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The Orson Welles File – Part 2

The Orson Welles File - Part 2

And so we continue with the Orson Welles pictures—as director, producer, writer, actor, narrator—that I saw 1952-1970, and on which I wrote comments and ratings for my movie card-file. I first wrote about Welles for the public in program notes for the now legendary Manhattan revival house, The New Yorker Theatre, when it had brought back Orson’s Othello (see below) in 1960, for the first N.Y. showing in nearly a decade. I said it was the best Shakespeare film ever made. This was certainly not a majority opinion at that moment in time. Although the picture had won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1952 (more of a big deal here now than it was then), it was generally either dismissed in America or compared very unfavorably to the highly regarded Laurence Olivier Shakespeare pictures, Hamlet and Henry V. I took the unorthodox (except in France) position that only Welles had made a real film of Shakespeare’s work.

A few weeks later, the curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art Film Library, Richard Griffith, called me and, because of that one program note, asked if I would curate the first Orson Welles Retrospective in the U.S.A., and write the accompanying monograph, which I did, and that was my first publication, The Cinema of Orson Welles (1961). We sent copies of it to Welles somewhere in Europe, where he was shooting The Trial. Seven years later, he called me. And soon after we met. It was toward the end of 1968. We became friends. A large interview book was one of the many results of these events, This is Orson Welles (1992), but the 1998 Da Capo edition is much better, and considerably longer, and here’s a link to it.

COMPULSION (1959; d: Richard Fleischer).

1959: Good* (A very tasteful movie about the Loeb-Leopold scandal, which has a few Wellesian touches I like and a beautiful, understated performance by Welles (as Darrow) that is moving and eloquent. [Bradford] Dillman has seen too many Chuck Heston movies, and Stockwell, who’s been around a long while acts as though the camera were his brother — by that I mean, well.)

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942; d-s: Orson Welles).
1959: Exceptional* (One of the great pictures of all time: Welles’ striking, deeply moving, beautifully made adaptation of the [Booth] Tarkington novel about the slow fall of a wealthy American family around the turn of the century. Truly magnificent in every detail.)

Added 1960: (There is so much eloquence and compassion and sheer directional genius in this film that it is often difficult to realize one man was responsible for it. It doesn’t have the striking novelty of Citizen Kane, but its excellence is of a more subtle, simple nature, and perhaps all the more stunning because of it.)

Added 1962: (One could see this picture three times a year for twenty years and still find it an unending source of surprise and delight.)

Added 1969: (As moving and exciting as it was the first time I saw it; one of the most profoundly beautiful and tragic films of the past – still original in conception and still ahead of its time; the narration is extremely evocative, and even the credits make me cry! A great Welles achievement, marred by the truncated last act, and the two scenes shot by someone else, but still an enduring masterpiece.)

Added 1969: (Among the great films of all time.)

Added 1969: (What a tragedy that it was mutilated! A great tragedy.)

Added 2014: In my aforementioned interview book with O.W. there is an added value to the 1998 edition of an appendix that details the exact original cutting continuity of this picture’s deleted or edited scenes and sequences. What Welles called the third act was essentially destroyed by the studio cutting. There are also a few stills from the movie’s final scene, which is decidedly dark. I think the loss of The Magnificent Ambersons is probably the movies’ most tragic of all the many losses, even more than Von Stroheim’s complete Greed, though such comparisons are odious.

RETURN TO GLENNASCAUL (1951; d: Hilton Edwards; narration: Orson Welles).

1960: (Short, 26 minutes, little featurette about a man who comes to a house, finds a mother and daughter living there, falls in love, leaves and when he returns, finds the house abandoned and dilapidated wreck, nobody having lived there for years. Not very good at all, but distinguished by the presence of Welles, who plays himself, introduces the story and narrated it as “your obedient servant” [O.W.’s famous radio sign-off]. One classic moment: passing a man stalled in his car, Welles asks what the matter is, to which the man replies he is having trouble with his distributor. “So am I,” says Orson.)

MASTERS OF THE CONGO JUNGLE (1959; d: Heinz Sielmann).

1960: Poor* (Beautiful color-photography and Orson Welles’ eloquent narration make for occasional interest in this French documentary of natives in Africa.)

CRACK IN THE MIRROR (1960; d: Richard Fleisher).

1960: Poor* (Orson Welles’ performance, or better, simply his appearance, in this muddled, silly triangle-thriller is all that distinguishes it from the thousand crappy and bloated items that issue yearly from Fox. He is not very good in it himself, but who can blame him — he read the script. He knows it’s hopeless.)

MACBETH (1948; d-s: Orson Welles).
1960: Very good* (One of Welles’ weaker films, still a great deal better than most people’s best work – a fascinating, steamy, dark, and violent version of Shakespeare’s tragedy – shot in twenty-three days an old Gene Autry – Roy Rogers sets; always exciting to watch, fast, powerful, sketchy, a remarkable experiment that works more often than not.)

Added 1969: (An absorbing movie but certainly the least satisfying of Welles’ Shakespearean films; still it has a remarkable intensity and a rough power that remains impressive.)

Added 1969: (The visual conception of this has never seemed better; in fact, given its few flawed scenes, it is a powerful and brilliant achievement.)

Added 2014: All those viewings were of the truncated, re-dubbed version of this picture, the original cut of which wasn’t available until long after my card-file stopped. I saw it, and it is a great deal better than the other one, but it is still not quite on the same level with Othello or Chimes at Midnight. Nevertheless, it is essential to see.

OTHELLO (1952; d-s: Orson Welles).

1960: Exceptional* (Without doubt the best Shakespeare film ever made: in completely cinematic terms, Welles has created a personal, magnificent variation on the playwright’s theme. Stunningly photographed, designed and edited, eloquently acted and evocatively scored; a daring, striking, imaginative masterpiece.

Added 1961: A great visual symphony, high, intellectual and superb art, uniquely filmic, conceived and executed in entirely cinematic ways – a stylistic wonder, exciting and dynamic.

Added 1962: (One of the many amazing things about this beautiful film is its brilliant narrative power: it tells the story with force and superb economy.)

Added 1969: (One of Welles’ greatest works, without question; a masterpiece on any level; breathtakingly brilliant.)

THE STRANGER (1946; d: Orson Welles).

1960: Excellent- (Outstanding direction and a superb performance by Welles distinguish this otherwise typical thriller about a former Nazi loose in a small New England town; tight, tense, beautifully photographed, well acted.

Added 1961: (Certainly not one of Welles’ really personal works, but also far from average on any level.)

Added 1963: (It looked better this time than ever before – but then Welles is a never-ending source of surprise.)

Added 1969: (The script and Edward G. Robinson are weak, but Welles’ direction is quite remarkable – fluid and inventive and fascinating; this movie looks better after each long absence – it does not date further than the expository scenes would in any case.)

FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944; d: Edward Sutherland).

1960: Poor (Silly, uninspired, listless war-effort revue, with a bunch of stars playing themselves and making asses of the characterizations. Orson Welles saws Marlene Dietrich in half, which is amusing and is done in his most likable flamboyant fashion; W.C. Fields makes a token appearance and that’s about it on this thing.)

MR. ARKADIN (CONFIDENTIAL REPORT) (1955; d-w: Orson Welles).
1961: Exceptional (Fantastic, fascinating, brilliant and staggeringly imaginative Wellesian tour-de-force about a powerful, corrupt billionaire who hires an American adventurer to search out the sordid facts of his shadowy past so that he can destroy it. Superb, complex construction, striking cameo performances by Michael Redgrave, Katina Paxinou, others, evocative and stunning photography and editing. A stylistic and personal masterpiece, tragically re-edited and cut by moronic producers and distributors.)

Added 1962: (A better, more complete version, and thus the film is even more impressive: truly a dazzling Welles achievement, restless, perverse, ambiguous, totally personal, magically conceived and executed, vital and vivid.)

Added 1965: (When seen in close to its original form as here, this really is excellent Welles – with a frightening vision of the world and its decadence; he is a consummate stylist and a master of the cinema.)

Added 1969: (As impressive as any of his films, and though the cutting has no doubt hurt this work, it remains one of his most dazzling and exciting; and the humor and wit of its outlook has never been more appealing.)

Added 1970: (Told in its proper flashback construction, it is a remarkable work — among his best.)

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Matthew Novak

F for Fake was the first film I remember seeing of Orson's. His personality was not only on screen but in the editing, the narrative, everything about the film had something I had never seen or heard before. And it was years before I was able to see it again. It aired on some random cable station years before you could rent stuff like that in a Midwestern video store and way before anything decent could be viewed on the interwebs.

I remember thinking after awhile that it may have not been real. It was like a strange dream. I could picture him sitting in a field with a large white dog, Kipling's verse, the church and the dialogue about ones name. I must have been twelve or thirteen.

And as it does, time passed, I was in my late twenties and living in California. I went to a theatre on Haight street to see Taxi Driver or The Burbs, just some random movie on some random night. One of their pamphlets had a calendar on it and there he was and there it was. Fifteen years or more later.

F for Fake.

I had never known the name of the film, only that Orson was in it.

This may be a bit soon since you are only on Mr. Arkadin but I just found a random copy of Filming Othello today and then surfing the web came across this blog.

There is something about him that I can't seem to break from that initial odd dream. Although Citizen Kane and The Trial and without a doubt Touch of Evil are some great films they lack much of that voice that I remember hearing first.

F for Fake and Orson, as he was then, is stuck in time for me. It's unlike any other film. And it goes beyond simple sentiment, something about the man resonates and echoes and chimes and sings in that film.

Tip of my hat to you Peter for continuing to write and speak about Welles.

Mike L


What is your current opinion of Mr. Arkadin. I read you helped with the creation of the Criterion Comprehensive Cut and I was wondering if you have a regard for it now or your stance has dissipated any.

Chris Pangborn

The Criterion three disc set of Arkadin is essential and since the original novel is also included it is well worth the investment. I see the Warners and TCM have put out versions of Ambersons. I was disappointed with the European pressing I bought some time ago. I wish Criterion would pick up Othello, that would make all the sense in the world. Perhaps it's a rights issue? It's unbelievably haunting, one of the three of four best interpretations of a Shakespeare play committed to film.

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