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The Orson Welles File – Part 5

The Orson Welles File - Part 5

And so we come to the end of our Welles File, comprised of all films Welles had some kind of hand in—director, writer, actor, producer, narrator—which I saw 1952-1970 and noted with comments in my movie card-file. I didn’t actually meet Orson until late in 1968, and then had a complicated relationship with him until his death in 1985 at the age of 70. A book of interviews we did, This is Orson Welles, was published in 1992, and revised and enlarged in 1998 (the Da Capo edition, still in print). He was perhaps the most many-colored personality I ever met, and among the most influential in my life. It was not always an easy relationship, but even at its most difficult, there was much to be learned. I’m sure it also wasn’t easy being Orson Welles: his genius caused him a great deal of difficulty, and a complex set of reactions from all who came to know him. Bottom line: I did love him, and miss him still.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966; d: Fred Zinnemann).

1966: Fair- (A sad movie: the acting and the screenplay are both excellent and the story of Thomas More’s struggle against Henry VIII is most compelling; the sets and costumes are fine and the color is quite good; all that’s wrong is that Zinnemann, in almost every scene, puts his camera in such a way as to frustrate the viewer’s interests and emotions. He cuts away from a face we want to see just when we want to see it, or stays away when we want most to be close; he has not substituted, however, with any visual artistry; in this respect, he remains as pedestrian as always. That the actors and the script command as much attention as they still manage to is the greatest proof of their excellence.)

Added 2014: I remember once asking Welles about this film, in which he had a small but memorable role, and he told me with some sardonic amusement, that Mr. Zinnemann had said to him in a very sober tone what a “great honor” it was for Orson to be in the cast of this motion picture. Then OW laughed his earth-shaking laugh.

CASINO ROYALE (1967; d: Robert Parrish, Joseph McGrath, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest).

1967: Poor- (A producer’s picture—whenever there is more than one director, it is a producer’s film—and this is one of the worst ever made—a tedious and unfunny spoof of James Bond; the best work is Parrish’s and it’s probably his worst.)

THE TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD (1967; d: Gregori Alexandrov, Norman Swallow; narrator: Orson Welles).

1967: Fair- (Interesting Russian-British documentary about the Russian Revolution, its seeds and growth through the October, 1917 revolt; a lot of footage from [Sergei] Eisenstein, some fascinating newsreel stuff, clear narration. The emphasis is on Lenin, but it does its job as a television documentary—it explains something of the history.)

I’LL NEVER FORGET WHAT’S ‘IS NAME (1968; d: Michael Winner).

1968: Poor (Orson Welles, as the heavy, is more likable and more admirable really than anyone else in this highly pretentious, generally repulsive British comedy-drama about a young man who quits his job — in advertising, of course — in order to find a job with “integrity” again; when the film isn’t boring it is annoying, and there is far too little of Welles and much too much of Oliver Reed and Michael Winner.)

FALSTAFF (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT) (1966; d-s: Orson Welles).
1969: Exceptional (A bittersweet, melancholy tragedy of friendship and betrayal, adapted brilliantly by Welles from five Shakespeare plays, chronicling the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V. Great performances, especially by Welles, breathtaking photography, and a movie imagination that is unique and beautiful; the famous battle scene is a tour-de-force, but no more so than many of the subtler sequences.)

Added 1969: (Thematically consistent with all of Welles’ investigations into the corruptibility of power and the death of a better time.)

Added 1969: (A really beautiful movie, though the sound track is decidedly flawed by poor lip-sync and muddled dubbing; but it’s visually enchanting and all the performances are superb. There are not enough great speeches — Shakespeare after all didn’t write a play about this character — but it is nonetheless a commanding achievement, one of Welles’ most personal and touching.)

Added 2014: This was Orson’s favorite among his own films, a project he had started way back in the 1930s when he adapted a number of Shakespeare plays into a composite drama called Five Kings, which closed out of town. He did a stage production of Chimes at Midnight (his preferred title) in Dublin before starting to shoot the picture. Besides Welles’ magnificent portrayal of Jack Falstaff—a role he was obviously born to play—the greatest performance is John Gielgud’s as King Henry IV; his soliloquy about not being able to sleep is one of the great highlights in this amazing and memorably elegiac masterpiece. At the time of its limited and rather poor release in America, The New Yorker critic said we owed Welles a considerable debt of gratitude for giving us basically a new play by William Shakespeare. Right on the money.

HOUSE OF CARDS (1969; d: John Guillermin).

1969: Poor (Orson Welles’ presence is the only inducement to see this miserable, confusing and creakingly dull “thriller”, but he barely has four scenes — all of them terribly short; which must have been nice for him, but makes the picture pretty unbearable for us. When he is on — as the heavy –- the film comes briefly, flickeringly to life; the rest of the time, one can happily nap through George Peppard, Inger Stevens and Guillermin’s aggressive incompetence.)

IT’S ALL TRUE (1941-43; unfinished; d: Orson Welles, Norman Foster).

1969: Difficult to tell from this uncut, raw footage what the final film would have looked like; but there are so many beautiful things and so many intriguing ones that it’s terribly sad the project was aborted. Clearly, it would have been an original and very unusual documentary. Foster’s footage is more conventional, but evocative nevertheless and everything is beautifully photographed.)

THE IMMORTAL STORY (1968; d: Orson Welles).

1969: Excellent * (Haunting, mournful story of old age and futility told very simply and evocatively color-photographed. Brilliant performances and a pervasive mood of melancholy. As personal as any of Welles’ films and as darkly poetic.)

Added 1969: (More powerful and affecting than ever before – an eloquent tragic work.)

Added 2014: Based on an Isak Dinesen short story—she and Robert Graves were Welles’ favorite writers—this was Orson’s first picture in color. Originally made for French TV, it is limited in size, but has enormous reverberations in the subject of illusion vs. reality. Short but profoundly affecting, it is beautifully played by Jeanne Moreau. It is a modest work, somewhat like chamber music, yet as memorable as any of Welles’ more ambitious projects.

THE SOUTHERN STAR (1969: d: Sidney Hayers).

1969: Fair (An improbable comedy-adventure-romance about assorted characters lusting after a huge white diamond in turn-of-the-century Africa. George Segal and Ursula Andress are the stars, but Orson Welles steals the picture with several delightful scenes as a gay Aussie diamond hunter.)

THE HEARTS OF AGE (1934: d-s: Orson Welles).

1970: (Fascinating discovery – Welles’ first film work: a five-minute abstract film about old age and death with Welles at 19 as a kind of jovial Satan. Weird, surreal, done with considerable flair and audacity, it shows already a marked and daring talent for the medium.)

CATCH-22 (1970; d: Mike Nichols).

1970: Good- (A surrealistic comedy-drama that begins as a kind of intellectual Sergeant Bilko and degenerates into comic strip Kafka. Excellent performances by Orson Welles, Marcel Dalio, Alan Arkin, Anthony Perkins and all the rest but by no means the great film that Nichols intended it to be.)

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Comments

N Lasnibat

Thanks for this excellent initiative. Happy Birthday Peter !

Blake Lucas

Kind of sorry the Welles cards are over. I enjoyed these. Like you, I was around when those late Welles films first came out and have very happy memories of going to CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT a number of times during the few weeks it was out here, and THE IMMORTAL STORY soon after (it played on a great double bill with Bunuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT because they were both short features). I guess I've said a few times that I consider CHIMES Welles' greatest film–it's gratifying to sometimes agree with the director, especially if it's someone like Welles who plainly had discerning taste in films. And I really loved IMMORTAL STORY too–a beautiful and indeed haunting film. I wish Welles had made more movies in this later phase–their reflective aspect is becoming to him, while his aesthetic and dramatic command are as strong as ever. I very much liked what you said about both these movies, Peter. It's important to point out, as you do, that the subtler scenes in CHIMES are not any less great than that imposing battle scene.

Also wanted to say I appreciated your positive mention of Robert Parrish, a director I care a lot about–THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY and THE PURPLE PLAIN at least are masterpieces in my view and they have a lot in common and reveal a sensibility that is also present in others of his. There are at least half a dozen more of his movies that are really good, and he never had a really good situation, like a studio contract somewhere he was valued, so had to pick up projects as they came along but still shows well in the end. I already knew and liked him when CASINO ROYALE came out but didn't know for certain who had done what and didn't spend time trying to figure it out because the movie was such an excruciating experience. It was surely, as you say, his low moment and nothing could ever get me back to see it again.

One more thing about Welles. If these cards had gone on a couple of more years you could have included DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD (and I hope given it a high rating!). I thought Welles did the narration beautifully for that. He was surely the ideal choice.

al lai

A belated Happy Birthday to you … wishing you many more!

Blake Lucas

I meant to add Happy Birthday wishes to my comment yesterday. Sorry I forgot. Hope it was one.

Janet Abbey

I just finished all of these so thank you for sharing them with us. I have seen the recent Divergent – director Neil Burger – and after getting through a few layers and Deleuze on Lady From Shanghai I began reading Burger's film through Orson. It is more than a love letter to Orson. Perhaps a grateful memorial for all he has given Burger – and all of us. I still cry to think of Jodorowsky's Dune with Orson as the Baron. Could it have been anyone else in the world but him! Thirty years later they did to Jodorowsky what they had done to Orson with Lady. It is time and they are set up to get it now.

Anyway if you know anything about Burger and Orson would you let me know as I am working on that right now. I feel Burger has been tremendously influenced by Orson, and has been blessed. As have you. I saw you right at your beginning with Last Picture Show. Lovely lovely film.

Chris Pangborn

It's appalling to find Welles so badly represented on home video. I imagine rights issues are keeping Falstaff and the Immortal Story from getting proper DVD releases. Falstaff is a work of great humor and beauty. There's no reason it couldn't find a modern audience. I saw it again recently at a packed house in the East Village and the crowd was riveted and delighted. You have to think it'd be a big to-do if Criterion ever got around to picking it up. More people need to see The Immortal Story. As you so astutely put it, Peter, it's a haunting chamber work. Certainly, a different side of Orson.

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