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Bridge on the Silver Screen

by Bruce McIntyre, Vancouver, Canada


Author's note:


Several years ago, a man showed up several times to play at the local club, almost always without a partner. He said he was from Los Angeles, and working as a stunt man in a movie being shot here in Vancouver. When it became known that the movie might actually have bridge as a part of the plot, Eugene began to slowly extract information from him. Eventually the truth emerged: the movie was (tentatively) titled The Tool Shed. It starred Ellen Barkin and David Ogden Stiers. Stiers, who of course played Major Winchester on MASH, was cast as a crooked Superior Court judge whose vote on some important case would be bought after a bridge pro was convinced to sell the Judge's bridge debt to agents of "The Tool Shed," a group of ex-CIA operatives including Barkin and Fishburne, who would apply the pressure. Eugene asked how the bridge would fit in, and was told that there would actually be a scene of four men including the "pro" and the judge, playing high-stakes money bridge. Not long after, the stunt man actually brought the actor playing the bridge pro (a bit part with only the bridge scene and a few lines) down to the club during a game "to see bridge in action". Eugene discovered this and took them aside and explained the bid-boxes and boards and alerts and stops and then recognized that they were hopelessly confused and announced: "of course, you don't need any of that in a money game." Not long after, he was asked to come downtown where they were shooting and be a "bridge advisor" in the movie. After four days on the set advising, he returned to the club and told us about his adventures during a post-game sit-in.

"Well," Eugene began, "when I got down there four guys grabbed a deck of cards and a table and began playing out the scene for me. It's a very quick scene, just a few cards are actually played on camera, a finesse I think, and Major Winchester—er, the Judge, gets beaten and they go over the scores and the Judge privately asks the pro to add it to his debt. I watched them play it out and then made some observations.

"'First,' I said, 'you have this totalling up of the scores at the end where they say Mickey's down 14, the Judge is down 732 and so on. Bridge doesn't go like that, all the scores are rounded so that the totals are usually more or less round numbers. Bridge players will laugh, or scoff if they hear numbers like that.' They nodded in approval, and said they'd mention it—just the sort of thing they wanted me there for.

"'Second,' I continued, 'the way you guys play cards isn't quite right. When the Judge gets finessed out of his king on the second last trick, he'll know he has to play low quickly. Hesitating gives away who has the king and the Judge will know that, as any bridge player would. It might seem better to make him out as a rich palooka, but a hesitation like that is just something only the weakest newcomer would do, certainly not something anyone in a high stakes game would do. And also, when the pro plays the winning card at the last trick, you can't have him do it with a big flourish, waving it around and then floating it lightly onto the table to make two notrump redoubled. In a high stakes game, either defender might start a fight after gloating like that.' They were taking notes and grabbing cards and trying to play in tempo, or without emphasis.

"'Third,' I continued, 'when the pro says "two notrump, doubled and redoubled and made," well, this is a bridge redundancy. I guarantee you that for high stakes everyone knows how many tricks everyone has and an announcement like that would be seen as even worse gloating and might get you shot! Bridge pros don't want to gloat. They want to win today, and get invited back to win tomorrow. We need to change the way that line plays.' They agreed it made sense. I tried to get them to change the cards in the last two tricks so that the Judge was squeezed and not simply finessed, but the consensus was this would be completely meaningless to the non-bridge player."

We were in awe. Someone asked Eugene what they paid him for his four days. "Well, let's just say that I got some very good meals, met some very interesting people, and that soon you'll be able to spend a few bucks and see me on screen for a quick moment."

This, of course, was not enough. We had to hear more.

"Well, they had decided to do the bridge scene in a elegant but deserted Chinese restaurant, on a raised area where they put the head table for banquets. The lighting was excellent, naturally focussing on the players, and the camera would start with a wide shot of the whole room, empty, and the four players at the table, off in the distance, under the brightest lights. Everyone had been happy with my advice thus far and now somebody came my way and said, 'How would you like to be in the movie?' They wanted a Chinese waiter for the wide shot, just to calmly walk through the scene as though tending to tables for the next day while waiting for the bridge players to finish. I went through makeup, changed into a waiter's white, and tried a few walkthroughs. The Director gave me a few pointers and then the four actors, including Major Winchester, took their places and we shot a few takes of the wide shot."

They shot the rest of the scene while Eugene wasn't there and all assured him that it was far better after his tips. Eugene also added that they had asked him if he wanted to be in the credits as 'bridge instructor' or 'cardplay advisor'. With magnanimity he said this was unnecessary. 'After all,' he said, 'I was already going to have my name in the credits for the Chinese waiter part.'

We waited some time for The Tool Shed to appear in local cinemas. After perhaps six months we found out somehow that it had been in and out of the local theatres in a scant few weeks, drawing very little despite the abundance of local scenery. We missed it because they had changed the name to Bad Company, and partly because David Ogden Stiers's part as the Judge was only a supporting role and Eugene had not recognized the star of the film, Lawrence Fishburne (this was several years before Fishburne became a major star—this film didn't help his cause much). Or perhaps Fishburne wasn't involved at this stage of the shooting. Anyhow, the film came out, went out, left town, and one summer night a few weeks later we were driving home at about 4am after a long ramble about the bridge game. Suddenly a glint in the window of a 24 hour video store was enough to cause Eugene to abruptly pull over and say to me, "Do you have a VCR?"

I said I did.

He parked, went into a 24 hour video store, arranged a membership while I watched, and then rented a copy of Bad Company. We went back to my place and slipped it into the machine. The opening credits ran over a helicopter shot low over Burrard Inlet, flying towards downtown Vancouver, at dawn on a clear day. Stars, writer, director, nothing more. We settled in to watch as Fishburne and Barkin moved the plot along. Some agents pressured a man about a debt. "That's him!" said Eugene. "That's the bridge pro." He declined to sell them the debt. "He'll have to sell the debt after he wipes the floor with the judge at the next game—here it is!"

Suddenly, there had been a quick flash of white, a split-second look at two eight-foot high Chinese characters across the room, and then the bridge scene had begun. The bridge pro's partner led a card through the Judge, who mmmed a bit, moved his eyes, hitched one more time, and then played low. Eugene shook his head. The bridge pro played the queen, holding it high above his head before letting it float down to the table. Eugene groaned. Since we could see only three hands and none was the dummy, we had to assume that the Judge's partner was dummy. Therefore any bridge player would conclude that the declarer was...the Judge! Eugene groaned again when the bridge pro played the ace and then announced that two notrump, doubled and redoubled, had been made—apparently by the Judge, who now closed his eyes in serious chagrin, as though making 2NT redoubled was definitely not his intention! The pro now recounted the scores: "...that makes Benny up twelve and a half, Mickey down one-thirteen, and the Judge out seven hundred and ninety eight and a half." Eugene let out a half groan and then said "rewind."

We played the scene in super slow motion several times. At all speeds it was a quick unrecognizable white flash. "It might be me. I can't tell. I was wearing a white shirt."

The sun came up as we watched the rest of the film. At one point Eugene mused about the luck of not recognizing the film under the new name, saving him the humiliation of being reduced to a blur before any friends or family he might have invited to see it in a theatre. Then there was a very spicy encounter between Fishburne and Barkin that left little to the imagination and Eugene repeated the point, especially in regard to his immediate family. Finally, as the Venetian blinds became useless against the sun, the film mercifully ended and the credits rolled. No mention. We played them in super slow motion too. Nothing.

"Oh well," said Eugene as he got up to go. "No sense appealing for a line in the credits of an appallingly bad film. At least I got a few meals out of it."


Editor's note:

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