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The Bourne Identity: Mystery, Suspense, Surprise

By Karel Segers

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Both Dan and Tony have a truly riveting and diverse list of credits to their name. Tony wrote The Devil’s Advocate, Armageddon, and Michael Clayton, which he also directed. I thought Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler was the best script of 2014.

For Tony the mega movie phase of his career started with The Bourne Identity (2002). Well, if we forget about the Robert Ludlum novels for a second. The first Bourne movie brought a bunch of talent together, directed by Doug Liman, who had been doing hip, smallish character driven movies up to that point. In the key cast, Matt Damon is flanked by arthouse darling Franka Potente (from Lola Rennt), and chased by character actors Brian Cox and Chris Cooper. It all gave the movie a powerful ‘cachet’. The strategy worked: the film was received very well, both by audience and critics.


“I don't know who I am. Do you know who I am? Do you have any idea who I am?” These are among the first few words ever spoken by Jason Bourne in the successful movie franchise. At this point, Jason is only referred to only as THE MAN in the screenplay. For a long time into the story, Jason keeps wondering. The irony is that the audience works it out quickly. A guy who has a gun, money, fake passports, one of which has a name with the initials J.B.? I’d say he’s a spy.

From a metaphorical perspective, we clearly have young man on a Hero Quest. The search for identity has been the stuff of many great movie characters. Often the audience is trying to figure out these characters too, e.g. look at Lawrence Of Arabia and Citizen Kane.


HITCHCOCK taught us how mystery is not something you should bring to the big screen. Instead, the master focused on suspense and surprise. In The Bourne Identity, we have all three - in spades. And this month’s movie moment has brilliant examples of all three, bundled in the one scene. It is also proof that surprise works best if there is suspense in the first place.

The end of the first act of The Bourne Identity reminds of Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST, starring another hero who is profoundly confused about his identity. The audience learns that the baddies are coming after Thornhill, and it suits the CIA fine. This is revealed in a dramatic irony scene, where we learn the agency is not going to protect him. The Bourne Identity goes one step further. At the end of Act One, in a similar dramatic ironic moment, at the CIA offices, Bourne’s fate is sealed and he won’t be safe for another second.


This movie moment is not for the faint-hearted. It shows the first confrontation between Jason and the agents that are after him. The setting is the Paris flat, which he is exploring with Marie. He learns from a phone call to a hotel where he recently stayed that one of his aliases - John Michael Kane - was killed two weeks ago. He knows he has got to be vigilant now, and he grabs a kitchen knife, which he soon drops again to prevent Marie from panicking.

Of the more than 5 minutes in the excerpt - the Paris flat scene lasts for much longer in the movie - only about 100 seconds are action (‘surprise’ if you wish). The rest is all suspense. You tell what is more effective.

About Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst, script editor and producer with experience in rights acquisition, script development and production. His screenwriting classes have trained writers in Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and his clients include international award-winning filmmakers as well as three Academy Award nominees. Karel is the founder of The Story Department and!, and he ranks in the world's Top 10 of most influential people for screenwriting on Twitter.


Screenwriting Article by Karel Segers

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