Orson Welles would have been 100 years old today, and there are celebrations, conferences and screenings happening all year long to celebrate the life and work of this giant of the American cinema. We’ve written extensively here before about Orson, but for the benefit of those who would like a primer, here’s a rough guide to the films and work of Welles, with five essential recommendations.
Orson Welles films are characterized by their confidence. Welles was an extremely assertive and hands-on director, building a style that emphasized drama, experimental editing and story structure, artful shot composition, often using extreme or exaggerated angles and a careful integration of film and music. When he was allowed to indulge his auteur sensibilities and make the films he really wanted to make, the results were astounding. But far too often in his career, Welles had to fight for control over his own work, battling with executives over casting, music and most importantly of all, editing. Though he had complete control over his first film, Citizen Kane, that movie was largely edited “in the camera”, with shots and transitions planned out well ahead of time. By the end of his career, Welles had developed a shooting technique that was the polar opposite of this traditional Hollywood workflow, improvising, using handheld equipment, shooting miles of footage and then editing it, and re-editing it to see what could come of it. That sort of shooting technique left him very vulnerable to studios and monied interests in his films, who could step in after shooting and edit the film to their standards, greatly diminishing Welles’ creative control. This, unfortunately, happened to Welles more than once. The fact that he was able to achieve what he did is impressive under those circumstances.
All of these films reflect, to a greater or lesser degree, Orson Welles’ meta-theme, which was identity. Having changed his own identity so many times (losing both parents before the age of 15 and being hailed a child prodigy meant that he never really had a childhood, for example) this theme seemed to fascinate him. He was a true auteur, injecting and highlighting that theme even though his films were almost all adaptations of pre-existing material. That’s how cinematic auteurs usually work, but bending and shaping material to their own ends, and Orson was never one to compromise on such issues. Whatever his films “said”, he was going to be damn sure he was the one doing the talking.
1. Chimes at Midnight (1966)
Produced in Europe on a shoestring budget, this Shakespeare adaptation was probably closer to Orson’s heart than any of his previous films except for Kane. It grew out of a massive adaptation he developed as a youth and later presented on stage, called Five Kings, which blended together several of the History plays to focus on the Wars of the Roses and ending with Henry V. (The modern TV series The Hollow Crown, ironically, did essentially the same thing.) The Five Kings concept never really worked, especially on-stage where the depth and length of the production (presented over two nights) was just too much. As Orson put it, they couldn’t sit through four hours and then sit through Henry V, too. So, Chimes at Midnight is a pared-down and re-thought version of Five Kings, highlighting the two themes that appealed the most to Orson: the character of Falstaff, who Orson called “The last good man in England”, and the relationship between Prince Hal and these two presumptive father figures, Falstaff and Henry IV (his actual father). Most of the other action and history in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V is discarded in favour of this central relationship, between Hal and Falstaff. Hal is trying to formulate an identity as an adult in this very complex and dynamic world. He turns from father to father, and eventually rejects one, becoming the “war King” Henry V, which Welles plays as serious tragedy, as Hal rejects his own soul for power. Add to that one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed, and you have the makings of a great film.
Like too many of Orson’s films, Chimes was fairly wrecked on release and for years was only seen in badly-dubbed prints with terrible sound, but recently the film has been enjoying a restoration and has played in theatres around the world. It’s one of the greatest films from one of the great filmmakers, and well worth seeing.
2. The Lady From Shanghai
Orson’s life in Hollywood didn’t last long – less than a decade – and didn’t end well, with him decamping in 1948 to spend most of the rest of his life in Europe. The Lady from Shanghai was one of his last Hollywood movies, made for Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, and starring Orson’s recently-estranged wife, Rita Hayworth. The film is, like most Welles productions, an adaptation, although this time of a pulp noir novel about a man who hires a dupe to commit a murder. Welles plays the “dupe” here, a good-hearted but dumb Irish sailor named Mike. A rapacious older rich man (played by longtime Welles actor Everett Sloane) hires him to accompany him and his wife Elsa (Hayworth) on a pleasure cruise. While on the cruise, offers are made, backs are stabbed (metaphorically) and eventually Mike and Elsa have a strange romantic affair, which ends in a shootout in a hall of mirrors.
The whole film feels distant and “odd”, with actors seemingly over-acting and simultaneously not fully committing, in retrospect a hallmark of Brechtian theatre, which was influencing Welles a great deal in those days. But once you get beyond the strangeness, there’s a lot to enjoy here, with some tense drama and a wonderful performance by Hayworth, perhaps the very best of her career, as a woman tired of being passed around like a pawn. (A great metaphor for her own life in the Hollywood system.) Welles and Hayworth also work very well together. Though their marriage was over, that was not for lack of trying, and Welles never really stopped loving her. Their relationship was simply not meant to be, and the film is a sad and wonderful homage to that sentiment.
3. F For Fake (1973)
There’s a full-length piece here about this film, Orson’s last, but it’s a dazzling piece of experimental documentary about, of course, identity, but also the art of cinema itself. One essential thing to realize about Orson was that he considered himself a magician first and foremost. He loved the whole culture around stage magic, the theatricality, the deception, the audience participation and the fun of it all. This is the film that most directly reflects that love, as it is all one big magic trick, blending footage from many different sources into a 90 minute collage of sound and snippets of conversation and moments, anchored by Welles himself, holding forth from his editing suite with cigar in hand. The film is ostensibly about art forger Elmyr de Hory, and his biographer Clifford Irving (later famous for writing a fake biography of Howard Hughes), but Welles becomes fascinated by the concept of fraud itself, inserting himself into the great company of liars, citing his own experiments with radio and media.
But more than anything, this film gives you the sense of what it must have been like to sit down and have dinner with Orson, listening to his stories, drinking fine wines and being entertained by one of the great raconteurs of our time.
4. Othello (1952)
We also have a full-length piece about Othello, the second of Orson’s three Shakespeare movies. It’s a lean, dark, powerful take on the material (about identity, of course!), structured in such a way as to convey the feeling of being slowly pulled into madness, anxiety and violence. Featuring an unsurpassable performance from Irish actor Micheal MacLiammoir as Iago and wonderful cinematography in mostly outdoor and real world locations, the film deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes the year it was released. Possibly even more famous than the film is the story behind its making, which took years and proceeded fitfully as Welles was financing most of it himself, paying the bills by taking small acting roles in other films. This pattern of working would continue for most the 1950s and although it produced some great cinema, the public perception that Welles was wasting his talent in bad movies and struggling to patch together his own low-budget productions persisted. The myth of “He just made Kane and disappeared” was already firmly in place. Luckily the film, now enjoying a tour around the world in a restored print, rises above all the petty politics of years gone by.
5. Citizen Kane (1941)
It’s difficult to know where to start when discussing Kane, and just as difficult to know when to finish. For the first-time viewer, this is a very user-friendly cinematic experience. Some “great” movies can be a challenge to watch (no one’s putting on Fanny and Alexander at party), but not this one. It’s open, fast-paced, dramatic, funny and enjoyable. There’s wit and energy to spare, and you won’t have better “time at the movies” than you’ll have watching Kane.
But for Welles, this was a film about, you guessed it, identity. At the time, he was being lauded as the greatest genius ever to come out of America, which was a heavy burden to bear. He took a long time finding the right project for his first film, settling on a long character study, co-written with the brilliant but troubled Herman J. Mankiewicz, of a child who was given everything he ever wanted and then lost it all. It’s melodrama in its simplest form, but Welles and “Mank” took the story apart, juggled it around and put it back together again, choosing to frame the narrative as the story of a reporter trying to write a story about the great man after his death, and interviewing everyone who ever knew him. This quasi-documentary style, and non-linear timeline (we see episodes from Kane’s life out of order) is interesting enough now, but absolutely pioneering then.
And then there’s the central performance, which might be a good place to end our tribute to Orson on his birthday. Though Welles may not have given much thought to actually playing Kane (he was more concerned with writing, producing and directing), his performance is actually one of his best, if not his very best filmed work. As an actor, Welles had a tendency to be “big” and theatrical, as many Shakespearean actors in those days were trained to be. But here, he plays Kane at every age, from young to old, with shattering authenticity. The final scenes, showing Kane as a very old man, and particularly the sequence in which his wife leaves him, with his quiet plea, “Please? Don’t go?” are shattering in their grown-up emotional content.
Orson was probably never destined for a long life, passing away at the relatively young age of 70 in 1985 (right after taping a Merv Griffin episode). He didn’t make very many films, but the ones he did make will be remembered for all time. One article isn’t enough to really pay tribute, but then again, “What does it matter what you say about people?” Adios, Mr Welles.