Arsenic and Old Lace

Movie: Directed by Frank Capra.

Inciting Event: After secretly marrying Elaine Harper, his sweet old aunts’ next-door neighbor, cynical dramatic critic Mortimer Brewster accidentally discovers a dead body in his aunts’ window seat. He subsequently learns his aunts have poisoned twelve men and buried them in the cellar as one of their “charities” to help lonely old men find peace. He panics and launches into an immediate series of reactions, with the goal of committing his younger brother (who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt) to a sanitarium and blaming the murders on him, in order to protect his aunts. After scaring off another potential victim, he temporarily leaves (abandoning a confused and hurt Elaine) in order to get a judge’s signature on Teddy’s papers.

First Plot Point: Meanwhile, back at the aunts’ house, a frightening new visitor arrives: Mortimer’s other brother, the pariah Jonathan, whom everyone remembers with fear. He has come back to Brooklyn, on the run with his German accomplice Dr. Einstein, after killing one Mr. Spinalzo.

Even though the story revolves around the premise of the aunts’ mercy killings, the central conflict is with Jonathan. Without Jonathan’s arrival as the primary antagonist, there would be few to no real obstacles between Mortimer and his goal of protecting his aunts and committing Teddy.

The story is unusual in this section in that Mortimer is basically a no-show. He’s obviously the protagonist, but the main conflict in this section is between Jonathan and his aunts, who resist his insistence that he’s going to stay with them and “rest.” This approach works here, largely because the madcap happenings on the screen are so entertaining you barely miss Mortimer’s presence, but it’s not recommended that the protagonist remain absent for so long in most stories.

First Pinch Point: Mortimer finally returns to discover Jonathan’s arrival. Jonathan makes his always looming antagonistic presence even more strongly felt when he reminds Mortimer of the things he used to do him “while you were tied to the bed post—the needles under your fingernails.” This foreshadows his further attempts to torture Mortimer at the Third Plot Point. He tries to scare Mortimer into leaving.

Midpoint: Mortimer discovers Mr. Spinalzo in the window seat (the aunts’ original victim has been taken “down to Panama” for burial). He realizes this body belongs to Jonathan and that he can pin all the murders on him. (Note how you literally see the realization dawn in his facial expression. This is common at the Midpoint’s Moment of Truth, when the character’s new understanding of the nature of the conflict suddenly allows him to shift from reaction into direct action against the threats of the antagonistic force.) Mortimer threatens Jonathan, telling him he must leave and take his “cold companion” with him.

Second Pinch Point: Jonathan then discovers Mr. Hoskins (the original victim) in the cellar and realizes he now has something to hold over Mortimer’s head as well. He threatens to tell the police about the aunts’ serial killing if Mortimer doesn’t cooperate.

Third Plot Point: After learning his aunts have killed just as many men as he has, Jonathan decides he needs “only one more” to beat them, and he has “a pretty good idea who it will be.” He traps Mortimer and ties him up, determined despite Dr. Einstein’s pleas to kill him using the lengthy “Melbourne method” of torture. Even though the entire film is rank with the stink of death, note how this heavily symbolic plot point cranks it all up a notch by literally threatening the protagonist’s life for the first time.

Climax: The police arrive in time to save Mortimer and end up in a brawl with Jonathan, who takes offense when one of them claims “he looks like Boris Karloff.” The police chief takes Jonathan into custody after realizing he’s a wanted man. Meanwhile, Mr. Witherspoon, the head of the sanitarium, arrives to collect Teddy.

Climactic Moment: The aunts grieve that Teddy is to be taken away from them and decide to commit themselves. Mr. Witherspoon resists at first, thinking them sane, but Mortimer convinces the police chief they are in fact crazy.

In this story, we really have two separate lines of conflict: that of Mortimer and his aunts, and that of Mortimer and Jonathan. The conflict with the aunts begins in the Inciting Event and thus is the framing conflict that must be culminated in the Climactic Moment. Even though Jonathan has already been eliminated as an antagonistic threat, the story cannot end until the main conflict with the aunts is resolved.

Resolution: The aunts reveal to Mortimer that he is, in fact, not related to them. Joyous, Mortimer grabs Elaine before she blabs the truth about the bodies in the cellar. He runs out with her, declaring himself “the son of a sea cook.”

Notes: Let’s just say outright whatever already knows about this movie: It’s nuts! The structure, as a result, is a little nuts itself. Although it hits all the classic beats, its pacing and a few of its narrative decisions are unusual. The interweave of character motivations and various conflicts makes it a surprisingly complex movie to analyze. If I hadn’t already had it practically memorized from many previous viewings, I would almost certainly have had to watch it several more times to pick out the correct moments for each structural beat.

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