Friday, July 9, 2010

#11: Orson Welles

- “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”

Here he is… the three thousand pound gorilla in any list of favorite or best directors. A slight backlash against Mr. Welles has developed from some, due to his constant ranking as the greatest director of all time and the assumption that Citizen Kane must sit atop any ranking of the best films ever made. But if the shoe fits… There is no question that the influence that Welles has had on countless generations of filmmakers to come after him and the technical and structural innovations he used in his work make him a towering figure in the history of cinema. And I admit that the task of placing him in a list like this is difficult after becoming accustomed to seeing Welles unanimously placed at the top of similar projects or pieces about the most important directors of all time.

One thing that I have always pondered is what Welles’ reputation would be like if he had been able to at least moderately adjust to the Hollywood studio system. As everyone knows, the story of Welles post-Kane projects is littered with battles against studio heads and grappling for the final say on editing of his films. The result was that for a bulk of his prime years, Welles was a star without a home. He worked as a freelance director taking the best offers he received. After the war, he directed mostly low budget pictures for studios like Republic and International Pictures. For most of the 1950s he went into self-imposed exile in Europe, picking up money from acting jobs that he used to finance his own directorial projects as best he could. In the 1960s, when he was no longer the boywonder of the entertainment world, he arguably soldiered on to make some of his finest work, even though box office success was a thing of the past. So, the question I often ponder is this: had he been able to fit in better in Hollywood, how would his reputation have been affected? Two interesting options always come to mind. It’s possible that he would have been able to stay in the States for his entire career, resulting in greater exposure for more of his work (outside of Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, the usual suspects) and his status would only increase. On the other hand, I can’t help but thinking that the independent streak that Welles is remembered for can’t hurt in building his legend. There is something admirable about a man who refuses (or at least goes down fighting) to compromise his vision and decides to strike out on his own rather than submit to the whims of executives. I have no answer to this hypothetical, but it’s an interesting “What if?” I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts of others.

Regardless of all of this speculating, the reputation that Welles currently enjoys is justified. He is the greatest actor-director of the sound era, and arguably of all time. I respect his acting ability so much that I’m not sure which of his two talents impresses me more. No actor was better at launching into on-screen monologues like Welles. As a director, I have always admired his choice of material, involving very in-depth character studies. His constant experimenting with abstract visual styles and techniques is probably his greatest contribution. Pulling away all of the acclaim and hyperbole that has accumulated over the years reveals a director who is every bit as good as advertised. There is a reason that the praise has piled up for decades – Welles was simply a great and visionary filmmaker.

1. Citizen Kane (1941)
2. Touch of Evil (1958)
3. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
4. Othello (1952)
5. Mr. Arkadin (1955)
6. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
7. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
8. The Stranger (1946)
9. The Trial (1962)
10. Macbeth (1948)
11. F for Fake (1973)


  1. By Touch Of Evil he really did look like that "three thousand pound gorilla"!! I expected him to crack your top ten to be honest. My favorite director after Kubrick. I watched Chimes At Midnight twice in the last 2 or 3 months. What a brilliant film. The man was filled with all sorts of genius.

    1. Touch Of Evil
    2. Citizen Kane
    3. Chimes At Midnight
    4. The Lady From Shanghai
    5. The Magnificent Ambersons
    6. The Trial
    7. Othello
    8. Macbeth
    9. Mr. Arkadin
    10. The Stranger

    Still need to see F for Fake, though your low placement makes me think I shouldn't be in any sort of rush. Wow we are entering the final third.......M.Roca

  2. Aha, now this is really interesting. Apart from may be a couple of directors (who I will not name for the sake of avoiding spoilers) I have no idea who'll be in the top 10. Can't wait.

    I've only seen three by Welles - your top 3 and I have no qualms with the ranking!

  3. Love Welles! What can you say about the man that hasn't already been said so many times before? Here's my list:

    1. Citizen Kane
    2. Touch of Evil
    3. The Stranger
    4. The Lady from Shanghai
    5. The Magnificent Ambersons
    6. Mr. Arkadin
    7. Othello
    8. Chimes at Midnight
    9. The Trial
    10. Macbeth

  4. Dave:

    1. Citizen Kane (1941)
    2. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
    3. Touch of Evil (1958)
    4. The Lady from Shanghai (1947) (uncredited) If allowed in poll
    5. Macbeth (1948)
    6. Black Magic (1949) (uncredited) If allowed in poll
    7. The Trial (1962)
    8. The Stranger (1946)
    9. Journey Into Fear (1943) (uncredited) If allowed in poll

    I thought Mr. Welles might turn up a little later, but that is not a complaint. Kane seems always to have been with us. We had an art house (The Ascot) in The Bronx and I remember Kane playing there in the 1940s but I remember little else.

    But full cognizance of Kane came to me between forty or fifty years ago when I discovered Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice and Pauline Kael came to the New Yorker. And those around me were now talking about many of those films we had taken for granted for the prior twenty years as something special. Those were the heady days of the influence of the Nouvelle Vague, and Cahiers du Cinema. But Kane still ruled. Its place on the Sight and Sound bastion remained (and remains) impregnable.

    But the curtain hiding the magic of Kane is long gone. Virtually all the mysterious sleights of hand, hidden meanings, and technological and structural triumphs have pretty much been dissected, examined, explained, debated and, if not resolved, captured for future generations to consider. The great historians and directors have weighed in. Can anything new occur? Perhaps, they might find Herman Mankiewicz’s bicycle. (My wife, by the way, was also born in Wilkes Barre.)

    Andrew Sarris has always been my guiding star and Michael Powell a favorite director.
    Yet an old African proverb states when elephants fight the grass suffers. I have long been somewhat conflicted between Sarris’s love of Kane and the tepid appreciation of Michael Powell who said of Kane: “ … It’s all brains and no heart.” On my own, I fall closer to Powell than to Sarris.

    Lacking daring, I will leave Kane at one. But every time Ambersons comes on I watch that immediately. There at least, one can regret how much more there might have been. Touch of Evil is very close to the top. Then Lady from Shanghai and especially, and oddly, Macbeth, which I also saw at The Ascot, probably in 1949 and liked very much – perhaps because of an English teacher at school. The sequence of the rest is arbitrary. Best and thank you.


    Postscript: As to your “what if” about the two options: the answer might best be told in a film – a film made by Orson Welles.

  5. I've only seen three of his films also, but have several in my queue. The Magnificent Ambersons isn't on disc, so I haven't been able to see it. That seems like a crime to me. Citizen Kane is a fabulous film, I'm blown away every time I watch it. The first time I watched it I didn't have any of the hype surrounding it, it was just another old film I'd heard about and wanted to watch. Simply great.

  6. Certainly Welles is among the handful of the greatest American directors, hence he's a titan of world cinema. Chaplin, Keaton, Ford, Lubitsch, Hawks, Capra, Huston, Anthony Mann, Kubrick and Sturges are really his only peers in terms of sheer influence and greatness, and in CITIZEN KANE he crafted what is arguably the greatest film ever made in the USA. It's significant that Welles's reputation in France, the UK and Russia even eclipses what it is here, and that Welles is a true Renaissance man, with a deep and abiding love for Shakespeare above all else. Without the notorious studio mutilation of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS he may have produced a film that matched KANE. You have framed his artistry (and legacy) beautifully in this most accomplished essay.

    1 Citizen Kane
    2 Chimes at Midnight
    3 The Magnificent Ambersons
    4 Macbeth
    5 Mr. Arkadin
    6 The Lady from Shanghai
    7 Touch of Evil
    8 Othello
    9 The Stranger
    10 The Trial
    11 F for Fake
    12 Journey Into Fear

    MACBETH, often maligned for its cardboard sets, is a brooding masterpiece to rank with his best work, methinks. Edgar Barrier is superlative as Banquo.

  7. It seems these days that more attention is paid to why Welles didn't finish more films than to appreciating what he made. But since his final tally of finished films will probably end up far larger than, say, an unpersecuted talent like Terrence Malick, we may as well focus on what we have rather than on why we don't have more.

    As for your speculation about his possible easier adjustment, maybe he would have been better off if he had gone to Hollywood as an actor only first and worked like he did on The Shadow on radio rather than instantly starting a Mercury troupe. Starting on the ground floor rather than the penthouse didn't exactly harm a lot of other directors.

    1. The Magnificent Ambersons -- a richer film than Kane even in mutilated form.
    2. Citizen Kane
    3. Touch of Evil
    4. F for Fake
    5. Othello
    6. Mr. Arkadin
    7. The Lady From Shanghai
    8. The Trial
    9. The Stranger
    10. Macbeth -- only because my memory of it's pretty dim.

    The last time I checked you could see Chimes at Midnight free online somewhere, but I haven't yet taken the plunge.

  8. Sadly, I am still missing some key Welles film but here are the six I have seen.

    Citizen Kane
    Touch of Evil
    The Magnificent Amberson
    The Lady From Shanghai
    The Stranger

  9. Dave, no surprise to see Welles here. He's in my own pantheon of great directors--with fewer masterpieces than about any other, so that shows how highly I esteem those films and the latent genius that comes through in other works of his. A very nicely written lead-in, by the way. I've seen "Kane" many times and always find something new in it. For me it really deserves all those accolades as the greatest movie of all time, where many polls (including the Cahiers du Cinema poll of the 100 greatest movies of all time) placed it. I wonder if this film succeeded so well because the script was so rigidly structured that he was forced to adhere to it. Maybe Welles was one of those directors who needed some constraints so that his genius didn't run riot (like Samuel Fuller). I haven't seen all the films you list, but considering your list and those of other commenters, it seems the one I most need to see is "Chimes at Midnight." The four masterpieces of his I've seen are "Kane" at #1 of course, followed by "Ambersons" (I love its elegiac tone, a great follow-on to the themes of loss of innocence and idealism in "Kane"), then "Evil," and finally "The Trial," which just knocked me over when I finally saw it. Welles and Kafka--what an unlikely match, yet the result was magnificent, with Anthony Perkins's best performance after "Psycho."

  10. Maurizio - Our top three are identical and its hard to knock any of them. The rest can be mixed up in many different orderings for me, but my top three (and actually four now that I think about it) are pretty solid.

    JAFB - Yes, those top three are spectacular.

    J.D. - Bold choice with The Strangers that high! I like the decision, though, it really is a wonderful noir.

    Gerald - Welles actually is credited as the director for The Lady from Shanghai, so that one is certainly applicable for the list! I can't at all agree about Kane having no heart, because I am someone who has little need for technical innovation and other aspects that appeal to the great directors that have been influenced by Kane. To me, it's the story that drew me in and what remains with me. The camera movements, shots, etc., are all secondary for me. Ambersons is one I mourn as well, but it just feels so incomplete, with so much missing in the middle, that it's hard for me to put it on the same level as Orson's other great films.

    Retro Hound - I agree, it does live up to the hype.

    Sam - I well know your love of both Welles and Citizen Kane. I like Macbeth as well, but definitely think that Othello was a superior Welles Shakespeare adaptation.

    Samuel - As I said to Gerald, I just can't buy into Ambersons quite that much. What is missing, particularly through the middle sections, is just too much for me to think that the movie is anywhere near complete. I still like it, and I'm not one of those that cries every night over what was cut, but the missing sections are just a little too much for me. Still enjoyable, but definitely hindered because of it.

    John - Definitely check out Chimes at Midnight!

    R.D. - Yes, Chimes at Midnight needs to be seen. I can't argue with any of your rankings, even if I'm not quite as big of a fan of The Magnificent Ambersons and The Trial as you are. They are still incredibly well-made films.

  11. I love the fact that Welles later hated Citizen Kane and almost always dismissed it, probably because he realized the film's plot basis is flawed from the start and laughed at everyone calling it "Perfect"

  12. His father was a well-to-do inventor, his mother a beautiful concert pianist; Orson Welles was gifted in many arts as a child. When his mother died he traveled the world with his father. When his father died (he was fifteen) he became the ward of Chicago's Dr. Maurice Bernstein.