The Vikings (1958)

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What would be the worst thing for a Viking? Viking Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t know it but his worst enemy, the slave Erik (Tony Curtis), is actually his half brother and their father King Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) legitimate heir. Their feud only intensifies when Einar kidnaps Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), on her way to be the intended bride of the brutal Northumbrian King Aella (Frank Thring). Einar intends to make her his own. However Morgana has eyes only for Erik – leading to the capture of  Ragnar and a terrible final attempt to win her heart ...  Let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh. Good looking, well put together and great fun, and that’s just the cast, in this spectacular historical epic, an action adventure produced by Kirk Douglas that capitalises on his muscular masculinity opposite husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh who get to seriously smoulder for the cameras in their love scenes:  it was the third of their onscreen pairings. With some very fruity language, mistaken identity, axe-throwing, pillaging, actual bodice-ripping, walking the plank for fun, unconscious sibling rivalry, brawny sailors, death by wolf pit, romance and swashbuckling, this has everything going for it except horned helmets. It might well be about eighth or ninth century Viking lord Ragnar Lodbrok and the probably-real Northumbrian king Aella (who died 867) but it’s really about Kirk and Tony and Janet. Jack Cardiff shoots the expansive Technicolor images, and director Richard Fleischer lets every character have their moment in this fast-paced entertainment. The beautiful tapestry-style animated titles are voiced by Orson Welles and the incredible score is by (paradoxically unsung) soundtrack hero Mario Naschimbene who brings both vigour and mystery to this good-humoured story of war and violence: you will believe that those voices in the sky are coming from the heavens. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, this is one of the very best action-adventure films of all time with some great editing by Elmo Williams who also helmed the second unit and made the TV series inspired by it, Tales of the Vikings, also produced by Douglas’  Bryna Productions. Within a few short years Douglas would cement his legend as a Hollywood liberal with the cry, I am Spartacus! but for now it’s Odin!

The Birthday of Orson Welles 6th May 2019

That radical filmmaker, director, screenwriter, producer and actor Orson Welles, would have celebrated his 104th birthday today. Still making news 34 years after he left our orbit with last year’s The Other Side of the Wind, we are still awed by his achievements in radio, theatre and cinema. Happy birthday Mr Welles.

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

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You’re a fool.  What’s worse, you’re a romantic fool. When an unauthorised letter is sent to Moscow alleging the U.S. government’s willingness to help Russia attack Red China, US Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) has his commission revoked so he can do an extra-governmental espionage mission.  He’s speaks eight languages fluently and has a flawless photographic memory. He and his team are sent to retrieve the letter, going undercover and successfully reaching out to Erika (Bibi Andersson), the wife of a former agent now married to the head of Russia’s secret police, Kosnov (Max von Sydow). Their plans are interrupted, however, when their Moscow hideout is raided by cunning politician Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) and Rone finds himself being played by a network of older spies seeking revenge .My father says bed is integral to this and one must be good at it. Adapted by director John Huston with his regular collaborator Gladys Hill (who began as dialogue director on Welles’ The Stranger) from Noel Behn’s 1966 novel, this complex canvas of betrayal, treason, murder and double cross is in a line with Huston’s film noir period with a soupçon of Beat the Devil‘s absurdism. Its convoluted plot is best appreciated in response to the hijinks of Bond with its determinedly low-key approach allowing the banal thuggery of the spy master to be revealed. The cast is astonishing – Richard Boone as Ward, the peroxide instigator capable of literally anything, sadism, torture and murder;  two Bergman alumni united in transcontinental jiggery pokery; George Sanders playing piano in drag at a gay nightclub and worse, with a penchant for knitting; Barbara Parkins as Niall MacGinnis’ safe-cracking daughter; Vonetta McGee as a Lesbian seductress;  Nigel Green as The Whore, another old spy keen on playing dress up; Lila Kedrova as a Russian brothel keeper;  and Welles’ Gate Theatre mentor Micheál MacLiammóir shows up – in fact he’s the first character we encounter. A crazy cast in a fascinating Cold War timepiece that requires keen attention. Even so, it’s a stretch to have dour O’Neal pose as a gigolo to win Andersson’s affections. Still, Ted Scaife’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Never mind the story, feel the wit. Huston appears early as the Admiral who gives Rone his marching papers. If you believe in a cause no danger is frightening

The Bible (1966)

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In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. The first 22 books of the Old Testament are dramatised in 5 main sequences:  Creation, narrated by God (John Huston);  Adam (Michael Parks) and Eve (Ulla Bergryd) meet and procreate;  Cain (Richard Harris) slays his brother Abel (Franco Nero);  Noah (Huston again) creates his ark for the animals and there’s a spectacular flood;  and Abraham’s (George C. Scott) story is recounted – his long life with the beautiful but barren Sarah (Ava Gardner), the conceiving of his only son Isaac, with Sarah’s maid, and his calling by God to make a sacrifice. There are two shorter sections, one recounting the building of the Tower of Babel;  and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah… Am I my brother’s keeper?  An awesome epic of tension-free tedium that is quite literally beyond belief with some (few) honourable exceptions:  director Huston himself, who also narrates this Italian-American co-production and makes for an amiable animal lover;  the lustrous Gardner;  O’Toole in his brief appearance as the Three Angels; and the final sequence in which Abraham comes closerthanthis to putting his only son Isaac on the BBQ instead of the more conventional sacrificial ram. Nero was the film’s still photographer until Huston spotted him and started his screen career. Adam and Eve’s nude frolics were choreographed by Katharine Dunham. Huston’s girlfriend Zoe Sallis features as Hagar. Notable for a score by Toshiro Mayuzumi with uncredited work by Ennio Morricone, this will have you reaching for your own traveller’s friend – it’s light work after this. The screenplay, on the other hand, is credited to Christopher Fry although Orson Welles and Mario Soldati also contributed something or other. There is nothing that He may not ask of thee?

The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)

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You left no autobiography but you left this. Writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins was given access to hundreds of paintings and drawings by Orson Welles and he uses these as a prism to gain entry into how the man’s mind worked and discusses how this level of visual creativity was fused with narrative to create his films. This is an intensely personal work:  Cousins addresses Welles in the voiceover, doing away with any sense of chronology, making a mosaic of thoughts, inflections, inferences and putting together a narrative that deals with his films, his politics, his acting, his working methods and his extensive romantic life. This is filmic storytelling of a superior type, stressing the way in which Welles’ designs actively structured his cinematic approach, garnering detailed insights from these previously undiscovered and unsung artistic outpourings to make an intimate free-associating portrait of a fascinating man. This is an utterly unique take on a larger than life character whose indelible performances as an actor (with their king or king-like personae) form a parallel or diptych with his directing work. Welles has never seemed more attractive, more interesting, more Shakespearean in scope, more mysterious and dreamlike or yet more relevant. A seer. Featuring his daughter Beatrice Welles, this is executive produced by Michael Moore. You thought in lines and shapes

Journey Into Fear (1943)

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I’m not indispensable! There are plenty of men with my qualifications! Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten) an American gunnery engineer in Istanbul becomes the target of a Nazi assassination due to his involvement in improving the Turkish navy. With the help of the chief of the Turkish secret police Colonel Haki (an underplaying Orson Welles) who doesn’t want the Germans killing him on his watch, Graham escapes from his hotel where he’s booked in with his wife Stephanie (Ruth Warrick) to board a ship to safety, leaving his wife behind. On board, he encounters a number of passengers, including the dancer Josette Martel (Dolores del Río). However, the passenger Peter Banat (Jack Moss) is not who he appears to be and as we know from the opening scene he’s in Istanbul to carry out an assassination…You’re a ballistics expert and you’ve never fired one of these things?! Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten adapted Eric Ambler’s transeuropean spy novel (with uncredited contributions by Richard Collins) and Welles also co-directed the film (uncredited) with Norman Foster. The protagonist is altered from the novel and there are as many blind alleys as there are red herrings in this confusing mélange but it’s still what Graham Greene would call an entertainment with the Mercury Theater/Citizen Kane crew augmented by the stunning Dolores Del Rio in pussycat headgear. Ah, you have this advantage over the soldier, Mr. Graham. You can run away without being a coward.  There’s a level of wit (including some amusing sound edits and the song I’d Know You Anywhere) in the enterprise which you’d expect from all concerned and a nice role for Everett Sloane as Kopeikin – whoever he might be! Despite its being butchered by RKO (Ambler reportedly didn’t even recognise the story as his own at a screening) and its original narration being removed (restored for a screening at Locarno some years back) there are still enough flourishes to flatter Welles in his detective/thriller-directing incarnation and a very enjoyable high stakes finale. You are going to hospital. You are going to have typhus!

 

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Casino Royale (1967)

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You are joke shop spies, gentlemen.  The original James Bond (David Niven) is the debonair spy, now retired and living a peaceful existence. He is reluctantly called back into duty when the mysterious organization SMERSH begins assassinating British secret agents (through the medium of sex) and he is impersonated by six impostors and his return to service includes taking on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) who is hired by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the greatest Bond girl of all!) to be yet another iteration of the great spy as she plays both ends against the middle.  Then there’s Bond’s bumbling nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)… Producer Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in 1960 but despite protracted negotiations with Eon could never agree terms so decided to send it up – everyone else was making Bond spoofs, so why shouldn’t he?  Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers play fast and loose with the source and it’s directed variously by Ken Hughes, John Huston (who gets blown up early on in the film as M/McTarry), Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and an uncredited Richard Talmadge. Niven has fun in the film’s early sequence overlong though it is stretching credibility at its occasionally joyless spoofing. However there are compensations – Ursula and Peter’s sidelong romance;  motormouth comic Allen becoming silenced in the presence of his famous uncle;  Welles doing a magic trick. And what about Bond finding his illegitimate daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) by Mata Hari?! Meta is the word. And I love seeing Charles Boyer and George Raft (as himself!), Deborah Kerr sending up her Oirish accent from Black Narcissus playing the nun-wannabe widow of Huston, French spy spoofer Jean-Paul Belmondo, TV stars Ronnie Corbett and Derek Nimmo (and Catweazle plays Q!) with starlets Jacky (Jacqueline) Bisset and Alexandra Bastedo. Mad and quite bad it might be – there’s a flying saucer! And cowboys! – but heck it’s also a lot of fun, dated as it is. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard, Nicolas Roeg and John Wilcox is decadence itself. And then there’s the Burt Bacharach soundtrack and that song:  the desert island classic…

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

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Personally I prefer a girlfriend not to have a husband. An Irish-American seaman Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) becomes involved in a complex murder plot when he is hired by renowned criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan) to work on a yacht after rescuing the man’s wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a disturbing attack in Central Park NYC. He soon finds himself implicated in the murder, despite his innocence. The film is best remembered for the climactic hall of mirrors scene with a shoot out amidst shards of shattering glass…. Orson Welles’ adaptation (with uncredited help from William Castle, Charles Lederer and Fletcher Markle) of a novel by Sherwood King was so confusing that Columbia boss Harry Cohn offered a reward to anyone who could make head or tail of it. Somebody please tell me what it’s about! But the plot of this murder mystery pastiche is hardly the point:  it’s a gorgeously shot tongue in cheek meditation on the games men and women play. Sometimes they wind up in murder. The narration is crucial. The hall of mirrors scene is justly famous. Shot by Charles Lawton (and Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker) with the yachting scenes done on Errol Flynn’s Zaca, this is the one where Hayworth’s fiery locks were shorn into a shockingly short blonde bob and Welles sports a cod Oirish accent presumably culled from his days at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Mad, strange and blacker than black, this is all about shadows and deception and imagery and set-pieces. Stunningly edited by Viola Lawrence. I never make my mind up about anything until it’s over and done with.

Jane Eyre (1943)

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No wonder you’ve rather the look of another world. Orphaned and raised in an abusive home, little Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) is dispatched by her cruel uncle and aunt to a bestial charity school for the poor where her best friend Helen (Elizabeth Taylor) has her hair hacked off and dies of pneumonia. A teenaged Jane (Joan Fontaine) eventually becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she cares for little Adele Varens (Margaret O’Brien) and falls for its older aristocrat owner, Edward Rochester (Orson Welles). However, numerous obstacles stand in the way of Jane and Edward’s romance, and their love may not survive a series of dramatic and unfortunate events – not least the discovery of the identity behind the madwoman in the attic … Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel about the orphaned governess who wins the lottery and marries the rich old adulterer gets the full Hollywood Gothic treatment even casting Fontaine, the ‘I’ in Rebecca, of which this is its natural progenitor, as the titular narrating heroine. Wan, withdrawn yet strangely self-possessed she wanders through the oppressive patriarchal corridors with a guttering candle and eventually winds up the wife of the preening pervy dark lord. As you were! Adapted by Aldous Huxley, Henry Koster, John Houseman and director Robert Stevenson who collectively serve this up filleted and done to a tasty turn.