Ace Of Spades Does “The Other Side of The Wind”

ie9ybrhceuuozazbrohuAs part of a retrospective on Welles for its weekly movie post.

His opinion matches my own. It’s an odd little movie, ambitious and self-referential, with an element of satire, both of Hollywood culture in the 70’s and of the art-house trends of that decade. The film within the film, which has the same title, is colorful and stunning to look at but also incredibly basic, to the point of being plotless. That’s a pretty strong critique of what avant-garde cinema tends to do, which is to say, spin its wheels fast enough to dispense with such pedestrian things as narrative, and then to expect plaudits for it. Which it usually gets, because, as the main movie demonstrates, everone wants to act like they’re in, even when nothing they’re looking at makes any sense at all.

Is it as good as Citizen Kane? I don’t think so, but what is? Not that I accept the notion that Kane is the Greatest Movie Ever Made, (because what does that even mean?) but it is a good movie. Kane tells a man’s story, beginning to end, and in the process of doing that leaves open the notion that for everything we know about him, there was more, a core of him that he alone will take to the grave. It’s watchable and provocative.

This doesn’t rise to that height. It lacks the Everyman subject. Movies about Hollywood are inevitably more interesting to people who are in Hollywood than the rest of us, and while it’s certainly fun to see Welles pronounce a plague on all their houses (if in fact that’s what he’s doing, but I think that’s there), there’s a kind of been-there-done-that to such a message. The provincialism of the elite is a well-mined subject.

But that’s just my opinion. There’s a larger value to the work that makes it worth checking out:

This is like discovering that Emily Dickenson had a complete collection of poetry hidden under her mattress since her death, or da Vinci had created another masterpiece but no one had laid eyes on it since the 16th century. This is akin to finding a trove of Greek drama previously unknown to exist, or a lost Shakespeare play.

I’d advise looking at the accompanying documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, as well.

Murder on the Orient Express and 1970’s Cinema

After Mark Steyn administers the appropriate thwacking to Branagh’s recent flop PC adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express – in which perhaps the worst crime is giving Poirot a preposterous walrus mustache – he moves on to speak glowingly of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version:

Oh, to be sure, Lumet’s Orient Express is of its time, and the color and lighting look a bit like a landlubbers’ season finale for “The Love Boat”, and you can’t help noticing in the crowd scenes that an awful lot of these 1930s railway porters seem to have 1970s haircuts. But Lumet was a superb director of actors, and a great organizer of material. He presents the backstory – a shocking murder years earlier halfway around the world – as a prologue, deftly compressing and clarifying perhaps the most structurally problematic part of the source material. By contrast, Branagh creates his own flat and self-indulgent prologue, set at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and featuring a priest, a rabbi and an imam, and then scrambles to fit in the actual Agatha Christie stuff. He also fails to conjure perhaps the most important character of all: the train. In 1974, Lumet hired the world’s greatest authority on locomotive sounds. The sound editor worked for six weeks on train noises only. At the start of the adventure, when the train pulls out of Istanbul, every bell, every whoosh of steam, every grind of wheels was completely authentic, right down to the barely audible click as the engine’s headlight goes on. And then the film’s composer Richard Rodney Bennett handed in his wonderful waltz theme for the scene, and Lumet knew that every single click and clank would be buried and inaudible. “We’ve heard a train leave the station,” he told the sound guy. “But we’ve never heard a train leave the station in three-quarter time.” The fellow walked out and Lumet never saw him again.

There was something of an undercurrent of pre-war nostalgia in the 1970’s. One needs only to look at Chinatown, or the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. For my part, I find the ’74 Gatsby decidedly inferior to Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation. Some people don’t like Luhrmann, but his Gatsby captures the frenzy of the Roaring 20’s in a way that the dreamily gauzy 70’s version cannot. By the same token, DiCaprio’s portrayal of the title character is naturally over the top, but he shows us the longing and the aspiration of Jay Gatsby, lives it and breathes it. Robert Redford gives us a Ken Doll in beautiful shirts.

This is the problem with nostalgia: it elegizes something dead. It’s so excited to revisit the past that it drowns itself. This is perhaps why I’ve never liked Grease – so thrilled it is at big cars and leather jackets that it doesn’t bother to have any but the most twiddling story as a vehicle for a series of bombastic songs. Lumet’s Orient Express suffers some of this as well. It’s hard to contain laughter at the opening credits.

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-1974

The thought of anyone in the Thirties making something so lurid, so saturated ad nauseam completely tickles. The yellow and the pink silk and the faux-Deco chunky font just scream “70’s” at you. And the aforementioned train sequence smacks of excess as well; one can’t help wonder if we really need that much time devoted to a shot that tells us the Train Left The Station.

And yet. The prologue Steyn mentions above is not just deft but chilling, an almost hypnotic nightmare version of home invasion and child kidnapping in which the faces of the victims are seen but not the culprits. The mechanics of Christie’s story are faithfully moved from page to screen. And the performances are indeed a treat. Bergman is so good you forget that it’s Bergman. Gielgud as the Butler is a treasure. As Mrs. Hubbard, Bacall is always Bacall, but she’s a hoot. My favorite may be Anthony Perkins as Hector MacQueen. In the book, McQueen stands out the least among the suspects – he’s the American, and not much else. Perkins gives us a man who is polite and professional but mutters in inchoate rage when he thinks no one is looking. Not exactly a surprise for those familiar with Psycho, but it works.

It’s a long movie, but it’s a detailed mystery, so taking your time is the way to go. Currently Lumet’s Murder on The Orient Express is available for free on Amazon Prime Video. Pour yourself a glass of sherry and give it a watch.