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Citizen Kane (1941)

citizenkaneThe greatest movie ever made! It’s intimidating. Not only was it intimidating to write about, but it was intimidating to even watch Citizen Kane. I kept putting it off and off. What if I didn’t like it? Didn’t get it? Became bored? Lost my self-respect as an old movie lover? Learned to doubt my judgment? Quit watching movies? Sunk into a depression!

Fortunately, nothing quite so dire occurred. I even enjoyed it a little and I wanted to share my thoughts and impressions and learn what other people think of this film, as well.

1. It’s not a movie; it’s a compendium of cinematic techniques! That’s a slight exaggeration. But what seems to make the movie stand out is how Welles synthesized – and enhanced – the various techniques available to a filmmaker at that time.

During the last years of the silent era, directors such as King Vidor, F.W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg had reached a level of visual beauty and virtuosity that was sublime. Then sound became the norm and visual storytelling was replaced with dialogue. But just as early silent filmmakers had to learn how to fully exploit the visual possibilities of cinema, it took a while for filmmakers in the ’30s to learn how to fully exploit the use of sound.

What Orson Welles seems to have done – as a radio man – was to fully realize the aural possibilities of film and wed them with the visual possibilities. He allowed cinematographer Gregg Toland to indulge his use of deep focus cinematography and Welles employed various aural techniques familiar from radio, like overlapping dialogue in the montage sequences.

As far as I can tell, this is what makes Citizen Kane the greatest film of all. It is the finest example of all that is possible in film. Not that all movies should be like that (probably most shouldn’t – it would be too much to use every trick in the book in every single movie). The vast array of techniques employed by Welles is admittedly dazzling, but also distracting. I found myself repeatedly watching what the camera was doing rather than the actors. We never get to just look straight on at a character. They are always in shadows or in deep focus or with the camera looking up at them or down on them or peering closely into their face.

citizen-kane-welles-podiumBilly Wilder believed that if the audience was paying attention to a shot, it was a sign of bad directing, because the audience is not supposed to notice how a film is made, but only the story. I suppose that’s why we remember individual moments from Welles’ films and remember the stories of Wilder’s films.

2. During the opening when we are introduced to Kane’s enormously disproportionate Gothic mansion, I half-expected Dracula to walk by. Welles’ film is not only a summary of cinematic techniques, but is a summary of practically every movie genre under the sun except the western. There is the horror story, the drama, the journalism screwball comedy, documentary, political satire, mystery and detective story.

3. Much is made about Charles Foster Kane’s (Welles) desire to be loved and his inability to love. In fact, they hammer this point home so often that I kept thinking that couldn’t be the point of the film. It couldn’t be that obvious. But perhaps an obvious plot allows more room for layers of symbolism.

But as much as the film obsesses about how lonely and pathetic Kane is, in truth, everyone looks lonely and pathetic. Joseph Cotten as one-time friend Jedidiah Leland is alone in a retirement home, reduced to begging a stranger to smuggler cigars in to him. Kane’s ex-wife is alone, drunk, in a club, thinking back on all that was. Everett Sloan as Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s business manager, is alone in a cold office. Everyone is alone and disconnected and spend half their time hidden in shadows as if to reinforce how unknowable people are.

It’s a disconnected world that Welles’ creates, which makes everyone seem more pathetic than sympathetic. Kane’s loneliness is just blown-up in proportion because he’s rich and larger than life.

4. Charles Foster Kane was essentially raised by a bank. George Coulouris as Walter Parks Thatcher – Kane’s guardian – has no other personality outside of his bank. I thought that was funny. No wonder Kane grew up so emotionally stunted. He veers between being pathetic and insufferably arrogant and self-aggrandizing. One hardly knows whether to be irritated or saddened.

90551-050-cdc7d41f5. I can’t do a puzzle anymore without thinking of Dorothy Comingore and having an urge to shout across the room, even though it’s unnecessary.

6. My brother wondered how Kane could stand so close to that gigantic fire. The heat coming from that thing would have been intense.

Conclusion: I think, on the whole, I enjoyed Citizen Kane more than I did any other film by Welles, including Touch of EvilThe Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger, and The Magnificent Ambersons, though The Stranger runs a close second. The sheer variety of interest is compelling, if still not emotionally engaging.

I actually owe my resolution to finally see Citizen Kane to FictionFan’s Book Reviews and her excellent review of the book Citizen Kane, by Harlon Lebo. It is a history and appreciation of the movie and FictionFan recommended viewing the movie before reading the book, which I am looking forward to doing.

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2016 in Movies

 

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It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

downloadStories involving special knowledge about the future nearly always appeal to me, so I was looking forward to seeing It Happened Tomorrow, a whimsical fantasy set in the 1890s, starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell. Unfortunately, it was not all that I had hoped for. It’s more of a curiosity, though not without its charms.

Lawrence “Larry” Stevens (Dick Powell) is an ambitious reporter who has just been promoted from writing obituaries. At a party, he jokes with his co-workers that he would give ten years of his life to be able to read tomorrow’s newspaper, but the old timer Pop (John Philliber) cautions him that he doesn’t even know if he has ten years to give. However, that night Pop hands Larry a newspaper that is indeed tomorrow’s newspaper. It says there will be a hold-up at the opera house and Larry makes sure he’s there, even copying down the article from the newspaper so he can reproduce it.

But things do not work out exactly as Larry expects. For one, the police suspect him of collusion and even suspect the woman he has fallen in love with, Sylvia Smith (Linda Darnell) – a professional clairvoyant who does her act with her hustling Uncle Oscar (Jack Oakie). Essentially, Larry becomes a prisoner to the future, always trying to either fulfill it, ignore it or avoid it. But no matter what he does, he always manages to act in a way that makes the headlines a self-fulling prophecy. The eventual result is comic despair and fatalism.

It Happened Tomorrow feels like a transitional (or filler) film for nearly everyone involved. Dick Powell was about to essay his career changing role as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, Linda Darnell was transitioning away from sweet ingenues to femme fatales or woman from the wrong side of the tracks and director Rene Clair was partly killing time while stranded in America during the Nazis occupation of France.

download (1)Rene Clair often gravitated towards fantasy and whimsy. His most famous movies include some early French musicals (A nous la liberte) and I Married a Witch and And Then There Were NoneIt Happened Tomorrow is definitely a lesser film, though it’s not a bad film. The pacing seems a little off, and the timing, and the acting and humor is a little broad. Would it have made a difference if Clair had gotten his first choice for Larry, Cary Grant?

Dick Powell, as I said was transitioning away from musicals and about to establish his wry noir persona. He seems much more understated in those films. For It Happened Tomorrow, he’s funny, but seems to be playing it too broadly, which is interesting because in later comedies, like Susan Slept Here, he seems spot on. Perhaps he was simply too old, or simply no longer looked like the eager young reporter he was playing and was trying to compensate?

Or perhaps it was because he was playing opposite Jack Oakie, who is the very definition of broad comedy. Oakie has a way of stealing scenes, even at one point wearing one of the loudest suits I’ve ever seen, and he tends to run away with things a little too much at times.

The ending is pretty hilarious, though. Larry has read that he is going to die at a certain hotel the following day and is trying his best to stay away, eventually settling into despair that no matter what he does he will end up at that hotel. He even decides to provide for his widow – Sylvia – by betting at the racetrack, knowing which horses will win and there is genuine suspense as one wonders both how he will end up at the hotel and how he will manage to stay alive.

download (2)Linda Darnell as Sylvia is still mostly in her ingenue phase, though she would play her first femme fatale that same year in Summer Storm with George Sanders. At this point, however, she still doesn’t quite know how to deliver a line or modulate her voice.

Linda Darnell’s career as an actress is a curious one. She began so young (and was initially cast mostly on the strength of her astonishing beauty) that one can literally track how her acting improved through the years. She made her first movie at fifteen (playing a society woman who was supposed to be married to Tyrone Power for three years!) and initially played beautiful ingenues in films like The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.

It is in the late ’40s that she really comes into her own with films like A Letter to Three Wives (a personal favorite), No Way Out, and Unfaithfully Yours. By that point, she also seems to have learned how to use her voice as an asset and not just as a means of delivering lines. She’s especially good at conveying world-weariness with her voice (and uses her voice in A Letter to Three Wives to conceal her vulnerability). Sadly, her career began to peter out at just the age (late twenties) that most great actresses come into their own (like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck).

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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Nothing Sacred (1937)

downloadAlthough I didn’t watch it for this reason, Nothing Sacred turned out to be a perfect and hilarious companion film to Dark Victory. It is a satire of celebrity, media sensationalism and the strong urge of people to experience compassion via entertainment.

Wally Cook (Fredric March) is the best journalist at the Morning Star, though he is currently in the bad books of editor Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) for a hoax involving a bootblack (Troy Brown) disguised as a sultan (the bootblack is found out when his wife, played by Hattie McDaniel, shows up with their children). But Wally is a very persuasive man and convinces Stone to relieve him of writing obituaries and let him follow up a story of a young woman dying of radium poising. His idea is to bring her back to New York, where she will naturally become the toast of the city (because she’s dying), which will sell lots of Morning Star papers.

The young lady, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), lives in Warsaw, Vermont, the unfriendliest town around. People say “yep” and “nope” and won’t give information without first being payed, while their children are downright mean (one child bites Wally on the leg for no particular reason). Hazel wants out and it’s hard to blame her. She thought she was going to get a free trip to New York (because she’s dying), but when Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger) tells her that he made a mistake and she’s not really dying, she doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad (“It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice – and each time in Warsaw!”). So when Wally Cook arrives and wants to take her to New York, she jumps at the chance and brings Dr. Downer along with her to help her play at being terminally ill.

Hazel Flagg becomes a sensation. She’s in all the newspapers (which are then shown to wrap fish), goes to events where moments of silence are observed in her honor. She’s pointed out at nightclubs, receives the key to the city and encounters tearful people everywhere she goes, all drowning in admiration and sadness for her. She starts to feel guilty about making everyone so sad. But worst of all is that Wally starts to fall in love with her (in between arranging a funeral were a quarter of a million people will attend and a state holiday declared) and Hazel is afraid that when the hoax is discovered she’ll ruin his career.

they have both socked each other in the jaw

they have both socked each other in the jaw

Of course her hoax is discovered, but nothing goes as one would expect. People are simply too invested in the narrative of the girl heroically and inspirationally going to meet her death.

William Wellman directs this film (with an irreverent script by Ben Hecht) at breakneck speed. Sometimes, comedies can get tangled up in the end with sentiment, but not Nothing Sacred, which lives up to its title. But the romance still manages to be sweet, as Wally asks Hazel to marry him, even though he believes she’s going to die, and talks about how a few perfect moments are better than a lifetime. It’s funny – because she’s not going to die at all – but it’s also sweet. It’s also funny because she’s just tried unsuccessfully to fake a suicide (which he believes is real) because she can’t see any way out of the mess she’s gotten herself into. Dripping wet, they pledge their love in a packing crate and are then interrupted by a fireman. And then Wally forgets to offer his coat to his fiance, leaving the fireman to do the gallant thing.

Fredric March is not an actor I’ve thought about much one way or the other (though I’ve enjoyed many of his movies), but I was impressed with him here. As Wally, he shifts believably from journalist huckster to sincere lover without overplaying either, though in the end he remains a little bit of both. He’s a grounded comedian, but still gets his laughs.

Carole Lombard is another actor I have been warming to. I first saw her in My Man Godfrey, which convinced me for the longest time that I did not like Carole Lombard. She was hyper and generally too much for me. But Hands Across the Table changed my mind and I’ve come to agree that she is a very fine comedian. It’s hard to put my finger on just what makes her so funny. Oftentimes, it’s simply her facial expressions, though she can certainly do slapstick with the best of them.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments (one favorite is the attempted-suicide scene – with practically the entire city looking for her). And though it was made two years before Dark Victory, moments still play like a satire, such as when Hazel says she wants to go off alone to die – “like an elephant.” And I got a big chuckle out of the four radium poisoning specialists who come to analyze Hazel. Sig Ruman leads the way as Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer, from Vienna. The other doctors are from Prague, Moscow and Berlin and I couldn’t help but wonder how they got these doctors together. This is 1937, so presumably one is a communist and the other a Nazi.

nothing-sacred-fredric-march-carole-lombard-1937

these stills are in black and white, but the film is in Technicolor, a relatively early example of this

Near the end, when Oliver Stone has discovered that Hazel is not really dying and is sputtering with anger, Wally says that the people of New York ought to be thanking the Morning Star for what they did, even if Hazel is a fake. It gave people what they wanted – an opportunity to feel maudlin and sorry for someone. That got my attention, because I had been reading an article a little while ago in the Wall Street Journal called “Leonardo DiCaprio, Meet St. Augustine,” by Daniel Ross Goodman. The author was discussing why people enjoy watching movies where people suffer (and why actors tend to win Oscars for portraying people who suffer). According to St. Augustine, it’s not sadism; it’s an innate desire to experience compassion and remind ourselves that there is goodness in us. As Goodman writes, “When we see suffering depicted in a movie, our empathetic itch is scratched, giving us the sensation that we have exercised true empathy.”

Nothing Sacred mocks this thoroughly…at least the hollow side of this phenomenon, where people can congratulate themselves secretly for feeling good without ever doing anything genuinely compassionate. Though I wouldn’t say that is the message of the movie. It’s not a message picture, but a very funny satire that shrewdly hits on some truths about human nature.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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