The One-Man Show That Was Orson Welles
In command on both sides of a movie camera, Welles could act better than any director and direct better than any actor. In fact, he did everything better than most moviemakers.
Orson Welles’s centennial year has come and gone, but debate rages on, as it has raged for decades, over whether or not he peaked at 26 with Citizen Kane and coasted on its glory for the rest of a mercurial career. His defenders seem to have gained the upper hand recently, revising the image of a self-indulgent impresario and sorry TV pitchman to that of a visionary filmmaker whose gifts were impaired by the myopia of lesser mortals. What both sides seem to accept tacitly, however, is that Welles should be judged on his record as a director. Diminished in this discussion is the fact that he was also an actor, and an extraordinary one. More to the point, he was an actor who often directed himself. Therefore, his performances are critical to any assessment of his place in the pantheon of film.
The case against Welles is that not only was he a spent force after Kane, but that even this film wasn’t really his. The argument advanced by Pauline Kael and other critics—that the movie neophyte Welles rode on the backs of his writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and cinematographer Greg Toland—has been pretty well put to rest. But were there even some truth to this, it is the performance of Welles, directing himself, as Charles Foster Kane, that is emblazoned in our memories. Welles is Citizen Kane. The two cannot be separated. Imagine any other contemporary actor in that role: Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March. Impossible. The direction and the performance are one, an act of inspiration. The converse of this is that Welles was a triple threat: He could write, direct, and act. None of the other directors of his generation—William Wyler, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder—went on screen. Welles could do it all, and continued doing so.
His defenders trot out the arcane Welles—The Other Side of the Wind (1970), F For Fake (1973)—which is supposed to confirm his stature as a great director.
But this is an argument among film buffs. For the rest of us—moviegoers who paid to view Welles’s films in theaters—what is it that we saw and how does it hold up?
Far from being burnt out after Kane, Welles directed more than a dozen films over the next 25 years, at least four in which he starred, The Stranger (1946), Othello (1952), Touch of Evil (1958), and the masterpiece of his later years, Chimes at Midnight (1967) each of which would have been considered an achievement for any director.
In The Stranger, Welles gives a sinister performance as an ex-Nazi hiding in a small American town after World War II. The movie is a tight, well-directed film, and a prescient one in that, as it was being made, thousands of Nazi war criminals were slipping into the U.S. Although Welles’s malevolent Nazi is hunted down in a chilling finale, most of the real ones went undetected. Taut, spare and riveting, this film gives the lie to the myth that Welles couldn’t make a “Hollywood” movie.
Othello, cobbled together over three years as the director scrambled for financing, still has some of the most haunting imagery of any Shakespearean film and Welles gives a compelling performance in the title role.
Touch of Evil is one of the hallmark movies of the ’50s and Welles’s corrupt border sheriff is a memorable role as well as an indictment of justice compromised in an America of the McCarthy era.
But Welles’s great achievement is his Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, his celebrated adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry” plays. Welles’s sure directorial hand and innovative personal touch is manifest in all of these, as is his skill in obtaining stirring performances from his players, among whom were members of the Mercury Theater repertory that remained loyal to him through the years.
In the more than two decades after Kane, Welles played a constellation of notable parts on which he stamped his particular genius. His Rochester in Jane Eyre (1943) opposite Joan Fontaine is still the gold standard. His fiery sermon as Father Mapple in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) captures the essence of Calvinist fatalism—and all but steals the movie. As does his Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons, no easy task when paired against Paul Scofield’s Thomas More. And, of course, his Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is one of the screen’s iconic performances.
But the true mark of Welles’ talent is that he even managed to redeem clinkers—he made quite a few—such as Prince of Foxes (1948), featuring his astute rendering of the formidable Cesare Borgia. Welles was a perfectionist who came at his craft full tilt. There was nothing too light—General Dreedle in “Catch-22—or too little for him to treat with less than full purpose. In this latter category I would include The Finest Hours (1963), a documentary he narrated about the Battle of Britain. It is not among his best known work but Welles’s majestic tones are mesmerizing as he describes England’s valiant struggle against the Nazi onslaught.
This is the same voice that in later years made tawdry commercials for a winery. Welles had a penchant for self-destructive behavior that led him through a lifetime of wrong turns and blind alleys. His detractors can easily demonstrate that too often he wasted his talent. Their case against him is that he was a boy genius who never lived up to his billing. The term is already disparaging, assuming expectations unfulfilled. In fact, Welles was a great cinematic innovator who, cut loose from his moorings in Hollywood, improvised his way as director and actor and wound up making some of our best movies. Could he have done better if he stayed in Hollywood and worked within the studio system? Such speculation is an exercise in counter-factual history. Welles needs no apologies for his personal failings, or apologies for what he might have done. His body of work speaks eloquently for what he accomplished.
Jack Schwartz is a former editor on the culture desk of The New York Times.