(1915 - 1985)
Three Key Films: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Underrated: The Trial (1962) Welles’s version of Kafka is perhaps as visually arresting of a film as he ever produced. You can hear reverberations of its loopy surrealism and alternatingly wacky and piercing paranoia in some of David Lynch’s best work and in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Welles was fearless in adapting literary masters, and his take on The Trial is nimble, wicked, and ultimately, suffocating. It stands as a prime example of film touching on the wild drama of nightmares.
Unforgettable: In This is Orson Welles, Welles tells Peter Bogdanovich, “I don’t want to be remembered for ‘great shots’.” Still, each of his films is full of them. Picking one is impossible and any Welles fan will have their favorite. Tracking shots from Touch of Evil and The Magnificent Ambersons are now legendary and Citizen Kane could fill a semester of ‘Introduction to Film’ on its own. Chimes at Midnight, meanwhile, contains some of the most emotionally stirring battle sequences ever filmed. I’ll take one of the final scenes from Othello when Welles in the title role, his face enclosed in shadows, takes in the enormity of his downfall and then collapses to the ground with the body of Desdemona. Throughout, the camera lingers on Welles, and then cuts quickly away. The whole sequence stops time cold in its tracks.
The Legend: Unlike anyone else on this list, Orson Welles may be least remembered by the general public for his work as a director. His work on radio, especially 1938’s landmark War of the Worlds broadcast, is perhaps better known, and he also acted in dozens of films (many of which he also did un-credited directing and writing work on). Some may only know him as the pitchman for Paul Masson wine.
Popular knowledge has it that Welles peaked in his mid-20s with Citizen Kane, creating a work widely ranked as the greatest movie of all time on his first try, and then floundering through the remainder of his career trying to live up to it. Even the true extent of his contribution to that film is endlessly debated. But, if you buy into the myth, you’ll miss films that took incredibly innovative film technique and put it to the service of digging into all of the tragedy and ridiculousness that’s part of the human condition.
Citizen Kane is required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in movies and movie history and 70 years has done nothing to diminish its wonder. Welles and his team used every trick in their bag to create a massive work that was almost destroyed before it could be released due to lawsuits from William Randolph Hearst. The film lost money and began Welles’s contentious relationship with Hollywood, resulting in his films being edited and changed mercilessly without his permission.
Working outside of Hollywood he became a prototype for future indie-filmmakers, but struggled endlessly to fund his work. A now iconic scene from Othello, the attempted murder of Cassio, was filmed in a Turkish bath; a decision made at the last minute when the costumes for the originally planned scene never arrived. Touch of Evil (1958) and Othello (1952) both saw re-release in the ‘90s after large-scale restoration projects, while Mr. Arkadin (1955) is available in multiple cuts. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), as it exists, is every bit as wonderful of a work as Citizen Kane, but the extensive footage cut before its release, without Welles’s permission, is believed lost. Other projects, like The Other Side of the Wind, Don Quixote, and It’s All True, remain in varying states of completion.
A street corner trickster with impeccable taste and unparalleled skill, Welles may be the least condescending, least prone to preciousness, film genius ever. “The film director must always remain a slightly ambiguous figure, after all,” Welles has said, “because so much of what he signs his name to came from elsewhere, so many of his best things are merely accidents over which he presides. Or the good fortune he receives. Or the grace.” Welles overcame filmmaking obstacles that would have buried most directors, and through F For Fake (1974), his final film to be completed during his life, he never lost his touch for bending and expanding the limits of the medium to fit his massive vision. Jon Langmead