George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 — October 10, 1985) was an actor, writer, director, producer, artist, young genius, sometime Stage Magician, and patron saint of Large Hams. When movie scholars are polled for the greatest directors ever, the top position is usually either him or Alfred Hitchcock.A great showman prodigy, praised as a natural genius in his youth, Welles started his career on the stage because of his confidence, creating ground-breaking new productions of Shakespeare that revitalised the plays and challenged the rules of what could be done in adaptation. From there, he went to radio to do the Mercury Theater on the Air with a regular troupe. The highlight of his career in radio was his 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which was so convincing that people actually believed aliens had landed in New Jersey. (This story, albeit true, is often highly exaggerated. There were no riots.)From there, he made his first movie for RKO Pictures, Citizen Kane. He got complete artistic control; he directed it, produced it, wrote at least some of it, and played the lead. Citizen Kane was a groundbreaking film, generally considered one of, if not the best of all time, OF ALLTIME! - so much so that it's created Hype Aversion. It's very enjoyable despite that.Unfortunately, the film tanked at the box office, as Charles Foster Kane was thought to be Inspired By William Randolph Hearst, who was still alive and better at maintaining his power than Kane was. When a large percentage of the papers are against your film, it needs heavy promotion from the studio to succeed. Since Hearst was still alive, it didn't get it. It was Vindicated by History about two decades too late.Welles went on to try to film The Magnificent Ambersons; he intended it to be an epic recreation of the American Midwest and the coming of the 20th Century. This had a considerably higher budget than Citizen Kane, and great ambition. Unfortunately, he took too long(the fact that cinematographer Stanley Cortez, talented but slow, was not as quick as Gregg Toland, was also a major problem), his Auteur License was revoked and Executive Meddling came into play; about half the footage was cut out of the film and probably Lost Forever. The remainder of the film suggests what sort of greatness the complete work would've had, but didn't have the probable full measure.Welles made several films after those two, including F for Fake, Touch of Evil, and The Trial. Although nothing he did was as well known as Citizen Kane, many of his movies were excellent and still remain worth seeing.He played Harry Lime, in The Third Man, and he wrote the most memorable lines of the character.After burning almost every bridge in Hollywood, he was reduced to doing mostly voiceover work...most infamously for a frozen peas commercial. His tagline in commercials for the Paul Masson winery, "We will sell no wine... before its time," became a meme in The Seventies. A bit of a Grammar Nazi.He was rather overweight in his later years, leading to many jokes relating to the fact that his final role would be that of a planet. What's funny is that his last role really was a planet. He died five days after finishing recording the voice of Unicron for the 1986 Transformers: The Movie.note In that short span of time, he blasted the movie. "I play a big toy who beats up all the little toys."Maurice LaMarche can do a spot-on impression of him. Has also been played by actors Vincent D'Onofrio in Ed Wood (with the voice dubbed over by LaMarche) and Christian McKay in the Richard Linklater film Me and Orson Welles.
Movies Directed by Welles:
Citizen Kane (1941) - Greatest movie ever made, yada yada yada.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) - The follow-up, with much of Kane's cast returning. The only one where Welles does not play any role, but he does narrate. The studio butchered it. Despite this, much like Kane, it is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947) - A really, really weird noir thriller with a famous climax in a hall of mirrors.
Macbeth (1948) - Low-budget adaptation of the Shakespeare play.
The Tragedy of Othello (1952) - Adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Welles famously filmed this on-and-off over a few years, taking small roles in other pictures to raise funds for this movie. (One of them was The Third Man.)
Mr. Arkadin (1955) - Imagine what Kane would have been like if Charles Foster Kane was still alive, he was asking other people to search for his memory, and all of it rapped in a spy thriller package, and you have a rough idea of what this is like.
Touch of Evil (1958) - The last movie he made for Hollywood, and one of the most acclaimed noirs ever made. There's a famous joke about this given by the Welles stand-in in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.
The Trial (1962) - Adaptation of the Franz Kafka book. Very odd stuff.
Chimes At Midnight (1965) - Combines material from five William Shakespeare plays centering around the boisterous but cowardly knight Falstaff, played by Welles himself. He called it his best movie.
The Immortal Story (1968) - His most obscure movie. Set in 19th century Macao.
F for Fake (1973) - Kind of a documentary about falsehood and illusions. Pay very close attention to what he says and try not to get fooled.
Achievements in Ignorance: The innovative style and special effects achieved in Citizen Kane partly stemmed from Welles' lack of knowledge of Hollywood production standards, which allowed him to Take a Third Option that others had long neglected.
Aging Tropes: A common theme in all of Welles' films is the passing of time, and growing old and how people look back on their lives and the time they have left.
"You ain't got a future, Hank. Your future is all used up!" - Marlene Dietrich, Touch of Evil
Auteur License: Among film-makers around the world, Orson Welles is highly regarded for being the first director to be explicitly given this by a major studio. He was given an exclusive two picture contract for a certain period of time(which expired during the middle of the production of The Magnificent Ambersons hence leaving him vulnerable) to produce, write, direct and act on any subject of his choice. This then unheard of initiative, given to an industry outsider, at the age of 25, over experienced professionals created a wave of jealousy and gossip which in a way fed to the backlash against Citizen Kane even in the year of its release. That said Welles had the support of old hands like John Ford, King Vidor and William Wyler.
The directors of the New Hollywood generation as well as the French New Wave, recognized Welles as The Pioneer for their kind of films, the goal being that every young director should make a film before they are 25, "just like Orson Welles."
"All of us will always owe him everything." - Jean-Luc Godard.
Backhanded Apology: When he apologized for War of the Worlds, he said he was stunned that people believed it was true. He basically called them stupid. In the actual program, the show is clearly presented as fictional, the level to which he copied the style of the news program was just that convincing.
Bavarian Fire Drill: As detailed in F for Fake, Welles's first professional acting job was when he was touring Europe at age 16 and ran out of money in Dublin. He then entered the famous Gate Theatre and demanded a part, claiming to be a famous American Broadway star. He got one. However, Michael MacLiammoir, one of the managers of the theater noted in his autobiography that the Gate Theatre knew he was lying but was so impressed with his spirit that they took him on anyway.
Big Badass Battle Sequence: The Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes At Midnight is considered by the people who have seen it, to be one of the greatest and most original of its kind. Shot on a low budget, it uses a cinema-verite approach rather than the epic long shots of the Epic Movie to show how in-your-face and gritty medieval battle was. This sequence inspired Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.
Big Eater: Legendarily so. His average dinner consisted of two steaks cooked rare and a pint of scotch, and at one time he ate 18 hot dogs in one sitting at a Los Angeles hot dog stand. This undoubtedly led to his later obesity and was a common source of jokes at his expense, including from himself:
"My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people."
Crying Wolf: A few years after The War of the Worlds broadcast, Welles was hosting a patriotic radio concert featuring poetry and music that was then interrupted with news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Nobody listening believed it until too late.
Deliberately Monochrome : Orson Welles preferred black and white to color. And with the exception of two films (F For Fake and The Immortal Story) all his films are in that form. He said that black-and-white made audiences put more focus on the actor's performance, especially the actor's eyes.
Downer Ending : Welles' refusal to pay even token fealty to The Hays Code and its insistence on happy endings was a problem on The Magnificent Ambersons. His films are generally pessimistic and dark, but done with such style that they are entertaining nevertheless. The only truly happy movie of his, is F for Fake.
Welles himself thought nothing of burying his face and body in mountains of make-up in all his films, convincingly playing a young, middle-aged and old Kane(at the age of 25), putting layers of fat on his body for Touch of Evil (not his actual weight despite his reputation, he wasn't that fat at the time) and making himself look like the God Neptune in Mr. Arkadin. The only film appearance of Welles without make-up at prime physical appearance was The Third Man.
Et Tu, Brute? : A theme that Welles returned to in his films is friendship that after a time leads to inevitable betrayal. Charles Kane and Leland, Othello and Iago, Hank Quinlan and Menzies, and Prince Hal and Falstaff. On account of pure coincidence, this theme is also present in The Third Man, with the same two actors from Kane, playing more or less the same relationship.
On a more literal note, Welles' theatre production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar featured him as Brutus.
Executive Meddling: Many of his films after Citizen Kane. Most infamously, The Magnificent Ambersons was cut by 40 minutes and had a new ending added on, Touch of Evil and The Lady From Shanghai were re-cut by the studio. As was Mr. Arkadin which took this Up to Eleven. The only Welles films which exist as per his vision are Citizen Kane, Macbeth, The Tragedy of Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, F For Fake.
The Magnificent Ambersons: Welles' cut was changed drastically by the studio without his permission. There were two previews of the film. At the first preview, editor Robert Wise stated that the test audiences were literally laughing at how bad it was, ninety percent of the score cards calling it terrible and the other ten percent calling the film a masterpiece. The second preview at Pasadena was vastly more favorable and audiences reacted to it with enthusiasm even if they felt it was bleak but the studio felt it was too much of a gamble and refused to listen to producer David O. Selznick who saw the original cut, loved it and insisted it be sent to the Museum of Modern Art. They cut out 40 minutes, shot a new ending and ordered that the original footage be burnt.
For Touch of Evil, he was barred from the editing room and later wrote a memo after seeing the film that was later put in the special edition release. In the memo he pointed out several flaws and minor changes that he believes could make the narrative flow better. The film has a famous Two Lines, No Waiting parallel storyline which was confusing to follow in the original release but flowed much smoother in the 90s Reconstruction edition which followed his memo.
The Stranger and The Lady From Shanghai were more or less studio films, done to re-establish himself in Hollywood and as a rule, directors had no say in the editing on those kind of films. Welles' independent career in Europe led to Mr. Arkadin, where the shady producer ended up barring Welles from the editing room and re-cut it, and subsequent releases had more and more recuts creating no less than 7 Arkadins. The Criterion Edition, is more or less offers the best of the versions.
Fake Brit: in his Shakespeare adaptations Chimes at Midnight and Macbeth, though only for the latter where he put on an affected Scottish accent. He plays Falstaff with his usual refined voice.
Film Noir: The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil. Although not a film noir, Citizen Kane greatly inspired the photography standards of what became film noir, being endlessly studied and imitated by DPs and film directors even in the 40s.
Although not a straight-up noir, his adaptation of The Trial still makes use of much of the mainstays of the genre, especially in terms of visuals and character archetypes.
Touch of Evil is regarded as the end of the Classic Film Noir period, since its visual style, and genre busting story completely broke away with so many genre and censorship limitations that the category was no longer necessary.
Franz Kafka: The Trial. Still probably the best adaptation of a Kafka work. Welles himself claimed that the film was among his favorites, calling it a hilarious comedy, though the film's ending has a Take That to the general bleakness of Kafka's works because of the Reality Subtext of post-WWII.
Genre-Busting: Orson Welles never did a straight genre piece (except The Stranger), taking any genre from the inside out and sometimes creating new genres.
Genre Turning Point: Because of Seinfeld Is Unfunny, it can be hard to appreciate how innovative Citizen Kane is. For one thing it was a film that used the best of Hollywood production facilities and craftsmanship to achieve powerful visual storytelling and use of sound, to suggest multiple layers of storytelling and psychological complexity. The narrative itself was highly complex for the time, generally avoiding neat solutions and not backing away from Downer Ending and criticizing America's idea of success. But more specifically it did this with ideas and conceits that was only possible with cinema. Visually and technically, it pioneered the use of Deep Focus cinematography which allowed action in the foreground and the background to be seen clearly, with the framing often creating a contrast between the same.
Likewise F for Fake completely turned traditional ideas of documentary around, becoming the Trope Codifier for a genre that some critics call an "essay film" in that it somehow takes a general subject but digresses to other areas and interests and somehow still fitting into the context. And its all true.
His Shakespeare adaptations, both on stage and film, were incredibly radical and ahead of their time in the way it magnified the subtext of the plays rather than a straight, safe, adaptation. Moreover his films are cinematic versions of Shakespeare, placing the bard's texts in scenes and images that are worthy of it, all through editing, set design and shot selection and never changing a word of the text.
Grammar Nazi: His mounting rage when a commercial director kept trying to make him read some awful, awful copy has achieved immortality as an Internet audio file.
Golden Age / End of an Age : A frequent theme in his films. Welles stated that the idea of a "Golden Age" was one of the great triumphs of human civilization and believed that the past was the one treasure everyone shared.
Specifically, The Magnificent Ambersons which was essentially the landscape of Welles' midwestern childhood, encroached on by the coming of the 20th Century. The sense of loss of the good old days was a bitter theme at the coming of World War II, where other films like Meet Me In St. Louis celebrated the past with Nostalgia Filter. This was one reason why the film fell to Executive Meddling.
Likewise, Chimes At Midnight, identified Falstaff as The Remnant of what Welles called "Merrie England", an age of freedom and zest typified by The Middle Ages which ends in the film, when Mistress Quickly notes that Falstaff lies in "Arthur's bosom."
This also led to his fascination and identification with Don Quixote which deals with the same theme.
I Love Lucy: Welles guest starred on an episode helpfully titled "Lucy Meets Orson Welles", which among other things referenced his love of magic and his infamous The War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Welles was also contracted to a Desilu pilot which ended in creative differences between himself and Desi Arnez.
In addition to this, Welles planned to launch his own TV show for which he directed a pilot, The Fountain of Youth which was produced by Desilu but it didn't catch on. The pilot is considered a cult title by aficionados for its formal inventiveness.
Ink-Suit Actor: Teamed up (as himself!) with Superman in Superman #62 (1950). Also appeared as his famous characters, Charles Foster Kane and Harry Lime in Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Large Ham: more in his later years as a character actor. Welles in his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich admitted that he took roles that were lesser than his abilities to fund his directorial efforts, he preferred that over directing commercial assignments like The Stranger which he felt was more trouble, for him, than it was worth.
Magnum Opus Dissonance: He found Kane to be an assemblage of gimmicks that painted an unfairly mean picture of some real people. The Trial and Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight were his favourites of his works. He also felt that The Magnificent Ambersons was his most personal film and that the original version was a more mature, darker and sadder work than Citizen Kane, indeed so dark that it went against the wartime mood.
He may have said this purely because of the effect that Kane had on his subsequent career (it painted a mean picture of the wrong people). Welles always regretted that Marion Davies, whose work with director King Vidor he admired, was unfairly associated with his film. That said, Welles did admit that Citizen Kane was the only film of his career where he had complete freedom of budget and Protection from Editors to achieve what he wanted.
The other reason for this was that people expected him to make another Kane while he was interested in making different kinds of films and experimenting with forms, so people who came to his newer films did not appreciate it on its own terms. His later films have proven to be incredibly influential as well.
Man of a Thousand Voices: Despite having a gifted, recognizable voice, Welles was an incredible mimic and impersonator. On some of his European films, when dubbing was expensive or sound was unavailable, Welles would dub his co-stars himself. Anthony Perkins on seeing The Trial couldn't tell the difference between the dialogue he recorded and the parts which Welles dubbed in.
The Mentor : As a young man, Welles' school principal Richard Hill encouraged his young prodigy who even then showed uncanny talent in his stage productions of Shakespeare at 15!
Gregg Toland, the cinematographer for Citizen Kane served as this for Welles. He had seen Welles' theater work and volunteered to work on Kane because he was himself an innovative artist and felt that Welles would try out new ideas that he long wanted to do. On the set, when the crew tried to explain to Welles that he was breaking normal protocol. Toland told them to back down because he felt that on his first film, it was more important that Welles preserve his instincts, leaving a professional like him to watch his back. For this Welles gave Toland a shared credit on the screen, something that was rare at the time.
Welles always regretted Toland's absence on The Magnificent Ambersons, the DP Stanley Cortez (who did shoot The Night of the Hunter, and Shock Corridor later) was also talented but far slower and the lack of rapport between him and Welles delayed the production, a factor that led to the famous crisis of its post-production.
Welles himself served as The Mentor for Robert Wise (who started as editor on his first two films, and would go on to have a long Hollywood career as director), Cy Endfield, and in his later years to the likes of Henry Jaglom and Peter Bogdanovich.
Missing Episode: At the time of Welles' death, he left a few projects that were partly shot but never edited, and started shooting scenes on films he intended to develop. This includes titles like The Deep, The Dreamers and his decade long back-and-forth shoot of Don Quixote.
The Other Side of the Wind, a late period Welles film that was supposedly "96% complete" in the 1970s but remains unreleased due to legal disputes. Recent reports suggest that there could be a chance of it re-emerging.
His F For Fake is a documentary with fictional elements and conceits which specifically deconstructs the claim and pretence of objectivity that the documentary form inherently grants its premise, insisting that anything edited, shot and scored to music has a subjective perspective. This aspect is present in the newsreel opening of Citizen Kane where RKO's own newsreel department helped in making the convincing, fake cheery ebullience of old-time newsreels.
Money, Dear Boy: The only reason he was in Transformers (or commercials), which he used to fund his directorial ventures. The money he earned from The Third Man went into the production of The Tragedy of Othello and Welles used this strategy to good and bad effects on all the films he made abroad. In his interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, he justifies this on the grounds of it being a Sadistic Choice between being a director-for-hire on stories he didn't care about and acting for others in roles beneath his talent, he chose the latter as he felt he couldn't devote interest and attention on a subject he'd rather not direct, becoming in the process one of the first independent film-makers.
Narrator: Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons and F for Fake. Also applies to many of the jobs he did for money.
The Oner: Two in Citizen Kane—the long shot into Susan's nightclub and the tracking shot up the ladder as Susan is singing—a four minute take in The Stranger that starts on a dirt road and follows Kindler and Meineke into the woods, and most famously the opening shot of Touch of Evil, a three minute, thirty second continuous take.
The Magnificent Ambersons has a famous ballroom sequence that remains incredibly breathtaking, for the variety of actors moving in the frame, the multiple layers in which the action takes place and the use of the sets and space for emotional effect, all in one long continuous take, a display of impeccable craftsmanship and meticulous planning and creative vision.
Macbeth likewise had the record for the longest take possible for a 35mm film magazine(which can go up to 10 minutes before needing to be changed) which contains an entire act of the play, the murder of Duncan, complete with dialogue and scenery, unaltered from the play, and the action takes place over multiple layers in the same frame with perfect synchonicity between the actors.
While the opening of 'Touch of Evil is famous, the scene Welles prized in the film as one of his best, is a long take where Quinlan in the course of a single take misdirects Charlton Heston's Vargas and plants evidence right under his very nose. Remarkable for the blocking (the movement of actors and positions) and the amount of action conveyed in a single take. Also the first scene shot for the film.
Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Interesting aversion; his production of Macbeth, set in a Hatian court invoking Voodoo and with an all-black cast, put him on the map as a theatrical prodigy. Welles was a progressive for his time however, and made the production with the intention of giving employment to talented African-American artists. Writer James Baldwin wrote in his memoirs that the production had a big impact on him.
Welles also provoked controversy when he discussed on radio the case of Isaac Woodard, an African American war veteran who was beaten a few hours after being discharged from service. Welles' stance led to his effigies being burnt in the South and years later he cited this experience for his anti-Racist Touch of Evil where he played the racist police officer Hank Quinlan who hated Mexicans.
Reality Subtext: Welles knew Anthony Perkins was gay (at the time, he eventually married a woman and had several children), and made The Trial a Coming-Out Story adaptation.
People claim that Citizen Kane was more about Welles than Hearst, Welles himself felt The Magnificent Ambersons was the story of his childhood in the Mid-West, claiming that the author based the hero George Amberson Minafer on Welles. The film historian Robert Carringer noted that the personal nature of the story played a role in the sabotage of the film.
Re Cut: A "director's cut" of Touch of Evil based on a contemporary Welles memo of how he wanted the film to be is now available on video.
Similarly, there are at least five cuts of Mr. Arkadin floating around out there, three of which are included in the Criterion DVD release.
The Shadow: Welles played the voice of Lamont Cranston and the Shadow from 1937 until 1938.
Teen Genius / Child Prodigy : Welles is the definitive example of this in film history. He made Citizen Kane at the age of 25, and spent years before that changing the landscape of American theatre and radio with his innovative productions and was a workaholic of epic proportions. The failure of Kane at the box-office and the disappointment of The Magnificent Ambersons post-release halted this flow. In F For Fake he lamented:
"I guess you could say that I started at the top and worked my way to the bottom."
Sophisticated as Hell: Welles admitted that he loved highbrow culture and lowbrow culture but hated middlebrow culture.
Those Wacky Nazis: The Stranger, in which actor/director Welles plays a Nazi war criminal hiding out in America under a fake identity. Although unlike most portrayals, this one pays considerable attention to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, notably being the first fictional feature film to show newsreel footage of the liberation of the concentration camps.
The most famous example is the "cuckoo clock" speech which became legendary among Welles imitators. Welles added that to the screenplay which was otherwise written by Graham Greene.
"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!"
In a similar vein Welles auditioned for the part of Vito Corleone in The Godfather but Coppola picked Marlon Brando instead. He felt so guilty about it that he offered Welles the part of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, but Welles turned it down.
In addition he left many film projects incomplete at the time of his death, including a film adaptation of Don Quixote (for which he shot footage, but left unedited) and a film starring his friend and fellow director Peter Bogdanovich.
In F For Fake he notes that an initial idea of Citizen Kane was to pattern it on Howard Hughes with Joseph Cotten as the billionaire, noting that with F For Fake he came full circle by dealing with Hughes in the wake of the scandal surrounding the fake biography of the 70s, which is the subject of the film.
William Shakespeare: Made his name in the 1930s with memorable stage adaptations of Julius Caesar and Macbeth. After going into Hollywood he made similarly well-regarded films of Othello and Macbeth as well as Chimes at Midnight, a reworking of the Henry IV plays or specifically a Deconstruction of the same, foregrounding Falstaff as the major character rather than Prince Hal.
"We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire where Mrs. Buckley lives. Every July, peas grow there..."
"Don't you think you really want to say "July" over the snow? Isn't that the fun of it?"