This Is Orson Welles
This Is Orson Welles (audio tapes)
The Cradle Will Rock
“A certain great and powerful king once asked a poet, ‘What can I give you of all that I have?’ He wisely replied, ‘Anything, sir…except your secret.”’
—Orson Welles, epigraph to Mr. Arkadin
One of Orson Welles’s best stories, though not one of his best films, Mr. Arkadin (1955) tells of an aging tycoon of mysterious origins who becomes terminally anxious that the guilty secrets of his past will come to light. He hires a venal adventurer to seek out the people who still remember the truth—and then has them systematically killed. When it becomes clear that the scheme has failed and the truth has been unmasked, Arkadin kills himself by jumping from his plane, vanishing (literally) into thin air.
Though filmed in Welles’s most grandiloquently baroque manner and studded with dazzling performances from such character actors as Akim Tamiroff, Katina Paxinou, and Michael Redgrave, Mr. Arkadin falls far short of Citizen Kane as a meditation on biography, not only because of wholesale reworking by other hands (“More completely than any other picture of mine has been hurt by anybody, Arkadin was destroyed,” Welles told his biographer Barbara Leaming), but also because of its curiously indifferent portrayals of the two central characters. Hiding behind egregiously phony beard and makeup as Gregory Arkadin, Welles seems determined to keep him as hollow and insubstantial as possible, a symbol rather than a human being, as if illustrating too literally Jorge Luis Borges’s description of Citizen Kane: “a centerless labyrinth.” Welles allows Robert Arden to play Guy Van Stratten, Arkadin’s researcher, as an utter fool, devoid of any but the most self-serving motives. Arkadin’s contempt for Van Stratten is matched by that of the director, who displays wrath at those who dare to reveal the darkest secrets of others, even if they’ve been invited to do so. The emotional “No Trespassing” sign Welles erected in Arkadin helps to explain why he was so skittish about having his own life probed by interviewers, and why he never managed to write a full-fledged autobiography.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, Peter Bogdanovich, then a young film journalist and budding director with one undeservedly obscure B-movie (Targets) to his name, was invited by Welles to interview him for “a nice little book” intended to “set the record straight” about his life and work. It was a chance to explore and understand the mysteries of a film maker long absent from the American scene, a man whose life had become as quasimythical as those of his protagonists. But Bogdanovich found that the unexpectedly lengthy and contentious process took on unsettling resemblances to Mr. Arkadin: “There were times when I seemed to play a variation of Van Stratten to Welles’ personal version of Arkadin, because during our talks (on or off the record), he would get particularly agitated and annoyed about connections made between his work and his own life.” Their fragmentary but fascinating interviews, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and now belatedly (very belatedly) published as This Is Orson Welles, follow the jigsaw-puzzle method that Welles favored in approaching the mysteries of a great man’s life, but they reveal as much about Welles’s stubborn resistance to the autobiographical impulse as they do about the man and his films.
During the seven years in which these interviews were conducted and in the remaining years of his life, Welles was seen by the public mostly in embarrassingly silly television appearances, trading quips with Johnny Carson, clowning with Dean Martin, doing magic tricks for Merv Griffin, and serving as a commercial pitchman who vowed to “sell no wine before its time.” Even as his youthful triumph with Citizen Kane became the subject of increasing reverence, the living Orson Welles became a national mockery: the butt of Carson’s fat jokes and, even more damagingly, the object of condescension from those who felt that he was “wasting his talent.”
Made with virtually unprecedented artistic freedom when Welles was only twenty-five, Kane became both his glory and his curse: everything after it couldn’t help seeming like an anticlimax, no matter what else he achieved. In retrospect, all of Welles’s later problems could be traced back to their roots in that too-early success, the unrealistic expectations it raised, and the virulent reaction against it by Hearst and Hollywood. Kane barely escaped being burned to placate the powerful publisher who served as the partial model for its central character, and though the film was a critical sensation, RKO had trouble finding theaters willing to play it. “Nobody would book it—they were scared,” Welles recalled.
Welles’s second feature, his adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, might have surpassed the artistic achievement of Kane if it had not been mutilated by the panicky and increasingly hostile studio following a disastrous preview in Pomona. This Midwestern equivalent of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—a somber tale of a city that “befouled itself and darkened its sky” with the coming of the automobile—had the misfortune to be released when audiences were flocking to sunny fare as an escape from the dark headlines of World War II. After being cut by forty-three minutes and partially reshot, Ambersons was dumped onto the market on a double bill with the Lupe Velez comedy Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, and was pulled from distribution hastily despite promising box-office results in several key cities. Bogdanovich has described its cutting as “the greatest artistic tragedy in the movies,” and Welles lamented, “They destroyed Ambersons, and the picture itself destroyed me.”
Welles was recalled from South America, where he was in the midst of shooting a goodwill documentary for RKO and the US government, It’s All True. With that film forcibly taken from him and abandoned, he was stripped of his studio contract and sent on the road for a lifetime as what he called “a migratory worker. I go where the jobs are, like a cherry picker…. I had luck as no one had. Afterwards, I had the worst bad luck in the history of the cinema, but that is in the order of things: I had to pay for having had the best luck in the history of the cinema.”
The major achievements with which Welles followed Kane and Ambersons also tended to fall into the category of film maudit—whether because of bizarre filming difficulties (Othello, recently “restored” in a crisp new print but with its music and dialogue altered in ways that would have appalled the director); reworking and contemptuous burial by the front office (Touch of Evil, which can be seen in a longer version containing more of Welles’s footage as well as more scenes interpolated by a studio hack director); or because of repeated attacks by the New York Times‘s reviewer Bosley Crowther, who almost singlehandedly scared off US exhibitors (Chimes at Midnight, which the philistine pundit called “a confusing patchwork of scenes and characters” with a “fuzzy and incomprehensible” soundtrack).
Chimes at Midnight (1966) is based on Shakespeare’s cycle of plays about King Henry IV, Prince Hal (later Henry V), and Hal’s corpulent boon companion, Sir John Falstaff, whom Welles called “one of the only great characters in all dramatic literature who is essentially good.” Anticipating his own end, Falstaff tells Ha! with urgent warmth, “[B]anish plump Jack, and banish all the world!” I’ve always felt that line—indeed, Welles’s whole glorious performance as Falstaff—was Welles’s own passionate rebuff to those who used his girth to belittle him. Not only was Falstaff a character Welles was born to play, but Chimes was a film he had spent much of his life preparing to direct. He first played Falstaff when he was a boy, at the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois; at the age of twenty-three, he played the role again in his 1939 Theatre Guild/Mercury Theater condensation of several of Shakespeare’s history plays, Five Kings. Telescoping and editing Shakespeare further for his and Hilton Edwards’s 1960 Belfast and Dublin stage production titled Chimes at Midnight, and finally for the film version, Welles sharpened his focus on the larger-than-life figure of Falstaff and on the themes that concerned him most. He poured into the rich, melancholy story a lifetime of thoughts and feelings about such profound matters as old age and mortality, the betrayal of love and friendship, and the true meaning of honor, fatherhood, and kingly responsibility.
For all its virtuosity, and even while performing the rare feat of believably conjuring up a long-vanished world, Chimes resolutely avoids “technical surprises or shocks,” Welles said, because “everything of importance in the film should be found on the faces.” In Chimes at Midnight, as in the similarly elegiac The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles’s usually dominant camera remains the servant of his characters: for as he remarked, “There is a more personal feeling in those films, a deeper emotion.”
The first time I saw Chimes was on the last night of its three-day run in Chicago in 1967; the theater was scheduled to turn into a soft-core porno house the following day, so I sat through it three times that night, not knowing when I would ever be able to see again the film I considered (and still do) Welles’s masterpiece. I remember how the grizzled old winos who made up much of the audience reveled in Falstaff’s humor, not fazed by the Elizabethan language; if Welles’s film could please these groundlings, it could have pleased anybody, I felt at the time, but it was not to be. Welles’s last chance for popular success had passed, and his career would be increasingly marginal from that time forward, despite his valiant efforts to reclaim his reputation. What I wrote of Welles’s Falstaff in 1969 could be applied to Welles himself:
He has none of Kane’s guile and worldly ability, and his greatness presents itself as a monstrous jest impossible to ignore but easy to dismiss. He demands nothing but attention, and offers all of himself in return. His egocentricity, like his body, is carried past the ridiculous into the sublime, to the point of melancholia. He fears nothing but death, and reproaches Doll Tearsheet with, “Thou’lt forget me when I am gone.” It is unlikely that Welles as director or actor will achieve again so moving a scene as that of Falstaff’s expulsion. With the author’s consent we may feel superior to Kane, but we are never superior to Falstaff. He is naked before us. Chimes at Midnight is Welles’s testament.1
The only two theatrical films Welles managed to complete in the last seventeen years of his life, F for Fake (1973) and Filming “Othello” (1979), were delightful intellectual divertissements, but since they fell into the hard-to-book category of “film essays,” they barely left a trace in this country. Most of Welles’s creative energies in his later years were invested in shooting an ambitious film that hasn’t (yet) reached the screen, The Other Side of the Wind, writing scripts that never made it before the camera, and trying to raise completion money from people who feared his largely undeserved reputation as a wastrel. That reputation, I can’t help thinking, stemmed as much from his corpulence as from his track record as a director; if you’re a maverick film maker weighing close to four hundred pounds and constantly in need of money, people are going to assume (however irrationally) that you’ve been gobbling up the equivalent of a movie each year.
From my 1972 book Orson Welles (Viking Press).↩
From my 1972 book Orson Welles (Viking Press).↩