The Third Man At 70

Oh, how I love The Third Man (or The 3rd Man). Regardless of how you write it, Carol Reed‘s post-war noir is one of those special films that was a case of love at first sight.  I knew some of the reasons already, but watching the film with a friend (on his first viewing) teased them out even more so. It was a nice reminder of why this film continues to enchant me and engage me on fundamental levels time after time.

Dutch Angles in Post-War Vienna

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My buddy was right. The Third Man is inherently disorienting. Visually the film presents all of its subjects from a stilted perspective. They’re always slanted, featured in crammed together close-ups, and never quite sitting square in our line of vision from the camera’s uncomfortably low angles. Whether we realize them or not, there’s no doubt the dutch angels (from “Deutch” or German) manipulate how we experience the action.

Starting with these formalistic elements, the mood is perfectly ingrained in the fundamental building blocks of the story with the crumbling city sectioned off into its uneasy alliances between the WWII victors. We have a crosshatching of districts and a melting pot of language and objectives.

Thus, when the blundering American author Holly Martins walks into the story, he, like his audience, has very little understanding of what is going on. His level of comprehension is lost in translation even as he goes around trying to get to the bottom of the scenario. Joseph Cotten does a fabulous job in the part effectively becoming our eyes and ears in the environment.

And this strong association is part of the reason I so vehemently decried Netflix’s tampering with the original film’s ambiguity. If you’re like me and Holly Martins, you’re no polyglot, aside from a few token phrases here and there. When the old man or woman in the house rattles off something, you’re lost in the unfamiliarity. You’re waiting for someone to explain it, even trusting on the good graces of others. In some regards, you are helpless.

It’s part of the way the film toys with us. You realize the whole time maybe you’ve been played and a whole level of the film’s context has flown over your head. Subtitles alleviate our ignorance but also cause us to lose out on some of the perplexity felt as a result of such a global battleground. The Third Man capitalizes on the richness of these cultural ambiguities.

The Zither & Herb Alpert

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The music is next on my list. My friend was right again. The title song’s awfully familiar and after Anton Karas got plucked off the streets of Vienna to provide the lively but strangely hollow and foreboding soundtrack, it would go onto some acclaim on the music charts (including a guitar rendition by Guy Lombardo).

The tune is one of a select few early movie themes to hit the mainstream remaining fairly recognizable even today. This is even more surprising given its inauspicious roots. My friend connected the dots later only to realize he’d heard the particularly Latin-flavored version by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass on their album !!Going Places!!  He taught me something learned new, but you learn a lot being friends with an avid record collector.

Quick Pacing

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It might be a mere generalization, but I feel like there are often complains leveled at films of yore that they languish, there’s too much talking, and they don’t boast enough action. But I think my buddy was spot on once more. The Third Man has surprisingly timely pacing (aside from the deliberate final shot).

One of the practical reasons for this might have been director Carol Reed literally being hooked on the stimulant Benzedrine to get through his hectic shooting schedule around the clock. This might be one explanation for the zip, even in the opening monologue. However, there’s also an undeniable drive to The Third Man because it’s stuffed with questions, mystery, and underlying tension.

As information begins to reveal itself, we have screeching taxi rides, reveals, harrowing meetings on Ferris wheels, and climactic chases sequences clattering through the rubble-strewn streets and labyrinthian waterworks. But the reason it grips us has to do with falling in with intuitively compelling characters. That’s as good a place as any to bring him up…

Harry Lime: Super-Villain?

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The final observation I found to be particularly interesting was my buddy’s acknowledgment that Harry Lime felt surprisingly modern, a precursor even to the current villain. I want to tease out this idea even more because I’ve been drawn to movies that layer their menace. I can think of the likes of Black Panther or Mission Impossible: Fallout as two recent examples.

However, what I mean by this is how you don’t quite know where the trouble is going to come from, who you can trust, and who will betray you. It makes for a glorious puzzle to navigate. Is Calloway someone we can give our allegiance to? He’s an awful stickler for the law without clemency.

Mr. Crabbin is an unnerving chap before we ever learn who he is and the shifty-eyed likes of the Baron, Dr. Winkel, and Popescu have far more to tell than they willingly divulge. The woman Anna (Valli), who loves Harry, is almost delusional with her unwavering love for a scoundrel. Even Cotten, our initial hero, lumbers around like a drunken idiot, thinking he has everything figured out.

And of course, there’s Mr. Harry Lime himself. The most iconic charismatic, machiavellian anti-hero. Orson Welles makes him a dashing shadowy specter, larger-than-life and theatrical. But there’s no discounting the mercilessness pulsing through him. None of these characters are straight-laced by any stretch of the imagination. They have some flaw, evil, or vice dragging them down. Lime just remains the mastermind and the poster boy of it all.

The one character who seems like a generally agreeable chap is, of course, the one who SPOLIERS gets it. Somehow it fits the times and the world. It couldn’t be any other way.

So 70 years on The Third Man still remains one of the preeminent examples of a quality thriller, pulsing with atmosphere, style, romance, and intrigue. To say they don’t quite make movies like this anymore is immaterial.

What’s truly staggering is how brilliantly Carol Reed’s film still holds up. I look forward to many more viewings to come, preferably with a friend or two. After all, they’re the ones who help me appreciate classics like these with new eyes.

Happy 70th Year to The Third Man! You’re still looking great!

I’m also proud to be a part of the Classic Movie Blog Association celebrating 10 years of existence. Here’s to many more.

Review: The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Funhouse Film Noir

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Before I knew the word “auteur” I think subconsciously I began to realize Orson Welles was gifted with this kind of innate artistic force that cemented all his pictures together. It’s part of what made him such a terror to work with and simultaneously a genius of such mammoth accomplishments as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

However, even his lesser-known pictures addled by studio meddling or lack of funds, bear his mark of visual ingenuity and singularity. Run down the line from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Trial and Chimes at Midnight and you get the idea perfectly. Of course, The Lady from Shanghai keeps this same company capably.

At its core is not just one luminary performer but two: Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth. From a purely cinematic perspective, no one had seen either of them quite like this before. Welles acting as actor, director, and producer introduces the story in first-person voiceover cloaked in an Irish brogue. Meanwhile, Hayworth loses her trademark luscious locks to transform into a bleached blonde.

To look at its opening frames alone is to acknowledge that The Lady from Shanghai is noir in nearly every conceivable way. Further still, it never abates along these lines traversing a befuddling narrative arc. It ultimately fails to ever gain clarity while casting Michael O’Hara as a fated hero destined for some inevitable destruction as the narrative zips along with lightning-quick pacing.

He is instantly pulled into the entangling web of Rosalie Bannister though it’s as much a testament to the seedy characters in her stead than her own inclinations. Hayworth gives us an immaculate conception of a femme fatale who is in one sense deadly and still somehow trapped within her very existence.

Even as O’Hara’s concerns for her well-being rise, he only gets dragged deeper into the dark depths of the squalid world around him. Because this particular tantalizing siren is surrounded by a sea of ravenous sharks just priming themselves to rip each other to shreds. Even if he tells himself otherwise, he’s chasing after a married woman, biting off something much too big for him.

Invalid attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) clings onto his “lover” like a trophy because the truth is, he has dirt on everyone in his life — keeping them right where they serve him best. It’s his shifty valet (Ted de Corsia), constantly lurking around, who surmises that tough guys always have an edge. The movie is filled with such shifty characters.

George Grisby (Glenn Anders) is the most unnerving as Bannister’s equally conniving partner. His cackling chills the bones while his continuous obsession about murder and O’Hara’s own scrape with it becomes a queer fascination of his. The reason is still left unknown.

Welles’ camera lovingly adores Hayworth. As she learns to smoke, picking up the habit after seaside excursions or basking in the sunbeams on deck. She the epitome of classic Hollywood allure. It was never her hair anyways. I think it’s something in her eyes gleaming with inalienable life.

However, I want to hate most of the close-ups — as a visceral reaction — because I rarely feel an actor breathing down my neck and yet Welles readily goes back to them again and again in a way that’s unnerving. The worst of them all is, of course, Grigsby.

In fact, Welles continually chooses the most perplexing camera setups. It’s such that you cannot help but allow his perspective to infiltrate your own and dictate how you see things. He’s allowed for no other way whether it be the harsh low angles, overhead shots or cutting between various close-ups to create the patchwork of a single scene.

O’Hara joins the jocund company on the yacht while the picture benefits from early examples of post-war on-location shooting sweeping through Mexico, New York, and ultimately San Francisco. Though it has its share of perceived opulence, not least among it the borrowing of Errol Flynn’s prized boat for the production, equally visible is a certain degradation and subsequent atmosphere that can be traced to Touch of Evil a decade later. It’s an unsettling juxtaposition to go right along with the menagerie of players.

And if O’Hara’s own shark metaphors are not augurs enough, Welles has the gall to envelop himself and his lover in an aquarium where the sharks are literally circling in the background, magnified to almost inordinate proportions. The figures are black contours facing each other cloaked completely by the darkness, framed by the panes of the tanks. On the whole, it’s a definitive image of pure chiaroscuro photography, completely indicative of their fatalistic state.

Though the director’s picture originally clocked in at a whopping 155 minutes, it was slashed down to an expedient 87 minutes, which nevertheless means there’s not a continuous line of lucidity running through the drama. Because through outcomes that mostly elude us, O’Hara finds himself on trial for a murder that came to pass by means that are never quite expanded upon.

All of a sudden, he’s fighting for his very life by some cruel reversal. The most incongruous part is the very fact there’s almost a sing-song quality to everyone else from Bannister to Grisby to the District Attorney and the Judge presiding over the case to decide O’Hara’s life.

The flippancy to it all is disconcerting. It’s like Welles and Hayworth are caught in the ghastly webs of noir melodrama and no one else has the least bit of concern. It’s only a game to them. The doleful drone of the shipyards moan as the jury deliberates and Bannister all but admits he’s set O’Hara up for the gas chamber.

But the final act is quintessential Welles given the luxury of two fine setpieces. The creme de la creme is, of course, the funhouse hall of mirrors which is pure directorial showmanship, stylized with gunfire, broken shards of shattering glass, and images of our stars refracted in disarray. Words cannot do it the justice it deserves. It stands as a final testament to a picture that’s plot is about as wonky, unresolved, and inconclusive as any noir piece ever was.

But if you’re like me you get the sense Welles placed the utmost care in the aspects of the film that mattered most to him, namely the visual elan. Because certainly, Lady from Shanghai is a narrative mess. There’s probably little hope of actually justifying all of its leaps and bounds.  And yet in the same breath, it’s equally difficult not to concede how visibly delightful a feast it is.

Will it satisfy everyone? Certainly not. But that’s a part of what made Orson Welles an unprecedented mastermind. He very rarely catered to others and as a result, his films are usually creatures of artistic invention all their own. There will never be another Orson Welles. The same can be said of any so-called auteur. That’s what makes them special — their easily attributed individuality. No one else is capable of making the same exact film. As it should be.

4/5 Stars

 

 

The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

The_Long,_Hot_SummerAs it turns out, Paul Newman’s a real barn burner. His family name is synonymous with conflagrations and it’s a great entry point for a character, in this case, a drifter named Ben Quick who’s run out of town by the local judge.

We never actually know if he was guilty of arson or not but we assume he must be. And so even with the audience, Quick carries that onus because the reputation seems to fit him. He’s a leering no-good, not to be trusted with money or women. It’s all speculation, mind you, though it cuts pretty close to the truth.

He receives some southern hospitality when a car screeches to a stop to pick him up. In the passenger’s seat is Eula (Lee Remick) with a coaxing sensuality accentuated by a sing-song twang that’s irresistible. More reserved is the driver, Clara (Joanne Woodward), who sees through Quick just like most people. She’s not about to be taken in by his animal magnetism.

This is just the beginning of a vast family drama and the names we have to thank are director Maritn Ritt, still trying to get his head above water after a blacklisting, and screenwriting stalwarts Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr.

Their tale was realized by weaving together three stories by William Faulkner that I have no prior knowledge of, matched with the atmospherics of a Tennessee Williams sweaty drama. In fact, it was released before a couple films that share more than superficial similarities, namely the well-remembered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) also starring Newman, this time opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. Then, there was God’s Little Acre (1958) which was probably the quirkiest and most erratic of the trio starring Robert Ryan as the head of the family.

Arguably, there’s no larger-than-life figure than Orson Welles to take the part of the portly patriarch of the Varner clan, Will, a man who puts his stamp on the local town. After a stint in the hospital with ailments, he comes back in fashion, sirens howling, so everyone knows that the king has returned. First, it’s a visit to his mistress (Angela Lansbury) who’s anxious to get married so she can have more stability. His responses remain evasive.

The Louisianna heat is no fluke and Welles is perpetually perspiring. He lends an earthiness to the proceedings that undoubtedly takes some cues from Ritt. Will Varner laughs boisterously at the catcalls of young boys directed towards his daughter-in-law, just as he conspires to get his other daughter hitched up so grandchildren can start popping out. In this regard, he’s very pragmatic (if not misogynistic). He wants heirs to maintain the family name because his gutless son certainly isn’t going to be the one to do it.

While important to the stability of the picture, by all accounts, Welles was a terror to work with for everyone on set. There are multiple indications of why this might have been. It’s all too probable he felt pressured and slightly insecure with the young upstarts coming on the scene from the Actor’s Studio, including Marlon Brando and his current co-star Paul Newman. Alternatively, with Welles being the renowned directorial power that he was, there was probably some dissatisfaction on his part because he couldn’t pull all the strings and have total control like he was normally accustomed to.

However,  put him together in a room with Paul Newman and you have two men in front of you as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks. Varner’s perceptive daughter puts it aptly, “One wolf recognizes another.” Soon they strike up a mutually beneficial deal throwing other people and lives around like they were pawns in a chess match to solely serve the two of them.

Varner wants a form of southern immortality. Males to bear his name and people to sing his praises and tame the land in a sprawling estate with spoils to match what he has accumulated over his lifetime. Quick, why, he just wants money and land and whatever else he can finagle out of the old man. What unites them is they’re both out for number one.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward go on their first cinematic date together and it’s a picnic in the park that ends prematurely. In real life, they would get married soon after principal photography wrapped and as they say, the rest was history. They stayed married for another 50 years until Newman’s passing in 2008. For a Hollywood marriage, this has to be some kind of record.

But regardless of what was going outside the frame, what is within the confines of the space is just as enchanting for the simple reason that they make some amount of palpable magic together. There’s a tension between them but then a certain attraction and pull that leads to oscillation back and forth in a continuous orbit of gravitation and then distaste.

In real life, it’s not what leads to stable romance but in film, it’s what dreams are made of because every sequence has an intangible undercurrent of spiritedness. It’s in the eyes twinkling. The unspoken words along with the spoken ones. Maybe it’s a lot of making something out of nothing but I would like to think it isn’t. They have something electric together.

Just as the film opened with fire, it’s another barn burning that ends the picture and gets the town in a tizzy. The irony is the very event that looks to be a dramatic firecracker actually reconciles a father and son. That’s the thing about The Long Hot Summer; it has the guts — some might say the gall — to end on an optimistic note without plunging into the throes of deep dark tragedy. Sometimes the 50s dramas take it too far. It’s almost as if they forget some of the greatest dramas historically were as much comedy as they were tragedy.

With so much talent, I’m inclined to like this one and since it all but led the pack coming out of the gates, it deserves some kudos. But best of all, the partnership between Martin Ritt, Ravitch, Frank, and Newman was just beginning, not to mention a marriage for the ages. It’s part of the reason why one can come away from The Long Hot Summer with a smile as wide as Will Varner’s.

3.5/5 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

The Third Man (1949): Out of the Rubble

the third man 1Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. 

Great films ring anew each time you see them. Or in this case, they twang with the oddly disconcerting strains of zither strings. The Third Man is such a film that continually asserts itself as one of the golden classics of the 1940s. But we must set the scene.

There’s an image of a great city–a formerly great city–blown up, diced up, and quartered. The first syllable of dialogue glibly carrying a twinge of irony lays the groundwork for the entire plot really. This is Post-war Vienna. It’s where the blown out buildings strewn with rubble can exist with the elegant remnants of royal dynasties. A land of black marketeering and shifty-eyed collaboration between wartime allies. It’s deception and ambiguity to the nth degree not only evident in the people but the very social structure they find themselves in. Everyone’s got an angle, a secret to hide, and a reason to hide it. There’s a consistently fine line between right and wrong and the storyline is ripe with incongruities and dissonance that, if nothing else, are disconcerting.

It struck me that this is the original Chinatown except it doesn’t simply act as a mere metaphor. We actually get enveloped in the atmospheric Vienesse world that feels invariably gaunt and hollow. It’s a world that’s flipped upside down and with the hapless American western pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as our guide, we become just as mixed up as he does.

He’s come to the town for the prospects of a job offered by an old school chum Harry Lime. But Harry’s not there to meet him. In fact, Harry’s not anywhere. He’s dead. But everything is clouded with that same ambiguity. The military police led by Inspector Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his right hand man (Bernard Lee) are still investigating Lime’s prior dealings on the black market in tainted penicillin. Meanwhile, Martins obviously goes blundering around trying to learn anything he can because these men are obviously incompetent. He scouts around for eyewitnesses and several of Lime’s acquaintances. Most of all he’s taken with Harry’s gal Anna (Valli) who is also torn apart by the death of her Harry. They bond over that although Holly soon becomes infatuated with her as she remains in love with a man who is gone forever.

This is the disorienting world that we are thrown into by Graham Green and director Carol Reed. Where heaven is down and hell is up. Ferris Wheels ever turning, rotating through their cycles. Dutch angles giving every figure a contorted view. We never see anyone for their face value and we can never assume anything. Because there’s always something lurking in the shadows.

the third man 2Joseph Cotten is surprisingly compelling as the poor, unfortunate stiff and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him in his ignorance because we can relate with him. Alida Valli is striking as the aloof beauty who nevertheless has an unswerving affection for her former love that remains the only joyous thing in her current existence. Then, of course, there’s Orson Welles as the charismatic myth of a man–arguably the most intriguing supporting character there ever was even if it’s mostly thanks to the legend created by those who knew him.

Meanwhile, Carol Reed’s film is stylish and simultaneously dingy around the edges another gritty entry in the annals of film noir with some of the most beautifully pronounced shadows in the history of film. The final setpiece through the dank cavernous underworld of the Viennese sewers is a fitting place for the Third Man’s climatic moments to play out. It epitomizes all that has been going on above ground so far.

Then in a strikingly Deja Vu moment, the story ends much as it began in the exact same place with the exact same people but now there is so much more tension underlying each character. Feelings now buried in the dirt.

And in his final shot, Reed is fearless. He plays a game with the audience, giving them their final shot but instead of bringing it to a rapid conclusion he lets the gravity of the situation sink in before it’s gone in a fit of wistful melancholy. It ends as all films noir should with one man dead, another man smoking a cigarette, and the girl walking off with neither of them. It’s about as bleak as you can get but then again we’ve already spent the entire film getting accustomed to this lifestyle. This is only a day in the life of a city like Vienna. This is what life is in a post-war zone.

5/5 Stars

Note: I will say that I rewatched the film on Netflix and I would vehemently dissuade others from doing the same (at least if they’ve never seen The Third Man before). Because one major change they made that you would hardly even think about is adding subtitles in some crucial moments. When I saw the film multiple times before the lack of subtitles only added to my general sense of confusion in the face of ambiguities, much like Holly Martins faces himself. Subtitles take some of that away from us as an audience. In this case, the subtitles are tantamount to colorizing black & white movies or resorting to pan and scan. They can easily ruin the experience.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

chimes of midnight 1“There live not three good men unhanged in England. And one of them is fat and grows old.”

It seems Orson Welles never did anything on a cursory level. There’s always a gravitas — the unique personality of the man displayed in his work whether it is behind the camera or in front of it. But in the same breath, he never takes himself too seriously. And it’s no different in his orchestration and portrayal of the character Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. It’s easy to argue that Charles Foster Kane was more memorable, Harry Lime was more beloved, and Hank Quinlan more remembered, but truly Shakespeare’s Falstaff just might be Orson Welles greatest role. At the very least his most underappreciated role for the very fact that far too few people have seen it.

He’s blustering and rotund, filling up the frame not only with his girth but with his witticisms and tall tales.But as much as this is a comic tale of farcical proportions, it’s also a storyline of tragedy and betrayal.

Being woefully under-read when it comes to Shakespeare, it was hard to come into this story because I had very meager reference points. However, Welles fuses together fragments of four narratives into an epic tale of his own creation, so prior knowledge perhaps was not admissible. The works he picked from include Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Still, when I do get in such a state of disarray, I have learned not to fret and to simply sit back and partake of what is offered me. With Welles, this is not a difficult task at all because of what he gives the viewer. It’s always spectacular, grandiose and richly wrought in some way, shape, or form. And for Welles the impresario, the Bard is a source of inspiration that is truly worthy of him, or you could say it the other way around even. He is worthy of the Bard.

chimes of midnight 2The triangle with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) vying for the affection of his father King Henry IV (John Gielgud), while simultaneously holding onto his relationship with Falstaff is an integral element of what this film is digging around at. But there’s so much more there for eager eyes.

Once more, rather like The Trial, it’s easy to marvel at the restrictions that Welles faced and what he still accomplished within that forced economy. He took the Spanish countryside, a budget of less than $1 million and crafted a work that is often considered the best Shakespearian adaptation ever and some say even the best of Welles. If the man himself was any indication, then maybe so, because he was fond of this work in particular.

From an audience’s point of view, he does some truly spectacular things. Despite the poor sound quality really throughout the entire film, the interiors of the castle are expressive in the same way The Trial’s cavernous alcoves were. Equally telling are Welles’ trademark low angles.  But Chimes at Midnight also spends more time outdoors, the most spectacular scene being the battle sequence portraying the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Welles uses every imaginable trick in the book to make 18o extras and the Spanish countryside work for him to the nth degree. It develops one of the most dynamic, perturbingly chaotic war zones ever through cross-editing, trick shots, speed changes and an elaborate patchwork of images that turns war into something unfathomably ugly. His smoke and mirror techniques matched with the chaotic clashing of metal, weaponry, bodies and jarring visuals is a superb showcase of a truly inspired filmmaker. Because the images are so evocative, adding to something far greater than their individual parts.

chimes of midnight 3And it’s only one high point. Aside from Welles towering performance, Jeanne Moreau stands out in her integral role as Doll Tearsheet, the aged knight’s bipolar lover who clings to him faithfully. The cast is rounded out by other notable individuals like John Gielgud, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey.

Honestly, few others can hold a candle to Falstaff. A great deal of that lies in the similarities between the character and the man playing him. He’s portly,  speaks in rich tones with tremendous wit but the bottom line is that he is met with tremendous disappointment, despite the towering heights of his reputation. He’s constantly short on funds trying to get what he needs from the relationships he’s cultivated with the people around him. However,  in the end, he wasn’t so lucky and the same could be said of Welles. Although Falstaff was exiled from the King’s presence, whereas Welles put himself through a self-made exile of his own. Still, he managed to come out with a work as stunning as Chimes at Midnight. That in itself is a tail worth noting about a man who was larger than life in his own respect. This is a miracle of a film not because it is perfect. It’s far from it, but it has so many remarkable moments in spite of its circumstances. It deserves to be seen by more people.

4.5/5 Stars

The Trial (1962)

thetrial1Citizen Kane is so often lauded for the simple fact that never before had a director had so much creative control on a project and exercised it in such an unprecedented fashion, especially given the state of affairs in the Hollywood studio system. It’s an enigma, a stunning debut and really an astounding miracle where all things aligned for an instant of so-called perfection.

But some people might assume Welles dropped off the face of the map, only to resurface as a rotund larger than life personality, hardly a cinematic auteur. And it is true, after that initial opportunity, he chased after freedom of artistic expression rather unsuccessfully. That does mean he never found it. Not by a long shot.

The Trial is indisputable evidence of that. It’s greatly under-viewed and that really is a shame, because within its frame you see the glimpses of that same master,  perhaps even more mature than he ever was in Kane.

The story grounds itself in the absurdist prose of Franz Kafka with Orson Welles delivering the opening narration in the form of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” setting the groundwork for the rest of the narrative. Anthony Perkins works seamlessly as Josef K. a tentative man set adrift in a world where he has been arrested and put on trial for a crime that is never revealed to him. He fluctuates easily between indignation and resigned timidity.

thetrial3At first glance The Trial is a bare-boned parable, feeling gaunt and cavernous with empty sets and even emptier words. Everyone Josef meets talks him in circles, tirelessly — never leading to any significant conclusion, only the next diversion in his journey.

There are some interludes in the film that could be characterized as dull, especially as we are getting acclimated to this storyline, or more precisely coming to grips with the fact that The Trial is not so much about Story. Kafka revels in the absurd rather than convention and Welles uses that surrealist absurdity as a vehicle for his own endeavors as a director.

Welles had his hands tied with lack of financial capital leading to only an abandoned railway station to work with, and he in turns transforms the space into a gloriously visual labyrinth. In his case limitations only meant further inspiration. In fact, his camera feels ever more inventive and engaging wherever it takes us within this surrealistic space. Large landscapes of dizzying scope mixed with confined, claustrophobic crevices. Further blanketed in light, utilizing a much simpler (as well as cheaper) black and white to develop an ever intricate gradation of field mingled with fascinating angles. These alone take a relatively bare scene and dress them up into something that is entrancing.

More than once, including the film’s final moments as  Josef looks to be headed towards death, it’s easy to be mesmerized because there are no clear narrative distinctions. Characters function as Kafka characters should, and Welles does the rest if you only give him your attention.

thetrial4If The Trial is a hodgepodge of talent,  with the presence of Americans Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins, international sirens Jeanne Moreau, Elsa Martinelli and Romy Schneider, with European backing and source material from Kafka,  then it is a thoroughly intriguing marriage all the same. This film is perhaps the greatest adaptation of the work of Kafka and not due necessarily to its faithfulness to its source material, but because it displays an unmistakably Wellesian vision.  The cyclical nature of the legal system pales in comparison with the fascination that comes with watching the continual creativity that is projected up on the screen — this is a hollow dream of a film.

So Orson Welles did get his artistic freedom, complete with a few surprising moments of cursing, international talent and meager funding that nevertheless gave him what he so desired. Welles ends the film with more narration and instead of running end credits he opts to list off all the names of his players. While the final intonations of his voice leave little doubt that this is his creation first and last, it also suggests that this is a personal film. Something outside of the realm of conventional Hollywood, but still very much worthwhile, even if it’s due mostly to form over content.

4/5 Stars

Catch-22 (1970)

catch221It’s the bane of my literary existence, but I must admit that I have never read Joseph Heller’s seminal novel Catch-22. Please refrain from berating me right now, perhaps deservedly so, because at least I have acknowledged my ignorance. True, I can only take Mike Nichol’s adaptation at face value, but given this film, that still seems worthwhile. I’m not condoning my own failures, but this satirical anti-war film does have two feet to stand on.

It reads like a cast of millions: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Peter Bonerz, Felice Orlandi, Jack Riley, Marcel Dalio, and even Orson Welles. And in truth, no one character disappoints, because no one character has to carry the brunt of this narrative.

Certainly, Yossarian (Alan Arkin), the disillusioned WWII bombardier, is our protagonist, but he needs people to react to and bounce off of. It’s the likes of Colonel Cathcart (Balsam) and Lt. Colonel Korn (screenwriter Buck Henry) his neurotic superiors and the pragmatic wheeler-dealer Milo Minderbender (Jon Voight) who make him that way.

Their world of bombing missions, valor, medals, and “The Syndicate” are utterly absurd just as they are, but they don’t seem to recognize it. That’s where the satire stems from, the critique of war, and all the wit. It seems like no coincidence that Mike Nichols released this film during the Vietnam Era. Like its compatriot, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, it finds a wickedly dark sense of humor in war. Because what is there to do with death and violence, but laugh and try to find some way to grapple with it?

catch222The Chaplain (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t feel like a man of the cloth at all, but a nervously subservient trying to carry out his duties. An agitated laundry officer (Bob Newhart) gets arbitrarily promoted to Squadron Commander, and he ducks out whenever duty calls. Finally, the Chief Surgeon (Jack Gilford) has no power to get Yossarian sent home because as he explains, Yossarian “would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he’d have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t, he was sane and had to.” This is the mind-bending logic at the core of Catch-22, and it continues to manifest itself over and over again until it is simply too much. It’s a vicious cycle you can never beat.

In fact, each man involved must cope with their duties one way or another oftentimes through prostitution, jokes, or an obsessive almost numb commitment to duty. Yossarian tries all of the above rendezvousing with an Italian beauty and receiving a medal without any clothes on.

catch224But the tonal shift of Catch-22 is important to note because while it can remain absurdly funny for some time, there is a point of no return. Yossarian constantly relives the moments he watched his young comrade die, and Nately (Art Garfunkel) ends up being killed by his own side. It’s a haunting turn and by the second half, the film is almost hollow. But we are left with one giant aerial shot that quickly pulls away from a flailing Yossarian as he tries to feebly escape this insanity in a flimsy lifeboat headed for Sweden. It’s the final exclamation point in this farcical tale.

M*A*S*H  certainly deserves a reevaluation, but Catch-22 just might be the best, or at least one of the best, anti-war films of the 1970s. Mike Nichols delivers once more with a wickedly funny indictment of global conflict using a classic of American literature for inspiration.

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

The Best Films of Orson Welles

1. Citizen Kane
2. Touch of Evil
3. The Third Man
4. The Magnificent Ambersons
5. Chimes at Midnight
6. The Lady from Shanghai
7. The Trial
8. The Stranger
9. Macbeth
10. Othello
11. Jane Eyre
12. The Long, Hot Summer
13. Compulsion
14. Catch-22
15. A Man For All Seaons

*Films as a director and actor

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art”