Joseph Cotten

Niagara (1953, Henry Hathaway)

Niagara has some noir-ish elements to it—femme fatale wife Marilyn Monroe stepping out on war veteran husband Joseph Cotten—but it’s not about the darkness, it’s about the light. And its location shooting. Niagara takes full advantage of the falls, not just for scenery but for multiple story elements (we find out Monroe’s stepping out because she heads to the falls to meet up with her much younger, prettier, and presumably not PTSD-suffering lover, Richard Allan). Director Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald basically do an exceptionally good commercial for the possibilities of Technicolor (and location shooting). Hathaway and MacDonald show it can do noir, it can do suspense, it can do action, it can do drama, it can ogle Monroe. The first act of the film, in addition to introducing the cast and setup, is all about ogling Monroe. Sometimes as a plot point—when Monroe’s turning heads—other times just because. The film also comes up with a really creative way for her to get to do a song, like they want to remind everyone she sings too.

The film opens with Cotten stumbling back to their motel in the early morning, narrating about existence. There’s no further narration in the film and it just sets up Cotten’s character for when he disappears for a spell to introduce the film’s protagonist, Jean Peters, which happens after he gets home to Monroe and passes out. The film’s got a fantastic screenplay (from producer Charles Brackett, Walter Resich, and Richard L. Breen), both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Everything contributes to the character development and the reveals until it’s time for the action finale to take over. Great action finale. Oh, and also the obvious but Code acceptable sexuality of the characters.

Anyway, Peters and her husband Max Showalter are on a delayed honeymoon. Showalter works for a breakfast cereal company in marketing and is all about climbing the corporate ladder. Showalter’s annoying as hell and not very good, which almost doesn’t matter as part of the film hinges on him dismissing Peters’s concerns about neighbors Cotten and Monroe (to the point he stops cop Denis O’Dea from interviewing Peters about something important because Showalter’s done hearing about it); unfortunately he never learns from the experience of the film’s events, presumably consigning Peters to living under his dimwitted wanna-be alpha male nonsense for the rest of her life. If Showalter were good or the part was self-aware, Niagara might be a lot better.

But it’s still really good. Peters is a great protagonist, even if she’s rarely the lead—after Monroe’s introduction at the beginning, things shift to Peters and Showalter, then back to Cotten, then Monroe, then Cotten, then Monroe. The third act is a little more even but it’s so action-packed, there’s not much for Peters to do. She shows empathy for Cotten in the first act, getting involved in he and Monroe’s unhealthy—but not initially clear how unhealthy—relationship so even though she’s the protagonist, it’s all about her perspective on them. As for her and Showalter and their delayed honeymoon, outside him being a dipshit in general, he doesn’t show any interest in anything until he gets to suck up to a local Shredded Wheat vice president, a perfectly obnoxious Don Wilson. Wilson and wife Lurene Tuttle are another of Niagara’s small successes, both in terms of writing and performance. They’re great accessories for Peters and Showalter as Peters comes to understand the thriller she’s found herself in.

Lots of gorgeous filmmaking. Hathaway’s got a great feel for the locations, both the town and the falls; he, MacDonald, editor Barbara McLean, and composer Sol Kaplan do fantastic work. McLean’s cutting gets more impressive than the still wondrous photography in the second half, as the thriller aspect replaces the Monroe ogling.

Monroe’s really good, Peters is really good, Cotten’s real, real good. They more than make up for Showalter being, at best, wishy-washy. O’Dea’s fine as the cop. Allan’s effective as the beefcake boy toy. Russell Collins is the motel owner and he’s very distinctive. He’s fine—he doesn’t have much to do—but Hathaway treats him like there’s always something more to his story. It provides some nice texture.

Niagara only runs ninety minutes and every one of them is effectively used. It’s a very substantial ninety minutes. The only thing wrong in it is Showalter, for multiple reasons, but the film successfully works around him (at one point it feels like everyone’s just ignoring him). It’s an excellent showcase for its leads, the filmmakers, and the Technicolor process.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Hathaway; written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Barbara McLean; music by Sol Kaplan; costume designer, Dorothy Jeakins; produced by Brackett; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Max Showalter (Ray Cutler), Denis O’Dea (Inspector Starkey), Richard Allan (Patrick), Don Wilson (Mr. J.C. Kettering), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Kettering), and Russell Collins (Mr. Qua).


Gaslight (1944, George Cukor)

At the end of Gaslight, when all has seemingly been revealed, there’s only one question left. If Scotland Yard inspector Joseph Cotten isn’t an American in London, why doesn’t anyone notice his lack of accent. It’s a wise choice not to give Cotten an accent–presumably he couldn’t do one–but it also means there’s always something a little off about him, which just furthers his likability. And his likability is important, because (intentionally) there’s not much likable in Gaslight.

The film opens in a flashback–teenage girl Ingrid Bergman is being hurried out of London for the continent, presumably something to do with a strangler on the loose (a newspaper headline informs the viewer). Ten years later, she’s training to be an opera singer. Only it’s not going so well and she’d much rather run off with her pianist, Charles Boyer. So she does, meeting a British woman (Dame May Whitty) along the way; turns out Whitty lives just across the street from Bergman’s childhood home, where she fled in the opening scene, following the murder of her aunt.

Bergman’s ready to go back to London, however, so long as Boyer’s with her. He’s always wanted to live in London. How coincidental she just happens to own some property there. Even if she has nightmares about her time in the house.

Until this point–them arriving in London–Boyer’s been the perfect suitor, now husband. But on their initial tour of the house, Bergman comes across a letter from an admirer to her aunt and it drives Boyer into a fit. He snatches it away from her, explaining he’s upset at how upset the house is making her. He’s such a considerate fellow.

The action cuts ahead–using Whitty snooping on her new neighbors, without much success–and it’s a very different household. Boyer’s just hired rude young maid Angela Lansbury, who he sort of flirts with, sort of doesn’t, but definitely implies interest. He’s constantly chastising Bergman for losing things, even though she has no memory of it. Seemingly to prove his point, she loses something that very day, a family heirloom he’s given her.

On one of the few occasions Boyer lets her out of the house, they happen to pass Cotten, who thinks he recognizes Bergman–for her aunt–and begins inquiring into the still unsolved murder. And finds out it was also a robbery; the thief grabbed precious jewels. Boyer and Bergman had just been to visit the crown jewels, where Boyer salivated at the sight of them. Rather suspicious.

For about the next half hour, Boyer is just tormenting Bergman. He’s absurdly cruel and controlling, even though the film doesn’t actually reveal him doing anything criminal. He’s just some guy who married a wealthier woman, took over her property, and treats her like garbage. Nothing too uncommon for 1885 London, though it’s hard to say as he doesn’t let Bergman meet anyone. Especially not Cotten, who’s still trying to figure out what’s going on with the pair.

Then, at about the hour mark (the film runs just under two hours), we finally see Boyer do something rather suspicious and almost obviously devious. The second hour, which has Bergman start further breaking down, Cotten finally figuring out what’s going on, then multiple showdowns, is phenomenal. The first half is setup, the second half is payoff. And Bergman gets some payoff too, which is a welcome change since most of the first hour and some of the second is just watching Boyer mentally abuse her. Boyer’s cruel in his abuse, not charming. Gaslight accounts for Bergman’s isolation as a factor, but has a hard time showing it. If Bergman’s not with someone else or being terrified while alone, she doesn’t have any scenes.

It’s not until she and Cotten get their first scene alone together where there’s just this phenomenal acting and reveal on the character she’s been creating all along. It takes Gaslight a while to get to its payoff, but its worth it right away when it starts.

Gorgeous photography from Joseph Ruttenberg–especially once the walls, proverbially, start closing in on Bergman. That phase of the film is when director Cukor starts getting rather creative as well. There’s not much in the way of visual foreshadowing on Boyer; in fact, Gaslight usually avoids it, not giving him any suspicious behaviors when he’s just gotten down manipulating Bergman. The way it plays him off Lansbury is phenomenal.

Ralph E. Winters’s editing is also crucial. He’s got to keep up the pace, which drags a little first hour, then never slows down for a breath in the second, even during Cotten’s exposition dumps.

The actors are the stars–earnest Cotten, haunted Bergman, quizzical Boyer. There’s obviously some bad going on with Boyer (from his first scene in London), but it’s never clear what. He’s never sympathetic or redeemable, he’s just cruel. Increasingly cruel. In a special way or just in a bad Victorian husband way is the question.

Bergman spends the film pent up. When she finally gets loose–starting with a wordless exclamation–there’s no stopping her.

Cotten gets to be the steady throughout. He’s always cute, always sympathetic. I mean, his first scene has him taking his niece and nephew to a museum, how can he not be likable. Even if he’s got that obvious, inexplicable lack of English accent.

The supporting cast is all good, especially Lansbury and Barbara Everest (as the hearing impaired cook who can’t ever confirm Bergman’s audial suspicions). And Whitty’s fun. She’s in it for the punchlines mostly and she gets them.

The production design and set decoration are excellent. And Ruttenberg’s lighting of them. Cukor’s got some fantastic composition in Gaslight too, particularly for how he moves the actors around the frame. The screenplay is quick and nimble, though maybe more for Cotten than anyone else. Boyer’s big suspicious action scenes are always a little too big. It’s not clear enough, at the start, why Bergman wouldn’t be more concerned with his behavior.

Gaslight’s an outstanding thriller. Just too bad Bergman didn’t get more to do in the first hour.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John L. Balderston, based on a play by Patrick Hamilton; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by Bronislau Kaper; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Ingrid Bergman (Paula Alquist), Charles Boyer (Gregory Anton), Joseph Cotten (Brian Cameron), Angela Lansbury (Nancy), Barbara Everest (Elizabeth), and Dame May Whitty (Miss Thwaites).


Soylent Green (1973, Richard Fleischer)

If you leave the twist–which isn’t even a twist, just a justification for conspiracy–ending off Soylent Green, it’s a detective story. The case–the murder of a wealthy businessman–isn’t as important as how that case affects lead Charlton Heston. He starts carrying on with the victim’s “widow,” Leigh Taylor-Young. The case also has some unexpected consequences for Heston’s friendship and work relationship with partner Edward G. Robinson.

Robinson is the best thing in Soylent Green, both in terms of performance and narrative impact. Heston doesn’t have the most affect, even when he’s trying to have affect, but Robinson humanizes him. And that lack of affect, which in turn helps with the Taylor-Young subplot.

It also helps Chuck Connors–as the victim’s suspicious bodyguard–is terrible. He gives the kind of bad Charlton Heston performance Heston is now obviously not giving. The more the film gives Taylor-Young to do, the better her performance. The more it gives Connors, the worse. Luckily, Connors isn’t around a lot.

It’s also a future dystopia movie–sorry, I meant to mention that part earlier. Heston’s a cop, Robinson is his assistant (a “book” who does research, which shouldn’t matter for police investigations but whatever), Taylor-Young is “furniture” (a live-in combination maid and sex slave for rich men–there are no rich women). Heston’s boss is Brock Peters. Heston and Peters are great together. The murder involves the a friend of the governor (an occasionally appearing Whit Bissell–he’s in lots of posters, but rarely in scene).

The Earth is dying due to greenhouse effect; high temperatures, no food. Unemployment is at fifty-percent. Manhattan has 40,000,000 residents. Everything outside during the day looks a grimy green thanks to a filter. Everything at night looks like it was shot on an empty backlot (there’s a curfew to explain the lack of extras).

More than anything else, the limited budget is Soylent Green’s greatest problem. The film does all right showing the misery of future living through Heston and Robinson (they live together and are adorable, curmudgeon roommates) and their daily life. You ride the bike for electricity, you have limited water (not much showering, the future must smell something awful), you get food rations.

The things they do to survive weighs on them. There’s only so much anyone can take (i.e. Robinson’s fits of guilt when Heston, as a standard–if off the books–police procedure, robs the victim of soap and groceries). It turns out to be one of the themes of the film, the despondence of living in the future.

Almost all of the film is interiors. The crappy apartment for Heston and Robinson, the great one for Taylor-Young and her “boss,” Lincoln Kilpatrick’s church, the police station. The film’s great about packing people into the interiors. The exteriors not so much. There are a couple set pieces where the crowds are big enough. Director Fleischer doesn’t do much with them, of course, because the budget is still limited. During a riot scene, there’s some great editing from Samuel E. Beetley; it almost makes up for Fleischer’s too-tight composition.

The end falls apart a little. It’s got a rushed finish, where the film hangs it all on the “twist” revelation instead of the characters. Maybe if the film had emphasized the investigation a little more, but it didn’t. It emphasized Taylor-Young and Heston’s canoodling.

But it’s pretty good. There are some great small performances to make the future function. Paula Kelly, Celia Lovsky, Kilpatrick. Not so much Leonard Stone, who gets to be way too much way too fast.

And it’s got Robinson. He’s fantastic. He acts circles around Heston without ever looking like he’s doing it because he’s too concerned in making the scene work for both of them. It’s a patient, giving performance. And Heston steps up. And their relationship is this beautiful thing in Soylent Green. It’s not hopeful, because hopeful isn’t a real thing in Green, but it is beautiful.

Money would’ve made the difference. Slimy green filters don’t a future New York make. So either it needed money or a different directorial approach. Fleischer does a lot of things, none of them badly, none of them well. Fleischer’s direction lacks personality. The film lacks personality.

So thank goodness for Robinson, who exudes enough to cover it until the end.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Fleischer; screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on a novel by Harry Harrison; director of photography, Edward H. Kline; edited by Samuel E. Beetley; music by Fred Myrow; produced by Walter Seltzer and Russell Thacher; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Charlton Heston (Thorn), Edward G. Robinson (Sol), Leigh Taylor-Young (Shirl), Brock Peters (Hatcher), Chuck Connors (Fielding), Paula Kelly (Martha), Celia Lovsky (Exchange Leader), Whit Bissell (Santini), Leonard Stone (Charles), Lincoln Kilpatrick (Priest), Joseph Cotten (Simonson).


Alexander the Great (1963, Phil Karlson)

Had Alexander the Great gone to series instead of just being a passed over pilot and footnote in many recognizable actors filmographies, it seems likely the series would’ve had William Shatner’s Alexander continue his conquest of the Persian Empire. The pilot is this strange mix of occasional action, Greek generals arguing, and battle footage from Italian epics. The Utah location shooting is great, but director Karlson’s bad at the direction. John Cassavetes, Joseph Cotten, and Simon Oakland play the arguing generals. They can argue. But Robert Pirosh and William Robert Yates’s teleplay is lacking.

And there’s nothing to be done about integrating that battle footage. If Alexander the Great is going to be talking heads, which Karlson definitely directs better than the action, the action is going to have to be spectacular. And it’s not. There’s some tension with it in the original footage, but the reused stuff? The pilot doesn’t get any mileage out of it.

Cassavetes is pretty cool as this disagreeable young general. By cool, I mean he’s good at the yelling. His character yells. Cotten’s character counsels. Cotten’s good at the counseling. But the pilot doesn’t really know what to do with Shatner. It’s called Alexander the Great and everyone’s a lot more comfortable dealing with Cassavetes’s hurt feelings. Shatner’s appealing and he manages to get through the overdone dialogue, but he’s got no character.

He’s got a love interest–Ziva Rodann–and a sidekick–Adam West–but Pirosh and Yates don’t give either any attention in the script. Rodann’s biggest scene is with Cotten and West is part of the set decoration. Though he gets enough closeups to suggest he’d played a bigger part in the series.

It’s a long fifty minutes. The recycled battle footage and some red herrings drag it out too. It’s kind of too bad, for Alexander, but good for the rest of us it didn’t get picked up.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Karlson; teleplay by Robert Pirosh and William Robert Yates, based on a story by Pirosh; director of photography, Lester Shorr; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by Albert McCleery; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring William Shatner (Alexander), Joseph Cotten (Antigonus), John Cassavetes (Karonos), Adam West (Cleander), Simon Oakland (Attalos), Ziva Rodann (Ada), John Doucette (Kleitos), Robert Fortier (Aristander), Peter Hansen (Tauron), and Cliff Osmond (Memnon).


Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster)

Journey Into Fear has a number of insignificant problems, a couple significant ones, and one major one. The major one is Foster’s direction. It’s not bad, it makes good use of the sets, it even uses some of the supporting cast well, but it’s not frightening, it’s not exciting. Journey Into Fear, not just because of the title, has to be frightening, it has to be. And it’s not. Foster shoots too much of Fear like a melodrama–albeit a quirky one–and his crew does the same. There’s nothing foreboding in Roy Webb’s score, not even when Fear finally gets exciting at the end, and Karl Struss’s photography’s a little flat. Competent, but flat. And it doesn’t utilize the sets well.

The film runs just under seventy minutes, which wrongly implies a spry pace. Instead, there’s an awkward opening with American munitions expert Joseph Cotten (who also wrote the screenplay) in danger in Turkey. His wife–a wasted, but still momentarily wonderful Ruth Warrick–knows little to nothing about it. Cotten’s been hanging out with a bad influence–Everett Sloane in a fun smaller part–and ends up in protective custody. Orson Welles’s the cop. He has a good time chewing the scenery as an action hero. So, a bunch of good performances in an awkwardly paced first act, which has little bearing on the rest of the film. Sure, Welles tells Cotten who’s after him, but it doesn’t really matter. They could have any motive, the point is the, you know, Fear.

Most of the film takes place on a freighter; Cotten’s smuggling himself to safety. There are a bunch of eclectic passengers, there’s a flirtation interest for Cotten, there’s presumably danger to Cotten. Dolores del Rio is the flirtation interest. There’s a significant portion of the film where it could just be an unfunny comedy of errors–del Rio’s business parter, Jack Durant, thinks Cotten wants to marry her–because there’s not even a threat to Cotten’s wellbeing. He’s just an inconvenienced tourist.

All the eclectic passengers are good–Eustace Wyatt, Agnes Moorehead, Frank Readick, Edgar Barrier–and Cotten, as screenwriter, does give each of them a little to do but it’s not enough. Moorehead and Readick are this hilarious married couple–Fear actually would’ve been better with someone who could appreciate the humor better as well–only neither gets enough to do. Especially Moorehead, who Foster introduces in long shot no less.

The third act seems like it might save the film, especially once there’s an action sequence. Only then it slips again. Journey Into Fear is disappointing given the cast–given it reunites Cotten and Welles (though they’re clearly having a great time together), given it’s a Welles production, given everything. Foster just never finds the right pace for the film, never the right tone. It’s a shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Foster; screenplay by Joseph Cotten, based on the novel by Eric Ambler; director of photography, Karl Struss; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joseph Cotten (Howard Graham), Orson Welles (Colonel Haki), Dolores del Rio (Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (Mrs. Stephanie Graham), Jack Durant (Gogo Martel), Eustace Wyatt (Prof. Haller), Everett Sloane (Kopeikin), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Mathews), Frank Readick (Matthews), Edgar Barrier (Kuvetli) and Jack Moss (Peter Banat).


The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

The Third Man runs just over a hundred minutes and takes place over a few days. It’s never clear just how many; director Reed and writer Graham Greene are both resistant to the idea of making the film too procedural. Greene’s scenes, even when they’re expository, still strive against lucidity. Everyone in the film is their own person, with their own agenda–it’s an entirely depressing affair.

Joseph Cotten is a hapless American in over his head and slightly aware of it. He liberally ingests alcohol to get himself through. Trevor Howard is a cynical British military policeman; he’s aware of the futility of trying to police in unison with three other governments (the film takes place during the post-WWII occupied Vienna, the four Allied powers each taking a section–as the film’s opening narration succinctly informs). Cotten thinks Howard has it wrong about his friend, played by Orson Welles. Except it turns out Howard and Welles are just alter egos. They never get their moment to reflect on one another, because Cotten’s the lead. His bumbling, drunken American is the audience. Reed and Greene are putting on a show about the world and what a terrible place people have let it become.

The Third Man has a lot of noir elements–Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s use of Expressionist angles and harsh black and white is breathtaking–but it’s an anti-war picture. It’s the epilogue to a war film; after the fighting is done, what’s left for the people. Alida Valli gets to be the people. Howard’s the hero, Welles’s the villain, Cotten’s the audience, Valli’s the people. The people whose lives the war changed, something Cotten can’t understand. There’s so much to The Third Man before it gets to be a noir thriller–Reed’s use of German and Russian dialogue (Cotten’s protagonist only speaks English, as does the presumed audience), the way Vienna residents engage one another, the way they don’t, there’s so much to it. It’s so incredibly heavy it seems like Cotten’s sort of doofus is going to collapse under it all. At one point, when it appears his obtuseness has finally gotten him in too much trouble, he asks his captor if he’s going to be killed. It’s not resigned, just curious. Because Cotten has finally realized he doesn’t understand Vienna, he doesn’t understand Valli. But Howard and Welles do understand it.

When Cotten finally does get to be the hero, when he finally does step up to the plate, it’s not because he’s grown, but because he’s not willing to grow. He’s learned there are no heroes in the Old West but he still has to pretend there can be. It’s devastating. And it’s not even the main plot of the picture. It’s not even Cotten’s main plot, really, because his relationships with Valli and Welles are far more important than his one with Howard. It’s such a weird, anti-romantic film. The film is a mental assault–Reed’s direction, Krasker’s photography, Oswald Hafenrichter’s stunning editing–it’s not a question of the viewer catching up, it’s about the viewer not breaking down. Greene’s script is all too happy to oblige; the subtle understanding of the characters reflects in their dialogue. The Third Man seemingly ends where it begins, all the character development is conveyed in the dialogue, more specifically the actors delivery of it.

It’s an exceptional motion picture.

Great supporting turns from Bernard Lee and Ernst Deutsch. Cotten’s excellent, Valli’s better, Welles is sort of otherworldly. All of the audience’s hopes–and thereby Cotten’s–are pinned on Welles. He delivers. He’s a movie star in a world without movie stars. It’s not just his gentle but exuberant delivery of his dialogue, it’s his physical performance. Welles’s character development isn’t in how his delivery of dialogue changes, but in how his body moves. It’s so good.

And Howard’s awesome. It’s kind of a thankless role, but he’s awesome. He has to be unquestionably right and can’t ever seem obnoxious about it. There’s this gentle humanity to him, underneath the real world cynic.

Technically, there’s never a bad moment, never a less than perfect cut, never a less than perfect shot. Reed, Krasker, Hafenrichter and composer Anton Karas are all spectacular. Reed’s use of Karas’s Zither music (central European folk music) deserves a lengthy discussion and examination. Karas’s music leads Cotten (and the audience) through the film, but is never tied to them. They’re occasionally tied to it, but the music gets to be freer. The film even opens on a close-up of the Zither instrument itself, the strings vibrating as the opening titles run. Reed (and Greene) are very deliberate in giving instructions as to how the viewer engage with the film. The Third Man is never hostile, always inviting. It’s just inviting the viewer to be depressed and to value that depression.

Like I said, it’s exceptional. It’s exceptional overall, it’s exceptional in its technical qualities, it’s exceptional in its actors essaying of their roles. If The Third Man isn’t perfect, there’s no such thing as a perfect film.

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Carol Reed; written by Graham Greene; director of photography, Robert Krasker; edited by Oswald Hafenrichter; music by Anton Karas; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Maj. Calloway), Bernard Lee (Sgt. Paine), Ernst Deutsch (Baron Kurtz), Erich Ponto (Dr. Winkel), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin), Siegfried Breuer (Popescu) and Paul Hörbiger (Porter).


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles)

Unfortunately, I feel the need to address some of the behind the scenes aspects of The Magnificent Ambersons. Not because I plan on talking about them, but because director Welles’s career is filled with a lack of control. There are always questions–what did editor Robert Wise do on his own, what did he do with Welles’s input. With Ambersons, one can get lost in the possibility. But the reality is more than strong enough on its own.

With Ambersons, Welles creates a nightmare. He creates a nightmare of a child in the humorously awful, spoiled little rich kid (a wonderful, uncredited Bobby Cooper), who becomes a nightmare of a young man (Tim Holt in a phenomenal performance). The thing about Holt’s character, who negatively impacts everyone around him in one way or another including himself, is he doesn’t change. He just has a certain set of skills, he applies them to all situations without regard to whether they’re appropriate for those situations. Welles doesn’t care if the audience is sympathetic to Holt, he cares if they’re interested. Holt–and the Magnificent Ambersons exist regardless of audience sympathy; they even have a haunted mansion to loiter around.

Because even studio meddling and Wise’s ego can’t alter the “in camera” aspects of Ambersons. There’s an amazing mansion set where Holt terrorizes his elders. There’s Stanley Cortez’s gorgeous photography. There’s the acting. And, frankly, some of the editing is so obviously under Welles’s instruction, especially in the first act. Ambersons runs under ninety minutes and covers a decade and a half. It’s mostly told in summary, with actual scenes left to haunt the characters and audience alike. It’s a weighty film; director Welles narrates it himself, applying further pressure to the audiences’ shoulders. It’s got a perfect narrative distance. Was that distance Welles’s intention or the result of meddling? Who knows.

Wonderful supporting performances from Ray Collins and Richard Bennett. Dolores Costello is great as Holt’s mother, Agnes Moorehead’s great as his aunt. Joseph Cotten’s great as Holt’s love interest’s father. Cotten is also Costello’s love interest, which what all the drama is about. Anne Baxter plays Cotten’s daughter. She has the most important role in the entire film (outside Moorehead, who has to humanize Holt). Baxter has to be believable as the object of Holt’s affection. It works, thanks to Baxter, Holt and Welles, but it’s an achievement. It isn’t about Baxter being appealing, it’s about Holt being monstrous.

The Magnificent Ambersons, in its under ninety minute runtime, offers somewhere around eighty-five minutes of perfect filmmaking. The other three or four minutes, meddled or not, have perfect acting and excellent studio filmmaking. It may have a haunted history, but it’s appropriate. The Magnificent Ambersons is all about being haunted after all.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington; director of photography, Stanley Cortez; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Tim Holt (George Minafer), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafer) and Richard Bennett (Major Amberson).


Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

In Citizen Kane, director Welles ties everything together–not just the story (he does wrap the narrative visually), but also how the filmmaking relates to the film’s content. Kane’s story can’t be told any other way. That precision–whether it’s in the summary sequences or in how scenes cut together–is absolutely necessary to not just keep the viewer engaged, but to keep them over-engaged. Even with the conclusion, where Welles reveals the film’s “solution” (quote unquote); it doesn’t resolve that mystery in a timely fashion–Welles drags it out to get the viewer thinking, questioning. Welles puts together this perfect film and then asks the viewer to wonder whether or not it was all worth it. Not just his making it, but the viewer’s watching it.

The little moments in the film–Welles gets in these subtle things with melodramatic fireworks going off in the background, whether its Dorothy Comingore’s humanity or Everett Sloane’s wistfulness or “protagonist” William Alland’s frustration–remind the viewer the story’s still about people. And why shouldn’t it be? Most scenes in Kane feature two to three working characters. Sometimes Welles has people in the background, sometimes he doesn’t. The little moments in big scenes–like one between Joseph Cotten and Sloane during a party–are often more devastating than the little scenes.

Welles unforgivingly asks a lot of the viewer. He opens the film with a complex fading sequence to bring the viewer into the world of Kane, then abruptly pulls the film out of itself, into a newsreel. And for almost twenty minutes, Welles barely gives himself any screen time. It’s always such a big deal that first time Welles lets Kane have an audible line in the newsreel.

All that control isn’t to prime the viewer, isn’t to get him or her desperately wondering about Rosebud, all that control is because the film needs it. Kane spans forty-some years in under two hours. Far under two hours if you don’t count the newsreel “first act.” When Welles establishes his character as an older man, an atypical protagonist–Kane’s infinitely sympathetic while never likable, though Welles knows his charm goes a long way in lightening a heavy scene–he does so without hostility. Nowhere in Kane does Welles play for the audience, but he also doesn’t artificially distance them. The opening does, quite literally, guide the viewer into the film.

Kane is an unsentimental film about a sentimental subject and Welles does wonders with that disconnect.

Comingore probably gives the film’s best performance. Welles is amazing and mesmerizing, but so much of the second half has to do with how he plays off her, she’s essential. Of course, there aren’t any merely good performances–even Erskine Sanford, in the closest thing to a comedy relief role, is great. Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris–all fantastic.

And Joseph Cotten as the film’s “good guy?” He’s marvelous.

Impeccable Gregg Toland photography, great Bernard Herrmann music.

500 words aren’t enough.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Ruth Warrick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Harry Shannon (Jim Kane), Paul Stewart (Raymond), Ray Collins (James W. Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter) and William Alland (Jerry Thompson).


Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)

Shadow of a Doubt is a strange one–the presence of Teresa Wright and the small town atmosphere and the Gregg Toland-esque (but not Gregg Toland) cinematography make it feel like William Wyler, the presence of Joseph Cotten and the camera angles and intricate sound design make it feel like Welles (or at least an RKO picture Welles produced and did uncredited directing on), and some of the feeling in the shots… only some of them… make it feel like a later Hitchcock, like Psycho or Marnie, anything but one of his early American pictures. Shadow of a Doubt feels absolutely foreign from something Hitchcock did in the UK, The Lady Vanishes for easy comparison, but also unlike his more well-known American works of the 1940s. Artistically speaking, it’s the most exciting Hitchcock got after he gave up all the filmic experimentation with the move across the Atlantic and it’s some beautiful stuff in Shadow, because he hasn’t got a formula worked out, because Hitchcock’s successful formulas tend to rely on the intrigue, not on the lack of it. Shadow of a Doubt works in the end not because of Hitchcock’s efficiency as a suspense director, but because that Wyler-esque family drama (the contribution of Thornton Wilder?) works so well.

Two different things are going on, from the actors, in Shadow of a Doubt. Teresa Wright does her thing, essaying this conflicted, happy, sad, romantic young woman who’s petrified, but who’s also able to navigate an impossible situation with seeming success–falling in love during it as well. Then there’s Joseph Cotten, who’s playing a character much like one Joseph Cotten would play for the next ten years, both as good guys and bad guys–the guy who’s completely evil, but maybe not wrong about his motivations for being evil, also not so evil he can’t care about people. Cotten is not a Hitchcock actor, which makes Shadow an odd favorite for Hitchcock to pick from his oeuvre. There’s just something about Cotten–you can see he’s doing what he’s doing, Hitchcock’s direction be damned. It’s another reason Shadow of a Doubt is so different–all the excellent, excited performances. Hitchcock usually sucked the enthusiasm out of actors, even in good films, instead letting them be themselves with written dialogue, but in Shadow of a Doubt, it’s a much, much different situation. Patricia Collinge does some excellent work in the film, usually in scenes unlike any other Hitchcock scenes. The most Hitchcockian actor is Macdonald Carey and Carey is essential as Wright’s love interest and Cotten’s pursuer, but he’s got that blander Hitchcock acting style going. He’s good, but it’s not a textured, tortured performance, not like Wright, Cotten or Collinge.

I’d only seen Shadow of a Doubt once before, maybe ten years ago, and for the majority of the film, I was upset, remembering it being much better than it unfolded. But once the end came around and especially the neat coda, I had bought into it entirely. Hitchcock’s visual style, while incredibly fun to watch, is nothing compared to the film’s unlikely emotional impact.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Thorton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville, from a story by Gordon McDonell; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Milton Carruth; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by Jack H. Skirball; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Teresa Wright (Young Charlie), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie), Macdonald Carey (Jack), Henry Travers (Joe Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Det. Saunders) and Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton).


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