The scene that convinced me John Hughes was a genius. Look for the mighty William Windom as Elizabeth McGovern's father.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I've talked a little about the vocal performances from the actors, and I think it's important to mention it again. Welles, Sloane, and DeCorsia were all radio veterans with Anders, Erskine Sandford and Gus Schilling having had mostly stage experience. All of these actors were used to utilizing their voices as much as their visual appearance to portray their characters and serve the story. Anders usually gets the praise for the insinuating purr of his Grisby character, but I want to call your attention to Everett Sloane as Arthur Bannister, "The World's Greatest Criminal Defense Attorney" as it is repeated throughout the film.
It's interesting how much most commentary on "The Lady From Shanghai" is spent on the Hall Of Mirrors shootout. It's a great scene, one of Welles' best in both conception and execution, but when you see this film pay attention to all of it. Even in it's current, truncated form4 it is, to my eyes one of the great Orson Welles films, certainly on par with "Touch Of Evil" or "F For Fake", if not "Citizen Kane"5.
1- Welles supposedly wrote in a memo to Harry Cohn, Columbia's chief re: the score ""The only idea which seems to have occurred to this present composer is the rather weary one of using a popular song -- the "theme" -- in as many arrangements as possible.... Lady From Shanghai is not a musical comedy."
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Has there ever been a filmmaker who simultaneously loved people and saw them for the goofballs they could be as well as Preston Sturges? Sharper than Capra, but the humanist that Wilder could never be, Sturges in the 7 or so classics he made held a mirror to both the greatness and the foolishness of humanity.
Watch "Hail The Conquering Hero" this Memorial Day weekend. You'll be glad you did.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
"When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it."- from the John Huston screenplay adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon"
Let's imagine you're at a bar, with a group of people, maybe people you know or have heard stories about, and the conversation you're having with them- or really, you're listening to them describe what they're thinking as they went through this recent event they all shared- is really great. Also, they're all criminals and some are more violent than others. Some are also stupider. But they're all very engaging and interesting as they talk about this moment where there lives intersected.
And that's an Elmore Leonard novel.
"Road Dogs" brings together three characters from other Leonard books: Jack Foley ("Out Of Sight"), Cundo Rey ("La Brava"), and The Reverend Dawn Navarro ("Riding The Rap"). There are also cameo appearances from previous Leonard stories including the maverick judge Maximum Bob ("Maximum Bob") and Foley's one-night stand U.S. Marshall Karen Cisco ("Out Of Sight"). Like most of the background characters in this crime fiction minimalist's (who once claimed the only verb he would allow would be the word "said") work, we learn everything we need to know about what they've been up to in a couple of paragraphs.
What we learn about the main characters are- Foley and Cundo became friends (or the titular "Road Dogs") in prison and Cundo hired a hotshot lawyer for an early release for Foley. Cundo has made a bundle in Southern Californian real estate and has a common-law wife in Reverend Dawn who has become a psychic-to-the-stars while staying in one of Rey's houses.
Foley still thinks about Karen, while trying to sort out whether he should go straight or do whatever illegal scheme Cundo, or Dawn (or both) has cooked up. Foley also gets busy with almost every woman he meets in the book. And waits for someone to come up with something to do. Including himself.
In the end, you will have spent maybe a day (Leonard books are always a quick read for me) with some of the more interesting ex-cons, cheats, swindlers, gangbangers and feds you'll ever meet. Like the films "The Anderson Tapes", "The Asphalt Jungle" or "The Killing", a group of shady people get together, try to pull off a job and in the end no one, except maybe Foley is any wiser or richer. Except that Leonard gives the perspective of each character so sharply, it feels like he uses jeweler's tools instead of pen and paper.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
There's a story about the sleight-of-hand/con game/arcane performance expert, writer and actor (he appears in "The Prestige") Ricky Jay. From 1985 to 1990, he was the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, an extensive collection of items that pertained to magic and anything else that today one could call "non-traditional" showbiz. It was a dream gig for Jay. Unfortunately, in 1990, the owner of the collection was a banker and this banker was shut down by California banking regulators with it's assets (mainly the collection which was the only thing- thanks to Jay- that had increased in value over the years) liquidated.
And that is how, in a California bankruptcy court, the entire collection came to be owned by David Copperfield, a ritzy super-showman-as-magician. In other words the complete anathema to the intellectual, magic-for-magic's sake Ricky Jay.
One could make a decent comparison between that story and the plot of "The Prestige", a puzzle film about competing 18th century magicians, that is as much about art vs entertainment, obsession and the folly of revenge as anything else.
The film begins with a murder trial, as one of the two competing magicians ("The Professor" and "The Great Danton") has been accused of doing away with other. You have to pardon me as I am trying to not reveal more than is necessary here. The Professor, or Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is a working class conjurer who approaches magic as an art, one to be fiercely guarded from others (including his own wife), especially his former friend The Great Danton, aka Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Danton is someone who takes the grubby Professor's tricks, steals them and flashes them up for an ever-increasing audience. Sounds familiar?
Also, he tends to throw temper tantrums when cinematographers get in his way.
Speaking of the cast, it includes America's favorite indie hottie Scarlett Johannson, America's favorite old Cockney Michael Caine and sitcom actors including some brits who have moved to America including Daniel (not British, but often plays one on TV, including "The Nanny"'s butler) Davis, Jim (Brit expatriate writer/actor/Christopher Guest movie regular cast member) Piddock, Roger (Professional arrogant Brit/Rebecca's boyfriend on "Cheers") Rees, and Edward (Professional British Fop/"Gil" on "Fraiser") Hibbert. This last bit of casting makes sense as the entire production was filmed in Southern California locations, doubling for Victorian England.
Christopher Nolan was someone who made a successful dent in the indy world with "Following" and the critical and commercial success of "Memento". After a smaller success with the Hollywood remake of "Insomnia", he was given the keys to the kingdom by Warner's to make "Batman Begins", which was a big hit for them. Maybe you remember that?
So we come back to art vs. commerce. The success of Nolan's career shows what the film story cannot- the way either art or commerce can win is they work together organically.
Like a man who makes a superhero film, but says "why not tell a story that's more than a bunch of illustrated panels of action strung together. One that moves on a deeper level than what a punch to the jaw brings."
Because there is a special kind of magic in the story that is well-told.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
In 2005, I wrote a review of the Criterion dvd of the movie here, but this is a film that has become my favorite Welles film and I thought I would try a lengthier ("Is such a thing possible?" you say) essay on what makes "F For Fake" so unforgettable.
But, then, you were probably not aware of "F For Fake".
A film he made out of scraps of other's (including his own) uncompleted films, united by his narrated essay on how much fakery and art need each other, this film begins with a magic trick with children in a French train station. He makes a key turn into a coin, has dialogue with his film crew (including his cinematographer François Reichenbach, who directed an unfinished documentary that Welles uses as the basis for "F") and a mysterious woman (Oja Kodar, Welles' mistress/collaborator/muse at the time) who plays a larger part in the later section of the film. All of this chicanery is part of the larger magic trick of Welles drawing you into a film that is not a documentary, but, instead, the cinematic equivalent of having him over to your house for a dinner party.
As I said before, this film's central theme is Welles' assertion that art and fakery are symbiotic and it is hard to tell where one ends and one begins. Indeed, he makes the case that perhaps the fakery is as authentic as the original. Using François Reichenbach's original footage we take a look at Elmyr de Hory's work as a forger of Picasso paintings. With Reichenbach's interviewer, author Clifford Irving (who wrote a book on de Hory), we see the charming little forger explain his work and host parties as the toast of the seventies European jet set. Does Irving sound familiar to you? Do you remember a Richard Gere film called "The Hoax"? It was based on Irving having, not much longer after Reichenbach's project, but before Welles', faked an autobiography of Howard Hughes. This book was protested by Hughes himself and eventually Irving was found out and sent to prison.
And so Welles incorporates that as well, into the film.
Then Welles brings up his own hoax, the panic that came from a broadcast of his radio version of H.G. Wells' "The War Of The Worlds". Although Welles didn't intentionally create a panic, his dramatization was so real, it made a number of listeners across the country listening to it believe America was being invaded by Martians. During this section he has his old friends Joseph Cotton and Paul Stewart comment on the phenomenon.
And then he brings up his lady friend Kodar's relation to Picasso and some forgeries associated with that association.
The film begins with a magic trick and ends with a mild piece of flim-flammery, that to be fair, Welles told you was going to happen in his introduction in the film. Along the way we get several dinner parties, Oja Kodar running around in next to nothing (or nothing) at all (making one feel the letter "F" is not merely for "Fake), Laurence Harvey (and excerpts from a film Welles was trying to finish with Harvey in it), some more magic, beautiful architecture, and a film that ends as pleasantly mysterious as it began.
And as I think about the film, I find that it's not the ideas presented in it, but the atmosphere itself filled with fast cuts, Welles' soothing baritone, eccentric characters, Michel Legrand's ("The Shadow Of Your Smile", "Summer Of '42") great score and each section as sublime as the one that precedes it.
Like a great dinner party that you don't remember the specifics of, only how terrific an evening it was.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
This song always made me sad when I was a kid and to this day, when I look her up on ITunes, I envitably think of this first, before any of the other numbers I've heard her do over the years.