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I've been a fan of Orson Welles' films for many years, probably since the first time I saw Citizen Kane on television, a viewing which was interrupted right before the end by a drunken driver crashing into our family's car right outside the house, so I had to wait impatiently for a second opportunity to see the film in order to find out what the heck "Rosebud" was.
I'm not sure exactly why or when that initial desire became a fascination with Welles' films in general, but I was lucky because in those days (the 1960s and 1970s) there were many revival houses in New York City, theaters which showed only old movies, in double bills. The movies were changed every day in some theaters, in others they stayed a little longer, but the result was that, if you paid attention to the listings, sooner or later you could see almost anything. Even off the top of my head I can remember seven such theaters, and I'm sure I've forgotten some.
So, when I set out to see all of Welles' movies, it was not easy but it was certainly possible. Today, of course, it would be impossible except on video, and difficult even then. So, in the early 1990s, when I was posting messages on some local computer bulletin boards (also now mostly extinct, the Internet has killed the local BBS scene almost as completely as video killed the revival houses), I realized that I was the only person there who had seen all of Welles' movies on the big screen (or, probably, on any screen). So, I set out to write reviews of all of them.
By the way, when I refer to Welles' films, I am speaking of the films he directed. I have no special interest in the movies he acted in (most of which he chose strictly on the basis of how much they were willing to pay him), and have only seen two (The Third Man, which is great, and Catch-22, which is not).
My memory is far from photographic, so I did utilize some reference materials when I wrote the original reviews, and I rented the films which were available on video in order to refresh my memory on some points. And, in reworking those reviews to post here I have been aided by three books.
Interest in Welles and his films seems to be increasing these days. The 1998 re-edit of Touch of Evil was the most successful revival ever at the Film Forum here in New York City, running a total of five months, and at one point it was one of the top-grossing films in the country (calculated on a per-screen basis). Books about Welles continue to be published, and Tim Robbins' newest movie depicts an incident in Welles' early life. And, of course, today's filmmakers continue to be influenced by, and to steal from, Welles.
(Thanks to Bruce Goldstein from Film Forum for confirming the specific details about "Touch of Evil".)
Orson Welles directed eleven movies during his lifetime. His movie-making career spanned more than thirty years, and eleven movies isn't very many movies to make in thirty years, but he had quite a few difficulties, only some of them of his own making. In addition, most of his movies were not released in exactly the form he intended, and sometimes they were even edited without his participation.
The common idea many people have about Welles is that he peaked early and then fizzled out. After all, Citizen Kane was recently cited as the best American movie ever (which it isn't) and it was the first movie he ever directed, at the age of 24. This is easy to think, since both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (his second movie) are clearly great films, and after that much of his work was done outside the traditional studio system, and often outside the United States.
However, even though his later movies were usually made for almost no money, often under very difficult conditions, they are all worth seeing, and several of them are as good as any movies ever made by anybody.
Few people except real film buffs (and probably not that many of them) have seen all of Welles' films in theaters. They (the films, not the film buffs) are very hard to see, many of them are not easily available even on video, but I have seen them all (in theaters), since I was lucky enough to live in New York during the golden age of the movie revival houses, before video killed them off. Some of the movies I haven't seen in many years, however, so I have used some reference materials in order to make sure I don't go completely off the tracks.
Oh, about Citizen Kane specifically? If you haven't seen it, go and see it immediately. If you have seen it, go see it again. Virtually everything you've ever heard about it is true.
"If I had learned to compromise more, I might have made better films, but they wouldn't have been my films."
(Orson Welles, when he was given the
American Filmmakers Institute Lifetime Achievement Award
--quoted from memory)
"I don't love films. I love making films."
The Magnificent Ambersons (based on the novel by Booth Tarkington) is the story of an arrogant young man who finally gets his "comeuppance." There were certainly people in Hollywood who viewed Welles as an arrogant young man and were glad that he got slapped down a little, too, when his second film was taken away from him while he was out of the country. The entire story is too long to get into here (see the reference books), but the last 45 minutes of Welles' original version was cut and a new ending was tacked on instead. The original footage is now lost (I've heard that the laser disc version ends with storyboards and script excerpts for the ending Welles originally shot).
The Magnificent Ambersons is the only movie Welles ever directed in which he did not appear. He had played George Minafer in a radio adaptation of the book a few years previously, but even with the girdle he wore in Citizen Kane he couldn't play the role on screen. He said later that he had really enjoyed directing without having to act in the movie as well, but I suspect that in some of his movies it was a commercial decision as well as an artistic one that he should do both. He may not have been a commercial draw as a director but he certainly was as an actor, plus (as he always pointed out) he was the only really good actor he could ever get for free. Spike Lee has also said that he would like not to have to be in all of his movies, but it would be much harder for him to sell a movie if he wasn't going to appear in it.
In any case, Tim Holt is better in the role than Welles could have been, so it all worked out for the best anyway.
Even with the butchered ending, anybody who cares about movies should see this film, and probably more than once. The tone is more reflective than many of Welles pictures, and it's more a portrait of a whole time and place and way of life than of a single man, as many of his other pictures are. The cast is excellent (still mainly drawn from his Mercury Theater actors he brought to Hollywood with him). Anybody who thinks of Agnes Moorehead exclusively as Endora on Bewitched should see this.
Welles narrates the movie, and the whole first section is devoted to vanished small-town customs and changing fashions, before any of the main characters are even introduced. Apparently this was the first movie to use narration so extensively. But I don't think the reason to go see Welles' movies is because they were revolutionary at the time. The reason to see them is because they are amazingly good.
Citizen Kane made more of a change in how movies look than any other movie in history (at least until the special effects boom of the late 1970s), but that's for film mavens to worry about.
"There are actors who play kings, and actors who do not play kings. I am one of the actors who plays kings."
Welles forgot this only once, when he played seaman Michael O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai, and his performance (for once in his career playing a fairly traditionally heroic part) is one of the weaker aspects of this film. It was originally supposed to be a "B" picture, but then Rita Hayworth (then married to Welles) decided to star in it, so it became an "A" picture after all.
The villains (pretty much everybody else in the picture) are excellent, especially Everett Sloan as Bannister the famous lawyer and Glenn Anders as Grisby, Bannister's partner. The story is a thick soup of plots and double-crosses, and Welles' character is the only one without even a single hidden agenda.
The film is rather uneven, with some of the scenes being very powerful, but the stand-out moment is the (very famous) shoot-out in a house of mirrors that ends the film.
That some of the aspects of the film that are not appropriate for Welles is perhaps explained by the fact that he convinced Harry Cohn (President of Columbia Pictures) to make the film (and to let him direct it) when he needed to have Cohn advance him some money he could use for another project, and he had never read the book (Sherwood King's If I Die Before I Wake). It just happened to be on the table in front of him when he placed the call.
At least, this is the story that Welles told later on, and it's therefore at least somewhat suspect.
"Orson Welles' Macbeth leaves the spectator deaf and blind and I can well believe that the people who like it (and I am proud to be one) are few and far between . . ."
Welles was not one to be dissuaded from filming the legendarily cursed play. His Macbeth was an experiment in movie-making, and not a completely successful one.
It was shot in three weeks for under $200,000 for (of all things) Republic Pictures, mostly known as a "B" picture studio. Welles thought that if he succeeded, other directors would tackle challenging projects by substituting creativity and primitive images for lavish sets and production values. Also, he wanted to disprove the assertion that dogged him for his entire career that he couldn't complete a movie on time and within budget.
The result was a powerful film in its way, but mainly for people who are already familiar with the play. If somebody didn't know Macbeth, you probably wouldn't introduce them to it with this movie. It was all shot on sound-stages, with much mist and strange lighting and shadows. The costumes are clunky-looking and primitive (some quite realistic for the era of the play). The cast is composed of Welles' stalwarts, some radio performers and even a few members of Welles' family. He tried to get Agnes Moorehead to play Lady Macbeth (which would have helped quite a bit) but her schedule didn't permit it, so he cast Jeanette Nolan instead. Welles himself (of course) played Macbeth.
Othello is much better than Macbeth. I first saw Othello at the Public Theater in 1978 on a double bill with a documentary called Filming Othello. It (Othello) was filmed all over Europe (as was usual with Welles during this period), with he and other members of the cast getting whatever other work they could to raise money to keep the production going (including Welles' "The Lives of Harry Lime" radio show for the BBC, which is quite good). One murder scene was filmed in a Turkish bath because they had no costumes and no money.
It was made right after Macbeth (it took three years to make), and it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1952. As always with Welles' Shakespeare films, he is quite liberal ("savage" might be a better word) with the text, realizing that the point is to make a good movie, not to make a reverent one. And he succeeds, it is a very powerful movie. Unlike Macbeth it was all shot on location, and the castles and ships and so on are used to very good effect. And Welles' old friend Michael MacLiammoir (a Dublin stage actor who had never been in a movie before), who was brought in at the last minute to play Iago when Everett Sloan bailed out, is excellent.
Like many of Welles' films, it begins with the end of the story, the funeral of Othello and Desdemona. Welles wanted the audience to concentrate on the working out of the characters' fates, rather than just wondering how it was going to end, plus it evened the playing field between those who were familiar with the play and those who weren't.
I have rented Othello and the restored version is very good. It does, however, come with an introduction by Welles' daughter where she talks about the film, and she says that it hasn't been seen since the middle 1950s, and that the negative was thought to be lost. As I said, I saw it back in 1978 (or it could have been 1979), so it seems they're making it into even more of a "lost" masterpiece than it is.
Directed by Welles from his own novel, this is the only movie he ever made that was not from somebody else's story. It is not strong, and the editing (not by Welles, of course) was terrible. You would probably be better off reading the book (even though Welles later claimed that not only hadn't he actually written it, he'd never even read it).
However, its faults aside, this movie is important for one reason, which is the story of the scorpion. Mr. Arkadin, a rich and powerful man (played by Welles) tells this story at a party. I paraphrase:
A scorpion wishes to cross a stream, but scorpions cannot swim. So, he asks a frog to carry him across on his back. The frog refuses, saying that the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion points out that if he stings the frog while they are going across the river, they will both drown.
The frog sees the logic of this argument, and starts across, bearing the scorpion on his back. Halfway across, he feel the scorpion's sting. "Is this logic?" he cries as they sink beneath the water.
"No, it is not," replies the scorpion, "but I can't help myself. It is my character."
This story is very important for understanding the view of human nature which Welles brought to all of his work. In most of his films, there are scorpions and frogs, and the scorpions always keep to their true nature even when it means their own destruction.
It is even important for understanding how he conducted his career (see my review of Ambersons for his comments on his films). He had to make his films his way, to be true to his character.
(The story is already familiar to anybody who has seen The Crying Game, of course.)
(This is my original review, before the 1998 re-edit.)
Touch of Evil was a film Welles was hired to direct (as opposed to generating the project himself) and it is pretty much the only one. But he made it his own, substantially changing the story of the book it was based on ("Badge of Evil"). Be sure to get the (restored) original cut, but that's generally the one that's available these days.
Perhaps the most famous part of the movie is the long tracking shot which opens it (it is specifically mentioned in the long tracking shot which opens The Player), and the studio put the credits over it to Welles' objections (he wanted them at the end, as in Citizen Kane). But the whole movie is strong, with Charlton Heston playing a Mexican narcotics detective, Janet Leigh as his American wife and Welles as a corrupt detective in a border town. I could go on and on, but just go rent it. (The 1998 re-edit is not yet available on video.)
Two recent movies which show the influence of Touch of Evil are Lone Star (which dealt with the question of law in a border town) and L.A. Confidential (the disagreement between Captain Smith and Ed Exley about how a detective needs to function is a direct parallel to the arguments between Captain Quinlan and Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil).
Thinking about The Trial again, and I was fortunate to see it again fairly recently, two questions came to me:
Did Terry Gilliam see The Trial before he made Brazil?
Did Patrick MacGoohan see The Trial before he made The Prisoner?
Visually The Trial is absolutely distinctive, one of the few movies that you could recognize from virtually any frame. Tony Perkins is of course perfect casting for Josef K, and he actually acts the part as opposed to falling into the Tony Perkins impression with which he earned his living later on (in Murder on the Orient Express, for example). The rest of the cast is good as well (Jeanne Moreau as Miss Burstner, Welles as Hastler the Advocate, Akim Tamiroff as Block), but the film succeeds or fails on Perkins and he carries it off.
Second billing behind Perkins should probably go to the sets. Unlike Gilliam's Brazil, Welles didn't have the budget to build anything, but he found some amazing locations in several different countries, mostly emphasizing both towering size and labyrinthine confusion. The main location he used was the Gare d'Orsay, a deserted railroad station in Paris which has since been turned into a museum.
The Trial is much more directly comparable to Brazil than The Prisoner, but both comparisons are interesting. In contrast with Brazil (and Kafka, for that matter), K is defiant to the end. He is doomed, but he dies on his own terms.
The Prisoner is more like the flip side of The Trial, in that rather than sets and people being overtly threatening and ominous, MacGoohan takes a type of setting that is extremely sunny and familiar (at least to English audiences) and makes it threatening by adding just a few jarring notes of incongruity. And, of course, Number Six is always unbending (unlike Josef K, who always seems to feel as if he might possibly be guilty of whatever it is he's being accused of), and finally is more or less victorious.
In any case, The Trial is one of Welles' best films, definitely worth seeing.
"What is difficult about Falstaff is that he is the greatest conception of a good man, the most completely good man, in all drama. His faults are so small and he makes tremendous jokes out of little faults. But his goodness is like bread, like wine . . ."
The last of Welles' three Shakespeare adaptations was made between 1964 and 1965, and it's called Falstaff in the U.S., although its original title was Chimes at Midnight. It's largely comprised of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, with additional material from Richard II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The purpose of pulling scenes from the different plays is to tell, in one movie, the story of Falstaff's relationship to Prince Hal, to build up to the heartbreaking final scene where the prince, now crowned King Henry V, rejects his old companion.
The film stars Welles as Falstaff (of course), and I believe this is his finest screen performance. The movie also features Keith Baxter as Prince Hal, Norman Rodway as Hotspur (who is particularly excellent), John Gielgud as Henry IV, Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly.
The most striking thing about the film, outside of Welles' performance, is the way the battle scenes are filmed. They are shot from ground level, literally and figuratively, showing all the mud and confusion and futility of war in a way I'd never seen before. There is no chivalry or heroism in it, just brutality.
When I saw Mel Gibson's Braveheart, I thought the battle scenes were strongly reminiscent of those in Chimes at Midnight. I didn't mention this in my review of that film, however, since I thought it was just evidence that my Welles obsession was getting out of control. Then, somewhat later, I read an interview with Gibson where he said he had deliberately modeled the battle scenes on the ones in Welles' Chimes at Midnight.
Chimes at Midnight was the last full-length movie Welles made (except for F for Fake).
Isak Dineson was one of Welles' favorite writers (Hemingway's too, by the way) and this movie does perfect justice to her short story. It was made for French television and it's only an hour long, the only narrative film Welles ever made in color.
The story concerns an old man, a merchant, in Macao who finds stories disturbing because they portray events which never actually happened. His solution is to take a common sailor's tale and actually make it come true. A wonderful story, beautifully told. Starring Welles and Jeanne Moreau.
"I am a charlatan."
Welles' films are mostly quite somber in tone. There is little humor, except in Falstaff, but Welles had another side that came out in his magic act, and in interviews. He was a trickster, a ham, a gleeful illusionist. This side dominates this film, which is more or less a documentary (a film essay he called it, which he hoped would catch on as a new genre of filmmaking).
He set out to make a documentary about Elmyr de Houry, one of the greatest art forgers in history, whose paintings hang in museums throughout the world. Actually, Welles saw a documentary about Elmyr on French television and bought up all the footage, including outtakes, in order to expand it into a feature film. But the unpredictable element was that the expert on Elmyr in the documentary was Clifford Irving, and in the middle of the making of Welles' movie it was revealed that Irving was quite a forger and illusionist himself (he wrote a fake Howard Hughes autobiography which he sold for a tidy sum, and then the whole scam was discovered). At that point, the film became much more of a meditation on illusion and trickery in general, especially since Welles claimed that he had originally intended to make Citizen Kane about Howard Hughes.
But, as he said, if you told the story of Hughes' life in a film, nobody would believe it.
He also performs a bit of trickery on the audience, which is revealed at the end of the film. I won't give it away.
There are two particular quotes from Orson Welles which I've always thought were especially interesting, and they get into some of the points I've been thinking about in relation to the reviews of Welles' films I've written:
"Luckily, we know almost nothing about Shakespeare and very little about Cervantes. And that makes it so much easier to understand their works . . . It's an egocentric, romantic, nineteenth-century conception that the artist is more interesting and more important than his art."
Welles did not like to discuss his life, and especially any connection between his life and his art, and it seems like this reluctance is partially personal and partially because it detracts from the work being taken the way it's intended, as art. This is, as he points out, a rather old-fashioned notion.
[When discussing his conviction that he had killed his father:]
I don't want to forgive myself. That's why I hate psychoanalysis. I think if you're guilty of something you should live with it."
Welles has always seemed to me very unusual among filmmakers in that his ideas about stories and characters and even good and evil come from Shakespeare more than from any source in this century (most filmmakers these days seem to draw mostly from other films). Even the best directors today (Martin Scorsese comes to mind) are film buffs, the product of film schools. Welles was always much more interested in making films fit his ideas about telling stories than he was in finding himself a niche in the history of filmmaking.
I read an article which said that Scorsese has an entire office, staffed 24 hours a day, just responsible for taping movies off TV and cable, and keeping a running catalog of which ones they have, which ones they want, and which ones they want a better version of. It's impossible to imagine Welles doing anything like this, in fact he thought it was dangerous for a filmmaker to see too many movies. Not that he didn't study films, when he was about to start making Citizen Kane he screened Stagecoach every night for as couple of weeks, each time with a different person from the studio in attendance to answer his questions. But that was to learn as much about the technical side of filmmaking as he could in a short period of time. He didn't keep doing it after that goal was achieved.
Recommended further reading on Orson Welles:
Additional viewing, for confirmed fans only:
"Orson Welles: The One-Man
A very interesting documentary, which contains footage from various unfinished Welles projects, including The Other Side of the Wind, Moby Dick and The Merchant of Venice.
I exclude "The Stranger" (1946) from Welles' filmography not because it's not credited to him but because he himself didn't want to take credit for it. There is no question that he directed at least some parts of it, and it is interesting to watch, but it's not on the same level as the other films I've written about here.
In 1937, Orson Welles was producing (and directing and acting in) plays for the Federal Theater Project, which was part of the government's Works Progress Administration. His first three productions (an all-Black production of "Macbeth," a surreal farce called "Horse Eats Hat," and Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus") had been very successful, and then he announced that the fourth production from Project 891 (his Federal Theater production company) would be "The Cradle Will Rock," a "labor opera" by a young playwright named Marc Blitzstein.
Welles had originally agreed to direct this show for the Actors Repertory Company, but when they couldn't come up with the funding, he decided to do it for Project 891. This caused quite a furor in Washington. They had already had to force Welles to change some lines in "Horse Eats Hat" which were considered too risque (they are very bland by today's standards, of course). But "The Cradle Will Rock" was considerably more troubling, since it was about the unionization of the steel industry, which was being violently disputed at that time. Then, as now, conservative factions in the government didn't want tax dollars to go towards promoting any radical art.
The government didn't want to appear to be censors, though, so they announced that because of budget cuts they weren't opening any new shows until the beginning of the next fiscal year. Welles was originally inclined to go along with this. Project 891 was a wonderful vehicle for his ideas, and also it employed a lot of people who needed the work, so he didn't want to rock the boat. And, much as he admired Blitzstein, Welles was nowhere near as radical as the playwright or the play.
Hoping to change the government's mind, however, Welles announced a special invitation-only preview of the show. This went well, but the next day the government padlocked the theater.
As Welles said, "I was very ambiguous in my feeling, and I wasn't sure that we weren't wrecking the Federal Theater by what we were doing. But I thought if you padlock a theater, then the argument is closed. If they hadn't padlocked the theater, I would never have taken that strong a stand. The padlock was an insult. That's what unified everybody, you know. The padlock was the thing that made us move."
Legally, they could put on the play somewhere else, not produced by the Federal Theater, but Actors' Equity told its members they were not to appear onstage in the show since it was the government's right to postpone or cancel a show if they wanted to, just like any other theatrical producer. Plus, by padlocking the theater the government had effectively impounded all the sets and costumes.
Both Welles and Blitzstein had mixed feelings, but they decided to go ahead and perform the show at another theater. Since the actors were prohibited from appearing "onstage," the stage would be bare except for Blitzstein himself, at the piano, and the actors were going to spread out through the audience, each standing up as it came time to perform their parts.
Welles and Blitzstein didn't manage to get another theater until the night before the premiere, so Welles went to the original theater and led the audience to the new location, where they were seated and the show was put on. The news of the company's defiance of the government was big news, of course, and the show was packed. The next day, Welles attempted to get the government to back down and let them use the original theater, with the sets and costumes, but they didn't budge.
Actors' Equity dropped their ban after the first night, though. However, the show continued to be performed from the audience for the rest of its run.
This was the end of Welles' work for the Federal Theater (as you can probably imagine) and so he was forced to start his own company, The Mercury Theatre. He had just turned twenty-two, by the way.
(For a more complete account, please refer to Barbara Leaming's excellent "Orson Welles: A Biography," from which this account was drawn.)