Tag Archives: Robert Wise

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with these sensational titles. 3D text jumping out, set against the backdrop of space, Bernard Herrmann’s score at its loudest; the titles suggest the film is going to be something grandiose. It is and it isn’t. For the first act, director Wise moves quickly, short scenes setting up the world’s reaction to a flying saucer circling the planet. Newscasters report, air traffic control investigates, people worry.

And then the ship lands. The special effects in Day the Earth Stood Still are excellent without ever being sensational or outlandish. There are only a couple major effects sequences–the space ship landing, the titular incident–otherwise, the film’s rather quiet. It starts big, then Edmund H. North’s script starts closing it in, making it smaller and smaller until it can fit into a house. Specifically, into second-billed Patricia Neal’s boarding house. She’s just a resident, a widow living there with her son, Billy Gray.

They’re there, listening to the radio, when a new boarder arrives. That boarder, Michael Rennie, is the space man, escaped from the Army hospital (some grunt shot him after he walked out of the space ship and got out a gift for the President). At that moment, the film changes. Or, more accurately, perturbs in an unexpected, gentler direction. Rennie’s quiet, reserved, inquisitive, and gentle. Sure, he’s got a giant robot with laser vision, but Rennie just wants to see what humans are like.

Rennie’s mission to Earth is simple. He wants to address the world leaders. The United States government, its nipples hard at the thought of a prolonged Cold War, is no help. So Rennie decides he’s going to try the scientists, starting with Sam Jaffe. Only Jaffe’s not home when Rennie comes to visit.

Until the middle of the movie, North’s script never takes the focus off Rennie. Gray’s around a lot, but he’s never the focus. It’s Rennie, the alien, who acts as the viewer’s guide through the film. And the film keeps the viewer informed about Rennie’s plans and, often, his thoughts. Eventually, Neal has to take the lead–she’s got to stop her idiot boyfriend Hugh Marlowe from dooming the planet–and she stays in the lead until the end of the film, but the first half is all Rennie.

Besides the big Earth standing still sequence, there’s also a big chase sequence at the end involving a military dragnet. Wise and editor William Reynolds are methodical with it, tightening the net around Rennie in real time, tightening viewer expectation as it progresses. The viewer knows to be concerned more than Rennie, who’s cautious but not enough. He’s kind of powerless, after all. Interplanetary traveller or not, the film establishes right off he can be hurt. It also establishes most Earthlings are more than happy to shoot first and not ask any questions at all.

But the film’s never cynical. It can’t be with Gray around. He’s thrilled to have a new friend in Rennie, who acts as babysitter so Neal can hang out with Marlowe. She just thinks Marlowe’s pushy, not an abject tool. Gray and Rennie’s day out, which includes the first visit to Jaffe’s house, also has the unlikely duo visiting Gray’s father’s grave in Arlington Cemetary. The war isn’t mentioned but it’s omnipresent, kind of like government bureaucracy; the film does extremely well with its Washington D.C. setting and some of the city’s locations. The scene at the Lincoln Monument is particularly effective.

Gray’s lack of cynicism stands up to a lot of pressure, including some from Neal–her rejection of cynicism is what hands the film off to her. It’s too bad the film drops Gray in the second half; Day only runs ninety minutes, there’s not a lot of room. It’s either got to be Gray and Rennie or Neal and Rennie active in the main plot.

Much of that main plot takes place indoors, in the ordinary. People are scared, unsure about what’s going on with the flying saucer and the spaceman on the loose (Rennie’s incognito at the boarding house). Wise and cinematographer Leo Tover have these confined–but never cramped–shots inside. Outside they open up, especially when they get to do location shooting, but inside… well, Rennie wanted to find out how people lived, didn’t he?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is always methodical and never ponderous. Wise, screenwriter North, editor Reynolds, they all keep things moving. It’s fantastic but in a mundane, thoughtful way. Just like Rennie. He keeps an even keel throughout his adventures on Earth, no matter how dangerous things get for him.

Excellent performances from everyone–Rennie, Neal, Gray, Marlowe, Jaffe–it’s not a big cast. It’s a big story, sure, but the film keeps that story contained. The human element is most important; even during the big effects set pieces, Wise makes sure the human reaction is present. He ably scales the human element when needed. Confined to big, big to small. It’s reassuring. Just like Rennie.

Day is a fine film. It’s got its limits, but Wise and company accomplish what they set out to do. Though, maybe, not what those 3D opening titles suggest they’re going to set out to do.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Reynolds; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Julian Blaustein; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Professor Jacob Barnhardt), and Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley).


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The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles)

Unfortunately, I feel the need to address some of the behind the scenes aspects of The Magnificent Ambersons. Not because I plan on talking about them, but because director Welles’s career is filled with a lack of control. There are always questions–what did editor Robert Wise do on his own, what did he do with Welles’s input. With Ambersons, one can get lost in the possibility. But the reality is more than strong enough on its own.

With Ambersons, Welles creates a nightmare. He creates a nightmare of a child in the humorously awful, spoiled little rich kid (a wonderful, uncredited Bobby Cooper), who becomes a nightmare of a young man (Tim Holt in a phenomenal performance). The thing about Holt’s character, who negatively impacts everyone around him in one way or another including himself, is he doesn’t change. He just has a certain set of skills, he applies them to all situations without regard to whether they’re appropriate for those situations. Welles doesn’t care if the audience is sympathetic to Holt, he cares if they’re interested. Holt–and the Magnificent Ambersons exist regardless of audience sympathy; they even have a haunted mansion to loiter around.

Because even studio meddling and Wise’s ego can’t alter the “in camera” aspects of Ambersons. There’s an amazing mansion set where Holt terrorizes his elders. There’s Stanley Cortez’s gorgeous photography. There’s the acting. And, frankly, some of the editing is so obviously under Welles’s instruction, especially in the first act. Ambersons runs under ninety minutes and covers a decade and a half. It’s mostly told in summary, with actual scenes left to haunt the characters and audience alike. It’s a weighty film; director Welles narrates it himself, applying further pressure to the audiences’ shoulders. It’s got a perfect narrative distance. Was that distance Welles’s intention or the result of meddling? Who knows.

Wonderful supporting performances from Ray Collins and Richard Bennett. Dolores Costello is great as Holt’s mother, Agnes Moorehead’s great as his aunt. Joseph Cotten’s great as Holt’s love interest’s father. Cotten is also Costello’s love interest, which what all the drama is about. Anne Baxter plays Cotten’s daughter. She has the most important role in the entire film (outside Moorehead, who has to humanize Holt). Baxter has to be believable as the object of Holt’s affection. It works, thanks to Baxter, Holt and Welles, but it’s an achievement. It isn’t about Baxter being appealing, it’s about Holt being monstrous.

The Magnificent Ambersons, in its under ninety minute runtime, offers somewhere around eighty-five minutes of perfect filmmaking. The other three or four minutes, meddled or not, have perfect acting and excellent studio filmmaking. It may have a haunted history, but it’s appropriate. The Magnificent Ambersons is all about being haunted after all.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington; director of photography, Stanley Cortez; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Tim Holt (George Minafer), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafer) and Richard Bennett (Major Amberson).


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Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

In Citizen Kane, director Welles ties everything together–not just the story (he does wrap the narrative visually), but also how the filmmaking relates to the film’s content. Kane’s story can’t be told any other way. That precision–whether it’s in the summary sequences or in how scenes cut together–is absolutely necessary to not just keep the viewer engaged, but to keep them over-engaged. Even with the conclusion, where Welles reveals the film’s “solution” (quote unquote); it doesn’t resolve that mystery in a timely fashion–Welles drags it out to get the viewer thinking, questioning. Welles puts together this perfect film and then asks the viewer to wonder whether or not it was all worth it. Not just his making it, but the viewer’s watching it.

The little moments in the film–Welles gets in these subtle things with melodramatic fireworks going off in the background, whether its Dorothy Comingore’s humanity or Everett Sloane’s wistfulness or “protagonist” William Alland’s frustration–remind the viewer the story’s still about people. And why shouldn’t it be? Most scenes in Kane feature two to three working characters. Sometimes Welles has people in the background, sometimes he doesn’t. The little moments in big scenes–like one between Joseph Cotten and Sloane during a party–are often more devastating than the little scenes.

Welles unforgivingly asks a lot of the viewer. He opens the film with a complex fading sequence to bring the viewer into the world of Kane, then abruptly pulls the film out of itself, into a newsreel. And for almost twenty minutes, Welles barely gives himself any screen time. It’s always such a big deal that first time Welles lets Kane have an audible line in the newsreel.

All that control isn’t to prime the viewer, isn’t to get him or her desperately wondering about Rosebud, all that control is because the film needs it. Kane spans forty-some years in under two hours. Far under two hours if you don’t count the newsreel “first act.” When Welles establishes his character as an older man, an atypical protagonist–Kane’s infinitely sympathetic while never likable, though Welles knows his charm goes a long way in lightening a heavy scene–he does so without hostility. Nowhere in Kane does Welles play for the audience, but he also doesn’t artificially distance them. The opening does, quite literally, guide the viewer into the film.

Kane is an unsentimental film about a sentimental subject and Welles does wonders with that disconnect.

Comingore probably gives the film’s best performance. Welles is amazing and mesmerizing, but so much of the second half has to do with how he plays off her, she’s essential. Of course, there aren’t any merely good performances–even Erskine Sanford, in the closest thing to a comedy relief role, is great. Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris–all fantastic.

And Joseph Cotten as the film’s “good guy?” He’s marvelous.

Impeccable Gregg Toland photography, great Bernard Herrmann music.

500 words aren’t enough.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Ruth Warrick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Harry Shannon (Jim Kane), Paul Stewart (Raymond), Ray Collins (James W. Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter) and William Alland (Jerry Thompson).


My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon 2

THIS POST IS PART OF THE MY FAVORITE CLASSIC MOVIE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY RICK OF CLASSIC FILM AND TV CAFE


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The Curse of the Cat People (1944, Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise)

The Curse of the Cat People is apparently Kent Smith. Well, him and writer DeWitt Bodeen. Smith and Jane Randolph return from the first film, this one set over six years later. They have a daughter–Ann Carter in an almost perfect performance–who’s a lonely child. She eventually imagines herself a friend, personified by Simone Simon (also returning from the first film), who’s apparently the ghost of Smith’s first wife.

Only she’s not, because she’s an imaginary friend. Bodeen’s very literal.

The film’s title is intentionally misleading; at its best moments, Curse is about Carter being this kid who doesn’t have any friends and has all these strange experiences. She meets this crazy, but sweet, old woman (Julia Dean) and bonds with her. Dean is unintentionally juxtaposed with Smith.

They’re both crappy parents. Randolph’s not a good mom either, but she at least loves Carter. Bodeen writes the most insensitive and cruel dialogue for Smith he can. It’s Curse’s primary failing–Bodeen can’t write Smith’s character as anything but a jerk.

For the first half, before Carter reveals Simon’s “identity,” Curse gets away with it. Roy Webb’s music is beautiful, Nicholas Musuraca’s photography is enchanting–the two directors, von Fritsch and Wise, usually do rather well (except one moment Carter’s looking off screen for direction).

The conclusion, however, has Carter running away. Smith in panic mode is some awful acting, but Bodeen’s script forgets Randolph’s the girl’s mother.

Curse’s a big disappointment. As a sequel concept, it’s groundbreaking.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise; written by DeWitt Bodeen; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by J.R. Whittredge; music by Roy Webb; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ann Carter (Amy Reed), Kent Smith (Ollie Reed), Jane Randolph (Alice Reed), Sir Lancelot (Edward), Eve March (Miss Callahan), Julia Dean (Mrs. Julia Farren), Elizabeth Russell (Barbara Farren) and Simone Simon (Amy’s friend).


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