Three Classic Beat Sheets: The Fallen Idol, The Conversation, and Fargo

That was no idle threat last week when I said I’d go out and see any one of several films for a second time. I saw American Hustle a second time that evening. I’d rather see a good movie twice than a good one and bad one. Re-watching some old favorites since New Years, I wrote beat sheets for them.

THE FALLEN IDOL (by Graham Greene)  1948

A boy PHILIP watches from the top of the stairs at an embassy as a team of embassy staff and domestics usher his father the ambassador out the door for a weekend trip. He has a playful bond with the English head butler BANES, and the run of the embassy residence. He’ll be alone with the staff for the weekend.

Philip picks up his pet snake and watches Banes linger behind with a pretty young woman. MRS. BANES busts Philip’s balls about bits of taffy in his pockets, but he manages to keep the snake concealed.

Banes treats him nicely – giving him a box for the snake – and tells him fanciful stories about Africa. Philip knows where Banes keeps his gun. Mrs. Banes forbids Philip from accompanying Banes on his afternoon walk, and Philip says “I hate you.” Gets sent to his room.

Philip exits via the fire escape and follows Banes anyway…finds him in a bake shop having tea with the pretty woman, JULIE: They’re obviously lovers having a tortured meeting but tell Philip that she’s his niece and give him their pastries. They discuss their affair in the third person, and Julie says she’s leaving Monday.

Out of Philip’s earshot, Banes offers to ask Mrs.Banes to “let him go” and gets Julie to promise to see him the following day. Banes asks Philip to keep their meeting a secret.

Back at the embassy, Philip climbs out to a dangerously high window ledge overlooking the stairs, and Mrs.Banes freaks out on him as she comes to get him. (She insists that they leave her footprints in the potted plants, so that his mother can see when she returns.) Mrs. Banes quietly incinerates Philip’s snake.


Philip overhears Banes ask Mrs.Banes for a divorce. Mrs. Banes implies that she’ll kill herself. (“You’ll feel fine when you read about it in the Sunday papers.”)

Mrs.Banes sees pastry cream on Philip’s sweater and coerces him to tell her that Banes was out with “his niece” that afternoon. She tells him it is THEIR secret that he told her so. He overhears Mrs.Banes tell Banes she plans to take a day off the following day.

THE NEXT DAY, Mrs. Banes leaves for her holiday, but appears to sneak back into a side door of the embassy. Philip hears Banes’ phone call arranging to meet Julie at the zoo, assuming Mrs.Banes will be gone all day.

Banes takes Philip to the zoo. While waiting for Julie, he tells Philip a fanciful story about how he shot and killed an African chief during an uprising.

They take Philip around the zoo and have as much private talk as they can while Philip is looking at animals. Banes adds, We don’t need to keep secrets from Julie.  Philip asks if it’s important to keep secrets, even if it’s a compact with someone you don’t like such as Mrs.Banes, and they say “Yes.”

They return to the embassy, where Mrs.Banes is apparently hiding. There is a telegram from her saying she’ll be away overnight. Philip asks “Do you think it’s true?” but they don’t hear him.

While Banes makes dinner, Philip makes a “dart” (I’d call it a paper airplane) from the telegram and shows Julie his pet snake’s hiding place. He leaves the dart in a flower arrangement while telling Julie that he overheard a conversation in which Banes did in fact ask Mrs.Banes for his “freedom” in plain language.

Philip finds his snake missing and guesses (correctly) that Mrs. Banes killed him. Banes is kind to him once again.

They play hide and seek and clown around throughout the dark embassy at night. Banes and Julie finally have some alone time, but Philip screams: he thinks he has seen a ghost (probably Mrs.Banes). They put him to bed.

Mrs.Banes wakes Philip to ask him where Banes and Julie are. She appeals to the bond they have on account of their secret, but Philip won’t tell (doesn’t know, in fact). When she snoops further looking for Banes, Philip hollers to alert Banes, and Mrs.Banes slaps Philip around.

Mr. and Mrs.Banes quarrel at the top if the stairs until Banes tells her to go downstairs; he goes inside the guest bedroom, presumably to tell Julie he’ll need a few minutes. Mrs. Banes walks onto the ledge over the stairs, and accidentally falls to her death. Philip was changing vantage points by running down the fire escape to the window one flight below at the time, so as far as he can see it looks like Banes pushed her to her death.

Philip runs down the rest of the fire escape and around the streets of London by night in his pajamas and bare feet. A kind policeman takes him to the station, and he’s unusually quiet. He warms up to a prostitute who’s being booked. A call comes in about a suicide at the embassy and Philip tells them he lives there.

Police take Philip home. The ambassador’s DOCTOR is just then leaving, accepting Banes’ story at face value, but on his way out he sees Philip and questions him about why he ran away, arousing suspicion.


The doctor calls for a police doctor, as an embassy official shows up to remind them they are officially on foreign territory. Banes, meanwhile, puts Philip to bed, reminding him that the paper airplane he made from Mrs.Banes’ telegram is best kept hidden since the cops are under the impression that they were with Mrs.Banes all day. (Banes is concealing Julie’s presence to keep her out of the scandal.)

The police doctor and detectives ask Banes more questions and discover more inconsistencies. Philip gets out of bed and finds his paper airplane in the plant. As the doctor steps in and puts him back to bed, he absent-mindedly tosses the airplane off the stairs where a detective picks it up: Now they’ve caught Banes lying about Mrs. Banes’ presence, so they say they’ll take it up in the morning.

NEXT MORNING, Julie, who is after all an embassy staffperson, arrives just before the detectives and asks Banes to tell them everything, but Banes chooses to stick with the story so far. The chief detective comes and asks to see Philip; meanwhile the embassy official asks Julie to stay and record the police inquiry in shorthand.

After a last minute reminder not to tell about Julie’s presence, Philip tells yet more inconsistencies to the cops. They leave Philip outside the room while they question Banes in private. They come back for Philip, and his elusive answers only create more suspicions. He keeps implying that a third person was there, and Julie finally says “Tell the truth.”

They ask Banes more questions, now honing in on what appears obvious: Banes pushed her down the stairs. Banes even says he never went to Africa. Julie tries to take Philip away and tells him once and for all he must tell only the truth. The cops ask Banes to come to the station voluntarily, and it feels like “au revoir.” Banes leaves Philip with the thought that he must always tell the whole truth.

Before leaving, the cops find Mrs.Banes’ footprints in the potted plant on the ledge above the stairs. Now Philip urgently tries telling them that those footprints are from two days prior, but no one wants to hear him.


THE CONVERSATION (by Francis Ford Coppola)

HARRY CAUL leads a surveillance crew that sort of botches a job audio-recording a couple that seems to be having an affair as they stroll around a city park in San Francisco. (Conversation in the van: Harry says he doesn’t care who the people are, he’s just a mercenary, but his perky assistant STAN says he likes to know who they are.)

Harry goes home and fights the landlady because she used a key to his apartment to deliver a package: he’s paranoid about being spied on himself.

By night he drinks and plays jazz by himself.

Harry starts mixing the sound on the tapes as best he can. He makes a call on a payphone for an appointment the following day – presumably a drop-off for the tapes.

That night he visits his girlfriend AMY. She wants to know more about him and tells him not to come back. Sad time, sad character.

Harry goes to his appointment, tries delivering his tapes. “The director” at the mysterious company is not in, however, and he refuses to drop them with his young ASSISTANT, and they tussle, Harry refusing $15k in case he’s getting scammed.

Harry leaves with his tapes, getting warned to be careful. On his way out he sees both the MAN and WOMAN they had been recording: It’s an intra-agency affair of some kind. (Minute 31)


Harry does additional mixing and fights with Stan again. Harry doesn’t like Stan saying “Christ” as a curse and getting distracted by the content instead of doing the work in front of him.

He goes to length to get clean audio of the man saying “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

Harry goes to confession, and gradually gets around to admitting that he does struggle with feeling responsible for his effect on the people he spies on.

Harry goes to a surveillance convention. (Minute 42) Rapid vignettes:

He gets asked to endorse a product.

Sees samples of himself under surveillance.

Sees the director’s assistant.

Sees a cheeseball presentation by an east coast huckster, BERNIE.

Finds Stan has started working for one of the exhibitors. Harry’s conciliatory and tries persuading him to come back.

Finds that Amy has changed her phone number.

The assistant finds Harry and arranges for a meeting with the director that Sunday.

Harry gets feted by his peers and…

Harry takes the afterparty to his studio: himself, Bernie, Stan, and a beautiful, mature woman named MEREDITH. Meredith lures Harry aside and asks him about himself. Sad about Amy, he opens up to her as best he can and asks “If you knew a guy who…” kind of questions, till they’re distracted by the others in their drunken frolicking.

Bernie gets aggressive questioning Harry about a Teamsters case he did that resulted in a person disappearing, the reason harry apparently left NYC.

Stan challenges Bernie to figure out how they did the outdoor job recording the conversation in the park. Harry finally can’t help but boast about his technical achievement (again brushing off questions about content).

Bernie has been one-upped, so he reveals that he was bugging Harry’s conversation with Meredith. When HIS private moment got recorded, Harry throws a fit and throws everyone out…except for Meredith.

Harry starts tinkering with the conversation tape again, until Meredith persuades him to lay down. She undresses to the sound of it. (Minute 76)

Harry dreams: He pursues and opens up to the woman he had recorded in the conversation. he had a childhood of illness and misfortune.

In the morning: Meredith made off with his tape. He got cheated!

Harry calls the assistant, and hides at Amy’s apartment. The assistant finds calls Herry there (What?! Even Harry couldn’t get that number.) and explains that he HAD to send Meredith, since Harry had been behaving so erratically. He asks him to come back to HQ to collect his pay.

Harry arrives and realizes by the photos that he was doing a private job for the director, who was spying on his woof and her lover.


Since Harry knows where the man and woman plan to have a tryst – and fears a repeat of what happened on the Teamsters job – so he checks into the hotel room next to theirs. (Minute 90)

Harry checks the room thoroughly – for bugs but also for ways to bug the room next door where the tryst is to be held.

After a long while he finally breaks into the room of the tryst – and finds it empty and spotless. After a thorough search, however, he finds the toilet stopped up, choked with blood.

Flashbacks show how the couple killed the director there, and a “hey dummy” edit replays the bit of the conversation that Harry had struggled so hard to remix, with the emphasis of it different: “He’d kill US if he got the chance.”

Back home, harry gets a call saying “We know you know, and we’re watching you.” He tears the entire apartment apart looking for bugs.


FARGO (by Ethan and Joel Coen) 1996

Towing a car through the snow (a tan Sierra), JERRY shows up at a bar in Fargo to meet TWO GUYS. They talk circumspectly about a deal: he is to give them the car, they’ll kidnap his wife, and they get paid $40k ransom by her wealthy father.

Jerry goes home to Minneapolis to his wife JEAN, son SCOTTY and father-in-law WADE. He reminds Wade about a proposal he has for a $750k real estate deal; Wade still passes.

Two quick character scenes: Among the two thugs: Gaear’s a stoic, Carl’s a talker & wannabe player. JERRY uses passive aggressive tactics to finalize a sale.

Jerry gets a call from Wade saying he does have money for him, so Jerry tries to call off the thugs via his contact, a mechanic named Shep who works at the same car dealership where Jerry is sales director, but Shep can’t stop them.

Another quick character scene: Gaear’s silence is wearing on Carl.

Jerry is getting bugged by car financing auditors: He’s fudging the numbers on his inventory!

The thugs kidnap Jean.

Jerry goes to Wade, and fumbles the real estate deal completely…so he did need the kidnapping to happen after all.

Carl takes Gaear to a motel where they get cheap Blonde Minnesotan prostitutes.

Jerry goes home, finds Jean missing. Practices what he’ll say to Wade.

Driving through Brainerd, the thugs get pulled over by the cops! Moment of reckoning. Carl tries bribing the cop, but when it is apparently going to backfire Gaear shoots the cop dead instead. (Minute 29)

Another car comes with two kids in it.  Gaear chases and kills them too. (doubles down on the crisis)

Act Two

Brainerd Police Chief Marge gets waken by the phone. Husband Norm is sweet to her.  A taxidermist and painter, he’s very plain. (34)

Margie and her partner find the three bodies. Between moments of morning sickness, she solves the basics of the crime immediately. They’re already looking for one tall, one short guy, and a car with dealer plates.

Jerry meets with Wade and his associate, asking them for a million in cash. Jerry: “No cops.” He gets unexpected support from the associate. They’re getting the cash together already. *Now we know the depth of Jerry’s plan: to underpay the kidnappers and keep most of the cash for himself.

Brief scenes: Son Scotty is freaked out. Jerry tries assuring him. The thugs take Jean to a secret cabin, laughing at her pathetic escape attempt.

Amid more Minnesotan cuteness, Marge and partner trace the car to the motel where they stayed, and Marge questions the two escorts, who describe Carl as “funny looking” and say they were going to the Twin Cities.

Thugs and Margie go to bed in their respective northern MN homes – now it’s established they’re the ones facing off.

Mike Yanagita, an old friend from school, wakes Margie by phone in the morning.

At the dealership, Jerry gets a call from Carl, who now demands ALL the money; now Jerry knows about the triple murder. The auditor also calls to give him a final warning.

At a buffet lunch, now Marge has traced the calls from the motel to some Twin Cities phone numbers, including one to Shep’s house.

Jerry’s father-in-law wants to be the one to make the $1million drop off.

Margie has Twin Cities cops do a background check on Shep – who has a criminal record – and goes to the Twin Cities. Carl steals license plates from the long-term parking at the airport. Abuses the attendant on his way out.

Marge questions Shep at the car dealership. Nicely threatens to send him back to jail if he doesn’t co-operate. Suspicious of Shep,* she follows up by asking Jerry, who happens to be the one on hand in the executive office, whether they’ve had a tan Sierra stolen. He says No, mentioning that his father-in-law owns the dealership. (61min)

Marge meets up with her school friend Mike, who gives her a hard luck story about his wife dying. Nicely as she can she repels his overtures.

Carl takes another escort to a Jose Feliciano concert at a casino, but Shep suddenly appears and beats the crap out of Carl.

Carl calls Jerry and demands money fast, no more excuses.

Wade goes to make the drop off himself, bringing a gun. Carl kills him but takes a shot to the chin himself. Jerry arrives just in time to find the father-in-law dead, and this time the parking deck attendant too. (72min)


Marge’s partner questions a bartender who got approached by a “funny looking” guy (Carl) about finding an escort two nights before. They chalk it up to nothing, but the bartender does mention that the guy repeatedly said he was at “the lake,” meaning Moose Lake.

Carl, still badly injured, buries a portion of the cash, in a case, at a remote spot.

Marge finds out that her friend Mike was lying about his situation, never did marry the wife he said had died, and in fact the woman is still alive.

Not trusting appearances, Marge goes back to follow up with Jerry, who’s in the midst of fabricating license plate numbers for his audit. She asks him about their inventory safeguards, and Jerry gets nervous and raises his voice. (“Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me, I’m just doing my job.”) He flees the scene, and she calls local cops in. (83min)

Carl returns to Gaear at the lakehouse hideout to find Gaear has killed Jean. They split (what’s left of) the money but fight about the car. Gaear kills Carl…with an axe!

Marge spots the car while on patrol around the Moose Lake.  Shoots Gaear in the leg and drives him back to Brainerd, past the Paul Bunyan statue, which Gaear takes a look at as they pass.

Cops find Jerry at a remore motel.

Marge settles in bed with her husband, who got news that one of his illustrations will be on a stamp.

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