Orson Welles

Mank

04/12/20

Netflix

It seems I’ve been waiting for this film for just about forever. Director David Fincher first mentioned it as a possible follow up to Alien3 way back in 1992. With a screenplay by his father, Jack, it would focus on the creation of Citizen Kane. It would provide an answer to how much involvement Orson Welles actually had in the writing of that Oscar-winning screenplay and it would, of course, look into the allegations that the film was besmirched by the machinations of powerful newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst.

Was I up for this? Yes, big time, because this is a story that has fascinated me since my youth. But, as it turned out, I was going to have to be patient…

And now, in one of the bleakest years in human history, it finally turns up, virtually unannounced on Netflix. Needless to say, I don’t allow a great deal of time to elapse before I tune in.

And it’s worth the wait. This is absolutely sumptuous, oozing class from every beautiful monochromatic frame, courtesy of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. Here is a faultless recreation of an era, right down to the visible scene descriptions, written clickety-clackety on a manual typewriter. From the opening credits onwards, Mank puts the viewer slap-bang in the early 1940s and keeps them immersed in that turbulent era right up until the final credits.

Washed-up screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) finds himself installed in a remote desert location, shortly after suffering serious injuries in a car crash. Sternly monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and ably assisted by English secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), he has been given the daunting task of writing the debut motion picture for Mercury Theatre’s Wunderkind, Orson Welles (Tom Burke). And he has just sixty days in which to do it.

It doesn’t help that Mank (as he is known to his friends) is an alcoholic. But he sets about the task with as much vigour as he can muster and, as he writes, his mind skips back and forth (rather like the screenplay he’s working on) over his changing fortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

We encounter Mank’s hostile relationship with muck-raking press baron, Hearst (Charles Dance), his platonic friendship with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies (an almost luminous Amanda Seyfried), and his pugilistic dealings with the extremely unlikable Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more – much more – in a packed two hours and eleven minutes; indeed, it’s probably fair to say that this is a story as rich and multi-layered as Kane itself. It’s also surprisingly prescient. The realisation that a super-rich newspaper proprietor can exert a powerful influence over the politics of a country, even going so far as to film fake news items to help steal an election, seems like a decidedly contemporary notion… but clearly that kind of thing has been going on for decades.

The film isn’t quite perfect. A scene where Mank goes on a (very long) drunken diatribe at one of Hearst’s lavish parties stretches credulity, and there are a few leaden missteps around the middle section, but these are minor blips in something that’s a giant step up from much of the so-so fodder that gets made. Fincher has created a warm, and moving testimonial to his late father’s memory, one that deserves to stand alongside the infamous movie it commemorates. Of course, it helps if you’re a fan of Kane in the first place, but it’s by no means essential.

If you’ve a couple of hours to spare, why not spoil yourselves? This is a superb piece of cinema.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

02/12/20

Netflix

With David Fincher’s Mank due to appear on Netflix any day now, this seems like the perfect moment to have a closer look at the maverick genius, Orson Welles. Mank is all about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and the making of Citizen Kane. For many decades consistently referred to as ‘the best movie ever made,’ it certainly was an absolute game changer when it appeared in 1941. Welles was only 24 years old at that point – but, mostly due to the awful treatment he subsequently received from his peers in Hollywood, he would never achieve such dizzy heights again.

Also on Netflix is this gem – a documentary about the great director’s long (and ultimately doomed) attempts to create one final movie, The Other Side of the Wind. The film, as meticulously reconstructed from a series of outtakes by Welles’ old buddy, Peter Bogdanovich, can also be found on Netflix if you look hard enough, but it’s this vivid documentary that makes for the better watch. Narrated by Alan Cummings, directed by Morgan Neville and starring a whole cavalcade of Welles’ former friends and acquaintances, it gives an all-too-clear indication of the kind of mayhem that ebbed and flowed around the great man during the film’s troubled shoot. (You can almost smell the hashish blasting around the likes of Dennis Hopper, John Huston and Rich Little as they stumble around the set, vainly trying to work out exactly what Welles is attempting to do.) But TOSOTW had other problems to contend with, not least having the movie’s master print seized and locked up by the Shah of Iran – one of Welles’ shady backers.

Did Welles deserve to be regarded as a cinematic genius? Oh, yes, definitely. Was he treated abominably by the country that spawned him? Most assuredly. Hollywood may belatedly have offered him a trumped-up award for cinematic achievement, but nobody was ready to back up any of his enterprises with hard currency. In retrospect, it seems that they were simply trying to absolve their own collective guilt.

But it’s important to point out that, through a career plagued by adversity, Welles did somehow manage to create some astonishing films. Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, A Touch of Evil… and also, some of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to celluloid – Chimes at Midnight is frankly extraordinary. This is a decent legacy for any director to leave behind, let alone one who started so promisingly and thereafter had every kind of shit heaped on his shoulders. He developed a reputation for being hard to get on with, but is it any wonder?

If you haven’t seen this, do take the opportunity to catch up with it and, if you’re feeling brave, move on to The Other Side of the Wind. Sure, it’s a tad incoherent and I’m really not sure about the film within a film – the one that clearly sets out to rubbish the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, but… imagine how good it might have been if only Welles’ had the budget he needed to do it properly.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Touch of Evil

29/09/19

Orson Welles is one of the most enigmatic filmmakers in history. His cinematic career began spectacularly with Citizen Kane in 1941, a film that has consistantly featured in critics ‘best of’ lists down the years. But – largely because of the malign influence of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whom Kane was allegedly based – Welles’ subsequent endeavours consisted mostly of ducking and diving, scrambling around to try to scratch up enough money to back his features. Despite the inevitable low budget, his 1958 noir classic, Touch of Evil is always a joy to watch, particularly in this version, which reinstates footage cut from the original theatrical release – and the opportunity to see it once again on the big screen is simply too enticing to pass up.

Dazzingly shot in black and white by Russell Metty, the film stars Welles as veteran cop Hank Quinlan, who operates in a small town on the Mexican border. Quinlan is a man who never lets little technicalites (such as a suspect’s innocence) get in the way of a successful conviction. When a local building contracter is blown to pieces by a bomb placed in the boot of his car, Quinlan sets about finding the killer, but the investigation is compromised by the presence of Mexican cop, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston – yes, really), who is celebrating his marriage to Susan (Janet Leigh), and who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay so, Heston (and also Marlene Dietrich) wear brownface to play Mexicans, which definitely wouldn’t fly in these more enlightened times, but there’s plenty here to enthrall, not least Welles’ audacious performance as the grotesque, racist police officer.

The film feels strangely ‘modern’ in its approach and it’s interesting to note that it was realised a full two years before Hitchcock’s Psycho would once again have Janet Leigh checking in to a terrifying motel. From the infamous twelve-minute tracking shot, depicting the planting of the bomb, to the final act where Vargas struggles to get Quinlan’s unwitting confession on tape, this is undoubtedly a B-movie masterpiece and one that stands up really well after all these years. It’s always sad to consider where Welles might have gone if Hollywood had been welcoming to his post-Kane projects, rather than repeatedly slamming the door in his face.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The War of the Worlds

09/08/19

Pleasance Forth, Edinburgh

In 1938, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company transmitted a groundbreaking radio drama, an adaptation of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds. In an attempt to bring the piece up to date, the story was told through a series of eerily realistic news reports, utilising sound effects and, at one point, even lapsing into total silence – an unprecedented technique on radio. The result was mass panic. Hordes of people, thinking they had tuned in to an actual news bulletin, left their homes in terror, convinced that the planet really was being invaded by aliens.

Theatre group Rhum and Clay reproduce extracts from the original broadcast, but intercut them with a contemporary story in which ambitious podcaster, Meena, visits the town of Grovers Mill in New Jersey, where Orson Welles located his adaptation. The Clinton/Trump election is fast approaching and Meena is chasing a story concerning a woman who claims to have been ‘abandoned’ as a result of Welles’ broadcast. Instead, she uncovers evidence of news articles being faked to further political aims – and to generate considerable income. Writer Isley Lynn is making an important point here. If hearts and minds can be so easily manipulated in the name of entertainment, then the same techniques can be (and are being) used for more nefarious purposes.

Simply but effectively staged, and convincingly acted by Jess Mabel Jones, Matthew Wells, Julian Spooner and Amalia Vitale, The War of the Worlds is one of those productions that prompts plenty of conversation afterwards. Those expecting a straight rerun of the Mercury Theatre’s transmission will be suprised and possibly even disappointed by this – it’s an altogether slipperier and more labyrinthine beast than its progenitor – but it makes its points eloquently and is well worth your time and money.

And you’ll be discussing it for hours.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Bad Times at the El Royale

22/10/18

Drew Goddard has made his name mostly as a writer on various projects over the years with only 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods under his directorial hand. With Bad Times at the El Royale, he finally goes the full Orson Welles: writing, producing, directing – and no doubt making the tea whenever he has a spare moment.

It’s clear from the get go that this is a true labour of love and, what’s more, a considerable cinematic achievement. The film looks absolutely stunning and its multilayered characterisations and linking narratives recall Paul Thomas Anderson’s work on the equally labyrinthine Magnolia. Praise indeed.

The story opens in 1959 in a room of the titular hotel, where something mysterious and very film noir kicks off the proceedings with a loud gunshot. We then cut to the same location, ten years later. The El Royale is situated slap bang on the border between sunny California and dusty Nevada – indeed, a red line runs through the lobby and guests can choose to stay in their preferred state, so long as they agree to abide by its rules. A disparate group of travellers book themselves in for the night. They comprise shambolic priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), angel-voiced pop singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), loud-mouthed vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour (John Hamm), and the mysterious and sullen Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). They are greeted by the hotel’s lone employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who, after delivering a well-rehearsed introduction, assigns them to their various rooms.

It soon becomes clear that hardly any of the guests are quite what they seem – and that the hotel too has many dark secrets to be uncovered. Indeed, the story has so many fascinating twists and turns, it makes it difficult to relate much in the way of plot without risking major spoilers. Suffice to say that Goddard’s masterful script is packed full of genuine surprises. Just when I think I know where I am, he gleefully pulls the rug from under me, again and again. And each time I fall for it. Every occupied room number is assigned a title header – think of them, if you will, as chapters – and there is much about this film that makes me think of great books rather than films.

At two hours and twenty one minutes, Goddard is clearly happy to take his own sweet time to let his characters fully develop; indeed, it’s a good forty minutes before we even get so much as a glimpse of  the Charles Manson-esque, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), and it’s only in the film’s final stretches that he comes swaggering into the action, dispensing violent retribution to whoever is unlucky enough to cross his path.

This is simply glorious filmmaking and if there’s a more intelligent thriller this year, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Bridges is terrific (let’s face it, he always is) but it’s Erivo as the quietly determined Darlene who is the true revelation here, her presence absolutely illuminating every frame she’s in. There’s a superb soundtrack of Motown classics (with a little Deep Purple to emphasise Billy Lee’s satanic connections) and, despite the complexity of those interweaving stories, complete with various flashbacks to earlier days, I never have any questions left unanswered.

There aren’t many people in the viewing I attend and that’s a real shame. Sadly, films of this quality don’t come around too often.

My advice? See it now, before it’s gone. That gorgeous cinematography won’t look half as ravishing on the small screen.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney