Monday, September 8, 2008

Rediscovered Orson Welles Classic: "Black Magic" (1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles finally did get home I ran him the 1949 (that’s the date on, though other sources have given 1947) film Black Magic, a U.S.-Italian co-production by Edward Small (who made up for being called “Small” by creating a logo showing his name in giant size!), ostensibly directed by Gregory Ratoff but really directed by its star, Orson Welles. It’s the story of Cagliostro, as adapted by Charles Bennett (screenwriter for six of Alfred Hitchcock’s films and the writer who, more than any other, formed the “Hitchcock style”) with additional dialogue by Richard Schayer from Alexander Dumas père’s novel Memoirs of a Physician. There’s a narration running through the film delivered by Berry Kroeger in character as Dumas père, after a framing scene in Paris in 1848 during which Dumas père and Dumas fils (an almost unrecognizable Raymond Burr!) meet and discuss what they’ve both been working on lately (naturalement, Dumas fils has just finished Camille) and this gives the older one the excuse to narrate the story.

Though different sources have different accounts of the extent of Welles’ contribution to this film, Welles biographer Frank Brady interviewed Nancy Guild, the leading lady, and her recollection was that Ratoff spent almost the entire shoot sitting in his director’s chair reading newspapers while Welles placed the cameras, blocked the actors and gave them notes — in other words, directed. Certainly Black Magic looks like an Orson Welles film — all that chiaroscuro photography (the cinematographers were Ubaldo Arata, Anchise Brizzi and an uncredited Otello Martelli), all those vertiginous camera movements (including one scene in which the Gypsy parents of Cagliostro, t/n Joseph Balsamo, are being tried for witchcraft and the camera swoops across the landscape and dollies in to the window of the courtroom in an obvious visual quote of Gregg Toland’s famous tracking-crane shot in the opening of Citizen Kane that “discovers” Susan Alexander Kane, or what’s left of her, drinking after her vocal shift at El Rancho nightclub) and that swirling aura of fate that surrounds Welles’ own performances in the films he directed.

I even suspect Welles had a hand in the script, too; not only is the whole thing structured as a flashback (with at least one sequence presented as a Casey Robinsonesque flashback within a flashback!) but there are two points at which Cagliostro, at the height of his influence with the common people in Paris, boasts that he can get them to believe anything he wants them to, and any Welles fan can’t help but recall his similar boast in Citizen Kane that people would think “what I tell ’em to think!” The best way to look at Black Magic is as a previously undiscovered Orson Welles film, and as such it suffers from some clunkiness in the script (particularly some wince-inducingly ridiculous bits of dialogue), but overall it has a fustian energy one gets from few if any other directors.

The route to a Cagliostro film had its share of the usual “development” issues: Universal briefly considered producing one in the early 1930’s as a Boris Karloff vehicle (and with James Whale or Robert Florey as director that might have been quite a good one!) but abandoned it in favor of The Mummy, and the project lay fallow until Edward Small revived it in the late 1940’s, first hiring Douglas Sirk to direct and George Sanders to star. Judging from the two Sirk-Sanders vehicles from the period that I’m familiar with — A Scandal in Paris (also a fictionalization with at least a possible basis in real life) and Lured — their version of Cagliostro would have been quirkier and more sophisticated than Welles’ but nowhere near as much fun.

The plot of Black Magic starts out with the dual-Dumas framing sequence and then cuts to the south of France in the late 18th century; Joseph Balsamo’s Gypsy parents (Leonardo Scavino and Tamara Shayne — he’s an otherwise unknown name to me but she played Al Jolson’s mother in both The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again) are condemned to be hanged for witchcraft. The judge who sentences them is the Viscount de Montagne (Stephen Bekassy), and he also orders the boy (Annielo Mele, a generically cute child actor we don’t really believe could grow up to be Orson Welles) to be whipped and, if he survives, to be blinded in both eyes. He survives the whipping, but just before they’re about to put his eyes out he’s rescued by a Gypsy band led by Gitano (frequent Welles collaborator Akim Tamiroff), who becomes his foster-father.

When he grows up they’re running a patent-medicine concession and inadvertently sell one of the customers lamp oil; she drinks it and is almost poisoned, but the quick-thinking young Joseph Balsamo (at this time Welles was hefty but still good-looking enough to be credible as a romantic lead) uses his eyes to hypnotize her and his mouth to give her an induction that gets her over the health crisis. Nonetheless, their show is broken up and they’re forced to flee, and Joseph is arrested but bailed out in the custody of Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (Charles Goldner), who tells Joseph that though he’s never heard the word “hypnotism” he was a natural-born practitioner of it. (Actually, as Charles pointed out to me at this point — and I later posted as a “goof” on — Mesmer never used the words “hypnotism” or “mesmerism” himself; he called it “animal magnetism.”)

Mesmer hopes he can use Joseph to prove to the skeptical doctors of France that his theories are accurate, but that’s all too altruistic for the self-serving Joseph, who escapes from Mesmer’s home (leaving him a note saying he’d rather have his rewards in the here and now than the respect of generations to come) and takes the alias “Cagliostro” from a star, touring Europe as an itinerant healer and eventually encountering (you guessed it!) the Viscount de Montagne, along with a young girl named Lorenza (Nancy Guild) who’s the spitting image of Marie Antoinette — Louis XV is still king of France and Marie Antoinette has just married the crown prince, the future Louis XVI, but she’s already starting to run up a reputation for extravagance and the French people are already starting to get restive about it.

The only problem is that Lorenza falls in love with another man who happens into the story at this point, the French cavalier Gilbert de Rezel (Frank Latimore),and she’d rather settle in with him than hang out with Cagliostro and Montagne and be readied to impersonate Marie Antoinette for some sinister purpose. A co-conspirator in all this is Madame Du Barry (Margot Grahame), who wants to trash Marie Antoinette’s reputation before her keeper, Louis XV, croaks and puts that self-righteous moralist and her weak husband on the thrones of France. The conspirators hatch a plot to buy the Boehmer necklace, made by jeweler Boehmer (Giuseppe Varni) for one million francs — Du Barry will provide the money out of all the dough Louis XV has lavished on her over the years — and let Lorenza be seen wearing it, then secrete it in Marie Antoinette’s chambers and spread the word that at a time when a good chunk of the French population was starving, the queen-to-be spent one million francs of French taxpayers’ money on this insane bauble. (This is another part of the story that has at least a faint resemblance to actual history; there was such a necklace and Boehmer, stiffed by the husband of the noblewoman who commissioned it originally, tried to get his money back by unloading it on Marie Antoinette — a chapter in her biography that fairly recently generated a whole movie of its own, The Affair of the Necklace.)

As (bad) luck would have it, the king does indeed croak and Marie Antoinette banishes Du Barry from the court (a scene done effectively here but even better in the marvelous 1934 Warners biopic Madame Du Barry, directed by William Dieterle and starring Dolores Del Rio), but de Montagne decides to go through with the plan anyway and Cagliostro intends to participate in it and then double-cross de Montagne and have his revenge by disgracing him at court and getting him convicted of treason against the queen. Needless to say, the whole plot collapses and de Montagne and Cagliostro both end up on trial for treason, though Cagliostro manages to hypnotize de Montagne into confessing in open court and looks bound for an acquittal when a deus ex machina turns up in the form of Mesmer, who grabs the Boehmer necklace off the evidence table and uses it to win a battle of hypnotic wits with Cagliostro, gets him to confess and sends him off to a picturesque death at the hands of Zoraida (Valentina Cortese), the Gypsy girlfriend he jilted for Lorenza.

Black Magic is a great movie — not at the level of Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons but at least as good as a lot of Welles’ other, later productions — and it’s powered by his performance and the open, unashamed theatricality of the whole concept. With all the fussing about “lost” Welles films like Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind, it’s somewhat surprising that the members of the Welles cult have pretty much ignored Black Magic because his directorial contribution wasn’t formally credited, even though it’s a film that plays to Welles’ strengths as a performer (he even gets to do on-screen magic tricks, a favorite pastime of his off-screen as well) and a director, using all those handsome old Italian buildings (though set in France it was actually shot in Italy and most of the supporting cast members were Italian, including Silvana Mangano in an uncredited bit part) much the way Welles would do in his later Othello and creating a rich, unforgettable look out of a mini-budget through sheer force of will. Certainly it’s hard to think of anyone other than Orson Welles who could have made this film — and not just because he’s the star and he makes the lead role so much his own it’s inconceivable that Boris Karloff or George Sanders could ever have played it!