Happy 99th, Orson Welles: The Legend’s 10 Essential Productions
Happy birthday, Orson Welles! Welles, who’s 99th birthday was Tuesday, was probably the most important American filmmaker of the 20th century (remember, Hitchcock was British), and he was a living enigma. Impermeable and perpetually opaque, Welles seemed to be always putting on a performance — in his interviews, his onset demeanor, and his supposed personal life. David Thomson’s spectacular biography Rosebud discusses how Welles began his career by lying. In Ireland, to which he ran off to paint, he told some theater producers that he was a well-respected Broadway actor, and they simply believed him (or so Welles claimed.)
Welles would spend the rest of his career behind a shroud, not unlike Oz’s great and powerful Wizard. He pioneered myriad of technical and creative concepts in the world of cinema; credited as the first auteur, Welles conjured and created a singular vision that coursed through all of his films — from the paranoiac, panic-inducing War of the Worlds broadcast to his final masterpiece, the meta-documentary F for Fake.
1938: The War of the Worlds (Mercury Theatre on Air)
Contrary to popular belief, Welles did in fact inform the public that he was performing an on-air production of the other Welles’ classic tale of alien invasion. However, most people tuned into the broadcast after that initial warning (which ran just once, right before the program began), and thus pandemonium ensued. The Mercury Theatre Air program ran without commercials, which didn’t help alleviate any confusion. Welles’ baritone voice lent an air of authenticity to the absurd story of space invaders landing in Princeton Junction and running amok in tripod apparatuses.
The next morning, newspapers (which still mattered back then) slammed Welles and bemoaned his “irresponsibility” because they, the paper-men (they were all men), were still angry that they had lost advertising revenue to radio.
1941: Citizen Kane (RKO Studios)
Debating whether Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time is not an effective use of one’s time. It’s a great film, of course, though it may not be to all modern tastes, but it’s monumental influence is undeniable. You don’t have to be a film scholar to appreciate the film’s accomplishments; Herman Mankiewicz’ screenplay is sharp and witty, and Gregg Toland’s photography still looks good 75 years later. That shot of the little boy playing with the sled outside while his family discusses his future inside is maybe the most important shot of the one first of the 20th century; the use of deep-focus, which keeps objects far away and close-up clear, changed the way films look.
But the film belongs to Welles. Mankiewicz’ writing is exact; Welles’ directing is exacting. Toland’s photography is sharp; Welles’ direction is lacerating. As much a film about Welles as it is William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane explores the darkest, ink-black corridors of a lonely man’s heart.
1942: The Magnificent Ambersons (RKO)
Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane is, according to the lucky few who saw the original cut, perhaps Welles’ greatest accomplishment. They are the lucky few, however, because the film is more notably remembered for being the first time Welles encountered studio interference, compromising his brazen vision. The studio cut more than an hour of footage out of Welles’ tragic tale of a wealthy family in a small midwestern town. The film stars Joseph Cotten (who would go on to star in The Third Man) and Dolores Costello, and was edited by Robert Wise, who also edited Kane and would go on to direct The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Haunting, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
1948: The Third Man (London Films, directed by Carol Reed)
Carol Reed’s noir is the paradigm of post-WWII cinema, steeped in shadows, laced with crooked cameras and long, damp, dark alleys with cobbel stone streets and passersby looking over their shoulders nervously. To discuss Welles’ role in the film would greatly hamper the surprise, so if you haven’t seen it, shame on you, and just skip to the next film.
Joseph Cotten plays a hack pulp-fiction novelist who travels to Vienna to visit his friend Harry Lime. When he arrives, he discovers that Lime was hit by a car and killed. A mystery gradually unfurls and, as is the case with all noirs, the seedy nature of man percolates and boils over. Many tried to claim that Welles actually directed the film, à la Spielberg and Hooper in Poltergeist. Welles’ conflation of German Expressionism and English theatre was certainly an influence on Reed, but the film is Reed’s — period. As the drug-smuggling Lime, Welles was never cooler or more unnerving. His elongated shadow in the doorway is now iconic, and his allegedly improvised speech about the cuckoo clock is one of the great monologues in movies — and that zither score!
1952: Othello (Mercury Productions, Les Films Marceau, United Artists)
It took Welles almost four years to complete this passion project, and it remains one of the very few passion projects he actually completed. As he got older and somehow more mysterious, Welles would start and abandon projects like a child going through a cheap coloring book.
Welles plays Othello with supreme otherness – a person who looks and acts differently. Welles’ commanding, deep voice was always different from that of everyone else — and can disperse into the shadows. The film is out-of-print due to the usual legal shenanigans, but seek it out if you’re a fan of Welles or the Bard. It’s one of the great Shakespeare adaptations.
1955: Moby Dick – Rehearsed (unfinished, unreleased)
No one has seen this infamous lost film, but according to Christopher Lee’s journals, the rough cut was truly amazing. Welles penned a meta-story about a cast of actors rehearsing for a production of Moby Dick while tossing around philosophical quips between scenes. Another of the many unsolved mysteries in Welles’ oeuvre. This is not to be confused with Welles’ also unfinished 1972 one-man production of Moby Dick, nor John Huston’s film version, in which Welles plays Father Maple and earned a fat paycheck.
1958: Touch of Evil (Universal Pictures)
One of the last noirs before Roman Polanski momentarily revived them with 1974′s Chinatown. The opening shot of the film is now iconic: a 4-minute tracking crane shot that follows a man putting a bomb in the trunk of car, then swooping down to follow Charlton Heston (with offensive makeup to make him look Mexican) and Janet Leigh taking an evening stroll. The rest of the film is just as good, and gave audiences their first glimpse of the jarringly large Welles, who gained a tremendous amount of weight in the ’50s. There’s a restored cut, made according to Welles’ notes, and the original cut, which was heavily manipulated by studios. Neither cut was actually “approved” by Welles.
1962: The Trial (Astor Pictures)
Anthony Perkins is the quintessential Josef K. Allegedly cast because he was secretly gay during a time when being gay was reason to be black-listed in Hollywood, Perkins really looks and feels like an outsider. Welles shot on a tight budget, and the austere and sparse direction and sets capture the existential loneliness of Kafka. It’s in the public domain.
1966: Chimes at Midnight (Internacional Films)
Another pseudo-”lost” film (though you can find it in mediocre quality on YouTube), this was Welles’ favorite of his films. Always considered a Falstaffian outsider — by himself and the many critics and biographers who have tackled the mythos of Orson Welles — Welles had Falstaff gestating in his mind for a long time before he finally got around to making it. It’s a film about the betrayal of friendship, and Welles felt betrayed by virtually everyone and everything in his life, possibly including himself.
1974: F for Fake (Specialty Films)
Welles’ final masterpiece — a meta-documentary, essentially the proto-essay film – F for Fake is elaborate and dense, the fasted-pace film in Welles’ body of work. Trading in slow, deep takes for rapid-fire cuts and close-ups, the movie is a dizzying affair for the uninitiated. Welles documents the writer Clifford Irving as Irving interviews Elmyr, the greatest art forger in the world, about whom Irving is writing a book. But Clifford, it turns out, forged a fake autobiography of the elusive, enigmatic Howard Hughes, so Welles turns the film into a meditation on lying, fakery, and “experts.” The latter of these subjects represent the critics who decried and criticized Welles during his career. (Irving’s book on Elmyr was real, however.)
Welles gradually weaves strands of fiction throughout the film, crafting a collective entwinement of fakers and the experts they dupe. It’s a fitting end to one of the all time great artists, and one of the great fakers.
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