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.


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.


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.


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.


Friday, April 10, 2015

I'll Bet You Five You're Not Alive If You Don't Know His Name

A two month retrospective series of the films of Orson Welles has begun here in Austin.

It is a joy for me to write about the first of these screenings that I attended, which was in a theater downtown and projected in 35mm.

My Declaration of Principles

I.   I will provide the readers of this blog with a review of Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) that does not in any way mention the context of the film's production, any of Orson Welles's other films, first time innovative techniques, or the basis of its central protagonist on any real people.

II.  I will also provide them with a review that doesn't mention anything about the man Orson Welles, his life, his career, or any of his other personal aspects or characteristics, or the reputation of this, his first film, as being widely considered to be the greatest film of all time.

Citizen Kane focuses on character over plot. What perfunctory plot there is to speak of is nothing more than a journalist trying to track down Charles Foster Kane's last words: "Rosebud." The journalist visits Kane's widow--Susan Alexander, goes to the archives of the late Thatcher--Kane's banker and guardian, then to Bernstein and later Leland--Kane's business colleagues. And finally, the film ends with a reveal that shows Rosebud was Kane's sled he lost as a boy.

The prologue (following the shattered snow globe) is original and riveting in its imaginative execution. The newsreel is constructed as a media decoy that is believable in its authenticity. We are introduced to Kane through a wide array of diverging viewpoints of opinion. Many of them negative, few sympathetic. But we are hooked and want more.

The magic of Citizen Kane arises out of the scenes of memory; melodramatic, and fanciful, the first of which being the boarding house scene, which relies on Kane's until recently destitute mother (Aggy Morehead) morosely ascribing him to the care of Thatcher after she's inherited a goldmine (literally) to get the boy away from what's hinted at to be an abusive domineering father.

Chronologically Kane begins as a sympathetic hero that overcomes tragedy to crusade for the poor masses of Americans. He's not interested in money or power--he wants to make a change. This is the germ for what proves the arching toxic melodrama. Kane works at his career and his marriage because of altruistic principles. Then we see his eventual ugly, inexplicable, saddening decay and departure from everything he once stood for.

For the man who seems on a sure track to the United States presidency, and the sky being the limit, his options diminish rather quickly.

Citizen Kane also shows the intertwining relationship between melodrama and tabloid. The bitter comeuppance Boss Jim Gettes has in store for Kane, the tabloid love nest banner, is the surprisingly sudden final nail in Kane's coffin.

The rise of Kane is full of hope. The depiction of the Inquirer offices, the revelry and celebration that go on there, the snappy witty dialogue all paint the past in a brilliant luster that gives the film its lasting glow. On the contrary, it is Xanadu that crushes all hope with its decadent darkness, oppressive painful remorse and chaotic lack of any principle other than avarice of property--including Susan, who becomes nothing more than one of his statues.

Another trait worthy of admiration in Citizen Kane's structure is the continuous jumping from one location to the next, both geographic and temporal. The film's pace is relentless. And the efforts bestowed upon each of the different locations is evidence of the finest craftsmanship the classic Hollywood Studio System was capable of.

What else is there to say about the lasting draw of this fictitious larger than life, spoiled, impulsive, shallow, hedonist? Other than asking ourselves how far really are our own ambitions and dreams from his?