Perfect Directors: Orson Welles


What’s left to say about Orson Welles? One of the 20th century’s most acclaimed directors, his first film–which he made at 25, an age when most people still haven’t figured out how credit cards work–is still considered one of the greatest films of all time; his work experimented with the medium to such great success that most contemporary directors would cite him as a primary influence; he reintroduced techniques from German Expressionism that his interpretations are perhaps better known than their inspirations; his attitude and approach towards making films–as a uncompromising, singular auteur–has itself inspired generations of artists to gather up their courage and follow their own vision; and his body of work is continuously reassessed, critically re-engaged, and rewatched by every upcoming generation, finding inspiration and ideas in his films that they then internalize and adapt as their own. It is now canon that Orson Welles is one of the greatest directors of all time.

But why? Outside of Citizen Kane, is his work that well known to popular audiences? Cinephiles certainly know his oeuvre, and he’s admired among the intelligentsia and practitioners of the arts, but how many casual film fans have watched Chimes at Midnight or F for Fake? Or sought out the deluxe edition of Mr. Arkadin or screened the chopped-up remains that would have been Don Quixote? Outside of Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai, and The Third Man (which he didn’t direct but appeared in; although its style heavily leaned on Welles’ films in the 1940s), and of course Kane, there are many Welles films that have largely gone unseen by the public at large.


Which is unfortunate since he was startlingly ahead of his time: The Magnificent Ambersons is at times one of the most beautiful films ever made and a dark American tragedy; Chimes at Midnight is one of the best Shakespeare adaptations of all time, conflating Henry IV, Parts I and II and featuring Welles as one of the greatest incarnations of Falstaff; F for Fake is a brilliant essay-documentary about forgery and illusion, with Welles pulling one over on the audience by the end; and with the latest reconstruction that finally achieves his vision for the film, Mr. Arkadin is a fantastic film noir and an evocative travelogue of Europe. While his best-known films are rightfully hailed, perhaps his greatest work are the underseen ones.

Welles was a director first and everything else second: a writer, orator, commentator, actor, and almost-politician, his biography ends up reading like Charles Foster Kane’s–only he lived a much more colorful life than that old grouch. The fact that he got most of his films made at all is a small miracle, having been effectively banished from Hollywood from 1958 onward. But he was almost through as a mainstream filmmaker once Kane was released in 1941 anyway, having created an ugly portrait of one of the most powerful men in the country, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, which banished any advertisement or mention of the film in its papers and pressured studios to similarly block Welles.


It’s not his big-budget films that proved Welles a great director but the ones he made during his decades in exile, scrambling and scraping to put his films together on shoestring budgets and with shoots separated by years as he took roles and gigs far beneath him to finance his own work. No matter how he had to degrade both himself and his image to make the money, Welles only cared about producing his work–which, incredibly, he continued to do despite the constraints he faced. Not only that, but many of them were excellent–masterpieces that Welles seemed to create by sheer force of will. Considering that after Kane much of his early work was subjected to heavy edits by the studios without Welles’ involvement, the fact that they still retained much of the power and brilliance that he imbued them with is a testament to his creative genius.

Between his indomitable passion for his work, the more-than-difficult situations he faced in order to produce them, and the unbelievable quality of his films with these first two qualifiers in mind, Orson Welles wasn’t just great, but a perfect director.

Orson Welles: A Perfect Director

Before becoming a film director, Welles was already well on his way to stardom as a theater director, actor, and radio personality–all three art forms in which he cultivated talents that would serve him well in film. Between his innovative theatrical productions, most notably his Mercury Theatre staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (which he updated to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) in 1937, and his infamous adaptation of War of the Worlds on Mercury Radio on the Air in 1938. Having captured the public’s imagination, this wunderkind (a title that would follow him throughout his life) was on his way to Hollywood to conquer yet another medium–all by the age of 24.


And perhaps it was these formative experiences in various fields of the arts that gave Welles both the confidence and vision to create a revolutionary film like Citizen Kane: while it was obvious since his adolescence that he was a gifted person, perhaps even a genius, many bright minds have gone to waste throughout history without the experiences and venues that would nurture the seed of their talent to surface. Having found critical and commercial success in theater and radio, it now seemed natural that he would combine the two and create within the complex realm of film.

Speaking of which: Kane is notable for being such a complex film, particularly since it was created at a time when such artistic license and novelty in the medium was neither encouraged nor produced in Hollywood. Having signed a “golden contract” with RKO which gave Welles ultimate artistic license, including final cut, he was free to make whatever film he chose and however he chose to make it; given his notoriety and success up to this point, people could have assumed it would be remarkable–but maybe nobody but Welles could have foreseen the long shadow it would cast across film history.

The film itself–as has been detailed so many thousands of times in the 66 years since its release– is a dazzling collage of styles, perspectives, and narrative techniques that makes the film seem like something greater than its parts. Told in various flashbacks in the present-tense, each era of Kane’s life is explored from the people who have knowledge of the events, but the man himself ultimately remains a mystery to the film’s characters and is left for the audience to puzzle together. There many elements to Kane that have been left for film scholars to dissect over the ensuing decades since its release–its editing, composition, themes, cinematography, structure–that it rightly has been regarded as the best film ever made.


If this were the only film Welles had ever made, he would be considered a genius in the field–but this was only the beginning of his life: at 25 he had made one of the most astonishing films ever, and on his first time out. As he once said many years later, “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” And while in retrospect that’s not true, Kane ruined him in many ways: from basing the divisive character on one of the most powerful men in the country, Welles eternally blacklisted himself from many outlets and potential allies he could have found in the next 45 years of his life and career; instead, he essentially climbed to the top and defiantly kicked the rungs out from under him until professionally there was nowhere left to go but down.

The Hollywood Years

Of course, just because he pissed off the wrong person didn’t mean his career was over in Hollywood: that would take a few more years of fighting against the studio system and making some professionally poor choices. None of this seemed to affect his work itself, however: his follow-up film, The Magnificent Ambersons, based on the Booth Tarkington novel, was set to become yet another masterpiece. Covering the life of one George Amberson Minifer, the only son left of the once-great Amberson family, from the turn of the century to the 1930s, Welles created one spectacular set piece after another, and creating one of the most impressive long takes in film history at the beginning of the film that sweeps the audience into the last great ball held at the Amberson estate.


But the film’s a tragedy, with every scene seemingly ushering the family one step closer to an inevitable doom of some sort; George is a thoroughly unlikeable character, having been spoiled rotten by his mother and arrogant of his family’s high standing in society, and due to his obstinate nature and refusal to actively engage in the business of life, he sets himself up for a great fall when the family’s fortune finally runs out.

Both elegant and sad, it was another masterpiece from Welles–and his first experience with studio interference. Having left the country to work on the ill-fated It’s All True, Welles was in South America when the studio took the work print of the film, cut an hour of footage from it, and tacked on a happy ending. The elements that were cut were destroyed long ago, making a reconstruction impossible, but the film as it stands now is still incredible and a testimony to Welles’ abilities that even after a major unsupervised edit, the surviving film is still something special.


Having spent much of WWII on goodwill missions and war bond tours where he performed magic and hamming it up for the crowds, Welles returned to directing now humbled and wanting to prove to the studios that he could make a film on budget and on time. The result was the noir film The Stranger. Starring Edgar G. Robinson and Welles himself as an escaped Nazi who’s trying to hide in America, it’s arguably Welles’ weakest film, although it still shows flourishes under the constraints he was working against. A success, it gave Welles a reprieve in Hollywood and he was allowed to continue creating for the time being–which is for the best, since he had more masterpieces to reveal to the world.

The next film was The Lady from Shanghai, a noir masterpiece starring Rita Hayworth, his then-estranged wife, and of course Welles himself. Again subjected to heavy cuts without Welles’s supervision, the film still retained some incredible scenes from the director, including the now-famous “hall of mirrors” sequence at the end of the film, which highlights Welles’ visual genius for illusion and remains iconic to this day.


But it was not a success and Welles bounced to another studio that would have him, this time directing a low-budget version of Macbeth. His violent, innovative take on Shakespeare’s play featured dialogue syncing with a pre-recorded soundtrack, deep-focus photography, and perhaps the darkest take on the play on film since the inception of film. Delayed for nearly a year, it was a disaster, and that was the end of Welles’ short reign in Hollywood. He was 33 years old.

Masterpieces in Exile

Europe had always received Welles’ work with high praise and success, and it was there he ventured next, becoming an expat and seeking his fortune outside the States. But it was not the bounty he expected: post-war Europe was in worse financial shape than the US market and Welles found himself working as an actor to finance his films. The first post-US masterpiece he created in this environment was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. It was also his first experience suspending production of a film several times in order to secure further funds, a pattern that would continue for nearly the rest of his films. Ultimately it took him 3 years to complete the film.


The result was another masterpiece, a complex composition that employs depth of field and complex framing, but not without significant compromise–another pattern that would mark (and mar) Welles’s work for the rest of his life. The soundtrack and overall audio quality was flawed, while Welles was forced to recut the film based on market demands, so that two cuts of the film existed.

His next film, Mr. Arkadin, was a continuation of the problems he initially encountered with Othello, with multiple suspended breaks between shoots and the film re-cut severely by the producers without Welles’ involvement. Retitled Confidential Report, the “true” Welles version–which was constructed based on a workprint and editing notes by Welles–was finally released in 2005. This final version is another stunning noir film, and it only took 50 years for the right version to be seen.

One Quick Trip Back

Welles returned to Hollywood after realizing he wasn’t going to find the freedom he had hoped in Europe and negotiated to do a film within the studio system. Though originally only hired as an actor, at the insistence of Charlton Heston Welles was promoted to director for his film Touch of Evil. Fortunately, this came at the height of Welles’s powers, and what he delivered is one of the final noir masterpieces of the era–and one of the best of the genre.

Opening with an incredible long shot tracking a bomb’s path from just inside the Mexican border to the other side, integrating the setup of the protagonist’s journey back from Mexico after a quicky marriage in Tijuana. The rest of the film is another masterpiece from Welles, a captivating hard-boiled noir film about a crooked police Captain (played with intimidation and ferocity by Welles) and the investigation into his corruption. Another one of Welles’s works that was recut by the studio, original cuts were rediscovered with new versions re-released twice that hew closer to Welles’ original vision.


But having yet another film taken away from him, Welles became again disenchanted with working inside the studio system and decamped yet again for Europe, where he remained an exile for the rest of his life.

A Wandering Genius

His attentions turned to an adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote next, of which he would work on for a decade without ever releasing a definitive version. While whittling away at this work, Welles released an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial starring Anthony Perkins as the persecuted Josef K. Visually inventive and another great work, Welles used found locations and created the film’s labyrinth structure and paranoid tone around these settings, later recalling his film as his best work. Naturally, it failed at the box office.


Always looking for his next project, Welles directed a film for French television, The Immortal Story, his first feature shot in color and only running 60 minutes long. While well-received at the time, it fell into obscurity, only becoming available to widespread audiences for the first time since its initial airing and limited theatrical release through Blu-ray and streaming services in 2016.

In 1965, Welles filmed another masterpiece and one that would go on to receive recognition as one of the best Shakespeare adaptations of all time: Chimes at Midnight (also known as Falstaff). A conflation of Henry IV, Part I and II. A study in how to effectively make a film of epic scale despite a limited budget and resources, Welles used every cinematography trick at his disposal to make an army out of less than 200 extras, create large-scale and dramatic moments using only light, staging, and angles, and using his own considerable acting talent to bring to life one of classic literature’s most colorful characters, Sir John Falstaff.


For a Shakespeare fan, Chimes at Midnight is a delight, and for a fan of Welles, it’s further proof of the man’s gift: later recalling the film as one of his favorites, he stated that perhaps out of all of his films, this was the closest he got to achieving his vision for a project. Par for the course for his work at this time, it was critically reviled and not successful at the box office, but later critics would rightly hail it as one of his greatest works.

Unseen Delights, Dreck, and F for Fake

Returning to the States yet again to scrum up financing, Welles became a parody of his former stature, appearing on low-rent talk and game shows and television commercials to shore up his finances. One of his most promising projects, The Other Side of the Wind, is now considered a lost masterpiece: featuring an old director (Welles) trying to make his Hollywood comeback, only to be subjected to the tawdriness of the business, only glimpses and snippets have leaked out over the years. What has been released, however, is tantalizing: a full-color feature filled with innovative camerawork, use of sound, and editing techniques, it is rumored every now and then just to be on the verge of release, but as of 2017 has yet to surface in any definitive form.

Another potential project fell into obscurity due to lack of financing or interest: his adaptation of the novel Dead Calm that he renamed The Deep, which eventually was made to great success in the 1989 as Dead Calm.

The 70s was a low ebb for Welles: he would serve as narrator for crap like Bugs Bunny: Superstar and appear in wine and frozen pea commercials just for the paycheck. In hindsight, one wonders why nobody would extend a lifeline to this filmmaker that had inspired all-new generations of directors and editors; just a few million would have put him in the black and given him the funds he desperately needed to finish his various works. But those are sins for another generation to answer for: Welles trudged on defiantly, as usual.


His last great work was his only color wide release: the essay-documentary F for Fake. Showing a new side of Welles’s technique, a rapid-fire collage of images and sounds accompanied what seems at first to be a straight documentary of various forgers, from an international scandal involving a famous Picasso forger to the then-contemporary hoax involving writer Clifford Irving who claimed he was Howard Hughes’s official biographer. But somewhere along the way, Welles plays a sly trick on the audience, and the film brilliantly upends itself. Always a master of sleight-of-hand, Welles played one final trick on his audience. It’s an incredible work, never finding sure footing in reality or fiction, but for a film that explores that very notion, it’s perfect.


With no less than a half a dozen masterpieces completed during his lifetime, Welles spent most of his active career in obscurity. Having started at the top, his fortunes continued to dwindle until his last role was as the voice for Omicron in Transformers: The Movie before dying of a heart attack in 1985.


One reason that Welles may be considered a perfect director is not just the work he produced during his life but the passion that his work inspired in generations of film scholars that followed that meticulously restored, recut, and re-released his work so that his intended vision could be seen for generations to come. To see the original cut of Mr. Arkadin and the eventual recut version in 2005 is like watching two different movies entirely: atmosphere, overall shape, and tone of the film is radically different, and ultimately the “Welles” version that was restored is much better.   

In a parallel universe, Welles could have been an American Hitchcock, continually churning out incredible mystery-thriller films that showcased his talents. Instead, he spent decades scraping by, putting together patchwork films that still somehow retained his immense talents as a filmmaker. There is another history where this brilliant director was eternally given the budgets he wanted and provided deference from the studios that funded his pictures.


Instead, he toiled at and prostrated himself for his art, becoming a caricature and has-been in popular culture by middle-age. But when he died, he belonged to the ages: a Welles revival suddenly sprung up after his death that hasn’t abated since. Only with the perfect vision of hindsight can people see what genius the man held; and by watching the cobbled-together, low-budget films that he somehow created can we see that a brilliant light was dimmed out of spite and ego of people from his time.

Welles made incredible films despite any limitations or professional discouragement, and what he made is more brilliant than most filmmakers will achieve throughout their much more well-funded careers. Perhaps his shoddy treatment is what gave legs to other filmmakers despite their faults and flaws; as Rene Ricard once wrote about Basquiat, “When you first see a new picture you are very careful because you may be staring at van Gogh’s ear.” Welles is now the film world’s eternal reminder of that.

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