Wednesday 25 January 2012

Stuff falling off other stuff

Everybody has got to go sometime. If you are a character in a film, though, your chances of doing so by falling off of something quite high whilst sat in some form of vehicular conveyance are very much higher than most. People dying often proves a narrative necessity, and here's the thing: in the language of film you've probably pretty much witnessed people survive more or less everything. Everything except ploughing off of a cliff in some form of transportation. This is the go-to visual "they're not getting out of that shit" device of filmmakers everywhere.

Every form of media has its own language, its own set of signifiers and codes. Luckily for us, the language of motion pictures tends to lean fairly heavily on propelling people off stuff as they are sat in other stuff to signify death. Come the day that John McClane finally shoots over the edge of the Grand Canyon in a golf buggy, we can pretty well be certain - for all his scrapes and bullet dodging - that Die Hard 18 will be the last installment.

I am a big fan. Being someone with experience myself of falling off of stuff, it's always cathartic to watch other people do it. The only reason that I don't suggest someone making a compilation film of all the best bits of stuff falling off other stuff in vehicles is because of another key factor which has made this such an important filmic device: use of stock footage.

Want to kill off a character without wasting any more film? Shoot them getting onto a train and then toddle off to the film library. Old horror 'B' movies are wonderful for this. There is one particular sequence in the Universal canon of which I am particularly fond. It has levers moving, train tracks dividing and a train shooting off of a sheer cliff into a ravine. It also features in at least two Universal films that I know of, and both of them are favourites of mine. Here is Jack Griffin, The Invisible Man, getting up to no good:

The Invisible Man (1933) dir. James Whale

Meanwhile, here is shocking REAL-LIFE footage of the results of railway points sabotage, by the insidious pro-Nazi group of fifth columnists led by Heinrich Von Bork, on a passenger train containing a leading British diplomat in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror:

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) dir. John Rawlins

Two very different circumstances, two very different perpetrators, two very different sets of victims. One train. The Grim Reaper is satisfied, and so is the studio accountant.

The Invisible Man is notable in fact, as it also features a scene where the film's titular character kills off his erstwhile colleague and confidant Doctor Kemp by running his car off of the side of a steep hill. Explosions, death and pain ensue. It is a bold film that has more than one stuff falling of other stuff scene, especially given its running time of a mere 71 minutes. Sadly for Universal, the pace of development in car design far outstripped that of train design, meaning that within a matter of years that footage would be unusable for other films.

It doesn't just have to be trains and cars. They are popular due to their ubiquity, of course. It doesn't have to be cliffs or hills, either. In Steven Spielberg's brilliant directorial debut Duel, the thing that falls over the hill is a mean old truck. In the magnificent RKO horror film The Body Snatcher, Henry Daniell meets his maker as a result of ploughing over a ledge in a horse and cart. And in The Blues Brothers, the leaders of the Illinois Nazi Party's Waterloo is an unfinished road.

The simple and the classic will always be the most likely to prevail. The future may yet bring us Segways tootling off of the top of skyscrapers on the moon pursued by ATOMIC ROBO-SHARKS of course, but the results will always be the same. I asked Twitter yesterday morning for the film that contains their favourite stuff falling off of other stuff scene. The resulting top 5 list is particularly telling, I think. Its mainstays: internal combustion, natural hazards, death.

The Official Top 5 Films Containing the best stuff falling off of other stuff scenes:

5. Duel
4. Groundhog Day
3. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
2. The Italian Job
1. Thelma and Louise

Stuff falling off of other stuff on the silver screen. Long may it thrive. I'd say long may it live but that very much depends on the extent of the drop and some Newtonian physics.

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