Director: Oliver Parker. Screenplay: Davide Ferrario (original book) and Oliver Parker. Cast: Danny Huston (Orson Welles), Paz Vega (Lea Padovani), Christopher Walken (Brewster), Diego Luna (Tommaso), Anna Galiena (Aida), Nathaniel Parker (Viola) and Violante Placido (Stella). Original Music by Charlie Mole. Cinematography by John de Borman. Running time: 100 minutes.

Plot summary

As Orson Welles arrives in post-war Europe for a film job in Italy he tries to solve a – what he is convinced of – a murder case. His private investigations lead him to a death-list with important local politicians. His name is the last one on it. Some have already been killed, so the conclusion lies near that Orson is about to become a victim as well. He tries to solve the riddles that pop up everywhere. It doesn’t help that he meets an irritatingly beautiful and stubborn woman who seems to be completely unimpressed by him and that’s actually the step-daughter of that extra that’s been killed on Orson’s set.

Why doesn’t he give his clues and evidence he finds to the Italian police? Out of pure curiosity, out of consternation or out of simple boredom with his low-budget and third class scripted movie he’s just shooting at Cinecittà studios? Maybe he wants to impress the beautiful Italian leading actress Lea (Paz Vega) he’s constantly trying to seduce – who knows? Another theory could well be that Orson simply likes the thought of being that important that people from a foreign country find him interesting enough to kill him. He’s got a local driver right by his side. Tommaso (Diego Luna) who has some war-time-training in the investigation business – so naturally after things get started Welles finds himself being the a hobby detective-hero in his very own drama.

Of course he’s being warned more than once and in different degrees of violence to stop snooping around - even US attaché Brewster (Christopher Walken) warns him. This eerily nice and yet, well, disturbingly cold-as-ice man who Welles feels is a friend plays a bigger role behind the scenes than he anticipates. In fact he’s pulling the strings and manipulates everything and everyone in Rome and in Cinecittà.

We do get a feeling for the tensions in post-war Italy, although we don’t get an explanation for that strange atmosphere that’s all over the Eternal City. What we do learn is that there are bones to pick between old fascists and their red counterparts, that a new government is about to be elected and that the country is about to decide whether it’ll have a conservative or a communist leadership. Naturally the role of the occupying forces (US), the Catholic Church and the Cosa Nostra is shortly being highlighted, but all those trails won’t lead you to the logical clue why an extra on Orson’s film-set had been killed, or better why everyone denies that it was a killing and where the heck that death-list that was once in the victims’ home came from and what it actually means.

All three main characters have their own past, their own problems and consequently their own theories for a likely motive for the death of Lea’s step-father. None of them is right, but all of them will have to pay in one way or another for getting too involved. A political plot is in the air, as we all think that the conservative forces will act violently against the public should the communists win the first election after WWII. A big charade dissolves into thin air, and our heroes stand alone, battered and looking stupid. Orson sums up his adventure in his final words, stating that it really didn’t make any difference whether he would have done something or not. In the end the outcome was irrelevant. The audience is a bit wiser about the seemingly real story behind the killing and the plotting, but like he says: the “real story” can always be found in the history books.

Review of movie

This movie works on different levels – I think I spotted at least half a dozen of them and therefore it’s hard to pigeonhole it into one specific film-genre. And actually that’s not necessary to do. First and foremost this movie revolves around its central character Orson Welles, the genius actor / director who’s career is at an all time low, just having had the break-up from Rita Hayworth and not finding any decent projects to work in nor having enough money for developing his own stuff.

Danny Huston’s Orson Welles is a very dry, charismatic and sarcastic man – like Mr. Welles was at times. Sometimes he really doesn’t give a damn about the people around him, sometimes he does. Who he chooses as “friends” – well you never can tell. Actually he seems to be drawn to the more interesting people with slight defects. He’s got some lovely dry lines spreading his words of wisdom randomly all over the scenery. He’s also got one running gag going on about his failed marriage – one nasty journalist keeps on calling him Mr. Hayworth.

He’s also the quintessential slightly self-centred artist you’d expect as a cliché when thinking of artists in general. There are some scenes were you can almost hear him scream “How was I”? He’s also a man who’s very aware that he is getting older and his fear of losing his ability to impress people with his art is evident. One deeply touching moment comes when he meets a former silent-movie-star. He’s trying so hard to make her feel important – very funny at first but on second sight very haunting. Of course he’s trying to protect her with his humble artistic means, and one might argue that he’s quite successful at that. Yes, here his magic works, elsewhere he’s less successful.

On a different level the story line evolves and twists and declines as you’d expect it from a tribute to the Film Noir genre. It’s obvious that Fade To Black as much a thriller as well as a bitter-sweet love story both wrapped up in this tribute to a stylish and decelerated cinema of yesteryear. You do have a murder mystery here entangled in a tense political atmosphere in Italy right after the war. There are blasts from the fascist past. The Americans trying to (say it politely) “influence” the Italian people to vote for the right (that word you may take literally) party. Did I forget something? Of course there are attractive, genteel and mysterious women, hysterical scenes on the film-set, there’s a gun-running story line, gangsters who appear from out of the blue, threat and then disappear to nowhere. You’ve got corrupt Italian police men – you name it, it’s all there.

Fun is being made out of odd circumstances and occasions the figures find themselves in. What’s a real highlight to me is the scene where Danny and Nat are trying to decide which Shakespearean play Welles would film next in Italy. The ensuing scene with an investor for that very plan is simply done in an adorable naive and childish style. It’s a filmmaker’s dream on how to raise money for a project - yes it’s Othello they are scheming about. If only money would grow on trees... Within these moments (where it’s all about the art of filmmaking and acting) lies – Oliver may pardon me – one strength of this movie.

The film, having all those storylines is actually a tale about the fate of an illusionist and a larger than life story teller – which in this case coincidentally is this movie legend called Welles with all his tragedy and glory that are combined in this travelling one-man-show. His vita is deeply routed in every film-fan’s heart and therefore in movie-history, but here we do get a glimpse that surely not all was well in his life. Not accidentally the narrative brackets start and end with Welles’ dry comments on him being an actor and not having the strength to actually change anything, not even his own fate.

The illusionist needs to do one thing: draw all the attention to one particular thing while you’re actually bluffing your way out to do the real trick – and oopps everyone thinks it’s magic! Exactly that’s what’s done here, all leading parts follow their own history, destiny, dreams, thoughts on the past and they project their very own self onto the scenery which lies before them. The mystery of the murder is solved by a surprise clue no-one has ever had a chance to find, the rest around it all was simply fuss (but historically important fuss).

The camerawork is very stylish and I liked the whole feel the movie has to it. The design and costumes are superb. It is a game of fixation, a game with magic tricks and how they work, the trick your own mind plays you and consequently a refection on art and artists and their power on the real world as it is.

Nat’s performance

For those of you who like to dwell on appearances: You’ll hate Nat’s hairdo. It is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. End of commentary. As for the movie-people that are portrayed and debunked here – let’s not forget to mention his Viola. Nat’s Italian gay movie producer is surely fascinating to observe and to listen to.

The accent is such fun to hear coming out of that incarnation of British poshness. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t a caricature. I think it would have been too easy a way out for Nat to do just that. This Viola is gay, yes, but not in an overdone way, his accent is Italian but without mocking it. And yep, he has some Italian lines, too.

He’s convincing in all his gestures and movements as this guy who’s trying to make things happen in Cinecittà. He seems to be a good guy with best intentions to make his formerly great movie-city work again. He’s busy pulling strings, smoothing big egos and trying to make an international team work. He’s one of those people you’d like to work with, because they are intelligent and well-behaved. He’s confident lacking any arrogance in his ways, and frankly why shouldn’t Viola be just like that?

Unfortunately Nat’s performance isn’t that big, but he’s having some lovely lines to bring across and the moments he’s there he really “IS” there. A completely fascinating addition to Nat’s impressive collection of types and a convincing one, too.


Out on DVD

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