A couple of years ago the Criterion Collection released Orson Welles's F for Fake in a two-disc edition. I'd never manged to see this particular film, despite my fondness for Welles's work as a director, and so I eagerly bought the set.
F for Fake is a rather free-spirited documentary about forgery and deceit that looks at, among other things, the hoaxes perpetrated by Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving. It's all too complicated to summarize here. If you're interested, you can look at the Wikipedia entry and then start following links to all of the participants.
Well, it's impossible not to be fascinated by such people. Consequently, I went looking for a copy of Fake!, Irving's biography of Elmyr. Since there are numerous references to it in Welles's film, I thought that I should read it. It was out of print two years ago, but I easily found a used copy through a third-party seller on Amazon.com. Since Irving is a talented writer, I found the book to be a pleasure to read. I went through it in a single evening.
I started looking into Irving's other books and wound up reading his true crime story, Daddy's Girl. It too is out of print, but I found a copy at a local used book store. Once again, the book was a gripping read. If you go to this page and scroll down a bit, you'll find three lengthy interviews with Irving from 1984, 1988, and 1990. He discusses his books, his time in prison, and so forth. The interview from 1988 is devoted to Daddy's Girl.
Not too long after I watched Welles's movie and read two of Irving's books, I noticed that a film about Irving and his Howard Hughs hoax, a film starring Richard Gere, was soon to be released. I guess that it's been out for a while in the States, but is only now in release in the U.K. As you would expect, the film has been getting some attention in the British press, as has Irving himself. The Daily Telegraph published a lengthy profile of Irving about a month ago. Mick Brown visited Irving in Aspen, Colorado, and got him to talk about his life.
Irving, of course, published his own book about the Howard Hughes hoax. It's entitled, appropriately enough, The Hoax. It's the basis of the film. According to Irving himself, however, the film doesn't actually have very much to do with the truth. Go to this page on Irving's website for his take on the project.
In early 2006 I wrote a 500-word entry about Benjamin Christensen's Häxan for Steven Schneider's BFI anthology 100 European Horror Films. The book is also available in the U.S. under the same title.
If you don't know about Häxan, then I recommend that you see it. It's one of the strangest of silent horror films, since it's really more of a documentary essay than a drama, although it contains dramatic illustrations of the European witch craze. There's also a didactic aspect to the film. Benjamin Christensen, the director, was familiar with the psychiatry and psychoanalysis of his day, and he attempts to demonstrate that the origin of the belief in witches and witchcraft has a psychological explanation rooted in the phenomenon of hysteria.
For my entry I made use of the DVD available through the Criterion Collection. As far as I know, that's the only version to be found in the U.S. Unfortunately, I don't know what other editions might be available outside of the U.S.
Unfortunately, book reviews are sometimes written by people who seem to have little to no familiarity with the subject matter of the book under review. I just encountered an example of this in the review of the second volume of Simon Callow's ongoing biography of Orson Welles that Anne Applebaum recently wrote for The Spectator.
Apparently, the new volume of Callow's biography covers the 1940s, the period in which Welles directed Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, It's All True, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, and Macbeth. From her review it's impossible to tell whether or not Ms. Applebaum has actually seen any of these films besides Citizen Kane.
A large portion of the review deals with the making of It's All True, which Ms. Applebaum never mentions by name. It's certainly true that Welles's behavior in Brazil alienated him from the people at RKO, contributed to the mangling of the great-in-spite-of-it-all The Magnificent Ambersons, and caused the studio to put an end to It's All True.
Here is one of Ms. Applebaum's observations about It's All True: "Allegedly, he did film some scenes of intense beauty. . . ." This is a remarkable admission of ignorance. Some of the footage that Welles shot has been available to the public since 1993. I have it on VHS, and it's now available on DVD.
Consequently, there's no need to allege anything. Ms. Applebaum could have seen for herself whether or not It's All True contains scenes of intense beauty. Apparently, she couldn't be bothered to do so. Or, and this is worse, she doesn't even realize that she could have watched what's now available. If the latter is the case, then she should never have been given the assignment of reviewing Callow's new book.
The rest of Welles's career, according to Ms. Applebaum, was filled with "colossal failures and unfinished projects." You'll be forgiven if you get the impression that Welles never directed anything of interest or importance after Citizen Kane, which leaves you wondering why someone such as Simon Callow would bother to write a multi-volume biography of Welles.
Let us pray that the gods of publishing will henceforth protect us from ignorant and condescending reviewers!
About two months ago, Born to Kill, which I highly recommend, was released on DVD as part of volume two of Warner Video's Film Noir Classic Collection. The forthcoming Val Lewton Horror Collection will contain The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. As for Blood on the Moon, I've no idea when it will appear on DVD.
We know that Alec Guinness didn't think much of the Star Wars films. (I saw him say as much when he was a guest on the Dave Letterman show years ago.) Consequently, he feared that he would be best remembered for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi. His apprehension was correct, unfortunately. Except for, say, his role as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guinness isn't known to many filmgoers these days for playing anything other than playing a Jedi knight.
I haven't blogged anything about Mark Felt's recent confession that he was Deep Throat, but, of course, I couldn't avoid all the media hoopla surrounding the story.
This article by Sasha Issenberg caught my eye, because it discusses Dick, a movie send-up of the bungled Watergate break-in and the resulting behind-the-scenes machinations that brought down the Nixon administration.
I'd seen part of the film before, but Issenberg's essay inspired me to rent the DVD and watch the movie in its entirety. I highly recommend it. It's not only hilariously funny in places, but it also manages to capture some of the absurdist aspects of Nixon's presidency, the chief one being the fact that all those political hacks and criminals were allowed to run the country in the first place. Dan Hedaya plays Nixon as hopelessly square, in addition to all of his other unsavory characteristics. That is, Hedaya gets Nixon just right.
The film prompts you to underestimate its two heroines, Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams), from the very beginning, but somewhat unfairly, I think. We shouldn't consider the girls shallow they're fifteen when the movie begins just because they blunder their way into the Watergate burglary after mailing a submission to a Tiger Beat contest for a date with Bobby Sherman. As they're returning to Arlene's apartment she lives in the Watergate with her mother they run into G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer). If you ask me, there's only one appropriate course of action to pursue when you encounter someone who is as obviously batshit crazy as Liddy: you let out an ear-piercing scream and run for your life. I'm happy to say that the girls pass this character test with flying colors. Consequently, I was on their side for the rest of the film. You go, girls!
The girls make history, all the while looking extremely cute in their 70s outfits. The plot is convoluted, as you would expect. They become friendly with President Nixon "Call me Dick," he says but eventually realize that they can't trust him "You're a bad man," says Arlene and Nixon sends his people after them. This makes the girls very angry, and leads to the best bit of dialogue in the movie:
Arlene: How dare these people keep treating us like stupid teenage girls!
Betsy: But we are stupid teenage girls.
Arlene: No, Betsy, we're human beings, and we're American citizens. And fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers . . . did something, I don't know what. But I do know one thing: Dick's ass is grass.
The girls then proceed to turn Dick's ass into grass, ultimately managing to deliver enough incriminating evidence to Woodward and Bernstein to force Nixon to resign.
I won't give away the film's final five minutes, but they're perfect, absolutely perfect.
I mention the DVD release because I wrote an essay on the film about two years ago. Since I haven't yet purchased the DVD, I can't comment on the quality of the transfer. But I can certainly recommend the film, which, by the way, is quite beautiful, but also not for the squeamish.
My essay is an analysis of the emotional dynamics of the plot as well as a critique of political readings of the film. Consequently, you might want to watch the DVD before you read my essay. If not, however, this link will take you to what I wrote.
A few days ago Warner Brothers released a 5-DVD set called Film Noir Classic Collection. Chris Orr wrote this article (subscription-only) for The New Republic about the film Out of the Past, one of the five titles in the set.
If you don't know the movie, then I highly recommend it. It's one of the greatest examples of film noir. It's based on a novel called Build My Gallows High, written by Daniel Mainwaring (under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes). Published in 1946, it was quickly adapted into an RKO film scripted by Mainwaring himself and directed by Jacques Tourneur. The film came out in 1947.
The sharpest dialogue in the film is not to be found in the book, and the film's plot is more suspenseful and dramatic than the book's plot. Mainwaring took a good book and somehow transformed it into an exemplary script. If you compare the book and the film, you'll immediately see the improvements. (Mainwaring, by the way, became an important screenwriter. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of his many screen credits.)
I purchased the Warners Brothers box set a few days ago, and I've been watching the films as time has allowed. Here are the five titles: Out of the Past, The Set-Up, Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle, and Murder, My Sweet. We could argue about the definition of film noir all night long, I suppose, but I wouldn't include The Set-Up or The Asphalt Jungle in the genre. Nonetheless, it's nice to have them in the set. If you recognize Audrey Totter in The Set-Up, you might have seen her play Adrienne Fromsett in Robert Montgomery's rather odd 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake.
I already owned videotapes of Out of the Past and Murder, My Sweet. (The latter, by the way, is a loose adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely.) The DVD picture is brighter and less muddy, and the images are obviously sharper. I guess that the transfer to DVD might have involved some restoration work, but I don't really know anything about all of that. I'm just grateful to have them on DVD.
Murder, My Sweet was directed by Edward Dmytryk, whereas Out of the Past was directed by Jacques Tourneur. As far as I'm concerned, Tourneur was a greatly superior director, which is one reason his film is better than Dmytryk's. It also helps that Tourneur's cast included Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (who made another movie together called The Big Steal, also scripted by Mainwaring, but not yet on DVD), whereas Dmytryk's cast included Dick Powell and Claire Trevor. For the purposes of film noir, if you ask me, Mitchum and Greer worked together better than Powell and Trevor, which isn't to slight Powell or Trevor.
Powell actually plays Philip Marlowe closer to Chandler's depiction than Bogart does in The Big Sleep. Bogart's Marlowe is too masterful and too confident, whereas Powell's captures Marlowe's uncertainty and occasional self-pity. This is mostly because Murder, My Sweet retains the first-person narration of Farewell, My Lovely. The Bogart film drops the first-person narration of Chandler's novel and happily dispenses with the plot of the book whenever Howard Hawks decides to insert some fun business between Bogart's and Bacall's characters that has no basis whatsoever in the novel. Trevor was better, I think, in Robert Wise's Born to Kill and Anthony Mann's Raw Deal. But Murder, My Sweet is still a pretty good film.
My fondness for Tourneur's films includes his horror films: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon in the U.K.). Only the last of the four is currently available on DVD (and as a bonus, the DVD includes both the U.S. and U.K. versions of the film, which are of different lengths). I wrote an essay on Tourneur's horror films entitled "Heidegger, the Uncanny, and Jacques Tourneur's Horror Films" that you can find in a book called Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror. If you'd like to read my essay, let me know. I can send it to you as a PDF.