Orson Welles, life, style and 10 films to see absolutely

Orson Welles and the beginnings with the theater

Orson Welles was born in a wealthy family in Wisconsin from a pianist mother and inventor father from whom he inherited both talents: already as a child he plays the piano and plays games of prestige. At the age of 8 he lost his mother and left with his father for a long journey, making a long stop in Shanghai. Four years later his father also dies and Orson is entrusted to a Chicago doctor, Dr. Maurice Bernstein. 

In 1931 he graduated in Illinois, but did not continue his studies at the college and decided to leave for Europe to work in the theater. He works as an actor at the Gate Theater in Dublin, plays in London and Broadway with little success. Then visit Morocco, Spain and other countries. but he did not have much luck and began to travel again, stopping for a long time in Spain, where he even went down to the bullring. In 1934 he made his debut in New York as an actor in a play about “Romeo and Juliet”. The same year he shoots a short film of a few minutes, The Hearts of Age. His theatrical activity finally begins to take off. In 1937 he created the Mercury Theater group.

Orson Welles on the radio

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In 1938 he began working in radio with the show “The Mercury Theater on the air” at CBS. It is a show where he reads and readjusts great novels. This is where the event that makes him suddenly become a star takes place: on October 30th his radio adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds reaches thousands of listeners who really believe in the live landing of aliens on Earth. 

The same year he shoots Too Much Johnson, a project to be included in a play, and the following year he writes a script inspired by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but it will be possible to shoot only the first scenes due to budget problems. It was 1940 when Francis Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story about the world of cinema and put a consideration on Orson Welles in the mouth of his character Bobby. 

“Mr. Marcus, he said so sincerely in a trembling voice, I wouldn’t be surprised if Orson Welles was the biggest threat to Hollywood in years. He makes $ 150,000 for a movie and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was so extreme as to force you to do it all again. the equipment to start all over again, as you did in 28 with the sound. – Oh my God, Mr. Marcus groaned. “

Fitzgerald’s short story was published in the Squares before Orson Welles shot Citizen Kane. Francis Scott Fitzgerald wrote captions for silent films and occasionally worked as a script writer in Hollywood. But his true creative vein was expressed in literature by observing the reality of the world of cinema and its follies. His envy of Orson Welles was probably great, as it was for many people in Hollywood at the time. But why was Orson Welles so hated and envied? 

Orson Welles in Hollywood

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It was only a few months since RKO signed a millionaire contract with 24-year-old Orson Welles for his film debut on July 21, 1939, giving him total creative freedom, both in writing and directing the film. Such an event had left everyone speechless. Writers and directors who had been working for years with constant compromises could hardly believe it and went green with anger at the mere sight of Orson walking around the Studios. 

This is even more surprising when we consider the fact that we are in the era of studio tyrants like David O. Selznick who produced films for MGM like Gone with the Wind without leaving the directors any creative autonomy, supervising projects like a dictator, with life and death rights on projects at any stage of production. When Orson Welles lands in Hollywood, he is recognized as having a revolutionary charisma and a brilliant understanding of how the media works. Producers consider him a goose that lays golden eggs. 

RKO wanted to secure The Young Star and exploit his potential in the film market, aware of the risks he ran in collaborating with a rebellious and revolutionary man, who loved to make transgression and provocation his lifestyle. 

Certainly Orson Welles didn’t like Hollywood’s rigid codes and assembly-line structure at all. In fact, he had refused several contracts that had been offered to him with the same criteria with which they were offered to all the other directors, men who also had long careers behind them. RKO was the first to understand that the only way to secure Orson Welles in film was to give him unlimited freedom and to fully trust him and his Mercury Theater company to execute the film. 

The aim was also to launch a younger, more dynamic and creative image of the Firm with respect to competition policies. But the making of Orson Welles’ first film was troubled and tiring. He initially blocked many projects such as the adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, until the director decided to devote himself to the story of press mogul Charles Foster Kane and make Citizen Kane. 

Citizen Kane, the first film by Orson Welles

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CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, running for governor

Citizen Kane is the story of Charles Forster Kane, media magnate, told in flashbacks from the moment of his death, through interviews and testimonies of those who knew him. It is the investigation of a journalist who wants to make a newsreel about Kane and seeks the meaning of man’s life. But in the end he doesn’t find it and ends up getting lost in its mystery. Citizen Kane breaks all the codes of the standardized cinema of the Studios to become a narrative and visual excess. The film is a centerless labyrinth, an expansion of space and time that also affects the moral and psychological aspect of the characters. 

After watching the film, one has the impression of having crossed a labyrinth without finding the exit. In reality the film is conceived just like a labyrinth, but the center does not exist at all: it is closed by any access road. It is a puzzle that invites the viewer to reconstruct the life of the character, but in the end we realize that holding all the fragments together is something secret: one can only access the chaos of appearances. 

The central theme, metaphysical, detective, mythological and allegorical, is the search for a man’s secret soul. An existentialist film with a profound symbolic dimension. The reality that emerges from the journalist’s investigation and from the contradictory fragments of Kane’s personality is the impossibility of making a judgment on a man’s life, despite the concrete facts he left behind in society during his life. 

But the film also uses its protagonist to make an analysis of American society over the span of 50 years. It is a harsh criticism of the world of journalism and its manipulation of the news, and of the New Deal and of Roosevelt’s policies after the Great Depression. 

Kane’s life and the evolution of American society seem to go hand in hand. The loss of childhood, the removal from home of the child corresponds to the American passage from the pure and pristine age of the pioneers to that of the wolves of Wall Street. Kane’s obsession with power is a deep neurosis linked to the shortcomings and losses in his childhood. A childhood that continues to haunt him throughout his life. 

The film begins with Kane’s death and this determines his flashback structure within a time that has already elapsed, a feeling of loss that runs throughout the film. Kane is a Shakespearean character crossed by conflicts at every level: generous and tyrant, honest and bullying. He is a double character as his childhood favorite toy, the Rosebud sleigh and the first Christmas sleigh. 

The shots have a strong and depth of field and are often angled from below, including the ceilings in the field of view. The duration and the sequence shot replace the classic decoupage. The viewer is not guided in the selection of the director’s plans and fields but can choose what to look at within the frame, his gaze wandering in search of significant details. The evolution of the character, first powerful and framed from below, then crushed by the presence of the ceilings in deformed images, is linked to the choice of frames. Orson Welles manages to create, in short, a work where form and content are perfectly harmonized, and one and the other mirror. 

The real Charles Foster Kane

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Publisher William Randolph Hearst. United States: 1937\n(Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

The fact is that the real Kane got very angry when he realized that in the character of the film there was clearly his personality, his newspaper and parts of his life. First he tried to fight the release of the film through legal channels, then I even try to demand that the negative be burned. Finally he tried in every way to prevent the release of the film. 

The parallels between the life of Charles Foster Kane and Hearst were many and extremely clear: scion of a rich family that has a gold mine, grows completely disinterested in his father’s business and starts doing journalism with a small newspaper, New York inquire into fiction, San Francisco Examiner into reality. 

He hired a small group of journalists with whom he became increasingly famous due to his ability to create sensational news. Hearst invented tabloid journalism and became a publisher with immeasurable media power, eventually pursuing a political career and becoming a member of the United States Congress. He prevented his reporters from publishing articles about the film in his newspapers and urged all his readers to boycott the release of Citizen Kane and not go and see it. He tried to censor the film in every way but failed. 

Subsequently, the journalism magnate accused Orson Welles of pro-Communism and even managed to activate an investigation by the secret services. Citizen Kane was a great success with critics and among insiders but it was a commercial failure. Erich Von Stroheim said after the screening that it would be one of the most important films to leave a mark in the history of cinema. But the public didn’t go to see him. 

The Magnificent Amberson

The-Magnificent-Amberson

Orson Welles’ second film was The Magnificent Amberson of 1942, which failed even more dramatically than Citizen Kane. The RKO that produced the two films lost a ton of money. Apparently Francis Scott Fitzgerald was right to call the director a danger to Hollywood. The danger, however, lay not in the director’s personality but in his ridiculous revenues compared to the production costs of the films. 

In reality, Orson Welles’ first two films were activating the biggest revolution in Hollywood cinema destined to change the language of rigid and conformist classic cinema into something new, in a revolutionary avant-garde cinema with big budgets. The public, however, had become fond of the stereotypical language of classic films and were not at all receptive. Not even the Oscar nomination was able to increase the proceeds.

The Magnificent Amberson continues the investigation of the themes explored by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. It tells the story of the decline of a family of wealthy landowners as the industrial revolution affects society, characters who live in ideological and moral conflict with the outside world. A conflict caused by ego, narcissism and a thirst for power. However, both in Citizen Kane and in The Magnificent Amberson we find the fragility and vulnerability of these characters on an intimate level. 

The style of Orson Welles

The innovative and revolutionary style of Welles becomes even clearer with the second film: dilation of time and duration of the shots, depth of field and sequence shots, complex and overloaded scenographies that become strongly symbolic and iconographic images, depth of field also in the sound. 

These characteristics will be present throughout Orson Welles’ filmography, a highly recognizable imprint of an author with a very strong personality. A work that sees in the artifice and falsification of reality a sort of illusionism and filmic sleight of hand. The excess of make-up on the faces of the actors, their excessive physicality and the individual images capable of grasping the truth on a dramatic level. 

The next film, Terror of the Black Sea, is cut off mid-shoot. Orson Welles is fired from RKO while on the set of a serial film, All Is True, and his work is manipulated and cut during editing. The following films are also critically acclaimed but have no success with the public.

The Stranger

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In the autumn of 1945, Welles begins production of The Stranger, a film noir. where he himself plays a Nazi who changed his identity and took refuge in a New England town. The film stars Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young. Producer Sam Spiegel initially wanted to hire director John Huston who had written the script, but Huston had joined the Army and Welless had the chance to direct the project. The first film that Orson Welles managed to direct after 4 years. The agreements stipulated that if the project was successful he would be able to direct four more films with International Picture, while also having a fair amount of creative control. The Stranger was Orson Wells’ only real success with the public: costing one million dollars, 15 months after its release in cinemas it had grossed 3 million and two hundred thousand dollars. International Picture, however, does not award the next four films to Orson Welles and the promised contract is canceled: they thought that profit margins were too low.

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The Lady from Shanghai

The-Lady-from-Shanghai

In 1947 Orson Welles made a film in exchange for Harry Cohn’s financial aid for his theater production Around the world. He conceived it as a modest thriller to achieve his theatrical goal but the budget went up enormously when Rita Hayworth joined the cast. Harry Cohn, for a change, did not like the first version of Orson’s montage: he found the plot confusing and thought there weren’t enough close-ups. He also didn’t like the black comedy tone the director used in some scenes. This Welles film was also re-edited by the Studio with the addition of new takes after the director’s work ended. After The lady from Shanghai Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth got divorced. The film was a success in Europe but a fiasco in the United States where it was revalued decades later, becoming a cult film of the Noir genre. A fate similar to the film Monsieur Verdoux, the project initially directed by Chaplin and then passed into the hands of Charlie Chaplin.

Macbeth

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In 1948 Orson Welles managed to convince Republic Picture to direct him a low-cost version of Macbeth: it was an attempt to make an epic film with stylized costumes and a pre-recorded soundtrack, the same techniques used for the making of b-movies . The film transforms and profoundly reworks Shakespeare’s work through Welles’ screenplay and becomes a clash between pagan and proto-Christian ideologies. The style is similar to that of Citizen Kane. When the film was released, the press condemned it as a shameful massacre of Shakespeare by Welles. The production called in the director to cut 20 minutes and shoot new scenes. But the film was a disaster. Fans were once again in Europe: in particular the French poet and director Jean Cocteau, who described the characters in the film as “creepy corridors of a dream subway, an abandoned coal mine and dilapidated cellars oozing water”.

Return to Europe, Othello

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In 1948 Orson Welles moved to Europe where he participated as an actor in several films such as Blackmagic, from 1948, where he played Cagliostro and met Akim Tamiroff whom he would later call in his productions. In 1949 he worked with Carol Reed in the film The Third Man together with Joseph Cotten, his friend and interpreter of the first film Citizen Kane. He also participates in several Italian productions playing Cesare Borgia in the film The Prince of the Foxes of 1949, with Tyrone Power, or the Mongolian warrior in the film based on the novel The black rose, in 1950. 

Working as an actor around Europe Orson Welles puts aside the money he earns to make a film version of Othello. He made the film based on Shakespeare’s play over 2 years, from 1949 to 1951, shooting between Italy and Morocco. He invites many of his friends to participate in the shoot, such as Micheál Mac Liammóir as Iago, and Hilton Edwards as desdemona’s father. Suzanne Cloutier plays the role of Desdemona. Filming goes on with difficulty as Welles continually runs out of funds and has to get back to working as an actor. 

Due to the low budget the final prints of the film have a poor quality soundtrack, with several interruptions in the sound in moments of silence. The film was restored in 1992 by Welles’ daughter, Beatrice Will Smith, and re-released in theaters. The original soundtrack created by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino was also included in the restoration and several sound effects were added. This new release had great success in America in 1952. Orson Welles works in England on Harry Alan Towers’ Harry Lime radio show, a new series entitled The Black Museum, which runs for one year. 

Another role is offered to him by director Herbert Wilcox: it is the part of a murdered victim in the film Trent’s last case. Orson Welles also worked at the BBC in 1953 reading passages from Walt Whitman’s epic Song of myself. He then plays Professor Moriarty in the radio series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He later returned to America to star in King Lear’s Omnibus, which aired on CBS, then worked in a film as the antagonist Trouble in the Glen and Three cases of murder. His friend John Huston called him to play Father Mapple in 1956, in a film inspired by the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, starring Gregory Peck. 

Mr. Arkadin

Mr-Arkadin

Orson Welles manages to make a new film in 1955. The title is Mr. Arkadin. The producer is his friend and political mentor Luis Dolivet. He shoots in France, Germany, Spain and Italy on a very low budget. The story is based on episodes from the Harry Lime radio show that Orson had worked on. The director plays the protagonist himself. It is a billionaire who hires a man to delve into the secrets of his past. 

The cast includes Robert Arden, whom he met during Harry Lime’s radio work, and Welles’ third wife, Paola Mori. In editing, however, Welles is very slow and makes Luis Dolivet lose patience, who fires him and prefers to finish the film without him. Apparently the misadventures in making films don’t end in Hollywood. The Dolivet version is titled Confidential Report. In 2005 the Munich Film Museum oversaw the restoration of this film. 

Touch of evil

Touch-of-evil

In 1956 Orson Welles returned to Hollywood and began filming a pilot project: The Fountain of Youth, based on the short story by John Collier. The film aired only in 1958 and won the Peabody Award. Then Welles returns to acting in television, radio and film programs. He worked on Man in the Shadow, for Universal pictures, in 1957. At Universal he found the opportunity to direct Charlton Heston in a project called Touch of Evil, in 1958, based on the With Masterson novel, Badge of Evil. 

Initially he had to participate in the film only as an interpreter but thanks to the help of Charlton Heston Universal assigned him the film also as director. Many collaborators and friends of Orson Welles come together in the working of the project: the cameraman Russell Metty, who had worked with him in The Stranger; makeup artist Maurice SeidermanEstate, who had worked on Citizen Kane Fourth; actors Joseph Cotten, Marlene Dietrich and Akim Tamiroff. 

Strangely, the production proceeds without problems this time and Orson Welles manages to finish the film on schedule and with the assigned budget. But even this time the director’s final cut doesn’t appeal to the Studio, which puts the film back together to show a smoother and clearer plot. Orson Welles disclaims this version and writes 58 pages of suggestions and objections. In 1978 the original version of the film edited by the director was discovered and released. 

Don Quixote

Don-Quixote

While Universal cuts and mutilates Touch of Evil Orson has already started shooting his new film, an adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote novel in Mexico. In 1959 he continues to shoot Don Quixote between Spain and Italy. In Italy he also directs some scenes of the film David and Goliath, then moves between Hong Kong, Paris and Yugoslavia where he works again as an actor. The filming of Quixote lasted through the 60s in alternating phases. 

Welles elaborates the concepts, the tone and the ending of the film constantly changing: he could have continued to play with the editing for another 20 years, but he had a definitive version in the late 1960s. In 1961 he worked for Italian public television directing a series of episodic films, each lasting half an hour, entitled In the land of Don Quixote. These are travel diaries, taken by his wife Paola and their daughter Beatrice. In 1970 the director returned to Hollywood where he continued to independently finance his new projects and often participated in American talk shows.

Kafka’s Trial according to Orson Welles

The-Trial

In 1962 Orson Welles directed his film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The protagonist in the role of Joseph K is Anthony Perkins, and in the cast there is also Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, his wife Paola Mori and friend Akim Tamiroff. This production, too, curated by Michael and Alexander Salkind, was troubled and often short of money.

At some point during the shoot, in Yugoslavia, the producers told the director that it was no longer possible to build sets on the set. Thus Orson Welles began to exploit real places and scenographies, such as the Orsey station in Paris, an abandoned railway station at that time. He set up his small editing room in an unused, cold and depressing room that was once that of the stationmaster. This Orson film was also a commercial failure. The director said in BBC interviews that he thinks The Trial is the best film he has ever made.

Other films

Shot in Spain Chimes at Midnight is based on the play by Orson Welles himself Five Kings, inspired by 6 works by Shakespeare. The film tells the story of Sir John Falstaff, played by Welles himself, and his relationship with the prince at Kate Baxter. At the end of the production, the director is very satisfied with his work. In 1966 he directed a film for French television, The Immortal Story, based on a novel by Karen Blixen. The film also comes out in French cinemas and has a good success. In that period Orson meets again the actress Oja Kodar whom he had met on the set of The trial: the two begin a professional and loving relationship.

Orson and Oja try to finance a project together, an adaptation of Karen Blixen’s novel The Heroin, but the funds disappear after the first day of shooting. The director stars in a brief cameo as Cardinal Wolsey in a Fred Zinnemann film, A Man for All Seasons. In 1977 Orson Welles began directing The Deep, a film based on the novel Dead Calm by Charles Williams, shot off the coast of Yugoslavia, with Jeanne Moreau, Laurence Harvey and Oja Kodar. This project was also abandoned due to lack of funds following the death of Lawrence Harvey. In 1968 Welles shoots a television report for CBS entitled Orson’s bag, a mix of travelogues, comic sketches and Shakespearean comedy.

The Other Side of the Wind

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At the end of 1970 Orson Welles prepares to shoot a new film, The Other Side of the Wind, but the work remains unfinished even many years after his death. It was completed only in 2018 and presented at the Venice Film Festival. The film tells the story of a director, Jake, on whom Orson Welles projects his alter ego, who tries to make a film surrounded by a circle of friends, collaborators and cinema people. A sort of personal version of 8 and a half by Fellini, a film by a great director about the experience and conflicts of making films. 

After two unfinished films, he directed F as fake from 1975 and the last film, the documentary Filming Othello, from 1978. He worked as an actor in The Man, the Beast and the Virtue of Steno, with Totò, The long summer hot with Paul Newman. He ironically interprets himself in the short film La ricotta by Pierpaolo Pasolini. He wins the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 1970, the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1971, a David di Donatello in 1983. 

Orson Welles dies in Hollywood, the place that had always created so many problems for him, due to a heart attack, on the 10th October 1985. The day before, he had attended the Merv Griffin Show performing one of his sleight of hand. In the United States the newspapers spoke of a great director who had always been the cause of financial failures, while in Europe the press focused more on the great artistic achievements he had achieved. 

The deep belief that money is all that matters in a man’s life had made Orson Welles’ career in the United States very difficult, and the criticism continued even after his death. The ashes of Orson Welles rest in Ronda, Spain, on the farm where the torero Antonio Ordóñez lived where the young director spent a few months during his youthful wanderings.

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