Winter Kills an Assassination Plot

DATELINE:  Not Citizen Kane

Taylor as Madam Hollywood Miss Taylor, We Presume?

Richard Condon’s novel called Winter Kills, a roman a clef of the Kennedy Assassination, makes for one of the earliest of conspiracy theory movies. Winter Kills is by the man who wrote the Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor.

Vincent Canby of the NY Times called it equal to Citizen Kane, but that seems a stretch. It is more akin to Oliver Stone’s JFK.

A stunning cast of cameos appear and disappear quickly. The opening credits are about as jaw-dropping as Murder on the Orient Express:  Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Dorothy Malone, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Boone, Eli Wallach, and on and on.

How could it go wrong? Well, you can start by scratching your head over the notion that movie is billed as a tragic comedy.

The Kennedy murder in 1963 may be a comedy of errors in its commission and solution, but hardly a comedy.

The film takes the off-putting hints of conspiracy and gives them fake names:  Joe Diamond for Jack Ruby, etc.

Jeff Bridges is the young man (at his most attractive in 1979) who is the brother of an assassinated president who decides to solve the crime himself. In the meantime, conspirators are killing everyone around him. His attitude is bizarre, like someone has strung together unrelated scenes (blame goes to the director).

John Huston gives another irascible performance as the President’s father and Dorothy Malone is his mother.

The film predates the Internet but makes some intriguing theories that a master-programmed spy network of computers is following everyone as early as 1960. It is a stunning prediction on today’s world. That alone is gripping and clairvoyant.

All the usual suspects are present: Hollywood moguls, billionaires, crackpot businessmen, mobsters, Cubans, political hacks, the CIA, and on and on. We know the drill by now, but back in 1980, this was shocking. With more evidence now available, the theories here are standard conclusions today.

As for the movie, it is over-the-top and worth your attention. Not Citizen Kane, it is equal to Stone’s JFK.

 

 

 

 

 

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Windy Conditions for Orson Welles

DATELINE: Citizen Kane’s Bookend

Orson's Last

It’s disorienting to see a new movie that is 35-years old with stars long dead: John Huston, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart, and all the usual Orson Welles friends. He also included new discoveries in his films like Bob Random and Rich Little. Orson called it The Other Side of the Wind.

The movie is a mockumentary of a movie made on the last day of the life of a legendary film director named Jack Hannaford.

Huston is Hannaford, playing God again, or the devil to Welles as observed by Susan Strasberg (daughter of James Dean’s acting tutor Lee Strasberg) as she plays a carbon copy of film maven Pauline Kael.

As the insider look at Hollywood develops, those in the know will begin to recognize that Johnny Dale is Jimmy Dean, and that the director appears to be a combo of Nick Ray and George Stevens, the men behind the films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.

Indeed, two of Dean’s co-stars have roles in the film: Dennis Hopper and Mercedes McCambridge. Our money is on Nick Ray—whose ambiguous sexual relationship with stars seems to be at the heart of the Welles picture. He is giving us the ultimate insider look.

Welles never used nudity in his films until this final movie: he plays to the times, psychedelic sex, which now seems dated. The film made by Johnny Dale is sandwiched within and around the life of Hannaford who dies in Dale’s Porsche Spyder, a copy of Dean’s death car.

All the usual Orson touches and themes are present: betrayal of people, rather than principle. There are no principles in Hollywood. He also has a field day ridiculing all those New Wave European directors.

Movie magic is everywhere because Welles could do so much with so little—and scenes seem seamless, even if shot with body doubles three years later.

Critics claimed he never wanted to finish the picture because it was his raison d’etre. It was also his Swan Song and his testament to Hollywood. It’s brilliant and fascinating with every step of the much-sought divine accident that Welles believed essential to film inspiration. Highly recommended.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead!

DATELINE: New Orson Welles Documentary

 3 amigos Three Amigos, More or Less!

If Orson Welles spoke this epitaph, then he was prescient. However, when Peter Bogdanovich reports this at the documentary’s start, his long-time girlfriend Oja Kodar refutes it. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is so on target. Alan Cumming narrates among the powerful voices.

Who knows? It is a juicy start to the recent Netflix restoration and premiere of Orson’s last film:  The Other Side of the Wind.

Since the final masterpiece of the Master is a mockumentary, years ahead of its time, it seems only fair that this documentary on the making of the film over 15 years is different than most.

You may be surprised at how many illustrious people, now aged, are still with us with fond and not-so-fond memories of Welles, who was bossy and a tyrant as well as an auteur genius.

He shot what he pictured in his mind. His philosophy in the end was one of “divine accidents” during filming as sources of inspiration that makes a monumental motion picture.

Welles suffered for his art. Money was the bugaboo and taking it from the Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law was a desperately bad move. He lost all control of the movie when the country went Islamic extremist. And, the French courts also tried to keep him from the one movie that kept him alive and creative.

Is it autobiographical? Perhaps, but Welles cast his friend director John Huston as Jack Hannaford—who could be John Ford or Ernest Hemingway or even Welles himself. It could be Huston was playing Huston. It is likely another famous director of their era: Nick Ray.

Scenes were filmed in fragments, often years between takes. Yet, it flows like some insane chorus of dissonant singers.

Netflix produced the documentary and has completed the last film of Welles (reviewed separately). If you need your appetite whet, this documentary will prime your pump.

 

 

 

 

 

Peter O’Toole on TV in 1986

DATELINE:  Rare Appearance

Banshee

In one of his rare acting performances on the small screen, legendary Peter O’Toole took a role on a Ray Bradbury Theatre production of a short story called “Banshee.”

This anthology series ran for several years and featured notable stars in a thirty-minute Twilight Zone-style show.

Most of the summaries of the episode with O’Toole are oddly incorrect on various websites.

The man who was Lord Jim, Lawrence of Arabia, and Henry II (twice), plays an eccentric film director living in Ireland on his remote estate. He plays John Hampton, which clearly is a play on the real eccentric legendary director who lived in Ireland on his estate.

That was, of course, John Huston. The dialogue even has that lilt of Huston’s—and O’Toole wears jodhpurs and boots with swagger, to suggest Huston.

He is visited by a nebbish writer played by Charles Martin Smith who comes for a spooky interview with a script that O’Toole shreds to pieces.

Greeting the writer in the dead of night, the flamboyant director is more than a little unsettled by the cry of a banshee, an Irish female ghost, out in the dark, forboding woods around his estate. While he urges the writer to go out to find this creature who cries for death, Smith locates an ethereal beauty near a graveyard who wants O’Toole to come out.

The story was written by Ray Bradbury and seems a trifle, though highly moody and atmospheric. The show falls short of Twilight Zone quality, but who can complain when Peter O’Toole enlivens every scene.

 

 

 

 

Five Great Directors Go to War

DATELINE:  History Backstory

five

Netflix has put together a three-part documentary, based on a Mark Harris book, Five Came Back about the impact World War II had on the careers and personalities of Hollywood’s legendary directors.

They called the work “propaganda,” and it was dismissed by many over the years as secondary to the art of film.

Starting with Frank Capra, the great directors wanted to serve their country—in the best way they could, as filmmakers. The military was suspect of them as creators of fiction. Indeed, even Capra asserted he never watched documentaries when he was thrust into making them.

Others followed suit: John Huston, William Wyler, John Ford, and George Stevens. Each had been highly successful during the 1930s, but after serving in dangerous war zones, seeing death close up, their seminal work would come in the post-war years.

After the war, each had a signature film that displayed the horrors etched into their art form: for Wyler, it was The Best Years of Our Lives, about returning veterans; for Ford, it was They Were Expendable, about the toll on sailors; for Huston, it was The Treasure of Sierra Madre, seeing the deadly sins up close; for Stevens, it was a series of dramas like Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, filmed as A Place in the Sun; for Capra, it was about confronting the darkness from It’s A Wonderful Life.

Along the way, we have the insights on how these men navigated the politics of Washington as deftly as they traversed the world of big studios.

Today’s masters of cinema, like Spielberg and Kasdan, Coppola, Del Toro and Greengrass, speak to the affinity they have for the old masters and their integrity—and their pain.

As a history of Hollywood, the documentary is brilliant and poignant. As a depiction of the war against Hitler, there becomes another layer how our legends may shape our reality. A few of the documentaries produced during World War II were, in fact, re-enactments, much like we see on TV docudramas all the time nowadays.

Though the directors ran the gamut of political attitudes and personal foibles, from arch-conservatives to immigrants, they were drawn together in an epic and spiritual journey.

Rare clips and lost interviews bring insight and deserving recognition. This serves as an important backdrop and backstory to the great films and great men who made them.