Archive for Micheal MacLiammoir

Mondo Kane #7: El Rancho #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by dcairns

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A clever thing — by introducing Susan Alexander early on, allowing her to dismiss boy reporter Thompson from the royal presence, and then looping back to her an hour later, Welles, Mankiewicz (and the uncredited Houseman) achieve at least two things at once.

(1) The repetition makes us feel like we’re nearing the end, which is a useful clue to plant when dealing with a structure as unconventional as KANE’s. Since film is a time-based medium, and time is the one thing none of us seem to have enough of, it’s useful to let the audience know where they stand. I’m surprised a counter ticking down the seconds remaining hasn’t been inserted in the corner of Hollywood movies, but maybe that’s because you don’t need it — the McKee school of structural conventionality allows a savvy audience to plot their position in a movie’s timeline with unerring accuracy.

(2) The early intro to Susan gives us a warning as to the damage Kane, and time, have inflicted on her. Next seen, she’s the naive girl on the street corner, a far cry from the sozzled night-club entertainer glimpsed at the film’s start. Cotten’s flashback covers a good part of her decline and fall, even though he wasn’t there for most of it — now we’re ready for her to take up her own story, and the movie gains dynamism by plunging directly into something we just saw at the tail-end of the Leland narrative.

In his excellent book The Magic World of Orson Welles, James Naremore points out that the narrators of KANE get progressively more cynical and critical as the film goes on, with Susie as the one who really nails Kane’s character weaknesses, followed only by Paul Stewart who is completely indifferent and contemptuous. In fact, the dynamic is more complicated than that — it’s really complicated. The film wins us over to Kane by presenting him first through the eyes of his greatest enemy. If Thatcher hates him, we feel, he must be pretty OK. A darker side emerges in Bernstein’s affectionate tribute, since Bernstein is not blind to his boss’s faults — he’s just philosophical about them. Leland, the dramatic critic, weighs in very articulately on Kane’s betrayal of “the sacred cause of reform,” but it’s left to Susie to expose Kane as not just a bad friend but a bad man.

Naremore’s very sharp on how the film uses Susie, as Kane described her, as “a cross-section of the American people.” The movie doesn’t show the social damage a figure like Hearst can do, except in metaphoric form through his treatment of the second Mrs Kane.

KANE, Naremore says, is structured around dualities: a man with two wives, two friends, two sleds. And Susan Alexander’s interview brackets the centre of the film, split in two, each sequence opening with the same camera movement, only in this second interview the crane shot up the El Rancho takes place in dawn half-light (it’s EXACTLY the tone of sky you see in the background during the opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL) and with a melancholy, tender repeating arpeggio from Herrmann replacing the thunder and drunken jazz of the first version (and a smooth dissolve replacing the botched attempt at a seamless passage through the skylight).

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Susie, in mellower mood than last time, conducts us into flashback with wry, rueful amusement and one of those loooong dissolves, and we meet Matiste the music teacher, one broadly comic element of the film which nobody seems to mind. I think he works well because (asides from Fortunio Bonanova’s big-but-credible performance) his comedy is tied in to the film’s most painful scenes, making for the kind of uncomfortable and conflicted response you get with Uncle Joe Grandi in TOUCH OF EVIL. Welles’ tendency to hit more than one tone at almost the same time, and hit them both hard, may be one of the traits that kept him from mainstream Hollywood success and a certain kind of critical acceptance. Here, there’s no question of it not working because you don’t have to find the comedy funny or view Susie’s plight or Kane’s monstrousness with irony, it’s simply an option made available to you.

This sequence folds back time a short distance to overlap with Leland’s narrative, but now presents her career not as the grotesque public spectacle Leland reacted against, but as a personal torment inflicted by Kane — Susie, in present tense, is well aware that Kane only married her as a damage-limitation exercise when news of their affair got out, and Leland has already told us that the whole opera bit was an exercise in Orwellian copy-editing on a massive scale — ‘He was going to remove the quotation marks around “singer.”‘

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But still, with the scary rehearsal light and the pain of that thin, strained voice, and the desolation of that lonely curtain-up shot with Susie centre-frame (the weakest, most exposed part of the screen to occupy), we have a perspiring Bonanova coaching Susie from the prompter’s box and getting some pretty good laughs. Amid Welles the actor, director, musician and magician, we shouldn’t forget Welles the cartoonist. Naremore points out that Susie’s kneeling pose at the climax of Salammbo is echoed in her confrontations with her husband later.

Fiona suggests that the paper sculpture a bored Leland makes from his programme is a continuation of the film’s octopus imagery.

The play of sympathies in the film gets still more complicated when Susie — in her own account — transforms to a shrieking shrew. Hard not to feel sorry for Kane, in a scene where he’s just lost his oldest friend and been told he’s sold out his most sacred principles, and all the while he’s got this blonde harridan yelling in his ear. One fears for his pipe-stem.

Is Kane a little deaf in old age? There are a couple of “Hmm?” moments which might be simply distraction (which certainly plays a part) but might also be signs of hearing loss. Maybe that’s how he’s been able to enjoy his wife’s singing all these years. It must certainly be a blessing to him now. But the film is also good on how one person not quite hearing another can make any argument get worse…

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Dorothy Comingore’s voice gets so shrill she loses whole words — one line literally comes out as “I never wanty tdo inna first place!” Presumably the missing bits are audible to dogs, and possibly to the Kane family parakeet, the Xanadu monkeys, or those damned animated flamingos.

And FLIP — with the line “I don’t propose to have myself made ridiculous,” Kane loses all audience empathy and becomes a very raw embodiment of the human-inhuman, self-centeredness incarnate. The other great line that does this is in the other best movie ever made, also scored by Bernard Herrmann, VERTIGO, when Jimmy Stewart tries to get Kim Novak to change her hair: “It can’t matter to you!”

Insanely beautiful, terrifying end to scene as Kane’s shadow eclipses Susie, with just a star-point of light reflecting in her eye, beaming from the blackness.

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Newspaper montage! But not the usual kind — the blinking bulb and multi-tracked vocals create a threatening effect that’s more abstract than anything we’ve seen or heard since the Xanadu opening, especially when the filament fades with the dying warble of an extinguished kettle.

The suicide attempt — a cry for help, really — and one of the few trick effect deep focus shots where the trick can be spotted, just because there’s a hazy area between the sleeping pill bottle and the distant door, something that no lens could achieve.

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Susie with no makeup on (apart from the sweat beads, probably a mix of water and baby oil), an unusual thing to see in a ’40s film. Kane allows her to quit her stage career, I guess a genuine act of kindness on his part and a unique example of Kane being forced to do something, and doing it. His normal temperament would be to double-down in the face of opposition and drive Susie on to destruction. But she’s made it clear what the result would be, and he prefers to keep his wife and sacrifice the opera, just as he preferred to sacrifice his previous marriage in a vain attempt to keep his political career. He can tell himself it’s on his own terms.

But with Susie’s career removed, all that’s left is the horror of leisure — her jigsaws are a cruel comment on her lack of any cultural aspirations, but obviously also a bleak summary of the emptiness of her coddled existence and a miniature version of hubbie’s insane art collection — endless, pointless, automatic, isolating.

The rest of the movie, more or less, takes place in Xanadu.

Kane’s picnic — the exact counterpart of this is Bannister’s grotesque, overblown picnic in LADY FROM SHANGHAI — “It was no more a picnic than… he was a man.” The Floridian beachfront is a combination of Californian location and matte painting. Then we’re back to the studio (KANE is a 90% studio construction) with rear-projection for the everglades campsite. I think I’ve said everything there is to be said about the pterodactyl-flamingos.

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The fight in the tent. I am rather sure that slap is real. Comingore flinches a second before it happens. Micheal MacLiammoir writes in Put Money in thy Purse, his often-hysterical account of the shooting of Welles’ OTHELLO, that Welles slapped Suzanne Cloutier for real, after telling her he wouldn’t, in order to avoid her flinching before the blow is struck. I tend to disapprove — movies are full of slaps, most of them fake, but perfectly convincing. The suspicion is hard to shake that directors who require real violence to photograph want it for non-photographic reasons.

“I’m not sorry.” And that weird SCREAMING in the background. No explanation give — maybe the pterodactyls are eating the party guests and the “It Can’t Be Lobe” singer? But it captures the psychological mood of the moment alright.

Susie’s room at Xanadu is like a doll’s house. The low ceiling beams, almost brushing Welles’ bald cap, make the girly, petite dimensions as oppressive in their way as the grand hall’s echoing monumentalism. Again Welles slams a door in our face, but this time immediately cuts to inside the room, facing the other way — with a starry cartoon BLAM! effect in the wood paneling behind Kane, visually complimenting the still-echoing sound of the closing door.

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Charlie NEARLY talks Mrs Kane into staying, but his selfishness betrays him, and she knows him too well to let it pass — this break-up is something that’s being done TO him, is happening to HIM alone.

Susie walks out, triumphant, and is still upbeat when we fade back to El Rancho. Our attitude to her may have changed, from pitying her as a washed-up drunk, to respecting her as the character who best understood Charles Foster Kane, and who is happier in her alcoholic near-obscurity than she was during the years of unwanted fame. As Sinatra said, I’m for whatever gets you through the night.

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“Well what do you know — it’s morning already.”

The Magic World of Orson Welles
Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Casebooks in Criticism)

The Sunday Intertitle: Big head of Pola

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 20, 2013 by dcairns

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I’ve been on a Lubitsch kick lately — I did a lecture about him on Friday, so it was quite useful, as well as pleasurable. It finally got me motivated to watch DIE BERGKATZE (THE WILD CAT), which I own in a terrific Masters of Cinema box set, to which I actually contributed essays (on SUMURUN and ANNA BOLEYN), but which I somehow had never gotten around to. Now that the thing’s out of print, I should start appreciating it.

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Like THE OYSTER PRINCESS, my favourite German Lubitsch, this is billed as “a grotesque,” and more than lives up to the billing. It might have been called ROMEO AND JULIET IN THE SNOW, except that Lubitsch had already used that title, and also that might give an impression of tragic romance rather than knockabout foolishness. But the plot deals with star-crossed lovers, a womanizing soldier (much like Chevalier in THE MERRY WIDOW) and a wild bandit girl (Pola Negri), and the whole thing is set around the bandit camp and the ridiculously ornate army fort, both situated in the snow-capped mountains. The film somehow unites baroque sets with real locations, partly by framing everything through fancy vignettes. The arched, or circular, or leaf-shaped frames are so relentless that when an occasional rectangular shot shows up, that looks peculiar.

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Lubitsch had a gift for inspiring comic performances from actors not noted for being comedians (he told David Niven: “Nobody can play comedy who does not have a circus in his head.”) Pola can incline to the grotesque in her mannerisms anyway, so she might seem easy to divert into self-parody, but the lady had a mind of her own. In fact, her performance suits the film’s rambunctious tone, but she still manages to be the main character you care about, to the extent that you care at all.

The “Lubitsch touch” may be present in spots, but really the comedy here is broad and big and cartoony: a distraught lover weeps in his tent until a river flows from the flaps, snaking through the snow in a miniature canyon. When the very drunk commander of the fort tries to open a closet that Pola is hiding in, she snaps ~

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“It’s occupied!”

“In my wardrobe? Shame on you!” the befuddled lush mutters, before staggering off.

So when I ask the trivia question “Which Lubitsch film has a joke about Pola Negri shitting in a cupboard?” you’ll know, won’t you?

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Title of blog post explanation: according to Micheal MacLiammoir, Orson Welles was fond of a story about an émigré director in Hollywood who asked for a closeup of his star by demanding a “big head of Pola.” The phrase became code for a closeup on the set of Welles’ OTHELLO. Maybe it’s a German tradition — Hitchcock used the expression “big head” for a facial close-up throughout his career. It’s quite useful, since a close-up can be of a foot, a hand, a chair or anything. When one asks for a “close-up of Pola,” one’s cinematographer might well ask, “What part?”

The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2011 by dcairns

Now honestly, is that a proper question to ask of Pola Negri?

The film is Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WINE –

Sorry, BARBED WIRE. We shall overlook the forgivable calligraphic entanglement. It’s not primarily about WWI trench warfare though, but about a POW camp set up at Pola’s farm, where she falls in love with prisoner Clive Brook. The movie, being silent, feels free to cast Polish Pola as a Frenchwoman, English chin Clive as a German, and Bavarian Gustav Von Seyffertitz as a Frenchman. Which isn’t any kind of problem here: what’s odd is that Hollywood continued with this kind of counter-intuitive national casting after sound came in, and still occasionally does it.

Big Head of Pola. This gorgeous moment may be the work of an uncredited Mauritz Stiller.

Despite the melodrama surrounding her, Pola is admirably restrained here — gone is the kohl-smeared vamp of yore, performing via an admixture of violent semaphore and demented facial calisthenics. Her solemn, muted work in this movie is a revelation. Brook, the chin of England, comes pre-muted, but apart from a weeping scene which initiates some ghastly mugging, he’s a good match for Pola’s dignified turn. Her teary moments show her abandoning glamour altogether and becoming convincingly distraught, which is to say unattractive. This was, and still is, unusual. As Juliette Lewis once complained, “There are some actresses who do crying scenes and they still look pretty. Like, you could have sex with them while they’re crying!”

Christmas behind barbed wire — the tinsel on the tree is easily explained (you simply shred several spent cartridges with a potato peeler and voila!) but where they got the false head for the contortionist Santa Claus is a mystery with deeply sinister undertones. I kept anxiously checking out the prison guards to see if any of them had got suddenly shorter. So disturbing is the satanic Santa that he fully earns the German name for Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann, which sounds like some kind of boogieman, as likely to steal your child’s eyeballs as to stuff his stocking.

Credited director Rowland V Lee is a curious case. His SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably as camp and hysterical as James Whale’s BRIDE, and there’s a striking moment when Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi enter a room, talk for a moment, then step forwards and Rathbone expresses surprise at the presence of the monster, comatose upon a table, revealed by a tracking back of the camera. Since the monster must have been plainly visible to Rathbone since the moment he came in the door, this is a vivid and surreal illustration of the principle that things which are offscreen exist only provisionally in films, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. But in BARBED WIRE his filming is eloquent and expressive, the only really goofy moment being a flashback to something we just saw five minutes earlier, but even that is explained by the filmmaker’s understandable desire to show the audience what a character is talking about. But the really sublime stuff is probably Mauritz Stiller’s — I don’t know the story behind his partial involvement, but I guess it’s a typical example of the shabby way he was treated in Hollywood.

In Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir Put Money in thy Purse, he reports Orson Welles adopting some Mitteleuropean director’s name for the close-up: “Big Head of Pola.” Since Hitchcock also used the term Big Head for the same reason, I vote this excellent expression be revived and given pride of place in dictionaries of film terminology. After all, “close-up of Pola” is clearly a vague and ambiguous expression, since it doesn’t specify which portion of her the camera should focus on. I mean, there’s a dazzling choice.

In a stirring (silent) speech, Mona’s brother evokes a great march of the war’s fallen. His assertion that post-war bitterness, if not replaced by love, could result in another war to end all wars is horribly prophetic for 1927…

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