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Orson Welles: The Enigmatic Independent

Orson Welles

The legend of Orson Welles looms so large it overtakes the man, a legend partly engineered by Welles himself from his beginnings in the theater. Welles was the enfant terrible of Broadway, the Depression-era hope of American Theater, the radical genius of radio. He came to Hollywood in grand style and on his own terms, a display of egotism so great that the Hollywood establishment turned up its nose and waited for his comeuppance. And he got it three times filled and running over, as far as they are concerned.

Welles completed only fourteen features in his lifetime, five of them Hollywood productions (it’s hard to consider the Republic-backed Macbeth, 1948, a studio film) and only one of those, Citizen Kane (1941), completed to Welles’ satisfaction and released in its intended form. It has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” (Sight and Sound and American Film Institute polls made it official for a time) that it’s become a dry truism. Along with its creator (and let’s face it, Pauline Kael was simply wrong: this is Welles’ creation), the legends surrounding the film have long overshadowed the actual production. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of dime store melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation and plain old theatrical flourish. It has a cinematic brio and love of expressive possibilities that you rarely see from directors coming to the movies from the stage, but it also is a terrific piece of storytelling. Welles brought an understanding of power of sound design from the radio and applied a sophisticated, layered soundtrack and a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann for the score. Stunningly designed to appear bigger and more lavish than its budget would support, brilliantly lit and shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.

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Orson Welles: The Enigmatic Independent

[Expanded from a piece originally published on Greencine in 2003]

“And now I’m going to tell you a story about a scorpion. A scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked a frog to carry him. ‘No,’ said the frog. ‘No, thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me, and the sting of a scorpion means death.’ ‘Now, where,’ asked the scorpion, ‘is the logic of that?’ – for scorpions always try to be logical – ‘If I sting you, you will die—I will drown.’ The frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back but just in the middle of the river he felt a terrible pain and realized that after all the scorpion had stung him. ‘Logic!’ cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. ‘There is no logic in this.’ ‘I know,’ said the scorpion, ‘but I can’t help it – it’s my character.’ Let’s drink to character.” – Orson Welles as Gregory Arkadin in Mr. Arkadin

Orson Welles as Gregory Arkadin

The legend of Orson Welles looms so large it overtakes the man, a legend partly engineered by Welles himself from his beginnings in the theater. Welles was the enfant terrible of Broadway, the depression-era hope American Theater, the radical genius of radio. He came to Hollywood in grand style and on his own terms, a display of egotism so great that the Hollywood establishment turned up its nose and waited for his comeuppance. And he got it three times filled and running over.

Welles finished only 14 features in his lifetime, five of them Hollywood productions (it’s hard to consider the Republic backed Macbeth, 1948, a studio film) and only one of those, Citizen Kane, (1941) completed and released in its intended form. It’s has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” that’s it’s become a dry truism. With the AFI imprimatur stamped like some official seal, its reputation is in serious danger of becoming the least seen masterpiece around, and with its creator (and let’s face it, Pauline Kael was simply wrong: this is Welles’ creation) the legends surrounding the film have long overshadowed the actual production. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of dime store melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation, and plain old theatrical flourish. Years ahead of its time in its layered use of sound and score (a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann), stunningly designed, and brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.

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Orson Welles’s ‘Othello’

Northwest Film Forum is about to showcase a new 4K restoration of Orson Welles’s Othello, one of the director’s greatest—and rarest—films. In anticipation of that, Parallax View presents a detailed program note written when Othello appeared in an autumn 1971 film series devoted to Welles on the University of Washington campus. The original text remains essentially unaltered, with references to earlier Welles films the series-goers would have seen and, at the outset, one they had not.

In anticipation of that May 2-8 engagement, Parallax View presents…

Othello

Welles’s last American film of the Forties was not a happy experience. He had once considered Macbeth for his cinematic debut, remarking in 1940 that “Macbeth and its gloomy moors might be grand” for the movies: “A perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and The Bride of Frankenstein.” But when he came to make the film some seven years later, he was to enjoy nothing like the production resources behind the Goldwyn–Wyler Wuthering Heights; and—save for isolated passages that fairly leap out of the body of the film—he seemed curiously paralyzed, his style grown monotonously murky and overbearingly static, as though he had yet to grasp the full implications of The Lady from Shanghai: little of Macbeth is on a par with its predecessors in the Welles canon or, for that matter, with the extravagant cinematic imagination of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.

To be specific on production matters, Welles made Macbeth at Republic Studios, a company that specialized in westerns and action flicks. He had a slightly larger budget than he’d enjoyed on Kane, but his shooting schedule was staggering: a mere 21 days. With an awesome surge of creative energy and organizational genius, he came in on schedule, although he begged in vain for another two days in which to do some retakes. Not the least of the difficulties during shooting was that Welles had pre-recorded the soundtrack and asked the actors to synchronize their on-camera performances with their former readings (a method attempted on The Magnificent Ambersons but abandoned almost immediately). The technique wore heavily on the players and the sound of the dialogue displeased the producers and the first preview audiences: it was delivered with a heavy Scots burr. Actors were called back for re-dubbing some of it in clear English, some in purest American. Welles wasn’t around; he delivered his own new lines from London, and production assistants Richard Wilson and William Alland (Kane’s Thompson, also the Second Murderer here) coordinated the various tracks as best they could. The soundtrack of the present Macbeth includes material from all the endeavors, so that Duncan and (at first) Malcolm are still heard burring away. Small wonder that Welles forsook Hollywood following this experience and began filming on the Continent by hook or crook.

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