Tuesday, May 7, 2019
I think FILMING OTHELLO might be the greatest Orson Welles movie. Now, by that, I don't mean that it's the best movie made by Orson Welles. I mean that although the film purports to be about the making of Welles's 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare's OTHELLO, its true subject is Welles himself. It is a fascinating document of the man.
The film is one of the director's "essays," the most well known of which is the late masterpiece F IS FOR FAKE (1973), a meditation on art and authenticity. That film pursues a complex theme and arrives at a thesis (what one might call an anti-auteur theory of art). FILMING OTHELLO by contrast not only doesn't arrive at any conclusions, it doesn't really pursue a theme. (Welles himself acknowledges this late in the film, essentially saying that he didn't know where to focus.) We get some making-of stories told in the great raconteur style by Welles, some re-edited footage of OTHELLO itself (without the sound!), excerpts of a dinner conversation with two of his costars in the film (as well as his old mentors) Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir, footage from a Q&A with college students, and a couple of scenes of Welles sitting at his editing machine quoting speeches from the play.
Curiously, as a document about the filming of OTHELLO, FILMING OTHELLO is light on details and pointedly subjective in its perspective. It's a bit all over the place, not unlike OTHELLO itself. One can assume that this was intentional while also noting that it doesn't quite work. The scenes of Welles sitting and talking to the camera are entertaining, but they meander. Welles doesn't really articulate a reason for FILMING OTHELLO to exist. Why discuss this film, as opposed to any of his other films? More telling still is the odd fact that Welles--a lifelong student of Shakespeare and one of the bard's greatest 20th Century interpreters--doesn't really articulate a theory of the greatness of OTHELLO itself. Sure he sings the praises of the play, but he offers few insights into how and why it's great.
The dinner with Edwards and Mac Liammoir is more entertaining than insightful (I would gladly watch hours of Micheal Mac Liammoir talking about anything...and for that matter I'd watch hours of him just listening to someone else talk, his eyes expanding like a peacock spreading his feathers every time someone says something he finds absurd). Though it must be said that the dinner scene does inadvertently offer one real insight because it displays just how binary Welles and his companions could be in their thinking about things like race and, especially, gender. Noting this about the film isn't a criticism of the film. This is a documentary, after all, and it documents three aging men (Welles, about 60 at the time, was the youngest) in the mid-1970s casually beginning their sentences with things like "A woman would never..."
The dinner scene is also rather distracting because Welles has inserted new shots of himself asking questions and responding to comments from the other two men. I feel certain that some scholar out there has probably advanced the theory that this disjointed doesn't-quite-fit quality is some kind of meta-commentary by Welles on the disjointed making of OTHELLO itself. While I doubt that, and while it feels exactly like the kind of theory that Welles himself would mock, we should say that if Welles wanted the pieces of the dinner scene to fit together awkwardly then he succeeded to no apparent end.
The sequence with Welles talking to students is likewise entertaining, though it's probably worth noting how quickly the conversation moves on to something else (the making of MACBETH) without connecting back to the subject at hand. When one considers that this film is 84 minutes long and that the project came about when Welles was asked to record an introduction to OTHELLO for German television, FILMING OTHELLO takes on the hue of something that was fleshed out from a sketch and never found its proper form as a film. If you've read many interviews with Welles, this probably isn't surprising. As he made clear many times, he really didn't like talking about his work. As a result, FILMING OTHELLO ultimately doesn't have much to say about it either.
I realize that much of what I've written so far has been critical of the film, which is odd considering that I said it might be the greatest Orson Welles film. But here's what I meant by that: because it lacks a true thesis about OTHELLO, this film keeps falling back on Welles himself as its defacto subject. The opening monologue of the film--with the director introducing the proceedings, singing Shakespeare's praises, claiming modesty in the shadow of that Great Man, and telling a couple of background stories--is vintage Orson Welles. Charming and witty, erudite and playful, it's Welles as showman, inviting us into the tent to see how the magic is made. These scenes (shot by Welles's longtime cinematographer Gary Graver in the mid seventies) capture a late-career Orson Welles in all his diminished glory and undiminished power.
Toward the end, Welles delivers a couple of passages from OTHELLO while sitting at his editing machine. Again, there's no theory here. He doesn't deliver these speeches to illustrate a particular point about the character of Othello or the play or even his film (and since the scenes from the earlier film are shown without sound, these speeches are the only Shakespearean language that we get in the film). He just rather randomly starts reciting some lines. So why are they here? I think they're here because Welles wanted to record himself saying them. He's showing off. And he's great! It's impossible not to see the almost childlike joy the actor takes in sinking his teeth into that language. But the language itself isn't the point. Neither is Shakespeare. No, the point is Welles himself and the joy he takes in being an actor and filmmaker and raconteur. This would be the final film he would release in his lifetime, so it's fitting that it ends with him sitting at his editing machine in the dark, puffing on a cigar.
As an essay about the movie OTHELLO, FILMING OTHELLO is intermittently interesting. As a unintentional portrait of Orson Welles at the end of his career, it's fascinating.
Sunday, April 28, 2019
The Cinema 150 was the biggest movie theater in Arkansas, a massive domed building with a single screen that was curved at a 150 degree angle. It was built in the late sixties and hosted the world premiere of John Wayne's Oscar-winning Western TRUE GRIT. I was born in Little Rock in 1975, and the first film I saw at the 150 was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980. I screamed when they froze Han Solo, and my mother had to carry me out of the theater to hastily explain the Empire's cryogenic technology. This theater, this domed fantasy land with its gigantic portal into other worlds and other lives, still haunts my dreams. It was the high church of my cinematic obsession.
Sadly, tragically, it's gone now. It had a long slow death that went hand-in-hand with the economic decline of that particular corner of Little Rock, the corner of Asher and University. I used to know that corner like I knew my own body. I went to school nearby at the University of Little Rock, and I regularly went to the movies at the 150. When we were kids, my father took my older brother and I to see THE DEAD POOL, the last Dirty Harry film, there. I saw Star Wars movies and Star Trek movies and Mel Gibson action vehicles and even the odd art film there (when I saw THE THIN RED LINE I was virtually alone in the empty theater). When I got old enough, I went on dates there, holding hands and falling in love.
Oddly, my most profound memory of the 150 is when I went to see David Fincher's THE GAME by myself on a warm summer day in 1997. I've largely forgotten the film, though I know I liked it at the time. What I remember so clearly about that day was the theater itself, the air conditioning and the darkness, the dome high overhead, the whispers of the handful of other people sitting around me waiting for the movie to begin. In those days, there were no pre-show commercials, no loud Coke ads or pitches for lame-looking television shows. There were just people sitting quietly in the dark, waiting for the show to begin.
Here's a link to a beautiful piece about the destruction of the 150 by the writer Kat Robertson. Her details (like the Wendy's next door with the newspaper tabletops) are vivid reminders for me and trigger one of my favorite memories of the 150. My best friend once snuck a Wendy's mesquite cheeseburger into a showing of STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, and when he unwrapped the burger in the dark and its rich aroma filled the theater, the whole crowd laughed.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Chicago's Music Box Theater kicked off a new series today, I Wouldn't Stop Loving You: The Films of Bogie & Bacall, with a showing of the pair's first film, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. As it happens, a sudden snow storm pounded Chicago this morning, but it didn't stop a large and enthusiastic crowd from showing up to this first screening. It was a joyous experience, with the crowd laughing and applauding the movie, a recognition that few films have held up better than this one, one of cinema's true masterpieces. In coming weeks, the Music Box will show THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE, and KEY LARGO. It's a short but impressive list. Of those films, I'd rank two A+ (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP), one A- (DARK PASSAGE), and one B+ (KEY LARGO). Some might quibble with here or there with my rankings, but I'm unlikely to encounter much resistance to the idea that these four films comprise one of the greatest of all movie star pairings.
I wrote about each of these four films back in 2014, after the death of Lauren Bacall. I'll link to my piece on TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, a movie I've loved since I was a teenager, and that I treasure more every time I see it.
Wednesday, April 3, 2019
The other day, I bought the Criterion Collection's new Blu-Ray of DETOUR. It's a divine object. Beautiful packaged, it is a glorious restoration (the same 4k restoration I saw last year in theaters) supported by a bounty of enticing extras--a documentary on director Edgar G. Ulmer, an interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, an insightful essay by the critic and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito, and more.
One aspect of this package that I find interesting, however, is the repeated insinuation in some of the extras that DETOUR's doomed protagonist Al Roberts is a liar and a murderer. In his essay, Polito writes that DETOUR is a "progression of increasingly awful and improbable flashbacks" and calls Roberts' tale of fate and misfortune "steadily more suspect." In his interview, Isenberg makes similar comments, offhandedly implying that DETOUR is essentially the bullshit alibi of a killer.
The theory that Roberts is lying to the audience in his voiceover narration has been around for a while. I think Andrew Britton was the first critic I can remember floating this theory, though it may well predate him. In his 1998 review of the film, Roger Ebert cited Britton directly and fully embraced the theory.
I find this theory intriguing. I also find it wrong.
There's nothing in the text of the film to suggest that Roberts is anything other than a doomed man lamenting his fate. We never catch him in a lie. His tale is outlandish, sure, but that puts it on par with roughly one hundred percent of the film noir canon. Hell, most noirs start at outlandish and go from there.
I suppose my bigger problem with the unreliable narrator theory is that it undercuts what the film itself is telling us it means. DETOUR is the greatest statement of predestination in all of film noir. It ends with Roberts intoning the line, "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." As it is, this is one of the greatest lines in all of noir, but if Roberts has been lying to us about the deaths of Charles Haskell and/or Vera -- if he is not a victim of fate, but rather a victim of weakness and his own low character -- then this line totally misrepresents the entire story we've just watched.
Moreover, the unreliable narrator theory of DETOUR undercuts what, for me, is the film's defining characteristic: its wholehearted embrace of nihilistic doom. The message that Al Roberts gives us is shocking -- maybe too shocking for some viewers to bear. He's telling us that we're fucked. Whichever way we go, he says, fate will stick out its foot to trip us. Embracing the unreliable narrator, however, means assigning a moral judgement to his fate. Like Job's fickle friends, purveyors of this theory seem to be saying, "You must have done SOMETHING to upset God."
Maybe that's easier. Maybe DETOUR, undiluted with academic theory, is just too strong a shot of nihilistic despair. And, hey, I don't begrudge anyone the comfort of their theories. Life's hard. I get it. But I'll take my DETOUR straight up, no chaser.
Monday, March 11, 2019
The French edition of DRY COUNTY, titled AU NOM DU BIEN (or "In the Name of Good") will be released May 2nd. The French get it before the Americans (vive la France!). I'll be heading back to France this summer to do some festivals and signings. More to come...
Saturday, March 2, 2019
I am thrilled to announce that this October, Pegasus Books will release my novel DRY COUNTY. I've been working on this book for years now, and I could not be more excited to finally get to share with you.
To read more about the DRY COUNTY, click here.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
I guess Max Ophüls was just too big for film noir. He was the premier artist of lushly romantic period pieces (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, MADAME DE…, LOLA MONTES), and those are the films for which he is remembered today. Many people don’t even realize that in 1949 he made two film noirs back to back, nor do they realize that these two films represent exactly half of his American output. Wedged between LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN in 1948 and LA RONDE in 1950, these two B-movies have been largely overlooked by critics in favor of Ophüls’ more celebrated work.
The irony of this neglect is that THE RECKLESS MOMENT and CAUGHT are both brilliant film noirs. Each feature his celebrated mise-en-scène and camera work, and each feature strong female protagonists. Of the two films, THE RECKLESS MOMENT is tighter and more controlled, but CAUGHT darker and deeper.
It tells the story of a poor young woman named Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes). Her big dream is to meet Mr. Right, preferably a rich Mr. Right. She takes modeling and charm school lessons, and then one day she lucks out when the slimy personal assistant to a millionaire sees her modeling fur coats at a department store and invites her to a yacht party. Leonora is so turned off by the creepy little assistant’s insinuating manner—he essentially treats her like a self-deluded prostitute—she almost doesn’t go to the party. At her roommate’s prodding she changes her mind, but it’s unclear exactly why she changes her mind. Leonora is funny that way. She doesn’t want to be treated like a prostitute, but she does want to get on that boat and maybe catch herself a millionaire.
She never makes it to the boat, though, because she runs into the millionaire on the docks, and he invites her along for a ride in his convertible. His name is Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and he is a hulking mass of money and nerves. He doesn’t so much sweep Leonora off her feet as much as he makes a snap decision to buy her. In no time at all, they’re married and completely miserable. Smith seems to detest Leonora for merely existing, convinced that she only married him for his money. Leonora professes her love for him, but the fact is, she did marry him for his money. However, when Smith humiliates her in front of his drinking buddies one night, Leonora leaves him and gets a job as a receptionist for a pediatrician named Larry Quinada (James Mason). She and the good doctor soon fall in love, but Smith starts poking around, threatening to make trouble for both of them. Then Leonora discovers she’s pregnant with Smith’s child.
I have to tread carefully over plot details here because part of the power of the last act of CAUGHT is its surprising attitude toward this pregnancy. The audience isn’t happy that Leonora is pregnant with Smith’s child, and neither is she. Smith is happy because it gives him a way to “break” Lenora. He tells her that if she doesn’t come back to him, he’ll take the child away from her in court. Smith (who was reportedly modeled after Howard Hughes) is one sick bastard of a man. Why does he want Leonora back? Because she doesn’t want to come back. He just wants to break her. CAUGHT finds a way to resolve this showdown, but the last few minutes of the movie are shocking. In today’s Hollywood, a movie studio would never allow a film to have such an ending. I can’t image what people must have thought in 1949.
The film was based on a novel by Libbie Block, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. There was much tinkering on the film—especially the ending—by the studio and the censors, but the film that emerged is a fascinating piece of work. Ophüls was known as a “woman’s director,” but a better way to phrase, really, would be that he was one of the first feminist directors. Leonora’s quest to find a husband is a set up for her brutal awakening. What does she want? Why does she want it? She will have to confront her own underlying assumptions about marriage and motherhood before the movie is over.
Ophüls’s direction is superb. Here was a director. His camera glides back and forth throughout the film but never simply for the sake of being flashy. Look at the scene of Leonora and Quinada out on their date, jostled on the dance floor, deciding that maybe they’re in love, and notice how the camera finds them at all the right times. Or look at the scene of Quinada and his partner at the doctor’s office after Leonora has run off, the camera swooping back and forth from each man as they talk, Leonora’s empty desk between them highlighting the power of her absence.
For all its virtues, the film does have flaws. The last two or three minutes feel awfully rushed—as evidenced by a clumsily inserted shot of Bel Geddes that looks like it’s from a completely different film stock. And I can’t help but think that an opportunity was missed in the casting. Robert Ryan played a psycho better than anyone, but it might have interesting to see Mason tackle the role of Smith Ohlrig. I mean, James Mason just looks and sounds like a guy named Smith Ohlrig. He does a serviceable job as Quinada, but Ryan could have brought more warmth to that role.
As Leonora, however, Barbara Bel Geddes is simply wonderful. An accomplished stage actress, Bel Geddes never made the big splash in the movies that she should have. Today she’s mostly remembered for her television role as the mother on DALLAS, but for movie fans she’ll always be Jimmy Stewart’s lovelorn friend Midge in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO. She also appeared in a few noirs (PANIC IN THE STREETS, FOURTEEN HOURS), as well as Robert Wise’s terrific noirish western BLOOD ON THE MOON. With her tomboy spunk and palpable intelligence, Bel Geddes is a welcome addition to any movie, and she positively anchors CAUGHT. Leonora could be played at two different extremes, either as coy or as self-pitying. Instead, Bel Geddes makes her a woman wrestling with her own sense of self. Her choice between Smith and Quinada isn’t simply a choice between two men or even two ways of life. It’s a choice between two Leonoras.
Note: I originally posted this back in 2009, but I'm reposting it here because CAUGHT will be showing at Doc Films this Friday at 7:30 and Sunday at 1:30. The film is part of the Women's Picture Noir programmed by Kathleen Geier. For more details click here.
Sunday, January 27, 2019
The University of Chicago's Doc Films, the oldest student-run film society in America, is doing a series this semester on the "Women's Picture Noir." Programmed by Kathleen Geier, they're showing an impressive run of films. Today, I got to see the new restoration of John Auer's I, JANE DOE, and it's fantastic.
I'm pretty busy these days, so I don't have time to sit down a write a full piece on the film, but I did want to record a few thoughts.
First off, the restoration of the film is beautiful. The format I saw the movie in was DCP, and while I don't know the status of the film's negative, I can report that the restoration gleams and shimmers.
Of course, the restoration wouldn't mean much if the film itself didn't bring the goods, and I, JANE DOE is a noir buff's delight. John Auer isn't a director who has gotten a lot of love from critics, but noir geeks are well advised to seek out his work in the genre. He was a contract man at Republic studios, although he was just about the only director on the lot who didn't make westerns. Instead, the Hungarian-born director focused on musicals, war films, and crime flicks. His work in noir is notable for atmosphere and tension. He wasn't one to expend a lot of energy forcing a silly script to make sense (JANE DOE'S plot is pretty screwy), but his films--from the Hawaii-set HELL's HALF ACRE to the ode-to-Chicago THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS--are always beautifully composed and plenty of fun.
I, JANE DOE is certainly good fun. It follows a twisty plot about a French immigrant (Vera Ralston) who is put on trial for gunning down her married American lover. She refuses to give her real name and is tried as "Jane Doe." She's convicted of murder, but then her dead lover's wife (Ruth Hussey)--who is, as luck would have it, a successful defense lawyer--decides that there is more to the murder than she first suspected and takes Jane Doe's case.
For this movie to work for you, you have to know yourself. Either you can ride out the zigs and zags of a truly ludicrous plot or you can't. If you can, though, what you'll find is a film rich with noir style. With cinematographer Reggie Lanning (who also worked with the director on 1947's THE FLAME) Auer gives the picture plenty of visual zing. From the opening shot that puts us at a odd low angle as we follow Jane Doe on her way to the murder, we know we're in good hands.
Beyond the style, you'll find an uncommonly feminist take on the 40s courtroom thriller, a film that privileges the perspective of women and develops that perspective with sensitive performances by everyone involved. Like most of the films that Doc Films is showing in its series, I, JANE DOE is a domestic thriller. In the noir melodramas of the 40s, which largely dealt with the lives of women, the sphere of action tends to be the domestic space. That's true, in part, of JANE DOE, but the film also plays with it a bit by giving us a female protagonist who is a lawyer. (Her firm seems to be exclusively run by women, in fact.) Like many "women's picture noirs" the film also flips the whole femme fatale trope on its head. It might look like Jane Doe is another dangerous woman, but the film, like Ruth Hussey's crusading lawyer, knows the truth is more complicated.