Friday, 19 October 2018

Orson Welles - Part 2

But shall we wear these glories for a day?
Or shall they last, and we rejoice in them?
(King Richard, Act IV)

In 1955 Orson Welles did a TV-series for the British channel ITV called Around the World with Orson Welles, written and directed by him. He was also the host or narrator or what you want to call him. A more appropriate title for the series, at least the six episodes that were made, would have been Around Europe with Orson Welles as it consists of him travelling to various parts of Europe and interviewing people. Some old veterans of the first world war in London, an artist in Paris, the writer Lael Tucker Wertenbaker in the Basque country (and in an hilarious sequence he discusses the ways of the Basques with her ten-year-old son Christian). He ended each episode, as he often did, by saying "I remain most obediently yours." In many ways the series is as much pure Welles as any of his films.

It was supposed to be over 20 episodes but 1955 would be Welles's last year in Europe for a while, and he never came true on his commitment to ITV. He had been in Europe since 1947 and had done all sorts of things including two films: Othello (first released in 1951) and Mr. Arkadin (1955). Also in 1955 he did a sort of meta-play of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, called Moby Dick - Rehearsed, which opened at a theatre in London. Simultaneously he tried to make a film of the play but it did not go very far. 1955 was also the year in which Welles tentatively began filming Don Quixote, a project he was still working on 20 years later and never finished.

He kept himself busy in other words, with a combination of TV, theatre and film, mostly troubled productions and unfinished projects. In that respect 1955 was a pretty typical year for Welles. The name of his TV-series, Around the World with Orson Welles, is also typical. He was a fan of Jules Verne and worked at great length about doing a theatre adaptation of Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days. That was in 1946, and was to be produced by another Verne enthusiast, Mike Todd. Todd eventually gave up and Welles went ahead by himself, with less resources. He borrowed money from Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, with himself as collateral if you will since he promised to make The Lady from Shanghai (1947) in return, and Welles managed to finish the adaptation. In all there were 75 performances of Around the World (as it was called on stage), made as a musical with music by Cole Porter. The result made Bertolt Brecht exhaust to Welles: "This is the greatest thing I have seen in American theater. This is wonderful. This is what theater should be." Welles himself also thought it was among his best work.

Welles was also a global artist, from the fact that he made films and plays on several continents, was involved in politics on several continents, and had financiers from several continents. He started his travels and adventures young too, as a teenager, with for example travelling around Ireland with a donkey called Sheeog, selling paintings, and doing some bullfighting in Spain. (Many of his stories about himself and his younger years sounded outrageous and maybe not true, but more often than not they were true, such as those about Ireland and Spain.) With films you might say the global aspect began either when he did the voice-over, later removed and replaced by one done by Hemingway, for The Spanish Earth (Joris Ivens 1937), or maybe when he went to Brazil in late 1941 to make It's All True, one of his many aborted projects.


But he returned to the US in late 1955, did King Lear (as director and lead actor) on Broadway, played a small part in John Huston's fine film version of Moby Dick (1956) and wrote and directed his last American film, Touch of Evil (1958). It is as good as his best films of the 1940s and also highlights yet another serious problem with Pauline Kael's famous essay Raising Kane; not just for falsely attributing the script of Citizen Kane entirely to Herman J. Mankiewicz, but for making so many breezy generalisations. One of them is that Welles "has brought no more great original characters" after Kane. As an argument it is peculiar for two reasons. First because the main point of her essay is that Mankiewicz and not Welles created the character of Kane, and second because there is Hank Quinlan, the policeman played by Welles in Touch of Evil. It is such a fabulous character, one of the greatest in cinema. He is a deeply immoral man, not corrupt but damaged and rotten, and he knows it. He knows he is bad. He is a bundle of mixed emotions and contempt, long gone beyond redemption. In that way he resembles Kane. Yet look at the way his face lights up when he suddenly hears the pianola from the bordello run by Marlene Dietrich's character. It is almost like a Rosebud moment. The memory of one good thing he had but lost, in this case his relationship, such as it were, with her. Only in this case even the memory of the thing he lost is unwholesome.

In the previous Welles article I said that it is not the case that Welles directed parts of The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949). I have however always felt that Touch of Evil had something of Reed in it, not just the canted angles. Reed's films generally have an acute sense of melancholia, many are about politics across borders and they use the spaces (often cities) in which they take place to great creative effect. No film by Welles before had done that to the extent that Touch of Evil does. While not as melancholic as Reed's films (it has more anger) and filled with the peculiar restless energy that is a hallmark of Welles's work, Touch of Evil can be seen as a relative of Reed's marvellous series of city-films, from Odd Man Out (1947, Belfast) to The Third Man (Vienna), to The Man Between (1953, Berlin) to Our Man in Havana (1959). The ending of Touch of Evil in particular feels Reedian.

As is so often the case with Welles there is no proper final version, or director's cut, of Touch of Evil. At least three different versions have been released at various times although they are not that dissimilar (more a question of changes in decoupage and sound than anything about the story itself) and each has its defenders. But the 1998 version, 110 minutes long and done under the supervision of Walter Murch after instructions from Welles's famous memo from 1957, is considered closest to Welles's original intentions.

Three different versions though are nothing compared to Mr. Arkadin, of which there have been an unknown number of versions. Eight? Just the Criterion DVD has three versions: The Confidential Report (a version released in UK in 1955), "The Corinth Version" (a US release from 1962) and a new version (2006) edited by Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes from available previous versions. I tend to regard "The Corinth Version" as Welles's best film but since this is a contested argument I shall return to it in a later post.


After Touch of Evil, Welles returned to Europe and continued working on Don Quixote as well as various acting jobs. He also wrote and directed The Trial (1962), one of the films he claims was his best. It is not that but it is good, with striking locations and a unique intensity, although at times it seems to not move forward. He had creative freedom on it but it still feels unfinished, and due to financial difficulties he had to improvise and re-think a lot during the process of making it, shooting scenes on various locations around Europe, even though the film is only set in one, unnamed, place.

Something else that happened during the making of The Trial was that Welles met Olga Palinkaš, the Croatian actress and artist who became Welles's partner both in life and in art. But not under the name Olga Palinkaš, she was for whatever reason renamed Oja Kodar. Her influence on Welles was considerable, but also eventually a cause of personal pain for Welles's third, and last, wife Paolo Mori (who may for very long have been unaware of his affair) and their daughter Beatrice. Welles and Mori remained married until his death, and his relationship with Kodar lasted just as long. Kodar appears in several of his unfinished films, as well as in the exceptional F for Fake (1973), the essay film I think is one that equals Mr. Arkadin in greatness. Kodar also co-wrote and co-directed several of his later projects and often appears in documentaries about Welles. She is still involved in the restoration and promotion of his unfinished work, something that is a never-ending project.

All those unfinished and abandoned projects are part of the story of Welles, and part of the myths around him. Many see them as proof of him being a failure or a coward who did not have the courage to see his projects to the end. I think that is a mistake. We should not necessarily complain about the unfinished films but see the unfinishedness as a central part of Welles's art. He seems restless, impatient and bursting at the seams, always dashing off on some new artistic adventure and seeking finance along the way from wherever he could find it. This is part of him, part of his art and part of his genius. But he was also tenacious, keeping on working on projects for months or years, or even decades, despite one obstacle after another. That too is part of his art and genius. Just look at how impressive Othello is, despite being shot on and off for three years' time (partly in Morocco). You would not guess that it was. There is a combination of so many gifts there, improvisation and audacity in particular, and passion. Joseph McBride has argued that Welles "was a terrible businessman with a flexible sense of contractual obligations and an unfortunate tendency to deal with dubious patrons. Partly for those reasons, many of his later projects fell into legal and financial limbo." and this might be true. But his genius for filmmaking was greater than his terrible business sense.


Welles was many things in life and one thing in particular is that he was a raconteur, a teller of tall tales and entertainer of crowds, be they many or just an audience of one, like Kane doing shadow figures for Susan Alexander in her apartment. His films consist of several layers of storytelling, multiple stories, and people telling each other stories and fables. (The Immortal Story (1968) is a perfect example.) And he loved playing with his own voice. That voice is also more prevalent than you might realise since he dubbed many actors in for example OthelloThe Trial and Chimes at Midnight (1965). He even read the credits himself in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Trial. Given this taste for storytelling and play acting, it is not surprising that his performance of the cowardly but jovial knight and performer Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight is one of his best, if not the best. The film also shows Welles's mastery and audacity, the way he manages to put several Shakespeare plays together, and film it in Spain under severe budget restraints, yet the result is superb and spellbinding, and with a performance by Welles that also captures the man himself.


Spain was an important country for Welles all through his life, from his early days as a potential bullfighter. He lived there for many years, and made several projects there. This is also where he is buried, appropriately enough in a well. It was his daughter Beatrice who placed his ashes there, together with her mother's, in 1987, two years after Welles's death. Oja Kodar thinks this is a disgrace and against Welles's wishes; him being entrapped instead of scattered for the wind. I do not know anything about his wishes, but how could he be buried anywhere else?

Photo from a hotel in Ronda, where the well is located.

This was my second article on Welles. The first is here. There will be another.

The Brecht quote is from James K. Lyon's book Bertolt Brecht in America (1980) p. 179

The quote from Joseph McBride is from his book Whatever Happened to Orson Welles (2006) p. 15

Moby-Dick was often on Welles's mind. He tried to make a film version of it in 1971 but it was never finished. He also tried in 1947.

There is a good documentary done with Oja Kodar about unfinished films, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (Vassili Silovic, Oja Kodar 1995). I recommend it.

I wrote about Carol Reed three years ago, here.

The same year as Chimes at Midnight, Welles played Cardinal Wolsey in Fred Zinnemann's version of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. A great performance in a great film, as a man eaten alive by the colour red.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Orson Welles - Part 1

As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
(from Coriolanus, Act V)

When Kane and Susan Alexander go on a picnic towards the end of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941), a band is playing "It Can't Be Love" (aka "In the Mizz", sung by Alton Redd) to entertain the guests while in a tent Kane and Alexander are having a fight. The sound we hear through the scene is that song in the background and their angry voices. After a while Kane says that whatever he did it was because he loved her but she replies that he did not really love her. He did it so that she would love him she says, that this is the only thing he ever cared about; to be loved. When she says that, clearly a soft spot, he slaps her face. She barely blinks and just looks back at him. "Don't tell me you're sorry." she says coldly and he replies "I'm not sorry." An ordinary scene. But right after he slapped her the sound of "It Can't Be Love" in the background disappears and instead we hear a woman screaming. The people outside cannot have seen or heard what was happening in the tent so it is unrelated, and it is obviously not Alexander that is screaming because we see that she does not. Is it perhaps in Kane's imagination that Alexander screams? Or is she screaming on the inside so we hear how she feels, even though she hides it from Kane? Is the sound diegetic or non-diegetic? It is one of those touches that Citizen Kane is filled with and that makes it such a rich and fabulous film.

Citizen Kane is also a film about which at least half of what is considered conventional wisdom is more or less myths. The two-hour long documentary that accompanied the DVD I happen to have begins by stating that Welles's contract with RKO gave him creative freedom of a kind nobody had ever had in Hollywood before, which is a clear exaggeration since Welles did not get unlimited control and many other filmmakers had done films before with similar autonomy (and it seems there were three contracts between Welles and RKO, not just one). It was also said that Citizen Kane was the peak of Welles's career and nothing he made after that can compare to it. The latter is of course a subjective opinion so I cannot say it is not true. I would say though that such an opinion is rarely based on an actual comparison between it and Welles's later films, and is instead taken for granted for no particular reason.

There is no denying that Citizen Kane is important; a landmark, a benchmark, and a very good film. But it is often spoken about in ways that are not helpful; not for it, for its place within Hollywood or for Welles's career in general. Many still seems not to recognise that it did not invent deep focus (it has been in use as a creative component since at least the 1910s), or that many of the alleged deep focus shots were created in post-production by the use of an optical printer. This of course does not diminish the film or the cinematography, it just slightly adjusts the focus from the cinematographer Gregg Toland to Vernon L. Walker, RKO's head of special effects, and Linwood G. Dunn from the special effects team who were responsible for the creation of many of the shots and tricks in the film. Dunn had invented the optical printer, and incidentally he is the man responsible for creating the illusion of Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and the leopard appearing together in Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks 1938). (A filmmaker who had had the same creative freedom as Welles.)

Speaking subjectively, I do not think Citizen Kane is Welles's best film. His second one, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), is just as good, despite being only available in an 85 minutes long version of what was originally 130 minutes. (Although the 130 minutes version was not finished either, it was still a work in process and should not by default be called the real version, or a director's cut.) It is a melancholic and leisurely film about the fall of a wealthy family and the passing of time into modernity; filled with love and life, and lingering moments, and in many ways very different from Citizen Kane. That feels like the work of an ambitious young man, eager to show off, while The Magnificent Ambersons feels like the work of a wise old man with nothing to prove. Yet it is still dazzling. The ball sequence is incredible for example.

Welles's other films of the 1940s I am less keen on. The Stranger (1946), about a suspected Nazi hiding in plain sight in a small American town, has a good performance by Edward G. Robinson but that's about it. It is not a bad film, but the script by Anthony Veiller and John Huston, and Welles, feels like it would have suited Alfred Hitchcock better. The Lady from Shanghai (1948), an erotic thriller of sorts, is rather awkward. It is too wayward, awkwardly paced, I feel very little emotional engagement with anything going on, and it has a rather embarrassing performance from Welles himself as the Irish, or "Irish", Michael O'Hara. This is not all the fault of Welles as it was taken out of his hands and cut down and truncated (as was The Stranger to a lesser extent), so issues with the pacing and such things might better be blamed on Harry Cohn, the boss of the studio that produced it, Columbia. But while The Magnificent Ambersons is a great film despite being cut down, The Lady from Shanghai is, I think, not a great film, and Welles's performance is not Cohn's fault. But the film is audacious and fascinating, and the fun house mirror sequence towards the end however is spectacular and mesmerising, almost better than anything in Citizen Kane. In his fine book The Magic World of Orson Welles, James Naremore calls The Lady from Shanghai "the radicalization of style" and the film certainly has a radical style.

Welles's next film Macbeth (1948), an interesting mixture of theatricality and cinematic inventiveness, is fine but not Welles's best Shakespeare adaptation. As an example of how to make good use of a cheap production and abandoned sets it is rather impressive however.

There were two films in 1943 to which Welles contributed a lot, uncredited. On Jane Eyre, in which Welles played Rochester, he was heavily involved in the production, including set design, writing and editing and with a say in casting. The film has great photography by George Barnes and its look is the best thing about it. Pure English gothic. It seems Robert Stevenson still was principally in charge of direction, and it had been a pet project for him. It was the first film where Welles was directed by somebody else, unless you count the voice-over narration he did for Swiss Family Robinson (Edward Ludwig 1940).

The other one from 1943, Journey Into Fear, the Eric Ambler adaptation, has multiple authors and both Welles and Norman Foster directed parts of it. But it is rarely counted among Welles's films even though it certainly does have its Wellesian moments. Just look at this scene with a magician:

Magicians are a recurring presence in Welles's films, and he sometimes did magic himself. That is an essential part of his artistic project, tricks and games, the auteur as a magician. And he liked to pull the rug from under the feet of his audience.

Despite their originalities and personal quirks however, the films Welles made in Hollywood in the 1940s are not better than many other films made there at the same time, and many films from his contemporary peers (such as Ophuls, Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, Preminger and Hitchcock) are considerably better. No, I think it was in the 1950s and onwards that Welles really reached a new level and from which it is more relevant to speak of him as a unique filmmaker, perhaps a filmmaker of genius.


One of the things that make Welles's films so special was there from the beginning: himself. Not necessarily his general acting abilities but his persona and his voice. He does a truly wonderful voice-over in The Magnificent Ambersons and he kept doing so for several of his, and others', films. It is a rich, colourful, deep voice, a mixture of wistfulness, wit and wisdom, and sometimes an amused weariness, which can be intoxicating. (Many of his early radio performances are available on Spotify.)

By his persona I mean that his films are so thoroughly immersed in his personality and his own life. He is one of the "internal auteurs" I have previously (as in my book) called them, filmmakers who not only make the films but embody them, appear in them and are often the subject of them. Hasse Ekman is another. Charlie Chaplin obviously. Chantal Akerman and Ingmar Bergman. Alfred Hitchcock. For all his films Welles drew from himself: his history, his beliefs, fears, passions and obsessions. They are often about the decay and fall of great men, men with a tragic grandeur despite often being bad, sometimes bordering on evil. And Welles himself played them, with obvious relish. This is true also when he acted for others, such as his great performances in two films from 1949, Carol Reed's The Third Man and Henry King's Prince of Foxes. (King once said he thought Welles was a better actor than director.)

This is clearly a kind of man that Welles is fascinated by, and feel affinities with, without himself being bad or evil. (He shows considerably less interest in women characters however.) His love for Shakespeare is also related to this, and he made many adaptations for stage and for film, including the films of MacbethOthello (1951/1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1965). His 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar (only called Caesar) with the Mercury Theatre in New York was a sensational production according to the critics of the time. And the ghost of Shakespeare appears elsewhere too. The Magnificent Ambersons is inspired by Hamlet for example. Booth Tarkington who wrote the source novel even acknowledges it in the book.

Ambersons was also rewritten to Wellesify it. One of the reasons it ended up in the shortened version is that Welles was never satisfied with it and rewrote it even after it had ostensibly been finished. Robert L. Carringer (in The Magnificent Ambersons - A Reconstruction) has suggested that part of the problem was that it got too close to Welles's own life and that this made him uncomfortable. It is by the way interesting to note that while the young man Kane is the centre of Citizen Kane, and is seen with ambivalence, the young man of The Magnificent Ambersons, George Amberson Minafer, is not as central as a character and he is judged much more harshly. Maybe if George had been played by Welles as originally intended he too would have been a more central and a more ambivalent character. But it could not have been only due to autobiographical angst that Welles had problems with AmbersonsCitizen Kane also had moments close to Welles's own life, even though its script was originally written by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Welles rewrote it, adding scenes and removing many others (a simple fact that in itself negates Pauline Kael's old argument that the script was almost entirely Mankiewicz's) and some of the scenes he rewrote or added can be seen as dealing with his own upbringing and earlier life, in direct or allegorical ways. And he played the part of Kane himself, doing a much better job than Tim Holt did in The Magnificent Ambersons.


As I said above, I think Welles's most interesting phase began in the 1950s. While this article was primarily about early Welles, the next one will be about the latter films, the post-Hollywood Welles. Most of the themes and stylistic ideas he had already introduced would continue, but in an even more adventurous way. Sometimes frustrating, often disjointed, always fascinating and sometimes magnificent.

Prince of Foxes

Welles, part 2, is here.

It is not unusual that people say that Welles must have directed parts of The Third Man and Prince of Foxes but there is no reason to assume that he did and neither of the men, Reed, King and Welles, have made such a claim. (Welles did once suggest to André Bazin that maybe he did do something, kind of, but he then took it back.) But if you still persist you need to point at what it is with the direction of these two films that is different from Reed's and King's previous films, to actually compare them with the previous films. Obviously, this is not something those making that claim has done and there is nothing in either film that is new or untoward to what you would at that time expect from a film by either Reed or King.

Eric Ambler was popular to adopt in the 1940s. Besides Journey Into Fear, there is for example Raoul Walsh's disappointing Background to Danger (1943) and Jean Negulesco's excellent The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). A later adaptation, which is truly delightful, is Topkapi (Jules Dassin 1964). All of these are set in Turkey, partly or entirely.

Some books I have used but did not mention above:
Henry King, Director: From Silents to Scope (edited by Frank Thompson, 1995)
Simon Callow's Hello Americans (2006)
Jonathan Rosenbaum's Discovering Orson Welles (2007)
Alberto Anile's Orson Welles in Italy (2013)
Patrick McGilligan's Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane (2015)
Harlan Lebo's Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey (2016)

One of Dunn's optical printer shots from Citizen Kane.