Orson Welles's pioneering, influential cinema was imaginative, ambitious and technically daring. His baroque cinematic style created a dense moral universe in which every action had tangled—and usually tragic—human repercussions.
Orson Welles (1915—1985)
Orson Welles (1915—1985)
Before his dramatic arrival in Hollywood, Welles had carved a considerable reputation in theater and radio. At 18 he was a successful actor at the experimental Gate Theatre in Ireland; at 19, he made his Broadway debut as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. A series of collaborations with director/producer John Houseman led to their participation in the New York Federal Theatre Project. Their first great success was Welles's staging of an all-black "voodoo" Macbeth, which demonstrated Welles's penchant for stretching existing forms beyond established limits. Welles and Houseman eventually formed their own repertory company, the Mercury Theatre, enjoying success with their 1937 production of Julius Caesar, which Welles rewrote and set in contemporary Fascist Italy. Soon Welles was also directing the Mercury players in weekly, hour-long radio dramas for CBS. Once again he stretched the medium, exploiting radio's intimacy to heighten narrative immediacy, most notoriously with the Halloween 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Concocted news bulletins and eyewitness accounts were so authentic in "reporting" the landing of hostile Martians in New Jersey that the broadcast caused a panic among unsuspecting listeners. Seeking to capitalize on Welles's notoriety, RKO brought him to Hollywood to produce, direct, write and act in two films for $225,000 plus total creative freedom and a percentage of the profits. It was the most generous offer a Hollywood studio had ever made to an untested filmmaker.
After several projects (among them an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) came to naught, the 25 year-old Welles made what is generally described as the most stunning debut in the history of film. Initially called AMERICAN and later retitled CITIZEN KANE, Welles's film was a bold, brash and inspired tour-de-force that told its story from several different perspectives, recounting the rise and corruption of an American tycoon, Charles Foster Kane (modeled on publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst). With the brashness of someone new to Hollywood, Welles pushed existing filmmaking techniques as far as they would go, creating a new and distinctive film aesthetic.
Among the innovative elements of Welles's style exhibited in CITIZEN KANE were: 1. composition in depth: the use of extreme deep focus cinematography to connect distant figures in space; 2. complex mise-en-scène, in which the frame overflowed with action and detail; 3. low-angle shots that revealed ceilings and made characters, especially Kane, seem simultaneously dominant and trapped; 4. long takes; 5. a fluid, moving camera that expanded the action beyond the frame and increased the importance of off-screen space; and 6. the creative use of sound as a transition device (Thatcher wishes a young Charles "Merry Christmas…" and completes the phrase "…and a Happy New Year" to a grown Charles years later) and to create visual metaphors (as in the opera montage where the image of the flickering backstage lamp combined with Susan Kane's faint singing and a whirring noise to symbolize her imminent breakdown and subsequent suicide attempt).
Although well received by the critics, CITIZEN KANE faced distribution and exhibition problems exacerbated by Hearst's negative campaign, and it fared poorly at the box office. Welles's second film for RKO, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel of the same name, was a more conventional, less flamboyant film that utilized many of the same techniques Welles had developed for KANE to evoke a richly textured recollection of turn-of-the-century America. But with Welles off to South America to shoot a semi-documentary (IT'S ALL TRUE, which was never completed by Welles himself) jointly sponsored by RKO and the US government, the studio severely edited the film, deleting 43 minutes. Even in its truncated form, AMBERSONS remains a dark, compelling look at nature of wealth, class and progress in America. Before he left for South America, Welles supervised the filming of JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1942), whose direction is credited to Norman Foster. Welles co-starred and co-wrote the screenplay with Joseph Cotten; the result was an intriguing but muddled thriller. When AMBERSONS proved a commercial failure, it was a blow from which Welles's reputation would never recover. Welles and the Mercury Players were dismissed from RKO. THE STRANGER (1946), produced by independent Sam Spiegel, had Welles directing himself as a Nazi war criminal hiding in a small town, but it was devoid of the characteristic Welles touch. He regained his filmmaking flair with THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948), a stunning film noir in which Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth co-starred. (Already separated before the collaboration began, she filed for divorce once filming was completed.) The hall-of-mirrors finale is a superb example of Welles's gift for the audacious visual image.
Welles's next film proved to be the first of an informal, impressive Shakespeare trilogy, an eccentric, atmospheric version of MACBETH (1948) in which the actors were encouraged to speak with thick Scottish burrs. Its centerpiece—a sequence that begins with Macbeth's decision to kill the king, includes the murder and ends with the discovery of the crime by Macduff—was captured in a single ten-minute take. The film, however, was not successful and was dismissed at the Venice Film Festival. Four years later, he answered his critics with a striking version of OTHELLO (1952), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes. The final film in the trilogy was the triumphant CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)/FALSTAFF which Welles, who by this time was of the correct girth to play Falstaff, fashioned from five of Shakespeare's historical plays. As a separate narrative, Falstaff's tale is a bitter one of deteriorating friendship passing from privilege to neglect. It ranks among Welles's greatest achievements.
After the failure of MACBETH, Welles began a self-imposed, ten-year exile from Hollywood. His follow-up to OTHELLO, MR. ARKADIN (1955)/CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, was an acerbic profile of a powerful man that showed signs of the brilliance that marked KANE, but was hindered by an episodic narrative and spotty acting. Welles returned to Hollywood to act in and direct TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), a film noir masterpiece. From its stunning long-take opening of a car bombing to its tragic denouement, it reiterated his overarching vision of the world as an exacting moral network where each human act has endless and unforseen moral consequences. His adaptation of Kafka's novel of the same name, THE TRIAL (1963), a nightmarish extension of that vision, depicted a society completely devoid of a moral sense, where empty procedure replaced principle. THE IMMORTAL STORY (1968) was a satisfying, minor work made for French televison, an adaptation of an Isak Dinesen story. His final completed film, F FOR FAKE (1973), a diverting collage of documentary and staged footage that investigated the line separating reality and illusion, celebrated all tricksters—including its director, who sometimes stated that if he had not become a director, he would have been a magician.
At the time of his death, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, a project he had begun filming in the 1970s, remained unfinished. Obviously autobiographical, it was the story of a famous filmmaker (played by Welles's good friend, John Huston) struggling to find financing for his film, just as Welles was forced to do many times. As an unseen fragment, it was a sad and ironic end for a filmmaking maverick who set the standards for the modern narrative film and the man who was, in the words of Martin Scorsese, "responsible for inspiring more people to be film directors than anyone else in history of the cinema."