Orson Welles at One Hundred

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Part man, part myth and part mystery. 100 years after his birth, Orson Welles remains a towering figure in cinema history and a difficult character to pin down. Welles’s immeasurable talents, larger than life personality and elusive nature along with the countless unfinished projects he left behind have made him a favorite subject of filmmakers, historians, writers and film enthusiasts who’ve worked tirelessly to keep Hollywood’s enfant terrible in the spotlight since his death in 1985.

Throughout the month of May, TCM is taking up the torch and placing Welles in their popular Friday Night Spotlight hosted by film critic David Edelstein. For the next 5 weeks, viewers will be able to see Welles’s most revered and beloved films including CITIZEN KANE (1941), THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948), THE STRANGER (1946), A TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), MR. ARKADIN (1962), THE TRIAL (1963), OTHELLO (1952) and MACBETH (1948) as well as many films that Welles acted in such as THE THIRD MAN (1949), JANE EYRE (1944) , THE V.I.P.S. (1963) and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966). Subscribers will also get to enjoy the debut of the director’s silent comedy, TOO MUCH JOHNSON (1938) and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1967), which Welles considered to be his finest work.

In celebration of Orson Welles’ Centennial, I thought I would take a look ahead and highlight some of the events that are being planned to honor the man as well as the various new books, DVD and Blu-ray releases that will become available in the coming months. Welles’s fans like myself will be able to indulge in a variable smorgasbord of cinematic treats in 2015 that should satisfy his most ardent admirers and even intrigue the most weary Welles’s skeptics.

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Actor or Director: Take Your Pick

Today on TCM, John Huston has a few movies on the schedule, including The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo.   Not showing are any of the movies he acted in but he did both and did both well.  Many actors also direct (Richard Attenborough, Robert Redford, Ida Lupino) and many directors also act (John Huston, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock) while others did both from the start and are so intertwined as actor/directors, it’s hard to single them out as mainly one or the other (Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton).   Still, we have our preferences in all things in life and choosing between an acting career and a directing career might as well be one of them, too.  When it comes to actors who only directed one or two movies, like, say, Lionel Barrymore or Charles Laughton, it’s an easy call so I won’t be talking about them.  For others, it’s harder but clear preferences still arise.

Huston

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Chuck Workman Finds the Magic in Orson Welles

magicianposterMovie lovers will recognize Chuck Workman as the filmmaker responsible for Precious Images, the original name given to the short documentary that encapsulates the history of American film in eight minutes. Originally commissioned by the Directors Guild, the film is a compilation documentary consisting of brief shots from 470 classic movies. Precious Memories won an Oscar for Live Action Short and is listed on the National Registry of Films. Workman is also responsible for The First 100 Years, a similar compilation documentary produced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of projected motion pictures. Workman’s montage style in which he makes visual and thematic connections through clever editing is more complex than the pleasing surface of Precious Images suggests. The approach harkens back to the theories and practice of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Workman’s latest documentary on director Orson Welles also involves film history but in a different way.

At Sarasota’s Cine-World Film Festival, which closed last week, I caught Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles. The great director makes for a timely topic considering next year is Welles’s 100th birthday. Given Workman’s skill and background in assembling clips, it is not surprising that the film contains well-organized snippets from archived interviews with Welles and some of his associates long since dead. There are also new interviews with former classmates, associates, and romantic companions.

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And Now Let’s All Agree to Never Discuss This Movie Again

Janet Leigh is TCM’s Star of the Month and that is, to say the least, kind of fitting.  After all, Janet Leigh is the most famous cinematic slasher victim of all time in one of the most famous and influential horror films of all time, Psycho, and this is October, the month most movie writers celebrate the horror film.  Psycho is also the only film for which Leigh was nominated for an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress, by the way, but she lost to Shirley Jones for Elmer Gantry) and practically the only film in which she was ever asked about in interviews.  Boy, I bet she got sick of talking about Psycho.  Frankly, I’m kind of sick of talking about it, too.

Smooth Cement

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I Am Not What I Am: Orson Welles’ Othello (1952)

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Othello (1952) marked the beginning of Orson Welles’ exile from Hollywood, its funding provided by an Italian businessman soon to go bankrupt. It was the first of endless financing troubles that would plague his prolific years abroad. After he made the budget-strapped studio bound Macbeth (1948) for Republic, he was eager to make a full dress Shakespeare adaptation with elaborate sets designed by Alexandre Trauner. When the cash disappeared, he improvised, with Trauner becoming a location scout while locals were hired to sew period-appropriate clothing. The itinerant production moved between in four towns in Morocco and five in Italy. Shot over the course of two years, as Welles took on acting jobs to raise money, the film is a dizzying patchwork. Welles adapts his style to the circumstances, mostly abandoning the long takes so admired by Andre Bazin, and turning to rapid, jarring edits to sew the disparate material together. It was the first time he had final cut since Citizen Kane, and the result is vertiginous and disorienting, both a reflection of Othello’s deteriorating psyche and the jury-rigged nature of the film’s production.

A new 2K scan of the controversial 1992 restoration is now touring the United States courtesy of Carlotta Films, and has began its run at Film Forum in NYC and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (see all the future venues here). The original score and sound effects were re-recorded, an attempt to bring a 1950s film up to 1990s technical standards that replaced the audio instead of preserving what Welles produced (read Jonathan Rosenbaum for more details). With that caveat stated, this strange and hypnotic movie has never looked better.

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I’m in a fightin’ mood!

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Oooh, I’m spoiling for a fight today… a real knock-down, dust-up, take-no-prisoners, no-quarter-given, apocalyptic barney. My knuckles are itching to bite into a set of teeth and my teeth are itching to lay into a row of knuckles. I won’t be satisfied until I dissolve in a flurry of biffery, until I drink blood — mine or yours — and if you want to be the one to set me off here’s all you have to do…  [...MORE]

Too Much Johnson: Becoming Orson Welles

Joseph Cotten in Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson (1938)

A missing piece of the puzzle in Orson Welles‘ career could be found at The George Eastman House in Rochester, NY last Wednesday evening. Hundreds of fortunate film lovers witnessed a bit of cinematic history at the North American premiere of the recently restored work print that comprises Too Much Johnson in The Dryden Theatre on October 16th. Never completed by the wondrously ambitious, over-scheduled, and often under-financed young Welles, the real beginnings of the prodigy’s love affair with movies can be glimpsed in these three chaotic, often funny and engaging silent scenes, alive with the raw curiosity of Welles with a new toy and the high spirits of his talented company of players. Too Much Johnson doesn’t have the astonishing verve or visual polish of Citizen Kane or the depth of The Magnificent Ambersons, but the existence of this film confirms the remarkable creativity pouring from Welles during his early career.

Welles had made a surreal, striking eight minute film, The Hearts of Age (1934) while still in his teens, experimenting with makeup, technical effects and symbolism, but his eye and enchantment with the medium’s real possibilities jumps off the screen when viewing the disparate images in Too Much Johnson, even today. Long believed lost, the last copy of this unfinished film was thought to have been consumed (“rosebud”-like) in a fire in 1970 at the Welles home in Madrid, Spain until it was found five years ago in Italy. How these films wound up moldering away, neglected and unknown in a warehouse in Italy is still a mystery.

UPDATE! Aug. 21, 2014. Too Much Johnson is now available online thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation and can be viewed here.

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Vincent Price Takes Center Stage

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This month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of one of my favorite actors; the remarkable Vincent Price. Vincent Price also happens to be TCM’s Star of the Month and every Thursday throughout October viewers can tune in to see him in a wide-variety of films that showcase his exceptional talents. I can’t think of many other actors I’d like to spend the hallowed month of October with so I’m going to devote the next four weeks to the “Crown Prince of Horror.” To kick start my informal tribute to Vincent Price I thought I’d take a look back at his early stage career in New York working with Orson Welles and the legendary Mercury Theatre.

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People you should know: Ross Elliott

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I was watching GUN CRAZY (1950) the other night for the whateverth time and at about 66 minutes in I heard a familiar voice. I was looking at the woman in the ticket booth, in the way I love to focus on extraneous characters (somewhat in line with what Morlock Greg wrote about on Wednesday) but that voice pulled my focus left… and I said out loud “Hey, it’s Ross Elliott!” The name may well not mean much to you but he’s been on my radar for over forty years. [...MORE]

Out, out, brief candle: Jon Finch 1942-2012

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Jon Finch in Roman Polanski’s MACBETH (1971)

“… Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more …” – Macbeth,
William Shakespeare

Writing obituaries is never easy but when I decided I wanted to memorialize the British actor Jon Finch, who recently passed away at age 70, I found myself seriously struggling to find the right words. His death, which occurred when he was alone over the holidays and apparently suffering from dementia as well as health problems associated with diabetes, seemed particularly cruel. It didn’t get reported to the public until Jan. 11th although his body was found on Dec. 28th but as far as I know there’s been no official date of death released. There’s also been very little news coverage by the numerous entertainment focused outlets and blogs that usually offer up career summations whenever a person of note dies. I don’t like to dwell on the negative when someone I deeply admire leaves this earth because it‘s much more respectful and productive to focus on their accomplishments and Jon Finch left behind an impressive body of work. But while I scanned his filmography in my effort to concisely capture what had made him such a memorable screen presence I was struck again and again by the missed opportunities, which seemed to color his entire career. Over and over again I found myself wondering about what might have been instead of focusing on what was, which seemed pointless. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this business of making movies had somehow failed him even though I suspect that Finch himself would wholeheartedly disagree with me.

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