The Films of 2020: Mank (dir by David Fincher)


As I watched David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, my main feeling was one of wanting to like the film more than I actually did.

I mean, really, the film sounds like it was specifically made to appeal to me.  It’s a film about the Golden Age of Hollywood, which is an era that has always fascinated me as both a film lover and history nerd.  Even more specifically, it’s a film about the writing of Citizen Kane, which is one of my favorite movies.  (On one of our first dates, Jeff and I snuck into a showing of Citizen Kane at the Magnolia.  The crime was fun and finally getting to see the movie on the big screen was even better.)  It’s a film that features a host of historical figures, everyone from Louis B. Mayer to Irving Thalberg to Orson Welles to William Randolph Hearst to Marion Davies to the title character himself, the self-destructive screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Those historical figures are played by a truly impressive collection of actors, almost all of whom give memorable performances.  Gary Oldman plays Mankiewicz, lurching about Hollywood in a drunken haze and calling out the system while, somewhat hypocritically, also attempting to profit from it.  Charles Dance is compellingly arrogant as William Randolph Hearst.  Tom Burke captures Orson Welles’s trademark voice and charisma, making an impression despite having surprisingly little screen time.  Ferdinand Kingsley plays Irving Thalberg and steals nearly every scene in which he appears.  Arliss Howard is a marvel as the manipulate Mayer while Amanda Seyfried gives the best performance of her career so far as Marion Davies.  The film portrays Davies as being intelligent, witty, and perhaps the only truly honest person in Hollywood.  If it can be argued that Citizen Kane robbed Davies of her dignity, it can also be argued that Mank makes a sincere attempt to give it back to her.  With the exception of a distracting cameo from Bill Nye (yes, the science guy), Mank is perfectly cast.

And yet, despite all of that, the film never really engaged me on either an emotional or an intellectual level.  The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous but the film plods from one incident to another, skipping back and forth in time and trying to convince us that Herman J. Mankiewicz was a more fascinating figure than he comes across as being.  For the most part, Mankiewicz comes across as being a bit of a bore and the film makes the classic mistake of assuming that we’ll naturally like him just because he’s the main character.  Gary Oldman is as charismatic as ever but the film doesn’t give him much of character to play.  Mankiewicz stumbles from scene to scene, searching for a drink and always complaining about one thing or another.  A little bit of Herman J. Mankiewicz goes a long way and, once it becomes apparent that he’s going to spend the entire film perpetually annoyed, Mankiewicz becomes a rather uninteresting character.  Long before this film even reached the halfway mark, I was on the side of everyone who wanted Mankiewicz to stop talking and just finish writing the damn script.

If you’re one of the ten or so people who is still outraged over the failure of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign, you’ll probably enjoy this film.  For those of you haven’t read Greg Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Upton Sinclair was a writer and longtime socialist activist who won the 1934 Democratic nomination to run for governor of California.  Despite garnering a lot of national attention with his End Poverty In California (EPIC) platform, Sincliar was overwhelmingly defeated by Republican Frank Merriam.  Mank argues that Sinclair’s defeat was largely due to dirty tricks and negative campaigning, most of it masterminded by Mayer and Hearst.  Mankiewicz is a Sinclair supporter who is angered by the underhanded efforts of Mayer and Hearst.  The script for Citizen Kane is, at least partially, Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst and Mayer for working against Sinclair and it’s something that Mankiewicz feels so strongly about that he’s willing to demand that Orson Welles give him credit for his work on the screenplay.  It’s a legitimate theory, but the film’s exploration of it feels rather shallow and intellectually lazy.  Just as it did with the character of Mankiewicz, the film makes the mistake of assuming the audiences will automatically find the candidacy of Upton Sinclair to be as inspiring as the film does.  The film continually insists that we should care but, when it finally has a chance to show us why Upton Sinclair’s campaign was important, all it can provide is Bill Nye The Science Guy, standing on a platform and complaining about religious hypocrisy.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of a casual acquaintance demanding to know why his twitter feed didn’t convince you to vote for Bernie Sanders.

From a historical point of view, the film does itself no favors by creating a fictional friend of Mankiewicz’s, one who is so consumed with guilt over his part in defeating Upton Sinclair that he ends up committing suicide.  It feels rather cheap and predictable, an easy way to give Mankiewicz some sort of motivation beyond being infatuated with Marion Davies.  Historically, the truth of the matter is that Frank Merriam turned to the left as soon as he was elected and Upton Sinclair went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for writing a series of now-unreadable books about an international do-gooder named Lanny Budd.  Meanwhile, director Felix E. Feist (who was responsible for shooting many of the anti-Sinclair newsreels that MGM released into cinemas) went on to have a very long career and never indicated that he felt any guilty for playing a part in Sinclair’s defeat.

Like many of David Fincher’s film, Mank works best as an exercise in style.  The black-and-white cinematography is to die for.  Some of the shots — especially early in the film — are breathtaking.  Mankiewicz may spend the majority of the film railing against the excesses of Hollywood but, visually, Fincher can’t get enough of them.  Indeed, much as with The Social Network, Fincher seems to be spend the majority of the film at odds with the the film’s overwritten and rather pompous script.  (Of course, Mank was written by Fincher’s late father while The Social Network was written by Aaron Sorkin.  While there’s a lot to criticize about Jack Fincher’s script, one can still be thankful that he wrote the script instead of Sorkin.  One can only imagine how Marion Davies would have been portrayed if Aaron Sorkin had been involved.)  Mank is narratively deficient but visually stunning.  The film’s script rather snarkily dismisses Orson Welles as being a mere “showman” but, as film, Mank proves that sometimes a showman is exactly what’s needed.

From 1938: Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater Present Dracula!


Did you know that in 1938, the same year that they horrified America with their production of The War Of The Worlds, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater did a radio version of Dracula?

Check out this amazing cast list:

Orson Welles – Dracula/Dr. Arthur Seward
George Coulouris- Jonathan Harker
Ray Collins – Russian Captain
Karl Swenson – The Mate
Elizabeth Fuller – Lucy Westenra
Martin Gabel – Professor Van Helsing
Agnes Moorehead – Mina Harker

Coulouris, Collins, and Moorehead would, of course, all go one to appear with Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

And now, we are proud to present, for your listening pleasure …. DRACULA!

Get Into the Halloween Mood With Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater!


Still need some help getting into the holiday spirit?

Here to help are Orson Welles, the Mercury Theater, and the broadcast the panicked America back in 1938!

It’s …. The War of the Worlds!

4 Shots From 4 Films: In Tribute To Joseph Cotten


The Third Man (1949, directed by Carol Reed)

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

As you can probably guess from my pen name and my profile pic, Joseph Cotten is one of my favorite actors.  Born 115 years ago on this day, Cotten may be best known for his association with Orson Welles but he worked with several great directors over the years.  Along with playing Jedediah Leland in Welles’s Citizen Kane, he starred in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.  Even while his film career was flourishing, Cotten continued to appear on the Broadway stage and, during the early days of television, he frequently appeared on anthology series, the majority of which were broadcast live.  Cotten even had a memorable cameo in Michael Cimino’s infamous film, Heaven’s Gate.

In honor of Cotten’s birthday, here are four shots from four of his best films.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Citizen Kane (1941, directed by Orson Welles)

Journey Into Fear (1943, directed by Norman Foster and Orson Welles)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Portrait of Jennie (1948, directed by William Dieterle)

 

A Blast From The Past: Orson Welles’s 1938 Broadcast of The War of the Worlds


Since it’s Orson Welles’s birthday and everyone’s kind of nervous about going outside right now, why not experience the live radio broadcast that panicked America in 1938?

Actually, there’s some debate as to just how panicked America got when they heard the Mercury Theater On The Air’s adaptation of War of the Worlds.  There was definitely some panic but there are differing reports on just how wide spread it was.  For our purposes, let’s assume that the entire country was terrified at the same time and that everyone was loading up a shotgun and planning to go out and look for aliens.  One thing is for sure.  With his adaptation of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles managed to invent the whole found footage genre that would later come to dominate horror cinema in the late 90s and the aughts.  Every Paranormal Activity film owes a debt to what Orson Welles accomplished with War of the Worlds.  We won’t hold that against Orson.

H.G. Wells, the original author of War of the Worlds, and Orson Welles only met once.  Interestingly enough, they were both in San Antonio, Texas in 1940.  They were interviewed for a local radio station.  H.G. Wells expressed some skepticism about the reports of Americans panicking while Welles compared the radio broadcast to someone dressing up like a ghost and shouting “Boo!” during Halloween.  Both Wells and Welles then encouraged Americans to worry less about Martians and more about the growing threat of Hitler and the war in Europe.

I’ve shared this before but this just seems like the time to share it again.  Here is the 1938 Mercury Theater On The Air production of The War of the Worlds!

Scenes That I Love: Prince Hal Rejects Falstaff in Orson Welles’s Chimes At Midnight


Today is the 105th anniversary of the birth of the great Orson Welles.  As those of you who have been reading us for a while know, Orson Welles is a bit of patron saint around here.  With this year being the 10th anniversary of the creation of Through the Shattered Lens (and wow, what a year to celebrate that moment, right?), there was no way that we couldn’t pay tribute to Orson Welles on his birthday.

The scene below comes form the 1965 film, Chimes at Midnight.  Based on several of Shakespeare’s history plays (Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, and also Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor), Chimes at Midnight was one of Welles’s dream projects.  Though it was initially dismissed by critics, it has since been rediscovered and is now regularly cited as one of the greatest Shakespearean films of all time.

Welles not only directed this film but he also played the key role of Falstaff, the knight who loves good food, good drink, and low company.  Falstaff acts as a mentor to Price Hal and, when Hal is finally ready to make his move and assume the throne of England as Henry V, Falstaff supports him. Falstaff believes that Hal will remember his friends once he is king.  Sadly, Falstaff turns out to have been far too trusting.

In the poignant scene below, Falstaff greets the newly crowned King Henry V (played by Keith Baxter), just to be coldly rebuffed by his former friend.  Now that Henry is king, he no longer has time for the loyal Falstaff.  In Shakespeare’s time, this scene was probably meant to reflect that, now that he was king, Henry V was prepared to set aside childish games and devote himself to ruling England.  Seen, today, it just comes across as being a betrayal of a good man who deserved better.

It’s a heart-breaking scene.  Critic Danny Peary has speculated that, in this scene, Prince Hal/Henry V is a stand-in for every director who Welles mentored in Hollywood who later refused to help Welles when the latter was struggling to get his projects off the ground.  Peary may be right because Welles was betrayed by quite a few people during his lifetime.  As Welles himself put it, “They’ll love me when I’m dead,” and indeed, it wasn’t until after Welles was dead that his post-Citizen Kane work was truly appreciated.

Here is Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight:

Film Review: King of Kings (dir by Nicholas Ray)


The 1961 film, King of Kings, was the final biblical film that I watched on Easter.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it tells the story of Jesus from the Nativity to the Ascension.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s an epic film that was directed by a renowned director.  (In this case, Nicholas Ray.)  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings also has a huge cast and there’s a few familiar faces to be seen, though it doesn’t really take the all-star approach that George Stevens did with his telling of the story.

Probably the biggest star in King of Kings was Jeffrey Hunter, who played Jesus.  Hunter was in his 30s at the time but he still looked young enough that the film was nicknamed I Was A Teenage Jesus.  (Some of that also probably had to do with the fact that Nicholas Ray was best known for directing Rebel Without A Cause.)  But then again, for a man who had so many followers, Jesus was young.  He hadn’t even reached his 40th birthday before he was crucified.  As well, his followers were also young while his many opponents were representatives of the establishment and the old way of doing things.  It makes perfect sense that Jesus should be played by a young man and Hunter gives a good performance.  As opposed to so many of the other actors who have played Jesus in the movies, Jeffrey Hunter is credible as someone who could convince fishermen to throw down their nets and follow him.  He’s passionate without being fanatical and serious without being grim.  He’s a leader even before he performs his first miracle.

King of Kings is one of the better films that I’ve seen about the life of Jesus.  While remaining respectful of its subject, it also feels alive in the way that so many other biblical films don’t.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Nicholas Ray focuses on the idea of Jesus as a rebel against the establishment.  Ray emphasizes the casual cruelty of the Romans and their collaborators.  When John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) is arrested by Herod (Frank Thring), it’s not just so the filmmakers can have an excuse to work Salome (Brigid Bazlen) in the film.  It’s also to show what will happen to anyone who dares to challenge the establishment.  When Jesus visits John the Baptist in his cell, it’s a summit between two rebels who know that they’re both destined to die for the greater good.  When Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) makes his appearance, he’s smug and rather complacent in his power.  He’s not the quasi-sympathetic figure who appears in so many other biblical films.  Instead, he’s the epitome of establishment arrogance.

As a director, Nicholas Ray keeps things simple.  This isn’t Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments.  The emphasis is not on grandeur.  Instead, the film is about common people trying to improve the world in which they’re living, while also preparing for the next.  Jeffrey Hunter gives an excellent performance as Jesus and, all in all, this is one of the better and more relatable biblical films out there.

Goodnight, Vienna: THE THIRD MAN (British Lion 1949)


cracked rear viewer

I’m just gonna come right out and say it: THE THIRD MAN is one of the greatest movies ever made. How could it not be, with all that talent, from producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, director Carol Reed , screenwriter Graham Green, and cinematographer Robert Krasker, to actors Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli , and Trevor Howard. It’s striking visuals, taut direction, and masterful acting transcend the film noir genre and make THE THIRD MAN one of the must-see films of 20th Century cinema.

The story starts simply enough, as American pulp novelist Holly Martins arrives in post-war Vienna to meet up with his old pal Harry Lime, only to learn that Harry was recently killed in a car accident. He attends the graveside service, meeting Harry’s mysterious actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt, and is quickly pulled down a rabbit hole of intrigue and deception involving the British…

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Scenes That I Love: The Opening Tracking Shot from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil


I’m pretty sure that I’ve shared this scene before but, if I did, it was several years ago.  Through the Shattered Lens has been around for nearly ten years now, after all.  (TEN YEARS!)

Since today is Orson Welles’s birthday, I wanted to share at least one scene that I love from his films.  Even though I didn’t want to go with the obvious choice of picking something from Citizen Kane, there was still a wealth of scenes to choose from.  But, in the end, I really didn’t have any choice but to go with the tracking shot that opens 1958’s Touch of Evil.

This scene really does show why Welles was such an important director.  It’s not just that the scene is a masterpiece of suspense, starting out with a close-up of a ticking time bomb and then leaving us to wonder just when exactly it’s going to explode.  It’s also that the scene perfectly sets up the odd and sordid atmosphere of Touch of Evil.  It’s a scene that begins in America, takes the viewer into Mexico, and then literally ends with a bang.  And it does it all in just one shot!

Because of a throw-away joke in Ed Wood, there’s a widely-held but incorrect assumption that Welles was forced to cast Charlton Heston in the lead role in Touch of Evil or that Welles and Heston didn’t get along.  Actually, Heston was the one who fought for Welles to be given a chance to direct Touch of Evil and, when the studios attempted to fire Welles from the project, Heston stopped them by announcing that he would quite if Welles wasn’t allowed to complete the picture.  It may be tempting to make jokes about Heston playing a Mexican cop but, if not for him, this film probably wouldn’t exist right now.  And that would be a tragedy.

With all that said and done, here’s a scene that I love:

4 Shots From 4 Orson Welles Films: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, The Other Side of the Wind


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

104 years ago today, the man who forever change not only American cinema but world cinema, George Orson Welles, was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Beloved by film students while often being unappreciated by mainstream audiences, Orson Welles was responsible for some of the greatest and most important films of all time.  As so often happens to the innovators and the creators, the film industry conspired to silence him.

Fortunately, his legacy has survived even the greatest of efforts to destroy it.  Though he may have died 34 yeas ago, Welles lives on and continues to inspire filmmakers everywhere.

In honor of that legacy, it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Orson Welles Films

Citizen Kane (1941, dir by Orson Welles)

Touch of Evil (1958, dir by Orson Welles)

Chimes at Midnight (1965, dir by Orson Welles)

The Other Side of the Wind (2018, dir by Orson Welles)