Breathe In

Logged: 30 November 2019

WARNING: This is a long-haul flight

I’ve become quite nostalgic about chloroform. There was a time when no self-respecting TV criminal would have been found without it, along with a handkerchief. A quick lunge accompanied by some token struggling and what sounded like someone trapped in a baggage trunk was all a director needed to speed the plot on its way. Today chloroform is treated by the film and TV industry like motorists’ hand signals; redundant. Fictional criminals have lost some of their versatility because of that.

Food packaging today sometimes carries the text “Warning: May contain nuts”. Films and TV shows of a certain vintage should come with the caption “Warning: May contain predictable idiocy.” So many film and TV clichés have passed out of use now, it’s worth taking a few minutes to remember the best of them, if only for their assistance in nudging a limp production towards a merciful end.

The No. 1 top-table cliché has to be the bowl or jug of cold water thrown into the face of someone unconscious as a device to wake them up. Did that ever work? If it did, why isn’t it being used in hospitals to awaken patients from general anaesthetic? Assuming it does work hospital patients could be up and about in 30 seconds after an operation.

At other times criminals had to delve more deeply into their box of creative tricks. If the relative complexity of a plot or the equally relative stupidity of the audience demanded an explanation of what was going on, the options were limited. A device that had particular utility here was the smiling gloating villain with a gun. He could be depended on to inform his captives (and his audience) about how the story was progressing, albeit in a slightly robotic and self-satisfied manner.

This was of course a time when clichés hammered onto viewers’ retinas like hail driven against a window. Everything’s quieter now, but I don’t believe it’s because clichés are a lost art. They’ve just mutated so they’re harder to see. In celebration of the golden age of clichés, however, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourites in no particular order:

  • Pillows under the sheets: A go-to device used to fool stupid guards into thinking that someone who has got away is still sleeping in bed with the covers (conveniently) over his head like a dead body. This clever ruse allowed Barry Newman in “Fear is the Key” to escape from planned captivity, then be flown fifty miles or so to an offshore rig by some colleagues, discover that a supposedly lost submersible was moored under water there, then get back, change out of his wet clothes (it had been raining), and get back into bed. Now go to “I’ve been out but nobody’s noticed.”
  • I’ve been out but nobody’s noticed: The hero escapes for a while using the “pillows in the bed” gambit so he can scout around. He gets back eventually after hiding in some bushes under his window while a guard with a dozy whining inattentive dog walks past within six feet of him. When he climbs back into his room he checks his bed and finds the pillows are untouched. He smiles wryly and then goes back to bed in time to be “awoken” by a surly contemptuous guard. Now go to “Shoving”.
  • Shoving: A surly, contemptuous guard “awakens” the hero by shoving him while he’s still “asleep”. He compels the prisoner to get up and come with him to “see the boss”, shoving him repeatedly all along the way. The hero staggers occasionally, and shakes his head, sometimes saying “OK….OK”. Now go to “advanced shoving”.
  • Advanced shoving: After one shove too many the hero stops and says “If you do that once more.……..” and leaves it hanging . The surly, contemptuous guard then shoves him once more. Now go to “postgraduate shoving”.
  • Postgraduate shoving: A surly, contemptuous guard who has shoved once too often gets a punch in the face from the hero and falls down some stairs in a very careful, choreographed way. Note: Postgraduate shoving should not be confused with pushing academics around – that’s another pleasure entirely. Now go to “It would appear our friend is indispensable….for the moment”.
  • It would appear our friend is indispensable….for the moment: The Surly, contemptuous guard who has been knocked to the foot of the stairs awakens and shakes his head like a dog that has just come in out of the rain. He rubs his chin and says “Why I oughta……“. Just in time a more senior henchman stops him with a wagged finger and inclines his head towards the hero: “It would appear our friend here is indispensable………” . The last time I saw this I was poised like a gun dog and I finished the full sentence before the henchman did. “…for the moment!” I said aloud. “For the moment” said the henchman a beat later, followed by a loud appreciative clap of the hands from me.
  • How much stuff can we knock over?: During a fight, men grab each other’s forearms and grimace as they force each-other against book shelves and anything else that has content they can knock to the floor. They also think that throwing a coffee pot or an empty gun will tip the fight in their favour. It infuriates and confuses them when their opponent simply ducks out of the way.
  • Release the dogs: Whenever a production goes to a large palatial house set in its own grounds there is always a chorus of barking dogs to be heard in the background. This appears to imply there are a lot of impatient dogs who go in for property investments.
  • Useless decorative women: A useless decorative woman who has been standing with one hand over her mouth while men grab each-other’s forearms and grimace in lieu of actually fighting, decides finally to intervene when the hero is on the floor and in danger of being shot. Naturally instead of doing something useful like breaking a vase over the villain’s head, instead she bites his arm or hand. Incredibly that buys the hero enough time to rejuvenate, spring back into the fray, and knock out the villain. Afterwards the hero stands looking straight into the face of the woman (typically in tight close-up), panting with the supposed exertion of the fight. He wipes a trickle of lipstick-red stage blood from his mouth or forehead and just says “thanks” quietly. If it were me in that spot I’d be saying (and not quietly) “Let’s hope you’re never called up by the army during a war. Think about it” 
  • The accusing stare: Whenever someone receives a phone call and has a serious disagreement that’s terminated by the caller hanging-up abruptly, the person receiving the call will hold the phone handset away and stare at it, implying that the phone itself is responsible. Why blame the phone? Phones aren’t actually intelligent, though to be fair, that’s also true of some callers. Only actors do this, by the way. People never do.
  • Divers: When there aren’t any foam rubber giant octopus tentacles that divers can wrap around themselves and then dig a knife into repeatedly (followed by a release of octopus/squid ink in the water), divers love to fight each-other over a knife or spear-gun. Whoever wins cuts the air hose of their opponent. The loser then has a sort of fit and thrashes about instead of just holding his breath and calmly swimming to the surface.
  • Evil workers: The sleeping accommodation of evil workers (henchmen and the like at an “evil lair”) has walls covered with sanitised 1950s “pin-ups” that would be laughed at even by children. Evil workers apparently spend so much of their time drinking, playing cards, and sleeping, they don’t need much in the form of visual stimuli to keep them happy. Now go to “Advanced Evil Workers”.
  • Advanced Evil workers: Evil workers, when they aren’t drinking, playing cards, or sleeping, always shout at each-other jovially like Nazi guards. This is especially true if they’re in corridors and the hero is hiding from them. Now go to “The hero is hiding from them”.
  • The hero is hiding from them: The hero hears someone coming along a corridor and in desperation presses himself against the wall around a corner. As the evil workers pass, bellowing at each-other like stricken beasts, they never spot the man standing as tall as a fridge against the wall, sucking in his gut in the naive belief it will make him invisible. I say “naive belief”, but amazingly it always seems to work.
  • You’re getting warmer: Evil workers or evil guards who search a room for a terrified escapee, move unerringly towards any closet with slats in the door through which the escapee is watching paralysed with fear. They stare at the door for a long moment, and then pull or slide it open abruptly and leer. By way of full disclosure I have to say that I have dreams like this, and not usually as the one hiding.
  • Suspenseful build-up of music: A suspenseful build-up or rising crescendo of music is a useful way of telegraphing to the audience that anyone searching for quarry is getting closer. It’s a musical variant on sonar, though it rarely ends in depth charges and men in the water.
  • Complex machinery: Complex machinery with lots of flashing lights is always started or shut down by someone flicking rows of switches rapidly in line succession. If the hero has “shut down” a system by turning each switch off in precise order left to right, he will then announce to the bad guys “You’ll never work out the right order to get the system up again.” In fact anyone could do it blindfolded simply by flicking all of the switches in the reverse order. When taunted like this bad guys then hold a gun out with a stiff arm. They blink a lot and say “Listen buddy….are you askin’ to be shot?” The hero always responds with contempt, saying “Who are you kiddin’? You need me or we’re all dead.” That confuses the bad guys who glance at each-other nervously and go on to ask “OK wise guy…..what is it you really want?” By this point in the script all anyone would really want is to be released from their contract with the film studio and get a new agent.
  • That gun’s going off in a minute: During a fight between two characters, one of whom has a gun, they will move together in a sort of clinch as the music reaches a cliff-hanger climax (note: not to be confused with “Suspenseful build-up of music”, which is altogether slower). I watched this very scene unfold in a film recently and said “Pow!” aloud at the height of the music. A beat later the gun went “pow!” The two characters stared at each-other briefly like a pair of goats about to butt heads just before one of them slid to the floor. A variant on this is that whoever gets shot will smile fleetingly before collapsing.
  • People do things because the script needs them to, not because it makes any sense: In a film called “Fear is the Key” the hero was piloting a submersible craft at gun-point. The lead villain had directed him to a crashed DC3 aircraft on the sea bed. Behind the cockpit windows of the aircraft there were two cheerful looking skeletons propped up in the seats. It looked like a ghost train variant on air travel. The hero shut down the sub’s systems (click-click-click-click-click in line order across the main panel) and then said to the bad guys that he was going to let them all die of suffocation by shutting off the air and venting it. One of the bad guys did the usual blinky, stiff arm with the gun routine while saying something like “C’mon….what do you want? You’ll die too!” The hero then pointed to the skeletons grinning out of the aircraft cockpit and said “The one on the left is my brother, the one on the right is my wife.” That was my cue to add with characteristic callousness “and they look suspiciously alike for people who are supposedly just in-laws.” The grinning skeleton of a 3-year-old boy was held to be in the back too, though at least he didn’t come up to the glass and wave.

Note: At this juncture you need to know that the aircraft in the preceding cliché had been shot down because it was carrying millions in gold bullion and a crate of emeralds as part of a “dangerous and secret operation to fund an arms deal”. If I were a family man with wife/child (I know that’s a stretch for anyone to imagine), and had a brother I didn’t despise, the odds are I’d spend the money and send them off safely by scheduled airline. What I wouldn’t do is say “Hey you people I prize above all others….guess what! There’s a rickety old DC3 that’s going to be carrying a fortune in gold and emeralds. Unscrupulous men who will stop at nothing are angling to shoot it out of the sky to get their greedy hands on it. Here’s an idea…why not hitch a ride instead of buying a ticket on a scheduled flight? What can go wrong?” Check the newspaper headlines if you really need to know.

  • I have a dream: Whenever someone recalls a dream or something disturbing from their childhood, it’s always to the accompaniment of theramin music. It makes dreams feel like the 1950s version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, though usually without Gort the robot and Michael Rennie.
  • Piranhas – Come and get it: Whenever someone falls into water inhabited by piranhas it turns into what looks like a deep fat fryer. The victim waves and screams madly before vanishing, never to be seen again other than as an obscure name way, way down on the end titles. Sometimes after the boiling of the water subsides, someone will shake their head and say in a tone mid-way between fear and admiration “all they leave is a skeleton”  (there’s a similar unsubstantiated comment people make about swans when they say knowingly “they can break your arm you know”). Evidently piranhas were stowaways on that DC3 with the bullion that was shot down. Now you know where the skeletons came from.

  • Spiders – Come and get it: Everyone knows spiders as big as a hand like nothing better than to walk about on a man’s face or chest. God knows why. The move as if they’re on their way back from a hard night’s drinking, and so are acutely sensitive to noise or rapid movements. Snakes seem to enjoy it too (getting onto a man’s chest or face, not drinking). The outcome is variable, depending on whether or not the script has condemned a character to death. If it’s a thumbs-up, then the spider or snake gets flicked away, and one or more people stomp about in a corner of the room in a manner reminiscent of a folk dance. If it’s thumbs-down then to spare the studio from actually killing an actor, they get someone to dangle a limp arm and hand off the side of the bed, supported by a few bars of dramatic music. The audience is left to fill in the blanks.

In closing I’m going to add a general category of “Gone but not forgotten”. What clichés reference would be complete without someone opening a combination lock safe by listening for the clicks (with or without a  stethoscope), or air conditioner ducts that are large enough for fully grown people to crawl through without attracting the attention of anyone in the building. 

Honourable mention: Under the heading of “happens more often than it should among professional hit-men”, there should be some polite applause for the break-down sniper rifle that a hit-man can assemble on a rooftop or hotel room, and find that it’s 100% accurate from 2000 yards despite not being having been calibrated.

There may be a test on this next week. Don’t try substituting a pillow for yourself on exam day. That only works in a bed.