While guiding my skiff through the backwaters of cable tv the other night, I stumbled across an old movie I had never see before. Across the Pacific, starring Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor. I’m not recommending the movie as being fabulous, or even very good, but it did offer me a moment’s revelation.
It’s set in 1941 and Bogey plays a disgraced Coast Guard officer who is on a boat headed to China where he hopes to enlist to fight the Japanese. Also on the boat are Aster, who doesn’t seem to have any function in the story other than looking good, and Greenstreet, who isn’t very fat in this one, but who is an enemy spy. The ship is held up in Panama, and all go ashore. Some stuff involving perfidious Japanese spies occurs, and Bogey ends up shooting it out with Japanese soldiers who are launching an airplane whose mission is to bomb the canal. He is successful in stopping them.
At some point in the movie – I was beginning to drift off in my chair -- Bogey is being questioned about some action he has taken and he says these words to justify what he’s done: “A dame gave me a bum steer.” That snapped me awake. What a great noir line. I started listening to the dialogue, which was way above normal snappy:
Astor (to Bogey): “I can do without money.”
Bogart: “Stick with me and you’ll get plenty of practice.”
Bogart and Greenstreet both pull guns on each other at the same time: Bogart: “Mine’s bigger than yours.”
At that point I looked the movie up to see who had written it. Richard Macaulay, who was later a “friendly witness” in the McCarthy hearings, which I guess is neither here nor there, but interesting. Macaulay wrote some other noir movies, among them Born to Kill, which pretty much everyone agrees is both terrible and reprehensible. Sample dialogue: "You can't just go around killing people when the notion strikes you. It's just not feasible." You can read about Across the Pacific here on Wikipedia.
The point of my rambling isn’t the movie, it’s that line: “A dame gave me a bum steer.” I’ve been talking in this blog lately about where writers come up with ideas. It’s question that always gets asked because it’s so damn important. Some writers can crank out a story by coming up with a particular character, and some might fall in love with a place and craft a story that fits into it, but most of us need an idea, and the more original the better. This is especially true if you’re a thriller writer. But it strikes me that sometimes it might be better to start with a broader concept and hone it from general to specific. In this case the concept is, yes, you guessed it… “A dame gave me a bum steer.” How many noir books and movies have been grounded in that simple statement? And how many more can take flight from that one sentence?
So the next time you’re wrestling with an idea for a new project, start with a bigger theme and work smaller. (A man hates his father: Why? That might be a good take-off point for a time travel series.)
Let’s see… A naked, muscular man is being interviewed. In the background is a naked woman with an aggrieved look on her face. A snake hangs from a branch of a nearby tree.
Interviewer: “Adam, just how is it that you’ve come to be cast out from the Garden of Eden?”
Adam: “A dame gave me a bum steer.”