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The Orson Welles File – Part 1

The Orson Welles File - Part 1

Orson Welles. How much he has meant in my life. For good, mainly. Certainly he was the first film director to inspire me to direct pictures, as he did for so many others down the years. No matter how much he aged, Orson retained an aura of youth and of promise. I was 16 when I first saw Citizen Kane, and as you’ll see below it had an inordinate effect on me. Again, as it has for many would-be directors.

From then on, I was an abject fan, saw anything he had anything to do with, which was a lot more than directing, unfortunately (as will be evidenced by this file). He did quite a few jobs purely for the money he could get as an actor, and couldn’t get as a director. One of the supreme ironies of American film: Orson Welles couldn’t get financed. So he used his acting (and commercials) money to finance his directing.

This file covers the Welles movies I saw 1952-1970, in the order they were seen, with ratings and comments from the movie card-file I kept during those nineteen years. My first professional association with Orson was through curating the first U.S. retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961, and writing the accompanying monograph. I didn’t actually meet the great man until 1968, after I had published several other books and directed my first feature. He asked me to do an interview book with him at our initial meeting, and that took about five years but wasn’t published until seven years after his death in 1985 at age 70.

To put it mildly, Orson was a complicated cat. The book we did together in the ’70s is still in print by Da Capo Press, titled This is Orson Welles, and intended by Welles “to set the record straight.” Because his life and career had numerous notorious aspects and controversies, far too numerous to deal with right now. (If you are interested in the book, click here). So, here’s the first ten films I saw with which Orson Welles had something to do, in front of or behind the camera.

TRENT’S LAST CASE (1953; d: Herbert Wilcox).

1954: Poor* (Undistinguished, rather dull detective-type mystery melodrama; Orson Welles is just one of the many people wasted in this trite little nothing. Thank heaven it is Trent’s last case, one couldn’t bear any posthumous sequels.)

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946; d: King Vidor; narrator: Orson Welles).

1954: (Huge, elaborately produced, greatly overblown melodramatic western saga about a self-destructive love-hate relationship between two passionate people. Overblown, but also rather effective.)

Added 1962: Excellent (A fantastic piece of work: stunningly color-photographed, superbly directed super-western, typically Vidor in its sensual qualities and its sense of the grotesque. A memorable, sometimes outrageous, but beautifully acted; an exciting, fascinating and memorable achievement.)

CITIZEN KANE (1941; d-p-w: Orson Welles).
1956: Exceptional* (Among the greatest movies ever made, and certainly the most important, influential American film since The Birth of A Nation. If that picture is, so to speak, the climax of the silent cinema, Citizen Kane is the climax of the sound film. It is so breathtakingly inventive, so magnificently realized in every detail, so crisply, wittily written, so strikingly photographed and acted, and so brilliantly directed that to see it once is only to see a fraction of its glories.)

Added 1959: (Several tomes couldn’t exhaust the endless beauties and delights of this tour-de-force, unequalled in films.)

Added 1960: (How many films that you’ve seen three times can you see three more times in two days? Only one perhaps: Citizen Kane. There seems to always be something new to look at, some heretofore undiscovered magic, poetry, artistry, humor. It is the most continually intriguing movie I have ever seen, and one of the most vividly eloquent, deeply tragic.)

Added 1961: (Just take the newsreel sequence at the beginning: it is quite incredible. Apart from being the best newsreel anyone has ever made, it is a hilarious and at the same time quite thrilling parody of The March of Time. It is fascinating, as a matter of fact, how much humor there is in this picture, something one tends to overlook the first six times.)

Added 1962: (On ninth viewing, this great picture remains as fresh and actually startling as on first sight. In fact it gets better each time, like a splendid symphony. I noticed this time again how subtle and moving are the film’s emotional moments: the scene with [Agnes] Morehead, the meeting of Welles and [Dorothy] Comingore, [Joseph] Cotton’s drunk scene, and, of course, the stunning final shot of the sled. A heart-breaking work.)

Added 1965: (I was struck again by the absolute perfection of the performances by an all-new-to-films cast, something entirely due to Welles’ daring and imagination and talent as a director of actors; that and perhaps the finest musical score [by Bernard Herrmann] on any picture ever made.)

Added 1969: (Daring as it was – and is – Welles became much freer and more of a virtuoso in his later pictures; this one even has a certain restraint and austerity compared to what he was to achieve. However, though it is a young man’s work – even an old young man’s – it is a work that never pales and that remains as enjoyable every time it’s looked at.)

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948; d-p-w: Orson Welles).

1956: (Thrillingly cinematic, macabre, often confusing Wellesian tour-de-force: theatrical, tricky, frequently confusing in motivation, but exciting and fascinating nonetheless – filled with sequences of pure genius.)

Added 1961: Exceptional (Welles’ most daringly brilliant, extravagant picture – a personal, stunning masterpiece by a director who is like none other alive or dead.)

Added 1969: (This is an uneven film, but it is filled with so much poetry and magic, so much terrible beauty, and such striking imagery and imagination that it surpasses most other movies that have more cohesion; it remains a remarkable, outrageous and fascinating masterpiece by a great American artist.)

Added 1969: (And it is endlessly fascinating to watch, always unpredictable.)

MOBY DICK (1956; d: John Huston).

1956: Fair- (Extremely disappointing, but beautifully color-photographed version of the Melville epic; badly, ineptly acted, weak in exposition, clumsily directed, good special effects, but basically a failure in most respects.)

Added 1964: (An intolerably bad movie in almost every department except photography and the casting of Orson Welles as Father Mapple, except that this is bad too since he should have played Ahab.)

THE THIRD MAN (1949; d: Carol Reed).

1957: Very good* (Melodramatic, but extremely effective thriller set in post-war Vienna; suspenseful, full of atmosphere, shadowy location photography. Reed has been clearly influenced by Orson Welles in the overall conception, and Welles, with only ten minutes of screen-time, manages to steal the picture away from everyone in it. But the film remains an exciting, entertaining tour-de-force; the zither music is a brilliant touch; and the Ferris wheel scene with Welles and Cotten is well worth seeing over and over.)

Added 1969: (Really a provocative movie and an entertaining one, sort of intriguing blend of English Hitchcock and Welles, more than completely mixed by Carol Reed. Welles’ personality, however, dominates.)

Added 2014: Exceptional would be a more accurate rating for me today. I’ve seen this picture a number of times in recent years, and it never lets me down: superb performances from everyone – Welles, Cotten, Valli, Trevor Howard, etc. – and inspired direction and photography. Totally fresh and not dated in the least. It is definitely Reed’s best picture, and well worth repeated viewings. The zither was a stroke of genius.

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958; d-w: Orson Welles).

1958: Exceptional* (Mr. Welles has made something thrilling and fantastically brilliant out of a basically rather melodramatic story about a ruthless police chief in a decaying and corrupt border town. In his own striking and ingenious, imaginative conception, the picture achieves an epic level. Welles’ performance and the ones he gets from the cast are second only to his stunning and overwhelming use of camera, lighting, music, editing. He has created an intensity of mood, an originality of atmosphere and a tension and depth of character-conflict which once again proves him an incredible virtuoso, a moviemaking genius of the highest order.)

Added 1961: (A never-ending source of surprise, delight and inspiration: Welles is unsurpassed in his ability to stylize dialog and still make it sound natural and true. Even on a fifth viewing, one is constantly amazed at the many nuances and subtleties missed the first four times. More and more, this looks like Welles’ freest, most imaginative work, surpassing Citizen Kane in its dazzling use of the camera.)

Added 1966: (A beautiful film – beautiful in its style and conception and execution: Dietrich has never been more touchingly used, and Welles own performance is a masterpiece; unreservedly, a great movie.)

Added 1967: (Maybe it is his best film.)

Added 1969: (Mesmerizing, continually fascinating, no matter how many times it is looked at. Dietrich has never been so profoundly used, and Welles has never been more expressive.)

Added 1969: (This time through, I am convinced that it is his best movie – the most profound, simply brilliant on every level – and it is Welles’ best performance too; the moving last speech of Dietrich’s has never before had such an impact on me.)

THE LONG HOT SUMMER (1958; d: Martin Ritt).

1958: Fair (Absorbing but overly slick production of William Faulkner’s novel, generally well done except for a hokey and unbelievable happy-ending. But excellently acted by Paul Newman, Orson Welles, others, in parts not as Faulkner saw them, but still entertaining as Hollywood tinsel.)

THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN (1958; d: John Huston).

1958: Poor* (Occasionally picturesque plea for pacifism, its theme being that an end to killing must begin with an end to the murder of elephants. The ideas, taken from Romain Gary’s novel, are commendable and even provocative but their presentation is disjointed, talky, rarely exciting, strangely unpersuasive, inconclusive and, finally, just feeble. The script is verbal and rarely visual, the photography of Africa looks like stock-footage, and the actors, though inoffensive, seem to be removed from the issues at hand. Orson Welles is hilarious, however, in a small role as a radio and TV commentator.)

JANE EYRE (1944; d: Robert Stevenson; p: Orson Welles).

1958: Fair* (Not a great adaptation of the murky, memorable Bronte novel, but the haunted atmosphere of old rooms, voices, shadows is often captured, fine performances are given by Joan Fontaine and Peggy Ann Garner as the mature and young Jane, as well as by Welles, who is the image of the flamboyant, moody, theatrical Mr. Rochester. However, the final effect of the movie is hollow.)

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mickey d.

It's just so great to read your comments on these films. Your observations are spot on. I'm also in complete agreement with you that TOUCH OF EVIL is Welles' masterpiece. Would love to know your thoughts on the longer/restored version(s.) I noticed that your comments on TOUCH are from 1969 and prior – at that time, only the original cut was able to be seen.

John Montagna

I'm about halfway through "The Orson Welles Story" the 1982 BBC documentary. As a fan of "Citizen Kane" I'm curious to see more of Orson's films, and I'd hoped that this program would shed some light on his subsequent works. But it seems as if too many of his films were victims of excessive tampering from the studios, resulting in his original creative vision being lost. Surely there's a Welles film that's a prime example of his genius in full flower, such as "Kane." Any suggestions? (I apologize if this question seems naïve!)


As Blake Lucas mentions—and he's very reliable—"Chimes at Midnight" is one of the great Orson Welles films: his adaptation from five or six Shakespeare plays of the Falstaff story. He
is brilliant in the lead and John Gielgud is remarkable as Henry IV in a superb cast. I also quite agree with Blake that the original release version of "Touch of Evil" plays best in the long run.
Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons", though deeply truncated, has a magical first hour, before the studio butchering of the rest. His "Othello", if you can find the original cut, is first-rate as well. But everything he directed—like "The Lady from Shanghai" or his "Macbeth"—is decidedly important to check out. It was impossible for him to be uninteresting.

Blake Lucas

Peter, it won't surprised you that I'm very pleased you agree about TOUCH OF EVIL. I feel that way especially because you knew Welles so well and have more authority on the subject than anyone I can think of. You really brought him out in that long interview in the book and I found him at his most sincere there. I haven't forgotten that he himself said a lot about Marlene Dietrich and what her role and presence brought to TOUCH OF EVIL, and I observe that you touched on this several times in your comments on the cards written long before you ever talked to him about it–I agree with how effectively and wonderfully she is used in that movie; even though it's a small role, it is such a memorable one, as much as any she ever had, and that's saying a lot given some of the movies she was in. After CITIZEN KANE, there's always a lot about Welles' movies being tampered with, and of course it's true to an extent, but I don't think it was so excessive in most cases as to hurt them–so, for example, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was also not just as he wanted, but, I agree with you that like TOUCH OF EVIL, it's still great as released and his vision does not feel compromised there either. The one exception to this for me is AMBERSONS–for me what happens after the "magical first hour" you evoke is painful because it is plainly thrusting toward something really great that one feels was there in his version and now feels lost before the movie as it stands ends. Maybe the extent of the loving creativity he put into that project makes the whole thing even harder, but it is a rare movie that just seems really crushed. On the other hand, Welles plainly cared as much about CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and I never heard there was any tampering with that production. I think this was hands down the best Shakespeaean movie ever made, great if you love Shakespeare and a completely personal movie for Welles too; and it certainly has Welles' own best performance as Falstaff, the role he was born to play. If I'm remembering right, Welles himself felt really good about this film.

Don Eldredge

I am looking forward to further installments on Welles after this great beginning. I am hoping that in this series you somewhere address the fate of "The Other Side of the Wind." I once asked you about it when you visited Sherman, Texas, and your answer was that it would be released "soon." Several years have passed, but I have not given up on it. I hope we'll see it someday. Meanwhile, just reading this will send me back to the screen to watch again a number of Welles' films, all of which I find fascinating. Thank you for this series and this blog.

Chris Pangborn

This is an immensely enjoyable overview of a colorful career. I especially like the updates over the years. For those who haven't read Peter's This Is Orson Welles interview book with the master rest assured you are missing out on one of the treasures of film literature.

Maggie Snyder

I would not agree with all the ratings of the films. I don't believe he ever gave a poor performance, just a short one, to me he was always excellent.

Alan Kelley

CHIMES definitely my favorite. At one point the production ran out of money, so he would take short ends and a handful of knights to add shots to the battle scene. Much copied by others, even today. Graphic smears of horses and arms passing in foreground seeming to trigger a cut or a camera movement. No talk of THE TRIAL. can be viewed over and again. Maybe not his best, but definitely for me at least, the best filmed representation on a nightmare. Curious to have seen what was originally planned; moving sets.


Dear Peter, I am very devoted to Orson Welles, and I am particularly fascinated by all the unfinished films and projects of his career. I take advantage of the comments section of this website to ask you: is it true that this year "The Other Side of the Wind" will finally be released? It sounds too beautiful to be true, and I’m not sure whether I should consider it an Internet rumour. If it’s not, I am going to be very anxious to see it.

Michael Doherty

Thank you, Peter, for sharing these personal observations of the Welles films you saw. I was in your shoes when reading, and the picture of you and Orson in the supermarket is the most lovely of all. It captures something fresh and real in your contact with him. Was it taken by a friend?

Russell Grayson

Seeing Dietrich in TOUCH of Evil has always had the. Pull of her "look" in her role as Christine Vole in Billy Wilder’s December 1957-released WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION…I half expect her to pull back her hair and mouth off in her German-accented Cockney, "Care for a peek, Ducky!" Probably a link created in y own mind, especially due to the proximity of TOUCH’s release date near-six-months later, on May 21, 1958. But knowing how quickly Orson Welles COULD work when inspired, I’ve often wondered…then again, perhaps it was the incongruous brunette wig in similar hairstyle.

PB, did Welles have respect for Wilder? Enough to do what I imagine here, in TOUCH? Or am I just engaging in mental masturbation?

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