Chimes at Midnight
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, $39.95
The Immortal Story
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, $39.95
I have a friend, nearly thirty years my senior, who is an enormous fan of Orson Welles’s 1946 picture The Stranger, but retreats like she has just come upon a rattlesnake behind a rock when the subject of Citizen Kane, frequently cited as the film of films, is broached. Kane, of course, came out in 1941, and has sat at or near the top of most lists of the best cinematic works ever since. Welles was 25 when he arrived in Hollywood, seemingly to take over the joint. F. Scott Fitzgerald even penned a thinly veiled autobiographical short story about a hapless screenwriter intimidated, from a distance, by the burgeoning Welles legend.
The Stranger was an out-and-out thriller, as close as Welles ever got to playing to a public that many critics thought—rightly or wrongly—not sophisticated enough for long dolly shots, strange camera angles, depth of field. He had been tasked with making money, something his films, in the half-dozen years he had been making them, weren’t so adroit at doing. Welles plays a former Nazi who has come to New England to move on from his past, or, rather, get clear enough of it so that he can start troublemaking anew.
He is pursued by Edward G. Robinson, a Jew in real life but not in the film. The picture is pleasingly dramatic; basically, it’s a solid little thriller, infused with some Wellesian touches. It’s not close to what Welles was about, but what Welles was about—which many people think is just Citizen Kane on the movie side of the tally sheet (for let’s not forget the War of the Worlds broadcast)—is something that tends to intimidate. That’s so particularly when we’re talking about people who know little of Welles, who have seen only bits and pieces of his films. It’s different for those who take the time to sit down for a couple hours with Turner Classic Movies or a Blu-ray, and really set to watching. Some new Blu-ray releases promise to make that easier than ever.
Speaking once of Greta Garbo, who had a checkered filmography, Welles made a remark that one masterpiece can be enough to establish an artist on that top shelf, where only artists who make work that will last forever sit. Ironically, part of Welles’s own problem has always been Kane. It was the movie you were told was the best, and over the years it had this coldness ascribed to it, as though it were formally dazzling but clinical in other matters—in terms of emotion, say. But if you watch Kane as just a film, putting aside the fear that can accompany Great Works of Art for All Time—that we’re not worthy—you might be surprised how human, and grubbily human, it is. Enough so, perhaps, to make you momentarily stop munching away on your popcorn.
Yes, the dissolves are such that you could hang a monitor playing them on the wall at MoMA. Welles’s camera moves in ways that no other camera ever has. The ceiling is present in so many shots in this topsy-turvy world of new angles that it reveals to us fresh modes of seeing. But the story of a man having it all, losing it all, and really wanting something entirely different—something that all of us want—makes for damn good movie theater.
It was just unlike anything that existed as of 1941, and in a way it still is. Today, a marketing person would say there are no “comparables.” For film marketers now that is a problem, for they want to persuade you that you should see this or that film because it is like this other film you already know, crossed with that other film that just did so well at the box office. Comparables were not Orson Welles’s métier. He could not have cared less.
Welles had everything at his disposal for Kane: budget, the best camera man going in Gregg Toland, his enormously talented Mercury Theatre acting troupe, final cut, and a lot of people at RKO who wanted him to succeed. He was, at the time, the “It Boy,” you might say. Kane failed to recoup its cost at the box office, though, putting pressure on Welles’s next film in 1942, The Magnificent Ambersons, based on the Booth Tarkington novel.
Here is where we see just how great Welles was, beyond Kane. But we must look as though our eyes have been fitted with special glasses for the task, given what ended up happening to Ambersons, and what would dog so many Welles films thereafter.
When you watch Ambersons, it’s hard to believe this is a work now marking its 75th anniversary. Were someone to tell you that it was just made by our greatest present-day craftsman, who elected to shoot it in black and white, you’d be apt to think that we were advancing in ways no one could have seen forthcoming, in terms of how movies are made, here in 2017.
The problem was, the people at RKO who wanted to see Welles do well weren’t, to use a modern phrase, really feeling it. This was now wartime, and after the shooting was completed, Welles hurried to South America to shoot the eventually aborted It’s All True as part of the war effort. At the time, pictures had previews in which audience members marked down their thoughts on cards. The one for Ambersons, in Pomona, California, followed The Fleet’s In, a Dorothy Lamour musical, which wasn’t exactly ideal prepping for the rather heavy emotional lifting of watching George Amberson Minafer get his comeuppance—and boy, does he. The preview was a disaster. Among the comments:
“The worst picture I ever saw.”
“A horrible distorted dream.”
“Too many wierd [sic] camera shots. It should be shelved as it is a crime to take people’s hard-earned money for such artistic trash . . . . Mr. Welles had better go back to radio . . . .”
RKO President George Schaefer panicked, writing Welles, that
we must have a ‘heart to heart’ talk. Orson Welles has got to do something commercial. We have got to get away from ‘arty’ pictures and get back to earth. Educating the people is expensive, and your next picture must be made for the box office.
And so it went that Ambersons got drawn and quartered by studio types who thought they had to make alterations to salvage a guaranteed flop. The last shot is not by Welles at all; it includes the first and only close-up in the film. So the work that Welles thought better than Kane became 75 percent Orson, 25 percent studio hacks. What is remarkable is how the film still holds up, because with that 75 percent we may still have one of the best pictures ever made.
Tarkington, the writer, had charm, and Welles, the filmmaker, had charm, too. And it is that twinned charm that lightens some of the emotional blows in Ambersons, so that we feel entertained as we’re also accompanying characters on their trials—trials they seem ill-suited to endure. It’s not a depressing work and it’s not an uplifting one either; in the end, it’s a lot like what life tends to be—and it is rammed full of life.
This film began what became a Hollywood commonplace: the use of reflected light. There are reflections in shop windows, too—the kind of thing editors would work to scrub out of other movies.
You can watch the film as you wish: as entertainment, as something you might close your eyes to and experience as a daring radio play that just happens to have provided visuals, if you want them; as a movie that doubles as an ocular treat at the level of anything created by Matisse, in which case you can break down and try to account for the wonder in just about every shot. Or, preferably, you can watch it as a glorious blend.
Whatever, the film tanked. RKO did not stand by its man thereafter. Later in life, while Welles was visiting with some friends, Ambersons came on the television set. Those assembled asked Welles for his thoughts. Welles excused himself, walked out onto the lawn, laid down, and cried. When asked why he did this, he answered that it was not mainly because the film was gotten so wrong in the end by the studio. The main problem, he said, was that the times when he had the freedom to make films within the Hollywood system were back in the deep past.
In any event, the commercial failure of Ambersons led Welles to take on every paying acting part he could get—hell, he played Ben Franklin twice—so as to finance his own films. He barnstormed around Europe looking for cash, was kicked out of Hollywood’s system, and was forced to live by his wits. Doing so produced a unique filmography that changed cinema both here in the United States and abroad. So just as no good deed goes unpunished, sometimes bad deeds spin gold.
As Francois Truffaut remarked, if we can re-read Madame Bovary whenever we wish, why should we not have Ambersons at all times? But you have to work with that filmography to let its effect fully unspool on you. It needs a little help, as does any task where the obvious turns out either not to be, or not to matter.
It might seem odd to say that Orson Welles’s best film was not close to his most perfect, but so it goes with Chimes at Midnight, which has just received the Blu-ray release it needed from Criterion. Welles had the deepest of affinities for Shakespeare, who was the moral and artistic conscience of his life, so it is not surprising that Welles here chose Falstaff as his vehicle—in more ways than one.
He had already made Macbeth in 1948 for a studio better known for cheap Westerns, plus Othello in 1951, with a jarring and chaotic backstory one could write an entire book about. In Chimes, made in Spain in late 1964 through early 1965, with its release coming the next year, Welles himself plays Sir John Falstaff, a good-hearted, zaftig rake who loves his ale and his women, but his definitions of, and fealty to, his morals and character even more so.
The source material was a host of Richard and Henry plays, skillfully nailed together by Welles. He shot, as ever, with a paucity of funds, and there are scenes in which the characters have to be filmed from behind, because the people playing them—John Gielgud as King Henry IV, for instance—were elsewhere, and everyone in the shot was a stand-in. When you make films in such a manner, there are going to be some sloppy parts. That’s what we often get, on the cinematic side of things, with Welles post-Kane. But an obvious rough patch in Chimes can matter not a jot when we have something like the film’s battle scene, which is the best battle scene ever realized in the history of the motion picture.
Welles was a master planner, who could then one-up himself in the edit room, which for Welles tended to mean a hotel suite with a Moviola. Not a lot of people are willing to go somewhere in an extreme fashion, as their vision directs them, then recraft the result, afterward, until the final product may be a long way away from the ostensible starting point. Then again, that starting point, with a genius, allows for the process, so we’re not that far away at all.
So it is with Chimes. There are few sequences in cinema that can break your heart as thoroughly as that moment at the end when Welles’s Falstaff is betrayed by his best friend, Keith Baxter’s Prince Hal. But it’s a heartbreak that somehow makes you believe in the need to solder one’s heart back together and strike out, and risk, all over again. Something similar attends the humor in the film. Welles had stated that there’s a temptation to play Falstaff for large laughs, but the humor need remain close to the skin—that is, it must be specific and not broad, for knowing chuckles are better than giant guffaws.
For years, bad prints were all we had of Chimes. If you were a dedicated cinephile, you watched them, wonder-bound. Seeing the picture as Welles shot it—for he might not have had ideal circumstances, but he did have final cut, given that he was now entrenched in the indie world—is one of the most powerful experiences the movies can bring to your life. Certain films will keep you up later that night, and this is one of them. In a paradoxical way, the restrictions of budget and sets and available actors made his film work better still. It somehow feels more lived-in, more like something that can affect how you view your corner of the world—because of how conspicuously this film lives in its corner of the world. It can be a ragamuffin affair, one with its hem showing; but there’s self-acceptance and courage in that.
When he wishes to, Welles can just out-shoot—as in out-imagine, out-create, out-dazzle—any director who ever set up a shot. But we must sit before the likes of Chimes at Midnight to see how the chops on the emotional end match the chops on the technical one. Doing so, it’s easier to return to Kane, and see that, yes, Welles had a vision all along, and we’re not quite so far removed from where we started as we might think. When the obvious returns in less-than-obvious ways, is it still obvious?
But Criterion was not done. They have also put out a Blu-ray of Welles’s only color film, 1968’s The Immortal Story, based on an Isak Dinesen work.
It’s a short film about lust and temptation, but no matter how prolix everyone thought Welles could be, he was well suited for short forms. After all, that was the medium of radio. We cite War of the Worlds, but listen to Welles’s seven-part version of Les Miserables from 1937, his first foray into the medium. He is as comfortable there as ever a frog who sat on a lily pad, and it’s immediately obvious.
The Immortal Story features some of the sleight of hand that Welles would utilize in his final completed picture, 1974’s F for Fake, which Criterion released on Blu-ray in 2014. Here we are in the realm of the phantasmagoric, nearly, or certainly the druggy and the dreamy. Welles plays Mr. Clay, a wealthy merchant with limited time left on earth. He is friends with a bookkeeper, who tells him a story about another wealthy older man, who paid someone to impregnate his wife. Clay likes the idea, and orders the bookkeeper to find a man and a woman to make the apocryphal story a reality.
It doesn’t go as badly as you might expect; actually, what does happen is touching, so far as the two younger people go, though they do part in the end. But, again, life is like that, and the fabulistic elements here, which might have led to a surrealistic picture, turn out to be but vestments draped on more human forms.
Welles proves himself an impressive colorist; he had a gift for makeup, always despising his own appearance—his nose especially—and remarked that in color films, skin tones resemble the hue of bologna. That certainly could be the case, depending on one’s tastes in bologna. But the palette of The Immortal Story is one of the soft pinks and whites we see in a John Singer Sargent canvas. They are colors to envelop, to draw one into a would-be dream world that throws into sharp relief the emotional tenets and desires of our waking worlds.
The Welles canon has many notable works of art that are rarely discussed, which you could spend the bulk of your life discovering and delighting in. So many one-offs—the aforesaid digression into color cinema with The Immortal Story, the play-within-a-play of Moby Dick Rehearsed, and a personal favorite, the 1956 television production Fountain of Youth.
Welles essentially gate-crashed the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, living with them for a time and driving Ball out of her skull with his less-than-subtle take on being a guest in someone else’s home. Arnaz came up with the idea of having Welles do a short TV film for Desilu, so Welles selected a story by John Collier for the source material.
The Fountain of Youth anticipates The Immortal Story, though they are works of different genres and mediums, for both trade in extreme wishes for what could be, and end up with something else entirely. This was the age of mad scientists and giant bugs, so we have a scientist tempting a narcissistic couple with staving off the aging process. Welles is off-screen, serving as narrator, but his voice doubles as a character, maybe even the character pushing matters along à la the witches in Macbeth, though in a less despotic or demonic way.
The film manages to make you think it’s both in real time, and not in any time at all, thanks in part to a clock on a wall that keeps ticking. It challenges our notions of perception, of what we think we know about the most basic aspects of our lives, our worlds, and, if you go where Welles is always leading you, our notions of who we are. He changes how, going forward, you are going to watch movies. If you have the character of a Falstaff, he’ll change the way you watch the workings of yourself, as well. But even if you don’t, you will know there is far more than Kane. Kane was but the starting point that moved us to pastures both very far away, and very close. So it was: The rosebud bloomed.