Archive for The Magnificent Ambersons

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.”

May 6th

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2013 by dcairns

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Without any particular plan, we watched THE HINDENBURG on Friday. We were supposed to be getting married, but we watched THE HINDENBURG instead. I can’t actually tell you whether this was a wise choice, because I haven’t had the experience of getting married, but now that I have watched THE HINDENBURG I can say that married life doesn’t have a great deal to live up to. It ought to be able to knock Robert Wise’s 1975 disaster movie into a cocked hat.

The interesting bit is that we were watching on May 3rd, and part of the film takes place on May 3rd. And then the Hindenburg blows up today, May 6th, only in 1937, giving me plenty of time to write about it.

Basically, most of the film is a snooze. Nelson (THE HAUNTING) Gidding’s screenplay doesn’t manage to make all these sympathetic Nazis very sympathetic, and the unsympathetic ones don’t get to do any real Nazi stuff — Charles Durning in particular is terribly wasted — and there just isn’t a lot of human emotion to it. Oh the humanity! What humanity?

Edward Carfagno’s meticulous production design, apparently extremely accurate, could serve as an analog for the whole project — the Hindenburg’s gondola resembles a 1970s conference centre. It’s pretty small, and doesn’t offer the epic opulence of a Titanic. Against this accuracy, there’s the fact that the film’s sabotage plot is bullshit, but at least it gives William Atherton a chance to be twitchy, and George C. Scott something to brood about. Most watchable of all is Anne Bancroft, even though she has little to do.

We can see the cunning of James Cameron, who made a banal little drama the focus of TITANIC, with all the spectacle simply as dynamic backdrop. Whereas HINDENBURG really is about the Hindenburg, and nothing but the Hindenburg. As boring as the first 90 mins of TITANIC are — and admit it, they’re awesomely boring — at least the romance gives the characters something to do, something which would matter dramatically even if the ship were not sinking. All the action of the airship movie is about stopping a bomb from going off — a bomb which we know IS going to go off. We even know when.

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“Jesus–not Hitler!” I guess a lot of people were thinking that same thought.

I like a lot of Robert Wise films, though I’ve never quite forgiven him for screwing with MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Perfect for him to make a film about a sympathetic Nazi who’s only following orders. That’s harsh, I know. But it’s brought to mind by the film’s deliberate quoting of CITIZEN KANE, with a newsreel (above) at the beginning and the burning sign at the end…

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Ah yes, the end. My favourite bit, because suddenly this staid non-thriller goes batshit crazy. A weird optical effect has the bomb go off like something from a James Bond title sequence, and the movie goes into b&w — purely so as to incorporate the actual newsreel footage of the disaster. Now, it seems unfair to make a disaster movie called THE HINDENBURG and then not stage the climactic destruction yourself. Possibly poor taste, too. But even if you’ve got Albert Whitlock, which they have, I guess it was impossible to create anything as impressive as the reality using 1970s technology. Still, for a colour movie to go into monochrome the second a towering inferno breaks out seems perverse. But the madness has just begun.

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Bottom centre — the burning sign –” Hindenbud!”

Determined to get some sense of urgency into his cinematic dirible, Wise starts zooming randomly, in the modern manner. The newsreel footage freeze-frames for no apparent reason, repeatedly. I guess to try to say, Yes, we know this is stock footage. Look how we’re making it stop and start. There’s one really great high angle where everybody on the ground suddenly grows a long shadow — magnificent stuff. Atherton, mortally wounded, frees a dalmatian from the baggage car — and we spend the whole climax wondering if it got out OK. We don’t care about Burgess Meredith. We don’t care about Rene Auberjonois. Even Anne Bancroft takes a back seat to the dog.

People leap from high places, some of them on fire. The guy from Hogan’s Heroes seems to drop thirty feet without the aid of a stunt double. Small children are flung similar distances, amid flaming debris. Charles Durning smolders, and not in a good way.

Then we get the roll call of the dead. A narrator reads character names, and says “Dead. Dead. Survived. Dead.” as little pictures of the cast appear. After a while he stops bothering to name the minor players. “Dead. Dead. Dead.” Finally, we get the dog. “Survived.” Hooray! The movie ends on a high note.

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Dog — bottom left.

Then it gets better — against Michael Shire’s lovely, elegiac theme music, we get the special effects departments miniature Hindenburg drifting majestically against matted-in blue skies, while the famous real-life news reporter totally loses his shit on the soundtrack. It was a mistake to hire Franklin Pangborn to narrate an air disaster, I feel. False economy.

It’s a really nice and interesting sequence, and probably it should have gone at the start, thus admitting what we already know about the story. But that would have left the movie even less to impress with at the end.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Charlie

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2009 by dcairns

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“Are they?”

Maybe Hitchcock’s first perfect film? Maybe his most perfect, too? Oh yeah, you can’t have degrees of perfection, can you? But maybe Hitchcock can. Absolutes become relative…

SHADOW OF A DOUBT begins with the Universal globe, since like SABOTEUR this is a project made on loan-out to the free and easy Jack Skirball from the rigorous Selznick, and its brilliance should be enough to gainsay the suggestion that Hitchcock needed Selznick’s supervision to make mature films. In its light-hearted way, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is just as mature as REBECCA, and this one goes much, much deeper than either.

The Merry Widow Waltz — the return of the musical plot point — which was lightly touched upon in SABOTEUR, actually, but is much more fully developed here. The music and images of waltzing couples, slowly dissolving to skid row docklands in Newark, a striking incongruity that sets things in motion with a kind of lopsided unease.

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Joseph Cotten, as Uncle Charlie, is introduced as one of those serial killers who lie in bed and brood — see also David Wayne in Losey’s M. It’s the ’40s equivalent of the  trophy gallery, where news cuttings and other, weirder images attest to the resident’s disturbed state — see THE HOWLING for what Fiona reckons is the earliest version of this, and ANTICHRIST for the latest. I like Constance Purdy as the sympathetic landlady: one of these bit-part players who eked out a living playing landladies, society ladies, fat ladies.

Dream logic: two detectives have appeared at Cotten’s building, asking for an interview, yet when he leaves, rather than simply approaching him, they let him walk right past, then start following him. Why? Genre conventions seem to excuse this quite adequately. Cutting to high-angle “God shots,” Hitch seems to show us the whole chase, from a privileged position, but then Charlie vanishes behind a building, the cops emerge, looking baffled, and we pan around and discover Charlie watching from on high, right here with us, enjoying a triumphant cigar.

Charlie sends a telegram to his family, and when he mentions the address (Santa Rosa, California, not so far from the Bodega Bay of THE BIRDS) the next dissolve obligingly takes us there. Now we meet the Newtons, starting with little Ann, Edna May Wonacott, a sort of Pat Hitchcock substitute, and one of Hitchcock’s many fine local discoveries (Another is the heroine’s best friend Cath, played by Estelle Jewell in a wonderful one-note characterisation of quasi-lustful grinning). I adore everything about the family characters in this film, often credited to screenwriter Thornton Wilder (whose participation is loudly trumpeted in the opening titles) but also partly the work of Hitch, Alma, and especially Sally Benson and an uncredited Patricia Collinge, who plays Mom.

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Collinge’s Emma Newton is the most loving portrait of a mother in all Hitchcock’s work. He’s often accused of focussing exclusively on negative maternal figures, and while there are certainly plenty of these in his work, one could point to SHADOW as a refutation of all the charges of misogyny. Hitch’s own mother was called Emma. She was dying during the shoot. It’s a testimony to Collinge that she makes Emma more than a series of dopey/endearing characteristics — the character successfully stands for something far greater than that. And somehow we accept Emma’s vulnerability, so that when people start saying “This would kill your mother,” we totally accept it, even though there’s really nothing to hint at ill health in the script or performance. Collinge just has that quality of emotional fragility. It seems to be tied up with Emma’s desire for everything to be nice — if something shattered her cosy picture of the world, where would she be left? See also THE LITTLE FOXES for Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge together again. Collinge is devastating.

Charles Bates, as little Roger, is the least heavily featured Newton, but he’s very good, and an interesting contrast with Ann. Both are rather intellectual kids, but Roger is more into statistics and hard facts: Ann has a romantic side in her literary choices, and insists that her books are “all true.” Hitch I think is slightly less interested in little boys, but he does craft a memorable little nutcase in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, the chronologically-challenged Arnie.

Henry Travers, as Mr Newton, is an endearing sort of stick, sufficiently mundane and simple to be baffled by his eldest daughter’s moods (which is important for keeping him in the dark later, when the plot thickens), but enlivened by his non-practicing enthusiasm for the murderous arts. And my God, Hume Cronyn is a joy as his best friend Herbie Hawkins, with whom he shares his half-baked plots. The shot of Herbie entering as the family have dinner always cracks me up:

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Proof that Hitchcock, like Keaton, could enlist the space around an actor for comic effect.

This homicidal hobby serves several purposes: it adds a believable quirk to the staid banker father, it’s a connection with Hitch himself, whom one can imagine having similar conversations at the dinner table, and it’s another way of building pressure on daughter Charlie, once she learns that there’s a real-life murderer in their midst.

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Ah, Charlie. Had the great pleasure of seeing Teresa Wright talk about her work at the Edinburgh Film Festival one year. A fine lady. She was quite defensive of Hitch, whom she found charming and well-mannered. She assumed any later bad behaviour on his part must have been down to age and ill-health.

We first meet young Charlie lying in bed brooding — exactly like her Uncle. It’s one of numerous connections drawn between them, and it’s fascinating to consider the similarities and differences in their characters. Also the telepathic link they seem to share, which hovers just below the level of narrative reality, tantalisingly refusing to declare itself as either real or imaginary: just like most real-life instances of “mental telepathy.”

Like her uncle, Charlie is intelligent, strong-willed, and restless — dissatisfied with her immediate circumstances, and yearning for something greater. Unlike him, she has a strong moral compass, not just by being well brought up, but also by having an inherent inner goodness. When she’s torn between helping Charlie and turning him in to the police, it’s two sides of her good nature that are at war within her, the desire to protect society versus the desire to protect her mother and a natural repugnance at the idea of betraying a family member. Charlie is a rare example of a fascinating character who is almost wholly good.

Uncle Charlie, by contrast, is one of the screen’s most convincing psychopaths. Hitch’s research allows for a portrait of a serial killer which is extremely accurate, without delving into spurious psychological portraiture. All of Charlie’s mistakes — and for an intelligent man he makes almost nothing but mistakes — can be put down to his psychopathic condition. Putting $40,000 into Mr Newton’s bank is rather a foolish move, since if he comes under suspicion he won’t be able to get at it, but it’s typical grandiloquence. Giving Charlie a ring with a previous victim’s initials etched in it is a bad blunder, but consistent with the true serial killer’s habit of trophy-taking. (The fact that the victim was a retired music-hall artiste makes me think of LADIES IN RETIREMENT.) And an incident from Uncle Charlie’s history is rich in suggestion: his bicycle crash, which nearly killed him, and resulted in a change of personality. Possible brain damage is a characteristic of many psychopathic case histories, but one of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t seek to explain Uncle Charlie. It’s possible that his near-death experience simply changed his philosophy of life, rather than damaging him neurologically. For Charles Oakley is certainly a philosopher.

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The opening montage of Santa Rosa seems like the most obvious source for the opening of BLUE VELVET. And in this sleazy bar, we find an element of TWIN PEAKS, with an excellent Janet Shaw as waitress Louise Finch, the Ronette Pulawski of her day: “Yes sir, I’d just about die for a ring like that…”

Like his niece, Charlie has a good deal of family feeling, but unlike her, his only goes so deep: when the chips are down, he’s quite willing to sacrifice Charlie, the one person he cares about most in the world, in order to protect Number One. He kids himself when he suggests that only unimportant, useless people have anything to fear from him. His view of the world as a cesspit fully justifies his own ghastly behaviour in his eyes, but while Charlie is disgusted by the low dive he drags her to (Santa Rosa is part Bedford Falls, part Pottertown, and all Lumberton), there’s no indication that she’s going to be seduced by his view of the world.

Another bit of telepathy: Charlie discovers he’s no longer suspected by the police, and bounds up the stairs. But then he senses something that makes him stop. He turns and sees –

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The one person who knows his guilt.

I’m neglecting a character, and it’s one I always neglect: MacDonald Carey as detective Jack Graham. As a deliberately undeveloped potential romantic interest, he doesn’t really have any chance to flower into anything interesting, and Carey isn’t the most interesting actor, although he’s perfectly competent. It might help if he were pretty. But what really works about this figure is that he’s effectively the antagonist — Hitchcock’s much-vaunted fear of policemen neatly coincides with the thrust of the plot. Uncle Charlie isn’t, under normal circumstances, a threat to his family, and while the town does boast a flirtatious “merry widow” whom he may have his eye on, nothing is done to push this subplot forward to the point where we have to imminently fear for her life. No, it’s the presence of the police that creates jeopardy, and what young Charlie most fears is that her uncle will be caught and exposed and her mother will be destroyed.

Bill Krohn, in Hitchcock at Work, devotes an extra-large section to consideration if this film, and apart from his invaluable historical and contextual analysis (including the fact that wartime restrictions on set construction influenced Hitchcock’s decision to shoot on location, giving the film an unusual air of outward realism), he provides a fascinating reading of the film as political allegory. Since, of all the wartime Hitchcocks, SHADOW OF A DOUBT features the least propagandistic elements, apart from SUSPICION (which at one time in its development was going to have a flag-waving ending), this may seem perverse, but Krohn argues his case persuasively, and by the time we reach the film’s last lines, about the world “You have to watch it. It seems to go crazy sometimes, like your Uncle Charlie,” it seems inescapably right. To avoid dating the film, Hitchcock avoided overt references to the war, but Santa Rosa is full of soldiers, the bank is full of ads for war bonds, and the movie shares so much with Welles’s later film THE STRANGER that some of Welles’s anti-fascism seems to seep back in time into the Hitchcock.

Krohn is very strong on the Welles influence on Hitchcock here, suggesting that, since Welles had absorbed the same Germanic principles as Hitchcock, he was the perfect influence to guide Hitch towards making his first truly American movies. He gives several examples of the connections, from those Ambersonian waltzers, to the film’s use of overlapping dialogue, to the sentences which fade out in mid-stream. One powerful example of the last, which Krohn doesn’t cite, is when Patricia Collinge is sitting in the back of a car puzzling over the two accidents her daughter has recently suffered. Before she can reach any conclusion, the car bears her away. In some odd way, this seems to me terribly reminiscent of Major Amberson’s musings about the nature of life and afterlife, which are similarly interrupted by the intervention of a fade-out.

Krohn is also very good on the film’s relationship with Dracula… which sounds surprising when you first hear it, but believe me, he sells the idea. The vampire, of course, cannot enter your home unless invited…

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“You don’t look too well either.” Possibly the only Hitchcock cameo where another character addresses him with a spoken line? Hitch may not have a winning hand in this scene, but he’s holding aces with SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

Side-note: unhappy with his weight (“My ankles hung over my socks,” — possible water retention?), Hitch started dieting around this time, with results which can be seen in his next movie, LIFEBOAT.

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