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 Orson Welles 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 Peter Bogdanovich; 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.
The production was as chaotic as the film itself, as documented in numerous anecdotes by associate producer William Castle. 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 Errol Flynn‘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)→
Tyrone Power was 20th Century Fox’s answer to Warner Brothers’ Errol Flynn. However, as dated as Flynn’s style of acting is, he does generate a kind of cartoon excitement. Watching the bulk of Power’s swashbucklers is more of a burden. Power is typically bland. He died at 44 from a heart attack during an on-screen duel with actor George Sanders in the filming of Solomon and Sheeba (1959). Flynn died less than a year later. Both are known for iconic roles: Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940). They acted together only once: in Henry King’s version of The Sun Also Rises (1957), which (as per most cinematic Hemingway adaptations) is best avoided. Rumors in Hollywood have long claimed that Flynn and Power engaged in a brief affair. If so, then, yes, there was more to Zorro and Robin Hood than tights and mask. Of course, the seedier aspects of Flynn’s “wicked, wicked ways” are well known. Yet, behind that boyish persona, Power too had a darker personality. This began to surface later in his career with chosen roles, such as Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and in the earlier Nightmare Alley (1947).
Power came from a long line of actors, and although he desired meatier roles, he settled on the stability of his studio contract, rarely venturing outside of assignments. Nightmare Alley was a notable exception. After reading William Greshen’s novel Power purchased the rights and begged Darryl Zanuck to allow him to play the part of the seedy Stanton Carlisle. Reluctantly, Zanuck agreed, although he did little to promote the film.
Edmund Goulding was given the directorial reigns after he and Power had worked together in the drama The Razor’s Edge (1946). Although that film received mixed reviews, it was a commercially successful departure for the actor and commercial success was, of course, Zanuck’s primary concern. Goulding’s reputation had been cemented with the high class soaper Grand Hotel (1932) starring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. A string of glossy, star-powered melodramas followed: Riptide (1934) with Norma Shearer and Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), and The Great Lie (1941), all with Bette Davis. Zanuck’s choice of Goulding was strange but purposeful (for Zanuck). Nightmare Alley lacks the visceral quality of the novel (whose author, not surprisingly, committed suicide). With such a potent literary source, the film might have emerged as something deliriously akin to Tod Browning‘s Freaks (1932), but it lacks an obsessive director at the helm. Where Nightmare Alley does succeed is in Goulding’s direction of the superb Joan Blondell as the affable clairvoyant Zeena, Colleen Grey as the dainty circus girl Molly, and Helen Walker as the icy Dr. Lilith. (Goulding, a woman’s director, had gifted Academy Award winning performances to Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Joan Fontaine, and Anne Baxter).
Nightmare Alley is further helped by the bleakly prismatic cinematography of Lee Garmes, who had previously photographed such masterpieces as Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) and Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932). Screenwriter Jules Furthman crafts a mostly compelling, pessimistic screenplay (weakened by a Zanuck-mandated semi-happy ending) that falls somewhat short of being the yardstick to measure noir by. Furthman would go one to co-write (with Willam Faulkner) two more noir “classics” ( the classics label being debatable): Howard Hawks’ To Haveand Have Not (1944) and Hawks’ cinematic treatment of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946). Art directors J. Russell Spencer and Lyle Wheeler provide exemplary mise-en-scène in their impeccably disheveled carnival settings. Cyril Mockridge composes a taut, aptly grotesque score.
Character actors Ian Keith (as Zeena’s cuckold, Pete) and James Flavin (as the brawny barker Hoatley) leave the scene too soon, forcing star Power, as a slippery pseudo-mystic, to represent the carny world’s masculine populace. Power is only half up to the job. Although his performance was almost unanimously praised by critics of the era (including the great James Agee), Power projects a woodenness in the early scenes that does not altogether convince us of his charisma. Still, perhaps his artificiality, based solely on pulchritude, makes his downfall all the more shocking; and it is in his dissipated state that Power, surprisingly, lives up to the actor’s narcissistic potential. Power reminds the viewer of the horror that was once associated with the term “geek” in what turns out to be, perhaps, his finest performance.
Despite Zanuck’s attempt to give the film a commercial sheen, Nightmare Alley was a major flop with American audiences, who fervently resisted seeing one of their established stars try something original. The critics proved more insightful, and it was they who had the final say. Today Nightmare Alley is one of Power’s most celebrated films, while the majority of his commercial fodder has aged poorly and is primarily forgotten. Despite this, the movie rarely ran on television and its appearance in the home video market was considerably belated. Naturally, its unavailability only increased its cult status, until Fox finally responded, making it part of its film noir series on DVD (it never appeared on VHS).
2013 sees the Criterion Collection release Charlie Chaplin‘s Monsieur Verodux (1947). With this film, Chaplin’s sentimental Tramp was unquestionably dead, and in its place was an elegant black satire about a mass murderer. Critics and the public alike vilified Chaplin for this shift, to the point of picketing theaters, booing him at the Broadway Theater premiere, and eventual forcing the film’s withdrawal from the American market. James Agee, Kenneth Anger, and Bosley Crowther were among scant few notables who went against the tide and sang the film’s praises, declaring it a masterpiece. Later revivals have seen contemporary critics belatedly joining the film’s original champions. Today, Dennis Schwartz writes, “Monsieur Verdoux remains an unusually provocative satirical black comedy that’s subversive and gives one a greater sense of Chaplin’s political breadth from his previous work.” This reappraisal is not surprising: Verdoux‘s dark, sardonic humor is attuned to the modern mindset.
While Monsieur Verdoux does not compare to Chaplin’s most assured silent work, it is his most successful sound film (although that may not be saying much). The idea of Chaplin playing a Bluebeard type came from Orson Welles. Predictably, Welles suggested himself as director and, even more predictably, nothing came of it. Chaplin decided to pursue the idea solo, embarking on a screenplay. He offered Welles a “story idea” credit, and much to Chaplin’s chagrin, Welles accepted.
In retrospect, Monsieur Verdoux might be seen as an antidote to Chaplin’s next feature, the excessively saccharine Limelight (1952). The initial critical and commercial failure of Verdoux was comparable to the situation with Harry Langdon‘s bleak Three’s A Crowd (1927), after which Langdon reportedly tried to rebound with the populist-minded Heart Trouble (1928) (since that film was not distributed and is now lost, it is impossible to assess whether or not Langdon’s effort for a comeback would have been successful). Chaplin attempted to rebound from the commercial failure Verdoux with Limelight. Although Limelight proved to be a commercial success, critical reception was mixed. In her infamous review the critic Pauline Kael referred to it as “Slimelight” and, according to a Chaplin biographer, Pablo Picasso walked out on the film, finding it to be nauseatingly sentimental. The two films which followed Limelight were critical and commercial failures. To its credit, Verdoux does not overdose from Chaplin’s heart-on-sleeve sentiment.
Monsieur Verdoux is based on the life of serial killer Henry Desire Landru, aka “The Bluebeard of Paris”, who was convicted and executed for the murder of eleven women in 1922. The film opens with Verdoux’s voice-over narration from his tombstone, immediately indicating that what is about to unfold is far from the dance of the dinner rolls.
Verdoux is a banker who has lost his job during an economic crisis. At home he has an invalid wife and young son. In his late fifties, Verdoux knows his prospects for employment are slim and he resorts to marrying and murdering wealthy women to provide for his family. The Tramp faced the perils of Capitalism in Modern Times (1936), but here his response is an all-out blitz.
Chaplin’s Verdoux is an artful murderer. His is an aesthetic approach to killing, related to but opposite of The Great Dictator‘s Hynkel. He only really comes to life when he is engaged in the art of murder. Some of the physical comedy falls flat (Verdoux tumbling out of a window). Chaplin cannot resist mocking, then milking, the bourgeoisie heartstrings in the scenes of a paralyzed Mrs. and son at home in the lonely Spanish villa.
The best stroke here is Chaplin’s casting of Martha Raye as Annabella, the one wife he simply cannot kill. Chaplin always knew the value of a great female foil and he has one in the thankfully low-brow comedic antics of Rae, who contrasts beautifully with Chaplin’s self-praodying, effete elitism. Even in a film about a killer of women, Chaplin, commendably, does not succumb to a patriarchal ethos. Verdoux’s numerous attempts to kill Annabella prove unsuccessful and she proves as valuable to him as Jack Oakie’s Napaloni was to Chaplin’s Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940). Verdoux’s final attempt on Raye’s life is an extended and somewhat clumsily executed spoof of Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy.”
Chaplin provides a second strong female counterpart in Marilyn Nash’s “The Girl” who reads Schopenhauer and laments Verdoux’s loss of cynicism. Nash calls to mind elements found in Chaplin’s previous leading ladies (Paulette Goddard‘s Gamin from Modern Times, most specially) and she prefigures Claire Bloom’s Thereza in Limelight.
Naturally, Chaplin will not forgo painting his societal misfit with a degree of sympathetic coloring and he does this, as typical in his late works, with an extended anti-war speech that also tackles the dog-eat-dog tenets of Capitalist America. On his way to the gallows, Verdoux gets in one last, brief anti-organized religion quip. Thankfully, the cold-blooded killer Verdoux is not as long-winded as The Great Dictator‘s Barber or Limelight’s Calvero. Chaplin, as expected, is best in his pantomime moments. 1947 Audiences expected laughter from Chaplin. They didn’t get much of it from this morality play. Still, despite its flaws, Monsieur Verdoux has withstood the test of time better than any of Chaplin’s sound work. However, and not surprisingly, his best silent work somehow seems more contemporary.
The Criterion Edition includes a making of the film documentary, an audio interview with co-star Nash, three theatrical trailers, and essays.
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