Wednesday, October 22, 2014

MR. ARKADIN (1955)

Hey, remember that Orson Welles movie about the mysterious, manipulative, all-powerful yet ultimately self-destructive tycoon? The one told in flashback? With the deep-focus black & white cinematography, striking close-ups, and memorable character actors in supporting roles?

It can be only one movie: Mr. Arkadin. Right?

Written and directed by Welles during his lengthy European sojourn in the 1950s, Mr. Arkadin is the probably the most obscure movie the great man ever made; it certainly appears to be the most low-budget. Alternately sloppy, brilliant, inexplicable, and hypnotic, Mr. Arkadin tells the story of the titular character -- played by Welles -- who claims not to remember his life before one winter's evening in 1927, when he suddenly found $200,000 in Swiss francs stuffed in his wallet, from which he started his financial empire. 

Arkadin hires Guy van Stratten, a low-rent criminal with underworld connections, to find out who he (Arkadin) really is and how he got that all that money. As Guy travels around the world digging up information, he finds Arkadin's past becoming even more puzzling. Especially when Arkadin himself starts tailing Guy -- and as the people Arkadin knew back in the day start winding up dead.

For all Mr. Arkadin promises -- and delivers -- its weakest link is front and center. As Guy van Stratten, Robert Arden gives the worst performance since the introduction of sound. Just what Welles, usually impeccable when it came to casting, saw in him is a mystery greater than the movie itself. I mean, Arden doesn't even move convincingly. It comes close, in fact, to becoming a parody of bad acting.

To be fair, however, Welles' script does Arden no favors. Guy's "hard-boiled" dialogue is closer to weakly-poached  -- again, nearly a film noir parody. Too, Welles appeared to have re-written some of Aden's lines after he completed filming, so that his own dubbed dialogue often doesn't match what he was originally saying. 

Then there's Welles' flamboyant performance. Not only does he speak with an accent difficult to identify -- which was perhaps the point -- his theatrical make-up is never quite believable. Thanks to his many close-ups, the phony nose, rouged-up cheeks, stiff beard, and hairnet under the wig are evident. Had he been onstage, it would be no problem. But three inches from a movie camera, he often appears to be what he really was: a 40 year-old playing a much older man.

And as long as we're talking about distractions, what do we make of Paola Mori as Arkadin's daughter Raina? Arkadin's obsession with her becomes that much more interesting when you learn that Mori was Welles' real-life wife. As for her acting skills, well, she's right up there with co-star Robert Arden.


Don't get me wrong.  Mr. Arkadin is never less than fascinating. For Welles understood the very look of cinema better than any director of his time. Not even the great Alfred Hitchcock was so visually consistent and fascinating. The scene with Arkadin and Guy's drunk girlfriend Mily in a rolling yacht; the grotesque close-ups; Arkadin's bizarre costume party. And, of course, there's the story itself, which pulls you in the same way Arkadin pulls in everyone around him.


Once the the boy genius of movies, Welles was, by the time of the Arkadin shoot, an outcast, thanks to his working style. Just give me your money, appeared to have been his typical pitch. In return, I'll go over-budget and over the scheduled shooting time. Then I'll disappear in the editing room for months on end -- and get distracted with another project -- until you get fed up and release it before I'm ready, which will probably be never, anyway. Look up the phrase "own worst enemy" and you'll see a picture of Orson Welles.

And so Mr. Arkadin's producer removed some scenes while re-arranging others, releasing it in Europe as Confidential Report, where it was immediately hailed as Orson Welles' best movie yet. A few years later, French cineastes named it one of the 12 greatest movies of all time. Now, you're likely to get a "Qu'est est ce Confidential Report?" from their grandchildren.


Under its original title, Mr. Arkadin saw its New York debut in 1962 before quickly disappearing. The American edit, told in flashback, is closer to what Welles had envisioned. But what was it really supposed to look like? Who knows? All I can tell you is that Mr. Arkadin, like The Lady from Shanghai, is an alleged "lesser" Welles production that despite its faults -- like the quite audible whirring of the camera on at least one occasion -- is worth repeated viewings.


No doubt Welles identified with the grand, larger-than-life puppet-master Arkadin. Most of his close-ups are shot from below, allowing him to loom over us like God. Outtakes reveal Welles giving precise line-readings to his actors, going so far as explaining how to hold their mouths after finishing their dialogue. You want to talk about a control freak? Welles dubbed in his own voice for at least 18 actors in the movie. Orson, lay off the caffeine for five minutes!


Welles' outlandish make-up itself might be a deliberate ruse. As written, Arkadin has done everything in his power to remain hidden from the world, even refusing to remove his mask at his own costume party or allowing himself to be photographed. After my second viewing, it hit me: Welles is supposed to be playing Arkadin in obvious disguise!... Or is he? Again I ask, who knows?

No surprise that his final movie, F for Fake, was a playful documentary about the art of fooling the public for fun and profit. Unlike Arkadin, however, Orson Welles had too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. 

PS: The name is pronounced Ar-KAY-din, not ARK-a-din. I made the same mistake, too

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

THE PRESIDENT'S MYSTERY (1936)

James Blake has a bad case of the guilts, thanks to being a mouthpiece for George Sartos, the ruthless owner of National Cannery. After lobbying Congress to kill a proposal that would help small businesses at the expense of National Cannery's profits, Blake decides to cash in his $5,000,000 investments and fake his death. 

Leaving behind his faithless wife, Ilka, he moves to Springvale, a town negatively impacted by his lobbying, to revive the local co-op cannery. Ilka, meanwhile, is killed by Sartos' chauffeur, Roger. Just as Blake's succeeding in rebuilding Springvale, Sartos tracks him down. When Blake refuses Sartos' blackmail, he's arrested for Ilka's murder. The kindly sheriff lets Blake out of jail in order to prevent a mob -- paid by Sartos -- from destroying the cannery. Roger confesses to Ilka's death, and Sartos himself is arrested for inciting a riot.

I know what you're thinking. Where's the president? And where's the mystery? In the title, that's where. As the on-screen prologue explains:

How the hell do I know? You're the President.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, talking with a magazine editor on one of his favorite subjects - mystery stories - advanced the question: "How can a man disappear with five million dollars of his own money in negotiable form and not be traced?" Challenged by this, the editor enlisted the aid of six famous authors. The result was a thrilling story. The same problem intrigued the producers of this photoplay, and in another form is now brought to the screen. The proceeds of the sale of the plot, both for publication and motion picture rights, have been given voluntarily by the publisher to the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.  

Someone should tell Liberty that there's a
difference between "Plot By" and
"Shooting the Breeze with a Friend Over Drinks."
Well, that was a very generous donation. I only wish the screenwriters had been half as generous as donating a real mystery. In fact, the only mystery is why it's called a mystery. 

I've never read the original novel, but I would hope it's more "thrilling" than the movie. Hero James Blake isn't even smart enough to come up with the ol' fake-death-and-disappear routine on his own. He gets the idea from the latest copy of Liberty magazine where -- well, whaddaya know! -- The President's Mystery is prominently featured. Meta movie, 1936-style.
"Hey, I use a cigarette-holder like FDR.
I must be a good guy!"

If The President's Mystery is interesting at all today, it's because how ruthless and almost nihilistic businessman George Sartos is. An SOB whose corporate philosophy makes the Walton Family look like the Little Sisters of Mercy, he literally doesn't care about the effect his business practices have on anybody, as long as National Cannery's profits keep going north. 

James Blake's lobbying is shown in a montage that features everything you hate about Washington: boozing, schmoozing, golfing -- let's call it what it is, legal bribery -- interspersed with a series of screaming newspaper headlines: SMALL INDUSTRIES DOOMED! FEDERAL LOANS OUT! Hey, capitalist pigs gotta eat. 


C'mon, cheer up. Think of how happy
the corporate shareholders are!
And movie audiences gotta get romantic subplots, like the one James Blake has with Springvale Cannery owner Charlotte Brown. After meeting cute in a trout stream, Blake follows Charlotte back to the Springvale town meeting, where he discovers just how destructive his lobbying has been. This gives its citizens a chance to drive home how unchecked capitalism, crooked politicians and Godzilla-sized businesses can ruin entire towns. How nice that America has learned its lesson since then. Oh wait. (James and Charlotte are played by British-born Henry Wilcoxin -- a favorite of Cecil B. DeMille -- and Betty Furness, whose appearance is trumpeted on the credits as "Courtesy MGM". It must have been something of a drag for both to get loaned out to Poverty Row's Republic Pictures for a low-budget B-movie like this.)

Some of the movie's political theatre might be courtesy co-screenwriter Nathaniel West. Yes, the author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust was better known -- make that better paid -- as a screenwriter, first at Republic Pictures, then later at RKO Radio. West might have painted a grim picture of Hollywood in Locust, but when you make a grand total of $1,280 from your novels (according to West bios), well, the movie factory looks pretty good. Great writers, like the aforementioned capitalist pigs, gotta eat, too.

Note FDR's quote on the upper left --
not exactly a ringing endorsement of
his own idea.
Over the years, The President's Mystery was one of those obscure movies I'd always wanted to see, just for its bizarre origins. A story written by six authors, each taking a different chapter, from an idea suggested by the sitting president. The film version co-written by a man almost unknown in his own day, but would later be renown as the author of two of the more trenchant novels about the underbelly of American popular culture. President Roosevelt himself gets a "Story Conceived By" screen credit.

And the result? A not-bad 52-minute movie which, had its origins been more humble, would have become even more forgotten than it already it is. It's remarkable, in its own way, that The President's Mystery successfully tackles so many different topics -- capitalism, quasi-socialism, murder, economics -- in less than an hour. In that respect, it would make a great double-bill with the still-relevant Washington Merry-Go-Round. And it still leaves time for a wedding engagement at the climax. 

Don't think I spoiled the ending -- that was no mystery, either.

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 To read about Washington-Merry-Go-Round, go here.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

DR. KILDARE'S STRANGE CASE (1940)

If you find yourself in need of medical attention the next time you're in New York, you can't do any better than Blair General Hospital. That is, if you like soap opera shenanigans, gossipy switchboard operators, violent ambulance drivers, smokers outside the operating rooms, and ethically-dubious procedures.


Dr. Kildare's Strange Case, starring B-movie leading man Lew Ayres, was the fourth entry in M-G-M's popular series about the dreamy diagnostician learning his craft at the side of the crotchety cripple, Dr. Gillespie (the crotchety cripple Lionel Barrymore). By now, enthralled audiences were getting to know these people better than their own families. Kildare's growing love for nurse Mary LaMonte; Gillespie's life-threatening melanoma; Kildare's parents dispensing wisdom the way pharmacists do Valium; and all the other supporting characters who seem to be paid to stand around and yak all day instead of doing their jobs. If all hospitals were this much fun, I'd go to med school right now.


Joe Wayman looks forward to physically
abusing Sally after work.
But not all is well at the House of Blair. Molly Byrd, the Superintendent of Nurses, is giving Gillespie a hard time. ("If I don't drink one glass of milk a day," he grouses to Kildare, "she hides my cigarettes.") Ambulance driver Joe Wayman is known to smash the skulls of alleged miscreants with an industrial-sized monkeywrench. And Dr. Gregory Lane, a supposedly brilliant brain surgeon, has been on something of a cold streak lately, his nickname around the hospital being "The undertaker's best friend." (Wouldn't you like to work in a warm, supporting atmosphere like that?) Lane himself bitterly comments after his latest botched surgery, "The operation was a success, but the patient died!" Good to keep a sense of humor at times like this. 

Lane redeems himself by saving the life of an unidentified hit-and-run victim. Unfortunately, the surgery appears to have left the guy a babbling idiot, yelling "Friday!" incessantly. Kildare decides to save Lane's career by proving that the patient was a babbling idiot before the surgery as well.


You'd be pissed-off like Nurse LaMonte
if you were stuck between a chain-smoking,
wheelchair-bound grouch and the dreamboat
who won't give you a tumble.
It wouldn't be a Kildare movie without enough subplots to fill a cemetery, and this Strange Case is no exception. Gillespie diagnoses a woman's rash as a reaction from the lacquer on her mah-jonng tiles. Joe the ambulance driver gets Sally the switchboard operator drunk at the local hash-house.

And this being only the fourth movie in the series, Kildare, still an intern, hasn't made a major move on Mary LaMonte yet, thanks to his meager $20-a-month salary. (And you wonder why your medical bills are so expensive!) Yet, he turns down a chance to work at the prestigious Messinger Institute at $6,000 per annum, just so he can continue stick around with Gillespie, and to watch Dr. Lane date the horny Nurse LaMonte. Audiences in 1940 were supposed to approve Kildare's decision, but looking at things from a 21st-century perspective, all we can think now is, What a 24-karat sap!

But whence the strange case we've been promised? Well, remember the hit-and-run patient? Kildare has a theory that the guy is suffering from schizophrenia -- or, as he pronounces it, "SKEEZ-o-frenn-ya," like the punchline of a joke about a crazy Irishman. Going behind Gillespie's back, Kildare consults with his own father, a small-town doctor, about the possibility of curing the patient via insulin shock therapy. Kildare père has seen the effects of the procedure first-hand: "One of the most terrifying things I've ever seen in my life!" Insulin shock therapy, he explains in an off-handed way typical for the Kildare pictures, "causes patients to go backwards through evolution -- ape, bird, lizard, and so forth." What. The. Fuck.


Even for a Kildare movie, this is some weird medical shit. So of course Kildare fils is eager to jump into it. Moving the patient to a private room without permission, Kildare convinces Mary LaMonte to help him perform a procedure better suited to Island of Lost Souls. Mary, being the only sane person at the hospital, demands an explanation. "Buried deep in the brain," Kildare says gravely, "is the brain of our human ancestors." Also the brain of anyone who thinks this is a good idea. 
"Man, I love torturing people for my own
professional edification!"

What follows the insulin overdose is the strangest sequence in the entire Kildare series. Filmed partly in silhouette, the patient indeed goes back in time to his Alley Oop origins and beyond, twisting, shuddering and squirming in agony, his eyes popping out as if being pushed from the inside, like something out of a Universal horror movie. 

There's no accompanying music, just Kildare doing a quiet play-by-play for the terrified LaMonte. "The hands are beginning their first primitive movements... The body is trying desperately to obey the impossible demands of the brain..." That sounds like me every morning. Audiences probably thought this bizarre scheme was S.O.P. in hospitals at the time -- they trusted doctors to pull off stunts that would get their licenses revoked today.

But guess what. It works! The patient, who now identifies himself as Henry Adams, went haywire when his wife left him five years earlier. But she had a change of heart and was going to return on Friday -- only Adams was too far gone to understand. Kildare brings the wife to his bedside, where the couple reconciles. And Adams' post-surgery regimen? About a gallon of glucose administered intravenously, followed by jelly sandwiches and milk. Had he remained a neanderthal, he would have been served a bronto-burger and a bill for services rendered.

Kildare performs an emergency
appendectomy on Gillespie while
Nurse LaMonte applies

 anesthesia

To recap: This is a hospital where the chief diagnostician is a heavy smoker; the ambulance driver is a sociopath; the chief brain surgeon keeps his job despite killing patients; and an intern seriously ignores protocol and performs a procedure out of Dr. Mengele's notebook.  

And people loved it! So much so that five more Kildare movies with Lew Ayres followed, before Lionel Barrymore's Gillespie continued on his own for another five. In 1949, they re-teamed for a radio series, The Story of Dr. Kildare. I shudder to think of the misguided men and women who were inspired to enter medical school by these quacks.

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