Orson Welles at 100

Orson Welles was born on May 6, 1915. To mark the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, we present here four essays from the New York Review archives.

Orson Welles
Orson Welles; drawing by David Levine
June 1, 1989

Although Orson Welles was only ten years my senior, he had been famous for most of my life. I was thirteen when he made his famous Martians-are-coming radio broadcast. Then, three years later, when Welles was twenty-six, there was, suddenly, Citizen Kane. I was particularly susceptible to Citizen Kane because I was brought up among politicians and often saw more of my own father in newsreels than in life…

May 13, 1993

Made with virtually unprecedented artistic freedom when Welles was only twenty-five, Citizen 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.

March 15, 2007

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.

November 27, 2013

“A magician is just an actor…playing the part of a magician,” Welles says at the beginning of F for Fake (1972). A director too perhaps just plays the part. But we should not take Welles too literally when he talks about magic and fraud, especially when he turns to what seems a confessional mode.