughnuts, this can’t be happening.
He starts to walk out of the airport. She finds her seat on the plane, the attendant tries to take the grocery sack from her . . .
“Of course,” I say, “it won’t be the same silver dress as the one in the department store. But he’ll have found something approximate on the concourse . . .”
My father arose in his wrath. “I am never,” he said, “watching a movie with you, ever again. You spoil everything.”
Make sure your inner Plotter is on silent running, at least until the movie’s over.