Review – Orson Welles Triple Bill (Mr. Bongo)

too-much-johnson-orson-welles

Orson Welles as everyone knows changed the landscape forever with his debut film Citizen Kane and over the years is often considered the greatest film ever made and it’s certainly up there. Throughout the years since it’s release Welles struggled to have control over his films The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil which were both butchered by the studios and most famously The Magnificent Ambersons that is missing the better part of an hour. Despite to possibly political pressure (he had some socialist leanings) and lack of funding Welles moved to Europe and struggled through financing his films but made some of his best work like The Trial and Mr. Arkadin which was again butchered by the money people but rescued by Criterion in their restoration.

However before Kane, the first film to be released by Mr. Bongo is Too Much Johnson. It was made before Kane and was partly an exercise for Welles to just playing around with the medium, he was already famous for the Mercury theatre and infamous for the War of the Worlds hoax radio show. It’s heavily influenced by the silent comedies of maestro Buster Keaton who Welles considered one of the greatest of all filmmakers and was also friends with Keaton. Here he is introducing Keaton’s classic film The General

Too Much Johnson is a pretty basic set-up, a husband chases the man who he believes is having an affair with his wife and for the most part is a chase sequence not like the recent and masterful Mad Max which itself falls into a lineage of chase sequences which Keaton played a massive role in. It was mostly shot around the meat-packing district of New York City, it’s beautifully shot as always expected from Welles. Joseph Cotton a regular with Welles since the Mercury theatre days does his best Keaton impersonation. It’s a slight film and lacks the heavy punches of his later work but it’s a fascinating insight to the development of one of the titans of Cinema.

Three decades later and Welles is now based pretty much exclusively in Europe but sometimes back in the States to do bit parts in Hollywood to make some extra cash to fund his own films. Welles’ first major fame came when he staged Voodoo Macbeth which was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s’ play but set in Caribbean Island with an all black cast in 1936. Welles would return to the Bard’s work numerous times in his career he made films of Macbeth (without the black cast) and Othello (Welles donned Black face in the role) but his most personal and favourite was Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight.

Welles always consider Falstaff “Shakespeare’s greatest creation” and there is certainly a personal parallel to Welles’ own life to Falstaff. Both men were obese and liked to drink and both ended up becoming betrayed by so-called friends and were dreamers always sort of money to fulfil their dreams. The entire film of Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight is just a slow wait for the eventually betrayal of Falstaff by Prince Hal, which Welles even admitted “the movie is really a preparation for it. Everything prepares for it.”

The film in my opinion is a mild disappointment like many later Welles films. The cinematography is truly stunning and has Welles’ trademark deep focus photography is throughout and the legendary battle scene is truly breathtaking. However the film suffers from poor audio throughout, like most of Welles’ later films it was shot on a shoestring and Welles along with some other cast had to overdub actors like Fernando Ray etc. The sound is listenable but due to damage, the over-dubbing and along with the Shakespearian language it’s often hard to understand what is being said. Welles also mumbles his way through his performance which was deliberate for the drunkard that is Falstaff but it’s sometimes incomprehensible.

The final Welles film released by Mr. Bongo this week it’s perhaps the most interesting. It’s his final fictional feature currently available The Immortal Story which initially released on French TV until a small theatrical run. It hopefully won’t be the last fictional film he made because his long unfinished The Other Side of the Wind should be finished with or without crowd funding soon. It’s also the only fictional feature Welles shot in colour, he said “Color enhances the set, the scenery, the costumes, but mysteriously enough it only detracts from the actors. Today it is impossible to name one outstanding performance by an actor in a colour film.”

Welles plays an old merchant at the end of his life who tells his bookkeeper a story about an old man who offers a sailor 5 guineas to impregnate his wife. The old merchant becomes obsessed with making this story a reality and sends his bookkeeper to find a sailor and a woman to be his wife so this story can come true. It’s typical Welles with characters creating myths to cover up their own failings, it’s another deeply personal film for one of the most personal directors who ever lived. Jeanne Moreau who Welles collaborated on both The Trial and Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight stars as the woman his bookkeeper finds.

The three films Mr. Bongo have released are not Welles’ finest work for that see Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Trial and The Lady from Shanghai but they all show glimmers of his unparalleled cinematic genius. They all come from different times in his career and show a good slice of what made him tick cinematically. The discs don’t include any bonus features and according to an interview Mr. Bongo founder David Buttle on www.wellesnet.com there will be a later boxset of all 3 films on Blu-Ray with bonus features later in the year so you may want to wait for that release.

Ian Schultz

Too Much Johnson | Genre: Comedy | Director: Orson Welles | Cast: Joseph Cotten, Virginia Nicolson, Edgar Barrier | BuyToo Much Johnson [Blu-ray]
Chimes At Midnight | Genre: History, Drama | Director: Orson Welles | Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, John Gielgud | Buy: Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight [Blu-ray]
The Immortal Story | Genre: Drama | Director: Orson Welles | Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio | Buy: Immortal Story [DVD]