Archive for Orson Welles

Floral Arrangements

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2023 by dcairns

Two dedicated professionals: M. Verdoux is still sending flowers to Mme. Grosnay; Det. Morrow (shouldn’t it be “Moreau”?) is trailing him, an indefatigable Javert of Justice. A single, slightly wobbly tracking shot takes us from Verdoux floral purchase to the watchful flic — this kind of storytelling camera move is extremely rare in Chaplin’s work.

[I’ve identified five principle motivations for the camera to move: exploring space; following a moving character; representing the POV of a moving character; evoking a psychological change in a character; and telling a story. The narrational tracking shot is common in horror movies and Hitchcock. By moving from one subject to another, the director self-consciously lets us in on what’s happening beneath the surface of a situation. Often, the movement takes us from a seemingly innocent wide shot to a detail that has sinister implications, as it does here. MONSIEUR VERDOUX, dealing with crime, murder, and detection, is next-door to a thriller. We can assume that had Orson Welles been able to develop his own idea (which Chaplin basically nicked), the thriller aspects may have been even more evident, since the Wellesian style leans towards noir.]

Of all the plot strands in the film, Morrow’s feels the most Wellesian, because it plays games with our sympathies and defies narrative expectations: Morrow is set up as Nemesis, but is neatly taken out of the game just when his purpose seems set to be fulfilled.

Morrow beards Verdoux in his den — the doorbell provokes a startled look, almost to camera (and thence to Charlie’s chums in the audience) in which his head is amusingly framed by a wall mirror, creating a halo effect. Verdoux is able to check Morrow out via the window, a POV shot that aligns us with the prey, not the predator. A series of elegant movements here as Chaplin moves around the room, expressing Verdoux’ discomfiture and his fast thinking. Another ring of the bell makes Verdoux look at us again.

Verdoux runs into the kitchen and we get an axial violation — the switch in camera position causes his movement to flip from left-to-right to right-to-left. This is supposedly the first thing Chaplin learned about movies, and the only thing he learned from Henry “Pathe” Lehrman. Possibly we should blame the production designer for forcing the issue, but Chaplin had the authority and money to order a set wall removed and another put in so he could maintain consistent screen direction…

It’s not that the effect is actually confusing — one man going through a doorway is unlikely to throw us off, comprehensionwise. But it’s inelegant.

Verdoux seems cool as a cucumber once he lets Morrow in (he has his poisoned wine in readiness). Then a nice bit of slapstick as he bumps into the dressmaker’s dummy from act one — not only does the clumsiness betray nerves, something Morrow notices, it’s clumsiness involving an object associated with his murderous career — the dummy represents the dead Thelma Couvais, rising, a stuffed torso on a pole, to accuse her assassin.

Chaplin can now play the scene for suspense — how prepared is Morrow to arrest Verdoux, and will he drink the poison laid out for him? I imagine it may have pleased Chaplin to reduce dialogue to mere delaying action: the cat-and-mouse game going on in the interrogation is secondary to the ticking bomb element.

Morrow has been conveniently silly, not telling police headquarters of his lead. This is a crime story trope, a fact pressed into my awareness by its appearance in Comencini’s THE SUNDAY WOMAN which I watched a week ago: whenever a supporting character says “I know who the killer is but I’m not quite ready to tell,” you can be sure they’re about to get it in the neck. Poor, overconfident Detective Morrow. When he stands up, the camera pushes in with vulturine eagerness as he turns to look right at us, perhaps already feeling the effects of the slow-acting mickey (he’s a touch shiny). Perhaps the Chaplinesque look to camera in this film is associated specifically with Death?

The familiar intersticial shot of racing train wheels leads us by quick dissolve to Morrow’s own dissolution. Like McTeague, antihero of GREED, Verdoux finds himself handcuffed to a corpse, but unlike him he has the key handy. (I worked out a solution to McTeague’s dilemma, although it would still leave him stranded in the desert. We planned to use it in LET US PREY, the horro movie Fiona & I wrote, but amid the innumerable rewrites it got pruned, saved for another day.)

Cut from Verdoux exit, leaving the snoring Inspector in his compartment, to the headline announcing the man’s death, to Verdoux’s smug reaction as he sits at a curbside cafe. As he stands, his eyes seem to catch our own, just as Morrow’s had done…


The Sunday Intertitle: Somewhere

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2023 by dcairns

That’s right — we’re back to M. VERDOUX, and we’re about to meet him.

By Chaplin’s standards, showing up in scene 3 counts as a delayed entrance. The purpose of a delayed entrance, other than to set up the story in the most effective order, which sometimes forces a key character to come in late, is usually to build anticipation. Chaplin could rely on his audience to be anticipating his appearance anyway, but he helps them out — the titles speak of almost no one BUT Chaplin. Then he narrates the prologue in the cemetery. Then we have a scene with the awful Couvais family, who are talking of only two things — the absent Thelma Couvais, who we shall never meet, and the absent Verdoux, as yet unnamed.

Following the narrative style of the day, and of days before, Chaplin doesn’t go straight from his snapshot in scene 2 to the live action, as Welles might have done (KANE is full of associational transitions and omitted establishing shots. Chaplin gives us an exterior and a superimposed title, which again reads like a theatrical programme note. I like the “somewhere.” “A small villa in the South of France” would have done fine, but “somewhere” makes it mysterious. Verdoux is evidently up to no good if his location is “somewhere” rather than somewhere specific.

We meet our man cutting flowers — engaged in an act both romantic and murderous. Then the camera pans off him, all on its own accord, to observe the incinerator belching black smoke. Chabrol’s LANDRU makes a very dark running gag out of this smoke, which also has a Wellesian aspect — the penultimate image of KANE is rising smoke from the burning sled, which also has aspects of a cremation. (THE TRIAL also ends with a cloud of smoke.) Two neighbours, wheeled in for expositional duties, remark that the incinerator’s been going for three days.

Now Verdoux stops to avoid stepping on this critter. So we get the “wouldn’t hurt a fly” angle. David Bordwell, in his marvelous essay, notes that “Verdoux” translates as “sweet worm” or “gentle worm,” and the fuzzy specimen Verdoux rescues is the very embodiment of both those translations, even if it isn’t actually a worm by strict taxonomy. (What is it, cine-entomologists?)

Chaplin is admiring himself before the mirror (of course) when the doorbell rings. Of course, there’s a vanity, even a narcissism about Chaplin. The idea that confidence is attractive reaches, in certain celebrities, a grotesque point: if they love themselves so much, thinks the audience, maybe we should too? Is that the appeal of a certain preening former Prez?

Robert Parrish, future director and former child actor in CITY LIGHTS, tells a funny story about VERDOUX in his fun memoir Growing Up in Hollywood. Working as film editor by this time, he still associated with Chaplin via weekend tennis matches, and one day Chaplin asked him to look at five takes.

This story is dodgy, I think. Parrish describes the sequence consisting of Chaplin doing a little dance at the foot of some stairs, something that doesn’t happen in VERDOUX. It could be a deleted scene, but whenever Parrish describes a scene from a Chaplin film, as in his CITY LIGHTS reminiscences, it’s a scene that doesn’t exist, but has a generically Chaplinesque feel. I think it’s quite possible that Parrish was told a version of this tale, and assimilated it into his own stock of anecdotes. The gist of the story is too good not to be believed.

Anyway, Parrish says he watches the five takes and Chaplin asks him to pick the best. Parrish offers his opinion. Chaplin prefers another take. But what about the crewmember who wanders into shot in that take? asks Parrish.

“What are you looking at HIM for?”demands Chaplin.

The Sunday Intertitle: What follows is history

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2023 by dcairns

To my delight, MONSIEUR VERDOUX has an intertitle. It’s very near the start, but it’s not at the VERY start, so it is decently INTER one sequence and another.

Here’s what happens:

TITLES. The movie’s true title would seem to be MONSIEUR VERDOUX A COMEDY OF MURDERS, but according to the convention that SUNRISE is not SUNRISE A SONG OF TWO HUMANS and NOSFERATU is not NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, except to distinguish it from Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, which is not NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE except to distinguish it from NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, the subtitle is generally omitted.

The heavily-lawyered writer’s credit tells us, pedantically, that it’s “an original story written by” Charles Chaplin, but “based on an idea by” Orson Welles. So how original is it, if it’s based off of something else? I seem to recall CC needed some arm-bending to give OW a name-check at all, and he wants to be very clear that all Welles provided was one idea, and he had to come up with the story.

But even if Welles contributed only the one-liner “Chaplin as Bluebeard,” those three words contain most of the story, since the life story of for-profit serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (that “Désiré” is a hilarious bit of black comedy in itself), known popularly as “Bluebeard,” provides most of the story beats here.

On the other hand, Chaplin didn’t NEED to give Martha Raye a credit in advance of the main cast list, but he did it because he really liked her (she seems to have brought out his human side) and was impressed with what she brought to the movie. She’s this film’s Jack Oakie.

The titles proceed in a series of surprising cuts, only settling down to dissolves when we bring in the cast. They’re also unusually BLACK. And simple. Little drawings of floral tributes frame the text. Reminiscent of silent movies, in all three of these features.

We learn that good old Rollie (here the more formal “Roland” Totheroh) is back on solo camera duty, and yet again there’s an added name, Curt (here “Curtis”) Courant, credited with “Artistic Supervision”. So poor RT has another German looking over his shoulder, after Karl Struss on THE GREAT DICTATOR.

One Wallace Chewning is credited as “operative cameraman,” a hilariously fancy way of saying “camera operator.” You can really sense Chaplin’s less attractive qualities in that choice.

Chaplin’s music, this time arranged by Rudolph Schrager, is straight gaslight noir stuff, a surprising flavour from CC. Schrager, another emigre, alternated between film scoring and musical direction, stock music, all that stuff, and seems to have been equally at home in thrillers and musical comedies. And nothing in between, except this one.

Associated Director Wheeler Dryden — Chaplin’s OTHER half-brother; Assistant Director Robert Florey — already an established feature director, Florey was smart enough to take a demotion to learn at Chaplin’s side. It’s possible he was also on hand as an advisor on French customs. Then Chaplin’s Directed By credit. His name appears a mere four times in the titles, although he does credit himself with playing four roles, even though three of them are just aliases and he plays them all the same way.

Then we fade up on Verdoux’s grave and Chaplin’s in-character VO begins, reminding me that, three years before SUNSET BLVD, this movie is narrated by a dead man. Ironic, given Billy Wilder’s dismissive attitude to Chaplin’s talkies — and, given that SB is about silent pictures, the connection is unlikely to be accidental.

The music has warned us that there will be serious stuff, the subtitle has subverted it, and now Chaplin’s VOICE, of all things, defines the tone. “Good evening!” Verdoux will invite our sympathy, admit but sugar-coat his criminality, will be elegant and tasteful when discussing distasteful matters. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS will adopt a similar approach and make much more of the contrast between spoken VO and depicted action, with an overt tonal clash averted by the avoidance of looking too closely at the grim details.

The tracking shot across the graveyard is very beautiful, in part because of the dark waving shadows produced by the trees. I’m inclined to credit Herr Courant. It’s actually a rather NEW idea — graveyards in horror movies are typically nocturnal studio sets. In other dramas, they might be locations in broad California sunlight. Sun but with strong shadows that don’t keep still is a lovely way of doing it, and might sum up the tone of the coming movie quite nicely.

“Only a person with undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture.”

What Chaplin does with his narration is a direct analog of what he did as a silent tramp: he transforms the conventionally sordid into something that makes an attempt at gentlemanly elegance. The attempt cannot succeed: you can still see the reality through the mask of delicacy, but the attempt matters, is everything. It embodies the spirit of UNDAUNTED OPTIMISM. Only a person animated by such optimism would attempt to convince a 1940s audience that his career of serial uxoricide should be considered purely as a commercial venture.

Intertitle! Behaving exactly like a silent movie one, but also like the program or playscript of a stage play: