Monday, May 04, 2015

Here's to Character

What should have been the eighth film in the Orson Welles retrospective I planned on seeing was projected in 35mm, but I missed it because I had to work and so I'm writing about it based on the Criterion dvd I watched at home.


Confidential Report (1955, Orson Welles) is the most fun to watch of any of Welles's films. It's very light due to its lack of any of the layers in his other films--philosophical, existential, political, introspective, romantic, or temporal--it's just about an ordinary low class would be blackmailer Van Stratten (Robert Arden) and his brush with the elusive, enigmatic Gregory Arkadin (Welles).

This film has a cheap, something you would stumble across on late night tv quality, and I mean that as a compliment. The whole thing feels casual. It's one of the only of Welles's films that don't require paying too much attention. It's like a stretched out anecdote, that happens to be more baroque than Citizen Kane (1941, Welles) and stumbles across the globe and back featuring a ton of deep focus picturesque locations that string, from as I can best remember: Italy to Switzerland to Poland to Mexico to Germany.

The pulp crime novel plot hardly makes sense if you think about it too much. But the setup has Van Stratten conned from blackmailing Mr. Arkadin into snooping across the globe to find out the answer to the mystery: in 1927, Switzerland, Arkadin found himself with 200 Swiss francs and no recollection of where they or he came from, who he was, or any details of anything before that event. And on his way to meeting Arkadin, the wiseguy-uneducated-accented playboy Van Stratten happens to begin pursuing an affair with Arkadin's alluring daughter Raina (Paola Mori).

The script isn't that good. It feels clumsy and ambles through a bunch of episodes of Van Stratten uncovering clues about Arkadin. And the soundtrack is poor most of the time. But these only enhance this film's aura of mystery it itself possesses. And I'm sure this wasn't intentional, but it works. Yet it does fit in the chronology of Welles's International Independent phase. And while not really as low-key as the lighting on most of Welles's other films, the wall to wall landmark backgrounds are interspersed with heavy use of canted angles. Mr. Arkadin seems almost exclusively filmed canted and from slightly low angles. The first confrontation triangle between Arkadin, Van Stratten and Raina features a wonderfully memorable push into CU on the canted angled Arkadin.

Welles as Mr. Arkadin speaks in a thick Eastern European accent, which recalls his performance from Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster) as Colonel Haki--both figures are either from Georgia or Russia. And Welles also wears the modern wardrobe of a decadent millionaire, has an elaborate wig, fake beard and a fake nose. Like I said, this movie is a lot of fun.

If most of the story arch and character motivations are awkward, make no mistake, the climax is well plotted. Some big gaps are plugged. And the long tracking shots of Van Stratten through the Munich Christmas party are frivolously unrestrained (slot car racing and archery in the BG) and what I mean when I say baroque; also of course the earlier masquerade ball with the Goya inspired grotesque masks that would later be redone in Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick). This followed Othello (1952, Welles) and really hits home how big of a thing Welles had for masks around this period. And also like Othello Welles repeats the motif of a funerary march of mourners in black robes--though technically here in Confidential Report, it's a procession of penitents, and umm, pretty much gratuitous.

Arkadin spouts some Wellesian anecdotes throughout Confidential Report like the frog and the scorpion, and the graveyard with brief dates on the tombstones ones; but his final riddle to Van Stratten most characterizes the conflict of the film:

In this world are those who give and those who ask;
those who do not care to give;
those who do not care to ask.

Confidential Report is Welles the magician pulling a slight of hand and like a true showman, giving the audience what they want. This is the one Welles movie I'd watch again in an instant. Although I don't think he ever really tried to cater to the highbrows.


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Sunday, May 03, 2015

I Am Not What I Am

The seventh film in the Orson Welles retrospective that I was able to attend was presented in a brand new, restored DCP courtesy of Carlotta Films. The quality of the picture and the soundtrack were great.

If Citizen Kane (1941, Welles) demonstrates the height of Orson Welles's achievements during his Hollywood Studio phase, Othello (1952, Welles), or William Shakespeare's Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, shows his greatest strengths as an International Independent filmmaker. Call this the second film in Welles's International Independent career, which also happens to be a Shakespeare adaptation, along with Macbeth (1948, Welles).

From the opening, Othello appears to be mounted as a large scale production. The cold open prologue funerary march initiates a bookend structure by its framing of Othello's visage in CU drenched all around in blackness. This can recall the iconographic masks of drama--the world being a stage . . . And with extreme long shots, the robed line of mourners recalls a staggeringly powerful aesthetic picture of a Brazilian funeral march from Welles's unfinished It's All True (1942, Welles)--I am so going to steal that. The Moroccan location work is Welles back in command of photographic exotic locales and taking the best advantage of exterior settings. Then there's the historic Venetian canals through the floating city that delight one's tourist appetites; and the Byzantine groin vault labyrinthes are remarkable--especially in the Dutch framed defeated collapse of Roderigo in shallow water with his cute little curly haired white dog sidekick splashing in the foreground.

That's awesome how Roderigo is followed by the little dog. I didn't ask myself why. I just went with it. Why not?

What an understated masterful staging of a tragedy Shakespeare wrote: An honest, brave man's utter annihilation by a friend he shouldn't trust and a wife he should. Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) is one of those villains who is all bad, and totally fits into Welles's catalog of bad guys. If Macbeth's about a central protagonist ridden with guilt, Othello's about a central protagonist plagued with jealousy, the "green-eyed monster." And this again gives Welles the actor a singular obsession to spin out of control through the whole narrative with.

One of the most romantic of sentiments forms the basis of the romance: Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) falls for Othello after he's returned from seven years of military service because, with "a greedy ear," she likes hearing him tell her about what his life was like in brutal combat. But the tragedy of course is that Othello is by nature a General, and when Iago plants false accusations about Desdemona's infidelity, just like the way Othello sends troops to destroy the Turks he hears are to invade Cyprus, he attacks his love like if she were a rival nation.

So there you have it all: love, tragedy, backstabbing (literally), and even comedy, because well, Roderigo's funny as shit. The turkish bath assault is suspenseful and cringe inducing with Iago's blood lust for power.

Welles bombards the screen with directorial flourishes too. Latticed barriers hiding characters, frames within frames, the small square Othello is forced to eavesdrop on Cassio through during the handkerchief bit, cubby holes of darkness throughout the castles, and the best of all for last. The final confrontation of Desdemona shows her in repose profile CU while the jealous Othello emerges from behind her frontal to the camera like a preying wretch; his repeating mask in darkness; and the elegance of the clean linen mask he murders her with (again the mask motif); finally, the manhole up in the ceiling as the people see the base depravity of his actions revealed below them.

Even though Iago may be all bad, I've always empathized with him. He's burdened with contradictions, but it's because he feels as though he'll never find love. Damn, I love tragedies.


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Friday, May 01, 2015

Sleep No More

The sixth film in the Orson Welles retrospective that I was able to view was projected in 35mm.

Macbeth (1948, Orson Welles) is called a Mercury Theatre Production, but it was released by Republic Pictures--an independent studio. Seeing Welles emerge undaunted by lack of funds for costumes, sets, locations, and a large crew of technicians is most evident in this picture.

I couldn't believe it was almost two hours when I looked at my watch after exiting (I saw the version with an overture) this movie. Macbeth begins with an expertly crafted supernatural tension, and like The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Welles) feels like a quick nightmare. The plot device of the three witches telling Macbeth and Banquo their fates makes for a tight straightforward narrative structure which was rare for Welles at this time; except of course for The Stranger (1946, Welles). Also the Scottish palace sets contribute to the minimalism of the world of the story in their limited quantity and sparse landscapes, combined with Macbeth's drugged out looking two weeks he spends as King without sleeping make this movie a scary bad dream.

Another motif that springs up constantly with Welles is corruption at the highest levels of wealth or power, and Lord and Lady Macbeth are still jarring to one's sense of morals by today's standards. They're like hey what if we just killed everyone who is above you so you could be the highest boss. And what an oddly comic tone that underlies the horrific abrupt moment when Macduff's son is happily not at all worried about his missing father and prodding his mother to remarry right before some paid thugs break in and murder him. What? The child murder is so over the top I think it was a little funny. Damn.

So yeah, the locations and camera work aren't as baroque as Welles's earlier films, but the world of Macbeth has a compelling look throughout. And the girth of Welles stomping around with his horn goblet, regal robes and crown is commanding. While this may be the only of Welles's films that deal with supernatural elements, I guess this type of magic would make sense in interesting the famously practiced stage magician Welles.

John L. Russell photographed Macbeth, Samuel Fuller's Park Row (1952), then a lengthy career in television before returning with the iconic and polished Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). This film feels like it's always dusk or midnight. But one sublime frame worth mentioning takes place as Macduff returns to confront Macbeth in a duel to the death: a medium close-up of the armored Macduff is backlit, leaving him in complete darkness with his cross topped helmet towering toward the camera with foggy smoke bathed in waves of diffuse light behind him. This is another of Welles's films with a grand climax of action suspense that sees an arch villain thrown from a high place down into a plummeting death.

Again, how clever of Shakespeare to have guilt keep Macbeth from sleeping. This one definitely translates well to the screen in Welles's hands.


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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Like the Sharks Mad with Their Own Blood Chewing Away at Themselves

The fifth film in the Orson Welles retrospective was projected from a DCP. The negative was immaculate. Only five in and it's already the end of Welles's Hollywood phase.

In The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles) Welles tones down his expressionist camera somewhat; because there are less abstract angles or compositions; but, the locations are truly influenced by German Expressionism through their nightmare quality. And the locations used in The Lady from Shanghai also indulge Welles's passion for exotic locale, especially the picnic detour up the coast of Mexico. The Mexicans in that sequence appear so authentic, they must be locals. And the latter half of the film boasts some historical treasures by getting to see the streets of San Francisco as they looked in the late Forties.

The Lady from Shanghai is nightmare noir; although the only other noir I can think of that fits this description is Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer). Some professors of screenwriting argue that movies must have an active protagonist. Or in other words, they maintain that a protagonist cannot passively progress through a narrative where other characters are responsible for actions against him or her; they say a character has to make choices. Do you act in your dreams? I don't. In my dreams stuff just happens. There are no rules in filmmaking, and The Lady from Shanghai is one of my favorite examples of the successful use of a passive protagonist: Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles).

A key ingredient in this noir is the overwhelming sense of paranoia that surrounds O'Hara. It constantly feels like everyone is lying, manipulating him, and out to get him like a bunch of sharks. And they are. The other key to The Lady from Shanghai is the titular femme fatale, Elsa Bannister, played by the sultry, created for the gaze of celluloid Rita Hayworth.

Elsa introduces herself as a princess after O'Hara rescues her, and tells him that she'd like to hire him as a sailor. But then she reveals that she's married. And her husband is the top criminal lawyer in California. And he's rich. And he's much older than her. And he's crippled, walking with two canes. Incidentally, her husband Arthur Bannister is played by Everett Sloane. Sloane was a part of Welles's Mercury Theatre, appeared in Citizen Kane, and Journey Into Fear, and rarely do I say this about actors, but damn I love Everett Sloane. Recently I was on a Twilight Zone bender and that led me to discover an amazing early teleplay that Rod Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theatre called Patterns from 1955 starring Sloane. Patterns is about a heartbreaking changing of the guard in a big business potboiler of a live program. Okay, I'm getting off topic, but when else will I have the chance to talk about Everett Sloane?

So, Arthur Bannister, his socialite buddy Grisby, and Mrs. Bannister exploit the hapless O'Hara. But what lures him into this madness? The femme fatale, Elsa. This might be as old of a movie I've seen where the sex appeal is still intact. Rita Hayworth is framed and photographed to look timeless. She's in her prime and radiates glamor and a disarming feminine allure. She's dynamite in her close-ups, her repose in wet clingy black bathing suit, and coos with feigned vulnerability that eats up the screen. The Lady from Shanghai is a nightmare also because Elsa deceives O'Hara into falsely believing she is attracted to him, yet she's duplicitous, and she's dangerous; but, even though he suspects all of this, he keeps following her further and further. This parable's got teeth.

Welles the thespian has another scene-grabbing monologue, and when he tells the surreal tale of the sharks of the coast of Brazil uncontrollably devouring each other, turning the sea red with their blood, he once again distills the essence of an entire film into a vivid cipher--a nightmare within a nightmare.

Welles's lasting impression as visual stylist is found during the funhouse climax, where the protagonist O'Hara stumbles down a winding dragon of a slide, and gets caught in a shootout in a maze of mirrors.


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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Only a Nazi Could Say Karl Marx Wasn't German Because He Was a Jew

The fourth movie in the Orson Welles retrospective I was able to see was a DCP, but the negative was in great shape and the soundtrack cleaned up fine.

The Stranger (1946, Orson Welles) is the most straightforward, traditionally Hollywood narrative in Welles's canon. It is especially definitive of a 1940s postwar Hollywood movie. Stars, melodrama, a social message, and a formulaic plot do not hinder Welles's touch, however. The Stranger is about a Nazi who contributed greatly to the design of the most horrifying aspects of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler (Welles), who hides out in Connecticut, waiting for the next war so he can get back to his true passion--destroying his world enemies.

Welles's directorial presence again proves his mastery of staging and photographing stories. From the get go, we get the low key lighting shadows, and the locations chosen for the setting always feel creative in Welles's work. Again Welles features his device of time jump editing as a postcard of the town square with clocktower is removed to reveal the identical image. The Harper School for Boys where Kindler (hiding out as Charles Rankin) teaches provides pleasant exteriors that are photographed from high angles and are composed painterly--as evidenced in the paper trail chase and subsequent parallel Nazi chase through the gymnasium.

Many of the scenes are allowed to breathe at the small town pace of the New England locale. When one of Kindler's old Nazi associates finally finds him, the long tracking shot is also staged in a deliberately telling style as Kindler always stares ahead as he speaks to the man that clings around him--Kindler ignores whom he doesn't care to notice because his is the power of fascism.

Edward G. Robinson holds his weight as the Nazi hunter. And when he gets invited to dinner at Kindler's home and corners him in a conversation about Germany, Welles's monologue about the national identity and pathology of the German people stands out as the social message rearing its head--but in hindsight is more humorously brazen than distasteful.

The cluttered, big windowed, big mirrored pharmacy makes for some showy geometric compositions and goes back to Welles's nostalgia for Norman Rockwell style Americana. Also worth noting is the cinematographer on this picture, Russel Metty, who would go on in the 50s to work on many of the maestro of reflective surfaces and frame-within-frames movies, Douglas Sirk.

While not quite lackluster, the Nazi manhunt procedural keeps the film from Welles's stalwart tendency for surreal experimentation. The plot is something like a thriller melodrama. But chuckles abound, mainly in the third act, as the stakes are raised. The bit where Rankin is in a payphone booth and distractedly doodles a large swastika on the interior wall is laugh out loud funny. And Mary Rankin (Loretta Young) is driven to fainting hysteria at a constant crescendo of love-stricken breakdown that is out of place by today's standards, but also pretty damn funny.

The grand finale in the clocktower is another exercise in expressionist canted angles and Welles's high position, hidden in shadow, paints him as a grotesquely sinister Quasimodo. And the foreboding bells ominously suggest the death toll that is imminent. When he confronts his wife Mary, the overhead lighting hides his eyes in another example of an expressionist mask shadows can create. The dizzying spectacle also recalls the end of Journey Into Fear. It's hard to buy that the whole momentum of this tale rests on Kindler's wife unable to believe his true identity because she loves him so much, but that's what makes Hollywood so fun. Emotion takes higher importance than truth.


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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Not Every Man Is Sincere

The third film in the Orson Welles retrospective that I've been able to attend was projected in 35mm.

Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster Orson Welles), the third film released by Orson Welles as a Mercury Production--his stock cast and crew from radio and subsequently Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)--and released by RKO Radio Pictures, which was one of the Big Five Hollywood studios then, is a minor work in Welles's oeuvre.

Journey Into Fear is a B movie spy yarn about American engineer Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten) on the run from Nazis in a Turkish port on his way to Georgia. It is a standard genre thriller that follows a linear plot. It also lacks the overarching grand reinventing the wheel style narratives that Welles's previous two films displayed. Welles's name isn't even on this as director. Nor does it at all explore memory, shift time, contrast class and wealth, or combine highs and lows of its central protagonists in sentimental nostalgia.

But the reason it should be attributed to Welles as director is because it is embellished with low-key lighting, cavernous shadowy sets--the first time Graham descends the staircase into the nightclub/underworld--and bizarre canted, wide-angled, low and high perspective angled, and reverse track back leading shots that float on butter.

Welles's turn as debonair hulk Colonel Haki is hammy, but funny. Everett Sloane and Aggy Morehead also provide nothing more than comic relief, in contrast to their earlier roles in Welles's films. But the villain Banat must be the most memorable character in Journey Into Fear with his foreboding overweight physique, nearly silent performance, rumpled hat, spectacles and the menacing scene where he combines corpulence with homicidal mania as he confronts Graham while destroying his crackers into his soup as he slops it up, staring down his target.

The grand finale outside the top of the ledges of the building in the rain storm showdown is an edge of your seat payoff, and the film lacks too much charm to be dismissed.


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Saturday, April 11, 2015

In Those Days, They Had Time for Everything

The second film screening I have been able to attend from the Orson Welles retrospective was also projected in 35mm.

How fresh the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) remains. The quaint homespun narration voiced over by Welles, the digression into the evolution of men's dress during the nineteenth century somewhere back East, and the picturesque bucolic tone of sentiment and genuine fondness for a bygone era are warming and retain an innocence that is untarnished and eloquent.

The Amberson estate is baroque and the more access we gain upon entry, the more we realize the same space never seems to appear twice. The shadows and low key lighting are complemented by a camera that waltzes through the interiors with poised grace.

The dialogue is typically radio Wellesian with its brisk pacing, snappy comedic punctuations, and see saw balance that levels the playing field regardless of sex, income, or intellect.

And there's that staircase. That magnificent staircase. It is a visual key. From the moment George Amberson Minafer begins pursuing Lucy Morgan--an instance of high class courting low class--he guides her. After their back and forth struggle of wills, he is about to lead her up that grand staircase just as she abruptly cuts him off to reveal that Eugene Morgan, "that queer looking duck," is her father. George will never get Lucy up those stairs. A parallel to this motif is after the midpoint when Eugene returns to fight his way back into the mansion for one last attempt to see the dying Isabel, the love of his life. Uncle Jack appears on the upper floor at the railing of the staircase and asks Eugene, who's down at the bottom floor, to please come back later. Of course, Isabel dies and Eugene will never make it up that staircase (or see her again).

The Magnificent Ambersons is a tonal study. The luminescent innocence of the film's opening that culminates in the carriage ride through the snow--snow symbolizes the loss of youth in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, as George, Lucy, Isabel, Eugene, Fanny and Jack sing gaily, and significantly trail into the deep background to be irised in on, is eclipsed by the bulk of the latter two thirds of the narrative. Dark tragedy engulfs the film like a cancer. Aunt Fanny's breakdown is bleak and hopeless. And, General Amberson's death scene, with its surreal tone, the frontal framing of his withering visage and rambling pleas accompanied by Welles's eulogizing mournful almost whispering narration, ends as a sublimely melancholy piece of cinema.

Georgy drives the narrative. What a toxic breed he starts out as, a borderline sociopath who views the lower class as riff raff. The coy framing in wide angle of his speech in defense of attacking the other boy with him center weighted and postured level to the camera as he mocks the adult who turned him in as he self-righteously confesses that the man wouldn't be fit to shine the general's shoe is another of Welles's finest achievements.

Georgy is a monster, and that he desires Lucy as his bride dooms him to rejection, but his comeuppance is so much more. This is a film about social tragedy. The Morgans are such good people, and because Isabel Amberson is good-natured and sweet, Eugene is ideally suited for her. The twist that Georgy could actually stop this match is heartbreaking, but wonderfully paints the reality these characters are confronted with.

This proves the fondness and mastery of melancholy and melodrama Welles was apt at executing.


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