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Orson Welles - Film and Television

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I started at the top and worked my way down.
- Orson Welles

Citizen Kane was a film clearly based upon the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was, to put it mildly, not amused by his screen representation, and after failing to buy the rights to the film, used his contacts to make sure it died at the box office.

Hearst owned a sizeable chunk of the US media (though his outright control of his titles had diminished after the Depression), and counted leading gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and studio-owner Louis B Mayer as personal friends. So it was easy for him to ensure that advertising for the film was minimal and reviews were negative.

The parallels between Charles Foster Kane and Hearst were as unsubtle as they were unflattering, and the portrayal of his wife was little short of slanderous. On the other hand, Hearst was a deeply unpleasant character, a committed fascist who encouraged racist articles in his papers and who provoked and promoted the Spanish-American War for the sake of generating news.

RKO (the studio that had financed Citizen Kane and was committed to backing Welles' next project also) was panicked by the failure of its prodigy to turn talent into cash, and Welles would never again release a film without substantial changes being made by the studio. Indeed, none of his films were commercial hits on their initial release.

Further controversy was raised by leading critic Pauline Kael in 1971 over the authorship of the film. The script was credited on-screen to Herman J Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. It seems clear, however, that Mankiewicz wrote the bulk of the dialogue, with Welles substantially rewriting. Rumours abound, to the effect that Welles offered Mankiewicz money to credit Welles as sole author; or that Welles' input was less than he claimed. How many of these were slanderous and put about by enemies of the film (see above), and how many were genuine, has never been totally resolved.

  • Read about Citizen Kane, the film that assured Welles' immortality, and what makes it great.

Other Films as Director

Movie directing is a perfect refuge for the mediocre.
- Orson Welles
  • The Hearts of Age (1934)
  • Too Much Johnson (1938)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  • The Stranger (1944)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1945)
  • Macbeth (1947)
  • Othello (1952)
  • Mr Arkadin (1955)
  • Touch of Evil (1957)
  • The Trial (1962)
  • Chimes at Midnight (1966)
  • The Immortal Story (1968)
  • F for Fake (1973)
  • Filming 'Othello' (1978)

Welles is best remembered now as a film director, probably because this is the medium which has been best preserved. It is therefore ironic1 that aside from Citizen Kane, this was probably the medium in which he was the least successful and the least prolific.

Early Films

Welles had already made two brief films by the time work on Citizen Kane started. The Hearts of Age was only four minutes long and made as a student film when he was 17; Too Much Johnson was a series of introductions to each of the acts of his stage production of the same name. The only print of the latter was destroyed in a fire in 1970.

'The Magnificent Ambersons'

His follow-up to Citizen Kane was to set many patterns that his future films would follow. Some in the test audiences who saw the original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons acclaimed it as better than Citizen Kane. The rest hated it. The studio, however - unnerved by a budget that had spiralled from an already generous $750,000 to more than $1,000,000 (far more than they were insured for) - was worried further by the confusion of those tests. The result was that the film was cut by fully a third and a new, up-beat, ending was filmed without Welles's involvement or consultation.

The script was adapted from Booth Tarkington's novel, and tells the story of the decline of a southern family in the early years of the 20th Century. The Ambersons are so caught up in their own grandeur that they fail to adapt to the changing world.

This is exemplified by their attitude to automobiles. There is a strong theme throughout the film that cars represent change and progress. This culminates in the central character, spoilt brat George Amberson Minifer, being run over. The 'studio' ending shows him recovering in hospital and repenting of his ways; Welles' original ending implies the accident is fatal and deserved.

The film was innovative in its use of sound, with overlapping dialogue and effects, and the more distant voices being quieter. It was also semi-autobiographical. This is hardly surprising, given that Booth Tarkington was a friend of the Welles family, and Orson Welles claimed that the book was in part based on his father. Despite Welles' attempts to pick a commercially viable project, the film was a disaster at the box office, losing something like $600,000 for RKO and costing at least one senior executive his job.

'Journey into Fear'

Welles' work on Journey into Fear was uncredited. He abandoned the project to Norman Foster after filming his own scenes. This is a shame, as it is a very solid thriller (a genre to which Welles was to return many times), starring Joseph Cotton (a Welles favourite and former Mercury player) as an American ballistics expert in Turkey. A claustrophobic whodunit on a riverboat leads to a dramatic rain-drenched chase along high-rise window-ledges, as German spies try to prevent his escape. Many of the stylistic elements that would become staples of Film Noir are present here, most notably the high-contrast lighting.

'The Stranger'

The Stranger was deliberately workmanlike. Once again Welles was looking for a solid film to restore his reputation, and made a conscious decision to attempt nothing ground-breaking here. The plot deals with a former Nazi war criminal hiding out in small-town America, and the attempts of the Allied War Crimes Commission to uncover and capture him. Although brought in on time and under budget, the film was a failure at the box office, and consequently the four-picture deal Welles had been promised evaporated.

'The Lady From Shanghai'

With three lacklustre films behind him, and a reputation for being unable to stick to budgets or schedules (despite having made a point of doing so on The Stranger), Welles was by now finding it hard to obtain backing for his film projects. He attempted to redress this with The Lady From Shanghai, another 'film noir'. At first, things went well. The budget was reduced by casting his wife, Rita Hayworth, and borrowing his friend Errol Flynn's yacht, but he fell badly behind schedule and failed to win back the confidence of the studios.

The Shakespeare Films

Welles struggled both with the studios and with his own desire to make uncommercial movies. He loved Shakespeare, having produced his plays on stage and adapted several for the screen. Macbeth, based upon a stage production he was doing at the time, suffers somewhat from the faux Scottish accents the cast employ; perhaps dubbing them was the only time a studio interfered with one of Welles' films to the film's benefit. As with so many of Welles' films, this now exists in two versions: the studio-sanctioned original release; and the director's cut, which is longer and better (dodgy accents and all). The other noteworthy feature of this film is the sets, or rather, the lack of sets. Some regard this as a masterpiece of expressionist minimalism; others as simply cheap.

Othello (which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) played upon Welles' favourite theme of a fall from grace; and Chimes at Midnight (sometimes called Falstaff), which was based upon no less than five Shakespeare plays2, had been a pet project of his since his Mercury Theatre on the Air days.

'Mr Arkadin'

Mr Arkadin (or Confidential Report) was funded with European money, as most of his later films were to be. This international funding often, as in this case, led to films having different titles in different countries. Here was another thriller, this time a spin-off from The Third Man (see below). As with Othello and Citizen Kane, this was the story of a powerful man's downfall; it starts with his mysterious death and is told in flashback.

'Touch of Evil'

Touch of Evil was Welles' last Hollywood film. This was also among his best. Having delivered a high-quality, commercial film with an A-list cast - Welles himself, Charlton Heston, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Marlene Dietrich, old Mercury colleague Joseph Cotton, and a pre-Psycho Janet Leigh being menaced in a motel room - delivered on time and within budget, producing rushes3 that the studio execs loved, Welles had done everything possible to win back favour in Hollywood. He failed. His subsequent films were European productions.

Late Films

The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins, was a loose adaptation of Franz Kafka's book of the same name. The book was pieced together after Kafka's death from disjointed chapters, and was further altered, expanded and re-ordered by Welles.

Immortal Story was a made-for-TV drama about a 19th-Century tycoon trying to control the relationships of others. This was by now familiar ground for Welles, but on this occasion less effectively done.


His final two films as director were documentaries. F for Fake is a semi-philosophical piece about hoaxes, but was also, of course, partly a hoax itself. This has been given a whole mess of titles over the years - Vérités et Mensonges is the most common alternative. The back-story is as enigmatic as the film: could Welles' championing of appearance over reality be a justification for his actions over the script of Citizen Kane? Was this an attempt to rekindle the flame of his own great hoax, The War of the Worlds?

After demonstrating some on-screen sleight-of-hand, Welles promises that the rest of the hour will be spent telling the truth. He then runs through the story of a celebrity art forger, Elmyr de Hory, whose memoirs have now been faked by Clifford Irving, the man who later faked Howard Hughes' memoirs. The film closes with Welles narrating the story of how Picasso was duped into parting with several of his paintings - only to reveal that this last part is false. Welles' promise to tell the truth for an hour was made 77 minutes previously!

This film gives perhaps the best portrait of Welles as a person, as it is presented in a chatty, bonhomie style. The only role Welles is playing here is himself.

Filming Othello was a made-for-TV documentary which was given a limited theatrical release in some countries. As the title suggests, it documents the traumatic filming of Welles' version of Shakespeare's great tragedy, featuring interviews with key people and a tour of Venice showing the locations used in filming. It is unavailable on video or DVD, and so is little seen.

'The Third Man'

In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.
- Orson Welles in The Third Man (Screenplay by Graham Greene)

Welles made many films as an actor-for-hire, in addition to appearing in his own films. Of this, the outstanding example is Carol Reed's 'noir' thriller The Third Man. You can read about The Third Man elsewhere in the Guide, so here it will simply be noted that it was rumoured that Welles directed his own scenes in this movie, as he had before in Journey into Fear - though of course this could simply be more self-serving rumour-mongering from the master of self-aggrandisement.

A radio series resulted, with Welles playing the Harry Lime character he played in the film. Although this return to his first broadcast medium failed to restore him to Hollywood credibility, it did provide the inspiration for his next film, Mr Arkadin.

Other Films as Actor

I do not suppose I shall be remembered for anything. But I don't think about my work in those terms. It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.
- Orson Welles

Welles was happy to announce that he would appear in 'any film that needs a touch of class' in order to fund his directorial projects. This meant that most of his films were less than excellent. While his own performance was usually good (in fact, often the best thing about the film) only a few of his films are worth viewing on their own merit. Perhaps Waterloo, King of Kings (which he narrated), Catch-22 and Casino Royale (which also featured an early appearance from another great American director, Woody Allen) stand out, but the list also includes Bugs Bunny Superstar, The Transformers Movie and The Muppet Movie.

Films About Welles

I don't want any description of me to be accurate; I want it to be flattering. I don't think people who have to sing for their supper ever like to be described truthfully - not in print anyway. We need to sell tickets, so we need good reviews.
- Orson Welles

The Cradle Will Rock (1999), by Tim Robbins, tells the story (among other sub-plots) of the staging of Welles' production of the same title. Tim Burton's Ed Wood, though not centring on Welles, features a brief meeting between Wood and Welles, clearly drawing a comparison between the two cash-starved and critically-mauled directors. RKO281 was a TV-movie dealing with the filming of Citizen Kane - the title was the serial number of the RKO film. All three of these films are of a very high standard.

Films Welles Never Made

Welles' reputation rests almost as much on the work he couldn't do as on the work he did. In addition to the 'lost' version of The Magnificent Ambersons Welles had to abandon many projects throughout his life. These ranged from film ideas that never reached script form, right through to Don Quixote, large parts of which were filmed.

At the time of his death, he had several completed projects still unscreened - mostly TV programmes that were never broadcast. He will perhaps be remembered as having an unfulfilled potential, especially with regard to his cinematic work. Citizen Kane, the one film he made with a large budget and minimal studio interference, stands out so clearly above his others that it is impossible to imagine what he might have achieved had he been able to fit into the studio system.

His last public appearance was in an episode of the TV show Moonlighting.


Welles was also known for his quick wit and sociability. To close, here are a few of his more memorable quotes.

  • Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.

  • Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch.

  • Everybody denies I am a genius - but nobody ever called me one!

  • I don't pray because I don't want to bore God.

  • I don't say that we ought to all misbehave, but we ought to look as if we could.

  • I feel I have to protect myself against things. So I'm pretty careful to lose most of them.

  • I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts.

  • I have the terrible feeling that because I am wearing a white beard and am sitting in the back of the theatre, you expect me to tell you the truth about something. These are the cheap seats, not Mount Sinai.

  • If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

  • My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.

  • Nobody who takes on anything big and tough can afford to be modest.

  • Only very intelligent people don't wish they were in politics, and I'm dumb enough to want to be in there.

  • Race hate isn't human nature; race hate is the abandonment of human nature.

  • When you are down and out something always turns up - and it is usually the noses of your friends.

  • I like the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.

1Unless you have read this.2Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V, Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor.3 'Raw' footage sent back to the studio to demonstrate progress.

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