Written and directed by Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King, “The Lady From Shanghai” is the second noir film from Welles that not only showcases his strengths in production, set-pieces, and direction, but also his weaknesses at this point in his career in writing with some questionable performance choices. Out of all the films I’ve seen from Orson Welles, this one is definitely the film I am most mixed on. The first forty minutes are rough. If you’re into overly melodramatic and cheesy line delivery by both Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, then you’ll love it. I was not so entertained by this portion of the film. What may have contributed to the overly mushy and almost disgusting levels of romanticizing in this portion of the film is the fact that Welles was married to Hayworth during the shoot, even though they were heading towards divorce after the film’s release. The general story that the film is trying to tell is that of Michael O’Hara (Welles), an Irish Sailor with a penchent for talking a bit too much at times, who saves Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from a group of thugs in Central Park New York while on a carriage ride. She informs him that she and her husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) had just arrived from Shanghai and intend to sail to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal, after which she offers him a job on their ship for saving her life earlier. He agrees against his better judgement (We learn through the character’s seemingly ever present narration), and they set off to sea.
As far as noirs go, this one has all of the right ingredients, it just takes its merry time setting up all of the pieces. The mysterious machinations of both Bannisters is toyed with as the journey goes along. However, Arthur eventually gets suspicious of the comfortable nature that Elsa and Michael exude and he hires Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia), a divorce-themed detective to follow them and investigate. Then there’s Arthur’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby may be my favorite performance in the film because nearly ALL of his acting choices feel completely bonkers for the film he’s in, but hey, it was fun. Anyways, Grisby catches O’Hara in the act of courting Elsa and uses that information to force O’Hara to help him fake his own death so he can get the insurance money and live abroad in hiding. O’Hara blindly accepts, not knowing the true extent of Grisby’s plan, but the offer of $5,000 for faking a murder was enough for him to go along for the time being. Unfortunately for Grisby, Broome had been following along and digging into all of the principal characters motivations and backgrounds, which brought him to the truth. He figured out that Grisby had been planning on killing Arthur instead and pinning it on O’Hara. When confronting Grisby- Broome’s mortally wounded, but stays alive long enough to warn O’Hara and Elsa over the phone and in person of the truth. Everything comes undone when Grisby is found actually dead, not Arthur, of whom O’Hara had rushed to save- unfortunately with his confession written by Grisby on his person. There’s a courtroom scene where Arthur defends O’Hara, but also discovers the extent of O’Hara and Elsa’s affair. Eventually O’Hara makes a suicide attempt in a huge commotion in the court and escapes in the confusion. All three major characters end up in a house of mirrors, each armed with pistols, a will to survive, and an urge to kill.
I have yet to see the film that Welles’s made inbetween this film’s release and “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Stranger”, which was his first foray into the noir genre. Reportedly that film had several different writing contributers including an uncredited effort by John Huston. I have to say though that while this film is worth a watch, the deficiencies of the scriptwork suggests that the film “Mank”s titular argument of sole writing credit for “Citizen Kane” being mostly due to the talent of Herman J. Mankiewicz rings doubly true. The script and line delivery are curious at best. Orson Welles’ Irish accent goes in and out throughout the whole of the film, and when he seemingly remembers that he’s supposed to be playing an Irishman, the brogue is impeccably laughable. No, the writing is not what works here- it’s Orson’s set-pieces and technical imagery maneuvers in the back half of the film, but particularly in the last fifteen to twenty minutes that make this film worth watching. Once Grisby shows up dead and Orson’s O’Hara is on the run, the film’s spirit rises from floundering to fantastic.
Overall this is a decent noir and one with some truly impeccable imagery from Orson Welles behind the camera. It’s just too bad that the first half of the film takes its time with some truly cringe-inducing romance between real husband and wife Welles and Hayworth. If you really enjoyed the second half of this noir, I would implore you to check out Welles later effort in the genre in “Touch of Evil” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/11/07/old-school-review-touch-of-evil-1958/). That film is a far better example of what the infamous auteur is capable of. Though, to be fair, I can only recommend the “reconstructed” version of that film which was re-edited to Welles’ notes and specifications decades later.
Final Score: 1 Easy to Miss Background Cameo of Errol Flynn
With Netflix’s latest auteur oriented film release, in the form of “Mank” directed by David Fincher, shining a light on the lesser known screenwriter behind “Citizen Kane”, I figured this would be the perfect excuse to write a double feature review on both films. I’ll start with ‘Kane‘ and then dive into “Mank” afterwards. I highly recommend looking into the history of Old Hollywood and its key players to fully enjoy and understand the extent of each of these films. If you don’t already know the name William Randolph Hearst, he’s an integral piece of the puzzle when it comes to these films, a quick google search would go a long way in parsing out “Citizen Kane” at the very least. Oh, and fair warning, I will be spoiling key plot points of these films in order to freely discuss them. I’d suggest giving them a watch first and then returning here for analysis. Enjoy!
Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, and directed by Welles, “Citizen Kane” is the film lauded for most of the twentieth century as “The Best Film ever made!“. While I’m loathe to give any one film such a title, Welles’ first film is certainly one that should be in the conversation when discussing some of the most groundbreaking and revelatory films in cinema’s young history. To better understand the context of this film you’ll have to dig into the history of both Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, the man that Charles Foster Kane was based on, and the very public feud between them. Hearst’s onscreen counterpart certainly has a lot in common with the real McCoy, and while there are differences between the man and the character, the broad strokes are there- and impossible to deny. Hearst was the son of a millionaire mining engineer who owned several gold rich mines. Both he and Kane went to, and were kicked out of, Harvard. Both men were fiery liberal progressives in their youth who bought out several newspapers across the country and started several salacious circulation wars between rival Newspapers of reknown. Both were titans of the print industry and each used their persuasive papers to push for a war with Spain over Cuba’s independence, and while historians have downplayed Hearst’s claim of personally starting the Spanish-American war of 1898, he did have an immense effect on the public’s fury over the topic. Later, after World War One, both men turned more conservative and isolationist in ideology. They both had mistresses that they made grandiose gestures for, one in Hollywood, the other in Opera. Both men also grew dissatisfied with the world after losing very publicly in their political pursuits, and each turned their isolationist views into reality by building outrageously over the top castles on acres and acres of land, the real one in California, with Kane’s “Xanadu” in Florida.
If you haven’t yet seen this film, (I highly encourage you to do so, it’s pretty good!), it begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as he gasps his final word, “Rosebud”. Kane’s death reverberates through the News publications of the world, and one such outlet designing a visual obiturary reel titled “News On The March!” gives the audience a quick outline of the Newspaper Magnate’s life in bullet points. The editor of the Newsreel then delegates Jerry Thompson (William Alland) with finding the meaning behind Kane’s last words. The rest of the film is divided into flashbacks on Kane’s life through Thompson’s investigation and interviews with the people who were closest to Kane. Initially he tries to talk with Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), his mistress and second wife, though she’s inconsolable during his first attempt. Thompson next goes to the vault of the late banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) who oversaw Kane’s trust fund from childhood until his twenty-fifth birthday. While reading Thatcher’s personal memoirs, Thompson learns of Kane’s financial rise and fall. Under the prudent investments that Thatcher had made while Kane was in his youth, he had essentially become one of the richest men in the world by the time he took over his finances. Kane acquired many Newspapers and fiercely fought against the business practices of Thatcher himself and those of his ilk. None of this brought Thompson any closer to finding the truth about “Rosebud” however, and he moved on to interviewing Kane’s personal business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane). Bernstein’s interview and flashback is personally my favorite segment of the film. It focuses on the early days of Kane’s purchase of The New York Inquirer and his circulation war with Chronicle, of whom he effectively stole the top journalists from. This began his intense interest in collecting both people and things for the rest of his life. The scenes of the early days at The Inquirer are full of energy and confidence, with Welles’ Kane striking a resemblance to future onscreen billionaires like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, AKA The Wolf of Wall Street. The next two candidates for interview were Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) Kane’s estranged best friend and a return to interview a more collected Susan Alexander Kane. Both subjects clue Thompson in to the more intimate relationships and nature of Kane as a person and how he evolved over time in the latter half of his life. The final shot at finding the meaning behind Kane’s final words lay with Kane’s butler at Xanadu, Raymond (Paul Stewart). Raymond knows of at least one other time Kane uttered the word ‘Rosebud’, but it’s not enough to form a better understanding of its revelance to Kane or his life. Thompson finally ends his search with his time at Xanadu, saying that he doubts any one word could unlock the mysteries of a man such as Kane, or any other man for that matter. Though we, the audience, receive the truth as we witness unnamed workers clearing out the treasure trove of Xanadu’s massive collection. A small snow sled is casually tossed into the incinerator, which we see inscribed with the word Rosebud, as it is set ablaze.
With this film Orson Welles broke new ground in filmmaking, generating new techniques and methodology that would spur filmmakers of the future to similarly write new rules of cinema as they saw fit. Even though “Citizen Kane” didn’t make any money due mostly to the blackout campaign that Hearst waged against the film’s release, Orson Welles succeeded in making a revolutionary film that has stood the test of time. His career following this would be a constant battle against the studio system of Hollywood, ever vying for artistic control against the bottom line of the studio’s budget. In the end Welles’ career as a filmmaker would outlive the studio system that he battled against for decades, so, in that respect, he won. “Citizen Kane” is an excellent film, and a touchstone of history in cinema. If you care at all about the history of movies, this one is a must watch.
Final Score: 1 Snowglobe
Written by Jack Fincher and directed by David Fincher, “Mank” is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, screenwriter of one of the most infamous films of all time, “Citizen Kane”. Much like how ‘Kane‘ used flashbacks to try to understand the elusive fictional media figurehead, “Mank” also uses flashbacks of our titular character to better understand him and his reasons for writing what is effectively a character assasination of one of the most powerful men in media at the time. While the film eschews direct character interviews to provide the flashbacks structure, there is a similar string of characters important to Mank who visit him to persuade him not to take on Hearst, which is an entertaining flip. The film begins with Mank being driven out to a small homestead in the Mojave desert with a large cast entombing one of his legs. In this temporary abode Mank is supported by two women, Rita (Lily Collins) a British Secretary that types for him as he dictates from bed initially while also effectively working as a sounding board for script ideas and insight, and Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) who attends his medical needs as he needs them. He’s also repeatedly visited by John Houseman (Sam Troughton), the politely anxious assistant of Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who calls and eventually stops by for consultation. The series of flashbacks, which are charmingly introduced with screenwriting introductions like EXT. MGM STUDIOS – DAY – 1934 (FLASHBACK), begin in 1930 when Mank is introduced to William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) via a set visit of one of the films starring Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Thus beginning a near decade of Mank’s involvement in Hearst’s inner circle of friends and various recipients of his vast wealth and empire. The film goes back in forth in time as we garner information about Mank’s time with Hearst’s inner circle and how Mank views the film industry and politics (there’s probably some insight into how David Fincher views these as well). We see the effects of the great depression on the movie industry and the true nature of the old school movie studio executives like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). There’s also a surprising amount of screentime given to Upton Sinclair’s (portrayed in one scene by Bill Nye) 1934 campaign for Governor of California, beseiged by the power hungry political machine run by Hearst, Mayer, and Thalberg to name a few.
What really hooked me with this movie was that the film wasn’t interested in the “how” of Mank writing ‘Kane‘, but the “why”? Sure, the real life drama was more about the fight for screenwriting credit of the script between Mank and Welles, and this film does touch on that, but only briefly near the end. Instead the film poignantly focuses on the years building to Mank’s writing of ‘Kane‘, when he was in the orbit of Hearst through most of the 1930’s, witnessing the reality of powerful people, and how they manipulate systematic control through crushing fiscal hegemony. Mank tries to do what he can to combat these actions, but ultimately hes’ a beneficiary of that exact system, and it’s not until he sees the brutal effects that these manipulations have on ordinary people that he decides to dig in his heels and do something about it. Personally, my favorite scene is the drunken monologue at Hearst mansion where Mank essentially pitches “Citizen Kane”, mockingly, to Hearst as he entertains a dinner. One by one the loyal roaches, like Louis B. Mayer of MGM, slink away from the table, eager not to be associated with the court jester’s imminent ousting. Apparently, the scene took over one-hundred takes to nail down before Fincher and company were happy with it- and I have to say, the juice was worth the squeeze with this one. While I’m not sure if this is technically the best film that was released in 2020, it may end up being my favorite film of this terrible, awful, year. For it shows that principles, in the end, matter more than power. At least, that’s what I got out of it. You also don’t have to twist my arm to get me interested in a film about a screenwriter, I’m the core audience- I just also happen to completely adore the character of Mank as portrayed by Gary Oldman in this movie. Witty, entirely fallible, Mank employs self-deprecating humor at every opportunity, and he’s incredibly capable of delivering corrosive criticism with sharp clarity while completely sauced. He uses words and a literary understanding of the world to not only get himself into far too much trouble, but to gracefully avoid it at times as well. The choice to cast Charles Dance as Hearst was Brilliant! Dance is particularly skilled at portraying powerful figures of aristocracy, and his performance here only enhances the production as a whole. I also have to praise the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, it’s perfectly period accurate and delightfully engaging! The cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and editing by Kirk Baxter also pair to give the film an authentic ‘Old Hollywood‘ tangibility. I really just dig the look, sound, and feel of this film. For me, it all works gloriously.
“Mank” is out now on Netflix in the US and I highly encourage you to check it out if you can. Everything about this film worked for me, hopefully you’ll get some satisfaction out of it as well! I’ve also linked below to an article from the New York Times about the Upton Sinclair election in 1934, which was pretty neat and quite valuable in layering “Mank”‘s historical accuracy versus the fictional liberties they took in creating the film. Enjoy!
Final Score: A Debt of $24,000
For some more information on what “Mank” got right with the Upton Sinclair campaign in 1934, check out this informative NY Times article:
Written and directed by Orson Welles with additional direction by Fred Fleck and Robert Wise, and additional script work by Joseph Cotten and Jack Moss in Welles’ absence, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is a familial epic designed as a Shakespearian Tragedy set across several decades as the Ambersons chart their course in matters both historical and intimate. This being Orson Welles’ second feature after the powerhouse debut of “Citizen Kane”, known derisively in Hollywood at the time as “The Boy Wonder”, Welles was riding high after a decade of proving his naysayers wrong and possibly il-advised, he may have thought himself invincible, capable of the impossible even. This film however, was where his fracture with the studio system in Hollywood was forged, he never fully regained his artistic control within this system going forward. After digging into the story of the making of the film, I’ve found it to be a fascinating look into mistakes made by both the Hollywood executives, fearful of financial ruin after “Citizen Kane”, revolutionary as it was, didn’t make nearly enough profit to continually invest in the artistic whims of a supposed ‘boy genius’, and the mistakes made by Welles himself thinking that he could do it all. I’ve linked below this article to a story that Vanity Fair wrote on the entirety of the subject that I highly recommend for anyone seeking to understand the broader scope of it all, but for now, I’ll get back to the film at hand.
The story, while it remains an ensemble at it’s core, mostly follows the life and actions of George Minafer (Tim Holt) the son of Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello) and Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). Though the inciting incident of the whole story begins with Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) as a young man partaking in the dying tradition of romantic youth at the time, the serenade. A mishap with Eugene accidentally falling over his cello and smashing it to bits in the yard of the Ambersons, as he had hoped to take the hand of Isabel in song, immediately dashed his chances of any serious courtship as this made him a social outcast in the town. So, he took his heartbreak and funneled his ambitions into his invention of the automobile instead. Flash forward twenty years or so and Morgan returns to town with his burgeoning automobile business in fruition and a daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), as he’s found himself an inventor and a widower. In that time Isabel had bore a petulant and insufferable child with Wilbur, a man she did not truly love, which harbored in young George a fiery and combative spirit. Young George was seen by the whole town as an annoying brat that they’d all like to see get the stuffing walloped out of him. Thus we have a lead character who’s unanimously seen as a blight on the town’s citizenry, and yet throughout the film we’re given moments and scenes in which the character’s complexity is hinted at, he’s not entirely a character that experiences sucess at every corner, but one that slowly eeks into abscurity in life, but most painfully, in love as well. Though, I have to say, he’s a character who’s earned a tragic end despite the upbeat studio enforced ending that we got. Which is that he’s ironically run over by an automobile, resulting only in a couple of broken legs with Eugene visiting him in the hospital in the last scene, hurridely conveying an off-screen resolved understanding between the two that belies the last half of the film’s path to tragedy. Which is the crux of the issue of this film. While broadly adequately telling the tale of the Ambersons and the notion of the erosion of family and tradition, this altered version of the film that we’ve got feels like it’s pulling its punches.
Even in this form, the film showcases Welles’ skill in framing, blocking, camera movement and his pioneering of ‘Deep-focus’ onscreen. There’s a lot to enjoy here even if the film does indeed feel the absence of those forty minutes cut from its runtime. The film still does hold onto it’s notion of being ‘an epic’ even though its 88 minutes feel at odds with the story at hand. You can tell that there’s something missing, but the overall decline of the Ambersons family is intact, if not as biting as it could be. The last scene in particular feels one-hundred percent at odds with the last half of the film narratively speaking. It still works, but nowhere near as well as you might expect from Welles- which makes the Studio’s cuts that much more obvious. When looking back at this film, especially alongside his later film in “Chimes at Midnight”, Welles seems indeed to be a man in love with the romanticized past. The opening of this film brilliantly showcases this notion as Welles narrates over the way of life that had benefitted the Amberson family so greatly in the late 1800’s. As we’re shown men changing their fashion styles in a large mirror over the seasons as they pass Welles narrates the seemingly increasing speed at which life was (and still is) accelerating. “Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare….In those days, they had time for everything. Time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions, and open house on New Year’s, and all-day picnics in the woods, and even that prettiest of all vanished customs: the serenade.” Throughout this he’s darkened the corners of the frames and made this sequence feel as though you were thumbing through old sepia-toned family photographs, a nostalgic and anxiety inducing look at the harrowing speed of humanity and its changing ways, which is more constant than we perceive it to be.
While the film isn’t what it could have been, I would still recommend a viewing of it. The performances, truncated they may be, are an idication of Welles evolving direction after ‘Kane‘. I also can’t forget to mention Agnes Moorehead as ‘Aunt Fanny’, she has some of the most playful and heartbreaking scenes with Tim Holt’s George throughout the film. Welles choosing not to impart his own performance as any of the leading characters allowed the audience to more aptly connect with them, or against them, on their own terms. Welles is all over the film in parts, but his bravado and presence would probably have taken away from the ensemble nature of the film, which I do believe was a wise choice. Though I have to admit the production design of the mansion itself, and the gliding, inventive, camera-work stole most of my attention the first time around. For the record, I do not believe that this film is better than “Citizen Kane” as some have come to say in recent decades, it’s a fine film- but just as almost every other film of the twentieth century, it’s no “Citizen Kane”.
Final Score: 2 Broken Legs
For an in-depth look into the history of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and it’s original edit’s status as film’s ‘Holy Grail’ of undiscovered glory, check out this article by Vanity Fair:
Written, edited, produced, starring, and directed by Orson Welles, “Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)” is an adaption of several plays by William Shakespeare regarding Henry the IV, Henry the V, and notably Sir John Falstaff, knight of mischief. My relationship with Shakespeare has been an evolving one since having to read through several of his most famous plays in High School. I’ve never much cared for “Romeo and Juliet” or even “Macbeth” for that matter, but I’ve come to greatly admire the plays concerning the ruling hand of England, academically called the “Henriad” plays, meaning four to eight (depending on who you ask) of his works dealing with Historical figures and events (though my favorite piece by Shakespeare is “King Lear”). Orson Welles took the comic side character of John Falstaff and decided to tell a story that focused more on the relationship between Hal (Keith Baxter), or Henry the V, and his two father figures in Falstaff and Henry the IV (John Gielgud).
More than that however, the film seems to be intently focused on the changing of the times, going from a more “Arthurian” romanticized and nostalgic past, versus the new, cold, modern age. The first act is full of playful scenes full of movement amongst Hal and Falstaff and company that is perfectly juxtaposed against the later scenes in the film concerning Henry the IV and the colder, harsher, future. The scenes in the Castle are rigid, somber, with architecture filling the frame rather than the first half of the film which focused more intimately on the faces and action of Hal and his companions. Welles’ blocking and cutting on movement greatly assist in the pace and kinetic energy of the story as it’s being told. Which, I must say, helped to keep me personally invested in the film. While, yes, the langauage is old and a bit difficult to understand at times, the actors all emote so effectively that you get the general idea of what’s happening and how the story is moving. I found this film to be far more approachable than Laurence Olivier’s adaption of “Henry V” for example. That film had few camera movements and felt as though it were itself a stageplay and didn’t quite use the medium of film to its advantage.
After the mesmerizingly well executed battle sequence halfway through the movie (more on that in just a bit), you may begin to have an inkling that this story, or at least this version of the story, isn’t one that may end in joyous good fortune, but rather, one of tragedy. It’s as much Orson Welles’ longing for a good pair of rose-colored glasses as it is for the simplicity of easier times gone by, and Falstaff embodies that wholeheartedly. The character is one of charming ego and pathetic lies, conjured from exaggeration and jovial, bawdy, good times. Which, in the light of modernity, cannot exist side by side such a serious and brutal world. That brutality is borne out in the expertly crafted war scenes in the middle of the film, which were particularly exciting. The whole sequence felt surprisingly modern in its depiction. Quick cuts with the editing amid the dirty, chaotic, action with many men dying in the mud felt revelatory for its time. The battle feels appropriately frantic with handheld shots and close ups of horrified faces, especially when you compare it to the earlier scene in which Falstaff and Hal commit a small scale robbery in the woods, filmed on gliding dolly shots set against a beautiful forest with a very playful mood. When you focus on how Falstaff is depicted during the battle, it’s as if the two time periods of England are merging. Falstaff running around cowardly in his huge armor and hiding from the fight- while intercut with rapid shots of men dying awful deaths, most of which is indescernable when trying to figure out who’s who on the battlefield. In this beginning of the new era, Falstaff is out of place. He does not fit in this violent and serious world of conflict. I must also take a moment to point out that though rotund and portly, Welles was shockingly nimble and quick on his feet in several scenes throughout the film. I did not expect that.
This film was far more complex and fascinating than I expected going in. It’s actually quite funny too. There’s a scene early on when Hal and Poins (Tony Beckley) turn Falstaff’s cheeky robbery on him by spooking him into running off, which turns into a great bit when they hear him greatly exaggerating his pursuers and his bravery in fending them off. I highly recommend this one, and if you can get past the archaic language barrier you’ll find a satisfying and endearing story. Orson Welles himself cites this as his favorite film to have worked on and completed, despite it being a financial failure. Check it out!
Written and directed by Orson Welles, loosely based on the novel “The Badge of Evil” by Whit Masterson, “Touch of Evil” is the last studio backed film that Orson Welles made in Hollywood, and it’s quite the noir! For the record, I watched the ‘Reconstructed’ version of the film that was re-edited according to Orson Welles’ wishes per the fifty-eight page memo he sent to the studio following their edit of the film. This resulted in an additional half hour of footage merged back into the original studio edit. “Touch of Evil” begins with an incredibly well staged and executed shot that follows a bomb being planted in the trunk of a car as we meet two of our principal characters, Miguel ‘Mike’ (Charlton Heston) and Susan (Janet Leigh) Vargas, walking alongside the car as it weaves in and out of a busy small road as they cross the Mexican-U.S. border. It’s a gripping scene of about three and a half minutes until the car with the bomb gets just far enough out of frame and explodes as Mike (a Narcotics Official for the Mexican Government) investigates the scene of the burning car. It’s not long before Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) arrives at the scene of the crime, looming ominously over the wreckage as he boasts about ‘intuitions’ and hunches that a local Mexican gang is to blame for the murders.
Once Vargas is involved in the case, it becomes more about the detective work that Vargas engages in as he uncovers Captain Quinlan’s years of planting evidence and a corrupt system of criminal activities. There’s also some fun world building on the side with “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a criminal that Vargas indicted back in Mexico. He’s out to make Vargas’ life a living hell as revenge for his brother’s predicament, though Uncle Joe is very careful to keep his underlings’ crimes just vague and muddled enough not to attract any real retribution from the U.S. cops. Uncle Joe Grandi’s boys are mostly utilized to keep Susan paranoid while Mike’s out there trying to pin Quinlan to the dirt he’s tried to keep buried for years. The film has all the trappings of a good Noir, and Welles fully embraced the genre while imbuing it with stylish cinematography choices, near perfect shading, and just damn good direction and blocking. It’s considerably noteworthy that Orson Welles could take a B-movie thriller on a border town, and transform it into something larger that feels equal parts Machiavellian and Shakespearean at times.
Now, we have to address the elephant in the room, Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas. On one hand, to have a Mexican character not only be the lead in a major motion picture in 1958, but that he was also the hero of the story as well as the most moral character- that’s something to consider given the time the film was made and released. It’s also worth mentioning that Vargas’ character actions seem doubly righteous when juxtaposed against Welles’ Quinlan, the walking emodiment of bigotry and corruption. However, it can be cringe inducing seeing Charlton Heston caked in make-up to be depicted as a Mexican narcotics officer, especially when Heston provided no vocal work for any authenticity when concerned with accents. It’s not particularly well hidden, thus the film asks you to suspend your disbelief as Heston, clearly, is not Mexican. Whether or not that works for you in the grander scheme of the film as a whole, well, that will be a personal choice for each viewer to decide for themselves. I think it’s a bit of a toss up for me personally, it’s a bit uncomfortable- but it seems there were good intentions from Welles. For example, in the book, the character of Vargas was a white cop named Mitch. So, Welles intentionally made the choice to make his lead character of Mexican descent, it’s just disappointing that the character couldn’t have been played by a Latino. Alas, it was what seems like a thousand years ago. Your enjoyment of the film will be up to you given the circumstances.
If you’re a student of film, I highly recommend giving this one a watch. There’s a lot of work here that feels revolutionary for the time. I’ve always thought that about Orson Welles, he was a man ahead of his time when it came to filmmaking. Whether on the set of “Citizen Kane”, “The Third Man”, or in the recently crafted/discovered documentary on Netflix called “The Other Side of The Wind” (Which I highly recommend), Welles was always willing to take huge risks, break new ground, and change cinema. Even with the brownface Heston situation, there is enough good stuff in the film to consider giving it a watch if this piques your interest. Definitely recommended.