Introducing the Orson Welles Season

Posted on: 27 Aug 2015 by Philip Wyn Jones

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles opens at Chapter on Fri 28 August, and kicks off a season of films that pay tribute to the star. We'll be screening Welles classics like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons throughout September, and there's a chance to catch Mercury Theatre radio productions like War of the Worlds in the comfort of our cinema at unique listening events too! Here, film writer Philip Wyn Jones explores the work of a cinema genius: 

The Orson Welles Story

American film director, Orson Welles was born in 1915 into a talented and prosperous family. His father was a noted inventor and his mother a concert pianist. His entry into school was delayed while his parents gave him a rich cultural background. His father, for example, took him on artistically inclined foreign tours and when at home the young Orson enjoyed writing poetry, painting, acting, playing the piano and performing magic tricks. At the private school he later attended he acted in and directed plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

After leaving school he chose not to attend university but instead travelled to Ireland where he did some acting and directing at Dublin’s famous Gate Theatre. Back in the USA he appeared on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet and was co-founder of the Mercury Theatre. Their many noteworthy productions included Julius Caesar on the stage and The War of the Worlds on the radio. As a Halloween prank, H.G.Wells’ novel was presented in the guise of a light music programme punctuated by frequent urgent news flashes. The broadcast caused widespread panic as gullible listeners really believed that hostile extra-terrestrials had already landed!

Welles’ move into film-making was partly motivated by his desire to boost the funds of the drama company. RKO invited him to direct Citizen Kane. Herman J. Mankiewicz had written this satirical screenplay which explored the life of press baron, Charles Foster Kane. This fictional character bore a strong resemblance to the alive and kicking William Randolph Hearst who attempted in vain to delay or even cancel the film’s release. The film’s content and technical mastery attracted much attention and the film opened to rave reviews in New York and other major cities but when the film ventured out into the provinces the story was quite different and Kane proved to be a massive flop. Consequently, RKO resolved to curtail Welles’ creative freedom from then on.

Welles’ next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was a leisurely paced and pictorially graceful evocation of American life in the old days. The edited film came in at 148 minutes. In Welles’ absence – he was in South America on company business – the film was reduced to 88 minutes by eliminating several scenes. Some of the remaining scenes were moved to different positions within the film. Surprisingly, although mutilated, the film still makes some kind of sense and is highly regarded.  

Wartime arms smuggling in Turkey was the background of Welles’ next RKO film, Journey into Fear. When work on the film remained to be done, Welles was once again obliged to travel to South America.  He asked director Norman Foster to complete the job but on his return discovered that much of the editing was unsatisfactory and that the film’s ending was unsuitable. After several heated arguments, RKO allowed Welles to do a certain amount of re-shooting and re-editing but this was the end of Welles’ troubled relationship with RKO.  

He had to wait for three years before getting his next directorial assignment. This was The Stranger in which he co-starred with the great Edward G. Robinson in the story of a Nazi criminal trying to live incognito in a small American town. This proved to be Welles’ most popular film with the general public but Welles disliked it. He said it was the kind of film any other director could have made. It did, however, demonstrate to the Hollywood studios that Welles was able to complete a film on time and within budget. His award was an invitation to direct The Lady from Shanghai starring his wife, Rita Hayworth. In this film a sailor becomes involved in the lives of a lawyer and his neurotic wife. Welles hated the original novel and continued to rewrite the screenplay throughout  the shoot. The film’s fame rests on the final shoot-out in a hall of mirrors.  The studio, Columbia, considered the completed film incomprehensible and delayed its release for a year while their employees did some ‘tidying up’. Welles was in no mood to argue. His marriage was on the rocks and divorce was imminent.

For his next film Welles moved to Republic Studios, a company that specialised in B movies and Westerns. Here he made the first of his fascinating Shakespeare films, Macbeth. Welles made an imposing lead and the cheap sets looked suitably sinister. Four years later he made Othello, playing the lead himself and casting Michael MacLiammoir as Iago. Instead of using cardboard sets he filmed on location. Funds ran out several times and the film was made in fits and starts. It is, nevertheless, an impressive achievement. His third Shakespeare film was made 14 years later and was Welles’ favourite of all his films. It was Chimes at Midnight/Falstaff. Welles extracted Falstaff’s scenes from six Shakespeare plays and formed them into a cohesive screenplay. His performance as Falstaff is superb and the scene in which he’s rejected by the young king is extremely moving. It’s also a very handsome film, particularly in the recent restoration. This is my favourite Welles film.

In the meantime Welles made three films. Confidential Report, with a cast that includes Michael Redgrave, appears to cover the same ground as Citizen Kane, without reaching the same heights. It studies the life of a powerful and mysterious man. Touch of Evil is a thriller in which corruption reigns .The remarkable cast includes Charlton Heston, Joseph Cotten, Marlene Dietrich and Janet Leigh. On the strength of her performance in this film Janet Leigh was offered the role of Marion Crane in Psycho. The Trial, based on Franz Kafka’s novel about a man who’s arrested for no obvious reason, again had a remarkable cast, including Anthony Perkins in the lead and also Jeanne Moreau and Romy Schneider.  The location used is the disused Paris railway station, Gare D’Orsay.

Welles’ career, particularly in Hollywood, was not always a happy one but before his death in 1985 he was given their highest awards by the American Film Institute and the Directors Guild of America. At long last, his genius was recognised.

Click here for more information on the Orson Welles season.

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