George Orson Welles, known more commonly as Orson Welles was a director, producer, writer, and actor. Mr. Welles was born on May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father was an inventor and manufacturer and his mother a talented pianist. Welles was regarded as an absolute genius from early childhood and his creative abilities were encouraged and nurtured. His early childhood was to a large extent, directed by his mother’s physician and admirer, Dr. Maurice Bernstein. (Russell 9) He made a successful career for himself on stage and radio starting at an early age and when he was 19, made his Broadway debut as Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet.” He worked together on several projects with director/producer John Houseman, including a tremendously successful staging of “Macbeth” in Harlem with an all-black cast under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project. Mr. Welles and Mr. Houseman formed their own repertory company, the Mercury Theater, in 1937, and staged a highly acclaimed modern version of “Julius Caesar.” (Russell 11)
Mr. Welles and the Mercury Players gained nationwide attention on CBS radio in their weekly dramatic program “Mercury Theater of the Air.” The most famous show was their broadcast of the radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” on Halloween in 1938, reporting the landing of Martians in the U.S. The fictional news coverage of the invasion on the radio program seemed so real to many listeners that the broadcast caused a panic. The next day Orson Welles woke up to be internationally famous and notorious. (Russell 37)
Welles was brought to Hollywood by RKO, and his contract included unprecedented creative freedom for an untried filmmaker. After failing to get two projects off the ground, he made his extraordinary debut in 1941, at the young age of 25, with the film “Citizen Kane,” the study of a tycoon based on William Randolph Hearst, a film regarded by many as the best film ever made. Welles produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in “Citizen Kane.” He and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz won the Academy Award for Best Writing. He also received nominations for Best Actor and Best Director, and the film was nominated for Best Picture.
Mr. Welles’ second film for RKO was “The Magnificent Ambersons,” an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel. While Mr. Welles was away in South America working on “It’s All True,” the studio made severe cuts in “The Magnificent Ambersons” and shot a new ending. Though highly regarded by critics, and nominated for several Academy Awards, the film did not do well in the box office, and Mr. Welles and RKO parted soon after. Mr. Welles also produced and acted in the thriller “Journey into Fear” at that time.
In 1948 Welles co-starred with his ex-wife Rita Hayworth in the film “The Lady from Shanghai,” his film noir tour-de-force that ends with a famous hall-of-mirrors shootout. (Russell 86) He then moved back to his love of Shakespeare with the first film in his Shakespearean trilogy, “Macbeth.” The second and third films were “Othello” which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and “Chimes at Midnight.” Soon afterward he wrote, directed, and acted in “Mr. Arkadin” also known as Confidential Report, a Citizen Kane-like film about the investigation into a powerful man’s past, then directed and acted in the film noir masterpiece “Touch of Evil.” In 1962 in Europe, he made “The Trial,” based on Frank Kafka’s novel. His final completed film was “F for Fake,” part documentary and part staged footage about Clifford Irving and his hoax Howard Hughes biography, as well as legendary art forger Elmyr de Hory.
Welles also worked throughout his career as an actor in several films, including such movies as “Black Magic,” “Prince of Foxes,” and “The Third Man,” as well as performing on stage, radio, and television. In the late 1970s Mr. Welles began work on a series of documentaries about his movies, including “Filming Othello,” a documentary about the filming of his movie “Othello,” which has never been seen before. At the time of his death on October 9, 1985, Mr. Welles was working on “The Other Side of the Wind,” a film he had begun filming in the 1970s, about a famous filmmaker and his struggle to find financing for his film.
Orson Welles’ most commonly known, or celebrated work is “Citizen Kane,” which is the story of the life of Charles Foster Kane. The screenplay is based loosely on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. When it opened on May 1, 1941, at the Palace Theatre in New York, it was enthusiastically embraced and received many good reviews. Many critics made it sound high-brow, cultural, and different. In the words of Hermine Rich Isaacs (Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 20),
[Citizen Kane is] an exciting work, vital and imaginative, full of the unbridled energy which Orson Welles brings to every new medium he invades. As in all Mr. Welles’ ventures, it is free of the bonds of precedent, but there is always a compensating sense of what is appropriate to the medium. It is another success in this year’s stream of successful ‘one-man pictures’. And just as Orson Welles, producer and director, deserves credit for the excellence of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, co-author?, and Orson Welles, actor, must be held responsible for the fact that it falls short of greatness.
It is the same familiar tale from every angle, this story of a shallow and arrogant newspaper owner and man of wealth, whose craze for power and the admiration of the world leads him into headstrong and unscrupulous dealings with everyone about him; until at last he has lost all his friends, even the second wife whom he loved in his way, and retires to die in lonely splendor among his fabulous objets d’art, in his castle on a man-mad hill.
It is also, when it has all been told, the picture of a man who is really not worth depicting, and here is the film’s weakness. Citizen Kane depends for its importance on implications which are external to the movie itself. It acquires a sort of reflected significance from the fact that it might be about a living man of whom we all know, a man who not only loves power but has it, who wields a sinister influence on millions of people through the medium of his newspapers and his money. In the picture this sway over the multitude is hinted at buy never demonstrated; and yet it is only this power which lends the man stature enough to make him a vital subject. Without his power he is an unpleasant rich man, nothing more.
Citizen Kane is a motion picture to be seen, a photoplay that is more than photographed actors. It is Mr. Welles’ first picture and not a perfect one, but it is rich in film ideas, and abundant in opportunity for everyone associated with it? And above all, Citizen Kane has the kind of artistic unity which is rare in Hollywood’s customary large-scale collaborations.
Mr. Isaacs’ analysis of “Citizen Kane” is not very thorough, though he touches on some very good points. In the criticism Isaacs states that Welles, as a co-author and an actor has to be held responsible for the failure of the film to reach greatness. He however does not delve into the reasons that Welles’ acting or writing is insufficient of such greatness. Also, Isaacs writes that the film’s weakness stems from the fact that it depends for its importance implications about a living man, William Randolph Hearst, who is completely external to the picture itself. Now this can arguably be a strength, for it is difficult for a film to be important if not applicable to the external world. Going on to another critic’s look on Citizen Kane, Otis Ferguson’s (Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 20) analysis on the film is more thorough than Isaacs’, and deals with a more technical aspect of the film. He writes,
“Citizen Kane” in its story uses the cut-back method-which is convenient but has its drawbacks in the constant interruption of a steady line . . . For dramatic action, it shows its one big character in for main situations, supplemented by newsreel interludes here and there. This makes a pretty weak structure dramatically, so it has to be surrounded with a great deal of stationary talk, as Kane is described, analyzed asked about, remembered, talked into existence and practically out of it . . . The mood is established or heightened by an occasional symbol: the sled and the falling-snow toy, the curtain-warning light on the stage, the bird screaming in escape, etc. Symbols are a dime a dozen a justify their use in the result achieved. I thought the fading light filament and dying sound track at the end of the singer’s career very effective; also the opening and close on the iron fence around the castle. The smoke rising to heaven at the end was trite to start with and dragged out absurdly.
The camera here loves deep perspectives, long rooms, rooms seen through doors and giving onto rooms through other doors, rooms lengthened out by low ceilings or made immense by high-angle shots where the ceiling seems to be the sky. Figures are widely spaced down this perspective, moving far off at will, yet kept in focus. The camera loves partial lighting or under lighting, with faces or figures blacked out, features emphasized or thrown into shadow, with one point of high light in an area of gloom or foreground figures black against brightness, with the key shifting according to mood, with every scene modeled for special effects with light batteries of varying function and power, gobos, barndoors, screens, what not.
Sometimes all this is fine and really does the job it is put to. Along with the wide action range, it is a relief from too much closeness and light, and effect of stretching. But at other times it appears just willful dabbling: figures are in the dark for no reason-reading without the light to see, for example; or they are kept in darkness right among other clearly lighted figures . . .
In the cutting there are several things noticeable. One is the long easy sweep you can get when a scene of action is covered in one long-range set-up. Another lies partly in the method of treatment and partly in lack of care, and that is the time-and-place confusion which arises when you go smack from the first two-thirds of a sentence to the last third of the same sentence, spoken elsewhere years later. This is done time and again and you might call it jump-cutting or you might call it the old shell game as far as the audiences are concerned.
Another thing about the cutting that goes altogether to the fault of direction is the monotony and amateurism of handling simple dialogue. Over and over there are the two faces talking, talk, talk, talk, then close-up of the right speaker asking, then close-up of the left speaker answering, then back to two. Outside of getting your name in large letters, being a director consists exactly in knowing how to break this up to keep interest shifting, to stress the reaction to a line more sharply than the face saying it. This is what gives a picture life, and it isn’t done by camera ruction, however clever.
Orson Welles was naturally entranced with the marvelous things the moving camera could do for him; and while much has resulted from this preoccupation, I think his neglect of what the camera could do to him is the main reason why the picture somehow leaves you cold even while your mouth is still open at its excitements. There may have been the heart and belief to put into it, but there wasn’t the time to learn how this might be done, or much regard for any such humdrum skill.
As for the contributing departments in “Citizen Kane,” Bernard Herman’s music is an active aid; the sets are made right, both for the fantastic and for use or living; it is an all-round class-A production. But the most effective things in it are the creation of Orson Welles’s drawing board, not only in whole story ideas but in plausible and adult dialogue (witty, sardonic, knowledgeable), the impression of life as it actually goes on in the big world, the ready dramatic vigor . . .
This stuff is fine theatre, technically or any other way, and along with them the film is exciting for the recklessness of its independence, even if it seems to have little to be free for. There is surely nothing against it as a dramatic venture that it is no advance in screen technique at all, but a retrogression. The movies could use Orson Welles. But so could Orson Welles use the movies, that is, if he wants to make pictures. Hollywood is a great field for fanfare, but is also a field in which even Genius has to do it the hard way; and “Citizen Kane” rather makes me doubt that Orson Welles really wants to make pictures.
Otis Ferguson’s critique on Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” is much clearer then Isaacs in that he points out specific incidents of the weaknesses and strength of the film. Ferguson goes into camera and stagin analysis as well as the dialogue in the movie. Ferguson’s analysis is concise and it is clear as to what he feel as that the film lacks and what it triumphs. It is interesting to note however, that Mr. Ferguson feels that the film in no way accomplished any new screen techniques, and even states that it is regressive. Moving away from Citizen Kane; because Welles himself was an avid reader and master of Shakespeare, it is appropriate to see how one of his several Shakespearean film adaptations was taken in. Phillip Hope-Wallace instance writes,
The look of [Macbeth], which is after all the most important part of a film, is seldom felicitous. Macbeth’s castle has even less geography than Hamlet’s film Elsinore; it looks all too often life a rain-soaked scenic railway at a fun fair, a castle hewn from papier m?ch? rocks, but Welles is not the first producer of the play to have difficulty with the period. A vague impression of Wagnerian timelessness sits on the costumes. Few of the voices have an American tinge and it would not matter if they had; a sort of plausible Scots burr is generally aimed at.
What of the text there is remains unaltered, for the greater part, and it is spoken slowly, not to say funereally, either as dialogue or as soliloquy, dubbed over anguished, tight-lipped close-ups of the “speaker”; this can be effective, as it has been in Olivier’s Shakespeare films, but meets with the usual difficulty: i.e. that we are forced to look, to watch, when all we ought, or need, to do is to listen. In other words where Shakespeare uses his unmatched power of evoking the mood, the thought, the scene by word alone, the camera feels itself to be a shy and otiose interloper . . . Welles, fine film maker, is not unaware of the camera’s power to add a visual counterpoint undreamt by Shakespeare.
[Parts] of the great poetic drama come over will . . . In such episodes we have an earnest of what Welles was trying for and in part has succeeded in doing. On the other hand imagination is checked where we are shown too literally what in the play is only brought to us as a frightening rumour . . . The appalling difficulties of trying to recreate a masterpiece of one sort of medium . . . in terms of another, so utterly different, have not been ignored or solved. Those who are interested in the problem will find much to discuss; and those who come ignorant of Shakespeare to the cinema will probably receive an impression of portentous dismay, which is, after all, something. The attempt should not be written off as a failure, though one cannot help thinking that a more powerful effect might have been achieved if the film, properly, had been silent; simply a series of blood-curdling illustration to a series of anonymous declamations from the sound track.
Hope-Wallace makes a very good point in the difficulty of bringing Shakespeare to film and the lack of effectiveness of points in the play. At one part he writes, “?Imagination is checked when we are shown too literally what in the play is only brought to us as a frightening rumor?” This is significant and interesting in that it is quite possible that a film loses something for the fact that it cannot rely on imagination, and because of this it is quite possible that the film version loses something by mere fact that many things are better illustrated by “showing” less.
Orson Welles, even with the criticism of his amateurism in parts of Citizen Kane, and lack of being perfect is still highly acclaimed and very well received. His use of camera angles were considered unique and fresh and his directorial style masterful. Lastly, in the words of Martin Scorsese, “[Orson Welles] was responsible for inspiring more people to be film directors than anyone else in the history of the cinema.”