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.


  1. Have you had a chance to see THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND yet?

  2. If nothing else, you have convinced me to put The Magnificent Ambersons on my christmas-list ;)

    1. The Stranger och Touch of Evil are on Netflix, so you could throw them on the pile as well! None of his films are uninteresting or devoid of merits. Touch of Evil is excellent.

    2. I have actually seen Touch of Evil and liked it a lot! Just bought it as well, since I'm Netflix-devoid :)