News And Commentary – Happy 100th Birthday, Orson Welles!

Orson Welles would have celebrated his 100th birthday on May 6.  I’m posting this a week before the official date because Welles was one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, and I thought I’d send my card in a little early, ahead of the tidal wave of good wishes that will soon flood every conceivable media platform.

Many people know of Orson Welles simply as “that guy who made Citizen Kane” (that is, the twenty-five year old who co-wrote, directed and starred in what was eventually considered “the greatest movie ever made.”)  But Welles was much more than that, both before and after.  By the time he made Kane, Welles was already assured of a prominent place in the history of radio and theater.  As a broadcast artist, Welles was the leader of the Mercury Theater on the Air (including the famous War of the Worlds broadcast) and was the unmistakable voice of The Shadow.  On the New York Stage, among other celebrated productions, Welles had directed a version of Macbeth set in Haiti with an all-black cast (The New York Times review called it “stunning . . . a triumph of theater art”), and a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar, intended as an allegory for contemporary European fascism (in the words of one critic, an “awesome” exploration of “mob mischief and demagoguery” that was “the most exciting, the most imaginative, [and] the most topical” production of the theater season).  

Welles was also a very fine actor capable of mesmerizing performances. Not every character, or even every interpretation, was top shelf; especially in late-career, he was often hamming it up in cash-and-carry roles taken to finance film projects.  Nevertheless, if Welles was known solely for his performances on stage and screen, again, he would be remembered as one of the greats. 

No tribute to Welles would be complete without also acknowledging that in the depression, during the war, and beyond, he was on the right side of history, and assertively so—most boldly with his late-forties radio broadcasts that championed disempowered victims of the violent Jim Crow south.  (The efforts earned him death-threats and raised the suspicions of the FBI.)

But Orson Welles will be best remembered, and rightly so, as a movie director.  And the stamp of his genius is visible—and remains with us—on the films he left behind.  A director does many things over the course of a film’s production.  But on the screen, three things stand out: the composition of each frame, movement (especially camera movement) within each shot, and how those shots are linked together.  And Welles was a master of all three.  (Many directors are not fully engaged with the assembly of their films, but for Welles editing was by many accounts his greatest joy.  And perhaps one reason why many of his projects were never quite finished—a critique Welles bristled against, but the observation is a fair one—was because he could not let go of the sheer delight of cutting and re-cutting.)

Welles had a love of storytelling, and a passion for filmmaking—and he found each irresistible, whether telling tall tales over a long meal, or doing whatever it took to keep shooting. Othello was filmed in Morocco and Italy intermittently (and opportunistically) over a period of three years—often when the money ran out the production would be interrupted so that Welles could take a role in someone else’s movie to raise more cash.  (Invariably constrained by a shoe-string budget, one day the costumes failed to arrive; Welles worked around the problem by staging a crucial scene in a Turkish bath.)  Othello won the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes film festival. 

Of Welles’ movies, I have a soft spot for The Lady from Shanghai.  Like several Welles films that were taken from his hands or slipped from his grasp (The Magnificent Ambersons, most famously), at times it looks like the remnants of a once grand mansion clumsily remodeled by nouveau-riche occupants.  But what remnants!  The Lady from Shanghai—the two thirds of it that remain after the studio cut it down and added an intrusive score—is a treasure. 

But my favorite, if I believed in such things, would be Touch of Evil.  I didn’t quite fully grasp the film until I had seen it three times.  (Which is about right for any masterpiece, by the way.)  But I remember the first time I saw it—on the back end of a double bill during my first year of graduate school, with an old friend at the Saint Marks Place Theater.  It opened my eyes to the possibility of what the movies could do—in the right hands. 

 

 Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

  

 Lady from S

The Lady from Shanghai

 

  Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil

Welles’ centennial year promises to be a special one: it does seem very likely (though we have heard this before) that a version of his last film, The Other Side of the Wind—starring John Huston, shot in the 1970s, and fought over ever since—will finally be released.  To learn more about Welles, from the scores of studies, critiques and biographies, I recommend in particular his book-length interview with Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, and which includes a chronology of Welles’ astonishing life and work.