Welles was perhaps the best friend literature ever had in Hollywood.
The February 2010 installment of my Deconstruction Zone column for Pop Matters (Orson Welles: A Man of a Certain Ego) focused on the mammoth career accomplishments of a true American auteur, a certified genius who attempted to replicate some of the world’s great literary masterpieces on film, radio, and the stage.
To finance his ambitious book-to-film adaptations – many of which, sadly, never materialized, such as planned productions of Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (beaten to the punch by John Huston in 1956 who salved the wound by casting Welles as Father Mapple in one of the more dynamic scenes in the film) – the enfant terrible of Hollywood took quick cash for appearances in films helmed by other directors.
On Thursday, 6 May, Turner Classic Movies will air a mini Welles film festival, featuring a few of the films that the controversial and ruthlessly ambitious Welles deigned to appear in for filthy lucre, as well as his 1941 landmark classic, Citizen Kane (showing at 5:45 PM, all times EST).
The first film in the impressive line-up, shot for RKO Pictures in 1942 from a screenplay by Welles and actor Joseph Cotten (based on a novel by influential British spy novelist Eric Ambler), is Journey into Fear (airing at 11:30 AM), described by Welles biographer and noted French film critic Andre Bazin as “a rather humorous and fantastic spy story set in Turkey” during World War II. There has been much doubt over the years, however, concerning the true director behind the film. In Orson Welles: A Critical View Bazin notes:
“In theory, Norman Foster was the director of this film, with Welles producing and acting. In point of fact, it is clear that Journey into Fear is to a great extent the work of Welles, who has left his mark on the script, while numerous directorial touches bear his stamp, notably the killer’s musical motif, in which one recognizes Welles’ taste for musical effects and aural atmosphere. Moreover, after the first press show, dissatisfied with the film’s last sequence, Welles demanded and obtained permission to reshoot it.”
Following Journey into Fear at 12:45 PM is The Tartars (1961), a grade-B Viking flick shot in Rome that Welles agreed to appear in -- the leading man was testosterone-laced, square-jawed Victor Mature -- to further finance his film of Franz Kafka’s The Trial with Anthony Perkins as the ultimate paranoiac, Josef K; the adaptation was a critical and box-office flop but Welles, ever the contrarian, considered it his best work as a director.
Screening at 2:15 PM is the dark noir thriller The Stranger from 1946; originally approached by producer Sam Spiegel (The African Queen) to play the role of a Nazi war criminal who escapes Germany at the end of World War II, finding refuge in a small town in Connecticut until his wife (Loretta Young) begins to have some serious questions about his background, Welles convinced Spiegel to let him direct the picture. The film was a commercial success for United Artists and features a fine performance by Edward G. Robison as a war crimes commissioner but Welles frequently cited The Stranger as his least favorite film as a director.
At 4:00 PM TCM runs the Carol Reed classic The Third Man (1949), co-starring Welles in one of his most classic roles as Harry Lime, a slimy war profiteer in post-World War II Vienna, based on a novel by Graham Greene; Bazin writes:
“Irrespective of its cinematic quality, perhaps somewhat overrated, The Third Man clearly deserves to be marked as a milestone in Welles’s career, not so much for the quality of his performance, which lasts only about ten minutes, as for the astonishing crystallizing process that took place around Welles through the character Harry Lime. For the first and perhaps only time, this very popular actor finally found the part that would identify him in the public consciousness.”
Finally, at 5:45 PM Turner Classics screens the 1941 film that needs no introduction beyond its title: Citizen Kane.
Set your DVR and enjoy.