Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Orson Welles

The Magnificent Ambersons

[This was a program note for the October 12, 1971, showing of The Magnificent Ambersons in the University of Washington Lectures & Concert Film Series “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” It begins with continued commentary on Citizen Kane, shown the week before—an essay located here.]

One of Charles Foster Kane’s least sympathetic moments occurs in the 1929 scene wherein, in a single long, deep take, he listens to the conditions under which Walter P. Thatcher’s bank will take over his newspaper holdings, signs the agreement, and settles back to indulge in a little reverie.  We have commented how Kane, though economically “bust” and inclined to regard this new arrangement as a reversion to the days when he received an “allowance,” still enjoys a certain ascendancy over Thatcher simply in being able to move through the conspicuous space of the scene while Thatcher sits cramped and breathless in the foreground.  They are both much older than the day Thatcher came to take Charlie Kane out of the snows of yesteryear; and if Thatcher was “always too old” to be called anything but Mister, Kane is catching up.  Kane extends tentative congratulations to himself: “You know, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” The remark is directed at Bernstein on the other side of the frame, but it is Thatcher who responds: “Don’t you think you are?” Kane smiles and jovially concedes: “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.” Thatcher goes on in all sincerity: “What would you like to have been?” And Kane’s eyes turn to steel as he slams the book of life on Thatcher: “Everything you hate!” It is a complex moment because Kane is implying, after all, that he has turned into something like Thatcher himself (as Thatcher’s portrait on the wall of the memorial library will shortly thereafter be replaced, in the same area of the screen, by Kane’s portrait on the wall of Bernstein’s office), and so this insult functions much like the slammed “w e a k” elsewhere in Citizen Kane.  But on the most direct level Kane, whatever his motives and lifetime of justification, is betraying a conversational trust with someone who offered a rare moment of openness—someone, furthermore, who already has two legs in the grave.

For a young man who was 25 when he began Citizen Kane and had completed The Magnificent Ambersons within another year or so, Orson Welles certainly is obsessed with time, age, and death.  Pauline Kael has remarked that the actors in Kane convey a strong sense of artifice: we know they have completed their turns within the given shots; there is no illusion of the characters’ lives going on offscreen.  Although her intention is merely to reinforce her point that Kane is a playful, “shallow masterpiece,” she puts her finger on a key reason for its depth: lives do reach completion in the film.  When Thompson closes Thatcher’s journal; when the camera pulls away from Bernstein saying—of old age—”It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of,” and from Susie saying “Come around and tell me the story of your life sometime”; when Jed Leland is led away into the shadows of death (or worse, the old-age “heaven” suggested by the camera’s rise at the beginning of the sequence)—we have a tremendous sense of lives summarized, distilled, nothing left to be said that could possibly matter.  Even within the episodes, people die symbolically: Susie not only “dies” onstage but so does the character she plays in the opera, and Susie will attempt suicide; the Chicago Inquirer staff speculates whether the reunion of Kane and Leland mightn’t be dangerous, and Bernstein goes in to find Jed slumped on his typewriter.  And things die: the skylight looks broken at Susie’s nightclub the second time and the sign isn’t lit; we see the alternate Inquirer headlines lifted off the press and a second later FRAUD AT POLLS! lies tromped and forgotten in the gutter.  And Rosebud, identified poetically if not realistically with the quintessence of Charles Foster Kane, “ages” in a single terrible moment—as the whole film may be considered a single terrible moment—consumed in the furnaces of Xanadu.  It is consistent to see the column of smoke rising to heaven, the snow-white ashes of Rosebud carried off into the blackness of the unborn film, as the last instance of the movie’s taking leave of a now-extinguished character.  Yet I have suggested that Kane or at the very least his alter ego narrates the movie.  That the annihilated Rosebud/Kane ascends to heaven and that the camera/Kane descends back outside the fence are not incompatible, no more than the fact that the movie fascinates us with the myriad suggestions of a life and concludes with a bald statement that no real knowledge of—NO TRESPASSING on—such a life is possible.  This visual benediction conveys a kind of self-regret and self-awareness not unrelated to the verbal stab at Thatcher in 1929.  Welles’s instinct seems to be that media itself is inherently sentimental (even Thatcher can become the “grand old man of Wall Street” once unobjectionably dead).  It is a notion to keep in mind as we approach Welles’ second feature film.
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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Orson Welles

Citizen Kane

[This is a program note written for “The Cinema of Orson Welles,” the Autumn 1971 film series of the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts, and distributed at the October 5, 1971, showing of Welles’s first feature film.]

Thirty years after its initial release, Citizen Kane may very well be the most talked-about movie in history. Its creator-star, Orson Welles, remains the sole American filmmaker of the early sound era whom virtually everybody is willing to consider an artist. In the early Sixties an international poll of 110 critics determined Kane as “the greatest film of all time” (there have been other polls and other results, to be sure). Last year the University of California Press produced the most ambitious survey yet of Welles’ directorial career, Charles Higham’s The Films of Orson Welles. This year Pauline Kael contributed a nearly booklength introduction (in two New Yorker installments) to the final version of the Kane screenplay, soon to be published; and Andrew Sarris answered her in four superb, longer-than-usual articles in The Village Voice. Peter Bogdanovich has another volume of conversations-in-excelsis ready to go, with Welles as subject (and financial partner in the enterprise); and Joseph McBride, whose various articles on Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Chimes at Midnight confirm his standing as the most sensitive of Welles scholars, will soon have a book out, too. There is even a textbook, Focus on Citizen Kane. Then there’s the latest issue of Film Comment magazine devoted to detailed studies of Welles and two other “masters of mise-en-scène.” And on and on it goes. Every week, in art theaters and campus auditoriums, new viewers make the acquaintance of Citizen Kane and feel, for a few moments or days, as if they’ve never seen a movie before. And old friends of Kane periodically revisit and feel as if they‘ve never seen it before!

I have seen Citizen Kane for the twentysometh time(s) this week and I’m still pretty excited about the film. So I’d rather not go into the pre-production data on Welles’ first feature, or compare the life of Charles Foster Kane to that of William Randolph Hearst, or worry what the picture has in common with Marx Brothers comedies or The Front Page, or make obligatory lists of the innovations supposed to be found in it, or talk about the tortuous processes by which the film was nearly suppressed and then niftily saved and then commercially sabotaged. Interesting and illuminating as such studies may be, they are other things and—in Higham and Kael specifically—they at worst distort and at best prove irrelevant to the experience that Citizen Kane the film is.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Noir, Film Reviews, Orson Welles

Touch of Evil

This program note was written in connection with the November 16, 1971 showing of Touch of Evil in the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Autumn Quarter Film Series “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” Since that was a long time ago and the only version of the movie available at the time was the 93-minute Universal cut, I’ve let the piece stand. Touch of Evil was the seventh installment in the series, and the note was written to be read by people who’d been watching Welles pictures and reading comparable notes on them for the previous six weeks. –RTJ

Van Stratten: “Where’s Sophie?”
Trebitsch: “Where is anybody?”
—Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin

After his unhappy experiences with Macbeth in 1947–48, Welles spent the next eight years in Europe, managing to complete two features of his own, act both leading and supporting roles for other directors, and begin work on the still-uncompleted Don Quixote. In 1956 he returned to the States and, among other things, was sought by trash specialist Albert Zugsmith for a role in a police melodrama he was producing. Charlton Heston, set to star in the picture, heard about Welles’s involvement and strongly hinted to Zugsmith that Welles ought to be given directorial control as well. (Some accounts have it that Heston demanded Welles for the director, or else; others, that Heston was leery of appearing in what seemed a B-movie property but changed his tune when Welles entered the picture, saying, “I’d act in anything directed by Orson Welles!”) As it turned out, Welles got to rewrite the film entirely and direct it as well. He took his time cutting the picture and at the last left final cutting to the studio. Although Welles has muttered subsequently about how yet another of his films was ruined, he also claims never to have watched the final version. Russell Metty, cameraman on The Stranger, “confirms that Welles’s concept was followed to the letter,” according to Charles Higham. Higham further quotes Charlton Heston on the subject of some additional shooting supervised by Universal contract director Harry Keller: “The scenes Keller made were shot in less than half a day. Contrary to rumor, the footage does not replace any mysterious material shot by Orson, but is merely structural cement to clarify what the studio felt to be unnecessarily ambiguous sequences in Orson’s version of the film, explaining time and place and whatnot” (e.g., Mike and Susan’s discussion about her going to the motel). The studio evidently felt uneasy about the whole project. Touch of Evil (which Welles repudiates as a silly title) was leaked out rather than released; there was no press drumbeating, no preview screening, no anything. The film nosedived in this country but dazzled festival audiences internationally and won some prizes.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Noir, Film Reviews, Orson Welles

The Lady From Shanghai

[This is a slightly edited version of a program note written for an Autumn 1971 University of Washington Office of Lectures and Concerts Film Series, “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” It is submitted for your consideration because The Lady from Shanghai is a cardinal film noir and the stylistic points made about Welles’s direction are relevant as noir commentary. However, the term film noir is never used; I’m sure it never occurred to the author at the time. Only a few months later, Paul Schrader’s seminal essay “Notes on Film Noir” would be published in Film Comment magazine. Then a lot of things started to change. –RTJ]

ORSON WELLES in interview: I believe you know the story of Lady from Shanghai. I was working on that spectacular theater idea Around the World in 80 Days, which was originally to be produced by Mike Todd. But, overnight, he went bankrupt and I found myself in Boston on the day of the premiere, unable to take my costumes from the station because 50,000 dollars was due. Without that money we couldn’t open. At that time I was already separated from Rita; we were no longer even speaking. I did not intend to do a film with her. From Boston I got in touch with Harry Cohn, then director of Columbia, who was in Hollywood, and I said to him, “I have an extraordinary story for you if you send me 50,000 dollars, by telegram in one hour, on account, and I will sign a contract to make it.” Cohn asked, “What story?” I was telephoning from the theater box office; beside it was a pocket books display and I gave him the title of one of them: Lady from Shanghai. I said to him, “Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.” An hour later we received the money. Later I read the book and it was horrible so I set myself, top speed, to write a story. I arrived in Hollywood to make the film with a very small budget and in six weeks of shooting. But I wanted more money for my theater. Cohn asked me why I didn’t use Rita. She said she would be very pleased. I gave her to understand that the character was not a sympathetic one, and this might hurt her image as a star in the public eye. Rita was set on making this film, and instead of costing 350,000 dollars, it became a two million dollar film. Rita was very cooperative. The one who was horrified on seeing the film was Cohn.

After the not inconsiderable scandal attendant upon the filming and release of Citizen Kane, and after the preview problems and subsequent mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles suffered the further ignominy of having a film cancelled in progress: It’s All True, the grandiose documentary on Latin America…. For four years Welles, who had enjoyed guaranteed (and well-publicized) independence while working on Kane, could not get a movie job except as a performer in others’ films. In 1946 he was approached by Sam Spiegel to take a leading role in The Stranger; he asked to direct as well, and Spiegel, not wishing to risk losing his on-screen services, agreed—with the stipulation that Welles follow the script and stay within budget and schedule. Welles agreed in turn; the film was finished well within the limits specified and returned a tidy profit. This helped his reputation in the film capital but dismayed many acolytes of cinemah: here he was, lavishing his gifts on a mere suspense melodrama. Clearly an irreversible decline had set in….

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