Orson Welles is forever the enfant terrible of the American Cinema. After taking Broadway by storm then conquering the airwaves with a string of highly acclaimed radio plays, Welles came to Hollywood at the tender age of twenty-four looking to buck the studio system and create a new sort of narrative film in his own inimitable way. And for an all too brief period, he succeeded. In the end Welles was defeated by an angry newspaper publisher, thoughtless producers, shady financiers, his irresponsibility, and, since his complex and highly-stylized movies rarely made money at the box office, the bottom line.
Still, Welles’ innovations set the table for major changes in filmmaking for both Hollywood and the World. His use of striking, Expressionistic camera angles, plane-breaking shooting and editing, stream of conscious voice-overs, overlapping dialogue, and off-screen sound influenced a whole range of filmmakers from the Hollywood masters of the 1950s (Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, and Douglas Sirk), innovators of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol) to modern icons of American film (Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese). Although Welles completed only twelve feature films we find his masterly, authoritative hand in each and every one of them; there is no weak sister in the bunch.
One of Welles’ favorite yarns posed the supposition he was conceived in Paris and his name was chosen for him in Rio De Janiero. But for some inexplicable reason, he was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This ingrained restlessness was a trait he carried throughout his life, prompting him to skip town whenever he grew bored—leaving friends unhappy, lovers unfulfilled and projects unfinished. With both his well-to-do parents dead by the time he was thirteen, wild child Welles set out to create a life of adventure. He acted and directed school plays in Chicago and filmed in the accomplished but bizarre short The Hearts of Age, in which he is nearly unrecognizable under a pound of greasepaint.
After finishing high school at the ripe old age of sixteen he ventured across the ocean to Ireland where he led the Romantic life of a struggling painter then talked his way into his first professional acting gig at the prestigious Dublin Gate Theatre in Ireland under the tutelage of Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards. By the time he was seventeen Welles made it to Broadway and even toured with one of the Grande Dames of the stage, Katharine Cornell in her road show of Shakespeare plays.
At twenty, Orson and producer/writer John Houseman teamed-up to form the basis of what would become The Mercury Theatre. In 1938 Welles and his new compatriots took to the streets of NYC to shoot a silent film to accompany his stage production of the William Gillette play Too Much Johnson, a farcical comedy about a Fancy Dan (Joseph Cotten) who narrowly escapes the wrath of a jealous husband. Welles never finished editing the short film but the extant footage finally saw the light of day in 2013.
The surviving sixty-six minute print is basically a Keystone Comedy with nods to Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but it’s also easy to see the influence of Eisenstein in Welles’ application of montage. Although the narrative of Too Much Johnson is a mish-mash it is clear Welles already had a penchant for striking camera angles and his clever usage of overhead shots would find full flower amist the chaos of Charles Foster Kane’s crowded storeroom.
The Mercury Theatre’s most startling and innovative production during these early years was an all-black cast version of MacBeth in Harlem. Using seasoned actors and non-professional actors alike Welles wowed his audiences with a politically incorrect high-Voodoo presentation of the Bard. The Central Broadcasting System (CBS) took notice and hired Welles to write and direct radio theatrical adaptations of recent and classic plays, novels and movies to run on Sunday nights.
Welles’ radio show—which ran for two glorious years as The Mercury Theatre then The Campbell’s Playouse—is mostly notorious these days for having caused a panic on Halloween night in 1938 when residents in New Jersey mistook his cleverly adapted performance of War of the Worlds for the real thing and caused a mini-riot. Welles made a feeble apology but it turned out to be great publicity and Hollywood took note. Welles signed a contract with RKO Studios, but only after he was assured he would have free creative reign over his material.
Welles found conservative Tinseltown to be much rougher sledding than liberal New York. Having already shown his propensity for turning out first rate entertainment—writing, directing and performing in weekly radio shows while acting nightly on the Great White Way—at an amazing clip, he felt stultified by RKO producers who time and again rejected his film proposals. Stories were leaked to newspapers Welles would adapt Joseph Conrad’s existential novella Heart of Darkness for his debut but, sadly, the project was left to die on the vine and become the stuff of legend—one of Hollywood’s great “what ifs”.
Then, screenwriter Herman K. Mankiewicz is said to have approached Welles with a story outline based on the life of one of the most famous Americans of the century; media baron William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz and Welles put together a script about the rise and fall of a Hearst-like figure which, surprisingly, got the green light from RKO. Hearst’s media empire had dwindled considerably since his halcyon days as a populist publisher before scandal and the Great Depression necessitated him to sell off several of his newspapers. For years he lived like a feudal King on a huge spread of land one hundred and fifty miles north of Los Angeles in a castle called San Simeon.
Separated from his wife, Hearst’s true companion in life and love was a former Ziegfield Follies hoofer, the charming Marion Davies. Driven by infatuation, he created a film production unit for Marion and had her star in several overstuffed epics (Cecilia of the Pink Roses, When Knighthood Was in Flower, etc.) that were mostly shunned by audiences and crucified by reviewers not writing for Hearst papers. Marion was more comfortable playing the ingénue in light comedy in such delightful films as King Vidor’s The Patsy, but by the end of the silent era of filmmaking she was already in her early thirties, a little long in the tooth to carve out a new career as a screwball comedienne.
Marion was content to let her film career fade away and play hostess to WRH’s lavish weekend parties at San Simeon. The newspaper baron still had clout in Hollywood and assigned the vitriolic gossip columnist Louella Parsons to look out for his interests in the increasingly liberal film community. Enter Welles, the radical darling of stage and radio who was hell-bent to conquer the newest and most popular form of media, the movies. Though news of Welles’ intentions must have been known to Hearst and Parsons they remained surprisingly quiet during the long production of Citizen Kane while the boy wonder from Wisconsin put together his American Tragedy.
The cinema’s Brave New World opens in a noisy fashion with a March of Time newsreel announcing the death of the faded media tycoon Charles Foster Kane. The documentary ends abruptly and we are transported to a screening room where the newsreel’s director voices his dissatisfaction with the content. There is no subtext, no story behind the story. He assigns a reporter (William Alland) to investigate Kane’s life and find out what made him tick. The reporter arranges a series of interviews with friends and enemies of the Great Man and Kane’s story unfolds in a series of flashbacks.
After receiving an enormous inheritance from a dead relative, young Charles Foster Kane (Buddy Swan) is delivered from his poor Colorado home to a life of luxury on the east coast where he will attend and subsequently get thrown out of the best boarding schools and Colleges money can buy. As a confident, high-spirited young man Charles (Welles) decides it would be fun to run a newspaper, so he takes over the family’s worst investment, The New York Inquirer. Kane quickly fires the old staff and turns the paper into a racy tabloid. He then hires crack reporters from other local rags to help make his daily the best circulated newspaper in town.
As befits the ego of this new kind of emperor, Kane buys up and similarly rejuvenates several failing papers across the country and when the news gets slow he helps start The Spanish-American war to drum up sales. As befits the wants of a man of great prominence, Kane marries the president’s niece Emily (Ruth Warrick) and then decides to run for governor of New York. But, the Great Man’s life remains loveless and empty, so he begins a back street affair with Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), a struggling young singer. Kane’s shady rival in the gubernatorial race learns of his opponent’s affair and threatens to reveal the affair unless the newspaperman quietly exits the race. Charles refuses to be blackballed, so his love tryst with Susan becomes big copy in non-Kane newspapers.
His career in politics washed-up, Kane decides his next big project will be to promote Susan’s career as an opera singer. That Susan’s fragile singing voice is all wrong for opera becomes painfully clear at her debut in Chicago. While Kane’s local paper arranges for the young diva to get rave reviews, the publisher’s old friend, drama critic Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) is prepared to write a scathing review of Susan’s performance before drinking himself into a stupor. Kane finishes the negative review and fires Leland, but instead of putting a merciful end to Susan’s career he parades her across the country in a series of highly publicized performances that makes both of them laughingstocks.
As old age approaches, Kane retreats with Susan to Xanadu, a colossal mansion he has built on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He invites carefully selected guests to amuse Susan, but the young woman grows bored in the cold and clammy hideaway and wants to go back to New York. Unable and unwilling to forgive a world that’s turned its back on him, Kane refuses to budge and Susan leaves him. The light goes out on Kane who withers away and dies, leaving the mystery of his last words, “Rosebud”, as a beguiling clue to what made him tick.
By bringing his considerable expertise in both theatre and radio production to film, Welles gave Citizen Kane a three-dimensionality in sight and sound unparalleled in the cinema of 1941. Welles encouraged his cinematographer Gregg Toland to take his deep-focus technique and experimentations to the limit which, ironically, by exposing ceilings and backgrounds creates an illusion of great lion Charles Foster Kane being trapped in cells of his own making. Welles also had a fruitful collaboration with Mercury Playhouse vet Bernard Herrmann who composed an evocative score unique for a film of this era in that it tended to accompany rather than override the grand events taking place on the screen.
Welles’ direction too, unlike anything Hollywood had seen before. His bizarre but perfect sense of camera placement, the jagged close-ups, whip pans and quicksilver cutting makes for an exhilarating film-watching experience. Welles was perfectly cast as the media mogul and he turns in one of his most subtle performances as a man wanting to be loved, but on his own terms.
Citizen Kane gained considerable buzz in Hollywood and New York but, inevitably, Louella Parsons saw the film and reported her misgivings back to her boss. The treatment of the Marion Davies-like Susan was especially rough with Welles archly painting her as whiny, untalented, and an alcoholic to boot. Welles’ biggest insult of all was using “Rosebud”, WRH’s nickname for Marion’s genitalia, as the name of Kane’s boyhood sled—a MacGuffin for the ages. It remains unclear if Hearst ever actually did see the film, but the outraged media king generated enough bad publicity in his papers to kill Kane at the box office.
Although Welles would never admit it, this public crucifixion of his great creation had to have shaken him to the core. For the rest of his long and patchy career, he would have a dread of finishing his films and leaving their fates to fickle critics and unsophisticated audiences. Citizen Kane is one of the few Welles films that had a splendid afterlife, gaining popularity with critics and cineastes over the years and by the early 1950s Kane was appearing regularly in polls of the Top Ten films of all-time.
For his second film at RKO Welles chose to do another uniquely American story in The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles had already adapted Booth Tarkington’s 1899 novel about a small Indiana town turned upside-down by the Industrial Revolution for a radio performance by the Mercury Theatre in 1939. Having grown-up in a similar Midwestern town, Welles felt an affinity for the homespun, upper middle-class families and likely saw himself in the fictional person of George Amberson Minafer, the town’s unholy terror. Though he has no acting role in the film Welles’ narration is omnipresent and he leads us through the opening sequences with some essential back story.
After spurning the heated wooing of the dashing Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) marries the much safer Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway) and settles down to a pleasant but predictable life in her Indiana community. They have one child, George, and to the surprise of nobody he is spoiled rotten because, as everyone knows, the little boy is the true love of Isabel’s life. The townsfolk are disappointed when the adult George (Tim Holt) returns home from his first year at college, just as arrogant as ever.
During a grand ball at the Amberson mansion, George takes up with the pretty Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter), the daughter of Isabel’s former beau Eugene. When Wilbur Minafer dies that summer, the widower Morgan begins to court Isabel much to George’s horror. The young Minafer insults Eugene, mocking the older man’s role in foisting the automobile upon the public. Growing increasingly frustrated with the young Minafer’s lack of ambition, Lucy breaks up with him.
In despair, George takes his sickly mother to Europe for a long stay. Just after they return to Indiana, Isabel dies and the family learns their investments have gone sour and they are destitute. As part of his “comeuppance” George takes on a well-paying but dangerous job which will keep him and his feeble Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) in a comfortable boarding home. When George is injured in an accident, Lucy and George Morgan rush to the hospital they learn he will recover.
As in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons presents the past as a dreamy sort of vision, a cocoon against the hustle and bustle of the outside world. But unlike young Charles Foster Kane, who embraces change and would like nothing better than to turn the world into his own fiefdom, the aristocratic George Minafer rejects progress as an unwelcome revolution brought on by new money types like Morgan. Having been brought up a prince, George runs roughshod over his neighbors yet the young squire sees no need to extend his domain beyond the Amberson mansion.
As the townsfolk abandon their horse and carriages for automobiles and the old families move out to the suburbs, George’s stately home is dwarfed by apartment buildings and high rises. Having been caught asleep at the wheel, the grand family bows out meekly and breaks up, except for George who, in an act of true maturity, stays behind to care for his helpless Aunt. Perhaps this was Welles’ way of saying you can’t go home again…he certainly didn’t.
Instead of finishing the final edit on the film, Welles was sent off to Brazil to shoot the Carnival sequence of It’s All True—a project sanctioned by the U.S. government—leaving the completion of Ambersons to able assistant Robert Wise. What follows is a tragedy. The film didn’t test well and RKO demanded cuts and re-shoots. But Welles, incommunicado in South America, at first claimed not to hear from RKO, and when the bad news finally registered, he refused to return. Wise was forced to cut the film to eighty minutes and re-shoot the final scene.
This new finale is blaringly out of context with the haunting tone and the painterly visual style created by Welles and cameraman Gregory Cortez. The sequences deleted from Welles’ 135 minute assembly of The Magnificent Ambersons were destroyed and lost forever. In its streamlined version, the still exquisite masterwork played poorly at the box office and Welles’ name became mud in Hollywood.
Having conquered Broadway, radio and Hollywood at the ripe old age of twenty-six, Welles turned his ambitious sights to the world of politics. Welles hoped his name and influence might offer him the sort of platform where he could do some good for the world. Aiming to impress the movers and shakers in the Roosevelt administration (particularly progressive Vice-President Henry Wallace), Welles joined forces with Republican Nelson Rockefeller and the Office of Inter-American Affairs to make an ambitious three-part film about Central and South Americas in the hopes the grand gesture would turn Brazil and its neighbors against the Axis powers.
Backed by RKO and limited government funds, Welles’ project grew quickly from the original film (Bonito the Bull) to be shot in Mexico, to include a Technicolor shoot of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Carnival and a more lyrical piece (Four Men on a Raft) about a group of Brazilian fisherman whose epic 4000 mile journey captured the imaginations of their countrymen.
The new film would be called It’s All True and Welles enlisted old friends and Mercury Theater veterans Norman Foster, Richard Wilson to help scout locale, produce, and do second unit direction. Meanwhile, Orson filmed the Carnival and worked on the editing for Ambersons, while living the high life in Rio. Inevitably, the project began to go over budget but Welles paid little heed to his producers at RKO, believing the brilliant imagery he captured would make the studio’s penny-counters see the light. But when Welles’ supportive boss, RKO CEO George Schaefer was given the heave-ho by anxious stockholders, the boy wonder’s unit was scuttled and Orson was summonsed home.
Since Brazil had joined the Allied cause in the spring of 1942, the point of the expensive project had become moot, so with no money left for post-production It’s All True was left to linger in studio vaults. Welles tried, unsuccessfully, to revive the project over the next several years but It’s All True seemed destined to remain the stuff of legend, another of Orson’s many “lost films”. As luck would have it, many of the precious reels survived the onslaught of nitrate stock decay and a workable fifty minute version was culled together in the early 1990s.
Nearly all of the remaining footage is silent, but it is riveting stuff. Although Norman Foster has been given credit for directing Bonito the Bull it has too many distinctive Wellesian flourishes for anyone to believe he wasn’t calling the shots. A long-time admirer of Robert Flaherty, Welles enlisted Tabu cinematographer Floyd Crosby to shoot this John Fante scripted story about a boy and the champion bull he loves. The filming of Four Men on a Raft was plagued by bad weather and the accidental death of Jacare (Mandel Olimpio Meira), one of the heroes who had made the Odyssean trip. Welles sought to re-create many scenes of the daunting sea journey inter-cut with lyrical takes on the lives of common folk who hope the fishermen’s symbolic gesture will bring the fruits of modern civilization to their poor villages.
It’s fairly evident Welles sought to make his own Tabu with some Sergei Eisenstein-ian adoration of the peasant thrown-in for good measure. Yet, this highly exotic film is one of Welles’ more heartfelt pieces. Welles spent considerable time and money shooting Rio’s Carnival but there is precious little in the reconstruction of It’s All True to show for it. It is possible (and probably likely) much of the footage was deemed too racy by RKO censors and destroyed. Welles had intended in telling the story of Samba and while the Technicolor footage is zesty and compelling the recreated sound can only leave us to imagine what might have been.
Rebuffed by the small minds in Hollywood, Welles spent the next few years working in theatre, forming new radio units, writing newspaper columns and taking the occasional lead role in a movie (Jane Eyre, Tomorrow Is Forever). His re-entry into directing film came via an invitation from producer Sam Spiegel to star in and take the helm of The Stranger, a thriller about an escaped Nazi masquerading as a college professor in a New England town. One of the masterminds of Hitler’s final solution, Franz Kindler (Welles) flees from Europe before the end of the war and settles in Harper, Connecticut where under the name of Charles Rankin he secures a job teaching at the local college.
The film opens on the very day this well-respected figure of the community is to wed Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the lovely daughter of a Supreme Court Justice (Phillip Merivale). Rankin becomes unsettled when he learns a foreign man has been enquiring about him. After escaping from a European jail cell, Kindler’s former assistant Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) has finally succeeded in reconnecting with his old boss. When Kindler-Rankin learns Meinike has been followed he kills the old man then buries him before he goes on his honeymoon with Mary.
Meanwhile, the Nazi hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) has arrived in town in search of Meinike who was being used as bait by a war crimes commission to find Kindler. Wilson passes himself off as an eccentric tourist and makes friends with the quirky locals. He is soon invited to the Longstreets where the previously unsuspected Professor Rankin makes a Jewish slur about Karl Marx at the dinner table. The disappearance of Meinike disturbs Wilson, as well, so the inspector decides to turn up the heat on this mysterious man. When Wilson learns Rankin is fixing the long dormant clock in the church tower (a singular hobby of Franz Kindler), he informs the Longstreets of his suspicions and sets a trap from which the Nazi can’t escape.
Long dismissed by Welles as a commercial vehicle to get him back in the good graces of Hollywood producers, The Stranger still possesses enough pizzazz to elevate it to the very least, a superior entertainment. Like virtually every Welles film made for a Hollywood distributor, the film released to general audiences was not what the director intended. And, indeed, it turns out to be an almost completely linear film—there are few flourishes of Welles’ Baroque camerawork or Expressionistic montage—until Kindler’s final stand on the church tower clock.
Although The Stranger is generally tagged as a noir, it often resembles the chilling and spooky horror films of producer Val Lewton had been creating at Welles’ old studio RKO. As fate would have it, this most impersonal project turned out to be Welles’ most financially successful film. But, instead of continuing to rebuild his reputation in Hollywood, Welles chose to shock the world and join forces with composer Cole Porter in directing the most unlikely of Broadway spectacles, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. When producer Mike Todd pulled out of 80 Days Welles struck a deal with the infamous Harry Cohn to keep the production afloat.
In exchange for an influx of cash Welles would direct a film at Columbia starring his estranged wife Rita Hayworth. Before cameras began to roll on The Lady from Shanghai, Welles shocked the world by having Ms. Hayworth cut her long red mane into a sporty short look and dying it platinum blonde. Having liberated his wife from her famous look, Welles filled out the cast with Mercury regulars Everett Sloane, playing Arthur Bannister, a brilliant, crippled lawyer married to Elsa (Hayworth), Erskine Sanford as the Judge, and theatre veteran Glenn Anders to play Bannister’s scheming partner George Grisby. The source material, Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake, was the sort of pulpy novel Welles enjoyed reading in his down time. He would later try his hand in writing such a book as the basis for his 1950s answer to Kane; Mr. Arkadin.
In The Lady from Shanghai Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a brawling seaman otherwise known as Black Irish. While roaming Central Park one evening, Michael rescues the beautiful Elsa Bannister from a gang of hoodlums holding-up her horse-drawn carriage. Sparks fly between the two as they share a ride back to her hotel but Elsa puts a damper on Michael’s enthusiasm by admitting she’s the wife of the famous trial lawyer Arthur Bannister and they will be departing in the morning.
The next day Arthur hires Michael, on the advice of his wife, to man their ship for a cruise up the Mexican coast. Michael and Elsa begin to meet clandestinely but they can’t shake Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsica), a snoop Bannister has hired to keep an eye on them. While in Acapulco Bannister’s shady partner George Grisby offers Michael $5000 to kill him, a phony murder that will let the older man escape his wife and live in anonymity in the South Seas. Hoping the large sum of money will help him begin a new life with Elsa O’Hara accepts the offer and signs a fake affidavit admitting to the murder.
Once in San Francisco, Grisby and O’Hara orchestrate the crime and Michael is left holding the smoking gun. But instead of just disappearing into the night (and keeping Michael off the hook since the body cannot be found) Grisby inexplicably goes to Bannister’s house where he is shot to death. The damning note is soon found on Michael and he is arrested for Grisby’s murder.
At his trial, Michael is defended by Bannister, who would be happy to lose his first case in order to watch his wife’s lover expire in the gas chamber. But just as the jury returns with the verdict, Michael ODs on Bannister’s painkillers and is led away to the judge’s chambers where he makes a miraculous escape. Michael meets Elsa in a Chinatown theatre where after he learns she owns the gun that killed Grisby, he finally passes out.
He wakes up in an empty amusement park where he begins to sort out Elsa’s crimes while making his way through a frightening fun house. He lands in a house of mirrors where both Elsa and Bannister are holding guns upon each other. After Bannister calls out Elsa for killing Grisby, the husband and wife open fire on each other’s many mirrored images before finally killing one another. The “boob” Michael wanders away from the park back to the sea, hoping he’ll live long enough to forget Elsa.
From the get-go, The Lady from Shanghai is a malicious, over the top adventure. The delicious, grandstanding performances by Welles, Sloane and especially Glenn Anders, as the mad hatter Grisby, go a long way in evoking the nightmarish world of a fun house. Michael O’Hara is one of noir’s dumbest protagonists, too consumed by his desire for the helpless Elsa to question Grisby’s dubious motives and sanity. The brawling seaman is a rather clumsy fellow evidenced by the humorous fight sequences where Michael misses with roundhouse punches and has to resort to primitive means in bringing his opponents down. Embittered by his reptilian looks and broken body, Bannister makes life miserable for Elsa who recoils whenever her husband tries to touch her. The jealous man engages in vicious verbal play with Elsa, much to the horror of Michael who fears for her safety.
The slimy Grisby turns out to be just another of Elsa’s dupes, but he has a grand old time setting the wheels in motion for Michael’s downfall. Welles gave Anders plenty of unflattering close-ups and the enthusiastic actor rewarded his audience by giggling, burping and mugging at every given opportunity. Bitter over Welles makeover of the studio’s number one breadwinner, Cohn kept The Lady from Shanghai on the shelf for over a year diffusing any hype a new Rita Hayworth picture might have received. Cohn then bowdlerized Welles’ film by forcing his editor to trim Lady to its bare essentials. The resulting jambalaya is still a rewarding experience, but it takes multiple viewings of The Lady from Shanghai to truly grasp its madness.
Although Welles began as a man of the theatre, the films he had made thus far were based on either original screenplays or adapted from novels. He was approached by producer Charles Feldman to shoot an adaptation of a Shakespeare play at Republic, a poverty row studio aiming to add prestige by signing A-list directors like John Ford and Frank Borzage. Orson accepted the offer and chose to make MacBeth—to be shot over twenty-three days on a makeshift set at a budget under a million dollars. As a form of rehearsal for his hastily assembled cast, he staged a new production of MacBeth to good notices in Salt Lake City.
This dark and gloomy play about a haunted Scot King (Welles) and his scheming, insane Lady (Jeanette Nolan) was the perfect Shakespearean vehicle for an auteur whose work was fraught with tortured relationships between husbands and wives. The resulting film didn’t turn out to be a memorable showcase for his band of actors (some had no previous experience with the Bard), but Welles’ direction and the camerawork of John L. Russell (Psycho) is a chilling visual showcase.
The action takes place in and around the foreboding, mountainous grounds of an ancient Highland castle where little light seeps in. It is almost inevitable these gloomy surroundings will drive its first citizens to drink and madness. Welles is his usual indomitable self as the ambitious King, which works here, for he is a monster who has to be brought to his knees. Making her film debut, Jeanette Nolan is convincing enough as the neurotic Lady who pushes her reticent man’s buttons all the way up to the throne.
Initially, the pacing is uneven but Welles doesn’t pull any punches in the blood and thunder second half. He brings this brutal play to a quivering climax in the breathtaking scenes of MacBeth’s slaughter of MacDuff’s wife and children, Lady MacBeth’s suicidal plunge, the outlaw King’s impaling of a Holy Father (Alan Napier), and MacBeth’s gruesome demise at the hands of MacDuff.
Once again, Welles didn’t stick around to edit or do post-production on his movie and poor MacBeth was released to an unsuspecting public. Movie critics and audiences who had recently been wowed by Laurence Olivier’s aristocratic interpretation of Hamlet found Welles’ foray into Shakespeare too earthy a take on High Art, so MacBeth was pulled by Yates and tinkered with before finally getting a general release in 1950. By then, Welles had moved on to Europe where he hoped he would find audiences, and financiers, more receptive to his vision.
At the onset of his European odyssey, Welles had several film projects in mind. He had longed to direct and star in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, but when it was revealed David O. Selznick would film his own version of the play in Hollywood Welles’ moneymen backed out. Before leaving the states Welles had entered into an agreement with kindred spirit Alexander Korda to make three films but those plans fizzled when it turned out the flamboyant producer was struggling to stay afloat in the tight post-war years.
So, in order to finance his own productions, and sustain an extravagant lifestyle, Welles accepted offers to act in several Hollywood-funded epics being shot in Europe. For the most part, he played bigger than life characters like Count Cagliostro (Black Magic), Cesare Borgia (Prince of Foxes) and an intimidating Mogul general (The Black Rose).
Welles’ most interesting performance during those years was as the shadowy underworld figure Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s Wellesian production of Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Here, actor Welles is very relaxed (for a change) and charming as the black market double-dealer who feigns his own death to escape the police. For whatever reason the director Welles tended to mistrust his own ability to play urbane characters and succeeded in typecasting himself as a glowering heavy or a blowhard for the rest of his screen acting career.
For his next project, Welles directed and starred as the brooding moor of Venice in Shakespeare’s Othello. The troubled production is the stuff of film legend. Using all of his own savings with generous, foolhardy advances from friends, investors, and even Darryl F. Zanuck, Welles spent the next four years shooting the film on the fly in Morocco, France, Spain, London, Portugal and, of course, Italy, painting a gothic portrait of medieval Venice and Cyprus.
Lacking the clout and money to hire stars for his film, Welles recruited two mentors from the Dublin Gate Theatre, Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, to play Iago and Brabantio. A theatrical legend in Ireland, MacLiammoir was at fifty a little long in the tooth to play Othello’s false friend and foil but succeeds admirably in bringing jealousy and menace to the crucial role. After entering into an affair then having a very public break-up with his original leading lady Lea Padovani, Welles cast the ethereal Quebec actress Suzanne Cloutier to play Desdemona and she lends a pathetic presence to her husband’s descent into hell.
Having been shot in stops and starts and summarily pieced together Welles’ Othello doesn’t visually resemble his carefully-staged MacBeth so much as it does the baroque The Lady from Shanghai. This new, highly kinetic style owes more to the eclecticism of Sergei Eisenstein than the classicism of John Ford. Yet, the pupil from Wisconsin shoots with much more fluidity and dramatic intensity than the Soviet master whose creaky historical epics (Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible) often look more like museum pieces than great cinema.
Welles’ spontaneous Othello may irritate some Shakespeare scholars but through expert use of disconcerting camera angles, alarming close-ups and natural light and haunting shadows he comes much closer than Olivier (who shot a more traditional version of the play in 1966) in realizing the Bard’s paranoid vision. Although he would never have the opportunity to shoot Heart of Darkness Welles, like his beloved Conrad, had developed a singular story-telling language that plumbed the murky depths of human consciousness.
Welles continued to do ambitious work in theatre and radio (starring in the popular Harry Lime serials) in England before finally raising enough money to begin work on his latest opus, Mr. Arkadin. Here, Welles is Gregory Arkadin, a mysterious billionaire who hires an American smuggler Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) to compile a confidential dossier on his shady past. Believing his employer is suffering from a thirty year case of amnesia, Van Stratten doggedly pursues the members of Arkadin’s old gang, a group of Polish drug dealers and white slavers who all end up dead after interviewing with the naïve American.
After Van Stratten leads the murderous Arkadin to the last remaining gang member, Jacob Zouk (Akim Tamiroff), the American realizes the key to his own survival is confronting the billionaire’s beautiful daughter Raina (Paola Mori) with the truth about her father. Van Stratten evades Arkadin at the Munich airport and flies back to Barcelona to meet with Raina. Hot in pursuit, the despairing Arkadin ditches his plane when he learns Van Stratten has spilled the beans to Raina.
If one is willing to suspend belief for an hour and a half, Mr. Arkadin can be a real gas. It is a pulpy and fantastic spin on Kane-like character, but this time Welles’ Great Man is a ruthless criminal whose sole weakness is a daughter who knows nothing about his early life as a pusher and pimp. As the frighteningly austere Arkadin, Welles wears a putty nose, fake beard, and square wig, making him look a bit like Neptune. Robert Arden’s awkward take on Van Stratten has been taken to task by critics, but he is the perfect noir dope and his very crassness helps make Arkadin a sympathetic figure at the final curtain.
The film is chalk full of hideous faces and wonderful performances led by Tamiroff as the unfortunate tailor who demands goose liver for shielding Van Stratten. Acting kudos also goes to an almost unrecognizable Michael Redgrave who is delightfully fruity as an Amsterdam shop owner and Katrina Paxinou as the chain-smoking Sophie, the exiled leader of the old gang and Arkadin’s former lover.
Once again, Welles didn’t get a chance to do a final edit and the film came out in at least two different versions. To Welles’ horror, Mr. Arkadin was renamed Confidential Report for its European run but at least the film found its way to an audience. A re-edited Mr. Arkadin had to wait seven years until 1962 to get its first screening in America. Fortunately, in recent years the film has been painstakingly—and gloriously—reconstructed by threading together the best of the remaining prints with formerly lost outtakes found in the Welles’ archive.
After Mr. Arkadin wrapped Welles received a curious offer from CBS to shoot a short American television program about the legend of Don Quixote. Welles hired Spanish actor Francisco Reiguera to play Cervantes’ Don and wily Akim Tamiroff as Sancho and began filming in Mexico and Spain. Not surprisingly, the network’s producers were put off by the early rushes and cancelled the project. Welles kept the footage and, as his habit, continued shooting whenever the money and opportunity presented themselves. Welles spent fifteen years on Don Quixote but he never finished the film. The footage was finally patched together in the 1990s for a feature length presentation and although Welles’ Quixote can’t be called a finished product much of it bears the stamp of genius.
It’s hard to imagine an actor who fits the visual description of The Man of La Mancha better than the spindly Reiguera and his eccentric performance as the Knight errant in search of his sweet Dulcinea doesn’t disappoint. Tamiroff is superb as the earthy Sancho who tempts his Don with chicken then torments the old duffer with his selfish behavior. In a Bunuelian touch, our two heroes transcend time and space to appear in modern day Spain, where the Don attempts to save a young woman being devoured by a motor scooter and frantic Sancho interrupts a religious procession in search of his wayward master. Welles even steps into this surreal arena playing a big shot filmmaker directing Quixote and Sancho in a movie about their adventures.
Ultimately, the deluded Don becomes a victim of his passions and winds up in the clink. He is ready to give up hope when his trusty Sancho returns to transport them to the moon! As this production stopped and started over the years Welles’ Don Quixote took on the character of a home movie that he had never intended to show to the public. Still, what fragments we’re left with are quite personal; a filmic Valentine to the country Welles loved most.
In between projects Welles continued to find work in television during the 1950s. For the BBC he signed on to do a series of anecdotal interviews called the Orson Welles’ Sketch Book. Armed with a pencil and pad Welles further embellished a coterie of his already colorful stories in a dry studio atmosphere. His next project for BBC proved much more interesting. The seven part series, Around the World with Orson Welles, put a relaxed Welles behind the camera to tell stories about some of his favorite European places (Paris, London, Madrid, Vienna, the Basque Country, etc.). In front of the camera Welles seems quite jovial, providing witty commentary and some surprisingly sensitive insights about the Continental approach to life.
Welles never gave up on conquering the medium as evidenced by the development of his own television show for Desilu productions in 1958. He delivered the delightful pilot The Fountain of Youth, a morality play about an embittered scientist (Dan Tobin) who develops a rare youth serum then makes a gift of it to his grasping former girlfriend (Joi Lansing) and her narcissist husband (Rick Jason). Bowing to noble intentions, neither partner admits to wanting to drink the magic potion but in the end fear wins out. Unfortunately, The Orson Welles Show was never picked up.
Welles returned to the States in 1956 to act in two Hollywood films to help finance Don Quixote. He turned in memorable, overripe performances as a cattle baron in the Jeff Chandler western, Man in the Shadow and as a colorful plantation owner in an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, The Long, Hot Summer. While on the set of Shadow Welles struck up a friendship with Albert Zugsmith, a Universal Studios producer of the Sci-Fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man, and two of Douglas Sirk’s best films, Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels.
According to Zugsmith Welles offered his services to direct and star in the studio’s worst property, Badge of Evil, Whit Masterson’s pulp thriller about police corruption on the U.S.-Mexican border. Charlton Heston was already set to play Mike Vargas, a highly-placed official in the Mexican government and Janet Leigh would play Susie, Vargas’ WASP wife from Philadelphia. Welles took the plum role of Captain Hank Quinlan, a thirty year police department vet assigned to investigate the bombing murder of a local politico, then set out to make Touch of Evil.
Haunted by murder of his young wife and embittered by having so little to show for his hard work on the police force, Quinlan has become corrupt. After a hasty investigation Quinlan accuses the Mexican husband of the murdered man’s daughter of planting the bomb. Trying to avoid an international incident Vargas suspects Quinlan is trying to railroad the young man and threatens to expose the cop as a crook. Vargas checks his newlywed wife into an out of the way motel for safekeeping and goes to the house of records where he begins to investigate Quinlan’s methods of interrogation.
Meanwhile, we learn the local “Little Caesar”, Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) is out to get Vargas in revenge for a recent conviction he rung up against the thug’s brother. Uncle Joe has his boys kidnap and drug Susie Vargas then plant evidence to get her arrested as a junkie. Enraged by Vargas’s insolence and worried he might lose his job and pension, Quinlan enters into an agreement with Uncle Joe but he turns the tables on the old gangster and strangles him to death in Susie’s room.
The stoned Mrs. Vargas is arrested for the murder but Quinlan’s partner on the force, Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) decides to put an end to his friend’s evil ways. Menzies lets Vargas plant a wire on him and the Sergeant manages to get a drunken confession out of Quinlan but the Captain discovers his partner’s treachery and shoots him. When Vargas appears Quinlan is ready to kill the Mexican and pin the shooting of Menzies’ on him until the dying Sergeant thwarts his plan with one last gunshot.
It was very fitting this last of the great film noirs would turn out to be (with the possible exception of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly) the most spectacular film in the genre. Shot almost exclusively on the seedy streets and alleys of Venice, California, Touch of Evil turned out to be one wild ride.
Hitting the floor running with a breathtaking four minute tracking shot—orchestrated by Welles and Sirk cinematographer Russell Metty—and buoyed by a jazzy Henry Mancini score, this eye-popping passion play reveals itself as something far more sinister and Welles takes a special glee in displaying the rot from the inside out. These two sleazy border towns don’t seem like the sort of place to bring your wife for a chocolate soda, but Mike and Susie Vargas seem oblivious to the hoodlums, the strip joints and dive bars that line the city streets. The insidious vice even spreads to the outskirts of town at Susie’s hotel where potheads and biker girls sexually harass then kidnap the Mexican’s frightened wife.
A recovering alcoholic, Quinlan knows these streets all too well and, in his darkest hour, even tries to rekindle a hopeless romance with Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), the Madame of the local whorehouse. Shady politicians, old money businessmen and figures from the underworld are all out to gain favor with Hank in the hopes he will deflect blame from the guilty and cover-up their crimes. The once-proud cop is only too aware this elevated status has only netted him a chicken ranch. But, if we are to take anything from Menzies’ undying loyalty and the lingering affection from Tanya who laments over the Captain’s death in a polluted Mexican river, Hank must have been some kind of man in his day.
Unfortunately, Welles’ baroque masterpiece suffered the same fate as most of his American films. After initial screenings displeased studio heads at Universal, the studio re-cut the film against Welles’ original plan and opened Touch of Evil as the bottom half of a double feature.
Even if Welles’ reputation had hit an all-time low in his home country, the aging boy wonder was enjoying a critical Renaissance in Europe. Indeed, Welles’ bold, avant-garde style had more in common with the artistically ambitious films of Antonioni, Fellini, Godard and Resnais than the genre-specific fare being churned out in Hollywood during the final years of the studio system.
Looking to capitalize on Welles’ newfound popularity, producer Michael Salkind and son Alexander hired Orson to direct a film based on a classic novel of his choice. Welles chose The Trial, Franz Kafka’s parabolic novel of one man’s persecution by the state. For his cast, the esteemed filmmaker now found he could choose from a large pool of international actors, eager to work with him even at a scale salary. Anthony Perkins turned out to be a wise choice for Josef K., the snide young bureaucrat accused by the police of a crime he did not commit.
After being roused out of bed and interrogated by the police, Josef strives to get to the bottom of his case to find out just what he is guilty of doing. His preliminary trial is set in a giant forum and although he thinks he has acquitted himself well, he learns his case has taken a turn for the worse. His bedridden advocate Albert Hastler (Welles) tells Josef to be patient, but offers little sympathy.
Josef’s plight has made him curiously attractive to a bevy of loose women (Jeanne Moreau, Elsa Martinelli) and young nymphos (Romy Schneider and a gang of raving teens) but their voracious sexual appetites seem to be the products of a world gone mad. Backed into a corner then out into the open, Josef finds he is being doggedly pursued by two cops. Realizing he has been convicted in absentia, Josef accepts his inevitable death sentence.
Welles initially began shooting The Trial in Zagreb, Yugoslavia but when money ran out he took his production team to Paris where they would set up a makeshift studio in the abandoned Gare d’Orsay train station, a fortuitous choice which gave the film a daunting, Kafka-esque mise-en-scene. Shooting on the run, Welles jarringly cross-cuts footage of Paris, Rome, Milan and Zagreb into Josef’s odyssey, creating a darkly comic Cold War world where it is impossible to feel safe. And indeed, once Josef is accused of his crime, he feels the damning eyes of a paranoid public upon him. The secret police, spies at his workplace, ravenous women, and bad-boy lovin’ teenage girls all watch him with curiosity, expecting and awaiting his downfall.
Welles entered into a two picture deal with James Bond producer Harry Saltzman to make Chimes at Midnight as well as a new version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Chimes at Midnight, follows the adventures of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the Rabelaisian figure featured in the Bard’s Henry IV, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V, Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Welles had previously acted and directed in a similar interpretation of Falstaff’s adventures on the Broadway stage (1939) and in Europe (1960) to half-filled theaters and lukewarm reviews. Still, he was determined to bring this story of yet another errant knight to the screen and as it was the easier and less expensive of the two projects to film Welles got the green light to proceed.
During the rise of Henry IV (John Gielgud) to power, Sir John Falstaff (Welles) corrupts the King’s son, Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) with wine, women and song. Falstaff’s merry men are little more than highway bandits, stealing from the rich and spending their ill-gotten gains at a tavern run by the befuddled Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford). When a rebellion seeks to unseat Henry from the throne, the Prince of Wales goes to war and after surviving a tumultuous turn on the battlefield Hal slays his friend and deadly foe Hotspur (Norman Rockway).
The bumbling Falstaff takes credit for the killing, discrediting Hal even further in the eyes of his father and King. Hal continues his life of debauchery with Falstaff while the rebels regroup and storm the castle once again. This time, Hal’s brother John (Jeremy Rowe) helps put down the rebellion to the relief of the dying Henry. Told his father is gravely ill, Hal returns to the castle to claim the crown. With his last words Henry lectures his son on the duties of a King and persuades the Prince to cut ties with Falstaff. At Hal’s coronation he bans Falstaff from the Kingdom thus breaking the old lecher’s heart and hastening his death.
Welles’ third and final Shakespeare film is his most relaxed and satisfying interpretation of the Bard leaving us to wonder what he might have accomplished had he tackled more of the playwright’s great comedies (The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It). Filmed on location in Spain, Chimes at Midnight has a cobbled-together quality, due in equal parts to the usual production money-troubles and the ambitious thread-line of the narrative.
Sir John Falstaff is one of Welles’ great creations. Stuffed into padding which makes him look 400 pounds and wearing putty and pancake to highlight crinkly eyes and a gin-blossomed nose, Welles anticipates the massive look of his own old age. And Falstaff very much resembles the jolly, good-natured fellow holding court in F for Fake, spinning tales of blarney on the Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson Shows and needling Hollywood royalty on the Dean Martin Roasts.
In Welles’ movie Falstaff’s lust for life is infectious and he is a much more appealing father-figure to Prince Hal than dreary old Henry IV. But by mocking the younger man to the tavern wenches and taking wrongful credit on the field of battle, Falstaff unwittingly hurts the ego of his protégé leading to his downfall. Hal finds power a very seductive thing, so when his dying father upbraids him for being remiss in his responsibilities as a Prince he cuts ties with his old playmate banishing Falstaff to a gray and lonely life without love.
French television provided Welles with the opportunity of making a short film based on a short novella by one of his favorite authors, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). In The Immortal Story Welles plays Charles Clay, a rich, elderly American merchant living in Macao sometime in the late 19th century. A cold-hearted bachelor, Clay lives alone in a large house he took from a bankrupt partner. His only company is the bookkeeper Levinsky (Roger Loggio) who reads aloud from account books for the old man’s entertainment. One night, Clay recounts a strange story about a dying man who hires a sailor to sleep with his much younger wife. Levinsky tells his employer the tale is nothing but a story between sailors and has no basis in truth.
Since Clay has no use for prophecy he decides to make the story come true. He has Levinsky hire his former partner’s daughter Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) to play the dying man’s wife and a recently rescued sailor (Norman Ashley) to take the role of her lover. Having fallen on hard times, Virginie decides to play the part but only if Clay ups the ante from 100 to 300 guineas. The sailor is happy to take the five guineas offered by Clay and promises to fulfill the old miser’s desire to tell this now-mortal story of a consummated affair at every port and call. But Clay’s plans go awry when the sailor falls in love with Virginie. He tells Clay he cannot possibly spread such a story and the old man dies, his dream only partially fulfilled.
Shot in a lush, painterly style and accompanied by an eerie score of Erik Satie piano music, Welles’ first film in color also turned out to be his most Impressionistic work. Once again, Welles plays another Kane-like mogul who sits behind the scenes and tries to manipulate the world to his satisfaction. In striving to make myth come to life, the unimaginative Clay becomes something of an artist in setting up his passion play, but to his horror the plot of the story takes a turn the pragmatist in him couldn’t foresee. Clay’s by the book world is shattered by the irrationality of the human heart.
Welles spent the next several years starting and stopping on projects including The Merchant of Venice, in which he would have played Shylock, and The Deep, a murderous sea-faring story co-starring Jeanne Moreau and Anthony Harvey. The most interesting project from this era was the legendary The Other Side of the Wind, the story of exiled filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston) who returns to Hollywood from Europe at age seventy-five to make a big budget feature.
Jake is treated like royalty by critics, young directors and L.A.’s social set until the footage he shoots for the film (also called The Other Side of the Wind) is deemed unusable by his moneymen. These “rejected scenes” include a surprisingly graphic sex romp in a moving car and the young leads finding each other in a lyrical Zabriskie Point-inspired sequence.
Welles’ film was nearly completed but this time he didn’t ditch the film during post-production. Instead, he began an interminable battle with his investors (including the brother in-law of the Shah of Iran) over editing and distribution rights. The Iranian revolution forced the investors to close down shop and ownership of the project (which currently rests in a Parisian film lab) has been in litigation ever since. Recently, Peter Bogdanovich (who has a starring role in the film) is said to have been putting The Other Side of the Wind back together for the U.S. cable channel Showtime from an incomplete print owned by Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar and outtakes from the director’s archive.
Amidst all this professional frustration Welles kept a brave face and a sense of humor as evidenced in his short Vienna where Harry Lime revisits his old haunts with guest appearances by Mickey Rooney and Laugh-In star Artie Johnson(!). For London (aka One Man Band) Welles is a master of disguise in a hilarious, low-life takeoff on Swinging London. In this nonsensical travelogue featuring some of the more disreputable spots in the city Welles is almost unrecognizable playing, among other things, a pudgy cop, a street musician, a rummy flower lady and a coolie pornographer!
With The Other Side of the Wind tied-up in endless litigation Welles completed F for Fake, a philosophical essay on frauds culled from footage used in Francois Reichenbach’s documentary on Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian painter-forger who sold dozens of his phony Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani canvases to museums all over the world. Reichenbach’s film also included interviews with Elmyr’s biographer Clifford Irving who had recently made a splash selling his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes to McGraw-Hill publishers.
Splicing Reichenbach’s documentary into newly shot footage Welles, as narrator-magician, ruminates about the creation of art and the so-called experts who sit in judgment of the creators. The new material includes a witty autobiographical story about Welles early years in Dublin as a struggling artist, the War of the Worlds debacle and even the original premise of Citizen Kane, events that, according to Welles, expose him as one of the biggest fakers of all.
Welles caps off this larkish film with an original tale about a young swindler-temptress (Oja Kodar) who bamboozles the mighty Picasso. Welles never anticipated such a piecemeal project to be his swan song, but like the relaxed and devious Family Plot proved for Hitchcock, the charming F for Fake said volumes about an artist who had come full circle.
During the last decade of his life Welles kept trying to sell projects to Hollywood but he was well aware that window was likely closed for good. Fortunately, he chose to preserve some of his rich legacy by shooting a pair of superb interview/essays about the making of Othello and The Trial as well as appearing before the camera to do short monologues for friends and loved ones. Melancholic as these late, fragmented works may seem, they also represent a triumph for an indomitable spirit who refused to bow down to the bean counters.
Books on Welles:
There is no shortage of books on Welles. It seems to be a rite of passage for every major critic to step up to try and take a whack at the legend. It would be impossible to read and absorb them all, so for now I’ll leave you with these:
Orson Welles – Simon Callow ***** Callow’s first volume on America’s Renaissance man stands on its own as the best book on Welles yet it only takes us to 1941! An exhaustively detailed take on the boy wonder reads like a whopping good yarn. Callow’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. A true labor of love.
This Is Orson Welles – Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich ***** Taking a place alongside Hitchcock/Truffaut this is a seminal book of interviews between the film master and his admiring pupil. Bogdanovich treads gently but asks the right questions and never lets his often evasive subject off the hook making this an invaluable book for film scholars and students. Still, you often wonder how easy it was for Welles to mask the pain.
Orson Welles-The Stories of His Life – Peter Conrad ****1/2 Not your typical biography, this is a delightful book of anecdotes, unusual facts and theory threaded together by an expert Welles scholar. Even if you think you know Welles, Conrad’s inspired speculations will make you want to watch the master’s films all over again.
Orson Welles-Hello Americans – Simon Callow **** Part II of Callow’s encyclopedic biography of the iconic filmmaker covers Welles’ years in Hollywood from the premiere of Citizen Kane through MacBeth. Once again, Callow crafts a meticulously detailed and often painful look at the genius who, at the time, was beginning to get his own comeuppance from critics and the moneymen.
Orson Welles – Joseph McBride **** McBride is a film scholar’s treasure and his takes on Welles themes and directorial choices are always illuminating, and almost always spot on. Out of print.
Orson Welles – Andre Bazin **** A slender but impeccable volume of essays by one of the director’s early champions. Bazin has few peers in dissecting and analyzing film.
Citizen Welles – Frank Brady **** This well-researched, best single volume biography on Welles gives a warts and all telling of the long downfall of Hollywood’s boy wonder. Brady doesn’t always paint a pretty picture but it makes for a riveting read. Out of print.
My Lunches with Orson-Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles – ed. Peter Biskind **** These catty but highly amusing series of interviews between Welles and his friend the film director Jaglom took place at his beloved Ma Maison restaurant in Hollywood during the final years of his life. Here, Orson lets his hair down and lets us know what he really thinks about his former friends and contemporaries in both Hollywood and the art world. For such a progressive filmmaker it is surprising to find Welles had conservative tastes in his chosen field but many of the negative opinions about his peers in the industry should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Any way you slice it, a must-read for Welles fans.
Focus on Orson Welles – Ronald Gottesman (ed.) ***1/2 A wide-ranging collection features fine essays from the likes of David Bordwell to Charlton Heston. Yet another worthy addition to the out of print Focus On series.
Orson Welles – Barbara Leaming *** Leaming was a good friend of Welles but this long anticipated “autobiography” which came out a year before his death turned out to be a something of a disappointment. With his final few projects twisting in the wind Welles, understandably, comes off as bitter and but his stories and anecdotes took a decidedly sour turn. Out of print.
The Citizen Kane Book – Pauline Kael *** Kael’s controversial assertion that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz was half-responsible for the greatness of Kane is the centerpiece of this full-frontal attack on the auteur theory. As most of the revelations here have long since been debunked Kael’s cranky tome has been relegated to the status of Curiosity Piece.
Feature Films by Welles:
1941 Citizen Kane *****
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons *****
1946 The Stranger ****
1948 The Lady From Shanghai ****1/2
1950 MacBeth ****
1952 Othello ****
1955 Mr. Arkadin ****
1958 Touch of Evil *****
1962 The Trial ****
1966 Chimes at Midnight ****1/2
1968 The Immortal Story ****
1976 F for Fake ****
Shorts, Television, Documentary & Incomplete Films by Welles:
1934 Hearts of Age ***1/2 (short)
1938 Too Much Johnson ***1/2 (incomplete)
1943 It’s All True ***1/2 (incomplete)
1955 Around the World with Orson Welles (La Pelote Basque) ***1/2
1955-71 Don Quixote ***1/2 (incomplete)
1958 The Fountain of Youth (TV pilot for The Orson Welles Show) ***1/2
1968 Vienna (short) ***1/2
1971 London (short, aka One Man Band) ***1/2
1972 The Other Side of the Wind (five-scene fragment edited by Welles) ***1/2
1978 Filming Othello ****
1981 Filming The Trial ***1/2
1982 Orson Welles’ The Dreamers (short) ***
1984 The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh (short) ***
1985 Orson Welles’ Magic Show (short) ***
2000 Moby Dick (short) ***