Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Profile of Orson Welles -- Actor, Writer, and Director of Classic Film and Old-Time Radio

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

In 2002, the British Film Institute's magazine Sight and Sound published a list of the 10 best films ever made. Once again, Citizen Kane topped that list, as it has every decade since 1962. It's surprising to think that Orson Welles made it when he was 25.

After spending his youth in Kenosha, Wisconsin, studying to be a professional magician, George Orson Welles (1915–1985) found his calling in another form of magic: entertainment. He acted for many years on stage and in radio programs (over 100 from 1938 to 1941!) like The Shadow. He was so busy at one point that — before it was made illegal — he would hire an ambulance to take him from studio to studio, often not knowing beforehand the role he was to voice.

Then came his big break. In 1938, NBC was looking for a summer series and asked the Mercury Theatre — the troupe founded by Welles and John Houseman — to be the stars. The first show of The Mercury Theatre on the Air was an adaptation of Dracula, with Welles playing Dr. Seward and the titular vampire. While the ratings weren't spectacular, the network quickly realized that it was an ideal prestige program. That Halloween, Mercury would put on the adaptation that would make Welles a household name. It was of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

The choice of presenting the radio play in a news broadcast format was more successful than they could have imagined. The public panicked. Masses of people ran into the streets, trying to get away from the horrible Martian invasion. Many were trampled and run over by the escaping crowds. This unexpected response, while tragic, proved that people were listening. The Campbell's Soup Company subsequently offered to sponsor the program and renamed the show the Campbell Playhouse.

This success alone would have ensured Welles' stardom, but soon after, he was offered a contract with RKO Studios that was previously unheard of: to make any picture he wanted with total creative control. A perk even now reserved for the already famous and powerful, it was never done for a first-timer.

At first, Welles wanted to adapt Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Then he was shown a script Herman Mankiewicz had written, simply called American. It was the story of a newspaper magnate and was loosely based on the life of Mankiewicz crony William Randolph Hearst. It was this script — after considerable retooling by Welles — that would be the basis for the film Citizen Kane.

The filmmaking techniques used have cemented Citizen Kane's place in the cinematic canon, due to the collaboration of Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland (Academy Award winner for 1939's Wuthering Heights). Toland actually campaigned for the position saying that the only people from whom one can learn are the ones who don't know anything.

One can imagine the boy genius and the seasoned veteran bouncing ideas off one another, with Toland finding imaginative ways to shoot Welles' "impossible" ideas. One example was in Kane's pioneering use of ceilings. Previously, the "ceiling" of a shot was where the lights and microphones were kept, out of sight. Welles wanted to use more interesting angles to show relationships between characters. For example, for the post-election scene, a hole was dug in the floor so that the camera lens would be at exactly floor-level, showing Kane's towering figure in sharp relief.

Not new, but still rare at the time, was the film's use of deep-focus photography, the technique of having all parts of the frame seen with equal clarity. This allows the viewer to choose what to look at, rather than the director making the choice by focusing attention on a certain point. Such innovations, combined with the fine acting of the Mercury Theatre, make a film that stands up to multiple repeated viewings, with additional nuances discovered in each.

However, Kane's rise to its current classic status was not an easy one. On its release, the film was a flop. This was partially due to Hearst's boycott in all his newspapers of any advertising regarding the film, but audiences could also not take the innovative storytelling and photographic style. In fact, Kane would not be appreciated by audiences until the early 1950s when RKO sold the rights to television, where it finally found its following.

Film work on Kane was finally too much for Welles to continue in radio and he left the Campbell Playhouse in its last year. (His attempt to film Eric Ambler's novel Journey into Fear (co-scripted with Joseph Cotten) conflicted with his many other commitments and Norman Foster was chosen to complete the picture, though he imitated Welles' style and the picture retains the Wellesian feel.)

Welles immediately began work on The Magnificent Ambersons, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel. Although an excellent film, this would begin the start of Welles' slow decline. After completion of Ambersons, Welles travelled to Brazil to immortalize its people in a film entitled It's All True. Due to poor test screenings for Ambersons' ending, studio heads took the film into their own hands — as Welles was unable to return in time — and reshot the ending.

Perhaps the film was not as good with Welles' ending. Perhaps it would not be hailed as a classic now had it not been tampered with. We, unfortunately, will never know. Another blow to Welles was that the footage shot abroad was deemed unusable and would not be released until 1993 — in a documentary about the situation (also entitled It's All True).

Welles' next film as director (he acted in 1942's Jane Eyre, opposite Joan Fontaine) was the only film to be a hit upon its initial release, The Stranger (1946). In this straightforward thriller, Welles plays an alleged Nazi leader being trailed by Edward G. Robinson to a small town in Connecticut. It was a simple story filmed on a small budget (done mainly to prove that he could do it) that gave Welles' already-failing directorial career a needed boost and led to his filming 1947's The Lady from Shanghai, another thriller (from a Sherwood King novel) starring himself and recent ex-wife Rita Hayworth. Welles' Irish accent is inconsistent and Hayworth's turn as a femme fatale unexceptional, but the direction is spot-on and still innovative (especially the climax in the funhouse) and the film wholly entertaining. Also of note is a supporting role by Everett Sloane as the cuckolded husband, one of the few Mercury players with whom Welles still worked.

Here we enter Welles' first Shakespeare phase, as his two next films were adaptations of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), with him in the title roles, of course. Macbeth's quality varies according to which version you see. The original — with Scottish accents, no less — is far superior to the studio-edited and -dubbed travesty. Though not as compelling as Roman Polanski's 1971 version (made following the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child by the Manson "family"), Welles' take on "the Scottish play" is by no means run-of-the-mill. Welles' performance alone is worth a viewing.

Othello was made during a hard time in Welles' career, and it says a lot about the efforts of all involved that it does not show. It took Welles and company three years (1949–1952) to complete the shooting of the story of the Moor of Venice. The cast and crew would gather for shooting until the money ran out, then Welles would act in others' films for the money, and they would all return until it was used up — lucky for us, because The Third Man was made during this period. Welles' performance as the man who "loved not wisely but too well" is riveting, but the standout here is Michael MacLiammoir as Iago. (Perhaps he was channelling some of his own frustrations toward his director?) Welles, as usual, takes liberties with his source material, but the final print — especially in its restored version — remains true to its spirit. It won the Palme D'Or at Cannes that year, but had rarely been seen until Welles' daughter Beatrice restored it in 1993.

In 1955, Welles adapted his own rather confusing novel, Mr. Arkadin into what is considered his most personal film (and probably the only time he was faithful to an author's work). Then, in 1958, he released his second-greatest film, Touch of Evil. Originally Welles was hired just to act in this film. But when Charlton Heston heard Welles was involved, he thought Welles was directing and jumped at the opportunity. Not wanting to lose Heston, the studio hired Welles to direct — as long as he did both for his acting salary. His first step was to completely rewrite Paul Monash's script (based on the Whit Masterson novel Badge of Evil), making his own role much larger.

From the beginning three-minute crane shot — that ends with a bomb explosion — to the final line spoken by Marlene Dietrich ("He was some kind of a man"), Touch of Evil is typically Wellesian. The storyline is simple enough, but what stands out is the film's sense of style. Working with a varied cast the likes of which he had never used (Charlton Heston as a Mexican?), he was nonetheless able to get really great performances, most of all from himself. His Hank Quinlan is truly despicable. The latex and makeup helped in making him ugly, but it is his actions that finish the job. A "half-breed" (Mexican American) killed Quinlan's wife, but there was not enough evidence for a conviction, so the killer was set free. Therefore, now that Quinlan knows who planted the bomb, he is producing evidence that did not otherwise exist, without thinking of the consequences to others. Touch of Evil is perfect film noir and is considered the last great entry in that genre, and as a film to study (as Welles studied Stagecoach while shooting Citizen Kane) to learn how to make a great film.

The story after Touch of Evil was not so enjoyable, however. Upon leaving to begin an adaptation of Don Quixote (another film he would not complete; it was completed by others and released in 1992), Touch of Evil was completely re-edited by the studio, which cited its almost random story order. It was not until the recent discovery of Welles' own notes that the film was again re-edited to his original specifications. This version is available on DVD, complete with notes. Nevertheless, the original studio cut won the international prize at the 1958 Brussels World Fair.

Welles did not direct another film until 1962's The Trial (from the Franz Kafka novel), starring Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. Then came Chimes at Midnight (also known simply as Falstaff) in 1965, Welles' consolidation of all of John Falstaff's scenes from various plays of Shakespeare (Henry IV parts I and II, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and portions of Henry V and Richard II). Welles' performance, unfortunately, is the only compelling aspect of the production, despite a beautifully filmed battle. As per usual, budget restrictions plagued the production and — unlike with Othello — it shows.

Welles finished his directing career with two films: The Immortal Story in 1968 and F for Fake in 1974. The former is a bland adaptation made for French television of an Isak Dinesen story (from the same collection, Anecdotes of Destiny, that spawned Babette's Feast), and the latter is a curiosity at best, but nevertheless a compelling one. In it, Welles plays up his personality as a mysterious figure — as well as his never-forgotten practice of magic tricks — in a slim narrative around fakery in the modern world, including a lengthy interview with painting forger Elmyr de Hory conducted by faker-to-be Clifford Irving (who would write the infamous Autobiography of Howard Hughes and then tell the story behind it in The Hoax). Though not a great film, F for Fake is nonetheless entertaining and a fitting endpoint to a career that had much trouble and not much reward. (The Criterion Collection DVD is also a treat for fans in that the second disc focuses a great deal of attention on Welles's unfinished works.)

During the time from Touch of Evil on, Welles did some of his most interesting acting in character parts for Hollywood, mostly while trying to raise money for his many doomed film projects. The high points include The Long Hot Summer (1958), Compulsion (1959) — a Leopold and Loeb case where he plays a commanding Clarence Darrow–like lawyer — A Man for All Seasons (1966), a fun role in Casino Royale (1967) — a James Bond spoof starring Peter Sellers and Woody Allen — and Catch-22 (1970).

As the 1970s continued, however, Welles became more in demand for his famous voice talents than for his physical presence, with narration-only roles in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Bugs Bunny, Superstar (1975), The Late Great Planet Earth (1979), Mel Brooks's History of the World, Part I (1981), Slapstick (of Another Kind) (1982), and The Transformers (1986). And of course, most of my generation remembers Welles as the pitchman for Paul Masson wines, who would "sell no wine before its time." His last onscreen appearance was introducing a fittingly film noir–esque episode of Moonlighting.

Welles himself has said that he "started at the bottom and worked [his] way down." It is unfortunate — but not surprising — that such a cinematic artist could not find support in the Hollywood community, where they purport to make art. The works of Orson Welles have and continue to inspire young people to make their own films. With money flowing so easily in Hollywood, it is distressing that he had to work so hard to receive any of it.

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