Atom Egoyan

Films of Atom Egoyan:

“The Stranger” - Orson Welles (1946)

After the box-office failures of his first two films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Orson Welles was forced to operate within the confines of studio-imposed restrictions in order to secure Hollywood’s funding for his third film, The Stranger (1946).  Welles proceeded this time to crank out a more conventional film noir, completing the work on time and under budget and thereby ensuring that the film enjoyed a modest profit.  In fact the film went on to receive a US Oscar nomination for Best Story, although I would say that the basically absurd screenplay by Anthony Veiller is the worst element of the film.  What does make the film distinctive are the various touches of Wellesian expressionism in the telling of the tale. In particular, there are a number of intricate crane and tracking shots that lure the viewer into the sinuousness of the narrative.  In addition, Welles employs a liberal dosage of low-angle and high-angle shots that emphasize the expressionistic atmosphere of various dramatic situations.

The film’s story concerns a notorious Nazi war criminal’s attempts to avoid capture by hiding himself in anonymity in a small American town.  He is tracked to this town by a relentless US federal agent, and the narrative relates the resulting cat-and-mouse game of the two men.  Although films noir often feature exaggerated plot events and circumstances, there are so many implausible elements in this story that the viewer’s suspension of disbelief is continually challenged along the way [1].  I will mention a few of these implausibilities below.

Because this story depicts how an evil character comes to prey on an essentially innocent and idyllic small American town, The Stranger has been compared, unfavorably, to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which might be thought to have more polish.  I would say, though, that the two films are on a par, and I wouldn’t put Shadow of a Doubt above The Stranger (despite the latter’s plot absurdities). 

One of the compelling features of The Stranger is the magnetism of its three principal leads, all of whom occupy significant portions of narrative focalization:
  • Orson Welles plays Franz Kindler, the alleged mastermind behind the Nazi extermination camps.  When he comes to the middle-class town of Harper, Connecticut, he assumes the name Charles Rankin, and he is generally known by that name in the film.  Welles seemed to relish playing roles of demonic characters, and his emphatic performance  provides dramatic electricity.
     
  • Edward G. Robinson plays Mr. Wilson, the US government official from the Allied War Crimes Commission office. His appearance as a clandestine investigator in a scene is usually first signaled by an image of his smoking pipe.  Robinson’s persona is very much a reprise of his quiet, calculating role in Double Indemnity (1944), and it plays well here, too.
     
  • Loretta Young plays Mary Longstreet, who is the daughter of a US Supreme Court justice and who marries Charles Rankin (Kindler).  The perpetually young and elegant Ms. Young always had a unique feminine charisma and glamour that elevated the films she was in.  I have always found her eyes and emotive facial expressions to have some sort of hypnotic allure to them.
The narrative of The Stranger passes through four basic phases.

1.  Coming to Harper, Connecticut
Wilson, the Allied War Crimes Commission official, arranges to have convicted Nazi war criminal Konrad Meinike (played by Konstantin Shayne) released from prison in the hopes that the man will unknowingly lead them to the whereabouts of the still at-large Franz Kindler.  Sure enough Meinike leads them to the small town of Harper, Connecticut, where he immediately looks up a prep-school teacher there, Charles Rankin (Kindler). The secretive Kindler is paranoid on seeing his old comrade, and in bravura 4:10 tracking shot he lures Meinike into the woods and strangles him.  Then he buries corpse there. 

Early on one sees two implausibilities:
  • Kindler shows no trace of a German accent.
     
  • The supposedly meticulous German’s burial of Meinike’s corpse is so flimsy, that a dog can sniff it out and start digging it up.
Afterwards on that very day, Kindler marries Mary Longstreet, after which they go on a honeymoon.  Here is another implausibility.  Why would a man seeking to vanish from view marry the daughter of a US Supreme Court Justice.

Meanwhile Wilson, who had arrived in town tracking Meinike and was almost killed by the man, is masquerading as an antique dealer and lurking around to see if he can find who is Kindler.

2.  Closing in  
In the second phase of the film, more and more incriminating evidence points to Rankin as Kindler.  There is a conversation over dinner at Judge Longstreet’s house, with Wilson present as a guest, where Kindler makes an impassioned speech about the demonic essence of Nazism and of Germans, in general.  He does this to establish his anti-Nazi and anti-German credentials, but his subsequent remark that Karl Marx was a Jew, not a German, gives his prejudices away.  At any rate, anyone listening to Kindler’s over-the-top hate-filled comments would see that he is essentially a psychopath.  By this time both Kindler and Wilson have identified each other as enemies, and the cat-and-mouse game ensues. 

Kindler, worried about the burial site in the woods, takes Mary’s dog out for a walk to inspect the site.  But the dog sniffs the corpse and starts digging there, leading Kindler to eventually kill the dog.  Afterwards there is an effective 1:53 tracking shot showing Wilson and Mary’s brother Noah (Richard Long) discussing the poisoning of the dog as they walk along.

3.  Culprit Identified 
The killing of the dog leads Wilson and the authorities to look for and find Meinike’s body in the woods.  Wilson is now sure that Mary’s husband is his man, and he convinces Mary’s father, her brother, and her maid that her husband is a Nazi.  To convince Mary, Wilson shows her some at-that-time recent film footage of the Nazi death camps and gas chambers.  But Mary cannot believe that the man she loves is a Nazi and refuses to cooperate with Wilson.

Wilson predicts to Judge Longstreet that Kindler will try to kill Mary, but rather than save the woman, he chooses to let things play out (another implausibility).

4.  Ending in the Clock Tower  
Harper has a church with a defective mechanically animated clock in its tower that now comes more in focus. Kindler was famously known to be obsessed with clocks, and Rankin (Kindler) has been spending much time in the clock tower trying to fix the clock (another implausible activity for the supposedly cautious fugitive).  Feeling cornered, Kindler now retreats to the clock tower more than ever.  He also believes that the only person who could testify that he was acquainted with Meinike (and hence that he could be Meinike’s murderer) is Mary.  So he sets up a (implausible) trap in the clock tower to murder her there while he is away.  There are further implausible events [2], until in the end, Kindler, Mary, and Wilson all wind up in the top of the clock tower where the final reckoning is played out.


All the way along we have known that Rankin is Kindler and is essentially evil, so there is no suspense in identifying the guilty parties.  What we have instead are two gradual encirclements of predatory spiders moving in on their prey.
  • Wilson has been slowly, but relentlessly, closing in on Kindler.  Kindler’s world gradually diminishes until it finally ends up as just the confines of the clock tower.
  • At the same time Kindler has been increasingly putting pressure on and threatening his loving wife, Mary.  We see her enclosed and trapped by her psychopathic husband’s obsessive belief that she is the one witness who can identify his guilt.
These two encirclements come to a head in the clock tower at the film’s close.

There were two aspects of Welles’s original plans for the film that were denied by the studio through the offices of the film’s editor, Ernest Nims.  One was to include a significant early section of the story showing Meinike’s flight through Argentina before arriving in Harper.  Another was to have the role of Wilson played by a woman, Agnes Morehead, instead of Edward G. Robinson.  I think both of these ideas would have widened the film’s scope and extended its dramatic range beyond these two narrow “spider-encirclements” that are the focus of this film.  As it is, we are just left to savor primarily the expressionistic theatrics and cinematography that Welles has concocted for this story.
½

Notes:
  1. For further discussion of these implausibilities, see Brian Koller, “The Stranger (1946)”, filmsgraded.com, (24 June 2011).
  2. For example, why would Mary, now knowing that her husband is a mass-murderer, go alone to the clock tower to meet him there?

Tom Harper

Films of Tom Harper:

“War and Peace” - Tom Harper (2016)

War and Peace (2016) is the most recent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel of the same name about Russians caught up in the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century.  Like all such adaptations, including King Vidor’s American version (1956) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s Russian version (1967), the filmmakers, this time British, had to come to grips with what parts to choose to emphasize from Tolstoy’s great work.

The novel is considered to be one of the greatest of all literary offerings, although Tolstoy didn’t call it a novel; he said it was an "epic".  There were several earlier versions of it produced in the 1860s before Tolstoy published his final version in 1869, which was over 1400 pages and had almost 600 characters.  In fact with its great length and scope, many people have read only abridged versions that are less than half the length of the full version.  What is left out, perhaps almost by necessity, of the abridged versions and the film adaptations are Tolstoy’s extensive philosophical reflections about life and society that are interspersed throughout the novel.  This is unfortunate, because that philosophical commentary of Tolstoy’s is in my opinion what makes the novel stand out above all others.  Tolstoy, himself, was on a lifelong path towards Sufi-like enlightenment, which led to his embracing vegetarianism (in 1885), Georgism, Christian spirituality, and pacifism.  Indeed, late in his life, Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Hindu” (1908) [1] led to some correspondence with fellow-vegetarian Mahatma Gandhi that influenced Gandhi’s own developing commitment to pacifism.

Nevertheless, this BBC production, which was presented in six roughly one-hour-long episodes, makes a noble effort at telling Tolstoy’s remarkable tale.  The mini-series was directed by Tom Harper and written by Andrew Davies, who was famous for his House of Cards television series (2013-2017).  The six episodes of War and Peace are weighted towards the first half of the novel, and they cover the experiences of several Russian aristocratic families and how they were affected by Napoleon’s military interventions.  In particular, the series, like the novel, focuses on three characters representing three key perspectives.:
  • Pierre Bezukhov (played by Paul Dano) is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count.  He is  a recent university graduate and well-versed in modernism’s ideas, but he is also innocent and naive.  To a large extent he presumably echoes Tolstoy’s own personal conscience. Ultimately, Pierre represents compassion.
     
  • Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton) is the heir to a noble Russian family and Pierre’s close friend.  Unlike the naive and altruistic Pierre, though, Andrei is generally cynical about the modern world and primarily concerned with his own personal dignity and honor.  While Pierre is open-hearted, Andrei is more self-obsessed.  He represents self-attainment.
     
  • Natasha Rostova (Lily James) is an innocent and vivacious young teenager from a noble but financially stressed family.  She represents romantic love.
However, as I mentioned, Tolstoy’s extensive reflections on these larger themes are largely understated in this mini-series, and we only get glimpses of these perspectives from the action shown.  Another aspect in the novel that is somewhat neglected in the film is the situation from the Napoleonic side of things.  This is a significant slant, because Napoleon’s military adventures were largely conducted in the spirit of the values promoted by the French Revolution, so we could view his military invasions as early instances of liberal interventionism – a phenomenon that continues to infect world politics of present times (think of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example).   The war scenes that are shown, however, are extremely visceral and full of blood and gore.  They give a ground-level glimpse of the meaningless brutality of war.

The mini-series’ six episodes cover a period from1805 to 1820.
Episode 1
It is 1805, and Napoleon’s invasion of Austria represents a direct threat to Russia.  The main characters are introduced.  Nevertheless, Pierre who has recently returned from Europe, expresses in social gatherings his support for the liberal values (e.g. human rights, etc.) espoused by Napoleon.  Andrei, seeking personal glory to provide some meaning in his life, decides to leave his pregnant wife at home and go off to fight with the Russian army.  Naturally, when these aristocrats join the military they take on the roles of officers.

Episode 2
Pierre has inherited his family’s wealthy estate after his father’s death and gets wangled into marrying the beautiful but unscrupulous and immoral Hélène Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton).  Hélène cuckolds Pierre with a number of libidinous relationships, including an incestuous one with her equally hedonistic brother Anatole Kuragin (Callum Turner).  Note that the emphatic contrasts between the ruthlessly selfish characters in the story (this includes Dolokhov, see below) and the innocence of Pierre and Natasha are perhaps the dramatic highlights of this series.

Meanwhile Natasha’s brother Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden) also seeks glory and joins the military. Andrei returns home from war in time to see his wife die while giving birth to their son.

Episode 3
One of Hélène’s lovers, the ruffian Fedor Dolokhov (Tom Burke), openly mocks Pierre, who then impetuously calls for a duel.  Miraculously, the awkward and inexperienced Pierre wins the duel and comes out of it unscathed.  Afterwards, Pierre decides to devote himself to a higher cause, and he becomes a Freemason.  Later Dolokhov gets in a card game with Nikolai and takes so much money from him that he plunges the Rostov family in debt.  Later, in 1809, Andrei, who is feeling guilt over having neglected his deceased wife, abandons the army.  But when he subsequently meets Natasha at a social gathering, they fall in love.

Episode 4
Andrei wants to marry Natasha, but his domineering father orders him to wait for a year and travel abroad.  Natasha, feeling abandoned, now succumbs to the romantic advances of the manipulative Anatole Kuragin, and she breaks off her engagement to Andrei.  She is about to elope with Anatole, but she is stopped just in time when Pierre informs her that Nikolai is already married to a woman whom the rake has abandoned in Poland.

Episode 5
It is now 1812, and Napoleon has invaded Russia and is headed for Moscow.  The various families scramble in their separate ways to respond to the coming danger.    During this period Pierre finally realizes to himself that he is in love with Natasha.  By chance, Nikolai Rostov, who is leading a military detachment passes by the Bolkonsky estate and comes to the aid of Andrei’s modest and religious sister, Marya Bolkonskaya (Jessie Buckley) during a chaotic confrontation with her rebellious serfs.

Episode 6
Everything comes to a head with the bloody Battle of Borodino, where the Russian army attempts to make a last stand. It turns out to be an honorable (for the Russians) stalemate, and the Russian army does survive and subsequently makes a wise, tactical retreat. But there are 70,000 casualties in the battle, and both Andrei and Anatole are mortally wounded.  Pierre has watched the whole battle and has even participated in it, although in the end he is taken prisoner by the French.

When Napoleon reaches Moscow, he finds the city already in flames and undertaking a scorched-earth withdrawal.  Since his army is badly in need of supplies, he orders his army to make the long retreat out of Russia, thus relieving the threat of military takeover.

At this time Hélène seeks to abort her pregnancy from one of her illicit love affairs and dies of a drug overdose.  Near the end, Pierre and Natasha are finally united in love and agree to get married. The final scenes show that in 1820 what is left of the Bezukhov, Rostova, and Bolkonsky families have been united.  Pierre has married Natasha, and Nikolai has married the gentle Marya. They are living happily and are raising young families. 
It is difficult for a dramatized version of War and Peace to capture the full depth of the thoughts and feelings expressed in Tolstoy’s work, but this mini-series makes a good attempt.  In particular, the presentation of the sensitive and thoughtful character of Pierre Bezukhov by Paul Dano is a strong point in the work.  It tunes the viewer in to Tolstoy’s considerations of those turbulent times.  On the other hand, I thought the characterization of Andrei Bolkonsky was too cold and stiff to draw my extended interest and sympathies.  His self-obsession led to his withdrawal from life’s narratives and hence from this narrative, too.

This is not to say that all the characters had to be sympathetic to be effective.  One of the more magnetic characters was Hélène (Tuppence Middleton), whose seductive personality was entirely natural and recognizable.  Her entrapment of Pierre was a particularly compelling piece of this story. 

In fact perhaps the best production feature of the whole mini-series is the general vibrancy of the female characters, particularly those of Natasha, Marya, and Hélène.  Best of all was the performance of Lily James, who played Natasha.  She was coming off a strong performance in Downton Abbey (2011-2016), and her infectious and barely suppressible passionate gestures are even more stirring in this story.  She and Paul Dano, as Natasha and Pierre, sustain the narrative momentum throughout the course of this fascinating tale.
½

Notes:
  1. Leo Tolstoy, “Letter to a Hindu”, Correspondence with Gandhi, Literature by Leo Tolstoy, Nonresistsance.org, (1908-1910).  (pdf version here).