The Master Builder

This Is Orson Welles

by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, with a new introduction by Peter Bogdanovich
Da Capo Press, 549 pp., $24.00 (paper)

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.

But the later movies are no less conglomerations of distinct passages. The best known are the shoot-out in the fun house hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai, of 1948, where no one knows whether he’s shooting a person or a reflection, and the long, ingeniously worked out, uncut tracking shot which begins the 1958 Touch of Evil, where, snaking up, down, and through this town on the US–Mexico border, we see the crime that will get the story underway and, although they have no idea of what is happening at the moment, the people who will become lead characters in it. To these famous scenes one might easily add, from The Lady from Shanghai alone, the way the actor Glenn Anders’s sweaty face (and piggy eyes) nearly fills the screen from time to time, spreading his giggly, menacing self, or from The Magnificent Ambersons the affecting moment when Aunt Fanny consoles George after his mother’s death, which has all to do with the way the camera swoops in on the scene.

There are great moments in Welles’s movies, too, that have nothing overtly flashy about them—as in a remarkable shot, centered on a cop called Menzies, in Touch of Evil. Up until now, we have seen Menzies (played by Joseph Calleia) as an effusive and fairly witless henchman to his boss, Hank Quinlan (Welles), who has, before the story proper begins, “taken a bullet” for Menzies. Now, in this shot, as Quinlan walks off with a city official, we see a suddenly pensive Menzies, a man consumed, it seems, with an Iago-like possessiveness toward his boss, watching them through a window, with the walking men reflected in that window; and all at once we realize that we hardly know Menzies or Quinlan, who until this moment has come across as a bigoted monster.

Welles was directing his classmates at school by the time he was thirteen, and his “up-tempo” rhythms and desire for each moment to say as much as possible undoubtedly stem from a young person’s heightened awareness of holding on to his audience. Most of Welles’s acclaimed Broadway productions in the 1930s, for example, were quite short—about eighty minutes—and were played without intermission (which was novel at the time). In 1953, he saw no reason why, for a TV show, he couldn’t pare down King Lear to some seventy-five minutes. Impatient with the stately pace of most movie narratives, he tried to organize his material in such a way that he could be free of reaction shots—basic ingredients in movie storytelling—where one character says something and then someone else responds, and we go back and forth. By the same logic, Welles’s films have a minimum of mood-setting, place-defining long shots, when nothing is happening.

We get instead the characteristic Wellesian image where we feel we look into—or down on, or up at—a deep yet measurable space, and one that often veers away diagonally from our center of interest. Even when the scene takes place outdoors, we look into a kind of box, where one character can be much closer to us, or another much further away, than we expect in movies, and the story, instead of moving forward with one event or bit of dialogue after another, here might have a good bit of narrative advanced in one shot. In The Trial and Touch of Evil, there are riveting scenes where someone’s house or bedroom has been invaded by a bunch of cops who want to talk to him, and in both films the camera hardly moves, or has only a few setups, and what we watch is close to modern dance: the movement of many men, most in hats, in and around each other in a tight, closed-off space.

Welles’s style has been called expressionistic, and James Naremore, in The Magic World of Orson Welles, a beautifully reasoned study (graced, unlike most books on the director, with shots taken directly from the films), even calls him at one point a “German Expressionist.” And certainly Welles’s feeling for punctuating scenes with extreme close-ups of sometimes mask-like faces, and his love of scenes where a character is set scurrying through narrow, rickety, cage-like corridors, which happens in Othello and The Trial, have a night-in-the-loony-bin quality about them. Scenes or performances in Welles’s pictures are probably more frequently called surreal, a label which most writers generally leave at that, with no amplification, the word meaning freaky or weird (and interchangeable with expressionistic). Surrealism, though, is a surprisingly pertinent way of looking at Welles, not that it sums him up or that he would have liked the idea. As he concisely put it in one of his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, “I’ve always been pretty much antisurrealist.”

Welles does, however, make quite clear how important the sheerly visual element of moviemaking is to him. The only aspect of it he claims to be a master of, in the interviews, is camera placement, knowing how to frame a shot, which he says he does intuitively; and he often says that, at the core, he is a painter. He remarks that he was painting “from the minute I could walk”; and when he finished high school at sixteen, and took himself to Ireland to have time and space to think about whether he wanted to go on to college (he never did go), he traveled with only art supplies, and expected that painting would be his life’s work. He seems never to have stopped sketching, and his own rough-edged, cartoonish drawings can be glimpsed here and there in his movies, often on the walls of the many sets he painted (on one occasion bringing protests from the union representing his crew). More importantly, perhaps, Welles told his interviewer that “movies should be studied in the context of modern art in general, not alone—that is the point I keep making.” And Surrealism, though not the part of it concerned with sexuality and the unconscious, gives a “context” for the photographic trickery, the pronounced feeling for perspective and great depth, even some of the themes in his films.

An underlying issue for many artists coming of age in the 1930s and early 1940s, whether they were tied to Surrealism or not, was how to assert themselves in the face of their elders, the trailblazers of modern art whose most significant achievement was pushing art toward an ever more total abstraction. Well versed in Freud and stimulated by the notion of repudiating one’s father, members of the rising generation sought to bring images of the world back into art, whether through a return to full-fledged illusionistic painting or through photography. Their aim wasn’t to make expertly crafted, painting-like photographs (which had, after all, already been done). The young artists of the 1930s, on the contrary, were drawn to photography for the revelations to be found in its deceits and distortions.

Welles was younger than the Surrealists, but jump-starting his career as he did—he was a professional stage actor by sixteen, in 1931—he came of age at roughly the same time as artists who were ten or so years older than he was. And like Dalì, whose best paintings spring from the spooky seacoast terrain he identified with his boyhood, or Joseph Cornell, whose boxes are so many little monuments to bygone charms, he was excited by the taste for optical tricks of the pre-modern, late-Victorian world of his parents’ time, the era he had just missed. In Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, with their sensuous, breathing sense of an earlier America, Welles has much in common with Dalì and Cornell in the way his subjects are both the past in itself and the filtered, circuitous way it is remembered. As with the two artists’ work (and less sentimentally than most American filmmakers express it), these Welles movies suggest that all one’s experience is tinged by the expectations and losses of childhood.

Welles has a good deal in common, too, with Giorgio de Chirico, the man who, just before the First World War, or some years before Surrealism existed, came to many of its conclusions. A romantic who asserted himself by revisiting the past, and sometimes used the word “nostalgia” in the titles of his pictures, de Chirico, in his vistas of deserted city squares crossed by shafts of light, emphasized many of the elements that had lost their currency in painting: horizon lines, shadows, a zooming-away sense of perspective. Welles, from my reading, no more mentioned de Chirico than he did Dalì or Cornell; yet his films, where shadows become partners with the actors and space so often tilts precipitously up or down, have uncanny similarities with the Italian’s pictures. Othello, the one Welles movie where he plays shadows off against strong sunlight—the movie is a duel between jagged shafts of black and white—is in many scenes a de Chirico come to life.

For commentators on Welles, however, whatever feeling he had for the past, or even his concern for perspective and depth, aren’t generally seen as part of a generation’s thinking. Where being nostalgic in one’s work, in descriptions of Cornell or de Chirico, might be seen as liberating, as an opening up of a terrain thought closed to contemporary art, the same quest for Welles tends to be viewed in primarily personal or psychoanalytic terms, and is geared to showing either an aspect of his victimized genius or his colossal set of limitations. As David Thomson, speaking for the latter group, sums it up in his 1996 Rosebud, “Welles’s warmth was confined to nostalgia”—meaning that human warmth, in the director and person, was an impersonal, sentimental affair.

In the growing mountain of writing on Welles, Thomson’s critical biography no doubt represents the most nearly complete, across-the-boards account of everything that was failed, fraudulent, and self-indulgent about him. Not that Thomson’s (often dazzling and insightful) portrait of a full-time fabulist, egomaniac, and manipulator represents a revisionist’s view. Stories of Welles’s seigneurial manner, his taste for embellishment, and how he had outlived his genius were part of his legend from the start, and they tallied with the smirkily genial or the all too easily authoritative—when not outright frightening—presence of Welles the public figure, especially as he appeared over many decades in movies directed by others (when in most cases he was there because he needed money to live or to pay for his own movies).

Welles’s acting—or his overacting, as an early observer put it—had a different effect in his own films. There his lurching physicality and his way of switching in a second from, say, a crazed inwardness to, say, a bonhomie that seemed to come out of the blue were in accord with the not easily fathomable individuals he played—individuals who were variety shows unto themselves. In his own movies, Welles’s famous announcer’s voice made sense, too, because the showy, untrustworthy quality in it added one more dimension to stories that were about the relationship of the authentic and the illusory to begin with.

Yet Welles the person undoubtedly could be condescending and insecure, a deadly mixture given his high degree of self-involvement. In his marriages—to Virginia Nicholson, Rita Hayworth, and Paola Mori—he was unfaithful in every case right from the start. He had one child with each (all girls), and appears to have been largely uninvolved with them as well, although he cast two of them in different movies. His need to be the big enchilada no matter what the circumstance, combined with his thin skin, guaranteed that, but for a couple of people he knew from his youth and kept in contact with all his life, along with the actress Oja Kodar, his companion over his last twenty-three years, his friends seem to have been limited to the people he was working with on a given project. Toward colleagues and admirers who were his intellectual equal—John Houseman, say, his partner in the theater productions of the 1930s, or, later, Olivier or Kenneth Tynan—he was often suspicious, sometimes hostile, and not above throwing things.

Even Joseph McBride, a writer long identified as one of the director’s champions, adds some sorry details to the picture. McBride was in and out of Welles’s orbit for the last fifteen years of the man’s life, and he writes warmly about the director’s later activities; but he is forthright and honest enough to say that on some crucial level the relationship never clicked. When McBride asserted himself, initially, as a budding writer and filmmaker, Welles, he feels, was threatened and put on permanent guard, with the result that the younger man tamped himself down, and “always felt somewhat uncomfortable around Welles.” McBride realizes that the director never really saw him as an individual, either.

Welles the creator and person takes a further battering in the second volume of Simon Callow’s biography, its subtitle Hello Americans derived from a Welles radio show of the time. Callow’s sense of his subject’s shortcomings sneaks up on the reader, though, since Callow’s tone is outwardly genial and objective. His goal is to cut through the conflicting legends surrounding Welles and get the true, whole man. An actor, director, and author of books on acting and on Charles Laughton, he sees that Welles was essentially an “experimental” artist, and he calls Welles’s effort to find the right “forms” to suit his “genius” a “tale of heroism.” Callow expertly analyzes the components of seemingly everything Welles did, and he does so during a murkily uncertain phase of the director’s life, the years 1941 to 1948.

In this time, Welles went from the success of Citizen Kane to the studio’s wrecking his next movie, The Magnificent Ambersons. At that moment, he was on a fuzzily conceived mission in Brazil, attempting to make an omnibus-type documentary called It’s All True, which never came off. He returned home in 1942 to a typically active yet inconclusive period when, among other things, he performed on radio, raised money for the troops with a magic show, and mounted the money-losing Broadway extravaganza Around the World.

He more than dabbled in progressive, Democratic Party politics, too. Welles worked hard to reelect FDR in 1944, wrote a largely political column for the New York Post, and regularly denounced racial inequality, for him the most pressing social issue. He even thought of running for senator from his native Wisconsin. Meanwhile, he was learning how difficult it was to make personal, innovative films in Hollywood. The three movies he directed in these years after AmbersonsThe Stranger (about an escaped Nazi in New England), The Lady from Shanghai, and Macbeth—were all mangled to one degree or another by the studios. He was, in effect, an uncertain young man in his late twenties and early thirties, trying to figure out who he was—a process that, paradoxically, he hadn’t struggled with earlier.

Yet whatever Welles does, in the thousand pages of Callow’s two volumes so far, he fails to measure up. Whether it is his directing, his acting, his responses to people, or his adaptations of this or that material, we are presented with a talent who, while “remarkable” in this or that, operates on mere sensation (or, as we sometimes hear, amphetamines), without an agenda or a larger theme—whose work, as Callow writes about Welles’s Macbeth, is less an “examination” of the material than the clamping of a “design concept” on it. We are handed, in addition, huge amounts of information on the making of Kane and Ambersons, but little of what they truly mean to Callow. Impartially weighing their various pros and cons, he gives them, as entities, the same life he gives a studio boss’s memo.

Callow’s underlying problem may be an uncertainty about Welles’s art. Although he doesn’t exactly say this, Callow seems to judge the director against a standard of literary naturalism, where characters have evolving inner states, whereas Welles, in envisioning a film, was as much a photographer and a choreographer—and, given the importance of sets for him, an architect—as a novelist. In Chimes at Midnight, say, the precise way the actors barrel into and scamper and prance around the big, open spaces and the crannies of the tavern, the movie’s one, all-purpose set, which Welles designed, is crucial to the spirit of the film. Anthony Perkins, by the same token, is wonderful in The Trial as much for the nervous grace with which he moves as for his verbal performance.

Perhaps it is Callow’s lack of affinity with his subject’s spirit that leads him to admire openly—a rare moment—the least outwardly Wellesian film Welles made. This is Four Men on a Raft, a surviving section of the Brazilian documentary, which presents, in brilliantly contrasty black and white (and no sound, just added-on music), the immense ordeal of four men from a fishing community on the northern coast of the country who sailed hundreds of miles in a crude vessel to Rio, to ask for the right to unionize. Elsewhere Callow says that when Welles connected himself with the word “realism” the notion was absurd. The claim showed that “self-knowledge continued to elude him.” But surely Four Men on a Raft, a patient, careful, if stylish look at a relatively uncomplex society (and one without a deranged or besotted central figure), represents realism of a sort; and its existence is of a piece with Welles’s saying that the naturalist Jean Renoir was the greatest of all film directors, or that the documentarian of outpost cultures, Robert Flaherty, the guiding spirit behind Four Men on a Raft, was one of his early idols.

Welles’s more skeptical biographers have now made it seem as if no pronouncement of his can be taken seriously, but the Brazilian documentary, which clearly was a challenge to film, plainly indicates that a powerful if generally concealed part of Welles was entirely at home with the visions of traditional realists. Even if he hadn’t made Four Men, though, a viewer can believe that what gives his movie work its fiber, or spine, is its realism—that is, its down-to-earth clarity about behavior and emotion. For all his play with angles and distortions, and the way that the various characters in his films are more like operatic presences than people whose psychologies we come to understand, the world of Welles’s movies revolves around hard, sometimes harsh realizations and acts: the loss of illusions, the involuntary acting out of treacherous impulses, the recognition that a life has been misspent.

Each film is saturated, moreover, with a very real sense of place and atmosphere. With its polluted water, tacky lodgings, and sense of a radio always playing somewhere, Touch of Evil is practically a guidebook to seediness, while The Trial, set in a grayed, sunless realm, is a kind of song to every faceless housing project, janitor’s closet, and corporate corridor to nowhere. Seen in one room after another, the Amberson mansion is almost a living being in that movie. Has any other director been as sensitive to so many kinds of buildings, and to the way they condition and symbolize our lives?

For James Naremore, the full measure of Welles’s work can never be taken. Too much of the filmmaking, let alone the theater and radio work, has been fractured or is unrecoverable, he says; and Welles himself, with his somewhat baffling history of not caring to wrangle with either his Hollywood bosses or his independent backers about the ultimate state of his films, must have been half in love with the idea of a not fully knowable career. A point of his work, anyway, is that no person can be fully known. One can’t help believing, though, that we have been given enough of him with what remains, as rich a storehouse of images and moments as any American artist has created.