Archive for Heart of Darkness

Papier Machebeth

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2022 by dcairns

Continuing our MACBETH investigations, we turn to the Welles, which Polanski, a great Welles fan, felt it was safe to disregard completely. A minor work. Well, yes, but even minor Welles shouldn’t be disregarded.

Incredible that this was shot in three weeks, first of all. Whether you think it works at all is one thing, but the achievement is something else. There are films that work brilliantly with a strictly-from-poverty aesthetic, like Ulmer’s DETOUR, where all the creative decisions are also economical ones, but they’re STRONG decisions. MACBETH isn’t like that: though the monotextured sets — everything seems to be made of still-damp papier mache, and the truly unwearable costumes, speak eloquently of a bottom line that’s bottomed out, the mise en scene and range and number of set-ups have nothing to do with low-budget cinema, and would compare favourably with many an A picture.

IMDb credits art director Fred A. Ritter and Welles himself with those costumes. Ritter never ran that department on any other film, according to the same source. So it was Welles’ own choice to spend much of the film with a tiny occasional table turned upside down and crammed onto his skull. It probably looked OK as a drawing. It’s a huge relief when he trades it for the BDSM Lady Liberty tiara. Fiona thought the baubles on his jerkin (right) made him look like a Dalek. The feeling is FLASH GORDON movie serial, a feeling augmented at times by sets and costumes and playing. Like they designed a few things, badly, and then grabbed everything in stock that was vaguely relatable to the subject — Genghis Khan flicks, caveman movies, Viking epics, and some anachronistic bits of plaid — Duncan wears a big picnic blanket, Macbeth has a tartan scarf draped over his head like a shawl.

The sets are cheaply constructed but are still impressive — how did they achieve THIS on a micro-budget? There’s an argument that you could get away with a lot less in the way of set design — black voids and smoke and boulders have been pressed into service before — but you can’t get away with ridiculous clothes, because they’re ON the actors, who are the thing we’re always meant to be looking at.

Welles’ decision to pre-record all the dialogue and lipsynch to it, as if in a musical, seems kind of crazy, but it apparently achieved its goal of allowing more set-ups to be shot: the extra effort that went into the actors learning not just their lines but their precise delivery was absorbed by the cast outside of working hours, allowing the shoot to move faster. It definitely wouldn’t be my choice, but what the hell.

The further decision to get William “Thompson” Alland to drill everyone in a fake Scottish accent doesn’t come off too badly. It smacks slightly of Groundkeeper Willie, that accent, but as Fiona said, “I’ve definitely heard worse.” And it makes sense for the characters to have Scottish accents, even if it doesn’t make sense for them to talk in blank verse. It comes back to the question of how much realism is the right amount for a film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth? I would argue that NO realism is the right amount, so the look of this film, all dry ice and backcloths, is fine. The only realism that should be admitted is the psychological kind, so that it doesn’t make sense for Jeanette Nolan’s Lady M to SCREAM at her husband while they’re trying to carry out a secret midnight assassination.

“She’s my least favourite Lady Macbeth,” said Fiona, following this with “Hurry up and die,” during the mad scene. Harsh. I think she was alright, but doubling down on Lady Mac’s harsher aspects is typical of Welles’ occasionally simplistic reading of Shakespeare’s characters. (It takes an effort to avoid seeing Iago as fundamentally A SNEAKY GUY: but surely he can’t be as furtive and implausible as Micheál MacLiammóir in Welles’ OTHELLO? Nobody would fall for his tricks, not with that moustache.)

Welles’ interps are better when they’re weird and idiosyncratic: his judgement that Macbeth is a mediocrity UNTIL, trapped by fate, he resolves to fight on to the last, gives him one really good speech, the moment when his performance comes to life: even playing outright villains, Welles seems to have needed to find something admirable or pitiable in the men he portrayed: Hank Quinlan is an injured lion, Harry Lime is charming, Kane just wants to be loved.

Of the other players, Alan Napier (playing a part invented for the movie, “a holy man,” given most of Ross’s lines plus some from other characters) has the best version of the accent, Roddy McDowall has the worst (though I liked his dreamy delivery, and making Malcolm a kid is a nice idea — Roddy was twenty but seems younger) and Welles’ daughter Michael has none at all. Dan O’Herlihy is a great Macduff — “terrifying,” as Fiona put it, maybe because HE’S SO INTO IT.

Welles’ reusing the set design from his voodoo Macbeth was a good idea, must have saved time on blocking; the ten-minute take that surrounds the regicide was a bold one; there are longish passages where the camera just looks at twigs or smoke while some soliloquy is going on: maybe this doesn’t quite come off, but it’s where the film seems most avant grade, ambitious and ballsy. Or bloody, bold and resolute if you prefer.

As he did in KANE, Welles recycles his meagre cast, making the same actors play front-and-centre figures and silhouettes (the witches are never clearly seen; are the best characters from a visual standpoint as a direct result). The dagger scene incorporates startling rack-focus effects, reminiscent of the start of the crazy house sequence in LADY FROM SHANGHAI. The banquet is really scary — Banquo’s spectre is simple but effective, suitably bloody, and occupying a frame from which all the supporting cast has vanished. The dead walk not in the spaces we walk in, but in the spaces between.

(In the Polanski, brilliantly, all the diners freeze into a tableau vivant with only the principals animate.)

And the climax, once we’re at Dunsinane, is terrific. The movie has a great opening and a great ending. Lady M’s death plunge has never looked more dramatic: she seems to be falling from the stratosphere. A floppy dummy, admittedly, but Welles racks focus to nowhere just before that becomes distracting. As the English army invade, the optical zooms Welles has slapped on everything create a propulsive energy. He’s actually invented a whole new technique here, zoom upon zoom, which could look impressive in a modern film.

Hard to escape the suspicion that Welles’ ambulatory forest, step-printed into eerie slomo, inspired Kurosawa’s depiction in THRONE OF BLOOD.

Where Welles’ Macbeth connects to Coen’s is chiefly in the idea of an interior film, shot entirely (a) in the studio and (b) in Macbeth’s head. Though both versions include scenes without Mac, and we’re not in the realms of Welles’ planned HEART OF DARKNESS, shooting everything subjective camera, there’s still a strong sense of this 1:1.33 grey box we call the world being compassed within the hero’s mind. Maybe that’s why Orson wears a square crown.

MACBETH stars Hank Quinlan; Bertha Duncan; Robinson Crusoe; Caesar; Dr. Karol Noymann; Alfred the butler; Roger Bronson; Morgan Ryker; Thompson; Goldie; and Rock Person.

Strangeways

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Finally reading The Smiler with the Knife, written by Nicholas Blake (who was really the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel) in 1939, immediately optioned by RKO and briefly developed by Orson Welles as his Hollywood debut, after THE HEART OF DARKNESS fell through and before CITIZEN KANE came through. It’s an item in Welles bios that always intrigued me.

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Years ago I read Blake’s The Beast Must Die, which has no relation to the Amicus werewolf whodunnit (spoiler: the werewolf dunnit), but which was decently filmed by Chabrol as QUE LA BETE MEURE in 1969, and as LA BESTIA DEBE MORIR in 1952 by my man Roman Vinoly Barreto. The best bit of the book is a lengthy confession written by a man plotting the murder of the motorist who drunkenly killed his child. Then Blake’s posh private eye, Nigel Strangeways comes along and solves it, and the story devolves into a conventional country house kind of thriller, sitting uncomfortably with the raw emotion of the killer POV sequence. Chabrol certainly noticed that, and excised Strangeways from his movie altogether. I haven’t been able to see the Barreto, but he may have done the same, or maybe he just changed the names. Has Nigel Strangeways ever made it to the screen?

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Poor Nigel is largely absent from The Smiler with the Knife too, with his wife Georgia, intrepid explorer, taking centre stage, going underground to unmask a fascist plot to take over Britain — the aristocratic leader of the secret society falls in love with her and she has to betray and outwit him. Events rapidly overtook the novel with the outbreak of war, but Welles planned to relocate the story to America, with the villain a Howard Hughes type. Ironic, since Hughes would end up owning RKO.

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Welles also included, according to Joseph McBride’s Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, a Hearst-like newspaper baron called W.N. Howells — now, presumably Welles had in mind for himself the big bad guy role, whose character has quite a bit in common with his eventual role in THE STRANGER (secret fascist hiding in plain view, in love with a woman who does not share his sinister sympathies), but “W.N. Howells” sounds so much like a misheard “Orson Welles” that it’s hard to believe he wasn’t already sizing up the part for himself.

Blake/Day-Lewis makes his main villain a romantic millionaire figure, toying humorously with the affections of countless women but falling dangerously in love with Georgia. He also ends up blinded in a fire she starts, anticipating Welles role as Rochester in JANE AYRE EYRE. His styling as an “attractive brute” type may have been a stretch for Orson, but no doubt appealed, and one aspect of his description, his “oddly lumbering, bear-like gait,” fits Welles, no twinkletoes, to a tee.

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Nobody seems to have produced a really detailed synopsis of Welles’ adaptation, and it’s not published or available to read online, but I recall (correctly, I hope) that Welles wanted Lucille Ball for the lead. This would have changed Georgia’s character considerably, and a good thing too — Blake/Day-Lewis has to work hard to even begin to make plausible her role as an undercover agent when she’s well-known as the daughter-in-law of a Scotland Yard commissioner whose job is to expose the conspirators. I imagine Welles making her much more of a regular working girl, perhaps anticipating her role in the delightful 1947 thriller LURED (Douglas Sirk), in which she plays a taxi dancer going undercover to snare a serial killer.

The latter part of the book is a very Hitchcockian chase thriller, in the 39 STEPS mode. Welles had some kind of inherent antipathy to Hitchcock, co-existing with an attraction to often similar material (but what attracted him about it was obviously quite different). It would have been fascinating to see what he’d make of this.

Oh well, we’ll just have to make do with CITIZEN KANE.