Orson Welles – director, writer, rebel, maverick, star – was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1915 to a sickly concert pianist and an alcoholic inventor, and introduced himself to America by causing mass panic. As Welles recited his War of the Worlds radio play on October 30, 1938, legend has it that his threatening, sonorous baritone sent Americans running for the hills screaming of Martian invasion. Overnight, he was catapulted to stardom.
Welles was a genius, and no one believed it more than he did. At the age of 10 he ran away from home and was found a week later singing for money on a street corner. In his teens, he marched into a theatre in Ireland and introduced himself as a Broadway star, convincing the stage manager to cast him as the lead in their next play. Welles only ever worked on terms that were defiantly his own, and he left every competitor trailing in his slipstream.
To be described as an auteur – a director with enough stature to command total and absolute control – is the highest accolade one can pay to a filmmaker. Welles filled every frame of his films with his personality. Critic Andrew Sarris called Citizen Kane, which Welles wrote, directed and starred in, ‘the work that influenced the cinema more profoundly than any American film since The Birth of a Nation.’ At the time of shooting, Welles was 24.
Everyone can recall the sight of Charles Foster Kane riding Rosebud through the snow as his mother negotiates his departure, or the three-minute tracking shot at the start of Touch of Evil as Charlton Heston rides into the US from the Mexico border, a bomb in the trunk of his car. Everyone can recall the indefinable look on Welles’ face as he walks between the mirrors in Xanadu, or when he emerges from the shadows of Vienna in The Third Man.
Working at the height of the studio era, where staid panning, rhythmic cutting and boxy, conservative composition were de rigueur, Welles punctuated his films with nonlinear narratives, heavily-wrought chiaroscuro, wholly unpredictable camera angles, off-the-wall sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus lensing that leant a previously unrealised depth of field, and long takes that a modern steady-cam would struggle to accomplish.
To the Hollywood suits, this uninhibited auteurism was as alien as the creatures described in War of the Worlds. Hollywood was, and still is, an industry dominated by formula. Directors were treated with the disdain of hired guns, actors were swapped like pawns and films were shot with the regularity of shift-work.
Orson Welles wanted everything, right now, and his career can be viewed as a case of too much, too soon. In 1941, RKO offered a contract to an untried director that has never been repeated; Welles was given complete artistic control for a two-year shoot. The result, Citizen Kane, may be widely considered the best film ever made, but it’s one that haemorrhaged money.
By the time of Welles’ second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, in 1942, his right to the final cut was revoked and RKO President George Schaefer, desperate to recoup the cash he’d burned on Kane, was ratcheting up the pressure. Welles insisted on a set constructed like a real house, in which the walls could roll back, be raised or lowered to allow the camera to appear to pass through them in a continuous take. The film went careering over schedule and budget. Welles’ final version stood at 135 minutes and he refused any changes before heading to Brazil to work on another project.
With the director out of the country, RKO slimmed the film by 50 minutes, reordered the scenes, tacked on a happy ending and destroyed the original negatives to free up vault space. The film tanked at the box office and, when Welles returned to the US, he found himself shunned by the major studios.
By the late ’40s, Welles’ reputation in the States was in freefall. He’d embarked on a disastrously expensive stage version of Around the World in 80 Days in 1946, which had to be bailed out by Columbia President Harry Cohn. In exchange, Welles agreed to write, direct, produce and star in a film for free. The result was 1947’s Lady From Shanghai. When Cohn saw the final cut of this abstract murder mystery, he offered $1000 to anyone who could explain the plot.
In 1948, Welles’ Macbeth was heralded as another failure in the US, but was celebrated in Europe. Sensing which way the wind blew, he departed for his European odyssey, starring in Carol Reed’s British noir The Third Man in 1950, casting himself as Othello in 1952, before filming in Italy, Spain, Germany and France for 1955’s Mr Arkadin.
On his return to America, Welles finally returned to form. He reunited many of Kane’s technical team on 1958’s Touch of Evil, finishing the shoot on schedule and within budget. But Universal still demanded re-edits, and when Welles sent them a 58-page list of rejections, the studio responded by cutting another 30 minutes. Welles insisted on being disassociated from the film. It was only 30 years later, after his death, that the film was released as Welles originally intended.
Welles never did come to terms with the hard truisms of the American film machine. He raged, sometimes successfully, often pointlessly, against the moneymen and their entrenched methods. By the end of his life, he possessed an elephant’s graveyard of epic projects that lay in a state of half completion or had been cut to ribbons. They are now nothing more than footnotes in his epitaph.
Welles suffered from the Rosebud syndrome; a true individualist in an industry defined by collaboration. He finally transformed into his own Charles Foster Kane; he died in Hollywood in 1985, estranged and alone, obese and depressed, trapped in his own Xanadu.