The Truth And Orson Welles. Pondering The Immortal Story And Too Much Johnson.
Two films, each running to less than one hour-long were both reissued this week. The Immortal Story, which stars Jeanne Moreau and the superior of the two, deserves to be considered amongst the great filmmaker’s very best work.
Welles is Mr. Clay, a rich Merchant who wants to play God. He takes it upon himself to write a wrong that has plagued his mind for decades; a story is told across the seas, of a lucky sailor who was plucked from obscurity by a wealthy man who saw it fit to change the man’s destiny. He gives him good food, great riches and a beautiful woman, and sets him on an alternative path. Clay sets out to enact this story for real, so that one man can tell the story with authenticity and sincerity.
“I don’t like pretence I don’t like prophecies I like facts.” declares Clay, as he sets out to prove precedence wrong by making it happen.
These themes of authenticity and sincerity are ones that have lived long in the oeuvre of Welles. Cutting through mythology in search of an actual truth can be seen in the through line that stretches from Citizen Kane to F For Fake (notions of fidelity are even tackled in light weight fashion in Too Much Johnson, Welles’ doomed early dalliance with the moving image). It’s not stretch to hold cinema up as some kind of analogy for the real, for a cinematic truth to chime with that of an almighty truth, but Welles seemed to have a real knack for presenting it in a very unique way. When one places Orson Welles The Man in to this scenario it becomes all the more exciting, given the larger than life nature of his person.
Clay plays like an alternate universe coda to Charles Foster Kane. Unable to sleep he employs a clerk to read to him his account books. We’re in familiar Welles territory in general, with a refrain of mirrors the loudest sight in the film’s opening section, which grounds the picture in its own mistruth, with Clay’s native realm said to be Macau, China, but actually Chinchon, Madrid.
Not quite Citizen Kane, or even The Immortal Story, though certainly of some note in it’s own right is Too Much Johnson, the recently rediscovered early cinematic experiment from Welles that is also released this week.
It’s not a film so much as it is the multi-media elements to a theatrical production Welles oversaw in the 1930s. On disc it’s presented as a work print, meaning that we’re robbed of that greatest of weapons in the Welles artillery; The Cut. As such it plays loose and baggy (though a number of montage sequences are glorious, playing very much like something produced by hands that would one day fall in love with the art of the edit), in turn making it the ideal antipode to The Immortal Story, which is a masterpiece of brevity.
Too Much Johnson is basically a prolonged chase set-piece. Had it played as planned in amidst a theatrical performance then each scene would have been interrupted with actual plot acted out on stage. Cinema affording the spatial complexity that theatre wouldn’t have been capable of accommodating, while Welles places the camera in places where a theatregoer would only be able to dream of. It’s a similar story with location too, with rooftops and the sides of buildings proving a particular favourite of the young director, these high and awkward sites playing host to an almighty chase through the streets and skies of New York City.
It’s a comedy piece, with the key role of a lover caught portrayed by Welles regular Joseph Cotten. Cotten is no Chaplin, though he is dressed like Harold Lloyd, all straw-hat-and-blazer, and he is an engaging enough performer to maintain hold of an audience’s eye.
Given the manner in which the film is presented in its work print form, it’s disappointing to note that this recent reissue of Too Much Johnson is presented sans supplementary material. Given the nature of the work and of it’s contemporary presentation as fragments of a wider narrative that no longer exists, some context would have been appreciated, even if it were just a sheet of liner notes explaining the situation. There are said to be plans for Too Much Johnson to feature as part of a bigger box set later in the year, but that doesn’t really count for much at this point. Supplements would have been a welcome addition to the The Immortal Story disc too, but the greatness of that feature overshadows any sense of shortcoming.