Waiting for Orson

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Trent’s Last Case—for which I say thank God, as it’s is a most boring one, and I doubt if I could take any more of ‘em—from 1952 has one asset, the only reason to pay any attention to it: the appearance, nearly an hour into its running time, of third-billed Orson Welles. He plays an American millionaire financier named Sigsbee Manderson (Sigsbee? With a moniker like that, he already has my sympathy), living in upper-class London, who’s found dead in his garden. Suicide is ruled but murder is suspected. A dull, lengthy investigation by the titular Trent finally (sort of) solves it, with the killer not much of a surprise and the millionaire’s death quickly forgotten. This may be the only mystery I’ve seen in which the actual solving of it is dismissed as an inconvenience; a nuisance to be gotten out of the way so the well-to-do can get back to enjoying their entrenched privileges.

I suspect this hoity-toity attitude stems from the film’s source, a British novel published in 1913, when a charmed existence was still taken for granted. The plot and especially the characters reek with an unconscious, and irritating, class superiority that seems out of date for the post-WW2 world—stiff, formal, ritualized, upper lips pursed with repressed feeling and speech clipped off almost before it’s spoken. One detail that caught my eye was a scene of Margaret Lockwood, as the millionaire’s widow, attending a concert in evening gown, cape, and tiara. I’m curious: do ladies still wear tiaras to fashionable concerts? That struck me as a quaint and curious item of forgotten social lore, from the days when class distinctions were not only observed but flaunted. And here it’s preserved on film like the proverbial fly in amber, along with scenes in gentlemen’s clubs and in vast dining rooms in country estates, where a cocktail is a convenient arm’s length away, and a silent servant is always there to offer it.

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Such stodgy propriety is reflected in Herbert Wilcox’s wilted direction; many scenes consist of Michael Wilding’s Trent walking, pausing to look thoughtful, then walking on again. Not exactly seat-gripping suspense. Sometimes Wilcox tries for a flourish, but he mistimes his effects. As in the opening scene, a long, leisurely take of a large white mansion behind the credits; as the credits fade the camera, just as leisurely—I would even say with agonizing slowness—pans from the house across a large reflecting pool—slowly, sl-o-w-ly—to a gardener clipping the grass border, and then oh-so-slowly follows the fellow as he meanders across the lawn toward an object of interest that catches his eye; and just when I’m thinking of calling it quits and heading on home to get on with my life the camera pans quickly to a body in the shrubbery. That’s the film’s most bravura shot; after that it’s Wilding strolling through nearly 90 minutes of cocktails, club chatter, and half-hearted sleuthing (“Is this where the body was found?” he asks with admirably restrained curiosity), only to reach what turns out to be a mistaken conclusion. No wonder he couldn’t get another case.

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A Walk on the Wilding Side.

So what’s the point of watching?

Well, the point is Welles. You pass the time, drumming your fingers and stiffening your own upper lip, waiting for Orson to appear, meanwhile noting all the Wellesian parallels, intentional or not, that slide by. Such as the millionaire’s death announced by a montage of whirling news headlines to mark a colossus’s passing. Was the Citizen Kane parallel deliberate? (“Where’s the sled,” I asked out loud.) There’s also a Third Man parallel, in which everyone one talks about a dead person, and you wait for him to appear. He finally does, but only in flashback—alas! Why couldn’t he have been resurrected in the flesh, like Harry Lime, complete with zither? Then there are the Othello references, which Welles himself apparently put in—he was raising money for his Othello movie at the time, and he had also recently played the role on the London stage (an in-joke has his character referring to his own stage performance: “Didn’t like the leading actor very much.”). Because so little goes on in the film, I found the is-this-or-is-this-not-a-Welles-reference guessing gradually overtaking the usual whodunit guessing—I wasn’t so much interested in the murder mystery as I was in discerning the mysterious hand of Welles.

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I know it’s a sort of game when watching movies in which Welles is only a credited actor, to speculate how much of the direction he did himself, uncredited. You could even, in Trent‘s casemake a drinking contest of it (is that long, curving staircase an allusion to Ambersons?), taking a swig every time you spot an hommage (first one to fall unconscious wins). As Jay Carr notes in the film’s TCM’s article, “One didn’t direct Orson Welles. One stood aside and joined him in his self-delight at his own flamboyant genius.” Per IMDB, Welles did write and direct his own scenes, which are certainly the film’s liveliest, though I suspect that’s due mainly to the man himself. Welles blessedly doesn’t do much walking when he appears; instead, he makes the camera focus on his own person, turning himself into a large, stately icon of immobility: the great unwinking Jewel set in the deity’s forehead, awing us into worship. Welles took advantage of his size, of his considerable Presence, to fix our gaze on what matters in an Orson Welles film, whether he was the credited director or not—and that’s our awareness of Welles.

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And a lot of the fun in gazing at Welles is guessing how much of what we’re seeing is the actual man and how much is not.

By which I mean Welles’s make-up. A theater man at heart, Welles loved make-up the way a kid loves putting on funny disguises (watch him here on a TV show, applying it in preparation for a Shakespeare soliloquy, obviously relishing every brush stroke and putty pat). There’s also his famous, obsessive nose complex, in which Welles compulsively enlarged what he thought of as a too-small snout: bulking it up in height and breadth, spreading it out laterally and extending it into space. Maybe puttying up the proboscis was a means of allaying anxiety; whatever insecurities, lacks, or fears Welles had, he could put them off into reshaping his nose. Not that his cheeks, chin, jowls, forehead, and hair were ever slighted. If Welles could change it, he would; as with his use of cinema, he liked to heighten and alter visual reality. Including his own face.

For all you Welles watchers out there, his facial-altering effects in Trent’s Last Case prove endlessly fascinating. You might even think of the film as Welles’s Last Nose; did he ever get any more flamboyant with that appendage than he does here? Carr describes it as an “icebreaker nose,” and it does pierce through space like a ship’s prow; it sticks out a good inch, cleaving the air before him and pushing his fellow actors out of the frame (in profile he’s almost unrecognizable). It’s a huge, stark ridge of rock, something out of Monument Valley. You can almost see a John Ford cavalry charge come racing round a nostril.

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The nose is just a starting point. Welles gauded himself up literally to the eyebrows, which scrawl along forehead and temple like errant hedgerows that need trimming; or like jets of ink that have, hideously, sprouted fur. No feature is left untouched. His scalp is topped by a marcelled wig that looks as if it were applied with an icing kit (you can clearly see the wig line), his jaws drip with 5 o’clock shadow, and his skin seems overlaid with plastic; there’s not a pore in sight. In close-ups he recalls, oddly, the elderly Kane, his frozen visage as round and smooth as a Buddha statue’s, as if all feeling has been scraped off its surface. It’s meant to be the face of a well-into-middle-age man—Welles wasn’t yet 40 when he made this film, but, as was his wont, he was making himself look older—but it’s also weirdly infantile, a man/baby face, as if some essence of this character remains stuck in toddlerhood and refuses to move on.

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I can’t help but think that something of that Terrible Twos persona is coming from our enfant terrible himself. Welles carries on in his scenes as if enjoying a private joke that no one else is in on, jacking up all his lines readings and gestures with overstated menace. While the British actors looks tense and wary he’s clearly enjoying himself—a lion frolicking among unhappy lambs. You’re never sure what he’ll do next. Starting off with a perfect Star entrance—you don’t even see him at first, just a sinister puff of cigar smoke issuing from a high-backed chair—Welles trots out all his Wellesisms: speeding up his speech, then slowing it down, dropping his voice to a rumbling whisper (did he learn that from Barrymore?), overlapping his dialogue, indulging in long, unblinking stares and erratic pauses, and allowing odd, secretive little smiles to flit across his pan. He’s so damn hammy he’s a delight. He upends this film into something weird, wild, and wacky, spinning it around to be all about HIM, all the while jutting out that outrageous fake nose as if chopping a passage through Arctic ice.

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Who’s complaining? Not this viewer. What, watch more of Wilding walking? There’s only so much perambulating I can take. No, no, it’s all about Welles. No matter what you think of the man, he’s always the most interesting person in the room—in the entire movie. In no way does this film plumb his vast, unruly talent; and when he does appear, it’s only for about a quarter of an hour, but no matter; he’s worth the wait. The rest of the film is to whet your appetite, a long, tasteless appetizer before the mad feast is wheeled on and the nuts are served. A shame Wilcox didn’t just hand the whole thing over to him. But at least Wilcox paid Welles generously for his services, at a time when Welles (as usual) needed the money. Small mercies do exist.

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BONUS CLIP: Orson does Othello in Trent’s Last Case:

 

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