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Sunday, December 9, 2007

On the Clock (originally published 11/01)

Much of the buzz generated by this year's network television schedule seems to have focused on "24," a new series starring Kiefer Sutherland. The producers, it seems, have come up with a fresh, new concept that has captured the imaginations of both viewers and critics. The entire series will encompass the events of a single day, with each hour of the show playing out in "real time," each hour of screen time equaling precisely one hour of story time.

It's a clever device, to be sure, but it requires careful handling to work well. Most filmed dramas, whether for television or the big screen, leave out big chunks of story time, and for good reason. If the main character needs to drive across town for the next scene, do we really want to watch him sweating out traffic jams and waiting at stoplights for half an hour? In fact, Alfred Hitchcock once defined drama as "life, with the dull bits cut out."

Still, the producers of "24" are by no means the first to have taken on the challenge of making a viable real time screen drama. If you're curious about how earlier filmmakers have used this specialized form of storytelling, look for these titles on home video.

"Rope" (1948). Notwithstanding his definition of drama, in this one picture Alfred Hitchcock didn't cut anything out. In fact, the entire 80 minutes appears to play out as a single, continuous running of the camera, without cuts, fades, or other transitions. Actually, this required some trickery because cameras can only hold so much film at one time, but the illusion of unbroken action is the point. The story, based on the Leopold and Loeb case, is about two young men who commit a murder just to see if they can get away with it.

"High Noon" (1952). In one of his most renowned performances, Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a sheriff who is getting married and hanging up his guns. There's just one problem - some bad guys are coming to town on the noon train to kill him. Kane's conscience won't permit him to leave town without facing the outlaws, but he can't seem to find any townspeople who are willing to stand with him against them. Abandoned and alone, Kane has less than two hours to prepare for the gunfight. Director Fred Zinnemann makes us sweat out every minute of it with him.

"12 Angry Men" (1957). Based on a classic program from the golden age of live television drama, this film consists entirely of a jury deliberation. We don't see the trial; all we know about it is what comes out in the jury's discussions. A young Puerto Rican man is on trial for the murder of his father. Eleven of the jurors are ready to convict him at once, but one man, played by Henry Fonda, isn't so sure. He takes the "reasonable doubt" standard seriously and wants to explore some doubts that still nag at him. As arguments are exchanged and tempers flare, we come to know each of the jurors as people.

"The Set-Up" (1949). Robert Ryan stars as Bill "Stoker" Thompson, a washed-up prize fighter who clings to the belief that he is still "just one punch away" from the big payoff that will allow him to retire in comfort. His wife, who knows better, tries to talk him out of this evening's bout. His manager, who also knows better, makes a deal with a local mobster for Stoker to take a dive. But Stoker himself has other plans. Director Robert Wise makes us live through the punishment Stoker endures, minute by agonizing minute.

"Cleo From 5 to 7" (1962). French filmmaker Agnes Varda crafted this remarkable slice of life. Cleo is a Parisian singer who may or may not have cancer. While she waits for the biopsy results, we follow her around Paris for 90 minutes. Much of what she does is unremarkable - visiting a friend, visiting her lover, walking in a park - but always in the background is a shadowy foreboding. Cleo's sudden, intense awareness of her mortality invests these everyday occurrences with a new level of meaning and gravity.

That, I think, is the secret behind the appeal of "24." If the dramatic backdrop is intense enough, real time can enhance the drama rather than diluting it. Stay tuned.

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