Wednesday, 11 July 2012

BRIAN DE PALMA's COLUMBO!


I kid you not.  "Shooting Script", an unproduced Columbo spec script has turned up, dated 26th July 1973, written by Joseph P. Gillis and Brian De Palma.  De Palma we all know for the genius film director he is, responsible for a string of the most inventive and entertaining thrillers since Hitchcock.  Gillis is untraceable and may well be a pseudonym for the series' staffers, since they are bound to have had input into a spec script (an unsolicited screenplay).

Or, it could be De Palma's collaborator(s) wishing to remain anonymous.

Jackson Gillis was the former executive story consultant for Columbo, though he continued to contribute - suggesting a staffer; Joe Gillis is the screenwriter character played by William Holden in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard - suggesting a 'movie brat' having some fun.

Hey, maybe it's Paul Schrader!

He and De Palma met that year, after he reviewed Sisters.  They and all the other so-called movie brats - Scorsese, Spielberg (who had of course directed a Columbo), John Milius etc. hung out together in LA the summer of '73.  It was a formative time for them, resulting in Taxi Driver for one.  The following year the pair collaborated on Vertigo-inspired script "Déjà Vu", filmed by De Palma as Obsession.

Maybe it is Paul Schrader!


"The perfect crime is the motiveless crime, but then again there is no such thing as a motiveless crime.  Even a maniacal urge to kill indiscriminately is a motive ...But subtlety of motive -- that always confounds the police, who have no subtlety at all.  The police also have no taste, whereas my taste is exquisite...  Thus I decide that taste will be my motive -- and the most distasteful thing in this distasteful world to me is this cult of pseudo-celebrities.  I shall kill a television star.  Without style, or grace.  Creatures of the media.  This chic apartment building, where I live, is full of these public zircons.  I shall kill one of them."
Quentin Lee in "Shooting Script"


For Columbo, the date indicates Season Three.  A four month writers' strike had held up production, with just two episodes in the can, and in July 1973 they were gearing up to make the remaining six shows.  Stephen J Cannell, soon to find enormous fame with The Rockford Files, also handed in a spec script at this time - it was something to do during the strike, he said.  His episode was produced - more on that later.

For Brian De Palma, then 32 years old, he had seen the successful release of his psychological horror Sisters earlier in the year, and was prepping cult favourite Phantom of the Paradise.

Where did Columbo fit in?  De Palma famously hates television, considering it the ultimate manifestation of art selling out to commerce, and to my knowledge has never worked in the medium other than here.  I'm presuming he was attracted to the show's idea-led structure.  Sisters had been a new direction after his improvisatory comedies Greetings and Hi Mom! - a challenge to try working within the confines of the thriller.  Columbo may have been another.

Also, it was a good gig, with a number of Emmys already under its belt.  And I can't believe De Palma didn't like Columbo.  Hopefully Steven Spielberg put in a good word too.

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo in Season 3 of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, which was Number 14 for that year.
And it's a good fit.  I loved the script: it's classic Columbo and very De Palma.

The episode opens over shots of San Quentin prison cells - we're not sure what we're watching - which turns out to be a documentary playing through a video machine.

Our guest murderer is "Quentin Lee" - a famous writer on the subject of crime, documentary filmmaker and sometime television personality. He is based on Truman Capote I would guess, and a most delicious Columbo villain he would have made.

De Palma takes the programme right back to its Dostoyevskian origins.  Like Raskolnikov in 'Crime and Punishment' - quoted here - Lee commits murder as an experiment.  He wants to document a perfect crime, and sets about doing so with a video camera.

Brian De Palma on the set of Phantom of the Paradise in 1973, dreaming up a McMillan and Wife
Already it is displaying De Palma themes.  Both Hi Mom! and the later, partly autobiographical Home Movies feature characters documenting their lives through film cameras.  We don't actually see Lee until he has perpetrated the crime, when he sets the camera down to move the body - just as we don't see Robert De Niro for the first few minutes of Hi Mom! as he is operating the camera.

Lee's victim is the vacuous host of a tawdry talk show - De Palma's contempt for television probably manifesting itself.

I'll not go into too much detail about the plot.  Lt. Columbo is being shadowed throughout by a trio of college students - one of whom is named Spielberg - who are documenting his activities for their graduate class (shades of the much later "Columbo Goes to College").  More recording going on.

Whether Spielberg's name appears because of his connection with Columbo, or his friendship with De Palma, we'll never know.  At the time he was working on The Sugarland Express, his first theatrical feature.  Even though the script was dropped the producers still found a way to work his name into the show - that season's "Mind Over Mayhem" episode, written by story editor Steven Bochco and producer Dean Hargrove, features a child genius named 'Steve Spelberg'.

Columbo ordering a bowl of chili from diner owner Bert (played by Kubrick regular Timothy Carey) in Season One's "Dead Weight".
Further details: Bert, Columbo's diner owner pal from "Ransom for a Dead Man" and "Dead Weight", appears; there is a very clever twist on the 'blackmailer turns up leading to second murder' formula; and the final "pop" - as Peter Falk labelled the clever and clinching proof that comes at the end of each episode - is dependent on a motion-sensitive video camera, a device re-used by Brian De Palma some years later in Dressed to Kill.

If I were to hazard a guess as to why it wasn't produced, I'd say there are a couple of details which might have proved difficult to show effectively on screen.  De Palma himself could've solved them if he was directing, but they seem rather ambitious for television.  Also, the murderer being panicked into revealing the location of the incriminating evidence, as happens here, is similar to Stephen J Cannell's "Double Exposure" - and better done there to be honest.

The page count suggests a 90-minute Columbo rather than a 2-hour, but I would've given this one the longer time.  Quentin Lee's motivation is unique in Columbo history, similar to that depicted in Hitchcock's Rope in fact, and should be given more room to breathe.

As for who could have played Lee, my first thought was John Lithgow, who has been enlisted by De Palma for villainous duties a number of times - but at 6' 4" is too imposing a physical presence for this part.  I see this more like Clifton Webb in Laura, so how about Paul Williams, diminutive singer-songwriter and actor who played the Faustian record producer in Phantom of the Paradise, De Palma's very next project!  He'd be perfect.  I can only hear him reading the extract above, now.

Paul Williams as Swan in Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
I was delighted to get the chance to read this script, and stunned to discover its existence after almost 40 years.  It's a fascinating insight into the early development of De Palma as an artist, and just as importantly, it's a new episode of 70s Columbo!  Any more hidden gems out there?

NEXT TIME: Who knew Woody Allen penned an Adam-12?

ADDENDUM (14th July 2012): Geoff over at De Palma a la Mod has done some investigating and discovered that "Joseph P. Gillis" is in fact critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks.  Cocks was film critic for TIME magazine in the early 1970s and a close friend of De Palma and Martin Scorsese.  Head over to De Palma a la Mod for more information, plus a few words from Mr De Palma himself!


ADDENDUM 2 (6th August 2012): I found this extract in a profile of Brian De Palma from The Milwaukee Journal, written by Helen Dudar, and dated 20th April 1980 a few months before Dressed to Kill was released.  This is the Columbo script!  De Palma and Jay Cocks must have rewritten it as a film when it wasn't used.  This didn't make it either sadly.

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