ORSON WELLES. 7 essential films of the Shakespeare of cinema you MUST KNOW

Almost 40 years ago, due to a heart attack, a man passed away who, with the help of radio and a dedicated group of actors, convinced millions of Americans that their homeland was under attack by...

Jan Brzozowski

13 August 2023

ORSON WELLES. 7 essential films of the Shakespeare of cinema you MUST KNOW

… a man who, at the age of eight, was writing his own theatrical sketches and could quote Shakespeare from memory; a man whose debut film revolutionized cinema in terms of aesthetics and narrative. Much more could be written about Orson Welles – about his childhood full of various successes, his original youthful ideas (such as staging Macbeth with an all-black cast in 1936!), or the influence he had on almost every field of art. However, today we will focus on just one aspect of this outstanding artist’s work – cinema.

Mr. Arkadin

mr. arkadin Orson Welles Peter van Eyck Michael Redgrave

At this point, The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger, or the completed years later The Other Side of the Wind could just as well be included. However, I decided to highlight Mr. Arkadin for one simple reason – beside Citizen Kane, it’s most likely Orson Welles’ most visually intriguing film. Elaborate shot follows elaborate shot, and the staging ingenuity leaves one dizzy (in the scene on the rocking yacht – perhaps quite literally). Expressive, surprising camera angles dominate, revealing a world enveloped in darkness and snow (the most beautiful parts of the film unfold during Christmas). Unfortunately, the viewer gets lost somewhere amidst all this, not particularly connected to the characters, dizzied by the breakneck pace of the action. Welles attributed all the imperfections of Mr. Arkadin to bad editing, stating that the film was “completely ruined by the editing, and what Dolivet [producer] did to me was worse than anything Harry Cohn [another producer] did to The Lady from Shanghai.”

As a result, at least four different editing versions of Mr. Arkadin were created, with the most mutilated and farthest from Welles’ original artistic intentions being released in American theaters and on DVD. The film’s reception in the director’s homeland was disastrous; Mr. Arkadin turned out to be one of the biggest and most painful financial failures in the director’s career, who had worked on the script with hopes of creating a commercial hit. On the other hand, overseas, especially along the Seine – “the film had its French premiere in June 1956 – in who-knows-which version – and appealed to French intellectuals, who saw its impenetrability as a welcome challenge.” Anyone who remembers the final scene of Hollywood Ending by Woody Allen is probably smiling to themselves right now.

Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)

Falstaff orson welles

Welles grappled with Shakespeare throughout his life, starting from his childhood years. As Janusz Skwara recalls in his book, “When Orson was three years old, he received his first book ever as a gift from his mother. It was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He adapted the works of the renowned playwright for the big screen three times. Twice, he tackled the heaviest of possible calibers – Macbeth and Othello. The third time, drawing lessons from his previous attempts, he approached the source material with greater ease and confidence. The result was Falstaff – an original blend of Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Welles not only directed but also (as he often had a habit of doing) took on the leading role – in this case, that of Sir John Falstaff – a stout, affable jester closely associated with the young heir to the throne, Prince Hal. The latter, however, after assuming power, disowns his former companion, ultimately leading to Falstaff’s demise. Despite the somber ending, the film’s tone is rather comedic – largely due to the superb acting portrayal by the director himself (second only to Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil in Orson’s career), who makes his ample girth the central object of jest in his portrayal of Falstaff. The film achieves an even higher level through Welles’ excellently staged, several-minute-long sequence of the Battle of Shrewsbury – for me, an absolute standard when it comes to medieval warfare in cinema.

The Trial

Anthony Perkins Orson Welles THE TRIAL

The film that my favorite film critic – Konrad Eberhardt – truly disliked. In his book-essay titled Film Is a Dream, the journalist wrote: “The failure was caused by the fact that in Welles’ understanding, a dream had to be bizarre. […] Welles pressed the pedal of the extraordinary, the horrifying, whereas the action of The Trial unfolds in the most ordinary offices, narrow corridors, cluttered rooms. The Trial as a dream is a dream firmly grounded. Simultaneously, it’s a monstrous dream. However, this monstrosity doesn’t stem from the grandeur of the interiors, but quite the opposite – from their confinement and familiarity.” Welles’ film is one of the few instances when I can’t agree with what Eberhardt states about a particular work. According to me, The Trial is a successful film, drawing its strength precisely from its departure from Franz Kafka’s literary original – a phenomenal but deeply uncinematic writer.

It’s worth noting what Welles himself had to say about his approach to adapting The Trial: “It’s a film inspired by the book, in which my collaborator and partner is Kafka, and although I tried to be faithful to something that, in my perception, is the spirit of his prose, I also wanted it to be my film, because I believe its creation will be more justified if it’s mine.” For me, Welles’ grandiosity provides an interesting reference point in contrast to the modest style of the Prague writer, while also revealing the ‘authorial stamp’ of the creator of Citizen Kane. If anyone wonders how an adaptation of Kafka could look if the director “didn’t press the pedal of the extraordinary” and stuck firmly to reality, they could watch Michael Haneke’s The Castle – in my opinion, a film decidedly less successful than Welles’ The Trial.

The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons Tim Holt Joseph Cotten Dolores Costello

The second film in Welles’ rich filmography, somewhat overshadowed by its highly popular predecessor. The Magnificent Ambersons wasn’t constructed based on an original screenplay; instead, the American artist drew from Booth Tarkington’s popular novel. Before the crew could even step onto the shockingly expensive $137,000 set (Heylin mentions that the set decorations cost more than those for the elaborate The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Orson Welles was forced into an oral agreement that relinquished his rights to the final editing version. As if that wasn’t enough, the leadership at RKO started to change during production – George Schafer, who was supportive of the director, began to lose influence in the studio. The new head honcho became Charles Koerner, who ensured that the verbal agreement between Orson Welles and the studio was put in writing.

Welles signed the document on the eve of his departure to Rio, where he was scouting locations for his next project. As one might imagine, the circumstances were not favorable for The Magnificent Ambersons, as Orson was concurrently working on other films – first on Journey into Fear and then on It’s All True (the title of his Brazilian project). According to Robert Wise (assistant director, later known for works like The Sound of Music and West Side Story), “Welles directed The Magnificent Ambersons during the day, and shot scenes for Journey into Fear at night, then he would come back to the Ambersons set in the morning to review the new material.” Welles’ scattered attention led to the point where he completely lost control over the film, which was then edited by Robert Wise under Koerner’s directives. Some claim that practically nothing of Orson’s vision remained in The Magnificent Ambersons, but I don’t share that opinion. Just take a look at the outstanding scene where George, Jack, and Fanny discuss in the kitchen. The selective focus used in this short segment allows us to see that a true visionary is behind the camera – a person sensitive to the visual values of the image. There are many more visual gems in The Magnificent Ambersons – like the fantastic sequence of a winter car ride (filmed in a deserted icehouse in Los Angeles) or the scene where George and Fanny communicate across the floors of the grand mansion. It’s precisely these moments that make the second film bearing Welles’ name an exceptional work, despite all the heartless studio interference.

F for Fake

f for fake orson welles

A small, completely forgotten gem in the Wellesian crown. In F for Fake (the only color film on this list), Orson playfully toys with both the audience and the cinematic form – what exactly is this work? A documentary? A cinematic essay? A feature-length magic trick, as suggested by the attire in which the massive, bearded Welles parades in front of the camera? It’s very difficult to definitively classify F for Fake, which on one hand may deter potential viewers and on the other hand, intrigues them.

Welles had a knack for magic from childhood. Janusz Skwara recalls that at a young age, “Orson got to know the famous magician and master of illusion, Harry Houdini. The boy closely observed the magician’s tricks and managed to replicate several of them skillfully, much to Houdini’s amazement. Then the frightened artist, fearing for his future, ceased his further display.” How much truth lies in this short anecdote? It’s hard to say, but what’s certain is that in F for Fake, Orson Welles starts not with anything else but a magic trick, with a young boy falling victim to it. The author then moves on to other types of deception – the film’s subjects become Elmyr de Hory (a brilliant art forger flawlessly imitating the styles of the greatest painters), Clifford Irving (an unsuccessful author of a famous fictional biography of Howard Hughes), and Pablo Picasso, whom Welles places at the heart of an intriguing, deceptive story. In F for Fake, the subject of editing is also thematized, and Welles once said about it, “Editing is not one aspect; it is the aspect” for his style and vision. It’s no wonder we often see Orson dressed as a magician against the backdrop of the editing room, manipulating the image according to his own judgment. In doing so, Welles, while harkening back to the tradition initiated by Georges Méliès, seems to merge the roles of a director and a magician. Both are after exactly the same thing – the effect that their carefully prepared trick will have on an eager, impressionable audience.

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil Charlton Heston Orson Welles Janet Leigh

“Right now, we’re just talking calmly, nothing special is happening, but if there were a bomb under the table, suddenly, out of nowhere, there would be a ‘boom!’ explosion. The audience would be surprised, but since the prior course of the scene was absolutely ordinary, there wouldn’t be anything interesting in that surprise. Now, consider suspense. The bomb is under the table, and the audience knows it, probably having seen the terrorist planting it. The audience knows that the bomb will go off at one o’clock, and it’s now quarter to one, because there’s a clock in the room’s set design. The same mundane conversation becomes extremely interesting suddenly because the audience is involved in it,” Alfred Hitchcock explained to François Truffaut, delineating the difference between suspense and the mere element of surprise. For me, the most beautiful film example of this technique is the masterful, nearly four-minute opening shot of Touch of Evil. Welles’ directorial skill, precision, and inventive staging are most vividly displayed in the first frames that comprise one of the most iconic shots in the history of world cinema. The beginning of Touch of Evil is the best illustration of Welles’ words that “a film must have a great opening, it must grab attention. Nobody wants to start a play with the best cards on the table, but that’s how a film should start. It must, otherwise it will sink. You can’t revive a film if you don’t capture the audience from the very beginning. The riderless horse must appear.”

Regarding Touch of Evil, Welles also, just like with The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, or Mr. Arkadin, fought with the studio and once again, not finding many allies (only Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh sided with him), was forced to surrender. As a result, at some point, Orson lost control of the film to the Universal bosses who not only edited it according to their own whims (resulting in at least six different versions of Touch of Evil), but also commissioned additional shots from Harry Keller, an average television director. The latter decision was like a slap in the face to the unruly child – very painful and utterly incomprehensible. Surprisingly, the artist did not bear a grudge and continued to fight for his work until the end, as evidenced by the famous fifty-eight-page memo in which the creator proposed a series of changes to make Touch of Evil a better film. Most of Orson’s suggestions, rather unsurprisingly, were simply ignored by the studio. Welles’ vision was only approached in 1998 (thirty years after the film’s premiere!) when Touch of Evil was reconstructed and re-edited according to the director’s original instructions.

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane orson welles

Certainly, the greatest success and at the same time a curse for Orson Welles, who could never surpass the level of his phenomenal debut. “We loved this film unconditionally because it was itself without boundaries: psychological, social, poetic, dramatic, baroque. Citizen Kane is both a display of the pursuit of power and a mockery of the pursuit of power, a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of human ambitions, and at the same time a poem about human decline. And beneath it all lies a reflection on exceptional beings, geniuses or monsters, or genius monsters,” François Truffaut wrote in a brilliant essay dedicated to Welles’ debut. These two elaborate sentences perfectly demonstrate how rich in meaning Citizen Kane is, how much can be unearthed from beneath the seemingly banal surface of the story about the rise and fall of a fictional newspaper magnate. And yet, as Bernard Herrmann, the composer of the film’s score, rightly pointed out, “nobody goes to Citizen Kane for the story itself, but to see how it’s shown.”

And it’s shown in an absolutely innovative, revolutionary way. Leading the way in this aspect is, of course, the use of deep focus on an unprecedented scale. In this manner, the creator offered viewers a choice, inviting them to actively participate in the spectacle – everyone could analyze the fragment of film reality they desired. Significant details could be lurking everywhere, allowing for an even fuller interpretation of Citizen Kane. The visual mastery of Welles’ debut film is primarily attributed to the exceptional cinematographer Gregg Toland, whom the twenty-five-year-old director encouraged to experiment. The end result seems to be the product of Welles’ trust and inventiveness combined with Toland’s innovation and professionalism.

citizen kane orson welles

Indeed, Citizen Kane was revolutionary not only in terms of visuals but also in its narrative approach. The screenplay for Citizen Kane was co-written by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz (the same Mankiewicz that David Fincher’s film is about). As mentioned in the book by Clinton Heylin, the collaboration worked in such a way that Mankiewicz would send portions of the script to Welles, who would then revise them according to his vision, often erasing entire sequences and inserting completely new scenes. Who was the author of the unconventional idea to tell Kane’s story through a series of falsely subjective flashbacks (a screenwriting technique that probably paved the way for films like Rashomon by Kurosawa or The Man on the Track by Munk)? Pauline Kael, with fervor like that of a maniac, claimed that Mankiewicz, referring to his twenty-five-year-old collaborator in a telegram, called him a “juvenile delinquent parasite living off other people’s ideas, starting with the broadcast about the Mars invasion, and consistently continuing to this day.” But I am much more convinced by Bernard Herrmann’s opinion: “If Welles hadn’t made Citizen Kane, he would have made another equally outstanding film. Mankiewicz doesn’t have any other outstanding scripts in his body of work. He only basked in glory for a moment when Orson Welles crossed his path.”

The final innovative element of Citizen Kane was Welles’ approach to constructing the sound design. Regarding music, Welles didn’t wait until after shooting to commission its composition, as was the norm in Hollywood. Instead, he closely collaborated with composer Bernard Herrmann during the film’s production, adapting “many sequences to the music.” But that’s not the end of the auditory innovations. Welles also departed from Hollywood’s routine regarding sound effects, completely eschewing the resources of RKO’s extensive sound library. Instead, he, along with his former radio colleagues, built an entirely new, original sound bank from scratch. This is why Truffaut could label Citizen Kane as the “first—and only—great radio film.”

“Once, before a lecture, Welles, concerned about the poor attendance, turned to the audience and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen! I am a Broadway director and a theatrical director. I am an actor in classical plays. I write screenplays and direct films. I am also a film actor. I write and direct radio plays and perform in them. I am a violinist and a pianist. I paint, I draw, and I am a book publisher. I am a novelist; I am also a magician…’ Here Welles paused for a moment, looked around the room, and added, ‘Isn’t it astonishing that there are so many of me here—and so few of you?'” Welles certainly knew his worth. And while some call him a megalomaniac, others a charlatan, and still others simply a drunk (and each of these epithets can be defended to some extent), for me, he will remain above all a great director and a tragic figure—taken straight from one of Shakespeare’s plays, which were so beloved by Welles. A man who had to struggle throughout his life with people who didn’t understand his vision but had unlimited control over it. No wonder that in the end, just like the titular character Falstaff, Welles’ heart broke.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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