Gone, But Not Quite Forgotten

Few film directors have been granted the kind of critical reassessment Orson Welles has.  It is a widely acknowledged fact in the film community that during his life Welles’ films post-Citizen Kane (1941) were largely ignored and that the director spent much of his time attempting to raise money to complete what few films he could make.  Since the eighties, the Hollywood machine has done its best to gloss over their poor treatment of Welles, labeling him both an icon of the old studio system as well as a rebellious auteur.  In reality, a majority of Welles’ films were made over seas, and those that were made in Hollywood, with the exception of Citizen Kane, were never under the director’s complete control.

Simon Callow’s two-volume biography on Orson Welles, The Road To Xanadu and Hello Americans, does much to explain Welles’ tumultuous relationship with Hollywood.  For starters, Welles had a tremendous ego; often he would offend or undermine the authority of those upon whom he relied for financing.  Second, Welles refused to compromise, tyrannically pursuing his ideal visions despite monetary or personal repercussions.  In short, Orson Welles was a visionary genius, a loud mouth, an egotist, self indulgent, and controlling filmmaker.  These attributes, no matter how unseemly, made up a large portion of his style and his process as a filmmaker.  In old Hollywood, Welles’ personality alone was enough to be banned from the industry, without taking into account the controversial subject matter of his material.

Thus, Welles departed from the studio machine (with the exception of Touch Of Evil in 1958), and began making films independently in Europe, beginning with an adaptation of Othello (1952).  The monetary restrictions of these European productions were inhibiting at best, often Welles would end up shelving entire projects due to his financial situation (1969’s Don Quixote).  The conditions surrounding Welles forced him to adopt a style in total contrast with the grandeur and nuance of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), shooting instead when actors, sets, and money were available, often traveling across Europe to best accommodate these circumstances.  The kinetic energy of Mr. Arkadin (1955), The Trial (1962), and Chimes At Midnight (1965) often appears to be the work of an entirely different director than the Orson Welles that brought us The Stranger (1946) and The Magnificent Ambersons.  Budget problems did not allow Welles the visual style he pioneered with Gregg Toland, so Welles opted for fast camera moves and jump cuts that pre-date the French New Wave by almost a decade.

The richness, and the texture of Welles’ scripts remained, for the most part, consistent in his later films as it had in the early studio pictures.  The differences are in the visual style of Welles’ films, clearly divided by what came before Othello and what came after Othello.  This division presents us with an interesting contradiction.  Orson Welles, the big studio icon, made his most influential films in Europe.  Take the battle scene in Chimes At Midnight for example.  Welles shot the sequence with a moving camera, reserving stationary shots for the comic relief of Falstaff or for close-ups.  These moving shots are cut based upon the action in frame to other moving shots, playing up the energy of the violence in the sequence to maximum effect.  The pace of these cuts is unprecedented in scenes of epic battle, yet gave Hollywood the blueprint from which to stage their battle scenes in more contemporary films such as Braveheart (1994).  The reflexivity and self-awareness of Welles himself in F Is For Fake (1974) predates Jean-Luc Godard’s film Keep Your Right Up (1987).  It quickly becomes evident that the second half of Welles’ career is far more expansive and meaningful in its influence than the first half.  Even considering Citizen Kane; it is the only film Welles made in Hollywood over which he exerted complete control, the other studio films are mere approximations of his original intentions (if we’re lucky) as they are available today.  In recent years this argument has gained strength from new “restored” versions of his uncompleted (Jess Franco’s edit of Don Quixote) and lost (the Criterion Collection’s release of Mr. Arkadin) films.

Now, let us return to the allegation that Orson Welles is a studio icon.  If we compare his films and his filmmaking process to other directors and their respective movements, he is more akin to the classic European auteur like Max Ophuls and Luchino Visconti, the French New Wave, or the early American Independents than to the studio films of Hollywood.  So is there even a “reassessment” at work here?

When Welles died, filmmakers such as Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Robert Altman who had been praising Citizen Kane for years were finally heard.  Directors had become superstars in the seventies, and the studios knew there would be much to gain by supporting the opinions of these filmmakers when it came to marketing the Welles’ films that they owned.   So what we are faced with is not a critical reassessment in the classic sense, but a marketing ploy.  This begins to explain why so many of Welles’ later films have yet to find distribution in the United States thirty years after Welles has died; there just isn’t a big enough demand.  The average filmgoer or amateur “movie buff” is entirely ignorant of the Welles films of the sixties and seventies precisely because of the studio’s “reassessment”.  When an audience doesn’t know a film exists, why would they want to see it?

-Robert Curry


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