Johnny Belinda (1948) and Evoking Silent Cinema

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I must admit to committing an unforgivable fallacy. Maybe I’m the only perpetrator, but there might be others too. In my own mental computations, I often attribute Jane Wyman as the first wife of Ronald Reagan more than I equate her with her acting career. And though Nancy Davis hardly built such a substantial Hollywood career, I am quick to remember her because she was, after all, the First Lady.

However, with viewings of the Yearling and especially Johnny Belinda, I hoped to remedy this by recalibrating my brain’s gut responses. It was a stunning success. I’ve never been more mesmerized with Jane Wyman, and the core of Johnny Belinda’s merit lies in how simple it is. She does so very much with so little and in a medium often hampered by excess, Johnny Belinda is, in its finest moments, a quietly moving examination of a human being.

Cape Breton can be easily placed. There’s a wharf and a cannery. Men work at sea bringing in the days catch, and there’s nothing glamorous about their existence. The work is hard and the people blue collar. It’s the wrong coast, but these are the kindred of Steinbeck and certainly, you cannot help but think of Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night with its seascape and gale of drama.

However, I happen to think Johnny Belinda weathers the drama with a more delicate touch. We must turn to the characters to understand how this really happens. Because the small-town setting is stocked up with all types and shades of people. An amiable doctor named Richardson (Lew Ayres) has recently set up practice on the island making housecalls aided by a pleasant bedside manner. His swooning young housekeeper (an oft-forgotten Jan Sterling) is smitten and wishes above anything to be noticed.

It’s true he’s both a generous and obliging fellow though he doesn’t go to church on Sundays. It’s one reason for the old ladies in town to still somehow doubt his sincerity. He certainly can’t be familiar with “Christian charity” as they are!

Aside from the run-of-the-mill gossips, there’s the slimy reprobate Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally). Presently we might label him rightly as a bastion of toxic masculinity. However, the bottom line is he’s a vain and destructive human being who is able to fly under the radar due to the town’s hypocrisy. In other words, he goes to church on Sundays and manages to be romantically linked to the aforementioned housekeeper Stella.

We must also mention the gruff but not unkind farmer Black MacDonald (Charles Bickford). In fact, over time, he starts looking better and better as his work ethic and old-fashioned decency begin to let slide his affection for his daughter (Wyman). Meanwhile, his sister is played by Agnes Moorehead, a criminally underrated actress, perhaps because people do not superficially tout her looks. And yet she is a remarkable performer bringing strength and an acerbic edge to her part.

Even with these people, the spokes of a story aren’t altogether obvious as the kindly doctor takes the dumb and mute young woman under his tutelage, perceiving her intelligence and the dormant curiosity inside of her.

Wyman models her transformation exquisitely, first, picking up signing, then learning basic gestures of communication. However, in a town like this, there are certain types of ignorant people. People who will only ever see her as a “dummy.” There is no beauty or intelligence to unlocked inside her countenance because they can only comprehend the physical.

One prime example is when some merrymakers have an impromptu shindig at MacDonald’s barn fater picking up their weekly order of flour. The good doctor stands by Belinda beaming, showing her a fiddler plucking away joyously on his strings. The discovery is manifested on her face as she touches the violin with its vibrating strings and her feet begin to patter modestly. Her legs move tentatively but sweetly as if unshackled for the first time.

Others see it too. First, Locky his eyes burning with lust and then his jealous girlfriend trying to win back his affection with a carnal kiss. These are the only things they know about passion and romance. Add alcohol to the mix and it’s a volatile cocktail.

The film’s most helplessly terrifying moment comes when the belligerent thug wanders off from the party and finds a peaceful Belinda. His eyes burn with malicious intent. She has only innocence which quickly turn to fear as he encroaches. The subsequent inference of images and cuts speak for themselves as do ensuing events…

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Recently I’ve been pushing back against the era’s tendency toward over-illumination when it comes to spelling information out. However, some of the greats, Hitchcock and Lang among them, were able to imbue sound films with a certain silent sensibility where passages rely on the primacy of image over sound.

I won’t put Jean Negulesco in the same group as these others, but nevertheless, his premise necessitates a certain amount of nuance in order to approach the subject matter. It’s a tact that I very much appreciate because the film ably takes on the restraint and the functionality of a silent film especially when considering the subject of Belinda.

Consider, for example, a near-wordless entrance into the church with the stunned congregation looking on as a lovely Belinda enters in her Sunday best. In the same sequence, Dr. Richardson watches Belinda’s face swell with apprehension upon seeing McCormick for the first time. The power comes in this unspoken revelation.

The story must progress, and it evolves into a modern play on The Scarlet Letter with pernicious scandal digging in. You must remember this is the same small town with ears and eyes on every street corner. News travels fast that Belinda has a child and everyone has their preconceived notions on who the father is. They are intent on taking matters into their own hands. I need not expound upon this anymore.

More useful still are the impressions of the following scenes. In a strikingly poignant interlude, Belinda signs “The Lord’s Prayer” as the solemn bystanders join her in grieving the dead. We are reminded this is a different era imprinted with Christianity and a God who was a present comfort in the face of adversity.

Her moments taking care of her baby are also so tender and one is reminded of the universal experience of parenthood. Belinda might not be able to speak or hear but she feels and becomes both guardian and protectorate of that little bundle of joy no matter the cost.

An ensuing trial has her in the defendant’s seat and these scenes are generally conventional. They crop up in any amount of noir, melodrama, screwball comedy, whatever. It’s the precise circumstances that make it an engaging end. Because court is all about testimony and defense. What if someone is barely able to defend themselves?

They require others to intercede on their behalf. The final safety valve providing the audience a release is overblown and a foregone conclusion, but up to this point, what a joy it is to watch events unfold moment after moment.

This is a fine turn by late-period Lew Ayres although he is nothing without the quiet dignity and sprightly inquisitiveness of Jane Wyman. Johnny Belinda is a stunning reminder truth need not only come in the powerful wind or the quiet whisper. It can come in silence as well.

4/5 Stars

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

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“In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives…It is the servant of our common needs — the confidante of our inmost secrets…life and happiness wait upon its ring…and horror…and loneliness…and…death!!!” ~ Opening Prologue

Sorry, Wrong Number is a fairly unique adaptation in that it came into being from a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher, successfully realized for audiences as essentially a one-woman production by Agnes Moorehead — a fine actress in her own right. Director Anatole Litvak does an extraordinary job of making this film version tense and certainly cinematic, as it cannot function in the same ways as a radio show if it is to be similarly effective.

Like Rear Window (1954) or Wait Until Dark (1967), the suspense in the film comes with being constrained in a space with no way of escape from an impending intruder. It’s little surprise Barbara Stanwyck is divine offering her typically captivating performance even if, given her usual predispositions, she hardly fits the helpless wife archetype. Being the professional that she is, there’s no doubting the ferocity of emotion within her. To use a hopelessly corny pun, she hardly phones in her role as Mrs. Stevenson, the bedridden wife of a husband who just cannot seem to be located.

Though still young, Burt Lancaster brings the screen presence that made him a mainstay of early film noir. Still, he and Stanwyck somehow seem ill-paired as husband and wife. One could contend that works nicely into the plot as their marriage is essentially one-way, becoming increasingly loveless as more of the picture is revealed. She wants him and her daddy has the money to make the world spin. It’s not romance. It’s a business transaction.

So although Harry Stevenson (Lancaster) is initially going with another gal (Ann Richards), soon enough Leona’s got him. They get married and he gets a job working under the father-in-law but he feels his hands are tied with no real prospects of making anything of himself. He’s not content with this kind of lifestyle. He has ambitions of his own.

One might suspect he’s finally had enough and left his wife for good. Of course, part of the fun is that the story is pieced together through different characters recounting events, done through voiceover fragments. It becomes a kind of compulsory game we must play along with.

First, it’s Mr. Stevenson’s secretary who recounts the woman who came to his office with something urgent to talk about and it piques Mrs. Stevenson’s suspicions. Then, she gets in contact with the old flame named Sally Hunt Lord who is now happily married to a District Attorney. Nevertheless, she was worried that Henry might have been mixed in something awful, even tailing her husband and trying to get at her old beau to uncover what might be the matter. It’s all very mysterious.

Next Leona breaks up her Doctor’s (Wendell Corey) dinner engagement only to hear more of the story and how her husband kept the doctor’s prognosis from her. By this point, we’ve gotten in so deep that we have layered flashbacks. Only in noir, and we still have yet to stitch the entire convoluted mess together.

The last crucial figure is a specter of a caller named Waldo Evans who actually turns out to be a kindly old man caught up in the racket that Stevenson’s been promoting. The script doesn’t give us much to go on based on the restrictions of the production code but it has to do drug trafficking. That much is almost certain.

By this juncture, we’ve almost forgotten William Conrad was in the picture but he shows up right where you would expect him in the thick of something big. As she’s put through the ringer of psychological duress, trapped in her ominously vacant home, Stanwyck’s absolutely maxed out on the intensity.

Admittedly it does feel like two pictures told in tandem and spliced together. Stanwyck headlines what we might term the “woman’s drama” while her husband is embroiled in a shifty noir replete with the murky shadings of a criminal underworld. Of course, Lancaster is remembered for his early pictures like The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and Criss Cross (1949) which share some nominal similarities.

Sorry, Wrong Number showcases an icy ending that was nearly unexpected for not only how abrupt it is but also how very unsentimental. To say more would give it away outright. Flaws readily acknowledged, Sorry, Wrong Number is a noir worth making time for as it builds tension to a fever pitch and obscures its hand behind minute after minute of methodical voiceover. When we’ve finally caught up with the events rumbling forward in real time, it’s too late to do anything and before we know it, everything’s already come to fruition. One might call that an adequate success in the storytelling department.

Due to its histrionics, the picture was ripe for parody. In fact, Barbara Stanwyck was featured on a segment of The Jack Benny Program in 1948 using extensive recordings from the film only to have Benny wind up in much the same mess. And of course, there’s Carl Reiner’s noir sendup/clip show starring Steve Martin, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). It’s all in good fun.

3.5/5 Stars

The Stratton Story (1949)

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If you’ve never heard of the baseball player Monty Stratton, you’re not alone. In my days of wanting to be a ballplayer myself, I knew quite a bit about baseball Hall of Famers going back to the genesis of the game. But Stratton was not a Hall of Famer like Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb, George Sisler or Rogers Hornsby or even the members of the Bronx Bombers including Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio. Though famed Yankee Bill Dickey does makes a cameo in this one.

Stratton was not in the same category as these men and there is a reason for that. Tragedy struck his life. Interestingly enough, Hollywood looked to make a movie out of it calling on the talents of Jimmy Stewart as well as director Sam Wood. It’s Wood’s association with the picture which causes me to surmise it was meant to be another Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Wood taking up duties again and one All-American in Gary Cooper being traded out for another in Jimmy Stewart.

No disrespect to Monty Stratton or anything that he went through but at face value, his story is hardly that of Lou Gehrig. Still, maybe that’s the point and we can learn something from that. Generalizing and putting all baseball biopics together is in error and in this case, it feels callous. This is a film that makes Monty Stratton’s story into his own and it’s at times winsome in its simplicity and still equally moving.

Watching this picture anchored by James Stewart in another everyman role is as charming as ever. Equally enjoyable is Frank Morgan or even the budding romance with June Allyson coming to fruition within its frames. His brusque mother (Agnes Moorehead) who only knows the tough life of a farm woman even has her affectionate side; you simply need to get to know her. Also, having an old pro like Jimmy Dyke playing the big league manager is yet another touch of authenticity that might be easily overlooked in the modern day.

Through and through, this is Stewart and Allyson’s film as we watch Monty make a name for himself going from being an indefatigable farm boy with a cannon to the minors in Omaha, and finally to the big leagues where dreams are made. Equally important to his career trajectory is the parallel story of how a potentially disastrous first date turned into a lifelong romance with his girl Ethel.

She sees him through a great deal both the highs like the birth of their son to the lows, a fatal event that will change Stratton’s life forever. It’s in this portion where we could criticize the film for stalling but it does rightfully so as Stewart must make a decision whether or not he’s going to fight back to regain his life.

Eventually, he does, going further than any naysayer might give him credit for. Then again, you get the sense that Monty Stratton was the kind of ballplayer that most folks found it in their heart to cheer for. Part of that appeal is Stewart’s typical geniality certainly but the man he was portraying had to be fairly special too.

The spectator in the movie theater might remark Gable and Turner are better kissers on screen but I’d truthfully rather watch Stewart and Allyson. They’re more my type of people.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have liked Monty Stratton too. He seemed like a humble fellow who lived his life with everyday dignity. They don’t always make them like that now. The same could be said for this movie.

The film closes with the prototypical “The End” credit but that really was not quite right. Because Monty Stratton was still pitching and had a long life ahead of him just waiting to be lived. That’s the power of this story. It recognizes a man who did not let circumstance deter him from continuing to live a full life.

Stratton died on September 29th, 1982 and within that time he made a second comeback to baseball, moved back to Texas to start a farm team, and was deeply invested in his community until his final days both in promoting Little League and attending his local church.

3.5/5 Stars

Caged (1950)

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Caged proves to be a stark, even uncompromising picture for the 1950s. Director John Cromwell had a long career in Hollywood, helmed some quality film noir, and became a subsequent casualty of the Blacklist, but this just might be his finest effort.

Furthermore, despite being an actress of some acclaim, I must admit that even I forget about Eleanor Parker aside from her well-remembered appearance in The Sound of Music (1965). But if Caged is any indication, she is most certainly worthy of more credit. She freely channels a bit of the flustered timidity of Joan Fontaine early on only to transform into a completely different person entirely.

It’s a film that dances on the complete opposite spectrum of George Cukor’s The Women (1939) another film that is dominated by the lives of female characters. In that case, the narrative is preoccupied with the intricacies of their frivolous catty ways and malicious gossip. Caged has not even a pretense for laughter.

Likewise, the scenes of incarceration bring to mind images of  The Snake Pit (1946) and Shock Corridor (1964) but even those films were about mental illness and the lack of quality care, not so much the abominable corruption that begins to coalesce within prison walls.

Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is one of the first-time offenders who comes in with the new batch of prisoners. At only 19 years of age, she seems like no more than a girl and yet she’s already been married, had her husband fatally killed during a bank robbery, is pregnant with a child, and has an accessory rap pinned on her. That’s how Marie got where she is even if she doesn’t seem meant for such a hardened life.

Agnes Moorehead delivers one of her most sympathetic performances as a champion of rehabilitation who unfortunately is fighting a losing battle against the system as we soon see.

Some might remember the imposing Hope Emerson from Cry of the City (1947) but she leaves an even more indelible mark on this picture as the ever-necessary sadistic prison guard — an individual who sees little worth in her inmates — believing them to be animals to be treated as such. She is indicative of the institution as the cog that lays down the law and narrowly believes that there is no worth left in these women. They’re trash.

When everyone thinks that it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And in time as she comes up for parole and then has it spit back in her face, the changes begin to show in Marie’s face. It’s hardened. Her voice is tougher. She’s more defiant.

Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption (1994) was another character with unfortunate circumstances but he maintained his humanity in a dank place. You either get busy living or get busy dying. Yet being an impressionable girl Marie takes to heart the words of her veteran prison mates, “You get tough or you get killed.”

Maybe Caged outcome is easy to read and it ultimately succumbs to melodrama but there’s still something unnerving about the film on the whole with its overarching unsentimentality.

When I saw the name of famed composer Max Steiner as part of the production that was a tip-off but Caged rather audaciously functions in many sequences without any scoring and that lends to the overall sense of realism that pulses through this prison noir.

The utter irony is that the notes of “Rock of Ages” can be heard wafting through the corridors as Marie prepares for her final parole hearing and she makes it this time. But by now there seems little chance for redemption. She is intent on calling her own shots and not about to rely on anyone else. She’s gone beyond clinging and seeking shelter from the world around her. She doesn’t seem to need anyone. She’s become part of that world. The before and after are startling. They make for a harsh indictment of a flawed prison system.

4/5 Stars

 

Jane Eyre (1943)

Jane-Eyre-1943-1Are you always drawn to the loveless and unfriended? ~ Edward Rochester

When it’s deserved. ~ Jane Eyre

I can still recall visiting the Bronte Parsonage, marveling at the fact that these sisters were able to have such a lasting impact on the world of literature — a world so often dominated by men at that time — and I simultaneously rued the fact that I had yet to crack open any of their works. Now several years down the road, I still have not opened up Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre by Emily and Charlotte Bronte and so I can only come into this 20th-century adaptation with certain expectations.

I realize that no film can wholly represent every page of a novel — especially of great length — because in a practical sense it’s simply not theatrically possible. But my hope is that at the very least this version of Jane Eyre maintains the essence of the source material and if nothing else I can revel in the fact that it is a thoroughly engrossing film from director Robert Stevenson.

It feels like some sort of intriguing marriage between Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and the recent craze of gothic fiction adaptations — the most noted of course being Hitchcock’s Rebecca only a few years prior — that by some strange happenstance had input from Aldous Huxley. Here we have the ever timid beauty Joan Fontaine starring once more, this time opposite Welles. But the story starts at a much earlier point in the life of Jane Eyre.

Her life is a desolate and horrible affair as we soon find out, due in part to a caustic culture that uses their religion to ostracize others instead of bringing them into the fold of society.

In fact, most of those who hold a Christian belief system are puritanical and more problematic still, hard-hearted. Ironically, there’s no room for grace in the Christian faith that they practice. Foremost among this crowd is Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniel) who runs the Lowood Institution for Girls.

It’s in this very issue revealed early on where the film finds much of its substance. Because thematically all throughout the narrative the audience is forced to grapple with various characters who are subjugated to the fringes of society and for various reasons are labeled as outcasts.

This is how Jane is seen first by her unfeeling aunt (Agnes Moorehead), then by the narrow-minded reverend. They seem absolutely incapable of compassion sitting atop their high horses of proclaimed humility and charity. In reality, they have very little of either to offer. A few do show her kindness including Dr. Rivers (John Sutton) and the cook Bessie (Sarah Allgood) but such behavior is the exception and not the norm.

Still, Jane the very person who has been relegated to a wretched and lesser state is for that very reason ready and willing to reach out to those around her who are treated likewise. The very fact that she has been marginalized allows her to see it in others and be compelled to move toward them when others move away.  She cares deeply for the outsider.

The most galvanizing experience involves her closest friend as a young girl (played by a child who still is very unmistakably Elizabeth Taylor). Then as she grows up and chooses to move away from the oppression of her surrogate home, it is the role of a governess in a gothic manor that once more allows her the opportunity to extend her graces to others. First in the form of the precocious ballerina extraordinaire (Margaret O’Brien) and then the brusque but obviously tortured man of the house (Orson Welles).

She sees in him something that runs deeper than the surface. He’s far from a bad man. In fact, she grows to love and cherish him because she sees the good that dwells in his conflicted soul. Burdened as he is with guilt and a past that still haunts him to the present moment. The film exhibits a bit of a love triangle as Rochester invites many guests to his estate among them the well-to-do Blanche Ingram (Hillary Brooke).

But the film pulling from its source material goes a step further still.  It digs into the dark recesses, involving itself with the less than pleasant realities, namely an unseen person who hangs over the storyline like a specter. In those very designs, whether they are simply employing the rhythms of Bronte’s book or not, there’s another evident parallel there with the 1940 adaptation of du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Gothic tones matched with an impending sense of foreboding with the demure Fontaine similarly relating the action through voiceover even reading verbatim off the page as if from a diary. And once again it works. While there is no Mrs. Danvers, Welles has the same Shakespearian gravitas of an Olivier that accentuates the very modesty of many of Fontaine’s performances. Their exchanges reflect the sensibilities of the time but furthermore help draw up the very differences of their characters. However, as much as that juxtaposition would seem to draw them apart it even more passionately brings them together.

Some might find this rendition of Jane Eyre too stark, too much of a studio production, even too abrupt, but with Welles and Fontaine opposite each other, it’s a frequently enjoyable gothic romance. As much as gothic romances can possibly be enjoyable.

4/5 Stars

Review: Citizen Kane (1941)

citizenk3“That’s all he ever wanted out of life… was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.” – Jedediah Leyland

It might seem rather trite to attempt to write anything on Citizen Kane, but as someone who can admittedly be trite sometimes, there seems to be a need to give it a go. Here it goes. Citizen Kane is forever an enigma, in the sense that it was fully under the control of the independent-minded and ultimate auteur Orson Welles during the studio age. It didn’t come out of some movie making assembly line, but instead, it’s a debut that exhibits so many elements that have befuddled and fascinated audiences for generations. There’s certainly the technical and production aspect which became the watermark and inspiration for countless millions. Then you have the human aspect which also deserves some attention.

Swirling around a film with this much mythology there is always bound to be hearsay and rumors, but supposedly in later years, Welles considered Citizen Kane a comedy, in the sense that everything is over the top camp, much in the same way that the Welles the man was a larger than life caricature. He played the part of an alienating artistic mastermind to a tee and it fit the way he made this film. Grandiose in scope,  infused with inspired vision, and really an all-out war for acknowledgment.

Because of the many stories about Kane which have now become the stuff of legend, the parallels between Charles Foster Kane and news magnate William Randolph Hearst stand out. Whatever his opinions of the actual film ended up being, Hearst did his best to besmirch the film and keep it out of theaters. And so it goes Welles’ debut did not get much of an opening, ironically because of a man rather like his main character. It would be interesting to know what Welles would have thought of such a situation. Would he have been greatly incensed or taken it rather like a compliment that he had created something so volatile? Because it’s true, Citizen Kane is still smoldering today, and it retains a constant place in cinematic discussions even 70 years after its release.

There’s so much to talk about and so much that most everyone has probably already talked about. It has such an intriguing narrative structure and it models time in such fascinating ways. Because a lot of this film is about the passage of time as it pertains to one man’s life and the memories of his life. He is dead after uttering that immortal word “Rosebud,” but his memories live on through the recollections of those around him.

We get access to the story through a newsreel, but like such a reporting device we leave it knowing very little about the man except for his material possessions and maybe a little about his career. What we really want to know is the man, and the nameless reporter becomes our stand-in.

He pieces together Kane’s childhood by sitting in a musty vault and reading over the thoughts of the boy’s caretaker and financial adviser Mr. Thatcher. With one particularly memorable match cut, we jump a number of decades in a matter of seconds as the banker speaks to a young Kane only to turn around speaking to a young man. But he’s not much help except that Kane put Thatcher under fire with his brand of yellow journalism.

citizenk2Mr. Bernstein is a kindly fellow and an old man by now who used to work with Kane at the Inquirer when it all began. He knew the man who had a song named after him, who bought out the staff of the rival paper the Chronicle, started his own war and married the niece of the president.

From the now elderly and slightly infirm Jedediah Leyland (Joseph Cotten) we learn of the rise and slow decline of the man along with his friendship with Leyland. There is a sequence here with Kane’s first wife that wonderfully shows the degradation of a marriage over the years as he is more devoted to the paper than his spouse. It’s tragically sad, and there’s more heartbreak in that one scene than most films can muster in their entire runtime. Because Kane could love and he wanted love, but he also seems to love himself more than any other person. He’s married to his work and the personal independence that comes with it. Ultimately, Kane’s political career suffers from scandal and his own bullheadedness. Leyland switches branches to get away and becomes a drama critic prepared to lambaste the operatic debut of Kane’s second wife. It really is bad, but Kane will never hear of it, but he also is always in need of proving himself to those around him.

Our investigative journalist returns to the nightclub of Susan Kane to get the rest of the story from her, and it only becomes more depressing. After being forced into an opera career she has no ambition for, Kane finally relents and Susan spends her days in Xanadau, the fortress he built for her sake. But she wants more than the stuff that he can give her. She wants to get out, have fun and have companionship. Kane doesn’t know how to do that, and soon after she left him.

What was left was a deeply troubled, isolated old man with nothing but material possessions to weigh him down in a river of loneliness. His life was a jigsaw puzzle and yet when we get the piece pertaining to his final word it fails to help us make any headway. Because the reality is that no one word can explain a man’s life. It is interesting how Kane desperately wanted love so you would think that his last words would refer to a person. It just shows how messed up his relationships were. He thought he could get joy from possessions so it’s only fitting that his final words were another thing. It’s sad really, so if Orson Welles wants to call Citizen Kane comedy, there seems to be a need to qualify that and christen it a “tragi-comedy.”

Herman Mankiewicz script with Welles is the quintessential tale of the rise and fall of one man and with the ever-changing times that archetypal narrative has remained prescient because America is still built on those sorts of individuals. It can be the nation of visionaries as well as tragedy. Wealth and loneliness.

As for the great Bernard Hermann, his score personifies the changes in Kane over the years and this was the first time I noticed the wonderful reprises of his theme song. It can be heard throughout although it seems to lose all the gaiety and luster it had years before.

citizenk1Gregg Toland’s cinematography is strikingly beautiful utilizing the distinctly clear, deep focus to frame shots wonderfully. Background and foreground remain equally important becoming a wonderful way to convey distance. Also, the camera always seems to be making the viewer crane our necks, getting a slight view of the ceiling or it has us looking down at the figure below us. We very rarely see them head-on as they appear. Furthermore, Kane is steeped in trick shots, mirror images, and all sorts of things that I cannot even begin to do justice to. It could be a nurse walking into a room or Kane solemnly plodding through the vast corridors of his domain. It’s a veritable paradise for the eyes because we are always being met with visual marvels. Citizen Kane has grown on me every time I see it since it’s not simply narrative, or backstory, or history, but also at the most basic level, it’s one of the most prominent expressions of this highly visual medium called film.

5/5 Stars

Fourteen Hours (1951)

fourteenhours1Fourteen Hours is a taut little thriller, based on real circumstances that occurred in New York in 1938. The film opens with a young man standing on the ledge of a tall hotel in New York City. An unsuspecting waiter happens upon him and a traffic cop (Paul Douglas) spies him from the street below. All of a sudden, a mundane day gets a little more exciting for all the wrong reasons.

Henry Hathaway’s film has the kind of self-contained drama of a modern film like Phone Booth (2002) and a media frenzy that is in some ways similar to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). Really when you break it down it’s essentially about two men. Robert Cosick (Richard Baseheart) is the despondent and disturbed man tottering on the edge of destruction. He needs a friend. He needs guidance. The rapport built between him and Charlie Dunnigan (Douglas) is what keeps him where he is.

Outside of this main dynamic, we have a lot of smaller events all happening at once. The gruff deputy chief Moskar (Howard Da Silva) tries to work on the inside of the hotel to get the man indoors. A psychiatrist with a hypnotic stair (Martin Gabel) tries to divvy out advice to Dunnigan and others. Meanwhile, Robert’s histrionic mother (Agnes Moorehead) and his plain-speaking father both make appearances, but to no avail. They even finally track down his girl Virginia (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the hopes that she can get him down. All the while the journalists scrounge around for a good story that they can feed to their papers because this is news!

fourteenhours3Down in the streets below young people (Debra Paget and Jefferey Hunter) look up wishing they could do something. The cynical cabbies decide to make a wager on when the man will jump since they aren’t getting any more business for the time being. Even Grace Kelly makes an appearance (her debut), as a young wife who is about to go through with her divorce. But the man on the ledge flusters her and she and her husband have a happy ending.

Hour after hour drags on as Dunnigan continues to work on Robert to get him to come in. He loses his temper once, converses about fishing for floppers, and talks fondly about his wife. By far Paul Douglas is the standout because he has such a genial quality that makes his newfound friend, and the audience, trust him. He’s a good egg as they say, and at the end of the day, he gets to walk off with his wife and son after a good day’s work.

I think it’s true that the film was remade as Man on the Ledge, but I doubt that I would ever want to see it after this film. Don’t get me wrong, it crawls a little bit in the middle, but the combination of this human drama and the plethora of characters lent itself to a generally interesting tale. Also, it’s never static visually. Hathaway gives us a lot to look at. I will admit that several of the storylines were flimsy and unnecessary, but it was still fun to see Grace Kelly for at least a few moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Citizen Kane (1941)

The first time I ever saw the film, I actually wrote Citizen Kane off because my hopes were so high thanks to its major critical acclaim. Those hopes were soon dashed after viewing it once, but over time I realized I needed a second viewing. This second chance allowed me to see the minute details, which can be easily overlooked or forgotten. Now I can truthfully say I have a new found respect for this film.

The brainchild of Orson Welles, Citizen Kane opens somewhat unimpressively, however it is certainly very moody and atmospheric. As the camera closes in on a great mansion, we are given a first-hand view of a dying man followed by his mysterious final word “Rosebud.” In the following newsreel, we learn the man was Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a millionaire tycoon and newspaperman. A journalist (William Alland) is enlisted to find out anything he can about Kane. First, he scours the memoirs of Kane’s deceased childhood guardian (George Coulouris). Then, he talks with Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), who worked with Kane’s paper the Inquirer. He gets around to talking to Kane’s unstable former friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), as well as Kane’s second wife (Dorothy Comingore). We learn from these accounts about Kane’s early years, his success with yellow journalism, the evolution of his first marriage, and the rise and fall of his political career. Furthermore, we find out about Kane’s unhappy second marriage that ultimately left him loveless after looking for affection his whole life. Fittingly, we are again left with the bleak view of his fortress Xanadu, and we now have the knowledge that “Rosebud” was in fact utterly trivial.

Obviously, Greg Toland’s black and white cinematography using deep focus and low camera angles is noteworthy. The framing of the narrative with different points of view and flashbacks was unique at the time. The actors age in front of us showing the progression of time and montage is used to effectively condense time. There are the overlapping and fragmentation of dialogue to create a realistic feel throughout the film. Bernard Hermann puts together a score that slowly changes along with Kane. And of course, you have the supposed basis of Kane on William Randolph Hearst. Historically, Citizen Kane may, in fact, be the most important film of all time, and artistically it is certainly up there with the best of them. I will let others decide if that makes it the very best film, period.

4.5/5 Stars