Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tomorrow is Forever (1946)/Prince of Foxes (1949)

In case you haven't noticed, I'm on an Orson Welles kick. Here are some less-than-full reviews so I can get this out of my system, and you won't have to suffer as long.

Tomorrow is Forever (1946)
Tomorrow is Forever is a postwar melodrama Martin Guerre-with-a-twist that was apparently designed to make mothers feel better about having let their sons/husbands go off to war. The story concerns Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles, happily married for about two minutes before Welles ships off in a too-tight uniform to fight in WWI. Welles is blown up, and Colbert gets the fateful telegram informing her of his death.

But Welles is not dead--he's laid up in a hospital, his hands non-functional and his face swathed in bandages denoting terrible disfigurement. He won't tell the doctors his name, for the sentimental reason that he does not want to saddle his wife with this wreck of a man.

Twenty years later, on the eve of another war, Colbert is happily married with two sons. Her husband one day brings home an Austrian chemist, who recognizes Colbert right away because she has not aged at all but is apparently unrecognizable as Welles, disfigured as he is by horn-rimmed glasses and a beard. (Incidentally, the age makeup here is probably one of the better technical accomplishments of the film, for he looks a lot like the older Welles but smaller.) He's also sporting a new name and Austrian accent, as well as a tiny blond Natalie Wood--a girl he's adopted after she saw her family killed in front of her. Conflict erupts first as Colbert's son--a young man Welles is mathematically certain is his own, born after his supposed death--demands to be allowed to join the RAF so he can fight the Nazis, and later as Colbert begins to suspect that Welles is Welles.

There's some interesting tension provided almost entirely by Welles' acting as he attempts to connect with his son, who has no idea his father isn't his father. The unequal conversation is somewhat moving, as is Welles' general situation. However, the film also calls for a lot of ridiculous speechifying about the need to let young men make decisions and the duty of and to mothers and Welles' character's absolute refusal to admit he's her husband--aside from stating that if he were such a man, he would not tell her so, because she's happy and has a family and it's all for the best this way. The plot is artificial and melodramatically patriotic, and Colbert gets rather hysterical except for the parts where I found myself wondering why she wasn't reacting more. However, Welles stands out as the only thing worthy or interesting in the picture, and oddly enough the least heavy-handed.

Prince of Foxes (1949)
This is one of several movies Welles acted in (without directing) in Europe in the late 40s, while intermittently filming Othello whenever and wherever he could. As a film, it's rather dull and uninspired and written apparently by random, and to my eyes Tyrone Power is a wooden and altogether inexplicable leading man.

Welles, however, turns in what might be an overly energetic performance except for the fact that 1) he's playing Cesare Borgia and 2) the rest of the film is so boring you're fairly aching for some scenery chewing and lament the bulk of the time he's not on screen. Welles' slightly campy, overtly smarmy, and ultimately totally charming Borgia is exactly why he gets criticized for "hammy" acting, but I see no more appropriate place for it than here. Then again, what a lot of people call "ham" I think should be more rightly considered "charm" in the right hands--early William Shatner, for instance, is not the man of endless parodic ellipses but does twinkle almost manically with delight a good portion of the time. Don't we all know charismatic people like that? Ah well, it's probably the case that what one finds charming, another will find grating, and vice versa.

Borgia is so smoothly, uncomplicatedly, and happily evil that he might be ridiculous, and perhaps he is. But he's also tremendous fun. Welles' performances reads like a man who's doing everything he can to amuse himself--in a better movie, it might detract, but in this one, it at least means there's something amusing us. (This scene is the centerpiece, really--keep watching to the end, it's worth it.) He also looks surprisingly fit in tights.

Radio Plays: Les Miserables, Dracula, A Tale of Two cities, Treasure Island, Rebecca
Welles' radio dramas--directed, acted, and frequently adapted by him--were a staple of late 30's radio. Welles' innovation was to adapt the material as faithfully as possible using a viewpoint character to tell the story--often voiced by himself. The result was an intimate hour of radio theater that did not always get to the heart of the material but always evoked some of its quality. With his Mercury Players around him, Welles' created seamless dramas with innovative use of sound and narrative that he later translated to film technique.

Briefly, I will say that listening to hour-long truncations of the works I am familiar with work better than those I am not, aside from the annoyances created by the leaving out of key plot points (there's a lot of fat to trim in Dracula, for instance, but leaving out the fact that Rebecca was dying in the eponymous work renders the ending nonsensical), but the attempts are admirable. It cannot be easy to reduce A Tale of Two Cities to such a time frame. Welles plays, respectively, narrator/Valjean, Dr. Seward/Dracula, Sydney Carton/Alexandre Manette, older narrator!Jim Hawkins/John Silver, and Maxim de Winter. He does each admirably, and the works in which he appears as multiple people do not suffer from it, for he disguises his voice well enough to get away with it. His Valjean is particularly memorable (the very well done series focuses on the Valjean/Javert angle, cutting most everything else, and featuring a regrettable performance by Welles' then-wife, Virginia Nicholson, as the older Cosette) as is his de Winter, who ought to have been immortalized on film due to his perfect capturing of both the vulnerable and commanding sides of his nature in a way the other three men I've seen (Olivier, Brett and Dance) have not. Read more!

Journey Into Fear (1943)

Journey Into Fear is an odd hodgepodge of a film, a mashup of elements that may have, under different circumstances, coalesced into more than the sum of its parts. As it is, the potential is clear, the elements themselves promising, but the end result is a bad thriller made entertaining through no fault of its actual subject matter. Written by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, who also starred; directed by Norman Foster, who didn't read the book; and peopled with Citizen Kane veterans and Welles' touches of atmosphere and mood, the film also bears the scars of Production Code interference.

The story, in as much as it matters, describes an American engineer's (Cotten) involuntary entanglement in foreign intrigue. On a brief business trip to Istanbul with his wife, Howard Graham is soon whisked away to a cabaret, where he meets a mysterious dancer (Dolores del Rio, at the time romantically attached to Welles) and is almost murdered. He then finds himself on a whirlwind journey out of the country, prompted by Welles' police chief Haki and not allowed to see his wife. Graham spends most of the rest of the film on a steamer, with eccentric characters all about, any of whom may be the assassin or a double agent, and one of whom is the dancer, Josette. The film ends with a standard climactic chase involving windows and ledges, and is over almost before you can figure out whose side everyone's on.

With a plot like that, the film's overall quality and enjoyment could go either way. In this case, it goes both—as a film, it's too confusing and quite shallow to be good, though as entertainment there is enough to keep one going, as long as one doesn't think too hard. Cotten plays his typical, absolutely clueless American (think Holly Martins from The Third Man, only far less capable or interesting) but the side characters make up for him. Welles' police chief is larger than life and ambiguously helpful. The denizens of the boat are bizarre characters with quirks who feel the need to corner Cotten to tell him about them. And the assassin, a Mr. Banat (I'm not giving anything away, he's viewed in the first scene), never speaks a line yet exudes a peculiar menace. A short, round little man with glasses, at first glance he seems the least dangerous person in the lineup. But he's heralded by a phonograph playing a scratchy old French song, which sets him up in the first scene and then recurs to great effect on the boat. There's also a scene where the camera lingers on him eating dinner across from Cotten, who is now convinced the man is trying to kill him, and it's somehow both absurd and suspenseful. The film is physically very dark, and mostly shot in the low interiors of the steamer, making it a suitably claustrophobic and noirish film, if not pretty.

The problems with the film are not all due to the writers, cast and crew. Many can be traced to sensitive foreign relations during the war and a desire on the part of the studio and the Hays Office (precursor to the MPAA) to remove anything that might be deemed offensive, either sexually or nationalistically, from the film. Names were changed, ethnicities blurred, and in general confusion about who was who reigned to the point where the director admitted to often not knowing what was going on. But even apart from these problems, it plays like a film that was meant to be quick and fun, not anyone's masterpiece or comment on society. As such, it doesn't fail as much as it might have and it's worth it for thriller fans and Welles completists. Read more!