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 kind 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.

Saturday Night Spotlight #25: Lois Weber

Lois Weber (1879 or 1881-1939), arguably the most important American woman filmmaker of the silent era, was more than a director. She was also a screenwriter, actress and producer, in addition to being the first woman director to have her own studio, Lois Weber Productions. Weber made the first feature film ever directed by an American woman (or perhaps any woman anywhere), The Merchant of Venice (1914, co-directed with then-husband Phillips Smalley) and her early short films include Suspense (1913), which deploys cinema’s first use of a split-screen technique, and How Men Propose (1913), a comedy about the social conventions surrounding courtship. Although her career eventually fell apart, somewhat due to problems with Paramount, with whom she had agreed to work in order to distribute her films, Weber’s contributions to early cinema from the 1910s and early 1920s have not been forgotten. In 1996 Weber was the subject of a biography by noted film scholar Anthony Slide, Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History. Soon another biography will be published, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood by Shelley Stamp, proving that Weber’s name still resonates.

Hypocrites (1915) – Thanks to Kino, this early feature film is available on DVD. Described on the packaging as “A Powerful Indictment of Moral Treachery from America’s First Great Woman Filmmaker,” the film is indeed a product of Weber’s combined talents behind the camera, including writing the screenplay and co-producing the film with Phillips Smalley. The dramatic story is led by Courtenay Foote, who portrays a misunderstood monk, Gabriel the Ascetic. Throughout the film the image of “the Naked Truth” is represented by Margaret Edwards (seen above on the left), who appeared onscreen in the first example of full-frontal female nudity. Because of this scandalous content Hypocrites faced opposition in many U.S. states and overseas, involving issues of censorship and banning the film outright. Today the film is lauded for its impressive cinematography by Dal Clawson and George W. Hill, including double exposures and innovative shots with mirror reflections.

Shoes (1916) – Some of Weber’s most famous films were co-directed with Phillips Smalley, including Where Are My Children? (1916), a drama about the aftereffects of abortion on both women and men. That film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1993, but years later, in 2014, the Library of Congress added another Weber film to their collection, this time a feature that Weber directed herself: Shoes. Adapted by Weber and Stella Wynne Heron from a novel by Hull House founder Jane Addams, as well as being co-produced by Weber and Phillips Smalley, the film stars Mary MacLaren (whose IMDb biography and Los Angeles Times obituary are fascinating) as a young woman struggling to support her parents and younger siblings as the sole breadwinner of the family. Eventually (and heartbreakingly), MacLaren is forced to prostitute herself in order to obtain a pair of shoes.

Too Wise Wives (1921) – Weber’s best-known solo-directed feature film, The Blot (starring a young Louis Calhern), was released in 1921, but that same year Weber also made a film specifically about the female experience, Too Wise Wives. Produced by Weber and co-written by her and Marion Orth (based on a scenario by Weber), this drama explores the compared and contrasted lives of two couples played by Louis Calhern/Claire Windsor and Phillips Smalley/Mona Lisa. Wifely concerns about husband-stealing is juxtaposed with the lavish nature of the couples’ affluent but ultimately vapid milieu.

Sensation Seekers (1927) – At the tail end of her career Weber’s number of assignments dwindled and some of those projects, including her final film, White Heat (1934), are lost. One of the extant films is the silent drama Sensation Seekers, adapted for the screen by Weber from Ernest Pascal’s short story “Egypt.” Billie Dove plays a rich and shallow young woman whose hard-partying ways catch up to her and she finds herself torn between her love for a kind minister and her former flame, a wealthy boyfriend. The film’s climax includes an action-packed tempest that reportedly required tons of gallons of water to be poured on Dove and the other actors, predating the treacherous floods of Michael Curtiz’s Noah’s Ark (1928) by a year.

The Art of the Real: Agnès Varda at Lincoln Center

This weekend the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center kicked off its retrospective of “actualités” directed by the mother of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda. This series, which is showing both fiction and nonfiction films – and some experiments in blending the two in what Varda refers to as her “cine-writing” – includes such titles as Lions Love (1969), Daguerréotypes (1976), Mur Murs (1981), Documenteur (1981), Vagabond (1985, winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) and the wonderful documentary The Gleaners and I (2000). Last night I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Varda’s debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1955), for which Varda provided an introduction and a post-screening Q&A, in addition to watching the film with us (sitting in my row!). At 86 years old, soon to be 87, Varda is as lively, colorful (literally, if you’ve ever seen her purple hair) and charming as ever, although she is quite self-effacing about her directing abilities. She was kind enough to answer many questions from the audience, each time with a lengthy response, including discussing the experience of having La Pointe Courte edited by Alain Resnais (Varda could not pay him for his daily work, though she did give him 10 francs a day for lunch) and telling anecdotes about another filmmaker friend, Chris Marker (she was the only other person he ever allowed to film inside his studio). It was a delight to see Varda in person and to hear her tell these stories.

Update: Wonder Woman’s New Director

Just days after the departure of director Michelle MacLaren from Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman film, the studio has chosen her replacement: Patty Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning biopic Monster (2003). A few years ago Jenkins had been attached to direct Thor: The Dark World (2013) before being replaced by Alan Taylor. This new development in the Wonder Woman production saga means that Jenkins is once more in the position of being the first woman to direct a Marvel superhero film. Exciting news!

Some More Thoughts on Women Directors and Action/Adventure Movies

In yesterday’s post I listed a number of women directors who might make good candidates for the newly open job opportunity at the helm of Wonder Woman. While it’s true that directors such as Mimi Leder and Karyn Kusama might well be qualified because of the action-oriented components of their work, it occurs to me that there is no reason why a woman director couldn’t succeed with Wonder Woman no matter what genre(s) she has been associated with. Male directors are constantly roped into superhero franchises regardless of what they have done in the past; the résumé of Marc Webb, for example, showed music videos, the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer (2009) and an episode each of “The Office” and “Lone Star” before he was signed up to direct The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Prior to directing The Green Hornet (2011), Michel Gondry was known for directing music videos and the romantic dramedies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Science of Sleep (2006). And what about Kenneth Branagh as the director of Thor (2011)? Who made that decision? Because, of course, when you think “Marvel superhero” you definitely think of “the new Olivier” as the ideal choice for direction. Hmmm.

Not only does being a man help in these matters, but it doesn’t always ruin careers when male directors make films that are critical and/or financial flops. Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit tanked last year but that didn’t stop his latest film, the big-budget fairy-tale fantasy Cinderella, from debuting last month. When female directors fail – or, sometimes, even if they succeed – it can take years for them to rebound, if they ever do. Kimberly Peirce had tremendous success with her Oscar-winning debut, Boys Don’t Cry (1999), but her second film was not released until nine years later (Stop-Loss, a 2008 drama about young veterans returning home from Iraq) and her next film, a remake of Carrie released in 2013, was so mediocre – not to mention only barely breaking even at the U.S. box office – that I’m guessing it will delay Peirce’s abilities to make another movie. Mimi Leder, whom I mentioned in yesterday’s post, proved that she had the chops to make entertaining action films with The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998), but the massive disappointment of Pay It Forward (2000) has resulted in her directing only one film since then, the straight-to-DVD action drama Thick as Thieves (2009). Leder has been able to find steady employment by directing for TV (“The West Wing,” “ER,” “Shameless,” “Nashville,” “Smash,” “The Leftovers”), but evidently being the first female graduate of the AFI Conservatory (1973 – a full twenty-four years before The Peacemaker) doesn’t mean enough to Hollywood to get Leder a feature film assignment again. These are things I keep in mind as I follow the Wonder Woman story, waiting to see who will fill in for Michelle MacLaren and whether the chosen director’s past work will have any bearing on the selection.

What’s Next for Wonder Woman?

Last night I was leafing through the April 2015 issue of Vanity Fair when I came across a profile of women directors. The written piece is only one page long in the magazine, while the other five or six pages are devoted to photographs of women filmmakers over many generations, from Ida Lupino on the set of Hard, Fast and Beautiful in 1951 to Ava DuVernay filming Selma in 2014. The article ended by mentioning the most recent additions to the canon: Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which broke records on Valentine’s Day weekend two months ago, and the upcoming comic-book-adaptation Wonder Woman, which has been surrounded by a lot of hype not only because it will be the first Marvel action film to feature a female protagonist but also because of the buzz surrounding its attached director, Michelle MacLaren. MacLaren cut her teeth on such critically-acclaimed and popular TV shows as “The X-Files,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” “NCIS,” “Game of Thrones” and “Better Call Saul.” Wonder Woman was scheduled to be MacLaren’s feature film debut, in addition to being the first Marvel film directed by a woman.

Imagine, then, my surprise and disappoint to find out early this morning that MacLaren has stepped away from the project, citing “creative differences” with the studio, Warner Bros. This development is reminiscent of what happened with Patty Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning drama Monster (2003). Jenkins was supposed to direct Thor: The Dark World before she was fired and subsequently replaced by Alan Taylor. In the twelve years since Monster, Jenkins has not succeeded in directing any other feature films; her only work has been sporadic jobs for TV – an episode of “Arrested Development” here, an arc on “Entourage” there. Even though Jenkins won an Emmy for her direction of the pilot of AMC’s “The Killing” in 2011, her most recent work in the years since then is another pilot, a drama called “Exposed” which ABC has not picked up and which may not see the light of day.

Because Warner Bros. went out of its way to hire a female director for Wonder Woman, my hope is that the studio can find a replacement with an equally impressive résumé who also happens to be a woman. Anyone who saw The Babadook last year knows that Jennifer Kent is more than capable of delivering thrills as well as nuanced direction of actors, while more seasoned directors like Mimi Leder (of the thriller The Peacemaker and the big-budget apocalypse blockbuster Deep Impact – though the flop Pay It Forward completely derailed her fifteen years ago), Catherine Hardwicke (she found tremendous box-office success with the first Twilight movie) and Karyn Kusama (the boxing drama Girlfight, the live-action film version of the animated MTV series Æon Flux and the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body all had female protagonists) could do well too.

Lexi Alexander has actually directed a comic-book movie in 2008, Punisher: War Zone, so her name should be thrown in the ring as well, even though the film failed at the box office (likely the reason her career has slowed down since then). A newcomer to directing, Anna Foerster, has done cinematography and special effects for action films including Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, Kusama’s Æon Flux and White Down House and she is now attached to direct two action films, Source Code 2 and Secret Hunter. One might also look to the upcoming film XX, an anthology which will feature segments all directed by women, including Karyn Kusama, Mary Harron (American Psycho) and Jennifer Chambers Lynch (a Razzie winner for 1993’s Boxing Helena who has since shown skills in the thriller and horror genres with Surveillance and Chained in 2008 and 2012, respectively).

Male directors get all kinds of chances to direct big-budget blockbusters, no matter how small-scale their initial output was; female directors have to work much harder at “convincing” both the studios and the audiences as to why they would be right for the same assignments. (There is widespread agreement now that Kathryn Bigelow is a great director of action and suspense films, but the thought was only officially accepted after her Oscar win for The Hurt Locker “legitimized” this notion, and it always comes with the disclaimer of greatness for a woman in a man’s profession.) There is no reason why a woman director cannot be just as, if not more, qualified to direct a Marvel superhero film that any man, but it remains to be seen if Warner Bros. will do right by their original commitment to telling this particular narrative from a woman’s unique point of view.