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By Martin Keady · February 3, 2015
The career of Orson Welles is perhaps the most singular in the history of cinema: at once utterly magnificent and ultimately unfulfilled. The fact is that despite (or perhaps because of) his protean talent, Welles didn’t make as many great films as he should have done. Indeed, after making Citizen Kane – still, arguably, the greatest film ever made – he never completely marshalled his talents as a director again, but instead often became involved with producing and directing a number of films simultaneously, to the point that he would struggle to complete any one of them.
Having said all that, perhaps Welles’s fate as a director is analogous with that of Joseph Heller as a novelist. When critics complained that Heller had never again written a novel as good as Catch-22 (the film adaptation of which Welles starred in as the preposterously named, and generally preposterous, Brigadier General Dreedle), Heller would always say, “Who has?” Similarly, if Welles never again made a film as good as Kane…well, who has? And that’s not to say he didn’t produce other treasures.
Here are his Top 10.
10. THE THIRD MAN (1949)
I know – Welles didn’t direct The Third Man, but I am still including it in his Top 10 films because he dominates it. In a way, Harry Lime was the perfect role for Welles: a mysterious, even legendary, figure who exists as much in other people’s accounts of him as he does in his own right. When Welles finally makes his appearance more than halfway through the movie, it is undoubtedly the greatest entrance in the history of film: as he hides in the shadows, his beautiful but sly face is illuminated for a moment by the light from an upstairs apartment before he is plunged back into darkness again.
Of course, Welles also allegedly contributed to the script of The Third Man with his famous speech about the Borgias and Switzerland atop the ferris wheel. It was only recently that I discovered that Renaissance Switzerland, far from being the peaceable land that Welles describes, was actually famed as a source of militia for other nations. But that doesn’t stop it being a great speech – one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in movie history. As Welles, the arch-magician and manipulator knew, the legend was always better than the plain old facts.
9. F FOR FAKE (1974)
Welles was always fascinated by illusion of all kinds. In fact, it was his love of illusion that was probably his defining trait, uniting his mastery of all dramatic media (stage, radio and film) and his fondness for magic. He knew that fakery is itself a kind of truth-telling (“the lie that tells the truth”, as the famous definition of fiction has it) and set out to explore that apparent contradiction in this extraordinary cinematic essay that told the stories of several famous fakers and hoaxers, including Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, the supposed “biographer” of Howard Hughes. It is fitting that it was his last major film, because as much as any other film he ever made, it gets to the heart of Welles the great faker, and maker of wonders.
8. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)
Or Welles’s bizarre noir. Perhaps the most bizarre element is Welles’s Irish accent (or, more accurately, his attempt at an Irish accent), as he plays a sailor who becomes involved in a byzantine plot to kill the husband of Rita Hayworth, who herself was Welles’s ex-wife. The film’s “hall of mirrors” effect, in which each plot is seen and then raised by a double or even triple plot, is literally brought to life in the famous “fun house” ending, when Welles confronts the duplicitous Hayworth, only to be confronted instead with a dozen or more mirror-images of himself. It is justly regarded as one of the greatest scenes in all of noir and a testament to Welles’s visual genius: even if the plot of Shanghai is at times confusing, the imagery is often astounding.
7. THE TRIAL (1962)
Welles adored his adaptation of Kafka’s novel, declaring upon its completion that it was the finest film he had ever made, even ahead of Kane, a comment that brings to mind Robert Altman’s saying that films are like children, “and you often love your least successful ones the most”. The Trial, like so many of Welles’s post-Kane movies, is not an unadulterated masterpiece, but it is still a superb and at times staggering film. It is the tale of an ordinary man who is arrested and put on trial but never informed of the charges he faces – a classic Kafka-esque situation that is increasingly being replicated in our own post-9/11 world. Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of the hero, Josef K., is wonderful. It is Perkins’ second greatest screen performance, but is of course largely forgotten, like the rest of his film work, in the wake of his career-defining (and ultimately career-imprisoning) turn as Norman Bates in Psycho. And Welles’s use of the then-abandoned Gare D’Orsay railway station as a setting for a cavernous courthouse and prison was absolutely inspired.
6. MACBETH (1948)
Macbeth was the first of Welles’s trilogy of Shakespeare films and incorporated elements of his so-called “Voodoo Macbeth” from 1936, which had used an all-black cast and transposed the play’s Scottish setting to a mysterious Caribbean island. In the film, Welles returned to Scotland (accents and all), but retained the sense of the macabre that had infused his stage version: the witches toy with, and ultimately, torture a clay figurine of Macbeth, as if they were voodoo witch-doctors. The film is often unfairly remembered for the cast’s ridiculous (and at times plain risible) headwear: Celtic warriors don helmets that would have been more appropriate for a sci-fi film. Nevertheless, Welles’s Macbeth genuinely evokes the atmosphere of evil foreboding, and ultimately evil unleashed, that pervades the play and his own performance as the greatest of Scots is impressive.
5. OTHELLO (1952)
Welles had originally wanted to film Othello before Macbeth and proceeded to spend several years after making Macbeth raising the money for it (largely through performances in several forgettable films, such as The Black Rose) and filming when he could around the Mediterranean. In the end, however, the results were worthwhile as he produced one of the greatest Shakespearean movies. Welles himself played Othello as an Arabic rather than African Moor, but the real star of the show (as is often the case with stage productions) is Micheál MacLiammóir’s Iago. MacLiammóir was a celebrated Irish stage actor who had “adopted”, artistically speaking, the young Orson when he was travelling through Europe by offering him work at the Gate theatre, which MacLiammóir had helped to found. Welles repaid him decades later by making him perhaps the greatest screen Iago, a sofly-spoken psychopath to rival even Ben Kingsley’s seminal Don in Sexy Beast. Welles brilliantly brings to life the world of the play, filming in both the canals of Venice and a great Moroccan citadel that doubles as Cyprus, the island of love where Othello meets his tragic end. The final imprisonment of Iago, who is hoisted aloft in a kind of wicker cage even as he surveys the funeral procession for Othello and Desdemona far below, is truly great Shakespearean cinema: faithful to the play it is based on, but expanding and even enhancing it by filming it in the kind of locations that Shakespeare himself might have used if he had had a real “muse of fire”.
4. TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
Welles’s master-noir. The story of the making of Touch of Evil is, given the film’s grim subject matter, an oddly redemptive one. Charlton Heston, the star, fought for Welles, who at the time was largely persona non grata in Hollywood for supposedly going over budget on films, to be given the chance to direct, as well as to play the villain, the corrupt Sheriff Quinlan. Welles, perhaps sensing this was his last chance to make a major Hollywood film, seized it and produced what may be the last great noir (at least until the era of neo-noir that Chinatown launched). From the bravura tracking shot that opens the film (directly borrowed by Robert Altman for his opening to The Player) to the tragic ending, in which Marlene Dietrich’s Madam lovingly cradles Quinlan and attempts to defend him against his accusers, Touch of Evil is superb. But it is Welles himself, bloated, aged and decayed as Quinlan (who is almost a proxy for Welles himself), who literally and figuratively dominates the film.
3. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965)
Along with Quinlan, Falstaff is Welles’s great performance as a fat man, or rather a man who is just too big for the tiny world he finds himself in. Ever since his early days with MacLiammóir in Dublin (in fact, ever since his school days), Welles had been a devoted Shakespearean, but it was Falstaff who had fascinated him most of all. And so, in Chimes, Welles made Falstaff, the great Shakespearean anti-hero, his true hero: the embodiment of the “merrie olde Englande” that would be swept away by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the cruelty of his former protégé, Prince Hal. Welles masterfully incorporated several history plays into one Falstaff story, and the famous battle scene was one of the first to depict the true horror of war: the mud-and-guts of medieval warfare as a kind of prototype of WWI’s trench warfare.
2. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)
For a long time after it was made, Ambersons was not considered magnificent at all; in fact, it was seen as the point at which the rot set in for Welles as a director, barely a year after the triumph of Kane. That was largely because the original audiences never got to see Welles’s version of the film, but rather a hacked-together version produced by the studio, including an utterly incongruous happy ending (incongruous because it came at the end of what was otherwise a tragedy). But as was often the case with Welles’s films (including Othello), Ambersons was rescued by later restorers, who somehow put together a version that was at least truer to Welles’s original vision. And what a vision it was. In many ways, Ambersons is more moving than Kane, as it tells a story that is both utterly unique and strangely universal: how a pair of young lovers are thwarted, and prevented from being together, only to meet years later and find that their children are falling in love with each other. Ultimately, Ambersons is magnificent and if the restored version had been the original version that had been released, along with Kane it would have been the greatest opening one-two punch in cinematic history.
1. CITIZEN KANE (1941)
No prizes for guessing this Number One: even today, more than 70 years on, Kane still tops most cinematic “best of” lists, never mind Welles’s own personal Top 10. What sets it apart from even the rest of Welles’s top five is the sheer dedication and perseverance with which Welles made it. Like Kane himself, and the tycoon Randolph Hearst who Kane was obviously modelled on, Welles quickly grew bored of things – even entire art-forms. Having co-written, starred in, directed and produced the most mind-blowingly innovative and inventive film ever made to that point (with its deep-focus photography and multiple-viewpoint storytelling), it was as if Welles could never again completely and utterly devote himself to any one film and see it through to its completion, not just in production but crucially in post-production. But with Kane he did.
THE GREATEST FILM WELLES NEVER MADE
The greatest film that Welles never made is often regarded as his Don Quixote film; he dreamed of making it for decades, but it never got beyond the stage of pre-production. But in truth, the greatest film that Welles never made is the greatest film that Hollywood itself has never made: the Orson Welles biopic. There have been stabs at a Welles biopic – notably RKO 281, about the making of Kane, and Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, about Welles’s 1937 staging of Julius Caesar, the first Broadway production of a Shakespeare play – but none that have even attempted to tell the whole Orson Welles story. As a screenwriter myself, it remains one of my dream-projects, but the truth is that “Awesome – The Orson Welles Story” (a working title!) could probably only have been directed by Welles himself. It would have been the unbelievable tale of how one man conquered almost every major 20th century story-telling medium – first stage, through his Voodoo Macbeth, then radio through his War of the Worlds that spooked the entire east coast of America, and finally film through the epic and inimitable Citizen Kane – but ended up largely being remembered in the popular imagination as the fat old man who advertised sherry. It was a fate worthy of Falstaff himself, and as such Welles would probably have approved of it.