“A film is never good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”
No director had as quick a rise, or as long and painful a fall, as Orson Welles. Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and raised mostly in boarding schools, he began his career on stage, where he became friends with playwright Thornton Wilder. He also worked in radio and lent his ingenuity and impressive basso profundo to the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. When he was twenty-five, Hollywood came calling, and RKO Pictures offered him an unprecedented picture deal with complete creative control. The inexperienced Welles chose as his first feature film a veiled biography of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He called it Citizen Kane. Casting himself in the lead, with his Mercury Theater company filling out the ensemble, it was shot by legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, scored by incomparable composer Bernard Herman, and cut by Robert Wise, who went on to direct The Sound of Music. Kane was groundbreaking on virtually every level: it invented the sound bridge, when a line of dialogue creates a segue between scenes; the makeup convincingly aged Welles and his young costars fifty years; and its visual effects innovated what could be done with miniatures and models. The cinematography was revolutionary, with its chiaroscuro lighting, deep-focus compositions, and radically low angles. Its story, put reductively, recounts the life of a recently deceased millionaire, relayed via the shaky memories of his closest acquaintances, and it employs an elaborate non-linearity to convey a tragedy of American ambition, soulless materialism and fractured relationships founded on egotism and pride. Citizen Kane was received well by critics, but failed financially, due to Hearst’s successful suppression of its marketing. It wasn’t embraced fully until it started to play on television in the 1960’s. The losses meant that no studio ever trusted Welles again, that he was doomed to a creative life of tribulation and disillusionment. His follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, a genteel drama based on Booth Tarkington’s novel, was ruinously recut by the studio. The existing version is lauded by some, regardless that the filmmaker’s original conception was lost forever. Next, he made several notable contributions to the Film Noir genre (The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin). A true literate intellectual, he adapted Shakespeare to the screen three times (Macbeth, Othello and Chimes At Midnight), and updated Franz Kafka’s The Trial, as well. Even his first pitch to RKO, rejected because of budgetary concerns, was a version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to be filmed completely from the protagonist’s point-of-view. Welles’ high-brow tastes made him a misfit in Hollywood, which is why much of his work was produced abroad, mostly in France. However, we can see in all his films — in the thick sleaze of Touch of Evil, with its virtuosic opening long-take; in the combination romanticism and realism of Ambersons; in The Trial’s reworking of Kafka’s faceless machine for the twentieth-century bureaucracy — that Welles was brimming with fearless, frustrated genius. His last movie as director was the seminal documentary F For Fake, a filmic “essay” about the inherent deception of art. Welles acted regularly throughout his life, too, in classics such as The Third Man, Jane Eyre and Moby Dick. All tolled, however, he only directed eleven movies, and left behind hundreds of unrealized projects when he died from a heart attack in 1985. The worth of his full oeuvre is hotly debated amongst critics, for his subsequent work never quite soared to the heights of Citizen Kane. Welles was always reluctant to accept that his first picture was his best, but it had an indisputable impact on cinema, bisected its history into a before time and an after. Seriously, Kane is that important to the art of film. Its creator was a wunderkind who flew too close to the sun but did however touch greatness during that brief period of flight.
Before you take that trip to the big movie-theater in the sky, watch: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, Touch of Evil and The Trial.