After enjoying Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ as mentioned in my last post, I decided to make the effort to view all his feature films (Considering their limited availability, I should emphasize the word ‘Effort’). He only shot ten or more full length films across three decades due to a lack of financing and support. I thought it would be interesting to view them chronologically but because they are so hard to come by, that hasn’t proved possible. So I began with the easiest to find:
The Stranger (1946)
‘The Stranger’ is the story of Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) a Nazi war criminal hiding in a little American town and Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), the man who is hunting him. The film was released just prior to the Nuremberg Trials and was the first movie to incorporate footage of the concentration camps.
After the disastrous release of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ Welles took the job to direct ‘The Stranger’ as a way to show he could make a mainstream successful thriller (This was the first job he could get after 4 years!). He succeeded brilliantly by making something thrilling and also a box-office hit while still squeezing in some memorable Welles flourishes. There’s the chilling scenes where Kindler lets his mask slip over dinner when he says Karl Marx “Wasn’t a German, Marx was a Jew” and the heartless look in his eyes when he resolves to kill those closest to him. Other interesting performances include the jolly but cheating drug-store philosopher Mr. Potter (Billy House) and Loretta Young’s role as Kindler’s duped American bride-to-be which at first seems weak but in the end she exemplifies the old saying “Hell hath no fury…”. The gothic conclusion staged in a broken clock tower seems to have influenced the endings of both ‘Back To The Future’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’. The film has fallen out of copyright so is available to view in its entirety on YouTube bellow:
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
‘The Lady from Shanghai’ is a noir thriller about a rougeish Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) who is sucked into the twisted world of a rich couple. Welles agreed to direct the film if Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn wired him $55,000 to finance a stage production he was mounting. Being Welles, far from merely quickly fulfilling his contract he wrote, produced, starred-in and directed the film and even cast his then wife, the mega-star Rita Hayworth in it.
Welles got off to a shaky start, annoying the studio by having Hayworth’s world-famous long red-hair cut short and dyed Blonde. This decision was so controversial that it was blamed at the time for the films poor box-office performance (It’s difficult to understand since Hayworth looks jaw-droppingly seductive in the role!). The studio deemed the plot incomprehensible so they cut out an hour of footage. The 87 minute film that is left is certainly a bit hard to follow but then you’d imagine that a film so savagely trimmed would be! The joy of the film is more about the pervading air of danger and mystery that Welles creates. Standout scenes include the beautiful close-up of Hayworth singing to herself and the ingenious Hall-Of-Mirrors showdown that has been later ripped off in many films including ‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’.
‘Macbeth’ has always been my favourite Shakespeare play since studying it at school. I’ve seen Antony Shear’s clever staging, I’ve watched films of Polanski’s brutal take and then McKellen & Dench’s sparse production but my favourite was always Nicol Williamson’s intimate 1983 adaptation. This was my first encounter with Welles’ dark brooding take on the play.
The dark magic of the play allow Welles free rein to create a fantastical film using daring composition, gothic shadows, ominous sound and reams of atmospheric mist. Again the film was not a success which the studio attributed to the decision that the cast should speak in fairly strong Scottish accents and the critics branded Welles’ cutting and re-ordering of Shakespeare’s text sacrilegious (A practice that is now the standard in film adaptations!). The studio re-cut the film, re-dubbed the sound with American accents and re-released it but thankfully I watched the wonderful fully restored version.
Touch of Evil (1958)
‘Touch Of Evil’ features a duel of wills and morals between honest Mexican agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and corrupt American police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) set against the seething amorality of a decaying border town.
By 1958 Welles hadn’t been allowed near an American production in ten years when he accepted the role of Quinlan. When Heston came on board the film still lacked a director so he voiced the blindingly obvious that the studio should ask Welles. Welles seized the chance and immediately completely re-wrote the script from scratch, most notably changing Heston’s part to a Mexican to alow the film to explore themes of Racism. The film’s opening 3 and a half-minute sweeping tracking shot was groundbreaking and Welles dedication to shooting everything on location was in contrast to Hollywood’s studio-bound techniques. The motel scenes (Notably involving Janet Leigh) seem to have inspired Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ to such a degree that it’s practically plagiarism! Welles’ performance as Quinlan is magnificent, creating a character so steeped in corruption that it’s rotting him from inside and out.
While shooting, the studio was very happy, particularly when Welles’ old Hollywood friends like Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joseph Cotten turned up unannounced to film cameos. However when Welles’ turned in a rough 108 minute preview cut the studio’s attitude drastically changed. They took the film away from Welles and re-shot many scenes and cut it down to 95 minutes. Welles was horrified and wrote a 58 page memo detailing how he thought the film should be edited. This memo lay ignored until 1998 when Rick Schmidlin produced a cut of the film endeavoring to follow the memo to the letter. This restored/re-imagined version is Welles’ best film since ‘Citizen Kane’, perhaps even better than Kane.
F for Fake (1974)
‘F For Fake’ is a mesmerizing documentary film about forgery, fakery and film making. Part biography of art-forger Elmyr de Hory, part auto-biographical confessional and part masterly demonstration of the very possibilities of film editing itself.
Welles literally performs magic tricks and then does the same with his editing. The best scenes include one where he edits footage of the public to make it look as if they are drooling over his girlfriend Oja Kodar as she saunters down the street in a mini-skirt, another is when he re-creates his famous ‘March of time’ newsreel from ‘Citizen Kane’ to mock Howard Hughes (A scene that works on so many self-referential levels). ‘F For Fake’ would be his last released film so it is fitting that it was his most daring and original vision, birthing a new type of film altogether and showing that 3 decades after his first film he was still ahead of everyone else.
Welles has lamented that it would have been nice to not be ahead of his time and just be of-the-time, because he would’ve actually made a few dollars! But thankfully for generations to come he was cursed to always be a groundbreaking genius. In part two of my Welles odyssey I’ll be viewing films like ‘Othello’, ‘Mr. Arkadin aka Confidential Report’, ‘The Trial’ and ‘Chimes at Midnight’. I just have to track down DVDs of them first!