I suppose I have my mother to thank for getting me to love the classic era of movies. That, and Saturday Night At The Movies, which, when I was growing up aired classic black and white films, hosted by a fellow who knew what he was talking about. Between the two, I’ve gotten to find a wealth of terrific films that most people would easily ignore. And by most people, the sort who think that real movies started in 1975, and everything that came before was boring.
Among the actors of the classic era were two who worked together many times, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Six of their films together from the 1930s and 1940s are a single franchise: The Thin Man series. The characters Nick and Nora Charles were created by Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), and the films got quite an audience at the time. These films are detective thrillers with more then a dash of humour, centered on the husband and wife pair, whose banter and chemistry are smart, sharp, and playful. Nick, an occasional detective who married into money, spends his time overseeing his wife’s financial interests and pursuing the ideal recipe for a vodka martini (often more of the latter). He seems to know an awful lot of people who are, well, disreputable. The films start out with a murder (and usually more before each is done). Nora likes to push Nick back into investigating the case. Nick would much rather finish his drink.
Yet in each film, there’s always a moment when Nick changes priorities; he starts taking the case seriously, and you see his detective’s brain at work, sorting out the case. You can usually tell when it is by the fact that Nick stops drinking (or at least cuts down). Nick proceeds to methodically work things out, bringing together the suspects, and unmasking the killer in a dramatic way (incidentally, if you haven’t seen the second in the series, After The Thin Man, you might be startled by James Stewart’s character).
Now then, before I go off on a film history talk, I thought I’d come to the point. Awhile back, during one of my writer’s group meetings, I was reading a passage from Heaven & Hell. The passage is from the point of view of Stavros Maras, the counter-terrorism unit commander. In it, he’s watching my protagonists and three of his team members get ready for an night time operation against the Covenant. He muses that he sees in the others the exact same professionalism as he does in his own team. That kind of surprised me (and I’m the guy who wrote it, mind you). Why?
It’s one of my lead characters, Stryker. Professionalism doesn’t seem to be a word I’d use to describe him. He’s casual and sarcastic early on in the book- getting this particular spy into a suit is like fingernails on a blackboard for the man. He doesn’t seem to take much seriously. Part of that is that there’s a lot of me in him. And in addition, I have to say he’s influenced by Jack Higgins’ character Sean Dillon, who has been described as the sort who thinks of life as something of a bad joke, so why take it seriously?
That got me to thinking. Late in the book, the wisecracks are muted. Like the good Mr. Charles, Stryker is taking things seriously. His priorities have changed. I think that in part, the terrorist attack at the heart of the book mutes his natural tendency to be sarcastic. He and the others witness the cataclysmic event, see the impact and the death in its wake, and it must have an effect on all of them.
As writers or readers, we all see it in characters when they have that moment when things change; their priorities or their status quo must adapt to the changing circumstances around them. Sometimes it’s a gradual process; other times the turning point is crystal clear, and who they were before is gone, perhaps forever.
Have you ever had that moment with one of your characters when you realize how fundamentally different they are from where they started? Or brought them through that proverbial point of no return?