Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Pacific Film Archive Presents the Magic of Orson Welles

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday March 07, 2008

The myth of Orson Welles has outlived its usefulness. The man has long since passed on, as have those who sought to undermine his achievements. He was jealously branded by Hollywood as the wunderkind-turned-enfant terrible of the cinema, the man who took on a media titan, and Hollywood itself, in Citizen Kane and then squandered his own career with his proclivity for self-destruction and artistic excess. The standard line on Welles was that he created just that single masterpiece before embarking on a long downward slide.  

However, reports of the artist’s slow-motion death have been greatly exaggerated. Though there’s an element of truth in the criticism of Welles—he was, by most accounts brash, difficult and at times self-destructive, yet immeasurably charming—the decline was not in his work but in his relations with those who controlled the purse strings and the means of production; artistically he remained vital until his death in 1985. 

Pacific Film Archive will present a retrospective covering all of the director’s major cinematic work, in roughly chronological order, through April 13. Citizen Kane shows tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m.; his follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, screens Saturday at 5 p.m. 

Much of the criticism of Welles, now as well as then, stems from a profound misunderstanding of the man and of his art. While it is true that Welles was a restless innovator, his innovations were, for the most part, at the service of a classicist’s art. He was far more conservative in his sentiments and affections than the image of the bold, relentless, iconoclastic youth of Kane would indicate.  

To begin to understand the trajectory of Welles’ career, one must keep in mind the polarities of his influences: traditional theater and magic.  

Welles was an accomplished magician, often performing tricks for cast and crew. And during World War II he traveled the country performing for the troops and sawing Marlene Dietrich in half before their very eyes. He was a consummate showman who took great pleasure in startling and dazzling an audience.  

But he was also a serious actor, writer and director, trained in the classics of literature and theater from a very young age. As the creative force behind the Mercury Theater in New York in the 1930s, he forged his reputation, at the age of 20, by reviving classic works with a bold, modernist aesthetic. And on radio, with the Mercury Theater on the Air, he focused on the same sort of material, adapting the classics to one-hour and half-hour dramas. (His groundbreaking theater career may survive only in photographs and second-hand accounts, but virtually all of Welles’ surviving radio work can be found on the Internet, cheap if not free, in MP3 format.)  

But Welles’ traditionalism was often overshadowed in the public mind by his showmanship, by his attention-getting forays into more melodramatic projects. While he established his presence on radio as the original voice of The Shadow and presented his share of thrillers on stage and on radio, the bulk of Welles’ oeuvre, in every medium in which he worked, was far more serious in intent and execution. 

It was his radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds that really launched the myth. The controversial broadcast relocated the Martian invasion from England to New Jersey and presented the drama as a series of breaking news announcements interrupting “our regularly scheduled program.” The show set off a nationwide panic that might have destroyed any other director’s career; instead it earned the Mercury a sponsor (the program would soon be renamed the Campbell Playhouse) and earned him the chance to make a movie.  

The result was Citizen Kane, a brash, bold film that featured Welles’ trademark blend of commercial entertainment, high art and sleight-of-hand chicanery. Its effrontery to everything Hollywood was evident in every shot; Welles ostentatiously brandished his mastery of the medium: unusual camera angles; dramatic visual and thematic contrasts; complex tapestries of sound; long takes followed by startling cuts and transitions; and of course Greg Toland’s deep-focus photography. For better and for worse, the film made Welles’ reputation: a showman with pretensions to Art. 

He would go on to complete just 11 more films, several of them truly great, most of them groundbreaking, and at least one or two fascinating failures. Many of them were taken away from him and re-edited without his input or consent; some were hampered from the start by low budgets and a lack of resources as a result of Welles’ self-imposed exile in Europe as an independent filmmaker. But if one fact stands out above all in PFA's restrospective, it is that Welles never stood still stylistically. Though every film is stamped with his peculiar visual style, his body of work ranges from expressionist to classical, from period pieces to modern-day noir, from Shakespeare to documentary and personal essay. 

The film that might have been his true masterpiece came immediately after Kane. The story of the making and unmaking of The Magnificent Ambersons is nearly as tragic as the film itself. Welles rather faithfully adapted Booth Tarkington’s novel, using a style much more restrained and fluid than the genre-busting flash and disjointed narrative pyrotechnics of Kane. The result, as Francois Truffaut put it, is a film “made in violent contrast to Citizen Kane, almost as if by another filmmaker who detested the first and wanted to give him a lesson in modesty.” 

Ambersons is a nostalgic dream dissolving into a jaded, weary reality check, a portrait of a vanishing epoch, of the passing of time and the coming of change. To modern eyes, it may seem like an old-fashioned Hollywood film; it is stately and somber and lavish in design. Even a film as showy as Kane may, in these times, require an educated eye to fully appreciate its innovation and audacity, but Ambersons can be even more vexing to the modern viewer, for the workings of its innovations are carefully concealed. Welles wasn’t aiming for shock and awe with this film, as he was with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast and, to some extent, with Kane; he was instead offering a beautifully crafted and seamless film, rich in novelistic detail, which employed its innovations purely in the service of the tale.  

Welles borrowed many techniques from his predecessors, including the iris—a common device from the silent era—and images burnished at the edges, like the more sentimental works of D.W. Griffith. He also incorporated much of his radio experience, narrating the film himself as he did in his Mercury broadcasts and using radio’s bridging musical cues to provide fluid transitions between scenes. Also evident are elements of classic theater, such as the gossiping townsfolk who act as a sort of Greek chorus.  

Ambersons employed Welles’ much-vaunted long takes, his camera dancing along with the guests in the ballroom scene or gazing patiently as the delicate psyche of Agnes Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny finally collapses in the kitchen scene. And Welles’ editing talents came to the fore once again, most evidently in the opening montage that establishes the setting with humor and delicate irony. As in all of Welles’ best work, he brought together a wide range of styles and influences and melded them into a personal vision of great depth and complexity, but this time the seams and stagecraft were more carefully hidden from view. 

RKO previewed the film for an audience, and though the comment cards contained many remarks that were ecstatic, many more were severely critical. It was war time, and the average moviegoer wanted escapism, not gloom. The studio panicked and, while Welles was shooting another film in Brazil, began to carve away at his most personal film. Nearly an hour’s worth of footage was scrapped; several scenes were re-shot, re-written or re-edited; and an attempt at a happy ending was tacked on. In the words of critic David Thomson, it is a film “so dark and mournful that it would not be shown properly to the American public.” It’s a testament to the power of Welles’ vision that the butchered 88-minute film is still widely considered a masterpiece.  

Shooting scripts, memos, photographs and first-hand accounts provide a fairly complete picture of what is missing from the film as it exists today. In addition to the original ending, the loss of one particular scene is especially galling: As the family’s fortunes decline, young George takes one last walk through the decaying mansion as the camera follows in one long, unbroken take. The scene goes on for several minutes, allowing the character time to mourn the passing of an era as he moves through each room, past pieces of furniture shrouded in sheets like the ghosts of ballroom dances past. It was a technical tour de force, with crew members frantically pulling apart sets and doorways and sliding others into place and laying dolly tracks just beyond the view of the camera as it traveled through the house. It is the essence of the art of Orson Welles: the magician’s hand, deft and graceful and invisible in the creation of a seamless and elegant illusion.