Remembering Welles


“He was some kind of a man,” an ageing Marlene Dietrich quietly states as the corrupt, overweight cop played by Orson Welles is shot to death at the end of the director’s expressionist inspired film noir Touch of Evil (1958).

According the preface of Simon Callow’s epic three volume biography of Welles, in 1962 (and already an overweight, depressive chain-smoker) the director said to Jean Clay: “Do you know the best service anyone could render to art? Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man – and not the contrary.”

Considering Welles delivered a miserable, lazy performance in The Muppet Movie, maybe he spoke too soon.

In 1938 Welles terrified America with a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds convincing certain elements of the unsophisticated audience that the Martians were invading. Famously apologising, Welles said: “This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you (this was) The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘boo!”.

Newspapers published at least 12,500 articles on the story, and even then dictator of Germany, Adolf Hitler, referenced the production calling it evidence of “the corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracy”.

With hype like this, it was no wonder Hollywood beckoned. Owing to his already impressive reputation within the Mercury Theatre (a specialist in Shakespeare whose genius he felt nobody would ever match) RKO offered him complete control of his first picture, from script, casting, direction, and amazingly in the age of the studio system he was also given final cut. Ever the iconoclast, Welles decided to make an avant garde, fictional biography of newspaper magnate William Randoph Hearst (which would be the biggest mistake of his life.) Incidentally, Rosebud, the iconic key to Citizen Kane that explains everything and nothing, was apparently the pet name for Hearst’s wife’s clitoris.

Hearst refused to allow advertising for the film in any of his publications, and prevented many theatres from showing it, but despite being a commercial flop, the still handsome Welles and co-writer Herman J Manciewitz (a fifteen year veteran of screenwriting, and according to film critic Pauline Kael, the true auteur of Kane) won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. It was, in many ways, the highlight of Welles career, despite one that spanned forty years and numerous voice over work, and some highly interesting, (if often under-budgeted and flawed) films.

A master of film technique and a natural at experimentation, just reflect on the shot in Kane where the camera moves through the rain swept glass of the outside ceiling into the bar where the dead Kane’s mistress is mourning with cigarettes and gin, and remember this was nearly five decades before CGI so would have been an incredible feat of camera work.

The New York Times wrote that the movie “comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.” The other film reviews of the era were just as glowing, critic James Agate wrote: “Citizen Kane has entirely ousted the war as conversation fodder.”

None of his other movies came close to this reaction. His RKO follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)  based on Booth Tarkington’s novel, was butchered by its own editor Robert Wise and Welles’ original cut no longer exists. Whilst a film of certain beauty and intelligence, it is still to be regarded as a failure, and the beginning of budget constraints and a less than glowing reputation for the ambitious auteur. After this failure he essentially became an independent filmmaker, scrabbling for money (primarily to make his dream project of Don Quixote which never panned out). In fact, Touch of Evil was the closest Welles ever came to making another masterpiece, and even that has its moments of flatness and a wooden performance by Charlton Heston (who Welles was horrified he’d have to cast as a “Mexican”) even though some of the trademark long shots and long shadow cinematography are exceptional.

One of the most influential filmmakers still to this day, inspiring Kubrick, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Akira Kurosawa, and numerous others, there is a still a sadness to Welles’ final years, doing voice over work for Bugs Bunny, and, fat and unhealthy and chain-smoking stinking cigars, his boyish good looks from the forties long destroyed. Peter Biskind describes Welles in the mid seventies as “a vast, damaged vessel adrift in a hostile sea, perennially in search of a safe harbour.”

But of course there is always his performance in The Third Man (1943) (he truly makes the movie) to recall the genius of Welles, playing a murderous secret agent involved in an insidious plot to kill an innocent man. Forget the Carlsberg ads and remember the moment where the kitten moves across his feet in the darkened doorway, and the light reveals his face to (Mercury Theatre stalwart) Joseph Cotton. These are the moments to savour, and even though the majority of his films were failures, to have been involved in such moments of genius makes Welles an artist who may have fallen far from Hollywood grace, but will always remain a cinematic icon.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction