Film Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Release Date: July 9th, 1942 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Based on: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett, Don Dillaway, Orson Welles (narrator)

Mercury Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, 88 Minutes, 148 Minutes (original cut), 131 Minutes (preview version)

Review:

“Something had happened. A thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last; George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.” – Narrator

While this is considered to be one of Orson Welles’ all-time classic motion picture masterpieces, I was somewhat underwhelmed by it.

The main reason is because it felt like it needed more meat and potatoes. The story was a bit skeletal and I felt like I needed to know the characters on a deeper level to be more invested into the story and their lives.

However, this problem with the film isn’t really the fault of Welles, as his original cut was 148 minutes, not the 88 minutes that this ended up being. Had this film had that extra hour, I think it would’ve been a much richer, more intimate and more complete body of work that could’ve possibly lived up to the iconic status of Welles’ previous film, Citizen Kane.

Still, most professional film critics today seem to have a very positive view on this film and apart from the issue I already mentioned, it’s easy to see why.

The film is absolutely stunning and beautiful. This “magnificent” world looks authentic and lived in. The sets are perfect but even more than that, the lighting, cinematography, shot framing and general mise-en-scène are stupendous. But coming off of Citizen Kane, Welles’ had already proven himself as an absolute maestro of cinematic craftsmanship and artistry. This honestly just adds even more credibility to the man’s legendary, iconic status as a filmmaker and visionary.

Additionally, the picture is superbly acted with Welles’ regular star, Joseph Cotton, taking the lead but also having solid assists from Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and others. Also, Welles’ narration adds an extra level of magic to the film.

All those solid positives aside, though, it still suffers from a lack of depth and context. The film is full of many characters, all of whom are interesting, but only a few really get explored at length. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Welles’ intent but the finished film is somewhat diminished but this.

Ultimately, this is still a very good, almost great, motion picture. But it also makes me yearn for what could have been had Welles’ intended vision actually made it to the silver screen.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other early Orson Welles pictures.

Film Review: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Also known as: Dr. Phibes (promotional title), The Curse of Dr. Phibes (Yugoslavia)
Release Date: May 18th, 1971
Directed by: Robert Fuest
Written by: William Goldstein, James Whiton, Robert Fuest
Music by: Basil Kirchin
Cast: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, Hugh Griffith, Caroline Munro

American International Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.” – Waverley

Being that I haven’t seen either Dr. Phibes movie in at least a dozen years, I forgot how funny this film is. It’s not overly comedic, “ha ha” funny, it’s just very cheeky and dry in a uniquely British way.

The film stars the legendary Vincent Price but instead of having him star alongside another horror legend or B-movie leading man, he actually stars alongside the great Joseph Cotton, who is a legend in his own way, especially due to his stupendous work with one of the greatest cinematic visionaries that ever lived, Orson Welles.

The film is also filled with some recognizable British character actors of the time but it is also worth mentioning that the mesmerizing and perfect Caroline Munro is in this. However, she plays Phibes’ deceased wife and is only really seen in photographs and as a corpse.

Phibes also has a female assistant, played by Virginia North, and she is pretty damn good in this up to her terrible, painful end.

The plot is about a madman who has been disfigured by acid. Beyond that, he wants revenge against the nine men he deems responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. In order to exact revenge, Phibes murders the men in very elaborate ways that are inspired by The Ten Plagues of Egypt. Watching each of these play out is really cool.

The film itself is also visually stunning, as it employs an art deco style with vibrant colors that almost resemble an Italian giallo film. It’s an opulent and vivid looking picture and mixing that with the elaborate murders makes these come across as more high brow and artistic that Price’s typical movies made by American International.

On top of that, Price is superb in this film and it is one of his best and most iconic performances.

Ultimately, this is a damn fine horror picture for its day. It’s creative, alluring and strangely enchanting in spite of its dark subject matter.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: its sequel, as well as other ’60s and ’70s Vincent Price movies.

Film Review: Soylent Green (1973)

Also known as: Make Room! Make Room! (working title)
Release Date: April 18th, 1973 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Written by: Stanley R. Greenberg
Based on: Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
Music by: Fred Myrow
Cast: Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Edward G. Robinson, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotton, Brock Peters, Dick Van Patten

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 97 Minutes

Review:

“I know, Sol, you’ve told me a hundred times before. People were better, the world was better…” – Detective Thorn

As a big fan of ’70s era science fiction, it’s probably a crime that I hadn’t seen Soylent Green until now. I’ve had the film spoiled for me my entire life, as the last line of the film was a meme decades before memes existed. And frankly, knowing the big twist ending didn’t do much to make me want to actually sit through the picture in an effort to learn what I already knew. In fact, I knew the meme before I even knew it was from a movie.

All that being said, had I known that Edward G. Robinson was in this and that it was his final film, I probably would’ve watched it sooner. I’ve always loved and admired the man’s work, especially his range, as he can go from the vile, intimidating gangster type to the sweet, kind patriarch type without being typecast as one in favor of the other. The guy is a legend and he was one of the top actors of his generation, even if he’s mostly forgotten today by modern audiences.

This stars Charlton Heston and while I also like the hell out of that guy, at this point, he felt like he was just playing a version of himself. That’s not entirely a bad thing but he’s a better actor than he appeared to be in this era, where he didn’t seem to add much flourish to his roles, he just played them straight and went full Heston.

Apart from the two great leads and the twist ending, there isn’t much here to set the film apart from other ’70s dystopian movies and I’d have to say that the best of the decade is lightyears ahead of this film, which is pretty slow moving and a bit drab.

It has some definite highpoints and it explores a few cool ideas but I’d rather watch something like Logan’s Run, or hell, even the visually similar Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which despite being the fourth film in that series, was pretty damn cool.

Soylent Green isn’t as action heavy as I had hoped and the fascist dystopian nightmare only goes street level in one scene, really.

By the time you do get to the end, regardless of knowing the big reveal, it all seems kind of pointless. So what, society is being force fed something terrible by their government? What do you think big government will lead to?

In a nutshell, this is well acted and it is shot beautifully with some solid cinematography but it doesn’t bring much of anything worthwhile to the dystopian subgenre of sci-fi other than a big gross out reveal at the end. I’m not sure how the film compares to the novel but I hope that the book had more to offer for its readers.

Granted, I do like the metaphorical ending of Robinon’s character’s life in the movie but I wouldn’t call that an intentional artistic choice. The filmmakers probably didn’t know the guy would actually die before the film’s release. In fact, it’s been said on record that Robinson knew he was terminally ill but that the filmmakers did not. He died twelve days after the film wrapped.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: The Ωmega Man, Logan’s Run, Westworld and other ’70s science fiction.

Documentary Review: Shadowing the Third Man (2004)

Release Date: October 11th, 2004
Directed by: Frederick Baker
Written by: Frederick Baker
Cast: John Hurt (narrator)

Media Europe, NHK, BBC, 95 Minutes

Review:

The Third Man is a movie that I discovered fairly recently but it instantly became one of my favorites. I couldn’t get enough of it, honestly, and I watched it three times over the course of a month.

So when I came across this documentary about the film, I had to check it out. This is streaming on the Criterion Channel for those of you interested in watching it.

This goes into great depth about the film, looking at how it was made, as well as being a love letter to Vienna and the iconic locations where the film was shot.

What’s really cool about this, is that it shows you the same locations in Vienna now, in modern times. Not much has changed in these locations but it’s really neat seeing them in full color, compared to the shots of the film.

This documentary is narrated by the great John Hurt and he adds a certain bit of eloquence to the presentation, as he guides the viewer through this film’s genesis, it’s execution and the impact it had after its release.

Another great thing about this film is that it shows interviews with most of the key people involved in the film. The stuff featuring Orson Welles is compelling stuff.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: The Third Man and any Carol Reed or Orson Welles film.

Film Review: The Third Man (1949)

Release Date: September 2nd, 1949 (UK)
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: Graham Greene
Music by: Anton Karas
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli (credited as Valli), Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Robert Brown

London Films, British Lion Film Corporation, Selznick Releasing Organization, 108 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.” – Harry Lime

It is sad to say that I really didn’t know much about The Third Man until a friend recently told me about it. Having now watched it, I remember seeing a trailer for it long ago and I had the intention of seeing it but never did. I clearly remembered the visual of the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna’s famous giant Ferris wheel.

That being said, the visuals throughout the entire film are captivating and mesmerizing. The picture captures the film-noir aesthetic and emphasizes a high contrast. Between the streets of post-War Vienna, the famous landmarks and the cavernous and ominous sewer system, the director and cinematographer turned Vienna into the main character of the picture. There is just a mysterious allure that draws you in and doesn’t release you until the film fades to black after 108 minutes.

The film re-teams the duo of Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, who first worked together on CBS Radio’s The American School of the Air and would be most known for staring together in Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane. The two would go on to have a great working relationship in several films. Both men are studious actors who have both reached legendary status and for good reason. Their ability to play off of one another is magnificent and each brings out the best in the other. This film showcases what the duo can do when put together. Not to say that both men weren’t great on their own.

The cast also features Alida Valli (credited as just Valli). She was a great Italian actress who was in more than a hundred films. I grew to appreciate her work in films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. She was also featured in a lot of giallo pictures by Mario Bava and Argento, as well as Italian horror films throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

There is also the appearance of Bernard Lee as a British police sergeant. He is probably best known as the original version of M in the James Bond franchise.

The Third Man is written by accomplished novelist Graham Greene and directed by auteur Carol Reed, who would later win an Oscar for Oliver! and who also directed the classics Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol. This is probably Reed’s best work however, even though it didn’t capture the Academy Award for Best Director. It did win for Best Cinematography, however, which went to Robert Krasker, whose work can also be seen in Odd Man Out, as well as Brief Encounter and Another Man’s Poison.

As the story beings, we learn that the main character, a novelist named Holly Martins (Cotton), has arrived in Vienna at the invitation of his dear friend Harry Lime (Welles). However, we soon discover that Lime has died. As the plot rolls on, Martins comes to learn that Lime may be alive, probably faked his own death and there is a big mystery that needs to be solved.

The film’s plot is very layered but it plays out like a standard noir plot structure, even though it doesn’t follow the traditional subject matter of a noir and is missing some key elements. While Valli is quite the beautiful accompaniment to the men in the film, she isn’t a traditional femme fatale and the film breaks from the noir norm in other aspects too. However, The Third Man still encompasses the noir style and spirit but it is the product of a natural evolution within the genre and thus, isn’t a stale or derivative picture by any means. It is very much its own thing while giving a proper nod to its inspirations.

From a musical standpoint, the picture utilizes zither music. It really sets the narrative in the proper time and place and gives the movie a sense of authenticity and a sort of exotic charm.

The Third Man is a masterpiece. While not quite Citizen Kane, it is just about perfect in every way. Being a Welles fan, I wish he was in it a bit more but the scenes we get are of the highest quality. Plus, the big crescendo, as Welles’ Harry Lime runs through the labyrinth of Vienna’s sewers in an effort to escape a massive police force, is probably my favorite motion picture moment that involves Welles. It is a stupendous climax that has great suspense and looks stunning on the screen.

Films don’t get much better than this and The Third Man completely encapsulates the term “movie magic”. It isn’t often that a film feels like a living, breathing intelligent being of its own. The Third Man is one of these motion pictures. It is truly exceptional and may be in my personal top twenty of all-time.

Rating: 10/10

Film Review: Citizen Kane (1941)

Release Date: May 1st, 1941 (Palace Theatre premiere)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick, Erskine Sanford, William Alland

RKO Radio Pictures, 119 Minutes

citizenkaneReview:

Citizen Kane is considered, by many, to be the greatest film ever made. I wouldn’t consider it the best but it is certainly an amazing motion picture, nonetheless.

I guess the most incredible thing is that Orson Welles directed, co-wrote and starred in the picture at the age of twenty-five. It is uncanny that someone so young would have such a grasp on what life would be like for a man who becomes fantastically rich and unbelievably powerful and how that would drain on his soul over a lifetime.

One can’t deny that Citizen Kane is a fantastic picture, especially for its day. The story is compelling and well orchestrated. The cinematography is breathtaking to the point that some shots are still mesmerizing, even in modern times where CGI can try and wow an audience in any way imaginable. Watching the film, it is easy to see what techniques, employed by Welles and his crew, became regular approaches to filmmaking.

It is impossible to even begin to list the countless pictures that were influenced by Citizen Kane. Stylistically, it is superb. Compared to other films of the era, it isn’t hard to understand why and how this captivated audiences and critics and how it still has a grasp on the minds of young filmmakers today.

While Kane is a fictional character, the movie plays like a really well done biopic of a true historical figure. There are several famous people in politics and media that you can associate with the character to the point that the film even feels a bit prophetic. Ultimately, it is a stern warning about the human soul and how it can become corrupted by money, power and fame.

Citizen Kane is a tragedy in the best sense. It feels Shakespearean, even in its late 1800s to early 1900s setting. It could possibly be the best tragedy not written by Shakespeare. While there have certainly been pictures and stories like it, since 1941, there is only one Citizen Kane.

Welles deserves the legendary status that this film brought to him. Again, he was twenty-five years old and made a beautiful and nearly flawless work of cinematic art that people still hold in the highest regard almost 80 years later.

Rating: 10/10