Tag Archives: Orson Welles

ORSON WELLES’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)

For fifty years, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966) was locked in various disputes over ownership, and was only sporadically seen in wretched prints. It was talked and written about so much that inevitably seeing it (as I did in Chicago in the 90s) amounted to an ordeal. With both poor visual and audio, it was unquestionably a disappointment. Thankfully, Janus Films came to a long overdue rescue in 2015.

The restoration (available on the Criterion Collection) is miraculous, revealing one of Welles’ most astonishing, loving creations. While F for Fake was Welles’ final finished film, Chimes at Midnight is his final completed narrative feature—one that he never could have topped. The character of Falstaff inspired Welles to heights previously unreached (as it did Giuseppe Verdi). Chimes is his most personal and finest foray into Shakespearean terrain. While you’re watching it, you feel he’s peerless. Despite an epic struggle to finish the production, Welles’ direction is assured, but it’s as an actor that he soars in a tour de force performance. Welles himself cited as his best work, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Falstaff on film. One is inclined to agree. Welles had first played the part in a high school play that was ambitiously intended to be three hours long. Predictably, the school demanded cuts, forcing him to compromise (it wouldn’t be the last time). He played the part again in the late 1930s and in 1960, although both productions were short-lived financial failures.

Welles’ The Chimes at Midnight screenplay draws a linear chronological portrait of John Falstaff from the plays “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and “Richard III,” with Ralph Richardson’s narration taken from Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles.”

Like almost all of Welles’ later films, it was made under ragged conditions. The director was able to obtain meager financing by telling a bold faced lie (see F For Fake) to producer Emiliano Piedra, promising to direct and act in a version of “Treasure Island” in exchange. Welles had no intention of keeping that promise,  which Piedra eventually discovered, complicating the production (it took two years to complete). Despite budgetary struggles, Welles produced a final masterpiece. Only Welles could do so much with so little, crafting a chiaroscuro landscape with an epic ferociously bleak battle scene that can rank with the likes of Kurosawa.

Still from Chimes at Midnight (1965)With his girth and advanced age now a plus, Welles is physically perfect for the role, but the character of a lush, rogue anecdotist on the verge of become a train wreck parody is also close to the actor’s heart.  He doesn’t play Falstaff too broadly (comedy was never Welles’ medium), and there is a touch of smallness in the distended knight living beyond his means. Art imitating life, as far as Welles was concerned. Almost equally fine is ‘s performance as the draconian Henry and (most disturbingly) as the prostitute Doll Tearsheet.

As fine as Laurence Olivier was as Hamlet, Henry, and Richard, there was always a feeling of Shakespeare being too easy for him. The (considerably budgeted) productions went smoothly. One never comes away from Olivier’s Shakespeare with a sense of the artist and the production having grappled with the literary source.  Quintessentially professional, Olivier, like the Berlin Philharmonic conductor , is well-rehearsed in the art of reinterpretation. What makes Chimes at Midnight unique among the great cinematic Shakespeares is that which some critics initially complained of in it. Welles, like Leonard Bernstein, transforms interpretation into a sweaty brawl. In doing so, the director’s idiosyncrasies, or rather personality, is so imposed that it transforms  the work into a bona fide personal manifesto: lusty, often approaching a bacchanal.  It speaks volumes that Olivier, unlike Welles, was an Academy favorite. Yet Welles is as fearless and assured with the text as the more acclaimed examples of Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.

Put Chimes at Midnight at the top of your Shakespeare to do list. You won’t even have to wait a half century to see it as it should be seen.

ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

In hindsight, F For Fake (1973) might be seen as inevitable. In an interview with Jean Clay from almost a decade before the film’s release, Welles warned: “If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you.” Admitting that most what he says is fabricated, Welles astutely advised: “Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man.”

Yet, there is something of a gimmick even in that statement. It was through the medium of radio that Welles delivered his first hurrah of trickery, at the ripe old age of 23 on October 30, 1938. The reaction to Welles’ sharply directed radio dramatization of  H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” is impossible to fathom now; in the era before internet, cable, and television, Welles broadcast of a faked Martian invasion of New Jersey caused a nationwide panic. Believing it was the end of the world as we know it, the masses rioted and looted. In the resulting exodus, traffic was jammed in neighboring cities. Hundreds—if not thousands—died. Those of weak hearts dropped dead. The rivers beneath bridges were flowing with the bodies of suicides. Orson Welles immediately became a household name.

Only, those reports were predominantly fake as well. The station did not have a sizable audience. Few were actually listening to the broadcast, let alone fooled by it. There were a scant number of purported deaths, with the highest estimates ranging from five to twenty. However, that was enough for Welles and company to shrewdly feed the press until it escalated into a glorious myth. Thank God we’ve evolved past that now… well, until a certain political faker last year spewed, without a shred of evidence, “I saw thousands of Muslims [replacing Martians] cheering in New Jersey on 911” and his sycophants went “ooh” and “ahh” to the cheap parlor trick.

Unlike politicians, Welles called himself out in F For Fake, as he did thirty-five years prior when he manufactured a public apology for the unintentional catastrophe caused by manufactured Martians. To the world at large, Welles’ apology only confirmed the epic scale of that 1938 disaster.

Although Welles was nearly fired from RKO over the radio broadcast, such trickery deserved a reward. Welles eventually got it when the studio gave him carte blanche for the production of Citizen Kane (1941). If you haven’t heard of it, it’s this little movie about a newspaper magnate and charlatan that caused an epic backlash, but a few critics seemed to like it somewhat.

Still from F for Fake (1973)Like that infamous Martian debacle, a baroque cult grew around  F For Fake and for years, but with poor distribution, it was more discussed than seen. Fortunately, the 2005 Criterion Collection release remedied that. Welles himself guides us through an innovative and entertaining Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

ORSON WELLES’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)

A social media meme depicts an image of the Fab Four with the perfect response to Beatles naysayers: “Sorry we set the bar so high.” So it is also with and those who deny his mastery of the medium—it’s merely a case of being too too envious to recognize an inimitable artist. As a narrative filmmaker (albeit an experimental one) Welles gets equally little love from the avant-garde, much in the same way the modern painter Francis Bacon was seen as a sellout because he continued figurative painting in a non-representational age. Welles hardly helped his own status with stunts like whoring himself out as an actor; his fingernails-down-chalkboard interviews with ; wine commercials; and his cheesy Nostradamus documentaries (although he should be given a gold star for his frequent guest appearances on the ultra cool Dean Martin roasts). Because Welles’ antagonistic relationship with Hollywood is almost legendary, the status quo’s acknowledgment of his body of work has been primarily posthumous. It was with 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai that he almost intentionally immolated  himself, bidding adios to Tinsel Town.

The Lady from Shanghai was birthed from desperation. Welles’ Mercury Theater production of “Around the World in Eighty Days”  was threatened with a shutdown when $55,000 worth of costumes were impounded due to outstanding debts. Seeing a copy of Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” Welles had a eureka moment. He called Columbia head Harry Cohn, suggested he purchase the rights to the book, and offered to adapt, direct, and act in it for the money needed to pay off the costumes. Smelling a three-for-one deal, Cohn wired Welles the cash. He later came to regret it, vowing never again to hire someone in such a triple capacity again because it prevented him from firing such an upstart.

Still from The Lady from Shangai (1947)The production was as chaotic as the film itself,  as documented in numerous anecdotes by associate producer . The hot Mexico shoot caused actors to be ill, including Hayworth, which delayed shooting for a month. Welles himself was incapacitated for a period when an insect bit him in the eye. Crocodiles, barracudas, and poisonous barnacles posed additional threats. Unwisely, Welles rented his pal ‘s yacht “The Zaca.” In addition to overcharging, Flynn’s contractual agreement stipulated he be present for all scenes involving the boat, and he demanded to shoot the aerial footage of the Zaca himself—and he was, per his norm, prone to disappear for days on end, thus Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)

ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

Only could produce a masterpiece out of a film starring as a Mexican. Of course, the story of Welles’ rise and fall is practically legendary. At 26, he made that greatest of American films, Citizen Kane (1941), which took on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in a thinly disguised biopic. Welles’ was already at work on his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) when the backlash from Kane sent RKO into a panicFearing another flop, studio executives took Ambersons away from the young filmmaker, gave it a happy ending, and recut it. The result was a truncated masterpiece, which should have been the equal of Welles’ first film. Welles’ was practically backlisted and spent the rest of his career primarily in Europe, acting in almost anything to scrape up enough money to produce his own films.

Welles had already been cast for the role of Captain Quinlan in Touch of Evil when co-star Charlton Heston dared to suggest that the man who made Citizen Kane could also direct. According to Heston’s “Actor’s Journals” memoirs, the producers initially thought his advice was ludicrous, but realized that they would essentially be getting a “two for the price of one” (actor and director) bargain. Welles was signed on to direct, and immediately re-wrote the screenplay for Whit Masteron’s[1] novel “Badge of Evil.” The result was another repeating chapter in Welles’ ongoing story: the film was a commercial flop until later audiences discovered it.

Of course, there is a very small body of hopelessly predictable, wannabe filmmakers and critics who erroneously fancy themselves as “going against the establishment consensus” by denying the artistic merits of Welles, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, or The Trial (1962). Such an attitude is like that of the equally small minority in contemporary pop music who feebly attempt to deny or protest the artistry of t, simply because that band set the bar too high. However, as an art professor once told me: “If you want to be a great painter, then you have to know great painting.”  Those who are too uninformed to know the difference between elitism and discernment can be dismissed. Failure to recognize the aesthetic eminence of Welles’ or his greatest works renders one superfluous.

Still from Touch of Evil (1958)Touch of Evil does not merely stand with Welles’ best work, it also stands among the greatest achievements of American cinema. On the surface, it shouldn’t. After all, it’s garish, grotesque, and pure sleaze; indeed starring Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich both in Mexican makeup, which almost amounts to black face, an obscenely obese[2], dissipated Welles in padded nose, Za Za Gabor (in a small part), and some of the most laughable dialogue writing ever committed to celluloid… until you recognize it as the baroque, pulp parody it is.

Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Gabor, and Dennis Weaver are delightful. Under Welles’ direction Heston shines in his most emotionally complex role as Mike Vargas, making one wish the actor/director team had worked together more often (Heston, worshipful of Welles, attempted to commission the director for both 1970’s Julius Caeasar and 1972’s Antony and Cleopatra). Dietrich, as the Mexican fortune telling Gypsy whore Tana, delivers jaw dropping zingers with characteristic aplomb: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” and “You should lay off the candy bars, honey. You’re a mess. Your future is all used up.” She could have been making epitaphs for Welles himself, whose last American film this was. Despite being hailed, even in its botched studio cut, by luminaries such as , François Truffaut, and , and highly praised throughout Europe, Touch of Evil was relegated to playing on double “B” movie bills in artless America. Naturally, Welles was blamed, and considered finished by the studio systems.

Volumes have been written about the twelve minute opening shot, Welles’ choreography, and the virtuoso black and white camerawork of cinematographer Russell Metty. Part of the film’s initial stateside rejection was undoubtedly due to the meddling of Universal executives who recut the film, attempting to make the roaming, overlapping, unorthodox narrative into something linear (it didn’t work). A disgusted Welles disowned the cut. Just as he stuck by Sam Peckinpah when the studio interfered with Major Dundee, Heston condemned Universal for mutilating Welles’ work. Seven years after Welles’ death, editor Walter Murch, following the original script and volumes of memos, restored Touch of Evil to the director’s intent. In its mid-90s theatrical re-release, American critics loudly echoed their European counterparts, making it a belated success, which is only fitting. It’s terrific entertainment. Watch it first for its aesthetics, then again for its narrative.

  1. A pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller. []
  2. Welles was actually not as obese as portrayed here (or as he was in later life). Low camera angles and makeup assist Welles the director in making Welles the actor look his worst. The result is his greatest role since Falstaff. []

143. THE TRIAL (1962)

Le procès

“It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream—of a nightmare.”–Orson Welles’ prologue to The Trial

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, , , Elsa Martinelli, Akim Tamiroff, William Chappell

PLOT: Josef K. awakes one day to find two investigators in his apartment, who inform him he is under arrest and will have to stand trial. When he asks what the charges are, the police tell him it’s not their place to talk about that. The authorities release Josef on his own recognizance, and he spends the rest of the movie navigating a legal labyrinth, trying to find a way to absolve himself of a charge no one will specify.

Still from The Trial (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • Franz Kafka wrote “The Trial” in 1914 or 1915; it was never completed and was only published after his death.
  • Feeling that studio interference had ruined Touch of Evil (1958), by the 1960s Orson Welles had sworn off directing for Hollywood studios for good (he continued to accept acting jobs). From 1958-1962 he worked on a never-completed adaptation of “Don Quixote,” then was approached by French backers about making a film in Europe; he would be given complete creative control. He was given a list of public domain titles to adapt and chose “The Trial.” (Unfortunately for the financiers, their research was faulty; it turned out that Kafka’s book was still under copyright at that time, and they were forced to negotiate licensing fees).
  • The movie was filmed in Yugoslavia, Italy and France. Welles shot the courtroom scenes and many of the interiors at the abandoned Gare d’Orsay train station in Paris.
  • Welles dubbed dialogue for eleven of the actors, and reportedly even overdubbed some of Perkins’ lines.
  • In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich for his biography This Is Orson Welles, the director said that he suffered from recurring nightmares of being put on trial without knowing why and stated that this film was “the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me… It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.” The director of Citizen Kane also said that The Trial was “the best film I ever made.”
  • The production company never registered a copyright on The Trial in the United States and for many years it was in the public domain, until the copyright was restored under the GATT treaty.
  • The negative of the movie was thought to be lost, but a copy was discovered and restored in 2000.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Welles begins the movie by narrating Kafka’s mysterious parable “Before the Law,” about a man who withers and dies while waiting his entire life to pass through a doorway blocked by a guard. The fable is illustrated by elegantly grotesque slides created through “pinscreen” animation (the images are created by shadows cast by thousands of individual pins) by Alexandre Alexeïeff. Near the end of the movie Welles, now in character as the advocate Hastler, retells the fable, this time projecting the slides directly onto the face of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) as he stands before a screen. Welles’ hulking shadow, invisible to K as he faces Hastler, lurks over Perkins’ shoulder like the impassable guard of the tale—or like an angel of death.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Written at the dawn of the twentieth century, before the horrors of World War I, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” is a masterpiece of nightmare literature and a harbinger of the angst that would come to define modernism. Orson Welles, the great grayscale poet, proves the perfect adapter of Kafka, imprisoning the beleaguered Josef K. in bars of light and shadow. Kafka’s story was a picaresque journey through abstract interactions with a sequence of bureaucrats and seductresses that, frustratingly, never brings him any closer to answering the central riddle of his indictment. Rather than elucidating Kafka’s text, Welles’ narrative decisions further muddy it, stringing poor Josef K along with a promise of an answer that never comes. I imagine Kafka applauding in his grave.


Original U.S. trailer for The Trial

COMMENTS: After the dreamlike prologue telling of the man who fruitlessly waits an entire lifetime for admittance to the Law, The Trial proper Continue reading 143. THE TRIAL (1962)