Summer 2015

Why Orson Welles still matters

He spent much of his career trying to salvage troubled productions. But in his centennial year, Welles' glorious experiments are still thrilling to anyone who cares about directing.


Citizen Kane (1941), (Photo: Photofest)

The career of Orson Welles, born a century ago this year, is one of the strangest an American movie director has ever had, and by the middle of his filmmaking life he seemed to realize it. "I'm only an experimenter," he told Cahiers du Cinéma in 1958. He was then 43 years old and had already directed over half the films that now bear his signature—including the last picture he would ever make for an American studio, the dazzling, baroque film noir Touch of Evil, which had earlier that year been reedited by the studio and released in a form he'd never approved. The experience of having a movie he had shot ripped away before it was finished to his satisfaction wasn't new to him. In the 17 years since Citizen Kane (1941) made him the boy wonder of American movies, the same thing had happened to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Stranger (1946), and The Lady from Shanghai (1947) in Hollywood, and Mr. Arkadin (1955) in Europe; during World War II, RKO pulled the plug on his ambitious South American project, It's All True, before he'd even completed shooting.

So at this point in his life, he was becoming philosophical, telling himself that it was the process, not the product, that mattered. "I'm not interested in works of art, you know, or posterity or fame," he told his French interviewers (one of whom was the great critic André Bazin), "just in the pleasure of experimentation itself—it's the only domain where I feel I'm really honest and sincere."

Welles was then a few years into filming a movie of Don Quixote, an on-and-off process of grabbing shots here and there, whenever he'd amassed enough money from acting to bring his cast and crew together for a few weeks. It's no wonder he was sounding a little weary when he spoke to Cahiers. "I can't spend my whole life at festivals or in restaurants begging for money," he said. "Can I wait another 15 years for someone who's willing to have total confidence in me again?"

Welles lived 27 more years and managed to complete just five more pictures. He shot footage for several others, most notably a semi-improvised Hollywood satire called The Other Side of the Wind. (There's currently a crowdfunding campaign to finance the completion of that film.) He never did find a way to finish his Quixote.

Welles is best remembered, still, for his first film, Citizen Kane, made when he was all of 25 years old. After a string of high-profile successes in theater and radio, the young Welles was granted the sort of freedom—including final cut—that he would never enjoy again in Hollywood. The film is looked to by other directors even now as an inspiration: It's so stuffed with visual and narrative innovations that it makes movies seem a medium in which anything is possible. In Chuck Workman's 2014 documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Sydney Pollack says of Welles' films: "Every single, not just every scene, but every shot has an idea. There's a concept, an idea being executed at every second." Pollack is exactly right, and his comment helps explain not only why Welles' filmmaking continues to thrill his fellow artists, but also, perhaps, why it annoyed the money men on whom the very existence of these works of art depended. Producers, investors, and studio suits, then as now, tend to worry about how many ideas the paying audience can handle. Welles himself had, at least at the beginning of his career, a rather touching faith in moviegoers. "I can think of nothing that an audience won't understand," he once said. "The problem is to interest them; once they are interested, they understand anything in the world. That must be the feeling of the moviemaker."

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), (Photo: Everett Collection)

He certainly had that feeling when he made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, in which he went to extraordinary, exuberant lengths to interest his audience in some pretty demanding material and, for the time, very unconventional dramatic techniques. The dizzying multiple-flashback construction of Kane wasn't what viewers were used to, but in a way that's the least of the demands the movie made of them. More challenging, perhaps, was the visual style Welles devised with his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, which featured unusually long takes, extreme depth of field, and compositions that placed characters against backgrounds in unexpected ways, at surprising (often low) angles. Not a scene in Citizen Kane feels obligatory, merely functional. There's no place of rest here, no letup in the movie's insistence on the viewer's attention, no still point in Welles' turning world.

The Magnificent Ambersons, about a Midwestern family in decline, is less ebullient, statelier, more contemplative, but Welles—with a different cinematographer, Stanley Cortez—is still clearly enraptured with the medium, determined to push past its boundaries and bring the audience with him. The lighting is rich, painterly, and the tracking shots are, if anything, even longer and more elegant than those in Citizen Kane. He seems to be redefining how we see characters in film space. Here, and throughout his career, he favored wide-angle, 18.5 mm lenses, whose short focal length makes for a fuller, more inclusive image. Most of the action of The Magnificent Ambersons takes place indoors, in a rambling, fading mansion, and the rooms, as Welles films them, look vast and mysterious, like the impossible architecture of dreams. The squarish Academy frame (1.37:1) seems bigger than it does in other directors' movies.

But in Ambersons the editing doesn't always carry us along as it did in Citizen Kane, because Welles didn't have final cut this time. After a disastrous preview of a 131-minute version, edited by Robert Wise to the director's specifications, RKO began lopping off chunks of the film; Welles had left for Brazil to shoot It's All True, essentially abandoning final postproduction of Ambersons. Wise couldn't stop the bleeding all by himself, and the movie was released with a running time of 88 minutes and a new, happier ending. Individual sequences are superbly fluid, but the rhythm of the whole isn't Welles': The film moves like a great dancer wearing shoes a size too small.

With this movie—and, as it turned out, nearly every movie Welles directed for the rest of his life—the pleasure of watching is tempered by the knowledge that this isn't, really, quite what was intended, that it was once something better and fuller. His next two pictures, The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, were commercial-seeming thrillers to which Welles brought perhaps more art than was strictly necessary, and the studios recut them both. They're films in which the director's mastery is visible primarily in set pieces, such as the hall-of-mirrors shootout at the end of The Lady from Shanghai, which is among the most exhilarating scenes in all of film noir.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947), (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Photofest)

After one more stab at proving himself to Hollywood—a hastily shot, on-the-cheap film of Macbeth (1948), which came and went as quickly as it was made—Welles took off for Europe, where he hoped to find more creative freedom. He did, sort of, but the backers of his independent productions turned out to be only a little less capricious than the Hollywood honchos he was fleeing. His next film, a daringly beautiful Othello (1952), had to be shot over a period of several years: Money ran out, locations proved unavailable, costumes failed to arrive in time. It took all of Welles' let's-put-on-a-show theatrical enthusiasm to get the pictures and the sounds on the screen (in addition to playing the title character, he wound up dubbing quite a few of the other actors' lines), but the result is glorious, an open-air tragedy whose images are at least within shouting distance of Shakespeare's words.

The nutty thriller Mr. Arkadin (1956) followed, a film that survives in a bewildering number of versions, none of them entirely Welles'. There's no definitive cut of the electrifying Touch of Evil, either, though the late-'90s restoration of the movie, supervised by Walter Murch, at least follows some detailed notes left by the director. In these movies, and in The Trial (1962), whose striking interiors were filmed in the abandoned Gare d'Orsay railway station in Paris, you can see Welles continuing to experiment with the medium, trying to achieve dramatic effects through editing rather than relying so heavily on elaborate tracking shots, which were in his reduced circumstances often too complicated (and too costly) to stage. (When he had some financial resources, in Touch of Evil, he managed to execute a spectacular one, right at the beginning—which in the studio's cut wound up running under the opening credits.)

And his editing experiments made it possible for him to pull one final masterpiece out of his magician's hat, Chimes at Midnight (1965), a film made, like his other European movies, on the fly and over a period of years, but somehow possessed of an improbable serenity—a sense of rightness that, every artist knows, comes too infrequently. Playing the fat knight, John Falstaff of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" plays, Welles, both as actor and as director, seems the master of revels here, a prodigious orchestrator of sensual pleasures. "I would my means were greater, and my waist slenderer," Falstaff says. But despite the usual paucity of means, Chimes at Midnight, like Kane, has a headlong, remarkably varied rhythm, which carries the viewer from scenes of raucous carousing to scenes of solemn ceremony and back again, and includes, too, moments of rapt contemplation.

The movie also finds room for a superb, mournful battle sequence, edited to a precise and accelerating tempo: It may be the most complex act of montage he ever committed to film. At the end of experimentation, sometimes there's a great discovery. In Chimes at Midnight, which has recently been digitally restored, Welles found a way to be fully himself again in the art that had thrilled and frustrated him for so many years.

In his final movies, the essay-style documentaries F for Fake (1973) and Filming 'Othello' (1978), Welles is primarily an editor, ruminating over ancient footage and rearranging history as best he can. The last shot of his last finished film shows the old experimenter getting up from his flatbed editing table, turning out the light, and walking slowly away, as if, like Falstaff, he were hearing the chimes at midnight, and marveling once more at the days he'd seen.

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A look at the careers of historically significant directors or genres through new DVD releases.

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