Film Review: Prince of Foxes (1949)

Release Date: December 23rd, 1949
Directed by: Henry King
Written by: Milton Krims
Based on: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power, Orson Welles

20th Century Fox, 107 Minutes

Review:

“It is my belief that everything, even death, can be turned into profit.” – Cesare Borgia

Prince of Foxes re-teams director Henry King with his swashbuckling star Tyrone Power. It also adds Orson Welles to the mix as the famous tyrant Cesare Borgia. The fact that I get to see two of my favorite actors play off of each other, is the real treat of this film.

While the poster and the subject matter may make you think that this is a big swashbuckler (albeit in Renaissance Italy), there is very little swordplay and it is more of a historical war drama with a bit of romance and some swashbuckling elements just lightly sprinkled in.

Orson Welles is the perfect Cesare Borgia. While I didn’t live in 1500 and can’t compare the two men, Welles’ personification greatly embodies the spirit of what Borgia was, historically speaking. The power, the boldness, the heartlessness and the ability to conquer for the sake of ego and wealth. Orson Welles captures this and adds in his own cool and eloquent qualities. He also looks like a Renaissance era Sith lord.

Tyrone Power walks into the film with a smile and unrelenting charm but that is why he was a favorite to star in these sort of pictures. His acting chops and masculine presence are strong enough to stand in front of Welles’ Borgia and to hold his ground. While Welles typically outshines most, Power doesn’t lose his presence in the picture and it is still very much his movie.

The film, where possible, made use of accurate locations and historical structures in an effort to make Prince of Foxes as authentic as possible. The world truly feels real and lived in. It doesn’t feel as if these men are just on some Hollywood back lot or in a studio.

The cinematography is lush and lively, even for a black and white picture that came out in the film-noir 40s. The costumes are perfect, the sets are finely ornamented and the attention to detail is pretty astounding. The sound is also pristine, which must have been a challenge with the on location shooting.

Prince of Foxes is neither my favorite Tyrone Power or Orson Welles picture. However, it was still a film of high quality that brought these two giants together. It kind of holds a special place for me because of that. And I’ve always loved tales of the infamous Borgia family.

Documentary Review: Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles (2014)

Release Date: December 10th, 2014
Directed by: Chuck Workman
Music by: Elliot Goldenthal (composer, stock music)

Calliope Films, Wheelhouse Creative, Cohen Media Group, 95 Minutes

Review:

Orson Welles was a one of a kind master behind and in front of the camera. His first motion picture is considered the best film of all-time by a lot of people. It is hard to argue against it, as it is a true classic masterpiece.

This isn’t just about the film Citizen Kane, though. This is a documentary that follows Welles’ entire career and life and talks to key people from his life on the personal and professional sides.

I have been a fan of Welles ever since discovering his work when I was a teenager. I saw Citizen Kane in my high school film studies class and I was drawn in when most of the other kids in my class seemed sort of uninterested. Too many kids were in that class because they thought they would just watch movies all day and earn an easy A.

Magician is the premier documentary on Welles, at least that I have seen. It is well organized, the interviews do their job and paint a good picture and Welles’ charm when he pops up to talk about himself and his work, shows just how charismatic and engaging the man was. The Dos Equis guy has nothing on Orson Welles.

I liked the behind the scenes segments on Welles’ films and his professional struggles with the Hollywood system. I loved seeing indie filmmakers like Richard Linklater pop up in this documentary to point out that Welles really was the first true indie filmmaker even though he had to create and express his vision within the major studio system.

Orson Welles is legitimately one of the most interesting people to have existed in the twentieth century. This film does a good job conveying that through Welles’ own words and the words of others.

Film Review: The Stranger (1946)

Release Date: July 2nd, 1946 (Los Angeles, Salt Lake City)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Anthony Veiller, Decla Dunning, Victor Trivas, John Huston (uncredited), Orson Welles (uncredited)
Music by: Bronislaw Kaper
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles

International Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred, conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing, not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain, but we learned from our own casualty list the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everwhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No! He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the firey sword of Siegfried, and he knows subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in. The German’s dream world comes alive when he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace. No, he’s… another Barbarossa… another Hitler.” – Professor Charles Rankin

While not Orson Welles best picture, The Stranger is still better than the vast majority of films throughout history. The thing is, Welles made a dozen or so pictures and they couldn’t all be perfect. The Stranger is not perfect but it is a magnificent work of art. Besides, if you were to rank the auteur’s films, something would have to be towards the bottom, no matter how great all his films are.

Plus, this movie puts Orson Welles together with the great Edward G. Robinson, two of my favorite actors from their era. Joining them is the beautiful and alluring Loretta Young, who seems overshadowed by her male counterparts but is able to hold her own alongside them. She has moments where she truly shines between two of the iconic faces of a film-noir Mount Rushmore.

In a nutshell, the film follows a war crimes investigator (Robinson) who is tracking a high-ranking Nazi fugitive (Welles). This hunt leads the investigator to a small New England town where these two are pitted against one another with Loretta Young’s character caught in the middle, as she is about to marry a prep school teacher, secretly the Nazi.

The film is notable as it was the first to feature documentary footage of the Holocaust. This was done in an effort to create realism and to add weight to the evil nature of the Nazi character. While it was a technique that shocked audiences and caused a stir, the film went on to be highly respected and was nominated for an Academy Award for Victor Trivas’ original story.

Despite being in the lower echelon of Welles’ directorial work, The Stranger was the only film that he made that was an immediate success upon its release. It more than doubled its production costs in six months and tripled them in about a year.

Today, the film is highly regarded by many modern critics and holds a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with a 7.4 on IMDb.

From a visual standpoint, the film utilizes the high contrast style of Welles and the film-noir genre. It has a very lived in feel and a strange majestic beauty with its dark colors and silvery highlights. The final sequence in the clock tower is one of my favorite finales to any film and the demise of the villain is brilliant and incredibly poetic. It was also a pretty ingenious turn, how he meets his doom.

The Stranger is a film that I truly love but it is hard not to love the work of Orson Welles if you are a real fan of motion pictures as art.

Documentary Review: American Experience: War of the Worlds (2013)

Release Date: October 29th, 2013
Directed by: Cathleen O’Connell
Music by: John Kusiak
Narrated by: Oliver Platt

WGBH, PBS, 52 Minutes

Review:

The PBS television documentary series American Experience did an episode that covered the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds.

For those who don’t know, this broadcast convinced many Americans that New Jersey was being invaded by violent Martians. The radio program was done in the style of fake newscasts and those who tuned in too late to hear that this was a performance, were swept up in these fake news reports and thus, widespread panic ensued.

When I was a kid, I heard this story and I couldn’t understand how people could be duped like that. It made me think that people in the 1930s were morons. Living in the world today, I can now see how something like this would have been possible. The documentary also does a fine job outlining how this happened and the points it hits make a lot of sense.

Part of the documentary is made up of dramatizations and actors playing the roles of people who commented on the crazy incident from their historical point of view. These segments were filmed like typical talking head interviews and were there to add some context in regards to the public perception of the event.

Being a fan of Orson Welles, it was cool getting a lot more insight on this incident than just the basic story. It delved into the early production of the broadcast and also the aftermath and how well Welles handled the press and was able to have a huge career after this.

I really enjoyed this documentary and it is actually available on Netflix, at the time of this posting, anyway.

Film Review: Touch of Evil (1958)

Release Date: February, 1958
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Based on: Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson
Music by: Henry Mancini
Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor

Universal International, Universal Pictures, 95 Minutes, 111 Minutes (restored cut)

Review:

“A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.” – Ramon Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas

Touch of Evil wasn’t a roaring smash when it came out but it got the respect and the recognition that it deserved as time marched on. In 1993, this motion picture was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Over the years, it has become recognized as one of Orson Welles’ greatest bodies of work.

While the appearance of Charlton Heston as a Mexican is a bit bizarre and would have all the people up in arms today, once you get beyond his pencil thin mustache and brownface, you realize that beneath the visual stereotype, he is at least playing the Mexican character heroically. Plus, Heston’s not a bad actor anyway and he does his best to make the character of Miguel “Mike” Vargas work.

The cast also includes the eternally alluring Janet Leigh and Orson Welles, who wrote and directed this thing. Zsa Zsa Gabor even shows up in a strip club but this is the 1950s and boobies weren’t allowed to be seen in legitimate motion pictures.

Watching Heston and Welles play off of each other was a magnificent sight. These two men truly felt at odds with one another and their rivalry developed flawlessly on screen. The tension between them was so strong and overbearing that it really drove the picture. Janet Leigh and her character’s situation also added an extra level of suspense that made this one of the most powerful film noirs I have ever seen.

The story takes place on the Mexican border in Southern California. A bomb explodes in a car near the border gate and it brings in the American detective, played by Welles, and the Mexican detective, played by Heston. As the story rolls on, Heston’s Vargas realizes that Welles’ Quinlan is a crooked and racist prick. As Vargas delves deeper in trying to solve the mystery, Quinlan fights back and takes action against Vargas and his wife. Ultimately, the film paints the white American police force as bigoted and corrupt while painting the Mexican detective as just and true with many of the Mexican characters being victimized by the corrupt white cops. I can see where this would have ruffled some feathers in the 1950s.

While not quite the masterpiece that Welles’ Citizen Kane is, Touch of Evil still greatly showcases Welles’ ability as a filmmaker and an auteur. He has a dark and brooding style that is remarkable and stands tall, in a way that is very uniquely his own. Truthfully, Welles was using a noir visual style before the genre even cemented itself into 1940s Americana.

Touch of Evil is a magnificent picture. It challenged social norms and still provided the world with a solid film noir, as the genre was coming to its end. It doesn’t feel derivative or like something we’ve seen before, which is pretty impressive, nearly two decades into this genre’s peak in popularity.

Film Review: The Third Man (1949)

Release Date: September 2nd, 1949 (UK)
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: Graham Greene
Music by: Anton Karas
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli (credited as Valli), Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee

London Films, British Lion Film Corporation, Selznick Releasing Organization, 108 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.” – Harry Lime

It is sad to say that I really didn’t know much about The Third Man until a friend recently told me about it. Having now watched it, I remember seeing a trailer for it long ago and I had the intention of seeing it but never did. I clearly remembered the visual of the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna’s famous giant Ferris wheel.

That being said, the visuals throughout the entire film are captivating and mesmerizing. The picture captures the film noir aesthetic and emphasizes a high contrast. Between the streets of post-War Vienna, the famous landmarks and the cavernous and ominous sewer system, the director and cinematographer turned Vienna into the main character of the picture. There is just a mysterious allure that draws you in and doesn’t release you until the film fades to black after 108 minutes.

The film re-teams the duo of Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, who first worked together on CBS Radio’s The American School of the Air and would be most known for staring together in Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane. The two would go on to have a great working relationship in several films. Both men are studious actors who have both reached legendary status and for good reason. Their ability to play off of one another is magnificent and each brings out the best in the other. This film showcases what the duo can do when put together. Not to say that both men weren’t great on their own.

The cast also features Alida Valli (credited as just Valli). She was a great Italian actress who was in more than a hundred films. I grew to appreciate her work in films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. She was also featured in a lot of giallo pictures by Mario Bava and Argento, as well as Italian horror films throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

There is also the appearance of Bernard Lee as a British police sergeant. He is probably best known as the original version of M in the James Bond franchise.

The Third Man is written by accomplished novelist Graham Greene and directed by auteur Carol Reed, who would later win an Oscar for Oliver! and who also directed the classics Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol. This is probably Reed’s best work however, even though it didn’t capture the Academy Award for Best Director. It did win for Best Cinematography, however, which went to Robert Krasker, whose work can also be seen in Odd Man Out, as well as Brief Encounter and Another Man’s Poison.

As the story beings, we learn that the main character, a novelist named Holly Martins (Cotton), has arrived in Vienna at the invitation of his dear friend Harry Lime (Welles). However, we soon discover that Lime has died. As the plot rolls on, Martins comes to learn that Lime may be alive, probably faked his own death and there is a big mystery that needs to be solved.

The film’s plot is very layered but it plays out like a standard noir plot structure, even though it doesn’t follow the traditional subject matter of a noir and is missing some key elements. While Valli is quite the beautiful accompaniment to the men in the film, she isn’t a traditional femme fatale and the film breaks from the noir norm in other aspects too. However, The Third Man still encompasses the noir style and spirit but it is the product of a natural evolution within the genre and thus, isn’t a stale or derivative picture by any means. It is very much its own thing while giving a proper nod to its inspirations.

From a musical standpoint, the picture utilizes zither music. It really sets the narrative in the proper time and place and gives the movie a sense of authenticity and a sort of exotic charm.

The Third Man is a masterpiece. While not quite Citizen Kane, it is just about perfect in every way. Being a Welles fan, I wish he was in it a bit more but the scenes we get are of the highest quality. Plus, the big crescendo, as Welles’ Harry Lime runs through the labyrinth of Vienna’s sewers in an effort to escape a massive police force, is probably my favorite motion picture moment that involves Welles. It is a stupendous climax that has great suspense and looks stunning on the screen.

Films don’t get much better than this and The Third Man completely encapsulates the term “movie magic”. It isn’t often that a film feels like a living, breathing intelligent being of its own. The Third Man is one of these motion pictures. It is truly exceptional and may be in my personal top twenty of all-time.

Film Review: Ed Wood (1994)

Release Date: September 23rd, 1994 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Based on: Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Max Casella, George “The Animal” Steele, Juliet Landau, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Korla Pandit, G.D. Spradlin

Touchstone Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, 127 Minutes

Review:

Ed Wood is a magnificent film. It is also the greatest thing Tim Burton has ever directed, which says a lot considering his massive body of work. I have also never enjoyed Johnny Depp and Martin Landau more. Additionally, the film features one of the best roles of Bill Murray’s career.

Shot in black and white, to mimic the time that Edward D. Wood Jr. lived in and the films he made, Ed Wood boasts some fantastic cinematography. It doesn’t just feel like a period piece shot in black and white as a gimmick, it actually has warmth, depth and is a character itself, within the film. It gives the movie a perfect tone and it is also matches up to the actual filmmaking work of Ed Wood, the director. When we see scenes being filmed for Plan 9 From Outer SpaceBride of the Monster and Glen or Glenda?, Tim Burton’s sets and visual tone match those films pretty flawlessly.

Martin Landau won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Ed Wood, as horror legend Bela Lugosi. It was a fantastic performance and the best of Landau’s storied career. While it was great seeing him recognized and this film as well, I feel like it was deserving of other nominations. It did also win for makeup, the only other category it was nominated for.

Everyone in the cast, top to bottom, gave some of the best performances of their careers. Johnny Depp was absolutely captivating and charismatic as the title character. He brought real life to the legendary persona of Wood. He connected with the audience, as well as long-time Wood fans and gave an exciting identity and character to the maestro of bad cinema. He was sympathetic and you wanted nothing more than for Wood to succeed, despite the odds being stacked against him and the limitations of his abilities. Depp’s Wood had passion and heart.

Bill Murray plays Wood’s friend, a transvestite wanting to be transsexual named Bunny Breckinridge. Breckinridge was a collaborator with Wood and played a role in his most famous film Plan 9 From Outer Space. Murray did a fine job with the part, committed to Bunny’s flamboyant personality and strong desire to become a woman. This is my favorite of Murray’s more serious roles. Granted, he still brings an element of comedy but this is the first real dramatic role I remember seeing him play. He had panache and delivered his dialogue brilliantly.

Jeffrey Jones was a perfect casting choice for the psychic conman Criswell. He looked the part, acted the part and conveyed him as a real showman. Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette both did good as the leading ladies: Parker for the first half of the film, Arquette for the latter. For the role of Tor Johnson, there really was no better choice than George “The Animal” Steele. Lisa Marie was a good Vampira and Max Casella was a nice addition to the cast, as he is a really good actor that I feel is still underutilized. Lastly, Juliet Landau plays a small role but she really nails it. She was quirky, smart and pretty mesmerizing.

Ed Wood is a film about imagination and creation. It is also about passion. While this is a very romanticized version of the director’s life and work, it makes one want to be a dreamer and to follow those dreams, despite the world standing in the way. It also shows Wood’s struggles with his identity and who he is and how it should be okay to embrace who you are and not be scrutinized for it. While Wood wasn’t a great filmmaker, he was still a man ahead of his time. Ed Wood, the man, shows that you can have artistic and creative brilliance, even if it isn’t executed in the best way. He is a hero for those with a creative intelligence that have a hard time cultivating it into something spectacular.

This is a great period piece and a stupendous showbiz biopic. It was some of the best work of every talented person involved in the picture. Ed Wood is a true classic and a perfect homage to the man, his life and his work. And frankly, it is one of my favorite films of all-time.