Tag Archives: joseph cotten

Yes We Kane

[The following was written for the Great Citizen Kane Debate, hosted by True Classics.]

First off, full disclosure: My middle name is Orson, after our favorite cinematic wunderkind. Make of that what you will.

Now on to the meat of the issue: Citizen Kane is a fucking incredible movie. Wanna talk broadly about its influence and artistry? OK, then: it’s a Ulysses-like encapsulation of American history spanning 1895-1941, of political/economic ambition and its downfall, of the Faustian bargain that constitutes the “American dream,” all told with wit and tragedy and chiaroscuro poetry. It’s a mad gambit by a first-time filmmaker that’s since become a byword for great Hollywood cinema.

But less loftily: It’s fun. It’s puckish. It’s one of my “raw pleasure” movies—a joy to quote and rewatch ad nauseum. I never understand it when people complain about Kane as if it’s this hulking, glacial, inaccessible art film. Are they watching the same Kane I am, the one bubbling with jokes and cute banter? Yes, it’s haunted by Charlie’s broken childhood, his spoiled dreams of high office, and his ruinous relationship with poor Susan. But it’s the very opposite of a slog.

One of Kane‘s many miracles is that it’s so dense, so full, and somehow still so light. It has Joseph Cotten at his finest, dropping self-deprecating one-liners left and right; it has Gregg Toland’s impossibly inventive camera, like the bastard child of a kaleidoscope and an angel; it has that adorable scene where Charlie alleviates Susan’s toothache through laughter; and of course it has Welles himself, a boy genius both within and without the film, laughing at the world while haunted by his past and future.

It’s so poignant, but so charming. So cynical, but so alive. It’s a romance, a biopic, an epic, a film noir, a horror movie, a political thriller, a drama set in the world of turn-of-the-century journalism… it’s such a massive, magical feat that I can’t help but react with awe and delight. I love every frame, every line, every performance in Kane. Like I said: a fucking incredible movie.

As for this “greatest movie of all time” thing? It’s a silly diversion from the movie’s true power. I have nothing against Sight & Sound‘s once-a-decade polls, the same ones that canonized Kane; in fact, I think they can be a handy barometer of critical opinion. However, these polls have also given hordes of adolescent cinephiles the false impression that calling Kane “boring” is an act of courage. Come on, everybody. We’re better than that. Cinema isn’t a horse race; it’s a cornucopia, with no single “greatest movie” looking down on the rest. Appreciate movies for their own merits, not because they have (or have not) been voted “the best.”

And while you’re at it, watch Citizen Kane. Because it’s a really funny, tender, smart, incredible movie.

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Horror Character Madness, Part 2

By Ashley

Last week, Andreas posted his first five favorite horror movie characters and now, after a brief setback, I’m happy to present my own!

25) The Dancing Corpse (Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn [1987])

Because why the fuck not? Seriously though, what is better than the decapitated corpse of Ash Williams’ girlfriend rising from the grave to treat viewers to a macabre pseudo-ballet? When Linda’s giggling head joyfully rolls back onto her neck and she starts pirouetting around, the movie is very knowingly walking the line between horror/comedy and self-parody. Up until this moment, Evil Dead II is just a remake/reminder of Evil Dead I but then BAM, a corpse is dancing and it really sets the stage for the bizarre comedic set-pieces that follow. And it’s damn fine stop-motion to boot!

24) Rhoda (Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed [1956])

The Bad Seed was one of the first maternal madness movies I ever saw and it struck a major chord with me (obvi). Rhoda terrified me—all blond pigtails, wide eyes, and murderous rage. I was totally sucked in by her precocious psychosis and how effortlessly she manipulated the adults around her. Why is this little girl the very embodiment of evil? The best explanation the movie gives us is some shoddy science: Rhoda’s maternal grandmother was a serial killer and this tendency skips a generation. Ultimately, Rhoda gets bitch-slapped by the heavy hand of morality; as my dad quipped darkly after she was struck by lightning, “God got her.”

23) Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles in Halloween [1978])

I’ve discussed, at length, my love for Lynda Van Der Klok. It has very little to do with Lynda’s character and everything to do with how fucking much I love P.J. Soles; she has the amazing ability to breathe charismatic life into dim-witted, shallow, catty characters. She helps these characters become more than your typical horror movie meat-bags. Lynda Van Der Klok is self-centered, vain, vapid, and isn’t apologizing for shit, and goddammit, I love her for it.

22) Rhonda (Samm Todd in Trick ‘r Treat [2007])

You know, sometimes you’re just down for some good old-fashioned revenge. I watched Trick ‘r Treat for the first time in the beginning of October and it was perfect. It was so goddamn perfect that I wanted to punch it for being too good. It was very hard for me to pick just one character from this movie because, God, they’re all so fucking awesome. But Rhonda holds a special place in my heart: the sweet savant who gets cruelly tricked by her little bitch classmates. And then, when real scary shit goes down, does our girl Rhonda take the moral high road and prove herself better than her classmates? Fuck no. In true Carrie style, she leaves them to be eviscerated by a horde of zombie children. My favorite part is how incredibly calm she is about it: she doesn’t sneer or glower or spell out to them what she’s doing or why. She just looks at them with a clear, patient face that says, “You deserve this.”

21) Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt [1945])

I’m not shy about my all-encompassing (at times indecent) love of Joseph Cotten. There is nothing I do not love about this man. Joseph Cotten, like Jimmy Stewart, often plays characters who are superhumanly warm and good-natured. And so, just as with Jimmy Stewart, when he’s playing a decidedly unwholesome character—like the bluebeard Uncle Charlie—it brings an added chill to the table. Especially because Uncle Charlie is a deceitful mix of gentle, wholesome family man and cold-blooded murderer; Cotten switches between the two in an instant with little more than a look or a gesture. It leaves me feeling deeply unsettled because just like his ever more suspicious niece Charlie, I love Uncle Charlie. I admire him and want him so badly to be good. It’s a film that fucks hard with our feelings toward its charismatic villain.

So, boys and ghouls and those off the gender spectrum, keep your eyes peeled for the rest of our favorite horror characters! The next five from both of us should be up later this week!

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Lust, Duels, and Matadors

Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador (1986) is a film about erotic obsession. It’s about the lusts that lead men and women to fuck, and to murder. But since it’s Almodóvar, you know it’s done with a fairly light touch – a self-consciousness about just how campy and ridiculous this whole affair really is – even as he spreads on the color and sensuality like so much molasses. Matador is a well-crafted Hitchcockian thriller about Ángel, played by a young Antonio Banderas, who is neurotically consumed with mother-instilled Catholic guilt. One night, he attempts to rape his neighbor Eva, who is also the girlfriend of Diego, a retired bullfighter who’s been giving Ángel lessons.

After confessing it to the police, he also assumes the guilt for four unsolved murders – of which two were committed by Diego, and the other two by Ángel’s lawyer María. This creates a roundelay of desire and suspicion worthy of the Master of Suspense, as the two killers smell blood and draw gradually nearer to one another. And just like the finest tales in Hitchcock’s repertoire, it’s all totally preposterous – which couldn’t matter less, because this is Almodóvar, so it’s not about logic. It’s about María’s sinful allure and Diego’s unquenchable thirsts; it’s about melodrama and madness and orgasms at the brink of death.

Diego and María’s dance of death leads to a climax (pun intended) that’s about as extravagantly, disturbingly erotic as anything this side of In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The rest of the characters burst in and gaze, shocked, at the remnants of their two-person orgy. They may have died, but they get the romance and tradition of bullfighting, a pair of beautifully entangled corpses, and the satisfaction of finally fulfilling their passions. It’s excessive, it’s perverse, but that’s Almodóvar for you. His film’s endings are often hard to categorize, a mix of happy and sad, troubling and comforting. Matador follows the same enigmatic, convention-defying pattern in its own weirdly sexy way.

Hitchcock isn’t Matador‘s only inspiration. Almodóvar is a highly allusive filmmaker, and midway into Matador, María sneaks into a movie theater, with Diego in hot pursuit. The theater, naturally, is playing the steamy climax of David O. Selznick and King Vidor’s feverishly epic western Duel in the Sun (1946). Just like Matador, Duel in the Sun ends with its two obsessive, doomed lovers – Pearl (Selznick paramour Jennifer Jones) and Lewt (Gregory Peck) orgiastically destroying one another. It’s a bloody end for a saga of family, betrayal, and industrialization – but one that’s just as ridiculous as any scene in Matador, even if the film never admits it.

Duel in the Sun begins with the hanging of Pearl’s father (Herbert Marshall) for the murder of his wife and her lover. She’s sent off to live with distant relatives – the McCanles family, who live on a vast ranch called Spanish Bit. There’s the ornery, paraplegic Senator (Lionel Barrymore), his more sympathetic wife (Lillian Gish), and their two sons, the lusty Lewt and the more civilized Jesse (Joseph Cotten). As you can tell, this is a giant, expensive, all-star affair – even Walter Huston steps in for a tiny role as an itinerant, fire-and-brimstone preacher who lectures Pearl about her sinful nature: “Under that heathen blanket, there’s a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy!”

By men, of course, he means Lewt, who has a sinful nature of his own. This is an unusual character for Peck, who would go on to fight anti-Semitism shortly thereafter in Elia Kazan’s message movie Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); here, he’s a gun-toting rapist fixated on owning Pearl (and her sexuality) to the extent that he kills her kind-hearted fiancé in cold blood. However, the Senator’s racism makes Lewt refuse to marry her; Pearl, you see, is part-Native American. (As a result, the very white Jones’s skin is crudely slathered in brown makeup, just like Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil.) Through all of her trials, Jesse tries to help her, but he gives up once he believes that she’s actually interested in Lewt. So Pearl grows more and more attached to Lewt… and draws nearer to her own death.

This is not a racially or sexually progressive movie, at all. Its protagonist is essentially martyred from the start just because of her skin color and her mother’s affair, and she’s blamed for every bit of persecution she receives – whether by the Senator, the preacher, or the brothers she alternately loves. It’s none too surprising, either, since Duel in the Sun was basically intended as Selznick’s follow-up to his super-popular but similarly regressive magnum opus Gone with the Wind (1939). While it doesn’t match the earlier film’s romantic heights or historical scope (despite having three times as many uncredited co-directors), it still has plenty to recommend it – especially if you’re a junkie for torrid melodrama like Almodóvar clearly is.

Duel in the Sun‘s delights are more cultish and weird than its southern predecessor, especially as the film approaches its sun-burnt, homicidal finale, which borders on the surreal. The film’s oneiric qualities are aided by the dazzling Technicolor cinematography, shot by the team of Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, and Harold Rosson, which make the desert look distinctly unreal. Regardless of Selznick’s intentions, Duel in the Sun is definitely closer to Johnny Guitar than How the West Was Won – and it’s to the film’s credit. Jones isn’t exactly an acting dynamo, but thankfully she’s surrounded by a cast of legends, and Peck makes one hell of a sleazy, unapologetic villain.

Finally, Duel in the Sun is unabashedly erotic, as Jones’s heaving bosom is just as vital to the film’s success as any given line of dialogue. Much of the movie, especially the conflict between Jesse and the Senator, seems geared to make you think this is a movie about nationhood, the death of the west, and the taming of the land. But that’s an afterthought in relation to the film’s real and true subject matter, which is the kinky, violent, death-tinged relationship between Lewt and Pearl. As much as I wish that Jesse could’ve been the main character (ohh, Joseph Cotten…), it just wasn’t to be.

No, Duel in the Sun‘s heart belongs with Lewt, his phallic guns, and his frequent, contentious trysts with Pearl. Their behavior together makes Rhett and Scarlett look like a model of chastity – as well as a model of respectful consent and female self-determination. Gender equity and healthy sexuality are tossed out the window, and the same goes for any conception of subtlety or restraint – Selznick really wanted to paint the landscape with his character’s outsize emotions. So you can see why Pedro Almodóvar (or Martin Scorsese, for that matter) loves this movie. It’s ambitious, audacious, opulent, unhesitatingly melodramatic, and it charts the inevitable path from erotic obsession to stylized death.

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