The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942 Orson Welles Triumph

The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942 Orson Welles Triumph

Another magnificent triumph from the one and only Orson Welles. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons tells the tale of a whip smart scion from an aristocratic family who tries to ruin his mother’s happiness. One of course questions whether there was an American aristocracy, perhaps an important family would be a more accurate description. In any case, this is a really terrific film, an unfinished masterpiece. Welles’ work is missing some 43 minutes after RKO decided to publish an alternative cut. I read recently that TCM have joined the search for the lost minutes of this masterpiece, which is very exciting indeed.

Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book struck many chords with Welles,  himself the Midwestern son of a wealthy inventor (like Joseph Cotten’s character, Eugene Morgan). In fact, he suspected that Tarkington, a friend of Welles’ family, based the spoilt brat and “princely terror” Georgie Amberson Minafer on him — he, too, was called Georgie as a child. Empire

Joseph Cotten … Eugene Morgan

Dolores Costello … Isabel Amberson Minafer

Anne Baxter … Lucy Morgan

Tim Holt … George Minafer

Agnes Moorehead … Fanny Minafer

Ray Collins … Jack Amberson

 Erskine Sanford … Roger Bronson

Richard Bennett … Major Amberson

Orson Welles … Narrator (voice)

For a film which is unfinished, the message in The Magnificent Ambersons is conveys loudly, clearly, and dare I say, completely. Joseph Cotton (later starring in Welles’ Citizen Kane) is the perfect antidote to the insufferable George Minafer – who is spoiled rotten and drives the whole town around the bend. His repulsive nature conveys perfectly the critique of the dying old money class as pitted against Eugene Morgan’s much more palatable character bringing in the new money of the motor industry. In a way the film pits old against new. Georgie represents the sternly held but ultimately unfounded set of restrictions, body and mind, which the bourgeoisie impose on itself. This is represented in the physical sense by Georgie repeatedly getting in the way of his mother having a relationship with Eugene, partly I suppose derived from his own desire to marry Eugene’s daughter Lucy but also out of repulsion for Eugene’s innovation and vigour. Of course Georgie goes about any purported positive goal in the worst possible ways and might end up receiving the correct comeuppance by the end of the film…

But it’s a flawed masterpiece, as brilliant a study of social change as Visconti’s The Leopard. We see a rich, Midwestern family in decline from the 1870s into the 20th century as a new commercial, bourgeois society emerges.Welles doesn’t appear but provides an eloquent, seductive voiceover, and the movie is admirably served by several Mercury Company performers from Kane (Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins) and new recruits (Tim Holt, Anne Baxter). The experimental narrative combines extended takes with sharp montages of social commentary, and veteran Stanley Cortez’s photography is as remarkable as Gregg Toland’s on Kane. Guardian

 

The Trial – Claustrophobic Triumph, Orson Welles

The Trial – Claustrophobic Triumph, Orson Welles

Directed by Orson Welles and starring a magnificent Anthony Perkins, The Trial is a superlative interpretation of Der Prozess by Franz Kafka. The film was released in 1962. Welles wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film, which shows in its unique style, perspective and voice. The Trial tells the story of Joseph K, accused of something – bit we do not know what – and is subjected to a trial – but the court processes are not clear. It is a masterful interpretation of the novel and captures all its haunting nightmarish disquiet. In terms of further context, Sight and Sound voted Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in their 1962 annual review, likely giving Welles a well needed boost of confidence in the making of this film.

The blackest of Welles’ comedies, an apocalyptic version of Kafka that renders the grisly farce of K’s labyrinthine entrapment in the mechanisms of guilt and responsibility as the most fragmented of expressionist films noirs. Perkins’ twitchy ‘defendant’ shifts haplessly through the discrete dark spaces of Welles’ ad hoc locations (Zagreb and Paris, including the deserted Gare d’Orsay), taking no comfort from Welles’ fable-spinning Advocate, before contriving the most damning of all responses to the chaos around him. The remarkable prologue was commissioned from pioneer pinscreen animators Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker. Timeout

There are so many outstanding moments in this film it is difficult to find one or even three standouts. It is shot in a similar way to Citizen Kane, with a focus on wider shots and perspective, as can be seen by the cover photo I have chosen, showing the first scene in the film where Joseph K is at what I suppose would be the preliminary Hearing in his trial saga. A lot of the scenes were shot in the Gare d’Orsay in Paris, after it shut down as a working train station but before it became the Museum D’Orsay, which now houses some magnificent Van Goghs, among other tremendous works, which I remember being very moved by visiting as a child. I wonder how my perception would alter now.

Another quite haunting scene for me was when Joseph meets Titorelli the painter, who informs him all about the nefarious Court’s practices. This scene is preluded by Joseph K meeting the girls outside the artist’s studio who follow him. You can see them at either side of the hallway following Joseph K as he leaves Titorelli’s studio in the above photograph. This for me captures the almost choking claustrophobia of the book and film. The fundamental hopelessness of Jospeh’s cause is highlighted in this scene especially. Titorelli tells Joseph of the rules of the Court, while being badgered by dozens of young girls outside, who are also agents of the Court, and escapes them through a corridor which leads directly to the Court. I found it utterly extraordinary.

I shan’t go further to avoid spoilers but this is a truly special film, as indeed most of Orson Welles’ films are (Magnificent Ambersons is a must watch, even with pat of it still missing to this day). Beautifully shot, Anthony Perkins is radiant as Joseph, Welles is superlative as the useless lawyer and the whole thing is a beautiful translation of the airlessness of the novel.

 

Alien (1979) – Extra Terrestrial Horror Classic

Alien (1979) – Extra Terrestrial Horror Classic

The plot of Alien is relatively simple: The crew of a towering 800 foot long commercial towing ship, the Nostromo, are tasked with investigating what appears to be a distress signal from an alien planet. The crew investigates this but, unbeknownst to them, bring an extremely dangerous alien life form onto their ship. One by one they are picked off…

Scott, aided by his special effects team, headed by Brian Johnson and Nick Allder, and many others who deserve to be mentioned but can’t be, creates in the confined space of his main set a sweaty little world on its own that responds ideally to his obsessive close-ups and restless, magnifying style. Hurt has said that it was more a matter of reacting than acting, and one can well understand what he means. His own performance makes one miss it when it’s gone. And that of Sigourney Weaver, as one of the two women astronauts, is also consistently watchable (with a bigger slice of the cake). Derek Malcolm

Tom Skerritt … Dallas

Sigourney Weaver … Ripley

Veronica Cartwright … Lambert

Harry Dean Stanton … Brett

John Hurt … Kane

Ian Holm … Ash

Yaphet Kotto … Parker

Bolaji Badejo … Alien

From the beginning Alien is otherworldly in its subject matter, set and striking visuals. The derelict alien ship which is investigated is as large as a building. Its vaulted insides are just as towering. The uniform rows of hibernating eggs, covered by an ominous coloured fog make for terrifying viewing. One can only imagine what the 1979 audience must have felt, before the SAW series of ‘films’ desensitised the public to horror.
However, the crew stayed small (seven, plus cat), the alien stayed medium-sized (no bigger than the man who played him, supple Masai tribesman Bolaji Badejo) and the story stayed simple: ship lands on planet in response to an SOS that turns out to be a warning; alien infects one of the crew; alien kills the rest of the crew one by one. It’s Ten Little Indians in space. Empire
Alien is a triumphant film in many regards, from its sensational design aspect, plot and the acting itself. The late great Sir Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins, no less) is a phenomenon as the sociopathic, robotic follower of procedure, calm even in the face of his screaming colleagues. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is of course a marvel as the jaded bad-ass survivor against all odds, increasingly bedraggled  with every passing minute of the film. John Hurt’s role may be one of the most compelling but is unfortunately too brief, however superb its denouement.
To describe Alien as a triumph chiefly in terms of its look is not to underplay its dramatic strengths, it’s just that ordinary filmgoers tend to nod off if you pay tribute to designers (art directors Roger Christian and Les Dilley, production designer Michael Seymour, FX team Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, Carlo Rambali… wake up!) Empire
And talk about an ending! Alien for me scores 10s across the board. Even now some 42 years later, it packs a punch.

Rosemary’s Baby – Roman Polanksi 1968 Horror Masterpiece

Rosemary’s Baby – Roman Polanksi 1968 Horror Masterpiece

In my quest to discover the best films ever made, I came to learn that this 1968 satanic offering is considered the height of horror. Watching it, one can see why. Rosemary’s Baby tells the tale of husband Guy Woodhouse (Cassavetes), a down on his luck actor, moving in with his new wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow), who move in to the exclusive Branford building which has rather an unpleasant history of witchcraft and cannibalism, among other things. The couple hope to have a baby. And they shall have one too.

During her longed-for pregnancy (after dreaming that she’d been raped by something monstrous), oddities, miseries and weirdness accrue before Rosemary realises the Castevets lead a witches’ coven. She becomes convinced they want to sacrifice her baby to the Devil, and that her husband has agreed to help them in return for professional success. Empire

Allow me to confirm, as is mandatory, that the director of this film is not a terribly nice man, in my opinion and that of the Los Angeles County Superior Court. I should like to speak about this film and his direction separately from his atrocious acts if at all possible. Whatever we think about the director, and one is right in not thinking very much of him personally, this is a startling work. Filmed partly at the iconic and recognisable Dakota Building at 1 West 72nd Street, where John Lennon was shot, don’t you know, Rosemary’s Baby is a triumphant screen adaptation of the Ira Levin novel upon which its script is based. Interestingly, having now read the novel, the point must be made that prior to this novel, horror happened elsewhere, on Haunted Hill or in Hill House, for example. Rosemary’s Baby was the first instance of truly home-grown horror, which must have petrified audiences at the time.

Levin went even darker: What if he took the birth of Jesus and turned the whole tale upside down? What if God was not only dead but the devil lived? Vanity Fair

Polanski and producer William Castle succeed in keeping an air of mystery and deep unease throughout the film, the shocking truth is not revealed until the very last scene. In the interim, we are left feeling the increasing tension that Rosemary must have felt, unable to trust anyone in her environs, not even her husband. At all times something is afoot but Rosemary cannot quite put her finger on it. Her shyness and compliance is possibly a large contributing factor to her sorrows.

The film revolves around Farrow, who is in all but a very few shots. Polanski slyly exploits her mannered childishness. Even before she gets pregnant she wears shapeless little smocks and flat, little girl shoes. When she has her hair trendily cropped at Vidal Sassoon (one of the film’s ubiquitous, precise notations of a cultural signpost for the year of the story, 1965-66) she is even more pathetically waifish. […] Easily led, Rosemary repeats parrot-fashion other characters’ statements and allows herself to be utterly dominated. Empire

A personal highlight was Ruth Gordon playing the wife Castevet, with outrageous fashions, pronunciation and sinister undertones. It is no surprise she won an Oscar for this performance. This is a stellar horror and ranks very highly indeed.

12 Angry Men – Insular Legal Triumph 1957

12 Angry Men – Insular Legal Triumph 1957

12 Angry Men is mandatory viewing for legal people. This was the first film to show the legal process solely from the perspective of the jury. It pertains to a murder case, ostensibly open and shut. The jury are set to deliberate on the fate of the young man accused of murdering his father. Eleven of the twelve jurors are convinced of his guilt, it falls to the twelfth, Juror 8, to convince them there is room for reasonable doubt.

Martin Balsam … Juror 1

John Fiedler … Juror 2

Lee J. Cobb … Juror 3

E.G. Marshall … Juror 4

Jack Klugman … Juror 5

Edward Binns … Juror 6

Jack Warden … Juror 7

Henry Fonda … Juror 8

Joseph Sweeney … Juror 9

Ed Begley … Juror 10

George Voskovec … Juror 11

Robert Webber … Juror 12

I should think that director Sydney Lumet took inspiration from Rear Window, released three years prior, in deciding whether to go ahead with an insular single room set film, quite uncommon at the time. I don’t imagine the heroic Tommy Wiseau would have been born for some decades when this film was released in 1957. In concept, this is not the most exciting prospect. I had a hard time selling this one to Matthew. This is a drama set in one room about the deliberations of a jury. What makes it so special?

On paper this courtroom drama had little to get excited about – a one room setting, a dozen old-timers spouting off, a first-time director, a non-event. But on film, 12 Angry Men is transformed into a superlative brew of acting prowess and dynamite direction, and could stand as a screenwriting masterclass in the development of character and plot without resorting to the big stunts, grandiose locations or special effects. Empire

The tension begins with Fonda, the runaway star of this picture, putting his hand up to signify his not guilty plea. He is then predictably seized upon by the rest of the group, Cobb in particular (Juror 3), whose vocal dissent and energy are mesmerising to watch. His performance is the direct opposite of Fonda’s, who is the picture of calm, quietly but effectively dissecting each piece of evidence the other jurors took as read. Fonda’s character is an architect by trade but seems to have the nose of a detective. This is the only criticism that can be made of an otherwise flawless, consistent and engaging drama.

Cobb losing it at Fonda

The overarching theme for me seems to be male fragility under pressure. There is an added urgency to proceedings, as it were, by it being at once the hottest and seemingly wettest day of the year. The jurors are incrementally sweating and more uncomfortable throughout the film as a result of the storm happening outside the window. There is no relief inside the juror’s room aside from one wall mounted fan which is discovered rather late in the film. Lumet demonstrates his genius once again by including this. The added element lends itself to increasingly hostile jurors, some of whom simply wilt under the pressure of the heat and cave to Fonda’s arguments.

Overall, it should be noted that there are no special effect, no novel camera work and no changes of room (aside from one bathroom break) in this film. Yet it remains a watershed moment in cinematic history on account of its compelling characters and robust, flawless script. This is rightly one of the greatest films ever made and a personal favourite of mine.

 

Casablanca – The Greatest Movie of All Time?

Casablanca – The Greatest Movie of All Time?

I have been given the unenviable task of discussing ‘Casablanca’ today. I say unenviable, partly because I know practically zilch about films and therefore am woefully unsuited to the role of film reviewer, and partly because this film has often been ranked as one of the greatest, if not the greatest films, of all time. It is as if Cedric were to set about reviewing the footballing career of Diego Maradona.

I did not, however, shirk from the task this time. Despite my vast ignorance of the subject, I am keen to express some of my opinions. Occasionally, greatness can inspire greatness in others, and so taking some comfort in that thought, I have decided to plod on and see what I can come up with.

What makes this film so interesting to me is that it is not only set during World War II but also produced during World War II. It premiered in November 1942 in the middle of the conflict. That is almost three years, before well-known Austrian mad-man, Adolf Hitler, killed himself in a bunker in Berlin. Moreover, it is almost two years before the Normandy Landings. Hitler had of course by then made his two colossal blunders that would eventually cost Nazi Germany everything: the commencement of operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941, and the declaration of war on the U.S.A. on 11 December 1941, but it was still not yet clear that the allies would win. The tide was turning but the ship had not yet been sunk.

Theatrical release poster, 1942

So, audiences would have received this film at a time of great uncertainty, searching for hope. I do not wish to get into the plot too much, partly so as to avoid “spoilers” and also partly because on a few points I am confused myself. To lay down the bare essentials however the film “Casablanca” is unsurprisingly set in the town of Casablanca, in French Morocco. The location is significant on two counts. Firstly, at the time, refugees from across occupied Europe were using Casablanca as a staging post from which to travel to Lisbon and thence to the U.S.A. and freedom. Secondly, we are in French Morocco, a colony of a country who had surrendered to Nazi might.

I do think the film is at least in part an exercise in propaganda. This is not to say it is bad art. Far from it. The beauty is that it can be viewed simultaneously as a very personal story too. This is after all a tale about the overcoming of cynicism, about doomed love and about self-sacrifice. The main characters the disillusioned Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, and the beautiful Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman are three-dimensional, living people. The basic plot is simple: Rick Blaine must choose between his love for Ilsa or the safe passage of both her and her husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo to the new world via Lisbon. It is a moving tale of love and love’s heartache and could just as easily have been set in any place and at any time.

But the choice was a contemporary setting and the reason is clear. Everything at the time was to be directed towards the war effort. Film-making like any other industry was expected to support the cause. The film, then, is propaganda as well. Propaganda about the U.S.A, the land to which all the refugees in the film are fleeing, where all their hopes are pinned. Propaganda about the importance of the war effort over private interests. Propaganda about the allied world, where jazz can be heard, where black people and other ethnic minorities are visible (think of the wonderful character  of Sam), and where good humour is in ready supply.

Dooley Wilson as Sam

It is of course also propaganda directed towards the peoples of occupied Europe, and above all to occupied France. At no point is that made clearer than in the brilliant scene at Rick’s bar where the customers singing the Marseillaise outcompete the German soldiers’ stale nationalistic anthem. The Marseillaise is of course not just an anthem of the French people, but also an anthem of the French Revolution, and therefore a song for all men, all free men that is.

I suppose what was conspicuous to me as a Brit watching, was the absence of my fellow countrymen from all this. But of course, that is not quite true. The character of Captain Louis Renault, though technically French in the story, is played by an English actor (Claude Rains) who makes no attempt to assume a French accent. Though the character does illustrate some French attributes, his wit is undeniably the wit of an Englishman, just as Rick’s humour is inseparable from the streets of New York. All the main western allies therefore find some role in this film.

Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault

The humour is as brilliant as the romance is heart-wrenching. This really is a film that can make you both laugh and weep. The screenplay is inspired. There are so many classic lines, it is hard not to gasp in astonishment at times. The wit is essential. At this time people needed humour more than ever. They needed to laugh at the enemy, they needed to laugh at the situation, in some ways all they had left was their courage and their good humour. For they had to go on fighting. Go on Fighting for the world that this film in some ways stands for, the world of dissidents, the world of freedom and jazz, a world in which individual “human life was” not “cheap”.

The world they fought for survived and like a phoenix was reborn from the ashes of World War II taking on new life. I am not especially left-wing, but I do sincerely believe in the liberalism that this film encapsulates. Just as much in fact as those claiming to be the Victor Laszlos of today. In some ways in recent decades we have felt this liberal world order slip from our grasps ever so slightly. At times this has been because the liberal order has become corrupt and complacent, and therefore from time to time there has been justification for it receiving flack. Still, we must not to allow it to be lost completely. By watching ‘Casablanca’ we can remind ourselves that it is worth fighting for.