orson welles

[Yesterday was Orson Welles' birthday, and in honor of that I've decided to post my Orson Welles reviews here. Below is the original introduction I wrote twelve years ago. At the end is the list of the movies. My plan is to post one review a day until they are all up.]

Introduction (1999)

I've been a fan of Orson Welles' films for many years, probably since the first time I saw Citizen Kane on television, a viewing which was interrupted right before the end by a drunken driver crashing into our family's car right outside the house, so I had to wait impatiently for a second opportunity to see the film in order to find out what the heck "Rosebud" was.

I'm not sure exactly why or when that initial desire became a fascination with Welles' films in general, but I was lucky because in those days (the 1960s and 1970s) there were many revival houses in New York City, theaters which showed only old movies, in double bills. The movies were changed every day in some theaters, in others they stayed a little longer, but the result was that, if you paid attention to the listings, sooner or later you could see almost anything. Even off the top of my head I can remember seven such theaters, and I'm sure I've forgotten some.

So, when I set out to see all of Welles' movies, it was not easy but it was certainly possible. Today, of course, it would be impossible except on video, and difficult even then. So, in the early 1990s, when I was posting messages on some local computer bulletin boards (also now mostly extinct, the Internet has killed the local BBS scene almost as completely as video killed the revival houses), I realized that I was the only person there who had seen all of Welles' movies on the big screen (or, probably, on any screen). So, I set out to write reviews of all of them.

By the way, when I refer to Welles' films, I am speaking of the films he directed. I have no special interest in the movies he acted in (most of which he chose strictly on the basis of how much they were willing to pay him), and have only seen two (The Third Man, which is great, and Catch-22, which is not).

My memory is far from photographic, so I did utilize some reference materials when I wrote the original reviews, and I rented the films which were available on video in order to refresh my memory on some points.

Interest in Welles and his films seems to be increasing these days. The 1998 re-edit of Touch of Evil was the most successful revival ever at the Film Forum in New York City, running a total of five months, and at one point it was one of the top-grossing films in the country (calculated on a per-screen basis). Books about Welles continue to be published, and Tim Robbins' newest movie (Cradle Will Rock) depicts an incident in Welles' early life. And, of course, today's filmmakers continue to be influenced by, and to steal from, Welles.

(Thanks to Bruce Goldstein from Film Forum for confirming the specific details about Touch of Evil.)


George Orson Welles
(1915-1985)

There are two particular quotes from Orson Welles which I've always thought were especially interesting, and they get into some of the points I've been thinking about in relation to Welles' films:

I

"Luckily, we know almost nothing about Shakespeare and very little about Cervantes. And that makes it so much easier to understand their works... It's an egocentric, romantic, nineteenth-century conception that the artist is more interesting and more important than his art."

Welles did not like to discuss his life, and especially any connection between his life and his art, and it seems like this reluctance is partially personal and partially because it detracts from the work being taken the way it's intended, as art. This is, as he points out, a rather old-fashioned notion.

II

[When discussing his conviction that he had killed his father:]
I don't want to forgive myself. That's why I hate psychoanalysis. I think if you're guilty of something you should live with it."

Welles has always seemed to me very unusual among filmmakers in that his ideas about stories and characters and even good and evil come from Shakespeare more than from any source in this century (most filmmakers these days seem to draw mostly from other films). Even the best directors today (Martin Scorsese comes to mind) are film buffs, the product of film schools. Welles was always much more interested in making films fit his ideas about telling stories than he was in finding himself a niche in the history of filmmaking.

I read an article which said that Scorsese has an entire office, staffed 24 hours a day, just responsible for taping movies off TV and cable, and keeping a running catalog of which ones they have, which ones they want, and which ones they want a better version of. It's impossible to imagine Welles doing anything like this, in fact he thought it was dangerous for a filmmaker to see too many movies. Not that he didn't study films, when he was about to start making Citizen Kane he screened Stagecoach every night for as couple of weeks, each time with a different person from the studio in attendance to answer his questions. But that was to learn as much about the technical side of filmmaking as he could in a short period of time. He didn't keep doing it after that goal was achieved.


The movies:

  1. Citizen Kane (1941)
  2. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  3. The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
  4. Macbeth (1948)
  5. Othello (1952)
  6. Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report (1955)
  7. Touch of Evil (1958)
  8. The Trial (1962)
  9. Chimes at Midnight/Falstaff (1966)
  10. The Immortal Story (1968)
  11. F for Fake (1974)

(I exclude The Stranger (1946) from Welles' filmography not because it's not credited to him but because he himself didn't want to take credit for it. There is no question that he directed at least some parts of it, and it is interesting to watch, but it's not on the same level as the other films I've written about here.)

Also: The Cradle Will Rock

Additional viewing, for confirmed fans only:

Orson Welles: The One-Man Band: A very interesting documentary, which contains footage from various unfinished Welles projects, including The Other Side of the Wind, Moby Dick, and The Merchant of Venice. It is included in the Criterion Collection DVD of F for Fake.

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4 Responses to orson welles

  1. klaus says:

    I recently picked up a made-for-TV movie on DVD entitled “RKO 281” – about the making of Citizen Kane. I was just wondering if you have you seen it, and if so, is it worth a watch?

  2. I’m actually not sure. I don’t think so, or maybe I saw part of it. I sometimes feel like I know too much about the making of Kane already. 🙂

    What I have seen, and do recommend (and it will be included on this page within a few days) is Cradle Will Rock, which is based on events in Welles’ life before he went to Hollywood.

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