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 will include all of Orson Welles’ completed, directed films as well as a few other works significant to his legend. The second half of the series will screen later this year.
Special thanks: Bruce Goldstein—Film Forum; Todd Wiener, Steven Hill—UCLA Film and Television Archive.Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Carson Lund
Directed by Orson Welles. With Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 119 min
What often gets lost within all the popular discourse around Citizen Kane—which tends to focus on the film’s themes of wealth, ambition and collapse; Gregg Toland’s landmark cinematography; Welles’ swaggering performance; the famous “Rosebud” motif; and the film’s lasting influence on Hollywood storytelling—is just how impenetrable and peculiar it is on a structural level. For a cinematic debut, the film is bravely scattershot, careening from the expressionist mosaic of its prelude to pastiches of Capra-esque newsreel montage, somber chamber drama, nostalgic impressionism, and a panoramic talking-heads approach that splinters the narrative proper (the flashbacks to Charles Foster Kane’s biography) across various arguably dubious perspectives—friends, colleagues, and family members of the inexhaustible newspaper tycoon. All these different registers forecast the many stylistic temperaments the director would adopt throughout his illustrious career, while also introducing what would become a major, though less frequently articulated, Welles theme: the inherent inadequacy of storytelling, despite its many bells and whistles, to comprehensively encompass a human life.
Directed by Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau,
US 1967, 35mm, b/w, 115 min
One of the few films over which Orson Welles wielded complete creative control, Chimes at Midnight is a creative, combinatory adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Even more than a sublime John Gielgud as the guilt-ridden Henry IV and Jeanne Moreau as a lusty Doll Tearsheet, the most fascinating performance comes from Welles himself in a riveting Falstaff that is a classic Welles grotesque—by turns abrasive, gentle, pathetic and boastful. Among Welles’ most moving films, Chimes at Midnight reveals the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hall to be Shakespeare’s nuanced reflection on the difficult gap between political power and its human instrument.
Directed by Orson Welles. With Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello,
US 1942, 35mm, b/w, 88 min
In What is Cinema?, Andre Bazin’s seminal ontological study, Welles’ studio-hacked second featureis a frequent reference point, because in some ways it is even more committed than Citizen Kane to the French critic’s notion of cinematic realism—that is, the rigorous preservation of spatial and dramatic unity in a scene through the use of long takes and deep focus. Welles employs such immersive mise-en-scène for a striking end goal: the resurrection of the textures, rhythms, and emotional flavors of a bygone era, that of the titular Ambersons. Working from a Booth Tarkington novel about the financial decline and resulting interpersonal turmoil of this aristocratic Indiana family, Welles fixates his film version on the story’s larger themes of societal transformation and industrialization at the turn of the 20th century, in the process observing the passing of a pre-modern era with wise detachment. Silent cinema vignettes and iris effects abound, aesthetic anachronisms that encase a host of superb Hollywood character actors (Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Anne Baxter) in an elegiac snow globe of regret. In Welles’ hands, the Ambersons collectively become a tragic metaphor for the futility of dwelling on the past.
Directed by Carol Reed. With Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles
UK 1949, 35mm, b/w, 104 min
Only making his startling entrance an hour into the film, Orson Welles leaves a disconcertingly vivid imprint upon yet another work destined to echo endlessly throughout cinema and popular culture. Though not directed by Welles, his presence and influence loom in every dark corner, oblique angle and long shadow. Frequent Welles collaborator Joseph Cotten also materializes in a degraded, divided postwar Vienna to find his friend has just died and left behind a beautiful, tormented lover as well as a strange game of conspiracy, romance and ethics—all enigmatically underscored by Anton Karas’ famous theme. With a charming wink, every detail within the film’s tricky maze of alternating darks and lights seems precisely and subtly posed to tease, provoke and puzzle until the final unsettling question mark. Featuring many who were directly affected by the confusing horrors of World War II, the production’s fortuitous assembly of artists—including writer Grahame Greene and director Carol Reed—had to battle the studio over every artistic decision every step of the way. And what did that produce? The Third Man.
Directed by Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Suzanne Cloutier,
US 1952, DCP, b/w, 91 min
Following his innovative adaptation of Macbeth, Welles' Othello suffered from delays and budget problems from the first day. As with Macbeth, the director’s genius and resourcefulness transformed obstacles into opportunities, such as the celebrated fight scene staged in a steamy Turkish bath after the production’s costumes failed to arrive. While Welles' cosmetic dark skin has contributed to the film's general neglect, he gives one of his finest performances, conjuring a genuinely moving Othello who is deeply tormented by love and jealousy. Despite garnering the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1952, Othello remained virtually impossible to see until a wonderful 1992 restoration made new prints available.
Directed by Orson Welles. With Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles,
US 1948, DCP, b/w, 87 min
Welles brings his metaphysical and psychological preoccupations, as well as his heated camera and editing style, to the genre of film noir in this story of a Spanish Civil War veteran and adventurer (played by the director himself) who falls for a charismatic but dangerous woman (Hayworth, Welles’ wife at the time). She leads him into an abyss of personal intrigue and moral bankruptcy that famously climaxes in a chase through a Chinese theater and a gun battle in a hall of mirrors. With spectacular location shooting in San Francisco and Acapulco, the film nevertheless becomes a largely mental or spiritual space, a landscape of pure romantic ecstasy and existential uncertainty.
Directed by Orson Welles. With Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau,
France/Italy/West Germany 1962, DCP, b/w, 120 min
Hailed as a masterpiece by European critics but dismissed as a failure by the British and American press, The Trial is arguably Welles’ finest film after Citizen Kane. Welles’ rendition of Franz Kafka’s nightmarish story of a man arrested for a crime that is never explained to him is entirely faithful to the novel, even with the necessary transpositions made to update the action. Anthony Perkins portrays Josef K., a sensitive, "twitchy" individual pursued by a repressive bureaucracy, obsessed by an undefined guilt, and bewildered by the burden of living. Replete with unforgettably baroque, expressionistic imagery, The Trial evokes a caustic vision of the modern world, where implausible events seem like everyday occurrences.
Directed by Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan,
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 108 min
Attempting to rise above their standard B-movie fare, Republic Pictures agreed to produce Orson Welles’ adaptation of Macbeth. The extremely low budget compressed shooting into a brisk twenty-three days and most likely intensified the film’s raw, stylized edge. Dramatically angled within stark, jagged sets, Welles’ Macbeth cinematically wrenches Shakespeare’s original into an eerie, brutally expressionistic nightmare featuring an exquisitely choreographed ten-minute tracking shot of the play’s initial transgression. Here, the dark soliloquys hang in the looming fog and the curse of the three witches echoes to point toward a dark cycle rather than an end. Feeling cursed himself, Welles once again endured the studio’s disfiguring his creation with crude edits and replacing the actors’ quavering Scottish burrs with English-accented dialogue. It was not until 1980 that UCLA and Welles’ assistant Richard Wilson fully restored Welles’ original vision and also restored his reputation in the eyes of critics who immediately switched from complete dismissal to an embrace of the timeless tragedy as one of the director’s finest creations. 35mm restored print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive; preservation funded by The Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Directed by Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory
France/Iran/West Germany 1975, 35mm, color, 85 min
This playful homage to forgery and illusionism is the last film Orson Welles released before his death. Both a self-portrait and a wry refutation of the auteur principle, its labyrinthine play of paradoxes and ironies creates the cinematic equivalent of an Escher drawing. Described as "a vertigo of lies," the film itself becomes a kind of fake, for although it bears the signature of its author it was in fact the product of many hands. Starting with some found footage of art forger Elmyr de Hory shot by French documentarist François Reichenbach, Welles transforms the material into an interrogation of the nature of truth and illusion, with stops to revisit his own Citizen Kane and "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, detours with Howard Hughes and his hoax biographer Clifford Irving, and a profile of Picasso deceived by love. Print courtesy of Janus Films