Orson Welles Now: Part Two

Orson Welles II:
His Lesser-Known Films

Orson Welles directed numerous other films beyond the BigThree discussed earlier. He was especially known for his filmic meditations on Shakespeare, but since I'm often more bored than bowled over by the Bard, I offer my three non-Will favorites.

The Stranger (1946, 95 minutes) has three historical distinctions. First, its theme of bringing Nazis to justice anticipated the Nuremberg Tribunal by a year. Second, it was the first Hollywood film to incorporate documentary footage of the Holocaust into the narrative. Third, its climatic confrontation in a church belfry appeared a dozen years before Hitchcock immortalized such a showdown in Vertigo. The Stranger is a snake-in-the-garden story set in a pristine New England small town (the fictional Harper, CT). Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the vivacious offspring of local elites, is wooed and wedded by Charles Rankin (Welles), a prep school professor. He's ideal in every way: smart, suave, and devoted to Mary. Insofar as anyone can tell, he's rock solid except for his odd devotion to old timepieces–he's restoring Harper's 300-year-old mechanical clock, which stands silent on the town green. All is well until a investigator named Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) arrives to deliver the news that Rankin might be Franz Kindler, responsible for the murder of hundreds of Jews and part of a sleeper cell devoted to restoring Nazis to power. He and Mary's brother set a trap for Rankin, but is he the right man? Mary refuses to believe it. This film is exactly right at 95 minutes: taut and tense. Mary is a little hard to swallow in the wake of Second Wave feminism, but The Stranger is a nice slice of 1940s filmmaking.

Welles insisted that his directorial effort on The Trial (1962, 118 minutes) was his very best work, and it gets my vote. There are several reasons why it's not better remembered. First, though in English, it was a German/French/Italian production with a cast little known to most North Americans other than Welles himself and Anthony Perkins, who was Norman Bates in Psycho two years earlier. Second, The Trial was made in black and white at a time in which most movies shifted to color. Third, an adaptation of Franz Kafka's enigmatic novel had cachet with the art cinema crowd, but not the masses. Moreover, the initial reviews were mixed. Bah! This film is a dazzler.

For Kafka non-readers, The Trial recounts the surrealistic nightmare of Joseph K (Perkins), a bland bureaucrat in an unnamed police state. The novel/film are often misinterpreted as commentary on communism. Not so–it was written in 1914, three years before the Russian Revolution, and owed more to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and to the Absurdist movement than to political ideology. On his 30th birthday, K returns to his boarding house to find two police agents in his bedroom. They advise he is charged with a serious crime, which K vigorously denies though said crime is never specified. The K surname is key–individuals aren't citizens; they are interchangeable cogs in a gray, soulless State machine. K is thrown into an absurd legal labyrinth–call it Dickens' Bleak House times ten­–in which he seeks to clear his name. How? Don't look for logic. The point is there isn't any. The Trial is a desperate struggle against unnamed forces–a descent into stigmatization, despair, and madness. Characters drop in and out, many of them approaching K as if he were a plague victim: his want-no-trouble landlady Mrs. Grubach (Madeline Robinson), a neighbor who's probably a hooker (Jeannne Moreau), and his Uncle Max (Max Haufler), who passes off his nephew to Albert Hastler (Welles), "The Advocate," who opines he can get K's case delayed for eternity. K, though, is self-righteous and pursues vindication with the same zeal–and aimless ineptitude–with which he pursues Hastler's young mistress, Leni (Romy Schneider). It won't end well.

Welles offers a stunning interpretation of what many imagined an un-filmable novel.  The animation scenes–roughly sketched cardboard stills that are integral to the tale–look crude to modern eyes conditioned by splashy CGI, but their fuzzy black and white grunginess serve to remind that few things are in sharp relief in a world in which definitions and boundaries are arbitrary. Welles enhances this with weird camera angles that distort and disturb, and his portrayal of Hastler raises the bar for creepiness, though Welles' gestures are seldom more ominous than reposing in bed surrounded by food and drink like a Roman patrician at a Bacchanal. A truly astonishing scene centers on K's visit to Titorelli (William Chappell), a "court painter" who might be able to help K understand the court's inner workings. Titorelli lives in a loft studio hastily constructed of slats that allow light and the gaze of half-wild jailbait girls to pour in. When K flees in horror down a similarly constructed hallway, the cast of light and shadow crisscrosses his body like a prisoner's stripes. Fellini couldn't have filmed it any better. Viewing this film fifty-four years after it debuted remains a shattering experience.     

Most modern "magic" owes a debt to pioneering sleight-of-hand master Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-71), who famously remarked, "A magician is an actor playing a magician." He could have added that an actor is a magician prone to getting trapped in a role. Welles quotes Robert-Houdin in F is for Fake (1975, 88 minutes), performs some magic, shows us how they were done, and pledges to tell the complete truth for an hour. You will notice, though, that the film is 88 minutes long! F is for Fake is one of Welles' few films shot in color and is a pseudo-documentary–not a takeoff on the form, but an imaginative blend of fact and fiction. It is a movie abut art and artifice, something about which he knew—after all, he was at the heart of a great whooper himself: the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast that induced panic. By 1974–when he began filming–one could also argue that Welles had grown so comfortable in his public skin that he was more Welles the Persona than Welles the Person. This film began as editing project for a French director's short documentary on Elmyr de Hory (1906-76), possibly the most successful art forger of all time.  While he was making it, writer Clifford Irving was jailed for his hoax biography of recluse Howard Hughes—another Welles connection, as Citizen Kane was originally conceived (and then changed) with Hughes in mind.

F is for Fake was very much a contemporary cultural comment on authenticity, so I'd advise you to Google de Hory and Irving before you watch, as Welles presumed a familiarity with two figures whose notoriety has faded. Once grounded, though, you can't help ponder the myriad ways in which today's world elides truth, "truthiness," guile, and fabrication. Welles has a bemused twinkle in his eye for most of the film and he's clearly relishing his Jekyll and Hyde act as both narrator and trickster. This extends to the fact that his cinematographer is listed as Robert McCallum, who was actually Gary Garve, who shot more adult films than Hollywood blockbusters. Oh yes, Croatian actress Oja Kodar appears in several juicy roles. Discover her back-story for yourself!

Rob Weir

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