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Farewell to Rosebud?

The controversial persona of Orson Welles

May. 31, 2016
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Interviewing the noted French director Jean-Luc Godard, host Dick Cavett paused, ruminated a moment, and then asked, “You are a great director but where are the great films?” The same introspective query might be applied to the career of Orson Welles. His birth a century ago in Kenosha, Wis., was the occasion of new attention for this mercurial and inconsistent director. Where is the legacy so auspiciously anticipated after the masterful Citizen Kane? Where are the groundbreaking, compelling dramas augured by Citizen Kane? Where is the wonderful sense of cinematic architecture so superbly encompassed between a snowy paperweight and its forever tragically weighted symbolism in a sled?

Alas, this was not to be. The one-time thespian who electrified listeners with his infamous radio Martian attack received the singular distinction of being granted complete control over his first film, the legendary, one-of-a-kind masterpiece Citizen Kane. It would remain a solo triumph. Some would claim that The Magnificent Ambersons is the other great film in the Welles canon, but the Booth Tarkington tale remains a tidy parochial tale of turn-of-the-century Americana. For all of Welles’ proficiency as a filmmaker, the drama seems a cautiously wrought attempt at local flavor without the subtle insinuating power he had demonstrated so brilliantly in Kane.

Some maintain the The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil must be included among the Welles greats, but both films seem disturbingly aberrational in their lack of an adhesive central concept. Welles’ increasing lack of discipline and freewheeling self-indulgence does not fully explain a disturbingly impatient sleight of hand. His cinematic but erratic expertise runs amok despite many brilliant moments. 

Lady from Shanghai is the more palatable but remains curiously out of joint. By removing his then wife Rita Hayworth’s signature auburn tresses and turning her into a close-cropped blond and then photographing her in glamorous, oddly detached close-ups, she is somehow intimidated into giving a flat nonperformance. Oddly distanced from the rest of the film, she subtly undermines the story that depends upon her devious manipulations to kill her husband. The lopsided quality of the film leaves us with a few high-powered set pieces that remind us of the directors’ skill—the most famous being the concluding shootout in the mirrored maze of a circus fun house.

Touch of Evil is considered the greater achievement. However, here we have a bulbously corpulent Welles blustering his way as a corrupt police officer trying to frame Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh on a drug charge in Mexico. Welles’ unpleasant growling obfuscates any sympathy. As a natural leading man Heston is badly miscast as a Mexican police officer, and this over-rated film seems like an unpleasant aberrational conflict of styles despite some stunning highlights.

Regardless of their turbulent analytic quality, many now find Welles’ Shakespearian ventures a more convincing claim to greatness. True Macbeth has a sepulchral tint to it and the heavily edited Othello plunges coldly into the verse, but Welles remains chiefly concerned with the stunning set pieces in both productions and the brilliant but detached cinematography seems like hollow tribute to the memory of Rosebud. The Bard’s verse serves only as an occasion for icy cinematic flair with occasionally stunning results. Brilliant camerawork in both films and some ingenious editing reveal all too sadly that Welles is more experimental filmmaker than a dedicated Shakespearian. The films are cold. Welles seems more taken with the melodramatic than the tragic aspects. His own performances seem tiringly monochromatic, low keyed and bombastic.

Nonetheless, these films are viewed as testimonial examples of Welles genius. Yet the best of the cycle, Chimes at Midnight, shows a pathetically gross Falstaff destroyed by the rejection of his onetime playfellow, now the king. A truly superb performance by Welles is somehow made more poignant by his grotesque bulk.

Perhaps Welles’ most appealing directorial effort was The Stranger. As an ex-Nazi in hiding, Welles was suitably ominous even when dealing with Edward G. Robinson as his pursuer. Some of his best performances were in films directed by others. He was completely riveting as the sardonic criminal in The Third Man, but that was director Carol Reed’s triumph. He gave a moving performance in the underrated Tomorrow is Forever as the husband that Claudette Colbert forgot. For once, he had a leading lady of equal talent. His Jane Eyre performance was typically overblown as if he enjoyed browbeating Joan Fontaine. In later years he would play corpulent overripe cameos in such films as The Long Hot Summer and Moby Dick.

Welles’ career has a tragic overtone. Yet there is a monolithic grandeur to much of his output with many inspired moments of creative filmmaking, imaginatively conceived but indifferently executed poignant reminders of what might have been.

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