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Orson Welles

He came, he saw, he conquered, and then what? Matthew Sweet marks Welles’s centenary

Matthew Sweet | July/August 2015

1938 THE WAR OF THE WORLDS
Welles was 23 when he persuaded America that Mars had invaded New Jersey. It was the second-greatest hoax of his career. The greatest, of course, being his career. Wellesian myths are as rich as his realities. Did he play Lear at the age of eight? Did his mother hobnob with Rachmaninov? Did his radio space war really cause mass panic? Not quite. Not really. Not that it matters, when your own star burns so brightly in the sky.

1941 CITIZEN KANE
Charles Foster Kane forged and lost an empire. So too did the boy genius from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who, after conquering Broadway and the airwaves, was enthroned by RKO Pictures and asked to name his desires. Welles, just 25, deployed an army of old acting friends, a camera that moved in defiance of nature, stock footage of elephants, giraffes and octopuses – and raised a wonder of classical cinema, the picture that topped film critics’ polls for generations. “Kane” was a zenith for him and for the medium. It is now a monument to its own greatness, and to the moment before the knives came out for the emperor.

1942 THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS
Welles stayed behind the camera for his adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s dynastic drama. Perhaps, after “Kane”, he felt he’d made too much a spectacle of himself. That unmistakable voice, though, burns slowly on the soundtrack, evoking a lost American world whose lostness was amplified by the studio execs when they took their scissors to the piece and binned the offcuts. “My name is Orson Welles,” he rumbles, in the last few frames. “I wrote and directed the picture.” True; but you wish that it was truer.

1949 THE THIRD MAN
Carol Reed’s crew took Benzedrine to stay alert during the night-shoots for “The Third Man” – but they probably needed it just to keep up with Welles, who went AWOL during the production. (When Harry Lime skitters over the Viennese cobbles, he is sometimes the assistant director, Guy Hamilton, with a coathanger to bulk out his shoulders.) But Welles’s absent presence in the film is part of its cold power – as if his baby-faced racketeer might escape the story itself, as well as the pull of human decency.

1958 TOUCH OF EVIL
As Kane aged on screen, you could almost smell the greasepaint. By the time Welles inhabited the carcass of Captain Hank Quinlan, he had furrows of his own, and the smell was less pleasant. Quinlan is Welles’s most monstrous creation – you can see the moral evil deliquescing on his prodigious flanks. He built the beast with layers of prosthetics, rather too successfully. “Hi, Orson,” said a friend who failed to spot the make-up. “You’re looking great!”

1965 CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (AKA FALSTAFF)
An old Soho showman once described to me the dread he felt when, in the early 1960s, he would find Welles waiting outside his office, bright with money-losing ideas – like this one. When Welles directed himself as Shakespeare’s tumbledown knight, he turned his rejection into one of the most compelling sights ever to fall before a camera. His Sir John has all the right appurtenances – bulk, stature, daintiness – and something else, too. A defiance that transmutes humiliation into a greater victory than Agincourt.

1973 F FOR FAKE
Near the end of his life, Welles cast Rupert Everett in an auto-biopic of his early years. It nearly got made. (The old auteur, Everett now thinks, threw a spanner in his own works.) But after “F for Fake”, who would have trusted Welles to tell the story of his own life? Up he looms, a stage magician lecturing us about forgers, thieves and the limits of empiricism. Are we his dupes or his co-conspirators? Both, probably, if we accept his life and art as a glorious heist gone right.

1982 ARENA
Like a war, Welles’s centenary demands remembrance. There will be film seasons and an all-star documentary by Chuck Workman. An old BBC “Arena” from the 1980s, though, may be Welles’s best testament. Three and a half hours of that thunderous laugh, the smile fit for the Lord of Misrule, and a cigar, cradled like Yorick’s skull – by a man who played the Prince, the Fool, and all the others too.

Welles seasons BFI, London, July 1st to Aug 31st; Munich Film Museum, July 7th to Aug 2nd. Touch of Evil reopens in Britain, July 10th. Magician, a documentary on Welles, opens in Britain, July 3rd; out on DVD, Aug 24th

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