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”

The Stranger (1946)

f6c39-the_stranger_filmIn a whirlwind, the film goes from a moody foreign locale to a quaint American town called Harper, but it never ceases to be a gripping film noir. Considered Orson Welles‘ weakest project thus far, The Stranger is still thoroughly enjoyable thanks to the performances of Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles himself. Much like Shadow of a Doubt, this film shows that noir thrillers can still take place in middle America, and they can be pulse-pounders all the same. Also, an evil man can easily exist in a mundane environment and still be evil.

The reason we end up in Harper of all towns has to do with an “escaped” Nazi war criminal. He was allowed to escape and investigator Mr. Wilson (Robinson) follows him. It’s an idyllic little town and one of its most respected members is professor Charles Rankin (Welles), who is soon to be wed to pretty Mary Longstreet (Young). Little does she know that he is former Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler, and he is the man the escaped Konrad Meinike is looking for. Mr. Wilson is very interested in his whereabouts too.

Meinike soon disappears but not before deterring Wilson. However, not one to shy away from his duty, Wilson soon ingratiates himself with the local people, especially the newly married Mary and her kindly family. He is eager to learn more about the professor and at first, the gentleman seems above reproach, but something lurks underneath his calm exterior. Soon the beloved family dog Red is killed, an increasingly manic Rankin confesses his predicament to his wife and conveniently leaves out a few facts. Now constantly paranoid, Mary’s life is in far more peril than she realizes, and Wilson takes all the precautions he can. The clanging of the newly refurbished clock becomes a point of major contention, and it also serves as the perfect locale for a final climatic showdown (Put aside the absurdity and just watch it).

The whole town turns out for the show and finally after getting conked on the head and nearly killed during the case, Mr. Wilson finally has time to relax. Welles is not quite as memorable as Harry Lime here but still a sophisticated villain of sorts.  Likewise, Barton Keyes is a bit more memorable but Edward G. Robinson still brings his personality, iconic voice, and memorable mug to the table. Loretta Young has a radiant face and eyes like always. In other words, they do what they do. It works in making The Stranger a worthwhile thriller with the expected melodramatic music and shadowy facades of a film-noir. This is undoubtedly an oversimplification, but  then again, Orson Welles needs no introduction, and he certainly does not need me to vouch for creative genius.

4/5 Stars

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

a4d49-a_man_for_all_seasonsSir Thomas More had the misfortune of getting in the way of perhaps one of the most notorious kings in history, and it proved costly. It is the early 1500s in England, and the Reformation has shaken the world but Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) has his own plans for the church in his country. He is bent on getting his marriage annulled by the pop,e because young Anne Boleyn will be much more likely to give a healthy heir to the throne.

A Man For All Seasons focuses on the position of More who at the time was Lord Chancellor of England. First, in talking with Cardinal Wolsey, More resolves not to sign the letter to the pope on the king’s behalf, because it goes against his conscience. Later, in his dealings with Thomas Cromwell, More resigns rather than to sign an oath making Henry VIII the supreme leader of the church in England.

Except there is more to it than that. More certainly was not a dissident or a rebellious political figure. Far from it. At least in the film, he is portrayed by Paul Scofield as a constantly even-keeled and gracious man in all circumstances. When a young man named Rich (John Hurt) sold More out for a high title, in a Christ-like response More has only pity for the fellow. Selling his soul for the world is worse enough, but Rich did it for Wales.

Not even the pleading of his newly-wedded daughter (Susannah York), or his strong-willed wife (Wendy Hiller) can change More’s conviction as he wastes away in the Tower of London. Sir Thomas went calmly to his death confident that his faith in his Lord would give him eternal peace. He died there for a seemingly trivial reason at the hands of men who used to be his friends. But he died with his conscience intact.

As I acknowledged, Paul Scofield is such a serene force during the storm of this film. The portly Orson Welles and Leo McKern seem to fit their roles well, and Robert Shaw has enough bluster to pull off Henry VIII. A young John Hurt turns in a fine performance as the Judas of the film and Nigel Davenport is commendable as More’s exasperated friend the Duke.

Adapted from a stage play, here is another highly acclaimed film from director Fred Zinnemann. Perhaps it is the period drama, but this film strikes me as very English and it did very well for itself. I suppose because it’s a tale that is universal and audiences love to identify with men such as Sir Thomas More. Zinnemann was always superb at capturing the inner struggles that humanity is often forced to confront, and he did it once again here.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Third Man (1949)

5873f-thirdmanusposterI am continually drawn to The Third Man for a number of reasons, which I would love to highlight right now. To begin with, the opening credits come up and yet behind them is the rather odd image of a row of strings. As an audience, this is our first introduction to the zither, the twangy instrument that will create the strangely haunting score over the course of the film.

Then, we are fed a casual bit of narration that quickly throws us into the story of western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), as he heads to Vienna to meet his old school chum Harry Lime (to be revealed later!). It seems safe to say that World War II was not good to the city, which is a mixture of ruins, cobblestone streets and ornate architecture that lend itself to an uneasy feeling. In other words, what happens in Vienna, stays in Vienna. Everything is zoned off nicely, and the authorities try and stay out of each other’s way.

Martins learns soon enough that Lime is dead and yet it doesn’t add up. His best friend was hit by a car driven by a colleague, carried off the road by two friends, and diagnosed by his personal doctor who all happened to be present. Martins is urged by a Major Calloway to not get involved. Heading home would be a much better solution.

But of course, Martins does not heed this advice. He meets Harry Lime’s girl, the beautiful but somber Anna (Valli), who has her own troubles with the authorities. Further investigation points to a mysterious third man who a local porter saw from his window. The old man winds up dead and soon Martins himself is threatened. Calloway encourages him to leave again before reluctantly disclosing that Lime was dealing diluted penicillin on the black market. That batch ultimately killed and harmed many a patient.

It’s a whole different ballgame now. But wait, after dropping in on Anna, Martins sees a shadowy figure out her window and in a dramatic entrance Lime shows his face. A magnificent magic trick and fully alive. The next day on a Ferris wheel Lime’s true character comes out. All I will say is that he would have been at home in the Borgia family.

Now Holly is conflicted about helping the police snag his old friend or heading home, wiping his hands of the whole ordeal. He finally reluctantly swings a deal because of his love for Anna. Plans are set and soon a trap is sprung for Lime. He is tipped off by a still faithful Anna, but the police force him to make his getaway into the sewers. That is where it all goes down for good. The next day Holly Martins waits at the side of the road for Anna. She slowly makes her way in his direction and without any acknowledgment, she keeps on walking on. She is now out of the picture and all he can do is light yet another cigarette. That is the cold and painful ending to The Third Man, a perfectly suited story for Post-War Vienna and a great Film-Noir.

We become constantly aware of this film’s almost painful camera angles, at times, which slightly distort scenes and close in on faces. It is an unnerving feeling for the viewer which is only compounded by the bleak and shadowy cinematography, along with the haunting music. It all adds up to a perfectly chilling composition. The story feels starkly real too thanks to the on-location shooting and the mixing in of the German with the English. As a non-German speaker, this extra language only furthered my confusion and, at times, my paranoia. Along with Martins, I often could not understand what was going on, causing me to be more and more befuddled.

All in all, although Orson Welles stole the show, both Joseph Cotten and Valli were superb. The two of them had the most screen time and it certainly was not wasted. Whether they were walking or talking they always made for an interesting contrast. Their accents, their demeanor, even their opinions of Lime were often in juxtaposition. I was not a fan of Trevor Howard, but he was not meant to be a likable character. Bernard Lee, on the other hand, had to be my favorite supporting role.

The Third Man is already on my watch list again and for good reason! Well done Carol Reed, Grahame Green, and Anton Karas!

5/5 Stars