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: Othello (1951)

Also known as: The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (original title), Orson Welles’ Othello (Germany)
Release Date: November 27th, 1951 (Turin premiere)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Based on: Othello by William Shakespeare
Music by: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, Alberto Barberis
Cast: Orson Welles, Micheál Mac Liammóir, Suzanne Cloutier, Robert Coote

Scalera Film, Marceau Films, United Artists, 90 Minutes, 93 Minutes (TCM print)

Review:

“Oh beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” – Iago

Othello is one of my favorite plays by William Shakespeare and over the years I’ve seen several adaptations of it. I have to say though, this one is probably my favorite.

While it does alter the story somewhat, the gist of the story is here. I just feel like it’s condensed with some alterations just to keep it at a reasonable running time. But it was also filmed in segments over several years, so the pace of the production could’ve also had an effect on the finished product and the creative liberties it took.

But I think that Orson Welles truly respected the material and tried to do the best adaptation he could. He certainly didn’t fail and the end result is pretty exceptional.

Although, Orson Welles was a true filmmaking auteur and a remarkable actor. So whether he is behind the camera or in front of it, it’s near impossible not to be captivated on some level.

While this isn’t as famous as his pictures Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, it employs a lot of what he learned on those films.

Welles is a maestro of mise-en-scène and he goes to great lengths in his shot framing, cinematography and lighting to make something so rich and alluring. Hell, just the opening sequence of robed silhouettes walking for five minutes in high contrast chiaroscuro is visually striking and sets the tone for the narrative, as well as the ocular allure.

Welles plays Othello and while in modern times white actors playing roles in blackface is considered highly offensive, it was a product of its day when this was made. That doesn’t make it right but for anyone trying to adapt Othello, this is a challenge that they had to deal with. And it wasn’t because there weren’t talented black actors, it’s due to the fact that there had to be interracial exchanges of romance, which wasn’t allowed by Hollywood in 1951.

In fact, 1957’s Island In the Sun is said to be the film with the first interracial kiss but it actually isn’t. The kisses that were shot were edited out and the filmmakers only gave viewers a passionate dance and a romantic embrace. The first actual interracial kiss didn’t come until 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and even then, it was obscured and shown in reflection.

The point is, Welles’ Othello predates Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by 16 years. Had Welles cast a black actor, this is a real issue he would have had to deal with in how the picture was filmed and ultimately, in how it would have been received by audiences and within his own industry, who were still not willing to get past their own bigotry.

I think that the point of the Othello story is its examination of racism. Regardless of how Welles had to present his vision, the film still carries that message and frankly, it’s films like this that helped eventually open some of the doors in Hollywood. I think that Welles knew this and he acted out the role of Othello with real passion. And it’s hard to deny the level of craftsmanship he put into the film as the visionary behind it.

Besides, it was Welles himself who wrote in a 1944 issue of Free World magazine that, “Race hate must be outlawed.” He would also go on to star alongside Charlton Heston (in brownface) in 1958’s Touch of Evil, a film-noir dealing with racial tensions in a California/Mexico border town.

Getting back to the film itself, I’d say that the only thing that somewhat hinders the picture is the rest of the cast. It’s not that they are bad or incapable but next to Welles, they seem out of their depth and overpowered. While Welles certainly won’t downplay his performance, his best films are well cast with other players who can hang with him and enhance his scenes. For instance, the aforementioned Charlton Heston, as well as frequent collaborator Joseph Cotton and his wife of four years, Rita Hayworth.

Now while I feel that the pace and running time were fine, I was actually so into this that I wouldn’t have minded if Welles took this motion picture to the three hour mark. I think it would have made the production more difficult than it already was but with Othello, he crafted a silvery and majestic film that carried a strong, worthwhile message.

It does what it sets out to do within 90 minutes, though. So I’ll take it and appreciate it.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other Orson Welles films, specifically Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight.

Film Review: The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

Release Date: December 24th, 1947 (France)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles, William Castle (uncredited), Charles Lederer (uncredited), Fletcher Markle (uncredited)
Based on: If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King
Music by: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia

Mercury Productions, Columbia Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Personally I don’t like a girlfriend to have a husband, if she’ll fool a husband she’ll fool me.” – Michael O’Hara

While some people label Citizen Kane a film-noir, it really isn’t. It helped give birth to a cinematic style that would very much become noir but it was really nothing more than a damn good biographical drama. That doesn’t mean that Orson Welles didn’t touch noir. He only had a handful of films in the style but he was there, contributing to it after he blessed the world with Kane.

The Lady From Shanghai is one of Welles’ noir pictures. He also worked in the noir style with Journey Into FearThe StrangerTouch of Evil and The Trial.

This film sees Welles play an Irish sailor named O’Hara who meets Rita Hayworth’s Elsa “Rosalie” Bannister when she is being harassed by some men in Central Park. They share some flirtatious banter but O’Hara discovers that Elsa is married to a powerful lawyer. Still, O’Hara decides to take a job offered to him by Elsa. You see, Elsa and her husband are sailing from New York City to San Francisco via the Panama Canal and they need a good seaman. Once on the boat O’Hara meets a strange group of high society types. He is roped into helping one man fake his own death. This doesn’t quite work out for O’Hara, who is also falling deeper for Elsa, despite being employed by her husband. There are a lot of layers, twists and turns in this film, even at less than 90 minutes.

This isn’t Welles best written picture, not that it is bad. it just has a lot going on and if you get distracted, you could find the details hard to follow. It is one of his most energetic though and frankly, I don’t think that it gets enough praise for its amazing special effects and cinematography, outside of the admiration of hardcore Welles fans.

Everything that happens in the last twenty minutes or so is cinematic perfection. The scene in the Chinese opera house to O’Hara stumbling through the funhouse to the big shootout finale in the hall of mirrors is magnificent.

When we see Welles’ O’Hara working his way through the funhouse, it is like something from the Joker’s mind. Hell, it reminds me of the final act in Batman: The Killing Joke, where Batman is working his way through the Joker’s funhouse in an effort to find Commissioner Gordon. In fact, after seeing this film, I’m pretty convinced that Alan Moore was inspired by it when he wrote The Killing Joke.

All the funhouse stuff is impeccably shot. The use of shadows and contrast is visually astounding. Welles had a love of the chiaroscuro look, as well as the crazy angles used in German Expressionist films and he utilizes both amazingly well here. Some of the funhouse shots are reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The scene where O’Hara is walking and the shadows tower above him, moving sporadically is one of the best filmed sequences of the 1940s.

The Lady From Shanghai is an incredible experience in its cinematography alone. The acting is top notch, as is the direction. The story feels a bit clunky, as the schemer tries to take advantage of a legal loophole similar to the plot in Double Indemnity. But all in all, this is a really good picture.

Rating: 8.5/10

Book Review: ‘Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles’ by Frank Brady

In recent years, I have grown to like Orson Welles more than any other actor and he is now one of my favorite directors that ever lived.

My first experience with Welles was listening to his War of the Worlds radio broadcast in an American history class in middle school. I had a really cool teacher that would throw in some big pop culture moments into her curriculum, as opposed to just teaching about war and politics.

My second experience was in my film studies class in high school, where my teacher showed us Citizen Kane. I remember being completely captivated by the film, even if the other teenagers were just waiting for the class to get to more modern pictures.

Welles also voiced Unicron in the 1986 animated Transformers movie, which was also a big deal to me even if he had no idea what the film was about and just dialed in his lines.

All these experiences made me have an appreciation for Welles as an artist but it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started watching his other pictures.

What I didn’t know, is that Welles had an incredibly interesting life and this book covers more ground than I could even imagine.

Citizen Welles is a pretty large biography. It is around 600 pages but Welles lived such an interesting, rich and full life that there were no dull moments. Initially, I wanted a book that specifically covered his work but the man’s life really rivals that of his most famous character Charles Foster Kane.

This book was a big surprise and it is a pretty invaluable resource on the life and work of Orson Welles.

Frank Brady did his research and it shows. There are few biographies that are this comprehensive.

Plus, it is well written, well organized and never gets dull. I got through this 600 page brick in a week. But it also provided a solid distraction, as I was dealing with the after effects of Hurricane Irma.

Rating: 9.5/10

Film Review: Prince of Foxes (1949)

Release Date: December 23rd, 1949
Directed by: Henry King
Written by: Milton Krims
Based on: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power, Orson Welles

20th Century Fox, 107 Minutes

Review:

“It is my belief that everything, even death, can be turned into profit.” – Cesare Borgia

Prince of Foxes re-teams director Henry King with his swashbuckling star Tyrone Power. It also adds Orson Welles to the mix as the famous tyrant Cesare Borgia. The fact that I get to see two of my favorite actors play off of each other, is the real treat of this film.

While the poster and the subject matter may make you think that this is a big swashbuckler (albeit in Renaissance Italy), there is very little swordplay and it is more of a historical war drama with a bit of romance and some swashbuckling elements just lightly sprinkled in.

Orson Welles is the perfect Cesare Borgia. While I didn’t live in 1500 and can’t compare the two men, Welles’ personification greatly embodies the spirit of what Borgia was, historically speaking. The power, the boldness, the heartlessness and the ability to conquer for the sake of ego and wealth. Orson Welles captures this and adds in his own cool and eloquent qualities. He also looks like a Renaissance era Sith lord.

Tyrone Power walks into the film with a smile and unrelenting charm but that is why he was a favorite to star in these sort of pictures. His acting chops and masculine presence are strong enough to stand in front of Welles’ Borgia and to hold his ground. While Welles typically outshines most, Power doesn’t lose his presence in the picture and it is still very much his movie.

The film, where possible, made use of accurate locations and historical structures in an effort to make Prince of Foxes as authentic as possible. The world truly feels real and lived in. It doesn’t feel as if these men are just on some Hollywood back lot or in a studio.

The cinematography is lush and lively, even for a black and white picture that came out in the film-noir 40s. The costumes are perfect, the sets are finely ornamented and the attention to detail is pretty astounding. The sound is also pristine, which must have been a challenge with the on location shooting.

Prince of Foxes is neither my favorite Tyrone Power or Orson Welles picture. However, it was still a film of high quality that brought these two giants together. It kind of holds a special place for me because of that. And I’ve always loved tales of the infamous Borgia family.

Documentary Review: Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles (2014)

Release Date: December 10th, 2014
Directed by: Chuck Workman
Music by: Elliot Goldenthal (composer, stock music)

Calliope Films, Wheelhouse Creative, Cohen Media Group, 95 Minutes

Review:

Orson Welles was a one of a kind master behind and in front of the camera. His first motion picture is considered the best film of all-time by a lot of people. It is hard to argue against it, as it is a true classic masterpiece.

This isn’t just about the film Citizen Kane, though. This is a documentary that follows Welles’ entire career and life and talks to key people from his life on the personal and professional sides.

I have been a fan of Welles ever since discovering his work when I was a teenager. I saw Citizen Kane in my high school film studies class and I was drawn in when most of the other kids in my class seemed sort of uninterested. Too many kids were in that class because they thought they would just watch movies all day and earn an easy A.

Magician is the premier documentary on Welles, at least that I have seen. It is well organized, the interviews do their job and paint a good picture and Welles’ charm when he pops up to talk about himself and his work, shows just how charismatic and engaging the man was. The Dos Equis guy has nothing on Orson Welles.

I liked the behind the scenes segments on Welles’ films and his professional struggles with the Hollywood system. I loved seeing indie filmmakers like Richard Linklater pop up in this documentary to point out that Welles really was the first true indie filmmaker even though he had to create and express his vision within the major studio system.

Orson Welles is legitimately one of the most interesting people to have existed in the twentieth century. This film does a good job conveying that through Welles’ own words and the words of others.

Film Review: The Stranger (1946)

Release Date: July 2nd, 1946 (Los Angeles, Salt Lake City)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Anthony Veiller, Decla Dunning, Victor Trivas, John Huston (uncredited), Orson Welles (uncredited)
Music by: Bronislaw Kaper
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles

International Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred, conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing, not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain, but we learned from our own casualty list the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everwhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No! He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the firey sword of Siegfried, and he knows subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in. The German’s dream world comes alive when he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace. No, he’s… another Barbarossa… another Hitler.” – Professor Charles Rankin

While not Orson Welles best picture, The Stranger is still better than the vast majority of films throughout history. The thing is, Welles made a dozen or so pictures and they couldn’t all be perfect. The Stranger is not perfect but it is a magnificent work of art. Besides, if you were to rank the auteur’s films, something would have to be towards the bottom, no matter how great all his films are.

Plus, this movie puts Orson Welles together with the great Edward G. Robinson, two of my favorite actors from their era. Joining them is the beautiful and alluring Loretta Young, who seems overshadowed by her male counterparts but is able to hold her own alongside them. She has moments where she truly shines between two of the iconic faces of a film-noir Mount Rushmore.

In a nutshell, the film follows a war crimes investigator (Robinson) who is tracking a high-ranking Nazi fugitive (Welles). This hunt leads the investigator to a small New England town where these two are pitted against one another with Loretta Young’s character caught in the middle, as she is about to marry a prep school teacher, secretly the Nazi.

The film is notable as it was the first to feature documentary footage of the Holocaust. This was done in an effort to create realism and to add weight to the evil nature of the Nazi character. While it was a technique that shocked audiences and caused a stir, the film went on to be highly respected and was nominated for an Academy Award for Victor Trivas’ original story.

Despite being in the lower echelon of Welles’ directorial work, The Stranger was the only film that he made that was an immediate success upon its release. It more than doubled its production costs in six months and tripled them in about a year.

Today, the film is highly regarded by many modern critics and holds a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with a 7.4 on IMDb.

From a visual standpoint, the film utilizes the high contrast style of Welles and the film-noir genre. It has a very lived in feel and a strange majestic beauty with its dark colors and silvery highlights. The final sequence in the clock tower is one of my favorite finales to any film and the demise of the villain is brilliant and incredibly poetic. It was also a pretty ingenious turn, how he meets his doom.

The Stranger is a film that I truly love but it is hard not to love the work of Orson Welles if you are a real fan of motion pictures as art.