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Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles’

There have been many pleasing acts of generosity from entertainment providers during the current situation, one of which has been the decision by the BBC to provide a stack of classic RKO movies to stream, most of them slightly in advance of their being shown over the coming few weeks (I note that The Magnificent Ambersons and King Kong are both on in the afternoons this week). One of these is possibly the most celebrated movie RKO ever made, Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of mainstream movie-making, which isn’t actually very informative except to suggest just what kind of status this film possesses in our culture. For decades it was virtually a shoo-in whenever they held a poll to decide the greatest movie ever made – and of course the problem with this is that it can raise expectations to an unreasonably high level. I first saw the film when it was shown on TV for its fiftieth anniversary, and I was left distinctly underwhelmed by it, and cheerfully nodded along with a short film made by Robert Kee suggesting it is in fact greatly overrated.

Watching it again now… I have moderated my opinion of it rather, possibly due to the fact I have done a lot of reading about Orson Welles and his career in the last few years and better understand the extraordinary background to this film – how a radio and theatre actor and director, still only in his mid-twenties, was assiduously courted by Hollywood and offered an unprecedented deal, how Kane only came about when an adaptation of Heart of Darkness proved unworkable, how the production ran into serious trouble when the media mogul William Randolph Hurst (not unreasonably) concluded it was based on his own life, and so on. That said, for many people it is still probably just the film with the sledge.

Citizen Kane opens with a trip through the grounds of the decaying palace of Xanadu, luxurious home of Kane himself (Welles). But the zoo, the tennis courts and the swimming pool have fallen into disrepair, as has Kane himself. He is the first character we see, and the first thing we see him do is utter his last word – famously, ‘Rosebud’ – and then die of old age.

But who was this Kane guy anyway? Welles obligingly provides a faux-newsreel obituary to the great man, establishing his wealth and late-life eccentricity, the issues in his personal life, and the fact he was viewed with suspicion by both the boss-class and the workers. An imposing, contradictory figure – not good enough, decide the editorial team putting the obituary together. They need to find an angle on Kane, to figure out just who he really was. Maybe ‘Rosebud’ holds the key? A reporter (William Alland) is charged with interviewing key figures from Kane’s life to try to discover just who the man really was…

The bulk of the film, therefore, depicts Kane’s life, displayed as a series of flashbacks: born to poor parents in Colorado, he was taken from them and essentially raised by the bank, inheriting a vast fortune at the age of twenty-five. He uses this to build up a vast media empire of newspapers, magazines, and later radio networks; marries, although the relationship stagnates and fails; and his nascent political career is permanently halted when his affair with a singer is discovered. From here it is all downhill for Kane, and he becomes increasingly isolated from those he was once close to.

As far as the story is concerned, the striking thing about it nowadays is how resonant it all feels (up to a point at least). Kane is motivated, the film suggests, by the desire to be loved: not in a close, intimate sense, for he seems very limited in his ability to give genuine affection himself, but in the sense of being adored by all around him. This seems to underpin all he does. He is also not above using his media power to manipulate events in his favour – Hearst’s supposed quote of ‘You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war’ is slightly modified and put into Kane’s mouth. Can you say fake news? Finally, there is his attempt to run for office, which hits a serious snag in the form of a sex scandal.

Even Kane, of course, can’t brazen his way through this, which is where the film takes a different track to reality – though, if we’re going to talk about Citizen Kane as some kind of weird non-prediction of the rise of Donald Trump, it’s worth mentioning that Kane’s papers attribute his defeat to fraud at the polls, which is an excuse we may well be hearing before the end of the year, who can tell. Citizen Kane is, apparently, Trump’s favourite film, but – with uncanny predictability – his take on the film is utterly at odds with the consenus: he finds Kane to be a tragic figure, isolated by his great wealth, undone by poor choices of sexual partner. In short, Trump is a lot more sympathetic towards Kane than Orson Welles ever was, which probably tells you everything you need to know.

The film is really about a man who chooses the love of power over the power of love – although Welles does open the door a crack to finding some pathos for Kane, with the final suggestion that it was childhood trauma which turns him into the emotionally stunted monster he eventually becomes – and while it is solid, it is not especially innovative or thought-provoking. The film’s reputation rests not on the story itself, but how it is told – Citizen Kane does have its own visual style, or perhaps I should say an array of visual and storytelling techniques – use of handheld cameras, extended flashbacks, innovative cuts and fades, unusual compositions, and extensive use of deep focus.

There is a sense in which Welles is clearly writing the book on cinematic storytelling which everyone else has been dipping into ever since; the film is stuffed with casual bits of brilliance such as the breakfast montage. The consistent invention of the film is daunting, but as one looks at it more closely one does almost get the sense that Welles is often just showing off – the shot where the camera appears to pass through a neon sign and a pane of glass is justly famous, but it gets repeated twice more. And I do think there is something in one of Kee’s main criticisms – that the techniques and devices employed by Welles don’t always serve the story. There’s another famous shot of Kane walking between a pair of mirrors, and his reflections dwindle off to infinity – and it looks great, but how is it helping to tell the story at that moment?

Given the fact that we barely see Kane himself through our own eyes, but overwhelmingly through the recollections of others, you might expect Welles to make the most of this and exploit the possibilities implicit in the use of multiple perspectives – Kane’s ex-wife is hardly going to remember him in the same way as a devoted, long-serving employee, for example. But this doesn’t seem to happen – Kane is Kane, consistently portrayed by Welles throughout the film.

Then again, I suppose the director would have said that this is a character study, not a film about the unknowability of character. The concluding irony of Kane is that the journalists conclude there isn’t a single easy key to understanding a man’s life and personality, after which the film suggests that the exact opposite may be true. Perhaps this simplistic approach to psychology is another reason to be more critical of the film.

One could never say that Citizen Kane is not a landmark, classic film, though: ascertaining the extent of its impact on modern film is a bit like trying to map the coastline of the UK without leaving Northampton city centre – Orson Welles marked out much of the territory people have been using ever since. That Hollywood was never again able to really make full use of his faculties was surely a tragedy for them both, but this film alone means that Welles is assured of immortality for as long as the medium persists.

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Every now and then I reflect on all the films that I would like to see but almost certainly never will – the original cut of The Wicker Man, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, Zeppelin Vs Pterodactyls, Queen Kong, Tiptoes, and so on. Some of these don’t physically exist any more, others were never made, while still others have vanished into obscurity due to either legal problems or their sheer weirdness. For quite a long time I would have added The Other Side of the Wind to this list. This is, or was, one of Orson Welles’ projects as director and writer, which he worked on intermittently between 1970 and 1976 (parts of the great man’s filmography are a litany of incomplete films like Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Dreamers). As you might expect, given the lengthy production period, a huge amount of material was filmed for The Other Side of the Wind, but turning it into a completed film was something beyond Welles’ ability, and his death in 1985 plunged the project into a legal limbo.

Welles enthusiasts and acolytes, some of whom were involved in the film’s production, never quite seemed to give up on it, however – and here we must acknowledge the role played by the market-leading film and TV streaming service in stepping in and assisting in the final completion of The Other Side of the Wind. Forty years after it was filmed, and thirty years after Orson Welles’ death, is this one final example of the director at his best, or just another frustratingly misjudged piece of work?

The film concerns the last day on earth of a legendary film director (played by legendary film director John Huston) who, as the 1970s proceed, finds himself increasingly struggling to find financial backing for his film projects (it is perhaps worth saying that Welles himself always dismissed suggestions that The Other Side of the Wind was in any way autobiographical). The director, Hannaford, is celebrating his 70th birthday (rather eerily, the same age that Welles died at), and as the film begins he, his cast and crew, and various acolytes and hangers-on decamp to an Arizona mansion where a rough cut of his new film, The Other Side of the Wind, will be screened for the assembled company. (Part of the film is also shown to a studio boss, who is thoroughly unimpressed by it.) Also present is a fan of the director who has become a hot young film-maker himself, played by Peter Bogdanovich (a fan of Orson Welles who had become a hot young film-maker himself at the time). As the night wears on, the screening is beset by problems and interruptions, and Hannaford’s dealings with those around him become increasingly fractious. Hard truths emerge, friendships break down, and dreams are shattered.

Intercut with all of this are sequences from the other The Other Side of the Wind – not Welles’ film, but the one that Hannaford has been working on. This is a wordless, heavily symbolic piece of art-house cinema predominantly featuring a beautiful young actress whom Hannaford has apparently become somewhat fixated upon (played by Oja Kodar, a beautiful young actress who was in a relationship with Welles himself at the time).

Perhaps it is worth saying again that Welles was always very clear that The Other Side of the Wind was not intended even semi-autobiographically. This does seem rather like another instance of the great man being somewhat disingenuous, for there seems to be a deliberate attempt to blur the line between fact and fiction in progress for much of the film – Hannaford is described as a Hemingway-esque figure in the world of cinema, which is exactly the same kind of thing that was also said about Huston (Welles had his own, predictably ambivalent relationship with Hemingway, too).

The parallels between Hannaford and Welles are just too numerous for them to be accidental – both are renowned figures, now struggling to get their projects made, both seem to have a thing for Oja Kodar, and – of course – both never quite managed to finish their version of The Other Side of the Wind, either. Once you accept this, the casting of Bogdanovich as the director’s one-time disciple makes perfect sense, as do the various other in-jokes and references to Hollywood denizens of the period when the film was being made – various characters are tuckerised versions of figures like Cybill Shepherd, John Milius and the film critic Pauline Kael. It has to be said that the film is very much a piece from a very particular time and place, when the ‘old Hollywood’ in which Welles got his start was attempting to come to terms with the ‘new Hollywood’ presaged by films like Easy Rider and The Godfather. Outside of this context, many of the jokes and observations in the film simply don’t function.

The same can be said for the film-within-the-film, Hannaford’s version of The Other Side of the Wind, a spot-on imitation of the kind of art-house films being made by Michelangelo Antonioni at around this time (Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point appears to have been Welles’ primary target) – the kind of film which looks suspiciously like a soft-core movie but can’t be, because it’s Art. It is probably most memorable for the rather lengthy sequence of Oja Kodar wandering naked around the MGM backlot – the film-in-the-film doesn’t actually have a plot, and deliberately so.

The problem is that, while Welles may have intended this as a spoof of painfully self-regarding, pretentious, symbolic film-making, his reproduction of it is so effective, and goes on for such a long time, that it really comes across as more of a pastiche than an actual spoof. You get the joke quite quickly, but there’s still a lot to come, and a naked Oja Kodar only goes a certain distance when it comes to making this sort of thing more palatable.

One has to wonder about the role of Oja Kodar in the chequered history of The Other Side of the Wind. As I mentioned, there have been numerous attempts to finish off this movie before, by participants in it and also Welles’ champions in the film industry (some people are, of course, both) – and one of the consistent things to emerge from this frustratingly lengthy process is Kodar’s apparent determination to sabotage them, either consciously or unconsciously. Kodar’s stated desire was apparently to avoid a repeat of the debacle which ensued when an under-funded restoration of Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote, overseen by her, was assembled and released in 1992 (to unfavourable reviews), but, as I say, one wonders. Could there have been an element of reluctance to let her appearance in some rather rum material finally emerge into the wider world? Or even a suspicion that the finished version of The Other Side of the Wind would be unlikely to add to Welles’ reputation as a film-maker?

Well, I have to say that I am by no means an unconditional admirer of Netflix, and do have my concerns about the company’s influence over modern cinema, but I have to admit that the average ‘Netflix original’ (which is what The Other Side of the Wind technically is) is a reasonably polished and proficient piece of work, in terms of its production if not its conception. Parts of this film, however, show its ramshackle, cash-strapped nature all too clearly – there are sections, particularly early on, which are dismayingly primitive in their execution. Still, as it proceeds, it improves, and even if you can’t quite grasp all the in-jokes and allusions in the scenes with Hannaford at the party, you’re never in doubt that there’s a distinct artistic sensibility at work here – the sheer number of film directors amongst the cast, coupled to the frequency with which movie cameras appear in the background, suggests that Welles is making a point about how film-making can become an all-consuming, solipsistic pursuit.

Certainly there is a rising sense of despair running through the final scenes of the film, in which Hannaford perhaps breaks through the artifice of the world which has formed around him and approaches something resembling truth. At this point we are reminded that the first thing we learn about him is the fact of his impending death. Perhaps, yet again, Welles is alluding to the story of Don Quixote, who regains his sanity only at the end of his life. One wouldn’t be surprised; Orson Welles is that kind of erudite, allusive artist. And this is an erudite and allusive film in many ways, even if in others it feels frustratingly laborious and even somewhat pretentious: some of the Welles magic is there, even if it’s in a raw and unpolished form. I still don’t think this is genuinely a masterpiece, but another thing you can say about Orson Welles is that while not everything he did was brilliant, it was seldom ever boring, and The Other Side of the Wind is a welcome reminder of that.

(Hey, and it turns out that Queen Kong on the internet. I know what I’ll be doing this week.)

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Sometimes you look around at the best of the films of today, your Boyhoods and your Birdmans, and you ask yourself how well they are really going to stand up to the test of time – some people are already suggesting that Birdman‘s true posterity will be as the answer to the pub quiz question ‘What film won the Best Picture Oscar in the year that Boyhood didn’t?’ Will any of these films be getting re-releases in 20, 30, or 40 years time?

Some hardy perennials of the cinematic landscape do seem to have this kind of immortality. I saw Touch of Evil at the Phoenix a couple of years ago and am not especially surprised to see it making another appearance there very soon, while currently enjoying its second major revival (at least) in sixteen years is Carol Reed’s The Third Man, 66 years old at the time of writing and looking just as splendid as ever. (Clearly the message is: if you want your film to have staying power, hire Orson Welles as your bad guy – though this inevitably leads one to wonder why 1986’s Transformers: The Movie doesn’t figure more prominently on the art house circuit.)

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Apparently there are still people around who haven’t seen The Third Man (personally I’ve been watching it fairly regularly since I was a teenager), so here is how the story goes. Vienna after the Second World War is a dreary, bombed-out, desolate city, occupied by a coalition of international forces and in the grip of vicious black-marketeers. To this place comes American hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), hoping to meet up with his old friend Harry Lime. But he is distraught to find Lime’s funeral in progress as he arrives, and even more outraged when army policeman Calloway (Trevor Howard) shows little concern over the death, proclaiming that Martins’ friend was a gangster who deserved to die.

Martins resolves to clear his dead friend’s name and solve the mystery surrounding his death, despite the warnings of everyone involved that he should just leave Austria as soon as possible – even Harry’s lover, Anna (Alida Valli), doesn’t seem very supportive of his crusade, although the two of them do perhaps strike up a connection of a different kind…

Very few films, classic or otherwise, have such a distinct identity as The Third Man, and this is partly a question of sound and vision: the film’s all-zither soundtrack is justly legendary, while the streets, ruins, and sewers of Vienna are a unique backdrop. Uniquely filmed as well, as of course: the black and white cinematography of the film is by turns luminous and murky, as the story requires, while Reed’s skewed camera angles are also unmistakable.

It’s this aspect of the film that usually leads observers to link it, in some fashion, with the film noir genre, which was also enjoying its heyday during the late 40s and early 50s. But if The Third Man is noir it is noir of a peculiarly British flavour: there are no hard boiled detectives or femmes fatale here. Reed’s protagonist is a deluded, somewhat clownish figure, and the leading lady is far more vulnerable than she is brassy. Not that there is no moral ambiguity here, of course, but this too comes from a slightly odd angle – no-one, ultimately, doubts the utter amorality of Orson Welles’ villain, or that he is a vicious and unrepentant criminal, but both Cotten and Valli’s characters find it wrenchingly difficult to condemn him. They both seem quietly aware that he is a more charismatic and capable person than either of them and – to begin with – defer to him as a result.

This, I think, is the ultimate source of the atmosphere of melancholy which permeates the film – or contributes at least as much as the bleakness of the setting. ‘The dead are happier dead,’ observes Welles’ character, ‘they don’t miss much here, poor devils.’ Welles himself certainly seems to be playing the happiest character in the film – all the other major characters seems quietly consumed by their own failings and shortcomings.

This probably makes The Third Man sound like a pretty heavy-going piece of work, but as well as an examination of guilt, loyalty, and lapsed friendship (perhaps even love), it also functions superbly as a thriller, and a remarkably witty one as well: you’re never very far from a sharp line or a memorably weird character. Apparently the famous speech concerning cuckoo clocks was inserted into the script by Welles himself, as Graham Greene was at pains to point out in later years, but this film is in every way a collaborative effort.

But why has it lasted so well? Is it just a question of quality? I’m not sure; I think it may be. Certainly, this film – set, as it is, in a very particular time and place – has something about it which gives it some degree of universal appeal. Everyone has had their disappointments, I suppose, everyone has fallen in love with the wrong person at some time or other – perhaps everyone has pondered on the strange allure of bad people. The Third Man is about all of these things, and manages to tell an engrossing story about them which is also marvellous to look at. That’s the basis of it, I suspect: the rest is probably simply magic, and beyond rationalisation.

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The lovely old tradition of the classic cinema revival is in danger of being thoroughly smeared for the basest of motives. Seeing older movies back on the big screen has brought me some of my best moviegoing experiences, from watching Seven Samurai, The Wicker Man and Taxi Driver during my student days, to catching Star Trek II in rep just last summer. These days, alas, the revival is as often as not another mechanism used to attempt to prop up the tottering 3D edifice – last year saw The Lion King 3D, with Titanic 3D and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D already on the horizon (not that I’m absolutely ruling out the possibility of seeing one of those…).

Nevertheless, proper, sensible, non-stereoscoped revivals continue to take place, which is how I was able to watch the restored version of Orson Welles’ 1958 movie Touch of Evil. Given that the director also plays a major acting role, it may, of course, simply be the case that the 3D technology does not yet exist which is capable of handling Welles’ – er – heroic physique, but the reason is insignificant compared to the result.

The plot runs thusly: night in a small town on the US-Mexican border is shattered when a car bomb kills a local American businessman and his girlfriend. On the scene coincidentally is Mexican government agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, Hispanicked up for the part) and his new bride (Janet Leigh). Worried about the diplomatic implications should a Mexican have murdered an American, Vargas involves himself in the case, despite the fact he’s already mixed up in the prosecution of a local crime family.

This puts Vargas in the path of the local law, personified by Hank Quinlan (Welles), something with severe consequences for both men. Vargas quickly realises that Quinlan will go to any lengths to punish the guilty – and if this extends to roughing up suspects and planting evidence, so be it. The Mexican resolves to expose Quinlan’s methods, not realising that an alliance between his target and his own enemies may put not just him but also his wife in danger…

A summary of the plot does little to explain quite why Touch of Evil has become such a revered movie, and one of the two or three cornerstones on which Orson Welles’ legend rests. The story itself is not that special, but then if this film is remarkable it is not for the tale but the manner of its telling. Welles makes his ambitions clear from the very beginning of the film, with its justly famous, insanely complex three minute shot, in which the camera travels the length of the town as it tracks the progress of the car carrying the bomb. It’s an ostentatiously brilliant flourish – nothing else in the movie quite matches it for sheer verve, but it makes it clear that this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill production.

The camerawork in this movie is almost absurdly accomplished simply on a technical level, but what really makes an impact is the atmosphere that Welles conjures up – the film takes place in a filthy, sweaty, half-lit world of guilty compromises and dirty secrets, with the purity of classic noir becoming stained by the outriders of a new and more frantic culture – biker gangs, rock ‘n’ roll and marijuana are beginning to supplant hoodlums, jazz and cheap booze.

Quinlan is one of cinema’s great monsters: a shabby, obese, brutal racist – but never an inhuman one. Hints of a backstory suggest how this man came to be as he is, and while never sympathetic he is not quite without virtue – if he has abused his power it is not for personal ends, but in the pursuit of what he sees as his duty. If there is any real evil in Quinlan, then it is only a minor element of who he is – a touch of evil, but no more.

As both director and actor, Orson Welles dominates this movie whether on the screen or off it – his arrival as Quinlan may not be as iconic as his first appearance as Harry Lime in The Third Man, but at the screening I attended it was greeted by soft chuckling throughout the audience: this was the man we had come to see. Of course, he does not disappoint, even if his performance at times borders on being a little too mannered. As ever, one is left infuriated by both the quixotic nature of his vast talents and the shortsightedness of Hollywood in making so little use of them.

It has become something of a running joke that Charlton Heston makes an unlikely Mexican, but, oddly, this suits the movie rather well. The star is incongruous in the part, but then again everything that Heston always embodied – a kind of muscular conviction and self-assurance – is equally out of place in the world of the movie. Some of the film’s most electric moments come from the clash between Heston’s monolithic certitude and the intangible ambiguities that always seem to swirl around Welles in his greatest moments.

Elsewhere in the cast, Janet Leigh starts well but after a while simply has very little to do beyond lie around in a stupor – she has virtually nothing to do following a sequence where she checks into a remote motel with a twitchy weirdo in charge (Leigh’s career in the late 50s involved quite a lot of this sort of thing). The performances of the rest of the cast, with the exception of a luminous Marlene Dietrich as Quinlan’s old flame, are really presenting grotesques of various kinds. The only performance which really oversteps the mark is that of Dennis Weaver as the motel nightman: he really is a bit too OTT by modern standards and unintentionally funny as a result.

But, then again, Touch of Evil is really all about presenting a tale of a clash between moral idealism and corruption in an irresistibly exaggerated style – and while Heston may be victorious at the conclusion of the story, one gets no sense that he and Leigh have done anything to amend the wider world in which they live; they are the aberrations, not Quinlan. Even then, the film is too extravagantly stylish and too magisterially made to really feel downbeat. Welles’ great achievement in Touch of Evil is to transform the crime melodrama into the cinematic equivalent of grand opera – but then again, one would surely expect no less of a man who was larger-than-life himself in almost every respect.

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