Marie writes: The West Coast is currently experiencing a heat wave and I have no air conditioning. That said, and despite it currently being 80F inside my apartment, at least the humidity is low. Although not so low, that I don't have a fan on my desk and big glass of ice tea at the ready. My apartment thankfully faces East and thus enjoys the shade after the sun has crossed the mid-point overhead. And albeit perverse in its irony, it's because it has been so hot lately that I've been in the mood to watch the following film again and which I highly recommend to anyone with taste and a discerning eye.
Great Movie / Roger Ebert / June 4, 2006
There live not three good men unhanged in England. And one of them is fat and grows old.
How can it be that there is an Orson Welles masterpiece that remains all but unseen? I refer not to incomplete or abandoned projects that have gathered legends, but to "Chimes at Midnight" (1965), his film about Falstaff, which has survived in acceptable prints and is ripe for restoration. I saw the film in early 1968, put it on my list of that year's best films, saw it again on 16mm in a Welles class I taught, and then could not see it for 35 years.
It dropped so completely out of sight that there is no video version in America, Britain or France. Preparing to attend the epic production of both parts of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I wanted to see it again and found it available on DVD from Spain and Brazil. Both versions carry the original English-language soundtrack; the Brazilian disc is clear enough and a thing of beauty. What luck that Welles shot in black-and-white, so there was no color to fade.
This is a magnificent film, clearly among Welles' greatest work, joining "Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Touch of Evil" and (I would argue) "The Trial." It is also magnificent Shakespeare, focusing on Falstaff through the two "Henry IV" plays to his offstage death in "Henry V." Although the plays are much abridged, it is said there is not a word in the film not written by Shakespeare.
Falstaff, "this huge hill of flesh," is one of Shakespeare's greatest characters -- the equal, argues Harold Bloom, of Hamlet. He so dominates the Henry IV plays that although Shakespeare promised he would return in Henry V, he reconsidered; the fat knight would have sounded the wrong note in that heroic tale, and so we learn from Mistress Quickly of his death, as he "babbl'd of green fields."
Welles was born to play Falstaff, not only because of the physical similarity but because of the rich voice, sonorous and amused, and the shared life experience. Both men lived long and too well, were at odds with the powers at court and were constantly in debt. Both knew disappointment, and one of the most sublime moments in Welles' career is simply the expression on his face at the coronation of Henry V, when he cries out "God save thee, my sweet boy," and the new king replies, "I know thee not, old man."
Prince Hal, later Henry V, is played in the film by Keith Baxter, who looks dissolute enough in the roistering at the Boars Head Tavern, but as early as Act 1, Scene 2 is an unpleasant hypocrite in the monologue where he admits his present misdeeds but promises to reform at the right time. In Shakespeare, this is a soliloquy; in Welles, Falstaff listens in the back of the shot and is forewarned. Later, in an echo of that composition, the prince looks impatiently toward the field of battle as Falstaff, behind him, questions the concept of honor. That each man hears the other's intended soliloquy adds a dimension to both.
Welles as director uses some of his familiar visual strategies; the vast interiors of Henry IV's castles contrast with the low ceilings and cluttered rooms of bawdy houses, just as the vast space of Kane's great hall contrasts with the low ceilings and dancing girls of the New York Inquirer. Royalty in "Chimes at Midnight" is framed by vast cathedral vaults, with high windows casting diagonals of light. Welles uses dramatic camera angles, craning to look up at the trumpeters atop the battlements as Henry IV rides off to battle.
At Mistress Quickly's, on the other hand, Falstaff and his roisterers have great freedom of movement involving doorways and posts, barrels and vertiginous staircases, barking dogs and laughing wenches. He and other actors circle verticals and one another as they speak, just as Welles and Joseph Cotten circled in "Citizen Kane" and "The Third Man." And watch the use of deep focus when he begins a shot with Hal seated in the background and, as news of his father's death is conveyed, Hal stands and moves forward, finally looming over the camera in foreground. All one shot.
The scene of the battle of Shrewsbury is justly famous. It lasts fully 10 minutes, chaotic action at a brutal pitch, horses and men confused in smoke and fog, steel crashing against steel, cries of pain, desperate struggles, confused limbs caked in mud and blood, men falling exhausted or dead. Barbara Leaming, one of Welles' biographers, says the scene was created by careful framing; Welles at no time had more than about 100 extras, yet seems to have a multitude, and the violence of the struggle was studied by Mel Gibson before he directed "Braveheart."
The battle is intercut with shots of a fat man in armor, hurrying and scurrying out of the way and finally playing dead. When Hal finds Falstaff flat on his back, he cries out, "What, old acquaintance! Could not all this flesh keep in a little life?" We know Falstaff is not dead, and Welles finds a way to let Hal know, too: the frost on the old man's breath puffs out from beneath his visor. Yes, it was cold. Welles shot on location in Spain, in winter; his first shot shows Falstaff as a tiny figure in a vast field of snow, his last shows Falstaff's coffin being pushed across snow toward his grave, and in several of John Gielgud's speeches as Henry IV, we can see the frost on his breath.
That Gielgud played the king and others such as Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly) Jeanne Moreau (Doll Tearsheet) and Fernando Rey (Worcester) also appeared in the film is a tribute to Welles' reputation, for on a budget of less than $1 million he was, like Falstaff, not prompt to pay. Gielgud plays Henry IV as a dying man almost from his earliest scenes, plagued with guilt because of how he won his throne. His son is no consolation; the king envies Northumberland his son Henry Percy, known as Hotspur (Norman Rodway), and wishes "would I have his Harry, and he mine." He excoriates the thief and whoremonger Hal and his low companions, none lower in deportment or loftier in essential humanity than Falstaff.
How good is Falstaff? Consider the way warm affection illuminates the face of Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet caresses and tickles her beloved old rogue. Note the boundless affection Falstaff has for all around him, so real that even Quickly forgives his debts and allows him to contract new ones.
Such scenes illuminate the life Welles poured into "Chimes at Midnight." He came early to Shakespeare; he edited and published editions of some of the plays while still at prep school. On stage and screen, he was also Othello and Macbeth, his voice fell naturally into iambic rumbles, he was large enough for heroes and so small he could disappear before Henry V's scorn. He once asked an audience, reduced by a snowstorm: "Why are there so many of me and so few of you?"
There was not something Falstaffian about Welles, there was everything. As a young man he conquered all that came before him (at Shrewsbury a knight meekly surrenders to the old man, awed by his leftover reputation). Welles grew fat and in debt, took jobs unworthy of him, was trailed by sycophants and leeches, yet was loved by good women and honored by those who could see him clearly. And he battled on, Quixotic as well as Falstaffian, commencing grand schemes and sometimes actually finishing them (indeed, his "Don Quixote" can now be seen in intriguing but incomplete form).
The crucial point about "Chimes at Midnight" is that although it was rejected by audiences and many critics on its release, although some of the dialogue is out of sync and needs to be adjusted, although many of the actors become doubles whenever they turn their backs, although he dubbed many of the voices himself, although the film was assembled painstakingly from scenes shot when he found the cash -- although all of these things are true, it is a finished film, it realizes his vision, it is the Falstaff he was born to direct and play, and it is a masterpiece. Now to restore it and give it back to the world.
Marie writes: Behold the amazing Art of Greg Brotherton and the sculptures he builds from found and re-purposed objects - while clearly channeling his inner Tim Burton. (Click to enlarge.)
"With a consuming drive to build things that often escalate in complexity as they take shape, Greg's work is compulsive. Working with hammer-formed steel and re-purposed objects, his themes tend to be mythological in nature, revealed through a dystopian view of pop culture." - Official website
"It's the greatest curse that's ever been inflicted on the human race, memory." -- Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), "Citizen Kane" (1941)
Nearly every scene in "The Phantom," the Season 5 finale of "Mad Men," conjures a ghost from the show's past. "Mad Men," like many great series from "Hill Street Blues" to "SCTV" to "The Sopranos," has always been exceptionally good at this (see "The Long Walk"), setting images, gestures and emotions reverberating off one another across episodes and seasons. The series has a memory, and the curse of memory is a primary theme of "The Phantom," which is why the episode is composed as it is. As Nancy Sinatra sings in that final song:
You only live twice, or so it seems, One life for yourself and one for your dreams.
(Spoilers from here on out.)
That's a James Bond theme song, from "You Only Live Twice" (1967) -- and it's the second Bond theme we hear in the episode, after Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass bite into Burt Bacharach's theme from the James Bond parody "Casino Royale" (1967) at the weekday matinée where Don (the suave, masculine Bond of New York advertising) runs into Peggy. (The Beatles, who have figured prominently in Seasons 4 and 5, released "Help!" in 1965 and it was in part a 007 parody, too -- especially the John Barry-like orchestral music written by George Martin.) Echoes and repetitions are everywhere.
Marie writes: many simply know her as the girl with the black helmet. Mary Louise Brooks (1906 - 1985), aka Louise Brooks, an American dancer, model, showgirl and silent film actress famous for her bobbed haircut and sex appeal. To cinefiles, she's best remembered for her three starring roles in Pandora's Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) directed by G. W. Pabst, and Prix de Beauté (1930) by Augusto Genina. She starred in 17 silent films (many lost) and later authored a memoir, Lulu in Hollywood."She regards us from the screen as if the screen were not there; she casts away the artifice of film and invites us to play with her." - Roger, from his review of the silent classic Pandor's Box.
Marie writes: Did you know that the world's steepest roller-coaster is the Takabisha, which opened earlier this year at the Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park in Yamanash, Japan? The ride lasts just 112 seconds but is packed with exciting features including seven twists, blackened tunnels and a 43m-high peak. But the most impressive thing about Takabisha is the 121 degree free-fall, so steep that it's been recognized by the Guinness World Records as the steepest roller-coaster made from steel!
There's nothing quite like the movies if you want to learn what people's hopes and dreams were during the period in which they were made. Take for instance the recent "Up in the Air". In the present when air travel has turned into something to be endured, George Clooney's Ryan Bingham showed us how it can become an enticing way of life. The same subject was also portrayed extensively, under a very different light, some forty years as the "Airport" movies dealt with our fears of dying in new and horrible ways, while glamorizing our dreams of flying first-class, surrounded by a movie star in every seat. As the trailer for one of these features once put it: "on board, a collection of the rich and the beautiful!" They also marked the advent of a new genre (the Disaster Film) as well as the "Ark movie" which Ebert's Little Movie Glossary defines as "mixed bag of characters trapped in a colorful mode of transportation". How many films can claim to this kind of impact?
I've always felt Orson Welles' second feature, the memory-movie masterpiece "The Magnificent Ambersons," got a bad rap because: 1) it isn't "Citizen Kane"; and 2) it isn't the perfect creation Welles intended it to be because, as we all know, RKO re-cut and re-shot parts of it, including the last two scenes (which are so not Welles they don't really affect you much; they're like background noise that wakes you out of a deep sleep). Well, OK, "Ambersons" isn't "Kane" -- it's not as much fun as "Kane" (few movies are), but it's every bit as accomplished and it goes deeper into its characters and its evocation of the past. And, yes, I'd give my (fill in portion of anatomy here) to see the lost footage restored (although you can read the cutting continuity of the unfinished 132-minute version Welles left behind when he went to Brazil in March, 1942, and see stills of the missing scenes -- so you can imagine the finished movie, even if you can't actually see it).
All of this is to say that AltScreen has published a long piece I just wrote about this, one of my favorite movies. It begins with a more-or-less shot-by-shot analysis of the nine-minute prologue, and how it sets up everything else in the movie. You can read it here: "The Magnificent Ambersons: The Past is Prologue." The film has only recently been made available on Region 1 DVD (and even then as an Amazon-only bonus with the new Blu-ray of "Kane," though it shows up on TCM occasionally). A few excerpts, to give you a taste:
Marie writes: I love cinematography and worship at its altar; a great shot akin to a picture worth a thousand words. The best filmmakers know how to marry words and images. And as the industry gears up for the Golden Globes and then the Oscars, and the publicity machine starts to roll in earnest, covering the Earth with a daily blanket of freshly pressed hype, I find myself reaching past it and backwards to those who set the bar, and showed us what can be accomplished and achieved with light and a camera...
Cinematography by Robert Krasker - The Third Man (1949) (click to enlarge images)
View image The "Searchers" shot from the ending of "War of the Worlds." Way more sentimental than John Ford's.
Can a lousy ending really ruin an otherwise good movie? There was a time in Hollywood history when phony "happy endings" were de rigueur. Even if they felt tacked on, audiences understood that they were a convention -- and, in many cases, knew not to take them seriously. So, for example, at the end of Nicholas Ray's "Bigger Than Life" -- a terrifying film about a father (James Mason) who goes berzerk with rage and disgust over his suffocatingly "normal" middle-class family life and comes to believe that his young son should be slain -- the family is reunited around his hospital bed (oh, it was just too much cortisone!)... while a flashing light blinks ominously, as if telling the audience not to buy the false conclusion.
View image "The Magnificent Ambersons": This is the happy ending?
Some have argued that the hollow ending shot by Robert Wise for Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" ruins the movie. I don't think so. It compromises the film somewhat (and I learned from the Criterion laserdisc how it was supposed to have ended in utter desolation), but those last few moments don't negate all the true magnificence that has come before, do they? Watch the last shot: As Eugene (Joseph Cotten) narrates a happy ending that has taken place off-screen, he's walking down the hospital hallway with Fanny (Agnes Moorehead, in maybe the greatest performance ever given by anyone in American movies), they each pass in and out of shadow at different times. He's telling one story, but we're hearing it through her. He's talking about his love for her sister (the love she and her nephew Georgie have sabotaged), and we know Fanny's always secretly loved Eugene. At the end of the shot, they are no longer even in the same frame. She moves into close-up, the camera pans over to him, then they both briefly enter the frame and pass by the camera into darkness. The whole image goes out of focus briefly as they disappear, and we're left looking down an empty, sterile hallway with a red cross lamp at center right. If you're paying any attention to the shot at all, it's still not much of a happy ending! It's an epilogue, an afterthought.
Likewise, the head-spinning ending of Fritz Lang's classic "Woman in the Window" strikes some as contrived, but to me it feels inevitable. In the tradition of noir, a man (Edward G. Robinson) makes one small mistake, one impulsive deviation from his normal path, that leads inexorably to ruin. The movie takes you, step by step, down his road to ruin, until there's No Way Out. Only then does Lang pull the rug out from under you. What's important is the experience you've been through, not where the movie chooses to stop.
Lesser movies, like "Fatal Attraction," can be more seriously damaged by studio-imposed endings. The movie is pretty good at balancing your sympathies up until its grotesquely overblown "the family that slays together stays together" slasher finale. You can feel that this wasn't the way things were meant to go, and the DVD version now contains the original ending that didn't test well with preview audiences, in which Glenn Close's character committed suicide and Michael Douglas was arrested for her murder. It was more of a true film noir ending -- even though there was still a deus ex machina twist when a taped suicide note is discovered.
More recently, Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" concluded with such a ridiculously upbeat happy-family ending (never mind that the world was pretty much destroyed) that it prompted hails of derisive laughter. (On the other hand, would it have been the mainstream blockbuster it was if it had ended in defeat and despair?) The movie sucked me in so deeply, that even when I started backing out of it (right about when things just miraculously -- and arbitrarily -- started turning around, about ten minutes from the end), I still believed the first 106 minutes of the movie, even if I rejected the last ten.
I had a similar problem with the ending of "Children of Men," which (although still ambiguous and in no way assuring the survival of all of mankind) I thought was too sappy and sentimental. The sound of laughing and playing children over the final fade out nearly ruined the whole thing for me, because it was a film of such drive and momentum that I felt it really needed to go somewhere. And it didn't. It tried to have it both ways -- leaving some things unresolved while still leaving the audience with a feeling of optimism -- and I didn't think it worked. (Look for the "Bigger Than Life" blinking beacon in the final shots.) But, again, it didn't make me feel that the entire experience had been negated.
Off-hand, I can think of one movie with an ending so horribly manipulated that it really did destroy everything that came before, and that's Roger Donaldson's "No Way Out" (1987), with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman. This was a case where I remember feeling that the final "twist" actually did make mincemeat out of the whole picture. When the final piece of information drops into place, nothing that had happened previously made any sense.
What are movies that have been ruined -- or nearly ruined-- for you by bad endings? What about movies with bad endings that you were willing to overlook because the rest of the movie was so good?
Gregory Peck died peacefully in his sleep Wednesday night, the week after his famous character Atticus Finch from "To Kill a Mockingbird" was named by the Ameri-can Film Institute as the greatest movie hero of all time. The veteran star, who won an Oscar for that performance and was nominated for four others, was 87. His wife, Veronique, was holding his hand when he died, family spokesman Monroe Friedman told the Associated Press: "He just went to sleep. He had just been getting older and more fragile. He wasn't really ill. He just sort of ran his course and died of old age.
Nineteen years after his death, he remains as famous as any director in movie history - even Steven Spielberg. Other directors have had their films remade, but only Alfred Hitchcock made one so monumental that another director, a good one, actually tried to duplicate it, shot by shot. Gus Van Sant's "Psycho" (1998) was a bad idea, but it's the thought that counts.
In the Answer Man column for July 12, reader David J. Bondelevitch wrote: "I had to bite my tongue from laughing when Sam Neill's character showed up in Montana near the end of 'The Horse Whisperer.' I kept thinking he had fulfilled his dying plea from 'The Hunt for Red October.' After being shot, Sam Neill's dying words in 'Hunt' were (in a thick Russian accent): 'I would like to have seen Montana.' "