Category Archives: 1940s

Week-End at the Waldorf (1945)

*. Grand Hotel had been sent up as early as 1932 (the year of its release) in Blondie of the Follies, where Marion Davies did Greta Garbo. Vicki Baum’s novel hadn’t really been a comedy though, and the movie, while it had some light moments, was ultimately a bittersweet melodrama if not quite tragic.
*. In 1945 America wasn’t in much of a mood for tragedy, or European interwar ennui, so this update of the story veers toward bedroom farce and screwball bits. We’re also in New York, not Berlin. So the ballet dancer is now a movie star (Ginger Rogers), the Baron is a war correspondent (Walter Pidgeon), the dying man (Van Johnson) has a hope that surgery will be successful (if he can only discover “the will to live”), and the stenographer (Lana Turner) is actually a good girl.

*. That last point is a headscratcher. Joan Crawford was brilliant in Grand Hotel playing a secretary with few scruples. You would think Lana Turner could have just walked into such a part. But instead she’s a peroxide-blonde sweetie, holding out for her sick flyboy. Oh well. Next year she’d have a chance to go full tilt in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
*. I didn’t know the Waldorf Astoria hotel was still there. But I looked it up and it is. Still quite a fancy destination, I guess. There were no rooms available when I checked online so I can’t tell you how much it costs for a night. Apparently they filmed some of this movie on location (mostly just the exteriors) and the hotel had wanted the movie shot in colour to play up its luxury. The studio balked.
*. The book Irene (Rogers) is reading (or at least shown holding) at the party is titled The Whiskey Rebellion. As chance would have it, I’d just finished reading The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hogeland the week I saw this movie. Now Irene can’t be reading Hogeland’s book, which was only published in 2010. So I wonder exactly what book she has. It seems an odd thing for a movie star to be holding at a party. I mean, today you couldn’t imagine a movie star holding a book of any kind at a party. Is it a history she’s reading, or a novel? Now I’m curious.

*. Week-End at the Waldorf was very popular and made a lot of money, so I guess MGM knew what they were doing. This kind of light entertainment doesn’t age well though. It seems a ramshackle affair to me too, at least in terms of plot construction. We’re introduced to the hotel by a narrator’s voiceover, but this character will have no role to play in the rest of the film. There are three major storylines, none of which intersect and none of which is particularly interesting on its own. There’s competent direction by the prolific Robert Leonard. Xavier Cugat plays himself and there are a couple of musical numbers.
*. There’s one cute and knowing scene with Roger and Pigeon where he acts out the part of the Baron in the relationship between Barrymore and Garbo in Grand Hotel and she gets the reference. Aside from that it’s hard to think of anything memorable about this. But then, I don’t think being memorable was the idea. You check in to a movie like this for some star-watching. I’m sure I couldn’t get the heist plots of the different Ocean’s movies straight today either, but they were fun at the time. That’s all that’s going on here too.

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)

*. Believe it or not, Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum starts out looking like it’s going to be something different. A killer named McBirney who’s been sentenced to the electric chair escapes from the courthouse and goes to visit a doctor who has a lucrative business performing plastic surgery on criminals seeking a new identity . . . while running a wax museum as a front! But McBirney is so impatient to get his revenge on Charlie (whose evidence had sentenced him to the chair) that he’ll risk everything to take our hero out even before the bandages are off. A trap is set . . .
*. In other words, not the usual whodunit and on the whole a pretty basic set-up. Until the second half, when things become bewilderingly complicated in the usual fashion. Even the murders are bizarre, from a rigged electric chair to blowguns firing darts dipped in tonga, “a poison used by the Dayak headhunters of Borneo.”
*. What we end up with then is not much different, and not much better, than the usual run-of-the-mill Chan adventure. Victor Sen Yung is the sole bright spot, even if he has to work harder than usual to sell the gags. The business of having someone turn the lights out while they run off or destroy some evidence had become an obligatory scene in the series, and here they use it twice.
*. Not bad. Maybe slightly above average, especially for the Toler Chans. The setting had unrealized potential to be used for more than just the usual “dummy” jokes played with the various effigies, but it still gives the proceedings a nice bit of atmosphere. But Toler is stiff as usual and the plot again tries to cram way too much into too small a box.

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)

*. There’s a story behind the title. This is one of the relatively few Charlie Chan movies to be based on one of the novels by Earl Derr Biggers, in this case Charlie Chan Carries On. Now Charlie Chan Carries On had been filmed previously. It had been the first of the Warner Oland Chans, released in 1931, but the only prints had been destroyed in a big fire at Fox which resulted in the studio wanting to remake them. I don’t know if this was because they figured it was something the public wanted or because they figured nobody would even remember the earlier movie so they could just do some recycling.
*. In any event, this all led to a legal suit because the Biggers estate wanted the credit that the movie was based on an original screenplay and not the novel because that way they’d get more money (I’m not sure how this worked, but that’s how it’s explained in the documentary The Chan Era). The credit ended up saying that it was based on a Biggers story, even though it’s quite a loose adaptation.
*. Given that it had an actual literary source I was expecting something a bit tighter. As it is, even after having just watched it I’m not sure I can explain what it was about. Charlie is alerted to the fact that one of the members of a tour group is a strangler. He joins the group on a cruise from Hawaii to San Francisco hoping to uncover who it is. I’d go into more detail, but the plot synopsis you get on the IMDb is nearly 4,000 words! It’s just too confusing to sort out in a few sentences here.
*. Confusing and not at all satisfying. I didn’t care who it was running around in the mask at the end. Nor is there anything entertaining going on. The usual Chan formula is in play. Jimmy Chan bumbles around. They trap the killer but the lights go out and the killer escapes, etc.
*. A few points stand out. In the first place, I mentioned in my notes on Behind That Curtain that it was maybe the first movie I’d seen where you see a character tying their shoes, or at least where this act is made the focus of attention. But in City in Darkness the business of tying shoes comes up again, and in this movie shoelaces are a clue. I wonder why there was such consistency.
*. Another point has to do with spanking. In a couple of earlier movies Charlie identifies his sons (both Lee and Jimmy) from behind when they have their bums stuck in the air, saying he is able to do so because he was acquainted with this part of their anatomy because he’d administered corporal punishment on them when children. This movie begins with Charlie about to administer a spanking to one of his younger sons only to be interrupted by an old friend.
*. Attitudes have changed toward spanking children. I’m against it, but in 1940 I suppose it was fairly common. It doesn’t make me warm to Charlie very much though. Especially since Toler’s Chan is a cold fellow to begin with.
*. Finally, one clue Charlie picks up on is the way the bed has been made in a hotel room. The sheets have been tucked in the wrong order. Of course today all we have is fitted sheets, but back in the day any cleaning lady or nurse had to know how to make proper hospital corners! Now how many people alive today know how to make hospital corners? It’s yet another lost art.
*. Not a cruise worth taking, I’m afraid. It’s surprising that they made a story this weak into a movie twice, but the first is lost and the second best forgotten.

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

*. War is in the offing, and it’s interesting, from a historical point of view, to look at this movie and see how everyone knew where things were going even before Pearl Harbor. In any event, Charlie is stationed in Panama helping to protect the canal against sabotage by a spy named “Reiner” (or “Ryner” as it appears in the subtitles; I’m not sure if the film gives any indication how it’s to be spelled so I go for the more likely option).
*. Reiner’s identity is unknown, as is the matter of who they are working for (though the German-sounding name is a big hint). The reason they can’t be identified is because the man sent to Panama to give Charlie a heads-up is killed by a poisoned cigarette. Finding Reiner is then what drives the plot, with the usual cast of suspicious types to choose from and the bumbling of Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) being of little assistance.
*. Though it’s the usual formula, and you’ll guess who Reiner is by keeping that formula in mind, there were a few noteworthy things about this one.
*. In the first place, hats off to the stunt man doubling for Manolo who jumped from that balcony. I’ve mentioned before about how much attention spectacular stunts get, when it’s really the more obvious things, like jumping from any kind of height onto a hard surface, that I find most impressive. Like Cornel Wilde dropping from one level of the waterfall to another in The Naked Prey, or the man jumping out of the plane onto the tarmac in Bullitt. I like how the commentaries for both those movies point out just how impressive those jumps were. Well, the jump from the balcony here is just as eye-popping. I really don’t know how he managed to get up after that.
*. Another thing I’d credit this one with is the villain, who is more interesting than usual. Now that’s really not saying much because almost all of the villains in these movies are instantly forgettable. Indeed, I can’t think of any off the top of my head except for Cesar Romero in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (remember that Bela Lugosi in The Black Camel and Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera were not the principal villains).
*. Finally, it seems as though Sidney Toler was starting to relax a bit into the role of Charlie Chan. He’s still pretty robotic, but there are moments, like the sly look he gives Jimmy when he ribs him about a dangerous older woman, where he shows more of a human side.
*. So not a bad entry in this series, with some added historical interest. It was neat watching an aircraft carrier entering into the locks and realizing that war was on the way and that these ships would soon be seeing action. I wonder what aircraft carrier that was and what its story was. Otherwise, though the series was now in full gear, Charlie’s time, at least at Fox, was running out.

Macbeth (1948)

*. William Shakespeare and Orson Welles. Two towering geniuses, with the greatness of Welles’s Othello and Chimes at Midnight being stunning testimony to what their union could bring forth.
*. But . . . Homer does nod. Witness this adaptation of Macbeth, which, though not a terrible movie, I think has to be considered an artistic failure on almost every level.
*. Welles certainly had excuses. A limited budget (around $800,000) and a ridiculously tight shooting schedule (23 days), for starters. Still, he knew how to stretch a buck and was a fast worker (at least when it came to shooting, editing was another matter).
*. No, if you want to know why this movie doesn’t work you can’t use that excuse. Instead you have to look at what were, however constrained, creative decisions that just didn’t work.
*. Contemporary reviewers were particularly harsh on the use of dialect. A review in Life Magazine famously opined that, with his burr, “Orson Welles doth foully slaughter Shakespeare.” It’s hard to disagree. Frankly, I don’t see any point in doing the Scottish play in a Scottish accent. When Macbeth (Welles) complains here of having been left with “a barrrren sceptre in my grrrrrripe,” I just had to roll my eyes. He’s not fooling anyone.
*. Then there are all the bizarre design elements. This looks like a movie put together from a rummage sale of old Hollywood costumes and props. We see people armed with what appear to be tiny tridents and others with crosses. At the end, Welles throws a spear that looks borrowed from an old Flash Gordon serial. There are Viking helmets and others with Celtic crosses sprouting out of them. Macbeth’s crown looks like an upside-down footstool.
*. The weird costumes (far weirder than the witches’ appearance) fit with the otherworldly sets. Does Macbeth even have a castle or does he just live in a cave, with some steps leading up to it carved out of a cliff? The interiors have the cheap SF look of shiny rock walls and bare floors. Jonathan Rosenbaum: “the unabashed B-movie artificiality of the sets confirms that Welles wanted to draft something closer to a charcoal sketch than a finished canvas.” Well, that’s a nice way of putting it, making what was probably more of a grim necessity into an aesthetic choice.
*. For what it’s worth, Welles thought the setting was a cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein. He got a lot more than that in here.
*. There are two things I’d flag about this crazy, stylized-Stone Age look of the film. In the first place, it’s very theatrical. Most of the movie was obviously shot on a studio set, and when you add on Welles’s penchant for long takes (which, in this film, are overdone to no real purpose), you really have the sense of a filmed play. That’s not a look any movie wants to end up with, even they are filmed plays.
*. The second thing about the design is that it’s silly. Some of it probably wasn’t meant to be, but still is. When Malcolm’s forces are marching through Birnam Wood and are told to chop branches from the trees I felt like I was watching the Python troupe meeting up with the Knights who say Ni and being asked to fetch a shrubbery. The helmets with the crosses didn’t help.
*. At other points, however, I think Welles must have been aware of the joke. Once we see Macbeth in power he promenades to what sounds like the comical notes of a tuba. With his royal bulkiness wrapped in furs to go with the musical cue you might think you’re looking at the march of “Rooty,” A&W’s Great Root Bear.
*. The play’s big moments are disappointing. The murder of Banquo is a joke and his ghost is just ho-hum. The “tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech is given over a shot of swirling mist. Birnam Wood just appears as some men holding branches coming out of that mist. The imaginary dagger is scarcely more than a cue. The witches are barely seen.
*. For some reason the character of a Holy Man is added. I can’t figure him out at all. The Christian imagery just feels tacked on anyway.
*. Even when he was young Welles liked playing old men: titans whose life has fallen into the sere. I don’t think this helps him with Macbeth because the play has a natural pull in this direction already. Macbeth goes from being an ambitious up-and-comer to a burnt-out case pretty quickly. In the final acts he’s a man who’s weary of it all and though he shows some of the old spark on occasion (we’d call him bipolar today), mostly he just wants an end. The thing is, Welles is so comfortable with this kind of character that he makes him seem even more enervated than usual, and I found the latter half started to drag.
*. Jeanette Nolan has a promising introduction, with a very sexy “unsex me here” soliloquy, lying on her back in furs with a bust that looks pretty ambitious all on its own. But after this Welles doesn’t give her that much to chew on, and keeps most of the close-ups for himself. To be honest, I found many of the other characters indistinguishable.
*. The direction is less inventive than it may appear at first glance. Aside from the long takes there are a lot of high- and low-angle shots that work to exaggerate the odd shapes of the sets even more. In all of this I didn’t feel like there was anything that enriched the play very much or that took it in any new directions.
*. But while it may be a mess, and a poor movie overall, it is Welles, and Welles is always at least something. There are ideas here that might have worked.
*. As already noted, upon its release it was savaged. It has since rebounded in the eyes of critics, to the point where I’m sure a Criterion release must be in the works. I think everyone needs to pump the brakes on revision. This is not a good movie, though it’s definitely worth checking out for what does, and more often doesn’t, work.

Henry V (1944)

*. While doing some background reading for these notes I was a bit surprised to hear this movie so often referred to as the first successful film adaptation of Shakespeare (successful meaning both popular and a decent interpretation of the play). Was this true? I thought Max Reinhardt’s 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream pretty good. It failed at the box office, but then Henry V didn’t do that well either.
*. Though even without box office it did have value as propaganda at the time, what with England about to invade (German occupied) France again. Shakespeare may be timeless, but this Henry V is also a movie of its moment. As such, it has taken on a kind of iconic value, along with whatever personal place it may have in the memories of fans. David Thomson: “maybe there is no gainsaying the version of Henry V you were born with. I am helplessly loyal to Olivier.”
*. I think this is true, as Kenneth Branagh’s version has the same sort of resonance for me. But there’s no denying Branagh was responding to Olivier, as I think nearly everyone has since.

*. I can’t think of other Shakespeare adaptations that have anything like the same look as this. At the time it must have seemed incredibly daring. The Technicolor was still something new (there was only one Technicolor camera in England), but most of all the production design, going from the costumes, elaborate models, sets, and painted backdrops to the green fields of Ireland, is something I can’t think of anything to compare to. It’s remarkable, and fits perfectly with the whole idea of the playhouse disappearing as we’re drawn into its world.
*. The art direction was by Paul Sheriff and he deserves a lot of credit. So much credit that I had to wonder how much to give to Olivier for directing. I think quite a bit. He hadn’t wanted to direct, but all his first choices (William Wyler, Carol Reed, Terence Young) turned him down and since he’d wanted complete control over the production anyway it only made sense that he’d direct. And would anyone else have been so daring? As Bruce Eder remarks on the Criterion commentary track, “no one else could or would have gotten away with making a movie that looked like this.”

*. The brashness, daring, and originality of a rookie? The obvious comparison is to Welles and Citizen Kane, and while I don’t think Olivier was a filmmaker on the same level as Welles, the fact that this was his first rodeo might have made doing his own thing a little easier. I made a similar remark with regard to Clive Barker and Hellraiser. I think there’s something to be said for the freedom an artist feels when they’re starting out.
*. In terms of the film’s conception, the drawing in and then drawing back out, I think it’s brilliant. That cavalry charge is such a fitting climax in terms of the camera finally cutting loose on its mile-plus racing dolly shot. But the long takes were probably less showing off (as they are with Welles) than the result of just working in a way that the cast was most comfortable with.

*. Something else that few other directors could have gotten away with is the job that’s done on the text. As in all of Olivier’s major Shakespeare productions, this is a heavily edited and re-arranged version of the play. Even the language is changed to make it more accessible (an elder-gun, for example, becomes a pop-gun, which is the same thing). Eder mentions that only half of the lines in the play were kept, and if you know the play well you can really feel the gaps. But it works, because Olivier knew what would work. And as I’ve said before, it’s not like a full-text Shakespeare would have been produced even in Shakespeare’s own day.
*. As an example of how the rearrangement and presentation can result in a wholly new interpretation, take the scene where the French leaders moan about the shame of their defeat and then pledge to go off into battle (“to the throng”) to try and salvage something from their disgrace. In the film this is followed by their immediately attacking the defenceless baggage train, and killing “the poys and the luggage.” The short scene where Henry commands the English to kill their prisoners is cut (as it usually is). Then when the nobles return the Dauphin is seen riding away. Not, I think, in cowardly retreat, but in disgust at what his compatriots have just done. It’s an interesting interpretation (the Dauphin is usually portrayed as a poltroon) and I’m not sure where it comes from, since it would probably be hard to do the scenes the same way on stage.

*. Eder points to how it’s a modern production that is both grounded in Shakespeare’s Globe and in medieval art (the sets and backdrop paintings are lifted from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry). It’s also, I think, grounded in different styles of filmmaking. At times it plays like the drama of the silents, with oversized gestures and lots of physical business. But then it becomes more subtle, quieter, and more naturalistic, to the point where Henry’s monologue before the battle is done entirely as a voiceover. Though even in the battle scenes there is a strong sense of stylized action, recalling Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, among other sources.
*. I think if you want to know why Olivier is such a great actor you just have to watch his eyes. I’m honestly mystified at how he manages to project so much with them, while not changing his facial expression at all. His face may even be mostly covered up, as when Montjoy the herald arrives for his final parley. Those eyes make it perfectly clear that this is a man not to be pushed any further, and yet his expression is completely blank. How does he do this? Is there an art to it?
*. The supporting cast is great. Henry V has I think Shakespeare’s biggest role for a Chorus, and Leslie Banks (Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game) handles it well. Robert Newton made a whole new career for himself with the broad comedy of Pistol. Renée Asherson as Princess Katherine is fittingly doll-like (Olivier had wanted his wife Vivien Leigh to play the part, but she was under contract). Photography by Robert Krasker that really paints with colour and light. A classic score by William Walton. It’s hard to think of anywhere they went wrong. They even won the war.

Black Angel (1946)

*. Basically Phantom Lady over again. Both films are based on Cornell Woolrich stories, though he was reportedly unhappy with how this one was adapted. Once again a married man is charged with murder, though this time he is suspected of killing a lover who had been blackmailing him. He is tried, found guilty, and sent to death row, effectively disappearing from the movie. His wife sets out to prove his innocence.
*. It’s not as good a movie as Phantom Lady. Director Roy William Neill was a prolific journeyman, probably best known for directing a pile of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the first of Universal’s horror ensembles. He wasn’t an old man but this was his last movie as he died of a heart attack soon after finishing it. I think he does fine, but he’s no Robert Siodmak in the style department, and indeed doesn’t even try for much in that regard.
*. The cast is second tier. Dan Duryea and June Vincent are the leads and you’ll have to be a real fan of the period to recognize their names. Peter Lorre just shows up and tries to amuse himself by seeing how low he can dangle a cigarette from his lips while delivering his lines. There’s even one scene where he’s on the telephone and he hangs it up as he’s still talking to the guy on the other end. That’s just lazy and careless on everyone’s part.
*. The one thing that does stand out is the twist in the plot that comes at the end. That took me by surprise, even though I was puzzling throughout how they were going to make the romantic angles all square off, as they were getting mighty murky by the standards of Code Hollywood. Well, they don’t manage it very easily, as things take a turn for the wildly improbable in the final act. And I’m left wondering if Carver & Martin wouldn’t have been a better outcome. Wouldn’t they have been good for each other? She’s on her way to becoming a star and he’s kicked his drinking habit. As for hubby, when Vincent points to his photo and asks Duryea if he thinks that looks like a killer, don’t you want to say, “Yes!”
*. There’s a not uncommon flaw in mystery stories where they tease us with red herrings and misdirections that, in the finale, turn out to make more sense than the actual explanation that’s given. Black Angel may fall into this category. The ending we’re left with just doesn’t add up, though it does deserve some points for weirdness and mocking expectations.

Fallen Angel (1945)

*. Near the beginning of his DVD commentary on Fallen Angel, noir historian Eddie Muller talks about how, as Fox’s follow-up to the success of Laura, it is inevitably compared to that movie, usually to Fallen Angel‘s detriment.
*. The reasons for this are pretty obvious, as it literally was the follow-up to Laura, employing a lot of the same talent. Otto Preminger directing. Dana Andrews as the leading man. David Raksin doing the score. There’s even Dorothy Adams reappearing in a similar role.
*. Gene Tierney is missing though, her part split into two. In Laura we’re left unsure for a while as to whether Laura Hunt is on the level: good girl or femme fatale. In Fallen Angel there’s no such confusion. In the one corner we have America’s sweetheart (or at least one of America’s sweethearts) Alice Faye. This was supposed to be a kind of comeback film for her but it turned out to be her last starring role, after she felt that Zanuck was more interested in promoting co-star Linda Darnell and cutting Faye’s scenes. That may have been the case, but for reasons other than a temporary infatuation with Darnell, as the character of Stella, like most bad girls, is just more interesting than goody-two-shoes June, who lives with her sister and plays the church organ.
*. Sultry Darnell plays dark to Faye’s light. David Thomson says of her that “she exists imaginatively as the loose-living sister of Gene Tierney, a girl bruised by experience but still making up her lips till they bulge with prospects.” There are a lot of scenes in Fallen Angel where she’s bulging with prospects. That’s sort of her job, when she isn’t slinging the hash (“good and brown”) at Pop’s. She’s often cast in shadows while Faye is bathed in light, just in case you missed more obvious cues like raven vs. blonde locks.

*. The interesting thing about Fallen Angel is that Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) is every bit as shadowy a character as Stella, if not darker. They deserve each other. He’s a heel, “a complete washout at 30,” a two-timing grifter and fraud, but not a murderer. He resembles Shelby Carpenter from Laura just a bit, morally compromised enough to be a target of suspicion, but in the end not all bad.
*. But in Laura Shelby gets second prize in the form of Judith Anderson, a woman who knows he’s worthless but who wants him anyway. In Fallen Angel there’s a more conventional romantic resolution, with Eric the bad boy presumably being redeemed by the love of a good woman. But just as it’s hard to imagine Laura Hunt settling down for long with McPherson, isn’t it hard seeing Eric staying with June? The one sign of hopefulness is the way that she’s driving away at the end. Might she not say that she knows Eric is worthless but she wants him anyway?

*. Also as in Laura there is a startling break in the middle of the movie as it swerves in another direction. Up to that point we’ve known Eric is a heel and we’re kind of rooting for the policeman (or ex-policeman) Judd to catch him out. But then we see Judd putting on the gloves to rough up a suspect in Stella’s murder and we wonder what’s going on. Our sympathies are forced back to Eric, as uncomfortable as that feels.
*. This sudden break took me by surprise and it’s one of the things that sets Fallen Angel a notch above the average noir. The other point I’d mention is Preminger’s direction. He’s known for the casual fluidity of his long takes but he really outdoes himself here. There’s one turn (literally) where he spins on a crane away from where June is taken away in a police car to where Eric is watching her across the street that made me sit up in amazement. That’s a terrific shot, and it’s just tossed off.
*. The story has its awkward moments, but some nice touches too, from the opening credits appearing on highway signs to Charles Bickford’s Judd wanting to finish his coffee while holding a gun on Eric. Overall it’s not a movie that makes it into the top rank of noirs, but it’s still worth tracking down even if you’re not a big fan of the period.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

*. A great movie, but hard to talk about for a couple of reasons. In the first place there’s the mountain range of stuff that’s already been said, which is pretty much everything by now as it’s been picked apart frame by frame. And second because of its status as cinema’s great lost masterpiece, unlikely now to ever be reconstituted.
*. What we have is a bowdlerized fragment, slapped together after RKO panicked when it didn’t play well in Pomonoa and Welles was (stuck?) partying down in Brazil. Apparently the working print was 132 minutes, but Welles had already cut 22 minutes from that for the Pomona screening. Still more was then cut and the ending was entirely reshot (along with some other scenes), for a final running time of 88 minutes.
*. So it’s not the movie Welles made. One question then is how good that movie, which we don’t have, originally was. We can only speculate. Welles thought the final edits (directed by Robert Wise) were done with a lawnmower, and that before the cuts and reshoots it was a better film than Citizen Kane. I think that’s unlikely, but not impossible, which is rating what’s left very highly indeed since I was never one to argue with Citizen Kane‘s perch atop the list of greatest movies ever made (and I would certainly argue, strongly, against Vertigo knocking it off).

*. From what we can reconstruct of the (or an) original version I think it would have been terrific. In particular, the problem of the terrible ending of Tarkington’s novel had been mostly solved, taking the story in a “darker, harder dimension” (Welles) not in the novel. But the reshot version not only took away this ending but made its most egregious substitution in the final scene. More than that, however, there is the loss of any sense of rhythm, pace, or shape to the story, especially in the more mangled second half. The tragedy of the Ambersons is a slowly developing photograph, but that’s not how it plays here.
*. That said, it’s worth nothing that Robert Carringer (the authority on this subject) says that according to everyone he talked to who had seen it the film was unplayable in its original form. I’m not sure why. I also don’t understand the frequent line about how it wasn’t a film for the public taste during wartime (Pearl Harbor was attacked just as they were finishing up filming). Why not? This seems reductive reasoning.
*. I say the tragedy of the Ambersons more than just the story of George’s comeuppance. One of the great strengths of the story is how the tragedy is that of several families, all inextricably bound up in each other. George, Isabel, Eugene, Fanny, even the old Major. Aren’t they all tragic figures?
*. And aren’t the greatest tragedies about the destruction of a family, or families, more than that of a single tragic hero? I’d say that’s true from the Oresteia through Hamlet up to such famous American tragedies as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, and The Glass Menagerie. A hero’s downfall may be unfortunate, but a whole family is a tragedy.
*. Saying it’s an ensemble tragedy also gets us away from talking about George. According to the DVD commentators on the Criterion release George is a big problem audiences have always had with the movie, due to his being so unlikeable. If I could, however, I’d like to say a few words in his defence.
*. Yes, Georgie is a snob and a mama’s boy, but that’s the way he was raised. Does he ruin his mother’s chance for a loving relationship with Eugene? Well, isn’t she a bit (or a lot) to blame for that? And why is Eugene so firm that George should have a profession? Why should he have a profession if he doesn’t need one, as he clearly doesn’t seem to. Meanwhile, the adults in his family are all pretty much stupid and useless. Aside from the Major none of them seem to be capable of doing anything, and they are the ones in the positions of most responsibility.

*. And is George such a snob, strictly speaking? He doesn’t disapprove of Eugene because of his social rank. After all, he wants to marry his daughter. He seems more upset about his mother loving anyone but himself.
*. I also think George is redeemed quite a bit at the end. He shows character in adversity. He even accepts responsibility for Fanny, which I didn’t see as necessary, and becomes “the most practical young man I ever met” in the eyes of someone who should have been one of those most looking forward to his comeuppance. Though clearly George isn’t that practical in his choice of profession. He’s never learned practicality.
*. On the same subject of how we see poor Georgie, isn’t it unfair that his Oedipal syndrome is played up so much when nothing much is said about Lucy as Electra? Yes, George throws a monkey wrench in his mother’s affair with Eugene, but Eugene has already exercised a veto on Lucy marrying George. So he can keep her all to himself? That’s not very nice.
*. Yes, I admire the facility Welles had with a long take. And it’s a shame that what he considered the best of them, the ball scene, was cut here. But there are other places where I found myself wondering why he wasn’t mixing shots up a bit more. Why bother playing the scene with George eating the shortcake with Fanny as a fixed-camera long take? It seems dull and inexpressive to me.
*. The photography, mostly by Stanley Cortez, is a marvel. I’d forgotten just how dark a movie this is. The number of shots where pools like ink or curtains of black velvet overwhelm the field is really noticeable. A few of the better known examples:

*. Of course this darkness has thematic content as well, representing the growing gloom that is overtaking the Amberson family, swallowing like that closing iris on the motor vehicle. Apparently the film’s final shot was going to be another shot of a vehicle riding off into the darkness as well. Another part of that “darker, harder dimension” Welles wanted to evoke.
*. It’s a critical commonplace that Ambersons was Welles’s own swan song, or Waterloo. I’ve never entirely understood why Hollywood had it in for Welles. Too young to have so much talent? But the movie biz has always loved its wunderkinder. Spielberg and Coppola weren’t hated. But something about Orson set them off. Talent is less tolerable than success.
*. There’s no denying it’s a movie that was wrecked through editing and reshooting. But still there’s something so suggestive in what remains, from the stills of lost footage to the scraps of drawings and script that were never shot. We all carry in our heads versions of movies we never really saw, memory doing its own editing job. The Ambersons Welles made will never be found, but what’s left is a magnificent ghost that’s been haunting me since the first time I saw it. Does the imagination dwell the most on a movie seen or a movie lost? It’s not a movie I go back and rewatch very often, but I think about it a lot.

Criss Cross (1949)

*. I was a bit surprised to find several essays by film scholars about Criss Cross when I did my usual dip into background reading for these notes. They pointed, without elaborating much, on its similarities to The Killers (same director, same star, same flashback narrative). They praised its stylishness and plot. They rated it very highly.
*. I say this was surprising because Criss Cross doesn’t strike me as a very enjoyable movie at all. The long flashback in the middle is very dull and doesn’t even do an adequate job of explaining how Scott (Burt Lancaster) wound up in this jam anyway. Was the heist his plan all along, or just something he came up with on the spot to explain a dalliance with his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), who is now married to the hood Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea)? Also: why did Scott and Anna break up in the first place if they’re both still so obsessed with each other? Also: how exactly were the two double-crosses supposed to work? Did Scott always plan to screw Slim over, or did he change his mind when Pop got shot? I couldn’t follow any of this.
*. I haven’t read the source novel but apparently the film was initially just supposed to be a heist picture and then a love triangle got grafted onto the story later (something Lancaster wasn’t happy with). I don’t know all the ins and outs but it does have that feel of something sort of put together on the fly, leading to the kind of unanswered questions I just mentioned.
*. Worse than the script however are the two leads. I like both Lancaster and De Carlo but they come across as robotic here, and don’t share much chemistry at all. Lancaster demonstrates range by stripping down to his wifebeater, again. The ending comes as quite a surprise, but that’s largely because De Carlo didn’t give me any idea of who Anna was. Even at the end I found her a cipher. I guess she was the femme fatale, a woman stronger than the crooks and saps she’s surrounded by. But maybe she really loved Scott. I don’t know.
*. The end is actually pretty good. The heist is explosive and is followed by a hospital scene that is wonderfully suspenseful, if improbable (did hospital rooms have dressers like that in the 1940s? was it so easy to check out?). And then there’s a final showdown that does not play out the way I was expecting at all.
*. So full credit for all that stuff. There are some really good things in Criss Cross, I think mainly courtesy of Robert Siodmak (who only gets carried away in one silly contortionist overhead shot). That said, the script is a mess of stiff dialogue (“verbose, redundant and imitative” in the judgment of a contemporary New York Times review), with voiceover from Lancaster that sounds like someone reading voiceover. As I’ve said, Burt’s really mailing it in here. I’ll do the same.