“He is a king without a kingdom…because there is no kingdom big enough for Orson Welles.”
– Jeanne Moreau
Actor, film director, theater producer, radio broadcaster, painter, illusionist, fantasist, self-confessed charlatan…a tragic hero, to some at best an embarrassing waste of talent, at worst an overrated bluff-merchant who made one good film and lived off it for the rest of his life. The legend of Orson Welles leads to one inescapable conclusion: he was almost universally misunderstood. This supposed unbearable egotist was in fact a charming and deeply passionate man and, above all, one of the Cinema’s true American masters.
It was heartening to witness how dvd shed fresh light on Welles’ work and that the internet has given a genuine voice to Welles enthusiasts the world over. London’s BFI Southbank held a fine (though incomplete) retrospective of his work in 2003 and presented a sublime restoration of Chimes at Midnight in 2015, but there remains a nagging feeling that the majority of Welles’ feature films are unseen curios and for the most part still underappreciated. It is hoped that this site can contribute in its own way to the current growth in the recognition of this great man and his work.
Welles’ first professional film job was to co-write, direct, produce and act in the 1941 film Citizen Kane. His last was to provide a voice over for an animated merchandise tie-in: The Transformers: The Movie. In that, many would seek to see an encapsulation of his whole life, for one of the most common misconceptions about Welles is that after Citizen Kane, he produced little else other than a few box office failures, some entertaining cameos and myriad adverts for the likes of Carlsberg and Sandeman’s Port. One of the principal aims of this Site is to try and go some way to correcting this misconception.
There is no question that for the director of Citizen Kane only to complete 12 more feature films in a 50 year career (and not for want of trying) is a tragic injustice on a par with any in Cinema history, but what many do not appreciate is that nine of those additional films are masterpieces and two of them – The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight – are regularly held up by critics, academics and fans as superior even to Kane.
To the Hollywood studios, Welles was poison. His ideas for films never excited producers and if he did get a project off the ground, when he delivered the completed film, the money men were never pleased with the results. In their panic, ignorance – and partly in retaliation – they would often mutilate his films, sometimes going so far as to shoot additional scenes without his permission and on more than one occasion releasing them as B-features to sink without trace.
“I made essentially a mistake staying in movies, a mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying “I shouldn’t have stayed married to that woman, but I did because I love her.” I would have been more successful if I’d left movies immediately. Stayed in the theater, gone into politics, written – anything. I’ve wasted the greater part of my life looking for money, and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paint box which is … a movie. And I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with a movie. It’s about two percent movie making and 98 percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.”
Rumours abounded in Hollywood that Welles was an egotist (fair comment) and that he was profligate and unreliable (wholly untrue). Consequently he was forced for the majority of his career to seek financing elsewhere, in particular from France but also as far afield as Morocco and Eastern Europe. Hollywood simply wasn’t for him and more to the point, he wasn’t for it. In an interview for the BBC’s Arena programme in 1983, he told Alan Yentob:
“The people who have done well in Hollywood are the people whose instincts, whose desires, are to make the kind of movie which studios want to produce. Not what the public wants. People who don’t succeed [in America], like Jean Renoir, are the people who didn’t want to make the kind of picture that studios wanted to make. The studios didn’t want to make a Renoir picture, even if it was a success!”
For Renoir, read Welles. But if necessity is the mother of Invention, Orson Welles was its father. After The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) which was Welles’ second and final major studio picture, the struggle for finance and credibility he faced for the remainder of his life produced some of the richest, most inventive, exciting and beautiful films of all time: The Lady from Shanghai, Othello, Mr Arkadin, Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake and finally, in 2018, thanks to a Herculean effort by a group of devotee technicians, The Other Side of the Wind.
Even his minor pictures such as Macbeth (1948) The Immortal Story (1968) and The Stranger (1946) contain moments of brilliance that effortlessly eclipse the work of lesser directors. Considering the circumstances under which Welles shot most of his films, his ratio of artistic success to failure arguably stands comparison with that of anyone in film history.
Whilst establishing himself amongst genuine enthusiasts as one of the anointed few original masters of the Cinema (alongside Griffith, Dreyer, Chaplin, Murnau, Ford, Renoir and Hawks) Welles consciously strove with each new project to push artistic boundaries and create, for himself as director, a new kind of innocence from which to work. It was as if he sought always to recapture the excitement that surrounded the shooting of the extraordinary Kane. This credo resulted in a curriculum vitae of relentless invention, characterized by an unquenchable love affair with the medium. Jean-Luc Godard once wrote: “all of us will always owe him everything.”
A man more quoted than listened to, more talked about than cared about, more feted than respected, more applauded than loved. The many humorous stories and quotations that make up the legend of Orson Welles cut both ways. We would invite you to discover the real legacy of Orson Welles, through his small but perfectly formed body of work.