On Method Writing

Grant Tracey

In On the Waterfront trigger words abound in the “getting to know you” scene, forwarding the narrative’s causal chain and tonal shifts. Among the highlights: when the “juice head” tells Terry “he’s still a bum” it forces the ex-pugilist to acknowledge his deepest fears: “Who’s calling me a bum?”; later Edie’s trigger word “teacher” (her desire to become one) allows Terry to slide into praising her smarts and his brother Charlie for being a “very brainy guy.” Edie responds to Terry’s trigger word “brainy” with the challenge, “It isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them”; and finally his plea to be seen, “You don’t remember me, do you?” sets forward her half-rhyme of conciliatory love: “I remembered you the first moment I saw you.”

For writers of menace, you can enhance your trigger words by using ricochet dialogue. Ricochet dialogue, as explored by James Naremore in his monograph on Sweet Smell of Success, occurs when one character is talking to another character for the benefit of a third. Recall Fred and Jeannie’s barbs spoken to Richard but directed at each other in Faces, or the “juice head” attacking Terry in On the Waterfront for, in part, the edification of Edie. Clifford Odets loved such scenes because they unveiled a pernicious undercurrent to his characters and moved us outside the realm of the usual two-character scene. 

Early on in Sweet Smell of Success, slimy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) meets one of his “clients” Weldon outside of the 21 Club in New York. Weldon, a woman on his right arm, says to Falco, “Get your hands out of my pocket, thief!” The woman tries to restrain Weldon and as she does Falco barks back that his client is just “showing off for the girl. They supposed to hear you in Korea?” She becomes the beneficiary of two ricochets: Weldon’s barbs bouncing off Falco, and his return salvos bouncing off Weldon.

Once inside the 21 Club, Falco, uninvited, joins J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) around his table. Present are Senator Walker, press agent Manny Davis, and ingenue Linda Adams. Here Odets’s ricochets fire in several directions in this six-minute scene. All of them suggest veiled threats behind terse words. Upon Falco’s arrival, Hunsecker doesn’t look at him directly and for the benefit of the others gathered says, “Mac, I don’t want this man at my table.” Falco, however, remains undaunted. He has some vital information on J.J.’s sister and forces his way in. Seconds later, J.J. attacks the press agent Davis for possibly having extramarital affairs: “Everyone knows Manny Davis, except Mrs. Davis.” Following an obscure phone call between Hunsecker and another failing press agent, Falco asks the senator, “Do you believe in capital punishment?” The senator is perplexed and Falco explains, “A man has just been sentenced to death.” Falco’s now talking directly to Senator Walker, but he’s letting Hunsecker, via the ricochet, know not to try that stuff with him. Finally, when Linda Adams, in response to Hunsecker’s prying questioning, says she’s studying singing, “of course,” J.J. purrs with a smile full of arsenic, “Why, ‘of course’? You might for instance be studying politics.” He may be talking to Linda, but his ricochets are landing on Senator Walker, warning him of what this might look like, or as the gossip columnist, seconds later, bluntly states: “Where any hep person knows that this one (camera pans to Manny) is toting that one (swish pan to Linda) around for you” (swish to medium-close up of Walker).

Ernest Hemingway, a literary antecedent to Odets, was an expert at ricochet dialogue. In “The Killers” the two hit men speak for the benefit of everyone else in the diner. They’re like the successful businessman on a taxiing airplane, conversing loudly on his cell phone for all to be impressed with the deal he’s closing. 

As Al and Max enter the diner, they’re in their own movie. They talk to be heard, to intimidate. They make fun of the menu, of Summit, and the recreation it provides. When one asks, “What do they do here nights?” the other answers, “They eat the dinner . . . They all come here and eat the big dinner.” All of these “soliloquies” are ricocheting off Nick and George, the spectators to this performance. The killers use trigger words such as “bright boy” and the repetition of “thinks” and “thinker” to build tension, until they tie them all up and admit their purpose: they’re here to kill a Swede.

Early in The Oklahoma Kid, my favorite actor James Cagney (Jim Kincaid), decked out as a cowboy, dances with Rosemary Lane (Jane Hardwick). He stops, sniffs the air, and says, “Mmm, beautiful night, isn’t it?” He reaches high with his right hand and touches the night. “Just feel that air. Feel that air, go on.” She doesn’t know what to make of this moment for it’s a strange beat, an impulse, totally unexpected. Just what is Kincaid and in turn Cagney exploring here? Yes, it’s odd to see Cagney in Western wear. After all he’s the ultimate urban figure, with his reedy rat-a-tat voice, big city tempo, and two-fisted performances, but in the 1940s he did become a gentleman farmer in Martha’s Vineyard and raised horses. So what pleases us about the bit is the joyful way in which Cagney is just playing. He’s having fun in the scene, being a cowboy, in love with the outdoors, creating memories through choices, touching the air as if it’s rare “velvet.” And that’s what the Method approach to writing is all about, playing verbs, varying tactics, tonalities, but having fun and finding the right fit among all the shifting choices at a writer’s disposal: narrative voice, character sensibilities, and dialogue. We might not always grab hold of it, but like Cagney we writers should continue to play, to strive, to keep reaching for those illusive, authentic moments.