Movie Trope #156: The Completely Ransacked Room


If you love movies as much as I do, you probably watch a lot of them. Generally that’s a joy, but some overused movie tropes can eventually to wear down even the most devoted cineaste. I have previously highlighted some of these, such as people yelling no-o-o-o-o-o-o!! in slow motion, military personnel signing off by saying “over and out“, the tell-tale cough of death, the mystery of weightless money, bullets that throw people across the room, and very patient villains who stand around pointing a gun for however long it takes a hero to show up.

Today I highlight one that always gives me a chuckle and that you — fair warning — will not be able to “unsee” once you know about it: The completely ransacked room. You know the set up: Our hero/heroine has hidden the black bird/legendary cumbersome diamond/exonerating evidence/incriminating photos/only copy of Great Uncle Casmir’s will in his/her room. But upon returning, s/he gasps as the camera shows us that the room has been tossed! All the drawers are open, the cushions on the couch are slashed, the floor is cluttered. The protagonist runs to the hiding spot, opens the box/drawer/envelope and says “Oh no — It’s gone!”.

What’s wrong with this picture? The room is invariably completely ransacked. But unless the bad guys have the bad luck to always look in the right place at the very end of their search, this wouldn’t happen. As soon as they found the black bird/legendary cumbersome diamond/exonerating evidence/incriminating photos/only copy of Great Uncle Casmir’s will, they would stop searching, leaving the rest of the room in a pristine state.

I imagine the exchange:

Senior bad guy: I found the treasure map!

Junior bad guy (stops stabbing the cushions): Right let’s go!

Senior bad guy: No way, keep stabbing those cushions while I toss the bedroom!

Junior bad guy: But…

Senior bad guy: You aren’t a scab are you?

Junior bad guy: No, I’m a member of the Loyal Brotherhood of Thugs, Yeggs and Second Story Men, just like you.

Senior bad guy: Then what the hell are you doing throwing away a good hour of work just ’cause we found the map? Remember, it will be 5 o’clock soon — that’s time and half for both of us!

Junior bad guy: Yippee! I don’t know what I was thinking. Can I pull up the linoleum after I finish with the cushions?

Senior bad guy: Good thinking, kid.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Movie Trope #156: The Completely Ransacked Room”

  1. Hum. According the spy fiction I've read, a really thorough search of a room by spooks amounts to wrecking it. Of course, they are looking for everything of interest, and don’t stop when they've found the first one-time pad. For low-rent goons, if they don't find the McGuffin (which the heroine has left with Margaret Rutherford next door), they have to trash the place completely.

    Surely there are readers out there – spooks, cops,or gangsters – with actual knowledge of the situation?

    1. Sure, a search for everything and anything of interest would mean a complete trashing. But if you are searching for a specific thing and you find it, you would not prolong your time on site as that would just increase risk of apprehension with no real profit.

  2. Another trope: When a maid or valet approaches a room carrying a full tray of breakable dishes, you know that it is curtains for the person to whom the tray is being carried, and curtains for the whole tray of dishes too. Scream if you are the maid; gasp if you are the valet.

  3. I have investigated a zillion burglaries before I went Federal and they never trash as bad as in the movies, it would take way way to long, to much exposure and chance of being caught. As far as search warrants you have to photography before you start, as you find things and afterwards and you would never want to give the Defense photos like that to show what a neanderthal you are. I have a many movie irritants too, one is the endless speech prior to shooting to give a chance for the saviors to show, second most irritating is the fight with the bad guy with a weapon, good guy wins and although more folks need beating he leaves the bad guy with the gun, delivers no coup de grace or even restrains him and of course has to fight him two three times more. Lastly stunningly inaccurate court proceedings, I worry they have a lasting effect on low information juries.

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