Archive for Robert Wise

The Saggy D.A.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 19, 2015 by dcairns

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Let me see… I saw CRIMINAL COURT, an early RKO Robert Wise B-movie (but not produced by Val Lewton — interesting how largely bland that makes it), and quite enjoyed it (Fiona: “I’m loving the plot in this!”) but a day or two later it’s sort of dissipated from my mind. What do I recall?

Tom Conway is a hotshot lawyer, a defence attorney who’s about to run for DA on an integrity ticket (that’s a thing, right?). He’s obtained hidden camera footage of gangster’s brother Steve Brodie delivering bribes, which he runs for guests at a party — he gives great parties: canapes, cocktails and incriminating evidence. But he gets a call from the top mobster (Robert Armstrong — King Kong’s boss) threatening him, so sneaks out while the projector is whirring and visits the guy at his swank nightclub (all gangsters run swank nightclubs). During a scuffle, the gangster draws a gun, Conway slugs him, the gun goes off, and the gangster is killed. Oh, wait, Conway actually slugs him FIRST, then wallops him a second time when the gun is drawn. Right.

Conway returns to his party and nobody has missed him — he has the perfect alibi. But his girlfriend (Martha O’Driscoll) works as a torch singer at the gangster’s club — I know! — and she walks in, picks up the gun, says, “I shot him!” in a loud voice and then “No!” in a quiet voice, and gets herself arrested. NEVER do this. “I shot him,” is something you should definitely not say at a crime scene, unless it’s true. It confuses people.

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What with his integrity and everything, Conway confesses as soon as he realizes his gf is in the frame. But everyone is so used to his courtroom antics — oh yeah, he pulls stunts like drawing a pistol and panicking the court in order to show what happens when people see a gun — that nobody will believe him. He has the perfect alibi, is a known play-actor, and his girlfriend looks unbelievably guilty.

BUT Conway’s secretary has been secretly working for the mob boss, and was secretly present the night of the self-defense/accidental killing, and secretly witnessed it all through a secret hole in the wall. Conway realizes this when she betrays knowledge of the incident she couldn’t otherwise have, forces her to testify, and then has Steven Brodie and his accomplices nabbed when they try to rub her out.

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There, that wasn’t so bad. My senility isn’t as advanced as I feared. Conway is free to marry the girl, and everyone is so impressed by his integrity that he’s now a shoe-in for D.A. Killing that guy and running away won’t hurt his chances at all — if anything, everyone likes him better than they did before.

Hmm, have I got that right?

Mondo Kane #4: The Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2013 by dcairns

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CITIZEN KANE’s first flashback sequence is the one framed by the intrepid Thompson’s visit to the Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library, there to peruse the unpublished memoirs of Kane’s garr-DEE-an, as Kane Snr. quaintly pronounces it. It’s interesting, to me anyhow, that KANE started life as a RASHOMON type story in which each person’s memory of the protag/antag would vary wildly according to their opinion of him — and just like in RASHOMON, one account is given by a dead man. But rather than employing a spirit medium, which might have clashed with the film’s approach and was probably counter to the standard practice of newsreel companies at the time, boy reporter Jerry Thompson goes on the internet consults the memoirs of one who knew Kane well.

Welles opens, fading in, looking up at a statue of Thatcher, apparently hewn from living butter — but this was not originally how the sequence began. The shot as filmed by Welles started on the plinth and plaque, dollying back to reveal the dragon lady in charge of the establishment and her fruity minion. In post-production, Welles mentioned to FX artist Vernon L. Walker that he’d prefer to start on the statue — just like that, as if it existed. Here we see Welles’ ability to use his naiveté about filmmaking to produce results.

(The Blu-ray people have cleaned up a hair stuck amid the paintwork that joins the miniature to the full-scale set. Not sure I approve of that. Certainly Welles would have preferred it without the hair. But is the purpose of a restoration to restore a film to as close to its original state as possible, or to a state of perfection it never had? Rather than trying to imagine the artist’s intent, I’d prefer simply preserving what he actually did, which is much easier.)

Even though what Welles was asking for was impossible, Walker applied himself to the problem — and cracked it. First he shot a stationary low angle on a miniature statue of George Coulouris as Thatcher, whittled from Lurpak by the props department. Then he created an artificial move in the optical printer, scrolling the shot so it vanished from the top of frame. He matched this to a similar move on the plinth and joined the two together with an invisible wipe. Watch the shot in motion — it’s still an astonishing piece of work, and more than makes up for the sloshy skylight at the El Rancho.

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Let’s pause to consider what a bizarre place the Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library is. A library that looks like a mausoleum, guarded by a sniffy librarian and a security guard, The only decorations are a statue of a seated Thatcher, scowling in thought like a bald Rodin, and a humongous painting of Thatcher, scowling at the painter. Behind a heavy door is the reading room, apparently a cinderblock dungeon containing the library’s only book, Thatcher’s unpublished memoirs, which are kept in a vault within the vault. Why are the memoirs unpublished? Because who wants to read the memoirs of a banker? Thatcher no doubt knew this, but constructed a building to house the unwanted book, and employed staff to prevent anybody from reading or quoting from the worthless tome. Thatcher’s library is as grandiose a folly as Kane’s opera house, but at least the theater could serve its purpose and give satisfaction to others. Thatcher’s chilly domain is a monument to himself, and it’s as frigid and pointless as the man who commissioned it.

From the Coulouris family website: “Towards the end of his life he tried his hand at writing and produced some charming memoirs describing his early life in Manchester and his early stage experiences, as yet unpublished except for a vivid excerpt published in the Guardian newspaper in February 1986.”

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Laughing at Thatcher’s security precautions, Toland’s camera melts its way through the heavy door slammed in its face and approaches the table where Thompson reads the forbidden book, which with this level of ceremony around it ought to at least be the Necronomicon. And then we’re gliding along the first line of the first entry to feature young Kane (Sonny Bupp), in a shot familiar to fans of TAXI DRIVER. For callow amusement, you can try reading it out in Travis Bickle’s voice, (“I first encountered Mr. Kane in 1871…”) or else try a Travis Bickle diary entry in George Coulouris’s voice. “All the animals come out at night… whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

Here’s where no home video rendition of the movie has yet matched what I’ve seen on the screen in 35mm, though it’s been a while and maybe I’m misremembering. But I have a very strong memory of the dissolve to snow being slow and wonderful in a way that it just isn’t on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. First you see the snowflakes only as they drift across the dark lettering of Thatcher’s prose. Then they grow in strength and you can see them, white on white, as they flutter down the page. Then the page is gone and we’re in wintry Colorado, the land of Mr. Kane’s snowglobe (his own memorial library, of sorts). Bernard Herrmann’s elegiac score actually tells you when you should first see the snow. The Blu-ray actually gets this transition wrong more badly than any previous version, fading from diary to snow altogether, then back again, and then back AGAIN, a meaningless fluttering effect that is clearly NOT what was ever intended by Welles, Robert Wise, or anybody else. Dennis Hopper might have done it like that, but not anyone in 1941. It strikes me as an abomination in an otherwise fine disc.

Sonny Bupp (I just like saying the name) sleds about, thoughtfully concealing the MacGuffin with his little torso, then throws a snowball to attract our attention to his home, Mrs Kane’s Boarding House. This leads us to the very fancy long take inside the house, which is actually TWO shots, the view out the window being a rear-projected plate filmed earlier. And this scene features my favourite “mistake” in the film, the wobbling of Thatcher’s hat, known to impudence as a stovepipe. You see, as Toland dollies back, a team of perspiring props men had to slide Mrs Kane’s writing desk into position under the lens, and a chair for her to sit on, thus carrying on the pretense that the camera is a ghostly eye capable of gliding over or even through domestic furniture. The gag works, but the hat resting on the desk gives a little tell-tale wobble. It’s perfectly harmless, not a blight on the movie or anything, but it has a home-made charm to it that’s particularly appealing in this age of CGI and digital technology and Mel Gibson.

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Agnes Moorehead, in her single scene, is wonderful of course. Fiona says, “I like how she seems in a trance. She’s already made her mind up, so she’s just kind of sleepwalking through it.” The little bits of emotion seeping through Mrs Kane’s businesslike mask add texture to the performance and sow the seeds for the film’s pay-off, which always makes my sister-in-law cry. So much for KANE being a cold film. “It’s BECAUSE it seems cold up until the ending,” says Jane.

The young sprog Bupp is a good match for Welles, whose huge head had a kind of baby structure to it anyway, like Harry Earles. That year, he also played in ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY/THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, and the previous year by some strange quirk he played “Billy Welles” in THREE FACES WEST, featuring John Wayne.

Coulouris, the only cast member beside Welles to feature prominently in the newsreel, now gets to stretch his limbs a little — as young Thatcher he has just one scene playing his own biological age, and perfectly conveys the quality of being an old man trapped in a young man’s body. Then we quickly see him middle-aged and then ancient, transformed into Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. And indeed, Coulouris is the only KANE cast member to have aged in line with his Maurice Seiderman makeup. Welles, of course, didn’t become a bald Albert Dekker lookalike with a Frankenstein monster walk. He never even made it into real old age. Nor did Dorothy Comingore, though her fate echoed that of Susan Alexander. But Coulouris in later life always seems exactly like Thatcher in midlife, to sometimes uncanny effect. How can he still be alive, we wonder as we watch him in THE RITZ or THE FINAL PROGRAMME.

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“I’m not as frightening as all that, am I?” asks Coulouris. “Yes, you are,” says Fiona, perhaps remembering THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY, the movie which answers the question “What would it be like if Coulouris rather than Welles got to play the titan of industry part, and then had a head transplant, and the film was really bad?”

An exquisite cut — the action of raising the window provides several fine opportunities for a match cut, but Wise wisely chooses the last movement, just as the frame clears shot, affording an unobstructed view of the boarding house front room, which can then become an exterior again as the camera pulls back, The end of this shot is, however, one of the least elegant in the film, an awkward jump in on Bupp and Moorehead which attempts to paste over a visual jolt by cutting in mid-sentence to let the audio glue things together.

Pathos — the abandoned sled, bleak pangs of music from Herrmann, the train horn dopplering away into loneliness, thickening layers of snow concealing the MacGuffin.

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Mr. Thatcher always liked to spend Christmas standing on a camera box.

Lovely verbal match from Bupp’s sarcastic “Merry Christmas!” to an older, crustier Thatcher’s “- and a Happy New Year!” as he dictates a letter and the film goes into its epistolary mode, begun with letters and developed with news headlines.

George Coulouris has his own site (run By Coulouris the Younger). My friend RWC: “I think it would be FUN to run a WEBSITE! Grrr!” (Fiona, impressed at this line reading: “He actually growls!” I had remembered it as an Oliver Norville Hardy “MmmM!” as in the immortal “Hard boiled eggs and nuts — MmmM!” but no, it’s MUCH BIGGER than that.)

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This newspaper montage — much more fun than the usual spinning front page optical — features the first instance in the film of broad comedy mugging, a little-appreciated aspect of The Greatest Movie Ever Made (see also Erskine Sanford). Is it, along with Herrmann’s mwah-mwah-mwah yackety sax comedy stings, a flaw in the artistry? Is it problematic like John Ford’s rambunctious tomfoolery sequences? I don’t think so, but I’m actually in agreement with Pauline Kael on *ONE POINT ALONE* — “Great films are rarely perfect films.”

Dig the variations in the montage — Coulouris lowering his paper to reveal his face, or his location, a newsboy calling the headline instead of George, as he splutters on lomticks of toast — and finally the reveal of the young Orson, leading into the Big Scene.

Welles liked to claim he wore more makeup as the young Kane than he did as the old one — fish scales glued to his face, skin taped back, wig, ever-present false nose (“My own nose is a… nothing.”) — at any rate, Welles has grown into his face as well as anyone could, and curtailed his tendency to ham since his 1937 Warners screen test (where he’s doing the Barrymore role from TWENTIETH CENTURY — maybe that would have worked under heavy makeup, but those words in the mouth of a weird kid are just… repellant) ~

Welles is giving himself the big star treatment in this scene, keeping Coulouris’ back to the camera and positioning Cotten and Sloane as mere lickspittles (their big moments will come) — Kane gets the close-up, the epigram stolen from Hearst, and the crusading hero role against Thatcher, the straw man capitalist. I love this scene, even if it has another slightly odd mid-line edit at the end. It could almost have worked by cutting on the pause before “sixty years” — the moment chosen doesn’t seem quite big enough to motivate a cut. Still, KANE’s flamboyant style is so striking partly because it does sometimes bypass motivation — Bertolucci claims he got his “unmotivated” camera movements from KANE, though I think perhaps rather than “unmotivated” they might be called romantically, or mystically, or sometimes just narratively motivated — the camera is sniffing out areas that might be of relevance to some ongoing plot…

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Thatcher’s final meeting with Kane begins with a sad and creaky parody of his entrance behind a newspaper in the previous scene, as Bernstein lowers the legal agreement whereby Kane is to relinquish control of his media empire, to reveal Thatcher in full preying mantis mode. Kane enters from behind Bernstein’s huge, deep-focus head and parades into long-shot as if to measure himself against the skyscrapers at the window. And Thatcher proceeds to play straight man one more time, setting up Kane’s epigrams.

“Everything you hate.” — and here we get the key to almost everything. Kane’s every political opinion and every move as a publisher has been simply striking back at the institution that took him away from his mother.

And back to the library, for a less abstract and dramatic reverse angle, dominated by an oversized glowering portrait of Thatcher, and we belatedly realize that Jennings the guard is very camp. What with the butch librarian, the Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library begins to seem like some kind of LGBT employment scheme. Would the late Wally have approved? Is this some kind of comment on his character? Thatcher seems fairly sexless, but then he’s never allowed to interact with Kane’s dancing-girls or get a minute alone with Jedediah, so no real opportunity for Coulouris to display a steely twinkle in either eye presents itself. Perhaps, in his childhood, if we only knew it, he once possessed a sled with a painting of a cucumber on it, but the movie doesn’t say.

“Thanks for the use of the hall!”

Mondo Kane #3: El Rancho #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2013 by dcairns

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As newsreel producer Philip Van Zandt concludes his mission directive to boy reporter Jerry Thompson, we boldly SMASH CUT to a poster of Susan Alexander Kane lit by thunderbolt. Editor Robert Wise ruptures the movie’s zombie-slow forward shuffle at several points, the most famous being the screeching parrot with the see-through eye. This is the first, unless we count the eruptions of News on the March.

As Toland cranes up the wall of the El Rancho night club, we ask: “How many hidden transitions has Vernon L. Walker hidden in this shot?” And the answer comes back, “As many as he wants.” Since his revelations to the BBC about adding optical pans wipes and zooms into the film at Welles’ behest, we can no longer take on faith the actuality of any of Welles’ long takes. Andre Bazin spins in his grave until he starts to drill his way through the earth, tunneling under the surface until he hits a six-foot hill and emerges into daylight, a spinning mummy. Welles from the very start was disproving the reality of the long take.

So when we pass the edge of the movie poster and when we pass the edge of the rooftop, those COULD be optical wipes from one shot to another, blurred over with superimposed rainfall, but they aren’t — the shot seems achievable for real, once you understand it. The whole exterior is a large miniature. The impossible move through the neon sign is accomplished with a breakaway prop, setting the stage for more magic later — whenever the camera isn’t looking, Welles gleefully slides set walls, furniture, props and actors about to rearrange the off-camera world, all part of pretending that the camera is not a chunky piece of studio equipment but merely a floating eye, able to roam anywhere.  (Welles: “Isn’t it basically ridiculous that film is in the camera?” Toland: “Yes. Eventually it will be a kind of electric eye. We won’t be carrying the film around, just the lens.”)

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And then the electric eye attempts to pass through the El Rancho skylight and Walker’s optical solution is probably the worst effect in the film, setting aside that parrot’s missing eyeball. He seems to be trying everything he can think of to tie together the overhead view through the rain-soaked glass with the not-sufficiently-similar crane shot down onto Susan Alexander’s table inside. Rather than the plethora of techniques used — an initial dissolve to get us closer to the glass, half-heartedly disguised by a lightning flash — an optical focus-pull to blur the image — an interpolated ECU of rain-on-pane slung in for God knows what desperate reason (in fairness, probably because the rain on the miniature skylight probably made the shot look like a miniature) — when really one good idea (like whiting the screen out completely for a few frames with lightning zap) would probably have done it. Walker remained embarrassed by the transition, and the praise heaped upon it, throughout his life. We’ll have many more opportunities to examine his more impressive work elsewhere as we sidle through KANE.

At some point before the skylight transition, Herrmann’s score has undergone a more successful segue, from the low sonorities of the Kane theme to a warbly, distant sax and clarinet torch song which toots aimlessly in the background, eventually shading in a xylophonic hallucination, occasionally interrupted by echoing thundersheet booms, giving the El Rancho an appropriately haunted, disconsolate atmosphere. (Soon, we are told, Nat “King” Cole will join the ensemble on piano.) The cactus-and-butte themed mural suggests a cheap movie, something many of KANE’s scenes evoke without ever making the film seem LIKE a cheap movie.

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Gus Schilling, a Welles favourite, plays the headwaiter. He has a face just made for standing over table lamps. Welles cast him as the porter in MACBETH, gave him his best role as Goldie in LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and his last role in TOUCH OF EVIL. Typed as a “nervous comedian,” here he’s discomfited by the fact that Susan Alexander Kane is sloshed as a newt and inclined to surliness. Note — when Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander asks for another highball, her delivery is too slurred to make out the headwaiter’s name. When Thompson addresses him later, he inserts a meaningful pause to get the guy to identify himself. “Josh,” volunteers Schilling’s character, but Thompson is too quick to reply, breaking in before he’s finished the syllable and calling him “John.” That overlapping dialogue will trip you every time.

Note also that Susan Alexander really blows her top at Thompson when he calls her Miss Alexander — she’s billed as Susan Alexander Kane, and apparently regards herself as The Widow, so wouldn’t “Mrs. Kane” have been more tactful, divorce or not? Call these little fumbles the first clues that Thompson isn’t going to succeed in his investigation…

Incidentally, it’s a damn good thing SK holds off telling her side of the story until late in the picture — imagine those revelations coming at the start. We’d have the second wife before we’d met the first wife, we’d have Kane’s opera house building before we saw him get famous, and we’d probably have to show how Kane and Susan Alexander first met, a story Welles wisely gives to Jedediah Leland, who introduces it with just the right dry amusement — Susie will maintain her drunken bitterness by focusing only on the relationship’s sour conclusion.

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Amazing frame-within-the-frame fractured composition during Thompson’s phone call to his boss. Two spotlit areas sliced up by shadow, with Thompson himself a mere black hat, accorded equal prominence with a potted plant. I’d happily believe that the telephone he’s honking into is a cardboard cutout, but I fear it’s squandering a whole extra dimension by being real.

“She never heard of Rosebud.” And — fade, The film’s first slow, more or less conventional transition allows us to feel that the plot has truly begun. Maybe something as recognizable as a First Act has been completed.

Next: The Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library.

Buy Robert L. Carringer’s excellent The Making of “Citizen Kane”