Tag: George Coulouris

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Dialogue heavy, drama light, war-time propaganda, that was already dated by the time it was released

Director: Herman Shumlin

Cast: Bette Davis (Sara Muller-Farrelly), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Countess Marthe de Brancovis), George Coulouris (Count Teck de Brancovis), Beulah Bondi (Anise), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Donald Buke (Joshua Muller), Henry Daniell (Baron Phili von Ramme), Kurt Katch (Blecher)

In 1940, dedicated anti-fascist campaigner Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) arrives in the USA with his American wife Sarah (Bette Davis) and their children. They are welcomed by Sarah’s mother Fanny (Lucille Watson), but soon discover that America has little understanding of the dangers of Nazism – and that there is in danger in their refuge. Fanny’s other houseguest is Romanian diplomat Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) – whose wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is quietly in love with Sarah’s brother David (Donald Woods) – and he has every intention of selling Muller out to the Nazi embassy if he doesn’t pay him thousands of dollars. Can the Mullers escape?

Watch on the Rhine is adapted from a play by Lilian Hellman. Hellman was otherwise engaged and unable to write the script, so her long-term lover Dashiel Hammett came on board to open up the one-set play into a movie, with Hellman providing some additional speeches. Their best efforts can’t hide the fact this is a painfully worthy, preaching-to-the-choir propaganda piece. It’s packed with on-the-nose (if well-written) speeches and horrifically slow in its pacing and plotting.

First staged in early 1941, the original play did at least serve a clear purpose. It preached about the dangers and evils of fascism to a nation watching Europe tear itself apart. It was a heartfelt cry to understand that Hitler and his cronies were wicked men determined to let all the liberties America held dear burn. Its characters speechified at length about the conditions in Europe, the loss of freedom and the wickedness and danger of a political movement many in America felt was basically someone else’s problem.

This would have carried some real power as a rallying cry if the play had been bought to the screen in 1941. But, by 1943, American soldiers were already fighting Nazi forces in Africa and Italy: it hardly felt necessary to cry for intervention. Even by 1943, it was a period piece, looking back at a moment in time when fashionable types went to the German embassy for fancy dinners with black-shirted diplomats. And certainly, viewing it now, even its 1943 perspective looks slightly naïve and uninformed, in light of the horrors we now know were taking place.

Shorn of its original purpose to educate, the film comes across as a mix of heavy-handed propaganda (“This is why we fight!” it might as well be saying) and civics lesson.  It’s because, frankly, there is very little drama at all to take the place of the political lecturing. It’s fair to compare the film to Casablanca – another film that calls for action, released after a point when action had been taken. That could have been a propaganda piece: instead it’s a fast-paced, drama packed mix of romance and conspiracy thriller where Paul Henreid (remarkably similar to Lukas’ character here) struggles to gain the papers to escape from Vichy with a life-and-death urgency this film never musters.

Although Watch on the Rhine eventually works in a blackmail plot, where Muller’s plan to return to Europe and take on the leadership of the anti-fascists is threatened by George Coulouris’s smarmy diplomat, it takes so long to get to this (nearly an hour of screen time) your attention may well already have been lost.

Watch on the Rhine was directed – rather flatly, in one of his only two films – by it’s original Broadway director Herman Shumlin (heavily assisted by cinematographer Hal Mohr). The cast included several actors recreating their roles, including Lukas, Coulouris and Lucille Watson. Obviously, this left it short of heavyweights for the box office so the studio bought in Bette Davis to play Muller’s wife, expanding the role heavily (and insisting, against her protests, that she get top billing). Davis – exhausted after working intensely on Now, Voyager – took the part out of commitment to its message, but struggled with both Shumlin and serious personality clashes with Lucille Watson over their wildly differing politics.

Shumlin was unable to rein Davis in and Watch on the Rhine features one of her more melodramatic performances. Almost every scene features her staring off into the middle distance, voice trembling (not helped by Max Steiner’s music swelling magnificently practically every time she speaks). It’s a performance that never quite rings true, especially when compared to the underplaying from Lukas, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his low-key, restrained performance. He is quiet and genuine – and his pain and desperation when driven into a terrible moral choice is moving – but it’s hard to shake the feeling this fine performance was rewarded more for the words from his lips (especially since he beat Bogart in Casablanca). Watson was also nominated, playing the sort of role beloved by awards ceremonies, an eccentric old snob with a hidden heart of gold.

Watch on the Rhine is a rather dull civics lesson full of worthy speeches and very short on drama. It also has some of the most irritating child actors you will ever see (already infuriatingly precocious, the kids communicate their German background with stilted, precise accents). Even in 1943, its moment had passed and it never manages to create any dramatic point compelling enough to make you want to rewatch it. A film less worthy, and more willing to indulge in espionage thriller, would have been a distinct improvement.

Joan of Arc (1948)

Joan of Arc header
Ingrid Bergman shows France the way in po-faced epic Joan of Arc

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), José Ferrer (Dauphin Charles), Francis L Sullivan (Bishop Cauchon), Roman Bohnen (Durand Laxart), Geoge Coulouris (Sir Robert de Baudricourt), George Zucco (Constable of Clervaux), Gene Lockhart (Georges de la Trémoille), John Emery (Duke d’Alençon), Richard Ney (Charles de Bourbon), Lief Erickson (Dunois of Orleans), John Ireland (Jan de la Boussac), Hurd Hatfield (Father Pasquerel), Ward Bond (La Hire), J. Carrol Naish (Count of Luxembourg), Frederick Worlock (Duke of Bedford), Shepperd Strudwick (Father Jean Massieu), Alan Napier (Earl of Warwick), Cecil Kellaway (Jean Le Maistre)

A light descends from heaven, and a young girl is seized with a sense of purpose. Joan of Arc (Ingrid Bergman) believes – as do her countrymen – that she received a message from heaven to help deliver fifteenth-century France back to the French, and out from under English occupation. For three years, this young woman strikes fear into the hearts of the English, inspiring the French into a series of victories (most of all at Orleans) and improving the French position such that the ambitious Dauphin (José Ferrer) is crowned Charles VII. But Joan is a target for the English, and she’s eventually  captured and burned for heresy after a trial notably free of justice at Rouen.

A huge investment at the time, with its colossal cast and loving recreation of medieval France, Joan of Arc is historically a luckless film. Despite its box-office winnings, it failed to cover its immense cost. It gained seven Oscar nominations (and four wins!) with no nomination for Best Picture. Its director, its cinematographer and actor Roman Bohnen (playing Joan’s uncle) all died prematurely after its release. Ingrid Bergman was caught up in scandal – and effectively exiled from Hollywood – shortly after when her affair with director Roberto Rossellini became public knowledge. Producer Walter Wagner was imprisoned three years later for shooting his wife’s lover. The film itself had 20 minutes sliced from it and, for decades, was only available in its truncated version.

Aside from these historic curiosities, Joan of Arc is a well-made, handsomely mounted but fundamentally rather dry and at points rather dull historical drama, mixed with more than enough touches of Biblical worthiness. Victor Fleming himself felt the film was a disappointment, that a trick had been missed – perhaps  aware that his own old-fashioned, rather flat direction fails to bring any inspiration out of the drama.

If drama is quite the right word for what, all too often, are too many scenes made up almost solely of a group of men sitting around a table in medieval garb talking at length of current affairs. Too many of these scenes lack in pace or urgency and many end up feeling forced, with too much of the dialogue reduced to recounting events rather than driving the story.

The structure of the story feels off as well: it can be split into three rough acts: Joan’s search for her purpose, Joan’s time as the inspiration of the French, and Joan’s imprisonment and trial. The trial, in particular, takes up almost the final 45 minutes of the film. The play the film is based on used a troupe of actors performing the life of Joan as a framing device for further insight into the life and impact of the saint. Without this framing device, the actual film becomes a rather dry history lesson.

It’s not helped by Bergman’s performance, which serves to capture in capsule the film’s po-faced piousness. It was a dream of Bergman’s to bring her Broadway performance of Joan to film. Sadly, the script’s lack of wit (or insight into the personality of Joan), means the majority of her scenes fall into a stock pattern: her lines are delivered with a breathless intensity with her hands are clasped across her chest. Aside from a few brief scenes where Joan questions why her voices have fallen silent, there are very few moments where either Bergman or the film seek to delve down into the motivations and inspirations of Joan. Like the film, her performance is bereft of any wit or warmth – instead it is almost devotional in its careful respect.

It’s part of the film’s seriousness. It makes some excellent points on the lasting impact of Joan, the horrific unfairness of her trial and the fact that, by burning her, the English merely cemented her hold on the French people rather than ending it. But too many other issues are pushed to the wayside, along with Joan’s character and motivations. No questions are raised around Joan’s interpretation of her visions. The conflict between faith and war is unexplored. The film sets its store out clearly: this is a devotional work and we should take it as that, and any questions around faith, legitimacy or what drove a fanatical teenager to embrace a life of military campaigning goes unexplored. In truth, we know as little about Joan at the end as we did at the beginning.

Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its plusses. As a piece of devotional film-making, it has a lovely score from Hugo Friedhofer, with just the right uses of heavenly choirs singing through the most devout sections. The design of the film is beautifully done, heavily inspired by medieval manuscripts, with the same striking primary colours and framing. It has in fact a beautifully old-fashioned look to it, a wonderfully designed artificiality. The siege of Orleans is a dramatically staged sequence, with a particularly striking orange-drenched sky. Visually you can imagine this as an incredibly stuffed-shirt Adventures of Robin Hood, but still glorious to look at.

Bergman is also wisely surrounded by a strong cast of character actors, all providing the sort of colour and corruption that Bergman’s stiffly written Joan can’t provide. José Ferrer landed an Oscar nomination for his film debut as the ambitious, weak-willed and envious Dauphin, more interested in realpolitik than doing the right thing. Francis L Sullivan connives and blusters wonderfully as corrupt Bishop Cauchon, fixing the trial. George Coulouris gives his usual hurried authority to de Baudricourt, while Cecil Kellaway inverts his Irish kindness as Joan’s Inquisitor. Off-the-wall casting choices like Ward Bond as a French captain surprisingly tend to pay-off. Shepperd Strudwick makes the biggest impression though as Joan’s sympathetic bailiff (he also speaks the prologue).

The overall film though is one more for history buffs than for movie goers. With its seriousness, odd pace (some events take forever, while others – such as Joan’s capture – either rush past in seconds of happen off-screen) and general lack of any humour or warmth, it’s not always an engrossing watch. Well-made as it is, it’s also directed with a certain flat professionalism rather than inspiration and Bergman seems constricted by the script and the part. A curiosity, but not a complete success.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles changes film history as Citizen Kane

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotton (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Ruth Warwick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Ray Collins (Jim W Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter), Everett Sloane (Mr Bernstein), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Paul Stewart (Raymond), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Fortunio Bonanova (Signor Matiste), Harry Shannon (Kane’s father)

Writing about Citizen Kane is rather like writing about the Mona Lisa. Both are works of art so famous and influential that you are intimately familiar with them even if you’ve never seen them. But what makes them such constant delights is that, leaving everything else aside, the Mona Lisa is beautiful to look at – and Citizen Kane is hugely enjoyable to watch. Welles’ masterpiece – frequently hailed as the greatest film ever made – is about as close to perfection as you can get.

Entire books have been written about seemingly every aspect of the film’s creation. Welles’ original intention was to call the film American. It’s a fitting title. Citizen Kane is perhaps the finest film ever made on the corruption that ambition, money and power bring to the American spirit. Kane starts out as a pioneering idealist, but his fatal flaw his is need for power. That need to seize control of everything extends from buying all the art he can find in Europe to controlling the lives of all around him. It’s the mentality that will force his second wife into an opera career she is hopelessly unsuited for. It will eventually leave him sitting alone in his huge mansion, surrounded by wealth but bereft of friends. A large part of the American Dream is about “making it big” – and few make it bigger than Kane, and have so little to show for it at the end.

The film is a character study of ambition and power, using a framing device of the late Kane’s final word: “Rosebud”. What did he mean? Will finding out provide the key to understanding this powerful, elliptical man? A reporter (William Alland) aims to find out by interviewing key people from Kane’s life. From their recollections, the story of Kane’s life slowly comes together in a non-linear style. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as a young child inherits one of the world’s largest gold mines. Coming of age, Kane decides to use his wealth to become a press baron. He builds a news empire and runs for Governor – but the public revelation of his affair with amateur singer Susan (Dorothy Comingore) ruins his campaign. He builds a mansion on a man-made mountain, Xanadu, but is isolated and friendless in the echoing rooms of his own mausoleum.

You can argue the same thing happened to Welles himself. Citizen Kane is his own mausoleum, the only time in his life when everything went right. Also, probably the only time Welles’ attention stuck to something long enough to deliver. Welles memorably called working on a film set “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had”, and the entire film is saturated in his creative glee at trying so many new tricks. Citizen Kane bought to the forefront so many methods of film-making, its influence has been so pervasive on film today, that it’s hard to see how revolutionary it appeared at the time.

Welles worked with cameraman Gregg Toland to push the film into a whole new visual language, deeply influenced by German expressionistic film. It’s a beautiful film to look at, and each shot is covered with meaning, Welles’ eye for the theatrical image matched with Toland’s genius for visual language.

Citizen Kane is rarely thought of as a noir film, but it’s possibly the most noirish film you’ll ever see. Watching it again I was struck with how often shadows dominate the screen. Faces are frequently obscured, most famously in the projection room scene, where Thompson receives his instructions to find out what “Rosebud” means. But at key moments, faces disappear into black – while preparing his “Statement of principles” that will fill the front page of Kane’s first edition at the Inquirer, his face is lost in murky darkness. We hear what he is saying, but what is he thinking at this moment? It’s impossible to tell. Long shadows and inky black segments fill the frame frequently – it’s a film that gives a true feeling of darkness and unknowability at its heart.

This is mixed with the theatrical flourish of its constant deep focus. Almost unheard of at the time, every shot of Kane is in perfect focus. It makes for visual compositions inspired by theatre, and ripe with dramatic meaning. Kane’s parents and his guardian William Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) organise the future of the young Kane in the foreground, while we see the child playing outside in the show through a window. The deep focus turns Xanadu into a museum of lost chances and dreams, and the Inquirer newspaper office into an increasingly dark corridor of ambition, with people’s fates decided in foreground while we see them trapped in the background.

If that wasn’t enough, Toland uses angles Hollywood films hadn’t dreamed of. For some scenes, trenches were dug into the set and the camera placed in it, allowing the camera to stare up, with the actors towering over us. Citizen Kane is often claimed to be the first film where ceilings needed to build for the sets, as Toland’s angles and camerawork frequently made them visible. It’s not completely true, but it speaks to the visual impact of the film. Nothing really like this had been widely seen before. And I’ve not even mentioned the soaring, swooping tracking shots that pass through signs and buildings, the sort of inspired movement of the camera so many directors before had avoided in favour of stationary recording of the story. It’s visionary stuff.

The same was true for the film’s sound and music. Welles used his experience from radio to turn the soundscape of the film into something truly different. In radio, all cuts are managed by sound, but film had traditionally used only visuals to mark edits. Here, sound is used as often as visuals. When Kane runs for Governor, the sound and vision cut seamlessly from Leland on the stump for Kane to Kane finishing the same speech at a cavernous rally. Early in the film, the words “Happy Christmas” are skilfully cut together to leap forward years. Bernard Herrmann’s spare but perfect score, rather than laid over every scene, only comes in (as on radio) where emotional or transitional change is needed.

But then this is a film that uses editing as a way to tell story that few films before had tried. The sequence showing the collapse of Kane’s marriage to President’s niece Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick) is the perfect example. Over about two minutes of screen time we see several short scenes, all set at the breakfast table. Each scene shows a progressive step in their relationship collapsing, from loving exasperation to annoyance to anger to mute loathing. The scenes are no more than 20-30 seconds each, but the film perfectly moves from one to the other. The music slowly changes from a romantic waltz to a cold discordant rhythm. Transitions are marked by wipes. In each scene the actors move further apart at their breakfast table, the dialogue becomes harsher, sharper and more confrontational as the room they sit in becomes grander. In a few moments, an entire marriage story is told. It’s quite simply marvellous. The sequence is bookended by matching camera movements, gliding in and then out from the room.

You could speak for pages and pages (as indeed people have) about what a marvel Kane is. Welles’ vision and willingness to push the boundaries created an environment where all his collaborators worked to achieve their best, set free from the restrictions of more traditional moviemaking to stretch themselves as artists in a way rarely allowed. But it’s easy to forget what a marvellous story Citizen Kane is, what an entertaining and brilliantly constructed film it is and how every scene has something that delights and enthrals.

There’s controversy over who wrote the script. Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz are credited – although arguments have been made that each deserved the lion’s share. Whoever did create it, the script is quite simply superb. Economic, but packed with wonderful lines and some extraordinary speeches (Mr Bernstein’s speech about a powerful memory of a young woman he saw once from a distance is quite simply one of the best small-scale speeches you’ll see). Every scene is brilliantly assembled, and gives fabulous material to an extraordinary cast of actors.

It makes for a compelling character study, wrapped into a series of brilliantly done vignettes. Each set of recollections – from Thatcher, business manager Mr Bernstein (Everett Sloane), old friend Jedidah (Joseph Cotton) and ex-wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) – makes for a fabulous series of self-contained scenes, each gaining richer and deeper meaning with every subsequent reflection that follows. There are so many sensational scenes I hardly know where to begin: you could write an essay about each one. Thatcher’s serio-comic reflections of the roguishly cheeky Kane are wonderful. Bernstein’s memories of the chancer coming good – with a brilliantly playful celebration scene – wonderfully entertaining. Jedidah and Susan’s far more tainted reflections of the man’s flaws make for wonderfully constructed drama, presenting a corrupted and bullying Kane. In every scene there is a beautiful moment of dialogue or drama which sticks in the memory.

The acting is equally good. Cotton settles into the groove many of his finest roles would fit into – the never-quite-grew-up schoolboy, who slowly realises his hero has feet of clay. Comingore is wonderfully fragile and then increasingly bitter as Kane’s ill-used second wife, forced into a humiliating career because Kane won’t be married to a failure. Sloane is charmingly loyal, with beautiful moments of profound sadness, as Bernstein. Coulouris is brilliantly funny as the exasperated Thatcher. Ray Collins’ is smooth and unabashed as Kane’s political rival. Agnes Moorehead is tinged with sadness and ambition for her son as Kane‘s mother.

But at the heart of Citizen Kane – in every sense – is Welles. His handpicked crew was some of the best in the business – but it was Welles’ inspiration, his willingness to imagine techniques and approaches un-attempted before, that encouraged them to their finest work here. With the magnetic force of personality that was his hallmark, he inspired everyone to give their very best. And he led from the front. The film is a triumph of drama, tragedy and comedy, directed with sublime grace. Welles the actor is perfectly cast, the part almost a riff on his own cult of personality, the mix of pride and overweening ambition and little-boy cheek crossed with self-destructive laziness. Welles’ performance is faultless in the film, taking Kane from the smirking chap happy to lose a million dollars a year (“at the rate of a million dollars a year I’ll need to close this place…in 60 years”) to the bloated old man, trashing his wife’s room after she walks out. Perfect.

The only tragic note about Citizen Kane is that this wasn’t the first in a career of non-stop genius from Welles. Instead, flaws in his own personality, combined with his ability to make enemies and lack of ability to focus on the task in hand, increasingly consumed Welles, making him eventually a lost great, a man wandering from film set to film set, taking on small roles for cheques that might one day help him make a film. But he’ll always have Kane, the sort of film that is a marvel which can never, ever disappoint. With every scene a classic, every moment compelling, every beat in it perfectly judged, its influence stretching to almost every film made since the late 1940s – it deserves its place as the greatest film of all time.