“When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”
You’ve probably seen this quote before. It’s frequently accredited to Raymond Chandler, a poet, turned pulp mag writer, turned one of the greatest detective novelists of all time (and for whatever little it’s worth, a personal favorite). He was the creator of the Phillip Marlowe series, of which The Big Sleep, Farewell My lovely, The Lady In The Lake, and The Long Goodbye are fla- out classics. He also became one of the most dependable screenwriters in Hollywood, working on such films as Double Indemnity, The Unseen, The Blue Dahlia, and even Strangers On A Freaking Train. As I often joke, there are worse resumes. And while I can’t speak to his biography by any means, Chandler was often well regarded for his deadpan wit, his lack of self-seriousness, his openness about suffering crippling bouts of depression, and the clear-headed, sobering way he often talked about life. In many ways, the “when in doubt” quote above reflects the hyper-practical, self-effacing sensibility that I just described. But there’s also a problem with that quote…
That’s not what he said.
And whether through a lack of understanding or willful misinterpretation, the quote has come to embody an ongoing trend with mainstream storytelling that creates so many damn problems for the baseline DNA of dramatic storytelling. Yes, this is a column about mistakes that happen when the bad guys always “close in” and what happens when we think that’s good enough.
1. The Quote
Let’s start with a clarification of intention, because Chandler’s original “when in doubt” anecdote is dripping with understanding that this is not actually a solution. It’s a quick, nonsensical solution to being stuck. Moreover, the quote bastardizes the surrounding sentences that provide crucial context. It’s kind of like when you see people echo the conventional wisdom that “fortune favors the bold!” And yet they do not realize that quote was said by everyone’s favorite naturalist (and frequent Sawbones joke target) Pliny The Elder, who said the words just before he got in a boat and charged toward an erupting Vesuvius where he promptly died. Sometimes fortune doesn’t favor the bold. Sometimes its rains fiery ash on them. To that end, Chandler’s quote was discussing a much different matter than general writing advice. It was originally published in 1950 in the Saturday Review of Literature in an essay titled “The Simple Art of Murder” and was largely a reflection on his time working in pulp magazines during the 20’s and 30’s. The actual quote was in regard to the high-volume demand for content at a rapid pace and it goes as follows:
“This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong. As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published.”
That’s actually a pretty complicated series of conflicting sentences. When you pile them up against one another it paints a much different portrait of what he means. First off, it’s important to understand that by 1950, Chandler had established himself as a heavyweight detective novelist in the industry. Here he was simply looking back at a time where he was churning out absurd material. But he’s not really poo-poo-ing his past, he’s simply reflecting on the high pressure of that world where the quality of his work mattered far, far less than it did now. There’s no real cynicism to this observation. Chandler even manages to tie in a really poignant nugget on the importance of being willing to overreach and have fun as a writer. But understand that this commentary is not reflective on the whole of writing. It was about the time during which he was writing fluff.
And the “real” work he was doing by that time a la The Big Sleep? That has much different standards. And to get published for that work, let alone commended? It has to be “better” through and through. It has to reflect a great deal of thinking and lessons about language and thematic resonance. Which is why Chandler would also write so many more evocative essays about the discipline of writing via interviews and short stories. And yet, the thing most people sadly remember is that bastardized quote of “when in doubt.” They just remember the doorway and the gun. Heck, they even mess it up and change it from a singular man who could be a whole character and instead reverts it to two men, almost implying they have to be some vacuous hired goons. Even if the quote is funny, it robs the statement of its core intention.
And when you look at Hollywood’s output in its interpretation of the quote, it shows.
2. The Mote
Curiosity got the better of me and I started watching Extraction. I don’t really want to get into a conversation about Netflix’s model, nor would I let one movie typify a strategy, but I was curious to see what kind of big budget action movies they were interested in making with A-list stars. And it seems like they’re mostly interested in elevating a certain kind of paint-by-numbers action fare to higher visibility. It’s amazing how achingly familiar every part of this movie feels. From the utterly unnecessary flash-forward, to the vague allusions of his mysterious and tragic past, to the meditative “eastern-ish” soundscape, to the other-ism of its setting, to the fact it hides narrative and character information while trying to keep us afloat with walls of vague allusion. Honestly, so much of it feels right out of the modern generic action movie playbook.
The thing is it’s not a playbook because that implies structural integrity and foundational mechanics. These tropes are just the texture of action. The moments in this film are not arrived at through careful dramatic set-up, they are stand ins for pastiche, or the copying of milieu to the point of regurgitation. I don’t say this to be mean, but it’s what’s happening. Making movies is really hard and it makes sense that we’d impersonate the feeling of other movies. But I’m hard pressed to think of a film that is so heck-bent on aping the textures of tropes like “the haunted soldier” or the “surrounding danger” without really knowing how to make us care about them in the first place. And for all its faults, I only hit my breaking point at the “bad guys close in” moment halfway through.
Now, in case you are unfamiliar, the specificity of that terminology has long existed in the popular vernacular, but was further popularized in Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat. Specifically in his handy-dandy “GET RICH QUICK!”-style Beat Sheet where Snyder tells you how to write every single movie to the page (AKA how to make every movie the same in the most reductive way possible). And that beat sheet says that page 55 to 65 are the point where the “Bad Guys Close In,” or more confusingly, the point where the Villains regroup and push forward. Almost on cue, this is exactly what happens in Extraction at about minute 55 to 65. And also on cue, this was the exact moment when I got bored and started playing Civ 6 again. But it’s not that that the action of the film merely “slowed down,” it’s that this sequence highlighted how the film was so lacking on the basic principles of drama that it only seemed to know how to introduce a threat in terms of the literal danger of the bad guys’ presence like its simple math and not the actual conflict under the surface, specifically as it pertains to the main character’s experience. And there is a monster of a difference.
But to best illustrate why people confuse the two, we first have to talk about the difference of intention. Because every good action movie starts with a basic question: is this film mostly about manufacturing tension or highlighting a star’s cool abilities?
That may sound confusing, but to illustrate what I mean let’s start with Jackie Chan. The goal of his films is simple: let’s show all the amazing stuff that Jackie can do! And also show him being funny! So they build those movies around that goal. They often make his character an amiable, goofy protagonist who gets in over his head. There isn’t much deep-tissue character work or heaviness, it’s more throwing him into dangerous situations and where over-the-top token bad guys do their best and are humiliated by his Chaplin-esque antics. And they make it so light not just because it “fits the tone,” but because the goal is to see the action unfold in the most cathartic and fun way possible. Meaning yes, the conflicts are MEANT to be simple as hell.
It is reflective of “the mote,” the metaphorical idea that the barest of substance is precisely what is needed to hold up a structure, or in this case: power a clear rooting interest. This simple approach is precisely what makes The Raid work on a dramatic level. Same with the first John Wick (my god, they went after his dog!). The hero has a clear goal and motivation and has to mow their way down through jerks. The good films never make this mowing easy, but still know the goal is that moment of elation. And even though Jackie Chan isn’t killing people, the way he always gets out of trouble always feels both lucky and yet an amazing feat of performance. Again, this is a testament to clarity of rooting interest. And if the ethics of the conflict actually were more morally complex? Then the rooting interest is less clear and thus the less good the action would feel in terms of catharsis. Now, the problematic morality of all this is equally important, but it’s a side conversation to what I’m discussing here. All we want to know is that to best enjoy “the performance” of action, the simple rooting interest is what matters.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have suspense films that are driven by tension and drama. The clear rooting interest still matters just as much, but they are not about the amazing, powerful feats of the protagonist, but quite the opposite. They’re often about making the character feel as helpless and overmatched as possible. This is where you are getting into thriller / suspense territory, probably best exemplified by the Hitchcockian screw turning, or in more modern examples Jaws or Silence of the Lambs. The success of these films rely on something a bit more than the mote. It’s about clearly articulated conflict, the deeply personal relationships that exacerbate the situation for good or ill, the way the films personify the levels of danger, and the way these events tap into the similar fears of the audience. Because in the end it’s all about making them squirm and feel afraid.
The best kind of popcorn movies can often bounce between the two with skill and know how. The Indiana Jones trilogy can spin plates and go from gags to thrills to harrowing moments of squirmy horror like it’s nothing. Likewise, Mad Max: Fury Road can make you feel thrilled or elated or terrified and shocked at a moment’s notice. It’s all about knowing the goal. Now, I realize this conversation may seem a distraction from our point, but it sets parameters of the spectrum when we’re looking at the function of a given moment. What is the point of the danger being presented on screen? Why is one person getting an advantage over the other? What feeling is being constructed? What does the moment actually need to work? Why?
Bringing it directly back to Extraction, we can see the immediate confusion with these questions, mostly because the film seems confused about its own motives. The film generally feints for the texture of drama / moral complication of the events on screen, but it’s also constantly trying to execute on “the coolness” of Hemsworth’s badass performance, which I’d argue is just the juvenile instinct of wanting to have it both ways. Something that’s indicative of how common action tropes want to turn headshots into high art — they’re afraid JUST doing headshots will make them seem puerile. But honestly, the opposite is true (again, John Wick understands the mote will power you through).
If the fun of the action is the intent? Then you want to deliver on that promise. But if you’re going to try and build a SERIOUS film and invoke pathos? Without any pointed dramatic pretense to the conflict onscreen, none of it works. Worse, Extraction often seems to misunderstand conflict on a core level. Motivations are haphazard. Practically everyone’s behavior feels icky (right down to the icky “other-ing” in a lot of the film’s south asian setting). People waltz into conflicts in an uncaring fashion, almost in a sense of nihilism. And the threats that are presented are done as de facto posturing. But people showing up with guns / random murder / super serious threats does not instantly equal the feeling of anguish and danger. They are merely the artifice of it.
Which bring us to the crux of what happens when “bad guys close in” and the problem of wanting tension without actually understanding THE WHY of the conflict driving it. I know I swore I’d stop talking about JJ Abrams, but the problem is his films keep serving as the best examples of the problems I’m illustrating, so I guess I’m I’M GOING TO BE WRITING ABOUT HIM TIL I DIE (said in the exact same inflection as Sprite Pepsi). But in his films, the bad guys show up with guns seemingly every few minutes. And as it happens, everyone’s rushing around and reacting and freaking out and you can feel the texture of urgency. But there’s a problem with that. I know I used the Chris Pine anecdote before when talking about his problems with exposition, but this is actually speaking to the same principle of danger. Per Chris:
“I tell the story about J.J. (Abrams) in the first film when I’d run on the deck of the ship and say something to the blue screen about something. And I had no idea what I was talking about. And I said to J.J., “I’d love to do with more time, cause I don’t know what I’m saying. If you could tell me what I’m saying, it would be a great help.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter. You just run, you say it as fast and earnestly and urgently as possible, and no one is gonna care.”
But not only do people care, Abrams is actually missing the most critical thing about making the “bad guys close in” moments work. Because you have to understand how the threat is really affecting the audience.
No, I’m not talking about bad guy’s motivations or displaying how strong or tough they are, I’m talking about how it impacts the objective of the heroes. I’m talking about how much WE care about them succeeding in what they’re trying to do next. When it comes to the aforementioned performance-based action where we want to see the cool stuff the hero can do? A sudden appearance of bad guys closing can evoke the feeling of “AW HELL YEAH MY BOY HAS TO TAKE EM OUT!” Or when going for dramatic tension, it’s evoking the notion of “how are they ever gonna get out of this?” But it can’t be a generalized feeling. It’s all about how much we WANT THE OBJECTIVE TO HAPPEN and how the bad guys closing in is a threat to its success. We know the bad guys are dangerous. That’s a given. It’s about asking “how are they dangerous right now?” It’s the old Mamet rules of writing: 1. Who wants what? 2. What happens if they don’t get it? 3. Why now? And mortality of our heroes aside, the objective is the thing that can really go wrong and that’s where we feel the most turning of the screws… The characters have to have something to lose.
To wit, I was watching 1987’s Masters of The Universe of all things and thought about this exact issue. Now, let’s just be clear, it’s a pretty silly movie that is constantly cribbing from established films like Return of the Jedi. But there was this functional moment near the end that perfectly executed the “bad guys close in” moment. Our heroes are executing this last chance to use the cosmic key and send themselves home, but then the awful dunderhead cops show up and it’s like “oh no you’re going to ruin everything!” And it genuinely felt like the screws turning because they built a clear set-up objective going into the scene. So I could lean in with anticipation. But when you don’t care about the goal? When you throw people into situations haphazardly like Extraction? When you think you just have to say whatever as fast and earnestly and urgently as possible and no one’s going to care a la the Pine quote? Then a funny thing happens. No one ends up caring. Because the texture is meaningless and fleeting.
And for all my talk of potentially failing objectives, really the feelings of anguish have to be felt in a much deeper place: the character’s minds.
3. The Note
The fundamental idea behind “bad guys closing in” is that you are articulating the presence of danger. There are many metaphors that could fit this idea, from a noose is tightening, to spinning plates, to putting the characters between a rock and a hard place. All of them work. But the metaphor I often think of comes from an old Cicero parable. I’m talking of course about The Sword of Damocles. Let’s just straight up quote from wiki:
“According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king's proposal. Damocles sat on the king's throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse's tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king: Though having much fortune, always having to watch in fear and anxiety against dangers that might try to overtake him. Damocles finally begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.”
Now I get that The Sword of Damocles is specifically a tale about power and leadership, but it really works for any kind of position that attracts inherent danger. It could be a reporter getting a big scoop on a political scandal, or a gangster feeling pressure because they are flipping for the FBI. There are obvious dangers and threats that come from this, right? But the biggest sense of “danger” from these things comes from the psychological feeling of knowing the danger is hanging right there. The sword is above you and can come crashing down the second the horse hair breaks. This? This is the feeling of anguish. And it’s precisely what drives the function of these moments. It’s not the bad guys closing in, it’s the feeling inside the characters brain when that happens. And if you are telling a story where you are ignoring that part of the danger? If you are not getting into the head of the character and letting them share that emotion? Then it won’t feel dangerous or tense to the audience. There has to be that display of vulnerability and fear in order for the audience to actually feel it. They have to care about losing the thing. But hey, don’t take my word for it.
Let’s go back to Raymond Chandler’s own words…
“A long time ago when I was writing for pulps, I put into a story a line like ‘he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.’ They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing; just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things that they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain of his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock at the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.
With Kindest Regards,
* * *
It feels absurd to write anything after that. Even now, every time I read that statement I get goosebumps. And it just so happens to be the perfect apotheosis of all that I’ve said here. The things we remember aren’t “the action.” It’s not the intense details that reflect the outside danger. Those are just the texture of threat. It’s really about what’s happening in the character’s mind. It’s about how they see the conflict. Even when getting into more light-hearted fare, Jackie Chan often didn’t want to fight. Indiana Jones constantly messes up along his way and runs. John Wick gets hurt all the time, but presses on because, man, he just really loved his dog. Whether comedic or dramatic, the core tension is created through the things they care about. It’s the fears they express as things fall in and out of their grasp. The idea that bad guys are closing in can just make that caring all the more impactful. Put simply?
We don’t care about the man with the gun.
We care about the paperclip, slipping away.