FROM THE RIDICULOUS TO THE SUBLIME

My last post was about those high-priests of lowbrow comedy, The Three Stooges. This post turns to “the ultimate auteur,” Orson Welles, who would have turned 100 years old today, if he had lived to be….100.

Lowbrow or highbrow, ridiculous or sublime — where appreciation of talent is concerned, call me strictly unbiased….not unlike Rick (Humphrey Bogart) telling Captain Renault (Claude Rains) on a slightly different subject, “When it comes to women, you’re a true democrat.”

Artistically, Orson Welles was the ultimate wunderkind of his day, writing, acting, directing and producing innovative work in three fields while still in his early to mid twenties, including: in theater, CAESAR (1937) on Broadway; in radio, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1938), one of the most famous broadcasts in history; in film, CITIZEN KANE (1941), widely regarded as one of the all-time greatest films.

Like many creative geniuses (and who is to say he wasn’t one), Welles often ran afoul of “the powers that be.” It’s the eternal story of artistic vision vs commercial interests and creative control vs studio mindset; it is the fortunate artist indeed who wins those battles. Thus, Welles directed only 13 full-length films in his career, most of which were heavily edited after being taken out of his hands. In 2002, 17 years after his death, he was voted the greatest film director of all time by directors and critics in two British Film Institute polls.

Despite the acclaim attending CITIZEN KANE, a film I like even more (and among my all-time favorites) is one in which he co-starred, but did not direct: THE THIRD MAN (1949). To quote from the back cover of Charles Dravin’s 1999/2000 book IN SEARCH OF THE THIRD MAN:

Half a century after its opening, The Third Man remains an unquestioned masterpiece of film artistry and, for many, the greatest British movie ever made. Whether it is Harry Lime’s [Orson Welles] magical first appearance or [his] celebrated cuckoo clock speech or the climactic chase through the sewers beneath Vienna or the haunting theme music of Anton Karas, the film contains some of the most memorable moments in screen history.

I highly recommend both the film and the book, which tells the engrossing (if you’re a classic movie buff) story behind the story of the making of the film.

I close with The Third Man Theme:

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10 comments on “FROM THE RIDICULOUS TO THE SUBLIME

  1. scifihammy says:

    Ah Thank you for this wonderful post 🙂 I love Orson Welles’s movies and agree with all you say. Who can forget the Harry Lime movie! 🙂 I also like his Rochester in the 1941 Jane Eyre; a movie I saw at the cinema with my Dad when I was a kid 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. arekhill1 says:

    I have to admit that CK bored me senseless when I was young and watched it in an effort to become more cultured, so much so that I haven’t been tempted to watch it since.

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    • mistermuse says:

      I don’t remember at what age I first saw CK, but I liked it. I’ve probably seen it once more since then, but it’s not a movie I’d care to see over and over again. It’s definitely not a film for all tastes.

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  3. mistermuse says:

    Thanks, Scifihammy. THE THIRD MAN is a truly unforgettable movie. I’ve seen it multiple times and will probably watch it again the next time it’s on TCM. BTW, did you know that Orson was Welles’ middle name – his first name was “George,” by George!

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  4. Don Frankel says:

    I like when she walks away at the end. Some Mommy issues here maybe? Great post.

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    • mistermuse says:

      Don, that ending (which I love because it so artistically RIGHT) is just one example of the clash between creative and commercial views. Although THE THIRD MAN was a British film, Hollywood producer David O. Selznick (according to the book I recommended in my post) “felt very strongly that [Holly Martins] and the girl Anna should finish together.” Even Graham Greene, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, felt that way. It was the director, Carol Reed, who suggested the ending we see, and thankfully, he prevailed.

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  5. I agree with Richard. I thought Citizen Kane was one of the most boring movies I ever saw.

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  6. mistermuse says:

    Micaheline, with a comment like that, you’re jeopardizing your credentials as an intellectual, no self-respecting one of which would say such a thing. 🙂

    As for me, I like C.K. (as I said before), but I don’t think it bears repeated viewing – not because it’s not a very good movie, but because it doesn’t engage and draw in the viewer the way films like THE THIRD MAN and CASABLANCA do….at least, that’s my opinion.

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  7. Joseph Nebus says:

    I’m not sure of the date but there is a Fred Allen Show in which Orson Welles describes his wunderkind biography to the radio host. Welles points out that he had a perfectly ordinary upbringing, even if he found it easier to graduate Northwestern at age six thanks to the benefit of his second head. It’s a great sketch of humblebraggadocio.

    The Third Man was also turned into a radio series, a lighthearted caper-drama series about Harry Lime, with Welles providing the voice. (It was a prequel series.) It’s remarkably charming when you consider that (a) all Harry Lime’s schemes have to fail lest the show seem to endorse lawbreaking and (b) Harry Lime is a terrible, terrible person who deserves to be shot dead in the Vienna sewers.

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  8. mistermuse says:

    Thanks for the info – I was unaware of the THE THIRD MAN radio series, but I was a big Fred Allen fan and am old enough to have been an avid listener to his show in the late 1940s.

    Welles certainly didn’t lack for self-importance and, as an actor in THE THIRD MAN, could be prima donna-difficult. according to Charles Dravin’s book (which also cites several examples of his “humblebraggadocio”). Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Harry Lime.

    P.S. You might say anyone else in the role of Harry Lime would be “sub-Lime” (just like that pun).

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