Wells of Creativity
By: Elizabeth Deanne Malpass
THE THIRD MAN
(The end of World War II; the chill of the Cold War’s birth. Spies, Vienna and Harry Lime. The film is almost a print by Durer with a malignant and manic Ferris wheel added by da Vinci. Of all of Welles’ oeuvre, The Third Man is the most starkly lush, the most bleakly romantic and the most haunting in imagery and music. No one who sees it, ever quite forgets it. It is a strange psychedelic dream of a film in black and while wherein objects become as memorable, as sexual, as significant as the individual characters or the story.
Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, a weary and wary reporter and novelist, a mixture of William L. Shirer’s acute observation of the Nazi aftermath and Edward R. Murrow’s empathy and drama before either man became an icon, comes to the rubble filled ruins of Vienna at the end of the war knowing that an old, clever, amusing, slightly perverted and always shifty friend is dead. But is he? The Third Man becomes a “chase film,” not with violent car chases and crashing light poles, but rather with a casual, then intense hunt for Harry Lime. Played by Orson Welles with subtle shrugs and smirking charm, Harry is (or was) a dealer in the illegal penicillin trade. Is he really dead or …. ? The love interest, Anna, played by the noted European actress Valli (Alida Valli), is no typical romantic heroine. She is a bitter, mature woman who, like the city, struggles to endure. The background of the occupied, devastated. and sleazy city where honor and morality have been suspended in favor of daily survival, surpasses mere scenery and becomes an integral part of the story. The Prater Amusement Park, kept alive by the film’s fame, is a rather dingy tourist trap by day and a rowdy vulgarity by night, but when Harry Lime steps briefly out of the shadows, the park becomes an obscene and sinister medieval carnival of decadence and death.
Written by Graham Greene with sharp plotting and crisp dialogue, directed impeccably by Carol Reed and photographed to greatness by Robert Krasker, the theme music, in a zither performance by Anton Karas, a late addition to the ensemble, raised the film to a unique international level. The film is great theater so artfully done it becomes a touching and totally believable metaphor for the reality and duplicity of decent if banal lives in a shattered world.
Enfant terrible of Mercury Theater. Invader of alien worlds. Genius at twenty-two with Broadway’s Julius Caesar. Master of the nineteenth century gothic novel. Say what? Welles’ 1944 film Jane Eyre has become a late night television introduction for thousands of teenagers to the dangers of romance with an older man. In the end, it apparently prepares a somewhat stammering and stuttering shy young governess for an impoverished future with the promise of Victorian true love and – presumably- good sex with a blind, slightly plump, but still erotic Lord of the Manor. Nevertheless, it remains one of the best interpretations of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel. Since Charlotte was the only one of the country provincial yet weirdly exotic family of writers to come close to a realistic and loving relationship (she died in child birth shortly after a brief happy marriage), the novel has a poignant base.
In the film, as in the novel, the misery of Victorian childhood and education is brilliantly portrayed. Lowood School is just as much a trap for young women as Charles Dicken’s London criminal training ground was for Oliver Twist. While Oliver learns how to be a thief and a crook, Jane learns how to be a submissive, if educated, female. To preserve her chastity and in repayment for her docility, she can be kept in a circle of indifference as cruel as Oliver’s prospects of prison. Joan Fontaine, much too refined of feature and blondly beautiful to be Bronte’s “plain” Jane, does a fine job of balancing youthful uncertainty, the poor employee’s need for survival, as well as the yearning innocence of infatuation that grows into maturity.
Welles’ performance as Mr.Rochester is rivaled only by Laurence Oliver’s brooding Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights. The difference is that Heathcliffe is obsessed and virtually insane; Welles is tragedy redeemed. Murder, madness, fire and angst are never too much of a muchness for a gothic novel, but here they are masterfully controlled. Black and white film and the gothic novel were made for each other and never more so than in this version of a classic.
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS
The Magnificent Ambersons are indeed a magnificent American family, fascinating, indulgent, corrupt and self destructive. When he was barely 26, Orson Welles’ 1942 study of a marriage and its familial consequences was butchered by terrible editing and incomprehension of intent on the part of Hollywood. The film, considered by many to be his greatest film and totally comparable in stature to Citizen Kane, leaves viewers forever intrigued with what could have been. Booth Tarkington’s novel, for which he won a 1919 Pulitzer Prize and which remains remarkably readable seems dated to many, even irrelevant today. Yet, in the film, Welles recognized the serpent in the gilded age Amberson family. As in American society, the creativity and inventiveness of a young nation are seduced by sheer prosperity, by incredible material abundance that comes not only as a reward for hard work but also inundates the spirit as a spring flood drowns the land. As with Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is an ensemble production, much dependent upon the niceties of casting and the solidness of expert performance. In this case, the supporting players are as vital to the whole as are the minor figures in a Caravaggio painting.
Joseph Cotten, almost a constant everyman in early Welles films; Agnes Moorehead who justifiably won a best actress award from New York critics; Delores Costello, who seems to have stepped out of a John Sargeant society portrait, is nobly heart breaking as a mature woman who early gave up her possibilities for the veneer of security; all come together in a nineteenth century marriage into a microscopic ‘School for Scandal’ which has little humor and no redeeming grace. Tim Holt as George Amberson Minafer is a marvel. His pompous certitudes, his unwitting denial of interior insecurities and his incredible performance turns The Magnificent Ambersons into an Aesop’s Fable for modern times.
TOUCH OF EVIL
The last and probably the greatest of the film noir genre, A Touch of Evil is riveting from its sweeping and “explosive” opening to its final scene. Again, much edited by hacks and tweaked by executive idiots, the re-cut version is film greatness. It is a difficult film, complex, macabre and chilling. The story of a Mexican narcotics investigator, played in a break out performance by Charlton Heston, add in Janet Leigh (in her only great performance other than Psycho where her transition from life to death was mesmerizing) and a dangerously twisted California cop, played by Welles with his usual gift for making the ordinary unnervingly sinister or dangerous- the story seems at first simple pulp fiction. There is nothing simple about evil and perhaps there is no such thing as just a little or a “touch of evil.”
In the end, Welles pits characters, objects and landscape as well as sound and silence, light and shadows in unique ways, but never stagey for virtuoso sake. As a master, he is a seamless creator of his own reality, always true to the world of his characters, always faithful to their story, their lives, their world. It is an incredible talent and a rare one in the collaborative world of film making. It is given to few authors, even the great ones, to create characters who take on a life and an existence of their own. One can think of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear without even a passing thought of William Shakespeare. So too with Citizen Kane or Holly Martins or Rochester. It is as if they existed in an independent universe, free from Welles or film, free to move and change or live and die on their own.
Kane is considered by many critics to be the most important and innovative
film in twentieth century American cinema. Nolo Contendere.