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.

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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.

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