‘?’ and ‘The Mark of Zorro’ in ‘Minority Report’

I was talking about this blog with the co-screenwriter of Minority Report…

I’ll just pause here and contemplate how cool it is to be able to say that.

Anyway, the writer in question, Jon Cohen, is a friend and neighbor of mine, who actually has moved on from screenplays and now devotes his time to writing novels. When I told him about Movies in Other Movies, he directed me to a scene in the 2002 Spielberg sci-fi movie. The hero, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), wants to escape detection and since everyone is subjected to iris scans wherever they go (a prescient bit!), he engages a sketchy doctor (Peter Stormare) to perform an eye transplant on him.

The movie-in-movie aspect is consistent with the cyberpunk aesthetic of Minority Report. (Apparently, Spielberg instructed his cinematographer to create “the ugliest, dirtiest movie” he had ever made.) In the doc’s tumbledown office, a scene from what appears to be a noir shoot-’em-up is projected on a wall: futuristic technology, retro content. I say “appears” because I don’t know what the film is, and neither does Jon. He e-mailed me, “Whoever did production design or whatever, put that film in the background — it wasn’t in the script.”

I’d really like to know what’s playing, and thus I announce the first Movies-in-Other-Movies contest: the first person to identify the clip (and support his or case) will get a signed copy of my book How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.

When Anderton wakes up post-surgery, another movie is being projected, and there’s no doubt about its identity: Errol Flynn’s The Mark of Zorro (1940). Presumably Spielberg or the production designer chose it because Zorro has a black mask and–at least until he can take off his bandages–now Anderton has a white one.

So let’s hear your thoughts on what the noir film is. And remember: Don’t scratch.

“Dirty Harry” in “Zodiac”


The killer in Dirty Harry (1971) was loosely based on the so-called Zodiac Killer. Very loosely. The deviations start in the opening scene, as the killer–called “Scorpio” in the film–uses a high-precision rifle to kill someone in a hotel rooftop swimming pool and leaves a note demanding the city pay him $100,000. In the last scene, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan captures, shoots, and kills Scorpio (right after reprising the most famous line of the film: “Ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”). Nothing of that corresponds with the real-life Zodiac, who killed at close range, didn’t ask for money, and was never apprehended or even conclusively identified.

But the parallels were close enough for the screenwriter and director of the 2007 Zodiac (James Vanderbilt and David Fincher) to use Dirty Harry as an ironic counterpoint to the real-life police officers their film portrayed. The key cop in Fincher’s film is San Francisco Police Department Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Rufalo), whose previous previous cinematic connection is mentioned in Zodiac. One character notices the way his gun is upside-down in a shoulder holster and says, “He wears his gun just like Bullitt”–the title character of Steve McQueen’s 1968 San Francisco-set cop movie. Another replies, “No, McQueen got that from him,” which is apparently true.

In Zodiac, years of going by the book and following up fruitless leads starts to wear Toschi down. His supervisor urges him to take some time off: “Go to Candlestick [home of the Giants baseball team], see a movie.” We cut to a marquee announcing a special screening for the S.F.P.D. Whoever selected the film for the screening probably meant well but made a kind of cataclysmic blunder, with the choice of Dirty Harry. We see Toschi, seated next to his wife, slumping deeper and deeper into his seat till he has to leave–one imagines that the fantasy of a cop taking the law into his own hands is simultaneously alluring and offensive, yielding a cognitive dissonance that’s hard to bear. He walks out to the lobby; he’s still there, smoking a cigarette, when the film ends. The mayor walks by and says, “Hey, that Harry Callahan did a hell of a job with your case.”

Toschi: “Yeah, no need for due process, right?”

Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who has become obsessed with the Zodiac case, joins Toschi and tries to offer some encouragement: “You’re gonna catch him.” As he walks out, Toschi responds, “Pal? They’re already making movies about it.”



“Myrt and Marge” in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

I would be remiss if I didn’t follow a post on Sullivan’s Travels with one on the movie that has the same name as the movie the title character in that film starts out wanting to make. It’s not just the name. Director and (with his brother Ethan) cowriter Joel Coen said of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “In our mind, it’s the movie he would have made if he had the chance.”

Well, not really. Sullivan wanted to produce a stirring social document and O Brother, though it’s serious at heart, is a comedy. But the Coens’ movie is chock full of allusions and references to all sorts of texts, primarily to The Odyssey, secondarily to Sullivan’s Travels.

In the Sturges film, Sully ends up a prisoner on a chain gang. In O Brother, the three protagonists–Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmer (Tim Blake Nelson)–start out that way but escape before the movie is five minutes old. Eventually, Pete, recaptured, gets taken with his fellow prisoners to a picture show, as in Sullivan’s Travels. Also watching the movie are his still-on-the-lam buddies.

The Coen brothers being the Coen brothers, the movie they chose as the feature attraction is about as obscure as it is possible to be: Myrt and Marge (1933), a pre-code backstage musical based on a popular radio serial. (The director, Al Boasberg, had writing credits on the Buster Keaton films The General, Dough Boys, and Battling Butler.) The Three Stooges had featured roles–another self-reflexive commentary, as Delmer, Pete, and Everett engage in some pretty prime slapstick themselves. (And are none too bright).

The Stooges don’t appear in the scene the boys watchor, rather, that serves as backdrop for Everett’s musings on the perfidy of women and his and Delmer’s stage-whispered communication with Pete, who it turns out has not turned into a toad. In fact, they don’t appear to even notice what’s on the screen. In contrast to Sullivan’s Travels, here the movie-watching experience is less than transformative.

If we care to, we can see and hear the scene–an audition in which Marge (Donna Dameral) strips off her skirt and displays the bizarre calisthenics of which she is capable. It’s implicitly another reference back to Sullivan’s Travels: Myrt and Marge is precisely the sort of lightweight entertainment Sullivan has made a fortune producing and, as the film begins, has turned his back on.