Movie Diary 3/5/2018

Three Cases of Murder (David Eady, George More O’Farrell, Wendy Toye [and Orson Welles?], 1955). Are there Welles fans who have seen this very peculiar enterprise? It’s an omnibus film of three stories, with Welles in very large form in the final segment. The first is called “In the Picture” and has dandyish Alan Badel emerging from a mysterious painting in a museum – he is in fact the artist – and bringing a museum employee into the canvas, where an entire house exists in three dimensions (complete with objects pilfered from the galleries). It has a nice sinister wind-up, and Badel is glorious as the Oscar Wildean fop. Director Wendy Toye was a rare example of a women filmmaker in Britain at the time. The second segment, “You Killed Elizabeth,” is a solid twisty number about two men in love with the same woman (the extremely busy Elizabeth Sellars). Welles comes into the third piece, “Lord Mountdrago,” from a Somerset Maugham story; he plays a conservative lion of the British Parliament, whose contemptuous treatment of a Welsh colleague (Badel again) leads to a possible curse being laid on him. Welles’ character has bizarre, humilating nightmares and begins to doubt his sanity. It’s a chance for some comedy from OW, and there doesn’t seem to be much question – either from what you see on screen or from some testimonies about the production – that Welles directed or strongly guided some of the material. If this movie isn’t exactly Dead of Night, it’s awfully good.

Fantastic (This Week’s Movies)

fantasticwoman

Daniela Vega: A Fantastic Woman (courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Links to my reviews published in the Herald and Seattle Weekly, and etc.

A Fantastic Woman. “Every contradiction furthers the movie’s argument that what we have here is a densely complicated human being.”

Here’s another interview I did for Film Comment at the Camerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in November: A talk with cinematographer Denis Lenoir, who helped develop Olivier Assayas’s distinctive style and also photographed Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come. Read it here.

In a slightly different mode of writing for me, here’s a paper I delivered at the 2016 international Shakespeare conference in Iasi, Romania, now collected in the academic journal LINGUACULTURE, published at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iasi. I got to visit Romania for three weeks, thanks to the Fulbright Specialist Program. Here’s the issue; my piece, on Orson Welles and Chimes at Midnight, is clickable.

1941 Ten Best Movies

I am not exactly a teacher but have have taught college classes and courses over the years. And I can tell you that there’s something special about the week when you come to actually teaching Citizen Kane; you’re walking toward the classroom and you’re thinking, here we go, mano a mano with the big kahuna, time to scale the mountain, let’s head into the labyrinth, and other such phrases. Of course there are other movies that are great to teach, but we’ve gotten used to the idea that Kane is the “Stairway to Heaven” of the movie polls, and thus represents an Everest that any film critic worth his/her salt must attempt. (Apologies now to the metaphor police.) Teaching it was fantastic.

The Best Picture Oscar that year went to How Green Was My Valley, which makes it probably the greatest movie ever to unjustly win Best Picture over a worthier film. Meanwhile, Preston Sturges contributes two classics, The Strawberry Blonde is a splendid Cagney picture that captures the flavor of director Raoul Walsh, and Hitchcock comes through with a very sinister film that isn’t mentioned enough among his best. And have you ever seen H.M. Pulham, Esq.? A lovely picture of a middle-aged success (played by Robert Young, who, oddly enough, is just exactly right) sifting through his memories and wondering whether he took the wrong road. King Vidor directed it, impeccably, and its reputation should be raised. Even if it comes in a year when one movie tends to eclipse the others. The ten best of 1941:

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)

2. How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)

3. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)

4. Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock)

5. 49th Parallel (Michael Powell)

6. Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges)

7. The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh)

8. H.M. Pulham, Esq. (King Vidor)

9. Man Hunt (Fritz Lang)

10. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges)

It’s a drag to leave off The Shanghai Gesture, a mad enterprise from Josef von Sternberg in his post-Dietrich phase. Also in the crowd: Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water, and two nifty films written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett: Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks directed) and Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen). I like Meet John Doe, and Dumbo, and High Sierra; in the next tier down, I hold a soft spot for Universal’s classy-looking attempt to get the horrors going again, The Wolf Man, which looks pretty good compared to the recent remake; and Road to Zanzibar is one of the least politically correct of the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies, but it does have some funny patter.  At the zero-budget level, The Blood of Jesus, directed by Spencer Williams, Jr., is a melodrama from the African-American film circuit, and its low-budget rawness makes it seem like a blues song recorded in a tin shed – and it literally has the devil showing up at the crossroads.

The Magnificent Ambersons

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

Welles’ melancholic narration carries us through the opening minutes, an extraordinary sequence that dexterously introduces us to the story and characters (the word “exposition,” with its connotations of clunkiness, is inadequate here). The toy-box methods of Citizen Kane are still in use, as Welles dazzles us with his playful unspooling of the film’s key elements; his narration even breaks in to the dialogue of those bystanders who comment on the Ambersons. The suggestions of youth and vitality are strong, and not just around that brattiest of spoiled brats, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt); even Eugene Morgan’s crash through his bass violin is a comic moment, especially as Welles sets up the shot—Eugene (Joseph Cotten) scurrying up to the camera, the better to tumble loudly in the foreground—and as Welles misleads us with his narration, preparing us for “that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade,” only to be followed by the crash. Yet this moment will irrevocably alter, in a tragic way, the lives of the characters. Those busybodies on the street are fruity and comic (Fanny Minafer, you may notice, is among them), but later in the film the gossips and their perceived impact will help kill the last hope of Eugene and Isabel (Dolores Costello).

The vitality of the Ambersons needs to be established, because much of the rest of the film—especially following the shimmering ball and sleighride scenes—charts the family’s decline, and the encroaching darkness that swallows the family whole. The ball sequence, “the last of the great long-remembered dances,” is magnificent, and all the more so because while it displays the beauty of genteel manners and morals, it also shows that the time for such things is slipping away.

The seeming suspension of time also looms in the returns of Eugene, who has been gone—eighteen years have passed, “or have they?”, as Jack Amberson (Ray Collins) asks. Welles’ technique itself conjures the passage of time; those long, sinuous shots that weave through corridors and up staircases and across rooms are the actual embodiment of time passing. Unlike the cut-cut-cut of most movie scenes, these long takes show us events in real time—actors are a little older when the shot is over. In keeping with this scheme, which is really a movement toward death (as we will see as the film progresses), darkness overtakes the house when the ball ends. The guests leave and the family prepares to retire, their figures passing through great pools of darkness—in Stanley Cortez’ exceptional photography, we see some of the most intense blacks ever captured on film. Inky suggestions of suspicion, uncertainty, and mortality swim in these pools, as well as the “ancient recollections” that have been stirred by Eugene’s return.

As George and Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) walk the darkened hall to her door, they hold the first of their extraordinary conversations. Fanny’s words are casual and defensive, as she explains that people should note the presence of an eligible bachelor “without having to make a to-do about it.” The phrase is casual, but her voice rises into a pinched hysteria, which George snottily imitates. But then she savagely mimics him—and we recognize that Fanny, who had just appeared furtive and puny in a hallway shot that Isabel dominated, is in fact a bitter force to be reckoned with. (For all the movie’s visual bravura, these precise vocal effects remind us of Welles’ extensive experiences in radio.) Continue reading

1942 Ten Best Movies

The best film of 1942 is The Magnificent Ambersons, the second feature directed by Orson Welles. It is probably the most famous of all wrecked films, having been cut from an original length of nearly two-and-a-half hours to 88 minutes, including the addition of new scenes shot without Welles’ participation or consent. That the movie is this wrecked but still great leads fans of the film to imagine what it might have been, but all we have is what it is now, and that’s enough. I will post something longer about the film tomorrow.

The failure of Ambersons spreads out in other interesting ways throughout the decade: Welles had to struggle to get his career going again (you want to play the “imagine” game, try imagining what Welles might have done in the Forties if he’d had a hit in 1942, instead of a snafu that ended his business with the studio that gave him free rein to make Citizen Kane). Ambersons also exerts a ghostly presence in the films produced at RKO by Val Lewton, whose low-budget horror unit utilized the elaborate set that Welles left behind.

And speaking of Lewton, his unit’s first offering came in 1942: Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cat People is one of my favorite films, and creates a spell like few others (except maybe Lewton pictures such as I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim). Its financial success probably justified the building of the Ambersons sets on the same studio lot, but that didn’t help Welles any.

The rest of the year is marked by war, including the sophistication and boldness of To Be or Not to Be and the glory of Casablanca (which was seen by limited audiences in ’42 but is often credited as a 1943 picture) – films distinguished by their timeliness. The Magnificent Ambersons, however, is timeless. The ten best movies of 1942:

1. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)

2. To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)

3. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)

4. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)

5. Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh)

6. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)

7. The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)

8. In Which We Serve (Noel Coward/David Lean) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

9. Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock)

10. Road to Morocco (David Butler)

I have a soft spot for the Hitchcock title; it’s not one of his top-tier films but it has some real doozies in it. Road to Morocco, the third of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope comedies, I argue for because it seems to help define a certain kind of escapist wartime movie – and I happen to like Hope and Crosby together, and this is probably my only chance to sneak a Road picture on to a Top Ten list. And if you’ve never seen Gentleman Jim, well, you have to seen Gentleman Jim, an Errol Flynn vehicle both boisterous and tender.

Just missing: Bambi, a circle-of-life Disney feature that trumps The Lion King; two George Stevens comedies, Woman of the Year and The Talk of the Town; and The Glass Key, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a tough pre-noir.

1952 Ten Best Movies

othello4Thought for a few seconds about a tie for #1 this time, with two big “O” movies almost in a dead heat. But no, I’m going with Orson Welles’ Othello, a remarkably inventive and alive Shakespeare adaptation produced in patchwork fashion. Would the film be what it is without its low-budget, stop-and-start production history? Probably not; it seems to be culled from glorious fragments, its choppy dubbed soundtrack especially. (Welles’ Iago, Micheal MacLiammor, kept a diary, Put Money in Thy Purse, which is an incredibly entertaining look at the movie’s making.) And yet what a testament to Welles’ vision and concentration, to create such a focused work under such circumstances. The movie’s a fever-dream, as Othello should be.

The #2 is a great film by Kenji Mizoguchi, The Life of Oharu, which is not as famous as Mizoguchi’s best-known classic, Ugetsu, but ought to be. This account of society’s unblinking degradation of a 17th-century woman is one of the devastating journeys in film, and was part of a brilliant run for this director and for Japanese cinema in general.

The ten best of 1952:

1. Othello (Orson Welles)

2. The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)

3. The Quiet Man (John Ford)

4. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)

5. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin)

6. Bend of the River (Anthony Mann)

7. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)

8. Rancho Notorious (Frtiz Lang)

9. Forbidden Games (Rene Clement)

10. The Sound Barrier (David Lean)

Bunch of movies swimming around those last slots: The Narrow Margin, Le Plaisir, and High Noon, which has its flaws but still conjures up quite a bit of classic-tude about it. Umberto D. might be on there if I’d seen it since the age of fifteen. Also I have a soft spot for King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry, a hothouse flower with Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston in swampy disarray.

Sort of a strange, what-do-we-do-now? moment in film history. Both joy (Quiet Man and Singin’ in the Rain) and melancholy (Limelight and Ikiru) on display. Maybe Minnelli’s Bad and the Beautiful summed it up, with a poison-pen letter from Hollywood to itself.