Goodnight, Vienna: THE THIRD MAN (British Lion 1949)

I’m just gonna come right out and say it: THE THIRD MAN is one of the greatest movies ever made. How could it not be, with all that talent, from producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, director Carol Reed , screenwriter Graham Green, and cinematographer Robert Krasker, to actors Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli , and Trevor Howard. It’s striking visuals, taut direction, and masterful acting transcend the film noir genre and make THE THIRD MAN one of the must-see films of 20th Century cinema.

The story starts simply enough, as American pulp novelist Holly Martins arrives in post-war Vienna to meet up with his old pal Harry Lime, only to learn that Harry was recently killed in a car accident. He attends the graveside service, meeting Harry’s mysterious actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt, and is quickly pulled down a rabbit hole of intrigue and deception involving the British military police, black marketeers, and a very much alive Harry…

Reed fills the screen with dazzling cinematic imagery, from a terrifying ferris wheel ride to the shadow world of Vienna’s sewers, each scene giving the viewer something different: Dutch angles, quick cut edits, close-ups, and atmospheric lighting. Little touches like that kid and his ball or the man with the balloons add greatly to the film’s mood. While Reed was already one of England’s master craftsmen, there’s a heavy Orson Welles influence throughout THE THIRD MAN. Most historians claim the film is pure Reed, but the Welles touch is so evident in many scenes that one wonders…

Orson Welles  doesn’t appear as Harry Lime until around 30 minutes into the film, but his presence is felt throughout, and the entire movie revolves around this charming rogue. Welles is reunited with his Mercury Theater cohort Joseph Cotten as the pulp fiction writer Holly (“I write cheap novelettes”), who sets things in motion. Alida Valli was well known to Italian movie lovers; she’d go on to a long and prosperous international career. Trevor Howard is good as always as British Major Calloway, and his second-in-command Sgt. Paine is played by James Bond’s future boss Bernard Lee. There’s another 007 connection in THE THIRD MAN as well: assistant director Guy Hamilton would go on to direct GOLDFINGER , DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER , LIVE AND LET DIE , and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.

Then there’s that unique zither score by Austrian native Anton Karas, unlike anything heard in films before or since. Allegedly, Reed didn’t want to go with traditional Viennese waltz music, and came across Karas playing his zither at a wine garden one night. One thing led to another, and the zither plays a huge factor in making THE THIRD MAN so memorable, not to mention making a brief star out of the humble Karas, whose “Harry Lime Theme” became an unlikely #1 hit in 1950:

I could go on and on about the brilliance of THE THIRD MAN, but why waste time reading my humble scribblings? Go out and watch the film yourselves, and if you already have – watch it again!

Some Thoughts On Today’s Oscar Nominations Announcement

I really don’t mean to sound like your cranky old Uncle Elmo, but….

Seriously, Academy, I understand you don’t give two shits about Hollywood history. You prove that year after year with your truncated ‘In Memoriam’ segment, omitting far too many who’ve contributed to your industry. Last year, it was (among others) Don Gordon, Skip Homeier, Tobe Hooper, and Anne Jeffreys; the year before Gloria DeHaven, Madeleine LeBeau, William Schallert, Robert Vaughn… I get it. You’ve got to save time for those great “comedy” bits that Bob Hope wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot ski pole and lame musical production numbers, not to mention giving time for everyone to make their obligatory political statements. That’s why I put so much time and effort into my own yearly ‘In Memoriam’ tributes, so those you give short shrift to won’t be forgotten.

Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind”

But to completely snub Orson Welles’ last movie, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND ? I didn’t expect a film shot in the 70’s to cop a Best Picture nod, or any acting honors (though Peter Bogdanovich was more than worthy), but to ignore editor Bob Murawski’s painstaking putting together of all that mismatched footage and turning it into a cohesive film is UNFORGIVABLE! Murawski and his crew went through 96 HOURS of film in order to get a final cut, and the result was a dazzling piece of cinema that may not rank with CITIZEN KANE, but then again, what film does? A lot of hard work went into getting THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND right, and I really feel Murawski should have been rewarded for his efforts with AT LEAST a lousy nomination!

John C. Reilly & Steve Coogan in “Stan & Ollie”

While we’re on the subject of snubs, the biopic STAN & OLLIE received exactly zero, zip, nada nominations. Really? The film’s been released in New Yawk and El Lay, so it definitely qualifies for this year’s awards. John C. Reilly has picked up two Best Actor awards from the Boston and San Diego Film Critic Societies. What’s the matter, Academy, you don’t like Laurel & Hardy ? Not even enough to give a nomination for Best Makeup, or Production Design? I mean, come on!

Don’t get me wrong, I like superhero movies as much as the next guy, and was glad to see BLACK PANTHER get some recognition. And I’m happy Sam Elliott got tabbed with a Best Supporting Actor nod for A STAR IS BORN. But to totally disrespect THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (and STAN & OLLIE, which I admit I haven’t seen yet – soon, though), shows me the Academy has turned it’s back on its history. It’s not only a damn good movie, it would’ve been a real kick to see Orson get a co-nomination along with Murawski.

Maybe I really have turned into your cranky old Uncle Elmo. But I’m passionate about film, and it seems to me the Academy has dropped the ball on this one. I’m not going to boycott, it’s not my style; I’ll watch the awards ceremony faithfully, as I always do. And you best believe I’ll be rooting for Sam Elliott, ya young whippersnappers!!

I’ll be rootin’ for ya, Sam!

What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (Netflix 2018)

The day has finally arrived. November 2, 2018. I ordered a free trial of Netflix specifically so I could watch the completed version of Orson Welles’ final film, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND . Welles worked on this project for over a decade, and the footage sat for decades more before finally being restored and re-edited. A film buff’s dream come true – perhaps. There were questions I needed answered. Was there enough salvageable material to make a coherent movie? Does it follow Welles’ vision? Would it live up to the hype? Was it worth the wait?

The answer: OH, HELL YEAH!!

Welles shot over ten hours of film, utilizing different film stocks (Super 8, 16mm, 35mm), switching back and forth from color to classic black and white, to create his movie, which is a documentary about the movie-within-the-movie’s director – a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie. It took six years (from 1970-76) to shoot due to financial problems and his own perfectionism, and Welles had about a third of the film edited himself before his death in 1985. Legal battles have kept THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND unfinished and in limbo ever since, until at last producer Frank Marshall (who appeared in it as an young filmmaker) and Netflix stepped in earlier this year. A team was assembled to put the whole thing together, notably editor Bob Murawski, who (I think) painstakingly captured the vision of Welles and makes this 40+ year old film really come alive.

The film itself centers around Jake Hannaford, an Old Hollywood director attempting to reach a new audience by making a youth oriented film called THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Hannaford has just perished in a car crash (was it an accident or suicide?), and what we get is a cinema verite-style mockumentary of Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, where he’s to unveil his latest masterpiece. The film jumps all over the place with it’s multiple cast members, and Welles takes the opportunity to skewer some of his bugaboos: Old vs New Hollywood, cineastes and pretentious film school types, his critics, auteur theory (though a case could be made for Welles being the original film auteur!), studio honchos only out for a buck, macho men, sycophants and hangers-on. Using dazzling and innovative techniques coupled with some truly stunning imagery, Welles made a film way ahead of its time, and perhaps it’s just as well that it sat so long, when it can finally be appreciated.

John Huston  is incredible as the dissipated, tortured genius Hannaford, trying his damnedest to get his film made his way. Huston, one of Old Hollywood’s greatest directors himself, is at turns charming and cutting as the Welles stand-in Hannaford, who may or may not be bisexual, but is definitely misogynistic, alcoholic, and at the end of his rope. Welles acolyte Peter Bogdanovich plays Hannaford acolyte Brooks Otterlake, and does his mentor proud in the part. Susan Strasberg gives what I think is her best performance ever as acidic critic Julie Rich, patterned on Welles’ bete noir Pauline Kael. Edmond O’Brien , ill and already suffering the devastating memory loss of the Alzheimer’s disease that killed him, delivers a great performance as Hannaford actor Pat Mullins in his final role. Paul Stewart , CITIZEN KANE’s butler, plays another of Hannaford’s cronies, Matt Costello. My God, you could have a field day just spotting Familiar Faces in roles large and small: Stephane Audran, John Carroll , Claude Chabrol, Norman Foster , Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper , Henry Jaglom, George Jessel, Rich Little, Paul Mazursky, Mercedes McCambridge,  Cameron Mitchell , Lilli Palmer, Stafford Repp, Angelo Rossitto , Benny Rubin , Gregory Sierra, Dan Tobin, and so many more.

Hannaford’s film within the film stars Welles’ mistress Oja Kador (who also gets a  co-screenwriting credit) and actor Bob Ransom in the pivotal part of John Dale. This is where Welles truly shines, making it a comment on the pretentiousness of New Wave Cinema by having it look in some scenes (to my eyes, anyway) like some kind of AIP hippie or Crown-International sexploitation flick. I’m sure Welles was familiar with the low-budget work of people like Roger Corman and Richard Rush , and in one shot taken in a moving car I noticed a drive-in advertising a double feature of I EAT YOUR SKIN and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD. Principle cinematographer Gary Graver (who also appears as the documentarian) toiled for years in exploitation cinema, particularly with Al Adamson. Graver (who directed porn in his spare time, and actually managed to get Welles to edit one of his Triple-X efforts!) worked side by side with Welles, and his work here is nothing short of brilliant.

Hardcore film buffs will be totally blown away by THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, Orson Welles’ last movie. It’s a heady experience, and I thought it well worth the wait. It may not be The Great Man’s best, but as a lifelong movie lover I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kudos to all involved in bringing this historic piece of art to life. The question I must ask myself now, as I do with all films, is would I watch it again?

The answer: OH HELL YEAH!!

 

Book Review: ORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE by Josh Karp (St. Martin’s Press 2015)

There’s a lot of buzz around the film community about THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, Orson Welles’s unfinished film begun in 1970 that he worked on for almost a decade. Welles used different film stocks (8, 16, & 35 MM) and varied his styles to create a film-within-a-film focusing on the early 70’s clash between the Old Hollywood of the studio system and the New Hollywood auteurs (Welles, the ultimate auteur himself, disdained the term).  Netflix has announced the film has finally been restored and completed with the help of an Indiegogo campaign, and will be available for viewing sometime in 2018 (When, Netflix, when???). In the meantime, you can read author Josh Karp’s fascinating 2015 book ORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE: THE MAKING OF THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

Karp gives us a fast-paced look behind the scenes of a genius at work, creating art on the fly despite constant financial woes. Film buffs will not be able to put this book down as we get a glimpse into Welles’s creative process, and his determination to make his film his way. Welles was a cinematic genius to be sure, but the sum of his parts was greater then the whole: a tyrant on the set, a charming personality, an obsessed madman, and an artist out to prove to the world he wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture just yet.

John Huston, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich

We also get a seat for the long, long gestation of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND following Welles’s death in 1985, involving among many other setbacks the Iranian Revolution, his mistress Oja Kodar, daughter Beatrice, and various moneymen out to recoup their losses. The players involved in the movie read like a Who’s Who of Hollywood: John Huston , Peter Bogdanovich, Edmond O’Brien , Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper , future mega-producer Frank Marshall, and low budget cinematographer Gary Graver, whose devotion to Welles’s vision was unparalleled, and who supported himself during lean periods by making porn films (and you’ll discover how Graver got Welles to actually edit one of the things for him… I won’t tell you which!).

ORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE deserves to be on any film lover’s bookshelf. It’s a spellbinding look at an artist struggling against the odds to get his work onscreen the way he wants, and the aftermath of that process. Welles never did quite finish editing his film, but thanks to Netflix we’ll soon be able to see as close a proximity to his vision as humanly possible. I for one can’t wait to watch!

Roomful of Mirrors: Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Columbia 1947)

For my money, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is the perfect film noir, a tour de force by producer/writer/director/star Orson Welles that assaults the senses and keeps the viewer enthralled at all times. All this despite the meddling of Columbia Pictures czar Harry Cohn, who demanded Welles reshoot scenes and ordering its 155 minute running time cut down to 87. The version we see today, released in the states in 1948 (it was first run in France six months earlier), is still a brilliant piece of filmmaking thanks to the immense talents of Welles and his cast and crew.

Orson Welles scared the pants off American radio listeners with his Oct. 30, 1938 “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS. Signed to an unprecedented contract by RKO, Welles’ first feature was of course CITIZEN KANE (1941), now considered by many the greatest film ever made. The film didn’t light up the box office at the time though, and ruffled the feathers of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whose life KANE is based. It lost the Oscar to John Ford’s sentimental HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, then Welles’ second production, 1942’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, was butchered by RKO. No longer the boy wonder of motion pictures, Welles made JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) and THE STRANGER (1946) before taking on a stage project, a musical adaptation of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

Strapped for cash, Welles offered his services to Cohn for the money he needed to launch his play. Legend has it he saw the cover of the book his theater cashier was reading and told the mogul he had it in mind for his film. The truth is Columbia contractee William Castle  owned the rights to Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake”, and asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, hoping to direct it himself. Welles decided to direct himself, leaving Castle with an Associate Producer credit, as well as having an (uncredited) hand in the screenplay and some 2nd Unit work.

Welles also narrates the tale (complete with Irish brogue!) as sailor Michael O’Hara, who spots beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister riding through Central Park in a coach. She’s played by Rita Hayworth , Welles’ estranged (at the time) wife, with a short ‘do and hair dyed blond, another detail that went up Cohn’s ass. The girl is abducted by some ruffians and Michael stops a rape attempt. In gratitude, she offers him a job… on her husband’s yacht. Disappointed, Michael rips up her card and walks away, as two as-yet unidentified men watch from afar.

Next day the woman’s husband, disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister, comes calling at the union hall. Bannister, “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer”, insists Michael take the job. Reluctant but still attracted to Elsa, Michael accepts, and the crew set sail on The Circe from New York to San Francisco. We now meet the two men, one of whom is Sidney Broome, a sleazy PI working for Bannister’s divorce cases. The other is Bannister’s partner George Grisby, who makes Michael an unusual offer… five thousand dollars to commit murder. The victim: Grisby himself!

Things spiral out of control quickly for Michael from here, as he’s caught in a web of lies, deceit, and an elaborate frame-up that finds him being defended by Bannister for Grisby’s murder. These people to Michael are sharks feeding on themselves, and he’s trapped in their cesspool of wickedness with seemingly no way out. Welles performs wonders with this film, using close-ups, odd camera angles, and deep shadows to create this unholy world of the rich and powerful. The overlapping dialog injects the film with a sense of realism, as does the location footage. The Aquarium scene, the circus-like courtroom atmosphere, the Chinese theater scene, all are breathtaking, but take a backseat to the finale set in a Twilight Zone-ish funhouse Hall of Mirrors, a dazzling cinematic piece de resistance that has been often imitated but never duplicated. It is a masterpiece in every way, and has been rightly hailed as true work of art.

The marvelous Everett Sloane almost steals the picture as Bannister, the egotistical, cruel attorney. His bit cross-examining himself in the courtroom is a work of acting art in itself. Broadway star Glenn Anders is strange indeed as Grisby, and this is his best known of the ten films he was in. Ted de Corsia, the brutish Willie Garzah of THE NAKED CITY , adds his brand of menace to the role of Broome. Other Familiar Faces include (besides Sloane) CITIZEN KANE alumni William Alland, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, and Harry Shannon. Errol Flynn’s yacht The Zaca stood in for Bannister’s Circe, and the actor can be spotted in a scene hanging out in front of a Mexican cantina (which wasn’t much of a stretch for Flynn!).

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is perfect in every way, as film noir and as filmic art. Even with the cuts and extensive retakes, Welles’ talent shines through; in fact, they may have even helped the film. We’ll never know, as the trimmed footage is apparently lost, yet what remains is an electrifying piece of cinematic magic you don’t want to miss!