Cinema Soupçons in ‘WarGames’ and ‘North by Northwest’

Wargames soupconI can’t think of two movies that are more alike than WarGames (1983) and North by Northwest (1959).

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. All right: a vast exaggeration. But let’s look at the similarities between them. They’re both thrillers. They both deal tangentially with the Cold War. They both feature characters on the run—good guys who are inadvertently mixed up in something bigger and are now being pursued … either by the villains or by the authorities.

And they both have smidgens of dialogue that add essential dimensions to the films and texture to the proceedings without moving the action along or augmenting the plot in any way.

I call these tidbits “cinema soupçons.” They’re very, very rare and small enough that you might not notice them at first glance. Yet they become greater in the mind after viewing them than ever before and utterly critical to the enjoyment of the flicks they’re in.

Because they’re amazing combinations of writing, acting, directing and cinematography. They color the picture like you wouldn’t believe.

Case in point: The cinema soupçon in North by Northwest starts when Roger O. Thornhill (played with wonderful charm by Cary Grant) is arrested by local police for driving while intoxicated. He tries to explain that the villains, who have mistaken him for the imaginary man they’re after, forced him to drink a great deal of bourbon. He is allowed to make a phone call and does, to his mother. After a drunken conversation, Thornhill tells his mom: “I gotta go now. You get my lawyer right away and come out and bail me out. ”

“Tomorrow morning, tell her,” says the police sergeant.

“’Tomorrow morning,’ he says,” explains Thornhill. Then, after listening on the phone: “Uh … I don’t know; I’ll ask him … she wants to know who says?”

The sergeant is no-nonsense. “Sergeant Emile Klinger.”

“Sergeant Emile—“ And Thornhill is surprised. “Emile?” He turns his attention back to the phone. “Sergeant Emile Klinger.” And another pause … and a slight smile. “No, I don’t believe it, either.”

What’s going on, here? Why doesn’t he “believe it, either”? Well, that’s part of the soupçon. It’s brilliant. It gives us an insight into his relationship with his mother that we’re not privy to. There’s backstory there that we don’t need to have provided in the rest of the film. Despite this little window into Thornhill’s life, we aren’t able to see much. Just enough, though. Just enough to laugh. Sergeant Emile Klinger. He may be enjoying a joke about the policeman’s unusual name. Or perhaps somewhere in the backstory he and his mother knew another Emile. Regardless, it’s a terrific aside. A tiny tidbit of characterization. And as valuable as a celluloid diamond.

Alfred Hitchcock, who directed North by Northwest, Ernest Lehman, who wrote the script, and Robert Burks, who shot it, certainly knew what they were doing, and the effects are superb. Similarly excellent is the cinema soupçon provided by the John Badham film WarGames, which features a different kind of awkward situation. In it, David Lightman visits a computer programmer friend at a nearby office for guidance on a printout of game options he has produced. He gives the document to Jim, a portly, somewhat disheveled fellow, who starts to read it before the bespectacled Malvin, another employee, takes it from his hand.

“Hey, what’s that?” says Malvin.

“I wanted Jim to see that,” says David.

“Wow,” exclaims Malvin. “Where’d you get this?”

“I was trying to break into Protovision. I wanted to see the program for their new games.”

“Can I have this, please,” says Jim, softly, reaching.

“Wait, Jim, I’m not through yet!” protests Malvin, as Jim grabs the paper angrily from his hand.

Then, in a quiet, menacing voice, Jim offers his complaint: “Remember you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively?” Malvin nods. “Remember that? You’re doing it right now.”

Maury Chaykin, who plays Jim, Matthew Broderick, who plays David, and Eddie Deezen, who plays Malvin, are all wonderful, but the star of this exchange is the dialogue from writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes … because it informs us that Jim and Malvin have some kind of history together—a troubled one. They’ve obviously butted heads before and had workplace conversations about Malvin’s annoying habits. The window we get into their relationship is minuscule, but it’s huge in the context of the picture itself, as it’s an incredible, hilarious, telling detail that need not be explained. It’s just like Thornhill’s “No, I don’t believe it, either.”

North by Northwest soupconThere is the similarity. That’s why, to my mind, there are no other movies as alike as WarGames and North by Northwest.

Sadly, few other films—even the great ones—contain such tidbits. Soupçons aren’t necessarily what make magnificent motion pictures, but they definitely make for memorable moments. Their rarity is part of their appeal as well: Once you discover them, you’re addicted. They’ll never leave your mind.

Roger O. Thornhill, Sergeant Emil Klinger, Jim, Malvin and David certainly haven’t left mine. For that, I’m very happy. The taste of their exchanges will linger forever.

Even though they’re as ephemeral as snowflakes in a blizzard. Their power remains significant. Their impact persists through the decades.

They are cinema soupçons. Perfection … on the silver screen.

And veritable celluloid diamonds, once you find and get to know them.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

3 thoughts on “Cinema Soupçons in ‘WarGames’ and ‘North by Northwest’

  1. Those kind of apparently inconsequential details turn characters from two-dimensional stereotypes into fully rounded human beings you can believe in. As you say, they don’t add anything to the plot, but they help you believe in the characters and their world. Nice article, thank you.

  2. You’re right, Simon. In a lot of movies, those little seemingly throw-away lines resonate more than the more obviously dramatic ones. Screenwriters, directors, and editors are trained to chop out anything that doesn’t directly advance the story so it’s hard to find those off-the-nose moments. My favorites don’t necessarily suggest the backstory of a relationship as these examples do, but they do give dimension to the characters beyond the immediate plot line. So after explaining to Michael how his enemies will assassinate him, Vito Corleone goes off topic for a moment to announce “I like to drink wine more than I used to, anyway, I’m drinking more.” Then he goes back to the business at hand. At the end of Act II in The Usual Suspects, after analyzing their upcoming suicide mission, McManus says “news said it’s raining in New York.” It appears to have nothing to do with the narrative question, but there is a longing in that line that is palpable. I think it’s precisely because lines like these break the patterns we’ve come to expect in screenplays that they resonate so well.

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