Orson Welles

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

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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