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...
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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 terrors into a frame of reality that sharply sets them off. This is the technical trick of Hitchcock which used to work so well during his period of British melodramas. For all his extravagance, Hitchcock knew where to stop straining our credulity. The Stranger soon outpaced mine.
Roger Manvell, "The Quarter's Film: Orson Welles," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1946 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 15, No. 59, Autumn, 1946, p. 98.
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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 as soliloquy, dubbed over anguished, tight-lipped close-ups of the "speaker"; this can be effective, as it has been in Olivier's Shakespeare films, but meets with the usual difficulty: i.e. that we are forced to look, to watch, when all we ought, or need, to do is to listen. In other words where Shakespeare uses his unmatched power of evoking the mood, the thought, the scene by word alone, the camera feels itself to be a shy and otiose interloper…. Welles, fine film maker, is not unaware of the camera's power to add a visual counterpoint undreamt by Shakespeare. (pp. 22-3)
[Parts] of the great poetic drama come over well…. In such episodes we have an earnest of what Welles was trying for and in part has...
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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 of the cockatoo. Viewing the film again, one sees not so much this naïve desire to shock and stun but the prodigious, squandering invention.
As serious drama the films mean nothing; the conception and development of the characters is on a magazine journalistic level. But this doesn't matter: when one has said it, one has said nothing about the films themselves. They are not so much dramas as gossip; rich, exhilarating, fabulous gossip about the times and the places and the people Welles has known. Certainly Welles has no moments of great penetration or insight, but as a presentation of the externals, the public personalities of men, their fights, their defeats, their celebrations, his films have never been surpassed....
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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, close-ups of himself. Welles is too detached, cold-blooded, and watchful in his portrayal. His reading of the closing speech, however, is masterly. (p. 341)
Othello's photography is varied indeed. Many scenes are brilliantly composed, lighted and photographed; others are pale, trembling, and even out of focus. Good use is made of Venetian architecture. The music of Francesco Lavagnino and Alberto Barberis also helps to evoke the medieval spirit, though the recording is ragged. The dubbing is execrable, and lip synchronization is almost never achieved.
Othello is stamped with Orson Welles' amazing insight and gross negligence. But it is not a film that will be forgotten. Should Welles...
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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 romantic retreat from reality into another Xanadu, the film crumbles emptily away. With Kane, Welles' especial genius was to persuade us that he was telling the story in the only way possible. Here, one early develops the uneasy conviction that the film-maker is saying nothing in particular, for all that he is undeniably saying it at the top of his voice. (pp. 86-7)
Welles, inevitably, embroiders this with all the hocus-pocus of the practised illusionist. The elaborate maze of flashbacks; the tilted camera and the extravagant camera angles; the huge and shadowy sets, transforming the castle in Spain into an ogre's gothic palace; the broken sentences, the overlapping dialogue, the sudden jagged burst of sound at a...
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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 is to flatter Mr. Welles, who shows no sense of narrative, that is, of the procession of incidents, but only an interest in the incidents themselves—no, not even that, but only an interest in separate moments within the incidents, and this just for the opportunity they offer for effects, visual and auditory. Many of these effects are superb. Who but Welles would have given the curtain rings such a strident sound? Who but he would have set the opening of the temptation scene … to the clump of the actors' shoes on stone? If there were a real mind in charge of the production as a whole, Orson Welles would be the greatest assistant director of all time. (pp. 21-2)
[The] whole film is a precise example of formalistic...
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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 dismiss the film so hastily that we overlook the splendours of an exciting, frustrating interpretation of the tragedy.
It is frustrating because we see by flashes just how marvellous it might all have been…. Constantly the visual and physical disposition of the characters reflects and emphasises their intellectual placing in the drama. The technique of the bed-time quarrel in The Magnificent Ambersons, for example, is perfectly suited to the counter-questions and cross-purposes of the last scene of Othello.
Visually the film is superb…. Only rarely the search for the picturesque gets out of hand, as it does, for instance, in the absurd Harry Lime chase of Roderigo and Cassio through the...
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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 lurking just beyond camera range, tilted angles and half-heard dialogue—is called into play to convey the landscape of corruption. The opening, with a bomb planted in a car and the camera tracking its slow progress through a border town, immediately grips. The last scenes, shot among murky canals and crumbling oil derricks, with the hero scrambling after his victim to take down a confession on a tape-recorder, is a fine bravura exercise. But much of the rest is Welles at his most perversely obscure. (pp. 251-52)
Melodrama can survive without explanations; and in watching this shadowy, twisted thriller one may reflect not that the talent responsible for Citizen Kane is being wasted, but that Welles, after all, never...
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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 together form what might be called the social realist cycle, to distinguish it both from the Shakespearean cycle composed by Macbeth and Othello and from the "ethical entertainments" comprising The Lady from Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin. "Entertainment" should not be understood here in a pejorative or even a restrictive sense. But it is obvious that these two latter films imposed an overall sense of amused contrivance on their thriller conventions. In other words, the seriousness of the message filters through the apparent futility of the game.
Kane and Ambersons, on the other hand, are the cinematic equivalents of realistic novels in the tradition of, say, Balzac. On one level they...
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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 a vehicle for himself…. Such a voice needs a masterful writer of the epic stamp—Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Melville…. Such talent, and so little substance—small wonder that we are embarrassed.
Welles has here the undeveloped modicum of a major film. He is fascinated by the financial world's equivalent of himself—the lone, cold-hearted, versatile, and manipulative titan bursting with energy. The trouble is that Welles cannot organize his intuition into a coherent comment. His Tamburlaine of high finance is never seen in relationship to his wealth…. In the same way, we are told that Arkadin is a formidable sensualist, but we don't witness anything on the screen that would yield this extra dimension to the man's...
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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 puts on an intellectual circus even when engaged cinematically with Shakespeare. He proceeded to speak Macbeth with a Scottish brogue which ultimately was dropped; also, desiring to place the play in its "native" barbarous milieu, alien to the refined court verse, he put certain lines of Shakespeare's into a ridiculous light by timing them with lusty bits of staging…. [For Welles], the costume extravagance of the film, like the boisterous irony shed on its language, was a quality of arbitrary wit: a playfulness out of keeping with the solemn intentions of the original dramatic work….
Another Shakespeare play, Othello, offers an even better example of Welles at work. Here, chiefly by tracking and a dolly...
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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 monumentalism, now decayed, and some twentieth-century counterparts which at first seem to give the film an unfortunate dislocation; gradually one realizes that this is the landscape of a totalitarian nightmare. Though a few elements are discordant because of an unduly specific modernity …, it mixes the antique and modern in everything. Some of the settings might have been chosen with an eye to those ghastly Piranesi drawings of dungeons: but the ancient, crumbling buildings are inhabited by men who have erected, or perhaps only seized from prior uses, temporary partitions, makeshifts. It is, we soon learn, a world of sudden violence, avid sexuality, and inexplicable happenings generally. (pp. 40-1)
There is of course no love...
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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 Shakespeare. But whereas I have had to work at erasing Olivier's movie-Hamlet from memory, Welles's Macbeth and Othello have obligingly bleached away. (p. 85)
[The Trial] goes astray because Welles is a romantic—and, I think, an optimist…. Kafka's story of a man who is the law's victim because he is the utterly lawful man becomes the tale of a student rebel, the sort of young man who looks as though he couldn't care less about the law and its institutions. In the book the law devours its most ardent disciple; in the picture the totalitarian police pick up a potential dissident (and quite properly, given the viewpoint). That is an idea for a picture, but it is not Kafka's idea. Nor did Kafka have it in mind to warn...
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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 than is the norm in a Welles film, they are never less than pertinent, and among them there is a striking one that sets Henry IV and Hal in a great shaft of light from a window of the castle, when, seen from a distance, enclosed by the austere stone walls, the image suggests the isolation of kingship more eloquently than words … even Shakespeare's….
[The] battle that is waged when the rebels take arms against the crown brings a stronger complexity with it. Boldly, Welles has combined a richness of low comedy with the stark and inhuman aspect of war…. Encompassing the realistic and the absurd, and relating the one to the other, Welles has also maintained the essential sadness of an elegy … a lament for pleasure that...
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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 reflections … to a flurry of silhouettes…. (p. 13)
Of course, showmanship can be sublime, and even the harshest critics of Welles's films have some kind words for Citizen Kane…. Many of the stylistic effects that Welles used with such apparent ease in Kane have become common screen currency only during the last ten years—wide-angle perspective, unusually long takes, abrupt cuts, intricate leaps in time, terse vignettes, heightened natural sound, and so on. Though precedents can be found for each of these devices, Welles was the first director to develop them into a full-blown style. With the exception of some typical forties process shots, the whole of Kane looks and sounds almost as modern today...
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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 time regained as about time created….
The beauty of Karen Blixen's original story is that it fuses perfectly at all levels, opening out layer after layer into, precisely, a story of immortality, of how time past, present and future, fiction and reality, can be re-shaped to create a new time and a new legend. The beauty of Welles's adaptation, despite the slenderest of means … and barely adequate colour and lighting effects …, is that it manages to encompass, even add to, the delicate tracery of the original. Not merely the visual allusions—the cell-like room in which the clerk secretes himself "with the certainty that here no one could possibly follow or disturb him"—but the curious sense of timelessness which...
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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.
The clue to the nature of this spell is in the screen figure of Clay. This is not one of the restless, ironic monsters of past Welles films—a Kane, Arkadin, or Quinlan. In every scene except one Clay remains immobile, rooted in his chair, speaking slowly and without a spark of humor. (p. 45)
It's dangerously easy to read nonexistent symbolism into films, but I think it's reasonable to see Clay, the would-be shaper of reality, as a reflection of Welles the film-maker. Reality asserts itself more strongly in films than in any other artistic medium, and it can frustrate even the most skilled of directors who struggle to shape it to their vision…. In fact, reality asserts itself so strongly in films that audiences customarily...
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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 age—the most durable aspect of this prismatic artist was shown at its best: a contemplative aspect, a calm, autumnal quietness in contrast with the sounding brass of so much of Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil.
Welles's films often display a reckless sophomoric humor…. Humor of a gently destructive, playful, sometimes shoddy kind has flashed through film after film, like the sound of Welles himself laughing in great arched caves.
An inflated display of visual and aural effects often works through the sheer accumulation of grotesque detail: in many of Welles's works we have the sensation of rushing in a ghost train through a plaster fun-fair labyrinth, surrounded by screaming...
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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 comment and a landmark in cinematic surrealism. It treats subjects like love, power, class, money, friendship, and honesty with the seriousness of a European film; yet it never topples into pretentiousness, is at every instant as zestful, intelligent, and entertaining as the finest Hollywood pictures. It is both a pointed comedy of manners and a tragedy on a Renaissance scale. It has a Flaubertian finesse of detail and an Elizabethan grandeur of design. Extroverted and introspective, exuberant and solemn, Kane has become an archetypal film as boldly as Kane's career makes him an archetypal figure….
In its own way, Citizen Kane … recapitulates and extends film tradition. On a primary level, it makes...
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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 its place is only a shadow; the contrast of nineteenth and twentieth century is asserted rather than explored dramatically…. [Welles's original version of the film] included many more scenes about the city rising around the Ambersons, scenes that might have effectively corroborated Eugene's bleak prophecy. The one scene that remains—George's last walk home through the altered, disfigured city near the end of the film—is brilliant, an example of Welles' astonishing resourcefulness and economy; thanks to the lucid, carefully-chosen images and the evocative narration, in just a few seconds we think we've seen more of the expanding city than we actually have. Outside of this scene, however, the swelling city is an offscreen character, and...
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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 points here seem to be made verbally rather than visually and, superficially at least, they appear to be those of Miss Dinesen, not those of Mr. Welles.
But most of what is important about The Immortal Story—or, for that matter, about the vast majority of other films—is the extent to which the director makes the film an expression of self. In this endeavor, despite all the aforementioned obstacles, Orson Welles succeeds in quite a lovely manner. Careful analysis of the mise-en-scène of The Immortal Story reveals it to be one of the most poignantly personal works in all cinema.
As in so many earlier Welles movies, the filmmaker assumes the role of narrator. In no previous film,...
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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 narcissism…. None of [Welles'] films has ever made such extensive use of mirrors, for instance, and the sheer physical data of the characters' faces and bodies … speak volumes. In fact, it is problematic who should be considered the protagonist of the tale: Caroline, who has Humphrey in her spell, or Welles himself, who has both of them in his spell. (pp. 40-1)
The early sequences are suffused with that off-handed indulgence toward human weakness which Welles often uses to implicate the audience in the characters' dilemma. The prologue of The Magnificent Ambersons, for instance, presents the family's snobbery as charming and captivating…. The nostalgia Welles shares with his characters is a melancholic...
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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 gave lines taken over from other, suppressed characters. Welles cut the play extensively …; he rearranged scenes; he even introduced lines from other plays.
The result is a Wellesian superstructure imposed upon the play, which is then bent to conform to this new thematic device; visually, it is often striking and splendid. But the verse is for the most part badly spoken, even by Welles himself. The original track of 1948 sounded, in his view, too American; later … he re-recorded two-thirds of the track in order to give the speech a more Scottish flavour. The result is that the sound is uneven in quality and often scarcely intelligible…. (p. 56)
Welles has described this elaborate re-visualization of...
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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, considerably to underestimate it. But one may concede the case of Citizen Kane, and still there is The Magnificent Ambersons, a less perfect work, perhaps; also, I think, a finer one. Beginning with its apparently random and casual collection of nostalgic images of bygone styles in clothes and motorcars, like so many snapshots from a family album, the film quietly deepens and extends itself into an almost achingly sorrowful picture of a vanished style of life, and of irrecoverable loss, and, in so doing, manages to achieve what Citizen Kane, in all its brilliant eclecticism, never does: a unified style of its own. And it is style as practiced by a film-maker capable of raising style to the level at which it becomes...
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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 vantage point, almost powerless. Or, in The Magnificent Ambersons and most of his later films, he will use a godlike narrator to detach us from the struggles of the hero; in most of his films he distorts chronological structure, beginning the film with scenes which depict or imply the hero's destruction, thus placing his subsequent actions in an ironic parenthesis. His opening scenes often contain a poetic or literal 'synopsis' of the story which is to follow. Kane has its newsreel, The Ambersons its quasi-documentary on the town, Macbeth the witches' convocation, Othello its funeral procession and caging of Iago, The Trial its parable of the law, Chimes at Midnight the conversation between the...
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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 castle which is a labyrinth of caves, their walls oozing with watery slime, while outside lies a barren wasteland…. The primitive era suggested by the costumes and by Welles's dirge-like prologue looks back to a time when mankind was emerging from the dark mists of devil worship…. Tricks of lighting …, visual shocks in the cutting and montage, and images of a voodoo doll being formed and then broken as Macbeth traces his fall—all these combine to shape the world in which Macbeth finds himself cabin'd, cribb'd and confin'd.
In this warped, surreal world, Macbeth's visions are not hallucinations, but clairvoyance, a second sight truer than mere physical sight. And thus, his perceptions of the otherworld are...
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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. But Welles uses architecture with much [strength]…. The castle wreathed with clouds at the start of Citizen Kane and Macbeth is remote, haunting, and Wagnerian in its suggestion of power. Arkadin's turreted headquarters in Spain, the clock tower that looms over The Stranger, or the Gothic mass of Henry IV's Windsor in Chimes at Midnight, are metaphors for vaulting oppression, all viewed from low camera set-ups to emphasise their physical weight. (p. 19)
One either loves or hates [Welles's] characters. At best they are like the figures of Dostoievsky, demented and impelled by some hidden Protean force; at worst they are like many Dickensian characters, thrust in briefly, overdrawn to the point of...
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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 Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai. If these were deemed idiosyncratic, Touch of Evil would be more so. (p. 28)
There is decidedly a moral core to Touch of Evil, couched within a first-rate thriller. The opening take, a virtuoso exercise lasting three minutes and ten seconds, is a complex piece of choreography for actors and camera in unison. It starts with a close view of a time bomb placed in a car that is about to be driven across the border. Deep focus is maintained as the camera pulls back and begins its enchaînement. The flow of movement is so seemingly natural and yet so deftly planned and executed that one might stop the projection at any point in the course of those three...
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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 outset for a kid, later plays games with a body suspended in air, as if his largest offer is to be trick-sorcery, before and amid settling down to unsettling us via an editola and the liberal use of rich brown voice-over. He delivers an early warning that he'll be honest for an hour: and the weakest segment of this fantastic compilation is, in fact, when he overruns this—with some matter of a gorgeous, recurrent Yugoslav chick called Oja Kodar whom Picasso is supposed to have painted 24 times …: all lies, obviously, but unfortunately spelt out as such, spoiling what pleasure might have emerged from our recognition of the imposition.
Fun comes in marginalia, which might comfortably have been the final title for [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 as a host of more putative personages, such as Picasso and Oja's own master forger grandfather—is the domineering absence of Welles, since what his film proposes is that fiction-making in any form is a lie and a puzzle and a constantly repeated disappearing act for its creator…. F for Fake, thus, is a puzzle fiendishly constructed to frustrate any single attempt to unlock it, or even to identify one ultimate and all-determining creator for the myriad of pieces that have gone into its making—despite the very recognisable flourishes with which Welles wraps himself in the cloak of his own montage, even doodling a signature at one point on the screen of a movieola…. [It] is hard to avoid the conclusion that Welles has created a...
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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 theme (at once metaphysical and detective-fictional, at once psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of the secret soul of a man through the works he has made, the words he has spoken, the many destinies he has smashed…. Overwhelmingly, infinitely, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct them. The film teems with the forms of multiplicity, of incongruity: the first scenes record the treasures accumulated by Kane; in one of the last scenes, a poor woman, gaudy and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end, we understand that the fragments are not governed by a secret unity: 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 film seem to me to miss the point. It's been dubbed the "papier-mâché" Macbeth because of its sets, it's been castigated for its obvious studio lighting. These strictures, and more, grow out of the belief that film automatically equals realism; and they grow out of hunger for the same kinds of cinematic virtuosity that Welles had shown in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, a poetic realism so prodigally inventive that it's almost as if he was making the first films ever and the world was lucky that the terrain was being discovered by a young man with genius.
In Macbeth he is moving past realism…. The film settings are meant to look like settings, the way they would in a symbolic...
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