Orson Welles and 1940s Film Noir

Modern cinema really begins with Orson Welles Citizen Kane, which had a profound influence on 1940s film noir style.

From the brooding shadows and expressionistic deep focus cinematography of his brilliant masterwork Citizen Kane in 1941 to the fluidly moving long take of the opening shot of Touch of Evil in 1958, Orson Welles was a maestro of cinema whose career and provocative engagement with the classical Hollywood studio system spanned the classic era of film noir from the early ’40s into the ’50s.

Film noir was known for its shadowy underworld of corruption. Welles was instrumental in making an important contribution to the development of film noir style in the ’40s, with Citizen Kane and his underrated noir films The Lady From Shanghai, which Welles began filming in 1946 and was not released until 1948, and The Stranger (1946).

Welles’ innovative experimentation influenced the noir cycle in other unproduced or uncredited productions in which he was creatively involved. After Citizen Kane, Welles began work on his unfinished Story of Jazz with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billy Holiday, and contributed to the rich atmospheric noir style of Jane Eyre (1944) and The Third Man (1949).

It has been said that modern cinema really begins with Welles’ Citizen Kane, which had a profound influence on ’40s film noir style in Welles’ impressive collaboration with talented cinematographer Gregg Toland. Incredibly, 25-year-old Welles (directing his first feature film) and Toland began filming Citizen Kane as a series of test shots. Editor Robert Wise liked to say Welles “pulled a fast one” on the studio because no one realized Welles was actually shooting the picture. From the very opening of Citizen Kane, still regarded by many as the finest film ever made, O Welles’ genius dazzles in beautifully atmospheric noir style.

Welles begins with a stark, plain black background, and silence. No score or opening credits. Welles just uses the white outline of the title against a noir abyss. Then Bernard Hermann’s famous ominous score surrounds the dark, chiaroscuro images that envelop the viewer in a bleak noir world. (The film is so dark, in fact, that many contemporary digital versions of it are overexposed and too bright.)

In the shadows, Welles slowly pans up across the corroded “No Trespassing” sign affixed to the crisscrossing bars of a chain link fence. The black bars of a wrought iron gate dissolve to animal cages, and the reflective surface of a lake resembles a moat, as fog rolls in across the darkness. Against the fog on the hill is the black, foreboding silhouette of what appears to be a creepy gothic castle from an expressionistic horror movie, with crisscrossing window panes, gargoyles, jagged spires and stone walls that glisten eerily in the dim moonlight.

Welles immediately kills off his unsympathetic noir antihero, Charles Foster Kane, as he lies backlit through the window, calling out for “Rosebud” then drops the snow globe that shatters and is captured in extraordinary noir style shot at a very low angle and distorted with a fish-eye lens as a nurse slams the door. This amazing sequence reveals what a remarkable cinematic maestro Welles truly was. Citizen Kane progresses through stunning “composition in depth” cinematography, fluidly moving deep focus camerawork, elaborate shadows, oblique angles, montages, caged ceilings. It’s a film within a film, using flashbacks, multiple planes of action and points of view. Welles and Toland famously dug a hole in the floor to get extremely low camera angles in Citizen Kane.

It’s a shame that Welles was marginalized after Citizen Kane. Magnificent Ambersons was drastically cut in his absence, he was fired by the studio whose new motto was: “Showmanship Instead of Genius”. He later expressed interest in a jazz project with Armstrong, but it was never made. (His uncompleted It’s All True included a Story of Samba, different than his original jazz vision.) A Welles jazz film sounds fascinating. Welles brought noir style to Journey into Fear, writing, producing, possibly directing, in 1942.

A few years after Citizen Kane, Welles contributed greatly to the dark gothic noir style of Jane Eyre shot during the blackouts of the war in 1943, released in 1944, which in many ways resembled the look and feel of Citizen Kane, despite Welles not being a credited “auteur” on it.

However, Welles exerted considerable creative control behind the scenes, influencing the look and style of the film. Welles’ undeniable style is evident when you watch Jane Eyre, which opens with a tiny flame of a candle set in a deep black abyss. There arebrooding shadows with fog crawling across a bleak harsh landscape, shrouded interiors, an eerie gothic castle, chiaroscuro bars of entrapment, and Welles’ flawed self-destructive antihero, as in Citizen Kane, evoking the expressionistic style of film noir.

Welles was an uncredited producer of Jane Eyre, contributing creatively not only to the film’s production, but also to its design, sets, script, casting, even music decisions recommending Citizen Kane’s Bernard Hermann (who replaced Igor Stravinsky), as well as composing shots and crafting his own performance. The film’s screenplay was based on Welles’ The Mercury Theater on the Air radio adaptation.

For years many have speculated whether Welles directed Jane Eyre. Not wanting to take credit from Mary Poppins director Robert Stevenson, Welles graciously denied, although it was during a period when he was blacklisted. Welles previously and subsequently produced Jane Eyre on radio, and the film Jane Eyre includes Welles’ Mercury Theater collaborators such as John Houseman, Agnes Moorehead, and Erskine Sanford, and is thus evocative of Citizen Kane. Welles’ creative contributions to Jane Eyre are confirmed in production documentation and industry trades magazines, in a July 1943 correspondence, and by costar Joan Fontaine. Although Welles was uncredited (nearly receiving producer credit), he did receive top billing and $100,000 for his efforts on Jane Eyre.

As Welles had created shadowy noir images in the war years, by the end of the war, he captured the cultural climate of the emerging postwar era in his underrated 1946 noir, The Stranger.

In his vanguard modernist art cinema, Welles never shied away from intellectually and aesthetically challenging his audience, as in his theater and radio productions, and innovative films such as Citizen Kane and The Lady From Shanghai. Welles often sought to provoke, push the envelope, critically distance, and challenge his viewers to prod filmgoers to analyze his elaborate modernist experimentation.

Welles had no problem portraying flawed, unsympathetic or self-destructive noir antiheroes. At the end of World War II, it took chutzpah for Welles to boldly play a murderous escaped Nazi war criminal in The Stranger. Welles wonderfully captures postwar tensions and noir paranoia as The Stranger opens with war crimes investigator Edward G. Robinson hunting down Gestapo perpetrators. The characters moves from the shadows to broad daylight in a small town, as Welles shifts the noir mood to a bright yet still sinister outdoors Main Street America.

Welles cast Loretta Young, who starred in his radio production of Jane Eyre, as the naïve gothic ingénue in The Stranger. He was also pioneering in including some of the first actual documentary glimpses of the real life Nazi holocaust, footage spliced into his noir The Stranger to reveal the horror and genocide of the war. This was the first time many Americans were seeing the footage.

Welles’ taut noir suspense narrative ends in virtuoso style, with Welles’ Nazi war criminal antihero being gunned down by his wife in the shadows of the town’s clock tower before his body is speared by the sword of the rotating cuckoo clock. This impressive, and rather grisly, scene was quite provocative for Hollywood Production Code censors, but greater violence was permitted in films by the end of the war, particularly in noir films, especially those that were low budget or independently produced.

The rich style in Welles’ underrated film noir The Lady From Shanghai, shot in 1946 and 1947, released in 1948, particularly the extraordinary hall of mirrors sequence, arguably rivals his artistry in Citizen Kane. With The Lady From Shanghai, Welles moves from noir studio interiors to the cliffs of Acapulco, filmed on Errol Flynn’s yacht, and exquisite locales such as San Francisco’s Union Square, Chinatown, boardwalk, and on the bay in Sausalito.

After independent producer Sam Spiegel gave Welles a chance to direct The Stranger, Welles’ marriage to beautiful Columbia star Rita Hayworth helped provide an opportunity to write, produce, star and direct The Lady From Shanghai. Hayworth also graciously agreed to costar in a serious dramatic role as the noir film’s iconic blonde femme fatale, Elsa Bannister, despite the fact that the couple’s relationship was crumbling and unraveling after failed reconciliation efforts.

Nonetheless, attraction remains between Welles and famed “love goddess” pinup Rita in The Lady From Shanghai. Columbia’s studio boss Harry Cohn was furious that Welles cut and bleached her hair—so much so that he demanded glamour shots of Hayworth, a musical number, then cut an hour from the film and delayed its release a year until 1948.

Welles ingeniously uses locations to enhance noir style in The Lady From Shanghai. In dark cavernous subterranean halls of Golden Gate Park aquarium he uses menacing sharks, stingrays, squid, and exotic sea creatures swimming behind huge windows to provide bizarre, ominous backlight glowing behind the clandestine couple meeting secretly, their figures cast in silhouette.

Welles uses extreme overhead camera angles to disorient the viewer and show antihero “Black Irish” Michael O’Hara’s vulnerability on the edge of an Acapulco cliffs high above the ocean. O’Hara sees sharks devouring each other. Terrified, he flees the law after being framed for murder. He overdoses on drugs, then frantically traverses the streets of San Francisco’s Union Square and Chinatown, wherein he ducks into a theater to hide. A a stylized Chinese opera is on screen.

The woman he flees has found him, and sits beside him in the theatre. They sit in the shadows and he realizes she’s the killer and draws a gun. When he blacks out and is taken to an amusement park, his drug induced hallucination becomes a real nightmare as he falls headlong down a curving slide and through a dragon’s mouth entering a surreal, expressionistic world evocative of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in a stylish cinematic homage. Welles took a week to design the funhouse sets, and much of the sequence (including a decaying skull) was cut.

However, Welles’ remarkable hall of mirrors sequence remains one of the great moments in cinema history. Like Citizen Kane, Welles creates elaborate geometric patterns of mirrors that slice and splinter the screen to reflect the duplicity of Rita’s femme fatale and crooked attorney husband (Mercury Theater/Citizen Kane costar) Everett Sloan.

They confront each other in a labyrinth of mirrors, shooting and shattering reflections in a montage of explosive shards of cracked glass—even the glass of the camera itself.

The next year Welles left for Europe to work on The Third Man, released in 1949, and was away from Hollywood for a decade, until his noir Touch of Evil in 1958. Welles’ elusive mysterious “Third Man” transforms the noir style in the finale of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Welles provided uncredited creative input behind the scenes, including the famous cuckoo clock speech evocative of The Stranger.

In fact, Welles’ dramatic cinematic demise as Harry Lime, gunned down on the crisscrossing lattice of a spiral staircase (by Mercury Theater Citizen Kane costar Joseph Cotton) in finalé of The Third Man —with its deep shadows, Dutch angles, cavernous tunnels, reverberating echoes, splashing water, and reflective surfaces in the dark, chaotic labyrinth of the Vienna sewers—is a fitting homage to the great cinema maestro Welles and his profound influence on film noir style in the ’40s. Welles’ stunning virtuoso — the 3:20 minute tracking shot that opens Touch of Evil is a remarkable finalé to the classic film noir cycle.

Sheri Chinen Biesen, Ph.D. is a professor of film history and author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir