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December 11 – December 21, 2015

Orson Welles, Part Two

Somewhere within the dense thickets of stimuli in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, a character invokes a fable in which a scorpion solicits a frog to transport him across a stream, only to then compulsively bite the frog in the back and sink both of them. In a 1963 Film Culture essay, Parker Tyler decoded this story—just one stray allusion in a dizzying array of extratextual and metatextual associations hauled into Welles’ cinematic universe to bolster or in some cases obscure meaning—as a microcosm of the wildly ambitious director’s career, likening the crossing of the stream to the production of a film, the frog to a producer, and the scorpion to the omnipotent filmmaker. Welles’ reputation for muscling his way into creative autonomy on projects that resisted so many conventional modes of producing and shaping movies made him simultaneously one of the most unruly collaborators in the film world and an accepted titan of the seventh art. Yet at the same time, it’s no mere coincidence that it is Welles himself, embodying in Arkadin one of his many elusive God-like figures, who recites this fable to a circle of listeners. Ever the self-effacing mortal beneath his showman braggadocio, Welles was always quick to acknowledge to audiences the casualties of his own undying artistic integrity.

Critical successes and box-office failures, peerless technical innovation alongside cynical studio slicing-and-dicing, a man both idolized and exiled—the established narrative of American cinema’s most infamous lone wolf is one of mounting contradictions. For every fawning account of Welles the Master Craftsman, there is a horror story of compromise and breakdown somewhere out there as counterpoint. Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made, but follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons suffers irretrievably from behind-the-scenes troubles. The Lady from Shanghai is a fascinating film made on assignment, while The Stranger is an uneven tangle made on assignment. Touch of Evil was the last exhale of greatness before a long sigh of unfinished and often incoherent late-career B-sides. Channeling Shakespeare since boyhood, his handful of adaptations at this late stage ranged from the unforgettable tempest of Chimes of Midnight to a forgettable, incomplete small-screen version of The Merchant of Venice.

Such accepted vulgarizations have fueled the myth of Orson Welles, a distorted history that too often obscures the work itself. Look without these biases and one can see that even as Welles fell out of favor with American audiences—inaugurating a public plummet from multi-talented industry whiz to international enigma with financial woes—and even as he dealt increasingly with limited resources and bureaucratic pressures (some of these hardships, to be sure, self-perpetuated), his work was always developing in surprising ways while remaining astonishingly consistent in others. His unmistakable formal blueprint (a heavy reliance on inky shadow, dense post-synchronized sound design, and immense deep-focus detail that found a quick admirer in Andre Bazin) was established out of the gate with Citizen Kane, but its audacity never wavered, even as it allowed for further exaggerations and new eccentricities. Moreover, the quintessential Wellesian figure—an ideologically misguided, morally broken anti-hero grasping vainly for some lost purity or innocence or truth (a proverbial “Rosebud,” if you will)—stuck around even through his creator’s persistent proficiency in knocking him down through potent ironic detachment or fatalistic plots that continually left him lonely, paranoid or dead. Call it poetic survival in the face of sure defeat.

Welles, of course, so predictable a face in the majority of these films, was this figure. He is the wronged, vengeful Othello, silhouetted against a black void of indifference and driven to extreme actions. He is the Nazi leader in The Stranger, hiding out in a foreign land attempting to shake loose an incriminating past. And he’s there, not fooling anyone, in the openly inward-looking F for Fake, raising parallels between himself and skillful real-world con artists. His autobiography, then, is at once relentless and deeply abstracted—a seemingly incongruous match, but a fitting one given the man’s inconsistencies. If chiaroscuro is generally considered a pictorial expression of human duality, Welles must be considered one of the cinema’s most assertive believers in this metaphor. Taken together, his body of work suggests a fearless look at the self as a site of great potential and unfathomable weakness. For this it’s perhaps telling to recall the words of the scorpion to the frog as they sunk perilously into the stream: “There's no logic to it. It's my character.” – Carson Lund

The HFA retrospective includes all of Orson Welles’ completed, directed films as well as a few other works significant to his legend. The first half of the series screened earlier this year.

Special thanks: Daniel Bish—George Eastman Museum; Marco Cicala—Cinecitta Luce.

Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Carson Lund

Friday December 11 at 7pm

Too Much Johnson

Directed by Orson Welles. With Joseph Cotten, Virginia Nicolson, Edgar Barrier
US 1938, 35mm, b/w, silent, 66 min

Lost until its discovery in an Italian warehouse in 2013, this rough cut—made three years before Citizen Kane—is the earliest footage by Orson Welles in existence. Welles intended to include cinematic interludes during his theatrical production of William Gillette’s play Too Much Johnson, yet due in part to technical difficulties at the theater, the film was never finely edited nor publicly shown in his lifetime. Appropriately, as one of his first experiments in cinema, Welles delivers a rambunctious tribute to the slapstick antics of silent cinema, even incorporating a sweetly parodic nod to the avant garde. A young, dashing Joseph Cotten throws himself across rooftops, down ladders, off ledges and over walls, pursued through the streets and eventually to Cuba by his lover’s jealous husband. In the film’s current state the artifice of cinema further bubbles up through unexcised extra takes and occasional gaffes, producing an engaging, reflexive ode to the medium Welles would shortly master with a single film. Print courtesy the George Eastman House.

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Saturday December 12 at 7pm

Mr. Arkadin AKA Confidential Report

Directed by Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Robert Arden, Paola Mori
US 1955. 35mm, b/w, 98 min

A detective story without a solution, a film with several versions but no agreed-upon definitive cut, a widely held misfire that was once hailed by Cahiers du Cinema as one of the best films ever made—the paradoxes at the heart of the Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (A.K.A. Confidential Report) are strange and bountiful, rivaling even The Magnificent Ambersons atop the director’s most fantastic fiascos. It’s a legacy of mystery mirrored by the content of the film, which follows the daunting effort of hired American detective Guy Van Stratten to compile a report on the past of amnesiac international tycoon Gregory Arkadin (Welles). Pressing on through an atmosphere of Cold War obfuscation, Van Stratten confronts an endless array of gonzo European bit players only to witness Arkadin’s history growing increasingly convoluted and elusive. Compounding Van Stratten’s confused outsider perspective, Welles encumbers the surface of the film with distorted perspectives, menacing chiaroscuro and hysterically overloaded sets captured in excessive clarity. The net result is a behemoth—despite its relatively short runtime—whose vertiginous surplus of narrative, visual and auditory information cannot be rationally parsed in one sitting.

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Sunday December 13 at 7pm

Touch of Evil (1998 version)

Directed by Orson Welles. With Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles
US 1958, 35mm, b/w, 96 min

After welcoming Welles back from Europe with his promising rewrite of an uninspired screenplay Badge of Evil, Universal eventually banned the director from the editing room and hired another to clarify plot points they found too ambiguous or strange. The executives perhaps had trouble comprehending the wild scope of Welles’ vision—the innovative camera and sound work, the use of actual locations, and a disturbing story claustrophobically focused upon the visage of a bloated man in the prolonged, caustic throes of his demise. Upon viewing Universal’s edit, Welles wrote a fifty-eight-page memo with his detailed editing recommendations. In 1998, famed editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Conversation) followed Welles’ instructions, making several precise alterations, many of which add to the overall coherency, unity and subtle moral complexity. One of the most significant is his removal of the credits and Henry Mancini music from the whirlwind opening sequence to reveal Welles’ immersive collage of diagetic sounds—setting the stage for the assorted crisscrossing dramas within the perilous border town.

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Monday December 14 at 7pm

The Immortal Story

Directed by Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio
US 1969, digital video, color, 58 min

Originally planned as part of an anthology of films based on stories from Isak Dinesin’s Anecdotes of Destiny, Welles’ European production was terminated after the first episode which a French television company only produced due to the presence of Jeanne Moreau. Perhaps both illustrating and prophesizing Welles’ chronic post-Kane predicaments with his producers, The Immortal Story unfolds in 19th century Macao where the wealthy, powerful merchant Charles Clay has reached the end of his life’s brutally financial frontiers and sets his bitter, aging eyes on perversely bringing an old seafaring legend to life. His dutiful accountant gathers the desperate “actors” who are to spend one impassioned night together: a young, virile sailor and Moreau’s lovely, victimized Virginie playing the estranged wife who has yet to produce an heir. Welles’ first excursion in color remains one of his more modest, tender experiments about truth, artifice, authenticity and the artist’s quandary of stories told but not lived and those lived but never told.

 

La ricotta

Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. With Orson Welles, Mario Cipriani, Laura Betti
Italy 1963, 35mm, b/w and color, 35 min. Italian with English subtitles

For his contribution to the omnibus film RoGoPaG—comprised of episodes by himself, Rossellini, Godard and Ugo Gregoretti—Pasolini fashioned an ingenious fable that is both a satire on filmmaking and a tribute to Italian Mannerist painting. Although Orson Welles stars as a director filming the crucifixion, the real protagonist is an unassuming middle-aged man working as an extra to feed his family. The extraordinary meeting of three worlds—high art, moviemaking and all-too-real poverty—leads to a collision with tragicomic consequences, a “collage,” as Pasolini called it, that allows him to effectively critique the distance between ethics and aesthetics.

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Friday December 18 at 9pm

Touch of Evil (Preview Version)

Directed by Orson Welles. With Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles
US 1958, 35mm, b/w, 108 min

Setting fire to the film’s relentless velocity, the infamously electrifying opening one-take shot celebrates its own virtuosity by incorporating the time it will unfold into the plot. An incessant stream of talk, collusion and activity swirling around every dark corner, Welles’ barren border town seems to exist in a cinematic purgatory, hovering between a seedy naturalism and the cunning artifice of a Hollywood set. The unusual casting of Charlton Heston as wholesome Mexican police official Mike Vargas and Marlene Dietrich as a jaded, fortune-telling madam suits the dense interplay of cinematic stereotypes and their opposites constantly joining and repelling one another. Uneasily reflecting his failed attempts to maintain authority over his studio pictures, Welles himself plays the corrupt, corpulent detective Hank Quinlan, whose personal traumas have festered and now contaminate everything he touches. By the time his intricate schemes reach Vargas’ wife (Janet Leigh), her torment in a remote hotel room run by an awkward eccentric has uncannily predated Psycho by a couple of years, and the breathless darkness of Touch of Evil carries on to haunt innumerable filmmakers—from Robert Altman to David Lynch. Released in 1976, this preview version was not Welles’ original nor the theatrical release; it retains some of Welles’ scenes that were eventually eliminated as well as the added-in material of his replacement Harry Keller. [Print courtesy NBC Universal.]

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Saturday December 19 at 7pm

It’s All True

Directed by Richard Wilson, Bill Krohn, Myron Meisel
France/US 1993, 35mm, b/w & color, 89 min

In 1942, in the midst of editing The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles famously abandoned Los Angeles for Brazil, accepting an RKO contract for a State Department sponsored film project comprised of a handful of segments set primarily in Mexico and Brazil whose goal was to strengthen relationships with the United States' "good neighbors" in Latin America. In the early 1990s, a group of scholars and historians rescued the incredible and previously unseen footage from It’s All True to create this insightful documentary that intertwines Welles' own filmed stories with the fascinating tale of the project's genesis and demise. Print courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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Monday December 21 at 7pm

The Stranger

Directed by Orson Welles. With Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles
US 1946, 35mm, b/w, 95 min

No more than two minutes into Welles’ alleged Hollywood sellout project, bulging eyes lunge toward the camera, a voice beckoning ominously from the shadows: “I am traveling for my health.” The Stranger’s unflattering reputation as a bland for-hire quickie after the one-two punch of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons is complicated quickly by the film itself, which channels every spare minute not spent depositing exposition into nervous expressionistic formal play: a tense murder scene plays out in a long panning shot framing characters against a dense backdrop of tree branches; dinner party conversations unfold as extreme close-up sparring matches; and a climactic clock-tower showdown is cut up into shadowy fragments that portend the famous mirrored set piece from The Lady from Shanghai. Welles, onscreen as an escaped Goebbels proxy pursued by a relentless investigator of Nazi war criminals, auditions the doom-laden eloquence of his later villain Harry Lime (from The Third Man) and winds up with a chilling example of the kind of sophistication that can easily fool the American middle-class into naïve complacency. Print courtesy of Park Circus.

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