Friday, 24 January 2014

WoodFest '14 - Reviews #182

Last year was, for anyone who's been living under a rock, the year of ClintFest '13, the mammoth cultural event in which I watched some Clint Eastwood films. This year it's Woody Allen's turn, as I rewatch a heap of his movies, because they make me happy, and also sad, in a good way. And occasionally sad in a bad way (Cassandra's Dream). I started with Radio Days and Bullets Over Broadway. Here are some others. Strap in. Or don't. It'll be fine either way, it's just some reviews.

Sleeper (1973) - Woody's "early, funny films" just aren't as good, or as funny, as his later ones. This tribute to silent comedians like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon and Harpo Marx (the latter a mute comic in sound films) is perhaps the weakest of the bunch.

Allen plays the manager of a health food store, who goes into hospital for routine surgery and wakes up 200 years later to find he's a fugitive in a totalitarian state. Good premise, bad execution.

There are a handful of clever sight gags (the wheelchair, flying device, orb, banana peel and Orgasmatron) and a few decent lines, but it's very shrill, Allen has no discernible gift for "thrill comedy" and the film is far more miss than hit - either too broad or too weirdly specific to the director's own life - to the extent that it's often just plain irritating. It's also ugly in its cheap rendering of a future universe, and half the time Allen seems to have no idea where to put his camera, whilst mugging ferociously in front of it.

Its biggest shortcomings remain in the writing, though, the whole film suffering from a damaging lack of story and a quite critical lack of heart.

"And I say that with all due respect", as Woody says at some point during almost all his films. (2)


"I have to go now, Duane, because I'm due back on the planet Earth."
Annie Hall (1977) - Woody's freeform dissection of a relationship (and its environs) remains his most popular and critically acclaimed movie, and is also the bridge between his "early, funny films" and his later, better, funnier ones.

You know the score: Alvy Singer (Woody) has a dead shark on his hands, a lobster behind the fridge, and two huge spiders in his on-off girlfriend Annie Hall's (Diane Keaton) bathroom. She "grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting", can't have sex without smoking weed, and resents the possibility that he doesn't think she's clever; but damn it if they're not good together.

On umpteenth viewing, I both like it more than ever and am more convinced that it isn't in the absolute top tier of Allen movies, the ones that completely exalt or destroy me - Hannah and Her Sisters, Purple Rose, Manhattan, et al - where Woody's unalloyed genius is marshalled by a rigorous comic and dramatic discipline (I'm sounding like the guy in the cinema queue). Here, the non-linear narrative is sometimes invigoratingly playful but also a touch uncertain, and the final 20 minutes falls away a little, flailing during its LA scenes, where he's more concerned with aiming barbs at the West Coast than telling his story.

The film as a whole, though, is both touching and intensely, awesomely funny, with Woody's astonishing, misanthropic comic imagination in overdrive, barely a minute passing without some all-time classic one-liner or sight gag. He's a hostage, he'd like to hit that guy on a gut level, they can walk to the kerb, and now he's playing accidental dodgems. Both he and Keaton are just wonderful in this; she was never better, and he never more accessible and direct - delivering monologues and conspiratorial asides direct to camera.

There's wisdom to spare, too, amidst the gags. Everything you ever needed to know about relationships is contained in the lobster scene and its reprise.

And to think it started life as a murder mystery.

La-di-da. (3.5)


"I pour all my energy into my inventions. Because of my problem in bed with her, I can now fly."
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) - Bucolic beauty meets Allen's usual preoccupations as he reimagines Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, complete with neat nods to the original, bits of Old Woody (the slapstick) and New Woody (the sexual strife), and some dodderingly loveable old professors right out of Hawks' Ball of Fire.

The film's theme is simpler and more slender than its predecessor's - opportunity seized or lost, never to return - but dealt with in the nimblest, most poetic manner, the film recovering from a slightly slow start to emerge as yet another Allen classic, and among his most underrated works: in the words of Jerome Kern, lovely to look at, delightful to know.

Each member of the ensemble gets the chance to shine, though it's Farrow who leaves the greatest impression (and was somehow nominated for a Razzie). She's at her most radiant in the first of her collaborations with the director, at one with the pastoral setting, the sun streaming through her long blonde curls. Shut up, you fancy her. Weirdo. (3.5)


"I don't even want to be a hairdresser - if Clint Eastwood wants to be a hairdresser, just let him."
Mighty Aphrodite (1995) - A lovely Woody comedy, as a New York sportswriter with an uncertain marriage (Allen) tries to remodel the life of his adopted son's mother (Mira Sorvino), after she turns out to be a prostitute.

The film's Greek Chorus gimmick only partially works and the subplot featuring Helena Bonham Carter as Woody's wife is poor, but Sorvino is absolutely exceptional as another of the director's ditsy, high-pitched, very human heroines, and the scenes between her and Allen are simply superb.

While the film flounders a little at the finish, ending with a somewhat unsatisfying wrap-up, its centre is quite formidably entertaining, not to mention warm, witty and wise. (3)


SHORT: Sounds from a Town I Love (2001) - As you can see, I'm on an Allen binge at the moment, and that's also meant picking up a few of the things I've missed. I've ordered his 1994 TV movie, Don't Drink the Water, watched him being surprisingly affable on Parky, and found this short on YouTube.

It's a three-minute film made at short notice for the Concert for New York City, the post-9/11 fundraiser, in which some of Allen's old favourites and a few new faces walk around the city, delivering one-liners into their phones.

There are two or three good jokes, but Woody was in a creative slump at this point, and had only a few days to put the film together, rather than the usual year.

Quibbling seems the wrong response, as it's probably more important that he contributed something, than that the something was a great work of art, but in truth his note to the audience, read by John Cusack, and the pay off to the movie - a title card saying "I love this town" - are more effective than the short itself. (2)

You can watch it here:


"I can't believe I'm in love with a smoker."
Anything Else (2003) - It isn't a very competitive field, but this is still Woody's best film of the noughties. If you haven't heard of it, that might be because it went direct-to-video in Britain, where many of Allen's most fervent yet apparently stingy admirers ply their trade. (So did Scoop, incidentally, which is also conspicuously missing from most critics' discussion of Allen's work.)

It's essentially an Annie Hall update, featuring Allen's youngest ever leads, Jason Biggs (25) and Christina Ricci (23), and with the director providing many of the lolz in support as Biggs' psychotic mentor. While it's overly familiar and sometimes skirts around its targets, where once he would have hit them bang on, it's also funny, unlaboured and has a brilliant performance from Ricci.

Many actresses have played this character - a sexy, difficult and capricious lust interest - from Diane Keaton to Ellen Page, but Ricci's braless incarnation, consumed by passion for everyone except the man she "loves" is just about definitive. Biggs is also good as the surrogate Woody, Danny DeVito has a few fun moments as his agent, who sees everything in terms of a metaphor about suits, and takes rejection very badly, and there's some unexpected cringe comedy to go with the usual one-liners.

In terms of music, Woody's once more trading on classic jazz, with three glorious Billie Holiday tunes (Easy to Love, Easy Living and The Way You Look Tonight) and a complementary score, all of which is nice but used too repetitively. Diana Krall also turns up to sing in a nightclub, and Stockard Channing has a number, which is extremely well done, though her character is tedious and poorly-drawn. Visually, it's one of Woody's widest: shot in 2.35:1, which isn't used as imaginatively as in his two others, Manhattan and Blue Jasmine.

Like Biggs' character, Anything Else has valleys to go with its peaks, and could have done with some tightening or re-writing here and there, but it's Allen's best film between his last masterpiece, Sweet and Lowdown, and 2011's Midnight in Paris, largely because it doesn't make me want to protect him from himself. And the scene in which Ricci seduces Biggs in an old record store is probably the sexiest thing he's ever written (except for making Mia Farrow a psychiatrist in Zelig). (3)


Thanks for reading.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Crime, Clara and Cagney running wild - Reviews #181

Plus: Peter Lorre, Chuck Palahniuk and Kate Hepburn's first Oscar win, in this latest reviews update. Ratings are out of four, because that's how I and also old men rate things.

Classe tous risques (Claude Sautet, 1960)

The short version: "A masterpiece of crime cinema: bleak, brilliant and grubbily realistic, influencing everything from Melville to Godard to Eddie Coyle. Will almost certainly take up smoking on account of Belmondo."

The long version: "Which movie character would you turn to in a crisis? As tempting as it might be to go for, say, Dumbledore, or Batman, I'm inclined to pick Jean-Paul Belmondo's Eric Stark in this Gallic crime classic: a noble, personable and resourceful small timer willing to stick his neck out, right out, for a total stranger.

That stranger is career criminal Abel Davos (Lino Ventura), a big-shot-turned-petty-thief who's left down, out and injured – with his two young kids on his hands – after a fateful encounter with some heavily-armed custom officials. Stark's job is to get him back to Paris and then out of sight, though Davos wants a few words with his former partners, who owed him a debt of honour, and didn't really deliver.

Director Sautet, branching out after years as an assistant director, called his style of filmmaking 'pure cinema': light on dialogue, strong on faces and physicality, this time vividly employing Ventura's past experience as a wrestler. "A big plus for Classe tous risques was his instinct for abrupt violence," recalled Sautet decades later. "It was great!" The film was also integral in defining one of the most important screen personas of the 1960s: the ugly-handsome Belmondo's image as a dapper, unflappable modern man with a singular code of ethics and a socially irresponsible way of making smoking look like a really good idea.

For all his stylishness, though, this understated, wintry masterpiece of gangster cinema, about a man in decline in a dirty, deadly business, is bleak, full of regret and stunningly filmed at authentically drab locations. Written, suitably enough, by ex-con José Giovanni, it remains both a massive achievement on its own terms and a model for a new breed of film, its DNA present in everything from Melville's mesmerising Le Doulos to Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In an overt nod to Sautet's movie, Jean-Luc Godard even went so far as to name a whole film after one of its unseen characters, an underworld figure called Pierrot le Fou.

Often ignored amidst its showier contemporaries, Classe tous risques looks better – and greater – with every passing year."



Then I revisited a couple of old Woody Allen films: one almost perfect, the other merely pretty damn great:

"Who is Pearl Harbor?"
Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987) - Woody's most personal and nostalgic film: a rough collection of tall tales and reminiscences, dealing with his childhood - he's played by a young Seth Green - and his beloved radio shows of the 1940s.

Lovingly narrated by the director, it's a time machine made of celluloid, beautifully devised and executed, with sumptuous period music and design, and the usual stunning work from his great '80s collaborators, Dianne Wiest and Mia Farrow - the latter showing her range once more in a sweet, funny, Judy Holliday-ish part.

Sentimental and deceptively deep, it's a simply wondrous movie - back from when it all seemed so effortless for Woody - casting its spell like a rosy, American Distant Voices. (4)

Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen, 1994) - An often joyous Woody confection - all surface, but what surface!

John Cusack is a pretentious, highly-strung playwright in early '30s Broadway who sells out, while being forced to deal with a monstrous luvvie (Dianne Wiest), a mobster backer (Joe Viterelli) and his moll (Jennifer Tilly), her abrasive bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri) and a leading man who can't stop eating (Jim Broadbent).

It lacks the depth and resonance of the director's greatest, and doesn't always quite tie together, but it looks utterly stunning, the cast is superb, and there are plenty of great characters, funny lines and inspired ideas - particularly the development of Palminteri's heavy.

For fans of the period, there are also fun references to the likes of Philip Barry, Eugene O'Neill, Jerome Kern and Clara Bow, as well as a soundtrack full of lovely old standards, including that cracking Irving Aaronson version of Cole Porter's Let's Misbehave. Such compensations should help you to stomach a little of Woody's usual smirking at non-intellectuals (imagine someone not knowing who Hamlet is!). (3)


Three Strangers (Jean Negulesco, 1944) - Good old Warner: you couldn't imagine MGM ever greenlighting a succession of films with leading men who looked like Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Their lack of conventional glamour, of course, was offset by a staggering amount of talent - particularly in the case of the strangulated, bug-eyed Lorre, beautiful in his own way and one of the greatest actors in the history of film.

This is one of the pair's best: an ironic, unpredictable and sometimes shockingly violent drama about three strangers - they're joined by Geraldine Fitzgerald - who wish upon a Chinese deity for wealth, with a couple of them having a particular reason for needing a mountain of cash, and fast.

I wouldn't think of spoiling even the smallest of plot points in this original, moodily-photographed and deeply affecting movie: a mesmerising mix of mystery, thriller and character study, superbly acted by all three leads (though especially Lorre), as well as Joan Lorring in a crucial supporting role, and unusually well-directed by Negulesco.

Allergic to formula, yet richly and enduringly fatalistic in the familiar manner of co-writer John Huston, it's one film you won't forget in a hurry, right down to that classic final scene. (4)

See also: Lorre and Greenstreet made eight films together, starring in three of them. The others were The Verdict and The Mask of Dimitrios.


Picture Snatcher (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)
- This Cagney film is like many of the ones he made in the early '30s, going great guns at first, before getting a bit bogged down in censor-soothing melodrama, as he falls in love and seeks to atone for his sins. Here he's an ex-con who becomes a star reporter at a yellow tabloid, the story based - very, very loosely - on the photographer who snapped the notorious 1929 photo of murderess Ruth Snyder in the electric chair. (Trivia fans: that chap's grandson is Norm from Cheers, and his greatgrandson is Jason Sudeikis.)

There's a rich vein of sex jokes being mined throughout, and Cagney is as he usually was during this period: dynamic, fun, sometimes a bit annoying. The best scene in the picture comes early on, as he announces that he's going legit to a roomful of his former associates, facing them down with hard-won wisdom, righteous anger and a touch of old-fashioned toughness. The momentum slows after the first 15, though, as the melodrama and the message intrude, leaving us with another good film, rather than a great one.

In support, Ralph Bellamy is a standout as Cagney's alcoholic editor, playing a part not unlike his one in Capra's Forbidden, and Alice White - who once starred in a film called The Naughty Flirt - does that Pre-Code thing she generally does. While I'm not a fan of director Lloyd Bacon, and the film's most memorable shot - an electrician setting up for the big one - seems as much through necessity as design, he does handle the bullet-heavy machine gun shoot-out quite excitingly. (3)

See also: Other early Cagney comedies include Taxi!, Hard to Handle, and the rather wonderful Jimmy the Gent. As well as this one:

Lady Killer (Roy Del Ruth, 1933) - A crackling early Cagney vehicle, directed at Del Ruth's usual breakneck speed, and featuring jokes about drugs and sex, and a bit where Jimmy kisses Mae Clarke's boob (that'll make up for the time he used her face as a grapefruit squeezer).

The plot is complete nonsense - with two-fisted conman Cagney storming the picture business - though the film knows it some of the time, and there are as many salty, nifty one-liners as dated ones. There's also a scene where some monkeys invade a birthday party, and another where Cagney plays a Native American with a sore bottom. Incidentally, I think his tyrannical Teutonic action director is patterned after Warner's own Michael Curtiz.

The star is clearly having a whale of a time, spending most of the film laughing at his own jokes and slapping people around, and Clarke is also extremely good as his flirty moll, whom he can't trust as far as he can throw - though it turns out he can throw her quite far. (More of that unsavoury woman-beating that Warner, and Cagney in particular, seemed to go in for).

Lady Killer is basically all over the shop, but good fun with it. (3)


Good Ol' Freda: The Beatles' Secretary (Ryan White, 2013) - A sweet, affectionate and even moving documentary about Freda Kelly, the tough, vivacious Liverpudlian teenager who met the Beatles in 1961, became their secretary in '62, and contined to reply to fans five years after the band had split up, such was their astonishing popularity - and her part in retaining it.

At one point she was responding to over 3,000 letters a day: colluding with John to make sure photos were properly signed, scooping up George's hair to post back to fans and nipping over to Ringo's so he could sleep on a pillowcase sent by one excitable girl.

Freda never cashed in on the connection, though, and has spent the last 40 years as, well, still a secretary, but this time a legal secretary. This portrait of her life then and now has no major revelations (she even refuses to discuss which of the band she stepped out with), but many minor ones, as well as a few insights into working class Liverpool life in the 1960s. And while it's fairly standard in presentation, with a little too much reliance on period, non-Beatles music, it makes good use of archive film and photos (albeit with a couple of conspicuous errors - that's the Queen Mum, not the Queen), and some thoughtful, intelligent location shooting.

Freda herself is unassuming and good-natured: an ordinary person telling a sometimes extraordinary story in a good-humoured, down-to-earth way, her transparent fondness for her fellow fans enduring to this day.

I was an absolute Beatles nut as a kid, and spent my 12th birthday at the Beatles Story museum and on the Magical Mystery Tour bus (along with John Lennon's uncle, who used to hop on it to pick up his pension). That part of me was happy to wallow in nostalgia one more time, and for serious fans of the band it's definitely worth checking out. McCartney even licensed the rare use of four Beatles recordings due to his eternal bond with the subject, while Ringo pitches up at the end to deliver a personal message, and do that peace sign he always does. (3)


Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933) - Kate Hepburn won her first Oscar for this backstage drama, playing an insecure, self-obsessed and stagestruck young woman who pitches up in New York, flitting around the theatrical circle of producer Adolphe Menjou, writer Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and a peroxided Mary Duncan, as she looks for a break.

It's stagy and rather mannered, but also believable and entertaining for the most part, and while Hepburn isn't as good as she had been in A Bill of Divorcement or would be in countless other films, she's still quite persuasive, and her playing of Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene at a party is beautiful. Fairbanks, cast in an unusually sensitive role, is in fine form as the playwright secretly in love with her - especially when revealing his crush to Menjou - matched by C. Aubrey Smith as the mentor Hepburn forcibly adopts.

Unfortunately the film ends in rather anti-climactic fashion, serving up a cliched wish-fulfilment ending right out of 42nd Street, then failing to show us even a line from the play-within-a-film, an almost wilfully perverse decision that would have rendered the finale just about meaningless, had the closing monologue not proceeded to do that job itself.

It's worth seeing, especially for Hepburn buffs, but her 1937 classic, Stage Door, also made by RKO and featuring Menjou, tackled a very similar story in a vastly superior manner. (2.5)


Choke (Clark Gregg, 2008) - For the most part, an almost indiscriminate jumble of sex, offbeat sweetness, sex, boobs, sex, satire, sex, and black comedy about addiction and psychological and sexual abuse, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel and anchored by a physically, mentally scruffy Sam Rockwell, who's frankly had better hair.

He's a sex addict (that's where all that sex I mentioned, erm, comes in) and history re-enactor who supplements his income by feigning choking fits in restaurants, donating all the money towards expensive hospice care for his mother (Anjelica Huston, in unusually mediocre form) - once a paranoid psychopath tormenting his various pretty young foster parents, now a passive-aggressive dementia sufferer lamenting her impending demise.

Whilst chasing every woman with a pulse and without a bus pass, sparring with Agent Coulson (who also directs) - as his officious, scrupulously colonial boss - and trying to stop his friend from masturbating in public, Rockwell finds himself thoroughly unable to get it up with his mum's doctor (Kelly Macdonald). But is that because he loves her, or just because they're having sex in a chapel? And then there's the small matter of his true parentage...

For a long time the film seems to be going nowhere, albeit fairly divertingly, before rather dropping off as its mean-spiritedness becomes overbearing. Then, with about 15 minutes to go, it somehow pulls its many disparate strands together in a way that makes much - though certainly not all - of what precedes a whole lot better in retrospect. Rockwell has a couple of nice moments then - he's pretty good in a somewhat muddled part - but it's Macdonald who completely steals the show, and really with only one meaty scene in which to shine; what an exceptional actress she is. (2.5)

See also: For more news on Macdonald saving films somewhat beneath her talents, see this review of The Decoy Bride. And the film, if you insist.


Dancing Mothers (Herbert Brenon, 1926)
- The intuitive essayist and former silent film icon Louise Brooks was an unstinting champion of her phenomenally popular then long-neglected contemporary, Clara Bow, with whom she shared a natural sensuality, though Brooks herself was a long, sultry seductress and Bow a flirtatious bundle of fun.

There were two Bow performances for which Brooks reserved special praise: one was unsurprisingly Mantrap, Bow's favourite of her movies (and mine, for what it's worth), but the other wasn't the legendary It or the first Best Picture winner, Wings: it was this one.

For while Dancing Mothers didn't give Clara a starring role, nor create her "flapper" image - key elements of which had turned up in the previous year's The Plastic Age - it certainly cemented the recognisable Bow image, adding a degree of unrepentant hedonism to her persona, and providing her with a character called "Kittens", which always helps.

The film begins in a fug of moral dissolution, with Bow neatly cast as a spoilt, sex-crazed young woman who goes on the pull with her dad to Napoleon-themed brothels, while her suitor (Donald Keith) impotently broods and her blameless mum (Alice Joyce) sits on her lonesome, poring over old newspaper cuttings about when she was famous. (For those who know about Bow's intense and fractious relationship with her own alcoholic, brothel-frequenting father, who abused her as a teenager and contributed to her terrible mental health problems, watching her act out a similar scenario on screen is rather upsetting.) Naturally Joyce eventually comes to her senses, turning into a massive MILF - at least in the eyes of the movie - as she tries to take sexy womaniser Conway Tearle away from her daughter, partly by pretending to be French, only for the pair to develop, like, "feelings" for one another.

The material is spotty, though leading up to a decent reveal and a progressive pay-off, while the whole cast is rather dull with the exception of Bow. For much of the film she offers only an energetic but posturing cartoon (she was after all the partial inspiration for Betty Boop), curiously playing direct-to-camera at various junctures. In the final third, though, she has two key scenes, and plays them both well: first moving from anger to surprise, mirth and finally dejection as the object of her affections spurns her; then, in the finale, acting gentle, vulnerable and quite appallingly selfish, her playing displaying many of the virtues for which she would soon become renowned, being vibrant, natural and entirely lacking in technical affectation. I can't quite see what Brooks was getting at when she hailed it as a performance for the ages, but there is at least a fair bit to admire and enjoy. In truth, Bow isn't helped by the lacklustre handling from future Laugh, Clown, Laugh director Brenon, who rarely holds her in close-up. Perhaps he simply didn't realise what he had.

It's nothing special, then: not as gloomy and laughably melodramatic as Bow and Keith's Parisian Love from the previous year, but rather drab and lacklustre, rarely making the most of its possibilities. It's worth a look for Bow, though, as well as three little things that made me smile: 1) The bit where Joyce's best friend tells her that they have long lives ahead of them, and they both light up; 2) One of the characters being credited as Butter and Egg Man; and 3) Joyce's accidentally hilarious confession: "I've lied to you - I'm not a French woman." (2)


Change of Heart (John G. Blystone, 1934)
- Janet Gaynor and Charlie Farrell were one of the most popular romantic teams in pictures, back when such things existed. He was limited if personable, but she was arguably the best actress of her or any other era, possessing a beguiling sincerity, and from the silent period - when they kicked off with three incredible Frank Borzage films: 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star - through to early musicals like Sunnyside Up and Delicious, they were a reliable box-office banker with a solid screen chemistry.

Tastes changed, though, and this 1934 effort, blandly directed by former Buster Keaton collaborator Blystone, proved to be the last of their 12 (12!) teamings, across just seven years. The pair play a prospective lawyer (Farrell) and a writer (Gaynor) who arrive in New York hoping to make a mark, forming a love quadrangle with their college buddies: a superficial actress (Ginger Rogers) and a guy who keeps making rubbish jokes (James Dunn), followed by self-congratulatory remarks like: "Oh, that was a subtle one", after which he whips out a comb and does his hair. In 1945, the alcoholic Dunn confounded expectations by producing one of the greatest and most astonishingly raw of all screen performances, as a dissipated pipe dreamer in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but that was a way off. Here he's merely competent in a daft role.

The film isn't really very good. Its script, co-written by playwright and character actor James Gleason - a familiar face in many of the period's best comedies - is anaemic, abrupt, luducrously melodramatic and full of excessive exposition, if occasionally effectively evoking the atmosphere of mid-'30s New York from the point of view of outsiders.

Dunn we've dealt with, Rogers is a pain - playing the "bad girl" part that was briefly her stock-in-trade - and Farrell's a mopey annoyance turned potential adulterer, leaving only Gaynor's attractive naturalism to cling onto, along with a bit of future-star-spotting in the shape of Shirley Temple - just prior to her breakthrough in Little Miss Marker - Mischa Auer and a debuting Dick Foran, billed as "Nick".

There is one absolutely brilliant scene, though, completely at odds with the silliness surrounding it, in which Gaynor shaves the recovering Farrell's face as they discuss their future. Recalling Lucky Star, one of my all-time favourites, it's a completely genuine, tender and affecting passage, full of Gaynor's warmth and understated sense of humanity, and augmented by her fond, delightful and realistic facial quirks. After that, the film brightens a little, while never approaching such lofty heights again.

This was one of two DVDs I bought with my Christmas money. (The other was Dancing Mothers.) For that one special scene, and really that scene alone, it was worth it. (2)



The Spy Who Went Into the Cold - Kim Philby: Russian Super Spy (George Carey, 2013) - This cumbersomely-titled Storyville doc deals with the most senior member of the "Cambridge Five", a communist penetration agent who rose to the upper echelons of MI6, while feeding secrets to the Russkies and getting blind drunk. The film is as erratic as they come, with a few vague psychological insights into its subject, an interesting theory that fellow spy Anthony Blunt tipped Philby off about his cover being blown, and an almost endless parade of footage in which Carey shows us the sites where some of the things happened, which is sometimes eerily interesting but more often not. To be honest, he really should have got some more source material before handing this one in to BBC4, as close-ups of Google searches of people's names don't really cut it as far as documentary imagery is concerned. There are some interesting talking heads, not least the subjects's daughter Josephine, and a few good clips - including interesting analysis of Philby's supposed British boss speaking later on a TV chat show - but overall it's a scrappily unsatisfying addition to the wealth of Philby films. (2.5)


Thanks for reading.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Greta Garbo, Sherlock, and down-and-out like Flynn - Reviews #180

Here's some stuff I watched and read over the past couple of weeks. Let me know if I'm overselling it.


One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961) - Wilder's second-to-last masterpiece - and Jimmy Cagney's penultimate picture - is a rapid-fire Cold War comedy that ranks as one of the funniest films ever made.

Caggers is a veteran Coca Cola executive, marooned in West Berlin, who's forced to call on every ounce of his resources - and every trick in the book - after he lets the boss's daughter (Pamela Tiffin) marry a card-carrying communist (Horst Buchholz).

After a slow but steady 15-minute set-up, a little light on laughs, it's just non-stop entertainment: clever jokes, silly jokes, Nazi jokes, Stalin sight gags, cross-dressing, satire, in-jokes and innuendo, with Cagney a whirlwind of chicanery, juggling crooked commissars, suspicious journos and a bum-wiggling secretary with an "ümlaut".

Back in his element after a decade of mostly misfires, the star effortlessly recaptures the Cagney of old, of Blonde Crazy, Jimmy the Gent and Torrid Zone. It's a performance so full of manic energy that he then had to lie down for 20 years, only re-emerging for 1981's Ragtime. He's supported by a fun and perpetually shouting Buchholz, and a little-known but faultless ensemble, from his matchlessly acerbic wife (Arlene Francis) - whose every utterance is a gem - to the effusive, impressionable none-more-Southern Tiffin, and a sidekick who claims he was too far underground to know what Hitler was up to (Hanns Lothar).

Lots of later filmmakers have tried to recapture the zany spirit of '30s and early '40s comedies, but few have succeeded. Since Wilder wrote most of the best - from Midnight to Ball of Fire - he's not paying homage, merely remembering, and this one's the true spiritual successor to the immortal Ninotchka, co-written by him and directed by his hero Ernst Lubitsch, with the same culture-clash comedy, and the same well-lubricated, well horny Russian emissaries.

Incidentally, while Wilder gave both capitalism and communism what for in Ninotchka (and in 1933 Cagney described Stalin as "the greatest man in the world"), here he sides quite clearly with the West, while loading the script with acidic references to Germany's recent past - a beautiful, almost saintly way to deal with the events that had so impacted upon his own life, his nuclear family having largely perished at Auschwitz.

Many actors and directors never retained or reclaimed the carefree sensibility of the '30s after the horrors of the war. Bomber pilot Jimmy Stewart swore off mere entertainments, immersing himself in murky Westerns. Comedy specialist George Stevens never made another after filming the liberation of the death camps. But after getting some of his angst and anger out with his moody 1948 film, A Foreign Affair, shot on the ravaged streets of Berlin, Wilder merely dug in and kept pitching, the political gags still flying, a film still a place where anything went and everything was good for a laugh.

His last masterpiece came nine years after this one: a butchered but remarkable riff on the Sherlock Holmes legend that was up there with the Brett adaptations as my favourite treatment of Conan Doyle's legendary detective... until Moffat and Gatiss went to work. (4)

Trivia note: The movie in-jokes here alone are worth the price of admission, with Cagney doing his grapefruit bit from The Public Enemy, Cagney doing Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (more of which below) and, best of all, a guy doing a Cagney impression at Cagney...!


The Man in the Iron Mask (James Whale, 1939) - A glossy, successful version of Dumas' timeless tale, very different in focus and feel to Doug Fairbanks' take on the story, The Iron Mask, but with the same Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel de Brulier appearing briefly his fourth time out) and that same classic closing shot.

Away from the realm of the star vehicle, the emphasis here is not on the ageing D'Artagnan - putting his life on the line for perhaps the last time - but on the title character, with Louis Hayward excelling in a dual role as the effete, pampered and murderous king, and his brave, empathetic, hounded brother - a finer man than he will ever be.

Hayward was one of the most talented and underrated leading men of his era, memorably playing The Saint as a smirking, hard-edged vigilante in the greatest ever incarnation of Leslie Charteris' hero, and he creates two diverse, contrasting and perfectly rounded characters here. Almost as soon as the film begins, you simply forget this is the same man, aided by the clarity of the writing, perhaps, but largely due to Hayward ability to craft two so distinctive and memorable personas. He really is terrific.

Dog-faced Pre-Code lothario Warren William is strangely cast as D'Artagnan, struggling to embody the character's great virtues (a challenge which Fairbanks met effortlessly), and the action climax is a bit of a letdown - aside from one impressive fall under some horses - but it's a slick, handsome and fast-moving movie, with a very good performance at its centre and some lovely, lushly-scored romantic scenes between Hayward and Joan Bennett. There are also a few striking images courtesy of Frankenstein director Whale, almost all of them within the confines of that jail cell, spotlighting that brutal, hideous mask. And, alas, there is one concession to Code-era "morality", as one character is punished for promiscuity by being quite inexplicably shot.

I still prefer The Iron Mask, a flawed but frequently fantastic rendering of the story which served as Fairbanks' emotional farewell to the silent screen, but this entertaining film - from Hollywood at its height - does a lot right, and shouldn't disappoint anyone, except perhaps those seeking some exciting action to go with their impressively rendered period drama. Indeed, its changes to Dumas's original proved so popular and effective that later adaptations often based themselves on this version of the story, rather than the celebrated novel. (3)


Garbo (Kevin Brownlow, 2005) - An insightful, respectful Brownlow documentary on one of the greats, perhaps overly concerned with her reclusiveness, but also well-researched, with a few interesting talking heads (plus Snore Vidal) and a wealth of exceptional footage: not only from her films, but also from her private life, her fabled 1949 screentest for a comeback that never transpired, and, most extraordinarily, two adverts she shot as a chunky, generously-eyebrowed teenager. The typically beautiful original score from frequent Brownlow collaborator Carl Davis is a massive bonus, and the montage of kisses - presumably inspired by Cinema Paradiso - is a jolt of sensual old movie joy. (3)


It's All True (Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn, 1993) - In 1942, Orson Welles was asked by the American government to make a film in Brazil as part of its "Good Neighbour" policy, which was designed to warm up relations with South America and so prevent the countries there from siding with the Axis. For reasons of office politics and global politics - not to mention Welles' unpredictability, obsessiveness, perfectionism, erratic work ethic, quest for authenticity and desire to fill his magnum opus with socialism - It's All True was never finished.

Fifty-one years later, his assistant director Dick Wilson put together this crucial, often magical and sometimes quite frustrating documentary, bearing the same name and containing some of the recently rediscovered footage. It begins with a hagiographic history of the project - ironing out Welles' various shortcomings and mistakes - and catches up with many of the impoverished Brazilians who became the stars of It's All True, or would have done, had it ever been completed.

For some reason, and this is the biggest frustration, the documentary contains mere snippets of My Friend Bonito - the Mexican pastoral piece directed by Norman Foster under Welles' specific instruction - but, most significantly, it climaxes with a lengthy reconstruction of Orson's pet project, Four Men on a Raft, telling the story of four penniless "jangaderos" who sailed the unimaginable journey from Fortaleza to Rio to demand the same civil rights as those in the cities.

This piece of silent poetry, shot in Welles' distinctive style but also bearing the influence of Robert Flaherty, couldn't be presented as the director intended - he was long dead, and the footage emerged from the vaults simply as dailies - and comes with an unsuitable, overbearing and overly modern musical score, but it is a priceless piece of film history nonetheless, containing its share of longueurs and non-professional woodenness, but also much breathtaking imagery. The sequence in which a sobbing child tackles an obstacle course of daily life, as she runs to report the body she's just found, is simply magical filmmaking, especially when one considers the clunky cameras Welles was having to use by the time his team pitched up in Fortaleza. And there's plenty more where that came from: boats silhouetted against a tempestuous sea, working-class Brazilians preparing meticulously for the daily catch, or marching endlessly by as they bury their dead, an emotional charge beneath the sheer beauty of the pictures.

As a chronicle of Welles' doomed South American project, the film only really works in conjunction with Simon Callow's biography - which properly contextualises and explains the myriad problems surrounding the shoot - but it does fill in a major blank in one of the most important and fascinating of all cinematic careers, sharing the almost mythic footage collected during surely the boldest and most ridiculously managed venture ever attempted by a Hollywood director. (3)


Brother Orchid (Lloyd Bacon, 1940) - Edward G. Robinson seemed to spend more time riffing playfully on his gangster image than actually defining it, but I suppose the immortal Little Caesar was all it really took.

This 1940 "crime comedy", though, isn't really what you'd expect, especially when you hear that Eddie G will be playing an underworld kingpin who hides out in a monastery. Perhaps the comic possibilities of the premise couldn't be fully exploited because Code-era movies were banned from anything that might be seen to lampoon religion, or perhaps the writers were just looking to do something different from a culture clash comedy - because this is certainly different.

Robinson's uncouth mobster returns from five years abroad - searching in vain for "real class", as he had in The Little Giant - to discover that he's yesterday's news, and his malevolent, duplicitous old partner, Humphrey Bogart, is now running the show. Our hero's ditsy dame (Ann Sothern) tries to smooth things out, but instead sets him up for a gangland slaying, which he only just manages to avoid, collapsing fortuitously in front of a monastery run by wise, gentle Donald Crisp.

The first half is a mixed bag, with Lloyd Bacon showing his usual lack of panache behind the camera, but there are a few good jokes, including Robinson's line about a postcard from a psychiatric hospital and Frank Orth's bit with the phone, while the scene in which our hero thinks he's been betrayed by his girl is unexpectedly moving. There's also a first-rate cast: not just the commanding star, Bogart, Sothern and Crisp, but also the likes of Ralph Belllamy, Allen Jenkins and Richard Lane.

But nothing really prepares you for what follows: a strange, heartfelt and earnest diversion - perhaps not entirely different from the ones that followed in On Dangerous Ground and Looper - featuring a couple of sly, funny gangster-out-of-water gags concerning "chumps" and "rewards", but rather more concerned with showing Robinson the error of his ways. While it's not entirely successful, providing neither the crime that we were promised, nor the comedy, it is agreeably unusual, perhaps due to the input of maverick associate producer Mark Hellinger. In fact, it's so good that even Bacon perks up, his obviousness offset by the rather lovely presentation of the scenes at the monastery.

Sometimes studio films of this era turn into something else entirely, merely because the writers were under such time pressure that they wrapped things up any way they could think of. With this one, based on a Collier's Magazine story, you get the impression that the redemptive tale into which it develops is the whole point, the cliched crime and comedy trappings are mere dressing for what the talented, often left-leaning screenwriters Earl Baldwin (Wild Boys of the Road) and Richard Connell (Meet John Doe) were trying to say. As such, it doesn't really compare with Robinson vehicles like Larceny, Inc. and A Slight Case of Murder, precisely because it isn't supposed to. It's so shot through with flaws that they may as welll have been coming out of a Tommy Gun, but this gentle movie is also more satisfying than many others of its era, because it has a proper message underlying its immediate story.

Bellamy's final scene should also astound anyone familiar with his '30s and '40s work... (3)


Forever Female (Irving Rapper, 1953) - A backstage comedy-drama, with a pinch of Dodsworth, centring on a vain, ageing actress still playing 29 (Ginger Rogers), her producer and ex-husband (Paul Douglas), the headstrong young man who wrote her latest play (William Holden) - and who makes her feel young - and the ambitious, pretentious newcomer (Pat Crowley) trying to nab her role, and her man.

The script by Casablanca scribes Julius and Philip Epstein is predictable and rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but also enjoyable and pretty witty, with a fair Broadway flavour and an approach to attraction, relationships and middle-age that's perhaps erratic but also unusually mature.

The three big-name leads are in good if not tip-top form. Rogers never delivered on the comic or dramatic potential of her performance in Stage Door, but she's more modulated than normal, and her closing scenes are good. Holden, ironically, is simply too old for his part, and has little chance to trade on either his seductive cynicism (Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17) or dynamic muscularity (Picnic), but he's solid enough, while Douglas - a heavy, jowly stage success - does his usual bit, as reliable as he is unexciting.

The long-forgotten Crowley gets a huge credit at the start and another siamese stand-alone one at the end, billing her as a "future Paramount star", going to prove William Goldman's acerbic adage that no-one in Hollywood knows anything. She holds her own in the prestigious company, offering a decent variation on Anne Baxter's All About Eve heroics, and won the Golden Globe for Best Newcomer, but her energetic, charismatic performance is less nuanced than it should be, her sudden and not entirely convincing graduation from peppy youngster to wise young woman reminiscent of - and directly analogous to - Phoebe Nicholls' pleasant but mannered turn in the TV version of Brideshead Revisited. (3)


Black Legion (Archie Mayo and Michael Curtiz, 1937) - This bristling social drama is still shocking - and relevant - today, as an American everyman (Humphrey Bogart) loses a promotion to a second-generation immigrant, and joins the Klan. Or rather a Klan-like group called the Black Legion, though that rebranding appears to have had more to do with legal caution than moral cowardice, as the KKK is explicitly namechecked in the film.

It's a B-movie, really, with some convenient plotting, a lot of thick characters and a bit more romantic padding than is really welcome - as sweet as it is - but the central story retains a haunting power, much of it from the chilling imagery: masked figures swathed in black laying waste to farms and drug stores, whipping half-stripped immigrants, or conducting initiation ceremonies in the dead of night, at gunpoint, in which new recruits sign away their souls.

Scorsese must have had Bogart's revolver-based posing in mind, too, when Travis Bickle enquired as to whether anybody was talking to him. And there's something sublime about the movie calling into action bland, benign character players like Charles Halton and Harry Hayden (you'll probably know the faces, if not the names) to play its more banal, inconspicuous fascists. A shame, then, that the film's transparent contention that its higher-ranking Legionnaires are motivated more by money than proper racism does seem to be rather missing the point.

Warner Bros was more socially conscious, and spent more time and effort speaking to immigrant audiences, than any other studio, and this film goes where MGM and the rest would never have dreamt. It has its fair share of wooden acting, trite scripting and even silliness, while its attack is more on vigilantism than intolerance, but the boldness of the concept endures - along with a few unforgettable moments. (2.5)


Two-Faced Woman (George Cukor, 1941) - Three words: Garbo career apocalypse.

The ethereal Swedish sufferer works absolute wonders in this most unlikely of settings - a screwball comedy containing barely a trace of her established image - but the film around her is utterly dire, with a brainless, bad-tempered script, a supporting cast simply going through the motions, and the laziest direction Cukor ever gave. Stung by the (understandably) vitriolic critical reception, the great Garbo would never make another picture.

For what it's worth (and that really is very little), Garbo plays a Swedish ski instructor whose new husband (Melvyn Douglas) either wants to return to New York so that he can work incredibly hard editing his magazine, or just doss around chatting up women - the film is incredibly confused on this point. So she creates a twin sister for herself, who is apparently going to be such a handful that Douglas will return to the arms of his wife. Only he falls for her. But also finds out almost immediately that it's a ruse. So it's a battle-of-the-sexes comedy in which the male is entirely in charge the whole time, which also makes absolutely no sense, and which is bookended by some of the unfunniest slapstick ever misguidedly committed to film.

Douglas is so half-arsed it's little wonder that he soon took his considerable talents to the stage and the political arena - the scene in which he conceitedly smirks whilst hoodwinking her on the phone seems to sum up what he thought of the role - and the likes of Ruth Gordon, Roland Young and Constance Bennett look similarly embarrassed to be associated with something so abysmally conceived.

Somehow, despite all that, Garbo gives one of her most charming and delightful performances, following up her comic debut in Ninotchka with an altogether different characterisation: vivacious yet tormented, full of life, fun and flirtation, but with a heartbreakingly melancholy undercurrent. It would be the last time audiences would ever see her: Sweden's greatest cinematic export vanishing from sight for all time; well, except for to clomp around the streets of Manhattan in a huge hat and sunglasses for 50 years, the "hermit about town". (2)


These probably weren't that much use in the end.

Tarzan Escapes (Richard Thorpe and John Farrow, 1936)
- A film that's better known for what it doesn't contain than what it does, its notorious "vampire bats" sequence being excised after previews as it was deemed too frightening for audiences - and later lost (though some fans report seeing it in the '60s). As such, the characters climactically travel into a cave and emerge bloodied and beaten for no discernable reason, which I think we can file under "continuity error". Ironically, the whole film had already been completely repatterned by MGM after the 1935 cut, Tarzan Returns, was said to lack a central menace. Make your mind up, fellas.

As it exists today, Tarzan Escapes contains the usual mix of staggering racism, breathtaking colonial arrogance, incoherent philosophising and haplessly incorporated location footage, partially rescued - as ever - by some lively mythmaking and the megawatt charisma of Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane).

Plummy Benita Hume idiotically provokes a lioness, who is then shot dead - nice work, moron - with the travelling party doing nothing to atone, while black characters plummet to their death only for their civilised overlords to remark: "That was a close one." Indeed, the tribal inhabitants of Tarzan's perilous paradise exist only to be slaughtered, so that we, the viewer, are aware some white guy might be in a spot of danger - which, of course, they never are.

The film cleverly keeps Tarz off screen - aside from a couple of aaaheehaaaeeeaaaahs - for a good 20 minutes, then introduces him unexpectedly with a pip of a reveal, the camera swooping backwards to show his imposing frame in the upper reaches of a jungle tree. There's also a killer PoV shot of Tarzan kissing a very horny Jane, cutting to a flower floating in an inky lake that's very artily done, but the film in its entirety is an almost plotless inconsequence, its small snippets of story merely rehashed from its two predecessors, and coming out as dull domestic drama.

Jane's jungle house is impossible to take seriously in light of the excoriating Me Cheeta, James Lever's "autobiography" of the simian performer, while, perhaps most damagingly, Herbert Mundin provides some of the unfunniest, most overbearing comic relief I've ever seen - aside from his final scene - even if surprisingly effective when asked to play it straight. Had the whole production hadn't been so appallingly tortuous - going through three directors, including O'Sullivan's husband, John Farrow - you could almost accuse the film of being very, very lazy. As it is, it's perhaps just notably lacking in inspiration.

Then with 15 minutes left, it finally finds a bit of rhythm: Tarzan's escape is good fun, the swampy, foggy cave into which he leads his gang is overloaded with proto-noirish atmosphere - as man-eating lizards skulk around, gobbling black people - and the punchline to the sequence is superbly conceived. What it's really crying out for, though, is a topper: something to erase the tedium of the preceding 70 minutes and make it all worthwhile. You know, like vampire bats. (2)



Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre (2007) - You may remember this as the book that everyone was buying for everyone else (and particularly their dads) six Christmases ago. I gave it to my brother, but only just got around to borrowing it. It's the superb, ridiculous true story of Eddie Chapman, the North Eastern safecracker, womaniser and all-round Jack-the-lad who managed to get out of a Jersey prison by offering to spy on Britain for the Nazi occupiers... then turned double-agent under the guidance of spymasters supreme Tar Robertson, John Masterson, and his handler, Ronnie Reed. Barely a paragraph passes without some remarkable or hilarious detail, from fervent Nazi Walter Praetorius's obsession with Morris dancing, to the German agent who blew his cover in Britain by paying £10 and six shillings for a train ticket costing "10 and six". Chapman emerges as a fascinating character, his life the stuff of fiction, whose motives were often murky but who was transformed by that most appalling of creations - war - into a man of conscience. Meticulously assembled and written with the lightest of touches, it's one of the most enjoyable factual books I've read in an age. Highly recommended. (4)


My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn and Earl Conrad (1959) - Flynn's epic, notorious (and ghost-written) final statement is a patchwork of lies, fantasy and perhaps even a few things that actually happened, underscored by an obsession with sex that borders on the hysterical. It's the heartbreaking climactic third, though, that shifts it from a rollicking good read to something timeless, shot through as it is with sadness and loneliness, the spectre of addiction dominating. In addition to countless tall tales about his death-defying escapades, a false murder confession and some troubling sexual politics - Flynn and his aide lurching from one topic to the next with little interest in structure but a killer turn of phrase - there's an extraordinary amount in the book about the meaning and purpose of existence, somewhat at odds with the image of its (purported) author as a brainless carouser. But, as he so forcefully argues, he is as contradictory as any man, or indeed, as all of them. (3.5)


See You at the Movies by Melvyn Douglas and Tom Arthur (1986) - A wise, intimate autobiography with a rather misleading title, since the suave leading man turned heavyweight character player is so much more enamoured of his stage work than the featherweight Hollywood efforts that made his name. There are a few extremely insightful pen portraits of stars like Joan Crawford and Cary Grant, but Douglas spends more time - and energy - on the art of acting, the politics of the period, and his relationship with his beloved wife, Helen Gahagan Douglas. He's self-critical, frequently self-effacing - undercutting seriousness with sarcasm in the most unexpected places - and occasionally self-satisfied. He's also a charming companion in this, his twilight, with an irredeemable fondness for stories in which he behaves arrogantly and then trips over: pride coming before a quite literal fall. (3.5)



Sherlock (Season 3, 2013) - Still the best thing on TV, perfectly balancing humour, sentiment and suspense, and provoking one of the most tedious, unconvincing backlashes in living memory. There's nothing here to touch the Season 2 finale, but then there's little else I've ever seen to touch the Season 2 finale. The first episode perhaps missteps by reuniting John and Sherlock in a comic, rather than a heartfelt manner, a few of the one-off supporting characters (the train nerd, the women on the online forum) have a case of the woodens, and there isn't always that much detecting going on, but those are infinitesimal quibbles with a truly remarkable programme - one of those works of dramatic art that exalts you, then leaves you bereft as the credits roll. The season finale, His Last Vow, is simply gobsmacking. Face-licking too, at one point. (4)


Veep (Season 1, 2012) - Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell's attempt to transfer their profound, profanity-laced brand of political satire to the US is a complete and staggering success, the unmistakable feel of their work remaining gloriously untouched, albeit with a touch of Parks and Rec sweetness smuggled in. Cracking ensemble too. I loved it. (4)

Monday, 6 January 2014

The magnificence of the Ambersons


The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)

"Something had happened. A thing which years ago had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town. And now it came at last: George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him."

But when George Orson Welles, the infuriating, profligate wunderkind of American cinema got his comeuppance - three times full and running over - the whole world was watching. Still basking in the remarkable acclaim afforded his debut feature, Citizen Kane, he returned home from a government mission to Rio to find his Mercury unit disbanded by the studio, RKO, and his second masterpiece mutilated almost beyond recognition: cut from 131 minutes to 88 after a preview at Pomona where his employers purposefully showed his sombre epic to an audience of teenagers, directly after a Betty Hutton musical. They hated it, most of them - one derided Welles as "camera happy", which is like calling Leonardo Da Vinci "paint happy" - and so the destruction began.

Stories about Welles encountering, in his later years, the dismembered remnants of what might have been invariably end with him in tears - and from the unapproachable brilliance that remains, you can understand his sorrow, self-obsessed as it may have been. While some historians have sought to suggest that the boy genius abandoned his film to chase showgirls in Brazil, it was more his fervour for the never-to-be-completed South American opus, It's All True, that was occupying the rest of his time in 1942. I say "the rest", as those historians fail to acknowledge that he was fighting tooth and claw to save his vision of Ambersons from studio heavyweight Charles Koerner and his cabal of artless bean counters, and spending a staggering $1,000 a week on cables and phone calls regarding the re-shaping of his remarkable film.

Winter visits the Ambersons.

Welles made miscalculations, certainly, thinking his legendary charm could bluff him out of any tight corner and failing fatally to acknowledge the gravity of his situation, but it was more a mixture of bad luck - along with its more ruinous effects, Pearl Harbor made the film instantly out of step with the times, then sent Welles overseas - and genuine malevolence on the part of Koerner and his sycophantic acolytes that robbed the world of The Magnificent Ambersons.

What we have left are mere fragments: shreds of the weighty, playful, dizzyingly inventive two-hours-plus film that Welles intended - indeed shot - interspersed with awful inserts filmed by anyone who happened to be around (editor Robert Wise, Welles's business manager Jack Moss) and both dramatically and thematically completely out of place. Wise argued in his final interview that the finished film merely reinstated author Booth Tarkington's original ending, and that Welles' conception of the climax was so off-the-cuff that it had never even been storyboarded. True, but Tarkington's ending is regarded almost universally as a travesty, while Welles was forever guided by the lightning of inspiration, crackling through him and straight onto celluloid. Just as Pomona smirked, giggled and "kidded" the picture, high on hormones and Hutton, so we're obliged to wet ourselves with tears and bitter laughter at the embarrassing, mawkish junk that replaces the director's fabled "boarding house finale". Astonishingly, this incompetent hospital climax, so cheap that it writes the central character out of the finish and has someone else recap what he's just said, was scripted and directed by Moss - the same Moss who failed to get Welles the critical final cut on the film, who was then inexplicably left in charge by the director to fight his corner, who consequently threw Welles's daily memos about the editing process into the bin without reading them, and who spread the convenient rumour that Welles had given up on the film to shag carnival dancers. The same Moss, in fact, who had never written a page of dialogue before, or shot a frame of film.

It's been written of Rossellini's films that they possess a certain something no other filmmaker's have ever had. It's true. I think it of Barbara Stanwyck's greatest performances too, and of The Magnificent Ambersons. Texturally, it's like nothing else you've ever seen, Welles and the painstaking Stanley Cortez's evocation of a lost era of America - specifically the aristocratic Mid-West of the 1870s, a community rarely glimpsed in film - seems variously to have been shot on oak, on silk, on burlap, as a sewing pattern and as an old picture postcard - a vivid picture of a vanishing past, vanishing fast. Its visual sumptuousness is very much the point, in and of itself, but like Kane it's a film in which the technical wizardry succeeds in always serving the story, whether spanning decades in the blink of an eye, keeping us breathless at the centre of the action or turning exposition into the richest screen magic. Welles found it notoriously difficult to engender material himself, but he could shape and hone other people's words with a confidence and bravura virtuosity that was unmatched in the realms of radio, theatre and film.

The opening montage finds him at his zenith, placing the Ambersons - the "magnificent" Ambersons, the adjective relating to their wealth, power and refined extravagance rather than any admirable personal traits - in context, via round-cornered reminiscences set to his own unapproachable voiceover, and using Joe Cotten as a clothes dummy and comic fall guy before revealing, quite magnificently, that the pratfall we've just enjoyed precipitates the tragedy upon which the whole piece will hang. Well, that and the advent of the automobile - sorry, "horseless carriage" - which for Welles represents the loss of Eden, that simpler place that he himself had found in Grand Detour, Illinois, in rural Ireland and - as Ambersons previewed in Pomona - in impoverished Fortaleza, Brazil.

The pratfall: Cotten's face touched with worry.

Via the intonations of the wise, omniscient Welles, a harridan in a grocery store and a gossiping chorus (shot theatrically against a blank background), we learn of the film's central character, a spoiled, arrogant youth by the name of George Amberson Minafer ("TIM HOLT!") - ruined by too much motherly love - whom the town dearly wishes would receive his "comeuppance". In that irrepressible, jovial mood that Welles would forever struggle to recapture, the director's even happy to explain the word to us via the on- screen action.

Welles' beloved set-piece, a single, meticulously choreographed shot that took the audience through each room of the house during the crucial ball, and so into the lives of these people - a life that would soon cease to exist, this being "the last of the great balls" - is cut to ribbons, causing the stomach to tighten, the spirit to sag and the heart to sink each time Wise and his studio paymasters opt for an ugly, arbitrary dissolve. And yet still the ball retains a singular magic, dancing with life, exuding a sense of effortless fun, fleshing out George and introducing the adult Gene Morgan (Cotten) and his spirited daughter, the roving camera drawing us into the heart of this rarefied community, as Cotten's jovial interjections recall nothing as much as the song-and-dance number from Citizen Kane. The Leopard may match the ball for romanticism and opulent grandeur, but in terms of evoking the perfect atmosphere and provoking sheer exhilaration at what the filmmaker is doing: setting fire to the rulebook before your very eyes, there's still nothing to touch it. While Ambersons is an old man's film - quiet and sad, full of regret - it is also a young man's film, positively bursting with invention.

The beloved ball.

The ball sequence is followed by a spellbinding snowbound scene in which the car and the horse-drawn vie for supremacy, the latter zipping around the track to Bernard Herrmann's delightful jangling score - leading to a fall and a kiss - the former ailing, sputtering and dispersing thick plumes of smoke into George's fizzog, then juddering into ugly, ramshackle life as the family breaks into song, his vain, tuneless commandeering of the melody entirely in keeping with his character. And while the first 40 minutes suffers from RKO's idiotic tampering, compared to what follows it emerges relatively unscathed: the masterfully nauseating scene in which George stuffs his face with cake while considering his family's affairs had been earmarked for the chop, but somehow made it to theatres intact. There are sequences, and single shots, of such extraordinary emotional depth and clarity that it destroys at a stroke the idea that Welles was a cold filmmaker. My favourite composition sees Dolores Costello silhouetted between two departing lovers - one of them her son, George - bidding goodnight to her own childhood sweetheart, the one she didn't marry, the one who just re-entered her life. It's such a poignant, perfect juxtaposition, a visual, character-centric effect that no other director could have achieved so subtly or strikingly.

The nauseating, brilliant "cakes" set-piece.

As the film progresses, it becomes more and more disjointed, Welles' confidently episodic handling replaced by something that looks awfully like random, merciless cutting, as almost 50 per cent of the second half is removed, later to be dumped in the sea to Koerner's sadistic delight (if you think I'm exaggeratedly scapegoating, check out the memos - he hated Welles). Triumphant self-contained scenes follow one after another, at one point Welles pans up three storeys inside the Ambersons' vast mansion to an appreciate "ooooh" from me, but there's no through-line, no dramatic escalation, just pieces of meaningless brilliance, wrenched out of context, sitting miles apart, the narrative lurching forwards in time like a drunk Doctor Who. At one point Welles shoots a long, brilliant close-up of Major Amberson's (Richard Bennett) face, other voices intruding on the soundtrack: first Welles, then Collins, then Holt. As Bennett himself begins a monologue about the sun, his voice dips out, and you realise that RKO is now cutting scenes off in the middle. A pivotal death scene - interestingly shot by Russell Metty rather than Cortez (who Welles regarded as too slow) lasts little more than 10 seconds in the final cut, but in that time alone achieves a bracing impact, George's aunt (Agnes Moorehead) suddenly appearing before the camera, flinging her arms around her nephew and pressing him close, expecting no resistance and finding none.

The three-storey pan.

Many aspects of the film are hard to judge in this compromised state. Thematically, it's a difficult movie to comprehend. In the theatre, Welles was a conceptual director, creator of the "voodoo" Macbeth and the fascist Julius Caesar, but those concepts - while invigorating, lacked political coherence. As Simon Callow noted in The Road to Xanadu, the moral of his Caesar would appear to be: "don't kill Mussolini", probably not the message that he was trying to transmit, even prior to his left-wing awakening in the early '40s. Here, he's lamenting the passing of an epoch (and an extraordinarily brief one at that) by focusing on the product of that civilisation: the intensely dislikeable, selfish George Amberson Minafer. His counterpoint, the charming, personable Gene, cheerily oblivious to the past, may be bringing about the ruination of this world with his new-fangled motor-driven contraption, but you're clearly intended to side with him.

At a stretch, you could say that Gene is also a product of this lost world - one who acknowledges the danger of "progress" - as is his lost love (George's mother), while it's the flawed character of this callow, conceited youth and his contemporaries that allows their existence to slip into oblivion, but it's more likely that Welles is merely doing credit to a literary work he loves, and creating and revelling in the world it conjures, without drawing an ideological or moral bead on the material contained therein. Perhaps in its complete form, Ambersons dealt with these apparent contradictions more clearly.

Stanley Cortez's chiaroscuro lighting, Welles's singular sense of composition.

The performances are also hard to consider in any definitive sense. I really admire Cotten's work in this film, his Wellesian intonation suggesting that he was either coached very closely by the director or took on his inflections in admiration. It's a performance of outer tranquility, a wealth of emotions raging beneath the surface, and pouring out in that brilliant sequence where he tersely, defiantly brushes George aside, heading for the boy's ailing mother. As George's aunt - tormented by her unrequited love for Gene - Moorehead's performance is so intense, so unlike anything else in the picture or in the cinema at that time - at one with the gloomy lighting, the shadows streaming down her angular face - that it takes a little adjusting to, but really it's the key one, throbbing with conviction, unhappiness and self-loathing. After seeing the rushes, George Schaefer, Welles' main sponsor at the studio - and still then the head of RKO - described her performance as "one of the finest pieces of work I have ever seen on the screen", but after he took unprecedented "punishment" at Pomona, the kids howling with laughter at her supposed over-acting, it was slashed to pieces, like everything else. Like the corporative executive in Sturges' Christmas in July, Schaefer knew something was good only if other people told him so. Bizarrely - and hilariously - Moorehead seems to have borrowed from her part here for the following year's Youngest Profession, a daft MGM comedy about teenage autograph hunters, though with the hysteria very much dialled down. Bennett is, well, magnificent - when granted rare consent to shine by Wise's scissors - but Costello is unexceptional in a role that's either underwritten or just uninterestingly played, while - a little damagingly - neither Holt nor his love interest (a young Anne Baxter) have as much dramatic weight as would be ideal to power a story of this magnitude.

Moorehead giving it some welly.

Ray Collins' performance as the paternalistic, twinkling Uncle Jack demonstrates just what actors would do for Welles. Elsewhere, he gave some of the most half-hearted performances I've ever seen. Here, filling the screen, given a real, breathing character at the heart of the action, he excels. His farewell scene, with the background hubbub, a tolling bell and a poetic, nostalgic speech about a girl he once knew, sees Welles putting his experience to work: setting the background with a handful of radio tricks, then showing what he learnt from Herman Mankiewicz. "Quicksilver in a nest of cracks" is pure Welles - lyrical but not meaningful - but it's the wise, witty and straightforward language surrounding it, with a wealth of affection and a touch of hyperbole, that gives the scene a rare power. It's perhaps the second best scene in the picture. The best regards George Amberson Minafer receiving his comeuppance: Welles's voiceover, Wise's editing and Holt kneeling by a bed, delivering in a way that makes up for most of his shortcomings as a petulant, sullen George. It's set, of course, to the music of the incomparable Herrmann, whose justly celebrated score quite gloriously still exists in full.

It's also worth noting that Welles had been unable to do any post-production work on Ambersons, due to the tight deadlines of his government-appointed role, compared to several unbroken months on Kane, a period that had produced many of the film's most lauded innovations, including the double-exposure that placed the eponymous anti-hero in the background - but in deep focus - as Leland snoozed drunk at his desk, and that stunning, swooping shot of the Thatcher Memorial Library and its statue, all done via model work. The quality of what remains - discounting the occasionally voiced idea that Wise "saved" the film (an amusingly provocative stance, but clearly complete nonsense) - is testament to how astonishingly well Welles was firing in those heady days, before he became just too hot to handle - either in reality or just in reputation.

He would rise again, of course, first with Othello, then Touch of Evil, then The Trial and finally Chimes at Midnight, but he never did get over the debacle that was The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles lost his mother at nine and his father at 15, but it was the destruction of his 1942 film that he regarded as "the worst thing that ever happened to me". That bold, brilliant, maddening genius got his comeuppance alright - from the studio sadists, the hand of fate and his own bloody recklessness - while the whole world watched. (4)

The RKO press pack. This, I believe, is known as "gobsmacking gall".