Looking for Citizen Welles

Chimes at Midnight

a film directed by Orson Welles
Orson Welles on the set of Chimes at Midnight, 1964
Nicolas Tikhomiroff/Magnum Photos
Orson Welles on the set of Chimes at Midnight, 1964

There is a special risk in writing about Orson Welles. The dimensions may get a little out of hand, as if they had to mime the physical size and imaginative reach of the subject. Patrick McGilligan’s excellent biography of Alfred Hitchcock takes 750 pages to cover the director’s life and his fifty films. By page 706 of Young Orson, Welles is about to start shooting Citizen Kane, his first full-length movie: he is twenty-five years old, and he lived till he was seventy. There is a thirty-nine-page postlude about the day and night of Welles’s death.

The Road to Xanadu, part one of Simon Callow’s two-volume biography of Welles, appeared in 1996; Hello Americans, part two of the now three-volume biography, appeared in 2006; and One-Man Band, part three of the (maybe) four-volume work, appeared last fall in the UK and will appear in the US in April. Perhaps the most touching expression of this condition is the wistful remark that McGilligan makes about Welles in 1944 on page 726 of his work: “An entire book could be written about that single year, with much left out.”

The McGilligan and Callow biographies are a pleasure to read, the comic effect of their length soon fades, and their difference from each other enhances the pleasure. McGilligan has an infinite patience with details, and is always happy to pursue a historical event for its own sake. The event may tell us something about Welles, and McGilligan gestures toward this justification: “The backstory of his life and early career would help explain the genesis and ideas behind the famous film.”

But much of the book reads as if the causality went the other way. Citizen Kane is a great excuse to study a lost America, the culture and politics of Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the early years of the twentieth century, the involvement of the talented pianist Beatrice Welles, Orson’s mother, in the women’s movement and the artistic life of the time, the lapse of Orson’s father, the rich and adventurous Richard Welles—the first man in town to drive an automobile—into drink and heart disease.

It’s good too to ponder the image of the five-year-old Orson dressed as the White Rabbit and telling the shoppers at Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago that he has to hurry—“or else it will be too late to see the woolen underwear on the eighth floor!” It doesn’t say much about the genesis of Citizen Kane perhaps, but we surely learn something about the uses of literature.

McGilligan doesn’t skip over or hide Welles’s blemishes, but he doesn’t bluster about them or anything else. One of the most entertaining things in his book is the way he scrupulously avoids accusing anyone of lying. Thus Charles Higham, an earlier biographer, is “always imaginative”; sometimes “overimaginative.” David Thomson “enterprisingly” makes an addition. Dr. Maurice Bernstein, an admirer of Welles’s mother, Welles’s own protector, adviser, and later hanger-on, is a “consummate fictioneer” who goes in for “embellishments” and “a publicist at heart.” John Houseman, Welles’s partner in many early projects, is treated a little more sternly: his “writings were highly subjective, and don’t always stand up to the facts; his portrait of Welles was distorted with apocryphal anecdotes.” Callow’s version of Welles as an epistemological teaser is a sort of celebration:

It is acutely enjoyable to watch Welles in the process of working up his version of his own history, trying on the variants for size, until he settles on the most colorful one.

McGilligan, largely accepting Welles’s general view of his childhood, writes of the “beauty” of his upbringing. “My parents were larger than life,” Welles told his daughter Christopher, “wonderful, mythical, almost fantastical creatures.” McGilligan makes the myth into plausible history—they were extraordinary people, and they lived in dramatically changing times—but beauty is perhaps not all a child needs. Everything in the story suggests that the boy was somehow both pampered and abandoned, made a star and left alone. André Bazin thought the later Welles was rebelling against the perfection of his childhood, “incomplete because of its very happiness”: “Too many fairies bent over this cradle.” Too many people who thought they were fairies perhaps. At one point McGilligan cites a newspaper report calling the five-year-old Orson someone’s protégé, adding, “But in a sense, he was everyone’s.” This is shrewd, but less comforting than it seems at first.

Callow has tremendous patience too, thinks “the context [is] almost as important as the event,” but he announces his presence as a writer more clearly than McGilligan does, and he is a very good critic. He loves terrible jokes, especially in his chapter titles (“Wellsafloppin’,” “The Welles of Onlyness,” “Citizen Coon,” “The Return of Awesome Welles”), and even his throwaways have an air of flamboyance about them. Describing the withdrawal of The Trial from the Venice Film Festival, he says “it was replaced by another story of alienation and police brutality, West Side Story.”

Callow, like McGilligan, wants to “describe” Welles, not “judge” him, but his biographical quest is more romantic, its object a “great natural phenomenon,” and his view has “changed somewhat,” he says, since his first volume. Then he was correcting myths about Welles, now he is “inclined to believe that the man was the myth—or rather that he grew into his own myth.” The myth over time becomes less of a disguise and more of a piece of evidence. “He passed through the world like a figure from an old tale, a giant and a wild man.” This volume takes the story of Welles’s life and work from 1947 to 1966: the films of those years are Othello, Mr. Arkadin, The Trial, and Chimes at Midnight.

Orson Welles was the main talent behind the radio version of The War of the Worlds that is supposed to have scared America out of its wits in 1938, but he is, quite rightly, not the main subject of A. Brad Schwartz’s intelligent and informative book, Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. The subject is the scaring itself, its setting and after-effect. Something like six million people listened to the broadcast. Of those maybe one million mistook it for a news bulletin. That’s a lot but we might think that five million people who instantly know a tall tale when they hear one is quite a lot too. Later reactions have gone both ways: “millions” were panicking; no one really panicked, it was just the press making things up.

Schwartz has access to materials—the letters written to Welles and the Mercury Theater, now housed at the University of Michigan—that no one has thoroughly studied before, and they allow him a carefully nuanced view. He believes that many people were really frightened, but that fright is not the same as hysteria, and that not too many people left their homes in an attempt to escape the Martians. He explores the relations between the print media and the radio, the fears of and pleas for censorship that arose everywhere, and the deeply unpleasant assumptions of many correspondents that other Americans, representing what came to be called the “mass mind,” were all idiots. He defends the responses of many of the frightened because they may have heard only part of the program, and therefore have heard only about invasion and poison, and not about the Martians. He also suggests, very shrewdly, that there was a correlative of panic in the country, which had to do with what he calls “a more common, and perhaps more dangerous, impulse.” There was a “viral effect,” Schwartz says. “Listeners…could be seized with the impulse to spread the news.” One could doubt the arrival of the Martians; one could hardly doubt how scared the neighbors were.

Josh Karp also evokes the way that The War of the Worlds marked the height of Welles’s fame: “If anyone hadn’t heard of Orson Welles by November 1938, they were either living in a cave or dead.” But his story begins in May 1937, when Welles met Hemingway at a screening of Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth. Welles was to narrate Hemingway’s commentary, decided to edit it a little, and Hemingway was offended. He accused Welles of being gay, Welles hammed up the role appropriately, and the two men swung at each other with a couple of chairs. They ended up laughing and drinking and becoming friends. “Welles told this tale time and again,” Karp says, and by 1958 he had in mind a film based on the incident. He was calling it The Sacred Beasts, and it involved bullfighting. Was it about Hemingway or about Welles himself? “It’s about both of us,” he said.

By 1970, when he began shooting the film, it was called The Other Side of the Wind, a title Welles borrowed from a story being written by Oja Kodar, the Croatian actress and writer with whom he lived, and the Hemingway figure was now a film director. The action would occupy only a single day and the day was July 2, the date of Hemingway’s death. These are the beginnings of the still-unfinished work that has been called “the most famous movie never released.” Welles completed shooting in 1976, but the editing never stopped.

Orson Welles and Romy Schneider in The Trial, 1962
Everett Collection
Orson Welles and Romy Schneider in The Trial, 1962

Karp’s book is an engaging if loosely written account of what is known about this film. He describes its plot, tells many stories about its shooting in Carefree, Arizona, and various spots in California. The film has “two distinct styles,” he says, neither of them Welles’s own. One belongs to the director in the movie, whose incomplete film is being projected for an increasingly skeptical Hollywood producer. This was Welles’s parody of the new cinema he associated with Antonioni, beautiful, slow, and empty. The other style was composed by all the home movies being shot by various kinds of cameras at the director’s birthday party. The director dies in a car crash on the way home.

Karp also tells us the tale of the material film stock itself. The negative is in a vault in Paris, the work print belongs to Oja Kodar, and an ongoing, Dickensian lawsuit prevents any screening of the film. For a long time Kodar and Welles’s faithful cinematographer Gary Graver tried to find ways of getting the film finished (that is, edited) by someone else, but money and the law kept stepping in the way. In any case, the idea of finishing Welles’s work for him has a contradictory aspect to it. He may have found completing a work difficult, and Karp confidently asserts that The Other Side of the Wind “was a film that could never be finished.” But finishing was also what Welles loved, creating new films in the cutting room and then choosing among them, delighting in fresh differences. “I could work forever on the editing of a film,” Welles told André Bazin and the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma. “The eloquence of the cinema is constructed in the cutting room.” He was not talking about control of the final product, although that too is a luxury. He was talking about a director’s dream of deferral, the still- alterable movie in which the next cut is always the best. Of course the director will stop when he has to, and the movie will be done. But what if he doesn’t have to?

Fragments of the film were to be seen in New York last November, when Stefan Droessler, director of the Munich Museum, presented them at MoMA, along with pieces of other unfinished works, The Deep and The Dreamers. Some of this material is also available as a supplement to the Criterion Collection’s DVD of F for Fake. The most attractive sequence shows guests at the party a socialite is throwing for the director. The hostess is Lilli Palmer, whose face and name evoke a whole history of European women in American films—Welles said casually to Henry Jaglom that Palmer “plays Marlene”—and the guests include John Huston as the director, Peter Bogdanovich as a member of the new Hollywood order, and Joseph McBride as a film scholar. There is also a striking performance by Susan Strasberg as a renowned critic who bears more than a passing resemblance to Pauline Kael.

The longest available sequence is a bit of softish pornography, in which Oja Kodar seduces the director’s leading man in a car. This is part of the film within the film, and the original fight scene with Hemingway hovers behind the action. The director, we are to understand, is a closeted gay man who pays a lot of attention to actresses. Here he is filming the act he would himself like to commit, and with that thought in mind the scene seems full of fear and horror rather than sex: no desire that isn’t displaced. Kodar does all the work, the man she strips for and works on seems frozen, and she is finally, roughly penetrated by the driver, who has so far been pretending not to be there. Then she is thrown out of the car.

Potential producers have said the footage they have seen is “kind of a mess” and critics have called it “the work of a genius.” We might pause to say those definitions are not incompatible, but the truth is that it’s impossible to judge a film-to-be on its notional plot and a few half-completed sequences. What we see is certainly not a mess; it’s too loaded with intention for that, too promising in its reach and implications. But it’s not a movie either.

Chimes at Midnight was completed, and shown, in 1966. Widely regarded now as Welles’s masterpiece, with his performance as Falstaff the high point of his acting career, it was not widely distributed in the US, and for a long time could be seen only on a rather blurry Spanish DVD. This situation is about to change. A restored print was shown at Film Forum in New York in January, and at some not too distant point in time Criterion will issue a DVD.

The film is largely a version of two plays by Shakespeare, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, but also includes lines from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. It recounts the supposedly reckless playtime of Prince Henry, and the sorrows of the kingly father of this wayward son. When the rebellion against the king turns to armed revolt and battle, the prince comes around, shows great valor, and is reconciled with his father. And when his father dies, and the prince becomes king, the new ruler renounces all connection to his old friend Falstaff and the world of the tavern where he had been spending his time.

This renunciation and its effect are important to Shakespeare but they are the heart of Welles’s film. It’s a complicated heart, though, and we should not settle too readily for the simplifications being offered, even those presented by Welles himself. If this movie is a lament for the loss of “merrie England,” as he says, then The Godfather, Part II is about the happy old days in Sicily.

Welles sets the tone by using the scene with the title phrase twice, once in its place in narrative sequence, and once as a prelude to the whole film. Falstaff and his old friend Shallow are at first seen at a distance as tiny figures in the snow, then a little closer. Shallow is lyrically nostalgic: “Jesus, the days that we have seen.” Falstaff says, “No more of that, Master Shallow.” They arrive at a low-roofed building and sit down by a fire to continue their chat, mainly about friends who are old or dead. Shallow repeats his phrase, and Falstaff says, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Robert Shallow.”

The grimness with which he utters the phrase totally excludes the tone of jolly remembrance with which the scene is often played, and indeed includes his later hint that Shallow is not only going on about the old days, but inventing his wild youth retrospectively, “every third word a lie,” as Falstaff says. The past is not the past and present laughter is hard work. Falstaff thinks a lot about dying in this film, and our sense of this makes his shenanigans seem heroic, a kind of defiance of age, something far more strenuous than mere high spirits. His bleak meditation on honor—“What is honor?… Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday”—comes across not as a rascally refusal of conventional views but as deep disillusion.

This melancholy surrounds the film’s most dramatic moments and indeed helps us to understand them. In one of its great set pieces, Falstaff pretends to be the prince’s father and rebukes him for his fondness for low life. He makes an exception for Falstaff, though. “There is a virtuous man whom I have often noticed in thy company…. Him keep with…the rest…banish.” The players then exchange roles and the prince, as his father, says just the opposite. Falstaff is “a villainous abominable misleader of youth” and an “old white-bearded Satan.” In his own defense Falstaff says the prince is welcome to banish his other cronies, but—here he is shot from a low angle, his vast paunch dominating the screen, advancing into a close-up—

for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!

The prince moves into the frame, Falstaff still visible behind him, and says, “I do. I will.”

As Callow very well says, there are two Falstaffs here and the point is that the prince is promising to banish both of them: his old friend the “engaging rogue” and the “much bigger figure” whose “titanic energy and majestic self-confidence put him in the realm of myth.” The next king of England, Henry V, recreator of a legitimacy in succession, is setting behind him his father’s usurpation of the throne and taking back whole chunks of France to support a new nationalism; he can’t have disreputable friends but nor can he recognize the energies and truths of irregularity, indeed of the sprawl of life itself. Falstaff’s “all the world” is a self-serving, if parodic plea: you need me, even if you need no one else. And it is also a kind of prophecy. How small does your world become when your every thought is of power and tactics?

The prince’s formal, public renunciation of Falstaff (“I know thee not, old man”) is painful and perhaps, in its harshness, represents the prince’s repression of complications. But neither Shakespeare nor Welles doubts its necessity. When he learns of the prince’s succession to the throne—it’s important that the news arrives when he is talking about the chimes at midnight—Falstaff himself thinks only of power, promises Shallow he shall have any job he wants, and says, “The laws of England are at my commandment.” We can’t want this to happen any more than we want Falstaff to be banished.

Welles doesn’t linger over the question, and takes us quickly to Falstaff’s pathetic refusal to believe what he knows to be true. “This that you have seen is just a color,” he says to Shallow, meaning just a show. “I shall be sent for soon.” The deep emotion in the scene, though, is created by another phrase, and by the vast stone walls of a Spanish castle that fill the screen, leaving Falstaff as a tiny silhouette proceeding through an archway. The phrase is “Go with me to dinner.” No one is going with him, not even his page. And the place he is going to strongly resembles the beautiful, unforgiving city that Welles had created for his previous film, The Trial.

It’s important to linger over the images in Welles’s films, and Callow does this very sensitively. It’s not that Welles has “a stunning visual intelligence and a numbingly banal view of human experience,” as Joan Didion thought Fellini and Bergman had; but he does get extraordinary suggestions into his images, and he can become sententious in his words and plots.

Welles fans are not enthusiastic about The Trial—Peter Bogdanovich told Welles he didn’t like it, Joseph McBride called it “strained”—and Welles said he had “carried wide angles to the point of madness” in that work. But we can see Welles doing something new with his visual machinery in the film, reaching for social meanings of a kind he had not sought before. Welles’s Joseph K is a guilty man and proud of it, because he is not half as guilty as the evil system that closes in on him and kills him. “I’m terribly allergic to despair,” Welles said. “That’s my trouble with Kafka.” As Callow notes, the story, conceived in these terms, is “too easy.” Fortunately, the film has several other stories to tell, mainly through its images.

When K leaves the cathedral where the above conversation takes place, for example, the ornate portals and façade rise behind him in a kind of elaborate architectural mockery, a conflation of society, system, the law, and the church, but the effect is not political, doesn’t suggest the lonely individual betrayed by a heartless system; it suggests a mismatch between us and the elegant, indifferent world we have built for ourselves. And when K’s executioners appear and hustle him off down the streets of Zagreb, casting long expressionist shadows as they go, we feel something very intimate is happening, something not in Kafka and not in Welles’s own spoken plan either.

The journey down the streets is scarier than the execution itself. It’s partly because the two thugs, like the officials who arrested K in the first place, look like incompetent gangsters in an underfunded movie, and partly because the focus of these shots is less the three human figures than the town, from the neoclassical pomp of its fancy squares, down its fairy-tale streets to the deserted space and the modern high-rise. You can’t make speeches to a town; it isn’t conspiring against you. But then it can’t help you either.

In The Trial more than anywhere else we see how much Welles’s imagination has to do with space. A set for him is a location to be explored, and a location is full of stories. Callow tells a wonderful tale about Edmond Richard’s appointment as director of photography on the film, which combines the ideas of space and opportunity. When Richard arrived in Zagreb as a technician, he was “thirty-four and had never shot a feature before.” The production was stalled because Welles couldn’t find a place to film the office of the bank where K works. Nothing was large enough. There were “hundreds of desks,” and Welles said he wanted the room “to run to the end of the world.” Richard knew a place: he had worked in Zagreb on a film about Paganini. It was a vast exhibition hall, and when Welles saw it he “was enraptured; his eyes filled with tears.”

This would be a good anecdote even if the result on the screen were not so amazing. The desks and their typists literally spread out as far as the eye can see. The effect is not one of metaphor but of hyperbole: the workplace depicted realistically but made monstrous in its dimensions. We could reach for abstract meanings, and perhaps we do anyway. We think: bureaucracy, the system, and we know Welles was thinking this. But what’s memorable is something more intimate, a feeling that we don’t know what bank or business could possibly need so many hands, and yet half-suspect we are already working in such a place—it’s just that in our world most of the desks are invisible.