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Robert Wise

Review: Two People

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Two People represents the triumph of cinematic presence and naturally lush surfaces over script and selling campaign. Well, not quite a triumph, perhaps, but Two People is a much better movie—or experience to be had at the movies—than most descriptions of it have indicated, least of all its own Segal-like sell and Lelouchian outtakes. Peter Fonda, who handled his own self-directed star turn in The Hired Hand with unexpected modesty, takes a truly stellar leap toward attractiveness as a Vietnam deserter who has wearied of life in various exiles and has elected to go home and serve his time in order to get his own life back. Indeed, the whole film yearns toward taking a self-purging step beyond the puerilities of the Easy Rider school of contemporary self-loathing (and amid all that film’s virtues there certainly were more than a few puerilities).

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The Magnificent Ambersons

[Originally published on The Crop Duster]

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

‘The Magnificent Ambersons’

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

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MOD Movies Spotlight: B-Noir and Forgotten Crime

The Threat (Warner Archive), a 1949 programmer from Felix E. Feist, opens with a rat-a-tat energy, quite literally: a prison break, a whining siren, and then the almost unbroken blasts of machine gun fire standing in for a musical underscore during the opening credits. All accomplished with a couple a few simple sets against the black of night. That’s making the most of limited resources. And that’s part of the pleasure of this kind of cinematic archeology.

Felix Feist is no auteur but he made some minor classics of the noir genre, notably The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Tomorrow is Another Day. Here he has a good story (if not always a great script) and a truly menacing heavy in Charles McGraw as death-row killer Red Kluger, his tenor gravel and heavy frame carrying the threat of the title in every step and speech. Red isn’t simply engineering a getaway, he’s plotting his revenge against everyone who put him in prison and getting rid of anyone standing in his way.

We’re not talking lost masterpiece here; Feist is saddled with flat dialogue (“Now you know how a good detective works. When he finds something, he calls!”), generic sets and a cast of frankly non-charismatic leads (Michael O’Shea adequate as the cop hero, Robert Shayne a real stiff as his partner, and Frank Conroy almost a non-entity as the D.A..). But Virginia Grey is superb as a trampled flower of a showgirl and Feist allocates his limited budget cleverly, saving his resources for a few set pieces, notably the finale in a hunting cabin where the wait for a getaway plane drags on and the tension turns to violence with a dynamic crane shot and a brutal bare-knuckle brawl. This is the kind of punch that low-budget crime films could and, at their best, did deliver.

Follow Me Quietly (Warner Archive), a 59-minute thriller from Richard Fleischer (soon to be a major studio director but in 1949 paying his dues in specialty shorts and B-movies), is just as good, and just as limited. This was clearly timed to play the bottom of a double bill, but it has better production values than most B-movies and Fleischer devotes much greater care to the direction. He’s announcing his ambitions here.

William Lundigan is the lead detective on the trail of a self-styled executioner called “The Judge” and Jeff Corey is his loyal, supportive partner, supplying the wry remarks as Lundigan applies modern techniques to build a physical and psychological profile from a smattering of clues: an early profiler in a shadowy film noir world. Fleischer does a tremendous job of whipping up drama from a generally static script, though even he can’t generate much heat from the love-hate tension between Lundigan and spunky, persistent reporter Dorothy Patrick. But while Fleischer garnered well-deserved kudos for a couple of sharp cinematic stings involving the dummy they mock up from the clues, his more impressive achievement is the eerie mood he creates from a generic backlot city street set and the chase finale he stages in an industrial plant, full of pipes and tanks and catwalks and ladders, a labyrinth that Fleischer employs superbly before the film’s final jab. (You should just ignore the romantic comedy of the framing coda, just one of those conventions of B-crime movies designed to left audiences back out of the darkness before send them out of the theater.)

Both of these films are given solid presentations: no frills, as is the MOD way, but solid, sharp masters from clean prints. They are fine looking discs.

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The Magnificent Ambersons

[This was a program note for the October 12, 1971, showing of The Magnificent Ambersons in the University of Washington Lectures & Concert Film Series “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” It begins with continued commentary on Citizen Kane, shown the week before—an essay located here.]

One of Charles Foster Kane’s least sympathetic moments occurs in the 1929 scene wherein, in a single long, deep take, he listens to the conditions under which Walter P. Thatcher’s bank will take over his newspaper holdings, signs the agreement, and settles back to indulge in a little reverie.  We have commented how Kane, though economically “bust” and inclined to regard this new arrangement as a reversion to the days when he received an “allowance,” still enjoys a certain ascendancy over Thatcher simply in being able to move through the conspicuous space of the scene while Thatcher sits cramped and breathless in the foreground.  They are both much older than the day Thatcher came to take Charlie Kane out of the snows of yesteryear; and if Thatcher was “always too old” to be called anything but Mister, Kane is catching up.  Kane extends tentative congratulations to himself: “You know, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” The remark is directed at Bernstein on the other side of the frame, but it is Thatcher who responds: “Don’t you think you are?” Kane smiles and jovially concedes: “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.” Thatcher goes on in all sincerity: “What would you like to have been?” And Kane’s eyes turn to steel as he slams the book of life on Thatcher: “Everything you hate!” It is a complex moment because Kane is implying, after all, that he has turned into something like Thatcher himself (as Thatcher’s portrait on the wall of the memorial library will shortly thereafter be replaced, in the same area of the screen, by Kane’s portrait on the wall of Bernstein’s office), and so this insult functions much like the slammed “w e a k” elsewhere in Citizen Kane.  But on the most direct level Kane, whatever his motives and lifetime of justification, is betraying a conversational trust with someone who offered a rare moment of openness—someone, furthermore, who already has two legs in the grave.

For a young man who was 25 when he began Citizen Kane and had completed The Magnificent Ambersons within another year or so, Orson Welles certainly is obsessed with time, age, and death.  Pauline Kael has remarked that the actors in Kane convey a strong sense of artifice: we know they have completed their turns within the given shots; there is no illusion of the characters’ lives going on offscreen.  Although her intention is merely to reinforce her point that Kane is a playful, “shallow masterpiece,” she puts her finger on a key reason for its depth: lives do reach completion in the film.  When Thompson closes Thatcher’s journal; when the camera pulls away from Bernstein saying—of old age—”It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of,” and from Susie saying “Come around and tell me the story of your life sometime”; when Jed Leland is led away into the shadows of death (or worse, the old-age “heaven” suggested by the camera’s rise at the beginning of the sequence)—we have a tremendous sense of lives summarized, distilled, nothing left to be said that could possibly matter.  Even within the episodes, people die symbolically: Susie not only “dies” onstage but so does the character she plays in the opera, and Susie will attempt suicide; the Chicago Inquirer staff speculates whether the reunion of Kane and Leland mightn’t be dangerous, and Bernstein goes in to find Jed slumped on his typewriter.  And things die: the skylight looks broken at Susie’s nightclub the second time and the sign isn’t lit; we see the alternate Inquirer headlines lifted off the press and a second later FRAUD AT POLLS! lies tromped and forgotten in the gutter.  And Rosebud, identified poetically if not realistically with the quintessence of Charles Foster Kane, “ages” in a single terrible moment—as the whole film may be considered a single terrible moment—consumed in the furnaces of Xanadu.  It is consistent to see the column of smoke rising to heaven, the snow-white ashes of Rosebud carried off into the blackness of the unborn film, as the last instance of the movie’s taking leave of a now-extinguished character.  Yet I have suggested that Kane or at the very least his alter ego narrates the movie.  That the annihilated Rosebud/Kane ascends to heaven and that the camera/Kane descends back outside the fence are not incompatible, no more than the fact that the movie fascinates us with the myriad suggestions of a life and concludes with a bald statement that no real knowledge of—NO TRESPASSING on—such a life is possible.  This visual benediction conveys a kind of self-regret and self-awareness not unrelated to the verbal stab at Thatcher in 1929.  Welles’s instinct seems to be that media itself is inherently sentimental (even Thatcher can become the “grand old man of Wall Street” once unobjectionably dead).  It is a notion to keep in mind as we approach Welles’ second feature film.
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Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

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