Where to begin with Orson Welles

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the endless invention of Orson Welles’s films.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

Why this might not seem so easy

At some point, anyone interested in cinema, and how film storytelling developed out of the primordial swamp, has to tackle Orson Welles’s movies. His 1941 feature debut Citizen Kane, with its kaleidoscopic innovations in style, has often been voted the greatest film ever made. It’s enough to make you curious, but how will you personally respond to watching this best of the best? With nodding approval? Violent disagreement? A shrug?

Then there’s the matter of getting to grips with everything Welles made afterwards. At first glance, this seems simple – there are only 12 or 13 finished feature films bearing his directing credit, depending on whether or not you count the theatrically released TV documentary Filming Othello (1978). But you’ve also got certain indispensable films featuring Welles as actor in which the baroque style is so quintessentially Wellesian (Journey into Fear, 1943; Jane Eyre, 1944) that there can be little question that Welles’s presence on set was – to put it gently – an inspiration to the actual director.

Even then, you’ve still only got half the picture. In the gaps between the finished films are numerous half-finished wreckages, from the Brazilian documentary It’s All True via his Don Quixote adaptation to The Other Side of the Wind (which a Kickstarter campaign is currently pledged to completing). These were abandoned either through dwindling finances, legal wrangles, or the distraction of something else coming along to fire Welles’s imagination.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles directing Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles directing Touch of Evil (1958)

The best place to start – Touch of Evil

Tempting as it is to dive straight into the big one, there’s a benefit in holding off on Citizen Kane at first. Instead, try your first Welles experience unencumbered by the weight of Greatest Film Ever claims, but also without any of the nagging worry that comes with some of the other films that you’re starting out with one of his compromised, imperfect works.

This makes Touch of Evil (1958) ideal – particularly if you already have a taste for the dark arts of Hollywood film noir, those shadowy pulp thrillers that emerged from America’s west coast in the 1940s and 50s. This brilliant example of the style, set in a Mexican border town very like Tijuana, was Welles’s first film in America for a decade, following a period of exile in Europe. Stories vary about whether it was star Charlton Heston who insisted Welles direct or B-grade producer Albert Zugsmith who offered him the script, but the results reveal the magic that the director could work even on rather trashy material.

Adding his by-now considerable physical weight to the role of corrupt border cop Hank Quinlan, Welles also conjures an electric sense of place and sweaty atmosphere through his use of canted angles, deep space and a roving camera. We also get a jaunty jazz-inflected score by Henry Mancini, a career comeback performance from Marlene Dietrich and a tense, pre-Psycho sequence in which Janet Leigh is menaced in a lonely motel.

But perhaps the best reason why Touch of Evil is the place to start is that its most famous sequence comes right at the beginning – a lengthy, suspense-filled travelling shot involving the planting of a bomb in the boot of a car. It is among the most celebrated long takes in cinema history. How you respond to these three and a half minutes of screen time is likely to give you a fairly good idea about whether Welles is for you or not.

You could also kick off with The Lady from Shanghai (1947), an earlier example of film noir that’s no less deliriously entertaining, though you have to be game for a murder plot that doesn’t make too much sense and a rather ripe Oirish accent from Welles as the sailor who gets caught up in it. Both of these elements are all part of the fun, but killjoys will insist that it’s not as perfect a film as Touch of Evil.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

What to watch next

With your eye now primed to recognise what makes Welles special, you’ve got all you need to tackle Citizen Kane. But try to forget all that Greatest Film Ever jazz – that might be what brought you here, but it’ll be no help from here on in. It may be useful instead to think of this story of money and power as a young man’s film, made when Welles was still just 25 years old. Coming off a trailblazing career in radio and on the New York stage, the boy genius was offered carte blanche by Hollywood major RKO to make his first feature, with all the resources of the studio at his disposal.

No one sets out to make a dusty textbook, one designed to be pored over, praised and feared in every decade since – and neither did the young Welles. Rather, he seized the opportunity to make the kind of full-blown, big-budget movie that few filmmakers so young have had the chance to make – either before or since. The result is a film in which every shot, every framing decision and every transition between shots reveals the energy and visual exuberance of an artist head over heels with the possibilities of his medium.

OK, he also took the chance to thumb his nose at one of America’s most powerful men, modelling his newspaper tycoon protagonist (played by Welles himself) on William Randolph Hearst and going so far as to use the word ‘Rosebud’ – supposedly Hearst’s nickname for his mistress’s privates – as the key to the film’s central mystery.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Such daring would land Welles in hot water though, with Hollywood not quite ready for such firebrand filmmaking. When you’ve toppled Kane you should head on to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). This troubled second film for RKO, a no-less-ambitious portrait of a turn-of-the-20th-century Indiana family, was taken out of Welles’s hands to be severely edited down and given an incongruous happy ending. With the original ending lost, it’s the first of many compromised films in the director’s back catalogue, but still completely essential viewing. For many, it’s Welles’s best.

Indeed, the well-kept secret about Welles’s films is that the myth that his career went into irreversible decline after the success of Kane is just that: a myth. The films only get rougher around the edges. This was the result of more hand-to-mouth budgets as Welles’s career took him to Europe, where he would raise funds for whatever was his latest brainchild by acting here and there, in adverts, TV and other people’s films. As you delve deeper into Welles, waste no time in seeking out – at the very least – Othello (1952), Mr Arkadin (1955), The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight (1965). Nobody talks much about his 1968 TV film The Immortal Story, but that too is sublime: a salty, 60-minute fever dream set in a far-off port. 

F for Fake (1973)

F for Fake (1973)

Where not to start

In some senses, F for Fake (1973), a playful look at forgery and dubious expertise in the art world, is one of Welles’s most fun and accessible films. But its references back to Citizen Kane and beyond to his radio days mean it’s not the best jumping-off point for Welles novices. Nor does it look much like other Welles films: it was a conscious attempt by the director to keep one step ahead of his audience and critics by making a non-Wellesian Welles film. So there are no masterful black-and-white compositions or strange angles here – instead, we get colour, an Ibiza setting and breathless editing as the on-screen Welles (narrating from the cutting suite) seems to construct, stop, rewind and conjure the film in front of our eyes.

Make yourself a promise to come back to this one, because here – near the end of his career – Welles succeeded in making a film as radically original and inventive as Citizen Kane had been more than 30 years before.

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