Masterpiece Filmmaking 101

Masterpiece Filmmaking 101

Check out this Welles Retro, watch the Oscars, then decide

A great movie is like a great novel, or for that matter a great painting: you can always learn something new. I must, over the years, have seen “The Third Man” two dozen times, but this past weekend, when I took another look for present purposes, three things that had never registered before jumped out at me.

First, Holly Martins’ repeated misspeaking of Major Calloway’s name (Trevor Howard, blowing smoke through his nose, to blundering, naive Joseph Cotten: “It’s Calloway, not Callahan, I’m English, not Irish.”) is paralleled by all-American Holly’s repeated misspeaking of villainous Viennese Dr. Winkle’s name (“VIN-kle, not Winkle”).

Second, when Holly and Anna (gorgeous Alida Valli) are poking around the late Harry Lime’s flat, shooting questions at the unlucky porter who’d seen a third man help carry Harry’s body toward the Emperor Joseph statue across the street, she casually, by habit, opens a drawer, extracts a comb from it and idly runs the comb through her hair. A reflex. Of course. This is where she has slept many nights and awakened many mornings.

Finally, it is not until one full hour has passed that Harry Lime makes physical entry into the 104-minute masterpiece–– the most famous delayed entry in all cinema––with Anna’s kitten nosing at the shoes of someone in a dark doorway who will turn out to be a naughtily half-smiling Orson Welles, right?

Wrong. Quite some minutes before that, Dr. Winkle and two other conspirators known to us have had a strategy meeting that takes place midway across a bridge over the Danube. We get a quick glimpse of this get-together from a great distance––a long, overhead angle shot. The plotters are mere dots. There are four of them––four dots. Three plus one. Harry Lime!

“The Third Man” was created by Alexander Korda (original idea), Graham Greene (screenplay), Carol Reed (direction), Anton Karas (zither), Orson Welles (acting, some key dialogue), plus various others.

You can re-read this spellbinding “novel” once again at your leisure during the week of April 9 to 15, when it closes out the two-month Orson Welles retrospective series at Film Forum. The series opened last week with a new 35mm print of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” the reflective, detailed portrait of an American family that Welles chose in 1942 to follow that other, all-encompassing, all-enduring American profile, “Citizen Kane.”

In all, the series, put together by the Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein and Harris Dew, embraces some 40 motion pictures that were either directed and/or written by Welles, or in which Welles is an actor, or are about Welles.

This brilliant parade supplies the chance of chances to catch up on such long-neglected, rarely scheduled works as “Mr. Arkadin” (a 1955 ur-Welles thriller about a mystery billionaire expunging his past); “The Lady From Shanghai” (a 1948 film starring Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth in which as director he pays tribute to his wife’s beauty and sexuality with a famous shootout in a house of mirrors); “The Trial,” (the 1962 film that takes viewers through a doorway and another doorway into the enormous, crowded, factory-sized courtroom of Kafka’s nightmare); “Compulsion,” (the 1959 film in which Welles, seemingly through osmosis, conveys the deep humanity of Clarence Darrow, who defended Leopold and Loeb); and even “Someone to Love,” (in which a benign, world-wise Welles lends his thoughts to acolyte Henry Jaglom’s sweet, sad 1987 examination of the emotional track record of friends).

Very little of Welles’ work has gone out of date, though some of his acting stints undertaken to pay for the movies he himself was making, or hoped to make, are laughably obsolete and bad movies. And it must be said that some of his work––case in point, his role as the sad sack long-lost MIA of the 1945 clinker “Tomorrow Is Forever”––is hack work, pure and simple.

But, watching “The Third Man” just this past weekend, waiting along with Holly Martins for Harry Lime to stroll jauntily from far away across that empty stretch of fairground up to the giant Ferris wheel, I was hit with another little jolt of past and present, reinforcing for me Welles’ timelessness. At that Ferris wheel, Harry Lime said to the moralistic Holly: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” That same Switzerland, it occurred to me, also protected in Nazi bank accounts the wealth squeezed from millions who went up in smoke, and even today plans to officially “forgive” some of the miscreants because they saved as many Jews as they could by sneaking them across the border, out of the hands of the Gestapo.

Harry Lime would have appreciated all that. In fact, he foresaw it.

I have lived with Orson Welles all my life, which means since the Mercury Players’ “Doctor Faustus” and “Julius Caesar” of high school field trips, but more particularly since the summer of 1941, when, with college mate Charles G. Bolté, who looked like Welles, spoke like Welles, and would a year and a half later lose a leg at El Alamein, we came out of “Citizen Kane” and walked, stunned, the two of us, up Times Square, both knowing we would never in all our days see a greater movie than that. Which turned out to be true.

“Citizen Kane” is in the retrospective at Film Forum the weekend of March 5 to 8. You might want to go from there to the exhibition of Orson Welles posters at Posteritati opposite the old police headquarters.

“People should cross themselves when they say his name,” Marlene Dietrich is reported to have declared of Welles. She also says, in “Touch of Evil” (1958), as Film Forum March 12 to 14), “He was some kind of a man.”

Do you remember when Charles Foster Kane pushes drunken Jedediah Leland away from the typewriter and sits down to bang out, on deadline, the final graphs of the negative review––of Kane’s opera singing mistress––that Jedediah, if sober, would have written himself.

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