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Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles’

Compulsion (1959) Blu-Ray Review

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

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Stars – Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, Orson Welles, Diane Varsi, E.G. Marshall
Director – Richard Fleischer

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

In 1924 two university students, Leopold and Loeb kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy. The were both from wealthy families. They did not do this for money. They were not driven by revenge or any other passion. The reason given was that they wanted to commit the perfect crime to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. This crime of the century rocked the nation. The murder was awful. The motive shocking. In 1948 Alfred Hitchcock brought the story to the screen as Rope. Ten years later Richard Fleischer made this version which is exceedingly well done and quite chilling. The two leads are fantastic. Bradford Dillman plays Artie Strauss as a coiled bundle of energy and ego. He carries himself as being the smartest guy in any room. He is always up for kicks as long as he is the center of attention. Dean Stockwell as Judd Steiner is brilliant and deeply troubled. We can feel his torment and pain from the first moment we meet him. He is obsessed with Artie and will seemingly do anything to win his approval. Artie manipulates him without mercy. The two have a very strange relationship that the film portrays in good detail. The movie starts with the two of them driving at night in a very fancy sports car.  They barely miss hitting a drunk in the deserted street. Artie taunts Judd to go back and run him over. Artie is full of bravado, confidence and liquor. Judd is scared but more frightened of disappointing his friend.

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We do not actually see the murder of the boy. We hear about it while Martin Milner (13 Ghosts) as a young reporter classmate of theirs gets the lowdown on the cause of death from the coroner. There is a sequence in the film with Judd taking Milner’s girl friend played by Diane Varsi (Wild in the Streets) out to go bird watching. Judd is a nationally recognized ornithologist. When they are alone in the woods he steals a kiss and attacks her but he can’t go through with it. Judd’s balance is very off emotionally. It’s a difficult scene to watch. Judd is ashamed for his actions. But we can’t tell if that is because it was such a terrible thing to do or because he realizes he is not attracted to the girl. There is a very uneasy feeling whenever any hint of homosexuality comes up with Judd. Clearly he is driven by an attraction to Artie but he seems so painfully uncomfortable with it. Rather than offer any explanation or understanding for this the film lets us feel the tremendous struggle that Judd experiences. He is tortured by it.

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From the moment that Orson Welles appears in the film things change. His presence dominates every scene he is in. He has such control over his performance. His presents Clarence Darrow, called Jonathan Wilk here, as immensely charming even affable. But none of that charm belies the talent churning inside his mind as he works his way into the case. It is a grand standing move when he changes his plea for the two boys to guilty with mitigating circumstance. That tactics allows him to plead the case directly to the judge. Two things are accomplished by that. First and foremost the boys have a chance at getting a lengthy sentence as opposed to being hung which the jury would very likely have selected. Secondly we get to see the great Orson Welles deliver a lengthy almost Shakespearian monologue against capital punishment. During this discourse the film takes us away from the sordid details of this murder and becomes a philosophical discussion. This is how it played out in the real life trail too. Most courtroom dramas hinge on the revelation of details or the legal talents of the attorneys as they battle the merits of the case. But here as in Inherit the Wind much larger issues are at stake. It is significant that both films are based on real events. The actual crimes begat a consideration of moral issues that loom larger than the plight of the two students or the school teacher in the Scopes Monkey Trail.

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It’s fascinating to watch Welles work. Tim Lucas in his commentary goes into some of the stories about his antics on the set. Apparently he did not want anyone to have eye contact with him while he delivered his very lengthy monologue several times for the cameras. I am continually fascinated by the way he shapes his words. He pauses in his sentences often placing a different emphasis than you’d expect. The performances of Dillman and Stockman are excellent, too. Each one is so different than the other and yet they were really the only friends they had. Diane Varsi gives a very good performance as Ruth the girl that Judd tried to force himself on. Her character testifies about him in court and seems to genuinely like him. Compulsion remains a powerful drama filled with several strong actors. The widescreen Cinemascope image as lensed by William Mellor is outstanding. It is clever the way he positions Dillman’s character almost letting him sneak into the action as his character worms his way into helping with the investigation.  He gives us a large view of the courtroom scenes so it often feels like we are in an auditorium listening to a great orator, and we are.

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Video – 2.35:1
Nice strong detail is abundant in this new release from Kino Studio Classics. Black levels are good. Everything is nice and sharp. You can really appreciate everything that is going on with the William Mellor’s Cinemascope photography.

Audio – DTS-HD mast 2.0 with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow.  Music cues support the film nicely without being over played in the mix.

Extras – Commentary with by Film Historian Tim Lucas, Trailers for Compulsion and a few related other titles.

The Tim Lucas commentary covers the background of the true case the film was based on and a good deal about the actors involved. He reads some excerpts from director Fleischer’s book that concern his experiences with the making of the film. Despite all the grandstanding that has been attributed to Welles Fleischer was able to control the shoot.  Lucas has a nice relaxed delivery. He’ll take short breaks once in awhile.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Moby Dick (1956) Blu-Ray Review

Monday, November 28th, 2016

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Stars – Richard Baseheart, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Leo Genn, Harry Andrews, Friedrich von Ledebur

Director – John Huston

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at Screenarchives.com and Twilighttimemovies.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The indelible image in John Huston’s version of Moby Dick, for me is not the whale, nor Captain Ahab. It is Orson Welles delivering a sermon for the ages from a unique pulpit. This takes place very early on in the picture. We’ve seen Richard Baseheart traipsing across the countryside asking us to call him Ishmael. He has a dink at the local tavern and joins in singing the sea shanties and other songs. He’d met the strange tattoo covered Queequeg and the two have pledged to set out on a whaling vessel, Captain Ahab’s Pequod. Director John Huston gives us precious little time on land. He’s not at all concerned with setting up this New England whaling town set on the seaside. When we first go inside the church Huston pans along the walls so we can see the various plaques well enough to read them. Someone was lost at sea. There is a list of crew members who disappeared with a ship. But the vast majority of the deaths were cased by whales. After we are settled in with a good look at the congregation Welles as Father Maple makes his entrance. He strides down a hallway and unfurls a rope ladder, much like the ones you’d see on the sides of ships. He easily ambles up the rope and takes the pulpit. Unlike any other pulpit you’ve ever seen this one is built like the prow of a ship. He looks out over his audience as if he is scanning the seas. He often refers to his congregation as mates. He intones a serious sermon but refrains from a bombastic tone. Welles modulates his reading so well. As you watch him coax these mellifluous pronunciations out of the words you can’t help but think he is sending this next ship The Pequod out for its final voyage. It is a benediction for unmitigated disaster. Another plaque will soon join the others on the wall.

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The quality of Orson Welles’ performance is so fitting so a number of reasons. The chief one being the fact that the acting is the best part of the film that unfolds. Though we go though the motions of setting sail and a few other things to keep the boat all ship shape we never get a real strong sense of being at sea. Instead it is the attitudes of the sailors on board that convey the strange devotion to the arduous task of going whaling often for years at a time. When we first see Gregory Peck as Ahab with his stove pipe hat and beard you can’t help but think of him as Abraham Lincoln with a peg leg. His acting is fine. His line readings have character but Peck is not fearsome enough and that hurts his portrayal. Much of the dialogue and interaction between the crew has this larger than life quality to it. It often feels like lines from a book being read, albeit read well. The talk is too mannered for things to feel comfortable. Perhaps this was the intention. Others film have this kind of dialogue but they flow much better.  Many times during the film when events have turned dire for the crew Peck gathers them around the ship’s mast and delivers a powerful motivational speech often caped off by a hearty drink. His sharing of a beer or whatever the brew is feels very forced. Still there are many performances that stand out. Harry Andrews with his funny looking cap plays the quintessential New England sailor to the hilt. He is full of bravado and exudes an earthy camaraderie with all on board. Leon Genn as Starbuck does an able job trying to keep order. At one point when it is clear Ahab will go after this white whale forsaking all hopes of making money on the voyage his character suggests mutiny to a few others. Friedrich von Ledebur as the mysterious Queeqoeg looks and behaves almost otherworldly. Baseheart holds steady as the lone witness to all of this. He gets across that he so wants to believe in Captain Ahab. He is yearning for a successful and mythic voyage.

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Lastly a thought or two about that whale. It is in a word – terrible. We mostly see the side of the creature. Due to the photographic process used by DP Oswald Morris any texture the skin may have had is washed out. The signature move of a whale with that huge tail slapping down on the sea or maybe a small boat is never exploited. We just see it way in the distance or chugging along like a rounded barge. It is never seen underwater where we’d be able to get a good look at the massive beast. That may be intentional. For the interaction with the men in the ocean at the end miniatures are used. The man who did the special effects August Lohman worked on films like The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters. The Bowery Boys films are great fun but not where you’d look to find an F/X person to build the mighty Moby Dick. At one point in the film we see this rigidly constructed mouth with rows of teeth on either side come down like a gangplank or the underside or a large puppet. By 1956 special effects were much more capable of handling giant monsters than this film took advantage of. Eiji Tsuburaya’s work with miniatures in Godzilla (Gojira 1954) was spectacular. The giant ants constructed for Them! (1954) got the job done nicely. Perhaps the most incredible work done in the field was by Ray Harryhausen. What he did with Mighty Joe Young (1949) and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was just jaw dropping. The Beast even had some scenes done in the water. What really boggles the mind is that he was a good friend of the co-writer of Moby Dick, Ray Bradbury.  Looking back we can see that Ray was exceedingly busy then. Perhaps he was asked and preferred to generate his own projects. In short the whale could have looked a whole lot better.
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For getting the Herman Melville story told the more recent version in 1998 with Patrick Stewart as Ahab succeeds better. Gregory Peck even played the part of Father Maple in that one. If one has seen it you can’t help but consider Ron Howard’s film In The Heart of The Sea (2015). In that one we see Herman Melville researching the actual story that inspired him to write Moby Dick. Though I am not a fan of CGI the whale featured there looked outrageously good. Huston’s Moby Dick may not be entirely successful but it is one you have to see. It reaches beyond its grasp in a number of areas but much remains that is worthwhile.

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Video – 1.66:1
A lot of work went into recreating the look of the film that was intended by DP Oswald Morris and director John Huston.  They wanted to recreate the style of artwork from the actual Moby Dick area that depicted whales and massive ships at sea. It has a very washed out denatured texture. Colors are largely denuded. There are times when the contrast is so tweaked that it feels like an old school videotape. Images appear very flat. For realizing the intentions of the artists involved this new blu-ray presentation gets major kudos. Many years later in 1971 cinemaphotographer Vilmos Zsigmond used an experimental “flashing” technique to create a palate for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. For my taste that worked and this one falls short. About twenty years after Moby Dick Oswald Morris shot The Man Who Would be King for Huston. It is a glorious looking adventure that presents a wide variety of locations in breathtaking colors and textures. The two worked together a lot. (the images in this review were not taken from the blu-ray)

Audio – DTS-HD MA 1.0 wit subtitles offered in English SDH
Dialogue comes across strong. Voice-overs area easily understandable.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature Isolated Score Track / Commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman / A Bleached Whale: Recreating the Unique Color of Moby Dick / Posters, lobby cards & production stills / Original theatrical trailer

The feature that details how the color scheme was realized is fascinating. Make sure you check out the poster and lobby card file that includes two every early versions of the tale.
With the 1956 version you can see how prominent the whale and action elements are in the advertising.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good or Excellent depending on how you like your White Whales done.

Jane Eyre (1943) Blu-Ray Review

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

 

Stars: Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Margaret O’Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, Henry Daniell, John Sutton, Agnes Moorehead, Hillary Brooke
Director: Robert Stevenson

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Jane Eyre is a gothic romances. It can appear to be a peculiar genre. Generally a young girl grows up enduring tremendous hardship. She spends too much time in a dark desolate place amidst thunder storms and cracking lighting. Often she works in a cavernous like estate of a very rich loner, or a once rich family. There is a dreaded family secret and many times a room that she is forbidden to enter. Her pluck and rugged perseverance get her through this. Most often true love is lost and found. Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre is a very popular gothic. Joan Fontaine does a wonderful job in the lead role. She was in the somewhat similar themed Rebecca (1940) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She followed that with another Hitchcock film Suspicion (1941) with Cary Grant. The pairing of her with her costar elevates this film considerably.

Orson Welles may have been a lot of things: a wunderkind director, an iconoclast, an amateur magician, a regular on the late night TV talk show circuit and a guy who lent his magnificent voice to maybe one too TV commercials. Beyond all that and for many, many years he was a magnificent actor. He brings a tremendous sense of malignant brooding to his first starring role working for another director. It was only his third picture, too. When we first see him in the film he is riding a horse at full throttle accompanied by a huge hound dog that could have belonged to the Baskervilles. He stops just short of running into Jane who is walking out in the fog. His horse rears up and he topples off. He’s got this cape and just looms out of the darkness. Welles brings a real intensity to Edward Rochester. But as foreboding as he is, there is that charm lurking below the surface. His gaze lingers on Jane. He often has her sit hear him. It’s a very reserved dance these two do throughout the film.

This is a very dark film full of dark shadows and fog. The magnificent estate looks like a set from the early Universal Frankenstein films. Cinematographer George Barnes shoots this one almost as if it were a horror film. People are always lurking in the shadows just out of sight. He makes everything look so heavy and mysterious. We see a tremendous amount of fog and smoke in the picture. Often a scene will have the long tendrils of shadows artfully arranged. Compositions are always done with taste and a very good eye for creative balance. As the chain of events unfold dealing more and more disappointment to Miss Eyre he seems to deny her any real light. She suffers throughout the whole story. It feels like it is only at the very end that she experiences any real sunlight at all. Bernard Herrmann’s score also wraps the narrative in a full orchestration rich in texture. We hear a deep dark resonance that carries poor Jane’s suffering along with her. The poor girl just can’t escape the heaviness. When we first see her in the film, as a little girl she’s been kept locked in a closet. When she is sent to a school which is more like a juvenile delinquent Borstal she is made to stand on a chair for hours on end. One girl shows her kindness, they become friends then that girl become sick. Jane shares a bed with her to keep her warm. She wakes up the next morning to find the cold dead hand of her friend clasped in hers. This is almost just too much. There are moments when she gets her hopes up, when her situation improves but those feelings are dealt one crushing blow after another. The story has a very distinct progression.

For those that would not normally be draw to this kind of material rest assured that you will be caught up in Jane’s plight. The relationship between her and Mr. Rochester evolves steadily though sometimes it is very subtle. It is a gratifying journey that feels very old school. The film opens with Joan Fontaine literally reading passages from the source book by Charlotte Bronte. We return to this motif a few others times so that we never forget the literary world this story came from. Those who love the book will be richly rewarded and those who do not may find themselves very pleasantly surprised by the power of these characters and the strong tide of the narrative. And keep an eye out for Hilary Brooke who was a regular on The Abbott and Costello TV show.

 

Video – 1.33:1
This is a good if not remarkable transfer. There is a note on Screen Archives site that states, “Please note: we have brought this film to Blu-Ray using the best source material available.” The intense and deep black levels do not get the treatment they deserve. Much of the beautiful and dark photography looks okay, though the rich textures are just not allowed the kind of definition that was shot and carefully brought out by the fine attention to the lighting by George Barnes. This is entirely watchable and will not interfere at all with your enjoyment of the acting or the telling of the tale.

Audio – Mono 1.0 track in English 1.0 DTS-HD, subtitles offered in English SDH.
All dialogue is clear. There are some softer sequences that will ask you to pay very close attention though. Welles can draw out a pause to great lengths, but it’s worth it to hang on his every word. Bernard Herrmann’s score sounds fine. He manages to coax a very powerful deep undercoat to this score even though this is just mono and not the finest of recordings. Much of that has to do with his arrangement and choice of instrumentation. There are bits here that almost feel like he went back to for some of the cues in Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is to say that yes he does sound like himself. Herrmann has a recognizable style and it’s great.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature Isolated Score Track, commentary with biographer Joseph McBride and Actress Margaret O’ Brien, Second commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman, and Steven C. Smith,, “Locked in the Tower: The Men Behind Jane Eyre” featurette, “Know Your Ally Britain” United States War Department Film directed by Robert Stevenson, Original Trailer.
The featurette is well worth a look as it gives some solid background to the filming. The interplay between Welles and director Stevenson is very interesting, too. Welles was a huge presence at that time and could have been very intimidating for the director who appears to have handled the situation very well.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic
Movie – Excellent

Blu-Ray – Good

The Stranger (1946) Blu-Ray Review

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles, Richard Long, Billy House
Director: Orson Welles
Released by Kino

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

With his third film credited as a director, Orson Welles set out to show Hollywood that he could make a film on time and on budget. He wanted them to see that he could make a tamer mainstream vehicle that could make money for the studio – in short that he could be trusted. According the period box office reports The Stranger was indeed the only film Welles directed that turned a profit on its initial theatrical release. Still this is an Orson Welles film through and through. Even though this is basically a post war find the killer hiding in a small town cat and mouse game Orson Welles makes the most of his camerawork, lighting and editing at every chance he can. Many of the interiors seem to recall the work of Greg Tolland, who shot Citizen Kane (1941) for Welles. Russell Metty who shot this one never made a thriller or horror film before he worked on The Stranger with Welles. Interestingly he shot Lady form Shanghai (1947) for him afterward. Clearly Welles imprinted his favored style of lighting and composition on the film. Unlike Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) which featured the Merry Widow Killer hiding out in beautiful small town Americana with its bright sunny days most of The Stranger is filmed inside or at night. It is a dark world that detective Edward G. Robinson follows Nazi War criminal Welles into. Welles is masquerading as a teacher in a prep school for boys and will marry the headmaster’s daughter played by Loretta Young the day Robinson arrives. When we first see her she is hanging curtains in the house where she will soon live. Beautiful and unaware of what surrounds her.

The plot unfolds slowly until a dinner table scene in which Welles’ teacher espouses some rhetoric that tips his hand. Form then on it is just a matter of time until Robinson gets the goods on him. Catching a train on his way to the town Robinson steals a mystery magazine from the ticket seller. It’s a very subtle touch that maybe alludes to what kind of petty crimes are acceptable and which ones truly cross the line. He befriends the bride’s younger brother (Richard Long) in a plotting device that lets him explain to him, and by proxy to us his observations on this case. It is clear very early on that Robinson knows that Welles is his man so we are left with a cat and mouse game that just does not have a whole lot of maneuvering. The bulk of the middle of the film is made up of him trying to convince Loretta Young that she has married a Nazi war criminal. He explains the psychological underpinnings of her denial to the boy and to her father. He even gets the maid to keep tabs on her and promise to delay her by any means if she tires to go anywhere on her own. Though the camerawork and editing are always entertaining the plot feels like it is straining to fill out its 94 minute running time. There is perhaps too much of Loretta Young in her confused “gaslit” stage of disbelief and confusion and not enough suspense.

With the exception of the checker hustling town clerk played with lots of charm by Billy House there is no comic relief or humor. Barely does Welles allow himself even a hint of his charm or let go a smile. Robinson gets to play with his pipe and hide in a neat plume of smoke a few times but his role is pretty straight forward. What drives this film is the wonderful tour de force opening section that finds the lower level Nazi Meineke let out of custody so Robinson can follow him as he seeks out his superior, the most wanted war criminal Franz Kindler. This whole front section features magnificent swooping camerawork. We dolly along with characters as they run into the shadows. Sinister faces reflect in camera lenses. The entire beginning is cut beautifully with an urgent rhythm that only stop to pause when Meineke finally meets up with Welles in the Prep School where he works as a teacher. They disappear into the woods for murder scene that is delicious. The end game of the film played out in the clock tower is also a fabulous price of filmmaking whose lofty setting recalls the ending of Frankenstein (1931) with the villagers gathering far below as man and monster battle it out high up on the clock tower. The shots of the rickety ladder with several rungs set to give way reeks of that early German expressionist style with all the creepy shadows and obtuse angles. Even the demise of one of the characters literally at the hands of the clock angel is terrific. While the predictable destination derails any kind of intricate plotting or characterization we are still left in the hands of a masterful filmmaker. There is an awful lot to like in the way this film is made.

Video 1.33:1
This is a rescue of a film that has lingered in poor editions due to its public domain status over the years. However there are more scratches and speckles that the one that TCM has been showing. This one has several vertical scratches that run from the bottom to the top of the frame albeit on the side. These instances are usually for only a few moments with one lengthy exception but they are very noticeable. The one I saw on TCM in January of 2010 that was preceded by an MGM logo had no such scratches. However there are sequences in this Kino blu-ray that have very nice contrast. There are some scenes with better clarity. Toward the end when Loretta Young is lying down in repose on a bed there is an exceptional beauty shot of just her face. The lighting changes subtly getting ever so brighter ever so slowly. The Kino version has quite a bit of grain in this bit and it looks very nice. However there are instances when the white scale seems washed out. That is something that cameraman Russell Metty would never have permitted. Welles pushes the contrast of whites and blacks in many scenes but never to the point that they are overblown as they can look here. Again there are several scenes that offer significant clarity but it is a tough call to say that they are able to elevate the entire viewing experience. The cover touts that this is sourced from a 35 MM archival restoration. Though it is clearly a step above the usual shoddy prints we’ve seen on most VHS and DVD editions, they could have done better with their source materials.

 

Audio – Mono. No subtitles are offered
Dialogue is clear for the most part though there are a few mumbled lines that you have to pay attention to hear. There are times when Welles’ voice does not exhibit that wonderful resonance he had. The music cues sound very good and get a nice treatment in the mix.

Extras – There are three Orson Welles radio broadcasts, a commentary with historian Bret Wood, an image gallery, a trailer and an absolutely harrowing piece entitled, “Death Mills”. This 21 minute short made by Billy Wilder details the discoveries made by allied troops as they enter the liberated concentration camps. There are scores of bodies. They are burned and charred, tossed in ditches, and left in piles to rot. We see some emaciated survivors barely able to walk. At the end of the short the citizens who lived near the death camps during the war are lined up and made to walk through so they can see first hand what they chose to ignore and deny for so many years. A part of this short is shown by Edward G. Robinson to Loretta Young in the movie so she can see what her husband was part of. This is an incredibly powerful piece of film that will leave you shell shocked and emotionally gutted.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Good / Excellent