(In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) Coming in toward the end of the Vietnam quagmire, 1970 was a strange year for war movies. On the one hand, you have the blockbuster example of Patton, with its portrayal of a grander-than-life soldier’s soldier against the noble backdrop of World War II and sweeping tank battles. Then there is the satirical trio of Kelly’s Heroes, MASH and Catch-22, all of which took a jaundiced satirical look at war, taking potshots at the very ideals that earlier movies such as The Longest Day would have promoted a few years earlier. (Even Patton isn’t immune to the critical re-evaluation, as Patton himself is portrayed as exceptionally flawed and prisoner of his own nature.) Catch-22 betrays its literary origins through elaborate dialogue sequences often taking over the cinematic qualities of its sequences—most spectacularly during a sequence in which some inane dialogue takes place over the crash landing of a plane behind the characters. This being said, there’s an admirable commitment to historical recreations in Catch-22—the film put together a bomber air base just for shooting, and the results are some impressive sequences with real military hardware and none of that fluffy CGI stuff. An all-star cast is enough to keep things interesting—from Alan Arkin’s too-sane protagonist to Orson Welles turning up as a military commander. Much of the film has a compelling twisted logic to it, pointing out the limits of military thinking in exceptional situations. While the result could have been tighter, more focused and perhaps just a bit less talky, it still amounts to a compelling anti-war statement.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2018) On paper, I’m sure Casino Royale was a great idea. In fact, the film does work better from a conceptual viewpoint than a practical one … which is a fancy way of saying that the film is a mess. From a cold viewing, the film makes no sense: it’s an attempt to satirize Bond, and it goes off in all directions at once, making failed jokes in multiple segments that barely relate to whatever plot we can identify. Some moments are funnier than others, and the high-spirited finale is pure comic chaos (in the good sense of the expression), but much of the film simply falls flat. Coherence is a major issue when entire scenes have their own idea of what humour is, and when the actors aren’t following the same plan. And what a list of actors! A young Woody Allen, a remarkably fun Orson Welles goofing off with magic tricks, First Bond Girl Ursula Andress playing (a) Bond, David Niven as “The original” Bond (before Connery ruined the name), Jean-Claude Belmondo for thirty seconds and a bunch of other cameos. Peter Sellers is occasionally fun, but he seems to be acting in another film entirely. The film’s production values are high enough that we’re left to contemplate a bizarre result, clearly made with considerable means but without a coherent plan. What to make of it? The key to understanding Casino Royale is to read about the film’s unbelievable production. It started with the intention of copycatting Connery’s Bond film series through the rights of Fleming’s first Bond novel, but was realigned to a satirical comedy once Connery made himself unavailable. Then, for some reason, the film became a creation from five different directors, with a sixth trying to patch the gaps between the sequences. Then Peter Sellers, who wanted to play a dramatic Bond, started sabotaging the production before leaving it entirely before his scenes were completely filmed. Given all of this, it’s a minor miracle if Casino Royale makes even the slightest sense. That doesn’t make it a good movie (although there are maybe twenty minutes of good comedy here, as long as you keep only the scenes with Sellers, Welles and Allen) but it certainly explains how we got there. There may have been messier productions and movies out there, but Casino Royale is a case of its own. (I saw the film as a young teenager, but the only moment I remembered from it was Allen’s line about learning how to tie women up in the boy scouts. Go figure. Or don’t, given that I was a boy scout.)
(On TV, June 2018) Much has been written and said about Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, and nearly all of it supports the assertion that it is a late film-noir classic. I certainly won’t dispute the critical consensus: From its landmark first extended shot, Touch of Evil is the work of a master filmmaker, deftly guiding us through a familiar plot with enough energy and precision to make it look at fresh and new. By the late fifties, film noir was growing aware of its own stylized approach, and Welles had ballooned up to his late-day persona. Both are used effectively, with Welles delivering plenty of visual style as a director, while turning in a remarkably disquieting performance as a deeply corrupt police officer. The film effectively uses actors such as Marlene Dietrich, but somehow convinced itself that Charlton Heston would make a convincing Mexican under layers of makeup. This misstep stands out but does not really damage the film, which is good enough to stand on its own. The sense of palpable desperation certainly associates Touch of Evil with prototypical film noir—it remains a must see for fans of the genre.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Orson Welles does film noir in The Lady from Shanghai, a fairly standard thriller that becomes a great movie through great direction. Welles stars as an everyday man who meets your usual femme fatale, not quite grasping that he’s being framed for murder. Things go from New York City to San Francisco in a flash, and before long our protagonist is unjustly accused, dragged in court and forced to escape to prove his innocence (does that stuff ever works out in real life?) The plot is familiar, but it’s Welles’ eye for the camera and caustic sense of humour that sets the film apart. There’s a climax of court during the trial sequence, during which the camera can’t seem to stop focusing on tiny inconsequential details rather than the (very familiar) argument being presented to the course, exactly as if the chatter was a foregone conclusion and not worth our attention anyway. The famous ending shootout takes places in a half-of-mirror, something that has been appropriated by at least two other movies already. It all amounts to a very stylish, very competent film noir in the purest tradition of the genre. Legend has it that Welles accepted to do the film because he needed money, and the final result was butchered by studio executives. Still, the film shows a clever craftsman at work: San Francisco looks great, Welles has one of his final “thin Welles” roles, and Rita Hayworth makes for a near-perfect femme fatale. The result, however, is definitely weird and has occasional shifts in tone that can catch viewers unaware—whether deliberately through Welles’ intentions or accidentally through studio interference, The Lady from Shanghai sometimes works best as vignettes rather than a sustained narrative. But it’s still worth seeing.