These Films Sleep Well: Five Minutes, Mr. Welles (2004, Vincent D’Onofrio)
Written by Joshua Wiebe Published October 10, 2008
There are two films that act as necessary viewing in order to understand and appreciate the various nuances of Vincent D’Onofrio’s directorial debut, the 2005 short film Five Minutes, Mr. Welles. The first is Tim Burton’s tribute to a cult filmmaker and cross-dresser, Ed Wood, and the second is Carol Reed’s brilliant UK noir thriller containing Orson Welles’ show-stopping performance as Harry Lime, The Third Man.
The former includes a saccharine encounter between the naïve wannabe director Ed Wood, and the critically acclaimed titan of the cinematic arts, Orson Welles. Welles is played by the magnificent Vincent D’Onofrio, and voiced in a strangely perfect fashion by the multi-talented Maurice LaMarche. He sits at the back of a bar while Johnny Depp’s Wood fumbles in sycophantic glee over the laid back Welles. D’Onofrio was so distraught over his lack of preparation for the part that he decided to film his first directorial effort as a correction for his performance in Ed Wood, and so he set about the creation of Five Minutes Mr. Welles.
The second of these films, The Third Man contains a bored, reckless, and all around unreliable Welles giving an astounding performance despite the distrust of nearly the entire Hollywood system, as the unsympathetic, dastardly profiteer Harry Lime. The background behind the making of The Third Man gave D’Onofrio and writer Will Conroy the story’s core with which they would build upon for this short.
Filmed entirely in one room, this 31 minute box drama involves Orson Welles, played to perfection by D’Onofrio, trying to weasel his way out of learning his lines for the most famous scene in The Third Man. His secretary, played by Janine Theriault, is charged with formidable task of keeping Welles not only in line, but also on time. She rehearses his lines with him with much difficulty, and helps him to resist his impulses to artistically shape the work of the recognized genius writer, Graham Greene.
It is this lengthy exchange with Theriault that Conroy and D’Onofrio have concerned themselves with, a pleasant arc ranging from Welles sitting on the window sill halfway outside as he appeals to her sense of adventure, to the sad gluttony of a man who’s only reprieve from the oppressive pressure of acting in Hollywood is at the bottom of several containers of pistachio ice cream. D’Onofrio taps into the mischievous heart of the actor, displaying the man’s frustration as well as his exuberance.
Like a child building a castle out of Lego blocks, Vincent plays with the foundations of the Harry Lime performance before shaping it and ultimately ‘spontaneously’ crafting Welles’ famous cuckooclock speech. It is a tribute to D’Onofrio’s passionate short that we believe not only in him as Welles or Theriault as the secretary, but also in the moments, particularly the extreme low-angle shot reminiscent of Citizen Kane in which D’Onofrio lays face down on the floor, and finishes crafting what he deems are necessary changes to the script.
While it is unusual that I’d select a short to present in this series, Five Minutes, Mr. Welles is a tour-de-force of modern black and white filmmaking, and is the most three-dimensional representation of Welles’ inimitable presence that I’ve ever seen. (Other notable performances include Danny Huston in Fade to Black, Angus Macfayden in Cradle Will Rock, Paul Shenar in The Night That Panicked America, and Liev Schreiber in RKO 281.) Its photography is thrilling and modern, sleek in its eloquence and yet indicative of a simpler time.
One of my favorite scenes in my favorite Tim Burton movie, “Ed Wood,” is when Wood (Johnny Depp) is at his wit’s end late in the picture when he’s trying to complete is, uh, masterpiece, “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Angry that his “vision” is not being understood by his actors and producers, he storms out of the warehouse where they are filming and hotfoots it to the nearest bar for a couple of drinks.
There, sitting in a booth in a tuxedo, apparently working on a screenplay, is Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio). They have a conversation that inspires Wood to march back onto the set and finish what would be later called the worst film of all-time. D’Onofrio is so much like Welles — I’m a huge Welles fan, the partially San Francisco-shot “Lady from Shanghai” being my favorite movie — and I especially loved that the man who made what is generally considered the greatest film of all, “Citizen Kane,” inspires an artist at the other end of the spectrum.
Anyway, D’Onofrio must have been tickled by his one-scene turn as Welles, too. He has made a 30-minute short film, called “Five Minutes, Mr. Welles,” and it plays at the San Francisco International Film Festival as part of the compilation of shorts entitled “Domestic Dramas” (there’s only one showing left: Wednesday, May 3, at 12:30 p.m. at the Kabuki).
Filmed in black and white (natch), it’s about Welles, who has taken the role of Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” for money, practicing for the classic ferris wheel scene (the one in which Lime, the black marketeer whose fake penicillin has killed thousands, famously compares the scurrying humans below with ants). Woken up from a snooze by his “assistant,” a sultry/secretarial blond (Janine Theriault), who helps him with his lines, Welles bellows, paces, gripes about the screenplay, yells at his assistant — and finally, gets it in gear and is ready to do the scene.
..Yo Vince — I loved the film. I can’t wait for your next turn as Welles, perhaps in another decade. Like the fat 1958 Welles setting up the famous crane shot of “Touch of Evil” near Venice Beach? Keep hittin’ the spaghetti there, big guy..
Posted By: G. Allen Johnson (Email) | May 01 2006 at 09:30 PM