Orson Welles: An Incomplete Education
Here is a man, a great director and a great man, whose obituary has yet to be written, for once and for all. If the old stories are true about ghosts and lost souls hanging around the living for the sake of some unfinished business, Orson Welles might still be with us, rattling chains and wailing for two reasons: because so many of us have misperceptions or an inadequate understanding of the trajectory of his movie career, and because so much of his work—including films that some have said are among his very best—is tied up in a depressing legal quagmire that resulted from a dispute over Welles’ estate.
Ghosts don’t exist, but there’s plenty of wailing to be done in the interest of coming to a better understanding of Welles’ legacy—and not just wailing. The importance of campaigning for the release, in any form, of Welles’ unseen (1) films cannot be overestimated. As seen in the invaluable documentary, Orson Welles: The One Man Band (Vassili Silovic, 1996), there exists an enormous number of fragmented and completed works in the vaults, garages, and closets of Welles’ estate. Some seem more fascinating than others, most are informed by the “Welles” we’ve come to know as cinema-author, while others are unusual in ways that could potentially lead to the modification of our understanding of his career and his image. Just as it would be ridiculous to evaluate the authorship of Jean-Luc Godard or Howard Hawks by focusing strictly on the films that are relevant only to our so-called “official” cultural indicators, like box office receipts, Academy Awards, and festival attendances, so too is it only sensible to realize that informed judgments cannot be made on the shapes, textures, and meanings of Welles’ career, if all we have is a very limited pool of evidence.
Here is a limited account of the “unseen cinema” of Orson Welles:
The Other Side of the Wind : Welles showed two clips for this at a 1975 American Film Institute gala tribute to him and his most recognizable film work, and there is a third one in the One Man Band documentary. It tells the story of a famous, aging Hollywood director named Jake Hannaford (John Huston, then approaching 70) trying to make an ambitious, personal, and complex art film, despite old age, the stifling adulation and skepticism of the press, and the intractable Hollywood apparatus. (One may easily perceive some autobiographical elements in the movie.) This extremely ambitious production, a labor of love comparable to Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished triptych of Ivan the Terrible (1945/1958), Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), or even Welles’ own Don Quixote, was shot between 1970 and 1976. The available excerpts suggest a bizarre, stunning, and formally radical piece of work, the intricacy of which is hinted at with the fractured editing and overall tenor of F for Fake (1973). To what extent Welles was able to edit or arrange his footage, only a few individuals know with any certainty—close friends like Gary Graver and Peter Bogdanovich have made assurances that the work is in nearly presentable form. According to filmmaker Curtis Harrington, also an actor in the movie, “It’s all shot, it just needs final editing, sound effects, the final music and the whole production will be finished.” Among his unreleased films, this is probably the most eagerly anticipated.
Filming ‘The Trial’: Welles enjoyed the experience of making Filming ‘Othello’ (1978; for all intents and purposes, his last completed and released feature film) so much that he wanted to continue in the same vein with a similar project focusing on his 1962 Kafka adaptation. Using a 16-millimeter camera and color reversal stock, Graver shot footage of Welles speaking to an audience at the University of Southern California in 1981. The project remained uncompleted when Welles passed away in 1985. The footage of the university talk, cobbled together and attached to the original trailer for The Trial, was presented at the Filmmuseum Munich, for a listed running time of 82 minutes.
The Deep: The plot of this film, from a novel by Charles Williams, was used for the thriller Dead Calm (Phillip Noyce, 1989); a stranger, claiming to have survived a sinking boat, joins a couple on their yacht, but when the husband investigates the visitor’s story and discovers the truth, his wife is kidnapped and he’s saddled with another survivor, possibly as dangerous as the first. Welles’ enthusiasm for the project—one of his few explicitly commercial (while unquestionably independent) ventures—was said to have been on the wane by the time his star, Laurence Harvey, succumbed to stomach cancer in 1973. It’s a good bet that Welles foresaw profits from The Deep becoming useful in the production of The Other Side of the Wind; like that film, The Deep is in an almost-complete form which might limit its release prospects, except in the revival and repertory circuits , where incomplete works have a chance to find an audience.
The Dreamers: Welles adored Isak Dinesen, whose memoirs would become the basis for the Oscar-winning Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985), and whose novel he adapted as The Immortal Story (1968); and he filmed portions of The Dreamers piecemeal over three years in the early 1980s. The prevailing interpretation is that Welles shot the scenes (20 minutes in all) as test footage with the thought of re-shooting later, with a better budget. Without more of a context, or having read the story, the fragments remain incoherent as narrative, although they are of interest not only for Welles completists, but also as an example of Welles’ talent for generating vivid emotional textures with minimal production values.
The Merchant of Venice: This is the strange case. Welles’ 1969 movie, his fourth adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, was actually completed (for inclusion with the television project, Orson’s Bag), but two reels of the soundtrack—out of three—were stolen, and have not been recovered. Welles would later film the famous “hath not a Jew eyes” speech with no makeup or staging—this performance, which is spellbinding, along with shards of the original Merchant, are featured in the One Man Band documentary.
Don Quixote: Another strange case, in that this is the only item on the list that has received a theatrical and home video release. But it may as well still be “lost,” more lost, perhaps, than the projects we have yet to see. Don Quixote probably exceeds The Other Side of the Wind as the project to which Welles devoted the most time, love, and passion. He began shooting in 1955 (2) and was still making plans for it in 1985, shortly before his death. The story behind the attempted restoration of Don Quixote is as convoluted as the production story of the movie itself—suffice to say that, barring a miracle, we will never have anything remotely approximating the Don Quixote that Welles wanted, but, until then, there was in 1992 a repulsive and inept edit carried out by the Spanish filmmaker Jesus (Jess) Franco.
There’s a great deal more. The Silovic documentary contains comic performances from a television program called Orson’s Bag: Welles in a sketch about arrogant British tailors, another one in which he plays multiple roles: a London policeman singing about the “one-man band,” the actual one-man band, an ugly stereotype of a Chinese proprietor of a striptease club, and an old woman selling violets and dirty postcards. Welles impersonates Winston Churchill, and rehearses Moby Dick. Welles also hosted his own, very short-lived talk show (among his guests: the Muppets, Burt Reynolds, Angie Dickinson). Welles’ unrealized, incomplete, unreleased, aborted or otherwise cancelled film projects span the entirety of his motion picture career—even before the first frame of film for Citizen Kane (1941) was exposed, even before the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, his recorded narration for The Spanish Earth (Joris Ivens, 1937) was rejected in favor of one by Ernest Hemingway. Other uncompleted and unrealized works include an ambitious adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, films of a dozen major literary works, from Shakespeare to Catch-22 to Crime and Punishment, a tale called The Landru Story that would eventually be filmed by Chaplin (with a story credit for Welles) as the masterful Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and a number of other properties.
In 2002, Showtime, an American cable network, joined forces with Oja Kodar, Welles’ companion in the latter part of his life, and performer in many of his films, and Graver, Welles’ friend and frequent cinematographer throughout the 1970s and 80s, to get The Other Side of the Wind completed and shown. As of August, Beatrice Welles-Smith, Orson’s daughter, blocked the effort, brandishing the kind of legal tenacity that plays on the fear that large commercial entities (3) have of long and costly court battles, and smothers the efforts of individuals who don’t have the power or the money to wage battles of any kind.
Thankfully, one aspect of his career in movies is satisfactorily documented: the movies he completed, in America or abroad. I could easily regurgitate the well-known stories behind the genesis, production, and reception of Citizen Kane, and the disheartening tragedy of the corruption of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), (4) but I would rather assume the reader is at least faintly aware of the place Kane has assumed in cinema and cultural history, and concentrate on a few of his less-heralded but often comparable, sometimes superior, later films.
The Lady from Shanghai (1948): This macabre, pulpy, and hugely entertaining thriller, a project which Welles took on in the hopes of counterbalancing the failure of the Mercury production of Around the World (from the Jules Verne novel), was mangled by Columbia executives who, after bad previews, turned the editing over to Viola Lawrence, in an attempt to “save” the story. The picture is riddled with evidence of studio meddling: artfully composed shots and sequences are interrupted by bizarre close-ups, undoubtedly squeezing the last nickel from each star visage (Rita Hayworth, and also Welles), process shots, and studio fakery. James Naremore, in his description of the film’s production and Columbia’s alterations, has suggested that a trained eye may easily discern which shots are of Welles’ design, and which are “deliberate kitsch.” (5) In addition to these changes, the movie was taken out of Welles’ hands before a proper soundtrack could be added, so in place of the temp track, Columbia’s composer-for-hire Heinz Roemheld wrote a score which, going by Welles complaints (in the form of a memo to Columbia), did not suit the picture very well. Despite interference, however, the viewer can still count this as 75 percent Welles, as opposed Ambersons, which might be 40-50 percent, at best.
Othello (1952): Few filmmakers idolized Shakespeare as much as Welles, but he was the first major filmmaker to question the conventions of “faithful” adaptation; (6) his radical attitude towards the Bard’s work helped to pave the way for such exciting, recent adaptations/meditations as King Lear (Jean-Luc Godard, 1987), Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999), and Hamlet (Michael Almereyda, 2000). The production of Othello—shot, for the most part, “on the fly,” over a period of several years, primarily in Morocco and Italy, often only a bit at a time—is indicative of the kind of filmmaking that would characterize all of Welles’ work outside the American studio apparatus: making do with nothing, or next to nothing, and still managing to make cinema. Therein, perhaps, lies one facet of Welles’ genius: that he could make two of America’s greatest films (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons) with an entire Hollywood studio at his disposal, and, as an encore, make several of the world’s greatest films with practically no money, very little in the way of sets, and a change of crew with each new continent.
Mr. Arkadin (1955; better known to some as Confidential Report): Welles’ international-jaunt/thriller is a mess, but a brilliant one. Those willing to question Arkadin‘s footnote status and research the circumstances of the film’s history (7) will discover that what’s “wrong” with the movie—it is bizarre, fragmented, tawdry, often seemingly the result of incompetence in sound recording, casting, and cutting—is divided into two parts: what isn’t really wrong (8) and what isn’t really Welles. And to complicate matters further, there are several different versions of the movie in circulation, each different in ways that could significantly affect viewer interpretation.
The Trial (1962): This one was derided by François Truffaut, who felt that Welles was doing “a Kafka” in the same rather cold, reverent spirit with which a theater company might do “a Shakespeare.” Naremore and Joseph McBride have suggested that Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, which is based on a true story, is a closer “filmic approximation” of Franz Kafka’s novel than Welles’ direct adaptation. As with Shakespeare, the idea of “faithfulness” might be set to one side, that we might examine the work as it stands, rather than as what we’d like it to be. (Surely this is a necessary step in the evolution of the medium.) The Trial remains, for me, among the most pleasurable of Welles’ films, perhaps because it is one of the few that can be seen, today, in its original form. The classic expressionist nightmare is given an effective center by Anthony Perkins, an unorthodox Welles hero but a perfect victim for the relentless machine that pursues K. Welles balances long takes and long shots with as many claustrophobic close-ups and rapid, uneasy cuts, imbuing the story with a feeling of loss, isolation, and perhaps freedom, as K’s murder becomes imminent.
Chimes at Midnight (1966): I neglect to mention Welles’ 1948 Macbeth, a lesser work (but still fascinating and effective), in favor of one of his greatest works, a daring blend of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two, Richard III, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and using one of Shakespeare’s key sources for the history plays, Holinshed’s Chronicles. Of primary interest, apart from the film’s stunning visual poetry, Welles performance of Falstaff, and the climactic battle sequence, is that it never seemed Welles’ intention to be stodgily “faithful” to the text, eliminating his own voice from the creation. Chimes at Midnight, like Othello, is all about Shakespeare, and all about Welles, simultaneously. His efforts to render Shakespeare’s work in filmic terms was considerably more imaginative (9) than Olivier’s, whose attempts at cinema, which are generally favored in mainstream canons, seem limited to “I think Shakespeare would have a close-up here,” or the like. Branagh’s Henry V (1989) is unmistakably influenced by Chimes at Midnight, particularly in the mud-encrusted battle scenes, but his subsequent efforts—Hamlet (1996) and Love’s Labour Lost (2000)—reflect the mind of a filmmaker who has chosen either to avoid experimentation, or to mock the efforts of others in the same direction. It’s probably unnecessary, here, to mention the countless, anonymous, utilitarian, television productions of Shakespeare’s work. Chimes at Midnight is everything these films are not: brutish, earthy, messy (not counting Branagh’s Henry V, which is certainly “earthy,” but via Welles, not via Shakespeare), and also fraught with emotion. It may be that what Shakespeare buffs fear most is exactly what Welles accomplishes so beautifully with Chimes: he has the effrontery to imagine the Bard’s work in a medium other than text, or theatre.
F for Fake: This is the Welles movie that people seem to discover on their own, perhaps by accident, and after the discovery, they cannot contain their enthusiasm. A friend of mine recently saw it for the first time, and declared it: “Cinema, Cinema, Cinema!” The project originated as a François Reichenbach documentary on the great art forger Elmyr de Hory, who was being profiled for a biography by Clifford Irving. When an unexpected turn of events revealed that Irving was as much of a trickster as Elmyr (whose name becomes a mantra throughout the film), Welles, who was on the Spanish island of Ibiza at the time, took over the project (10) and created a rather intricate model of the film-essay. The subject, ostensibly, is fakery, but the French title (Vérités et mensonges, which in English means “Truths and lies”) might dissuade one from approaching the work as being merely a sensationalistic exposé of forgers and charlatans; what emerges is a thoughtful, sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious meditation not just on that subject but also on Welles’ life, his career, and the cinema.
Filming ‘Othello’: Any reply to the accusation that Filming ‘Othello’ is merely a recorded lecture on his 1952 masterpiece must begin with, “Oh, but what a lecture.” Welles’ immense, baritone voice had, through age and endless cigars, begun to sound coarse and gravelly, but his formidable storytelling skills, as well as his insights into the production, and his feelings about his work (and Shakespeare: “Among all dramatists the first. The greatest poet, in terms of sheer accomplishment, very possibly our greatest man. So where does that leave a mere moviemaker? Nowhere.”) make this essay-commentary essential viewing. Filming ‘Othello’ could also be counted among Welles’ “lost” works, since the estate has repressed all public showings, including a video release.
The greatness of Welles and the “Welles” image, as well as any misgivings we may have about him, seems inseparable from notions of a grand, epic quality in all things: an outsized personality with a voice like a cartoon giant (albeit one capable of subtler textures than most would guess), given to larger-than-life acting roles and grand, theatrical gestures. Stupendous and superlative achievements. Great risks and bold experimentation. Leave it to the hack poet journalist to equate his enormous girth with enormity in self-image, excess in dreaming and plans with no follow-through. He did not suffer from an excess of money, or we might have a few more finished works. It’s difficult to imagine that, like Kane, his lasting dream would have been to acquire a warehouse full of great artworks—and the available evidence would seem to hint at the possibility for a few—for no one to look at.
This filmography begins with Citizen Kane and is limited to released films: excluded are television programs like Orson’s Bag (1968-69) or The Orson Welles Sketchbook (1955), and unreleased works, as discussed above.
Citizen Kane (1941) 119 min
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) 88 min [originally 138 min]
The Stranger (1946) 95 min
The Lady from Shanghai (1948) 87 min
Macbeth (1948) 107 min [restored version; Welles cut the film down to 89 minutes for the original release]
Othello (1952) (also known as The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice) 90 min
Confidential Report (Mr. Arkadin) (1955) 99 min [several extant versions and running times]
Touch of Evil (1958) 111 min [this refers to the 1998 “memo version,” that is, an attempt by producer Rick Schmidlin, editor Walter Murch, and consultant Jonathan Rosenbaum, to revise the film according to a number of specifications Welles listed in a memo to Universal Pictures; it's not a “director's cut” or a “restored version,” but, like the 2002 version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, it's as good as we're likely to get, for now]
The Trial (1962) (also known as Le Procès) 118 min
Chimes at Midnight (1965) (also known as Falstaff or Campanadas a medianoche) 115 min
The Immortal Story (1968) (also known as Une histoire immortelle) 58 min
F for Fake (1973) (also known as Vérités et mensonges) 85 min
Filming ‘Othello’ (1978) 84 min
André Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View, Los Angeles, Acrobat Books, first published 1950, reprint 1991
Penelope Houston, “Orson Welles” in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, New York, Viking Press, USA, 1980, pp. 1055-1068
James Naremore, The Magic World of Orson Welles, Dallas, Southern Methodist University Press, USA, 1989
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Orson Welles’s Essay Films and Documentary Fictions: A Two-Part Speculation” in Placing Movies, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, University of California Press, 1995
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Othello Goes Hollywood” in Placing Movies, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, University of California Press, 1995
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Seven Arkadins” in Movies as Politics, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, University of California Press, 1995
Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich; Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), This is Orson Welles, New York, Da Capo Press, 1998
Articles in Senses of Cinema
From the Beginning: Notes on Orson Welles’ Most Personal Late Film by Peter Tonguette
Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin – A Maze of Death by Philippe St-Germain
Compiled by author
A complete transcription, with comments, of Welles’ 1978 essay film.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Plenty of links to Welles related articles.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air
Countless radio broadcasts of shows put on by Welles’ Mercury Theatre company; a real treat for fans of old-time radio and Welles’ voice. Files are downloadable in Real Audio and MP3 formats.
Orson Welles’ Memo on Touch of Evil
With comments by Lawrence French.
Orson Welles: Touch of Welles
Dedicated to the director; in Spanish and English.
The Other Side of the Wind
Review by Jeff Meyer; from the 1988 Seattle Film Festival.
Touch of Evil
Review by Fred Camper.
Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource
Managed and maintained by Jeff Wilson, this ongoing internet project has an impressive catalogue of rare images (production stills, posters from around the world), a broad survey of Welles’ television, radio, and film work, an exhaustive list of books, audio recordings, and internet links, on Welles and his films, and a forum populated by a half dozen extremely dedicated Welles-o-philes, foremost among them Wilson himself.
Click here to search for Orson Welles DVDs, videos and books at
- By using the word “unseen” I am, of course, excluding private screenings and things like that.
- Tests only, ultimately discarded.
- Like the Cannes Film Festival, which cancelled its 1998 showing of the reedited Touch of Evil at her behest.
- There’s a pretty thorough account of what happened to Ambersons in This is Orson Welles, the Bogdanovich-Welles interview book, taken in conjunction with the audio essay on the 1986 Criterion Collection laserdisc edition of the movie, by Robert Carringer. Carringer’s work is also available, undoubtedly in greater detail, in book form, although Jonathan Rosenbaum, who edited This is Orson Welles, had not a little to say about how and why Carringer’s admittedly diligent and invaluable efforts in uncovering what happened and how, may not represent the final word as to why.
- The same game can be played with The Magnificent Ambersons and (the first version of) Touch of Evil.
- He didn’t wait until getting into movies to do so, either; his work with Shakespeare in the theatre (most famously represented by his production of “Voodoo” Macbeth) reflected an attitude that was all the more affectionate of the Bard in its experimentation and “loose” adaptation. Additionally, in 1934 Welles collaborated with Roger Hill on a book called Everybody’s Shakespeare, for which he wrote an introduction that suggested that the best way to study Shakespeare was not to study his plays at all, but to read them, enjoy them, and perform them.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay, “The Seven Arkadins” in his Movies as Politics essay anthology, can serve as a major starting point.
- Philippe St-Germain’s essay Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin – A Maze of Death, in Senses of Cinema, is an exciting and informative exploration of the movie’s complexities, many of which may not be readily apparent to the casual viewer.
- With the possible exception of Macbeth, but the “stagey” elements of that movie, which are blatant, are an interesting, if ultimately abortive, attempt to merge theatre and movie mise-en-scène, rather than mere evidence of a Shakespeare enthusiast turning one of his plays into a shooting script, without considering the implications of the film medium.
- Reichenbach remained as a collaborative presence, and apparently a friendly one, although he is officially credited as executive producer and “special participant” rather than co-writer or co-director.