This year marks what would have been Orson Welles‘ 100th birthday. For a career in theatre, radio, film, and TV that lasted over 50 years, and for being hailed up and down as one of the best and most innovative filmmakers in history, Orson Welles sure had a hard time getting movies made. He had only 13 feature films (11 narrative, 1 documentary, and one pseudo-documentary) to his name between 1941 and 1978, and two short TV series, while he had 15 incomplete, unfinished, partially lost, or totally aborted film projects and four unsold pilot presentations, one of which being The Other Side of the Wind which you can help get finished and released.
The reason for Welles’ issues stem from the reason we think he’s great in the first place: individuality. As head of the Mercury Theater, he could do exactly what he wanted and it was his lofty, often hard-to-pull-off vision that made those shows, and the radio show that came from it (War of the Worlds anyone?), the sensations they were. But Hollywood doesn’t like to work that way, and following the success of Welles’ first film, which had controversies of its own, he was no longer allowed to have final cut on his projects in this country, and hence had to settle for much lower and harder-to-secure budgets in Europe. But, the 13 films he did finish are among the finest ever made, so I suppose it’s a trade off.
It’s a very difficult list to cobble together, but below are my 7 favorite Orson Welles films.
7) Othello (1952)
I’m going to use this as a placeholder for all three of Welles’ Shakespearean adaptations, which also include 1948’s Macbeth and 1965’s Chimes at Midnight, an original piece featuring Shakespeare’s recurring character, Sir John Falstaff, played here by Welles himself. Welles played the titular role in both Macbeth and Othello as well, as was his general attitude. He often played the title characters in things.
Anyway, I include Othello on the list simply because it shows how Welles was not content to do things the way everyone else had always done them in the way it was shot, scored, and edited. There are different three versions of the film, and the one we’ll never get to see is the one that premiered at Cannes in 1952 and won the prestigious Palme d’Or under the Moroccan flag, since that’s where most of it was shot. That location, plus scenes filmed in Venice, Tuscany, and Rome, make it one of the most gorgeous pieces of visual filmmaking in Welles’ canon.
6) The Trial (1962)
Welles once called this the best film he’d ever made, and it might well be. His adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel about a man (played by Anthony Perkins) accused of some unknown crime in a totalitarian, highly bureaucratic world, features gorgeously bleak cinematography and very lengthy one-take scenes which put the viewer on edge the whole time, much as the main character is. Welles shot in Yugoslavia, Zagreb, Prague, and other Eastern-Block countries to properly give the Czech/Austro-Hungarian Kafka’s story the most authenticity. It worked; the movie feels very oppressive. Welles reportedly had to redub the dialogue of 11 actors personally, and even had to do a few lines of Perkins’ in the editing, though he challenged the actor to pick them out and Perkins reportedly never could.
5) F for Fake (1974)
This is one of the most intriguing and confounding movies I’ve ever seen, with Welles ostensibly making a documentary about famous art-forger Elmyr de Hory but also weaving in narratives about Welles’ young female companion Oja Kodar and her completely fabricated tryst with Pablo Picasso, about hoax-biographer Clifford Irving (who made up a story about Howard Hughes), and about Welles himself playing himself. It’s an experimental film that requires you to pay attention and, like a great magic trick or, indeed, the best films, is almost more illusion than reality.
4) The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Welles’ second feature was his first big run-in with studios. Based on Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel of the same name, the film tells the tragic story of the Amberson clan, the wealthiest family in Indianapolis at the turn of the Century, and how, through in-fighting, bad luck, and all manner of other woes, they lost everything. It’s about love lost and fortunes squandered, but it’s also intensely gorgeous with Stanley Cortez’ cinematography, especially during an amazing sleigh-through-snow sequence, being some of the finest of all time.
The original cut of the movie was 148 minutes, with a preview version being 131 minutes. By time it was released, the studio had hacked it down to an anemic 88 minutes, basically chopping off the second half of the film, and having editor Robert Wise direct a shoddy epilogue which explains that things didn’t turn out so bad for the remaining Ambersons after all. That lost footage is truly lost, the studio having completely burned or otherwise disposed of it, meaning we’ll never see Welles’ true vision. It does end with one my favorite things ever, though: Welles reading the end credits himself.
“I wrote the script and directed. My name is Orson Welles.”
3) Mr. Arkadin (1955)
This is another movie with several different versions. In Britain, this movie was called Confidential Report, though the movie was a French-Spanish-Swiss co-production. In it, a small-time American smuggler working in Europe (played by Robert Arden) is at the scene of a murder and the dying man whispers to him two names which he says are very valuable, one of which is Gregory Arkadin.
Through some swindling and things, the smuggler ends up at the house of the millionaire industrialist and socialite Arkadin (Welles himself) and is faced with a very peculiar request: Arkadin wants to hire the man to dig into his own past, because Arkadin says he has no memory of it before 1927. All of the travel and expenses will be paid. The investigation leads the man to a history of Arkadin being a big organized crime figure following World War I, but each person he speaks to ends up dead. Someone’s playing our smuggler friend for a fool, but is it Arkadin, and if not, then who? This movie is a really great and tense thriller with Welles once again playing the most mysterious figure in the world, something at which he excelled, and the Spanish scenery adds to the film’s off-putting cinematography.
Here’s Joe Dante talking about the movie, though I tend to be much more positive on the movie than he is:
2) Citizen Kane (1941)
This is often cited as the greatest film ever made, and it’s certainly very hard to argue with that. It can seem a bit passe today, and even a bit pedestrian, but Welles with his first feature was doing things nobody had ever done before. He played with the medium of film in a way that hadn’t existed previously, and took a pretty harsh look at a thinly veiled version of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who, true to form, hated the movie and banned any of his papers from running advertising for it, which severely hurt its box office.
Despite this, the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, though it only won one, for screenplay, which Welles shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz. There’s a LOT of writing about this movie, so I won’t try to talk too much about it. Go listen to Roger Ebert’s audio commentary of it, because it’s fab. I’ll just say that while I think this movie is better than my choice for number one, Kane leaves me a little cold at times, not like the next film, which is just white-hot bananas from beginning to end.
1) Touch of Evil (1958)
The very last film Welles attempted to make with an American studio (Universal) was never actually meant to be directed by Welles. One story goes that Welles was only meant to act in the film, but star Charlton Heston had enough clout that he could demand Welles direct as well. The other story goes that Welles had a good relationship with producer Albert Zugsmith and, after a decade in Europe, wanted to make a Hollywood film again, asking for the worst script on the pile to rewrite and direct, taking only his actor fee.
Whatever ended up being true, it’s clear that Welles put everything he had into the grimy little border town Noir (often considered the final film in that movement) in which a car bomb explodes and the ensuing investigation by Capt. Quinlan (Welles) proves slightly less than legal or ethical and Mexican drug enforcement agent Vargas (Heston) attempts to prove that Quinlan has framed the suspect. All this while, Vargas’ American wife (Janet Leigh) is harassed, drugged, and sexually assaulted by a gang working for a Mexican druglord at the behest of Quinlan to discredit Vargas.
It’s a twisted little story and Welles turns in one of his best performances under mounds of makeup and latex fat. It opens with one of the best steadicam shots in the whole world. The film was massively recut, against Welles’ wishes, by the studio but recently, a cut that adhered as closely as possible to the director’s infamous 58-page memo to Universal has surfaced.