Orson Welles was the movie director every boy once dreamed of becoming—except for the beached whale part. Yeah, Welles was a genius. Even for Pauline Kael’s smear job—which divorces Welles creatively from Herman Mankiewicz’s screenplay for Citizen Kane—we will always have the textbook declarations that Welles “reinvented the visual grammar of filmmaking.”
And he did, whether it was coy misleading cutting, mockumentary mise-en-scene, or just putting visible ceilings on all the room sets. It’s funny that a Radio Guy would teach Hollywood how to see. But we shouldn’t forget his time in ghetto theater—he once depicted a mob of the French Revolution by mounting Halloween masks with light pouring out of them. If that ain’t genius-y enough for your taste, we can always bring up the Martian Panic thing.
Welles was the kind of guy to go looking for a sow’s ear, in order to show off the purse he’d make from it. He was good press from childhood, and when he told the world he was a boy genius, they believed it—long after he’d become his own skeptic.
But Welles was destined to form an American Tragedy. We like our Prometheans here to fall hard. Welles was the humble pie made good—lifted his bourgeois bootstraps into radio, theater, the cinema—the talk show circuit. But past these glories he soon becomes our archetypical Genius Who Only Made One Good Picture. “Great gifts and good luck rarely come together,” says a Scandinavian proverb. Welles became the perpetual Hollywood orphan—which he was also in real life—unable to get his mitts on the pearl of great price. Just when he was getting somewhere, they changed the rules, pulled the rug.
Welles lost control of every picture he made after Kane, as if Little Men were so envious that each became an Ahab pantering after the foil of the Great Whale. Or at least, I would suspect, Orson thought as much.
You can pick your villain. Citizen Kane was a spoof of the gray eminence of yellow journalism, William “Randy” Hearst. The movie tweaked his nose, left him to die with the name “Rosebud”—his pet word for his mistress’s genitals—on his lips. Hearst thereafter called out his minions to check Welles at every turn; Hearst vowed Welles would never rest in the kind of artiste-demimonde he so clearly coveted. And Hollywood, always up for a sneaky little blacklist, complied.
So Hearst. And Hollywood. And Those Philistines. Or perhaps Welles himself, whose tyro veered towards tyrant, whose gourmet tastes could not be stayed or sated. Own worst enemy—that sort of thing. He was uncompromising but also self-checking. Just when he introduced himself to a new generation as the man selling no wine before its time, he tells all in the talk show circuit that he’s lost a lot of weight by quitting drinking wine. He gets dropped faster as spokeswind than Dracula, another teetotaler.
So Welles becomes The Promethean Beast which is Forever Denied. They will look upon him and say, “What wonders he might have showed us, if his hand had not been stayed.” And best of all, “His movies would have all been perfect if only they had let him be!”
You can’t buy that kind of martyrdom. You also can never be held back by such concerns as making shitty movies, because the movie you made was not the movie you would have made, less the spies, swindlers, and saboteurs.
Welles became a cinematic beatnik, all through Europe on the bum. He was like a banned writer or a defrocked painter. In failure, he only stoked his cachet. Youngsters flocked to his side in search of anointment. In the end, those kids never did him any good, but to be fair, he never did them any good either.
Orson Welles dined with Gore Vidal, and how the wit—or was that venom—must have flown. They were kindred evil spirits. Then Welles would fly into the US on the cheap seats and do magic gestures for Carson or Merv or Mike Douglas. He pimped self-irony and self-conscious egoism as a persona long before Shatner caught on to the game.
Welles was consummate at getting attention while pretending that it wasn’t important to him. Just like the old Kane trailer—Orson snaps his fingers, “Microphone!” A microphone swings over, but Welles remains the Invisible Voice. His other players are introduced, but Welles never appears (recognizably) in the trailer. He’s calling attention to himself by his absence. On the talk shows, he’s distracting you from his whoring by pretending not to go along with the format, by pushing some stupid rope trick.
Citizen Kane used to be one of those American films so important you could never get to see it. It never turned up on the Late Show. I was eighteen and had to rent the VCR tape to finally catch it. What did I think? If I had to draw the line where modern cinema began, I would start right at Citizen Kane. Of course, the cinema is also not linear, so the line didn’t pick up again until Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, some fifteen years later. Nobody ever made another Citizen Kane—but that’s okay: neither did Welles.
His secret was discarding everything and reinterpreting the process, ground up. This is what genius is all about. Excepting his hidebound players—half of whom thought they were in a Howard Hawks’ picture and the remainder off in George Cukor-Cloud Land—Kane was out there enough to be avant garde. A new kind of animal.
The kernel of Orson’s legend is to try and imagine what it would have been if they’d given him Kane-control thereafter, if he’d had the luxury of making a picture every year, like Hitchcock or Ford. There was a sort of intellectual pretentiousness to Welles’ taste, but he had a workman Ordinary Joe way of bringing it all to earth. In the Kane trailer, he almost presents himself with the workmen, directing that microphone around like a shop foreman. No surprise that the whiz kid co-authored a book—at age fourteen—called Everybody’s Shakespeare.
Welles thereafter made cheesy thrillers which only superficially looked like cheesy thrillers—or so the faithful tell us. Touch of Evil, like Lady from Shanghai, has a kind of AIP quickie look to it, and it’s hard to know if the cheesiness was added, like Tarantino, out of sheer cult brio. At the very least, Hitchcock was impressed. You can’t see Psycho and not realize the relationship to Touch of Evil—Master meets Maestro.
The cheap magic trick here is a long tracking crane shot in the opening of Touch that was damned spiffy and damnably complex. It’s something that is the result of a genius mind hamming up a pulp script and stuck with Charlton Heston as a Mexican drug enforcement agent. Like the microphone—also on a boom—Orson is flagrantly putting us on: it’s self-promoting and self-effacing at the same time.
The remainder of Orson’s oeuvre seems devilishly fractious in presentation. Films were shot hand to mouth, whenever funds and folks came to use—sometimes years passed between splices. That he pasted this stuff together into some sort of sense is a miracle all its own.
His characters are all mountebanks, from Mr. Arkadin to the “Self” of F for Fake. Even Harry Lime, a character he played in a British film shot after his style, but not by him, is a happy-go-lucky swindler crime-lord and murderer. If he’s not pushing himself as a figure of flummery, he’s aping newsreels or newscasts out of Martian battlefields.
The problem of this theme—and of his heavily made-up Shakespearean characters—is that people have conflated the Act with the Creator. Welles is often misread as himself a mountebank, a celebrated but perhaps overrated adventurer who used cinema to get around the way Cagliostro used astrology.
He may have been on the make, but it’s pretty pig-blind to call the auteur of Citizen Kane a phony. Frauds never hit all the right notes, not even once. They just hum a few bars, and fake it. To have gotten it right, even once, is to have gotten it all. Citizen Kane will forever tar Hollywood as Welles’ j’accuse.-30-