Touch of Evil – Screening Notes

“You’re future is all used up. Why don’t you go home?”

Touch of Evil takes place in a small town on the Mexico/United States border. Mexican cop Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is newly married and about to begin his honeymoon with his American wife (Janet Leigh). A hero in his homeland for his battles with drug dealers, Vargas just wants to go on holiday, but the murder of a local businessman brings him into confrontation with Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). Quinlan’s intuitive methods of investigating crimes often lead him to act in ways that aren’t always lawful. One of these men is heading for a fall.

Touch of Evil was Orson Welles last shot at Hollywood. Hired to play the bad guy, leading man Charlton Heston demanded Welles also direct. Studio execs at Universal weren’t keen. Welles had an undeserved reputation for being difficult, his films considered highbrow, even though he always tried to make them with an audience in mind. Touch of Evil is his most entertaining work, a stylish thriller which transcends its pulp origins as a dime store novel. Everybody brings their A-game. Heston’s casting seems bizarre but few actors have ever been as dignified or as solid. Screen legend Marlene Dietrich steals the show as an enigmatic fortune teller. Director of photography Russell Metty and Welles experiment with unusual camera angles and long elaborate takes including a celebrated opening shot which lasts for three and a half minutes without any cuts. Composer Henry Mancini (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) jazz score suggests bourbon fuelled late nights, sweat, and sin.

Filming went well, but afterwards Welles was removed from the editing process. Touch of Evil played the B-movie circuit, usually as the second feature on a double-bill. Over the years the film’s reputation has grown and Touch of Evil is now recognised as being one of the last in the great cycle of Film Noir movies of the Forties and Fifties. These films were bleak, but exhilarating in the way the defied Hollywood conventions. They dealt with betrayal, and loss, and broken dreams and their cynical worldview struck a chord with post-War audiences.

It is easy to make comparisons between Quinlan and Welles – both are brilliant men but the architects of their own downfall. Welles directed his first movie Citizen Kane (1941) at the tender age of 25. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst took offence believing correctly the film was a thinly veiled biopic of him and set his media pack loose on Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was released in a truncated form after the studio RKO got fed up with waiting for Welles to return from filming a documentary in Rio and cut the film without him. Welles made other films on time and under budget, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) for instance, but the bad reputation stuck. After Touch of Evil Welles spent most of his time in Europe, occasionally appearing in big-budget Hollywood films like Casino Royale (1967) to raise funds for his own features.

Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen) – Programme Notes

‘Things are sweetest when they’re lost’
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s most financially successful film to date and picked up an Oscar for Best Screenplay last Sunday. Not bad for a director who was considered a busted flush in the United States and had to seek out funding in Europe. Allen has made four films in London and one in Spain since 2005, but his writing style felt incongruous outside of his regular New York surroundings. Paris has been in so many movies the city comes with its own set of clichés giving a writer of Allen’s abilities plenty of material to play around with. Allen pays homage to the City of Light in a beautiful extended opening sequence and this confidence extends to the rest of the film which is funny and charming and handled with a lightness of touch not seen in his work since The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). 
Like the earlier film Midnight in Paris has an element of the fantastical. Gil (Owen Wilson) feels alienated from his fellow American travellers. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her rich right-wing parents have little interest in the city beyond its material comforts. Worse still is Paul (Michael Sheen) an academic in town to deliver a speech at the Sorbonne, whose interest in culture has more to do with showing what impeccable taste he has than enjoying it. Gil wanders away from them one night and gets lost. 
As the clock strikes midnight he accepts a lift from a group of revellers dressed in an antiquated car and finds himself amongst another group of expatriates, the ‘Lost Generation’ of writers and artists who flocked to Paris in the 1920’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill) are taking their first steps towards drink-fuelled oblivion, Cole Porter (Yves Heck) provides the musical accompaniment, while Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) muses on what it means to be a man; “have you ever shot a charging lion?” Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) is as you would expect a bit strange. 
It’s all terrific fun and the film’s message; live for the moment, don’t get distracted by thinking things were better once upon a time, suggest Allen has no interest in recapturing his own glory days but would rather move forward and try to create something new. 

The Black Pirate (1926, Albert Parker) – Screening Programme Notes

In this classic swashbuckler a young sailor (Douglas Fairbanks) is the only survivor of an attack by pirates. Seeking revenge for the death of his father the sailor joins the pirate band responsible and tries to destroy them from within. Proving his worth by single-handedly capturing a ship in a daring feat of bravado the sailor eventually becomes known as the Black Pirate. Matters are complicated however when the pirates capture a beautiful princess (Billie Dove) and the Black Pirate must put himself at risk to keep her safe from harm.

Jane Gardner – Pianist

Jane has accompanied screenings of silent movies in London at the Barbican Centre and the National Film Theatre. This is her second appearance at The Station after accompanying a screening of The General (1926, Buster Keaton) in January.

Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939)

There’s a great story about Douglas Fairbanks which emphasises the playfulness and remarkable agility of this legendary Hollywood star. While filming Robin Hood (1922, Allan Dwan) the producers forbade Fairbanks from performing an elaborate stunt. The sequence involved Robin riding towards a castle, then holding on to the drawbridge as it is raised, jumping on to a chain and climbing 50 feet up the front of the set. A stuntman was hired and seemingly performed the stunt with aplomb. Until it dawned on the production crew the stunt man was standing next to them watching the show. The figure waving to them from above was the real Doug Fairbanks.

Physically graceful with a gift for comedy Fairbanks quickly became a popular star in Hollywood. An early highlight is the short comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916, Christy Cabanne, John Emerson) a Sherlock Holmes spoof with Fairbanks as a detective who uses cocaine for inspiration and solves a crime involving an inflatable beach toy.

In 1919 Fairbanks, his lover Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffiths, and Charlie Chaplin formed the studio United Artists to give themselves more artistic independence. Fairbanks took a huge risk by producing the swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro (1921, Fred Niblo). Nobody had tried anything like this before. In case it failed Fairbanks made a backup film, an ingenious slapstick comedy called The Nut (Theodore Reed 21) about an eccentric inventor.

Zorro was a huge success and turned Fairbanks into the most bankable star around. Fairbanks continued in this vein playing D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (21) with Niblo again directing. There quickly followed Robin Hood (22, Dwan), The Thief of Baghdad (24, Raoul Walsh), Don Q: Son of Zorro (25, Donald Crisp), The Black Pirate, and D’Artagnan again in The Iron Mask (29, Dwan).

Aware of cinema’s growing cultural importance. Fairbanks helped create the USCLA’S film programme. An innovator onscreen and off he was one of the first to experiment with sound though the technology wasn’t quite ready for The Iron Mask.  Fairbanks first Talkie saw him delivering iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (30, Sam Taylor). His career eventually tailed off and after his marriage to Pickford broke up Fairbanks moved to England. There was one last hurrah in The Private Life of Don Juan (34, Alexander Korda) with Fairbanks as the great lover realising his swashbuckling days are coming to an end.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Station Screening Programme Notes

“She’s a phony, but she’s a real phony.”

Based on a 1958 novella by Truman Capote Breakfast at Tiffany’s turned its gamine star Audrey Hepburn into a fashion icon. In her Givenchy gowns and Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses Holly Golightly brings to mind the modern trend for socialites to be described as ‘It Girls’ in society magazines. Yet Holly’s a faker, a hustler, a runaway, and in Capote’s novella a prostitute. Director Blake Edwards softens Capote’s story but keeps the essential narrative intact. The biggest change is the contemporising of events. In the novella Holly is long gone and the narrator reflects on their time together many years afterwards. There’s sadness in the novella which the film maintains but never at the expense of entertainment. Much of the dialogue is taken straight from Capote’s novel though Edwards and screenwriter George Axelrod favour a more comic tone. Indeed Edwards would later become best known as a director of comedies after the success of The Pink Panther (1963), the first of many films to feature the hapless Inspector Clouseau.

While Capote suggests most people don’t get what they want Hollywood movies tend towards the opposite. So instead of a little guy observing a beautiful woman he can never have Breakfast at Tiffany’s becomes a romance. Enter George Peppard as Paul Varjak, a handsome but down on his luck writer. Like Holly he relies on the favours of others to survive, in his case a rich married woman who pays his rent in return for services rendered. Paul is a realist who can see Holly for the damaged soul she is and wants her to stop dreaming. Admirers of Capote dismiss the film as fluff but this is unfair. Hollywood is a dream factory, the ultimate destination for drifters and wannabes. The novella’s Holly would have been more suited to Marilyn Monroe, whose own life was a tale of reinvention, alcohol abuse, and romantic failures. But the quirky and spirited Hepburn suits the film Edwards has made. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is pure escapism and it works on its own terms. There is one breathtakingly awful miscalculation though. Mickey Rooney’s casting as Holly’s Japanese neighbour has to be seen to be believed. “Miss Gorightry…”

Audrey Hepburn (1929-93)
Audrey Hepburn is regarded as the quintessential cinema style icon. Born in Brusselsand raised in Holland, she started her career in Englandwith small roles in movies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, Charles Crichton). Her big break came with Roman Holiday (53, William Wyler) which turned her into a major star and won her a Best Actress Oscar. Sabrina (54, Billy Wilder) and Funny Face (56, Stanley Donen) cemented her fame. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is something of a departure allowing her to play a much more complex role for a change. Charade (Donen, 63) and the musical My Fair Lady (64, George Cukor) were huge successes. After the nervy thriller Wait Until Dark (67, Terence Young) Hepburn worked infrequently. She was a surprisingly earthy Marian opposite Sean Connery in the elegiac Robin and Marian (76, Richard Lester) but in later life she focused much of her time on her work as an ambassador for UNICEF.
Blake Edwards (1922-2010)
Edwards started out as an actor before turning to writing and directing. He peaked early and Breakfast at Tiffany’s is arguably the highlight of his career. His next film Days of Wine and Roses (1962) is an interesting companion piece focusing on the descent of a young couple into alcoholism. Latterly though Edwards made broad comedies including eight Pink Panther movies, the Dudley Moore/Bo Derek smash hit 10 (81), cross-dressing comedy Victor/Victoria (1982), and gave Bruce Willis an early leading man role in Blind Date (87), his last real box-office hit.