WHAT A RACKET
Although the climactic underground chase through chiaroscuro sewers in THE THIRD MAN (1949) remains oft-quoted by forgettable thrillers and extreme camp (Alligator), the film’s superterranean views of bombed-out, occupied Vienna newly resonate. From a Ferris wheel car, racketeer Harry Lime (Orson Welles) peers indifferently at the “dots” below: “Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we?”
When Lime is killed, his friend, pulp-Western author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), guns for answers in Vienna’s international underworld with all the subtlety of his fictional cowboys. Martins’s lumbering American idealism contrasts in Graham Greene’s Jamesian screenplay with the paranoid noir of Marshall Plan Europe—first comically, then myopically. Carol Reed’s fast-paced direction speeds Martins toward a variation of an ethical test described by E.M. Forster: “Between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
Trevor Howard’s quip about Martins’s Oklahoma Kid (the title of a 1939 Warner Bros. movie Greene reviewed favorably for The Spectator) presciently reminds us of the danger of America’s love affair with the Western genre: “I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas.” —BENJAMIN STRONG
Snagged in a late-life thicket of stalled projects, declining health, TV ads, and Merv Griffin drop-ins, Orson Welles emerged from the wilderness with a striking pair of musings on the blurring of fact and fiction. In the hour-long THE IMMORTAL STORY (1968), his spare, elegant adaptation of an Isak Dinesen novella, Welles cast himself as Clay, a miserly moneybags who enlists a bedraggled seaman and Jeanne Moreau (!) to act out an apocryphal sailor’s yarn in a bedroom of his Macao mansion. In F FOR FAKE (completed in 1973), Welles shaped François Reichenbach’s candid footage into a loose-limbed but tautly built cine-essay on “two world leaders in fakery”: the prolific art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving, who himself counterfeited the autobio of Howard Hughes. Bearded and bedraped, Welles serves as self-amused emcee to their strange inventions, and far from passing judgment on these charismatic tricksters, the director admires them as fellow artists and comrade tale-tellers, whose exploits reflect his own adventures in faking it (bluffing his way into the Gate Theatre in Dublin as a hungry teenager, panicking millions with War of the Worlds, being William Randolph Hearst . . . ). Maybe the F also stands for the finger given to Pauline Kael (“I’m a charlatan,” Welles declares early on, a note of embittered challenge in his voice). Still, F for Fake is chiefly a sly, spry comedy, a playful minuet of secrets and lies but, as you’ll see, no broken promises. —JESSICA WINTER
TOUCHING THE VOID
Gather, darkness: Here is the inkiest, most fetid, most despairing Hollywood film ever, the noirest of the noirs, the blackest of cartwheels, a pain-haunted swoop made by Faust after everything else has been sold off and his foot has tripped into the abyss. Orson Welles’s 1958 anti-masterpiece TOUCH OF EVIL isn’t quite typically Wellesian—the past has no relevance, the literary sourcebook is pure Monterey Jack, and the nocturnal style is as unforgiving as a bone bruise. What it is is a note from the underground, a gout of bile from a diseased cosmic liver.
Or it’s Welles, attempting to resuscitate his career yet again, doing calisthenics with his camera and lights. Either way, it’s a required experience, whether in the old, assembled-despite-Welles’s-begging studio cut or the 1998 restoration as per Welles’s rediscovered memo, which we get here, a restructuring that helps clarify the wicked mess of misinformation and hyperbole the movie calls a plot. You don’t have to be a nostalgic whiner to sort of regret having this seething pulp cleaned up. Motifs borrowed from Delvaux, Tanguy, and Portinari or not, a partial prophecy of Psycho or not, Touch of Evil is a grimy, disreputable thing, best viewed with a head full of revenge whiskey. —MICHAEL ATKINSON
CIRCLE OF DECEIT
CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (MR. ARKADIN) (1955) is a film of frantic movement and fragmentation, a mad rush around a maze with no center and no exit, a Eurotrash Citizen Kane in reverse. If Kane‘s trajectory is basically centripetal, winding down to the memory palace where the (non)answer to a life might be found if one knew where to look among the clutter, Arkadin‘s is centrifugal, a whirlwind investigation initiated to erase the past rather than reveal it. Both end in smoke.
This is the film in which Welles let the seams show, cracking open the piecemeal construction of Othello (where a reverse shot sequence could cross continents in a splice and, according to Welles, “Any time you see someone from the back . . . you can be sure it’s a stand-in”) to take rootlessness as an explicit theme. Zip pans link locales, each tipped with a perfunctory signifier (baguette: France): We’re in Thomas Pynchon’s Zone, a borderless territory where history survives only in junk, bad jokes, and rumor. The seams show, too, on the borders of Welles’s magnificently phony wig and beard, but who’s to say this labyrinth doesn’t have the monster it deserves? A pantomime ogre, a report that annihilates itself, a portrait of Hitler stowed away in a Munich attic, a toy racetrack in the shape of an infinity symbol—all fit elements for a fractured fairy tale, as told in the Zone. —B. KITE
FOR CRYING OUT LOUD
Bearing both Sirkian title and narrative blueprint, but directed by Irving Pichel, TOMORROW IS FOREVER (1946), a melodrama maudit about a long-thought-dead war veteran (Welles, dissembled by nothing more than a beard and a bratwurst-belch Bavarian accent) returning home unrecognized to look in on his own widow and grown son, lacks the plushly assertive insanity of Sirk, and serves as an illustration of just how difficult a woman’s weepie is to confect. There’s a heavy reverence for something, perhaps the group experience of WW II, that attempts to import distinction from the void, and while this nothingness suffusing the picture may stand in for the emptiness returning G.I.’s beheld when they appraised their futures, the effect is purely accidental, and a little bit dull. True Orsonophiles will be delighted by the sheer size of the role assigned to their favorite, the commitment with which he attacks the job, and the strangely pleasing sight of him stealing scenes that were already his on the page. Welles, typically, is clearly out to save the movie from itself—you can feel his extracurricular influence on the child performers, especially the gifted eight-year-old Natalie Wood, who was almost certainly tutored by her hefty colleague over lunchtime pies, and you can even feel him coaxing Toland-like work out of the cinematographer in the climactic tempest-toss’d scenes. Still, there is something postprandially sluggish in the leading man. It is Claudette Colbert (a great Sirk leading lady that got away), maneuvering her famous left profile through domestic traumas and eerily contemporary war propaganda, who brings just the right note of stylized conviction to this curious genre picture and makes possible the cathartic tear-spilling that is its purpose. —GUY MADDIN
MAC AND CHEESE
A borderline horror flick, Welles’s expressionist and magical MACBETH (1948), unlike most screen versions of Shakespeare, is pure cinema. It was but three weeks in production at low-budget horse-opera mill Republic studio, stunningly shot by cameraman John L. Russell (who later shot Psycho). Welles is superb as the tragic hero, and in spite of the film’s limitations, a good deal of the play’s power comes through. One of the director’s most personal creations, it’s a courageous experiment with a craggy barbaric splendor all its own.
OTHELLO (1952), created piecemeal in Italy and Morocco over four years, turned out to be a lesser work than Macbeth. In Welles’s version, the Moor is already dead at the start, and as with Citizen Kane, the facts are then investigated. The florid mise-en-scène gives full play to complex compositions and tilted camera angles. Individual scenes are in an unrestrainedly operatic bravura style, and while the film succeeds visually, it ultimately fails as drama. Even Welles couldn’t do everything. He seems miscast as Othello, while Micheál MacLiammóir delivers a subtly insinuating performance as an Iago whose anger and jealousy, it is hinted, are motivated by feelings of sexual incapacity. —ELLIOTT STEIN
J. Hoberman’s review of The Magnificent Ambersons