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Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2017 by dcairns

Huge gratitude to Talking Pictures TV for screening ENCHANTMENT (1948), which I don’t think I’d ever heard of, directed by Irving Reis, who was merely a name to me. It’s been a while since I discovered a 40s Hollywood film that was a revelation to me.

It’s based on a Rumer Godden novel — one might think her an extraordinarily fortunate author in her adaptations, except I don’t think she liked any of them, certainly not BLACK NARCISSUS, which maybe affirms some part of the auteur theory by transmogrifying wholly into a Powell & Pressburger joint. Though it’s certainly possible to like both book and film. But Rumer didn’t, is my point.

It’s also a Goldwyn production, and stuffed full of his favourite talent — not Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, you understand, but David Niven (DODSWORTH, WUTHERING HEIGHTS), Teresa Wright (THE LITTLE FOXES, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) and Leo g. Carroll (WUTHERING HEIGHTS again), the whole being shot by Gregg Toland (most of the above). It’s basically a William Wyler movie without Wyler, which might be useful in assessing his contribution to the films he made for Goldwyn, except I’d rather just rave about this one.

Oh, and the cast also includes Evelyn Keyes, who is delightful, and Farley Granger, almost equally so only in a moustache. I’m not always anti-whiskers — David Niven doesn’t seem complete without his lip-caterpillar, for instance, but the more hair you put on Farley’s face, the less of Farley’s face you see, and that has to be counted as a loss.

For some reason the Blitz seems a time of romance, which is crazy — bombs falling from the sky onto human habitations are not romantic — but there it is. I’ve been reading Connie Willis, who suffers from the same inappropriate yearning for tumbling ordinance. This movie is framed by the war, but glides from thence into flashbacks going back to Victorian times.

Niven is barely recognizable (save for that lightbulb cranium) in the contemporary sections, wrapped in a rather convincing make-up and giving a thoroughly convincing performance of old age. His voice is completely unrecognizable, save for a few moments when his distinctive way with a line creeps through.

     

The leaping about in time is accomplished with a lot of adventuresome skill, some of which may be accredited to Toland, who after all had CITIZEN KANE to his credit. And so we get temporal shifts delivered with lighting changes (before Death of a Salesman) , and one extraordinary bit where the camera pans out of flashback into present tense in a single unbroken shot, the kind of thing very rarely seen in the forties — THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is the best-known example. And a lovely moment where we a scene fades out except for a character’s hand, which lingers momentarily like the Cheshire Cat’s grin or the blind hermit’s cross in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, then dissolves to another image of a hand, and irises out in a new scene. That trick turns up in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but practically nowhere else in screen history.

Evocative effects-work for the Blitz scenes.

Also, for fans of eccentric forties storytelling (David Bordwell), it’s narrated by a house. That would have been enough to make me love it, but there’s so much more.

What other Reis ought I to see? I’ll be all over THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER, of course, but are there other gems?

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Mondo Kane #6: The Huntington Memorial Hospital on 180th St.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2013 by dcairns

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And so to Joseph Cotten, who nearly walked off the film because his old age makeup cracked every time he raised his eyebrows. My suspicion is that Cotten’s thick, slightly wavy hair was putting to great a strain on his Maurice Seiderman bald cap. So in the finished film he wears a sun cap to conceal the join.

Establisher — Thompson looks up at the tall hospital, dwarfed by an even taller bridge. OK, so this is rear-projection, I think — the background was shot previously as a tilt up, and William Alland as Thompson must be on a little elevator being lowered out of view while the camera stays statically filming the rear-pro screen. At least that’s how I guess it was done. It looks unreal yet perfectly real.

Cotten is shot against a strange, abstract, soft-focus background — I think this was shot during the week of tests, so they couldn’t build any really detailed sets. This one looks almost like a backdrop, or a slide. Arguably the shallow depth , unique for the film, has something to do with old Jed Leland’s senility (though he’s really quite lucid — but everybody says the slow dissolves here are due to his rusty memory so let’s go with this).

Cotten’s old age performance is good — he’s trying to suggest weakness without doing exaggerated slow movements — there are bits where his hand drops back into his lap as if it’s quite a weight, which are very fine work indeed. This is another star-making shot, with Welles simply holding on his pal, pushing in very gently now and then, and letting Herrmann underscore with a beautifully elegiac theme. Cotten is utterly magnetic.

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Gainsborougfh girl Ruth Warwick.

The dissolve, aided by fading down the background on Cotten, so we seem to teleport with him into the past — and then we’re in that wonderful snappy compressed marriage seen at the breakfast table, which Welles admitted to pinching from Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner — but applying such narrative devices to a film was still an innovation.

Of course, Leland is apparently describing scenes he didn’t personally witness, and would be unlikely to have been told of in detail — a common movie device. I imagined Welles and Mankiewicz must have considered having Thompson interview the first Mrs. Kane, then decided to kill her off. Emily is so damn shallow here (though perfectly right to protest against her husband’s ignoring her) that we don’t really want to spend a whole chapter of the film in her company, but the breakfast montage HAD to stay in.

But according to Bill Krohn’s Orson Welles at Work (a book I prize), the first draft (by Mankiewicz and John Houseman) had Emily alive but refusing to speak to Thompson. Welles inserted the breakfast montage into draft 6, after killing Emily off. His conscious strategy was to largely ignore the logic of who knew what and organize the flashbacks so they make a kind of narrative sense that’s sometimes chronological, sometimes emotional. Thus, Thatcher is disposed of via his own memoir, which supplies the bookends to Kane’s career, Bernstein supplies the bright and lively early days, perhaps because those are what he chooses to recall, and Leland provides the bitter aftertaste, also setting up Susie Kane so that her narrative will make sense.

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But then Leland’s next memory is about Kane and Susan Alexander, and again he’s not present. He claims Kane told him about it (later, Susie Kane will remember some of Leland’s memories).

Welles cut a bordello scene from the script at the censor’s insistence, and performs some fancy footwork to establish Kane’s extra-marital affair without giving offense. Still, Susan’s invitation to Kane, a well-dressed (if muddy) stranger she has just met, to come back to her room plays a little disreputable, Kane slamming the door in the camera’s face once they’re inside seems VERY suggestive (and very different from the door slam at the Thatcher Memorial Library) but Susie makes him open it again for the landlady’s sake. Still, next time we visit this location, Susie and Charlie will have become lovers and the landlady’s objections are never heard. Possibly Kane has bought the building in the interim.

VERY nice dissolve from the street door to the bedroom door, occupying the same screen space.

Kane/Welles wiggles both ears at the same time, but the joke is his face is so wide and massive we can’t SEE both ears at the same time — he has to turn from side to side. Welles’ ears are on the back of his head.

Giggling at the shadow-puppets — wonderfully naturalistic! The real benefit of the overlapping dialogue, which isn’t just a trick — but also the mis-hearings and repetitions and crack-ups create a real sense of spontaneity and intimacy and make the laughter somewhat infectious, which it rarely is in movies. Like Welles, Comingore is at her very best here, better I think than the later screeching scenes.

“You’re not a professional magician, are you?”

As far as the audience’s sympathies are concerned, I find Kane at his sweetest in the scene where he befriends Susie, and though both Mr and Mrs Kane come across pretty badly in the breakfast montage, Emily’s hint of anti-Semitism tells against her. And Kane seems genuinely touched to meet someone who doesn’t know who he is and still likes him. The reference to his planned expedition to the warehouse prepares the ground for Rosebud’s screen debut — Susie interrupts Kane on his way to the end of the movie —  but also allows Welles to film more conventionally than usual — a two-shot and two close-ups (Fiona noted the very bright light Toland imparts to Dorothy COmingore’s eyes here) — and to simplify his performance. “My mother died…a long time ago,” sounds like Welles. And it’s tempting to imagine the little autobiographical touches here explaining why he’s so good in this scene. He may have been the greatest anti-Stanislavskian of the century, but can any actor say a line like that, if it happens to be the truth, and not feel something? Am I getting sentimental? And Herrmann’s underscoring… I actually blinked pretty hard during this scene. Don’t let anyone say KANE is a cold film — it’s just that the moments of emotion mainly involve a not particularly admirable character.

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“Let’s go to the parlor,” — Fiona is in hysterics at the suggestiveness with which Welles imbues this line.

Electioneering montage, with brief cameo by Joseph Cotten, the guy who’s supposedly our eyewitness. Great special effects at Kane’s rally — not particularly real, but real enough and beautiful enough. The high angle looking past Boss Jim W. Geddes (Ray Collins, so avuncular in AMBERSONS) is pretty Caligariesque in its spatial distortion — the theatre seems to be pitching forward in on itself — but the lopsided poster on the wall behind Geddes somehow balances its expressionistic slanting.

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I think the maid at Kane’s “love nest” kind of misses a beat — she smiles intimately at his arrival, which incriminates him in his wife’s eyes as it proves he’s a regular at this establishment, but she doesn’t betray enough surprise at noticing that CFK has brought another woman to the nest. The maid is cute, though — Louise Franklin was a nightclub dancer and chorus girl, and one could get into trouble imagining how Welles came to cast her.

Confronted by Geddes with the threat of exposure, Kane evinces the kind of self-defeating pride Welles may have sneakingly admired — certainly he said that Macbeth’s decision to fight on, even when he realizes the prophecy which seemed to protect him actually foredooms him, was the single moment of greatness the character shows. Here, Kane has the choice of saving his wife, son and mistress from shame and possibly salvaging his marriage, but he chooses to battle on — apparently under the delusion that he can win, though, which makes him less noble or romantic than the Scottish king, And his words confirm Leland’s belief that Kane was in politics for love “Apparently we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.” The paralysed moment when Kane realises he’s really trapped seems to be the beginning of the tycoon’s stiff-legged robot walk. In middle-aged, he’s already part-monument, but throughout his marriage to Susie he’s seen as this lumbering Frankensteinian somnambulist, a bit like the Colossus of New York.

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Defeat at the polls, and the excellent gag with the two choices of headline.

And finally the narrative crashes into something Jed Leland was an actual participant in. With Gregg Toland filming from a hole dug in the studio floor, he drunkenly harangues his old pal for letting the cause down (but apparently Leland knew about the affair from the start?). Of course it’s strongly hinted that Kane’s political affiliations, such as they are, were chosen solely to piss off his foster father, the bank, and its human surrogate, Walter Parks Thatcher. I’ve tended to feel that writers who focus on the politics and history of KANE are missing the point, the fun and the cinema — I never could get on with the Laura Mulvey BFI Classics book for that reason, and there’s a moment in Leslie Megahey’s BBC documentary on KANE where Pauline Kael says something about the film’s real pleasure being the way it calls up the 1940s, which makes me want to punch the screen. Admittedly, Kael seems kind of vague and doddery.

Mind you, the alternative is perhaps to reduce the movie to a bag of tricks, which I could be in danger of doing here. But it seems to me that shrinking it to a political message reduces it more. I guess the parallel is TOUCH OF EVIL, where the “monster” embodies negative political attitudes but still compels the audience’s sympathies, against our better judgement.

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Anyway, Leland moves to the Chicago paper in time to cover Susan Alexander Kane’s debit in Salammbo. Famous crane shot up through a wipe into a model shot depicting hanging flats of renaissance Venice, reminders of Othello or The Merchant of Venice, two future Welles movie projects, and ending on the unimpressed stagehands. Salammbo itself is set in ancient Carthage, subject of a Wellesian epigram in THE STRANGER.

Susie’s performance is lousy enough to drive Jed back to drink, so then there’s another grand gesture from Kane, finishing his old friend’s bad review, “to prove he was an honest man.” My favourite moment is the awful tragi-comedy of Mr. Bernstein reading the bad notice but faltering at the title of the opera: “I’m afraid I still can’t pronounce that name, Mr Kane.”

And slow fade/dissolve back to Mr Leland, the one Kane acquaintance so far who really has insight to offer into C.F.K.’s mind (Bernstein nails Thatcher, though). The others only tell stories, and their stories are illuminating, but Leland can actually interpret the stories for us.

Leland, like Kane and Macbeth, is indomitable in the face of certain defeat: “You know that young doctor I was telling you about… well, he’s got an idea he wants to keep me alive.”

Orson Welles at Work

Citizen Kane (BFI Film Classics)

Mondo Kane #5: Chairman of the Board

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-10-25-22h49m08s59 Whereas George Coulouris’ makeups predicted how he would age with uncanny accuracy, Everett Sloane just shaved his head and that was it. Not a flattering discovery for an actor in his thirties to make. But he gets the benefit of the baldness by being able to expressively wrinkle his scalp all the way up to the crown of his head, unlike Joseph Cotten, whose bald cap cracked every time he raised an eyebrow.

CITIZEN KANE’s middle two interviews/flashback frames are its warmest, with both Everett Sloane and Joseph Cotten playing rather lovely old men. Sloane as Bernstein is affability itself, plus he gets the great monologue about the girl in the white dress, Welles’ favourite thing in the picture, and a piece he was quite happy to credit to its author, Herman Mankiewicz. It’s tempting to assume that Welles at twenty-five didn’t have the life experience to come up with something like that, but it would be a mistake to generalize. All we can be fairly sure of is that Mankiewicz at forty-three DID. That nostalgic and philosophical speech lulls us into liking Bernstein, even though as he’s Kane’s toady we should see him as guilty along with the boss-man of all Kane’s cultural crimes.

Indeed, the flashbacks where we see Kane taking over The Inquirer portray Kane, Cotten and Sloane’s characters as horrible brats, gleefully tormenting the aged editor. Erskine Sanford’s overdone huffing and puffing is arguably a necessary bit of comic distance to stop us empathizing too strongly with the victim of the scenes (just as Kubrick encouraged his supporting players into grotesque mugging in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, thus leaving Malcolm McDowell as the only person on-screen we could identify with, despite his abhorrent actions). Interestingly, in the manic TOO MUCH JOHNSON, just rediscovered, Sanford’s performance is one of the quietest. vlcsnap-2013-10-25-22h51m33s223

Oh, and there’s a very daring cut around the camera axis when Kane and Leland enter the Inquirer office, as Leland swings around a pillar — our eye, drawn to the movement, is able to keep us oriented as the angle suddenly jumps across the line.

The second scene, with Sanford’s office transformed into Welles’ dining room, is the bit where Pauline Kael said that Welles had “obviously” been caught by surprise by the camera in mid-snack and good-naturedly kept the footage in the film. As Peter Bogdanovich observed, this does indeed betray an appalling ignorance of how films are made, and a basic inability to observe — the shot is a minute long, near enough, with several carefully timed reframings as Sanford blusters around the little room. Thinking that a camera crew can do all that on the hoof is a bit like thinking the actors are just making up their own dialogue, and the story, wearing what they like. Kind of makes me glad Kael didn’t usually watch movies more than once, because her observations sure don’t get any more astute when, as presumably she did for her Raising Kane piece, she makes repeat viewings.

The question of how much critics need to know about the actual practice of film-making is, I guess, open to debate. But the trouble with Raising Kane is that it comes on like a piece of film history, even though Kael hadn’t researched it the way any historian would, by talking to all the principles — notoriously, she didn’t speak to Welles, even though he had given the publishers the rights to the script and so was presumably contactable. Kael writing film history is like Wilhelm Reich investigating orgone and cloudbusting — taking an approach which seemed adequate to one discipline and applying it to another where it has no place (Reich, like Freud, makes up shit about how the mind works and calls it science — everyone is duly impressed, until he starts saying why the sky is blue based on the same imaginary evidence ). Anyhow, this is all old stuff, but I think Raising Kane should be dug up and kicked every so often as a warning to others. Kael is perfectly entitled to be wrong or “wrong” about RAGING BULL, that is the domain of the critic, but her guesswork and opinion masquerading as research is indefensible.

Back to the film.

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Bernstein, though we love him, is a little shit here.

This time round I’m struck with the ambiguity of Cotten’s performance as he asks to keep the original of Kane’s Declaration of Principles. This could get grotesquely over-earnest as he supposes the piece of paper might become another Constitution, another Declaration if Independence, but he also allows a slight mocking tone to come in, consistent with his status as best pal. Best pals are never over-earnest.

Of course, Leland will eventually throw the D of P back in Kane’s face to shame him as a hypocrite, and is it too much to imagine he already suspects he might have to do this? As with Prince Hal in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, maybe the future betrayer already knows on some level that he will betray, in the name of a greater cause. And Cotten’s choice of his own principles over his friendship with his best buddy IS something Welles would presumably regard as a betrayal, given his regular pronouncements on the primacy of friendship (see the second Georgian toast in MR ARKADIN, and remember also that Welles realized, while giving an interview, that he couldn’t wholly sympathize with Joseph Calleia as Menzies betraying Hank Quinlan, despite the pressing moral reasons for doing so).

Check out Kane’s appalling handwriting — as with the “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper” note, it’s a childish scrawl akin to the gnomic pictograms of Graf Orlok’s correspondence in NOSFERATU. I would assume that Kane cultivated that illiterate scratching to annoy Mr. Thatcher.

Most of the flashback sequences in KANE start light and end dark, and Bernstein’s remembrances begin with everything larks — staying up all night to remake the front page four, no five times, seems consistent with Welles’ tireless work in the theatre, as he generously attributes his own virtues and vices to the character he’s playing. It’s of course a gross mistake to conflate Welles and Kane, who is designed as a kind of anti-Welles, but it’s also a mistake to regard them as completely separate. Kane is a stick Welles through out into space, which boomeranged back.

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Circulation war! And one of the first of Welles’ artsy reflection shots (good ones in AMBERSONS and TOUCH OF EVIL — further evidence that this is all happening inside the snowglobe) — but wait, Bernstein in his office talking to Thompson casts a nifty image in his shiny desktop.

Snazzy photo-transition and we’re into the musical number — yes, the musical number!  (Why didn’t Herrmann do a musical? JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH originally had songs, it’s true, but Herrmann didn’t get to write them, and so they were un-good and so they were cut from the film…) And here Leland worries that the Chronicle’s staff will change Kane, as if he were such an admirable figure to begin with. Well, sure, he’s been crusading against slum landlords, but he’s also been crusading against poor Mr. Silverstein whose wife has “probably” been murdered.

Note the plethora of cartoonish-extreme camera angles — Welles invents MTV. KANE’s long-take technique is flexible enough to be dropped at a moment’s notice, and Welles can bring a Russian montage influence to bear with the same insouciance and the same monumentality he applies to sequence shots. Fiona spends this scene in hysterics at Welles’ “dancing.” We need a compilation clip of this, Oliver Reed in BEAT GIRL and Ed Harris in CREEPSHOW. The anti-Astaires.

Bernstein is very much the court jester / fawning toady here. And it’s arguable that Leland’s later description of Kane as a man who believes in nothing save himself, is more true of Bernstein. But Bernstein doesn’t even believe in himself — he’s nailed his colours to Kane’s mast. And yet I think we like Bernstein more than we like Kane. Kane buys the world’s biggest diamond for his bride-to-be, neatly anticipating Burton & Taylor.

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Kane’s bashful scene — did Welles ever play bashfulness on the screen ever again? There’s that blushing Aw-shucks that Hank Quinlan assumes when his detective’s intuition is praised, but that’s a political pose rather than a sincere emotion. (Quinlan is, among many other things, a great Texas down-home-style bullshitting politician in the tradition of George W. Bush.) Certain aspects of Welles’ performance have drawn too much attention, arguably (his old-age performance perhaps relies too much on Karloffian lumbering) and little moments like this not enough, It’s a beautiful study in an authority figure suddenly way outside his comfort zone and forced to admit humanity.

We leave Bernstein’s memories with a clear romantic cliffhanger, to be taken up again shortly… Back to the framing story, and now it’s dark. The rainstorm arranged outside the window is over, the sky has blackened, and the miniature cityscape is all lit up like fairyland.

Check out the imperceptibly slow creep back from the two figures standing under Kane’s gargantuan portrait. The slow diminution of Mr. Bernstein has something to do with death.

“Just old age. It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of.”