Director Spotlight: Who is Orson Welles?

Orson Welles in 1965 filming Chimes At Midnight.

Welles, Welles, Welles – it’s another CinePunked favourite

May 6 marks the birthday of one of cinema’s most legendary infants terribles, and it also happens to be an auspicious date for the Punks. Well, sort of. You see, back in the misty depths of 2015, the world celebrated the centenary of the force of nature that was George Orson Welles, and, in honour of the occasion, a local independent cinema asked our own Robert JE Simpson to put together a discussion panel around a screening of Touch of Evil (1959). Robert picked up the phone to Rachael (who immediately started overpreparing wildly by reading an entire biography of a man she’d already studied in depth at university)… and the rest, as they say, is history.

But enough about us. You’re here, presumably, because you’re as fascinated as we are by the man behind required-undergraduate-film-studies-viewing classic Citizen Kane (1941). Either that or you’ve got an essay to write. Either way, let’s just dive right in.

He revolutionised what was aesthetically possible in cinema

Citizen Kane (1941), dir. Orson Welles. Oh look: it’s a ceiling.

How much was Welles and how much was his collaborators is an argument that, quite frankly, we’re not going to rehash because it’s kind of beside the point. For sure, the technical innovations that came about as a result of his spectacular debut, Citizen Kane (1941), were effected by the movie’s insanely talented cinematographer, Greg Toland, but they came about purely because a 25-year-old Hollywood debutant decided that it wasn’t okay that the technology didn’t currently exist, and could somebody please do something about that, thanks.

Citizen Kane relies heavily on cinematography to make its points. Welles makes copious use of extreme camera angles to connote themes of power and corruption and helplessness, and especially the extreme low angle shot when he wants to make it entirely clear that a character is getting a bit big for their boots. The problem was that extreme low angles weren’t really something filmmakers did at this point, especially when you were shooting on a sound stage. And the reason for that was because sets tended not to have ceilings, so if you dropped the camera too low the artifice was going to disappear and you’d have a lovely shot of the lead actor’s head framed by the lighting rig in all its prosaic glory.

That wouldn’t do for our Orson, though. Watch the movie. There are ceilings on his sets. That’s because he was absolutely going to have the camera crew make a hole in the floor so that the camera could get as low as his artistic vision required.

Yes. This is a thing that happened.

Deep focus also exists because of Citizen Kane. Generally speaking, a shot’s depth of field is relatively shallow and we’re very accustomed to making sense of selective focus as a result. What’s not fuzzy on our screen is what the director wants us to look at, so we do. If what the director wants us to look at shifts to another plane, the camera racks focus and the blurry bits unblur to show us what we should pay attention to.

This wouldn’t do for our Orson either.

Citizen Kane (1941), dir. Orson Welles

In the sequence above, notice how every plane is in sharp focus. That wasn’t even possible with camera lenses as they existed at the time of shooting. Greg Toland had to invent a new type of lens especially for the film.

This is what we mean when we say this guy started a revolution. He literally made stuff happen that had never happened before. You’ve got to admire that.

His childhood was… not the happiest

Image credit.

Honestly, go read Simon Callow’s outstanding biography and prepare to have your heart broken. There’s nothing particularly horrific about it, but every key event in young Orson’s life reads as the story of a brilliant little boy just desperately trying to be loved. He was the second (and last) child of an upper middle class family from Kenosha, Wisconsin, and his parents’ marriage doesn’t seem to have been particularly contented.

His mother, Beatrice, was a highly accomplished woman – a talented musician and very active in the local community – but his father, Richard, was… not these things. He seems to have been fairly content just to coast along on his good nature and advantages of birth, and eventually he and Beatrice ended up separating. Big brother Richard Jnr (known as Dickie) was a huge disappointment to Beatrice, so a lot of pressure ended up finding its way onto Orson’s shoulders.

From a very young age, he was encouraged to develop a slew of artistic competencies, and the more aptitude he showed, the more he was rewarded with his mum’s attention and affection. So he seems to have become quite desperate to please her, and measuring up to Mum seems to have become something of a purpose in Orson’s young life. Once he’d established himself as a prodigy in Beatrice’s approving eye… well, being a prodigy was no longer optional. He had to keep being amazing – otherwise he’d failed.

And then Beatrice died when he was nine years old. That very effectively solidified her voice at the back of Orson’s mind: if he failed now, he was failing his mother’s memory.

Richard Welles Snr ended up drinking himself to death six years later, and the rest of Orson’s childhood and young adulthood can be read as an effort to find the father figure he so desperately needed. Beatrice’s long-time friend (and possible lover) Maurice Bernstein might have fitted the bill – he was already a big enough fixture in the Welles family life that Orson called him Dada – but that was not an entirely healthy relationship, by all accounts. Maurice idolised Beatrice and, in her absence, had transferred that admiration to her youngest son, so again Orson had to be something constantly in order to maintain that sentiment.

His headteacher, Roger Hill, was a another major influence in Orson’s life, and in fact, on Richard’s death, Orson asked him to become his guardian… but Hill said no.

You can see the man’s reasoning: Maurice Bernstein was already in that de facto role, and clearly expected to make it formal in the absence of any living parent. But you also have to look at it from the perspective of a grieving 15-year-old orphan who’d been conditioned to believe that his worth, his lovability, rested on constantly shining brightest of all. You have to wonder how that read to Orson Welles.

In fact, you probably don’t. You can probably guess how it felt.

Ten years later, he makes Citizen Kane and turns the very art of filmmaking upside down and shakes it, and from that moment on it becomes possible to trace some key – and devastatingly revealing – themes throughout his body of cinematic work. Inadequate father figures, for one. Female autonomy, for another. Call us a Dimestore Dr Freud, but… we think there might be something in that.

Auteur theory would tend to agree. Talking of which…

He’s regarded as one of the original auteur directors

The Lady from Shanghai (1947), dir. Orson Welles

Remember Andrew Sarris’ Pantheon? Yes you do, come on – we wrote about it a while back in our Quick Guide to Auteur Theory article. Okay, so maybe you haven’t come across that one yet, but you really should have a read – we’re very proud of it.

Anyway. Sarris’ Pantheon first makes its appearance in his 1968 book The American Cinema, and, while it certainly overgeneralises, oversimplifies, and vastly oversituates US cinema as the guiding light in global filmmaking prowess (the clue is in the name, to be fair), it’s a gloriously snark-filled rollock through 11 categories into which the author organises the many, many directors whose work he’s viewed and evaluated. Top of that list is the category he designates as “pantheon.”

To achieve pantheon status, directors must – per Sarris’ criteria – use their films to exhibit a very personal vision of the world. What do we mean by that? Let’s skip back to Sarris’ earlier essay, Notes on the Auteur Theory (1962) in which he discusses how he thinks an auteur director should be defined. Because, make no mistake, the directors who make it into the pantheon are there because Sarris believes they are auteurs.

These are the filmmakers who show not only significant technical ability but also a distinguishable sense of personality that pervades their work. Films made by pantheon/auteur directors will have a very specific, readily identifiable “feel” to them. To be kind of reductive, if you can turn the guy’s name into an adjective, they’re probably doing what we’re talking about here. (CF: Hitchcockian, Lynchian, Spielbergian… Wellesian. And, no, those two blokes in the middle aren’t included in the pantheon, but that’s mainly because they weren’t making movies in 1968. We reckon they fit the point we’re trying to make, okay? They’re auteurs. If you go in for that sort of thing, which Rachael doesn’t, but that’s another argument for another day.) And finally, there’s an interior meaning to these directors’ bodies of work that flows from the tension between the material and the worldview that the director is trying to express.

Chimes at Midnight (1965), dir. Orson Welles

So… Welles’ troubled childhood? Check out Citizen Kane (1941), in which a young boy has to bend himself to fit the weight of expectation heaped upon him by accident of birth and an overbearing parental figure. (Spoiler: it doesn’t go that well for him.) Tensions with the loving but vaguely rubbish dad? Oh Lord, watch Chimes At Midnight (1965) and prepare to feel a lot of feelings as King Henry rejects his stand-in father figure/irredeemable party-dude Falstaff when the dissolute lifestyle over which they bonded begins to clash with the new-look kingly responsibility – and Falstaff never really understands why he’s been rejected. Indomitable female autonomy yearning to breathe free? How about… just about every female character Welles ever filmed? Including (but not limited to) Susan Alexander Kane, who will not put up with Charles’ shit anymore (Citizen Kane, 1941); Elsa Bannister, who straight up decides to murder her independence-crushing spouse (The Lady from Shanghai, 1947); Susan Vargas, who absolutely cannot sit on her hands when there’s injustice to set right (Touch of Evil, 1959)… and so on and so forth.

We’d like to think Beatrice would be proud.

He couldn’t make a commercially successful film if his life depended on it

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), dir. Orson Welles

So, the thing about Citizen Kane is that, yes, critics love it, but – not to put too fine a point on it – it did not do well at the box office on release. Mostly, that was because Welles had managed to annoy William Randolph Hearst (the all-powerful, insanely rich newspaper mogul on whom Charles Foster Kane is quite blatantly based) so intensely that most movie theatres rather sensibly declined to show the movie, for fear of being sued into dust.

Also, RKO’s marketing department didn’t have the first clue what to do with the thing and decided to market it as a love story. That… probably didn’t help. (If you haven’t seen the film, you absolutely should, it’s terrific. It’s also very, very definitely not a story about anybody falling in love with anyone else.)

So existential was RKO’s panic, in fact, that they proceeded to remove Welles from the editing of his follow-up feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and re-cut it in their own, less flamboyant, style. Welles was, predictably, unhappy, and the film went on to make a loss at the box office. Again.

The next few years saw relatively steady work, including Welles’ one and only moderate box office success – 1946’s The Stranger – and the mesmerising Lady from Shanghai (1947), which features Welles’ by-then-estranged wife Rita Hayworth and a truly appalling effort at an Irish accent from the man himself – who actually bloody well lived here for a while, so he had no excuse. But all the while, his films aren’t exactly filling the studio coffers and it’s getting harder and harder to get people to take his calls. So, off he pops to Europe.

Welles spends the next few years staying true to his artistic integrity and making independent movies on a shoestring. A brief return to Hollywood in the late 1950s sees him once again set fire to big piles of money with the spectacular and woefully under-loved (at least on its release) Touch of Evil (1958), and then it’s back to Europe again, where he’s free to make the films he wants to make on a budget of about $5.50.

Touch of Evil (1958), dir. Orson Welles

His work veers frenetically between big-budget melodrama, scathing political critique, adaptations of Shakespeare and other literary classics, and (completely bonkers) documentaries about art fraud. Honestly, we’re not sure we want to live in a world in which Citizen Kane became the world’s first blockbuster, because if the mainstream Hollywood studios had had the first clue what to do with this brilliant man, we’d have missed out on the sheer genius he produced under near-complete artistic freedom.

No, he didn’t create mass hysteria with The War of the Worlds

Orson Welles in 1938. Image credit.

It was the 1930s equivalent of clickbait, you guys. Like, a few people went nuts and did themselves harm. A small bunch of highly suggestible folks – the usual suspects, we would venture – got their knickers in a twist, but there was absolutely no mayhem on the streets of the US in response to The War of the Worlds.

For one thing, the original radio broadcast featured regular reminders that listeners had tuned into a work of fiction. Like, regular reminders. You’d have to be particularly determined not to notice them, is what we’re saying.

For another, it wasn’t exactly the Stone Age. Okay, there was no internet and not everybody had a telephone, but in every single part of the east coast that was allegedly under attack by malign alien forces, a simple glance out the window would have provided ample reassurance that this was not, in fact, the end of the world.

And for another, when we talk about the station that broadcast the infamous radio play, we are not talking about a major telecommunications player. Disney+ this ain’t. It most certainly did not count the majority of the continental US among its listeners that day; not even close. CBS Radio wasn’t tiny, but it didn’t command a major share of the market by any shakes.

Yes, it’s true that the station – and Welles himself – came under some heat for the shenanigans. But we would invite you to consider how very little harm that slap on the wrist did to the career of one Welles, G. O. – his next move was a blank cheque from RKO and complete freedom to make the movie he wanted to make. And we’d further ask you to ponder the question of whether or not a man who couldn’t give a straight answer to an interview question throughout the entirety of his life; a man who understood innately the power of story and its place in mythogenesis; a man whose entire soul and sense of self rested precariously on being larger than life and impossible to ignore…

…and we’d suggest that he knew exactly what he was doing that day.

And we kind of love him for that.

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