The Films of Orson Welles




Two of my all-time favorite films about filmmaking are Day for Night and Ed Wood. In both films, less talented filmmakers working on subpar movies have a moment where they grapple with the passion and ambition that lured them into the business. In the first case, Francois Truffaut recalls a moment as a child where he looked at stills from Citizen Kane hanging in a shop. In the latter, Johnny Depp’s Edward D. Wood Jr., struggling through making Plan 9 from Outer Space (known archetypally as “the worst movie of all time”), has a chance meeting with Orson Welles in a diner.

In both cases, one man (and the film from which his story is inseparable) is seen as the pinnacle, the spiritual ideal. There is no other work in the youngest of all art forms to challenge Citizen Kane, nor another director to challenge Welles, for this honor, and there probably never will be. As long as people look to go into the movies, they will dream about the 26 year old prodigy with an entire film studio at his disposal, building cloth ceilings for low-angled shots and playing baseball on set to humiliate producers.

No other movie Welles made in the rest of his career has even a fraction of Kane’s notoriety. This too is part of the romance. The only thing more appealing than watching someone build wings and take flight is watching them get too close to the sun and plummet to their doom. The stories of the filmmaker after Kane imply that he never recovered. All of his efforts were recut in Hollywood until eventually he was reduced to a “public figure,” getting fatter and grumpier and running around Europe with his many wives and mistresses, looking for funding from Iranian royalty.

Welles was first and foremost a sensationalist, and no doubt he himself fueled this fire. Controversial press, until the end, was better than no press at all; and there’s an argument to be made that the life of Orson Welles was indeed his most ambitious and complete art project. That would be fine, except for the fact that the man made 12 films. 11 of them are not well-known, despite being really good (and in two cases, as I’ll get to later, I’d argue they even outshine his supposed moment in the sun).

And so once again I decided to complete the man’s filmography and see where things stand. What I found was a series of films that, despite their reputation, are as consistent and excellent as any from the great directors of the day. And while some of them might very well have been “better” if their maker had final say, they all have moments of undeniable genius and feel like complete statements even in their truncated forms. With Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, currently in editing and slated for release next year, now seems as good a time as any to revisit the works from the one, the only Orson Welles.

12. The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger

There are many revered directors for whom The Stranger would be their masterpiece. Visually it is indelible. Welles is phenomenal as a heartless Nazi spy hiding in plain sight in a quiet New England town. The final action sequence, involving a giant clock, doesn’t disappoint either. In the very year WWII ended, it’s no surprise that two masterful “strangers in our midst” thrillers were released. Unfortunately for Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Welles’ regular co-conspirator Joseph Cotten matched his good movie with a great one in Shadow of a Doubt. In fact, in an even more fitting twist of fate, Cotten (who had initially been set as the lead in Citizen Kane) takes the same role as Welles and outpaces him there too.

Of all the films on this list, The Stranger has probably aged the most poorly (and that’s taking into account the awkward blackface in Othello). Loretta Young’s Mary Longstreet is frustrating in the extreme in her unwillingness to accept that her newfound husband is a killer. Also the plot with her father and Edward G. Robinson’s FBI investigator Mr. Wilson is 60’s Batman levels of incompetent and absurd and stinks of Patriarchal hokum. In this too I’m afraid Shadow of a Doubt has the strong upper hand with a great performance from Teresa Wright.

Still, while not entirely essential, The Stranger is still a film noir directed by Orson Welles, which means it’s effortlessly watchable, occasionally fascinating, and definitive of everything that makes noirs of that era timeless. Of all the worst movies made by all the directors, this one might be the best.

11. The Immortal Story (1968)

Immortal Story

Initially released for television and with a runtime under an hour, The Immortal Story likely could be excluded from this list. Only that would be a shame. It may not have the time nor resources to rank as a “major” effort, but nonetheless you would be cheated for assuming you had seen all of Welles without having seen this.

And maybe in this case compactness is a virtue. On display are all of the director’s chief fascinations: death, immortality, and the purpose of art. Now they are condensed and focused into a more whimsical tale where they can affect like music instead of philosophy. Welles plays Charles Clay, an elderly miser who hears a sailor’s tale and decides he wants to make it a reality. Roger Coggio plays Clay’s assistant, who slyly pays off a young woman (Jeanne Moreau) and man (Norman Eshley) to act the drama out for the old man as though it is real life.

The ensuing drama is quiet, surreal, and features the best performance Welles ever got from Moreau. This is also notably his only fictional narrative drama shot in color (and one of only two films he shot in color at all). Thick with atmosphere and dense with purpose, the film plays like a Romantic short story, a dreamlike parable that questions the purpose and honesty of telling stories or looking for fulfillment in storybook endings.

10. Mr. Arkadin (or Confidential Report) (1955)

Mr Arkadin

The version of Mr. Arkadin that I saw was The Criterion Collection’s “Comprehensive Edition.” In a sense this is the least official rendition of the film that exists. Welles’ post-Kane output was notoriously beset by studio tampering and recuts. At times he was legally banned from the editing room. As such, many of his films exist in multiple versions: the ones released in American theaters, the ones released internationally, and in some cases, the ones recut years later in an attempt by film historians to match the director’s original vision.

This, unfortunately, is not an exact science. In the case of Arkadin, you can tell that the movie is not a polished final product. It jumps, sometimes nonsensically, from one idea to the next. International huckster Burgomil (Michael Redgrave) hears a story from a dying sailor about the notorious Gregory Arkadin (Welles). Believing there’s some money in it, he hunts down the espionage magnate and potential war profiteer. Once their paths cross, however, he soon finds himself drawn into the old man’s schemes which could end with his death.

The film follows sometimes as many as three different timelines, a technique masterfully utilized in Kane. This film is a bit more of a mixed bag, though visually and theatrically it’s still just as exceptional. Kane in particular relishes playing the villain. Even if the whole is not exactly mindblowing, you can see the film’s immediate influence on the works of great filmmakers as influential as Stanley Kubrick.

9. Othello (1952)


Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Orson Welles dons blackface in this movie. It’s awkward and even at the time was not okay. It’s probably the reason this is one of the more difficult Welles films to get a hold of (and many still aren’t even available in America on DVD).

However if you can get past that, this is an especially moving and sympathetic adaptation of Shakespeare. Like all of Welles’ 40’s and 50’s output, it’s a visually sumptuous production that uses the money of the studio system for mind-blowing tracking shots, sublime set pieces, and a heightened visual language that seems right at home next to the Bard’s weighty verse.

Welles got his start directing Shakespeare, and it becomes immediately obvious that he took these adaptations as personally as his own original work. In him Shakespeare finds his most stylish, technically capable translator into the world of moving images. I struggle to think of any three Shakespeare adaptations that do more justice to both the words in the script and images on the screen simultaneously.

8. Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil

There’s an amusing moment in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player in which two executives are chatting while strolling through a studio backlot. Producer 1 is talking about how Hollywood doesn’t make good films anymore. He cites the greatness of the opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil. Producer 2 nods, then talks about more recent films that featured equally impressive shots. Producer 1 says he hasn’t seen any of those films, and then goes on about how great the opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil is.

Most people have seen one and a fifteenth of an Orson Welles film. There’s Citizen Kane, and then there’s the opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil. For many years this was also my experience, because that’s what they show you in film classes. Touch of Evil has its issues. Thematically, it’s not nearly as ambitious as Welles’ best films. Charlton Heston, who was forced on the director as a lead, also isn’t of the same caliber as the best Mercury players. The ending is incredibly silly.

However this is also one of the few films for which the director’s vision has, at long last, survived. This is thanks to a memo Welles wrote to the studio detailing in over 22 pages the logic behind the cuts and shots that he had pieced together. While the film was still hacked to pieces, historians were able to restore it largely to its former glory using those notes. That restored cut emerged in 1998, and the publicity around it could explain the film’s ascension to the right hand of the Welles Canon.

The result is an unapologetic B movie, a visual tour-de-force, a bravura performance from Welles, and yes, a pretty darn good tracking shot.

7. F for Fake (1973)

F for Fake

F for Fake is ridiculous. When it was released, it was panned by critics for being ridiculous. Welles runs around in a magician’s costume, hanging out with sexy twenty-somethings in Paris diners. He shares anecdotes about the writing of Citizen Kane, art forgery, Howard Hughes, and Pablo Picasso. Some of them are lies. Some of them might be true. Who knows? Who cares? The film’s bright colors, Wellesian voiceover so melodramatic it exceeds self-parody, and flagrant disregard for good taste all culminate in a kind of affront to the senses.

Orson Welles was an artist, but he was foremost a provocateur and sensationalist. There’s a reason Brain in Pinky and the Brain has the voice of Orson Welles. As I said earlier, he became a personality; a figure of pop culture. Orson Welles became more important than the films Orson Welles made. And here, for the first time in his career, he takes a sledgehammer to that idea. Every moment Welles appears in this pseudo-documentary, he is undercutting the notion of his own credibility. In his crazy costumes, with his stagy performance, he is daring you not to take him seriously.

And then he contrasts his own egomaniacal reputation with the people who built the cathedrals. “The greatest works of art in history, and there’s no name written anywhere on them.” That’s the gut punch moment, one that Welles had been reaching for his entire career. While many deride this film because it is silly, lacking in all forms of legitimacy, for me that’s precisely what makes it phenomenal. It’s a narrative film without any weight. It’s a documentary without any facts. It’s a movie that pretends to be full of itself, to its own failure and shame, precisely because it’s completely lacking in ego. This is the anti-Kane.

6. Macbeth (1948)


I’ve often wondered why Welles’ Shakespeare adaptations never caught on. I think the reason is that film fans love pure Orson Welles, whereas Shakespeare fans love pure Shakespeare. Welles had no interest in purity. And so his Shakespeare adaptations are a precarious marriage of the two. They are accurate, in keeping with the work of a trained classical aesthete. However they are also deeply cinematic. They re-frame Bill’s works in ways he may not have intended, to serve the needs of the modern, potentially less cultured filmgoer.

As a fan of both mediums (which I’ll admit are tougher to merge than most people will admit) I am a huge fan of Welles’ Bard collaborations. This Macbeth in particular is one of the most outright fun action films shot in the forties. It’s bloody, its Gothic art design is insane, and its effects are every bit as impressive as Kane and Ambersons before it. This movie has some shots that look better than hundred million dollar films shot sixty years later.

For all intents and purposes, Macbeth is Shakespeare’s blockbuster. It clocks in at nearly half the length of Lear and Hamlet. The verse is especially sing-songy, the plot especially thick with witches, storms, and murder! This play does, after all, feature the line “By the prickling of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes.” In a way that makes it the perfect film for Shakespeare to adapt, especially in his career.

Welles’ most famous pre-film theatrical production was Julius Caesar, which conjured Fascist imagery in the early days of World War II. Even at the time people wondered if the man really understood what the Bard was getting at, or if he was using language about tyrants and war for his own purposes. The general consensus was that it worked, so who cares?

5. Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Magnificent Ambersons

The notorious follow-up to Citizen Kane is one of the great, maddening smears on Hollywood’s image. Welles played the legend up admirably. The director famously said that his original cut, a rogue edit which potentially could sit in 35 mm in the closet of a hostel somewhere in Argentina, was the greatest movie of all time. Having just made Citizen Kane he was curiously specifically qualified to make this claim.

Welles shot and edited Ambersons using largely the same team from Kane. It was the second film on that famous deal that allowed him total control of RKO’s studio. Then when the director was out of town the studio heads ordered reshoots and completely recut the film without his permission. Then later they destroyed the original footage. The “compromised” version is all we have today.

But it’s still pretty great, to be honest. The movie’s irreverent sense of humor, rogue editing, and nuanced performances all feel every bit as modern as Kane‘s. The content of much of the reduced runtime hints at a grander, more powerful vision that might have been. Still, saying the movie is notable only as a maddening missed opportunity does it a disservice. This is a phenomenal film, beginning to end, that grips you with its craft and ingenuity. It deserves to be listed among the classics of its era.

4. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Lady from Shanghai

While Welles is seen today as a self-important egotist, it’s always interesting to me just how much he stayed within the popular genres. The people wanted film noir. Welles dutifully filled half his oeuvre with pulpy crime plots, thick shadows, and canted angles. And it’s fitting that the best film of the lot is the pulpiest by far.

The final sequence of this film is one of the greatest action moments in movie history. The film leading up to it is densely atmospheric, filled with a globe-trotting mystery and a colorful cast of characters. Welles plays dimwitted sailor Michael O’Hara, seduced by the titular Lady (Rita Hayworth) who is married to an eccentric old kook named Arthur Banister (Everette Sloan). O’Hara is hired by Bannister, and takes the job as an opportunity to romance the man’s wife.

Things quickly turn sour for a myriad reasons and O’Hara finds himself way in over his head. Welles loved playing heady intellectuals, so it’s nice to see him play a schmuck for once. He also gets to rail off a phenomenal monologue about sharks and cannibalism. The movie bears a dreamlike haze that reminds me of the best works of my favorite filmmaker from the era, Jaques Tourneur. And of course, again, there’s that final sequence. Boy howdy is there ever that final sequence. It really needs to be seen to be believed.

3. Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane

What can I say about Citizen Kane that you haven’t already heard? How many film historians have poured over this movie, shot by shot, frame by frame, and examined every corner of every set to the most meager detail? What could possibly be added to such a legacy? Nothing is the answer.

Welles himself grew tired of talking about Kane as his career drew on. He preferred his later masterpieces (which I’m getting to in a second). I’ll admit I’m kind of with him. Yes, Citizen Kane is awesome. Its layered timeline, ambitious lighting, and propulsive camerawork are all more than curiosities in film history. They’re fun to watch. They’re engaging. It’s one of the best movies ever made.

But I can honestly say I just have no interest in talking about its place in film history or its merits. One thing you don’t hear as much about is how the film sets a precedent for the kind of dark revisionist history that would drive its artist for the remainder of his career. Welles, from the get go, used film to explore the concept of fame, of achievement, and the more ignominious demise of every human life that hides just under the surface of all our stories. Death: we don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to face it. Some people make things, some fall in love, some have adventures, some become heroes or villains, but everyone dies. And maybe accepting that would make us all a bit more human, a bit less willing to hurt each other for imaginary reasons.

Welles continued this train of thought until the end of his own life. If there is one discussion about Kane that would potentially be beneficial, it’s how it works as a specific artistic statement from a specific artist, instead of a broad, almost pointless laurel in Hollywood’s trophy case.

2. The Trial (1962)

The Trial

One of the strangest things about watching all of Orson Welles’ films together is observing the jump from his fifties to sixties output. Even when he couldn’t get a final cut in Hollywood, Welles was still as technically consistent as any filmmaker who ever lived. His films are stylish and visually flawless.

His sixties output, on the other hand, is full of problems. The sound is a little bit off. The visuals are inconsistent. Part of the problem here was resources. Welles retreated to Europe to see his visions completed. His quality control was limited outside Hollywood backlots.

However, Welles was also an ambitious artist during an era of aesthetic rebellion. While Truffaut and Godard rewrote film language in France, Bergman ruminated about death in Sweden, and Fellini scoffed at reality in Italy, Welles dialed back on the Golden Era polish. He became more a contemporary of the revolution than of Wilder and Hitchcock. Most famous directors did not survive this transition. Welles thrived under it.

And so you get the first unaltered post-Kane masterpiece, a gloriously surreal adaptation of Franz Kafka’s most famous novel. Whatever the location scouts on this film got paid, they deserved a raise. Every location feels lived in, like a fantasy rendition of the bombed out neo-realist classics from Rossellini and De Sica.

I’m halfway tempted to find some significance in Welles making use of bombed out postwar locales to adapt the 20th century’s greatest German author. I’m not sure there’s really anything there, but I think Welles would have approved.

1. Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Chimes at Midnight

Some people might see Chimes at Midnight as a simple Shakespeare adaptation. While Welles drastically reorders the events of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, for the most part he sticks to the script. The story remains the same. The young prince Hal wastes away his youth in brothels and taverns, cavorting, carousing, and occasionally stealing with a fat old knight named Falstaff. Soon, however, duty calls, and Hal throws off his youthful rebellion to become the greatest king in England’s history.

It’s Shakespeare’s most successful long-form story, largely because of the character of Falstaff who became so popular with Queen Elizabeth that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor just to give the Queen another play starring the character. Today dimwitted, shameless Falstaff sits right next to Lear, Iago, and Hamlet as the most sought after roles in the Canon. He pretends to be dead on the battlefield to avoid danger. He insults the young Prince even while begging him not to end their friendship. The character embodies all that is sad, feeble, and degraded about humanity, and becomes endearing and convincing for this reason.

Most people stage Henry IV  and Henry V as coming of age stories. Hal is a rebellious teenager who becomes a hero. It’s a happy story. However sitting on the edge of that narrative is always Shakespeare’s most conflicted invention, the sad, fat knight whom Hal must kill (metaphorically and literally, it turns out) if he is to live up to the example of his father. There are the great doings of kings, the larger narratives of history, greatness, honor, nobility, and then there is that image they seek to hide: a fat old man, carried out in a giant coffin to a nameless death.

There have been moments in history where scholars found something in Shakespeare everyone previously missed. We can’t read Hamlet anymore without considering Freudian psychoanalysis. We can’t read Lear anymore without thinking of Beckett and Waiting for Godot. In my opinion, Chimes is just as profound a leap forward in understanding the histories. The marriage between Shakespeare’s humanity and his interest in the larger doings of the world was always a difficult one for directors. Even today you watch Henry V and wonder if he’s really a hero or a villain. The director can never make up his mind.

Welles found his answer, and chooses to make Falstaff the hero rather than Hal. The battle scene in this film is one of the most effectively brutal ever filmed. Every death is shot in such a way that it’s painful. Every life matters. The violence that Henry IV and Harry “Hotspur” wreak on others to sustain their own heroism and nobility is shown here for a violent lie meant to bury the less attractive violent truth of human frailty. Falstaff and his companions have heard the chimes at midnight; they know what’s coming; they have no delusions.

In the wake of 60’s rebellion, Falstaff goes from eloquent clown to cultural icon. It’s maybe the only Shakespeare film adaptation in history that manages to be as good, as profound, as necessary as its source material. Welles grew up idolizing Shakespeare. He became a similarly singular figure in his own art form, but even more impressive, at one moment he matched wits with the Bard and came  at least as close as Adam did to God. No wonder he considered this his best film.


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