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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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