A much bigger circle: “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

fiddler poster

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The 1971 film transmigration of the 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most beautifully made of all adaptations from the musical stage, and certainly one of the most faithful. By filming it in as realistic a manner as possible, and as close to the birthplace of its progenitor, Sholem Aleichem, as the director, Norman Jewison, could get (Yugoslavia), the filmmakers honored the material as well, I think, as the source. What fell away, inevitably, was much of the very thing that made Jerome Robbins’ original so striking and even, in the terms of the musical theatre of its time, revolutionary. Any truly theatrical experience, play or musical, that exists in a heightened, stylized state can only be diminished by literalism. This is why any sane admirer of Follies, say, can only hope no movie ever gets made of it. Unless (as here) the material can support the transliteration, and the filmmakers are able to balance the inevitable losses with considerable gains of their own.*

Boris Aronson's set design for the interior of Tevye's home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.
Boris Aronson’s set design for the interior of Tevye’s home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.

Realism cannot take in, for example, the potent abstraction of Boris Aronson’s original Fiddler set. Inspired by (but in no way slavishly reproducing) the shtetl-based paintings of Marc Chagall, Aronson constructed a series of stage images that fully expressed the key concerns of Robbins and his collaborators: Not merely the sense of tradition (arrived at through Robbins’ insistent, necessary, question, “What is this show about?”) but the crucial aspect of the circle which binds the community, the people of the play, even the faith itself.

Great Performances

Zero Mostel’s Tevye leads the original company of the stage musical.

Nor can a realistic style encompass the inherent theatricality of the piece as a whole, especially as Robbins directed and choreographed it — as when, for example, in the opening, Tevye is suddenly joined by the figures of the villagers, hands linked, emerging from either side of the stage to create the circle that stands for Anatevka itself. A couple of songs in the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick were also shed during filming, but their omissions are more than adequately compensated for by the filmmakers’ otherwise rare fealty to the score, superbly enhanced by John Williams’ rich, sensitive and often thrilling arrangements.

Thus, what was lost. (For some die-hards, the replacement of Zero Mostel with the earthier and less ostentatious Topol was likely also a grievous deficiency.) So what was gained? On a simplistic, yet pleasurable, level, the land itself — vast, verdant, arable, even majestic —and the physicality of Anatevka, especially the magnificently realized wooden shul with its stunning, intricate murals, glimpsed in the opening number and, at the climax, gazed at in anguished silence by Zvee Scooler’s Rabbi as he prepares to depart its walls forever. (In her splendid book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof,” http://alisasolomon.com/ Lisa Solomon reports that Jewison wanted the building preserved but, by the time he’d reached an agreement in Israel for its transportation it had, heartbreakingly, already been torn down.) And too, the pogrom that destroys the wedding of Tevye’s daughter Tzeitl at the end of the first act is, because of film’s innate ability to realistically depict such events (Cossacks on horseback, flaming torches, shattered glass, the shredding of the young couple’s gifts) far more gripping, and powerful, on the screen than it can ever be on the stage.

Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.
Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.

The strength of photographic imagery in the movie of Fiddler begins almost immediately, and to the point; as Topol warms up “Tradition,” Jewison and his editors (Robert Lawrence and Anthony Gibbs) cut, in rhythm, to Anatekva’s various articles of faith as well as to the villagers themselves, engaged in their respective tasks. Not quite the image of the circle as enacted by the company on the stage, but each rapidly glimpsed clip sets, and reinforces, the theme of communal traditions as the glue that allows those in the Russian Pale of Settlement “to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking [their] neck[s].” Nowhere in the show, or the movie, of course, do the authors (Joseph Stein in his book and screenplay, Bock and Harnick in their score and, although un-involved with the movie, Jerry Robbins) suggest that the bending of ritual leads to the eventual expulsion of Anatekva’s Jews. It’s all of a piece: The advent of 20th century modernity and czarist anti-Semitism, conspiring by accident to alter the face, and form, of institutional observance. Tevye, seemingly the least hidebound of the older Anatevkans, bends, as he says, only so far. And although he is unwilling to break entirely, even he softens enough by the end to at least express his parting concern for his wayward daughter Chava, if only through the intermediary of his eldest, Tzeitl.

Fiddler on the Roof 1 Tradition

Topol, that “huge dancing bear of a man” singing “Tradition.”

The one, indispensable, element of the movie’s strength must be accounted the performance of (Chaim) Topol as Tevye. As a Sabra the actor was, in common with many of his fellow Israelis of the time, not especially attuned to Yiddishkayt. (Indeed, many were entirely antipathetic.) But Topol’s size, his vigor, his warmth and his courage — as much as, when compared to that of Mostel, his smaller but no less compelling theatrical presence — bring him closer to us, and perhaps even to Sholem Aleichem. Pauline Kael, in her review of the movie, which she called “the most powerful movie musical ever made,” referred to Topol as “a huge dancing bear of a man.” That’s just about perfect, I think. Although the then-35-year-old actor was only slightly younger than Zero Mostel when he first assayed the role, he carries with him an authority, and an expansiveness, that goes far beyond the touches of gray in his hair and beard. And although he is a far more handsome man than Mostel, sings better and more easily attains the higher notes without noticeable strain, what’s essential, even elemental, about Topol is the sense he projects of a man who, while firmly affixed to the appurtenances of his faith, is capable of elasticity — the flexibility a plant, however well rooted, needs to survive.†

Great Performances

The lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the composer (Jerry Bock) of “Fiddler.”

Essential, too, are the songs by Bock and Harnick. It is not merely fashionable to dismiss them; most of the show’s original reviews expressed reservations (is that the polite term?) about this immensely treasurable score. But as much as Sholem Aleichem himself, the Fiddler songs are inextricably linked to the show’s sense of identity, its abundant charm and humor, and its remarkable power. Bock, one of his era’s most accomplished musical dramatists, as at home in New York’s Tenderloin as in Hungarian milieu of 1930s She Loves Me, steeped himself in Yiddish folk melody and klezmer, and refracted it through the prism of his own exceptional composition acumen. While the ultimate tone of, and concept for, Fiddler (then called Tevye) was not set during much of the writing process there is in Bock’s supple, often yearning, melodies the concert of the shtetl, at once vigorous and elegiac. And they are perfectly complemented by Harnick’s alternately playful, moving, direct and ruefully funny lyrics all of which seem, as he said of his experience wedding his words to Bock’s music for “Sunrise, Sunset,” to “crystallize on the music,” as though there could be no other possible lyrics to any of those tunes. (Although there were, reportedly, dozens of attempts for every song that finally placed.) I’ve noted this before, but I think it bears repeating: If you think evoking Sholem Aleichem’s people, and place, and doing so while keeping in your mind the correct rhythms and cadences, and the needs of the performers, and making the humor or the pathos land properly and effectively on 1,500 minds and hearts and pairs of ears hearing them for the first time, is easy, then go ahead: You write something as effective as “Tradition” or “Anatevka” I’ll wait.

molly-picon-from-fiddler-on-the-roof

Norma Crane (Golde) and the Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon (Yente the Matchmaker). Note Picon’s playful signature.

Kael, who loved the movie in spite of what she saw as the “squareness” of Jewison’s direction and the (to her) Broadway jokes and disposable songs, nevertheless carped about the performance of Molly Picon as Yente the Matchmaker. For all her gifts, Kael sometimes seemed to go to inordinate lengths to separate herself from her own Jewishness. I don’t mean her less than laudatory remarks about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (with many of which I agreed — not least her complaints about its sheer, numbing length — but which got her in a lot of hot water with some readers and colleagues); I refer instead to her rejection of some of the richer veins of humor which American show business has accepted as a delicious gift from its creative Jews but which, for Kael, smacked either of special pleading or of unconscious self-abasement. She was hardly alone in this. Indeed, as Solomon points out in Wonder of Wonders, resistance to, and rejection of, Yiddish theatrical traditions lies at the heart of controversies that attended every mid-century attempt to place Sholem Aleichem’s stories on the stage; second and third generations of Jewish-Americans didn’t want all that schmaltz and inflection with which their parents and grandparents cluttered up a brave new assimilationist world. So, nu? But Yente — her very name a Yiddish convention — is, while admittedly an invention of the show’s book writer Joseph Stein, very much a part of the soil of the shtetl — indeed, its soul — at least as delineated by the creative team that put the show together. Even granted Robbins’ understandable aversion, as Solomon also tells us, to making his Sholem Aleichem musical The Return of the Goldbergs, who better to embody Yente’s very yenteism than Picon? As the one-time, undisputed queen of the Yiddish theatre (although when she began she neither spoke nor understood Yiddish) Picon knew this woman in her very bones; the kvetching and kvelling, the self-martyring geshrais, the constant smug (and self-justifying) nudzhnikness of a woman who is despaired of but never entirely dismissed (all those children to be wed!) Picon’s performance, always pleasurable, is especially — sorry, it’s the only word that will do — piquant, now that Molly herself is no longer with us.

No such grumbles greeted Norma Crane’s Golde, although Kael did complain that the role was under-written. Perhaps. But so is everyone’s, aside from Tevye; after all, the show is not called Hello, Golde! What Crane achieves in her limited screen-time is a highly believable portrait of a careworn, un-lettered woman of the earth with a great deal of love but no time for sentiment. Crane (who died, shockingly young, of breast cancer, three years after the movie opened) had an almost Classical beauty, but hers is no glamour-puss Golde. No-nonsense, she bears her husband’s mischievous wiles as she does her daughters’ unruliness: with a shrug, an exasperated bark, or a sighing aside (“You can die from such a man…”) Yet Crane’s strength of character is not merely admirable, it’s necessary. How else could a woman like her bear the vicissitudes of that life? And when she breaks, after Tevye orders her on the road to forget her middle child Chava, the effect of her normally ram-rod straight body, black-clad as though in mourning and whipped by the winter wind, bent double in hopeless despair, is harrowing.

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Maybe the most rapturous lovers in movie musical history: Leonard Frey (Motel) and Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel.)

As Tzeitl, the eldest of the three marriageable daughters (the youngest pair are marginal) the beautiful Rosalind Harris makes an impression that can remain with you a lifetime. At a precocious 20 when the film was made, Harris carries herself with both a wry dignity and an open honesty of expression that she lingers in your memory long after Tzeitl’s major part in the family drama is over. And as her nebbishy swain Motel, the adorably tongue-tied Leonard Frey is utterly endearing. Frey, who played the Rabbi’s son Mendl in the 1964 production (and who would eventually graduate to Motel on stage) had just come off reprising his definitive Harold in the movie of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Here, he is scarcely recognizable as the actor who portrayed that acid-tonged, “32-year old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.” He nabbed an Academy Award® nomination for Motel (as Topol did for his Tevye) and one would have thought that, if he could successfully negotiate those two, wildly disparate, roles, the world should have been open to him. (Alas, it wasn’t, and he succumbed to AIDS at 50, in 1988, leaving behind the sense that an important career had, somehow, been thwarted aborning. By homophobia? Perhaps. Or maybe just the usual Hollywood myopia.) When he finds his voice at last, his serenading of Harris, and their delighted dance to “Wonder of Wonders” is one of the most rapturous numbers of its kind ever filmed.

fiddler-on-the-roof-image Perchik and Hodel

Bending, but not breaking: Perchik (Michael Glaser), Hodel (Michele Marsh) receive Tevye’s permission, and his blessing.

Michele Marsh, as Hodel, is a touch too conventionally cute, but she does convey the spirited independence of the role and sings a notably beautiful, poignant “Far from the Home I Love.” Hodel’s vis-a-vis, Perchik, is a bit of a pill in his ardent Socialist mania, which could make him a self-righteous boor in the wrong hands. Blessedly, Michael Glaser (later, as Paul Michael Glaser, the Starsky of television’s Starsky and Hutch) brings a kind of thoughtless, arrogant charm to the part, making Hodel’s eventual willingness to follow him as far as Siberia at least explicable.††

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Neva Small as Chava.

The third daughter, Chava is, in her way, crucial to the success of the narrative.  Her determination to not merely throw over tradition for love but to engage in apostasy, risking the eternal enmity and alienation of her beloved family and the entire Jewish circle of Anatevka, must be absolutely grounded or the increasingly troubling arc of the play’s darker second act can topple off its delicately balanced wheels. In Neva Small, Jewison found his ideal. In each of the show’s succeeding marriage stories, one gets the sense that these girls have been paying sharper attention to Tevye’s warm interior than his gruff exterior, and play off it in ways that place their father in ironic binds. But in the Chava story, that reading has not been nearly close enough; she pushes back harder, and more devastatingly, than she knows. Small somehow manages to embody both her father’s idealized vision of her (his “little bird,” his cherished Chavelah) and the less perfect self of reality. Inquisitive, keen, at once guarded and openhearted, Small’s face radiates intelligence and love in equal measure, making Chava’s eventual estrangement (and Tevye’s anguish) deeply, personally, traumatic.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

The smaller roles were cast with similar care. Zvee Scooler, who played the innkeeper for the entire seven-year run of the play, makes a superb Rabbi. His gaunt, moving face and his gentle gravitas do much, I think, to take the curse off a role some Jewish commentators felt was too condescendingly comic on Broadway. Paul Mann’s Lazar Wolf, with his charmingly Santa Claus-like mien, is nicely judged as well, neither as boorish as Tevye at first believes nor as completely docile in the face of marital defeat as the peripatetic dairyman might hope. Louis Zorich likewise does wonders with the off-handedly anti-Semitic Constable who — in a scene added by Stein to the screenplay — makes agonizingly clear what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Well, maybe not “good” so much as halfway decent.)§ And the Welsh singer Ruth Madoc is an unforgettable Fruma-Sarah in the inspired dream sequence, wildly funny in her uncannily witchy ululations.

“The Dream”: Tevye and Golde menaced by Fruma- Sarah (Ruth Madoc.)

Which brings us rather nicely around to the strengths of Jewison’s imagery. Onstage, “The Dream” leaps from one form of heightened theatricality (Aronsons’ set) to another (folk-inspired ghost story.) In the movie the effect of the humor, and the quality of its tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness, in the midst of the filmmaker’s “square,” quotidian visual palette, is even stronger, and funnier. (There’s a shot of Topol reacting to Fruma-Sarah with knock-kneed terror that is especially uproarious.) It’s a folk nightmare, the colors de-saturated, the costumes and make-up both over-the-top and eerie. That push-pull of the pragmatic and the fantastic is also true of the sudden distancing effect Jewison goes in for when Tevye confronts his daughters’ romantic yearnings: Topol is seen at a vast remove, suspended in agrarian space between his core beliefs and his overmastering love for his children. But when he speaks/sings, “Look at my daughter’s eyes…” the director immediately closes on those expressive orbs, bringing Tevye, and us, instantly back to the crux of the material’s emotional center. Likewise, the gorgeously realized “Chava Ballet” is rendered as a hallucination-like reverie, Tevye’s sense of his immediate world crumbling in the face not only of modernity but of the inevitable loss a parent experiences when his children move, as they must, away from his sphere of influence, and love.

The

The “Chava Ballet.”

The famous

The famous “Bottle Dance,” inspired by Jerry Robbins observing a red-bearded trickster at a couple of Jewish weddings in 1963.

In his quest to hone Fiddler to its essentials, the director Jerry Robbins left the choreographer Jerome Robbins somewhat high and dry; that “Chava Ballet” arrived at its effective abbreviation only after a much longer, more frenzied and frightening, number outstayed its welcome. But Robbins at least had a first act topper in the famed “Bottle Dance” during Tzeitl’s nuptials. Inspired by a trick he witnessed a red-bearded wedding guest perform at two different Jewish weddings, the dance has since become so much a part of the Fiddler ethos that many assume it’s an actual freylekh. Having been fired from the movie of West Side Story for the very deliberateness that led his theatrical collaborators to despair but which enhanced his unique staging, Robbins was never truly considered to helm the movie of his most successful stage musical, so it was up to his assistant, Tom Abbott, to re-create the original choreography, and it’s nowhere more ebullient or felicitous as during the wedding. Not only the sinuous “Bottle Dance” itself but the entire sequence is informed by Robbins’ meticulousness in recreating the exuberant, uninhibited, even frenetic, merry-making he witnessed at various Jewish weddings preparatory to mounting the show. And it’s here that Jewison makes one of his few missteps. The dance is shot, and edited, too casually, denying us the pleasure of watching those limber bodies going through their joyous paces. This is even more obvious when watching the Canadian Broadcasting documentary about Jewison on the Fiddler DVD, when the CBC’s camera placement during the “Bottle Dance” trumps Jewison’s own. Dance on film is always a sticky problem. Fred Astaire felt, with no small justification, that the camera should be placed at a distance (and not further cluttered up by fancy editing) so the audience could appreciate the footwork. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen concurred, and they never interfere with our enjoyment of, and exultation in, even the most complex numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. So documentary realism does have its limits, especially in musicals.

Fiddler on the Roof was, seemingly, a tough sell in the mid-1960s. Not only was the material overtly, even proudly, Jewish (as indeed were the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was based) but its action embraced a pogrom and the saddest of all possible climaxes — the enforced expulsion of an entire people. In comfortable, and comforting, hindsight, one can always look back and say, of a hit, “Well, of course…” (I always thought John Simon was being more than slightly disingenuous when he opined during that decade that the most enormous possible sure-fire Broadway hit would be “a big, vulgar musical about black, Jewish homosexuals.” Simon’s target was theatrical parochialism, I know. But let’s not be ridiculous.) No, Fiddler was no sure thing, in 1964 or 1971. What sold it, and continues to sell it, was the collective intelligence, even genius, of its creators as much as — and I would argue, more than — the universality of the underlying material. The unwavering devotion of Robbins, Bock, Harnick, Stein and the original producer Harold Prince to telling this story well, and with scrupulous dedication to its shades of meaning within a specific confluence of humanity, was picked up, and codified, by Jewison & Co. in sumptuous turn. Those final, ineffably moving, images of a new Diaspora infused both with hope (in the amorphous forms of Palestine and America) and hopelessness (in the unutterable grief of the dispossessed that presages the Shoah) contain, in microcosm, everything that made, and makes, Fiddler on the Roof such an imperishable fact of life.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

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*One of my five favorite movies is the 1972 Bob Fosse version of Cabaret, itself, under Harold Prince’s direction, a highly stylized show. But as Fosse and his collaborators re-imagined the material, hewing more closely to the Christopher Isherwood model and throwing out the “book” songs, it’s the exception that proves the rule. Especially as the name most often reported in connection with a movie of Follies is — saints preserve us! —Rob Marshall.

†Topol was the London Tevye in 1967, based in part on the producer Richard Pilbrow’s having seen his 1964 Israeli comedy Sallah (or Shallah Sabbati.) Pilbrow was expecting to meet much older man. Topol, who had succeeded Bomba Zur in the role during the highly successful 1965 Israeli Fiddler, was not what you would call proficient in English before he starred in London, and it’s interesting to compare his performance on the movie soundtrack with that on the ’67 Columbia cast recording; his inflections in the latter tend to Anglicized pronunciation (“You may ahsk” rather than “You may ask.”)

††Glaser/Perchik lost out on a solo in the movie. Motel’s original number during rehearsals for, and early performances of, the show (“Now I Have Everything”) was eventually ceded to Bert Convy’s Perchik but Jewison didn’t think it right for the movie. Jerry Bock’s replacement melody, “Any Day Now,” is among the finest and most rousingly apposite he ever composed, and Harnick’s lyrics are in admirably quirky character. But the moment is a bit of a dead-end, and it’s probably just as well the number was cut. You can hear it, in Glaser’s somewhat over-taxed rendition, on the Fiddler soundtrack CD and the DVD.

§Zorich is probably best known for his role on Mad About You as Paul Reiser’s father Burt. From conductor of pogroms to befuddled Jewish pater familias — that’s one hell of a range.

 

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Armchair Theatre 2017

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By Scott Ross

The movies and other video items I watched (or, in rare cases, went out to see) during the year just passed.
BOLD: Denotes very good… or at least, better-than-average.
BOLD+Underscore: A personal favorite.



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen
I don’t quite know why there’s been so little love for the 24th Bond. True, it’s no Skyfall — what is? Some people I know disliked the central premise. Others think the Daniel Craig titles have turned 007 from a dashing, erudite figure into a thug: M’s “blunt instrument.” And while I have a particular fondness for Roger Moore as Bond (his was the first Bond I saw in a theatre) I admire the Craigs more than any others in the series apart from the early Connerys and the Timothy Daltons. Craig also comes closest to resembling the Hoagy Carmichael Fleming prototype. On its own terms, the picture seemed to me exciting, thematically dark in a way that appeals to me, and stylishly (and occasionally, beautifully) made.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind. One of my five favorite pictures, and which I haven’t seen on a big screen since 1978. (I don’t count the 1980 Special Edition.)
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/09/04/watching-the-skies-close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-at-40/

Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-LB2-1

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/and-they-used-bon-ami-the-ghost-and-mr-chicken-1966/

Some Like it Hot. Also at the Carolina. My favorite movie. I always see something new in it. This time I focused on Billy Wilder’s astonishing technical achievement in matching Tony Curtis’ lips to Paul Frees’ looping of “Josephine”‘s dialogue.

Some-like-it-hot-screen



New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:

None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.



Revisited with pleasure

F for Fake. Orson Welles’ non pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”

Absence_of_malice_xlg
Absence of Malice
When this Sidney Pollack-directed newspaper drama opened in 1981, it received middling reviews and seemed somehow inconsequential. What a difference 35 years of media consolidation and deepening personal taste can make! Those of us who cared about such things knew too many papers, magazines and broadcast stations were in the hands of too few (usually conservative) people. But we had no idea then that, 15 years later, a Democrat would, with his 1996 Telecommunications Act, usher out the flawed but vitally important American free press and replace it, eventually, with a completely corporate, wholly right-wing, one.  For this reason alone, the picture has interest. Seeing it again, however, I was struck by the intelligence of Kurt Luedtke’s dialogue, how skillfully he lays out his narrative, and how deeply satisfying his denouement, which seemed at the time merely clever, really is. That Newman, Field, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Wilford Brimley all give splendid performances is practically a given, and Melinda Dillon is shattering as Newman’s doomed sister; the sequence in which she runs desperately from house to house trying to gather up every copy of a paper carrying a story that will devastate her own life and her brother’s illustrates all too clearly not merely what a staggeringly humane and expressive actor she is, but how badly she has been served by Hollywood in the years since. Which is to say, barely at all.

Black Sunday. An immensely entertaining adaptation of Thomas Harris’ topical thriller about a Black September plot, directed in high style by John Frankenheimer. A vivid relic from the decades before The PATRIOT Act was a gleam in the Deep State’s eye.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/black-sunday-1977-what-exactly-is-this-super-bowl/

Munich. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/everyone-is-overtaken-eventually-munich-2005-and-one-day-in-september-1999/

Wag the Dog. It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, the most overrated American playwright of the past 40 years… although the fact it was made during the Clinton era may be a clue.

The List of Adrian Messenger. An effective murder mystery from John Huston and Anthony Veillier out of Phillip MacDonald, burdened by an unnecessary gimmick (guest-stars in heavy makeup) and lumbered as well by its director’s tacit approval of upper-class snobbery and his love of that barbarous tradition, the fox-hunt.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/the-nature-of-man-the-list-of-adrian-messenger-1963/

The Third Man. Graham Greene wrote it. Carol Reed directed it. Anton Karras performed the soon-to-be ubiquitous music. And Orson Welles had what was arguably his best role in a movie not also written by him. The only drawback in one’s thorough enjoyment of this deservedly beloved post-war thriller is knowing the producers wanted James Stewart for the lead. Good as Joseph Cotton is, once you hear that bit of casting-that-might-have-been, it’s almost impossible to refrain from imagining Stewart’s unique delivery every time “Holly Martins” speaks a line.

Hot Millions.
A 1968 sleeper hit, impossibly dated now in its then-striking use of computer technology, this Peter Ustinov-written comedy starring him and Maggie Smith is a movie that, for me, is a test of potential friendship. If I show it to someone and he or she doesn’t love it too, all bets are off.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/hot-millions-1968/

Cinderella (Disney, 1950) Remarkably fresh after nearly 70 years, this beguiling rendition of the Perrault fairy tale was a make-or-break project for Disney animation, still struggling to regain its pre-war foothold. And unlike recent Mouse House product, schizophrenically made with one eye on each new heroine’s spunky feminist bona fides and the other on crafting an ageless new “Princess” to add to the lineage, there was no art-by-committee finagling here; generations of girls and boys loved Cinderella for her natural ebullience, her love of animals, and her complete lack of self-pity. (Parenthetical: Several years ago, the “Classical” music critic Lloyd Schwartz quoted a friend who cited “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as the most frightening song title he’d ever heard. I always think about that when I see the picture.)

Cotton Comes to Harlem. Not as rich as the Chester Himes novel, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.

Mary Poppins. This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking 1964 release, which would have put me at around four and a half. I know this because the movie was released in late August, and my sister and I were taken to it at a drive-in. Hence the “ever almost”: I remember only the beginning, and waking up in the back seat when Jane and Michael Banks were being menaced by a snarling dog in an alley. I finally got to see it again when it was reissued in 1973. I liked it then, but love it now in a way few 12 year-olds, even movie-mad pubescents as I was becoming then, ever could.

The Great Race - Lemmon as Fate
The Great Race.
Another favorite of long-standing. Seeing this on television, even on a black-and-white set, in pan-and-scan format, interrupted by commercials and spread out over two consecutive Sunday evenings, delighted me and made me an instant Jack Lemmon freak. The new BluRay edition is stunningly executed.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/the-great-race-1965/

 

French Connection II. The rare sequel that succeeds on its own terms; although it was made during the period of John Frankenheimer’s acutest alcoholism it bears his trademark intelligence, verisimilitude and equal care with both action and actors.

Juggernaut. A taut, entertaining thriller directed by Richard Lester concerning a bomb set to destroy a pleasure-liner at sea.

The Front Page.
1931: A new Criterion edition, beautifully rendered, of the Lewis Milestone adaptation that shows how cinematic even the earliest talkies could be when handled by a master craftsman.

Robin Hood. (Disney, 1973.) I loved this when it opened. But then at 12 I was much less critical.

Death on the Nile. Nowhere near as stylish or accomplished as the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express which preceded it by four years, yet it holds many pleasures, not least its stellar cast. For a 17-year old nascent gay-boy, seeing both Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury on the big screen was close to Nirvana.

The Seven-Ups.
A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, directed by that picture’s producer, this tense New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals those in Connection and Bullitt.

Two Mules for Sister Sarah.
A solid comic Western directed by Don Siegel and with a sharp, leftist screenplay by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10. Shirley MacLaine and Clinton Eastwood would seem to be as mis-matched in life as their characters are here, but they make an awfully good team. Features superb photography by the redoubtable Gabriel Figueroa and a pleasing Morricone score.

The Jungle Book
(Disney, 1967) I was the perfect age when this one was released to embrace a new Disney animated feature — I had previously seen both Snow White and Cinderella in re-issue — and I went duly gaga over it. I had the Jungle Book comic (I wore the over off that one through obsessive re-reading), Jungle Book Disneykins figurines from Royal Pudding, Jungle Book tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a hockey-puck. My poor parents. Seeing it again in 1990 I was considerably less enthusiastic, but it’s remarkable what a quarter of a century can do for a picture. I still think it’s too self-consciously hip (especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance) for its own good, but the character animation seems to me wonderfully expressive, especially that by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who did half the picture by themselves.

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The Jungle Book: George Sanders lends both his voice and his physiognomy to Sher Kahn, seen obliquely threatening Sterling Holloway’s Kaa.

The Aristocats. Another I was less critical about when it was new, which seemed a bit bland on video but which now looks awfully good, and that in spite of its borrowings from the infinitely superior 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, transposed to felinity. Not to be confused with The Aristocrats

The Cheyenne Social Club. The pleasures inherent in seeing a relic from the time when even a trifling Western comedy was imbued with deliciously quirky characterizations and witty, fondly observed dialogue (in this case by James Lee Barrett.) It isn’t much, but for the much it isn’t, it’s rather charming.

Rosemary’s Baby
. I somehow managed to miss this one until about 15 years ago, when I caught it at an art-house screening. Roman Polanksi’s screenplay (almost reverently faithful to the Ira Levin novel) and direction, the gorgeous cinematography by William A. Fraker and the effective score by Krzysztof Komeda (dead, sadly, within months of its release, this depriving us of a distinctive new compositional voice in movies), combined with the performances by its largely elderly cast and a notably plangent one by the often-insufferable Mia Farrow, make this exercise in stylish, low-key horror among the finest in the genre. What I was unprepared for then was how funny it could be, especially in Ruth Gordon’s knowing performance. “Chalky undertaste” become a running joke between me and my then-boyfriend for months afterward.

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Rosemary’s Baby: Polanski’s witty framing of Ruth Gordon,



Theatrical Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro. What was effective about this meandering and ultimately unsuccessful study of James Baldwin was the many clips of him speaking. But its makers set up a premise — why was Baldwin unable to finish his tripartite memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers? — and then almost immediately abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.

Kedi. Lovely, affecting movie about the street cats of Istanbul.

Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed
.
A timely reminder of a true progressive groundbreaker… who was ultimately screwed by the Democratic Party. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Point of Order! Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s superb compilation of kinescopes from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Especially relevant in these through-the-looking-glass times, in which liberal Democrats are, inexplicably, behaving in a way that would make Tail-Gunner Joe proud.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/reckless-point-of-order-1964-and-citizen-cohn-1992/



Selected Short Subject

Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story) Despite that second title, it’s not really his; Welles appended cinematic bookends to an atmospheric short picture made by Hilton Edwards.



Made for television

The Epic That Never Was. On the aborted I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton. A British television documentary I first read about around 1974 and which contains all the extant footage shot for the ill-fated 1934 adaptation of the Graves novel. Josef von Sternberg appears, imperiously (and predictably) blaming everyone but himself for the debacle.

W.C. Fields: Straight Up.
Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.

The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. Robert B. Weide again. When this delicious toast to the brothers first appeared in 1982, PBS committed the unpardonable sin of mentioning Woody Allen’s name in its promotional material, causing Allen to pitch a predictable fit and demand that Weide remove his footage. It was put back in for the DVD release, and reveals definitely that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of any importance, makes no great pronouncements and adds precisely zero to the critical canon on the team the documentary’s writer Joe Adamson once described as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo.

Citizen Cohn. History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/reckless-point-of-order-1964-and-citizen-cohn-1992/



Television series

I, Claudius. Still powerful, if hampered by being shot on video rather than film, and with a beautifully modulated central performance by Derek Jacobi, who transformed stuttering into an art-form.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The Lost Episodes (Volumes I, II and III)
One of the loveliest video events of the last few years has been the release of these utterly charming kinescopes by the Burr Tillstrom Trust, which is currently working to restore 700 additional episodes. I don’t know whether today’s children, weaned on CGI and iPhones before they’re out of preschool, have the capacity to respond to the show’s gentle humors, but I would be willing to bet that if you sat a relatively unspoiled five-year-old down in front of these 30-minute charmers, he or she might be hooked for life. It would be pretty to think so.

Kukla_Fran_and_Ollie

The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends. 12 full episodes from the late ’60s and early ’70s of that wittiest and most intelligent of American chat-shows. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett , Mel Brooks, George Burns, Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis fascinate and delight; Groucho Marx banters deliciously with his young goyishe friend; Dick fawns all too fannishly over a smug, queer-baiting Bob Hope; the Smothers Brothers behave strangely (it seems to be a put-on, but of what?) and Woody Allen flaunts his repulsive persona. Ruth Gordon and Joe Frazier also show up, as does Rex Reed, bitching rather perceptively about the Academy Awards. Also included is the single most painful interview I’ve ever seen — and surely one of the most awkward Cavett ever conducted — with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, the beautiful but weirdly inarticulate stars of Zabriskie Point.



Seen a second time… and will never see again

The Anderson Tapes. Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?

One Day in September. A 1999 Oscar winner in the documentary category, this impassioned examination of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics muffs too many facts and, ultimately, sickens the viewer; not in the way the filmmakers hoped, but by exhibiting horrid color photos of the bloodied victims, which, whatever the intention, feels like an act of heartless exploitation.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/everyone-is-overtaken-eventually-munich-2005-and-one-day-in-september-1999/



New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion. This first version of the “prequel” (odious neologism) to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader, was completely re-filmed, by Rennie Harlin, whose name is, as it should be, a hiss and a byword.

Moulin Rouge.
Visually glorious but dramatically inert. And you can really see what in it inspired Bob Fosse when he made Cabaret. But… was there a less appealing leading actor of the Hollywood Era than Jose Ferrer?
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/09/here-is-my-heart-on-my-sleeve-where-you-cant-miss-it-moulin-rouge-1952/



New to Me: More than worth the trip

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
 
I avoided the theatrical release of this one in a manner not unlike my aversion to the first Star Wars picture when I was 16, largely due to my loathing of the Disney Company. But after stumbling across a second-act Blu-ray copy for an absurdly low price I thought I’d at least give it a spin. To my astonishment, this over-hyped space opera turned out more than well; it nearly obliterated the bad taste left by The Phantom Menace. J.J. Abrams’ direction, focused less on CGI effects than on human beings in conflict with each other and themselves (the latter the only thing Faulkner believed was worth writing about) was both riveting and surprisingly beautiful, and the Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt screenplay had pleasing weight and even levity. The only cavil about it is the niggling sense that the new series may be unable to shake replicating the same sort of father/son (or, in this case, grandfather/grandson) adulations and conflicts that powered the Lucas originals. Isn’t there any other plot available in that galaxy?

Across 110th Street. A tough slice of New York life, circa 1972. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.

Take a Hard Ride.
A cheerful, entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation from 1975, with very likable performances by Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, a fine villainous turn by Lee Van Cleef, an effectively silent Jim Kelly, a reasonably clever script (by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig), good action set-pieces by the director Antonio Margheriti, and a one-of-kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Firecreek. A downbeat 1968 Western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda that is, in Calvin Clements’ incisive screenplay, about as despairing of human nature as it’s possible to get without the viewer wanting to slash his or her wrists. A double-feature of this and Welcome to Hard Times could put you in a funk for weeks.

Wrong is Right. While we’re on the topic of press irresponsibility, this Richard Brooks satire of the year following Absence of Malice gleefully exposes, Chayefsky style, the appalling consequences of the electronic media’s love of ratings — a state of affairs being disastrously played out now, from Les Moonves’ giggling admission that the All-Trump-All-the-Time campaign coverage of 2016 was raking in the bucks for CBS to the current, slathering mania of so-called liberals for Russia-Russia-Russia McCarthyism.

The Kremlin Letter. A flop in its day, and roundly panned by Pauline Kael, this John Huston thriller from 1970, imaginatively adapted from the Noel Behn novel by the director and his longtime collaborator Gladys Hill and featuring an absolutely marvelous score by Robert Drasnin is infinitely finer than its detractors would have you believe. The only complaint — and it’s a failure shared by Sidney Lumet in his 1971 version of the rather ingenious Laurence Sanders novel The Anderson Tapes, in his use of Martin Balsam — lies in Huston’s miscasting of the 63-year old George Sanders as a gay spy. The character, as Behn wrote him, is an attractive young man, which makes his position within a group of spectacularly selfish mercenaries eminently explicable. As with Balsam in Anderson, the change is mind-boggling, although the notoriously homophobic Huston is far less offensive in his handling of Sanders than Lumet was with his star. But it is, finally, Richard Boone’s movie, and he makes a meal of it.

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The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

The Night of the Following Day. One of many late-1960s Brando pictures that helped make him box-office poison, this adaptation of a Lionel White thriller boasts an impeccably arranged kidnapping, a very fine performance by Brando, a good one by Pamela Franklin as the victim, and an unequivocally great one by Richard Boone as the most terrifying of the felons. The only sour note is the ending the director (Hubert Cornfield) imposed on it, over his star’s quite reasonable objections.

Rio Conchos. Thanks to these last three pictures I was finally able to comprehend why aficionados love Richard Boone, an actor I had somehow managed to go 56 years without having seen.

Act of Violence. A nicely-observed 1949 thriller starring Van Heflin, the young Janet Leigh and a typically stellar Robert Ryan that gets at some dark aspects of World War II mythology and contains one sequence, in which a stalking, menacing Ryan is heard but never seen, that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.

Westward the Women. An interesting Western variation, about a trail-boss transporting 138 “good women” to California. Expertly directed by William Wellman from a fine Charles Schnee original. Typically strong photography by William C. Mellor, a good central performance from Robert Taylor and an exceptionally vivid one by Hope Emerson make this, if not wholly successful, diverting and markedly original.

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William Hopper and Robert Mitchum on the Track of the Cat.

Track of the Cat. One of the strongest, strangest Westerns of the 1950s, beautifully adapted from the psychologically harrowing Walter Van Tillberg Clark novel and spectacularly filmed by William A. Clothier. I think this one ranks as the most pleasing surprise of my cinema year.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/08/13/rotting-bridges-track-of-the-cat-1954/

Cuba. A fast flop from Richard Lester in 1979, it’s actually a finely observed look at the events leading up to Castro’s coup, and is infinitely finer than Havana, the terrible 1990 romance from Sidney Pollack. Sean Connery adds his rough charm, Brooke Adams is almost impossibly beautiful, there is also delicious support from Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Alejandro Rey and Lonette McKee, splendid photography by David Watkin, and a memorable score by Patrick Williams.

Rio Lobo. An old-pro’s swan-song. Howard Hawks directed it, John Wayne is the star, Leigh Brackett wrote it (with Burton Wahl), Jack Elam gives juicy support, William A. Clothier shot it, and Jerry Goldsmith scored it. The only complaints I have concern some remarkably bad pulled punches by Wayne. But with a set-up this entertaining, and the stunningly pulchritudinous Jorge Rivero along for the ride, that’s a minor matter indeed.

Cutter’s Way.
Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic 1981 drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/assassination-cutters-way-1981/

Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. Entirely unnecessary, and hampered by anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either doesn’t know or is vaguely aware of in the previous picture are revealed or dwelt on at length here — this Richard Lester-directed diversion goes down surprisingly well, abetted by László Kovács’ glorious cinematography, the charming central performances of Tom Berenger and William Katt, and yet another marvelous score by Patrick Williams, one that may stick in your head and which you could find yourself humming passages from for days or even weeks afterward.

The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook. It’s exceptionally articulate and well-made, with gorgeously muted lighting by Jeff Cronenweth and impeccable performances by Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer. But you will be forgiven for wondering, at the end, what it all meant.

Up Tight. Jules Dassin’s 1968 return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/festering-like-a-sore-up-tight-1968/

Paranormal Activity. I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror 2007 hit, ingeniously executed by its writer-director Oren Peli for $15,000, are nicely nailed-down. The absolute reality Peli sets up for the picture, and which is perfectly anchored by the performances of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (for whom the movie should have opened doors but, oddly, did not) makes the periodic scares that much more effective, leading to a genuinely shocking finale.

Super 8.
J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.

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Super 8: Joel Courtney as the Abrams stand-in.



New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/not-with-my-wife-you-dont-1966/

Journey into Fear. What’s good of Orson Welles’ direction is overwhelmed by what’s bad of Norman Foster’s.

Carlton-Brown of the F.O. Middling political satire from Ealing.

The Crimson Kimono. Surprisingly unsubstantial to have come from Samuel Fuller.

Where Were You Went the Lights Were Out?
Fitfully amusing blackout comedy starring Doris Day and Robert Morse that betrayed its French farce stage origins in the less ingenious second half.

Shalako.
The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/a-wine-not-properly-chilled-shalako/



The Summing-Up
So. Some mediocrities, but no real dogs this year, which was nice. As Pauline Kael once observed: Life’s too short to waste time on some stinky movie.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Grateful thanks to my good friend Eliot M. Camarena for enlightening my movie year, and special thanks to him for Act of Violence, The List of Adrian Messenger, Moulin Rouge, Point of Order, Up Tight, Westward the Women, and especially The Kremlin Letter and Track of the Cat. Eliot is one of the sanest, most politically astute people I know, and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly.
https://emcphd.wordpress.com/

Fighting Gravity: Orson Welles at 100

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“… everything as I see it is against him before he starts, but his courage, like everything else about him, egotism, generosity, ruthlessness, forbearance, impatience, sensitivity, grossness and vision, is magnificently out of proportion.” — Micheál Mac Liammóir on Orson Welles, Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Othello.

By Scott Ross

6 May 2015 marks the centenary of the birth of George Orson Welles. I doubt there’s much, if anything, I can add concerning this essential American figure that others have not already observed — those who knew him and those — the lists intermingle — who have illuminated Welles’ importance by examining the contours both of his existence and the many arts to which he gave life, and in the service of which he imbued so much and received so appallingly little.* But in this life, one has touchstones: Those figures who serve as inspirations, whose artistry touches one in ways that may defy cold analysis but whose lives and work simply matter. In my own case, there are three such artists. Tennessee Williams is one; Louis Armstrong another; and Orson Welles completes the trinity. What grips me about Welles, aside from his accomplishments, which are self-evident (or should be but all too often, to the ignorant, are not) is how deeply he strove; how much adversity he faced, and how often; how high — despite all odds, and systems, and limitations — he aspired; and what altitudes, with all possible decks stacked against him, he so often obtained.

“I started at the top and worked down.”
— Orson Welles, F for Fake

I will not rehearse here the early triumphs, save to note that Welles started big; not merely in his theatre and radio successes, at an absurdly early age, but in the profession into which he stumbled, he said, out of necessity. Broke at 16, in Ireland where he’d gone to paint for the summer and desperate to avoid college in the United States, he presented himself at Dublin’s Gate Theatre as a noted American actor who, at liberty, would condescend to perform for these Hibernian provincials if they had any leading roles going begging. Micheál Mac Liammóir, who with his work (and life) partner Hilton Edwards founded and managed the Gate, later claims to have seen through this charade, but the young Welles must have had something aside from his youth, height, bass baritone and oddly comely features (the latter accentuated by a rather sensual lower lip) for engage him they did, giving Welles an entrée in American theatre, courtesy of his Irish clippings. (He was far from stumbling into acting, however, for the theatre had been an important part of his life since at least early adolescence.)

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At 24 he was on the cover of Time; at 25 the achiever of national — indeed, international — notoriety as the progenitor of a radio “hoax” that allegedly scared a chunk of a nation already made edgy by the rise of militant Fascism in Europe, nearly to death (see Brad A. Schwartz’s book Broadcast Hysteria for a through de-bunking of the myth); and at 26 in Hollywood, where, with much of his Mercury staff, he was about to make what for many years was called (by those who actually saw it) the greatest of all American movies.

By 27, he was, on the face of it, close to a has-been.

That, at least, is the legend — or part of it, anyway. “What has he done since Citizen Kane?” was the cry, one which, with a slight variation in tense, has been the cry ever since. That legend, of course, omits two very important factors, the first of which is that there even was a Kane against which to compare the remainder of Welles’ career. (And what did you do at 26?) The second is that he never stopped manufacturing wonders. Even if, as is my case, you don’t consider Kane the greatest of all movies — and I don’t know that anyone can make that distinction, for any picture — there is (if often in final forms that altered their maker’s vision, and even meaning) The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake… not to mention his marvelously theatrical play Moby-Dick — Rehearsed, his fabled “home movie” The Other Side of the Wind, and all those acting jobs, some of them (The Long, Hot Summer; Compulsion, A Man for All Seasons) sublime, which he performed to keep the whole floating opera going. It was customary, during his later years, to chortle derisively, both at his commercial appearances for television and at the aging fat man himself, and that attitude, sadly, still obtains. Recently, in an online discussion of F for Fake, one especially pompous fool I knew slightly in college (and in which setting he was the same, merely younger) chimed in, snottily, with, “And then he sold no wine before its time.” And this man makes his living writing about movies.

And here, let us add a third factor (and perhaps a fourth), one carefully and, I am convinced, deliberately, omitted from the usual discussion of Orson Welles: He was among the most radical of all filmmakers, domestic or foreign; and the means by which he operated were no less radical. Oja Kodar, the woman with whom Welles collaborated in life and in art during the last two decades and more of his life — and who was often, and even as recently as last year, condescending described in the press with the demeaning epithet of “Welles’ girlfriend” — has often said that his life was a struggle against gravity. Gravity not merely as a force weighting down the spirit and the imagination, but keeping earth-bound too the available modes of expressing them. Film, for an artist, is the most unwieldy of canvasses, and the most expensive. Ironically, the collapse of the studios that could not contain, and did not care to employ, him, was a boon for just about every independent in the business except Welles. (Another fierce and iconoclastic independent, Samuel Fuller, had similar problems.)

As we are all either beneficiaries, or victims, of our times, so too was Welles. He was wed to film, to those costly spools of celluloid that had, first, to be purchased, then exposed, then developed, then edited, duplicated, dubbed and distributed. Were he operating now, with all the many and various available digital technologies at his command, half the battles he waged just in order to work would be virtually (no pun intended) eliminated. He would surely have been entranced by the freeing possibilities, and would, I have no doubt, have exploited them more ingeniously, and with greater wit and compassion, than anyone else around.

“I think I made essentially a mistake in staying in movies but it’s a mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying I shouldn’t have stayed married to that woman but I did because I love her. I would have been more successful if I hadn’t been married to her, you know. I would have been more successful if I’d left movies immediately, stayed in the theatre, gone into politics, written, anything. I’ve wasted a greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paintbox which is a movie. And I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It’s about two percent movie-making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.” — Orson Welles, 1982

Those who know Welles’ work only casually often maintain that his later years were “sad.” For we measure the movie artist in those expensive reels of film, and after F for Fake — itself so misunderstood and under-appreciated that the critical fraternity of the time ought, by rights, be called to account — there were no more. That we saw. And there’s, as they say, the rub. What the tut-tutters, both in sorrow and in derision, never know nor understand about Orson Welles is that, while he was deeply frustrated, which is indeed sad, he never stopped working on his own projects, which is not. And that is a mark not only of Welles’ restless prodigiousness, and his seriousness of purpose, but of how much he accomplished. Whether the results of Welles’ efforts were exhibited, or even completed, is of less importance, ultimately, than the fact that they were — that they existed at all.

If we look at Citizen Kane, not as the greatest, or even Welles’ greatest, but simply in its historical context, and if we know anything at all about the techniques then in vogue — and in danger of becoming ossified — in talking pictures, we can appreciate it for what it was, and for what Welles brought to the medium: The exuberance of a young man who did not understand the established rules, and who questioned why this or that had to be done, and why might it might not be done differently, and for whom his RKO contract, the subject of much envious teeth-gnashing, permitted his innocent, and joyous, expansion of the existing vocabulary. For it is that giddy experimentation, augmented to the utmost by Welles having the great good fortune of a collaboration with its cinematographer Gregg Toland, which makes Kane such a pleasure to watch.

Welles and Joseph Cotten in "Kane." The shot was achieved, believe it or not, with split-screen.

Welles and Joseph Cotten in Kane. The shot was achieved, believe it or not, with split-screen.

But there is more to the movie than photographic innovation. There is, too, its aural perfection — its position as the first great feature by one of radio’s most significant practitioners. Pick almost any moment, at random, in Kane and recall what’s happening on the soundtrack; Welles not only affected the way talkies looked, but the way they could sound. Yet beyond that, too, is the screenplay, with its unusual, fragmented, structure, its use of the tropes of the medium (the March of Time newsreels in particular) and its lively admixture of history, comedy, melodrama and something dangerously close to real (and specifically American) tragedy. Pauline Kael called Kane “a shallow masterpiece,” and she had a point. Its swift (if not Swiftian) satire, its pell-mell early pace, its occasional caricature, all give the picture a certain insubstantial air. However, the dredged-up memories of its characters, which reveal, in the aggregate, a far more complex central figure that was the norm, add depth to the characterization of Charles Foster Kane, and to those who surround him. Welles’ original conception was, he said, more like the later Rashomon, in that Kane “would seem to be a very different character depending on who was talking,” whereas in the final version he was rendered less extreme, and more ambiguous. It is that very ambiguity which is a hallmark of Orson Welles’ cinema, observable in all of his best work, a fact that, along with a few other consistent themes and appurtenances, gives the lie to the old canard that Welles had no hand — or, if he did, a small, editorial one — in the crafting of Kane’s screenplay.

“I am a writer-director — with an emphasis on the former.”
— Orson Welles

Kael, of course, did more to roil those waters than anyone, and it must have galled Welles to see the Kane script in book form forever wedded to the essay in which Kael “proves” he didn’t write it. (Just as it would pain him, as it does many of us, to endure Time-Warner yoking all its home video editions of Kane with that spurious documentary The Battle Over “Citizen Kane.”) That Herman Mankiewicz had a hand in the picture’s creation is not debatable. And whether Welles wrote most of it, or only some of it, is less to the point than that he was — until his late collaborations with Oja Kodar, anyway — the sole author of every subsequent movie he directed, with the notable exception of The Stranger.† Do the anti-Wellesians think he somehow pulled it over on everyone (not least of all, himself) for the rest of his life, or that, as absurdly, he miraculously sprouted a scenarist’s gifts, but only after Mankiewicz “wrote” Kane? The thematic concerns in Kane — with loneliness, loss, old age, betrayal, corruption and political engagement — are manifest in nearly all of Welles’ subsequent endeavors; indeed, they run throughout his oeuvre as a writer-director, as keenly as deception runs through Billy Wilder’s pictures and group failures inform John Huston’s. Did Mankiewicz somehow magically implant Welles’ recurrent concerns as well?

Moreover, the shape of many of the lines and speeches in Kane, the give and take of its arguments and colloquies, the wit and eloquence (even elegance) of the expression likewise reflect the writer Welles was as much as the look of Kane reflects his directorial flourishes, begun on the stage. One sees, and hears, their corollaries in The Lady from Shanghai, in Mr. Arkadin, in Touch of Evil, in F for Fake and, especially, in the un-filmed (by Welles) The Big Brass Ring. For Welles was a writer; he wrote a plethora of newspaper and magazine columns, radio (and later, television) broadcasts, and plays, in addition to his screenwriting forays, so to imagine him as somehow not responsible for a good portion of the writing of his single great critical success is patently absurd, if not downright invidious. Yet Simon Callow, Welles’ curiously — and in some respect, militantly — antipathetic biographer, baldy states, “Orson Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane”… and ignoramus public radio interviewers in America let him get away with it.

Welles’ eloquence may owe something to his upbringing, particularly since he had no formal schooling after the age of 16. He was an aristocrat, and I think that shows in his movies as it did in the particulars of his life; for all the economic struggle that dogged his filmmaking, he clearly enjoyed a high standard of living. That background is evident too, I think, in some of his attitudes to others. Despite his leftist politics (and for all that Hearst papers and the FBI enjoyed labeling him a Communist) there was a streak of well-heeled moralism in him at times; I think I detect a little of Welles in Charles Foster Kane’s self-righteous riposte to his guardian, “If I don’t defend the interests of the underprivileged, somebody else will — maybe somebody without any money or property, and that would be too bad.” Certainly many of his attitudes were the furthest thing from enlightened; he expressed at times an appalling misogyny, in tandem with a fashionably sneering tone about homosexuals — coupled with a dismaying propensity for post-dubbing other actors with stereotyped “fag” voices. Perhaps it is those two, rather reactionary, strains that have in part led even some friendly commentators to detect a latency in Welles? Nothing, after all, succeeds like deflection.

His lack of formal education had its small defects, among them the propensity to mispronounce common terms: “Arch-type” for “archetype,” “antiquay” for “antique”… and Welles only knows why both Michael Redgrave and Robert Hardin pronounce the word telescope as “teleoscope” in Mr. Arkadin.

Welles’ mother died when he was 9, his father when the boy was 15, and a deep subsequent sense of loss seems to have followed him. Without doubt, that emotion is a primary concern in his movies. And too there was his tendency toward egocentric self-aggrandizement, but even Kael granted that, when an artist has had so much taken from him, such attitudes are explicable, if not altogether laudable. That she wrote this in an essay aimed at taking even more credit from Welles is an irony about which Kael herself was, presumably, not conscious.

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”
— Orson Welles

Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny in the "hysterical" scene of "The Magnificent Ambersons." Welles: "Why she never got an Academy Award for that performance I'll never know."

Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny in the “hysterical” scene of The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles: “Why she never got an Academy Award for that performance I’ll never know.”

The ignorant are, perhaps naturally, all too ready to repeat mythology without bothering to learn anything about reality. And no one occasioned more speculation or accrued more ignoramuses to his legend than Welles — as many now as when he was alive, if not more. “Oh, yes — Welles. Made Citizen Kane. Never did anything after that.” That this ignores Ambersons is perhaps understandable, given that the movie was mutilated by RKO while Welles was in South America, barely released to theatres, and at that with some 50 minutes of shorn footage either incinerated or dumped into the Pacific Ocean — in any case, irrevocably destroyed, beyond the hope of restoration.†† Welles himself wanted, in the ‘60s, to re-shoot the climax, with Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead (their respective ages at the time would have fit with his original conception) but could not persuade the rights holders of the efficacy of the project. Had the movie been released in anything like Welles’ initial, 140-minute cut, it would have easily bested, if not eclipsed, Kane in conception and achievement. (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s inclusion of the scripts for the deleted sequences, along with some on-set stills, in This is Orson Welles, makes that case more than amply.) That it is still a great picture, a masterpiece even in its extremely bastardized form, and with a risible ending not shot by Welles, is a testament to how great a movie Ambersons is. Yet I become quite literally physically ill every time I think of that deliberately annihilated footage, particularly what was lost of Moorehead’s performance, which, even truncated, is among the finest ever committed to film.

Welles (Othello) and Micheál Mac Liammóir  (Iago) in the long dolly shot in which the ensign plants the seeds of doubts in the Moor's ardor for Desdemona.

Welles (Othello) and Micheál Mac Liammóir (Iago) in the long dolly shot in which the ensign plants the seeds of doubts in the Moor’s ardor for Desdemona.

The “Nothing After Kane” school lives in willful ignorance of Welles’ other Hollywood projects of the time: Of The Stranger which, despite a somewhat perfunctory script (not by Welles, which makes the picture an anomaly in his filmography) contains some breathtaking sequences and, in the burlesque comic Billy House’s extended bit (and whose scenes Welles did write), one of the most delightful, if unheralded, supporting performances of the era; of Macbeth, made for pennies on Poverty Row, and on some occasionally cheesy sets yet despite this one of the richest of all Shakespearean transmigrations to film  — brooding, stark and even terrifying; and of The Lady from Shanghai, with its extraordinary gallery of grotesques, from Everett Sloane’s paraplegic cuckold to Glen Anders’ wild ersatz suicide (“I was just doin’ a little taaarget practice…”) and a climax which, although spoiled by some cutting of Welles’ more extensive funhouse sequence and the addition of a bloodcurdlingly dreadful musical score, does include the brilliant hall of mirrors shoot-out that ends the picture.

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“I know thee not, old man.” Falstaff is banished at the climax of Chimes at Midnight.

Not long after, in the late 1940s, Welles left America for Europe. I’ve long suspected he saw what was coming and beat it before he could be blacklisted, and in his essential What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Joseph McBride reveals that Welles was indeed a target; his FBI file lists the usual “fellow traveler” stats. (He had also been subjected to one of those humiliating “unofficial clearance” interviews with the reactionary Hedda Hopper.) While his European budgets were curtailed — when not actually, as with Othello, nonexistent — and he was subject to terrible technical limitations, he still produced that ruminative, brief but sumptuous and disturbing tragedy, containing superb performances by himself as the Moor and by Mac Liammóir as Iago. Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare movies got more press — and awards — than Welles’, and made more money, but I would argue that Orson’s Shakespeares are infinitely greater in the aggregate, even as they were far more limited in scope, and as their maker trimmed the texts to his own designs.§ Nothing Olivier did in that realm can touch, for instance, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight for breadth, visual poetry or sheer emotional heft.

The battle at Shrewsbury is unlike any such sequence I know in its uncompromisingly honest, even horrifying, depiction of mounted and hand-to-hand combat. And if it is hard to cotton on to Welles’ almost lovesick admiration for Falstaff (“Shakespeare’s good, pure man… the most completely good man in all drama”) it is equally difficult to suppress a shudder, and swallow past the lump in one’s throat, at Welles’ depiction of the old, fat knight’s banishment by Hal at the climax.

“A maverick may go his own way but he doesn’t think that it’s the only way, or ever claim that it’s the best one, except maybe for himself.”
— Orson Welles

The limitations imposed on Welles in his European exiles were two‑fold, and thorny. First, and partly due to the fact that he had, usually through lack of funds, to shoot in real locations, Welles had to forego the excellence of Hollywood sound recording, and often shot silently, dubbing in the voices later, during the editing stage. (A standard practice in European cinema, especially in Italy.) And while he maintained that he would rather have a great image than a great reading, post‑dubbing robbed this acutely sound‑conscious filmmaker of one of the hallmarks of his artistry. When the synchronization is good, one scarcely notices it. When it is not so felicitous, one is naggingly, sometimes maddeningly, aware of it, a flaw that detracts even from so manifestly great a movie as Chimes at Midnight. As if Welles needed another stumbling‑block in his way; Shakespeare limits one’s audience enough to begin with. Even those who admired the movie on its release, like Kael, felt that its technical flaws would likely sink its prospects. Worse, or at least more distractingly, Welles evinced a curiously self‑defeating tendency to dub other actors’ performances, and one is never not aware that, however disguised, it’s his famously distinctive timbre one is hearing. (That he so often dubbed these lines in lisping, deliberately — and, I think, rather maliciously — “faggy” tones, is an added hurdle to enjoyment.) Joseph McBride believes this aural lack forced Welles to be even more creative visually, but when you stack the sound of, say, Kane or Ambersons against that of Arkadin or Chimes at Midnight, the deficiencies are profound.

Robert Hardin and the magisterial Michael Redgrave in the "teleoscope" scene of "Arkadin." Ten of the most delightful minutes ever committed to celluloid.

Robert Hardin and the magisterial Michael Redgrave in the “teleoscope” scene of Arkadin. Ten of the most effervescent minutes ever committed to celluloid.

Second, Welles was hampered by the inavailability in Europe both of the crane that makes grand images possible, and the grips who operate it. While neither his visual acumen nor his innate ingenuity ever deserted him completely, and indeed, such sequences as Shrewsbury leave little to be further desired, one cannot but think how much richer his later pictures might have been had he been less technically hamstrung. “I didn’t have to know about cutting until I got to Europe,” Welles told Bogdanovich. He cut, sometimes too much, to compensate for his paucity of choices, and the rhythms, even in his best pictures of that period, are sometimes, unaccountably “off.” Of course, some of these movies (Arkadin, for instance) were taken out of Welles’ hands and re-cut, so it is entirely possible, if not probable, that what we perceive as faults in his editing may well be the work of other, less creditable, hands. Certainly this is the case with the Beatrice Welles-supervised “restoration” of Othello, which suffers both from a re-recorded music track that among other things reduces the scope and grandeur of the Francesco Lavagnino score, and from some infelicitous editorial second-guessing.

All that “Nothing”… Like Mr. Arkadin, a thin ghost of Kane, perhaps, in its complicated flashback structure and its interviews with the observers of a great man’s less-than-savory past but withal one of the most engaging of all Welles’ pictures, with superlative turns by Suzanne Flon, Katina Paxinou, Akim Tamiroff and, supremely, Michael Redgrave. (There are at least seven different versions of Arkadin extant, two of which plus a “comprehensive edition” are assembled in the 2006 “Complete” Criterion set, an essential item in the home of any self-respecting cineaste.) Another nothing: Touch of Evil, perhaps the most radical crime drama ever produced at a Hollywood studio, one which — now that Walter Murch has assembled a restoration that at least honors Welles’ innovative sound design — eschews the clichés even as it is constrained by genre, and offers for our consideration the most explicit rejection of investigative brutality between the onset of the Production Code and the relaxation of its strictures. As the nominal hero (played by Charlton Heston, no less) notes, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”

And here, another myth adored by the Ignorati, as exemplified by the cretinous Tim Burton, who in his execrable Ed Wood (written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) has Vincent D’Onofrio as Welles weeping into his beer over being “reduced” to employing Heston in his latest epic, when it is a well-established fact that Welles owed his directing of the movie to Heston. Admittedly a mistake on Heston’s part; when he was told, by a Universal suit, “We’ve got Orson Welles,” Heston replied that he would be happy to appear in anything Welles directed. (Welles had re-written the screenplay and was only, at the time, slated to play the heavy.) The actor’s misapprehension netted Welles the directing job, and Welles knew it. So the very idea of his pissing and moaning about being “stuck” with the likes of Heston is the rankest sort of historical revisionism, insulting to everyone concerned.

Welles (heavily padded) and Akim Tamiroff (heavily bewigged) in "Touch of Evil." Welles: "He looked at that gun like it was every cock in the world."

Welles (heavily padded) and Akim Tamiroff (heavily bewigged) in Touch of Evil. Welles: “He looked at that gun like it was every cock in the world.”

“I have always been more interested in experiment, than in accomplishment.” — Orson Welles

More “Nothings”: The richly evocative, nightmarish (if not especially enjoyable) The Trial; Chimes at Midnight; F for Fake. How that blazingly original meditation on art, forgery, beauty, sex and the divine comedy of life could fail to find its audience is less surprising than the critical indifference it received in America. What Welles did with F for Fake, taking off from some standard, if lively, documentary footage by François Reichenbach of the enigmatic art forger Elmyr de Hory and his neighbor and biographer Clifford Irving, was nothing less than to bring into being a new form — the personal film essay, in its more modest way as playfully revolutionary as Kane. The picture is not-quite-documentary, not-quite-fiction, and wholly, idiosyncratically Welles: Alternately frisky and sober, filled with Welles’ witty, baroque observations and beautifully photographed by Gary Graver, Welles’ indispensable lighting director and cameraman during his final years. Like Billy Wilder, Welles disdained color, but when he chose to utilize it, he did so in a way that made the images shimmer. He did not, perhaps, help his own case by submitting to the distributor an 11-minute trailer, more a stand-alone short than a preview, which he should have known would be rejected. But can we call F for Fake a “failure” because it did not find its audience? Only if we also call Kane, Ambersons, Arkadin, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight failures merely because they fared poorly in the marketplace — a bazaar always more enamored with fairy tales than with honest expression. F for Fake is a “failure” only if we can also include as failures Moby-Dick and Ulysses, or The Iceman Cometh, or Van Gogh’s art, or Sondheim’s Assassins and Bernstein’s Candide.

Welles with Oja Kodar in the charming final third of "F for Fake." His love for her is evident in the exquisite way he illuminated her face.

Welles with Oja Kodar in the charming final third of “F for Fake.” His love for her is evident in the exquisite way he illuminated her face.

And it is here that we perhaps comprehend the ignorant (or maliciously mischievous?) mythmakers. Orson Welles had a few small box-offices successes as a filmmaker, but no “hits.” That is what his detractors are attuned to… plus the delicious frisson of being able to mock him for his Paul Masson commercials, his narration of bad movies and documentaries, his squabbles with producers over the inane copy of a frozen peas ad… and, of course, his expanding waistline. What they neither know nor care to know, is that he poured the revenues from these perhaps ignoble adventures into his work — and that the work was never-ending. Whether the public saw the fruits of those labors, whether he was able to finish them, or wanted to — was not the point; the objective was the labor itself. “He never finishes anything!” was (is?) the cry. Does every artist finish every canvas? Every novelist complete the manuscript? Every poet the stanza? Every composer the sonata? We know, by and large, only what was completed, not the pentimento of the artist’s work, those things he or she “repented” of, painted over, tossed away. Do we pillory Picasso for changing his mind?

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Who but Welles, faced with no money and no costumes for his Othello actors, would shoot two reels in a Turkish bath and then spend two years prostituting his thespic gifts in other people’s inferior movies in order to complete the picture? Who else, having been sent to Rio de Janero on a “goodwill” project for his government, would labor, with bad — when not non-existent — communications, to complete his edit of Ambersons while simultaneously capturing, in the Jangadero sequences (finally preserved in the documentary “It’s All True”: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles decades after his death) some of the most luminously beautiful cinematography ever filmed, even as his own studio was haphazardly mutilating his greatest creation back home? “Nobody gets justice,” Welles said. “People only get good luck or bad luck.” His associate Richard Wilson maintained that the South American fiasco was the “direct cause” of Welles’ troubles ever after, and Welles concurred. “No question about it,” he told Bogdanovich. “It all stems from that.” As do the frothing teem of legends about his alleged profligacy, and his irresponsibility with other peoples’ money. Again, who but Welles would struggle to film, and edit, a genuinely experimental movie like The Other Side of the Wind, partially financed (horribile dictu!) by the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran, and spend the rest of his life trying to extricate his movie from the fangs of revolutionary history?

“Oh, Welles — he never completes anything.”

Sigh.

“God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead!”
— Orson Welles

Welles with Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride, at a rehearsal for "The Other Side of the Wind."

Welles with Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride, at a rehearsal for The Other Side of the Wind. Orson has obviously just revised some lines.

As Welles’ centenary approached, much speculation was evoked concerning The Other Side of the Wind. Others, Bogdanovich included, are now reportedly toiling to complete something that might approximate Welles’ final vision, and to get it released. Many Welles aficionados are excited by this possibility, but some, even the keenest, are a bit ambivalent. The picture is so laden with personal history, so talked-about, so fabled but (with the exception of a few brief sequences) so largely unseen, that they may be excused from almost hoping it never sees the flickering light of exhibition. For, like the Criterion “Comprehensive Edition” of Arkadin, the final product will not be Welles’, but — also like the recent Touch of Evil restoration — only the best approximation of his work.

This is not, you understand, to pillory Bogdanovich, or Walter Murch, or Richard Wilson, or Criterion, for their efforts. Their collective devotion to Welles, like their desire to re-present his work, is sincere. Bogdanovich in particular seems to be doing for Welles what Jo Cotten’s Eugene does for the memory of Dolores Costello at the end of Ambersons: Bringing his mentor’s work “under shelter again.” Nor, if and when Wind is released — every deal up to now has fallen through in the end — will this ardent Wellesian fail to see it. But we do risk grave disappointment in an Other Side of the Wind that falls short of expectations. Some of us who love Welles, and respect him, who experience, even at this remove, so long after his death, real pangs of empathetic regret at his deep frustrations, and who have spent time in fantasizing about Wind, have an uneasy feeling that, if the completion lets him down — lets us down — Welles’ legacy may be further tarnished. In addition, the film‑within‑the‑film that the movie’s star, John Huston, is making in Wind was, by design, a deliberate comment on then-current, early ’70s “with‑it” indulgences of the young tyros being given their collective heads at the time Welles was filming his movie. Will everyone now get the joke, or will some merely, and erroneously, think it’s Welles himself, and not Huston’s “Jake Hannaford,” who is being pretentious and overly frenetic?

Yet even those negative possibilities are no reason to deny the thing itself. How often do we get a “new” Orson Welles? And too, there is the undeniably nostalgic prospect of seeing the movie’s star, John Huston, again; and the still young and not-yet-disgraced Bogdanovich; and the glorious Oja; and Lilli Palmer, standing in for Dietrich, and Edmond O’Brien, and Mercedes McCambridge; and Susan Strasberg as a version of Kael; and Cameron Mitchell, and Norman Foster, and Gregory Sierra, and Paul Mazursky; and the impossibly young Joseph McBride as the sycophantic Mister Pister. At least Welles’ daughter, the Dread Beatrice, who has fucked up everything of her father’s she’s ever touched (the “restored” Othello, Don Quixote) up to and including his funeral, is not, this time — and thanks to Oja — intimately involved. Joseph McBride, for one, believes ardently that the picture should be completed, and released, and he’s not only devoted decades of his life to splendid Welles scholarship, he’s actually in the movie.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be wonderful.

But it won’t quite be Welles.

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John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind.

Just as the botched The Big Brass Ring, the real heartbreaker of Welles’ final years, was ultimately not Welles. The screenplay, by Welles and Kodar, is a thing of beauty; literate, witty, perceptive, politically astute, emotionally raw, with perhaps the most chillingly forlorn sequence of voyeurism in the American cinematic canon. In a highly personal touch, the movie’s central figure, the potential President William Blake Pellarin, desperately pursues a woman from his past, much as Welles did Kodar in the 1960s. When they finally come together, they are seen making love, through an open window, by Pellarin’s shady old political mentor, the aging Kim Minnaker, who has long been carrying his own torch for his protégé and who spies the pair while riding a Ferris wheel. In a moment as sexually charged as anything in American movies, Pellarin becomes aware of this scrutiny, and his eyes lock with Minnaker’s. The description of this emotionally naked encounter, in the published script, is among the most breathtaking I’ve ever encountered in dramatic literature; it should have burned holes in the screen.

As so often, the industry let Welles down on that one. His financing for this anguished political parable was contingent on his netting a Big Name for the lead (Welles himself would appear in the secondary role of Minnaker.) Where was the Charlton Heston of the 1980s? None of them — not Nicholson, nor Beatty, nor Redford, nor Eastwood nor Reynolds — would agree to lower his asking price, even for the privilege of working in an Orson Welles picture. And when it was done, in 1999, the director George Hickenlooper re-wrote, with F.X. Feeney, that exquisite screenplay… and dropped its finest scene — almost its entire raison d’être — that magnificent, appalling act of voyeurism.

“A film is a dream, but a dream is never an illusion.” — Orson Welles

Welles was, like all important artists (and so many others) obsessed by certain themes: Old age, lost Edens, loneliness. The largest of these, I think, was betrayal. One sees it time and again in his work, and in his overmastering regard for Falstaff. He seemed, in some curious way, to expect to be betrayed, preferably by a younger man, and felt, finally, that he was, by Bogdanovich. Certainly Welles had been betrayed, and repeatedly — by studios, by collaborators, by financiers, by critics and other writers. And, just as certainly, the remarks he made about Bogdanovich to Henry Jaglom at their audiotaped luncheons are not those of a friend. In the transcripts of those tapes Jaglom, quite properly, and in what one senses is genuine disappointment and confusion, upbraids Welles more than once for his rudeness and bigotry. But blindness to the problems of others even as we ourselves struggle was not, is not, unique to Welles. At the risk of an unintended visual pun, he was large; he contained multitudes. So, too, should our response to Welles embrace catholicism: Let what is sad be sad, what is maddening be so too, and what is grand be, as it so often is, magnificent. Welles himself often said that he, an instinctive anti-auteurist, did not believe in creators, only in works. That is more than a fine distinction. It is, finally, an overarching philosophy.

And so let, on that note, the last words of this impassioned defense (and passionate appraisal) of Welles be his. In the deeply moving Chartres sequence of F for Fake, Welles, appearing to gaze at the Cathedral but, Gary Gravers informs us, actually at nothing, in the back yard of his own home (Orson: “Anybody can make movies with a pair of scissors and a two-inch lens.”) contemplates art, and the fate of the artist, in his own, exquisite, probing, style.

It’s not a bad epitaph, for him, or for anyone who strives, in a world always and eternally indifferent to artists, for expression.

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash — the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’ Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

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*Among them, Richard France, Frank Brady, Micheál Mac Liammóir, André Bazin, Joseph McBride, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Gary Graver, Barbara Leaming, Jonathan Rosenbaum, James Naremore, Christopher Welles and Clinton Heylin.

Touch of Evil was re-written by Welles, from two earlier drafts by Paul Monash and Franklin Coen, which he combined, edited and expanded upon.

††Another legend: The possible existence of Welles’ work-print, left behind in Rio — an almost unbearably tantalizing prospect which, to date, seems mere apocrypha.

§Welles is also a far better Othello than Olivier, whose eye-rolling performance is perhaps the worst, and hammiest, ever given by an important actor in a major screen role.

 

All other text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

Neither rotten, nor wonderfully brave: “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

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For reasons that no longer matter (my mother had grounded me, okay?) and even though I had the dialogue soundtrack in my small but growing LP collection, I managed to miss Young Frankenstein when it opened in 1974. I saw, it, finally, a couple of years after, at a late show to which I was taken by my sister and her fiancée, a screening memorably marred by the movie-long ululations of some insufferable fool who apparently also had the album and who, as if Mel Brooks’ movie was a Rocky Horror Picture Show avant le lettre, shouted out the punchlines before the actors on the screen could. Why he wasn’t beaten up during the show remains one of life’s eternal mysteries. In any case, I did know Gene Wilder, from the ill-fated 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which I saw at the age of 10, from a television airing of the somewhat logy but intermittently hilarious 1970 spoof Start the Revolution without Me, and from another dialogue soundtrack of a movie I hadn’t seen, The Producers. Although I could not have articulated then quite what it was that so appealed to me about Wilder, the boy I was would surely have nodded in complete agreement had he encountered Pauline Kael’s contemporary comments concerning that inspired comedian.

Reviewing Revolution Kael noted: “Wilder has a fantastic shtick. He builds up a hysterical rage about nothing at all, upon an imaginary provocation, and it’s terribly funny. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to work more than once, but it works each time and you begin to wait for it and hope for it — his self-generated neurasthenic rage is a parody of all the obscene bad temper in the world.” Assaying Young Frankenstein four years later, Kael again returned to this theme, which was so much a part of Wilder’s unique comic persona: “It’s easy to imagine him as a frizzy-haired fiddler-clown in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until he slides over into that hysteria which is his dazzling specialty. As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal — his hysteria mocks hysteria — but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural. You never question what’s driving him to it; his fits are lucid and total. They take him into a different dimension — he delivers what Harpo promised.”

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If you think of him intoning Leslie Bricusse’s mad doggerel with increasing — yes — hysteria on that boat trip through psychedelica in Willy Wonka, or screaming gynecological imprecations at the innards of a row of baked chickens in everything you always wanted to know about sex, or at his most panic-stricken in the early scenes of The Producers (“I’m in pain! And I’m wet! And I’m still hysterical!”) you know precisely what Kael meant. And it’s a sustaining shtick; it goes with his slightly popped blue eyes and those unruly shocks of curly blonde hair. You wait for him to explode into hysteria just as you anticipate his disbelieving “Son of a bitch!” every time he’s thrown off the train in Silver Streak. It works more than once; it works every time.

Having deprived myself of Young Frankenstein, which he co-wrote, I was even more determined, at the end of 1975, to see Wilder’s debut as both screenwriter and director. I remember laughing a great deal at The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother then, more than I did on seeing it again recently, but what stayed with me were less the big set-ups that are often only modestly successful and more the odd curlicues that give it flavor: The wanton use of song and dance, exemplified by the delicious music-hall parody “The Kangaroo Hop” which Wilder performs with Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman and in which he is all jointless hips and boneless feet; Dom DeLuise’s fruity, vaudeville ice-cream seller Italianate line readings; Marty Feldman’s distinctive orbs that shoot off in separate directions and his big, ready, close-mouthed smile; Leo McKern’s peerless delight, as a plummy Moriarty, in sending up the sorts of villain roles to which he was all too often consigned before Rumpole saved him; the way, after John Le Mesurier utters an insupportable faux pas to Queen Victoria and a document flies out of his hand, he then emits a Brooksian “Woof!” (much funnier than the sovereign’s muttered “Shit!” with which the scene ends); and Albert Finney’s amusing cameo as a member of the audience at an appalling English-language version of Un ballo in maschera and asking, in an aside to us, “Is this rotten, or wonderfully brave?” (It’s rotten.)

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Albert Finney’s cameo.

The Sherlockian parody itself is often droll, and certainly erudite. Feldman’s Scotland Yard sergeant is called Orville Stanley Sacker, a name close to Ormond Sacker, the one Conan Doyle initially gave to John Watson. Wilder’s insanely jealous (and apparently Jewish) brother to Sherlock, Sigerson, also recalls an alias under which Holmes himself went in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” one used by Nicholas Meyer in an equally playful context at the end of his Holmes pastiche The Seven Per Cent Solution. Kahn’s character is named after the Victorian singer Jenny Hill, and initially attempts to pass herself off as one Bessie Bellwood (“Won’t you come in… Miss Liar!”), another contemporary songbird. Indeed, the very title of the movie is in keeping with Doyle’s — or, if you prefer, Watson’s — method of naming his Holmes stories. If the screenplay itself is, like Blazing Saddles, rather more scattershot in total effect than the well-integrated Young Frankenstein and The Producers, it’s still a very respectable first solo effort, and certainly more intelligent than the typical American comedy then… and the depressing current norm today.

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Marty Feldman as Orville Sacker.

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Douglas Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes alerts Throley Walters’ Watson to the presence outside their 221-B Baker Street digs.

Partaking of Wilder’s movie now is a bittersweet event. Kahn, Feldman, Kern and DeLuise are gone now, not to mention the wonderful Roy Kinnear, who contributes one of his droll turns as Moriarty’s henchman, while Wilder himself is older, and less active, although he has found a third career as a novel writer and memoirist. Brooks’ longtime musical amanuensis John Morris, who contributed the spirited underscore (and the deliciously fulsome melodies to Wilder’s song parody lyrics) is in his 80s now, and retired, as apparently is the great British production designer Terence Marsh, whose work here gives the movie much of its period authenticity and satirical wit. As with so much in American culture since the ’70s and early ’80s, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother seems the product of an entirely different country.

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Caught in murderous impulse McKern’s Moriarty remarks, “You’ve got a lovely vase.” To which DeLuise pinches the professor’s cheek and ripostes, “And you got a lovely vace!”

Although the climax of the movie is a bit like an undernourished romantic dream from which the fizz was unaccountably let out, the deliberately bad opera libretto is of the type that makes you smile rather than laugh out loud, and the enterprise as a whole is curiously insubstantial, Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother still holds undeniable pleasure.

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Feldman’s Orville Sacker as a supernumerary in the opera sequence. Those wigs don’t do much for either of them.

The single most charming sequence in the movie is the one in which, having extricated themselves from a tiny room with a buzz saw careening down its center, Wilder and Feldman cause a shocked sensation in the ballroom to which they escape as they slowly realize the blade has sheared away the seats of their fancy dress suits. I could have done without the flaming bandleader simpering his approval at the pairs’ exposed backsides, but the way in which Wilder conceived the gag, his acutely comic execution of it, and the delicious sang-froid with which the two comedians meet the challenge, places the scene as among the most surprising and delightful of any shot in the past 40 years. (And, anent that faggy conductor, you have to admit that Wilder did have a cute tush.)

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Feldman and Wilder in the movie’s most charming sequence. Wilder has a cute tushy.

It’s hard to imagine Woody Allen coming up with this, or even Mel Brooks, and certainly neither would have given the moment its air of sweetly inevitable innocence. Perhaps, more than his comic bluster, that very guilelessness is the reason so many of us responded to Gene Wilder as an earlier generation took to Harpo Marx, and why his essential decency belongs to another century.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Unsound Design: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971/2001)

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Bedknobs poster MPW-49141
By Scott Ross

The 2001 restoration of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) raises some interesting, and unsettling, questions, about the process.

Even when exceptional care and devotion are lavished on a movie, as with David Lean’s 1989 “director’s cut” of Lawrence of Arabia, some of the results may be less than felicitous. Lean had second thoughts, for some inscrutable reason, about a single line in the Michael Wilson-Robert Bolt screenplay spoken by Peter O’Toole, and his revision completely reversed its meaning.

General Allenby: You’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met!
Lawrence: Leave me alone! […]
Allenby: Well, that’s a feeble thing to say.
Lawrence: I know I’m not ordinary.
Allenby: That’s not what I’m saying…
Lawrence: All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?

In 1962, O’Toole said, “All right! I’m extra-ordinary!” In 1989, Lean re-jiggered that loaded adjective to a mere “extraordinary.”

The difference? Only the world.

Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lawrence was eviscerated, both at the time of its release and for later reissue. By linking the two I am certainly not suggesting that one is any way the equal of the other. Bedknobs is a pleasant, if somewhat derivative, fantasy musical with engaging performers and a charming Sherman Brothers score, while Lawrence is one of the supreme glories of the English-speaking cinema. Where the two intersect is in their shared histories of imbecilic, ruinous wholesale cuts for no reason other than commerce. Where their revivals differ is in the quality of the restoration process itself.

When Lean required lines to be dubbed onto found footage with no soundtrack, he not called upon as many of his original cast as were still alive and able; he also recorded the lines with an ear to matching the original on-set recording as much as he did to replicating the actual timbres of the much younger actors on-screen. Lean seems, puzzlingly, virtually alone in this. In nearly every other large-scale restoration of its kind (Spartacus in particular comes to mind, with its visually and aurally flawed restoration of infamous “snails and oysters” sequence) the ambient sound of the newly dubbed lines in no way matches what was originally recorded. How was Lean able to do that which no one else either cares to, knows how to, or is, seemingly, physically capable? How did Columbia Pictures re-create the sound quality of 1962?

I don’t know the name of, and have never been able to track down what specific sound recording system Walt Disney and his company employed from the 1950s to the ’70s, any more than I can identify the superb system employed by Warner Bros. from the 1940s on to, at least, the late 1960s. (Warners originally used Vitaphone for their talkies, but that recording system had long since passed by the time of The Maltese Falcon.) But one has only to listen with half an ear to the soundtrack of any film from either studio from those years to appreciate the crystal clarity of the reproduction.* Were these sound designs deemed antiquated at some point, perhaps with the creation of newer microphones and tape systems, the original equipment junked? Or is there some other, even more technically complicated reason for the discrepancy? Why, so often, in movies and on CD, does the much-vaunted digital process pale next to the allegedly “inferior” sound recording of analog? Why is Mono sometimes fuller, sharper and clearer than Stereo?

Whatever the reason, in the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, all of the re-dubbed scenes are reproduced, not with the striking crispness of the original but with the infinitely more casual, and muffled, make-do of our current era. Of course I know that sound recorded on the set with its unique, ambient quality, can seldom be replicated in a studio; it’s why, whatever the time period, you can nearly always tell which lines have been over-dubbed later. (Although, in his Hollywood pictures anyway, Orson Welles was especially good at matching.) Indeed, in the case of musicals, pre-recorded vocals seldom replicate live sound. But the absolutely dead sound the current Disney engineers retro-fitted onto this movie is matched in apathy only by the appalling voice work provided by the actors attempting to double for David Tomlinson and Tessie O’Shea, the latter of whose accent now fluctuates wildly over the British Isles, like a berserk vocalic Norman chasing after an elusive, mute Saxon zombie.†

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the "A Step in the Right Direction" number. Any resemblance between it and "A Spoonful of Sugar" is purely intentional.

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the “A Step in the Right Direction” number. Any resemblance between it and “A Spoonful of Sugar” is purely intentional.

Any number of additional ironies attached themselves to this one: The original cut of the movie ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes and was intended as one of the last of the big “road-show” spectacles of the era. Unbelievably, Walt Disney Productions planned its premier at Radio City Music Hall in, it seems, complete ignorance of that tatty but venerable establishment’s inviolable rule that pictures which accompany its live stage shows be of no more than 2 hours in length. Disney exceeded that demand, and duly sheared 30 minutes, not merely for Radio City but the movie’s general release as well, losing several musical numbers and so much dialogue that what was left was difficult to follow — surely a disastrous outcome for a fantasy aimed as much at children as their parents. The studio further compounded this minor obscenity by utterly eviscerating what remained for a late-’70s reissue: 139 minutes in 1971 became first 117 and, finally, a paltry 99 in 1979. Many of the dialogue sequences restored had lost their soundtrack, hence the (again, execrable) re-dubbing. And in a final (and, it seems, irreversible) irony, the very impetus for the restoration, bringing Angela Lansbury’s “A Step in the Right Direction” number, extant on the 1971 soundtrack album, back to the movie, was thwarted; it has disappeared and was, presumably, destroyed(!)

The 1971 soundtrack LP.

The 1971 soundtrack LP.

I was young enough in 1971 (10, if you’re morbidly interested) to love even the truncated original, although I loved it less a few months later, on reading Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, which bear very little resemblance to the movie on which they were, exceedingly loosely, based. Best to think of the film, as with the more vaunted (and popular) Mary Poppins, as variation on a theme.

My invoking Poppins is not coincidental. Not only was the same creative team responsible for Bedknobs, from the screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and the director Robert Stevenson to the song-writing Shermans, but both narratives involved magical (and musical, if somewhat starchy) spinsters, contain animated/live action sequences, and feature Tomlinson, here promoted from secondary lead to co-star. (It’s tempting, if fruitless, to imagine the movie with Lansbury squired by Ron Moody, who had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict.) But where Poppins is light on its feet, emotionally plangent and possessed of a seemingly effortless charm, Bedknobs is, despite its magical elements, more earth-bound, less felicitous, and in general has less sentimental resonance than an average re-run of Lassie.

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

And yet… the restored Bedknobs and Broomsticks has much to recommend it, enough to overcome even the dreadfulness of the new dubbing. First, the presence of Angela Lansbury. This almost criminally under-utilized performer was given her finest and most taxing roles not in film (her acid-etched portrait of mother-love gone mad in The Manchurian Candidate excepted), in which she began, or on television, where she reigned for some time in the 1980s, but on Broadway. Bedknobs represents her only real, extensive opportunity to shine on the big screen, not merely as the star, but as a musical star, and is, perforce, eminently treasurable.

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars: Roy Snart, Cindy O'Callaghan and Ian Weighill.

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars.

Roy Snart, Ian Weighill and Cindy O’Callaghan, the Cockney children Lansbury’s apprentice-witch is saddled with, are exceptionally well-cast, believable both as siblings and as War orphans, and never, as Disney tots alas tend, cloying. Tomlinson clearly had a high old time of it playing a rogue who would have given his own Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins the jim-jams, and Sam Jaffe makes a small repast of his appearance as the slightly sinister Bookman. Roddy McDowall, in his relatively brief but cunningly executed role as a nakedly avaricious country vicar, is especially welcome.; the restoration gives him greater prominence, which is useful, as the truncated version left one scratching one’s head, wondering why he was there at all. If only the great Welsh music-hall performer Tessie O’Shea, seen only in dialogue sequences as a firm but kindly postmistress, had been given a dance or two!

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Sam Jaffe.

Sam Jaffe.

The true movie aficionado will also spot, in tiny roles — some indeed mere glimpses — beloved character actors such as the inimitably high-voiced Arthur Malet (Mr. Dawes, Jr. of Poppins), Reginald Owen (Admiral Boom of same), Cyril Delevanti (the beautiful old poet Nono of Night of the Iguana), and, somewhat shockingly, Hank Worden, barely noticeable, singing as part of the seaside town’s Old Home Guard. The twinned live action/animation sequences, directed by the often brilliant Disney veteran Ward Kimball, are variable. The first, in which Lansbury et al. find themselves in an island lagoon, is charm itself. Crashing an underwater tea-dance, Lansbury and Tomlinson perform a delightfully — there’s no other word for it — fluid duet, in a Sherman Brothers number that is quite obviously the precursor and onlie begettor of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea,” cleverly orchestrated by Irwin Kostel in patented 1940s ballroom fashion.

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in "Beautiful Briny Sea."

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in “Beautiful Briny Sea.”

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The second is more problematic. The Shermans expected the follow-up sequence on the Island of Naboombu, wherein Tomlinson attempts to make off with the animated lion king’s enchanted medallion, to be musical, and penned a sleight-of-hand routine for the versatile actor. What the filmmakers presented them instead was a non-musical, mildly diverting, football game. (Helpfully if inappropriately translated for American audiences as “soccer.”) If you stop to analyze the set-up, you’re lost: Why would these animals, whether immortal or merely the descendants of the enchanted originals, and who explicitly bar humans from their refuge, even know what football is, let alone be mad for it? Why, indeed, are they dressed contemporaneously? Logic takes as much an un-jolly holiday as music here.

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Far better, and nearly worth the entire restoration, is the preceding, and greatly extended, “Portobello Road” dance sequence, which Pauline Kael , while deploring the cuts, enthused over. Here, the faded work-prints were beautifully enhanced, especially in the delightful Jamaican section. Now at last that Kostel-arranged Overture makes sense, as we finally understand why the master orchestrator spiced it throughout with brief, ethnically derived riffs and quotations. It is as if MGM, in order to squeeze in an extra screening or two, had cut the “Broadway Melody” ballet from the release print of Singin’ in the Rain.

The Sherman's credit on David Jonas' distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

The Sherman’s credit on David Jonas’ distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

Watching this extended edition of the movie, you understand just how badly the Shermans were represented by the 1971 truncation. Doubly sad, as it was in a sense the brothers’ last hurrah for Disney, and that the movie, even at just under 2 hours, was a financial disappointment: $17 million domestic rentals on a $20 million budget. Fortunately, and somewhat balancing the ultimate loss of “A Step in the Right Direction,” the restoration reinstates the wistful Lansbury ballad “Nobody’s Problems,” an all-too-brief reprise of a longer, and un-filmed, number for the children.

It’s far too easy for cultural critics, especially today, to cynically dismiss the Shermans, but this snobbery does not admit of their innate and almost profligate musicality, their respect for narrative and characterization, and their sophisticated rhyming which is, somehow, both comprehensible to children and satisfying to adults simultaneously.

You try that trick.

I’ll time you.

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*Listen to any Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies short from the ’40s and ’50s for a prime exemplar.

†I wonder if the people involved in this miserable venture were aware that nearly the entire dialogue soundtrack of the 1960 Swiss Family Robinson was re-dubbed after principal photography, due to terrible aural conditions on Tobago during the filming — and you’d never guess unless you knew. Even granted all the actors in that one were still very much alive, if it could be done so well then, why is it so damn difficult now?
*Listen to any Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies short from the ’40s and ’50s for a prime exemplar.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

One enfant terrible breaks faith with another: Tynan, Kael and “Kane”

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By Scott Ross

Through the good graces of my best friend who, being a sensible sort, does not cling as I do to outmoded technology, I recently enjoyed Simon Callow’s reading, on cassette, of Kenneth Tynan’s diaries, as edited by John Lahr. In one early entry, Tynan is shattered to discover his notion of Orson Welles as the Compleat Artist is false: He’s just read Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” in the New Yorker, and declares that she “proves conclusively that Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane.”

Kael, of course, did no such thing.

Kenneth Tynan in 1968, photographed by David Bailey.

I am an enormous admirer of Kael’s, a zealot even; despite every effort, during her time at the New Yorker and since her enforced retirement (she had Parkinson’s) and her death, by others to discredit her, I remain steadfast in my belief that, whatever her flaws, she was, and remains, the finest movie critic not merely of her age but for any age. When she was wrong, however — and by “wrong” I do not mean, “I disagree with her opinion about X” — she was spectacularly wrong. And she was seldom more wrong than she was in “Raising Kane.

Any essay critical of Welles — of whom, it should be noted, Kael was in fact a noted supporter — that uses John Houseman as its chief source is benighted from the start. One can easily imagine with what barely submerged glee Welles’ one-time producer (and long-standing enemy) related his version of events to Kael. Her own motives are less clear. It’s been suggested that she had Hollywood ambitions of her own, and that, in elevating Kane’s co-scenarist of record, Herman J. Mankiewicz, himself a former New Yorker critic, she was further ennobling herself, by proxy. Once the piece was published, and Welles’ friends and admirers had their say via Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Kane Mutiny” rebuttal in Esquire (a jeremiad reportedly revised by Welles himself) she rather uncharacteristically confessed her doubts about her original piece to her then-friend Woody Allen, and worried that she didn’t know how to respond. His advice: Don’t. She never did.*

Pauline Kael in 1972, photographed (unusually, with her glasses) by Jill Krementz.

 

Nor did she “prove” in any demonstrable, let alone “conclusive” fashion that Welles had nothing to do with Kane’s superb screenplay. A cursory look at any of the other movies he directed and for which he also wrote the scripts, by himself — which is to say all of them except Kane and the un-produced The Big Brass Ring — reveals Orson Welles’ “voice” as a writer, a style and set of preoccupations manifest in films as seemingly unrelated as Touch of Evil, Mr. Arkadin, The Lady from Shanghai, F for Fake and even what little has been seen, and heard, of The Other Side of the Wind. Only when he adapted the work of others (Tarkington for The Magnificent Ambersons, Kafka for The Trial and Shakespeare for Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff/Chimes at Midnight) is the sound of the dialogue not patently presented in Welles’ distinctive cadences as a dramatist. Although it is probably impossible at this juncture to definitively prove that Welles or Mankiewicz (or even, perhaps, Houseman?) wrote this or that line, or monologue, for Kane, the quality of that verbiage, and the observations, are of a piece with the dialogue in the pictures Orson wrote either alone or (in the case of the published screenplay for The Big Brass Ring) co-authored with his companion, Oja Kodar.† Or are we to believe he “stole” all of those credits as well?

But Welles was also notorious for his prevarications, and this habit of giving himself credit in the absence of anyone who might have contradicted him became worse with time. Even Kael acknowledged of Welles that, when an artist has been cheated, repeatedly, of his due, he may be prone to self-aggrandizement. Certainly, Welles must have grown as sick of having his work misinterpreted, and condemned, by ignoramuses as he became of being asked about Kane. It may well be, too, that Mankiewicz, with Houseman’s collusion, modeled more than a few of Charles Foster Kane’s biographical details and characteristic idiosyncrasies on Welles and that Orson in turn may have been too sheepish about them to object. Master showman that he was, he may even have acknowledged their effectiveness as part of the drama, if only to himself. It may not be true, as Welles told Bogdanovich, that the script of Kane was scissored-and-pasted from his own version of the script and Mankiewicz’s, or that Mankiewicz’s “contributions” (as Orson called them) were more significant in part than as a whole. Whatever the truth of it, the movie of Citizen Kane resounds with Welles, not merely visually or in the sound of the picture but in the shape and tone of the words themselves.

Orson Welles at work on the script for The Other Side of the Wind in the early 1970s. At right, Peter Bogdanovich with the young critic and Welles scholar Joseph McBride. Both had roles in the movie.

For his own part, Kenneth Tynan was a magnificent theatre critic, but a less reliable movie reviewer. Tynan’s rhapsody on the London production of Welles’ own, splendidly theatrical Moby Dick — Rehearsed makes one pine to have seen it. “With this Moby Dick,” Tynan wrote, “the theatre becomes once more a house of magic.” Of Orson’s debut in movies Tynan famously wrote, “Nobody who saw Citizen Kane at an impressionable age will ever forget the experience; overnight, the American cinema had acquired an adult vocabulary.”

So what did Tynan see in Kael’s misguided adventure to convince him that his idol had feet of clay? (It’s significant that, in speaking to Terry Gross about the second volume of his own Welles biography, Callow, the reader of Tynan’s diaries on tape, used the exact same words as the diarist when he proclaimed, equally fraudulently, that “Orson Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane.”) Alas, the entry that records Tynan’s shock at seeing a lifelong hero reduced, as it were, to a rather fat heap of ashes, is all too brief. Tynan does not bother to note how Kael “proved” Orson’s claims of authorship false.††

And in that, he resembles Kael herself, all too closely.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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 *She also seldom had a kind word thereafter for one of Bogdanovich’s pictures.

†Welles’ highly dubious but thoroughly enjoyable screen “memoir” The Cradle Will Rock script was likewise published after his death.

††Just as, in another diary entry, he quotes Gregory Peck at length, sneering at liberals and discussing his conversion to the true faith of conservatism, when it’s obvious to the reader that the man to whom Tynan’s had been talking at Hollywood party is Charlton Heston.

Marathon Man (1976)

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By Scott Ross

This dark, visceral adaptation by William Goldman and John Schlesinger of Goldman’s “What-If?” novel about a Mengele-like Nazi unavoidably drawn to New York City was one of the first “R”-rated movies I ever saw, and it shook me to the core. Pauline Kael was put off by the movie’s classical realism, believing the book’s potboiler status demanded a slicker approach, but I disagree; Schlesinger’s elegant verisimilitude gives the pulp plotting both a stylish patina and a prevailing sense of dread that drenches the narrative like a fever-dream. As the screenwriter, Goldman cleverly re-imagined his exciting novel for the screen, and his increasingly frightening use of the question “Is it safe?” briefly became a part of the American cultural language… and inspired a new fear of your friendly neighborhood dentist that was only slightly less pronounced than the embarrassed terror with which swimmers regarded the sea a year earlier, after the release of Jaws.

“Is it safe?”

Dustin Hoffman is a bit… is “mature” the polite word?… for Babe Levy, Goldman’s angry, bewildered graduate student drawn into an escalating, increasingly violent maelstrom, but he’s convincing in every other way. Roy Scheider gives one of his standard superb performances as Hoffman’s laconic, dangerous brother Doc and Laurence Olivier is the smoothest, most reasonable — and thus, most terrifying — Nazi imaginable.

William Devane gives a nice mix of charm and menace to Scheider’s CIA compatriot Janeways, although their homosexual relationship, more or less explicit in the novel, is only hinted at here; Schlesinger, one of the few great “out” filmmakers, was notoriously shy of including overt homoerotic references in his movies. (Aside, obviously, from Sunday, Bloody Sunday.) The Scheider/Devane relationship, like Doc’s profession, constituted in the novel a sort of literary trick: Doc is both “Scylla,” the CIA assassin, and Babe’s beloved older brother, and only at the moment of his death did the reader understand the two were the same character. Similarly, Janeways is introduced, sans any reference to gender, as “Janey,” leaving the reader to assume the character is a woman. So there was a nice shock there as well when he and Scylla are revealed as male-male, not male-and-female, lovers. Obviously, these devices cannot translate to the more surface-oriented world of film. And while as these things go the loss of these devices is a small one, it’s still a loss. Conversely, the Olivier character’s ironic demise — well and truly hoist on his own petard — is far more satisfying in the picture than in Goldman’s book.

The violence in the movie is sudden and bloody, but as with The Silence of the Lambs, it’s the threat hanging over the action that makes the picture feel like a bloodbath. This was, incidentally, the first Hollywood film to use the then-new Steadicam, smoothly capturing Hoffman’s various runs. The late Michael Small composed the eerie, disturbing electronics-heavy score.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross