Tag: Orson Welles

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.

Waterloo (1970)

Rod Steiger chews the scenery as Napoleon in this epic restaging of Waterloo

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Cast: Rod Steiger (Napoleon Bonaparte), Christopher Plummer (Duke of Wellington), Orson Welles (Louis XVIII), Jack Hawkins (Lt-General Thomas Picton), Virginia McKenna (Duchess of Richmond), Dan O’Herlihy (Marshal Michel Ney), Rupert Davies (Colonel Gordon), Philippe Forquet (Brigadier-General Bédoyère), Ian Ogilvy (Colonel De Lancey)

In 1970 there was no CGI. Want to stage a battle scene? Well you’re going to have to use real people, rather than populating your screen with pixel soldiers. I’ve always had a fondness for epic films of this era, where you look at the screen and know everything is real. And one of the best examples of this battle-heavy genre is this 1970’s chronicle of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Because in 1970 the only way to recapture the battle on camera was effectively to re-fight it with a cast of tens of thousands of extras and horses, across a film set the size of the original battlefield. Can you imagine anyone attempting that today?

An international co-production, the film throws together an eccentric hodgepodge of actors. No more than you would expect of a film co-financed by Italy and the Soviet Union, shot in English, directed by a Ukrainian (with a team of four translators) with a lead actor from New York and the cast stuffed with dubbed actors from across Europe. In fact the slight air of Euro-tackiness about the film is one of the things I sort of love about it.

Rod Steiger as Napoleon delivers the sort of OTT performance he loved to give, capturing the self-aggrandising, larger-than-life nature of the Emperor while frequently chewing the scenery and oscillating between whispers and shouting. It’s perhaps no more than you would expect when playing a man whose entire life was a stage-managed performance of dangerous charisma. It does though make a nice contrast with Christopher Plummer who, perhaps aware of who he was working with, goes for an archly low-key, even wry touch, as the more austere Wellington.

The film covers the time period of Napoleon’s Hundred Days, from his arrival from Elba to the final defeat at Waterloo (with a neat prologue showing an exhausted Napoleon accepting he must abdicate and head into exile in 1814). Much of the first half hour is a showpiece for Steiger’s bombastic Napoleon. Few other characters get a look in (Welles cashes another of his cheques for one-scene cameos, as a bloated Louis XVIII fleeing into exile). To be honest, much of the first half of the film is a slightly stodgy (more-or-less) faithful trot through historical events leading to the battle.

But this is really to set the table for the film’s central appeal, which is that astonishing recreation of the battle itself. Shot in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union (as their part of the deal) effectively recreated the landscape of Waterloo, bulldozing hills, planting thousands of trees, sowing fields and laying over six miles of drainage to help create the muddy fields. On top of which, the USSR threw in 17,000 troops to serve as extras (insanely impressive, even considering it’s only a fraction of the nearly 191,000 troops involved at various stages in the battle).

Marshalling all this was Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk. Used to commanding film sets like this – he had previously directed a four-part version of War and Peace, where similar number of Soviet troops had recreated Austerlitz and Borodino – Bondarchuk certainly knows how to show the money is all on screen. Aerial shots and long tracking shots take in regiments of soldiers taking up position. Cavalry charges of hundreds of horses are brilliantly shot. The French cavalry charge against the British infantry squares is stunning in its scale and size. Everywhere you look, wide-angled shots demonstrate the depth of extras, the vast scope of the battle and the huge numbers of soldiers marching across screen. If nothing else it’s a superb marshalling of resources.

Bondarchuk brings a number of stylistic flourishes from his War and Peace to the film here. Sadly many of these choices have dated badly – and even at the time, looked a little silly. Interior monologues are demonstrated with close-ups and the sound of actors whispering over the soundtrack (although Bondarchuk also mixes this up with a prowling Napoleon addressing the camera directly). The film loves crash-zooms and fast wipes – one crash zoom generates giggles as it zooms in on Napoleon as he turns fast to face the camera after particularly bad news. Bondarchuk at times drains out the noise of the battle to focus on small details, most notably in the British cavalry charge. It gives moments of the film an odd dreamy film, particularly striking because most of it is so baked in realism.

To be honest the film is workmanlike, rather than inspired, with all the focus on marshalling the thousands of extras. There are moments of character for both Napoleon and Wellington – flashes of doubt, insecurity, fear are mixed in with supreme confidence. The film also hits a neat line in the horrors of war. The camera tracks along the mangled bodies after the battle, while at the peak of the clash a British soldier has a mental collapse, breaking from his square to bemoan “Why are we killing each other?” Not exactly subtle, but it works.

But the film’s main appeal is that scope – and its breath taking. The film itself is more to look at than think about, but with the detail of its recreation of the battle makes it a must for any Napoleonic history buff. Peter Jackson has said his own cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings were inspired by this film – the difference being Jackson’s horses were CGI, while Bondarchuk literally charged hundreds of horses direct at the camera. And you won’t see scope like that anywhere else.

And that’s partly because the film was a bomb, putting an end to such huge scale films as this and also leading to Stanley Kubrick’s plans for a Napoleon biopic being cancelled. Perhaps the worst part of its legacy.

The Vikings (1958)

Kirk Douglas has a whale of a time as one of The Vikings

Director: Richard Fleischer

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Einar), Tony Curtiz (Eric), Ernest Borgnine (Ragnar Lodbrok), Janet Leigh (Morgana), James Donald (Egbert), Alexander Knox (Father Godwin), Maxine Audley (Enid), Frank Thring (Aella of Northumbria), Eileen Way (Kitala), Dandy Nichols (Bridget), Edric Conner (Sandpiper), Orson Welles (Narrator)

There’s a big market for stories about Vikings. Perhaps there is something attractive in our more staid world for a “noble savage” culture, with warriors romantically travelling far and wide. Perhaps a race of brave warriors just seems rather cool. Either way, despite their reputation for ravishing and raiding, Vikings often get a decent deal from films, usually positioned as a race of anti-heroes. That’s definitely what we get from Richard Fleischer’s enjoyable swashbuckler, which has a nodding acquaintance with history.

After the King of Northumbria is killed by fearsome Viking Ragnar Lodbrok (Ernest Borgnine), his queen is raped by Ragnar. Northumbria name a new King, the corrupt Aella (Frank Thring), while the queen sends her baby son (who she knows is Ragnar’s son) to Italy for his protection. Jump forward twenty odd years and, wouldn’t you know it, that young boy turns up as Eric (Tony Curtis) a slave of Ragnar’s, loathed by his unknown half-brother Einar (Kirk Doouglas), Ragnar’s son. The only person who knows who Eric is, is exiled Northumbrian load Egbert (James Donald). Things get even more complex when Aella’s intended Morgana (Janet Leigh) is kidnapped in a raid, and both Eric and Einar fall in love with her….

The Vikings is a great deal of fun, its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek. The plot veers from scene-to-scene from being too dense (various complexities around the rightful king of Northumbria get so confusing the film eventually abandons them) too being shunted off to the sides in favour of the action. But then it’s more about broad, brightly coloured action (very handsomely filmed by Jack Cardiff) with its stars having a good time fighting and shouting.

It’s interesting watching the film as almost a dry run for Spartacus, where Douglas and Curtis would re-unite. Here the film revolves around a rivalry between the two that turns into an alliance of mutual self-interest. Douglas clearly has a whale of a time playing a semi-baddie with depth, his Einar a typical “Viking’s Viking” who drinks hard, fights hard and wants a life of adventure on the high seas. But he’s also got a strange sense of nobility about home and – even though he makes a half-hearted attempt to rape her – he seems to fall genuinely in love with Morgana. Even his eventual comeuppance comes from a moment of decency. It makes for a villain more complex than normal, while Douglas roars through the movie.

Curtis is left with the duller part as the noble son-of-a-king. Looking rather too pampered for a life of serfdom, Curtis feels like a slightly too modern, New Yorkish presence for period pieces (Spartacus would use his pampered prissiness to better effect) but he charges into the sword swinging, high romance of the story with relish, while also shining during Eric’s several moments of brave principle. Morgana, very well played by his real-life wife Janet Leigh, sees a character who could have been a victimised love-interest turn into an independent and strong-minded woman, brave enough to take a stand on the things she believes in.

But the film’s real interest is in the world of the Vikings. There has been some very impressive historical research into their culture and shipping, while the battles and scenes of drunken merriment are well staged and carry a lot of boozy buzz. Most of the cast enter into relish, following Douglas and Ernest Borgnine’s lead (Borgnine, playing Douglas’ father, was at best a few months older) with plenty of shouting, ale swallowing and axe throwing. While the film’s score makes a number of odd choices – this really needed a Goldsmith or Morricone rather than the odd mix we get here – Fleischer’s direction is crisp and adept and keeps things charging forward.

The politics at the Northumbrian court gets a bit forgotten about, with Alan Thring turning Aella into a sneering, unprincipled villain who barely gets much of a look-in. However, the savage punishments that Aella meets out to his rivals – and his ruthless condemnation of anyone seen as being against him – makes a neat contrast with the Vikings who, for all their blood-curdling violence, do at least have some sort of nominal sense of justice and some willingness to compromise.

But the film’s heart is in the action. Douglas, acting as producer, jumped at the chance to take on as many of the stunts as possible – including famously walking across the oars of a Viking longboat while it is at sea (he nearly falls in twice, but it has the sort of excitement of seeing the star doing something for real that you still get with Tom Cruise). He and Curtis eagerly take part in assorted sword battles, while balancing a love/hate relationship (well probably mostly hate) that keeps the film powering forward. All in it makes for some really enjoyable B-movie shenanigans.

Moby Dick (1956)

Gregory Peck on a voyage of obsession as Ahab hunting Moby Dick

Director: John Huston

Cast: Gregory Peck (Captain Ahab), Richard Basehart (Ishmael), Leo Genn (Starbuck), Orson Welles (Father Mapple), Friedrich von Ledebur (Queequeg), James Robertson Justice (Captain Boomer), Harry Andrews (Stubb), Bernard Miles (The Manxman), Noel Purcell (Carpennter), Edric Connor (Daggoo), Meryn Johns (Pelog), Joseph Tomelty (Peter Coffin), Francis de Wolff (Captain Gardiner)

There might be fewer books that lend themselves less to being turned into a film than Herman Melville’s monumental Moby Dick. Perhaps the greatest of all American novels, its’ the story of New England whaler the Pequod’s Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to kill Moby Dick, the great white whale that took his leg. But it’s also an intense intellectual and spiritual journey into the nature of humanity, which has thrown the book open to multiple interpretations, even more tempting with a book that defies explanation. Try capturing that on film.

John Huston’s Moby Dick is a noble attempt, more criticised at the time than it probably deserves, with the visual language of film unable to ever capture the metaphorical weight of the original novel. What Huston needed to do is to try and capture some of the spirit of the novel, bring its central story to life and make a film that ideally makes you want to search the book out. I would say Moby Dick succeeds on that score.

Reducing the monumental novel (often described as one of the great “unread” books in people’s homes) to under two hours, brings out the narrative, stressing the surface story as an adventure on the high seas, a doomed quest under an obsessive captain. The detail of the reconstruction of the whaling ship, its operations on the sea (including some graphic slaughter of some, fortunately, fake whales) and the atmosphere of the time is brilliantly reconstructed. The film is staffed by an extraordinary collection of actors, whose faces speak of lives led in salt-spray. 

So, starting with the idea that no film could ever capture the depth and richness of the book, Moby Dick is a decent, smart enough attempt. The key themes are there in strength. It captures obsession and the idea of the ship being a sort of microcosm of society, led astray by a leader who has his own passions at heart, over and above the well-being of the crew, but has enough magnetism to pull the crew with him nevertheless. 

Huston laboured long and hard to bring the film to life, in a wrestle with Melville. Even adapter Ray Bradbury claimed he had “never been able to read the damn thing”, with Huston and Bradbury clashing constantly during the writing process. It works, and Bradbury’s adaptation is beautifully done, but in a way John Huston himself was a sort of Ahab with the book as his whale. 

In fact you could argue – as many have – that Huston himself was the natural casting for Ahab (take a look at Chinatown to see what I mean). A charismatic raconteur, ruthless and fixated on his goals, that’s an Ahab we could buy into. Perhaps in that world, Orson Welles – here giving a neat little cameo that avoids bombast as Father Mapple – would have been the perfect director, marrying mastery of cinema with a wonderful understanding of transforming literature into film.

Gregory Peck is the Ahab we do get. At the time the casting was strongly criticised – people just couldn’t buy the straight-as-an-arrow Peck as the destructively bullying Ahab. Peck himself remained strongly critical of his performance here all his life. Separated from the time, Peck’s performance is stronger than you anticipate, capturing a gruff fixation and magnetic charisma that you can believe pulls people in. Peck may strain a little too hard for the elemental anger, but Peck’s Ahab has a bass richness, a sort of inverted Lincolnish (he even looks a little like Lincoln) self-righteousness that makes you believe he could rouse a ship to choose its own destruction. Peck also brings a spiritually dead look to Ahab, a man turned from hope to destruction. Huston teasingly keeps Ahab in reserve for almost a quarter of the film until his first appearance, allowing the build in the audience’s expectations.

The casting of the crew uses a fine selection of British and Irish actors (the film was shot in Ireland), with Harry Andrews particularly strong as jolly but non boat-rocking first mate Stubb. Leo Genn gets the meatiest material as Starbuck, a decent, working man with a firm sense of principle but who lacks any sense of the charisma needed to swing people to his point of view. The film bumps up Starbuck’s role, centralising his growing unease at Ahab’s madness, opportunities which Genn (nearly underplaying to contrast with Peck’s theatricality) works a treat. Richard Basehart – a good voice for narration but much less of a presence – gets a bit lost as Ishmael. There is an intriguing bit of casting – something that would never happen today – that sees Austrian aristocrat turned actor Friedrich von Ledebur play the Maori-inspired Queequeg, a visual disconnect that is more than a little distracting for a while.

Moby Dick is beautifully filmed and assembled, even if Huston throws in the odd obvious shot – sun beating down on the ship, a close up of the whale’s eye. It has a unique look – on the remastered blu-ray – with the image reflecting the faded, bleached look of whale prints (an effect achieved by superimposing a black-and-white negative over a colour one, draining most of the colours our), which gives it a great deal of visual interest. It’s never going to replace the book – but honestly what could? As an exploration of the ideas at its heart it’s wonderful – and a great prompt to pick it up – but with a marvellous sense of life on sea, a stirring score and a wonderful sense of intelligent construction it more than works.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Tim Holt can’t understand how the world is changing in The Magnificent Ambersons

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Joseph Cotton (Eugene Morgan), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Tim Holt (George Amberson Minafer), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Erskine Sanford (Roger Bronson), Richard Bennett (Major Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafor), Orson Welles (Narrator)

In early 1940s, Orson Welles was given the sort of contract by RKO directors normally only dream of. The freedom to write, direct and star in films of his choice and, most of all, the power of “Final Cut” – the dream of all his contemporaries. All this for a 25-year-old who had never made a film. It was unheard of – and it was never heard of again. The reaction to Citizen Kane had been full of praise from the critics but that hadn’t saved it from box office disappointment – nor the savages of the Hearst press or the jealousy of his peers. The chickens would well and truly come home to roost on The Magnificent Ambersons, the second picture in Welles’ deal.

The film itself is an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel. The Ambersons are a powerful and rich Midwestern family at the turn of the century – but the film charts their decline and fall as the modern age (represented by the motor car) slowly leads their world of genteel wealth and entitlement to a close. It’s a particularly challenging concept for the youngest member of the clan, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) to come to term with, the spoilt young son of Isabel (Dolores Costello), who has grown up expecting his every whim to be met without question. His hostility focuses on Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), his mother’s rejected suitor (now renewing his interest with her widowhood) and inventor who has patented a new form of motorcar. Things are complicated by George’s own love for Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), a young woman who expects George to want more from life than just to live off his family’s wealth.

It’s impossible to discuss The Magnificent Ambersons without mentioning its status as perhaps the greatest “lost film” ever. Welles’ original cut of the film was a little over two hours long. He completed the cut and then flew to Brazil to begin collecting footage for his next project, It’s All True a part-documentary, part-fiction film (which in the end was abandoned). While he was out of the country, the film was roundly rubbished at a test screening. RKO panicked and demanded cuts. Welles had foolishly surrounded his right to final cut for the film and sent back a list of suggested changes (some have argued the list was deliberately bad to force the studio to make no changes), but refused to fly back to supervise things. 

So his editor Robert Wise (later a two-time Academy award winning director) cut the film down to just over an hour and twenty minutes. Cotton and Moorehead were corralled into filming some new scenes to hurriedly wrap the story up and give it the studio mandated “happy ending”. Welles wasn’t happy, but still wouldn’t come back to fight his corner. His notes were destroyed and eventually the remaining negative of the deleted scenes were burnt. So the truncated shadow is all we have.

I call it a shadow, because that is what the film feels like – an afterimage of a true masterpiece, like a dream you can almost completely remember. In some ways it’s an even more confident and controlled piece of film-making than Kane, a wonderfully assured and graceful piece of film-making that mixes luscious long-takes with a triumph of techniques and little details (both of performance and technical work). Welles captures this all within a triumphantly impressive set, an elephantine house of at least three stories with a winding grand staircase, that allows him to film from different, heights and angles as well as indulge a series of graceful tracking shots that all proceed and accompany the actors through the house.

Welles matches this with a storyline that captures a sense of a country in a state of change – a tipping point of modern America as the Henry Jamesian Old Americans, with their wealth and inherited English-class system, gave way to industrialist new money. These two worlds sit awkwardly against each other, constantly compared and contrasted – Eugene’s car factory is a noisy, piston filled Ford-ist church, a world away from the formal gentility of the Amberson home. 

Welles also captures this in a series of wonderful vignettes, not least an early scene featuring Morgan driving Isabel and her siblings through the snow bound countryside in his prototype motor car, at first passed by an arrogant George with Lucy in a horse and sleigh, then having to bail George out when the sleigh turns leaving him and Lucy stranded. George is reduced to pushing the car to getting it started – getting a face full of fumes for good measure – a humiliation that hardens his stance against the modern world (and Eugene) all the more.

Because for George – superbly played with a fragile ego and utter lack of self-awareness by a preeningly weak Tim Holt – the world has a certain order that places Ambersons at the top and the rest of the world at various levels on the way down. And anything that might threaten to change that is rejected at all costs. George expects the world to march to his tune without him putting in the faintest effort – and when it doesn’t, his whole life is a desperate raging of petty attempts to assert his control.

This focuses above all on exerting a bullying moral force on his mother, a woman who loves her son but also wants to explore the romantic feelings she has for Eugene (and by extension her understanding that the world is changing). George makes this choice stark – him or Eugene – a choice no mother can be expected to make. Dolores Costello is superb as a woman who has spent her life shutting her eyes to her son’s selfish nature until it’s too late to change, who sacrifices her own desires for the good of her family.

The whole film is a feast of sublime acting, a reminder of how Welles could get the best out of actors (all regular collaborators of his). Joseph Cotton’s earnestness is perfect for the upright and decent Eugene, too proud to let his resentment and anger show. Ray Collins is wonderfully sweet and endearing as Jack, George’s generous and open-minded uncle. Anne Baxter has a radiant honesty that hides a determined spine of moral certainty as Eugene’s daughter Lucy. Perhaps finest of all is Agnes Moorehead (Oscar nominated) as Aunt Fanny, George’s spinster aunt, who has worn a mask of contentment over her own frustrations and resentments for so long she only slowly begins to work out what she actually feels about anything at all. Moorehead’s performance walks a brilliant line between careful underplaying and explosive dynamics – she has at least three striking emotional breakdown scenes of such brittle honesty that it’s enough to move you to tears.

All of this comes together into a superb package of sublime film-making and intelligent story telling. The problem is it’s too short. The later scenes really bear the brunt, with Wise’s cutting trimming much of the connecting meat between the key scenes. Events towards the end seem to happen with no build up – characters suddenly die, fortunes are swiftly lost, years disappear from one scene to the next. As the film accelerates through its final half hour, narratively it begins to make less and less sense. Then the studio caps on a functionally filmed happy ending (Wise does at least ape Welles’ tracking shot techniques – he was a very capable director) which rings utterly untrue with the sadly elegiac story we’ve been watching (superbly narrated by the way by Welles).

It makes The Magnificent Ambersons a wonderful, incomplete masterpiece. It’s the filmic equivalent to those parts cut off from The Night Watch or Ucello’s Battle of San Romano. What we are left with is still awe inspiring. But it could have been even more.

The Third Man (1949)

Orson Welles is the dark heart of The Third Man

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Joseph Cotton (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Major Calloway), Paul Hörbiger (Karl the porter), Ernst Deustch (“Baron” Kurtz), Erich Ponto (Dr Winkel), Siegried Breuer (Anna), Bernard Lee (Sergeant Paine),Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin)

It’s regularly held up as one of the cornerstones of classic 1940s film-making – and it has frequently won polls of the Greatest British Films of all time. Does The Third Man live up to expectations? No it excels them. I doubt there has been a film more perfectly assembled than this, one where all the component parts click together to make one perfect whole. No matter how many times you see The Third Man, it weaves its spell every time.

In immediate post-war Vienna, the city is divided into four zones, each run by a different great power (the UK, US, France and USSR). The black market is rife between the zones. Into this city arrives pulp Western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), here to visit his old school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – only to find on arriving that Lime died in a traffic accident, with British policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) insisting that he was a black marketeer. Holly can’t believe Harry was a crook, and decides to investigate himself – on the way falling in love with Harry’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and finding that nobody’s story on what happened to Harry matches up. Could the accident actually be a murder?

Carol Reed’s atmospheric film is beautifully, perhaps flawlessly directed – so well made that for years there were fevered efforts to assign its brilliance to Welles himself. Which was studiously unfair to Reed, a director at the top of his game in the 40s.  The Third Man was the crowning glory of a run of superbly stylish thrillers that matched thought provoking themes with striking film-making. The film is soaked in the atmosphere of post-war Vienna, a city half shelled out of existence. The film was shot on location, and Reed’s camera captures the “bombed about a bit” shambles of the city, its long shadows, cobbled streets and mysterious alleys.

The Third Man’s filming style also plays into this truly distinctive look. Working with (Oscar-winning) cinematographer Robert Krasker, the film is shot with a luscious almost German impressionistic style, with murky shadows and noirish lighting. Reed uses huge numbers of Dutch Angles to constantly present both this shattered city, and it mysterious story, from disconcerting angles. This visually represents the uncertainty and mystery that drip from every scene, making Vienna look like some sort of sinking ship, disappearing into a mire of crime and guilt. Reed’s camera fills the edges of the frames with tramps, beggars, the dispossessed and the plain scared – a brilliant snapshot of post-war Europe unsure about the future and ripe for exploitation.

The film looks simply stunning, with Reed’s visuals throwing up images that have stuck in film heritage, from fingers poking through a sewer grill, to the iconic entrance of Harry Lime itself (possibly the most famous entry ever). Shadows loom with gigantic proportions over the streets. A final sewer chase seems to take place in a nightmare world of water, false turns and foreboding architecture. And that final shot! Sublime cinema, the stillest shot in the film, and also a superb capturing of the film’s themes of loyalty, duty and betrayal.

The film was scripted by Graham Greene, and occupies a wonderful corner of Greene-land. His original concept was for Holly (or Rollo in the original script) and Harry to be British public schoolboys – a plan rejected when Hollywood co-funding came to call – but it did allow Holly to be transformed into a naïve American, lost in the cold realities of post-war Europe. Holly believes in the world of black and white, and writes stories where good triumphs over evil in the Wild West. He’s adrift in a Europe where everyone lies habitually, morality is flexible, and nothing is as it seems.

Holly is bound by old chains of loyalty to Harry – but how far does that loyalty stretch? What price personal loyalty when confronted with the impact of what a person has done? Joseph Cotton’s performance is pitch perfect, a middle-ranker who has orbited his whole life around brighter stars like Harry. How one-way was the relationship? Can Holly ever think for himself? 

And is the right thing to do to walk away or try and correct the wrongs done by another?This divide is shown in the relationship between Cotton’s Holly and Alidi Valli’s sensational turn as Harry’s ex-girlfriend. A woman who has seen the harshness of the world, and been through a war-torn life that Holly would struggle to even comprehend, she’s a woman to whom personal loyalty trumps all things. Should you be loyal to the man you know, your experience of him – or do you have a higher loyalty that trumps that? Anna is firmly of the belief that she knows all that she needs to know of Harry and she needs to learn no more. It’s the sort of European post-war compromise that Holly can’t adapt to, the ideas of morality becoming mired in shades of grey.

It’s a world he struggles to adapt to, but is a cold hard reality for Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway – a superb performance of cool reserve that hides a strong sense of justice. Howard’s wry half-smile and control is perfect for the film, and his disgust at the actions of black marketeers is subtly and brilliantly conveyed by both the actor and Reed’s restrained direction – a visit to a children’s ward full of victims of Lime’s penicillin, is notable for leaving everything to our imagination and communicating another loss by showing a Teddy bear being dropped into a box.

And the cause of all this suffering? Why it’s none other than Harry Lime himself. No film ever captured Orson Welles’ impish charm as well as this, his shy grin and air of an enfant terrible turned terrible are brilliantly captured in the boyishly young but demonic Harry. A Mephistopheles placed on earth to tempt men like Holly, Lime argues what do a few people (or dots) here and there really matter in the long run? After all governments sacrifice them all the time – look at Vienna! – why shouldn’t we? What’s the problem? Lime grins and casually outlines a demonic view of the world, casually uses a cheap historical justification or two, and then saunters off never suspecting that he could lose the argument. Like Welles himself, he has all the glamour and magnetism that we could never have, and to live a few moments in his shadow, as Holly and Anna do, is to live a lifetime.

So Holly has to make a choice – the friend he knew, or the strangers he has seen harmed. The film charts the slow passage to making this hard choice, presenting us with a man who refuses to believe his friend could be anything other than the victim of persecution, to the man who is destined to turn him in. With the framework of Carol Reed’s superb filmmaking, it’s still an absolute treat.

And finally, The Third Man is blessed with perhaps the most perfect film score of all time. Recorded by Anton Karas – literally discovered playing the zither on the streets of Vienna – the score is jaunty, lyrical, schoolboyish even but can switch subtly to something quite disconcerting. It perfectly captures the schoolboy bravado of Holly and the childish lack of morals of Lime. As a match with the bombed out Vienna and its rundown, cynical citizens, it’s perfect. Like all things with The Third Man, it just works better than you could ever have hoped.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in hall of mirror mystery The Lady from Shanghai

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Erskine Schilling (“Goldie” Goldfish), Carl Frank (DA Galloway)

Orson Welles’ career is littered with coulda, woulda, shoulda moments. The Lady from Shanghai is perhaps the most telling lost opportunity in all his extensive CV of recut products and studio interference. Unlike Touch of Evil, there remains no trace of the footage removed from the film by the studio – instead we are left with the remains of the picture that escaped rejigging.

Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is an Irish drifter, who saves the glamourous Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from muggers in a park. Attracted to him (perhaps), as he is to her, she hires him to work on a yacht she and her husband, famed lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), are sailing around the coast. During the voyage, O’Hara is approached by Bannister’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) with a deadly proposition – and is sucked into a web of cross and double cross.

The Lady from Shanghai is an odd curiosity. At the time it was condemned by critics as a scarcely coherent film noir, struggling to involve the audience in its ins and outs. Today it’s seen more as a missed opportunity classic, which Welles nearly managed to turn into a landmark film before the studio heads recut the entire thing over his head. The reality is probably somewhere in between.

Welles agreed to do the movie for nothing, in return for funding for his stage production of a Cole Porter musical based on Around the World in 80 Days. Stories change depend on who you talk to, but essentially Welles agreed to do the first piece of work that was chucked his way – which happened to be this moderate plot-boiler. Welles shot a lot of the film with an imaginative eye and provided several fascinating set-pieces. But was he really that interested in the film?

It’s hard to say. Certainly it makes you wonder when you look at his rather disengaged performance. Welles (unwisely) takes on an Irish accent and basically feels distracted and bored throughout – as if he felt the whole thing was beneath him. O’Hara becomes a pretty bland character whom it’s impossible to really develop an affinity for. Welles hardly looks cut out for the fighting he’s called on to do – has an actor in a good movie thrown a less convincing punches in a scuffle before?

Because the rest of the film is fairly good, by and large. The plot is almost impossible to follow, but that is partly the point – the growing number of double crosses are designed to feel like we are spiralling down a rabbit hole with O’Hara. But it’s the style it’s told with – brash and exciting camera shots, and an edgy jaggedness in performance and storytelling that alternates with a dreamy sense of unreality. Welles throws this all the wall, but somehow manages to hold it more or less together – perhaps helped by the fact that he treated it like a slightly disposable piece of pulp.

The film’s final act culminates in an extraordinary shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with characters replicated over and over again in reflection, lines of them appearing as if from nowhere. There is a quirky surrealness about this, with reflections superimposed over each other, or armies of a single character marching towards the camera. Bannister’s walking stick movement, stiff and awkward, also really helps here as he starts to look like a pack of spiders. 

Of course Welles intended this sequence to be almost twice the length, but it was cut down by a bewildered studio. They also insisted that Welles insert a parade of close-ups of characters, in particular of Rita Hayworth, which was exactly contrary to Welles’ intention to use as many distancing long and medium shots. Welles’ original plan for the score was also ditched in favour of a rather flat, dull, traditional score.

But then there are the moments of exotic, heated sex that Welles managed to leave in. As our heroes sail off into the tropics, the bubbling sexual tension between O’Hara and Elsa boils over. It bubbles over into other relationships as well – does every man desire Elsa? Or are there other elements at play? The final offers for murder and money are almost deliberately hard to follow – is it all a summertime madness? As the plot becomes more and more odd, so the film begins to become more bizarre in its setting, finally heading into Chinatown and then an abandoned funfair.

Away from Welles’ weaker turn in the lead, there are some strong performances. Everett Sloane is fantastic as the sinister lawyer, propelling himself forward with walking sticks, his motives impossible to read. Glenn Anders is wonderfully slimy as a creepy lawyer, whose every line has some sort of cackling insinuation. Rita Hayworth brings a sexual charge to the film, mixing manipulation and genuine feeling.

These performances fit neatly into the film, which continues forward with its bamboozling plot. This story never quite engages the audience – and there isn’t quite enough in the film itself that has been left us to be sure that, even with the cut material put back in, it could have been a classic. But there are enough interesting notes in there to keep you watching – and the final sequence is extraordinary and haunting in its extravagant oddness. But I’m still not sure this is a major work – rather it seems to be a curiosity from a great director.

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

Paul Scofield ways up a difficult demand from a not-so merry monarch

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Paul Scofield (Sir Thomas More), Wendy Hiller (Alice More), Robert Shaw (Henry VIII), Orson Welles (Cardinal Wolsey), Leo McKern (Thomas Cromwell), Susannah York (Margaret More), Nigel Davenport (Duke of Norfolk), John Hurt (Richard Rich), Corin Redgrave (William Roper), Colin Blakely (Matthew)

Writing these film reviews is sometimes harder when it’s a film you know so well. I was probably in my very early teens when I first saw this and I’ve seen it dozens of times since. I know all the scenes, all the beats, and I love it. This is a brilliant film, and its depth, richness and intelligence are ingrained. It’s a wonderfully written, played and directed piece that transforms a historical event from a history lesson into an endlessly relevant and affecting parable.

Paul Scofield (simply becoming the man) is Sir Thomas More. With Queen Catherine unable to bear Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) a son, wheels are in motion to ditch the Queen and marry the king to Anne Boleyn (a split second cameo from an unpaid Vanessa Redgrave, making you believe in a moment Anne could split a kingdom). More, however, can’t agree to the divorce – his faith in the Catholic church is non-negotiable, and the church won’t recognise the marriage. So while the rest of the kingdom falls in line, More is arrested and takes refuge in his complete silence – having never spoken of his reasons, he can never be tried for them.

Re-watching this masterful film for the first time in a few years on a newly released, fully restored Blu-ray, I was immediately reminded what a thoughtful, interesting and enjoyable film it is. Having read the play again, I genuinely think (and I’m not alone) Bolt’s script is superior to the original. Several changes have been made, most notably the removal of the “Common Man”, a theatrical device whereby one actor played all the smaller working class roles, while delivering a commentary on the action. It’s a very theatrical device, which Bolt believed wouldn’t work on screen, but its removal also purifies the story, tightens the focus and allows us to focus on More. The commentary on More’s conflicted character is instead provided by Paul Scofield’s superlative performance in close-up. Bolt also removed much of the political background, making the film more of a parable of conscience rather than a “history play”.

The film is a beautiful celebration of old-fashioned Hollywood film making. Fred Zinnemann is sometimes forgotten today, extremely unfairly for a man with a hugely impressive back catalogue. A Man for All Seasons was perfect for a director whose best work saw one man stand alone against a system – be that at Pearl Harbour or the Wild West. Zinnemann was an “actor’s director”, and draws out a series of impressive performances. But his often simple set-ups never feel staged.

He and John Box (production designer) understand the power of claustrophobia, of life and death conversations in small rooms – from Wolsey’s imposing red office that seems an extension of his personality, to Cromwell’s poky office and More’s cell, the sense of being trapped builds throughout the film. By contrast, the final courtroom’s spaciousness only underlines the fact that it’s a fix. Throughout the film looks wonderful and its spare score is a beautiful Tudor-style series of compositions that carry a perfect pitched of awe and doom. It’s so beautiful (and often overlooked) I’ve put a link to the opening here.

 In fact, Zinnermann constructs the film throughout with wonderful beats and telling shots. The first appearance of Henry VIII, his head obstructing the sun, More blinking looking up, is one of the best visual impressions you’ll see of the Icarus nature of the Tudor court. A beautiful cut takes us from More (in a windswept garden, a lovely commentary on the turbulence of his life) wondering if he can find a way to sign the oath, to a shot of the view from behind his prison bars – pages and pages of story told to us in one simple cut. Later, from the same position, we’ll see a whole year pass by in a few moments – simple, unfussy, very effective. The film is packed with small, subtle moments like this that never intrude by themselves, but build to create the effect of the film wonderfully.

And this is a great film, there’s no doubt about that. The story is surprisingly simple, but Bolt and Zinnermann make it feel truly universal: the man against the state, the individual standing for what he believes is right despite all the pressure bought to bear against him. It’s a timeless parable and could be applied to virtually any time or place you could name. It’s also extremely well written: nearly every other line is memorable, the speeches are extraordinary. Every moment of reflection and observation sounds (and is) universal in its application. Its straightforwardness also helps make the story very moving, and it successfully carries out the trick of telling a movie about a saint while making him a living, breathing man we can relate to.

Of course, a large part of its success is due to Paul Scofield’s performance in the lead role. Honed after years of performing the role, it’s again almost hard to talk about individually as Scofield is so central to the film; talking about its success is in many ways to talk about Scofield’s success. Scofield’s performance is one where the actor disappears and the character remains: his More is totally real. You feel throughout not only his dignity and wisdom and his sharply defined sense of private and public morality – but also his warmness, his wit, his benevolent regard for people and those around him. He’s a caring master and friend – but not a push-over; and is adamantine in his decisions. Scofield is also able to show the contradictions of the man: a private man who cannot give up the lure of the limelight. Every beat of the performance is brilliantly observed, a list of highlights would fill a book. He carries the entire film from start to finish and never lets it slip for a second.

He’s helped by some wonderful support (and it’s a testimony to his generosity as an actor that he cedes the screen several times). Robert Shaw’s Henry VIII is a scene stealing tour-de-force. It’s up there with Robert Duvall’s Kilgore as cameos that wrench control of the movie. He’s on-screen for about 12 minutes, but he perfectly captures Henry’s charisma and his childish temper and fury. He’s intelligent (but not that intelligent – I love his sulky response when he is quickly bested by Margaret More in knowledge of Latin) and friendly but not that friendly – the sort of man who literally rips flowers from a tree to show someone how beautiful they are: destruction and excitement combined in one moment. You totally believe that this is a man who could shatter a country in a fit of pique.

Wendy Hillier also deserves notice for what might be the trickiest role in the film as Lady Alice, a woman who lives happily in the shadow of her husband. Ill-educated and lacking any understanding of her husband, it’s a part that could be almost yokel like. But Hillier brings it a world of dignity and fiery defiance, and she brings a completely convincing fury to Alice as she rails against  injustice. The final scene between her and More is a masterclass from both of simple, uncomplicated love that has held two people with very little in common together for a lifetime.

There is literally not a bad performance in this film. Every actor is perfectly cast and completely understands their roles. Nigel Davenport masterfully portrays the pride and dimness that lies under Norfolk’s bluff domineering persona. John Hurt nails Rich’s weakness, selfishness and greed and layers it with a convincing note of underlying self-loathing: a star marking performance. Orson Welles seems to have prepared his whole life for the bloated, corrupt Wolsey. Leo McKern (the only other cast member from the original production) invests Cromwell with a low viciousness and a deadly political savvy that is based exclusively on realpolitik and devoid of decency. Susannah York, Corin Redgrave and Colin Blakely all also excel.

Historically, the character of More has faced far more criticism and scepticism recently. Several historians have bought attention to More’s rigid Inquisition-like Catholicism and his willingness to execute heretics; Hilary Mantel’s equally brilliant Wolf Hall was partly written as a response to Bolt’s presentations of More and Cromwell, lauding the latter at the expense of the former.

But these controversies are not what this film is about – and it’s never trying to be a history lesson. It presents its version of the story on its own terms (very little is ever leaned about the “King’s Great Matter” or the reasons for it) – instead, like The Crucible, it turns a historical event into a deeply moving and profound parable. In doing this it transcends being a simple recounting of events, and instead becomes an independent work of art. Historical accuracy is of no relevance to the audience when viewing Henry IV Part 1: it is of no matter here either, and is something the film never claims. And it’s all the better for it. Still one of my all-time favourites.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles investigates (though the real mystery is probably Charlton Heston’s Mexican heritage)

Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Police Captain Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grandi), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya), Joanna Cook Moore (Marcia Linnekar), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Mort Mills (Al Schwartz), Dennis Weaver (Night Manager)

Has any director ever cast himself in such a physically unflattering role as Welles takes on here? Hank Quinlan is a grotesque, sweaty, grossly obese, lame, mumbling copper with a hinterland of loneliness in his past and a background of missed chances. Yet despite this, it’s Quinlan’s film and despite the terrible things he does in the film (kidnap, two murders, suspect framing) it’s very hard not to feel empathy and sorrow for him. Welles’ immense charisma as a performer is a large part of this, but I think he also recognises the sadness of being the genius who has surrounded himself with mediocrities, the man who knows he could have achieved more in life but for whatever reason never did. If that’s not Welles’ career, what is?

Of course Quinlan isn’t actually the lead. Charlton Heston, curry-coloured but otherwise actually pretty good, plays Vargas, a Mexican law agent (“He don’t look like a Mexican” Quinlan correctly observes) with a new American wife, caught up in an investigation into a bombing of an American citizen in a US-Mexico border-town. Quinlan investigates, finds his culprit quickly and produces evidence – evidence Vargas knows for a fact wasn’t there minutes ago. Accusations of corruption fly and, before you know it, Quinlan (a man flirting with corruption) is forced into alliance with a jumped-up Mexican gang leader to frame Vargas for corruption via implicating his wife in drugs and murder.

The plot, however, largely takes second place to Welles’ virtuoso film-making. The opening sequence of the film – an extended three and a half minute single take that tracks in and out of streets, from close-ups to crane shots – has an astonishing “how did they do that?” quality. But it’s matched by Welles’ brilliance with both actors and camera placement during the equally long continuous takes set in bomb suspect Sanchez’s apartment. He’s adept at jinglingly unsettling imagery, with the murder scene 2/3rd of the way through the film almost queasily twitchy in its fragmented shooting style. The final sequence of the film, as Vargas tracks Quinlan through a filthy oil yard, should be silly but is completely compelling.

Welles of course dominates the film as Quinlan. I love the half smile on his face as his praises are sung by besotted partner Menzies early in the film – the “aw shucks, are you talking about me?” non-modesty – but I also adore the unspoken sadness of his early scene with Dietrich, where he sadly attempts to flirt with this (presumably) lost love (we are never told for certain) only for her to literally not recognise him. Quinlan in many ways is a good copper – he frames the guilty, he doesn’t take bribes, he is reasonably loyal – but he’s also selfish, egotistical and needs the adoration of his position to fill the void in his life. He’s a man who’s corrupt almost without realising it, who sinks into bemused maudlin depression when accused without even recognising that he is in fact guilty.

There are some other equally strong performances in the film. Heston of course looks ridiculous – but look past that and this is one of his best performances, Vargas demonstrating the stand-up, straight-shooting honesty of many of Heston’s roles, combined with arrogant short sightedness and narrow minded determination. Janet Leigh is also absolutely terrific as his wife, despite being saddled with a bizarre subplot of being terrorised in a motel. A note for trivia fans – Leigh actually broke her arm before shooting and it’s in a cast throughout the movie bar one shot (where she doesn’t move her arm) – you can’t spot it until you know.

I was particularly enthralled by a beautiful performance of hero-worship from Joseph Calleia as Menzies, Quinlan’s adoring partner whose entire life has been one of loyal service to Quinlan. In many ways he is the moral centre of the film, and as the film shifts its focus to Quinlan, so it equally explores the changes in how Menzies views his boss. Akim Tamiroff gives a lovely performance of puffed up pomposity as a ridiculous small time gangster with a dodgy wig. Dennis Weaver’s hotel manager is an eccentric collection of manners that is more likely to split opinions, but he doesn’t half go for the oddness. Marlene Dietrich is marvellous in her few brief scenes.

Touch of Evil is one of those films that lingers with you and rewards constant reflection and rewatching. I re-watched large chunks of it again immediately the next morning. As a piece of film making it’s a master class, an immersive, tightly framed, wonderfully shot film that brilliantly uses its filthy, litter strewn locations. The acting is terrific and the final moments strangely moving. Welles was a terrible self-promoter and later he ballooned to the very Quinlan proportions that padding and make-up create here. But when he was on his game, and fully focused, he was terrific. As is the film, which is surely one of the greatest (and last) film noirs ever.

CODA: The coda to this? Of course Welles wasn’t fully focused. He cut the film once, then shot off to Mexico to explore a new film possibility. Studio hands recut the film again. Welles sent a famous 58 page memo suggesting changes. Most of them got ignored for the third cut. Three versions of the film now exist – the two studio recuts and a 1998 recut using the memo (Welles’ original was wiped). I watched the 1998 recut. But it’s always the problem with Welles – a man I always felt who largely lacked the focus to actually finish something. The film bombed on release. Welles never worked in Hollywood again.