When people consider the European phase of Orson Welle’s career, they might think of Othello, or his great, unfinished Don Quixote or even the eccentric, almost unwatchable Viva Italia. But the most representative of his movies from this era was Mr. Arkadin, released in Europe as Confidential Report: it is a baffling, ramshackle affair, and it’s quite brilliant in its own iconoclastic way.
Based on several episodes of Welles’ radio series The Lives of Harry Lime, a small-time criminal named Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is hired to investigate the past of a mysterious industrialist named Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles). Arkadin claims that he can remember nothing before the winter of 1927, and he wants Guy to dig up his life story.
Is Arkadin on the level about his motives for the investigation? Does it matter? The assignment seems pleasant enough — Guy is well-paid and travels to exotic locations to interview people about his boss’ forgotten past. But when Guy realizes that each person he interviews about Arkadin winds up dead, he begins to wonder if he’s next.
As often happened, Welles had control of this movie wrested from his control during post-production, and as a result there were no fewer than seven versions of this troubled production; it wasn’t until 2006 that a “definitive” version was put together based on Welles’ extensive notes.
Interestingly, a novelization of the movie appeared in Europe in 1955, with Orson Welles credited as author. Welles noted that not only did he not write the novel, he had no idea who paid for it to be published. It’s just the sort of mystery Gregory Arkadin would have appreciated. — Michael Popham
MR. ARKADIN aka CONFIDENTIAL REPORT screens Monday and Tuesday, May 11 and 12 at 7:00 and 9:00 at the Trylon. Tickets are $8 and you can purchase them here.
There is perhaps no greater real-life villain in film history than the shortsighted idiot at RKO who made the decision to destroy Orson Welles’s original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Now, to be clear, RKO had a justified business incentive to edit the film to be more marketable, as test screenings did not fare well. In an era when the names of auteurs had far less box office impact, you can’t really blame a struggling film studio for their recut. Yet, considering RKO made massive edits without the input of Welles at all, and that this was possible only due to an absence resulting from his willingness to film his next project for RKO in Brazil for diplomatic reasons, the choice to trash his footage seems pretty vindictive.
To this day film buffs dream of what the film could have been, in no short part because the chopped version we are left with is in itself a gem. Every bit as visually daring and emotionally engaging as his previous RKO offering, the much heralded Citizen Kane,Ambersons resonates to this day as a powerful indictment of classism and cultural traditionalism. Despite the film’s somewhat hasty plotting that resulted from cutting 40 minutes off its runtime, it remains a masterpiece. Indeed, it is clear in viewing the film that RKO’s editors neglected to see that Welles’s vision was simply too earnest to be reshaped into something mainstream. No doubt about it, this was Welles working with ample resources at his artistic peak, audience tastes be damned.
The film tells the multi-generational story of the old-money, high ego Ambersons and their love-hate relationship with their new-money, progressive neighbors the Morgans. As such, it functions as a sardonic study of the caustic impact of industrial progress on the lives of the American elite, and it is simultaneously funny and austere. Even with the happy resolution tacked on by RKO in post, the film is undeniably bleak. A wartime America looking for hope didn’t like it, but it carried a timely warning – to welcome change and stand up against senseless class barriers to work together. As such, it carries a parallel message to much of the propaganda it shared the cinemas with, but it was comparatively more measured and far less idealistic. In short, it was more human and true.
Perhaps someday we will find film’s Holy Grail – the original rough cut of the film sent to Welles while he was working in Brazil. I imagine that if the print is found in a dark corner of South America that the event would be met with unprecedented celebration among us film nerds. Yet, we mustn’t neglect to appreciate this film now, as even in its edited form, it reveals the genius of Welles as clearly as anything he ever made. — Dave Berglund
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS screens Friday and Saturday, May 8 and 9 at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, May 10 at 5:00 and 7:00. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.
Here’s something better and a bit more terrifying than CGI monsters: the screen flashes red when Marnie, the female lead played by Tippi Hedren, sees a bouquet of red flowers in a vase. From there on, your muscles tighten every time you see a something red in the shot. It’s like hypnosis. You brace yourself for Marnie to have another panic episode. When she doesn’t you’re relieved. When she does, and the screen flashes red again, the trigger is reinforced. It’s worked. At least for the next two hours, Hitchcock has reduced us to animals, Pavlov’s dogs in particular. At the color red, we cringe with suspense.
It’s okay, though, since Mark Rutland (Sean Connery, fresh off the sets of Dr. No) is a practicing zoologist, at least he was before he took over his father’s failing business. The first time he met Margaret “Marnie” Reynolds was when she worked secretary of one of his business associates. Back then she went by the alias Marion Holland. The film begins with her cleaning out the company safe and fleeing with a yellow alligator bag tucked under her arm. She changes her name and gets ready to do it again, except that unbeknownst to her, the owner of her next target, Rutland & Co., already knows who she is. A zoologist by training, however, Mark is more curious than threatened. He is fascinated with predators, which he considers “the criminal class of the animal world.” This he tells her in his study shortly before their questionable first kiss. So he hires her and then proceeds to fall in love. Catching her red handed in larceny, he blackmails her into marrying him, only to discover that she’s cold to the caresses of men. Obviously, for James Bon–I mean for Connery’s character, this means that there’s something wrong with her, and he switches roles from lover/animal-trapper to detective/psychoanalyst. After this, the story can only get more twisted.
Marnie is a movie with manifold layers and unpredictable swerves; underneath it all lies something very traumatic. Hitchcock will show us at the end what has made Marnie a compulsive liar and thief, but the details of the mystery’s unraveling are what make the film sometimes grueling, other times touching, and more often than not unseemly in its gender politics. Connery’s character is a charming but sadistic man determined to possess Marnie and set her right. As the French critics of Cahier du Cinema once pointed out, the film is indeed all about men possessing women, something that can be gleaned from the very beginning when we see the title cards printed ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MARNIE. But Hedren’s character is perhaps more than an enigma to be solved and a case to be cured by the former zoologist. Besides for being afraid of lightning and the color red she has a strong attachment to animals and to her mother. As in The Birds (1963), mothers and animals seem to represent the same uncontrollable force. What do Marnies’ attachments mean? No doubt it’s up to the viewer to decide. In any case, Hitchcock’s characteristic precision with repeating image and rhythmic cues do bring us along for the ride. As with the other Hitchcock films, Marnie ends with the restoration of the heterosexual union, but what transpires in the middle is quite worth watching. — Thorn Chen
Thorn Chen is from New York, now in Minneapolis pursuing a PhD at the U, where he writes about Chinese educational films, reads continental philosophy, and scrounges for funds to support his coffee addiction.
MARNIE screens Monday, May 4 at 7:00 at the Riverview. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.
How I wish that viewers new to Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, could see it without ever having heard that it was “the Greatest Film Ever Made”, as I had in my youth. In a story I’ve undoubtedly shared way too many times, I was roughly ten years old when I first saw Citizen Kane. My father hauled my brother and me to the enormous Temple Theater in downtown Saginaw, Michigan, and with a crowd of maybe two hundred (which seemed miniscule in a theater that held nearly ten times as many souls), we watched a scratchy print of Kane. It has probably been my favorite movie ever since.
This was 1978, and seeing great films meant hoping that the networks or local TV stations would set aside The Love Boat and The Six Million Dollar Man now and again to broadcast a great movie (if you were lucky you knew someone with a dynamite 16mm collection.) Unless you lived in a city that had a theater like the Temple, you just didn’t see a classic picture.
My Dad took us to see Kane after a year of watching in horror as his two children went berserk over Star Wars. In an act I’m sure he instantly regretted, he painted a pair of yardsticks green and red with black electrical tape around the handles for us to use as lightsabers (and which were great to beat each other with total impunity), and had to listen to our endless Star Wars chatter and that damned soundtrack for a whole year. Sick, no doubt, of that one and Close Encounters he finally hauled us to see Kane. As I think about this now, I honestly don’t know if he’d seen it at that point. (Considering he wasn’t born when it came out, and was undoubtedly not a staple of regular television programming, there was a good chance this was his first screening, too.)
Imagine a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old watching Citizen Kane (and I think my brother John was there—maybe not). The broken narrative, the melancholy adults that the reporter Thompson hunts down, Rosebud, the opera, the lines of beautiful women that enthralled me in the party scene—it was a lot for a kid to take in. From the weird “News on the March” newsreel at the beginning (what the hell is a newsreel?) to it’s dour ending, I tried my best to keep up. I failed… but Kane made me excited about complex films, and it was certainly the first movie that I didn’t understand but wanted to know more.
Naturally, at the time I tried to frame it around something I understood, and that was Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. Like the eponymous boy in The Little Prince (which Welles at one point adapted into an unfilmed screenplay), Charles Foster Kane is less William Randolph Hearst and so much more the young Orson, bouncing from experience to experience in his fruitless quest for true love. Here was a curious and melancholy figure, trying desperately to hold on to his childhood as he grew older. And reporter Thompson’s wandering from person to person—from Susan Alexander Kane to Thatcher’s empty marble library to the wheelchair bound Leyland—these were like the sad adults that occupied the asteroids in Saint-Exupery’s classic novel that I loved more than anything.
It wasn’t until high school and then a few times in college that I was truly able to deepen my understanding of the man Orson Welles and his incredible first feature (as a ten-year-old I checked out Pauline Kael’s The Citizen Kane Book, which didn’t help one iota). As you should know by now, Kane a strangely autobiographical film, one that examines its creator’s longing for his “lost” childhood (which included the early death of his mother and the strange caretaking by his distant father and someone who may have been his mother’s lover), but also accurately predicts his own fate—lost and nearly broke in his later years, Welles sadly came to resemble, to a degree, the old Charles Foster Kane.
Sadly, an every-ten-year poll in the British magazine Sight & Sound, ranking the great movies of history, has saddled Citizen Kane with the title of “The Greatest Film Ever Made” for almost fifty years until Vertigo (screening May 14 at the Heights Theater as part of our Hitchcock Film Festival) upended it three years ago. But really, if I were one of the critics polled, I’d include Kane on my top ten, which amounts as a vote for Best of All-Time. You can argue all you want about Kane’s status in the cinematic firmament, for me Kane is the best because of my personal connection with it… and the fact that, to this day, and after probably two dozen viewings, it remains tremendously entertaining.
So I beg you: Watch the movie, friends. Just watch the movie.
For Kane is a wonderful movie, in that it is a rollicking entertainment, not just a serious examination of loneliness and wealth, nor a collection of magnificent setpieces and daring cinematography and great, audacious performances. It is all that, the serious examination and technical hoo-hah and ACTING, but I don’t think Welles intended us to be anything but wildly entertained. That’s what he was, when he told stories on the radio, on stage, as a magician, or a director—an entertainer. Kane is by turns crazy and fascinating, hilarious and bumbling, circus-like and borrowing from the great vaudevillians, and boasts remarkable camerawork and cinematic storytelling that continue to influence movies today. It’s just a great fucking picture.
So if you plan on seeing Citizen Kane this weekend at the Trylon, try as best you can to experience the same fun you’d have if you were going to Singin’ in the Rain, His Girl Friday, or, hell, maybe even Star Wars. Citizen Kane is meant to be a great time at the movies, and you’ll get that, especially in a theater. And bring your ten-year-old—who knows, maybe one day she’ll remember it as being her favorite as well. — Peter Schilling