All’s Welles that Ends Welles

Tom Horgen

Orson Welles made more movies than Citizen Kane. It’s true. And while the rest of them aren’t stuck in a vacuum where every film critic, filmmaker and filmgoer constantly cheers “best film ever,” they are great too.

The Oak Street Cinema knows this, and has put together another ambitious retrospective. The Essential Auteur: A Week of Welles explores six films directed by the master. They include his most pondered films: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai and The Magnificent Ambersons. And two gems often overshadowed by those giants, The Stranger and Mr. Arkadin, are here as well.

Actually, Welles and Citizen Kane are here, and everywhere else, all the time. Like the omnipresence of his camera, the man and his masterpiece are ubiquitous. Each time you dash off to the theater or page through Entertainment Weekly, the cinema’s demigod and his crowning achievement are constantly lurking. And it’s been that way since 1941, when a 25-year-old Welles was given the tools to mold a dream. Talented collaborators, the finest studios, money and total creative control were his.

And in return, he gave us Citizen Kane. He scooped up every technique learned in the sound era and constructed a tower of influence. Since then, movie-lovers, filmmakers and even our pets are told: Citizen Kane is number one. The dogma can be intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. Bob Cowgill, Oak Street’s executive director, adores the film’s innovation but said it is also accessible as one of the great American texts.

Citizen Kane is one of the best case studies of the American dream and its double-edged quality,” he said.

But Welles didn’t influence the next 60 years of filmmaking with just a good story. It was the way he told the story. His use of deep focus camera work didn’t just create a visual equilibrium between objects near and far, it gave filmgoers realism. The viewer could direct their attention to any part of the frame, Welles then dictated the movement and position of his actors in order to direct the audience’s attention. During long takes, the ones that drive Jerry Bruckheimer mad, watch the actors’ heads. Actually you’ll be forced to. It’s beautiful manipulation. Oh, and those dynamic camera angles. Welles loved the low ones best and we loved the powerful evocation.

But Welles believed his complex use of time was the film’s most important technique. Spanning a lifetime, the story is told from multiple perspectives using overlapping dialogue to bounce from era to era. “It’s breaking up the straightforward, linear narrative,” Cowgill said, “It almost makes the film modernist.” He cites recent time-benders like Memento as descendants of the film.

“Welles was pointing to that direction in 1941,” he said.

Rumblings of uncertainty in the discussion about Welles’ monopoly of influence have bubbled up throughout the years. In 1971, the critic’s critic, Pauline Kael, penned the notorious essay “Raising Kane,” which usurped Welles’ creative role in Citizen Kane in favor of co-writer Herman Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland. When we place Citizen Kane in the context of his subsequent work, however, this argument falls apart. Welles would never work with Toland or Mankiewicz again, but his films would always brim with visual excitement and his stories would always kick with political intrigue.

One thing would be different though. He would never have total control over a Hollywood production again. Every Hollywood film after Citizen Kane would fall onto the chopping block, recut by the studio. He became a failed prototype for today’s indie-directors who yearn for studio backing. Like Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and Spike Jonze, Welles plunged his personality into his films. While Citizen Kane does echo the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, much of it, as with Magnificent Ambersons, is all Welles. For the greater part of his career, he worked independently but would have rather worked inside the machine for its technical delights. Look at Wes Anderson. His Royal Tennenbaums reminds us the Amberson family. But Anderson stands in the position Welles could never maintain. Shedding his indie skin but keeping his peculiar voice, he now fiddles with Gene Hackman and pretty budgets, all while keeping total creative control.

Oddly enough, as each of Welles’ Hollywood films were recut by the studio, in order to appeal more commercially, his genius could never be suppressed. Francois Truffaut, figurehead of the French New Wave, called The Magnificent Ambersons “a mutilated masterpiece.” The film, a critique of the American aristocracy’s disintegration and the automobile’s creation, was too dark for test audiences in 1942. The studio hacked off 45 minutes in exchange for smiles, but the film’s true voice could not be silenced.

The bloodletting continued with Touch of Evil in 1958, Welles’ last studio film. Discounted in America, this darkly satiric example of film noir was celebrated in Europe, specifically by New Wavers Jean-Luc Godard and Truffaut. Along with other directors such as Hitchcock, they championed him as an “auteur” (sole author of his films). A 58-page memo written by Welles in 1958 was recently used to restore Touch of Evil to his original vision.

Welles’ films noir, The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, are striking reminders of his advanced ability. The films pulsate with robust camera work. He’s announcing shots, playing with film speed, fast and slow. “(The Lady from Shanghai) is the most modern looking film of the ’40s,” Cowgill said. And then holding his breath without cutting for three, four, and five minutes in Touch of Evil. The master has said he dislikes such showiness in other films. But, five-minute shots help tell the story in his. Uh-huh.

Cowgill said it’s time again for the Oak Street to announce itself, but with a little help from citizen Welles.

“There is a whole new generation of students who haven’t experienced the Oak Street,” he said. “It’s time to reassert who we are.”

And who better to help out?

Students, filmgoers, meet Orson.


Essential Auteur: A Week of Welles plays through Oct. 3 at Oak Street Cinema, (612) 331-3134