A two-month season at the BFI Southbank during July and August, aptly titled “Orson Welles: The Great Disruptor,” will feature a wide-ranging selection of Welles’ output in both film and television.
The season will be accompanied by a UK-wide theatrical re-release of “Touch of Evil,” the theatrical release of Chuck Workman’s 2014 documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles,” and a DVD and limited edition Blu-ray release of the TV series “Around the World With Orson Welles.”
Geoff Andrew, the BFI’s senior film programmer and a co-curator of the season, commented this morning that “Welles is one of those filmmakers who undoubtedly deserved that much over-used word, ‘genius’. He was a great innovator and a great artist, who repeatedly produced films that were rich, resonant and profound.”
The BFI’s selection process was to some extent dictated by the notorious vagaries of Welles oeuvre; as Andrew observed, “So much was left unfinished and tied up in complications over materials and rights.”
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That said, there are some real finds and delights on offer, not least the recently discovered “Too Much Johnson,” 40 minutes of film that Welles shot in 1938 – two years before “Citizen Kane.” Welles planned the film, which features Joseph Cotten as a philanderer pursued across New York by a cuckolded husband, as an on-stage element of a theatre play he was directing at the time. Prophetically, it was never used, and subsequently disappeared. (Vanity Fair tells the story of another unfinished Welles film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” here.)
Simon Callow, the actor and Welles biographer, said today that “Too Much Johnson” belied Welles’ own assertion that cinema hadn’t interested him until RKO’s invitation to Los Angeles. “When he holed himself in a hotel room in New York and started editing ‘Too Much Johnson’ it was destiny, right in that moment. He was certainly not ignorant of film when he arrived in Hollywood.”
Though Welles is best known for his work in film, radio and theatre, the BFI is keen to shed light on his television work, with a highlight being 1955’s “Around the World With Orson Welles,” a travelogue – described as part home movie, part cinematic essay – that Welles wrote, directed and hosted. Not many presenters would be able to drop in on Jean Cocteau; and in an episode long believed lost, Welles takes viewers to the Vienna locations of “The Third Man.” Incidentally, Carol Reed’s film will be re-released by StudioCanal to coincide with the retrospective, in a new 4K restoration.
“What is fascinating is that TV was the one that got away,” says season co-curator Ben Walters. “We think about the ads, the voice-overs, the talk shows, which are more interesting than he was given credit for but still come under the category of ‘washed-up Welles’. In fact, television was a medium he was fascinated by and had revolutionary ideas about.”
During the season, Walters will be offering an illustrated talk, “Arrested development: how Orson Welles tried to revolutionize TV and why TV wouldn’t let him”; Callow will speak about Welles’ Shakespeare adaptations (“Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Chimes at Midnight” are all programmed) and Andrew will discuss his overall qualities as a filmmaker.
“It was not all downhill after Kane, by any means,” Andrew concluded, adding that as much as he respected other filmmakers, “I don’t think anyone is as exhilarating as Welles for his complete love of cinema.”