Shiny Shelf

Welles-Respecting Men

By Eddie Robson on 22 December 2009

Movies on TV at Christmas used to be about big premieres, but DVD and cable channels have long since taken the shine off those. I’ve always been more excited by the indulgent prospect of a good themed season of old movies anyway, and the BBC can usually be relied on to provide. BBC2 is doing a film noir season (which always seems to be a popular Christmas choice for some reason), but BBC4 caters to those of us whose idea of a great Christmas movie is Citizen Kane by doing an Orson Welles season.

This features a repeat of the two-part Alan Yentob interview with Welles from 1982, plus Orson Welles’ Sketchbook, his 1950s BBC series. But the tentpole of the season is a new Simon Callow documentary which focuses on Welles’ less-discussed decade in Europe, between the making of Macbeth and Touch of Evil. It’s rather odd, then, that the films selected are all from Welles’ much-discussed early Hollywood period: Citizen Kane, Journey Into Fear (which he co-directed, uncredited), The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger (which is Welles’ dullest movie, but out of copyright so it’s always liable to pop up as a cheap filler). The films he actually made in Europe – Othello and Mr Arkadin – would not only have been more appropriate, they’re also very rarely seen (in fact, I don’t recall either of them ever having been on terrestrial TV). But this concentration on the stories behind Welles’ work, rather than the finished products, is typical of how we look at him.

Welles’ decline amid flashes of brilliance is an integral part of what makes his life story so compelling, albeit frustrating. Hitchcock made a movie more or less every year for the whole of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, most of them were very good, and arguably the best (Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest) arrived in the last of those decades. That’s a very pleasing career to look at, but as a story in itself, it’s not that interesting. We sometimes psychoanalyse Hitchcock, but this ultimately always feeds back into the movies. Whereas with Welles, there’s a danger of the movies becoming sideshows to the peculiar narrative of his life. That’s partly because there’s no unity to his body of work unless you put them in the context of his life: it’s the only way to understand why films like The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil turned out the way they did.

But we can get carried away with our desire for narrative. As the film critic Richard Maltby once said, we somehow feel that the history of entertainment has an obligation to be entertaining. There is a tendency therefore to cast Welles as the tragic hero of this narrative, a thwarted genius, denied by a system that couldn’t handle his brilliance. I think Welles was probably aware of this: certainly there are comments from him where he plays up the notion of his own heroic failure. But a survey of his career quickly reveals that far more of this was his own fault than many Welles acolytes would have you believe.

Welles originally had a deal with RKO to make two movies over which he had complete control. The first of those was Kane: due to overruns on that, he lost the right to make the second. Instead a new deal was cut which ceded final cut to RKO: the first picture made under this new deal was Ambersons. RKO then cut one-third of the movie and inserted a more upbeat ending. Many cineastes have treated poor Robert Wise, who did the actual editing, like a concentration camp guard who claimed to have been only obeying orders. But the fact is, where was Welles during all this? He was in Rio, ostensibly shooting documentary footage but mostly enjoying the carnival atmosphere and shagging as many dancing girls as he could. Some accounts portray the timing as opportunistic by RKO, sneaking in and making the cuts whilst Welles was away – but he had been warned there might be problems, and he could have come back. He didn’t, and the complete version – only ever screened for a lucky test audience, most of whom found it a bit depressing – was lost forever.

The chaotic production of The Lady From Shanghai was partly Welles’ fault, partly bad luck; however, it was typical of Welles that when he discovered studio head Harry Cohn had bugged the production office, Welles opted to wind Cohn up by discussing fictional on-set disasters. (Charlton Heston later commented that Welles had a habit of antagonising the people who held the purse strings, even though he was more than capable of turning on the charm.) Then came Welles’ sojourn in Europe and the start of his fragmented working patterns (Othello took three years to shoot): I’ve read this described as a ’self-imposed exile’, which isn’t quite the full story. Welles imposed the exile on himself by failing to pay his tax bills, which kept the IRS on his tail for years. His nomadic lifestyle – which continued more or less the rest of his life – was the result of basic negligence in looking after his own affairs.

None of the films which came after Kane quite hit the bull’s eye as his debut did. Some missed by quite some distance, some are fascinatingly ramshackle, others – like Ambersons and Touch of Evil – miss the mark by such a tiny margin that you wish he’d been able to get more momentum going, building on what was successful and refining it. Yet often one of the things which imbalances his films the most is his own presence in front of the cameras. He is an unconvincing Nazi in The Stranger, he does that bizarre accent in The Lady From Shanghai; in Touch of Evil, it beggars belief that nobody has ever suspected the irascible, arrogant Quinlan of fudging evidence (in the novel on which the film is based, he’s a more low-key character). Whilst it should be remembered that Welles was a well-known star, and being in his own movies helped them get made, he could get carried away with performances that had little to do with the story.

Overall, it just would be nice if the films themselves were seen a little more. All the ones I’ve seen have much to enjoy in them – even The Stranger – and the ones I haven’t seen, I would like to (some of them are curiously hard to track down, considering they’re films by one of the most acclaimed directors who ever lived). One of his ‘lost’ films, The Other Side Of The Wind, will hopefully be finished in time to premiere at Cannes, 95 years after his birth: that might be a good opportunity to acquaint ourselves with Welles’ later work. All right, so they’re not Citizen Kane – but what is?

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By Eddie Robson

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