Orson Welles – The Genius of World Film

This year we celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of birth (May 6 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin) and thirty years of the death (October 10, 1985 in Hollywood) of Orson Welles, one of the most important and original filmmakers in the history of world cinema whose debut Citizen Kane (1941) is by many regarded as best film of all time

This opinion is further enhanced by the new way of organizing and designing the story, completely different way of using sound (based on Welles’s rich work experience on radio), use of until then rarely tried out lenses (wide angle lens and lens with a depth of field), which, in collaboration with the great cinematographer Gregg Toland, enabled him to create an impressive film reminiscent of expressionism as well as creation of complex and changing relationships between characters within a single shot without the aid of editing.

He did all that as twenty-year-old man, and starred in the film as well. However, at that age he already had significant experience as a theatre and radio director whose sensational adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds for radio is still legendary. In 1938, due to its powerful illusion of documentary and suggestiveness this radio drama made many Americans leave their homes in fear of an invasion of Martians. After Welles won several Oscars for Citizen Kane (best film, director, actor and screenplay together with Herman J. Mankiewicz), while Toland won it as best cinematographer and the film had several other nominations, Welles turned to film entirely.

Nevertheless, things did not go smoothly as one could have expected after such a successful start in his career. In spite of awards and recognition, Kane and his next film The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), did not achieve commercial success and so began his troubles with Hollywood producers who often shortened his films in order to make them more attractive to the wide audience. Even in his popular genre films, Welles always brought his inventiveness as a director, which was not understood by a certain part of viewers. Therefore, part of the audience was baffled by the elliptical structure of the film The Lady from Shanghai (1947), which is otherwise a visually rich and inventive film noir (with elements of drama) starring Welles as well as hiss then wife and one of the most popular actresses Rita Hayworth. The film ends with one of the most anthological scenes in history of film. However, Welles as author seized to enjoy the trust of Hollywood and started to make films in Europe and find European co-producers more often. He shot Mr. Arkadin (1955), one of his most ambitious projects in Europe. In its unusual dramaturgical procedure and atmosphere it is similar to Citizen Kane as well as in the story about a destiny of a mysterious rich man, arms dealer who eliminates everyone who knows anything about his dark secrets. In 1958, for the Hollywood Universal International studio, he directed Touch of Evil, one of the best film noir films of all time. Especially fascinating is the introductory sequence as well as the character of the sheriff played by Welles himself who impressively portrays him as a man larger than life and a sheriff who rose above law and thus is in constant conflict with the Mexican inspector Vargas played by Charlton Heston.

Welles portrayed such extremely powerful and unusual characters in all four aforementioned films, combining physical strength and corpulence with the ease of movement, and a threatening appearance with a sometimes almost boyishly innocent look. Such extreme film personality and charisma made him a much more desirable and wanted actor than director because he managed to make the characters he played more charismatic and dominant. This is apparent in the praised film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1944) directed by Robert Stevenson. In this film, in our parts known as Poor Girl from Lowood, thanks to the power of his actor persona, Welles in the role of the lord Edward Rochester managed to make theatricality
and adding of Shakespearian tones quite convincing. He is a misanthrope who hires the heroine form the film’s title to take care of his young daughter. Jane Eyre is played by then popular Joan Fontaine who nevertheless remained overshadowed by Welles, which represented quite a difference in comparison to the literary original, but nonetheless added to the value of the film itself. Playing in an unbelievably ingenious way with the limits of life persuasiveness and film illusion, Welels as an actor succeeded to add a special charm even to those films that would otherwise have been quite average, such as the melodrama by Irving Pichel from 1946 Tomorrow Is Forever. In the master piece by Carol Reed The Third Man (1949), which is often at the top of the list of best films of all time, Welles created an unbelievable acting achievement with the role of Harry Lime (short appearance in minutes). His interpretation of this unscrupulous black market operative became not just a suggestive combination of the demonic and human but also the character that dominates the entire film even in the parts in which he is not directly on screen, but one certainly feels his presence.

Welles himself, a hundred years after his birth and thirty after his death, is undoubtedly still present in world film. Not just because of his crucial historical contribution to world film but also due to his living influence on many contemporary film makers thanks to which he remains one of its main components. (Tomislav Kurelec)