Sunday, October 25, 2009
She was exquisitely beautiful, but there was also something oddly distant about her, a vacancy that was its own attribute. We see it on display in her two most famous roles: in Laura, she is perfect as the blank canvas others project themselves onto, her passivity becoming a point of obsession for the rest of the cast. In her career-best performance in Leave Her To Heaven, John Stahl uses her emptiness to personify a vast pit of obsessive neediness as Tierney places one of the most shockingly cold-blooded femme fatales on record.
Leave Her To Heaven
Best of the Rest:
Night And The City
Where The Sidewalk Ends
Advise And Consent
Tierney had a complicated and tragic private life--guilt over an institutionalized daughter, a descent into mental illness--that is a rebuke to the lesser problems of many celebrities. Here's a documentary on her life.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
I recently had a chance to interview scholar Marguerite Rippy about her fascinating new book Orson Welles and The Unfinished RKO Projects. It's not every director who can inspire a critical appraisal of works that never reached fruition, but, Welles wasn't just any director. You can check out my interview with Marguerite Rippy over at Wellesnet.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
For most of its running time, Quicksand marches in lockstep precision toward its protagonist’s doom. That the film sputters out of gas toward the end is too bad, but Quicksand is hardly unique in that respect. Many of the films we call noir have the same failing. What is unique about this movie, however, is that while most noirs chart the gradual disintegration of their characters’ fortunes, few do it with such exactness.
The film stars Mickey Rooney, just three years after his penultimate Andy Hardy movie, as a regular guy mechanic named Dan Brady. In the opening scene Dan is eating at a greasy spoon and explaining to a couple of buddies why he’s been blowing off his girlfriend, Helen. He's just not ready to settle, he says. Then another woman walks through the door. She’s blonde and beautiful, and as cold as midnight. Her name is Vera, and like all women named Vera in film noir, she seems to have just wandered in from Hell looking for a man to take back with her. Dan volunteers to go with her because he’s too dense to see that all Vera really wants is a two thousand dollar mink coat. He can’t even afford to take her out to the boardwalk, so he lifts some money from the cash register at work. That sets into motion a nightmarish chain of events. Every move Dan makes only gets him in deeper and deeper, but most of the time his decisions seem to make sense. His mistakes are huge, but it’s easy to see how and why he makes them.
Quicksand is richly populated with nice character parts, a testament to the strong original script by Robert Smith (99 River Street). Peter Lorre plays Vera’s old boss—a sleazy boardwalk operator with whom she clearly had more than a working relationship. If Dan was smarter, he might ask himself why Vera would lead him to Lorre’s arcade on their first date. Art Smith plays Dan’s boorish boss, a guy who starts out as a jerk and ends up as a villain. And Taylor Holmes issues a curious performance as a lawyer near the end of the film. His character seems slightly sinister--something to do with the way he intones lines like, “Men don’t die easily. They take a lot of killing.”
At the center of the movie is Dan’s relationship with both the bad girl and the good girl. As Vera, Jeanne Cagney (baby sister of James no less) is a piece of work. She’s beautiful, but she’s got a hard edge from the beginning. Vera couldn’t fool just anybody, but she twists poor Dan Brady to her will without breaking a sweat. When the time comes for her to sell him up the river, it only seems natural.
As the good girl, Helen, Barbara Bates gives the film’s oddest performance. Helen isn’t just a sweet gal in love with a dope, she seems genuinely like a masochist. Near the end of the film, Dan confesses to a series of crimes that should send even most the lovelorn girlfriend screaming to the cops, but Helen responds by declaring a love for her man that lapses into delusion. She seems like one of those sad women who write love letters to imprisoned serial killers they’ve seen on the news. In real life, Bates suffered from a crippling depression which eventually led to the end of her career in films and later to her suicide in 1969. She makes for a sad, strange screen presence.
As Dan Brady, Mickey Rooney manages the difficult task of distancing himself from his iconic cheerfulness. He had been Hollywood’s biggest (albeit shortest) star for much of the thirties and forties, but by 1950 the country had taken a turn for the noir, and Rooney tried to go with it. At the time, the public wasn’t having it, but as the years go by I wonder if his noir work (Drive A Crooked Road, Baby Face Nelson) will have more longevity than his light thirties fare. Rooney never had a Wizard of Oz-sized phenomenon like Judy Garland, and I don't think he's had the staying power of Shirley Temple. (Does anyone watch Andy Hardy movies anymore?) Part of what Rooney brings to Quicksand is a little man’s insecurity and bluster. Dan’s a dope and doesn’t know it, and that’s exactly as it should be. I can’t tell how much of this quality is intentional and how much of it is Rooney’s forced attempt to be taken seriously as a leading man, but either way the results work.
Until the end, the entire movie works. Director Irving Pichel directs with style and restraint. The scenes in Lorre’s cheap arcade have the stink of cigarettes and sweat on them, and the big robbery scene is a taunt piece of suspense. Pichel keeps an oddball cast going strong, and the movie nearly makes it across the finishing line. Alas, it stumbles a bit at the end with a goofy deus ex machina (the lawyer’s final speech is pure hogwash), but like any good film noir, Quicksand has already made its point: an ordinary man can make one mistake that sets into motion a chain of events that will destroy him. Point taken.
You can watch the film here.
Rooney's chances of being remembered for his thirties work might be hurt by the fact that a huge part of the modern audience for old fashioned song-and-dance flicks are gay men. And Mickey's been vocal about not liking gay folks too much. Here he is expressing some political/social views that are unlikely to endear him to friends of Dorothy.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
One approaches CITIZEN KANE slowly because of the enormous reputation that surrounds it like the vast fields, cages, and lagoons that lead up to Xanadu. Almost no one sees it for the first time without being over-prepared for it. All the plaudits, all the scholarly works, all the pop culture references—they sprawl about the film itself, always threatening to make it into the kind of museum piece Charles Foster Kane would have boxed up in Europe and shipped back to the states, never to see again. Sure, the film has lasted sixty years, but so what? The relative youth of cinema (only about 114 years) gives us a trivial view of eternity. As KANE's director once said in another of his films, most of our art is destined to fall into the “universal ash.” CITIZEN KANE may yet become just another forgotten artifact.
But for now KANE still lives, and what an amazing film it turns out to be after the fifth, the tenth, the fiftieth viewing. I lost count a long time ago how many times I’ve seen this movie—hell, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it projected in a theater—yet more than most other movies it continues to fascinate me. Perhaps more importantly, it continues it entertain me.
It’s a weird film. It is, simply put, unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. Understand, I’m not saying it’s the best. I’m not saying it’s The Greatest Movie Ever Made. That phrase is like a curse attached to this film, condemning thousands, maybe millions, of viewers to the sad fate of seeing it for the first time and then asking, “What’s so great about that?”
The problem with “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” title is that it is predicated on a completely asinine premise: that there is such a thing as an ideal movie to which all movies should aspire. Movies are not uniform. Each is a separate entity unto itself. You can compare them, and you can value some more than others. But to assign a unified hierarchy of achievement to them is worse than ridiculous—it’s sabotage. No film can be all films. No single movie can give you the distinct pleasure of an art film, a western, a science fiction film, a noir, a musical. No film contains every great movie star, nor every great moment. No film can give you all the different glories of cinematography.
CITIZEN KANE tries, though. In telling the life story of newspaperman Charles Foster Kane—and the mystery of his dying word “Rosebud”—the film takes us on a journey of different styles and moods. What makes it such a fascinating film is that it doesn’t really have a genre. It is unlike any other movie because the people making it were throwing in every damn thing they could think of. Cinematographer Gregg Toland fills the screen with images of exquisite beauty and mystery—shadow and light seem to dance for his camera. Bernard Herrmann’s score is low and brooding, when it’s not light and fluffy. The script by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles is a marvel of storytelling, brilliantly utilizing multiple competing perspectives to tell a huge, sprawling story. Information is compressed and spread out, foreshadowed and repeated like motifs in a score. By the end, you have an epic. The debate over who wrote what is worthless: the thing itself is smart, funny, and moving.
At the center of the film is actor/director Orson Welles, and CITIZEN KANE is above all a testament to the wild energy of this invaluable artist. He is the axis around which everything else rotates. His performance as Kane is often overlooked in favor of his direction, but watch the film again and notice how many emotional notes Welles manages to hit. He’s completely charming as a young man, subtly touching in his mid-life crisis, and alternately horrible and pitiable as a ruined old recluse.
His direction is a virtuoso act. Nearly every shot in the film is interesting in and of itself. Perhaps this is why so many critics and directors insist on saddling the film with the Greatest Ever moniker. CITIZEN KANE simply has more going on than most movies. It is entirely possible, I suppose, to dislike the film for this very quality. This is a busy movie. Welles embraced the medium of film as a way to try new things. Or, at least new things to him. Many of his innovations had actually been done before (see Toland's work on John Ford's THE LONG VOYAGE HOME for a preview of some of KANE's photographic effects), but Welles and his team seemed to have combed through every stand-out idea anyone ever had about framing a shot and applied them all to this film. No shot in the movie is a typical movie shot. No sequence is a typical movie sequence. The cumulative effect is wholly unique, even in the director's impressive body of work.
I’m reminded of a scene in Foreman's Amadeus in which a critic tells Mozart that his music has “too many notes." CITIZEN KANE has the same virtue, but like Mozart’s music, it can be mistaken for overkill. Yet, maybe because of this, KANE rewards repeated viewings more than any other movie I can think of. I have always loved the film, but for years I frankly found it cold. I thought it was visually arresting, but not particularly moving. Yet, watching it again recently, I was struck by how much the film increasingly moves me when I revisit it. Surely that’s a sign of great art: the ability to deepen with closer inspection. The more you see it, the more there is to see. The more you know it, the more mysterious it becomes.
This is true because the film is constructed as a mystery without a real solution. Sure, we find out what Rosebud is, but we never really find out what Rosebud means. As Thompson, the reporter investigating Kane’s life, says at the end, “I don't think any word explains a man’s life. I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a missing piece.”
That acknowledgment might be the single most revolutionary thing about CITIZEN KANE. It goes against Hollywood's cardinal rule: tell the audience that everything is okay. KANE does not tell you that everything is okay. It is a grand tragedy, the rise and fall of a distinctly American figure, and, most transgressive of all, it the American dream retold as a Gothic nightmare. It’s a rags-to-riches story that ends in defeat and failure. Money—and, by extension, capitalism itself—operates in the film like morphine, deadening surface pain and obscuring the real torments underneath. When Charles Foster Kane drops dead at the end of some long, lonely hallway in his hodgepodge castle estate, the door slams shut on a life that we can never really hope to understand. But, as Thompson points out, we can never really hope to understand anyone. As Welles would tell an interviewer years later, we are all made up of our contradictions. That insight is, I think, the central intellectual force of most of Welles's films.
CITIZEN KANE is a brilliant work of art, and like many brilliant works of art it rewards reinspection and deeper contemplation. In it you find many of the themes—old men and disintegration, friendship and betrayal, and above all the essential mystery of character—to which Welles would return again and again in his later films. The more you watch it, the more, perhaps, you will like it and find it strangely affecting. One need not come to it on bended knee expecting a revelation. One need only come to it.
To watch the original trailer for KANE click here.