Don't Try This at Home

In the memorable opening sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, the already fortyish James Stewart, playing a high-ranking detective in the San Francisco Police Department, leaps across an alleyway to a sharply sloping, tiled rooftop approximately five feet away while pursuing a criminal.

Immediately losing his grip, Stewart slips off the rooftop, and only escapes plunging to his death many stories below by securing a shaky hold on a rain spout. His flatfoot companion, seeing Stewart's plight, abandons the rooftop chase, and comes to his aid. Gingerly clutching one of those flimsy roof tiles, the cop sticks out his hand, only to lose his own grip and fall to a horrible death, triggering Stewart's subsequent vertigo for the remainder of the film.

Ever since I saw this movie at age 10, I have been troubled by this heart-stopping sequence. At first I thought that my problem was the absurd physical setup of the scene: When Stewart first leaps across the void, the gap between buildings is only around five feet, but when his cop buddy plunges to his death far below, the alleyway is clearly some 20 feet wide. Equally perplexing is Stewart's dubious motivation for attempting such a dangerous acrobatic feat: Why would a middle-aged man who is hoping to be the next Police Commissioner of San Francisco risk his life attempting to collar some small-time hood?

But as I watched the movie for perhaps the 10th time recently, I realized that neither of these things were what really bothered me about the sequence. What bothered me was the doomed cop's rescue attempt. Jesus, what on earth was this bozo thinking of? How could a 185-pound middleaged man leaning down from a sharply sloping roof, clinging to a chintzy ceramic tile, possibly think that he could haul another man of the same size and build to safety-- with just one hand? Rarely in the history of cinema have viewers been subjected to such aerodynamic and hydraulic lunacy as Hitchcock serves up in Vertigo.

Which pretty much brings me to my central thesis: that movies all too often rely on scams, tricks, .stunts, gambits, ploys, ruses or gags that are logically or physically impossible, and often both, and therefore no intelligent person should fashion a lifestyle based on things he has seen stars do in the movies. That would be dumb.

To illustrate my contention, I recently selected pivotal scenes from a dozen motion pictures and went out and made a real-life attempt to recreate them in the real world. Some of these scenes involve scams (Paper Moon, What's Up, Doc?), some involve sex (9 1/2 Weeks, When Harry Met Sally...), some involve feats requiring immense physical prowess (Vertigo), and some involve practical jokes (Bananas, Annie Hall). One film (Spellbound) required me to apply for a job, another (Dial M for Murder) to enlist a friend in a planned murder, a third (Pretty Woman) to seek out the services of a prostitute who would accompany me to a formal dinner at which I would discuss the hostile acquisition of my guest's corporation. Almost without exception, my findings confirmed my original thesis: Things that work in the movies simply do not work in real life. So if you're thinking of lending some glamour to your impossibly dreary existence by imitating things you've seen in the movies, think again.

Here's why:

Freeloading In the 1972 Peter Bogdanovich film What's Up, Doc?, Barbra Streisand picks up a phone in a hotel lobby and says, "Room Service, please. Hi, Room Service, this is Room 1717. I would like a double-thick roast beef sandwich medium rare on rye bread with mustard on the top, mayonnaise on the bottom, and a coffee hot fudge sundae with a large bottle of diet anything. You got that? Yeah, Room 1717. Oh, and Room Service, would you put it in the hall outside the door. I mean, don't bring it in or knock on the door because I'm just putting my little one to sleep. Thank you."

In the movie, the scam works like a charm: Room Service delivers the food without Streisand ever actually checking into the hotel or even signing for the order. Seeking to establish once and for all whether this scam would work in real life, I trekked down to the Vista Hotel in the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, picked up a house phone and mouthed Streisand's order verbatim.

"You'll have to repeat that," the woman from Room Service said. Then, when I got to the part about the "large bottle of diet anything," she said, "Twelve ounces is the largest size we have; would you like me to send up two of them?" Yes, I told her, I would. But in response to my request that Room Service leave the food outside the door, the young woman said: "He'll knock lightly, but you have to sign for the check." She then said the food would arrive in 25 minutes.

I hung around the lobby for around 20 minutes, then went up to the 17th floor. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the bellboy appeared with my order. He knocked very lightly at Room 1717, not wishing to rouse my young 'un. No answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. After a third knock, he went away. I dialed Room Service and asked where my sandwich was.

"We brought it up to you and he knocked lightly, but there was no answer," the woman said. "Somebody has to sign for the check."

I paused for a few seconds to consider the implications of all this. On the one hand, I was surprised that Room Service had even delivered the food; I felt for sure that they would have called back to confirm the order. And in a certain sense the ruse came near to working: I could have simply walked up to the bellboy and signed for the check in the hall while pretending to be the occupant of Room 1717. But he probably would have become suspicious if I had not immediately gone into my room to eat the food.

Moreover, ordering food is merely a prank, whereas signing for it is theft. And while I may be a prankster, I am not a thief. In any case, the scam did not work the way it worked in What's Up, Doc?, which is all we are really concerned with here. Proving, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a freeloader cannot avoid starvation by tricking Room Service personnel in major metropolitan hotels into leaving food unattended in the hallway. It just won't work.

Changing Careers

The entire plot line of another Alfred Hitchcock movie, Spellbound, hangs by a single, fragile thread: No one at Green Manors Psychiatric Institute has ever met the world-famous Dr. Anthony Edwardes, author of "Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex," before he accepts a job as new director of the prestigious institution.

In reality, Dr. Edwardes has already been murdered by the demented Leo G. Carroll, and has been replaced by the out-to-lunch Gregory Peck, recently demobilized from the Army, who doesn't know anything about psychiatry or medicine, yet is called upon to participate in major surgery by his newfound colleagues. Since nobody, it seems, has ever seen the real Dr. Edwardes, nobody objects when Peck starts futzing around with the scalpels. The health-care ramifications of all this are too terrifying to contemplate.

Seeking to determine if it was possible to obtain a job as director of a famous psychiatric institution where I would be able to perform brain surgery on complete strangers without any medical training and without ever having to appear for a face-to-face interview, I called Bellevue Hospital in New York and asked about the top job.

"We're not hiring," barked a woman in Human Resources. "But I'm a world-famous psychiatrist," I shot back. "I'm the author of 'Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex.' "

"We're not hiring," she replied. "It's a matter of money. We have no money."

"Not even for a world-famous psychiatrist?"

"No. We're facing layoffs here."

Purely in the interest of bi-coastal scientific balance, I next called the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California, to see about the top spot. The Betty Ford Clinic was not facing layoffs, doubtless having plenty of spare cash, and the woman from Human Resources was a whole lot friendlier and more helpful than her East Coast counterpart.

"This is Dr. Anthony Edwardes," I explained. "I'm the author of 'Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex.' I'd like to apply for a job as director of the clinic."

"Well, I'll send out an application today."

"Would it be necessary for me to come in for a face-to-face, in-person interview?" I inquired.

"Usually, but they would let you know," she replied.

"But I would probably have to come in for an interview, right?"

"Yes," she replied.


Breaking and Entering

About halfway through The French Connection, Roy Scheider knocks on the door of Gene Hackman's New York City apartment. Hackman, who has been chained to his bed with his own handcuffs by a young woman he has picked up, tells his partner to let himself in. So Scheider extracts a credit card from his wallet, slides it through the crack in the door, jiggles it around a bit, and enters.

Let me make this perfectly clear: This trick will not work. Oh, maybe it'll work in Trenton, Ontario, or Chippewa Falls, but it will not work in New York City. New York City apartment owners have big thick Medeco locks--usually two of them--plus chains, grates, alarms and tables stuck up against the door handles. I tried Scheider's ploy on four different friends' apartment doors, with MasterCard, Visa, American Express and even my Citicorp ATM card. No dice. The trick will not work now, but more to the point, it would not have worked 20 years ago when The French Connection was being filmed. It's just another example of the incredibly idiotic stuff that passes for realism in movies.

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