Archive for Touch of Evil

Mondo Kane #7: El Rancho #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by dcairns

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A clever thing — by introducing Susan Alexander early on, allowing her to dismiss boy reporter Thompson from the royal presence, and then looping back to her an hour later, Welles, Mankiewicz (and the uncredited Houseman) achieve at least two things at once.

(1) The repetition makes us feel like we’re nearing the end, which is a useful clue to plant when dealing with a structure as unconventional as KANE’s. Since film is a time-based medium, and time is the one thing none of us seem to have enough of, it’s useful to let the audience know where they stand. I’m surprised a counter ticking down the seconds remaining hasn’t been inserted in the corner of Hollywood movies, but maybe that’s because you don’t need it — the McKee school of structural conventionality allows a savvy audience to plot their position in a movie’s timeline with unerring accuracy.

(2) The early intro to Susan gives us a warning as to the damage Kane, and time, have inflicted on her. Next seen, she’s the naive girl on the street corner, a far cry from the sozzled night-club entertainer glimpsed at the film’s start. Cotten’s flashback covers a good part of her decline and fall, even though he wasn’t there for most of it — now we’re ready for her to take up her own story, and the movie gains dynamism by plunging directly into something we just saw at the tail-end of the Leland narrative.

In his excellent book The Magic World of Orson Welles, James Naremore points out that the narrators of KANE get progressively more cynical and critical as the film goes on, with Susie as the one who really nails Kane’s character weaknesses, followed only by Paul Stewart who is completely indifferent and contemptuous. In fact, the dynamic is more complicated than that — it’s really complicated. The film wins us over to Kane by presenting him first through the eyes of his greatest enemy. If Thatcher hates him, we feel, he must be pretty OK. A darker side emerges in Bernstein’s affectionate tribute, since Bernstein is not blind to his boss’s faults — he’s just philosophical about them. Leland, the dramatic critic, weighs in very articulately on Kane’s betrayal of “the sacred cause of reform,” but it’s left to Susie to expose Kane as not just a bad friend but a bad man.

Naremore’s very sharp on how the film uses Susie, as Kane described her, as “a cross-section of the American people.” The movie doesn’t show the social damage a figure like Hearst can do, except in metaphoric form through his treatment of the second Mrs Kane.

KANE, Naremore says, is structured around dualities: a man with two wives, two friends, two sleds. And Susan Alexander’s interview brackets the centre of the film, split in two, each sequence opening with the same camera movement, only in this second interview the crane shot up the El Rancho takes place in dawn half-light (it’s EXACTLY the tone of sky you see in the background during the opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL) and with a melancholy, tender repeating arpeggio from Herrmann replacing the thunder and drunken jazz of the first version (and a smooth dissolve replacing the botched attempt at a seamless passage through the skylight).

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Susie, in mellower mood than last time, conducts us into flashback with wry, rueful amusement and one of those loooong dissolves, and we meet Matiste the music teacher, one broadly comic element of the film which nobody seems to mind. I think he works well because (asides from Fortunio Bonanova’s big-but-credible performance) his comedy is tied in to the film’s most painful scenes, making for the kind of uncomfortable and conflicted response you get with Uncle Joe Grandi in TOUCH OF EVIL. Welles’ tendency to hit more than one tone at almost the same time, and hit them both hard, may be one of the traits that kept him from mainstream Hollywood success and a certain kind of critical acceptance. Here, there’s no question of it not working because you don’t have to find the comedy funny or view Susie’s plight or Kane’s monstrousness with irony, it’s simply an option made available to you.

This sequence folds back time a short distance to overlap with Leland’s narrative, but now presents her career not as the grotesque public spectacle Leland reacted against, but as a personal torment inflicted by Kane — Susie, in present tense, is well aware that Kane only married her as a damage-limitation exercise when news of their affair got out, and Leland has already told us that the whole opera bit was an exercise in Orwellian copy-editing on a massive scale — ‘He was going to remove the quotation marks around “singer.”‘

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But still, with the scary rehearsal light and the pain of that thin, strained voice, and the desolation of that lonely curtain-up shot with Susie centre-frame (the weakest, most exposed part of the screen to occupy), we have a perspiring Bonanova coaching Susie from the prompter’s box and getting some pretty good laughs. Amid Welles the actor, director, musician and magician, we shouldn’t forget Welles the cartoonist. Naremore points out that Susie’s kneeling pose at the climax of Salammbo is echoed in her confrontations with her husband later.

Fiona suggests that the paper sculpture a bored Leland makes from his programme is a continuation of the film’s octopus imagery.

The play of sympathies in the film gets still more complicated when Susie — in her own account — transforms to a shrieking shrew. Hard not to feel sorry for Kane, in a scene where he’s just lost his oldest friend and been told he’s sold out his most sacred principles, and all the while he’s got this blonde harridan yelling in his ear. One fears for his pipe-stem.

Is Kane a little deaf in old age? There are a couple of “Hmm?” moments which might be simply distraction (which certainly plays a part) but might also be signs of hearing loss. Maybe that’s how he’s been able to enjoy his wife’s singing all these years. It must certainly be a blessing to him now. But the film is also good on how one person not quite hearing another can make any argument get worse…

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Dorothy Comingore’s voice gets so shrill she loses whole words — one line literally comes out as “I never wanty tdo inna first place!” Presumably the missing bits are audible to dogs, and possibly to the Kane family parakeet, the Xanadu monkeys, or those damned animated flamingos.

And FLIP — with the line “I don’t propose to have myself made ridiculous,” Kane loses all audience empathy and becomes a very raw embodiment of the human-inhuman, self-centeredness incarnate. The other great line that does this is in the other best movie ever made, also scored by Bernard Herrmann, VERTIGO, when Jimmy Stewart tries to get Kim Novak to change her hair: “It can’t matter to you!”

Insanely beautiful, terrifying end to scene as Kane’s shadow eclipses Susie, with just a star-point of light reflecting in her eye, beaming from the blackness.

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Newspaper montage! But not the usual kind — the blinking bulb and multi-tracked vocals create a threatening effect that’s more abstract than anything we’ve seen or heard since the Xanadu opening, especially when the filament fades with the dying warble of an extinguished kettle.

The suicide attempt — a cry for help, really — and one of the few trick effect deep focus shots where the trick can be spotted, just because there’s a hazy area between the sleeping pill bottle and the distant door, something that no lens could achieve.

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Susie with no makeup on (apart from the sweat beads, probably a mix of water and baby oil), an unusual thing to see in a ’40s film. Kane allows her to quit her stage career, I guess a genuine act of kindness on his part and a unique example of Kane being forced to do something, and doing it. His normal temperament would be to double-down in the face of opposition and drive Susie on to destruction. But she’s made it clear what the result would be, and he prefers to keep his wife and sacrifice the opera, just as he preferred to sacrifice his previous marriage in a vain attempt to keep his political career. He can tell himself it’s on his own terms.

But with Susie’s career removed, all that’s left is the horror of leisure — her jigsaws are a cruel comment on her lack of any cultural aspirations, but obviously also a bleak summary of the emptiness of her coddled existence and a miniature version of hubbie’s insane art collection — endless, pointless, automatic, isolating.

The rest of the movie, more or less, takes place in Xanadu.

Kane’s picnic — the exact counterpart of this is Bannister’s grotesque, overblown picnic in LADY FROM SHANGHAI — “It was no more a picnic than… he was a man.” The Floridian beachfront is a combination of Californian location and matte painting. Then we’re back to the studio (KANE is a 90% studio construction) with rear-projection for the everglades campsite. I think I’ve said everything there is to be said about the pterodactyl-flamingos.

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The fight in the tent. I am rather sure that slap is real. Comingore flinches a second before it happens. Micheal MacLiammoir writes in Put Money in thy Purse, his often-hysterical account of the shooting of Welles’ OTHELLO, that Welles slapped Suzanne Cloutier for real, after telling her he wouldn’t, in order to avoid her flinching before the blow is struck. I tend to disapprove — movies are full of slaps, most of them fake, but perfectly convincing. The suspicion is hard to shake that directors who require real violence to photograph want it for non-photographic reasons.

“I’m not sorry.” And that weird SCREAMING in the background. No explanation give — maybe the pterodactyls are eating the party guests and the “It Can’t Be Lobe” singer? But it captures the psychological mood of the moment alright.

Susie’s room at Xanadu is like a doll’s house. The low ceiling beams, almost brushing Welles’ bald cap, make the girly, petite dimensions as oppressive in their way as the grand hall’s echoing monumentalism. Again Welles slams a door in our face, but this time immediately cuts to inside the room, facing the other way — with a starry cartoon BLAM! effect in the wood paneling behind Kane, visually complimenting the still-echoing sound of the closing door.

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Charlie NEARLY talks Mrs Kane into staying, but his selfishness betrays him, and she knows him too well to let it pass — this break-up is something that’s being done TO him, is happening to HIM alone.

Susie walks out, triumphant, and is still upbeat when we fade back to El Rancho. Our attitude to her may have changed, from pitying her as a washed-up drunk, to respecting her as the character who best understood Charles Foster Kane, and who is happier in her alcoholic near-obscurity than she was during the years of unwanted fame. As Sinatra said, I’m for whatever gets you through the night.

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“Well what do you know — it’s morning already.”

The Magic World of Orson Welles
Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Casebooks in Criticism)

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.”

Who Is Harry Keller and Why am I Saying These Terrible Things About Him?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on June 9, 2010 by dcairns

A couple of axioms of the cinema, snapped off my TV screen.

…especially since I’ve never seen a Harry Keller film?

Well, Keller was a Universal studio director, and he was hired to direct additional scenes for Orson Welles’s TOUCH OF EVIL. These were a couple of scenes which Welles had elected not to bother shooting. The studio for some reason decided they were essential, despite the fact that Welles had been changing the script all through production. There is a class of “creative” person who dislikes surprises…

Anyhow, Keller was asked to go back and cover the “missing” stuff, and also reshoot a car scene Welles had covered on location: the rear-projected footage sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s still in the restored version because Welles’s material is lost. Now, I don’t know for sure if it’s true, but I read somewhere that Keller was particularly asked to shoot in a “Wellesian style.” If that’s true, the above is his cinematic response to that brief. What’s known in the trade as a “flat two.”

Now, there are flat two-shots in Welles’s material. But they all develop out of, or into, more interesting compositions. Often they develop out of and into more interesting compositions. I’ve never, as I say, seen a Harry Keller film (was he perhaps related to Helen?), but I’ve seen a few frame grabs, and flat twos feature prominently. There’s nothing wrong with a flat two… except it’s about the least interesting and expressive composition known to cinema.

So, my question — has anybody seen an HK movie, and am I doing him an injustice in writing him off as a talentless hack?

Touch Of Evil (50th Anniversary Edition)

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