CINEMA by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Orson Welles. Genius. Conman. Magician. Classicist. Hack.
, June 6, 2015
2015 is the centenary of the birth of Orson Welles, one of the creative world’s most revered and reviled figures.
Before he was 30 years old, Welles had conquered the stage, the radio and the screen. His 1935 Voodoo Macbeth led to the closing of 10 blocks in Harlem, as the opening night queues were so long. His 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was so convincingly done that listeners believed they had been invaded by Martians.
And in 1941, when he was only 26 years old, he made the film that would define him – Citizen Kane, a film that until recently had been declared for decades the greatest film of all time.
Citizen Kane is held to be Welles’ most lasting legacy – but it is also seen as the cause of his downfall. The film was “inspired by” the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst made sure the film did badly and soured Welles’ relationship with Hollywood, making it difficult for him to exert such complete creative control again.
Most of his movies were mangled, and have only been restored to his vision in the decades since his death.
Welles was often treated as if he were some sort of superhuman wonder kid – an attitude he did nothing to discourage. He had a tremendous ego as well as tremendous talent. But Welles was no fairy changeling. For someone who watches Kane and hears it was made by such a young man, it is natural to be astonished. But Welles did not come from an ordinary background.
He was born to wealthy parents in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In 1926 Welles entered an independent school in Illinois, where he was given free rein. His main interest was theatre and so for the time he was at school he practised and experimented with stagecraft.
He worked in radio and theatre after touring around Europe, catching the attention of producer John Houseman, who along with Roosevelt’s New Deal funding for the arts, gave Welles his big break.
Welles became one of the most famous, and well-paid, radio actors in America. His anthology shows – The Mercury Theatre on the Air and The Campbell Playhouse – allowed him to experiment with structure and storytelling in a recorded medium, something that would become crucial for his later cinema. His work on The Shadow made him a household name. These can all be found online for free.
At the same time Welles was on stage. Apart from the Voodoo Macbeth, he produced a chilling Julius Caesar inspired by the rise of Nazi Germany and a minimalist version of Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, where scenery was replaced with lighting effects.
Welles drew from all these experiences to make Kane – the complex narrative, the long takes, the bravura editing, the focus on the actors’ performances. He saw the cinema as a way to tell rich stories, but tell them so everyone could know them. He was a man of high culture who believed that everyone could appreciate great art.
Welles’ equal dislike for mindless entertainment and boring art house means that he is not easily boxed. He believed, like G.K. Chesterton, whose The Man Who Was Thursday he adapted for radio, that the masses deserved thought-provoking but rip-roaring yarns.
I lack the room to thoroughly deal with the rest of Welles’ work, but I shall mention some highlights.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is an astonishingly beautiful work about the rise and fall of a great family.
Macbeth (1948) is one of the most thrilling, and clever, Shakespearean adaptations around.
Carol Reed’s acclaimed post-war noir fillm, The Third Man, shows Welles’ talent as an actor.
Touch of Evil is an archetypal film noir, starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican detective, with an oft-imitated opening shot.
The Trial is Welles’ attempt at Kafka’s absurdity, with Anthony Perkins, of Psycho, as the victimised Josef K.
Chimes at Midnight is possibly the most ambitious Shakespearean movie ever made, blending the text from five plays to tell the story of Falstaff, the fat rogue with depth.
I believe that Welles’ greatest work is F for Fake (1973), a film essay that explores forgery, creativity, art and authorship – and the story of Orson Welles.
In it Welles visits “the premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres”; calling it “a celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man”.
His last meditation on the “rich stone forest”: “We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).