Tag Archives: Orson Welles

Top 100 Films #64 – Citizen Kane (1941)

 

ORSON WELLES CITIZEN KANE (1941)#64. Citizen Kane (1941)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart

Citizen Kane, often regarded by critics and historians as the greatest film ever made, is certainly the most daunting film on my list to write about – even briefly. What can somebody of my experience say about Orson Welles’ magnum opus that hasn’t already been repeated ad nauseum?  Absolutely nothing, but I can at least give readers an idea of why it’s appearing on my list.  Citizen Kane tells the epic story of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a newspaper tycoon through the early to mid 1900’s.  The story takes place after the death of the controversial but important figure, transporting us between past events that lead to Kane’s rise and fall, and the present where those closest to the man give some insight into his character.  We learn of the building of his famous, but incomplete, Xanadu, his multiple failed marriages, and the effect that his modest upbringing had on his personality.  Citizen Kane weaves an impressive and poignant narrative with style and grace, laying the foundation for generations of filmmakers to come – its influence is still felt in the American movie scene.  Orson Welles was in his mid-20’s when he wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane – an achievement that has gone unmatched in the decades since the film’s release.  Welles’ visionary approach to directing and storytelling cannot be understated – the director employs the use of newsreel footage, montages, flashbacks, and nonlinear storytelling to push the narrative along, and techniques like deep focus to give the film a stylistic flair.  Citizen Kane’s opening newsreel sequence is one of my favorite movie scenes ever – delivering the perfect amount of information and background to our main character and his achievement.  The film’s reveal of “Rosebud” is deeply moving, despite having been parodied for decades – it’s one of cinema’s greatest reveals.  Everything about the movie is graceful, meaningful, and deliberate – there’s no doubt in my mind that Citizen Kane is one of cinema’s all-time greatest achievements.  Without it, the majority of my list would never have been made, at least not on the ambitious artistic levels many of them achieve.  If you haven’t seen Citizen Kane solely because of its reputation, I urge you to do so immediately – it’s a thrilling exercise in the magic of film, full of wonderful moments, performances, and photography that will make your jaw drop.  

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Top 100 Films #96 – Touch of Evil (1958)

 

touchofevil1#96. Touch of Evil (1958)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles (based on Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor

Orson Welles truly was one of the all-time greats – the man could direct, write, and act circles around most of his contemporaries.  His late film noir classic Touch of Evil is a showcase of all these incredible skills, and possibly one of Welles’ last truly “great” films.  The film tells a dark tale of law enforcement corruption, conspiracy, and murder in a seedy Mexican border town.  Touch of Evil stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as a couple who end up in the wrong place at the right time, and Orson Welles as a corrupt, drunken cop who cannot afford to have his dirty laundry aired out to the public.  Welles’ film came along after the peak of the film noir movement in Hollywood, but feels as if it was released in the heyday of the movement.  It combines all the most acclaimed elements of film noir into one bleak, depressing, and refreshing tale of good people gone bad.  It’s dreary atmosphere is one that can be matched by few Hollywood movies of the time, which helps to set the stage for the incredibly tense and unnerving story that unfolds over just 95 minutes.  The performance by Orson Welles himself is a true highlight of the film – his drunk, depressed, and quite frankly evil Captain Quinlan is unforgettable.  Check out my full length review of Touch of Evil here.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #1 – The War of the Worlds (1953)

Film1953-TheWarOfTheWorlds-OriginalPosterThe War of the Worlds (1953)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Barre Lyndon (based on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells)
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all-time, largely in part to how many times the story has been adapted and improved upon.  The classic novel led to Orson Welles’ infamous panic-inducing radio drama, which would originally lead to a big screen adaptation of the novel, and that film led to countless remakes.  The original film version differs greatly from the novel, mainly by setting it in modern America, rather than the Victorian England setting of the Wells story.  The film instead takes place after the first two World Wars, which saw humans banding together to defeat a common enemy, a theme that becomes important in the film version.  The War of the Worlds was directed by former special effects artist Byron Haskin, and it would go on to be the biggest success of his long career.  Haskin teamed up with his friend and producer George Pal, making it one of the many successful projects the two underwent together.  The special effects experience and knowledge held by the film’s director would lead to an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects, and would cement the film’s legacy as a special effects marvel.  The film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, both of whom had successful careers as television actors, and would both later appear in cameo roles in Steven Spielberg’s modern take on the story.  The War of the Worlds was a massive financial success, becoming the highest grossing sci-fi film of 1953, and spawning a great deal of imitators in the years to follow.  The tremendous success and influence of the original film has been mostly overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s highly successful (and arguably much better) 2005 reimagining of the story.  Today, Byron Haksin’s The War of the Worlds sits in the National Film Registry, and is looked back upon fondly by historians for pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The War of the Worlds begins with a montage of Earth’s first two World Wars, with a narrator remarking how much technology has rapidly advanced throughout these decades.  The narrator then gives us a quick explanation of the harsh conditions on Mars, and explains the motivations for its inhabitants wanting to scout the planet Earth for eventual relocation of the remaining Martians.  We meet a scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), just as a large meteor-like object is touching down on Earth.  Dr. Forrester and his troupe go to investigate the crash site, where he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and others.  Later that evening, after most of the crowd has called it a day, the “meteor” opens up and the inhabitants found within kill all those in the area of impact.  All technology in the town is disabled by the invading Martians after an EMP is set off, causing the United States military to investigate the invaders.  Reports from all around the world are soon received with similar stories, meaning that the invaders are here to conquer.  After an attempted peace offering, the Martians destroy the military’s best with little effort and move on to the next town.  Dr. Forrester and Sylvia take shelter in an old farmhouse, where the two fall in love.  After a close encounter with the invaders, the two manage to steal a sample of alien DNA and escape to the relative safety of Dr. Forrester’s Pacific Tech.  When they are, the doctor, Sylvia, and their fellow survivors and military officials begin to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to take down the seemingly indestructible Martian ships.  Can humankind overcome the impossible odds stacked against them, or will the Martian invaders squash human beings from existence?  Find out in the iconic 1953 film The War of the Worlds!

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Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, stars of The War of the Worlds.

I was thirteen when I saw Steven Spielberg’s epic reimagining of The War of the Worlds, and it instantly became one of my favorite films as an adolescent. While I don’t look back on it with the same fondness I once did, the film inspired me to read H.G. Wells’ terrific novel, and launched my love for all things science fiction.  It took me a decade to finally get around to seeing the original film, and I can definitely see why 1953’s The War of the Worlds was so influential on the genre.  While I can’t say that I’m in love with the film by any means, I also can’t deny the fact that this is a very fun, very fast moving action sci-fi flick.  Its groundbreaking use of special effects haven’t aged well, but they’re still incredibly charming today in all of their faults.  The heat ray weapon used by the Martians is still really effective, even if the actual effect looks completely silly with actors just kind of disappearing.  The effect used in Spielberg’s film where those affected by the weapon “disintegrate” into dust doesn’t look great today either, so it’s clearly a case of the effect being hard to realize visually.  Despite the charming goofiness of the heat rays and the actual snake-like alien ships, the design of the aliens themselves is quite creepy and definitely adds to their presence.  Of course, it helps that we very rarely see the creatures through the film’s last half, adding to the uneasiness felt by their presence.  Aside from some obviously dated effects, The War of the Worlds features consistently flat and unremarkable direction from Byron Haskin.  While the Martians feel like a threat throughout, it has almost nothing to do with Haskin’s steady and lazy direction.  Haskin’s direction doesn’t do much to detract from the overall film, but it does absolutely nothing to add to it.  The direction brings the film down from what could have been incredible heights, making it instead feel like what it is: a pretty good science fiction film that was ahead of its time in terms of visual effects.  On top of unremarkable direction, the lead performances in The War of the Worlds are nothing to write home about.  Both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson do an admirable job of being likeable protagonists, but they never quite go into the territory that Spielberg brought Tom Cruise’s multi-layered loser father character to.  While this isn’t exactly a quiet character study, the lack of any sort of depth or development certainly doesn’t help the film’s case.  Luckily for science fiction fans, The War of the Worlds still feels significant because of its ridiculously fast pacing.  It never pauses for too long, never focuses on insignificant side stories or characters, but instead gives it to us straight.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what everybody wants from a cheesy, fun sci-fi flick?

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The iconic Martian spaceship design from 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

Overall, The War of the Worlds isn’t a great film.  I’m not even completely convinced that it’s a really good film, to be honest.  What we have here though is an incredibly charming and fun (albeit goofy) thrill ride.  While the special effects may seem dated to most today, they do the trick in getting the audience engaged enough to buy into the fantastic story at hand.  The direction and acting may be completely ordinary, but that doesn’t hinder The War of the Worlds the same way it would completely destroy most films.  If you want a fun piece of American history to digest after something with a little more weight like Spielberg’s 2005 film, this might be your ticket.  It may not wow you like it did for audiences in 1953, but it’s a hell of a good time.  The War of the Worlds is cautiously recommended.

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Noirvember Feature #10 – Touch of Evil (1958)

TouchofevilTouch of Evil (1958)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles (based on Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Marlene Dietrich

Orson Welles is without a doubt one of the most stories directors in Hollywood history.  His feature length debut film, Citizen Kane, is known as one of the greatest films ever made, and even managed to completely re-define the way films were made.  His influence is felt to this very day, not only through Citizen Kane, but his other ambitious projects like Shakespeare adaptations Macbeth and Othello, the Academy Award nominated The Magnificent Ambersons, his documentary essay film F For Fake, and his film noirs like The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger, and the final Noirvember feature, Touch of Evil.  Welles’ film noir is often regarded as one of his best films, and one of the last “true” film noirs of the era, and because of this it’s only fitting that I’ve picked it to close out this month’s festival.  The film was released in 1958, and would prove to be the final project that Orson would direct on American soil.  After the release of Touch of Evil, Welles would focus on strictly European productions, and would move onto more challenging projects than ever before, even tackling ambitious projects he had no hope to finish.  By the time Welles passed away in 1985, his list of incomplete films would rival his own finished filmography, many of these projects developed after the release of his last film noir.  Touch of Evil has been met with both wide amounts of praise and controversy over the years, mostly because of its whitewashing of non-white characters.  The biggest offense comes in the form of Charlton Heston, who in the film plays a Mexican man, but in real life is as American as they come.  His character wears dark-colored makeup to give him the appearance of a Mexican-born man, and critics and historians alike have questioned the choice of not just casting a real Hispanic actor.  Despite this questionable casting blunder (Heston is still incredible in the role), Touch of Evil has endured the test of time on most other fronts, and is now widely considered to be not only one of the best film noirs of all-time, but one of the great films of the 1950’s.

TouchOfEvil1

The film begins on a quite literally explosive note, seeing main characters Ramon Miguel (or Mike) Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) brush with death multiple times by strolling past a car containing a ticking time bomb.  When the car passes the over American border, it finally explodes. The sudden explosion kills those within the car, and quickly launches the drug enforcement officer Miguel Vargas into an investigation. The leader of said investigation is Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a no-nonsense, disheveled, and clearly past his prime officer of the law.  Vargas unofficially joins the efforts by Captain Quinlan, and the team soon comes to suspect that the incident has been perpetrated by Sanchez (Victor Millan), the secret husband of the victim’s daughter.  After Vargas accidentally uncovers some very dirty police work by Quinlan and gang, he launches into a full independent investigation of the man’s previous detective work.  The investigation proves Vargas’ hunch correct, and he finds that Quinlan has been planting evidence and sentencing innocent men for years.  When Vargas and his wife suddenly become the targets of unwanted attention by the brother of a suspected bomber, they are moved into a small roadside motel in the middle of nowhere.  While Vargas is out trying to fight the corruption found in Captain Quinlan’s police force, his wife Susan is unknowingly being stalked and her motel room cased.  Will justice prevail over corruption, or will the efforts of Miguel Vargas prove to be fruitless?  Find out in Orson Welles’ incredible Touch of Evil.

Wow.  Even if Noirvember had somehow been a complete disappointment in my books, Touch of Evil is a film so good that its presence alone would have made the marathon a success!  Orson Welles is a filmmaker I’ve always admired greatly, and Touch of Evil only furthers my esteem for the great Hollywood mind.  Not only is his direction incredible throughout (especially the opening long-take, finally interrupted by a massive explosion), but his performance is one of the film’s many standouts.  His drunk, sleazy border sheriff character Captain Quinlan feels larger than life while never becoming hamfisted, and the whole thing is so perfectly believable in its execution.  Charlton Heston and the future Psycho star Janet Leigh have terrific chemistry throughout, and both performances capture ideal characters who believe in justice above all, and are blind enough to fail to see the danger lurking immediately before them.  Despite the role being unfortunately whitewashed, Heston’s on-screen presence makes you immediately forget about the injustice, and instead focus on and appreciate the subtlety in the actors performance.  Heston, who before this had largely starred in epics like Julius Caesar, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments, showed restraint and talent that I had no idea the actor even had.  Touch of Evil is a film so well-realized and so atmospheric that it instantly makes you forgive its overly-complex and convoluted story, and instead focus almost entirely on the artistry at hand.  The film was originally released in a double bill as something of a B-movie, and would go on to crush the hopes Orson Welles held for a Hollywood relaunch.  The handling of the film by Universal was so unbelievably botched that it almost sounds like fiction.  Instead of releasing and embracing this great film noir directed by one of the all-time great directors, and starring a cast of A-list stars, the studio would feel ashamed of the effort and instead bury it in trash.  It makes me so incredible happy to see the public opinion of the film change to such a positive one, and it’s so incredibly deserved for a masterpiece like Touch of Evil.

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Orson Welles’ final Hollywood production would prove to be a financial flop, but would fortunately be looked at historically as one of the best films ever made.  Touch of Evil is a beautiful, dark, and atmospheric noir that features incredible direction by Welles, terrific performances by the entire cast, and some incredibly tense moments that you’ll have to see to fully appreciate. It is a film I’m disappointed took me so long to finally see, but I know it’s one I’ll never forget.  Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil gets my highest recommendation.  

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November Theme – Film Noir

After setting a personal goal to cover one theme for an entire month and actually being able to stick with it, I’ve found an incredible amount of inspiration and motivation in continuing to write about films, whether people out there or reading or not.  Having some sort of theme, no matter how strict or loose, gives me something to look forward to for an entire month, and has already taught me a great deal about writing and about films.  I’ve finally seen documentaries that I’ve been putting off for years now, and I hope to do the same with many different genres, movements, and filmmakers throughout the life of this blog. While I don’t think I’m a terrific writer by any means, being able to have some sort of creative outlet in my life feels incredible, and I plan on seeing this thing out to the bitter end.  There comes a point where endlessly listening to film podcasts, browsing discussions and reviews online, and thinking day and night about movies just isn’t enough, which is why I’ve decided to write.  This is something I’m incredibly passionate about, and boy is it a great feeling to finally get my thoughts out there without constantly worrying about views and being self-conscious of my own writing style.

I’ve decided the theme for November is going to be an introduction to the film noir genre, and will officially titled Noirvember.  You may ask yourself, what exactly is film noir?  Well, that’s a terrific question, and hopefully you’ll bear with me in order to find out.  Film noir is a genre of crime film that was immensely popular during the 1940’s and 1950’s, featuring expressionistic black and white cinematography, shadows, fog, and thick clouds of cigarette smoke, notoriously unhappy endings, fedoras and shabby suits, and most famously femme fatales – strong women who often blur the line between wanting to love and kill our main character.  Film noir is without a doubt one of the most iconic and famous American film genres, sitting beside its polar-opposite neighbor, the Western. These films are concise, fun, full of dread and betrayal on all sides, and are infinitely re-watchable as a result.

The pioneers of the film noir genre include the famous Hollywood bad boy Orson Welles, with films like Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai, Polish export auteur Billy Wilder for the iconic Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd., John Huston for The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, and Key Largo, and Fritz Lang for Scarlet Street and The Big Heat among many others.  These are films that have often been parodied and poked fun at, but the influence they hold over modern filmmakers is unparalleled, as are the reputations of many of these incredible and timeless works. To keep things fresh, I’ve decided to only tackle films that I have never seen before.  The tentative schedule for Noirvember is as follows:

#1 – Laura (1944) (dir. Otto Preminger) – November 1

#2 – Detour (1945) (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer) – November 5

#3 – The Killers (1946) (dir. Robert Siodmak) – November 8

#4 – Nightmare Alley (1947) (dir. Edmund Goulding) – November 12

#5 – They Live by Night (1948) (dir. Nicholas Ray) – November 15

#6 – The Big Clock (1948) (dir. John Farrow) – November 19

#7 – D.O.A. (1950) (dir. Rudolph Mate) – November 22

#8 – Night and the City (1950) (dir. Jules Dassin) – November 26

#9 – Kiss Me Deadly (1955) (dir. Robert Aldrich) – November 29

#10 – Touch of Evil (1958) (dir. Orson Welles) – November 30

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