Twenty-one years after his death, in 1985, at seventy, Orson Welles remains an artist whose achievement is open to question, and a figure people seem to feel they have to take sides about. He might have expected this unsettled situation since his most famous film, the 1941 Citizen Kane, is less the life story of an individual than the story of the impossibility of making a biography of him, and many of Welles’s other movies are about persons who, met in the days or hours before their deaths—Charles Foster Kane is encountered the second before he dies—won’t make easy subjects for their biographers, either. The two most recent books on him, Simon Callow’s Orson Welles: Hello Americans, the second volume in what will be a monumentally scaled three-volume biography, and Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, a detailed look at his later years, both set out to clear away misconceptions and wind up presenting two quite different individuals.
In Callow’s hands, we encounter a greatly gifted person who somehow never learned how to use his talents fully. Like writers before him, Callow wishes to show how “cinema’s sacrificial victim,” the man whose genius the movie industry supposedly spurned, had plenty to do with his own downfall, not the least of which were a ruinous addiction to publicity and a massive case of self-centeredness, while McBride, who also echoes other writers, wants us to realize that it is a myth that Welles essentially made one movie, Citizen Kane, and that everything thereafter was anticlimactic. What gets lost in both these accounts of a legendary being is the joy and invigoration his work brings.
Not all his films, of course, have remained scintillating, and Citizen Kane is no doubt the most purely dazzling of them; but making hard and fast distinctions between Welles’s pictures, determining blame in his relations with the movie industry, or being troubled by the man himself—by the way, for example, his corpulence got so out of hand by the 1970s—are less the point than the fact that no one’s movies look, move, or sound the way his do. In their roller-coaster speed and the way one dynamic, startling image follows the next, in their highly individual sense of how a story is told on film, and in their feeling for shadows and mirrors, odd angles and voices that come at you in a rush or are oddly disembodied, his pictures are trickier, more artificial and abstract, even, than those of most other directors. Yet Welles’s movies, with their sense of one man calibrating the effect of every split second of screen time, are unusually object-like, too. He makes it seem as if fashioning a film is as physical and sensuous an experience as playing with a piece of clay.
These contradictions, however, are merely the first of many with Welles, the most obvious perhaps revolving around how much (or how little) of his work has come down to us. The range and number of his activities, detailed now in biographies not only by Callow and McBride but by Frank Brady and David Thomson, among others, is staggering. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s chronology of his career, published as part of This Is Orson Welles, a 1992 volume primarily comprised of lively interviews Peter Bogdanovich conducted with Welles over a number of years, takes up nearly 130 pages. It charts his work as a director of radio, theater, and movie productions, as a personality on radio and TV, as an actor on stage and in movies, whether his own or for other directors, and as a writer of countless scripts and treatments for all these mediums as well as of pulp novels, newspaper columns, lectures on theater and movies, and political speeches.
Welles was a sometime organizer in addition of burlesque and vaudeville shows, a narrator and reader in many formats, a fairly active stage magician, and a voice, during many decades, for radio and TV advertisers, here and in England. A threat from the very beginning, the prodigy had to wait until he was ten before his first public notice, a piece in a Madison, Wisconsin, newspaper from 1926 describing the local wonder as a cartoonist, poet, and actor who talked like an adult. A few years later he was publishing theater and music reviews and when he died he was at his desk, working on, among other things, material he was going to film that day at UCLA.
For all his industry, however, and the range of his accomplishments, Welles’s lasting achievement, sensed long before his death, was based on the movies he directed, and their number is relatively small. Although he was involved with many films that for one reason or another weren’t brought off, he actually finished only twelve, a group that includes the fairly short F for Fake and The Immortal Story, both made for TV. And between Citizen Kane and the rest there is an unusual and sometimes painful disparity. On the making of Kane, he had an industry at his disposal. He arrived in Hollywood in 1939 as the phenomenon of Broadway and national radio, a talent the studios couldn’t afford to ignore. His theater productions of an all- black Macbeth in 1936 and, the following year, a Julius Caesar set in a contemporary fascist state, along with his 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which threw thousands of listeners into a panic, thinking that Martians had landed in New Jersey, earned him that year, at twenty-three, a cover story in Time and a profile in The New Yorker. At his feet, RKO gave him a contract to direct, produce, write, and star in a movie with a reasonable budget and, spectacularly, to have final say on the movie to be released.
It wasn’t a contract the industry was then or since in the habit of offering, and Welles lived up to it, learning from and catalyzing the talented studio technicians he worked with and making with them one of the rare movies that becomes more fascinating the more it is seen. But he never again had the same freedom or power. Whether because of accounts of his going irresponsibly over budget on projects (which were never substantiated) or of his refusal to compromise over material and his habit of leaving the scene when a picture’s fate was to be decided (which were quite true)—or the crucial fact that his movies essentially made no money—he never directed another film for Hollywood that wasn’t drastically cut, re-shot in part by others, or unceremoniously dumped at the box office.
In the cases where Welles wasn’t working for the industry but was on his own, dependent on finding backers, which was largely the story from the late 1940s on, when he began living in Europe, filming became a practically amateur endeavor, invariably fraught with problems over locations, equipment, costumes, musical scores, and casts speaking every language but English—the whole stew often topped off with confusion over ownership, distribution rights, and varying prints of the same film. The 1952 Othello, for example, took nearly four years to complete, with production dependent on whatever amount of money he could cobble up, and the cast and crew he could reassemble, for the given scenes.
But perhaps the deepest contradiction with Welles lies in the disparity between the stories he wanted to tell and the way he filmed them. His great theme was how a person’s worth is judged, how a life is summed up, and his conclusions are frequently raw and unsettling. Uninterested in the transforming power of love or the answers of religion, unconcerned with acts of courage or altruism, and, on the other hand, never merely cynical, he sends nearly every one of his protagonists off to his end in a state of loss, bafflement, or rage. Most played by Welles, they are cosmic losers but not exactly victims. The tug of war Welles’s major characters enact with their respective worlds—the way this or that one is fully prepared to start yanking his world apart as he finds himself losing his place in it—makes moot possibilities of victimhood or heroism.
Right to his last breath, Joseph K., in The Trial, from 1962 (played by Anthony Perkins), remains furious about and uncomprehending of the crisis that has landed on him. Othello’s inflamed imagination sets off a string of murders, including his own suicide, that leave the world unchanged, while the newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane expires as essentially a monument to soured ambition and profligate waste. In the 1966 Chimes at Midnight, Falstaff dies because he seems unable to continue functioning in a world where his illusions, specifically his friendship with Prince Hal, now Henry V, have been pulverized.
In The Magnificent Ambersons, of 1942, Welles’s one movie where he had no acting part (although he is its narrator), an entire family is in decline, midwesterners of great wealth and social grace who are unable to adapt to changing times. RKO was afraid to release the film Welles had completed, but even in its crippled current state, with whole passages cut, its underlying rhythm ruined, and its ending a travesty, the film keeps a steady eye on Aunt Fanny (mesmerizingly played by Agnes Moorehead), whose thwarted existence has made her a hysteric, and young George, the epitome of a belligerent myopia about life. Accounts of the original film—no print of it has ever been found—suggest that, like The Godfather II, it came to a conclusion where all feelings of loss or guilt were subsumed in an enveloping numbness.
Yet Welles’s approach to telling a story in any medium almost completely belies the bleak and pitiless way he saw experience. In Citizen Welles, Frank Brady writes that Citizen Kane is paced “with the unhesitating measure and continual rhythm of an up-tempo musical comedy,” a description that could fit many of the films, even much of Othello and certainly Chimes at Midnight. Although they have a mood of ever-tightening, dream-like tension and uncertainty, Welles’s movies, as visceral experiences, are all about speed and dexterity. His films (like his radio productions) are fundamentally variety shows or collages, in the sense that Welles worked seemingly to make each scene, sometimes each shot, a self-contained whole, different from the one before and after it, yet part of a shipshape entirety. He cast and directed actors the same way, wanting them to project so many different quickly graspable personal forces.
The emporium-like quality of Welles’s work is most noticeable in Citizen Kane, which by its very nature—a nonchronological look at a man’s life, told from many points of view—is a patchwork quilt. Scene by scene, it has the spirit and appearance of, say, a horror movie; a trompe l’oeil documentary; a chattering newspaper comedy; a magically naturalistic recreation of the American past; or a moment where the stagey artificiality of the scene is meant to be enjoyed for itself.