Thursday 29 September 2016

Film: What Orson did next... Life after 'Kane'

Paul Whitington

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Artistic vagabond: Orson Welles at Heathrow Airport in 1971. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Artistic vagabond: Orson Welles at Heathrow Airport in 1971. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

A couple of weeks back, in an interesting piece about Citizen Kane, the Guardian's film critic Peter Bradshaw recalled a clever 1980s Spitting Image skit about Orson Welles that I dimly recall laughing at myself.

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With the help of grotesque puppets, the TV satire told the great man's life in reverse, so that he started out as a fat and desperate actor forced to do sherry commercials to make ends meet. But he used that money to finance low-budget arty films that got him noticed in Hollywood: heartened by this critical praise, he lost weight, began starring in Hollywood melodramas and finally gained enough clout to make his great, mature masterpiece - Citizen Kane.

It's an amusing joke, and plays with the popular view of Welles as someone who exploded onto the scene with a flash of brilliance, then spent the rest of his career trying - and miserably failing - to match the excellence of Citizen Kane. There is no doubt that Kane was the best thing he ever did - in fact it could be argued, cinematically speaking, that it's the best thing anyone ever did - but to dismiss the rest of his considerable output as ephemeral is neither accurate nor fair.

For instance, Kane was not the film Welles himself was most proud of: his favourite was Chimes at Midnight (1965), a glorious mash-up of Shakespeare's history plays that he spent years planning and moved heaven and earth to make.

It's currently showing at Dublin's IFI, one of a number of Welles' films that are being reissued to mark the centenary of his birth. And if you're lucky enough to get a chance to go and see it, do so, because it's a magnificent and visually astonishing film that gives the lie to the notion that Orson Welles did nothing after Kane.

It's easy to forget just how young Welles was when he arrived in Hollywood to start work on Citizen Kane. He was 24 when he signed an extraordinary two-picture deal with RKO that gave him complete artistic control of his films, but had been working as an actor since his mid-teens and had already become a big radio star and ground-breaking theatrical impresario in New York.

He would later say that it was his complete ignorance of film-making that led to the revolutionary technical and stylistic innovations on Kane. Welles learnt what he could about directing from watching John Ford's Stagecoach over and over, which he said was "like going to school". But his storyboards included ideas that were considered heretical in Hollywood.

It was master cinematographer Gregg Toland who helped Welles realise these dreams, from deep focus and temporal jump-cuts to expressionist low-angles and that beautiful fade through a rain-battered skylight to the interior of a dingy club. In his and Herman Mankiewicz's much disputed screenplay, not one but many narrators were used to tell the story of press baron Charles Foster Kane, so that the finished film had the feel of a complex literary novel.

It was breathtaking, and contemporary critics had little choice but to praise it. But one gets the sense that not everyone liked it, or Welles for that matter. Firstly, there was the whole William Randolph Hearst backlash, as the mighty press mogul furiously turned the heavy guns of his media machine on Welles after rightly deciding that the character of Kane had been based at least in part on him.

Then there were those who resented Welles' youth and absurd, multifarious talent: in those days, nobody wrote, directed, produced and starred in their own films, and a lot of vested interests were wishing Orson to fail. He was often his own worst enemy in this regard, and his swaggering arrogance got up a lot of Hollywood noses.

"There, but for the grace of God, goes God," Herman Mankiewicz is said to have muttered to Welles' departing back during their fraught collaboration on the Kane screenplay.

More important than any of that, though, was the fact that while widely admired, Citizen Kane didn't make any money. In fact it lost some, and while Welles moved on to his next grandiose project, RKO were beginning to question the wisdom of that generous contract. And before production started on The Magnificent Ambersons, a lavish, period, family saga based on Booth Tarkington's novel, the studio renegotiated their deal with Welles, revoking his control of the final cut. This was a pity, because after the film was finished and Welles was in Brazil working on a short for the war effort, RKO cut more than 40 minutes out of Magnificent Ambersons, totally changing its flow and purpose.

"They destroyed Ambersons," Welles would later say, and "it destroyed me".

After that, Welles' days in Hollywood were numbered. He parted company with RKO, and made just a few more films in California - including the underrated film noir The Stranger (1946) and his stylish thriller Lady from Shanghai - before departing for Europe in high dudgeon.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the way Republic Pictures treated his 1948 version of Macbeth, an uncharacteristically lean and mean production in which he attempted to prove that you could make an epic film fast on a B-movie budget. But the studio did not care for everyone's off-putting Scottish accents, and wanted American ones instead. They reworked the soundtrack and Welles washed his hands of it.

In Europe, Welles became a kind of artistic vagabond, working as a jobbing actor and turning up on chat shows. Sometimes he appeared in good films, like The Third Man, A Man for All Seasons or John Huston's Moby Dick, but mostly he appeared in hack European co-productions unworthy of his talent. He did this, however, for a reason, raising money so he could keep on making films.

These included his strikingly original 1952 adaptation of Othello, in which his old Gate Theatre colleague Micheal MacLiammoir co-starred as Iago. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, but wasn't released in America till three years later, and was largely ignored. Then there was Mr Arkadin (1955), an intriguing mystery in which he played a sinister billionaire who hires a small-time crook to investigate his own past.

Welles was very proud of The Trial (1962), an arch and stylised adaptation of Franz Kafka's nightmarish novel that flopped at the box office. Critics are still divided about its merits, but the late Roger Ebert thought it a masterpiece.

Welles did return to Hollywood in the late 1950s to make one last stab at directing for a major studio. At the behest of Universal, he rewrote a bad script based on a pulp crime novel called Badge of Evil, and agreed to direct and co-star in what would ultimately become Touch of Evil. From its famous single-shot opening sequence involving a car, a bomb and a busy Mexican border town, to its magnificently poignant ending, Touch of Evil totally revitalised a hackneyed genre:

He delivered a rough cut on time to Universal, and went away convinced his Hollywood career was back on track. But Universal re-edited and in parts re-shot his film, which it then released as a supporting B-picture. As usual, it was admired in Europe, ignored in America.

A lot of the projects Welles distracted himself with through the 1960s never came to fruition (see panel), but thankfully Chimes at Midnight did. Because for me it's the best film he made after Kane, an astonishingly bold re-imagining of Shakespeare's history plays, which Welles, with typical modesty, took a blue pen to in order to get at the intriguing character of Falstaff.

He shot the film in Spain in the winter of 1964-65, and stopped production for several months while he went off in search of more money.

Predictably, the knives were out for Chimes at Midnight when it got a limited release in America: it was grandiose, muddled, insufficiently respectful. Few in his own country, it seemed, could forgive Welles for his talent, and his apparent squandering of it. Now, though, 30 years after Orson Welles' death, Chimes at Midnight is often cited as the greatest Shakespearean film ever made.

Would Welles have made more films if he'd stayed in America? Almost certainly, but they might not have been as good as the handful he completed in Europe. And would the great artist have been able to thrive in Hollywood's stultifying studio system? Almost certainly not.

The ones that got away

Throughout his life, Orson Welles chased a series of grandly ambitious projects that never materialised. Before he even started on Citizen Kane, Welles was briefly distracted with plans to film Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Sets were designed and built, and an opening sequence survives that offers a tantalising glimpse of the film it might have become. But the studio balked at his lavish budgetary estimate, and the idea was canned. Ironically, Francis Coppola wanted Welles for the part of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, which was based on Heart of Darkness.

Through the 1960s, he chased chimerical plans for a film of Don Quixote, shooting scenes and assembling a glittering international cast. The project was eventually abandoned in 1969 when his leading man, Francisco Reiquera, died. And in 1970 he began filming a typically modest production called The Other Side of the Wind, starring John Huston and telling the story of an ageing director who's struggling to finish his last Hollywood film. But the money ran out and the legal ownership of the project then became mired in dispute. But plans are now afoot to rescue the footage and complete the film.

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