Six of My Favorite David Letterman Interviews

As The Late Show with David Letterman comes to a close, signaling the end of thirty-three total years of Letterman’s hosting duties on that program (1993-2015) and Late Night with David Letterman (1982-1993), I would like to share five of my favorite interviews that Letterman has conducted during his decades as a late night talk show host. Network TV won’t be the same without his eccentric comedy. (I realize now, after compiling the list, that all of the guests I am showcasing are men, but my choices were not actively intended to exclude female interviewees.) Anyway, enjoy these wonderful clips!

Bill Murray was Letterman’s first-ever guest on Monday, February 1, 1982. For what it’s worth, Murray has lived up the promise he made that night: “I swear, Letterman, if it’s the last thing I’m gonna do I’m gonna make every second of your life from this moment on a living hell.” It has always been a treat to see Murray and Letterman together, including the penultimate show earlier tonight (well, since it is almost 5:00 AM now, I mean last night), during which Murray burst out of a “Goodbye Dave” cake and smothered Letterman in a crumb-filled embrace that left the host wearing a frosting beard.

In 1986, Tom Waits stopped by the Late Show to promote his recent album Rain Dogs and to discuss upcoming projects like the Jim Jarmusch film Down by Law and a theatrical adaptation of Waits’ song “Frank’s Wild Years” into a musical. Waits’ charmingly oddball sense of humor permeates every interview he has with Letterman, including his conversation with Letterman last week, after which Waits debuted a new song written especially for the occasion, “Take One Last Look.”

When people think of the combined terms “Joaquin Phoenix” and “Letterman interview,” they probably remember Phoenix’s infamous 2009 interview in which he was in the guise of Joaquin-Phoenix-the-actor-turned-rapper. The chat culminated in a brilliant send-off from Letterman, who had not been in on the joke: “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” What I particularly love, though, is this 2010 interview in the video posted above, which was Phoenix’s first return to the show as his normal self to promote the mockumentary I’m Still Here (2010) about the ruse. Letterman fires some great lines at Phoenix for having duped him in that previous interview.

All things considered, Regis Philbin is my favorite Letterman guest. There is simply nothing better than their rapport, a true friendship that allows them to do things both silly (sharing laughs over ice cream) and serious (discussing what it means for a person to serve his or her country, including Letterman’s experience with the Vietnam War draft and lottery). It was hard for me to pick just one great example of Letterman and Philbin together; another lovely moment was when Letterman sat next to Philbin in the second guest chair rather than behind the desk and the two friends reminisced about old memories and even danced together a little.

Michael Shannon’s first interview with David Letterman, promoting the film Man of Steel (2013), was fun to watch because two months earlier I had read an interview with Shannon in New York Times Magazine that discussed his fervent hope to be interviewed on his favorite late night talk show: “How many movies do you gotta do to get on ‘David Letterman’? All I’ve wanted since I was 15 freaking years old was to be on ‘David Letterman.’ I mean, I’m in Man of Steel. I think they all think I’ll be violent.” Shannon did in fact get to go on the show to promote his summer blockbuster and he told some fun stories about getting started in show business too.

Every year for many years I looked forward to the annual telling of Letterman’s “favorite talk show story ever,” Jay Thomas’s remembrance of an encounter with “The Lone Ranger” (actor Clayton Moore) in Charlotte, North Carolina. If you’re looking for great entertainment, you’re not going to do better than Thomas’s tale, topped off by a terrific punchline. The other half of the holiday ritual is the game that Thomas and Letterman play of using footballs to try to knock a meatball off the top of a Christmas tree. It’s goofy traditions like these that I will probably miss the most when December rolls around.

Indelible Film Images: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia (2006) – dir. Brian De Palma

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Patrick Fischler, Rose McGowan, William Finley

Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond

Filmmaker Firsts: Adrian Lyne

#29: Jacob’s Ladder (1990) – dir. Adrian Lyne

Seven of the eight films that Adrian Lyne directed between 1980 and 2002 are focused on sex: Foxes (1980), Flashdance (1983), 9½ Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Indecent Proposal (1993), Lolita (1997) and Unfaithful (2002) all use the allure of sexuality as the selling point. A look at the taglines from the posters makes that plain enough: “Daring to do it!” (Foxes), “Desire. Infatuation. Obsession.” (9½ Weeks), “A husband. A wife. A millionaire. A proposal.” (Indecent Proposal), “A forbidden love. An unthinkable attraction. The ultimate price.” (Lolita), etc. Somewhere in between lies Jacob’s Ladder, a psychological drama occasionally dipping into the realm of horror in its tale of a Vietnam vet, Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins), who finds the border between waking life and memories dissolving as his reality starts to overflow with violence, villains, nonhuman beasts and other disturbing images. His wartime experiences blend with his present-day self until he is convinced that the U.S. Army must have used some mind-altering drug on him that is only just beginning to manifest its symptoms. While unfortunately I knew the film’s big twist thanks to a screenwriting class I took a few years ago in which I had to read portions of Jacob’s Ladder’s script, I still found the film a rewarding and thought-provoking experience. A large part of that has to do with Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay, but I also think that Tim Robbin’s performance, Maurice Jarre’s score, Tom Rolf’s editing and Jeffrey L. Kimball’s cinematography contribute as much as (if not more than) Lyne’s direction.

There is a great scene early on that shows Jacob trapped in the Bergen Street train station. Anyone who lives in New York, or anyone who enjoys seeing New York captured in a historical document, will be intrigued by Jacob’s tense journey across the tracks and his fruitless attempts to leave through exits on either platform. Every door he finds is chained and locked.

One of the most well-known scenes in the film shows Jacob slowly descending into feverish madness as he witnesses – or thinks he witnesses – his girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) dancing and having sex with some kind of devil figure. The creature’s tail, wings, horns and other appendages surround Jezzie and appear to enter or merge with her body as she writhes on the dance floor. As the surreal scene progresses Jacob loses control over his own body, eventually dropping to the floor in involuntary convulsions. The way that Tom Rolf edited the scene, zipping back and forth between Jacob and Jezzie with manic flashes from strobe lights, creates exactly the kind of atmosphere that leaves both the protagonist and the audience in a daze.

The film benefits from having a large supporting cast of character actors. Danny Aiello has a wonderful role as Louis, Jacob’s chiropractor, who dispenses wisdom and philosophy along with his physical therapy techniques. Other actors who have parts in the film include Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames, Brent Hinkley, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jan Saint (as the most terrifying Santa Claus you’ll ever see), Kyle Gass, Lewis Black (yes, that Lewis Black!), Antonia Rey, Becky Ann Baker, Billie Neal and an uncredited Macaulay Culkin.

I love this shot since it is so reminiscent of the rainy, smoky streets in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), another film about a Vietnam veteran with a questionable past and psychological issues (although it is never clear if Travis Bickle has suffered from traumas like those that Jacob Singer has endured). I highly recommend Jacob’s Ladder, but it is not for the faint of heart. It is a film both haunted and haunting, the former for the main character and the latter for us as we struggle through understanding Jacob’s nightmarish world as much as he does. This is a film that will make you question and reexamine the events of your life.

New Images: Films of 2015/Women Cinematographers

Charlotte Bruus Christensen, center, on the set of Far from the Madding Crowd, 2013.

In my recent profile of upcoming films directed by women, I mentioned a couple that had been photographed by female cinematographers, An Open Secret (photographed by Jenna Rosher) and Unexpected (photographed by Dagmar Weaver-Madsen). With that in mind I would like to draw your attention to eight other movies, in theaters either now or later this year, all of which were shot by female directors of photography. I am including the trailers for An Open Secret and Unexpected as well so that you can see what those films look like too. I’m always excited to see what women do in different roles behind the camera and it’s great to know that female cinematographers can get jobs on both big-budget and indie films that get some level of mainstream distribution. Treatment of women in this industry can be awful (as the postings on the popular Tumblr page Shit People Say to Women Directors (& Other Women in Film) indicate) so we should celebrate accomplishments when we see them. Every little bit of visibility helps.

(P.S. In that recent post on new films by women directors I overlooked one: I Believe in Unicorns, the feature film debut of Leah Meyerhoff. The film is opening in NYC on May 29.)

Far from the Madding Crowd (dir. Thomas Vinterberg) – DP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen (in theaters now). When I saw this romantic drama’s trailer at BAM last weekend, I thought the images looked quite beautiful. The film has gotten mixed reviews but I would still give it a try based on my reaction to the cinematography. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m a fan of Thomas Hardy and I also consider Carey Mulligan a very good actress.

Saint Laurent (dir. Bertrand Bonello) – DP: Josée Deshaies (in theaters now). I already liked many of the still shots that I had seen from this biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, so the trailer confirms my interest in the project. Director Bonello and cinematographer Deshaies are romantic partners and they have been working together on films since Bonello’s first short, Qui je suis, in 1996.

An Open Secret (dir. Amy Berg) – DP: Jenna Rosher (in theaters June 5). As shocking as this film will be for some viewers, it sheds light on the too-long-hidden truths of sexual abuse against minors in the film industry.

Mega Shark vs. Kolossus (dir. Christopher Ray) – DP: Laura Beth Love (in theaters June 7?). It’s not clear to me whether this film is actually going to be in theaters or if it’s headed straight for the SyFy channel. All I can say is: I hope Illeana Douglas was paid well.

Dope (dir. Rick Famuyiwa) – DP: Rachel Morrison (in theaters June 19). Like Far from the Madding Crowd, I also saw the trailer for Dope at BAM last weekend. Despite the stylized quirkiness of the main character and his friends, Dope could be a fun film. The sunny, golden images of Los Angeles would certainly be worth seeing.

A Little Chaos (dir. Alan Rickman) – DP: Ellen Kuras (in theaters June 26). Period pieces are always fun and this film about the creation of the garden at Versailles looks to be no exception. Flowers! Rain! The costumes by Joan Bergin! Based on this trailer, I’d say that cinematographer Ellen Kuras did a pretty good job.

Unexpected (dir. Kris Swanberg) – DP: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen (in theaters July 24). In Swanberg’s debut film, which received many good reviews after it showed at Sundance, cinematographer Weaver-Madsen appears to have made abundant use of natural light.

Sinister 2 (dir. Ciarán Foy) – DP: Amy Vincent (in theaters August 21). I’m not generally interested in modern-day horror films – they have to be as great as The Babadook in order to get my attention – but I’m glad to see that women cinematographers have not been excluded from the genre of gore.

The Visit (dir. M. Night Shyamalan) – DP: Maryse Alberti (in theaters September 11). Alberti probably has the highest profile of any woman cinematographer this year since two other films she has shot have US release dates: Freeheld (October 2), a drama starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Steve Carell and Michael Shannon, and Creed (November 25), young director Ryan Coogler’s second film after his debut drama from 2013, Fruitvale Station. Creed is a part of the Rocky universe; Sylvester Stallone returns as Rocky Balboa, now a trainer/mentor to the grandson of former opponent Apollo Creed, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). The Visit is likely to be seen by a decent-sized audience since M. Night Shyamalan is one of the best-known horror/thriller/sci-fi directors of recent times (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, etc.)

Jem and the Holograms (dir. Jon M. Chu) – DP: Alice Brooks (in theaters October 23). OK, so a lot of people have complained about how terrible this film looks. It appears to be a remake in name only, nothing at all like the 1980s TV show upon which it is based. Well, at the very least it looks like it has some good cinematography, particularly the lighting in concert scenes.

Women-Directed Films Coming to Theaters in 2015 (Part 2)

A few months back I wrote a post on films directed by women that will be coming out in 2015. More films have been released since then, including The Riot Club (Lone Scherfig), Just Before I Go (Courteney Cox), Ride (Helen Hunt), Welcome to Me (Shira Piven) and Hot Pursuit (Anne Fletcher). Now there are also set release dates for two of the films I had briefly written about, the two Madame Bovary adaptations by Anne Fontaine and Sophie Barthes. To give you a sense of what’s coming up on the moviegoing schedule, here are sixteen films with release dates as soon as this Friday and as far off as November.

May 15: Every Secret Thing (dir. Amy Berg) – This crime drama about missing children, women detectives and women suspects has a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) based on a novel by Laura Lippman. The film stars Diane Lane, Dakota Fanning, Elizabeth Banks (herself a new director with Pitch Perfect 2, coming out this Friday), Common, Nate Parker and Renée Elise Goldsberry.

May 15: Pitch Perfect 2 (dir. Elizabeth Banks) – Actress Banks makes her feature-length directorial debut with this sequel to the runaway musical hit from 2012. Banks has a supporting role in this new film but the main stars are Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Anna Camp, Adam DeVine, John Michael Higgins, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, Ben Platt, Alexis Knapp and Kelley Jakle, all of whom reprise their roles from the first installment as a cappella singers competing for dominance in nationwide and global contests. Newcomers to the franchise include Hailee Steinfeld, Katey Sagal, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and Flula Borg. The screenplay is by Kay Cannon (who also wrote the script for the first Pitch Perfect film), based on the characters originally created by nonfiction writer Mickey Rapkin. Technically I wrote about Pitch Perfect 2 in the blog post that I linked to at the top of this page, but I figure a reminder can’t hurt since the film is coming out so soon.

May 22: Aloft (dir. Claudia Llosa) – Jennifer Connelly stars as a mother struggling to reconnect with the son she left twenty years earlier. The film also stars Cillian Murphy, Mélanie Laurent (who just directed a film, Breathe, which will probably be in U.S. theaters sometime this year), Peter McRobbie and Oona Chaplin (28-year-old daughter of Geraldine and granddaughter of Charlie). Aloft was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival and the director, Claudia Llosa (who also wrote the original screenplay), is most famous for her film The Milk of Sorrow (2009), which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, representing Peru.

May 22: Sunshine Superman (dir. Marah Strauch) – Strauch’s documentary chronicles the life and career of skydiver/BASE jumper and aerial cinematographer Carl Boenish. Strauch also served as one of the film’s three editors.

May 29: Gemma Bovery (dir. Anne Fontaine) – The classic tale of Madame Bovary is updated to modern-day Normandy in this romantic dramedy adapted by director Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer from a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. English actress Gemma Arterton stars in the title role, Niels Schneider and Jason Flemyng play two love interests and the rest of the cast is rounded out by Fabrice Luchini, Elsa Zylberstein, Pip Torrens, Edith Scob and Kacey Mottet Klein.

June 5: An Open Secret (dir. Amy Berg) – Just three weeks after her fiction film Every Secret Thing opens in theater, an Amy Berg-directed documentary will be released. This film tells the harrowing story of sex abuse perpetrated against teenage boys within the movie industry and how Hollywood hushed it all up. The film’s cinematography, Jenna Rosher, previously worked on Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp (2006), Abby Epstein’s The Business of Being Born (2008) and Dori Berinstein’s Carol Channing: Larger Than Life (2012).

June 12: Madame Bovary (dir. Sophie Barthes) – This period-piece adaptation of Flaubert’s novel stars Mia Wasikowska in the title role as well as a supporting cast including Rhys Ifans, Paul Giamatti, Ezra Miller, Logan Marshall-Green, Laura Carmichael and Henry Lloyd-Hughes. The screenplay was written by director Sophie Barthes with Felipe Marino and the costumes were designed by Valérie Ranchoux with Christian Gasc.

June 12: The Wolfpack (dir. Crystal Moselle) – This documentary about a family living in near-seclusion in a New York City apartment caused quite a stir at Sundance, winning the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. The reason: “A subject matter this unusual may invite scrutiny yet the celebration of the power of imagination reflects the spirit of Sundance.” Moselle was not only the director but also the camera operator and one of the film’s producers.

June 19: Infinitely Polar Bear (dir. Maya Forbes) – Mark Ruffalo stars as a divorced father trying to win back his ex-wife, played by Zoe Saldana. Veteran actor Keir Dullea (David and Lisa, 2001: A Space Odyssey) also appears in the cast. Infinitely Polar Bear marks the directorial debut for writer-director Forbes, who has been writing and producing for film and television since the early 1990s.

June 26: Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World (dir. Dana Nachman) – The tale of five-year-old leukemia patient Miles Scott and his ambition to become “Batkid” inspired people nationwide and across the world. Miles’ story is told in this documentary co-produced by Nachman and Liza Meak and also executive- or assistant-produced by Teresa Fraley, Holly Jachowski and Kylie West, among others.

July 24: Unexpected (dir. Kris Swanberg) – Swanberg directed and co-wrote (with Megan Mercier) this comedy about two surprise pregnancies. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the cast includes Cobie Smulders, Anders Holm, Gail Bean and Elizabeth McGovern. The cinematography is by Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, who has won acclaim for her work on the film 10,000 KM, a romance by Spanish-American director Carlos Marques-Marcet which will be in U.S. theaters on July 10.

August 7: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller) – Heller’s directorial debut, for which she adapted the screenplay from a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, tells the story of fifteen-year-old Minnie (played by Bel Powley), a girl living in 1970s-era San Francisco and quite desperate to grow up. Kristen Wiig plays Powley’s mother, Alexander Skarsgård plays Wiig’s boyfriend (who also has relations with Powley) and Christopher Meloni plays Wiig’s ex-husband and Powley’s ex-stepdad. Diary was co-edited by Marie-Hélène Dozo (who has cut nearly all of the Dardenne brothers’ films since 1996) with Koen Timmerman, the costumes are by Carmen Grande, art direction is by Emily K. Rolph and set decoration is by Susan Alegria.

August 21: Learning to Drive (dir. Isabel Coixet) – Spanish director Coixet has made many well-received romantic dramas in the last twenty years (Things I Never Told You, My Life Without Me, The Secret Life of Words, Elegy, etc.) but now she has made a romantic comedy. Written by New York-born Sarah Kernochan (who has been writing and directing for over forty years), the film stars Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury, Jake Weber, Grace Gummer, Samantha Bee and John Hodgman. Legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker co-edited the film with Keith Reamer.

August 21: Sleeping with Other People (dir. Leslye Headland) – Three years after her directorial debut, Bachelorette (2012), Headland has written and directed another comedy, this time focusing on two sex addicts played by Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis. Their bond, as well as their commitment not to have a relationship with each other, forms the basis for this update of the When Harry Met Sally… formula. Sleeping also stars Adam Scott, Natasha Lyonne, Amanda Peet, Jason Mantzoukas, Marc Blucas, Andrea Savage and Daniella Pineda.

October 23: Suffragette (dir. Sarah Gavron) – A long-awaited biopic concerning major figures from the early days of the feminist movement in the UK, Carey Mulligan plays a young woman living in late 19th century/early 20th century England and fighting for the rights being denied to her and other women. Meryl Streep plays pivotal figure Emmeline Pankhurst, Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith New and other key characters are played by Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Anne-Marie Duff and Samuel West. Abi Morgan, who wrote Suffragette’s screenplay, also wrote or co-wrote screenplays for Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane (2007), Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (2011) and Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman (2013). Costume design is by Jane Petrie, production design is by Alice Normington and set decoration is by Barbara Herman-Skelding.

November 13: By the Sea (dir. Angelina Jolie) – One year after her film Unbroken, Jolie’s newest directorial effort is an original story written and co-produced by her. It stars Jolie and husband Brad Pitt in a romantic drama set in France during the 1970s. The cast includes Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup and Richard Bohringer. The film is being edited by Patricia Rommel, who edited Caroline Link’s Beyond Silence (1996) and Nowhere in Africa (2001), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station (2009) and Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011).

Orson Welles Centennial: Seven Films You Should See

On this day in 1915, writer-director-star Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Raised in Chicago starting at age four and educated at the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, Welles began his career as a teenager by creating and performing in theatrical productions at Todd and by working on a school radio station. As Welles began to act in more and bigger stage and radio projects in the 1930s, his career as an actor and director took off in New York (with his Mercury Theatre company) and across the country. After his notorious, panic-inducing “War of the Worlds” radio program broadcast on October 30, 1938, Welles was offered a contract with film production company RKO Radio Pictures that offered him total artistic control. Thus began one of American film history’s most interesting careers, one which was not without its failures and setbacks but which always entertained and enriched the minds of the viewers. Here are seven top-notch examples of films he acted in and/or directed, all excellent choices for becoming acquainted with Welles.

Citizen Kane (1941) – When asked once what film might screen on a constant loop in heaven and which free (including calorie-free) moviegoing snack would be offered, film critic Roger Ebert replied, “Citizen Kane and vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream.” Kane’s stature in pop culture has not waned for three-quarters of a century, consistently acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made and a neverending source of discussion with regard to its technical achievements, particularly the use of deep-focus in the black-and-white cinematography by Gregg Toland and the beautiful score by composer Bernard Herrmann (his first!). The film also launched major careers for many of the actors in its cast, besides Welles himself: Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Everett Sloane, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris and others all saw their prominence in Hollywood grow after performing in the film.

Jane Eyre (1943) – For years the rumor has been that Welles directed much of this film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic Gothic novel, rather than the director who received credit, Robert Stevenson. Whether that’s true or not, Welles gives a terrific performance as Rochester, paired perfectly with lovely Joan Fontaine as Jane. Bernard Herrmann’s score is possibly my favorite out of everything he composed for film, while George Barnes’ cinematography perfectly captures the moody atmosphere of the moors, making this Jane Eyre a romantic classic.

The Stranger (1946) – Welles’ most underrated directorial effort is a tense, intelligent thriller about evil lurking in suburban America after the end of World War II. Loretta Young plays a woman caught in Welles’ web when she marries him, unaware that he is a war criminal intent on bringing the Nazis back into power. Edward G. Robinson is the federal agent hot on Welles’ trail, ably supported by a cast including Philip Merivale, Richard Long, Konstantin Shayne, Billy House (a scene-stealer as a checkers-playing druggist) and Martha Wentworth. The film’s script was written by Anthony Veiller, a talented scribe who penned the screenplay for the noir classic The Killers that same year. Russell Metty’s cinematography gives added flair as well.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) – The marriage of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth made for one of Hollywood’s most scintillating (if short-lived) couples. Their lone onscreen pairing in this weird yet intoxicating film noir needs to be seen by all film buffs, reveling in the strangeness of Welles’ Irish accent, Hayworth’s short platinum-blonde hairdo and Everett Sloane’s performance as Hayworth’s psychotic, crippled husband. As the film reaches its dizzying climax in a mirrored funhouse – all the more suspenseful thanks to Viola Lawrence’s editing of the scene – one wonders how Welles ever convinced Columbia Pictures that the end result would make any sense.

The Third Man (1949) – As enigmatic opportunist Harry Lime, Welles is both a charmer and a menace. Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli get top billing, but as soon as Welles shows up, you know that he’s the center of the film. (Actually, you get that sense long before he appears; he’s one of those figures spoken of in hushed tones, though it takes quite some time before he actually steps in front of the camera.) If you are a fan of director Carol Reed or the film’s writer, Graham Greene, you will definitely be more curious about this film, but even if you are not a connoisseur of British cinema you will be entranced by Anton Karas’s zither-friendly score and Robert Krasker’s cinematography (including the final shot to end all final shots).

Touch of Evil (1958) – Orson Welles encountered great difficulty in getting this, the last true film noir, to the screen as he intended it. Luckily film preservationists took the time and effort to restore this masterpiece of seedy intrigue, the story of a Good Cop (Charlton Heston) versus a Very, Very Bad Cop (Welles) in a town on the borderline between the U.S. and Mexico. Some of Welles’ old pals show up in the cast (Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Ray Collins, a cameo by Joseph Cotten) and you will not soon forget the appearances by Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver and Marlene Dietrich either. Take note of Russell Metty’s cinematography too; the film’s famous opening shot is a uncut tracking shot following a car crossing the border. The vehicle is a literal ticking time-bomb in a take that lasts an unbroken three and a half minutes.

The Trial (1962) – Unusual and surreal, Welles’ adaptation of the 1926 novel by Franz Kafka takes one nightmarish turn after another, dragging protagonist Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) through an endless series of torturous interrogations for charges that are not explained to him. Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Elsa Martinelli drift through different scenes, as well as Welles stalwart Akim Tamiroff, but it is Welles’ own role as “The Advocate,” doling out philosophical advice for the hapless Josef K., that will stay with the audience as surely as Anthony Perkins’ performance will. In the wake of Psycho, I’m sure a lot of people were confused as to how to view Perkins or what kinds of roles he should be cast in, but Welles certainly gave him a superb showcase. If you need evidence of Welles as an “auteur” after Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, this is one film that proves it.

In Memory of Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (1956-2015)

Australian cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, most famous for photographing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and the Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014), has passed away from a heart attack at age 59. Lesnie, who won an Oscar the one time he was nominated (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001), also made his mark with two other Peter Jackson films, King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009), in addition to photographing other films including Babe (1995), Babe: Pig in the City (1998), I Am Legend (2007), The Last Airbender (2010) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). His final film, The Water Diviner (2014), which was directed by Russell Crowe, was just released in American theaters – in IMAX, no less – this past Friday. In a recent Associated Press review of The Water Diviner, Lesnie’s cinematography was described as “so exquisite that sometimes it alone propels the story.”

(Peter Jackson and his director of photography, Andrew Lesnie, on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2011.)

In honor of Lesnie’s wonderful cinematography in the Lord of the Rings films, I would like to highlight some of the scenes he shot in each part of the trilogy. Although this talented man has left us far too soon, his work will not be forgotten by legions of fans all over the world. His mastery of the camera will continue to inspire both viewers and makers of movies.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – Our introduction to Frodo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf makes the Shire look as lush and green as every Tolkien fan must have imagined while reading the book. It is easy to see how Lesnie won an Oscar for his photography here.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – The “Evenstar” scene is my favorite part of the film. Aragorn’s memory of an encounter with Arwen is dreamlike but it is not filmed in typical soft focus; instead it is clear, the light casting a goddesslike glow over Arwen’s flowing gown and pale skin. Half of the beauty is in Howard Shore’s score, but the other half is in the images, especially when they have a blue tint.

I spoke too soon: I have another favorite part of The Two Towers (it is, after all, my favorite film in the trilogy). The battle of Helm’s Deep, as shown in these two videos, is intense every time I see it. Even after twelve years, the combat is heart-pounding. From the dark blue shadows of the fighting in the rain to the bright white light of Gandalf’s victorious charge forth into the fray, the cinematography is a significant part of what creates the sense of “epic” storytelling.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – In the final chapter of the trilogy, the big heroic battle shows the scope of this heroic struggle for the soldiers of Rohan (“the Rohirrim”) to slay the invading Orcs. The monumental clash of the two armies is the essence of the excitement in Peter Jackson’s LOTR films: it has all the thrill and grandeur that we came to expect of Andrew Lesnie’s camerawork.