Well. wow. Reverberations are thundering around the cinephile world with this extraordinary news, especially given the connections between old and new media and all that such umbilical links could signal for the future. Here is some exhaustive context, and here is a glimpse of what’s in store;
Just like the movie, we’ve gotta start with that shot. Over the past thirty years we’ve become acutely accustomed to the dexterous long take, heck I’d even assert that the effect is overdone and is something of a clichéd instrument in the directors contemporary box of tricks. Back when camera housing and magazines needed big burly grips to hurl them around the set the thought of programming penetrating camera moves was rarely attempted, although Murnau is noteworthy for his oblique approach to get us into the minds of his protagonists. When equipment become more lightweight and flexible in the 1940’s production incorporated locations rather than just tightly controlled sets, and from the 1950’s a mixture of both has been deployed in order to jigsaw a movie, although the pendulum has swung back to the green screen artificiality of recent blockbuster bores. Ever the great innovator Welles delivered one of the great early tracking shots, understanding that technique and craft reinforces theme and atmosphere, as a bustling and energetic Mexican border incorporates both a physical location ambiance with a technically ambitious opening gambit – and this is crucial. There has to be a story and character purpose for such flagrant grasps for attention, some subliminal force which demands such manipulation of spatial dimensions within a 2D frame, rather than merely cutting up a sequence to build moments and motive through the intrinsic form of film grammar itself. The celebrated Copacabana sequence for example seduces us just as it incorporates Karen’s bewildered state of mind, ushered us both into this woozy world of prestige and pampering, quite literally a back door into the gangsters world where they cut corners to achieve their exalted position – legal corners, moral corners, mortal corners. Sometimes the tracking shot is deployed for sheer kinetics, for sheer pulse pounding pyrotechnics as seen in The Protector or maybe Oldboy, but Welles being Welles he manages to garrote both intentions, setting the restless and anxious tone and pace of the picture while also literally having his plot explode in the first few minutes;
As you may have guessed we’re discussing Touch Of Evil, Orson Welles 1958’s simmering film noir classic, one of his final triumphs in a career scattered with mutilated masterpieces and thwarted visions. The centenary of his birth is being celebrated by the BFI with a season entitled The Great Disruptor, an apt description for one of the innovative geniuses whose touch graced the silver screen in the 20th century, an immortal presence both in front and behind the camera. I’ve been planning to see this for many years having taken down Kane,The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady From Shanghai in the past, leaving jut the The Trial for another day. Yes, I know I should devote some attention to his Shakespeare adaptions and maybe one day I will, but it’s really only Kafka’s nightmare which still tickles my celluloid bones.
It is the opening tick-tock mechanism, furtively scurried into the vehicle and transported across the US / Mexican border that literally detonates the movie, driving as it does the subsequent investigation into the crime as legal crusader Miguel Vargis (Charlton Heston) and his spritely new wife Susie (Janet Leigh) are plunged into a morass of praetorian plotting and mutinous murder. Welles dominates the screen as the bloated Police Captain Hank Quinlan, a precursor to every screen Bad Lieutenant from Keitel to Cage, squatting like a venerable spider at the schemes corrupt core. It’s been cited as a key noir of the 1950’s and on the surface the moniker seems apt – it orbits an urban murder investigation, there are street hoods, moody lighting, violence and social intrigue – but with Welles the veils of deception and subterfuge are the key, and I read it as less a direct crime story than a distorted shadow-play on power and moral authority.
There are no less than three versions of the film floating around due to the usual butchering that Welles suffered after his imperious debut, and naturally the BFI have opted to screen the late 1990’s restoration as part of this comprehensive retrospective. Originally the film suffered seventeen minutes of cuts due to its perceived uncommercial dimensions by the Universal dolts, adding insult to injury they then released a preview version they unearthed in the vaults in 1976, billing it as the ‘restored and original’ version which is most certainly was not. After the studio originally seized his original master print Welles tearfully issued a 58 page memo urging what elements must be included in the picture, a blueprint that the great editor Walter Murch used as his bible for the post autopsy reconstruction of both image and sound. I’m not enough of an expert to tell you what was omitted and regenerated, but I am certain that this is now the canonical version of the film, given that it respects the man’s original, pre-mutilated vision strengthened by guidance from his very own hand, and gatekeepers such as Bogdanovich have anointed it with their blessing. Now if anyone can finally exhume that missing print of Ambersons you’d be doing us all a legendary favour…..
From the opening refrain of Henry Mancini’s jagged, jazzy score the film has a restless, urgent energy, and even after that spectacular opening gambit the cantering pace is maintained throughout. What I think I find most fascinating about Welles pictures is that it is simply impossible to be bored by them as there is always something interesting happening in every single scene, there is always a fascinating element or decision to detect, whether it’s the lighting or camera movement, the composition or the performances, or the framing and focus planes selected to tell his indiscriminate and indomitable version of his story. Even nominally tedious exposition sequences where two characters have to impart story information are played along a new angle, with new structures of staging, with the friction of innovation ricocheting across scenes and sequences in an almost alarmingly abundant fashion. In Touch Of Evil Welles displays a fondness for grotesques, both physically and spiritually, lurking in the limbo border town that signals transition from one state to another. The duality’s that echo throughout the film – corrupt / incorruptible, love / loss, nostalgia / regret is quite remarkable and marks Welles truly as a ceaselessly inquisitive filmmaker, constantly experimenting with and exploding the boundaries of the form. Crucially for me it also taps into the intrinsic beauty in movies versus other visual forms, the use of deep focus staging is just aesthetically wonderful for the eye to behold, they rarely attempt such planar positioning even on TV these days and as a cinephile you can simply let go and let the images and inspiration overwhelm you.
Although Orson was playing a rather disgusting slug of a man its worth noting that Touch Of Evil was moulded before his own weight and girth ballooned later in his life, where he became the velvet voiced interrogator of sherry adverts, peas and Transformers movies. The classic story of the production is that Welles, long exiled from the Hollywood inner circle was nevertheless invited to a nearby studio hosted party. Being in such a rush for a drink after a long days shooting that he didn’t bother to ditch the Quinlan make-up or padding he arrives at the soiree, saturated with Tinseltown types, only to be greeted with false air-kisses and proclamations from the assembled patronage that ‘Oh Orson, its so lovely to see you – you look fabulous‘. For Hollywood connoisseurs it’s also fun to see who cameos in the movie to give their old friend some star encrusted support, from Joseph Cotton’s bespectacled bureaucrat to Mercedes McCambridge’s flick-knife sporting lesbian, but the film is best known for one of the immortal Marlene Dietrich’s finest final roles. In just two scenes she steals the entire picture as the swarthy fortune teller cum brothel madam with a performance of smouldering eyes and coiled charisma, as Quinlan’s old flame Tanya. Deviating from the noir plotting once the crime has been solved and the puppet master unmasked the film reaches for a wider pathos with Dietrich’s delicious pay-off line – ‘He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?’ Exit stage left, her eyes alone suggesting a lifetime of regret and melancholic mystery, a poisoned valentine and perhaps the final apropos word on Welles turbulent relationship with the studios;
Let’s take a quick break between the reviews as the next assault is going to be quite a lengthy effort, suffice to say Spring Breakers is one of the films of the year, an instant cult classic in the vein of Drive or Monsters that I’ve also attempted to devote an appropriate level of detail, for prosperity’s sake of course. Whilst I get myself all worked up over that lets take a quick look at other developments, first of all this has been doing the rounds and is quite an amusing read, I’m all for the spearing of sacred cows and welcome any alternative to the tedious retreading of hagiographic wisdom, but it does help if you get your damn facts straight. Not wishing to sound patronising or anything (which always makes me think of people who start sentences with ‘I’m not racist or anything but….’) but you can almost picture these twentysomething young whippersnappers, fresh faced out of film / journalism school, their tongues lodged firmly in their cheeks as they enthusiastically sharpen their critical pencils and muse over making a name for themselves via whipping up some controversy by claiming that ‘Citizen Kane? Citizen Lame more like’, or ‘The Godfather?’ that’s like a really rubbish soap opera, yeah? And it’s all in the dark, you can’t even see what’s happening’… I mean c’mon, how you can possibly electronically show your face after claiming that The Third Man is a ‘far superior Welles film’, when of course it wasn’t a bloody Welles film, he’s in three scenes, one of which with dialogue which admittedly is a stone cold classic sequence, yet the controversy rages still on whether he ever wrote or ad-libbed his speech. OK, OK, I’m deliberately being combative, I have no idea about most of these people’s ages or credentials other than recognising some of the sites they contribute to, and seriously I’d quite like to read more expansive reasons for their dislikes (some of which I fully agree with, Jules Et Jim? Most of Fellini? I also fucking loathe Moulin Rogue! with the intensity of a trillion suns so I’m an instant supporter of Jonathan Lack) but this Drew Hunt chap? Sterilisation* springs to mind, to protect the future gene pool. Now, here are some lesbians;
So then rest in peace Jess Franco, one of the worst directors ever to pollute the movie screens. Now I don’t necessarily mean that in a derogatory way, like Ed Wood the man has many devoted supporters as of course sometimes things that are very bad can be thoroughly entertaining, then again having sat through both Oasis Of The Zombies and more recently his bloody awful Dracula picture I’m afraid I’m not one of ’em. But he is quite a titanic figure on the exploitation fan front, as Kim Newman quite succinctly put it ‘RIP Jess Franco, maker of 200 movies, some of which he hadn’t even seen’. Next, NSFW beware, here is the legendary John Holmes documentary which inspired P.T. Anderson to make Boogie Nights, including his commentary – I haven’t watched it yet but I’m told the similarities are quite revealing, if you’ll excuse the pun;
Sometimes I think I think about movies too much, just this morning during the commute I was idly flirting with the notion of a film festival curated by title alone, showing Trance, Vertigo, Sleeper, Dazed & Confused etc. if you catch my drift – can anyone think of any others? Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to the BFI for part three of my recent cinematic odyssey, before a brief respite of a few days when I see by the marketing blitzkrieg swamping London that Oblivion has crept up for next weekend, then the Evil Dead remake should hit and then there’s Iron Man 3 and then we’re into May and my BFI tickets have just been confirmed for that month and oh god will this ever end…..
*This is a joke of course. A simple hanging would be cheaper……
So how’s that New Year’s resolution going then Minty? Y’know, the one about making more of an effort with seeing old school Hollywood flicks at the likes of the BFI as an antidote to the current dreck that listlessly lurks around the capitals multiplexes? Well, as you can see from my second film in five months I could perhaps be making more of an effort, in my defence I did have tickets to go and see Johnny Guitar around March time but as usual work interfered, plus the monthly programmes at the NFT simply haven’t been festooned with some of the old school classics that I’d really like to see. Actually, don’t get me started on the NFT, they’re running a Jeff Bridges season at the moment so I thought about planning to see this as god intended, it is part of the schedule but it’s only being screened in the miniscule NFT3 which frankly renders the entire exercise as null and void. Fascinating. Anyway, I did prise myself away from LA Noire over the Bank Holiday weekend to consume a double bill of bona-fide classics on the Southbank, the first of which was a film I’d never quite got to grips with in its reduced small screen format….
The Magnificent Ambersons is Orson Welles butchered follow-up to the lauded Citizen Kane, also shot for RKO in 1941 and released to box office suicide in 1942 the film is a Hollywood legend of studio interference, its claim as the most painfully unrealised project in film history is perhaps only equalled by the lost original nine-hour cut of Von Stroheim’s Greed or Eisenstein’s misplaced Mexico project. The tale intertwines two families in 1900 Indianapolis, a romantic period of differing social expectations and cultural traditions, an era of change and transformation as the encroaching promise of modernity is metaphored in the form of the automobile whom inventor Eugene (Joseph Cotton) is developing as a technical alternative to the horse and carriage. Cotton is not the only familiar face from Welles celebrated Mercury Theatre players that populated his inceptional efforts, there is also a more expansive role for Agnes Moorehead who plays Aunt Fanny of the Amberson clan, her younger sister Isabel (Dolores Costello) is pursuing a hesitant romance with Eugene following the unexpected death of her husband, a proposition fraught with reputational risk in such an era. The relationship is complicated by her rambunctiously arrogant son George (Tim Holt) affections for Eugene’s radiant daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), a smouldering amour doomed to failure when George learns of the gossip and chatter in polite circles that perhaps a scandalous dalliance had already been kindled between Eugene and his mother when his father was still alive. These poisonous chinese whispers threaten the honour of his clan and force him to place the Morgan family, both Eugene and his beloved Lucy, in a social purgatory that extinguishes both their chances of true happiness. These trials and tribulations signal the decline of the Amberson fortunes as death and financial scandal soon plagues their house, with only a jarringly obvious tacked on happy ending (not filmed by Welles, crafted and inserted by the studio) realigning the world to its normal equilibrium.
If it sounds convoluted then this is due to my confused writing rather than any fault of the screenwriter Booth Tarkington (based on his 1918 novel) and Welles himself, at a scant 88 minutes (excised from the original two hours or so by the studio butchers) it’s a breezy and bewitching tale of history, progress and change, all eclipsed by a mourning sense of loss that strangely echoes the films real world interventions. What many would consider as a dull, staid and inert period piece often gets overlooked by the cinema disciples, like Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence (which I revisited recently and which was obviously enormously influenced by Ambersons) this fictional glimpse into a recent past is a dazzling affair, like a dizzying waltz through a auerately gilded ballroom, at the end of this screening I was swooning and giggling like a coquettishly flushed débutante following her first successful cotillion manoeuvre.
The visual compositions and deep focus cinematography mirror Kane’s somnambulist edifices – you’d imagine that this film was also photographed by camera master Gregg Toland but that honor goes to the great Stanley Cortez whose efforts rival Toland’s achievements of a few years earlier, in fact one could argue that he achieves more dexterity with his dollying camera – take a look at this sequence – whilst cementing the deep focus nuances and all-encompassing 360 degree sets that were so exquisitely crafted on the RKO back-lot. Here is one of my favourite scenes, I love how the composition is built on three distinct planes (fore, mid and background) that could only be captured in such crystalline detail by such a gifted cinematographer – I’d embed it but all the clips are obstructed. This moment also evokes a vision of one of my favourite books Winters Tale which has long been consigned to movie production purgatory (Scorsese was orbiting it as a project back in the late Eighties), this is the closest approximation of the lyrical magic of that book consigned on screen. I’m sure Helprin was a fan.
Not to derail but here is a further example of Cortez’s incredible eye, I would jump at the chance of seeing that on the big screen. In terms of Hollywood legend the tale goes that Welles had been despatched to Brazil at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller (not a man to whom one says no) in order to use his celebrity influence to generate international support for the war effort (Pearl Harbour had only recently shocked the world) and the initial preview results back in the USA were not promising, whilst Welles was intensely immersed in a different hemisphere RKO exercised their rights to final cut and excised forty minutes of material without the directors consent, they shot and inserted a ludicrous discombobulated happy ending and rushed the film out with little publicity to an indifferent public. The extra reels were destroyed a few years later in a space-saving exercise, only the prospect of the single original negative sent to Welles in Brazil being discovered can save the original vision of the film from the inescapable void of history. The movie does have deeper chasms than I’d previously appreciated, not only does the shift into the industrial age mark the decline of the family and provoke a nostalgic pining for a simpler, more cultivated society, I’d argue that Welles hollowing out of that vast shadow strewn family mansion with his inquiring camera and the dour shift to the families swiftly declining fortunes – such an unusual choice for its era but Welles always enjoyed playing the malapert – may just be as efficient a deconstruction of the capitalist myth as the more personalised, egocentric deflation of William Randolph Hearst in Kane. A flawed masterpiece then, a haunted house of a film where the ghosts of a fully realised pièce de résistance lurk in the shadowy perimeters of the screen, this solemn soliloquy on the automobile is twinned to one turn of Welles velvet voiced narration earlier in the film, a proclamation that is just as true of todays cybernetic wonderland as it was a hundred years ago ”Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare’…
I’ll keep this short but this was excellent, a great overview that touched on all the bases – the pulpy origins, the Émigrés, the techniques, technicalities and historical imperatives. Obvious I know but one of the best summaries of noir is on wikipedia although for specific films to locate you can’t beat this. Dodgy ‘oirish’ accent aside ‘The Lady From Shanghai‘ was a joy to see again, below is the influential climax, even Bruce liked that finale.
My personal, all time film noir favourite is here, it’s one of the cruelist examples of the genre and that waterproof jacket reminds of this. Curious, I’ve only just made that connection tonight. Lang was the ultimate master of this material….