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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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The Earth Is Made Of Glass: Orson Welles’s ‘The Stranger’

The standard wisdom about Orson Welles’s 1946 thriller The Stranger—broadly, that it’s Welles’s weakest film, the runt in his otherwise superlative litter—needs challenging, even if Welles himself seemed mostly disinclined to do so. Only in 1982, three years before his death, did he appear to suggest, to BBC interviewers, that it wasn’t so terrible after all. (It had been cut, by about 20 minutes, by producer Sam Spiegel, who had also imposed Edward G. Robinson on the proceedings in the role of an implacable war crimes investigator—Welles had wanted Agnes Moorehead!) By 1982, Welles seemed altogether less pleased with Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report), perhaps because it was a more personal project. To the present writer, Arkadin is clearly the better film, but The Stranger is nonetheless, at the very least, a fascinating curio, and if it’s a minor film (if…), then it’s the sort of minor film that only a really major talent could make, and an excellent example of what the Cahiers du Cinéma critics meant about the failures of the great being better films than the best work of lesser talents.

The credited editor of The Stranger is Ernest Nims, a veteran whose main function in Hollywood seems to have been recutting films to maximise their perceived box-office highlights. It was he who later recut Touch of Evil against Welles’s desires and took a butcher’s cleaver to Franklin Schaffner’s The War Lord, greatly to the well-publicised anguish of both films’ star, Charlton Heston. That someone has been nibbling away at Welles’s footage is immediately clear as The Stranger‘s credits conclude. The escape from custody of war criminal Konrad Meineke (a fine, but now rather brief, performance by Konstantin Shayne) is managed with ridiculous-seeming ease and speed, and he manages to get from Europe to New England (via South America) in no time. Once arrived in a rural college town, Meineke reveals his presence to Franz Kindler, formerly the master brain of the Thousand Year Reich but now, thanks to his life-long avoidance of personal publicity and his mastery of an American accent, a respected local lecturer under the pseudonym of Charles Rankin. Meineke also reveals that he’s got religion in jail, and so has to be murdered by his onetime bludbruder.

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