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.
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.
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.