Cary Grant

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

18 ANGELS HAVE WINGS, PILOTS CAN FLY

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Movie director Howard Hawks had a hard edge.  In his movies men worked together but had to be good at what they did.  Hawks had no sympathy for people who sulked, or if his characters did sulk it did not last long.  John Wayne or someone else would soon sort them into something like the men that Hawks thought were ‘good enough’.  In his classic 1939 movie Only Angels Have Wings the pilots who are not quite good enough crash planes and die without being mourned.  The main concern for pilot boss Cary Grant is that no one wastes the steak that was cooked for the man who has burnt to death inside a plane.   Gorgeous Jean Arthur thinks the boss of the pilots is a pig but as the animal is Cary Grant, they fall in love.  It helps that all the other men in the movie, or the lapdogs that remain alive, say how wonderful is their boss.  Was Howard Hawks an American fascist?  His defenders claim that he put too much emphasis on team work for that but his accusers remind us that fascists liked uniforms and also really big teams.  But as Alfred Hitchcock once said, ‘It’s only a movie.’  The devil always did have the best tunes.

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Like old age, creating a pilot episode for an American TV series is not for sissies.  The episode will cost a lot of money and needs to persuade the men from the TV production company to spend even more dollars on a whole series of episodes.   There is a lot at stake and many competitors doing the same thing.  This means a lot of losing tickets for all those whose TV series pilots only inspire second thoughts.

The people with the cash want to see on the screen something that will not only hook an audience but solicit funds from the advertising agencies.  For that a pilot episode will need to feel fresh but also retain a degree of familiarity .  No one wants audiences to regard the material as strange.  Audiences will have to return, and to make that happen there should also be a decent cliff-hanger.  Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad.  He had experience of working in American television.  If the pilot had failed it would have been Gilligan who would have had to apologise to all his collaborators.  He had to make the right decisions.   His calls would have been about making the pilot episode work, introducing sympathetic characters, adding real emotion and, most important, stopping people from looking away from the screen.  All that meant Gilligan had to be both sly and sincere, sly about what worked for an audience and cynical TV producers, and sincere about his own creative ambitions because without heartfelt creativity the material would fall flat.

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Compared to subsequent episodes the pilot has more scenes that contain a sexual element.  At the car wash the brief appearance of the attractive model is used to alert male viewers, as is the naked housewife that appears during the drug bust.  The pilot episode also includes humour and some cheap laughs.  Walt and Jesse are in Laurel and Hardy mode in the pilot.  The teaser in the pilot episode is brilliant but exists as a deliberate attempt to hook both viewers and financial backers.  The scene does not need to appear at the beginning.  It makes a statement or pitch and insists that this series will be different and inventive, bold ideas will be complemented by an accomplished touch.  How other viewers responded to these scenes only they can say.  For me it was thrilling to recognise a writer taking a deep breath before jumping high.  Vince Gilligan left the swimming baths of typical TV fare and headed for the Atlantic Ocean and originality.  The initial predicament of the characters did not concern me.   That came later.

The same creative daring that relished wayward action was prepared to embrace subtle domestic drama.  After the teaser the pilot episode begins with a family having a breakfast meal.  The muted drama in the scene is heightened a little because it is the birthday of Walter White.  Later two drug dealers are killed yet the final cliff hanger, which is essential to hook both audiences and backers, invites the audience to consider more what will happen to the character of the lead protagonist.  Again there is an element to heighten the scene.  This time it is the reinvigorated sexual prowess of Walter White, a development that has been foreshadowed in an earlier scene when Skyler masturbated Walt while checking prices on eBay.  The cheeky grin of Gilligan is essential to what happens in the pilot episode.

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Before Breaking Bad had been conceived Vince Gilligan had begun his TV career working on the nothing special but interesting and innovative X Files.  Gilligan subsequently developed the wacky but more routine and unsuccessful series The Lone Gunmen.   In the pilot of Breaking Bad, Gilligan and his team had to convince others that they were not only capable of originality but also had higher standards.  This assertion was hammered home in the powerful opening scene which has at least two iconic images.  Originality, though, requires taking risks.  Gilligan makes his hero look ridiculous, begins the episode with a time shift and adds domestic drama that will make demands of an audience expecting a fast moving crime series.   The cameraman, editor and music director are also important.  These people mark the episode with signatures that in future episodes will become trademarks.  These include fast narrative montage for specific scenes, a wide variety of pop music and opening teasers that present their own mysteries.   None of this reduced the stakes.   Gilligan and his people were gambling.  They succeeded because the pilot was slick, more than fresh and loaded with surprises.  The men and women who made it proved to be good enough.  They were people who could live with the consequences of failure.

There are six key characters who appear in the pilot episode.  Each of those actors plus the writers and key technicians would have had to schedule into their timetable some space to film the series.  If the pilot episode had not been approved by the backers, the commitment of the actors, writers and technicians would have led to nothing and prevented other work being secured.  Unlike the episodes it followed, the pilot of Breaking Bad did not have a title.  On the DVDs it is referred to as nothing more than ‘Pilot’.  The clever and wry episode titles came later.  By then everyone was in steady work and becoming famous.

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The pilot episode lasts for 58 minutes.  Apart from the final episode of the series all the other episodes are 48 minutes in length.   More time was spent filming the pilot episode than the others, and more money per minute was spent on production.   This episode more than any had to look and sound right.  And if that was not enough to worry about, a story had to be told.   Stories mean plots and they demand exposition.  For that Gilligan mixes light and heavy confrontations.  Arguments allow characters to explain their hopes, fears and circumstances.  The wild ride in the desert that is the teaser is the exception.  There, Walt and Jess have a united purpose, which is to escape from a crime scene.  But as soon as the episode proper begins there is an argument.  At the breakfast table the decision of Skyler to serve soya bacon is challenged by her family, albeit in a gentle fashion.  Confrontations continue until the end of the episode.  The final scene begins with Skyler demanding not just attention but an explanation or more exposition.  The explanation is sidestepped by sexual intercourse but this is also revelatory confrontation, especially as it is defined by aggression.  Before that Walt has had two confrontations with one of his students, two arguments with his boss, fought a young man in a clothes store and has listened to his boorish brother-in-law sneer at his masculinity.  Walt even manages an argument with the dashboard in his car.  It all facilitates exposition, as does the startled and hostile reaction of Jesse when his ex-high school teacher suggests they make crystal meth together.

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There are also events.  In an early scene Walt is re-introduced to the audience as a self-effacing schoolteacher.  Before the end titles appear Walter White has attempted to kill two men, and the audience has discovered how change, reaction and consequence will be important to the characters of Breaking Bad.  Tricks, of course, are needed. Most thrillers require a hole in the plot somewhere. The Breaking Bad pilot is no different.  DEA employee Hank would not have taken his brother-in-law on a drug bust.  Explaining how a timid schoolteacher would make the fateful decision to be a criminal would have taken time and been an additional drag on an episode that has already inflicted cancer on the hero.  Instead of an explanation as to his thinking we watch Walt ruminate and flick burnt matches into his swimming pool.  The viewers are left to fill in the gap in exposition, and most of us oblige. By then the audience is too anxious about what will happen to Walt to worry about being exploited.

The 58 minutes of an episode, like the production schedule,  must observe the same principles of efficient time management.  Thanks to the imaginations of viewers nothing is missing from those opening 58 minutes, and because of the imagination and skill of Vince Gilligan the viewers have witnessed a lot more than was anticipated.  When asked by Jesse why a schoolteacher would want to make an illegal drug, Walt replies, ‘I am awake.’  The existential theme may not be original but even by the end of an initial episode the words feel immortal.

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Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

38 MATTHEW PACKER

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‘Peel me a grape,’ is now remembered by most of us as a line from a woman who knew how to keep a man in his place. The phrase occurs in the 1933 Mae West movie, I’m No Angel. Rather than make her sidekick Cary Grant blink, West gives the order to her Afro-American servant. What she actually says is ‘Oh, Beulah, peel me a grape.’  Matthew Packer is remembered but not with the same generosity afforded to Mae West. The majority view is that Packer was an opportunistic liar ready to say anything that might earn him money and boost his business. Packer sold fruit from the window of his home at Berner Street.  From his home Packer could see the entrance to Dutfield’s Yard.  Liz Stride was discovered dead in Dutfield’s Yard at 1 a.m., 30th September 1888.  Catherine Eddowes was murdered in Mitre Square. Her murder happened after 1.30 a.m. but before 1.45 a.m.   The distance between the two murder sites can be walked in less than fifteen minutes but the killings occurred in different areas of London. Stride was killed in Whitechapel, and Eddowes was murdered in the City.

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Because there is disagreement about both the character of Matthew Packer and the role of the police, a chronological schedule of events is necessary.   According to Sergeant White, on the day of the two murders he visited Berner Street to establish if there were any witnesses to the murder of Liz Stride. He spoke to the Packer family.  All of them said that they had seen nothing.  Two days later on the 2nd October 1888 two private detectives called Charles Le Grande and J H Batchelor arrived at the murder scene, saw the fruit shop and asked if Packer had seen anything. Packer stated that at some point after midnight he had sold half a pound of black grapes to a man and a woman. The next day, 3rd October 1888, Packer, Le Grande and Batchelor talked to the Evening News.

On the 4th October 1888 the Evening News reported what Packer was supposed to have seen. The newspaper revealed that the story was sourced by a ‘special commissioner’. The Evening News reported that Packer had seen Stride and the man standing in the rain and talking. Packer told someone, either the ‘special commissioner’ from the Evening News or the two detectives, that he had mentioned it to his wife. ‘Why them people must be a couple a’ fools, to stand out there in the rain, when they might just as well have had shelter.’   Packer had also added that the police had neither approached nor interviewed him.

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Inspector Moore was attached to the Ripper investigation. The day the article was published in the Evening News, the 4th of October, Inspector Moore ordered Sergeant Stephen White to visit Matthew Packer.   Sergeant White called at the home of Packer but was directed to the mortuary where he met Packer and the two detectives.   Le Grande and Batchelor had taken Packer to the mortuary to identify the woman he had seen with the man who had bought the grapes. Because the murder sites occurred in different areas, the two women were not in the same mortuary.  Packer was first taken to the City Morgue. The fruit seller told the detectives that Catherine Eddowes was not the woman he had seen at his shop window.   At the mortuary in Whitechapel he identified Liz Stride as the woman for whom the man had bought the grapes. Sergeant White wrote this in his report of 4th October. ‘I asked for their Authority, one of the men produced a card from a pocket book, but would not allow me to touch it. They then induced Packer to go away with them.’ Later that day Sergeant White returned to the home of Matthew Packer.   Again the two detectives arrived. This time they took Packer to Scotland Yard where he made a statement to Assistant Commissioner Alexander Carmichael Bruce.

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In his report dated 4th October 1888 Sergeant White described his visits to the mortuary and the home of Matthew Packer.  The same report from White contradicted what had been reported by the Evening News that morning.  In his report Sergeant White recalled that he had spoken to Packer on the day of the murder, 30th September 1888.  According to the report, Sergeant White had not been remiss on the day of the murder. Packer had said, ‘No I saw no one standing about neither did I see anyone go up the yard. I never saw anything suspicious or heard the slightest noise and know nothing about the murder until I heard of it in the morning.’

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Someone somewhere in Whitechapel was not telling the truth. Much of what happened on the 4th of October was odd. Sergeant White agreed that two private detectives could take ownership of a witness to a murder. That day Sergeant White visited twice the home of a man who had told him four days earlier that he had seen nothing.   Sergeant White appears to have taken no action to challenge Packer about the contradiction in what may be the two statements of Packer.   Nor does the report of Sergeant White explain why it took him four days to remember the initial interview with Packer.

The motives of private detective Le Grande are also unclear. He may have been one of the detectives employed by the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee to manage the vigilantes that patrolled the streets of Whitechapel.   This, though, has never been confirmed.  In 1887 Le Grande had been sentenced to eight years in prison for a series of thefts. In 1889 he was sentenced to two years in prison for sending a threatening letter to a Harley Street surgeon and demanding money.  In 1891 he was charged with sending to wealthy women letters that demanded money and threatened to kill them.   Le Grande and J H Batchelor may have contacted Packer with the idea of selling a scoop to a newspaper but it was Louis Diemshitz and Isaac Kozebrodski who raised the possibility that Stride was holding grapes when she died.

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Bruce Robinson alleges in They All Love Jack that the police did not want the Ripper identified because he was a Freemason. He believes that the report of Sergeant White dated the 4th of October was a concoction prepared after the event.   Robinson adds the dubious assumption that Le Grande and Batchelor were hired by the police with the intention of discrediting the witness Packer. Most Ripperologists believe that Packer was a liar and that Le Grande and Batchelor had one ambition, which was to tell a false story and make money.   They argue that the subsequent behaviour of Packer weakened his credibility as a witness.   His subsequent statements to the police were not consistent, and he produced fresh incidents and sightings that connected Packer to the Ripper.   Packer was willing to exploit his celebrity and improved business profile. This, though, does not mean that he told lies when he spoke to the Evening News on the 3rd of October.

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The truth is we will never know if the intentions of Packer were genuine. Nor can we be certain about the behaviour of the police. The statement Packer gave to Assistant Commissioner Alexander Carmichael Bruce is different from what he told the Evening News.  The differences are slight but telling.  This time the man that bought the grapes has a rough voice and the incident occurs not before midnight but at 11.30 pm. We are entitled to be suspicious of what happened in Scotland Yard.  It is peculiar that Packer was interviewed by an Assistant Commissioner.  The Victorians did not pioneer delegation, and interviewing witnesses was not a task that would have been assigned to Assistant Commissioners. The changes in the witness statement can be interpreted as honest mistakes but they are too slight and too telling to feel authentic. Everything in the second statement that lacks consequence agrees with the first statement.   And in the statement taken by the Assistant Commissioner there is no reference to what Packer was supposed to have told Sergeant White the day Liz Stride was murdered. This is either conspiratorial or an example of why Assistant Commissioners should not be allowed to interview witnesses.

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The problem with the role of Packer in the Ripper investigation is that none of it is conspiracy theory free. We either have a corrupt police force, criminal private detectives out to make money, or both.  To claim a conspiracy to hide the identity of the Ripper is too bold.  Packer was an embarrassment to the police force because he exposed the failure of Sergeant White to interview the neighbours at Berner Street. This is why Packer was not called to the inquest into the death of Liz Stride.   Neither is it likely that the story by Packer was invention. Too much happened on the night of the murder. It is possible to imagine a story being created by Packer to earn money from a newspaper but anyone with that intention is unlikely to tell a police sergeant an account that contradicts what will appear in the newspaper. The morning she was murdered, Liz Stride was seen with different men. She was soliciting for customers. In Ripper Confidential the author Tom Wescott demonstrates how the chronology of events at the time of the murder has become confused. It is possible that Packer did see the man that killed Liz Stride. But, if he did, Packer saw a carefree assassin prone to linger. This was not the way the Ripper operated. If Packer did see the assassin of Stride, we not only have to have doubts about whether the Ripper was her murderer but wonder why such a fuss has been made about the honesty of Matthew Packer.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.