Star Power

Below is the opening scene of THE SOUTHERN STAR, a 1969 Jules Verne adaptation starring George Segal, Johnny Sekka and Ursula Andress (who gets to memorably garble the line “I um trrrrying to whush away a memnoree!” while skinny-dipping). The movie’s directed by Sidney Hayers, a not-so distinguished but capable filmmaker with one cult classic to his name, the tasty NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (AKA BURN WITCH BURN).

But Edinburgh-born Hayers (about whom I must learn more) fell sick on location in Africa, so the scene I’ve extracted had to be helmed by somebody else — whoever was around, basically.

Fortunately, the film’s cast included one man with a bit of directing experience, and, being a mensch, Orson Welles stepped in ~

This scene is interesting as a piece of Wellesian marginalia for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s very funny and lively, unlike the rest of THE SOUTHERN STAR (although Welles, playing a homosexual English villain, amuses). Secondly, it’s a unique chance to see Welles directing in widescreen. Unfortunately, the only copy I’ve so far sourced reduces the film’s ‘scope ratio to a TV-friendly 16:9, but you get more of a sense of it than you would from a regular pan-and-scan at least.

Welles disparaged widescreen (“I don’t think the paying audience necessarily deserves anything bigger than what they’re currently getting,” he sniffed, before quoting Cocteau’s dismissal: “Next time I do a drawing I’m going to use a big sheet of paper”) but he uses it fluently and intelligently, dividing the image into quadrants using background features, and exploiting the greater dynamism produced when the camera moves — the shot where we swing around the shack after Sekka and keep moving after he’s stopped in order to reveal the onrushing crowd, is especially cool. Welles in widescreen reminds me a little of Leone, not in the hyper-gigantism, but in the exploitation of cinematic melodrama for comic effect.

Welles’s cinematographer here — Raoul Coutard!

The other example of widescreen Welles would be DAVID AND GOLIATH, where Welles took the part on condition that he would direct his own scenes while shooting DON QUIXOTE in his off-hours. The producer foolishly signed an open-ended contract that imposed no deadline on Welles’ work, so he shamelessly extended shooting in order to get more of his dream project done, inventing countless unnecessary extreme angles: one shot required a ditch to be dug for the camera, another needed a tower constructed. Little of this is evidenced in the film’s final cut (the poor producer somehow escaped bankruptcy and finished the wretched thing), but the only copies around at present are pan-and-scanned to 1.33:1, so it’s hard to see what Welles was up to. The above clip is our best glimpse of widescreen Welles for now.

7 Responses to “Star Power”

  1. While resolutely heterosexual, Welles’ interest in Teh Ghey is worth of a master’s thesis. One could start with his auditioning for Michael MacLaimmoire and Hlton Edward for the Abbey theater (they became life-long Welles pals and collaborators) and movie right along to F For Fake, The Other Side of the Wind and The Big Brass Ring.

    IOW he was a Fag-Hag of the first order.

    The Southern Star is great fun — as is just about anything featuring Ursula Andress.

  2. He gets some very queer resonances out of The Trial and Lady from Shanghai too.

    Welles described his younger self as “the Lilly Langtry of the older homosexual set” or something, implying he was irresistible, although I’ve yet to meet a man who really sees the appeal. But I’m sure his personal magnetism must have been overwhelming.

  3. No doubt it was.

    I trust you’ve read that Selznick found The Third Man quite off-putting in that he felt the only reason that Holly Martins would be trying to find out what happened to Harry Lime was because they were gay. Now I’ve seen the film innumerable times and I have yet to figure out what in hell Selznick was blathering about.

    Welles is very flirty with Joseph Cotton in the amusement park sequence. However this is tempered by the fact that he’s considering killing Cotton during the scene.

    Not terribly romantic IMO.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    Welles’ great theme was male friendship and how it tended to wither in betrayal and deceit. And Welles generally cast himself as the one being betrayed in roles of varying levels of culpability. From titanic monsters like Kane and Quinlan(done in by friends they use and manipulate one time too many) to his very dark and vulnerable Othello and of course Falstaff, described and played by Welles as the “only good character in Shakespeare”.

    There’s also Michael Redgrave in MR. ARKADIN to consider.

  5. Indeed — not sure if Redgrave ever explored that on film elsewhere. Of course, his characterisation is pretty grotesque there, so that probably supplied him with some necessary distance.

  6. Do you think the forced perspective shots in D&G add to conveying King Saul’s paranoia?

  7. I think they might in widescreen, but I find the cropped version of the film hard to assess. Welles’s scenes didn’t strike me as necessarily the best-directed, but that could be because they ARE the best-directed and hence suffer more from the pan-and-scan. I’d really, really like to see it in its correct ratio.

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