The Film 100: Orson Welles, no. 5


Welles’s appearance as Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’ (1949) has been called the greatest screen entrance ever.

Born: May 6, 1915, Kenosha, WI
Died: October 10, 1985, Los Angeles, CA

He was responsible for inspiring more people to be film directors than anyone else in the history of the cinema.
—Martin Scorsese

The true potential of Orson Welles is one of cinema’s greatest mysteries. A wickedly clever man with unparalleled bravura and innate dramatic flair, he became a pariah in the studio system of the 1940s and sank into a pattern of excessive living and professional bargaining that tainted his genius forever. To this day, his admirers are haunted by what might have been. After all, the only real shot this gifted director ever had to make a movie with the full support of a major studio resulted in the crowning achievement of the film world.

The Film 100
1. W.K. Laurie Dickson
2  Edwin S. Porter
3. Charlie Chaplin
4. Mary Pickford
5. Orson Welles
6. Alfred Hitchcock
7. Walt Disney
8. D.W. Griffith
9. Will Hays
10 Thomas Edison
11. John Wayne
12. J.R. Bray
13. Billy Bitzer
14. Jesse Lasky
15. George Eastman
16. Sergei Eisenstein
17. André Bazin
18. Irving Thalberg
19. Thomas Ince
20. Marlon Brando
21. Louis B. Mayer
22. Greta Garbo
23. Robert Flaherty
24. Lon Chaney
25. Anita Loos
26. George Méliès
27. Adolph Zukor
28. John Gilbert
29. Max Fleischer
30. John Ford
31. William Fox
32. George Lucas
33. Linwood Gale Dunn
34. Eadweard Muybridge
35. Katharine Hepburn
36. Winsor McCay
37. Stanley Kubrick
38. Buster Keaton
39. James Agee
40. Fritz Lang
41. Marcus Loew
42. Cedric Gibbons
43. James Cagney
44. Ben Hecht
45. Ingmar Bergman
46. Humphrey Bogart
47. Leon Schlesinger
48. Louella Parsons
49. Roger Corman
50. Edith Head
51. Bernard Herrmann
52. Gary Cooper
53. Mike Todd
54. Ernst Lubitsch
55. Sidney Poitier
56. Saul Bass
57. Billy Wilder
58. Bette Davis
59. Erich von Stroheim
60. Max Factor
61. Auguste and Louis Lumière
62. Woody Allen
63. Clark Gable
64. David O. Selznick
65. Gregg Toland
66. Lillian Gish
67. William Cameron Menzies
68. Lucille Ball
69. Samuel Rothafel
70. Akira Kurosawa
71. Marilyn Monroe
72. Vittorio De Sica
73. Natalie Kalmus
74. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
75. Willis O’Brien

Orson Welles was a classic child prodigy. At eleven, he was directing his prep school plays. At fourteen, he was six feet tall with a commanding voice. At nineteen, he got radio work, dubbing news for the March of Time and supplying the deep voice of the Shadow. By the time he was twenty-two, Welles had formed the Mercury Theatre, which presented such high-concept plays as an all-black Macbeth and a modern-dress Julius Caesar. In 1938, the Mercury Theatre moved to radio, putting on an ultrarealistic version of The War of the Worlds that made Halloween listeners believe Martians had actually landed. The notorious broadcast prompted RKO Pictures to offer Welles a film contract giving him unprecedented creative control. Without prior movie experience, Orson traded a microphone for a megaphone and packed for Hollywood. He was twenty-four years old.

RKO made the best collaborators available to Welles; editor Robert Wise, the great cinematographer Gregg Toland and composer Bernard Herrmann all volunteered to work with the controversial youth. Welles shrugged off RKO’s studio actors and instead dragged his Mercury players out west. Most important, Herman J. Mankiewicz, a New Yorker who was a fixture in the legendary literary circles of the Algonquin Round Table, would doctor early script revisions.

The final product was Citizen Kane (1941), a film so completely fresh that it would alter the making of every movie that followed it. Critics were at a loss as to how to review the film, but most agreed it was compelling and intellectual. Today, Kane is credited with ushering in high artistry in cinema and is the measuring stick of all great films. After fifty years of dissecting its merits, film historians, filmmakers, critics and buffs routinely return to it for its long list of innovations, including story devices and camera tricks previously unexplored in nearly thirty years of filmmaking. First, there’s the absence of titles at the beginning; instead, the film begins with an obituary skillfully presented in a mock newsreel. Next, the script by Mankiewicz, which blatantly mirrors the life of tycoon William Randolph Hearst, adopts the clever “Rosebud” quandary and concentric plot structure to make the examination of a man’s life as daunting as piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. The key technical innovation was Kane’s optical effects. A special lens, developed by Toland, achieved a complete focus that approximated the ability of the human eye to see characters in the distance and objects close to the camera with equal clarity. Dubbed “deep focus,” the effect was revolutionary, allowing audiences to determine what details they wanted to look at in a scene. The technique also allowed Welles to place rich visual metaphors throughout each setting, encouraging viewers to explore the depth as well as the breadth of the picture. In an exemplary image, Susan Alexander, bedridden after a suicide attempt, is seen in the middle of a room, a spoon and medicine bottle on a nightstand in the extreme foreground and Kane framed by the doorway in the background. The audience is left to make the inferences for themselves.


Illustrated by Zeke Zielinski

76. Shirley Temple
77. Yakima Canutt
78. Sam Peckinpah
79. Jackie Coogan
80. Federico Fellini
81. Leni Riefenstahl
82. Steven Spielberg
83. Sam Warner
84. Jean-Luc Godard
85. Robert De Niro
86. Fred Astaire
87. Francis Ford Coppola
88. Ted Turner
89. Clint Eastwood
90. Dalton Trumbo
91. Dennis Hopper
92. Richard Hollingshead
93. Melvin Van Peebles
94. John Chambers
95. Mack Sennett
96. Martin Scorsese
97. Karl Struss
98. Busby Berkeley
99. John Hubley
100. John Cassavetes

It is important to note that many of the scenes credited to Toland’s deep-focus photography are really the work of special effects pioneer Linwood Dunn. The emblematic overhead view of Kane at the podium in front of a campaign poster was achieved by piecing together clips of a crowd and footage of balcony spectators with the original shot of Welles giving a rousting speech. The three distinct images, combined with the aid of an optical printer, give the effect of deep focus.

Welles shot much of the film with a mise-en-scène aesthetic, in which overflowing action in long, fluid takes was enhanced by the striking use of low-angle shots, claustrophobic architecture and expressionistic lighting. At other times, however, he used direct cuts, montage sequences, lap dissolves or special effects as transitional devices. Sound also played an important part in the fascination with Kane. Drawing on years of experience in radio, Herrmann developed musical vignettes to suggest the passage of time. Welles’s ingenuity with sound techniques came from the stage: off-screen comments, characters talking over one another’s words, music that suddenly stops dead on a character’s key line and the use of dialogue to bridge scenes. Suffice to say that if you blink during a screening of Kane, you are bound to miss an innovation.

Clearly, it would be easier to list the moviemakers who have not been influenced by this film, and the most difficult part of appreciating its contribution is comprehending just how homogeneous the vast majority of Hollywood films were before Kane challenged almost all cinematic conventions. A comparable exercise might be to imagine what all films after The Jazz Singer might have been like without sound.

Kane was not without its problems. Upon hearing rumors of Kane’s satirical look at William Randolph Hearst, gossip reporter Louella Parsons, working for Hearst, wrote scathing columns about the film. Hearst’s newspaper chain put pressure on RKO to cease production and destroy the film. RKO resisted and released Kane to nervous theater owners. Some favorable notices were published, but RKO took ticket losses of more than $150,000 and shelved the film for seventeen years until a re-release in the mid-1950s.

Still, Citizen Kane made stars of everyone associated with it. Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins and Agnes Moorehead slipped easily into other films. Wise would go on to direct. Herrmann would score dozens of classic films. Toland would forever be revered for deep focus. The authorship of Kane later became a controversial issue, but the Academy Award for Best Screenplay (Kane’s lone Oscar win) went to Mankiewicz and Welles. Often overlooked is Welles’s performance, the centerpiece to the film, which has the actor slowly developing the complex personality of Charles Foster Kane from age twenty-one to seventy. He enjoyed plenty of accolades, but only briefly.

His second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was not the finished vision Welles hoped for, but there are still touches of visual beauty, fancy mise-en-scène camerawork and crisp dialogue in every scene. This film, too, benefited from the Kane ensemble, which Welles would never gather again. Ambersons was wrested from his control, edited by RKO management and suffered terribly at the box office. It ranks with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed as perhaps the greatest unfinished work by a major director. Welles became a Hollywood outcast with a reputation for extravagance and unruliness.

To continue working, Welles took acting assignments in other directors’ films; his appearance as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949) has been called the greatest screen entrance ever, and his passionate closing argument as a defense lawyer in Compulsion was widely praised. He tried his hand at bullfighting in South America before becoming an expatriate in Europe for some years. There, he made a spirited version of Othello (1956) with a piecemeal cast and crew.

Then came Touch of Evil (1958), a B-movie project given to Welles with very few expectations. Upon his return to Hollywood, he was handed a bad script based on a pulp novel, and he was told he had less than eight weeks to prepare. His budget was so small that he was forced to use only natural daylight in all outdoor scenes. Welles had not made a studio picture in more than ten years, but despite these handicaps, he took just forty-two days to shoot and brought in Touch of Evil both under deadline and within budget. Dennis Weaver gives a surprisingly strange performance as the weekend desk clerk at an out-of-the-way motel. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh are overshadowed by Welles’s own portrayal of a crooked cop. Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Cotten pitched in as favors to Welles. Featuring handheld cameras, a shocking editing style, sleazy-looking unknowns and decaying Mexican locations, the film has become a hallmark of low-budget creativity. Embracing the limitations of the production, Welles set the story among dingy rooms, littered streets and deserted highways. Some of the innovations of Kane linger, specifically overlapping dialogue and low-angle shots; however, the film introduces plenty of new tricks. The crackling off-camera blare of radio stations, intercoms and police dispatchers is used to propel the plot forward without additional actors. Dark, expressionistic lighting is prominent, and the notable flash of buzzing neon lights is cleverly used to enhance the mood.

Touch of Evil has become a cult classic, admired by film buffs and studied by filmmakers. The opening scene, an extended crane-and-dolly shot, has been lifted by a stellar group of directors. The influential technique can clearly be seen in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, the long slow glide over the crowded streets of Little Italy and into the back of a refrigerated meat truck in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the entire opening sequence of Robert Altman’s The Player, to name just a few. Steven Spielberg would use both the crane shot and Dennis Weaver as an homage in Duel. And Alfred Hitchcock was so enthralled by the film that he would borrow heavily from it for Psycho; the dime-novel plot, the remote motel, the peculiar night clerk, the beaded curtains and braided lampshades as decaying decorations, overlapping dialogue, Janet Leigh and two key Welles assistants from the Evil production are all at work in the terrifying thriller.

Welles lived the rest of his life as a martyr. He continued to pursue filmmaking but struggled to find the proper financial backing to bring his dreams to a satisfying reality. His cameo appearances and commercial endorsements helped fuel his hope, but his projects never got past the planning stages. By the mid-1970s, renewed appreciation by college students and critics led to both a special Oscar and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. At the end of his life, confined to radio and television voice work, a bitter Welles confounded interviewers with inconsistent and outlandish fabrications about his contributions, though his sharp sense of humor made even the lies eminently printable.

Perhaps the untapped genius of Welles, the films that will never be seen, is what inspires so many people to be filmmakers. Small pieces of his films have proved more influential than the entire careers of many directors. A single line of his dialogue may have inspired others more than the lifetime output of a successful screenwriter. His innovations are the most pervasive in modern filmmaking; his body of work is arguably the most studied; and his bittersweet legend is both a warning and a challenge to all aspiring directors.

To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.

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