Saturday, August 27, 2016


Like most of Orson Welles’ later films, Chimes atMidnight has probably been discussed more than it’s been seen. A lengthy, troubled production, followed by a dicey release, the 1966 Shakespearean adaptation has been mostly out of print, seen only at rare screenings and occasionally available on dodgy foreign DVDs. When you could get your hands on it, the copies were plagued with sound problems, the poetry of the original verse lost in hiss and garble. Picture quality was poor, editing choppy--you were lucky to see it, but you never felt like you were really seeing it.

Until last year when Janus Films sent a brand-new restoration out on tour, promising that the best efforts had been made to put Humpty Dumpty back together again; the result was nothing short of remarkable. I managed to catch Chimes at Midnight as a double-feature with Othello, another of the great director’s Shakespeare pictures, itself having gone through its own ordeals. I was astonished by how different the experience was. Finally, here was a Chimes at Midnight I could see and hear clearly and actually absorb.

And it’s that same Chimes that now ends up on Blu-ray/DVD. The image is sharp and rendered with care. The audio is still a bit unnatural sounding, but that’s the fault of Welles’ unorthodox methods. At least every word can now be discerned. And more than ever, Welles aficionados can play that game where they try to guess how many voices in a given scene were dubbed by the maestro himself. There’s a certain tone you can pick up on if you know to listen for it.

But why all the fuss? What is so special about Chimes at Midnight?

Well, besides being Welles’ final fully realized film--as good as it is, F For Fake [review] is more of an experimental lark than a true narrative feature--Chimes at Midnight is a fascinating work of heart and wit, combining bits of multiple Shakespeare plays to make a single, linear story about John Falstaff, one of the Bard’s most enduring characters, a tragic buffoon who steers the early life of Prince Harry, soon to be King Henry V, and has his heart broken when the crown lands on his young pupil’s head. (Fans of My Own Private Idaho will recognize this story as the one Gus Van Sant lifted for his picture.)

Welles himself takes the role of Falstaff, a boozer and a raconteur, a rapscallion and a cad, but also a friend when chips are down. And the butt of many jokes. Young Harry (Keith Foster) spends idle time traveling with Falstaff as a way of avoiding responsibility, sowing his wild oats far from the watchful eye of his father, King Henry IV (Sir John Gielgud, Richard III). When a temperamental rival, Sir Harry “Hotspur” Percy (Norman Rodway), makes a move against the throne, the errant prince must give up childish things and take his rightful position. It’s a job he’s suited for, even if there are a few stumbles still to be had.

In fashioning his script, Welles pulls out all the dualities, the disparity between Falstaff and the King and the similarities between the two Harrys, to create one tale of fathers and sons. The prince is trapped in an adolescent conundrum. He wants to be his own man, but he also wants his father to be proud of him, and so he lashes out in such a way that pretty much makes neither of those things possible. He’s a thoughtless boy who, by the end of the picture, must become a thoughtful man. His opposite, Hotspur, is an example of what happens when you feel too much--even if he is also the jockish all-American every dad supposedly wants. Both sons can’t succeed, but it’s even worse for the fathers: in order for their shared child to proceed, they must, in many senses of the word, die.

At the center of this family drama, nestled between Harry’s pranks and Falstaff’s boasts, Welles enacts a tremendous battle. The two armies meet on a muddy field, coming on horseback and on foot, swinging sword and axes, laying waste to one another with little sense of order or skill. Welles shows the dirty chaos of combat, juxtaposing the brutal consequences with the dark comic relief of Falstaff, stuffed into his heavy armor, getting in over his head. Falstaff brings chaos wherever he goes. War is no different. It’s just no longer can he pantomime his prowess or create the illusion of royal bearing; here, the effects are real and inescapable.

Welles makes Falstaff a well-rounded character. He is funny and laughable, yet also true. He feels deeply, and the excess of his activity matches those feelings. Though often as overbearing as his fictional avatar, Welles can also be a generous performer. His reactions while others speak can embolden their performances in a way only a good director likely knows how. He’s servicing the story and not himself. Watch, for instance, his interaction with Jeanne Moreau (The Lovers [review]), who plays the whore Doll Tearsheet, and how his love and concern for her makes her seem all the more real. Their romance aches. Thus, when Falstaff’s heart gets broken, ours breaks a little too. Even if we know he kind of deserves it after how he tried to embarrass Harry and take credit for his accomplishments in front of the Prince’s true father.

Welles’ agile style keeps Chimes at Midnight from being a stodgy retelling. He crafts a Shakespeare that moves. In many of the best scenes, he balances the opposing sides, placing the camera high or low based on who is in power. When Hotspur addresses his troops, they must look up, as if he towers over them. Likewise, during the coronation scene, Welles and his cameraman, Edmond Richmond (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [review]), exaggerate the distance and height between the new King Henry V and his onetime mentor to show how low Falstaff has fallen, and how far apart the pair have swiftly become. There is also a great use of back and forth, particularly in the battle sequences, when we have two sides rushing from opposite ends, and Falstaff hilariously charging back and forth between. Welles understands the size of the screen, be it a wide survey of a battlefield or an extreme close-up in the most intimate of moments (death), he fills it with essential detail.

And for additional details on the production, the Criterion disc of Chimes at Midnight comes with new interviews, including chats with Keith Baxter (Prince Harry) and Orson’s daughter Beatrice, who appeared in the film as a child and worked on the reconstruction. Critical and scholarly features include two interviews with Welles biographers and a new audio commentary. The man himself shows up in a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show.

The return of Chimes at Midnight is another victory of the DVD age, another case of a film thought lost restored to its full power. Don’t take this for granted. Many have been waiting decades for just a glimpse of Orson Welles’ great masterwork, and now here it is at your fingertips. Grab a good drink, hit play, and enjoy.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice....”

Morrissey or Shelagh Delaney?

As most fans of the Smiths know, it’s both. Though, those with a big nose who know, know that the lyricist ripped it from the playwright, just as Moz lifted much from Delaney’s texts and nodded to her often. The above lyric is from A Taste of Honey and was embedded in the early Smiths track “Reel Around the Fountain;”  another song from the same period, “This Night Has Opened My Eyes,” not only borrows more lines from Honey, but the plot as well. Morrissey makes no secret of this. On the contrary, his sampling from Delaney, as well as putting her picture on album and singles covers (Louder than Bombs and “Girlfriend in a Coma”) helped drive many a dark youngster to her work. I read the original A Taste of Honey stageplay in high school, and finally found the film version many years later. The vocabulary theft made me predisposed to be a fan.

Shelagh Delaney on "Girlfriend in a Coma"

Rita Tushingham on the Sandie Shaw/Smiths EP

The movie adaptation of A Taste of Honey was released in 1961. Directed by Tony Richardson, it is considered part of Britain’s “kitchen sink” movement, so named not because the filmmakers in that school threw “everything but...” into their cinema, but rather they showed us how folks lived, kitchen sinks and all. Examining the working class citizens as they struggled to get by and potentially change their lives, Criterion fans can see the storytelling style in films as different as This Sporting Life [review], Billy Liar [review], and Victim [review], or even later, we can see how it influenced Ken Loach (Kes [review]) and Mike Leigh.

One hallmark of the kitchen sink films was the appearance of the angry young man (Harris in This Sporting Life, McDowell in If.... [review]--both in films by Lindsay Anderson, whom Shelagh Delaney collaborated with on The White Bus [review]). This makes A Taste of Honey a bit of a stylistic revolutionary, as its protagonist is an angry young woman. Starring Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago, Girl with Green Eyes), A Taste of Honey tells the story of Jo, a teenager frustrated with her life of squalor and limited prospects. Jo lives alone with her mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), a woman with many lovers but never two shillings to rub together. This means the pair moves a lot, running out on one landlord after another. They also squabble constantly, tearing one another down, breaking up and making up because, begrudgingly, they are all they’ve really got.

This changes when Helen meets Peter (Robert Stephens) and decides to remarry. Though Jo is reluctant to finally let go of the apron strings, Peter is a much younger man than his new bride and not interested in having a grown daughter. So, Jo moves out on her own, getting a job in a shoe shop and a new roommate of her own. Also, she’s gotten pregnant by a sailor who has since left to sail the seas.

An unmarried teenager having a child all by her lonesome would have been social scandal enough, but Delaney--who co-wrote the screenplay with Richardson--was a progressive writer whose vision took in all aspects of life in urban Manchester. Jo’s lover, Jimmy (Paul Danquah), is a black man, and her roommate, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), is gay. These facts are both approached delicately. No one comments on Jimmy and Jo being together, but the color of his skin is a factor in Jo’s anxiety about the impending birth. For instance, should she even want to take Geoffrey up on his offer to marry, people will know he’s not the father when they see the child. That’s if the gossips and wags buy their relationship to begin with. Though no one but Jo ever confronts Geoffrey outright about his sexuality, everyone looks at him sideways. They all sense the truth.

Which is always fascinating to see in an older film, since anyone with parents and grandparents born in “the good old days” knows that some members of those generations often tend to pretend that gays and lesbians weren’t around until that demonic disco music magically spawned them. But that’s what art is for--and history books--to show us what many would rather we not see. There’s a reason A Taste of Honey opens with a censorship board certificate indicating it’s only suitable for viewers over the age of 16. Much of the dialogue is frank about things that just weren’t acceptable: sex out of wedlock, abortion, alcoholism. Yet, Delaney avoids pushing a message. She and Richardson just want to show life as they’ve witnessed it and let the audience empathize or reject on their own.

Though Tony Richardson’s generation of filmmakers is often referred to as the British New Wave, their early work has little of the experimentalism inherent in the movies of their French contemporaries laboring under the same name. Rather, the Brits had more in common with the Italians in that realism was more important than style. Hence the director and his cinematographer Walter Lassally (who went on to shoot many of James Ivory’s lesser pictures) filming in the streets of Manchester, inside real apartments, and walking the boardwalk by the seaside. This was an existence that could not be re-created in a studio without adding a touch of glitz, so better to go where it was actually happening. The excursions out into public have an air of documentary, including a trip to the country where the child-like Geoffrey and Jo frolic with elementary school-aged kids. The mountainside expanse emphasizes how small they really are in the grand scheme of the universe (“I’m not happy and I’m not sad”), and the company they keep exposes just how young they are, too. Neither is really in a place where they should be having kids of their own.

It’s a great sequence, actually, with Geoffrey trying to prove he can be the husband and father Jo needs by awkwardly kissing her. The “traditional” roles are reversed with these two. Geoffrey probably feels too much, while Jo doesn’t quite know how to access all that is going on in her head and her heart. Back at their flat, Geoffrey cooks and cleans, while Jo goes out and earns a wage. One assumes it will all go wrong for these two, that somehow tragedy awaits, but A Taste of Honey sidesteps our expectations. Sure, it ends on a down beat, and everything isn’t necessarily okay, but we do leave with the sense that it will be. Lessons are being learned, and these characters will all carry on and get along in some fashion. Some ties bind so tightly, they will never be broken.

Criterion’s new restoration is, I believe, the first time A Taste of Honey has been available on disc in the States. The image quality is remarkable: crisp and clear, with strong blacks and an excellent level of detail. Supplements include interviews old and new, including vintage clips with Richardson and Delaney, and new chats with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin.

We also get a 1956 short film collaboration between Richardson and Lassally, co-directed by Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Made as part of the Free Cinema Collective that Richardson and Reisz formed with Lindsay Anderson, Mama Don’t Allow is a 22-minute documentary that displays the realist roots that Richardson and Co. grew from. Set inside and outside a jazz bar, with cutaways to some of the attendees preparing for an evening on the town, it’s a simple portrait of a particular nightlife. With a live soundtrack by the Chris Barber Jazz Band, including Lonnie Donegan, a.k.a. the King of Skiffle, a successful British rock musician that influenced the Beatles, Mama Don’t Allow is a winning snapshot of a specific scene, giving us a look at music and youth culture before the advent of rock ’n’ roll.

The screengrabs here are from an earlier DVD given away free with the Sunday Telegraph fifteen years ago and not from the Criterion Blu-ray.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, August 12, 2016


Late in Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, when director Stig Björkman is highlighting one of the actress' final films, Autumn Sonata [review], he holds on a silent close-up from the movie. It’s a scene where Ingrid Bergman stares directly into the camera, letting an emotional beat wash over her, engaging with the audience in a way that lets us see exactly what she is feeling. It's a great moment of punctuation for the documentary, because throughout Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, the performer's children have noted that her lifelong relationship with cameras, both as the subject and the operator, stemmed from the fact that her father--who died when the Swedish-born star was very young, leaving her an orphan--was a professional photographer. She learned to live by looking at a camera, and she learned to love by the way it looked at her.

Stitching together news and interview footage with film clips, personal photos, and home movies, Björkman has crafted an intimate portrait of an enduring personality, getting beyond the superficial press image or even the standard tribute. Granted access to an extensive collection of artifacts left behind by Bergman, and with the aid of her four children, all of whom share their own memories of their mother, Björkman shows us the star from earliest childhood, tracking her moves from Swedish cinema to Hollywood, and through scandal and triumph. Narrated by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), who reads from Bergman's diaries and letters to three of her closest friends, the images are enhanced by the subject's own private thoughts. It's the things she maybe wouldn't have shared with interviewers or her family that prove most revealing. For those who have seen Bergman's onscreen work, be it her romantic roles in movies like Casablanca and Notorious [review] or her more artful, emotional work with second husband Roberto Rossellini, the secret to Ingrid Bergman’s craft is made clear: even if she often gave more to cinema than she did her day-to-day existence, she was as thoughtful and tender in here real life as she was in her invented ones.

Bergman also possessed an incredible strength, as evinced by her weathering the public scorn following her leaving her first husband for Rossellini. It seems inconceivable that a private individual would be denounced on the floor of Congress as a bad example of morality, but that's just what happened. Through it all, Bergman was resilient, her characteristic charm never wavering. Perhaps her long fascination and association with Joan of Arc gave her some insight into martyrdom. Whatever gave her purpose, Bergman offered no apologies.

Then again, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is careful not to draw obvious connections between movie roles and true events, the way a director might otherwise if this were a dramatic biopic--though Bergman's loves and travels would definitely make for a solid narrative, were someone willing to try. No inference is drawn, for instance, from her choice to star in a light comedy about infidelity like Stanley Donen's Indiscreet [review], despite it being very easy to make a claim that it served as a defiant middle finger to her critics. Rather, Björkman lets the work exist on its own. He's more concerned with his subject’s wandering spirit and how her choices affected those around her. Having been given the appropriate time to deal with things, her children are surprisingly generous, admitting they were as enchanted with her as much as the moviegoing public. Which may be the greatest revelation of all: Ingrid Bergman was no manufactured icon, the woman we fell in love with in the movies was who Ingrid Bergman really was. At times aloof and unknowable, but always seductive, always interesting to watch, and always leading with her heart.

Bonus materials on the Criterion Blu-ray of Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words give us extra glimpses into her life and artistry. Deleted scenes and further excerpts from Bergman’s own home movies, shot by the Ingrid herself on 8mm, add to our knowledge of the star’s life. Perhaps more illuminating for film fans are the two bits from early Swedish films. The outtakes from her 1936 romance On the Sunny Side show her natural charisma. Even more telling, though, is her brief appearance as an extra in the 1932 movie Landskamp, her screen debut. Even as a silent background player, Ingrid Bergman stands out, her eyes finding the camera, and engaging with her public. She’s the only one in the group that you’d ever think would end up being a star, and probably the only one there that even dared to dream it.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purpose of review.

Saturday, August 6, 2016


Don Siegel's Riot in Cell Block 11 is an interesting motion picture: seemingly simplistic exploitation that reveals itself to be a multi-faceted debate about crime and punishment that sneaks its message in by baldly adhering to the production code even as it pokes holes in every single one of the censors' anti-noir, "crime doesn't pay" strictures. Like 12 Angry Men [review] set inside a penitentiary, it offers a group of differing personalities brought together by a common goal. How to achieve it is something they will never agree on, even as the audience accepts certain outcomes as a foregone conclusion. The aim here is to use story to stir up all these ideas, to inspire different thinking, and to maybe vilify, if not an individual, then the system he represents. 

This is not a plot-heavy movie. Riot in Cell Block 11 does not hinge on a clever scheme or a last-act twist that reveals the ringleader had a different, selfish reason for leading the revolt all along. On the contrary, this is a movie that stays the course. Dunn (Neville Brand, Stalag 17) organizes the breakout with the other maximum-security prisoners because he believes change is necessary--the inmates, for instance, want mail and other pipelines to the outside world--and he doesn't waiver from the stated intention. The drama comes from how much his fellow prisoners agree with his methods, the bureaucratic reaction to what's going on, and how that tests Dunn's resolve and changes what he's willing to do to achieve the desired results.

The ruling counterpart to Dunn is the warden (Emile Meyer, Paths of Glory [review]), a good man strangled by budgets and regulations. He knows he could do better if  given more resources, but once the uprising occurs, his mission is to defuse the situation with as few casualties as possible. And nothing will dissuade him from his task, either. Of anyone, he's the most determined to avoid easy solutions if doing so ensures getting the right one. The deathblow for idealism may come at the end when it's revealed how much he really believes will happen in the aftermath--reality is a harsh beast--but  even then, did he not save lives all the same?

Siegel and writer Richard Collins stack their ensemble with counterpoints and opposites. The warden has Haskell (Frank Faylen, the dad on the The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), a pencil-pusher sent by the mayor to mind the optics and watch the bottom line. He also has the wives of the guards taken hostage serving as his conscience, calling over the telephone to remind him what’s at stake, and a gaggle of reporters serving as Greek chorus, presenting the difficult truths fueling the conflict as so much exposition. On the other side, Dunn has Carnie (Leo Gordon, Buckskin), the muscle who would rather bust heads than negotiate, and the Colonel (Robert Osterloh, The Wild One [review]), an actual war veteran, put in prison through bad circumstance, who can see the outcome of this battle and doesn't care for the strategy or the eventual cost. Through these many voices, we surpass the surface conflict and delve deep into the more difficult nuance of the disagreement. This is about human dignity vs. public image, budget vs. empathy, and maybe kind of about how these guys did bad things even though maybe that shouldn’t matter when talking about their civil rights.

As sophisticated as it may sound, Riot in Cell Block 11 is a ragged B-movie. Siegel begins the picture as a docudrama, complete with newsreel narration, aided by the stark photography of Russell Harlan (Red River). This drops once the riot begins, and Siegel shifts into stoic melodrama. From the sob stories of the inmates--the prisoner with the sick child, the Colonel’s tale of vehicular manslaughter--to the exaggerated villainy of Haskell or Carnie’s mad-dog machinations, Riot in Cell Block 11 is pure pulp. It’s hard to tell if its social conscience is a cloak it wears to get away with showing violent beatings or if the lurid conflict is the capitulation to box office concerns. Both elements weigh equally in the final cut. Statistics may be shoehorned in by the gabby press men, but they are there all the same.

Plus, even if we excise the social message, there is a morality play at the heart of all this. Siegel is looking at how communities function, how the have-nots feel beaten down by the haves, as well as how those same communities fall apart. 1950s politics being what they are, Dunn’s all-for-one speechifying seems a little suspect. While he wants all prisoners to be treated equally, it doesn’t take long before his lieutenants abuse the system he puts in place, or for others to push harder to earn their own advantage. Little is made of race, despite the integrated population; the only hint of any kind of class comes more from an ethical hierarchy. One prisoner is singled out by all others, black or white, as being beneath contempt, and though they don’t say it outright, the coded language suggests he’s some kind of sex offender. 

To be honest, Riot in Cell Block 11 could have used a little more of that inside knowledge to show how the prison really operates. The inmates are all a little too clean-cut. When picking his players, Siegel cast interesting faces, but these are still Hollywood hooligans. Neville Brand is tough without really being threatening. The lack of backstory makes his high-minded intentions seem a little forced. We have no reason to believe Dunn would have really emerged over any of the others as the man with the plan.

Still, Siegel’s production is a lot less earnest than many of the other message pictures of the era, giving it an edge over even work by Elia Kazan or Stanley Kramer. This must have felt like pretty rough stuff right about then, and its more lowbrow tendencies allow for Riot in Cell Block 11 to remain entertaining, even as its still-relevant preachiness threatens to bog it all down. Not to mention the downbeat revelations in the final scene, which all by themselves remind us that very little has changed, and America’s capitalist approach to incarceration just continues to get worse.