Posts tagged “Orson Welles

The Stranger (1946)


The Stranger (1946)I’ve been watching a few of Orson Welles‘s later films (with cameo’s) and I thought it was time to take a look at one of his own films, one that on the surface doesn’t appear to have been butchered in the editing room. You could say that The Stranger (1946) has come out practically unscathed after what happened with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) which is only half as good as it really could be. If only the footage that was cut could be found and pieced back together again. Still that’s another discussion for another review. Looking at this film-noir that on the surface appears more main-stream, has more in common with the genre that accidentally grew around that time and Welles’s breakthrough film Citizen Kane (1941) where he was left to his own devices. OK here we have less of that style which he uses more subtly to get the feelings of fear, shock and innocence across to an audience who at the time had just come out of war with Germany and Japan that finished that year. They were being exposed to newsreels of harrowing images of concentration camps that had been discovered. The full extent of Nazi crimes was being made public. Even for an audience today seeing footage from the camps is unsettling, traumatic, a hard watch to say the least in the face of incredible human suffering and loss. Orson Welles has taken a gamble playing with the images that have been burned into the short-term memory of America.

Taking that context into a film that is today very much forgotten among more memorable films he directed. This is very much a product of its time. You could dare I say remake it today with an Islamic State focus rather than a Nazi that has gone into hiding. Typically played by Welles himself you see less of him and more of the investigating detective Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) who takes a chance by releasing another Nazi onto the streets. Hoping that he will lead him to the bigger prize, that of Professor Charles Rankin otherwise known as the notoriously media shy Franz Kindler who played a major role in the gas chambers, a high-ranking Nazi that got away. Thankfully a fictional Nazi that made this film slightly safer, instead of a true account that never happen thankfully. However it’s the thought that even in the safety of a state of rich, prosperous and middle class Connecticut, it makes you think how this could happen in small town America.

Welles even takes a lower billing, it’s all about the search for the truth, seeking to restore safety and security in America. A brave choice by the director who really has a lot of fun in the role. Robinson’s seen to be settling into roles of a maturer man which really suits him, he’s no longer the gangster of the 1930’s. He brings really weight to the role, you feel he believes the lines he is delivering. He’s Americas conscience still fighting and reeling from the trauma of war. Whilst Loretta Young is more side dressing between these two men. She’s weak and indecisive, trapped in a marriage of convienence to a man hiding. Shes America that is still in denial, needing that jolt of reality to wake up to the horrors of the previous half decade or more.

Stylistically this film is very much Welles, the cinematography never stays still for long. Un-nerving us with heavy and high tracking shots, mixed with cuts that leave you on the edge of your seat. It really is not a film-noir of the standard we are used to in the city, I wouldn’t even call it a noir on these terms Welles simply uses the devices he pioneered and pushes them further. It’s not quite as dark as The Lady from Shanghai (1947) or Touch of Evil (1958), he’s still fine tuning. We are outside in the sunshine of Eastern America where trouble never really happens. We are taken into an unsettled world that is yet to full understand what is happening either at home or in Europe. This isn’t even a war-film, it falls more into straight thriller with over-powering sense of fear that has loosened a little with time. We no longer have this enemy around us, a few are being found into their old age.

I guess to really feel the power of this film you have seen it on first release. You do wonder if the truth will out itself and that is what remains. An enemy that has long been put to bed can still stir up your deepest fears, which shows the power of the film over the course of time. The context maybe more historical, its the fear of the unknown and distant being closer than you think which stays with you. I could watch this film on mute and still it would have a power over me which is all down to the strong visuals that stay with you which is what you want from a film of this age.

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Citizen Kane (1941) Revisited


Citizen Kane (1941)This is one review I never thought I’d be ever writing up. Theres a few reasons really behind why i had to get around my dislike for Citizen Kane (1941) which was recently overtaken by Vertigo (1958) in the BFI’s latest Sight and Sound greatest films of all time poll, made by a whole host of directors, critics and other esteemed film folk. After 50/60 years of being  on-top Orson Welles‘s masterpiece was overthrown by Alfred Hitchcock voyeuristic private detective thriller. At the end of the day all these polls are incredibly subjective, the IMDB Top 250 poll is changes constantly, we have The Shawshank Redemption (1994) currently in the top-spot, the only definitive classic from the “golden age” in the top ten is 12 Angry Men (1957) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Of course we do have The Godfather Parts 1 and 2 completing the top 3. It’s always varying. Probably influenced this time if year by the awards season.

Putting all that aside to focus on why I wasn’t really enamoured by the “greatest film of all time” I found it at the time of first viewing to be self-indulgent. I could easily see its technical achievements which lead to film noir in the following decade. I was watching it to see what all the fuss was about, not looking into what was going on in terms of story telling and the technical combined, Something I have since rectified, understanding it to be both innovative in terms of both aspects. Welles coming from radio stardom on the other side of the country with his realistic telling of War of the Worlds, he had a natural flair for story telling which Hollywood had to have. On strict conditions set down by the man himself, no outside interference from the studio, his choice of actors and production team, very much a crafted piece of work that pushed the boundaries. With a little help from Stagecoach (1939) which he referenced, I think I now need to watch that to see the connections.

History lesson over and onto the opening shot which was a number of transitions that leads the audience into the Xanadu home of tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles) who we see in his final moments of life, his last words begin a journey back through his life, a journalist investigates the importance of that last word, something we all begin to want to know. A new way of storytelling is born, retrospectively looking at the life of a fictional characters who was larger than life, even larger than the man Kane was “based upon” William Randolph Hearst turning him into caricature, a man who wanted to loved by all he knew, without loving anyone really himself. The story of a sad man who made it big before losing his media empire.

All this is made even more real with a fictional news reel that pardon the pun reels you into this world that is entirely constructed for the film. This is where you could say its self indulgent, to bathe in the glory of what this man was, before realising that the great man in the news reel was a fallible man who appeared more successful. We no longer see the powerful figures in films as these great indestructible people. They are now full of faults like everyone else.

On the technical side there is also a lot going on, from the dissolves that take us into his life, intruding into his own life. To the set design which is more elaborate than many films of the previous decade to this. Welles creates world that is so grand in scale that you are taken, losing yourself to the high angles and stretched out pieces that go on endlessly. Incredibly theatrical in design allowing for a grand figure to be explored, pulled apart and put back together again. Leaving a reporter still none the wiser as to what Rosebud means. Only the audience is allowed to know that secret as the evidence as the life of Kane is burnt.

It’s easy to say it’s just a comment on the media, how it has the power in influence world events, or even local ones. It’s so much more really, a new form of narrative is born, techniques are crafted. I would now say it’s an important film to say the least, but not the most important film, I guess that will always evade me, they are all so different, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Kane indulges on Kane, a look into the life of a man who wants what we all want love in the form of a fictional biography.

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The Hindenburg (1975)


The Hindenburg (1975)I remember catching the end portion of The Hindenburg (1975) before the inevitable explosion, from what I remember at least. I had to take the chance to see it again and understand what was going on in the film. I was only really aware of the incident sadly only a few weeks ago fully whilst watching a documentary on the War of the Worlds hoax  (1938) caused by Orson Welles that happened two years later that saw a nation that had become so used to breaking news bulletins of terrible events such as the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.

What the film provides us with is a blend of fact and fiction that built up to the disastrous event as the hydrogen filled passenger airship was about to land in New York in May 1937. Already the secret services in both the United States and Germany knew of a bomb plot, all made possible due to a woman (Kathie Rauch) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who predicts it’s destruction. The F.B.I are powerless to really do anything but investigate the rumour to a point. Whilst in Nazi Germany the ministry for propaganda put Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) in charge of the investigation, given all the power that he needs to stop any bomb exploding on the first flight of the season to New York. A man who has grown bitter since he lost his son in the line of duty to a regime he is starting to hate. He takes on the mission to keep his mind busy, where he bumps into an old friend The Countess (Anne Bancroft) who is one of a number of 36 passengers. All of whom are mainly German, or American, all with their own lives to lead, some with their own agendas and deadlines to meet. Ritter has to investigate them all along with the crew who maybe the possible bomber. Making for a less then thrilling first half as the investigation gets under way.

What keeps my attention is the scenes which takes places inside the hollow hydrogen filled structure itself, amazing the sculpture in me to the possibilities, the design and the engineering that went into such aircraft. When the second half gets going we learn who the plotter is, catching a glimpse of only their hands before. We learn the reasons behind the plot as well. It’s just a matter now of getting to the bomb and defusing it in time to save all on-board from a near-certain death.

The climax is a blend of archive and new black and white footage that slows down the events to seem far longer as the aircraft is eaten alive by flames in seconds. Within this time we see our characters run for safety and freedom from the fireball that could kill them. Added to that the radio broadcast of Herb Morrison which captured the events for a nation who had never heard of such things happening on their land in a life-time.

It’s all about the inevitability of the explosion, we know it’s going to go off, we know how it looks. Its filled with espionage, entertainment and love. All of which feels like filler and build up, making it into a film-able event. No longer is the event just a memory and a few minutes of camera but there are faces, building onto the event making it cinematic for an audience.


Vertigo to the Top


Kim Novak - Vertigo (1958)The news that Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Vertigo (1958) has been voted the greatest film of all time, the first time in 50 years, knocking the “impressive” Citizen Kane (1941) off the top spot for the first time. I’m guessing it hasn’t fallen far from its top spot. This is the first time the fall has occurred in the 50 years since the poll was first run, starting in 1952 and ran every ten years. Times have changed since the last vote in 2002.

I have never really seen the appeal to Citizen Kane, I can see the technical sophistication of the film, how it has influence the visual style. Orson Welles himself is noted for referring to another of my favourite directors John Ford, watching Stagecoach (1939) over and over, learning from another master of cinema. The narrative is retrospective melodrama of a newspaper mogul that leans of the self-indulgence of the director, that translates into the main character.

However it’s thought today that style is no longer more important than substance, something that is lacking in film today. Audiences today want more introspective films that explore the inner workings of the mind. Our drives and desires. Hitchcock maybe been unable to garner the praise he deserved in his lifetime, that just how it is for great works, and those who produce them, Their value increases with the passing of time. We can revisit and start to understand and unpick the films. Vertigo was his most personal film, knowing exactly what he wanted in front of the camera.

With the BFI‘s current retrospective of the auteurs work has allowed for film fans who appreciate Hitchcock’s back catalogue with a sense of respect and awe. Around 50 classics that stand the test of time. And that’s the very definition of a classic, having a conscious or unconscious effect on culture, and the work that follows that is in turn influenced work of others.

This news is an indication as the direction as to where films must now go, the internal struggles of the individuals coupled with spectacular in the next ten years. Films such as the recent Batman trilogy and Inception (2010) both by Christopher NolanAt the other end of the scale we have work by the unpredictable but highly entertaining Coen Brothers. Whilst at the other end of the spectrum we have the likes of the highly imaginative and controversial David Lynch and Cronenberg who push the boundaries of the form and fabric of film. Whilst directors like Steven Speilberg produce the blockbusters that entertain the soul with emotion and spectacle, that doesn’t mean he is the best director, none of his films feature in the top 50.

I noticed also that a number of silent films are featured in the top 50, that could be influence by the success of The Artist (2011). We cannot deny the increasing access to DVDs that are bringing silent films and those not so old come back into our awareness. DVD sales have definitely boosted since they arrived at the turn of the century. DVDs are more accessible that its predecessor the VHS which degrades with time. The falling prices of classics and the content they contain on as little as once disc is more than any tape could hold.

I wonder whether Vertigo will still be at the top of the table come 2022 when the list is re-evaluated, or will another film that could supercede this psychological thriller. Right Now I can’t think of one. Will Orson Welles sophistication be more relevant as it was 20 years ago, or has the increasing sophistication audience keep Vertigo’s Scottie and Judy/Madeline in the belfry?