The best Orson Welles films

I’ve written often enough about Orson Welles to create a tag. Fortunately, you young people don’t have to depend on shitty reel-to-reel transfers to VHS as I did when watching Chimes at Midnight in the mid nineties (forget F for Fake). Some readers will think I’ve underrated Citizen Kane. What else is there to say? As a picture about the folly of the old counseling the young, as an inventive amalgam of Shakespeare, and a meta-narrative about the ingenuity of a master filmmaker working on a piecemeal budget,Chimes at Midnight is impressive.

As for the rest of his catalog, few directors should hope for a scene as poignant as the George Amberson Minafer and Aunt Fanny strawberry shortcake scene, or the comedy of the absurd of The Trial. Welles’ characters reflected his appetites: omnivorous, as relentless as sharks after blood — or strawberry shortcake. The spoiled, swollen young man who gets a comeuppance is the leitmotif in his work,whether it’s Charles Foster Kane in a Palm Beach castle isolated with a trapped wife and jigsaw puzzles or Prince Hal shedding his closest friends in his transformation to Henry V. It’s also  clear that the uses of power fascinated him too.

1. Chimes at Midnight
2. Citizen Kane
3. The Magnificent Ambersons
4. The Trial
5. F for Fake
6. Touch of Evil
7. Macbeth

Anatomies of melancholy: ‘The Immortal Story’ gets a sparkling re-release

The Macao of the nineteenth century shown in The Immortal Story looks like a De Chirico painting from the early twentieth. With its stone arches, people photographed from a great height as if they were ants spotted from a bell tower, and plazas covered in dust, Orson Welles’ adaptation of the Isak Dinesen short story insists on a mingling of what T.S. Eliot called time present and time past. While it lacks the curve of a major film and dodders when it explores a mythopoetic vein antithetical to Welles, The Immortal Story deserves appreciation. Most importantly, it’s out in a typically excellent Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray. Welles aficionados can stop searching YouTube once a week for terrible prints.

Shades of Welles’ past haunt The Immortal Story‘s plush sitting rooms. In the first sequence townsmen gossip about Clay as if he were one of the Ambersons. Welles plays Clay, a local mandarin of considerable wealth, contemptuous of the airy-fairy (“He hates prophecy,” a character says), porcine with boredom; he could be Charles Foster Kane, surrounded by half-completed jigsaw puzzles, aware of little except the memory of unsated appetites. Instead of Raymond the butler, who maintains his sardonic equipoise, Clay is attended by solicitous, blank bookkeeper Levinsky (Roger Coggio); he’s the auditor of the story that springs the movie to action: an old rich geezer who offers a sailor five guineas to knock up his wife. Insofar as anything can excite Clay the idea of making the word flesh does: “I want the story which I told you last night to happen in real life to real people.” He orders Levinsky to fetch him a sailor, a blond tow-headed piece of gay bait named Paul, played by Norman Eshley in the dumbfounded manner of a man dropped off at the wrong address. Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) plays the part of Clay’s fictional wife. Complicating matters is the knowledge that Clay bankrupted her father and drove him to suicide. Five guineas is a lot of money for a sailor — and he gets laid too! For Virginie the offer is too tempting: three hundred guineas. What follows is an evening in a four poster bed, during which Virginie and Paul realize their tenuous bond of affection.

As noted, this sequence is the film’s least interesting – Welles isn’t the director for whom one goes for oneiric argle-bargle – although thanks to Jeanne Moreau’s hooded, melancholy eyes and suppleness of gesture it has a charge (if Virginie could like Paul, then he might earn a second look). For Welles, though, the voyeurism — not a suggestion or undertone but the plot point — is new to his work. What does remain a suggestion is the homosexuality. Although the lineaments of the sailor/pregnant wife story remain clear, there is a long moment when the offer of money for sex is devoid of feminine fulfillment; according to what Welles shows on screen, Paul shows indifference about being bought by an older man. Call it Eshley’s inadequacy as an actor. Nevertheless, filming in 1966 allowed Welles a few liberties he couldn’t take in the forties. After all, Welles’ men are men without women. Kane has two wives to whom he seems barely to have been introduced (I can believe that Kane genuinely liked nothing more than to sit in Susan Alexander’s rooming house parlor to listen to her sing badly). Chimes at Midnight‘s Falstaff loves Prince Hal, for whose sake he plays the fool and the rapscallion, for whom he dies heartbroken. When Welles shows Clay spying Paul on the bed and exclaiming afterwards, “He’s full of juice!” I’m not sure my laughter was unintentional but the scene is touching just the same; it’s impossible to imagine his saying it about Virginie.

Finishing two minutes short of an hour, The Immortal Story has an Old World sadness. Welles could not have known that it would be the final film he’d complete. He disliked working in color. The concept for a filmed Dinesen omnibus was scrapped after, Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, the English backer demurred. His preference was for “A Country Tale” (“It’s about aristocratic obligation to the land, and the peasant’s feeling about the land. And it’s the story of a changeling. Peter O’Toole was going to play in it” — Welles was expert at describing films that would never be). The title wasn’t even his first choice: he liked The Guinea Piece, which has a specificity that Clay might have approved. David Thomson avers that the sequence of The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, and The Immortal Story surpasses the sequence from The Stranger to Touch of Evil. Because the second trio have only recently become widely available (Chimes at Midnight also got a Criterion release), it’s possible consensus might swing Thomson’s direction in a few years. I’m willing to be persuaded. Add 1974’s F For Fake and you have a filmmaker mastering new kinds of comedy: elisions for wit’s sake, sense of rhythm.

Let the reevaluations begin. Every rerelease of a Welles film triggers exaltation and the same kind of faint, undefined melancholy emitted by The Immortal Story. Perspicacious critic and reader that he was, Welles might have preferred to spin fictions about unfinished masterpieces and unrealized projects — “might.” He didn’t. The story of George Orson Welles is the story of Orson Welles making and trying to make movies.

Of geniuses, mandarins, and institutionalists


Patrick McGilligan – Young Orson

Simon Callow, Clinton Heylin, David Thomson, and the Welles-approved Barbara Leaming have covered this ground, but what distinguishes this SS-20 of a tome is the attention on George Orson’s origins. Raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin by a pianist/actress mother and a dad whose early fortune as a bicycle lamp inventor hastened a descent into alcoholism, the polymath benefited from an environment that paid lip service to the arts; the first seventh of McGilligan’s book is a meticulous account of being a minor artist in the Roosevelt-Taft age, and I’m not usually interested in meticulous accounts of boyhoods. Less compelling is the story of the accumulating triumphs: Horse Eats Hat, Dr. Faustus, the Negro Macbeth, the Mercury Theatre, the contract with RKO Pictures. To my mind it settles the question of Welles’ authorship of Citizen Kane (he and the decrepit, beloved Herman J. Mankiewicz each wrote his own script, the latter under the supervision of bete noire John Houseman; Welles edited, discarded, and added material during filming). The revelations concern his private life: Welles was more infatuated with first wife, Chicago blue blood Virginia Nicolson, than evidence had suggested; his bedhopping was less prodigious than his appetites for steaks and poetry; and around homosexual men from whom he wanted to coax favors he liked to float the possibility that he was one of them (“When I’m with homosexuals, I become a little homosexual, to make them feel at home, you know,” he confided to Henry Jaglom decades later, a couple of years before lending his voice to the monster planet in Transformers: The Movie). A prescient move: Young Orson leaves the Young Genius at the threshold of an aesthetic triumph and at the start of a forty-year saga of wooing: producers, actor-stars, waiters.

Charles Savage — Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency

The Bush administration approved the torture of suspected Al Qaeda members and sympathizers, the Obama administration perfected targeted killing. Thanks to men like Harold Koh, the White House could operate under a carapace of liberal jurisprudence. “Just as [Barack] Obama had bestowed a gloss of bipartisan consensus on those Bush-like policies he continued,” Charlie Savage writers, “Koh had leveraged his history as a liberal human rights champion to vouch for what Obama was doing — including…drone strikes.” The thesis of the New York Times reporter’s hopscotching narrative is the degree to which the president sought robust legal justifications for implementing its policies instead of questioning the assumptions of the national security state; the Office of Legal Counsel was a busy little hive during the Obama years. Caught flatfooted by bipartisan opposition to closing Guantanamo and the Christmas underwear bomber in 2009, the administration conducted its counterterrorism with a forest of memos and signatures. The murder of Al-Awlaki and his son, the raid on the Osama bin Laden compound, Chelsea Manning, the Edward Snowden leaks, the crackdown on whistleblowers – the episodes get thorough review, including interviews with the key personages. Savage, whose Takeover remains the essential story of how a Ford chief of staff and congressman named Richard Cheney saved the imperial presidency from obloquy, is the rare reporter who can write. The unchronological meanwhile-back-at approach ix taxing, though.

David Talbot — The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government

Kim Roosevelt, the master spy behind the overthrow of Iranian president Mossadegh in 1953, joined Gulf Oil at the end of the decade. The newly installed shah, sitting on the Peacock Throne, became a client. His boss Allen and brother John Foster had spent the forties spiriting Nazi pals away from Germany for what they saw as the next and greater war against Soviet communism. This conflation of jingoism and personal financial enrichment drives nearly every important figure in David Talbot’s history of the CIA. Question their motives and the House Un-American Activities committee might call the brave soul to testify under oath. Although in 2013 Stephen Kinzer published his own fantastic-in-ever-sense biography of the Dulles duo, the former Salon editor who wrote The Devil’s Chessboard is even more comprehensive, citing a motherlode of declassified material. He also does more than hint that Allen Dulles, fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs debacle, knew people who knew people who had Kennedy killed.

Goodbye to England: Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight (1965 France/Spain/Switzerland) aka Campanadas a medianoche Directed by Orson Welles Shown left foreground: Orson Welles; far right: Keith Baxter

I haven’t seen a print of Chimes at Midnight that didn’t look as if it had been made in Lancaster-era England. A restoration by Janus Films and The Criterion Collection promises to burnish Orson Welles’ troubled masterpiece into something worth its stature as among the most satisfying and certainly most inventive of Shakespeare adaptations: a synthesis of the Henriad and The Merry Wives of Windsor that situates the Falstaff-Hal friendship amid the chicanery of the royal court. Assembled and edited on the fly, Chimes at Midnight will never look as Welles intended, but the way in which this mystique and the film’s storybook air fuse gives it a freshness that will never lose its bloom. Steven Morowitz and filmmaker Joel Bender of Distribpix Inc. found an “almost pristine” 35mm print, which is touring the country before Criterion releases DVD and Blu-ray editions.

Critics often use a piece of art’s shortcomings to argue for its realization. The extreme long shots with which Welles favors John Gielgud’s Henry IV dovetail with the character’s aloofness, Gielgud’s plummy diction (with a dad and king this stuffy it’s no wonder that Hal rebels), and the fact that the peripatetic nature of the production meant the actor wasn’t available at all times. Occasionally the dialogue and images aren’t synced, noticeable during a couple of Hal-Falstaff bull sessions, yet it works: it sets up Falstaff as the half-listening sucker who should’ve noticed the ambition and sangfroid that will turn his protege into Henry V, king of England.

But let me be clear: the production has shortcomings, not the film. Only Welles’ Othello among Shakespeare adaptations creates the sense of stumbling into a world as remote as an outer rim planet; Chimes at Midnight is not an attempt to “humanize” or modernize the playwright. You can almost smell the pines and oaks and feel the moisture of the mist. It’s a difficult film. To sort out the character’s relations takes a while. The performances help: Keith Baxter as Hal, wily enough to hide his coldbloodedness; Jeanne Moreau as Mistress Quickly, teasing Falstaff in every way, one of the few moments of frisson between Welles and a woman; and Welles himself, savoring the wit and pathos of the verse. Perhaps watching Welles in too many fat suits over the years dulled appreciation. Other than Citizen Kane he never did more exciting work onscreen; it’s a role equal to his prestidigitation, his verbal facility, his ease. And he was his own best critic of his work. In the early seventies he told Peter Bogdanovich:

Essentially the film is the story of that triangle. Opposed to Falstaff, the king stands for responsibility. But what is so fascinating in Shakespeare is that the king himself is an adventurer–he who has usurped the throne speaks for legitimacy. And Hal must betray the only good man in the story to protect a doubtful heritage and realize his coolly chosen destiny as an English hero. And, of course, Falstaff is in himself a reproach and rebuke to all those royal and heroic pretensions.

So is the final battle sequence, lauded over the years as one of the convincing in cinema: a tumult of mud and horseshoes, an ode to futility clad in beautiful cumbersome armor. Welles was the first to admit nostalgia undergirded much of his work. Chimes at Midnight showed the pitilessness of this dream world.

Chimes at Midnight is out on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray.

Nihilism, with a little sex in it: The Trial

“In these matters there are so many conflicting opinions that the confusion is impenetrable,” the Advocate reminds Josef K. Although said late in the picture, Anthony Perkins plays K as if this remark were a lodestar. Orson Welles’ film version of The Trial lacks the recognition of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil but it’s his loosest and zaniest picture, the one most worth revisiting on his centenary.

As much a riff on the definition of Kafkaesque as an adaptation of the novel, The Trial has a perverse streak that’s all Welles. And the movie wastes no time, paced like a Hecht-MacArthur comedy. The conceit is that K doesn’t know why cops in trench coats awaken him and search his apartment, and it doesn’t matter. Offering explanations when none are needed, acting guilty when the authorities have presented no evidence, K is the boy with perpetual nervousness. Both novel and film depict how in trying to understand his dilemma he ensnares himself further; his end is inevitable. Welles’ script includes riffs not in the novel. “That’s my pornograph — uh,” K stammers during the search; or: “I deny that there’s an ovular-shaped drawing under this rug!” The conclusion — I won’t spoil it, for it’s Welles’ idea of a grand joke — is an explosive departure, to which I’ll return.

Shot in Dubrovnik and Zagreb, among other cities, The Trial posits a universe askew and pitiless, ready to swallow K up. Welles and cinematographer Edmond Richard photograph K against shadow-drenched village squares as if he were trapped in a De Chirico painting, or, worse, a black ant scurrying beside the base of a dining room table. The emphasis on phantasmagoria isn’t as relentless as in Touch of Evil; Welles is smart enough to know the material is weird enough. The Trial has his best use of reflected light since The Magnificent Ambersons. While K is in custody chatting with a jailor (Welles dubbed his voice), Welles cuts to the euphoric faces of children ogling K behind bars. Consolidating his knack for devising novel solutions to budget shortfalls, Welles includes a sequence in which K plays against what looks like a woodcut background, as if he were a puppet. It isn’t all darkness and gargoyle faces, though. The Trial is Welles’ most sensual film. Romy Scheider can’t keep her hands off Perkins; she bites his chin as they lie on a bed of books. Jeanne Moreau and her insolent mouth glower in the first third. At the time Perkins’ casting, so soon after Psycho, seemed rather on the nose. What we know now gives his performance extra pathos; he’s the screen’s best fumbler, able to find exquisite variations on the fidget. Welles himself stars as the Advocate. His first appearance is grand: supine on a bed, mumbling through a hot towel wrapped around his face. The rest of the performance is distracted though.

Relentless in momentum, indifferent to provoking viewer sympathy, The Trial is not a pleasant experience. It’s a buggy movie that can get under your skin. Under no circumstances would it have been a hit in 1962 or 1972, perhaps even 1982. The Trial is an example of independent film before the taxonomy and sensibility existed (with its distancing techniques it wouldn’t surprise me to learn the Coens are fans). Welles told a baffled Peter Bogdanovich in the early seventies that The Trial was his happiest filming experience (“It’s my own picture, unspoiled in the cutting or in anything else”). It shows. However, because no copyright was filed on its behalf, The Trial has floated around in terrible prints for years. I saw a reel to reel transfer to VHS in 1994. The print I streamed on Netflix was not without problems, and we’re likely never to get a pristine one.

But I don’t watch Welles for pristine surfaces. A sense in which fate has trapped men into being nothing other than they are runs through all of his major films. Think of Charles Foster Kane and George Minafer, Macbeth and Othello. In Chimes at Midnight, made (or assembled) not long after The Trial, the unfairness of it all breaks the heart of foolish, old, loving Falstaff. The Trial sees the hilarity. Its conclusion, that grand departure from Kafka mentioned earlier, looks better nearly fifty years after the rise and fall of totalitarianism and the creation of the national security state; we’re all potential suspects. Welles understood what he was doing with that ending. “I don’t think Kafka could have stood for that after the deaths of the six million Jews,” he told Bogdanovich. “That terrible fact occurred after the writing of The Trial and I think made Kafka’s ending impossible if you conceive of K as a Jew, as I did. I don’t mean as a Jewish Jew, but as a non-Christian.” Even when K thinks he’s won he’s lost. The Trial‘s expression of glee — its nihilism has a sheen — is closer to a death’s head than a grin; it’s as if Jed Leland got script approval.

‘We are three days ahead of schedule’


Continuing my celebration of Orson Welles’ cinematic life, here’s an interview with Charlton Heston conducted at the time of the restoration tour of Touch of Evil in 1998.

Both you and Welles came from very strong theater backgrounds, isn‘t that right?

Q: Yes, that’s true.

A: And there was a two week rehearsal period before they started shooting Touch of Evil?

No, Orson rehearsed one scene. You remember the scene in the apartment before they find the dynamite? That was quite a long scene, it was thirteen pages, and Orson took the principals. If you remember the scene there were policemen and guys bringing in donuts and stuff like that, there were a lot of bit players and he didn’t bother to call them in, but he rehearsed the principals. In other words the young actor who played the Mexican boy who later turns out to be the murderer, and Joe Calleia and me and Orson. But we rehearsed the day before shooting started and then it was a very complicated shot because he was clearly, it became evident when he was setting it up on the set, that he was going to do a sot of the whole scene, all thirteen pages, in one setup. And he had to have pieces of the set moved aside and so on, very difficult. And on the first day of shooting which was the next day, a Monday, we all of course showed and it’s an iron custom in movie studios that when you’re starting a picture one of the second assistant directors calls the production department the first time you turn over on a given shot – when you say “turn over” you mean the camera is turning over – and then when they print the first take. And we hadn’t even started shooting until after lunch and there were emissaries standing in dark corners acting nervous. They didn’t dare say anything, but you could see they were very upset. And we didn’t start actually shooting until about 3:00 in the afternoon and each time you had to reset all the machinery and so on, it was quite complex. And Orson did, oh I suppose it was eight or nine takes and finally about 5:30 he said “Okay, print the last take. That is a wrap on this scene, we are three days ahead of schedule.” And of course it was something he just did to give them confidence that he was not going to be a difficult director to work with and the studio thought “Boy, he’s gonna do this in almost every scene.” Of course he never did it again, but it was an example of his resourcefulness when he wanted to.

This anecdote I’ve heard several times, notably in David Thomson’s critical biography and Heston’s diaries (cast aside the inanities of his public life; the man understood movies, had estimable taste in literature even if he was ponderous in expounding on them, and was a shrewd observer). But as told by one of the participants the man’s prodigious ability to hold a scene together in his head or, better, wing it and understand when to cut and print, astounds me.

Also, I prefer the version of Touch of Evil released on VHS and available for most of the nineties. I like the sleaze of the Henry Mancini theme playing over the crawl. Unnoticeable on first viewing is the tension creating by cutting from the scene with the Grande boys harassing Susie (Janet Leigh) to Vargas (Heston) breathlessly keeping up with Quinlan (Welles) and henchmen on their after hours amble through a nightmarish Tijuana, lit like Vienna after the war in The Third Man. It’s been years though. I’m due for a another look.

‘Everyone applauded wildly, but no one came up with a cent’

Vanity Fair‘s account of the shooting of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind differs little from what Peter Bogdanovich and David Thomson’s versions, but I’ll note how the idea of the powerful empty box who becomes a politician while suppressing his homosexuality carried over into The Big Brass Ring, a script that Welles talked through with Gore Vidal in his broiled fish dotage. The account of Welles swishing for Hemingway is priceless; he had a knack for sizing up the insecurities of boors like John Houseman and temperaments like Micheál Mac Liammóir. The cleverest anecdotes involve blinkered star John Huston, whose Josh Karp evaluates as the product of a man ” who valued the adventure of filmmaking as much as, if not more than, the final product”:

Thus, despite the fact that Welles arrived on the set each day (now in a purple robe) toting a huge script and new pages of dialogue he’d written the night before, Orson told Huston not to memorize his lines. Instead, Welles said, “the idea is all that matters,” and he trusted Huston to embody Hannaford when the cameras rolled, something that seemed to work quite well, except on the occasions when his lead actor got lost or forgot the purpose of a scene.

In those situations, Bogdanovich recalled in a 2007 interview, Huston tended to say something—anything—with enormous authority before exiting with great confidence. Meaning that when the line might be “I’m going to talk to Billy about that,” Huston would say, “We’ll set it up for Tuesday. I’m going to the kitchen,” and then walk off, leaving a bewildered scene partner alone in the frame.

When Orson would finally yell “Cut!,” Huston would re-enter and innocently ask, “Was that the line?”

“Well, not exactly,” Welles would say, laughing. “I dunno what the hell you just said.”

On the day that Huston had to shoot a drunken, self-loathing monologue into a bathroom mirror, Welles treated him with the kind of care reserved for a young actress filming her first nude scene. Closing the set, he assembled only essential members of the crew to film the sequence.

Having encouraged Huston to drink throughout the day, Welles wanted a sense of both fragility and power, which he squeezed out of Huston by filming the scene 14 times (from the top, middle, and bottom) before they nailed it.

“That’s the one, John,” Welles said.

“That’s the only one,” Huston responded.

It came to naught. An AFI tribute in 1975 produced encomiums but no backing.

‘We invite you to luxuriate in secrecy’

On the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth, I thought it appropriate to mention the least heralded part of his career: the political activist, columnist, and radio personality whose liberalism, according to a new biography, drove him out of an increasingly mad United States during the McCarthy years. Setting aside the histrionics in the last third, where Welles sounds like Lionel Barrymore in court, the clip above is a marvel: an actor treating a deposition like a script, puncutated with pauses and careful stresses. The facts were grisly. As recounted by F.X. Feeney, Isaac Woodard Jr, back in South Carolina after a stint in the Pacific, was blinded by a Southern police officer in 1946 because he gave a bus driver some lip. “We invite you to luxuriate in secrecy,” he hisses, and this gorgeous line could also summarize the moviegoer experience. In the Woodard case Welles exploits his connection to the audience: luxuriating in secrecy may lead to roiling public anger (the officer who shot Woodard was acquitted and lived to ninety-seven).

As for the liberalism, another Feeney quote:

Welles had a feast-or-famine income that kept him filing for perpetual extensions through the years, but in cold fact he stayed current with the IRS, overall. No debt was ever so extreme that it would keep him abroad. In reality, he was steering clear of the studios’ blacklists of that witch-hunt era. He was firmly determined never to compose a self-compromised letter such as others he knew (John Houseman, Rita Hayworth) had been obliged to submit to TV network or movie studio bosses, stating their opposition to so-called communist front organizations, so they could be “cleared” for employment. “I’m here because I prefer my freedom,” as he told French interviewers. He saw himself as a citizen of the world, now, just as Chaplin did.

To honor him, I’ll watch The Trial and Chimes at Midnight again.

Another Orson Welles book to buy….

Thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum and Glenn Kenny for informing me about Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts, a booklength series of conversations between the polymath and one of his earliest mentors. Another side of Welles emerges: a gentler and liberal man instead of the provocateur of Biskind-Jaglom’s (and Peter Bogdanovich’s) text. Kenny:

hat Welles lets his better angels speak through him via Hill has to do with, you’ll see if you read the book, which you definitely should, his ease with Hill. The two go back a very long way, and we can infer that Hill knows Welles’ quirks and foibles like almost no other, and that he forgives them all because he really loves Orson, and Orson really loves him back. There’s not as much filmmaking talk in this book as there is in My Lunches; there’s quite a bit of fond reminiscing about places and events and people that may not have a too-privileged place in the philosophy of those who are exclusively concerned with Welles the cineaste. But these topics are not brought up in the service of a facile nostalgia; everything touched upon in these conversations of course deeply informed Welles the artist, a deeply sophisticated man and a product of a very American culture that I sometimes fear vanished about thirty or forty years ago.