Archive for ‘The Films Of Orson Welles’

September 1, 2012

Orson Welles… the quest for perfection

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet” – Orson Welles

Of course I’m sure you’ve heard the news this month that the latest Sight And Sound Magazine poll unseated Orson Welles’ first movie 1941’s ‘Citizen Kane’ from it’s half-century as the semi-official “Greatest film of all time”Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film ‘Vertigo’ now sits at the top and I’m looking forward to its imminent re-release at the cinema and onto Blu-Ray but for me ‘Citizen Kane’ still stands far above it.  For one thing I’d rate Orson’s own ‘Touch Of Evil’ as a better film from 1958 and for another ‘Citizen Kane’ is a film where every sound, every edit, every angle and every composition invented a new cinematic language.  Where as in comparison Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ is just one great thriller in a career heaving with such great thrillers.

I’m a little saddened by ‘Citizen Kane’s fall to second place because Welles’ filmography still needs attention focused on it.  All but the most obscure of Hitchcock’s films are widely available in every high street in superior editions (With a Hi-Def box set in the pipeline) but to obtain even sub-mediocre versions of Welles’ films requires time, money and dedication.  Some of his work like the still unreleased 1976 film ‘The Other Side Of The Wind’ remain stuck in legal limbo and unless fans around the world keep on shouting… it may never be released.  The rest of his work is unavailable to the average shopper, even his acknowledged masterpiece ‘Citizen Kane’ is only sporadically available in a extremely poor quality bargain-basement edition.

So for Welles’ collectors like myself obtaining his complete filmography for home viewing is an ongoing quest for perfection.  A quest that requires lengthy research, reading of reviews, weighing up of opinion and then searches of the catalogues of many distributors and the sites of Amazon and Ebay.  I’ve already traded up or double purchased several of his films as newer and better versions become available.  So it was the other week that I decided to place an order with Amazon for three of the latest versions of Welles’ first three films on import from the US:

The Warner 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray Boxset Of Citizen Kane – A truly astonishing set packaged with postcards, replica telegrams, two feature-length films about the making of ‘Citizen Kane’, a hardback book and even a facsimile of the budget report.  The level of detail on the screen is simply gorgeous, click on the comparison shot I’ve done below to see the upgrade from my Special Edition Universal UK DVD.  I’ve noticed new things like the snowglobe being in the background of Susan’s apartment the first time she meets Kane or the reflection of the Rain in the marble desk of Mr Bernstein.  Like Eureka! Video’s Blu-Ray of ‘Touch Of Evil’, this is only the second Welles’ release that I cannot imagine looking any better.

The Film Chest ‘Remastered’ Blu-Ray Of The Stranger – Of my three new imports the Blu-Ray of ‘The Stranger’ has the greatest increase in quality but also is the weakest looking, which says it all about the shoddy way Welles’ films are often released (Click image below for comparison).  The image has more detail, clarity, stability and contrast but looks like digital smoothing has been used to excess in a misplaced effort to reduce some of the pops and scratches.  I adore the noirish thrills of ‘The Stranger’ but it’s not held in the same critical esteem as Welles’ other works, so this will probably be the best it’s gonna look for a long while.

The Warner Restored DVD Of The Magnificent Ambersons – I first saw ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ at The BFI and sat open-mouthed at the visual beauty of their pristine 35mm print so naturally I had to get a copy to watch at home.  When I purchased the Universal DVD I was so disappointed by the blurry image quality that I just couldn’t bring myself to sit through it.  So the new Warner restoration comes as a revelation and a godsend allowing me to enjoy this film any time I like.  In particular I was struck anew by the gliding poetry of Welles’ camera work during the party scene.  I was unable to capture a still comparison that really showed the huge upgrade in picture quality as my original was not only blurry but unstable (Look at the detail in the dress in the lower right).  It’s only a shame that it comes unaccompanied by any features or that it wasn’t a Blu-Ray.

I thought it might be helpful to other Welles’ fans out there to publish what is in my opinion the best editions available throughout the world of his movies (By ‘Best’ I mean best, which is not the same as good!).  I’ve included Amazon links for your convenience:

1941 Citizen Kane (Warner 70th Anniversary US Blu-Ray Boxset + UK Universal DVD (Great special features))
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons (Warner US DVD)
1946 The Stranger (Film Chest US Blu-Ray)
1947 The Lady From Shanghai (Universal UK DVD)
1948 Macbeth (Second Sight UK DVD)
1952 Othello (Leevision Korean DVD)
1955 Mr. Arkadin (Criterion US DVD Boxset)
1958 Touch Of Evil (Eureka UK Blu-Ray + Universal 50th Anniversary US DVD (Great special features))
1962 The Trial (Studio Canal UK Blu-Ray… coming soon)
1965 Chimes At Midnight (Mr Bongo UK DVD)
1974 F For Fake (Eureka! UK DVD)

As it stands the available releases of Orson’s two mid-career ingenious shoestring Shakespeare adaptations ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Othello’ are most in need of serious restoration.  I’m sure there are others out there that will gladly part with the cash if only they could be made available.  Of course my collection will never be complete without a copy of the legendary ‘The Other Side Of The Wind’ or perhaps the ultimate cinematic holy grail… the lost original Welles cut of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’.  But really what I want to see is for Welles films to be widely available in every high street so new generations can enjoy his work.  Hopefully this day will come but then again, remember what the fellow said…

“I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time” – Orson Welles

(Finally, click below to watch the award winning feature length documentary ‘The Battle Over Citizen Kane’)

July 2, 2012

Mr. Arkadin (1955 – DVD)

“I knew what I wanted. That’s the difference between us. In this world there are those who give and those who ask. Those who do not care to give… those who do not dare to ask. You dared. But you were never quite sure what your were asking for”

In 1958, at a time when Orson Welles was perhaps being forgotten, french magazine ‘Cahiers Du Cinéma declared that Orson’s then new film ‘Mr. Arkadin’ was one of the greatest movies ever made. This was meant as a bold provocative statement designed to raise debate and awareness of a Director they loved. After a weekend emersing myself in an imported copy of The Criterion Collection’s triple DVD exploration of ‘Mr. Arkadin’ I can see elements of truth in their declaration. I love the film despite or because of its little flaws and eccentricities.  The plot follows the mysterious eponymous millionaire (Played with aplomb by Welles himself) and jaded investigator Guy Van Stratten (Played by Robert Arden) who is hired to research Arkadin’s murky past. Arkadin claims this is because he suffered from amnesia and is simply curious… but does he have a darker motive?

Like ‘Citizen Kane’ this is a film about conflicting memories, dark motivations and intrigue told piece-by-piece like a cinematic jigsaw. The fact that like many Welles projects this was interfered with in the edit by the studio was a tragedy. This resulted in several versions being released or later discovered, variously called ‘The Corinth Version’, ‘The Spanish Version(s)’ and most infamously the butchered ‘Confidential Report Version’. This version changed the title and removed the complex flashback structure that underpinned Welles’ vision. Also included on the set is Criterion’s own ‘Comprehensive Version’ combining elements from all the cuts to create the most complete and longest possible cut available. While this version is interesting to view I found ‘The Corinth Version’ to be the most pleasing to digest. It closely follows Welles wishes while having superior image and sound quality with the dodgy lip-synching (That sometimes plagued Welles’ ingenious piece-meal European productions) kept at a minimum.

In ‘Mr. Arkadin’ Welles’ typical eye for framing and mood is absolutely exquisite as every angle and composition seem designed to disorient the viewer. He employs swirling camera work, quick edits, skewed angles, extreme close-ups and deep focus to unsettle the eye. One famous shot is set up like a magic trick of the light, in such a way that as a character runs from the camera his shadow remains the same size.  This puzzle like movie demands to be seen repeatedly to even begin to unlock its secrets so the multiple cuts available on The Criterion edition make it the only way to go.  So get yourself onto the Criterion site and order a copy of this fantastic set.

May 17, 2012

Chimes At Midnight (1965 – DVD)

“I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers… how ill white hairs become a fool and jester”

It’s been a long while since I started my mission to view all of Orson Welles feature films, after watching half of them I ran out of the more easily available DVDs but now I’ve finally acquired them all. So over the coming days and weeks I’ll be giving you my thoughts on 1952’s ‘Othello’, 1955’s ‘Mr. Arkadin’ and 1962’s ‘The Trial’. I already owned Orson’s 1965 Shakespeare adaptation ‘Chimes At Midnight’ aka ‘Falstaff’ on a DVD from Cornerstone Media but the image and sound quality were so bad that I decided to not even watch it, lest my first impression of this renowned masterpiece be mired. But the other day I saw the new DVD from Mr Bongo and thought I’d give it a punt. So back at home I pressed play while uttering a few prayers to the gods of cinema under my breath and was relieved to be greeted by this beautifully restored presentation.

‘Chimes At Midnight’ was Welles’ own personal favourite and although he died a full twenty years after it was released, it would sadly be his last completed full length narrative film. The script was based on a stage production that Welles had mounted in 1939 focusing on the story of Sir John Falstaff, the peripheral roguish character from a number of Shakespeare’s history plays. Welles himself plays the rotund Falstaff with all the growling, drunken corruption that he brought to his portrayal of Captain Quinlan in 1958’s ‘Touch Of Evil’ although Sir John is an entirely loveable, lecherous and boisterous character (Unlike the wicked Quinlan). Keith Baxter plays the young Prince Hal with a wonderfully cheeky air but also displays a mercilessly regal power as he gains the throne at the end. The coronation scene between a towering Baxter and a weeping Welles is one of the most powerful of all his films. The great Sir John Gielgud plays Henry IV and bestrides the screen like the seasoned RSC peacock he is, delivering several passionate monologues.

The composition of Welles’ shot are as immaculate as ever, ranging from intimate closeups capturing every nuance of his actors performance to huge scenes at the palace drenched in ominous shadow and angelic shafts of sunlight. The groundbreaking battle scene employs bewildering fast cuts and documentary camera techniques to convey the mud splattered confusion and animal savagery of medieval warfare, clearly inspiring films like Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’. I implore you to go get a copy of Mr Bongo’s release of ‘Chimes At Midnight’ and I urge the authorities to destroy all other available editions. Welles said of ‘Chimes At Midnight’, “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I’d offer up”.

Here is an image of the Mr Bongo DVD… be warned, avoid all other editions!:

January 28, 2012

Awesome Welles – Part 1

After enjoying Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ as mentioned in my last post, I decided to make the effort to view all his feature films (Considering their limited availability, I should emphasize the word ‘Effort’). He only shot ten or more full length films across three decades due to a lack of financing and support. I thought it would be interesting to view them chronologically but because they are so hard to come by, that hasn’t proved possible. So I began with the easiest to find:

The Stranger (1946)

‘The Stranger’ is the story of Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) a Nazi war criminal hiding in a little American town and Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), the man who is hunting him. The film was released just prior to the Nuremberg Trials and was the first movie to incorporate footage of the concentration camps.

After the disastrous release of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ Welles took the job to direct ‘The Stranger’ as a way to show he could make a mainstream successful thriller (This was the first job he could get after 4 years!). He succeeded brilliantly by making something thrilling and also a box-office hit while still squeezing in some memorable Welles flourishes. There’s the chilling scenes where Kindler lets his mask slip over dinner when he says Karl Marx “Wasn’t a German, Marx was a Jew” and the heartless look in his eyes when he resolves to kill those closest to him. Other interesting performances include the jolly but cheating drug-store philosopher Mr. Potter (Billy House) and Loretta Young’s role as Kindler’s duped American bride-to-be which at first seems weak but in the end she exemplifies the old saying “Hell hath no fury…”. The gothic conclusion staged in a broken clock tower seems to have influenced the endings of both ‘Back To The Future’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’. The film has fallen out of copyright so is available to view in its entirety on YouTube bellow:

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

‘The Lady from Shanghai’ is a noir thriller about a rougeish Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) who is sucked into the twisted world of a rich couple. Welles agreed to direct the film if Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn wired him $55,000 to finance a stage production he was mounting. Being Welles, far from merely quickly fulfilling his contract he wrote, produced, starred-in and directed the film and even cast his then wife, the mega-star Rita Hayworth in it.

Welles got off to a shaky start, annoying the studio by having Hayworth’s world-famous long red-hair cut short and dyed Blonde. This decision was so controversial that it was blamed at the time for the films poor box-office performance (It’s difficult to understand since Hayworth looks jaw-droppingly seductive in the role!). The studio deemed the plot incomprehensible so they cut out an hour of footage. The 87 minute film that is left is certainly a bit hard to follow but then you’d imagine that a film so savagely trimmed would be! The joy of the film is more about the pervading air of danger and mystery that Welles creates. Standout scenes include the beautiful close-up of Hayworth singing to herself and the ingenious Hall-Of-Mirrors showdown that has been later ripped off in many films including ‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’.

Macbeth (1948)

‘Macbeth’ has always been my favourite Shakespeare play since studying it at school. I’ve seen Antony Shear’s clever staging, I’ve watched films of Polanski’s brutal take and then McKellen & Dench’s sparse production but my favourite was always Nicol Williamson’s intimate 1983 adaptation. This was my first encounter with Welles’ dark brooding take on the play.

The dark magic of the play allow Welles free rein to create a fantastical film using daring composition, gothic shadows, ominous sound and reams of atmospheric mist. Again the film was not a success which the studio attributed to the decision that the cast should speak in fairly strong Scottish accents and the critics branded Welles’ cutting and re-ordering of Shakespeare’s text sacrilegious (A practice that is now the standard in film adaptations!). The studio re-cut the film, re-dubbed the sound with American accents and re-released it but thankfully I watched the wonderful fully restored version.

Touch of Evil (1958)

‘Touch Of Evil’ features a duel of wills and morals between honest Mexican agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and corrupt American police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) set against the seething amorality of a decaying border town.

By 1958 Welles hadn’t been allowed near an American production in ten years when he accepted the role of Quinlan. When Heston came on board the film still lacked a director so he voiced the blindingly obvious that the studio should ask Welles. Welles seized the chance and immediately completely re-wrote the script from scratch, most notably changing Heston’s part to a Mexican to alow the film to explore themes of Racism. The film’s opening 3 and a half-minute sweeping tracking shot was groundbreaking and Welles dedication to shooting everything on location was in contrast to Hollywood’s studio-bound techniques. The motel scenes (Notably involving Janet Leigh) seem to have inspired Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ to such a degree that it’s practically plagiarism! Welles’ performance as Quinlan is magnificent, creating a character so steeped in corruption that it’s rotting him from inside and out.

While shooting, the studio was very happy, particularly when Welles’ old Hollywood friends like Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joseph Cotten turned up unannounced to film cameos. However when Welles’ turned in a rough 108 minute preview cut the studio’s attitude drastically changed. They took the film away from Welles and re-shot many scenes and cut it down to 95 minutes. Welles was horrified and wrote a 58 page memo detailing how he thought the film should be edited. This memo lay ignored until 1998 when Rick Schmidlin produced a cut of the film endeavoring to follow the memo to the letter. This restored/re-imagined version is Welles’ best film since ‘Citizen Kane’, perhaps even better than Kane.

F for Fake (1974)

‘F For Fake’ is a mesmerizing documentary film about forgery, fakery and film making. Part biography of art-forger Elmyr de Hory, part auto-biographical confessional and part masterly demonstration of the very possibilities of film editing itself.

Welles literally performs magic tricks and then does the same with his editing. The best scenes include one where he edits footage of the public to make it look as if they are drooling over his girlfriend Oja Kodar as she saunters down the street in a mini-skirt, another is when he re-creates his famous ‘March of time’ newsreel from ‘Citizen Kane’ to mock Howard Hughes (A scene that works on so many self-referential levels). ‘F For Fake’ would be his last released film so it is fitting that it was his most daring and original vision, birthing a new type of film altogether and showing that 3 decades after his first film he was still ahead of everyone else.

Welles has lamented that it would have been nice to not be ahead of his time and just be of-the-time, because he would’ve actually made a few dollars! But thankfully for generations to come he was cursed to always be a groundbreaking genius. In part two of my Welles odyssey I’ll be viewing films like ‘Othello’, ‘Mr. Arkadin aka Confidential Report’, ‘The Trial’ and ‘Chimes at Midnight’. I just have to track down DVDs of them first!

January 28, 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942 – Cinema)

“Old times. Not a bit. There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times”

I adore the work of Orson Welles but outside of ‘Citizen Kane’ his filmography is difficult to come by, despite his fame. His career post Kane is a sad tale of studio interference and troubled productions. This has led to many of his films only being available on poor quality import DVDs featuring truncated cuts. This is the case for his second film based on a book by Booth Tarkington about the decline of a great American family set against the backdrop of the advent of the Automobile.

So I ceased the opportunity to see an aged but beautifuly sharp print of 1942’s ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ in a packed house at the BFI. The film I saw ran at 88mins but Welles’ original cut ran at an elegiac 148mins. The studio was unhappy with his cut so they mercilessly trimmed it while he was out of the country and later cruelly burned the negative (To save storage space!) denying future generations the chance to see it properly. Apparently the bulk of the cuts came from the end of the film and a new happy ending was filmed. This is obvious in the flow of the film, as it seems to splutter and die towards the end like the combustion engines it chronicles. What is left are an assortment of brilliantly funny and painfully sad scenes that can’t help but feel somewhat disjointed. They hint at the epic family saga ‘Gone With The Wind’ while also containing shades of the more intimate small-town portrait from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. If you get a chance go see it, but dreams of what might have been may leave you with a heavy heart.

Here’s a brilliant blog post going in to much more detail about the history of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’.