Reflections of the Third Eye
13 November 2013
All's well that's Orson Welles?
Now Playing: Masterchef 2012, final

Forced into a couple of weeks convalescene following a bad fall, it slowly dawned on me in my prescription morphine haze that this was the perfect opportunity to process some of the DVDs I have assembled for 'future screening'. The fact that 'the future is now' (the present caught up with the future around 1996) gave the final incentive for a fearless dive into a budget 4-disc Orson Welles box-set, supposedly issued to celebrate Universal's 100 years in showbiz. Or something like that.

I first saw A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966) on TV as a teenager and remember being impressed, even if my taste at the time ran more towards "Re-Animator" and such cult titles. Seeing it again today, I think I understand why it worked, even on an instant-gratification teen mind like mine. The script and Fred Zinneman's direction both reflect a clear desire to communicate in full the 'man' (Sir Thomas More in Paul Schofield's classic interpretation) and the 'season' (an England increasingly divided along catholic/protestant fault lines). The tone is mature yet inviting, while the central conflict is stated via acting and dialogue that remain superbly distinguished. Refusing to compromise his spiritual faith by royal politics, Thomas More comes across as both awe-inspiring and human; not a scapegoated martyr but simply a man of strong ethical fibre. Due to the admirable clarity with which this is presented, it appears as if More's position was the obvious one, which, in a perfect world, it would be. A Man For All Seasons refuses to talk down to the viewer, and its trust in the intelligence on both sides of the screen evokes respect and sympathy. These rare properties have secured its status as a classic quality movie in the otherwise too zany and too flash mid-1960s. 

Alright, but what about Orson Welles? Well, he is in the mix, given the kind of haughty cameo often reserved for actors like Charles Laughton or Laurence Olivier. Welles seems to enjoy himself as an ageing arch-bishop and his dialogue with Schofield is pleasantly Shakespearian. Due to the brevity of his part, and the film's general quality, Orson's bishop remains little more than a fun footnote. 7/10


We get plenty of Orson in the next budget box feature, which he even directed. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947) has garnered support among film noir buffs and Orsonologists alike, and was in fact the main reason why I picked up the box-set. I am not eager to divert from the critical mainstream, especially not in thoroughly analyzed fields like noir and Mr Welles, yet I must follow what my brain and heart commands, and question the presence of any overt qualities in this movie. It is a very peculiar film, but not in a way that looks intentional, and when there's enough oddness to make it all seem surreal, there is no sense of Welles' steady hand guiding us there, unlike (say) David Lynch's surreal film noir studies. Welles' desire to 'make it new' in every moment guarantees a lack of boredom, but certainly our demands on the director are higher than that. 

The Lady From Shanghai finds a mysterious sailor (Welles himself) taking hire on a luxury yacht after being urged to do so by the yacht owner's wife (Rita Hayworth). Except for the joy in seeing Hayworth, the exposition is remarkably weak; Orson seems to have just stepped down from the Ferris Wheel in Vienna, looking nothing like a sailor whatsoever, and his presumed  air of mystery that apparently attracts Hayworth is hard to detect--if anything, it is she who radiates inscrutable sexual allure, and in a fantasy re-write the movie would have gotten off to a better start if Welles had played a realistic sailor who becomes secretly obsessed with wealthy beauty Hayworth and manages to get aboard her yacht. That is a movie I would have been interested in seeing. Possibly there's a bit of Hemingway stirring up confusion inside the Orsonian mind.

The 'luxury yacht' continues from New York towards Panama and it is somehow typical that very little use is made of the scenery and generally cinematic potential of the Caribbean and Central America. Aboard the ship, Welles drifts around in his unique 'Camus-as-a-shipmate' persona, generally not working with the crew which he belongs to, unless stone-faced brooding and cryptic utterances is meant to be his labor. During a stop, an important addtion to the set of characters appears in the form of one Grisby, co-owner of the law firm run by Rita Hayworth's (yet unseen) husband. It is hard to describe this character and the performance of the actor (unknown Glenn Anders), but 'all over the place' seems reasonable, including bizarrely overstated mugging and grinning like an old Chaplin silent. How this lunatic could run a law firm is not explained, nor is the fact that no one seems to react to Grisby's repertoire of grimaces and exaggerated laughter. Welles' choice of extreme close-ups of Grisby's maniacal face makes sure the audience is profoundly aware of it, anyhow. 

Around this point in the movie we are introduced to another key person in the main plot, the yacht owner and successful prosecutor Arthur Bannister (Sloane Everett, familiar from Citizen Kane) who looks to be about three times as old as Rita Hayworth and displays no interest in her whatsoever, not even as a trophy wife. With all players in place, the film noir game can finally begin, although the attentive viewer unavoidably questions the point of Welles' existentialist sailor persona, and why so much screen time was given to his character study rather than the two plotting lawyers. There are no transition scenes or parallels to motivate what is essentially two different movies, with two different aesthetics, squeezed together inside the Lady Of Shanghai wrapping.

The final reel covers the usual film noir trajectory of deception, revelation and the hands of fate and needn't be detailed here, except to say that there are strange plot twists, idiosyncratic acting, and enough illogical behavior to fill a Brian de Palma trilogy. A court scene pushes the script back into absurd domaines, while a chase through a closed fun fair allows for some flashy directing. Welles has his fun with radical camera angles and lighting experiments, yet compared back to back with a tight, sharply conceived work like Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train (which I watched last week) makes me wonder, once more, what the film noir and Welles aficionados really saw worth admiring in The Lady From Shanghai. Ultimately I find it hard to come up with anything more enthusiastic than that 'it's never boring', and that younger generations may enjoy to see Rita Hayworth as a real, working actress, rather than just some glamorous legend. 5/10


Unfortunately, WATERLOO (1970) offers no accidental surrealism or Tinseltown glory to comfort the weary viewer--it's just a bad, clumsy movie that someone lost a shitload of money on. Director Sergey Bondarchuk had alredy gone down in history for a gigantic Russian production of Tolstoy's "War & Peace" (1966) where the negative cost was so high that even Hollywood was impressed. I have not seen that particular epic, but find it hard to believe that it contains the same sloppy, inconsistent direction, ludicrous over-acting and mind-numbingly dull combat scenes that one finds in Waterloo. It reminds me of nothing as much as those old made-for-TV mini-series from the 1960s-70s, where TV was considered a second banana medium and audience expectations were much lower than in the movie theatre. Basically, you could get away with mediocrity on TV, and that's the distribution route Waterloo should have taken.

There is nothing about this worth recommending, so I'll settle for a few observations instead. First off, we have Rod Steiger as Napoleon--the Rod is visually well-cast, but prone to overacting something terrible, be it silent movie facial expressions (i e: 'the crazy stare') or rhetoric outbursts that go one-note long before the line actually ends. Directory Bondarchuk makes things worse by adding voice overdubs (i e: 'interior monologue') to make sure the viewer knows what goes on inside Napoleon's head, on the slim chance that this hasn't been hammered home already. Initially I thought that these odd directorial moves were part of some impressionist agenda, but after a while it became clear that the director simply didn't know what the fuck he was doing.

In this downward spiral of a movie it is arguably fitting that Christopher Plummer was chosen to command the English forces in the part of 'Wellington'. Plummer, who became famous with Sound Of Music, is a limited actor who has been essentially playing the same role his entire movie career--and even that role, he doesn't do all that well in my opinion. I have a feeling that people in the movie business associate him with the natural skill present in great British thespians like Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, and James Mason. However, one needn't see many Plummer movies to realize that he doesn't hold a candle to these eminent and versatile actors. That he faces Rod Steiger in Waterloo is thus entirely in order, and I cracked up when Plummer too was forced to narrate his own interior monologue via post-production overdubs.

I guess that was about how entertaining this boring derailment became; the battle scenes were uninspired, poorly directed and generally incomprehensible, the subplots were so forgettable you may not even notice them, and even poor old Orson Welles came out with the short end of the stick in a nothing-part as Louis XVIII wearing silly-looking royal garment. 4 /10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:41 PM CET
Updated: 17 November 2013 9:31 PM CET

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