Film Review: The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

Release Date: December 24th, 1947 (France)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles, William Castle (uncredited), Charles Lederer (uncredited), Fletcher Markle (uncredited)
Based on: If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King
Music by: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia

Mercury Productions, Columbia Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Personally I don’t like a girlfriend to have a husband, if she’ll fool a husband she’ll fool me.” – Michael O’Hara

While some people label Citizen Kane a film-noir, it really isn’t. It helped give birth to a cinematic style that would very much become noir but it was really nothing more than a damn good biographical drama. That doesn’t mean that Orson Welles didn’t touch noir. He only had a handful of films in the style but he was there, contributing to it after he blessed the world with Kane.

The Lady From Shanghai is one of Welles’ noir pictures. He also worked in the noir style with Journey Into FearThe StrangerTouch of Evil and The Trial.

This film sees Welles play an Irish sailor named O’Hara who meets Rita Hayworth’s Elsa “Rosalie” Bannister when she is being harassed by some men in Central Park. They share some flirtatious banter but O’Hara discovers that Elsa is married to a powerful lawyer. Still, O’Hara decides to take a job offered to him by Elsa. You see, Elsa and her husband are sailing from New York City to San Francisco via the Panama Canal and they need a good seaman. Once on the boat O’Hara meets a strange group of high society types. He is roped into helping one man fake his own death. This doesn’t quite work out for O’Hara, who is also falling deeper for Elsa, despite being employed by her husband. There are a lot of layers, twists and turns in this film, even at less than 90 minutes.

This isn’t Welles best written picture, not that it is bad. it just has a lot going on and if you get distracted, you could find the details hard to follow. It is one of his most energetic though and frankly, I don’t think that it gets enough praise for its amazing special effects and cinematography, outside of the admiration of hardcore Welles fans.

Everything that happens in the last twenty minutes or so is cinematic perfection. The scene in the Chinese opera house to O’Hara stumbling through the funhouse to the big shootout finale in the hall of mirrors is magnificent.

When we see Welles’ O’Hara working his way through the funhouse, it is like something from the Joker’s mind. Hell, it reminds me of the final act in Batman: The Killing Joke, where Batman is working his way through the Joker’s funhouse in an effort to find Commissioner Gordon. In fact, after seeing this film, I’m pretty convinced that Alan Moore was inspired by it when he wrote The Killing Joke.

All the funhouse stuff is impeccably shot. The use of shadows and contrast is visually astounding. Welles had a love of the chiaroscuro look, as well as the crazy angles used in German Expressionist films and he utilizes both amazingly well here. Some of the funhouse shots are reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The scene where O’Hara is walking and the shadows tower above him, moving sporadically is one of the best filmed sequences of the 1940s.

The Lady From Shanghai is an incredible experience in its cinematography alone. The acting is top notch, as is the direction. The story feels a bit clunky, as the schemer tries to take advantage of a legal loophole similar to the plot in Double Indemnity. But all in all, this is a really good picture.

Book Review: ‘Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles’ by Frank Brady

In recent years, I have grown to like Orson Welles more than any other actor and he is now one of my favorite directors that ever lived.

My first experience with Welles was listening to his War of the Worlds radio broadcast in an American history class in middle school. I had a really cool teacher that would throw in some big pop culture moments into her curriculum, as opposed to just teaching about war and politics.

My second experience was in my film studies class in high school, where my teacher showed us Citizen Kane. I remember being completely captivated by the film, even if the other teenagers were just waiting for the class to get to more modern pictures.

Welles also voiced Unicron in the 1986 animated Transformers movie, which was also a big deal to me even if he had no idea what the film was about and just dialed in his lines.

All these experiences made me have an appreciation for Welles as an artist but it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started watching his other pictures.

What I didn’t know, is that Welles had an incredibly interesting life and this book covers more ground than I could even imagine.

Citizen Welles is a pretty large biography. It is around 600 pages but Welles lived such an interesting, rich and full life that there were no dull moments. Initially, I wanted a book that specifically covered his work but the man’s life really rivals that of his most famous character Charles Foster Kane.

This book was a big surprise and it is a pretty invaluable resource on the life and work of Orson Welles.

Frank Brady did his research and it shows. There are few biographies that are this comprehensive.

Plus, it is well written, well organized and never gets dull. I got through this 600 page brick in a week. But it also provided a solid distraction, as I was dealing with the after effects of Hurricane Irma.

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.