Friday, July 19, 2013

Orson Welles: What To See (And What Not To See)

I'm currently writing a glowing review of My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles which will be up in a day or two. In the meantime, if you don't know Welles as well as you should, here are some recommendations:

Citizen Kane (1941)—love it or hate it (I love it), you can no more call yourself a film buff without seeing Kane than you can call yourself literate without knowing the alphabet. As Jean-Luc Godard said of Welles, "Everyone will always owe him everything."

The Third Man (1949)—Welles didn't direct this suspense classic (Carol Reed did), but his supporting performance as the charming arch-criminal Harry Lime is one of the most memorable in movie history.

Highly Recommended
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—the studio re-shot the ending and the film flopped at the box office, but this story of a spoiled rich kid and his tragic comeuppance is a masterpiece anyway.

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)—starring his soon-to-be ex-wife Rita Hayworth, this film noir thriller boasts the legendary shoot-out in a hall of mirrors.

Touch of Evil (1958)—from the twilight of the film noir era, Welles is a cop run amok terrorizing both good guys (Charlton Heston) and bad guys (Akim Tamiroff).

Chimes at Midnight a.k.a. Falstaff (1965)—the least seen of his classic films, Welles plays Shakespeare's fat fool as a tragic-comic figure and a meta-commentary on his own career.

The Stranger (1946)—Suspected Nazi (Welles) plays a deadly game of wits with Nazi hunter (Edward G. Robinson).

Macbeth (1948)—One of Welles's three Shakespeare films, this atmospheric interpretation made a lot more sense after it was restored in the 1990s.

Othello (1952)—personally, I think the only way for a white actor to play Othello is the way Patrick Stewart did it at the Shakespeare Theater back in 1997: with an otherwise all-black cast. Except for the matter of pigmentation, Othello was right in Welles's wheelhouse.

Mr. Arkadin a.k.a. Confidential Report (1955)—the studio messed around so much with this whodunit about a private detective hot on the trail of the mysterious Mr Arkadin, that the Criterion dvd contains three versions.

Compulsion (1959)—another acting-only movie, Welles plays a lawyer defending two killers based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb.

Journey Into Fear (1943)—director only. Joseph Cotten should have chosen a different cruise line: this one is full of Nazis and nonsense.

Jane Eyre (1944)—acting only. Welles is pretty good as Mr. Rochester, but Joan Fontaine obviously didn't read the novel about a feisty girl who marries above her station.

Tomorrow is Forever (1946)—acting only. I waited forever for this three-hanky weeper to finish. Co-starring Claudette Colbert.

Catch-22 (1970)—acting only. Alan Arkin is good, but the screenplay makes too much sense to capture the flavor of the classic Joseph Heller novel.

F for Fake (1973)—Welles's last feature-length directorial effort, this documentary about art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving who got rich off a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes is beloved by some, but I'm not some.

Burn Before Watching
The V.I.P.'s (1963)—acting only. One of those group-of-strangers-stuck-in-one-place potboilers, this time in a fog-bound airport. Worst layover ever. Glossy, high-toned stupidity starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at their worst.

Casino Royale (1967)—no, not the Daniel Craig classic. This is the swingin' 60s spoof. Incoherent, self-indulgent and painfully unfunny. Acting only.

It Happened One Christmas (1977)—made for tv remake of It's A Wonderful Life with Welles as Mr. Potter and Marlo Thomas in the Jimmy Stewart role. Saw it as a teenager and was scarred for life. Acting only.


KC said...

"F for Fake" is the only film I love that I can *totally* understand someone not liking. I think that's because I sort of hate it too.

Mythical Monkey said...

Well, I admit I could see that in the right mood, I might have found it more compelling. I should sit down sometime with a Mary Pickford cocktail and nothing else to do and watch it, rather than grinding through it. Which is probably good advice when approaching any movie.

Erik Beck said...

Ah, here's the rub with such things. Clearly you went with the films as a whole - a good idea. But there is the other question of Welles in the film. Case in point - Catch-22, which is a very uneven film. But, many of the high points are every time Welles appears - he's absolutely brilliant, especially "Have this man shot."

Unknown said...

I really like your assessment of Catch-22. I loved the book when I read it and thought it seemed unfilmable - then saw the movie and found out I was right. But some people seem to hold the movie in high regard. I think your suggestion that it makes too much sense is exactly right. Like the woman who randomly tries to knife Yossarian all the time. That worked in the book because you never knew when she was going to come up (because the timeline was all jumbled, for one thing). The movie explained it too much.

re: Jane Eyre - I like Joan Fontaine, but she seemed under the mistaken impression that Jane is the same character as the narrator in Rebecca. Wrong. So wrong.

I'm similarly stymied by F for Fake. I really wanted to like it, and I liked bits of it, but as a whole, I don't know. It just wasn't quite there for me. I think maybe a few rewatches would help, but I haven't felt motivated yet.

Overall, I've still got a long way to go on Welles, but I've seen all of the Indispensable and Highly Recommended ones except Chimes at Midnight, so I guess I'm not TOO bad off. I just watched The Stranger a few weeks ago and really, really enjoyed it.