Tag Archives: Orson Welles

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil 4
Touch of Evil

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 July 2015

Distributor: BFI

Director: Orson Welles

Writer: Orson Welles

Based on Badge of Evil by: Whit Masterson

Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles

USA 1958

110 mins

Notoriety has long swirled around Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’s 1958 film noir, a box-office failure in the US that famously ended his Hollywood career. But it has since become much admired for its often emulated long take, which masterfully introduces us to the dusty town on the Mexican border in which the story is set.

In the dramatic opening scene, we see a bomb placed underneath a convertible, before the camera pulls away to soar over the streets of the town, following not only the movements of the car, but also the newlyweds whose lives are about to be derailed when the bomb explodes on the American side, killing a local construction magnate and a strip club dancer. The scene is beautifully orchestrated, with stunning sound design. Music pours out of the bars that the couple stroll past, the sound of guitars and jazz flowing into rock and roll, evoking the sultry, sweaty streets of the south, adding a risqué, decadent feel that is echoed throughout the film.

The murder pits two very different law enforcement officers against each other. Vargas (Charlton Heston) is the newly married, upstanding man who’s successfully targeted one of the biggest drug gangs in Mexico; Quinlan, overweight, dishevelled, puffy-eyed, is the revered cop who never fails to get his man, even if it means breaking the law, his convictions based ‘on intuition, rather than fact’. The murder victim is barely relevant to the unfolding plot; rather, the killing is the catalyst that turns the crime thriller into a dark, brooding meditation on good versus evil.

Caught in the middle is Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh), who becomes a victim of both Quinlan and the Mexican gang, who are now on the same side in their war against Vargas. The crime family is led by the unassuming, overweight Joe Gardi (Akim Tamaroff), who has a gang of young thugs in black leather jackets to carry out his dirty work. Susan starts out as a tough broad in pearls and cashmere sweater, but when they hound her in a deserted motel she’s no match for them. In a twisted party scene, the threat of sexual violence, with its racial undertones, pulsates to the sound of the rockabilly music piped through the motel.

Touch of Evil deserves to be watched multiple times, not for the story, but to absorb its brilliance and audacity. The cinematography is a work of art, a virtuoso example of the noir aesthetic, using angles and lighting to heighten the tension. Quinlan looms above the camera, the sweat on his meaty face almost palpable. In one shot his menacing shadow, thrown up against a wall, stalks Vargas as he walks away down a dark road. When Gardi meets his fate, the camerawork and editing are dizzying, the tension and drama escalated by the screeching jazz horns.

There are some weaknesses in the performances by Heston (ignoring the fact that he is, of course, not Mexican) and Leigh, though Marlene Dietrich as the fortune teller who predicts Quinlan’s demise is seductive as always. Joseph Calleia also deserves mention as the tragic sergeant devoted to Quinlan, who will later pay a horrible price. While there is undoubtedly a hint of the B-movie at times, it’s a masterpiece of the noir genre, one of the last true great films of that era, and a fantastic turn by Welles.

Creative control of the film was taken away from the director by Universal, who released a botched version of the film; after seeing it, Welles penned a 58-page memo detailing his desired changes. In 1998, it was re-cut by editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who tried to incorporate as many of Welles’s instructions as possible. It’s a thing of beauty.

Sarah Cronin

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Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)

Falstaff 1
Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 May 2015

Distributor: Mr Bongo Films

Director: Orson Welles

Writers: William Shakespeare (adapted by Orson Welles)

Cast: Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau

Spain 1965

121 mins

Falstaff (aka Chimes at Midnight, as it also known) is an amalgam of two Shakespeare plays (Henry IV Parts One and Two) edited by Welles to bring the character of Sir John Falstaff to the fore. Sir John is one of Prince Hal’s ‘dissolute crew’, a witty but amoral figure of fun who keeps the young wastrel Prince of Wales from the serious business of helping his father rule.
Orson Welles’s obsession with Shakespeare went back a long way. He made film versions of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952); staged plays many times, including his famous voodoo Macbeth in Harlem in 1936 and Chimes at Midnight, first staged in 1960. Welles even claimed to have played Falstaff in a high school production.

Falstaff was a labour of love. Unsurprisingly Welles felt a great affinity for the character whose ‘means are very slender and waist is great’. A man who lies, embellishes and cheats his way through life. He is a corpulent braggart living on credit or hare-brained money-making schemes, and yet he is well-loved and always entertaining – a great storyteller, exaggerator, witty raconteur and self-delusional optimist. It is as if Welles had been preparing for this role his whole life. If films can really be judged on how personal an expression of their author they are, then Falstaff stands supreme in the Welles canon.

Even the story of how Welles obtained the funding for his project seems like a scheme for a modern day Falstaff. Welles had claimed he could shoot two films at the same time using the same cast, crew, and sets whenever possible. For this BOGOF bargain his Spanish investors would get an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (with Welles as Long John Silver) and Falstaff. However, Welles’s focus was clearly on the Shakespeare film. He went as far as building a set for the Treasure Island tavern with the hope of placating the financiers and even spent a day filming sailing ships. But in the end Welles struggled to complete the one film, partly through illness (Welles was hospitalised with a gall bladder infection) and partly through the difficulties in scheduling the cast. Scenes were shot according to availability with actors playing alongside stand-ins. The film’s slightly odd montage sequences of close-ups and reaction shots are due to the fact that the cast were rarely on set together.

The finished film is a messy affair with many technical flaws that can be rather disconcerting. There are continuity errors throughout and the post-synced dialogue never quite matches the movement of the lips. Much, if not all, of the dialogue seems to have been recorded this way. Welles, in typical fashion, overdubbed some of non-English speaking actors himself. Another flaw is Welles’s trademark sonorous voice that here renders Shakespeare’s lines somewhat unclear. Fortunately Keith Baxter (Hal) and especially John Gielgud (King Henry) give the lines the clarity and rhythm they deserve.

Despite all this there is much to admire in Falstaff. The Welles style developed in Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil is still much in evidence. Chiaroscuro lighting is again used to great effect as is composition in depth and those dramatic low camera angles. The Battle of Shrewsbury is a wonderful set-piece and perhaps the film’s highlight. It is a fast moving montage sequence with the camera in close with the swinging swords, the falling bodies and the mud. The camera seems more involved in the fight than the cowardly Falstaff, who hides among the bushes or plays dead.

In Shakespeare’s plays, Falstaff largely provides comic relief although with greater depth of character than a Bottom or Malvolio. However, Welles’s performance is somewhat lacking in humour (he was never known for his ability as a comedian) and his rumbling voice adds gravitas to the role. With the focus away from Prince Hal’s growth towards kingship and skewed towards Falstaff, the narrative is one of decline and fall. Welles has created for Shakespeare another tragedy, ending in heartbreak and death.

Paul Huckerby

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The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai 2
The Lady from Shanghai

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 July 2014

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Orson Welles

Writer: Orson Welles

Based on the novel: If I Die before I Wake by Sherwood King

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane

USA 1947

87 mins

Orson Welles’s dazzling 1947 film noir has a plot so complex that Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn famously offered a cash reward to the lucky person who could explain to him what the hell was going on. But really the storyline is almost incidental to the disorientating inventiveness of The Lady from Shanghai.

Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a poetical lunk of a mariner, who has a truly atrocious Irish accent, literary ambitions, and a hefty punch when the chips are down. He provides the lyrical voice-over, explaining how he found himself all at sea, enmeshed in the machinations, double dealings and conspiracies of an amoral bunch of well-to-do whose idea of a good time is sniping at each other and thinking murderous thoughts, some of which are put into action.

‘It’s a bright, guilty world,’ says Michael O’Hara as he’s spellbound by the beautiful Elsa Bannister, wife of the country’s leading criminal barrister and played in enigmatic siren mode by Rita Hayworth, Welles’s soon to be ex-wife. O’Hara meets her in the park, saves her from thugs, sees her home and turns down her offer of a job crewing their yacht (tellingly called the Circe). It’s too late though, the staunch seafarer has already run aground – ‘I did not use my head, except to think of her’ – and he sets sail on the kind of voyage that could get a man killed, or at the very least, wrongly accused of murder.

Hayward sizzled and sashayed her way through Gilda; here her trademark red hair is cropped and bleached, (much to the chagrin of Cohn, who was hoping to cash in on her pinup status) as, wreathed in cigarette smoke, basking on rocks or softly singing, she sets about luring men to their doom. There’s Michael, who’s entranced by her white hot, ice cold approach to his approaches; her husband, Arthur Bannister, played by radio actor Everett Sloane, who knows far too much about her disreputable past (‘you need more than luck in Shanghai’); while Glen Anders, filled with maniacal glee, takes on the role of Bannister’s business partner. Smitten by Elsa, but keener on disappearing, he persuades O’Hara to pretend to kill him. It is, of course, a set-up, but not in any of the ways you expect.

Welles keeps everything beautifully off-kilter. There are vertiginous shots from a costal keep, strangely disorientating views from the top of the boat’s mast, a claustrophobic jungle picnic, where O’Hara compares the languorously deadly picnickers to frenzied sharks (a speech cribbed from Moby Dick) and a haunting aquarium scene where Elsa and Michael meet, with strange, shadowy sea creatures ominously lurking behind as the couple chart their duplicitous romantic course.

But there’s no escape, as an absconding O’Hara runs through a funfair, plummets through the open mouth of a painted shark and slides, pell mell, into another nightmare. It is a brilliantly expressionist homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which the director made the cast watch before they began filming The Lady from Shanghai. Welles spent the dark hours of the night hand-painting this scenery, intended as the eerie backdrop for an extended exercise in the unhinged, only for most of it to end up on the cutting room floor; but even in its shortened version it’s deliciously sinister. And then there’s the iconic grand finale – a breathtaking shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with guns, bullets, dizzying reflections, life and death and the kind of dialogue that just demands to be quoted: ‘Killing you is like killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of the both of us….’

A new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari will be released in UK cinemas by Eureka Entertainment on 29 August 2014, followed by a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition on 29 September 2014.

Eithne Farry

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F for Fake

F for Fake

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 August 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Orson Welles

Writers: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar

Cast: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar

France/Iran/Germany 1973

88 mins

In Richard Linklater’s film Me and Orson Welles (2008) we get an image of cinema’s great auteur as a self-important egotist and an ambitious womanising tyrant. His character is reminiscent of the spoilt brat from his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons‘ George Amberson (played by Tim Holt), whose irritating selfish behaviour leads the town’s people to wish he’d get his comeuppance. The lauded boy-genius Welles was certainly to get his. After two classic (although commercially unsuccessful) films for RKO, Welles’s career stalled. He found himself a washed-up has-been at just 27. The studio’s subsequent motto ‘Showmanship in place of genius’ was surely a personal slight.

His meteoric rise was followed by a steady decline during which he struggled to put together a messy (although occasionally brilliant) body of work - Shakespeare adaptations shot over several years with money from his acting work; a similarly financed but unfinished Don Quixote (1957-1985); an almost finished film - The Other Side of the Wind (1970) - confiscated by the Iranian government following the fall of the Shah; and at least one classic B-movie-noir. This sporadic filmmaking career was to end with F for Fake (1973).

It is ostensibly a film about the Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory, who claims to have painted many of the Modiglianis or Matisses still housed in top galleries, and de Hory’s biographer Clifford Irving, who himself faked an ‘authorised autobiography’ of Howard Hughes. Welles spent a year editing together footage from a documentary on de Hory by Franí§ois Reichenbach with scenes of himself telling stories and doing magic tricks (also shot by Reichenbach). Welles, of course, can’t resist talking about his own former glories as a faker. The famous story of his War of the Worlds radio broadcast (1938), which panicked America, is retold over re-edited footage from the 1956 sci-fi classic Earth vs the Flying Saucers (directed by Fred F. Sears).

It certainly poses illuminating questions about authorship. De Hory asks what it is that makes his paintings inferior to the originals when no expert can tell them apart. But perhaps more interesting is what the film adds to the debate on cinematic authorship - being made by perhaps the studio system’s most undisputed auteur. Stylistically it doesn’t look like a Welles film - there are none of his trademark directorial flourishes, no deep focus or elaborate crane shots - but it is undoubtedly a personal film. My favourite version as to how Welles came to make the film is that he was asked to provide the voice-over for a documentary about the art forger - Welles’s rich sonorous voice was much in demand for voice-over narrations - and took it over to make a film about himself.

Welles was to claim, ‘I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it’ and, by that standard, F for Fake must be a masterpiece. However, the picture of the creator is much less critical than in Linklater’s film. One suspects it is merely presenting us with Welles as he would like to be seen: the cape-wearing, entertaining storyteller/magician who appeared on TV chatting to Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett or Johnny Carson. Perhaps the film that best reflects its creator (and in the least flattering light) is Chimes at Midnight (1965), where Welles surely recognises himself in that great corpulent braggart, Falstaff.

It somehow seems fitting that the great auteur’s career should end with him cutting up someone else’s film and making something truly personal out of it; but that this personal vision made with total freedom from studio interference should result in endless shots of his new starlet/paramour Oja Kodar’s bottom and an urbane monologue about himself is a little disappointing.

Paul Huckerby



Format: DVD

Release date: 20 September 2010

Distributor: Second Sight Films

Director: Richard Fleischer

Writer: Richard Murphy

Based on the novel by: Meyer Levin

Cast: Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman

USA 1959

103 mins

The Big Important Lawyer is making his final speech. Around him, the court officials and the people in the public gallery sit, their eyes closed, like dreamers. Not a scene from a film, but from the making of one. During the shooting of Compulsion, a moody melodrama based on the Leopold & Loeb murder case, star Orson Welles, a showman afflicted with an intermittent and idiosyncratic form of shyness, told his director that he could not act with all these people looking at him. And so Richard Fleischer, not quite believing what he was doing, asked the extras to close their eyes.

It’s a nice image, complementary to the oneiric intensity of the film.

This particular murder case has inspired several films, from Hitchcock’s Rope to Tom Kalin’s Swoon. The attraction is obvious: apart from the kinky tickle of the two gay killers, and the socially shocking fact that they were from wealthy homes, there’s the idea of murder for the sake of art, to demonstrate one’s superiority from the herd. The Nietzschean angle is central to both Rope and Compulsion, and both films assert a humanist or Christian principle to oppose it.

Compulsion forms the first of an informal trilogy of excellent true-life crime thrillers made by Fleischer, continuing with the baroque, stylish The Boston Strangler, and concluding with the seedy and tragic 10 Rillington Place. The superiority of informal trilogies over the planned kind is their organic nature. (Another, inferior case history made by Fleischer, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, rather spoils the neatness of this scheme.)

In this version of the story, the names have been changed to protect - who, exactly? Twentieth Century Fox, one presumes. But Dean Stockwell’s Judd Steiner is as easily recognisable as Leopold, nervous and sensitive, as Bradford Dillman’s Arthur A Straus is as the cocky, psychopathic Loeb. And Orson Welles even used make-up, including a trademark false nose, to look like Leopold and Loeb’s defence attorney Clarence Darrow (called Jonathan Wilk here), whose closing speech is quoted verbatim. So why the roman í  clef dressing?

All three stars deservedly won awards at Cannes. While the script can’t quite decide on its central character and offers up dull norms Martin Milner (a decent actor with the face of a petulant baby) and Diane Varsi for us to ‘identify’ with, Stockwell sucks us in. Undeniably beautiful, his face moodily modelled by William C Mellor’s low-key lighting, Stockwell tells the story with his eyes more effectively than the over-eager exposition of Richard Murphy’s script. Dillman brings a puppyish enthusiasm to his deadly killer, and Welles threatens to sink the whole thing with a theatrical turn that bodily wrenches the story into a whole different genre.

Every crime story should have a Clarence Darrow in the third act. Unusual in being a defence attorney as cinematically popular as the murderers he defended, Darrow’s presence in a plot brings showbiz dazzle and intellectual rigour to the scene. Here Welles is opposed by the far less colourful, but nevertheless riveting performance of EG Marshall, whose clever investigation wins sympathy that must then be dispelled as the filmmakers now require us to root for the over-privileged, cold-blooded murderers to escape the death penalty. And we do!

This is a humane film with a strong liberal agenda, and if Fleischer never quite attains the jazzy style that invigorates The Boston Strangler with its Mondrian panels of split-screen images, or the tawdry atmosphere that reeks from 10 Rillington Place, he nevertheless delivers numerous striking images and moments. Anticipating Psycho by mere months, he surrounds Stockwell with stuffed birds, tilts the camera madly in a nod to The Third Man, and shoots one conversation reflected in a pair of eye-glasses, perhaps influenced by Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock hovers over the film, a benevolent blimp, and when Fleischer has an actor walk right into the camera, blocking it with his chest, following the technique Hitch used to hide reel changes in the supposedly single-shot Rope, one can imagine the master smiling indulgently.

David Cairns