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Tag Archives: Touch of Evil

2011: The Year of the Orson

Today’s post, in which I bestow a “filmmaker of the year honor,” establishes a new tradition following last year’s tribute to Fritz Lang. It is also the first of three posts offering a round-up of the year in movies. Over the next two weeks I will also be posting lists of my favorite home video and theatrical releases of 2011.

This year White City Cinema’s Filmmaker of the Year honor is bestowed on Orson Welles, one of the all-time great directors and someone whose work seems to be in a perpetual state of restoration, re-release and rediscovery. 2011 saw the blu-ray debuts of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil in mind-bogglingly elaborate box sets and The Stranger in a serviceable public domain job, as well as the first ever North American DVD release of The Magnificent Ambersons. In addition to purchasing all of these titles, I also showed Citizen Kane as part of a day-long seminar I gave to teachers at Facets Multimedia in July. (The subject? “How to Teach Hollywood Masterpieces in the Classroom.”) For these reasons, there was no other film director I spent more time watching, thinking about and wrestling with in 2011 than Orson Welles.

The visionary nature of Welles’ genius marked him as a man ahead of his time and, since his death in 1985, film critics, scholars and fans have all been playing catch up. While it was once commonplace to hear critics chalk up the plethora of unfinished Welles projects to some kind of “fear of completion” (usually tied to assumptions about Welles’ insecurity about living up to the early promise of Citizen Kane), history has since taken a kinder view of the twilight years of the boy genius from Kenosha. The 1995 documentary Orson Welles: The One Man Band, included on Criterion’s 2005 DVD release of F for Fake, provided many Welles fans a tantalizing first glimpse of the tangled mess of unfinished movies Welles worked on in the last couple decades of his life, many of them of obviously high artistic quality. Recent books by Jonathan Rosenbaum (Discovering Orson Welles, 2006) and Joseph McBride (What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, 2007) examine this work in detail, giving a more well-rounded view of Welles’ career as a whole. They also indicate that the primary reason for the unfinished nature of this work was a lack of money and resources. The fact that Welles was able to remain as prolific as he was is nothing less than a testament to his love for the act of filmmaking.

But even Welles’ earlier work, including the one movie he inarguably had complete creative control over, has been the subject of controversy. As I pointed out several months ago, Citizen Kane has been released in multiple VHS and DVD editions over the years that have failed to do justice to its original, revolutionary visual style. The new Warner Bros. blu-ray happily corrects the most egregious problems associated with previous editions by aiming for a greater film-like look. Welles’ last Hollywood masterpiece, Touch of Evil, a movie that was re-edited and partially re-shot against his wishes, was restored in 1998 as closely as possible to the director’s original intentions. And yet when Universal attempted to take a completist approach to Touch of Evil for their 50th Anniversary DVD edition in 2008 by including three different cuts of the film, they still courted controversy by only including it in a widescreen aspect ratio that some claimed was not the way it was meant to be seen. The new Eureka/Masters of Cinema blu-ray of Touch of Evil attempts to cover all bases by including five versions – all three of the extant cuts, two of which are presented in different aspect ratios: the academy (or television) ratio of 1.37:1 as well as the widescreen 1.85:1.

That the world can’t get enough of Welles now is ironic considering the tattered state of the director’s legacy in his own lifetime. (And there would be even more Welles releases on the market today if not for the intervention of his litigation-happy daughter Beatrice. She is now the only thing preventing the release of The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ final unreleased movie.) It is tempting to invoke a parallel between Welles and Charles Foster Kane; like Thompson, the reporter in Kane who ends the film “playing with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” movie lovers too must sift through the films of Orson Welles, whether finished, unfinished or in multiple versions, none of which can be called definitive, in order to best understand and appreciate his artistry as a director. I would argue that the very act of familiarizing oneself with the Welles canon is akin to conducting an investigation. However, the “solution” that each viewer comes to is likely to be different. Unlike, say, Alfred Hitchcock, whose authorial persona remains more stable and fixed in the minds of cinephiles, with each passing year Welles’ identity seems to multiply like the infinite reflections of Charles Foster Kane standing between two mirrors in the hallway of Xanadu. There are probably as many Orsons as there are viewers.

It should be a no-brainer for movie buffs to pick up the Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil blu-ray sets. The former is a cinephile’s paradise and includes among its many supplements the aforementioned DVD of The Magnificent Ambersons. The latter is available only as a “region B”-locked import, but it alone would justify the purchase of a multi-region blu-ray player. However, as those releases have already been written about ad nauseum elsewhere, I’d like to end this appreciation by offering a shout out to an outfit named “HD Cinema Classics” for putting out a blu-ray of The Stranger, a terrific minor Welles film from 1946 that has long been in the public domain. While today The Stranger technically belongs to the library of MGM, a studio notoriously reticent to release catalogue titles and who have no plans to offer a blu-ray of their own anytime soon, we should all be grateful that someone took a 35mm print, no matter how imperfect, and made a high-definition transfer from it. While HD Cinema Classics clearly don’t have access to the same high quality source materials that MGM does, I think their release should also be an essential purchase for Welles enthusiasts, especially considering its reasonable amazon price tag of only $11.99.

The Stranger has long been condescendingly referred to by film historians as the movie Welles made to prove he could direct something commercial and conventional but it is actually much better (and more Wellesian) than that reputation would suggest. In the first of a cycle of memorable Welles films noirs, the director himself plays Franz Kindler, an ex-Nazi who travels to America and starts a new life as a schoolteacher named Charles Rankin in a sleepy Connecticut town. Hot on his heels is Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson, a Nazi hunter for the U.S. government who must uncover Rankin’s true identity in spite of the disbelief of the stranger’s new acquaintances – including his fiance Mary (the lovely Loretta Young). The Stranger features several exciting set pieces, most notably an action climax set atop a bell tower, all of which are rendered in gorgeous high-contrast black and white by cinematographer Russell Metty who would later shoot Touch of Evil. But the film’s most memorable scene is a quieter one, a dinner table dialogue in which Rankin/Kindler accidentally lets his mask slip by denying that Karl Marx was a German because he also happened to be a Jew. It’s a little master class in acting that foreshadows the more famous fascist sentiments of Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man two years later.

When all of the legal disputes have been settled and The Other Side of the Wind finally does see a proper release, there still remains the question of how the film should be “finished.” Since no definitive cut is possible, who will be charged with the unenviable task of deciding “what Orson would have wanted”? Since there has already been some infighting on this very subject by Welles’ former collaborators, I think the sensible thing would be to have the film completed in multiple versions overseen by different editors with consciously different approaches in mind. I’d buy a mammoth blu-ray box set of that.

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Top 25 Films of the 1950s

25. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)

Alain Resnais’ first feature takes an impeccable, highly literary script by Marguerite Duras and turns it into a radical, intensely cinematic movie: two lovers, an unnamed Japanese architect and a French actress, have a lengthy conversation on the subject of memory. The present day scenes are continually peppered with flashbacks to the woman’s harrowing experiences as the persecuted lover of a German soldier during the Second World War. Resnais’ groundbreaking, nonlinear editing style, used to suggest “flashes of memory,” has had an incalculable effect on subsequent filmmakers.

24. The Music Room (Ray, India, 1958)

23. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)

Austrian-born director Max Ophuls made what are arguably the most elegant movies of the classic French cinema; his much beloved tracking shots find a perfect compliment in narrative structures that continually circle back on themselves, like a waltz, before resolving in a typically tragic denouement. Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Ophuls’ brief stint in Hollywood, is my favorite of his films but I think Madame de . . . is the masterpiece of his lengthier French career. The unnamed title character is the wife of a general in the French Army who sells her most expensive pair of earrings to pay off a debt, an act that becomes a catalyst for a chain of events bringing about her ruin. Apart from the aforementioned formal grace, the lead performances (from Daniel Darrieux, Charles Boyer and the very suave and refined-looking Italian director Vittorio de Sica) are sublime.

22. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

The first masterpiece of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period is this unforgettable tale of juvenile delinquents living in the slums of Mexico City. The main characters are Jaibo, the leader of a gang, and Pedro, an impressionable boy who wants to do good but becomes enmeshed in gang activity after being repeatedly rejected by his own mother. There are many aspects to this film that are similar to Italian Neorealism, including the documentary-like visuals and incredibly naturalistic child performances, but Bunuel, being true to his roots, continually pushes the material in a more dream-like and surreal direction. An uncompromising film that was way ahead of its time, Los Olivdados feels like it could have been made yesterday.

21. The River (Renoir, France/India, 1951)

river

20. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

Carl Dreyer’s penultimate film is this transcendentally uplifting drama adapted from a play by Danish pastor Kaj Monk. The slowly, exquisitely paced story takes place in a rural farming community and centers on the Borgen family, which consists of a widower father and his three grown sons. Issues of faith, love (in many forms) and repression are profoundly explored when the wife of the eldest son dies and the middle son, a religious fanatic who believes he is Jesus, claims to have the power to bring her back to life. This is not merely a film about religion; it is a spiritually intense experience unto itself, one that can even be appreciated as such by an old atheist like me.

19. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)

Alida Valli is a wanton countess in 19th century Italy who betrays her country to pursue a destructive affair with a lieutenant of the occupying Austrian army (Farley Granger). Visconti’s elegant mise-en-scene, featuring impeccable period set and costume design rendered in ravishingly beautiful Technicolor, marked an about face from his early Neorealist phase and the beginning of a mature “operatic” style that would continue for the rest of his career.

18. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

17. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)

16. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

15. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

14. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

13. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)

Mikio Naruse has long been considered one of Japan’s greatest directors by Japanese critics. Yet in spite of a prolific body of work (his career began in the silent era and stretched all the way to the late 1960s) he’s never been as well known in the west as his contemporaries. Floating Clouds is my favorite of the Naruse films I’ve seen, a heartbreaking story of a doomed love affair. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), an employee of Japan’s forest service, meets and falls in love with a co-worker, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), while stationed in French Indochina during WWII. After the war, they meet up again in Japan where an obsessed Yukiko attempts to resume the affair in the face of some very bastard-like behavior from her indifferent former lover. Naruse’s trademark ability to extend sympathy to all of his characters – in a scenario where people can’t resist making terrible decisions – left me with a feeling of sadness I’ve never quite shaken.

12. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

11. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

10. Bigger Than Life (Ray, USA, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

9. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s best film and arguably the greatest action movie ever made. A village of poor farmers learn they are about to be raided by bandits on account of their soon-to-arrive barley crop. They hire seven samurai to help them defend the village from attack, with nothing to offer in return but food and board. The first half of this massively influential three and a half hour chambara extravaganza is devoted to setting up the conflict and introducing the seven samurai as distinct and memorable personalities (with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune deserving special honors for carving out indelible archetypal characters). Then, when the epic, rain and mud-soaked battle finally does arrive, it is impossible not to care deeply about the human cost of the outcome. Seven Samurai is to the samurai picture what The Searchers is to the western: the best film of its kind.

8. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)

My own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

7. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French resistance fighter’s escape from a Gestapo prison, unforgettably conveys one man’s relentless desire to regain his freedom. Eschewing the easy thrills so common to the Hollywood treatment of this type of subject matter, Bresson instead zeroes in on the specific process of how Lieutenant Fontaine acquires, creates and utilizes the tools that enable his escape plan to work. The stringent use of close-ups of hands at work, accompanied by a use of heightened sound effects and an extensive employment of first person voice-over narration, draws the viewer into Fontaine’s world to an almost unbearable intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

5. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s best-loved film is this unique ghost story/war movie/melodrama hybrid. In feudal wartime Japan, two men (a potter and a farmer) move from their home village to a city, hoping to become war profiteers, but tragically opt to leave their wives behind; as the men become wildly successful, one of the wives is murdered and the other is forced into a life of prostitution. The homecoming finale, which sees the protagonists as “sadder and wiser men,” is shattering. Mizoguchi’s ravishingly photographed fable of greed and ambition uses light, shadow and fog (not to mention those legendary crane shots) to perfectly complement his view of the world as a place of impossible moral choices.

4. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

3. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)

My favorite Italian movie ever is this deceptively simple melodrama about a bored married couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) who travel to Naples following a death in the family. As they wander the city separately (she visits museums and the ruins of Pompeii, he flirts with the prospect of adultery), they take emotional stock of their lives for the first time in years, leading to one of the most spiritually uplifting finales in cinema. A film in which nothing and everything happens, this is the birth of cinematic modernism without which such diverse films as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Contempt and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy would not be possible.

2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s supreme masterpiece tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple who travel from their rural hometown to visit their grown children in the title city, only to find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat them as a nuisance. Rather than condemn any of his characters the way you would expect a Hollywood melodrama to do, Ozu’s patient, observant, non-judgemental eye sees the disintegration of the family as the sad but natural order of the universe. The heart of the film is Ozu’s favorite actress Setsuko Hara as Noriko, the elderly couple’s daughter-in-law, whose smiling countenance seems to radiate an almost overwhelming warmth and humanity. When one embittered character tells her that life is disappointing, Noriko’s resigned, smiling response is “Yes, I’m afraid it is.” Sublime.

1. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.


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