A pioneer in both radio and film, Orson Welles earned a great deal of fame and notoriety for his famed War of the Worlds broadcast before becoming one of Classic Hollywood’s most revolutionary directors.
With his very first movie, Citizen Kane, Welles directed what many consider to be the best film ever made. But it was a commercial failure, as were most of his other works, which ultimately became his tragic legacy and a source of ongoing frustration throughout his life.
Though active as a director for five decades, Welles made only a handful of films, largely due to his inability to secure financing for his increasingly experimental projects. Still, he remained a highly influential auteur whose pioneering techniques changed the course of Hollywood filmmaking.
Capitalizing on the fame earned from his notorious War of the Worlds
broadcast, Welles made the most celebrated directorial debut in cinema history with 1941’s Citizen Kane
, a bold and technically brilliant examination of the rise and fall of an idealist newspaper publisher, Charles Foster Kane (Welles) - modeled after real-life publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst - whose life is uncovered by an intrepid magazine reporter trying to uncover the meaning behind his dying last word, “Rosebud.” Welles employed a multitude of innovative techniques – deep focus photography, low-angle shots, newsreel footage, flashbacks, multiple points-of-view, a fluidly moving camera – to create a new filmmaking aesthetic that remained influential to generations of directors. Hailed by critics, Citizen Kane
met with financial failure at the box office, though it did earn nine Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director; Welles shared the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. Even decades later, Citizen Kane
topped most lists as being the greatest film ever made.
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Still working for RKO Pictures, Welles adapted of Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, a more conventional narrative that still employed the same techniques he developed in Citizen Kane. The film starred Joseph Cotten and focused the disintegration of a wealthy small-town family in the face of technological progress. Welles was unhappy with his initial edit of the film, as was RKO, which took over the job and cut an additional 40 minutes from the film while he was away in Brazil on another project. Despite Welles losing control of the movie, The Magnificent Amberson was an amazing cinematic achievement: a dark, but textured look at American life and progress at the turn of the century. His film was again hailed as a masterpiece, and like Citizen Kane, proved to be a commercial failure. Welles would struggle for the remainder of his career to recover from these two box office disappointments in spite of their artistic merits.
Welles continued to showcase his cinematic flair with The Lady from Shanghai
, a complex and visually stunning film noir that starred his soon-to-be ex-wife, Rita Hayworth
, as a mysterious woman who lures a seaman (Welles) into a web of deceit and murder. What results is a slow, steady descent into nightmarish confusion that ends with an audacious final shootout in a hall of mirrors, an indelible image that perfectly illustrated his character’s fractured psyche. No Academy Award nominations were forthcoming and the film was another financial disappointment. Even notorious producer Harry Cohn hated it and even went so far as to offer a reward to anyone who could explain the convoluted plot. But as with even his most experimental films, The Lady from Shanghai
grew in stature as time went on, with many contemporary critics praising its rich atmosphere and technical prowess.
Forced to work outside the studio system, Welles embarked on a trilogy of Shakespearean adaptations with Macbeth, in which he played the title role. Moody and atmospheric, Welles’ Macbeth was shot in three weeks using leftover sets from westerns made by Republic Studios and featured the actors speaking in thick Scottish burrs, much to the annoyance of audiences who saw the movie in early test screenings. Still, the film featured as its centerpiece a sequence of Macbeth killing the king that Welles shot in one long continuous take – a technique he later used to great effect in the opening of Touch of Evil. Ultimately, Macbeth was released to little fanfare in theaters following an abrupt withdrawal from the Venice Film Festival. A new version recut by the studio was released in 1950 and actually earned Republic a profit. But by then, Welles had long become embittered by his experience.
After the failure of Macbeth, Welles began a self-imposed exile from Hollywood that lasted for nearly a decade. He continued directing, of course, and made the second of his Shakespeare trilogy – the third being 1965’s Chimes at Midnight – with his take on Othello. Welles donned blackface makeup to portray the jealous Moor and this time earned a far greater achievement than his previous foray into The Bard’s territory, which was something of a small miracle given the problems that beset his production. All throughout, Welles struggled to find the money to continue and ultimately spent four years making the movie, often employing different actors in some roles – most notably Desdemona – and dubbing actor’s lines with his own voice. Somehow Welles was able to piece together a cohesive film, which gained substantial critical acclaim and won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but was largely ignored in the United States.
Welles ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Hollywood to direct Touch of Evil
, a film noir
masterpiece starring Charlton Heston
as a Mexican police officer who gets framed for a border murder by his corrupt American counterpart (played by an extremely overweight Welles). With an opening sequence of a car bombing that was shot in one long tracking take, it was clear that the director was up to his old tricks and created a vividly inventive film that perfectly showcased his vision of a world steeped in moral decay. As one of the last movies made during the classic film noir period, Touch of Evil
remained one of the genre’s finest examples. It also marked the last truly great film Welles directed, as his increasingly experimental style alienated both studios and audiences, while he personally fell on hard financial times from which he was unable to fully recover.