Welles, (George) Orson
(George) Orson Welles 1915–
American director, actor, screenwriter, producer, and novelist.
Welles is considered to be one of the most influential craftsmen of the cinema. His lighting techniques and long-focus shots have often been copied but rarely duplicated. All of Welles's films, beginning with the classic Citizen Kane, deal with the same basic themes: the fixity of human existence and the futile attempt to regain lost youth and innocence. The importance of Welles's films lies in his ability to portray these themes through a wide variety of characters.
Welles demonstrated his extraordinary gifts when he was a child. At the age of three, Welles was reading Shakespeare; by the age of ten, Welles had mastered Shakespeare's works. Welles acted in and directed eight plays a year while in high school. He lied his way onto the professional stage in Dublin at sixteen and from there developed a reputation as a fine leading actor and director. Welles's directorial efforts for the Federal Theatre Project have become legend—an all-black production of Macbeth, a bare-stage Doctor Faustus, and a modern-dress Julius Caesar exemplified his innovativeness. Welles was already a veteran radio actor when, on October 30, 1938, he narrated H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. The program was presented as a series of newscasts and was narrated with such realism that America was swept into panic. People fled their homes and caused massive traffic jams because they believed a Martian invasion was really taking place.
As a result of his growing notoriety, Welles was signed to a Hollywood film contract. "I didn't want money; I wanted authority," Welles has said of the contract, and the fact that a novice had received total directorial and editorial authority over his films immediately alienated him from Hollywood's elite. After two aborted projects, Welles completed Citizen Kane, a film which many critics feel he has never equalled. This highly-renowned work proved troublesome, for Citizen Kane is a thinly-disguised caricature of William Randolph Hearst, who tried to have the film either altered or suppressed. He was unsuccessful, but Hollywood's animosity toward Welles continued to grow because Welles's lifestyle and filmic subjects and techniques did not conform to the Hollywood idea of normality.
Because Citizen Kane was not an immediate box-office success, Welles's studio, RKO, decided to recut his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons. This became the first of many difficulties in the completion of Welles's films. He directed the first scenes of Journey into Fear but was soon taken off the film, and his directorial work went uncredited. His next project, a four-part film entitled It's All True, was never completed, although critics who have seen brief clips of the film feel that it could have been among Welles's best work. The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai were received indifferently, although the latter film is seen in retrospect as one of Welles's more important films.
Welles's subsequent work has received wildly contradictory criticism. For example, some critics believe that The Trial incorporates almost nothing of Kafka's novel into the film, while others feel that the theme of the novel is clearly stated in the film and is at the heart of Welles's artistic philosophy. Macbeth and Othello were poorly received upon their release, but recent criticism has been more favorable. Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report), based on a novel by Welles, is seen either as an unimportant film or as an autobiographical work similar to Citizen Kane. However, most critics agree that Touch of Evil is a superior thriller with subtle yet significant directorial touches, and Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff) is believed to be Welles's best work since The Magnificent Ambersons. Nevertheless, Welles's successes have been produced with much difficulty, and he has acted in second-rate films, television programs, and commercials in order to finance his own work.
Some of Welles's films have been made under very unusual conditions. Othello took four years and three Desdemonas to complete. Other long-standing projects, including the films Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind, have never been completed despite being filmed over a number of years. Despite these setbacks and the condemnation of some critics, a new Welles project is always greeted with great anticipation. Even The Immortal Story, a short film originally made for television, and F for Fake display Welles's artistic ingenuity. Critics and other directors express admiration for Welles's innovative directorial techniques. The deeply human themes of his films, and his memorable portrayal of characters such as Kane, Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff are ample evidence that, despite his erratic career, Welles is one of the true artists of the cinema. At their best, his works have been patterned after his conviction that "A film is a ribbon of dreams." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
Hermine Rich Isaacs
[Citizen Kane is] an exciting work, vital and imaginative, full of the unbridled energy which Orson Welles brings to every new medium he invades. As in all Mr. Welles' ventures, it is free of the bonds of precedent, but there is always a compensating sense of what is appropriate to the medium. It is another success in this year's stream of successful 'one-man pictures'. And just as Orson Welles, producer and director, deserves credit for the excellence of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, coauthor …, and Orson Welles, actor, must be held responsible for the fact that it falls short of greatness. (p. 427)
It is the same familiar tale from every angle, this story of a shallow and arrogant newspaper owner and man of wealth, whose craze for power and the admiration of the world leads him into headstrong and unscrupulous dealings with everyone about him; until at last he has lost all his friends, even the second wife whom he loved in his way, and retires to die in lonely splendor among his fabulous objects d'art, in his castle on a man-made hill.
It is also, when it has all been told, the picture of a man who is really not worth depicting, and here is the film's weakness. Citizen Kane depends for its importance on implications which are external to the movie itself. It acquires a sort of reflected significance from the fact that it might be about a living man of whom we all know, a man who not only loves...
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"Citizen Kane" in its story uses the cut-back method—which is convenient but has its drawbacks in the constant interruption of a steady line…. For dramatic action, it shows its one big character in four main situations, supplemented by newsreel interludes here and there. This makes a pretty weak structure dramatically, so it has to be surrounded with a great deal of stationary talk, as Kane is described, analyzed, asked about, remembered, talked into existence and practically out of it…. The mood is established or heightened by an occasional symbol: the sled and the falling-snow toy, the curtain-warning light on the stage, the bird screaming in escape, etc. Symbols are a dime a dozen and justify their use in the result achieved. I thought the fading light filament and dying sound track at the end of the singer's career very effective; also the opening and close on the iron fence around the castle. The smoke rising to heaven at the end was trite to start with and dragged out absurdly.
As you can see, there is nothing startling in these component parts. The outstanding technical effect in the picture is in the conception of settings and the use of the camera….
The camera here loves deep perspectives, long rooms, rooms seen through doors and giving onto rooms through other doors, rooms lengthened out by low ceilings or made immense by high-angle shots where the ceiling seems to be the sky. Figures are widely spaced down this perspective, moving far off at will, yet kept in focus. The camera loves partial lighting or under lighting, with faces or figures blacked out, features emphasized or thrown into shadow, with one point of high light in an area of gloom or foreground figures black against brightness, with the key shifting according to mood, with every scene modeled for special effects with light batteries of varying function and power, gobos, barndoors, screens, what not. (p. 369)
Sometimes all this is fine and really does the job it is put to. Along with the wide action range, it is a relief from too much closeness and light, an effect of stretching. But at other times it appears just willful dabbling: figures are in the dark for no reason—reading without the light to see, for example; or they are kept in darkness right...
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The Stranger, to which the critics looked forward because Orson Welles once directed two remarkable films, is no successor to those earlier achievements, though it contains many technical points of presentation which remind one of them. The Stranger is good, but not excellent, thriller entertainment, in the same class as Journey into Fear…. The earlier scenes are beautifully done: the small-town setting is alive and vivid, and the character of the shop-keeper who works a "self-serve" store is himself the best piece of cinema in the film. The Stranger is full of fine touches of melodrama …, but in the end we come back to the many, almost choric, scenes in the shop which fix the film's...
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The look of [Macbeth], which is after all the most important part of a film, is seldom felicitous. Macbeth's castle has even less geography than Hamlet's film Elsinore; it looks all too often like a rain-soaked scenic railway at a fun fair, a castle hewn from papier mâché rocks, but Welles is not the first producer of the play to have difficulty with the period. A vague impression of Wagnerian timelessness sits on the costumes. Few of the voices have an American tinge and it would not matter if they had; a sort of plausible Scots burr is generally aimed at.
What of the text there is remains unaltered, for the greater part, and it is spoken slowly, not to say funereally, either as dialogue or...
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Welles breaks all the rules and cracks like a plant out-growing its pot the very capacity of the category we have established. For of all the metteurs en scène he is the most gifted and the most startling. Like many of the others he came from the theatre…. Now, with all the resources of the cinema at his disposal, it was to be expected that he would be even more potent. Seen for the first time, Citizen Kane is just that. The punches are so quick and deadly that his problem becomes not so much one of keeping our attention as of getting us to recover fast enough to take more punishment. Every trick, every effect known to the expert illusionist and master shock-tactician is deployed, down to the screech...
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Orson Welles' Othello is as moody, flamboyant and full of contradictions as its producer-adapter-director-star. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding many imperfections, Welles' Othello is a worthy attempt to bring Shakespeare to the screen.
The text has been industriously deleted and re-arranged…. But in certain passages Welles cut too deeply.
Emilia's character … is not properly established, and her relationship with Iago is not made clear until quite late. Cutting harms Desdemona's part…. While it is not necessary to feel "sympathy" for the Moor, one might understand him better in this film had Welles relied more on Shakespeare's lines than on brooding, wide-eyed,...
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Orson Welles casts such a gigantic shadow that it becomes difficult to realise that in fact only six films (five if one chooses to discount the equivocal Journey into Fear) stand between the dazzling pyrotechnics of Citizen Kane and the choked and spluttering deadwood bonfire that is Confidential Report…. Fuelled with reminiscences of Kane—the fascination with the mystery and the apparatus of power, the involved flashback structure—and stoked up with bits from [Carol Reed's] The Third Man, from the spectacular seediness of the world of Harry Lime, this is a grandiose and ornate melodramatic construction. But beneath the baroque extravagance of its style, and the characteristic...
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[We get from Orson Welles] pathetically puerile entertainments: the movie Macbeth with Scotch accents affected by assorted amateurs from Utah…. And now Othello, a film bad from every point of view and for every public. It is, technically, gauche, the dialogue being all too obviously dubbed. It lacks popular appeal, as the story is neither simply nor skilfully told. To connoisseurs of Shakespeare, it can only be torture. And to the dwindling number of Welles admirers, the unhappy few among whom I count myself, it is one more disappointment. One is tempted to say that, while Shakespeare turned a sensational tale into high tragedy, Orson Welles has turned the tragedy back into a sensational tale. But this...
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Any schoolboy Shakespearean or home movie-maker can fault this Othello … in a dozen ways. Its narrative goes by such fits and starts that it is often hard to follow the story. The cutting of the text seems often merely perverse: key scenes are excised and minor ones inflated disproportionately. Identifications and explanations are forgotten; raw edges abound. The poetry of this most poetic play seems deliberately obscured, while the rough post-synching and the variable quality of the sound make the clearest voices at times unintelligible.
It is so easy to see these things. It is too easy to rejoice in our own fine discrimination in catching so considerable an artist as Welles tripping, to...
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[Touch of Evil] might suggest that an instinct for grandiose melodrama is proving the most durable element in Orson Welles' still formidable talent. After the perversely extravagant crooks' tour of Confidential Report, this film represents a kind of marking time, evidence that Welles remains fascinated by power and its corruption, by the fatal flaw in the strong man …; and evidence that he can still deal the technical cards out of the pack with a cardsharper's eye to subterfuge…. In essence, [the story] is not very complicated; as told by Welles, it becomes a jungle of confused motivations, nightmarish betrayals and discoveries. All the stylistic equipment—heavy shadows, suggestions of menace...
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There is little doubt that even if he had directed only Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles would have a major position in the history of the cinema. It is not to diminish the importance of his later films if I assert that, at least on a formal level, the essence of what Welles brought to the cinema is already present in his first two films.
Analysis and reflection reveal, above all, a stylistic unity. Within the context of Welles' filmography, these two works constitute a vast aesthetic land mass whose geology and relief justify simultaneous study.
Let us take up their orientation first. Kane and Ambersons...
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Of course, even bad Welles is absorbing cinema; but how can one so praise a filmmaker without sounding condescending? The point is that [in Mr. Arkadin] Welles has a film that holds one's interest continually and yet is disappointing and embarrassing. This film is all technique and bravura and theatricality, but is utterly lacking in significance. It is a kind of decadence, with over-decorated sets, over-busy camera, over-characterized characters from Welles' grab-bag of international types. Because this is a "personal" film, so called, we expect a chaste and trembling virgin, but instead we find the mechanical passion and tired tricks of the over-rouged street-walker.
Welles has written here...
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Simply what he is and has been makes Welles the quintessential type of Big Experimental Cult hero—always achieving failure yet bringing it off brilliantly, decking it with eloquence and a certain magnificence; fusing in each film the vices and the virtues appropriate to them. Welles is the eternal Infant Prodigy, and as such wins the indulgence of adult critics and the fervid sympathy of the younger generation, which sees in him a mirror of its own budding aspirations and adventurous near-successes…. Welles does "big things" with fabulous ease and against manifest odds. Careful assessment of the actual results displays, along with the marred success, needless audacity and impertinent novelties. He...
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Rare is the critic who can manage to look at a film like [The Trial] except through a kind of screen set up by the original work. No amount of consciousness about problems of adaptation, and all that, can gainsay this tendency—only ignorance is a real safeguard. Luckily, however, I have not read Kafka's novel for many years. Consequently, looking at Welles' Trial, I find it an interesting film, rather than a disappointing derivative. It is, of course, in many ways not only unKafka-like but positively anti-Kafka. (p. 40)
The film is an attempt to create a nightmare world, rather like that of 1984. It is vaguely European in decor, with a melange of nineteenth-century...
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The most disconcerting thing about Orson Welles's screen version of The Trial is that in retrospect it doesn't seem to matter. At the moment, it is entertaining; at times its ingenuity and insight are admirable; it commits (except for a grotesquely inappropriate final shot) no factual offense against Kafka's novel. Yet a few days after I had seen it, it had slipped off my mind and left the book just as it was.
The same thing, I find, can be said of the pictures Welles made of Macbeth and Othello. They had great cinematic vigor, they were clearly intended as shocks to entrenched attitudes toward both the plays themselves and the suitability of the screen for the transmission of...
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Well disposed as I am toward the Orson Welles Macbeth and Othello, I feel bound to call his Chimes at Midnight the most mature of his Shakespearean excursions, and to hope at the same time that my use of the word 'mature' will not be taken amiss. This film is not only cinematic but also profound….
[Chiefly] it is Welles as cinéaste, rather than just actor, that the film places in a true perspective. At the time of Citizen Kane I was sure, and then over the years I doubted slightly, but now I am certain again that no greater man of the cinema has ever lived. Chimes at Midnight is a masterpiece….
If the compositions are less extravagant...
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Judged by first—even second or third—impressions, Welles's films are a triumph of show over substance. His most memorable images seem like elephantine labors to bring forth mouse-size ideas.
His films bulge with preposterously vast spaces: the echoing halls of Kane's Xanadu; the rambling castles of Macbeth, Othello, and Arkadin; the vertiginous offices of The Trial; the cathedral-like palace and tavern of Falstaff.
His camera moves with a swagger, craning down through the skylight of El Rancho in Kane and up over the bomb-carrying car in Touch of Evil. When the camera is still, the composition may cry out for attention with anything from multiple...
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Time past and past glories: it almost sums up Welles, from the splendour of the Ambersons to the chimes at midnight tolling the death of Merrie England, by way of the touch of evil which once was truth—and it recurs again in The Immortal Story [adapted from a story by Karen Blixen, written under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen]. The original creators, I do not forget, are Franz Kafka, William Shakespeare and Karen Blixen; but the magnificence as film (of the last two, at least) belongs to the mind, the mise en scène, and above all the presence of Welles.
Not that The Immortal Story—for all its air of fairytale and its setting in a Chinese Xanadu—is so much about time past or...
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If [The Immortal Story] were signed by an unknown name like Orson Baddeleys instead of Orson Welles, I might (though I hope I wouldn't) credit its faults to the director and its virtues to chance and Isak Dinesen….
Welles's adaptation [of Dinesen's story] is in places oddly careless. (p. 44)
[The] discrepancies blur the impact of the story as Dinesen wrote it, and if Welles's intention was simply to translate the story into cinematic terms he did not achieve a brilliant success. But was that his intention?…
[Right] from the beginning of The Immortal Story I found it casting a spell which its weaknesses failed to break.
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[Welles's] personality as an artist is on the scale of a Hugo, a Balzac: he is expansive, grand, capricious, sometimes gross in his style; maddeningly prone to dissipate his energies; baroque and Gothic by turns; romantic, journalistic, slapdash, and brilliant. Citizen Kane remains his masterpiece, as the world has said; but many who thought his a tragedy without a third act, a story of a genius burned out, have been proven wrong. In Chimes at Midnight—that tender elegy to the vanished past of England, echoing in its mood the lovely valedictory of The Magnificent Ambersons for the vanished past of America—and more recently in The Immortal Story—a reflection on the tragedy of old...
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The best way to understand Citizen Kane is to stop worshiping it as a triumph of technique. Too many people have pretended that Orson Welles was the first to use deep-focus, long takes, films-within-films, sound montage, and even ceilings on sets. … Kane is a masterpiece not because of its tours de force, brilliant as they are, but because of the way those tours de force are controlled for larger artistic ends. The glitter of the film's style reflects a dark and serious theme; Kane's vision is as rich as its virtuosity.
The breadth of that vision remains as impressive today as thirty years ago. Citizen Kane straddles great opposites. It is at once a triumph of social...
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Although The Magnificent Ambersons was not the last film Welles made in America, he never again took on such large, quintessentially American themes as he did in his first two films. The Magnificent Ambersons deals with the price of technological "progress"—the contamination of the city and the influence of the automobile on modern American life, an extraordinary subject for a 1942 movie….
The attempt is impressive, but the film has never struck me as an entirely satisfactory study of the emergent nightmare city of the twentieth century. The dying aristocratic world of the Ambersons is drawn with great affection and complexity, but the urban industrial world that will take...
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It's not very hard to find things wrong with The Immortal Story…. The sound, at least in the English-language version is rather bad. The lighting, sets, props and makeup have a decided air of cheapness and haste, reflecting the fact that this was, after all, only a television production. The continuity and editing tend toward a certain sloppiness, and the acting and mise-en-scène appear stolid, completely antithetical to the wild Welles we have known. Even more damning, perhaps, is the virtually total subservience to the narrative structure and dialogue of Baroness Blixen's fable. Unlike Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil and even Falstaff, the...
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Welles' film audience is missing a revealing experience in not being able to see [his made-for-television film] The Fountain of Youth. Its mixture of bold theatrical stylisation, puckish humour and bardic intimacy draws on a side of Welles, the 'radio side', which seldom pokes through the intricate architectonics of his feature film work. The Immortal Story is told with a fabulist's simplicity, but it is still a story film conceived for the large screen, with all the pretence of showing real people involved in a real drama. The Fountain of Youth is more a chamber play than a drama. (p. 40)
But in The Fountain of Youth form follows function, for the theme of the piece is...
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Welles's approach to Macbeth was bound to be unusual. First of all, he imposed upon it a theme which has no parallel in the text, and announced it himself at the beginning of the film…. The words were spoken over shots of the witches seen amid a swirl of mists at work over their cauldron, shaping the clay image of a baby, which was to be a symbol used throughout the film. Macbeth, Welles said, was a story which involves 'plotting against Christian law and order'; the hostile forces were 'agents of chaos, priests of hell and magic' making use of 'ambitious men' to achieve their dark and primal purpose. In order to provide a Christian symbol in the film he created a new character, a priest, to whom he...
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William S. Pechter
[Though] I expected The Trial to be bad, I went to it truly hoping for the best. And, in fact, though I expected it to be bad, bad as a mannerist painting can be bad, bad, for instance, as Welles's Othello is bad, I had not been expecting the worst; I had not expected that it might be boring. Orson Welles boring! And boring to stupefaction. (p. 162)
It is possible, perhaps, to dismiss Citizen Kane as little more than a bag of tricks, good tricks but tricks nonetheless; yet, although much of that film's excitement does derive from the sheer exuberance and audacity—real audacity—of its exploration of the medium's techniques, to regard the work as only this is, I think,...
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It is clear that Welles's films are not moralistic in the sense that Howard Hawks's are, for example—as fables of exemplary behaviour; and just as clearly, they are not anarchistic and behaviouristic like Jean Renoir's. In a Welles film there is, for the most part, an extreme dissonance between the characters' actions and emotions and the underlying moral framework.
Welles will be as chivalrous to his characters as Renoir, but he will not allow the characters' actions to determine the form of the film. Instead, he will go so far as to construct a geometrical pattern of counterpoints and visual ironies, in Kane, to bind his hero into a system which makes him seem, from our contemplative...
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[In Macbeth, Welles adopted] an expressionistic or subjective mode in which the consciousness of the hero colors the world which we see around him. If one is able to overlook glaring errors in execution, there is a good deal to be learned from watching what Welles has done. Consider, for example, the way in which his camera treats Macbeth. Many of the shots are from waist level, looking up, so that Welles's face seems to tower over the viewer, and, when his hand is extended, it looms grotesquely large as it nears the camera. Many of his lines are spoken as the camera looks elsewhere…. The mind of the speaker, the world around him, and the world we see are all one. That world is like none known on our earth, a...
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Welles did not invent any new cinematic processes: he fused the experience of three decades into one gigantic work that proclaimed with tremendous power just how effective a medium the cinema could be. He assimilated the styles and subtleties the cinema had evolved, often unwittingly, since Griffith. For practically every technical device in Citizen Kane there is a precedent; but there is no precedent for Citizen Kane, the film. (pp. 18-19)
Welles's vision is expressed not so much in Fordian terms as in the style of the German directors of the Twenties. The relaxed bonhomie of Ford's world eludes him, except in parts of The Stranger and Chimes at Midnight....
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Elaborate in style and provocative in essence, Touch of Evil affirms the Orson Welles flair, which many have imitated but hardly any have equalled. As auteur and actor he dominates this film, matching his own richly eccentric characterisation of Hank Quinlan to a bold display of enthusiasm for the conjuring tricks of cinema….
Because it was ten years since Welles had directed a film in his native America, Touch of Evil (1958) was a defiant comeback. Having been ahead of his time before, he seemed resolved to maintain the pace, even though Hollywood had progressed a tolerable way along the ambitious paths he indicated in his challenge of the 1940s: Citizen Kane, The...
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[Along] comes Orson Welles, with his finest sherry-selling voice, and he messes about arrogantly with the medium and one somehow doesn't mind. This is partly, of course, because he has taken fake, deception, fraud or what you will as his brief. Like a crooked advocate, he pretends to delve into serious matters (the nature of illusion, the assassination of honesty) while roguishly having himself a high time. F for Fake is mainly a very successful commercial for Welles. I'll buy….
[The film] is a small triumph of editing, as well as a running commentary on film legerdemain. Welles, mostly in his stage conjuror's outfit of black hat and cape, converts a key into coins and back again at the...
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Although it scarcely looks comparable to anything else in his career, [F for Fake, a] Quixotic essay in fictional documentary—conjured, it seems, out of nothing more substantial than an extraordinary dexterity at the editing table—may be Welles' most concerted, complete and certainly his wittiest attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Kane, Rosebud and his own 'failed' genius. A personal meditation on the art of fakery, and the fakery in art, F for Fake switches subjects and styles even faster than its ubiquitous presenter/narrator/director switches hats. But what unites the presences of master art forger Elmyr de Hory, biographer and tyro faker Clifford Irving, and Hungarian actress Oja Kodar—as well...
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Jorge Luis Borges
[Citizen Kane] has at least two arguments. The first, of an almost banal imbecility, wants to bribe the applause of the very unobservant. It can be formulated in this way: a vain millionaire accumulates statues, orchards, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, men and women. Like an earlier collector (whose observations are traditionally attributed to the Holy Ghost), he discovers that these miscellanies and plethoras are vanity of vanities and that all is vanity. At the moment of his death, he yearns for one single thing in the universe: a fittingly humble sled he played with as a child! The second argument is far superior. It links Koheleth to the memory of another nihilist: Franz Kafka. The...
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[In the restored version] Welles's Macbeth is now a bold, exciting, innovative film.
It is not Shakespeare's Macbeth. I'm not going to reopen the old critical hassle of whether or not there is an ideal Macbeth …; I simply tell again the beads of my Shakespeare-on-film rosary: no film of a Shakespeare play can be that play….
But Welles knew all this…. [It's] no surprise that his Macbeth has often been called expressionist. But in aesthetic terms, the most striking aspect of this restored film is Welles's apparently quite conscious attempt to fuse a third form out of theater and film. (p. 24)
[Most] of the standard objections to this...
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