"A Dark Genius Haunts The Hollywood He Taunted"
By ALEX ROSS
New York Times, January 21, 1996
"A genius in Hollywood's dictionary," Orson Welles once said, "is someone who is either unavailable or dead."
Welles died in 1985; he has been a genius for more than 10 years now, and Hollywood pays him tribute. In "Get Shorty," John Travolta recites dialogue from memory as he watches "Touch of Evil," the Welles film noir that bombed in 1958 and has been gaining admirers ever since. In "The Player," Robert Altman mimics the endless tracking shot that opens "Touch of Evil"; Brian De Palma did the same in "The Bonfire of the Vanities." "Ed Wood" goes one better and resurrects Welles himself, in a 50's Hollywood setting. The practice of quoting "Touch of Evil" actually goes back to Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), which played variations on a scene of Janet Leigh marooned in a spooky roadside motel.
And "Touch of Evil" is not even Welles's best-known movie. "Citizen Kane," which Welles directed, produced, co-wrote and performed at the age of 25, haunts Hollywood no end. The latest homage is Oliver Stone's "Nixon," which lifts great chunks of "Kane": a rain-swept mansion glimpsed through an iron gate; a mock newsreel biography; a tyrant regarding his wife down an elongated dinner table; the central motif of Bernard Herrmann's score. Hundreds of films have made similar obeisances, if none quite so brazenly as "Nixon." Welles is what American directors want to become, or overcome.
He has not, however, ascended to an untouchable pantheon. There is still furious debate about the meaning of his career. Biographies appear every few years: the latest is Simon Callow's "Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu" (Viking), covering the years up to 1941 and "Citizen Kane." A video documentary, "The Battle Over Citizen Kane," is being shown this week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and broadcast on Monday, Jan. 29, on PBS; it traces parallels between Welles and William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who inspired "Kane," then tried to have it destroyed. Both the documentary and the book paint Welles as a man doomed to artistic failure.
The idea that Welles directed "Kane" and little else of consequence is a myth that refuses to die. "Touch of Evil" alone ought to annul it. In the last few years, other little-known achievements have re-emerged: "It's All True," his aborted Brazilian documentary; restored versions of "Othello" and "Macbeth," shot on shoestring budgets in the late 1940's and early 50's; a video release of "F for Fake," Welles's meditation on the art of forgery; even a reconstruction of his unfinished "Don Quixote." That a nearly complete feature film, "The Other Side of the Wind," remains unreleased means that a final judgment cannot be rendered.
Welles remains elusive for other reasons. For one, he still looms so large as a personality, or a succession of personalities -- arrogant boy wonder, international bon vivant, sad old man -- that it is difficult to appreciate his silent work as a director. Second, he leaves an ambiguous legacy for film itself: he had the aura of a showman, but at the same time his jagged style consistently put off the general moviegoing public. He seemed to delight in building up great expectations and then completely confounding them. Oliver Stone notwithstanding, he is still the most radical filmmaker who has ever worked in Hollywood.
The Man: A Thrice-Told Tale Of Rise and Fall
The story of the young Welles, who came roaring down from Chicago and conquered American theater, radio and film by his mid-20's, is astonishing in itself, although it stands apart from his maverick film career. He made his professional stage debut at the Gate Theater in Dublin, as a 16-year-old on a summer trip. He later claimed that he had lied his way into the job, saying he was a famous New York actor. It is one of the caustic little triumphs of Mr. Callow's entertaining, endlessly carping biography to show that Welles said no such thing; he lied about his lying. That's the churlish way to look at it. You could also say that Welles was a great storyteller.
He established himself in New York by directing mostly classical repertory in startlingly offbeat settings. His first productions all had revolutionary impact: a "voodoo 'Macbeth' " with an all-black cast; "The Cradle Will Rock," Marc Blitzstein's leftist musical; "Julius Caesar" in fascist guise. (Ian McKellen's 1930's-era "Richard III," now in theaters, is another bit of Wellesian legacy.) He was also furiously prolific on radio, mixing melodrama and documentary realism. In the notoriety that resulted from one of his experiments, the panic-inducing "War of the Worlds," he gained a contract at RKO Pictures to make six movies, with total creative control.
Arriving in Hollywood, he instantly aroused rabid dislike and envy. Nearly a year went by without results, despite talk of an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Almost in desperation, Welles seized on a pet notion of the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, to make a film a clef about Hearst. Less than a year later, "Citizen Kane" was complete. Despite technical excellence in every department, it was notable above all for the headlong force of its storytelling; Welles attacked his subject from all sides and angles, gaining more from the process of the search than from the small secret discovered in the end.
Skeptics insist that Welles did little for the script and therefore did not "author" the movie. John Houseman, who worked with Welles at the Mercury Theater and assisted Mankiewicz on "Kane," first made this claim; the film critic Pauline Kael popularized it in the 1970's, and "The Road to Xanadu" tenuously revives it.
"He added none of his own words," Mr. Callow writes insinuatingly of Welles's work on the first draft; one has to read closely to see the director's galvanic contributions to a later version, which are documented by Houseman's own papers from the period. Mr. Callow also questionably asserts that Welles tried to suppress Mankiewicz's screen credit. The Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum rebuts these long-standing charges in his notes to "This Is Orson Welles," a 1992 collection of interviews by Peter Bogdanovich.
The other issue with "Kane" is its commercial failure. The fact that a film now loved was once disliked sends many people looking for scapegoats. Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein's "Kane" documentary offers a double explanation: that "Kane" fell victim to Hearst's wrath, and that Welles more or less committed suicide by taking Hearst on. But Hearst was only the film's point of departure; the finished script also drew heavily on personalities Welles knew in Chicago: in particular, the opera patron Harold McCormick and his mediocre soprano lover. From that material came the movie's most astonishing scene, the majestic disaster of Susan Alexander's debut.
The plain reality is that Welles's style baffled most audiences. Several theater chains did ban "Kane" at Hearst's request, but the film also failed in friendly theaters despite heavy marketing. Similar perplexity greeted "The Magnificent Ambersons" a year later; for this film adaptation of a Booth Tarkington novel, Welles wrote his own screenplay, a formidable piece of work blending high drama and a kind of film essay on the mechanization of middle America. The story of the decline of a family was told in an eerily lyrical style, very different from the ruckus of "Kane."
Welles's Hollywood career suffered a permanent setback when "Ambersons" was shown to a legendarily dyspeptic preview audience in Pomona, Calif. Two-thirds of the crowd, fresh from a Dorothy Lamour musical, recoiled from the film's bleak ending: "as bad if not worse than 'Citizen Kane' " was one comment. The other third applauded. Welles was away, filming "It's All True" in Brazil, and could not influence the savage studio re-editing that followed; but the film's fate would probably have been the same if he had stayed. Even in damaged form, "Ambersons" remains Welles's most haunting, heartfelt work.
This is not to say that Welles caused none of his own troubles. He alienated skilled collaborators; he took on too much at once; he cheapened his name with cameo roles and talk-show antics, even while trying to finance his serious work. As his friend and collaborator Charlton Heston observed, he often lost patience with the final stages of post-production, leaving technical imperfections galore. He also made dreadful business decisions and seemed innately accident-prone. Who else could have made a film that became part of the contested estate of the Shah of Iran? Such was the temporary fate of "The Other Side of the Wind," Welles's anarchic Hollywood satire, which has since returned to friendly hands and should eventually find release. (Tantalizing fragments can be seen in the 1975 American Film Institute tribute to Welles.)
When an artist has been dead for a decade, it is time to stop fantasizing about "lost potential." A matchless improviser and solver of problems (even when self-created), Welles made a virtue of substandard conditions. Mr. Heston once noted that Welles spent less money on all his films put together than Mike Nichols spent in overruns on "Catch-22." Despite the sometimes desperate haste of his work, he maintained an astonishing consistency of style and theme. No director ever did so much with so little.
The Style: Lively Images, Lightning Speed
What is the Welles style? One thinks first of quirky angles, patterning of light and dark, an active and continually moving camera. Young directors in Hollywood take the influence of Welles as a license to send the camera spinning in all directions. Welles himself used the "Welles style" more judiciously. His visual designs took after the dramatic context: the long tracking shot in "Touch of Evil" rides on the suspense created by the introduction of a ticking bomb in the first frame; the abrupt juxtapositions of "Kane" match the cacophonous voices chasing the title character; the gentle flow of "Ambersons" mirrors the ebbing away of time and value.
Welles had a perfect intuitive sense of how to place the camera in order to obtain painterly compositions on screen. Exhilarating images crop up in all of his work, no matter who is handling cinematography or design. A supreme example is "Othello," which was cobbled together over three years in Italy and Morocco. Despite the demented shooting schedule, Welles maintained an airy, glistening look in every frame. The other side of his visual style is his strictness in editing: images flash with lightning speed, setting up a situation in a few strokes, or casting doubt on it with sidelong glances.
But Welles was more than a manufacturer of style. He was also a thinker: not a great thinker but one who brought his ideas to dramatic life. His one consuming interest was in the mystery of human character, mostly his own, and in the impossibility of ever completely subduing it. He hated all encroachments of authority and institutional power: "Citizen Kane" meticulously destroys its tyrannical, exploitative hero, and "The Trial," a grandly amusing elaboration of Kafka's novel, lashes out at agents of the law. In the flawed but very personal "Chimes at Midnight," an anthology of Falstaff scenes in Shakespeare, Prince Hal's renunciation of Falstaff becomes a demonic moment, the making of a dictator.
A skeptic of the physical realm, Welles loved to introduce telltale objects in relation to individuals and then unmask such evidence as ambiguous, deceptive, oppressive. In "Citizen Kane," Rosebud is a false lead, signifying nothing; in the sleek adaptation of "Othello," everything turns on Desdemona's falsely incriminating handkerchief. But it is "Touch of Evil," the dark little B-movie thriller, that takes this theme the farthest. A bomb explodes; a young Mexican is accused; a bigoted Texas detective named Hank Quinlan thinks the Mexican is guilty and must invent evidence to prove it. The detective, eventually driven to murder, leaves behind an obvious clue of the kind he so often plants at crime scenes.
With pointedly artificial sets and eruptions of surreal comedy, "Touch of Evil" throws layer upon layer of doubt on its tight crime scenario. The setting is a Mexican border town, but ingeniously perverse casting makes nonsense of the border and of Quinlan's prejudiced view of it. (Akim Tamiroff plays a grotesque Mexican stereotype, while Marlene Dietrich and Charlton Heston play themselves.) Quinlan and the camera slowly go mad. But Quinlan is given an ironic redeeming truth: he has arrested the right man. For all its tricks, the movie exists to serve this one ugly character, this corrupt, correct detective. He is an abomination, but as Dietrich says, he is "some kind of a man." To say that this film is timely is the least of it; "Touch of Evil" might be Welles's topsy-turvy masterpiece.
Welles's last complete work, the quasi-documentary "F for Fake," is his most intellectually ambitious. Following in the footsteps of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Mann (briefly a neighbor on North Rockingham Avenue in Los Angeles), Welles argues that the artist is a faker, poser, confidence man. He takes footage from someone else's documentary about the art forger Elmyr de Hory; he interviews Hory's biographer, Clifford Irving; he then describes Irving's own famous act of forgery, the faking of the diaries of the billionaire Howard Hughes; finally, he adds a beautiful hoax of his own. One is left feeling dizzy, looking at empty space and a magician's smile. But the smile is everything: the triumph of character over circumstances.
Welles Now: Poor Imitations Of the Inimitable
"I hate homages," Welles said. He also said that he refused to watch movies more than two hours long, because they hurt his back. So he probably would not have enjoyed "Nixon," which learns woefully little from "Citizen Kane" in the art of concision and compression. Tim Burton's homage in "Ed Wood" is affectionate but erroneous: it has Welles complaining that the studio has forced him to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican, whereas that strange notion was entirely Welles's. The nod to "Touch of Evil" in "The Player" is more apt in its sinuous irony. The studio security guy praises Welles, forgetting that his predecessor at Universal barred the genius from the lot.
Welles is everywhere, but he is poorly understood. There is so much that is not learned from him in movies today: the ability to establish a situation with fast, economical shots; the ability to focus on minimal, significant bits of business rather than overpowering, meaningless decor; the ability to use the camera confidently without calling undue attention to its movement. Above all, Wellesian homages ring hollow because they cannot match Welles's flair for building a story out of style. How he managed to edit images into a rhythm that echoed his own warm, sardonic voice is a mystery that is not easily grasped or duplicated.
If Welles had lived a few more years, he might have profited from the growth of a small industry for independent film. Indeed, some studios are now willing to take on "prestige" film makers even if they fail to make a profit. But Welles was better suited to go his own way. Hollywood movie-making is generally a collaborative art; Welles was no collaborator. Like D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim before him, he was too idiosyncratic to work comfortably within the Hollywood system. Neither did he make "art" films, lampooned in "The Other Side of the Wind"; he was an old-fashioned magician, making grand illusions out of trivial fragments.
The best homage would be to bring "The Other Side of the Wind" to the light of day. No more biographies are needed; the same old story of Welles's rise and fall is told too often. As Peter Bogdanovich pointed out in "This Is Orson Welles," the wonder of this director's career is not that he accomplished so little but that he accomplished so much. After a defeat on the scale of the "Ambersons" episode, anyone else would have given up; Griffith and Stroheim did in their day. But Welles kept on going. He turned out dozens upon dozens of scripts, a few of which might still make good movies. He died alone, at his typewriter, still searching.