Saturday, March 12, 2011

Orson Welles

Whenever people talk about Orson Welles the discussion invariably turns to what might have been. Hearst's relentless campaign to suppress Citizen Kane drummed up publicity, but the movie was held back for so long that all the controversy never translated into box-office receipts. When audiences didn't respond to his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, and his expensive Brazilian jungle documentary (for which he was unfairly villainized) was shelved by the studios, Welle's rapid ascent to the top was over. The 25 year old wunderkind (he had already established himself as a successful stage actor/director and radio star) who had been given total artistic control for Kane never regained favor with the studios. When Welles wasn't self-financing his passion projects with money from his acting jobs, his films were seized by the studios and hacked up in the editing room. He seems a comical, almost grotesque figure in a description in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; living in a spare room in the much younger Peter Bogdonavich's house, he surrounds himself with stacks of dirty dishes. Instead of the old man who has everything crying out "Rosebud" on his deathbed, it's easy to imagine Welles, longing for his younger glory days, letting out a harrowing "Kane."

But as any Welles fan knows, his career trajectory can't be reduced to the convenient myth of the genius falling from great heights. Welles himself said, "I started at the top and worked my way down," but that self-deprecating comment is facetious enough to let us know that it isn't quite true. And in my opinion, it's beside the point to decry the mistreatment and neglect Welles faced in the hands of Hollywood, to keep asking why he could never maintain control over his own movies. Was he too stubborn and reckless or was he just too lazy to fight for final cut, too willing to give in? Who cares. There are some real tragedies in American film history--for example, the brutal treatment of von Stroheim's Greed which resulted in the permanent loss of a masterpiece--but Orson Welles' career is not one of them (well...the fact that his last role was as Unicron in the animated Transformers withstanding). Of the five films I've seen by him, four of them are masterpieces and, if I'm not mistaken, there are many more where those came from. Welles' personal favorite was The Trial (1962), and a number of other films from later in his career, including Chimes at Midnight (1966) and F is for Fake (1973), are ranked among his best. For all we know, Welles might still have a great film left in him 26 years after his death; in 2004 Peter Bogdonavach started working on piecing together the "96 percent complete" footage of The Other Side of the Wind, about a film director struggling to scrape together funds for his last movie.

Bogdonavich, who wrote the definitive book This is Orson Welles, and who was the awestruck pupil before he was Welles' friend, sums up the man's genius quite nicely; "Among the most complicated aspects of Welles' work is the tension between the essential pessimism of his outlook and the exhilarating optimism inspired by the brilliance of his style." True that. In all of the works I've seen, Welles is consistent in his distaste for abuse of power and empty wealth. He fights relentlessly against moral corruption and capitalist excess. And the people in his movies often fall prey to their own carelessness; they lose their money, or any valuable reason for living, or their lives. But the way he films this sorry lot--with great relish, that is--betrays an affinity with all the excess and an identification with his power hungry characters. His movies are technically impeccable and often showy, with deep focus, crazy angles, mirror shots, sumptuous decors, complicated camera movements, and tour de force acting from Welles himself. He created a cinematic world where he could the master of everything. Aside from the editing, only the sound seemed to pose a problem; throughout his career Welles tried and mostly failed to devise a system where all the dialogue was pre-recorded and the actors merely had to mouth their words during the filming process.

Given Welles' undeniable genius and obsession with depicting the lives of the powerful, it's almost a surprise that he didn't become the very thing he was fighting against. I wonder if he didn't have it in his mind to become Kane, if that movie wasn't just an indictment of Hearst, or a cautionary tale warning against his own ambition, but a film intended to be prophetic. All right, maybe that's a little far-fetched. Still, in the end, it's strangely fitting that a man who consecrated his entire oeuvre to criticising people who have too much, never got much at all except for praise. But now, lest we start to think that he didn't give us enough either, here's a random sampling from Welles career that I saw in theaters recently; three films (lesser known than the great Touch of Evil and Citizen Kane) that should convert any naysayer.

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

The first thing one notices about The Lady From Shanghai is the incredibly thick Irish brogue that Welles, playing the part of a handsome weathered seaman, puts on. I'm not one to judge, and Welles did start his career as a 16 year old in Dublin's Gate Theater, but the accent does inspire a chuckle or two. Funny story about that Irish debut by the way: Welles, roaming around Europe with a modest sum provided by an inheritance from his father, walked into the theater claiming he was a Broadway star. No one believed him, but he was so forceful and sure of himself, that they gave him a lead role, which he used to launch his precocious fame.

Anyways, Welles' accent--delivered with pristine diction--may be a little silly, but his performance is definitely not. Charles Foster Kane was undoubtably his greatest role, but Kane was by nature remote and impenetrable; he wasn't one man at all but an amalgam of great American heroes as seen by people who knew almost nothing about him. Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara here might be my favorite role of his. His classic noir repartee doesn't have the salty crudeness you'd expect from a sailor; it's quick, cynical, cutting, and very smart. In his narration, O'Hara keeps mentioning how dumb he was to get himself into such a mess, but he's one of the more intelligent screen characters I've seen.

All of O'Hara's troubles begin when he comes across the beautiful, mysterious, and married Elsa as she's riding a carriage in Central Park. As he says, "from that moment on I did not use my head except to think about her." Who can blame him; Elsa is played by the seductive Rita Hayworth, who as it turns out, was ending a five year marriage with Welles at the time. The man she's married to in the movie, however, is Arthur Bannister, a wealthy defense attorney made famous for helping high profile crooks get away scott-free. Somehow, Bannister, under Elsa's suggestion, ropes O'Hara into joining them on their yacht on a trip through the Panama Canal. Things start off strange enough, as the old and crippled Bannister seems to encourage contact between the young Elsa and O'Hara while simultaneously paying spies to keep a watch on them. After that, the plot gets so complicated with murder, intrigue, and hidden motives, that Columbia president Harry Cohn offered $1,000 to anyone who could explain it. The prize went unclaimed.

Some may call Lady from Shanghai a mess, but its craziness is part of its brilliance. This movie has everything; film noir mystery and suspense gives way to wacky courtroom drama which turns into a chase sequence before emerging as kabuki theater. In early scenes on Bannister's yacht or during the extravagant jungle picnic he sets up to please Elsa, decadence and beauty are even more sinister than they were in Kane. And the finale, which takes place in a hall of mirrors, is expressionistic and exhilarating. No coincidence that the circus, the theater, and the courtroom all show up here. Every location in the movie, especially Bannister's boat, is an artificial setting, a stage where each actor is concealing something and playing his or her part. The movie itself is no different; it's all an act--one big clever and disturbing joke--which is why it doesn't matter if the plot doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Normally, if you've seen one film noir story, you've seen 'em all. Lady from Shanghai, on the other hand, is so visually exiting (magnificent cinematography), bold, and deranged that it stands on its own.


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons is the Orson Welles film that benefits most from comparisons with Citizen Kane. It was made directly afterwards, and it's a similar examination of the American success story, albeit from a different angle. Welles actually claimed that in its original form, before the studios got their hands on it, it was a much better film than Kane, although it's possible that his hurt feelings might have made him a little sentimental. And since the original cut was destroyed, it's not like there are many people around to challenge him. Even so, there are critics who argue that, even in its truncated version, it's the better film. I disagree, and don't think that seeing Welles' lost cut would change my mind (more on that later), but it's certainly not an unreasonable statement. The Magnificent Ambersons doesn't quite match the scope of Citizen Kane, but it engages with its characters on a more personal level, and it's one of a very few movies that can make the same kind of claim to technical perfection.

When I say that The Magnificent Ambersons is a success story from another angle, I should mention that that angle is a 180 degrees spin in the opposite direction. The Ambersons, three generations of them, start the film sitting high up in their mansion overlooking a much smaller than it is today Philadelphia, but their brand of old money-idleness is falling out of fashion. The lead role in this ensemble piece is that of George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) who's been spoilt since he was a child and is so arrogant and unpleasant that he has everyone in the town crying for the Ambersons' comeuppance. That's played against an actual story of American entrepreneurial triumph; Eugene Morgan, of the automobile fame, has just come back to his hometown to advance projects for his horseless carriage. He soon rekindles the love he had in his youth for George's mother, Isabel. In the meantime, George falls for Morgan's daughter, Lucy. But the best story of all here is that of George's aunt Fanny (Agnes Morehead) and her own love for Eugene Morgan, which goes unnoticed by everyone.

There are certain scenes here--fights between the headstrong George and the distraught Fanny, a carriage ride in the snow with the Ambersons and Morgans, a dynamic party sequence filmed with virtuosic tracking shots--that are extraordinary. Cinematographer Gregg Toland gets a lot of praise for his work in Citizen Kane but, though he was much slower than Toland, Stanley Cortez's work here is just as good--there's an incredible amount of detail in every frame. The Ambersons may not be magnificent but they're very interesting characters. George is far from being a likable protagonist, but he's so oblivious and naive that his cruelty towards others is more part of his nature than a sign of deliberate aggression. Isabel and Fanny are more sympathetic, but they're so helpless that the only path they can carve out for themselves is one of unrequited longing and physical deterioration. Even Lucy is much more than a pretty face; in one scene she tries to be flippant and indifferent when George tells her he's leaving only to break down in tears as soon as he turns his back.

Given how great Ambersons is, it's unfortunate that we'll never be able to see it as Welles intended. After the picture tested poorly when shown to a ruthless teenage audience (playing after a musical on a double bill no less) RKO slashed 50 minutes from the film. Welles was in Brazil at the time and was helpless to prevent this. I'm a little split in deciding how grievous the crime of editing down the movie really was. One Vanity Fair article, "Magnificent Obsession", claims that The Magnificent Ambersons is a "lost film" and that the 88 minute version that exists to day is little more than an "impressive curio." What a ridiculous notion that is. The movie should be judged on its own terms, and not against a destroyed artifact that no one will ever see. In fact, I quite like the brisk pace of this movie and of Lady From Shanghai (which also had an hour cut from it); it's funny that I've now come to unintentionally associate the breakneck speed with which these movies propel themselves forwards with Welles. And that "happy ending" that everyone complains about--while it doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the picture (I could definitely tell that it was the studio's)--is only happy if you lack half a brain. I'm convinced that the footage we have is good enough to let Welles vision get through.

Still, I might have to recant on some earlier statements made in my introduction and admit that the trimming of Ambersons is indeed a cinematic tragedy. Extra length usually makes a movie seem more important and 50 more minutes might have added some momentousness to the proceedings. If Welles says that his depressing ending (less faithful to the Pulitzer winning book by Booth Tarkington than the studio add on) was the best scene in the film, who am I to argue. Here's his description of it: "All these awful old people roosting in this sort of half old folks' home, half boarding house," eavesdropping and getting in the way of Eugene and Fanny, two holdovers from a more dignified era (Vanity Fair)."There's just nothing left between them at all. Everything is over--her feelings and her world and his world; everything is buried under the parking lots and the cars. That's what it was all about--the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age, and particularly impecunious old age. The end of communication between people, as we as the end of an era." I think I see why Welles might have felt closer to Ambersons than to Kane. After the studios "destroyed" his opus (he says it destroyed him as well in the process), he had plenty of time to grow old and and grieve a glorious--and lost--past.


Mr. Arkadin (1955)

Mr. Arkadin never quite reaches the peaks achieved by these previous two movies, and is usually considered to be even more of a flawed mess and less of a masterpiece than The Lady from Shanghai. There are two main reasons for why it doesn't work in quite the same way.

The first boils down to familiarity. Mr. Arkadin (a bearded and very imposing Welles) is an extremely wealthy man, yet he yearns to hold on to some sort of innocence in his life. The only way he can do this is by keeping his daughter (Paulo Mori, Welles' 3rd wife) from finding out about his violent past, and he ropes the hapless Guy van Stratten (Robert Arden), a petty criminal, into helping him erase it. Van Stratten, however, thinks that Arkadin has amnesia and has hired him to uncover his past, so he trots around the globe, dealing with all sorts shady characters to find out how Mr. Arkadin became Mr. Arkadin. The story, though convoluted, has plenty of interesting twists and turns. It can actually be worked out logically, and it's good enough to be worth following carefully. Thematically, however, Mr. Arkadin doesn't offer much of a departure for Welles. Rich old men with mysterious backstories, youngsters who get in way over their heads, wealth as a corrupting force...we've seen it all before. Welles relies too much on his usual bag of tricks here, throwing in plenty of dutch camera angles whenever he wants to get fancy.

The second problem is less forgivable. Robert Arden is a terrible and entirely unconvincing actor who succeeds at once in being hammy and as lifeless as a plank. There's a league of difference between his character and O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai. Admittedly, Van Stratten is supposed to be a little dumb while O'Hara is the sailor who "talks fancy", but they're essentially the same role. Where Welles' charisma brought depth to Shanghai, Arden just succeeds in dragging everything down a little with him. I don't know why Welles cast the guy, if not to make his own performance as Mr. Arkadin stand out even more in comparison.

It's a testament to Welles talent as a director (and not a casting director) that Mr. Arkadin is still a great movie. When it's not lazy--falling back on tried and true stylistic and plot devices, or failing to line up the dubbing with the characters' mouths--it's characteristically ambitious. The images here may lack the polish of his greatest work, but the movie is still packed with inventive shots, and it has the same kind of wild energy as Lady from Shanghai. The best scenes are so nonsensical that they would have been discarded by another filmmaker; one involves Van Stratten, his life in serious danger, running in and out of restaurants in Berlin, hunting down a goose liver to deliver to a dying man named Zouk. In another Van Stratten tries to get information from an elusive and wily flee circus master. While they talk, the master picks up his microscope and gets his fleas to shoot little tiny balls into little tiny baskets. When he's done, the flea master picks up the fleas, sets them on his arm, and announces "feeding time." 

At one point in the movie, Orson Welles' Arkadin tells the popular fable of the scorpion and the frog to a group of guests surrounding him: A scorpion wanted to cross a river so he asked the frog to carry him. The frog refused because the scorpion would sting him. "That would not be logical", explained the scorpion, "because if I stung you we would both drown". So the frog agreed to carry the scorpion. Half way across, the frog felt a terrible pain--the scorpion had stung him. There is no logic in this, exclaimed the frog. I know, replied the scorpion, but I cannot help it--it is my character. "Let's drink to character," Arkadin bellows. Here, here. Mr. Arkadin is one movie that does a hell of a lot more with self-destructive sting and character than it does with logic. In fact, I don't think there's any escaping Orson Welles' character in any of his movies. When finances and studios failed to come through, his larger than life personality, unbridled passion, and, yes, his genius, never did.


To finish this off, here are two videos that show where Welles ended up after the studio heads put a stop to his productivity. The first one is quite funny, even if it's a little sad, and shows the washed up, slightly megalomaniac Welles arguing semantics over a frozen peas commercial.

But this next one gives a much truer picture of a great man looking back over an extraordinary body of work and an extraordinary life. Orson Welles died a mere two hours after the interview was filmed.

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