Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second is pleased to welcome Brendan Finan to the site, with a post marking what would have been the 96th birthday of one of America’s greatest filmmakers.
Orson Welles was a true filmmaker. While there have been other greats, no-one else in the history of film has possessed Welles’ array of talents: as an actor he brought weight and awe to the roles he played; as a highly literate writer (Welles read a new book every day his whole life), he could draw on a vast store of influences and inspirations; with his history as an artist, he knew how to frame a shot to be memorable, distinctive and meaningful; and as an experienced stage director, he knew how to move an audience while confronting them with grand themes. It seems that Welles was born to film, so why is it that to the wider world he is known only as the director of one film – his first?
Citizen Kane was a revolution in filmmaking. Its innovative use of deep focus throughout the film allowed Welles to build layered scenes in which foreground, middleground and background each had their own action, making many scenes in the film seem like moving paintings. The non-linear, subjective viewpoint from which the story was told was not new to literature, but it was entirely new to cinema. The character of Charles Foster Kane himself was as deep and complex as any produced in film, famously a hybrid of William Randolph Hearst and Welles himself. It wasn’t hugely well-received at the time, particularly by audiences, but it has since been frequently voted the greatest film of all time.
But Welles had created problems for himself with Citizen Kane. In portraying one of the most powerful men in America at the time, he brought the weight of a media empire down on his head. It wasn’t helped by Welles’ own attitudes – prior to making Citizen Kane, he had spent two years living off studio RKO’s money without anything to show for it, and when it was finally released his film was a commercial failure. This meant that when it came to making his next film, the studio took far closer control.
The Magnificent Ambersons was a character study as deep as Citizen Kane, but focussing also on the complex dynamics of a turn-of-the-century middle class family as it fell into disrepute and fell apart. But the dark ending was altered by the studio while Welles was filming in Brazil, and Welles never forgave them. This was the first instance of studio interference in Welles’ career, and it was to become a stain on all of his Hollywood work.
After failing to complete the film he had been working on, and struggling for several years to find work as a director, his next film was a capitulation to Hollywood – a message to say that he was willing, if they would let him, to do it their way. The Stranger is a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller best noted for three things: it was the first film to show scenes from the holocaust, it featured a thrilling climax built around the repeating motif of a clocktower which rivals the best Hitchcock thrillers in tension and excitement, and it was the only one of Welles’ films to turn a profit. His next two films, The Lady from Shanghai and his first on-screen Shakespeare adaptation, Macbeth, were possibly the most egregious examples of studio interference in his career, with the former cut mercilessly and the latter completely overdubbed.
After Macbeth, Welles left America for Europe. He would return only years later and make few more films there, most notably the thriller Touch Of Evil. This film opens with one of the most remarkable shots in cinema – a superbly choreographed crane-shot which follows two characters’ walk along the Mexican-American border while a nearby car which we know to be rigged to explode moves in and out of shot, swinging by the characters and then pulling away. The effect is masterful – we are forced to listen to the conversation between these newlyweds while we really want to know what’s going to happen to the car. (“Tension,” Hitchcock said, “is when the audience knows something the character doesn’t.”)
It was in Europe that Welles was cast in what was probably his most famous role. His Harry Lime, introduced so late in The Third Man that by the time he shows up we have almost forgotten that Welles is in the film, is one of the great villains in cinema, utterly ruthless, but with a cheeky arrogance that makes him difficult to dislike, even when he says the vilest things.
In Europe, Welles began work on many projects that had been, or were to become, lifelong ambitions. Throughout the rest of his life, he shot parts of, but sadly never quite finished, his adaptation of Don Quixote. His encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare (he had been read the plays by his mother as a child) had led him to want to commit several of the major plays to film, the primary one being Othello. Welles filmed this in the most haphazard way – gathering cast, crew and costumes whenever he could get the money, at locations across Europe over several years. Though the end result is flawed, it still stands as a testament to Welles’ vision, and his skill in the cutting room, that he could bring together conversations that took place months – and sometimes miles – apart and make them seem like they happened together.
He applied these same technique to his film of Kafka’s The Trial. Though this film is not always popular with Kafka purists, it recreates perfectly the nightmarish surreality and the sense of oppression from the novel, and Anthony Perkins’ nervous, paranoid portrayal of Joseph K. is perfect for a man who doesn’t know if he is guilty or innocent, overseen by a distant, powerful advocate played by Welles.
The other grand Shakespeare adaptation he was to film, Chimes at Midnight, was based on his own play Five Kings, which was an amalgamation of several Shakespeare plays brought together to focus on the recurring character Falstaff (often thought to be Shakespeare’s finest creation after Hamlet). Roger Ebert has referred to Falstaff – the fat knight who has lived too well always been in disfavour with the court – as the part Welles was born to play. His portrayal captures the wry, winking comedy and the lonely tragedy of the character.
Orson Welles has been seen as one of the great tragedies of art. He met with his greatest success by the time he was in his mid-twenties, and by the time he was in his fifties he was best known for taking money-making parts, narrating commercials and hamming it up in second-rate films. But he continued to make films throughout his life, and when things reached their worst between him and the Hollywood studios, he left America and continued to make films on his own terms. Although obscure and sometimes difficult, his four major literary adaptations – The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight – are all masterpieces in their own right, each as good as Citizen Kane, if not as revolutionary. His catalogue of unfinished (and some unstarted) films offers tantalising hints of what could have been – among them an early, innovative film of The Waste Land, shot from a first-person perspective, the half-assembled Don Quixote, and On The Other Side of the Wind, a challenging pseudo-biography of Ernest Hemmingway – but Welles constant funding troubles hindered the production of these. As a director, however, Welles had a distinctive visual style, making all his films instantly identifiable, and his abilities in the cutting room are unparalleled. As an actor, his voice carried weight and power, and though he had a propensity to overplay some parts, those he portrayed in his own films were always nuanced and drawn on a large scale. Ninety-six years to the day after his birth, Orson Welles stands as one of the great artists of the twentieth century in any field, and the only tragedy is that many of his great works are less popular than they should be, and many more never made it to screen.