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 …