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Wednesday, May 23, 2007 02:34 pm

All is Welles

The greatest Orson Welles film he didn’t direct

Untitled Document The Third Man (1949) is the greatest Orson Welles movie Welles didn’t direct. It is a testament to the greatness of this film that many people assume that Welles did direct it. Criterion has preserved this classic thriller on a new two-disc special-edition DVD. Joseph Cotten stars as an American who is invited by an old friend to visit him in Vienna, Austria. Upon his arrival, he discovers that his friend has been killed in an accident. Something about the story isn’t quite right, however, prompting a search for the truth. Despite its extravagant camera work, The Third Man may not play well to modern audiences who are unable to enjoy movies pitched at a more cerebral level. The real director, Carol Reed, loaded his film with off-angle shots that would have tilted a lesser movie over the edge. A surprisingly wry sense of humor punches up the already intriguing story, and the famed zither score is unforgettable. Welles’ presence dominates despite his small amount of screen time. Welles actually acted for many other directors, but his choice of material was often questionable. His most memorable films are usually those he directed. No film better characterizes his persona than his monumental debut, Citizen Kane (1941), which seems to permanently own the No. 1 spot on critics’ lists. Is it really the greatest film ever made? Although not my personal choice, it certainly belongs near the top. The death of a publishing magnate (Welles) prompts a reporter to search for the meaning of Kane’s final word, “rosebud,” and clues to the complexities of one man’s life. We then see Kane in flashbacks from the varying points of view from different associates. Kane’s exalted image shouldn’t be a deterrent, because it is more vibrant, humorous, and entertaining than any other movie from its time.
Touch of Evil (1958) wasn’t Welles’ first thriller, but it is his best work in the genre. Charlton Heston is oddly cast as a Mexican cop investigating a murder in a corrupt border town controlled by a maniacal thug (Welles). Evil bridged the cinema’s transition to more frank depiction of sex and violence that became more prevalent in the next decade. Welles claimed that The Trial (1962) was the best movie he ever directed, and it deserves to be included with his other masterpieces. Anthony Perkins is Franz Kafka’s everyman, Josef K, who is put on trial for an unknown crime. No film has been more successful in visualizing the illogical state of dreams. The Trial is one of those public-domain titles that can be found in bargain bins. It may be the best movie dollar you will ever spend.

New on DVD this Tuesday (May 29): The Hawk is Dying, Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds, and My Brother.
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