Orson Welles: The Howard Roark of American Cinema

Orson Welles, 1937

He called himself a “progressive,” supported the New Deal, and in 1944 campaigned nearly full time on his own dime for Franklin Roosevelt, but Orson Welles probably had more in common with Howard Roark, protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead than FDR and his public works projects. Like Roark, Welles was a genius, a visionary, a maverick, a disrupter. Like Roark, Welles bucked the system and paid the price of exile, of loss of control, of financial uncertainty. Yet Welles persevered to create a body of original cinematic art true to his own vision, and his films and reputation have steadily grown in stature both abroad and at home to the point where today he’s esteemed as one of America’s greatest filmmakers —if not the greatest, period.

Citizen Kane (1941), his first picture, was made when Welles was only 25 and tops nearly every list of “best” American films. It’s an audacious and pioneering achievement. Its deep focus cinematography, low angles, long takes and non-linear story line, were groundbreaking. Movie-goers had seen nothing like it. Over Christmas break I played it for my 20-year-old daughter, a junior at UCLA, who was raised on quick cuts and green-screen special effects. She sat rapt and mute for Kane’s 1 hour and 59 minutes—I don’t think she even touched her iPhone. At the end she uttered a single word: “Wow.”

But Kane is not even my favorite Welles movie.

The man, I think, would deserve immortality for his three Shakespeare films—Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952) and, my favorite Welles picture, Chimes at Midnight (1967), based on Shakespeare’s character Sir John Falstaff.

Or his three contributions to the “noir” genre—The Stranger (1946), Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil (1958). Welles not only directed all these pictures; he played the lead roles as well.

In his career, Welles mastered three mediums—theater (the acclaimed “Voodoo Macbeth” which used black actors with no Shakespeare experience); radio (“War of the Worlds,” which spooked the nation and caused a sensation) and film (Citizen Kane, Magnificent Ambersons, etc.) What other American film director can claim this?

Welles at the podium in “Citizen Kane”

Welles, for better or worse, was defined and dogged by his early success in Hollywood. Powerful newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, furious that Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had modeled Kane after him, tried to have the film destroyed, limited its distribution and pressured Hollywood moguls to blackball Welles.

To make Kane, the prodigy from the world of theater and radio had been given the keys to Hollywood, near total creative control and effectively an unlimited budget.

But by his second picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles was being reined in by the front office. Studio execs panicked after a test screening and, with Welles in South America on a wartime goodwill project, ordered a big chunk of Ambersons to be cut and scenes reshot, including a new, more upbeat ending.

It happened again and again—with Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, and Touch of Evil.

Welles as Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight”

Rightly or wrongly, Welles acquired a reputation as a difficult director, a prima donna who couldn’t bring a picture in on time or on budget.

That’s unfair. Macbeth and Touch of Evil were made on small budgets and tight production schedules. Macbeth, for example, was shot in 23 days on a Republic Studios set used mainly for westerns and on a budget of around $700,000.

By contrast, films like Othello and Chimes at Midnight were made in Europe over extended periods of time, as Welles was forced to act in other people’s movies to acquire the money to finish his own. Perhaps his most famous role was the amoral Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man. His monologues in that film, delivered on the giant Ferris wheel in Vienna, were written by Welles—and sound like it.

Like Howard Roark, Welles was an innovator and a perfectionist, and a master of his craft, no matter what his budget or schedule.

Touch of Evil begins with one of the greatest tracking shots in cinema, clocking in at 3 minutes and 20 seconds. The claustrophobic and brutal Battle of Shrewsbury scene in Chimes at Midnight runs six minutes.  Fans of Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan will see that Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg owe Welles a debt. As another example, the camera whirling around Othello perfectly illustrates the Moor’s descent into the madness of jealousy.

It’s hard to know—given the opaque art of movie studio accounting—how many of Welles’s films made money. The great majority surely did not.

What’s equally true is that his films have become more popular and critically well-received with age.

I’ve viewed only three, I believe, on the big screen: F for Fake at La Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 1975, the restored Othello on the University of Hawaii campus in the early 90s and the restored Touch of Evil in a Washington, D.C., art movie house in the late 90s. I would love to see the others in real theaters as they were meant to be seen—and I’m sure there would be a market for them in select cities.

Sadly, the vast majority of people know Welles for only two things—his infamous “War of the Worlds” Broadcast and Citizen Kane. People asked him up until his death in 1985 what else he’d done besides Citizen Kane. A lot, as it happened.

Welles had a fecund mind and he left us with many projects unfinished. But the knock on Welles that he couldn’t finish pictures is unfair, I think. While he did indeed leave a lot of projects undone (among them Don Quixote, The Merchant of Venice and The Other Side of the Wind) his critics don’t appreciate how hard it is to raise money for a movie and how much Welles hated to grovel before the “moneymen,” as he called them.

The fictional Howard Roark blows up his biggest architectural project because it wasn’t faithful to his vision in every respect. Similarly, Welles’s undisguised contempt for the moneymen and the Hollywood system limited his access to the money he needed. Maybe it was the same thing.

Roark destroys his masterpiece because the buyer insists on fiddling with the building’s design. Similarly, Welles felt that many of his Hollywood pictures (notably The Magnificent Ambersons and Lady from Shanghai) were butchered in the cutting room by know-nothings in a vain attempt to make them more commercial.

I’m not so sure Welles is right. While we don’t have director’s cuts of either film because the cut footage has been lost or destroyed, both films are still great works of art. Everyone can use an editor, even the great Orson Welles. The same could be said of Rand and Roarke. Did the buyer of Roark’s design have a better idea for the building? For that matter—would Atlas Shrugged be more accessible without John Galt’s interminable radio broadcast?

In the end, Welles did better outside the system, making smaller pictures that were truer to his vision and arguably better art.

Welles in “F is for Fake”

If Shakespeare had “problem plays” that didn’t fit neatly into a category like comedy, tragedy or history, so did Welles. Where, for example, would you put F for Fake?

Part documentary about magic and hoaxers, part extended joke, way too much footage of Welles’s longtime companion Oja Kodar parading about in a miniskirt and bikini, F for Fake defies category. It’s worth watching anyway because of the fascinating footage of author Clifford Irving and art forger Elmyr de Hory shot on Ibiza in the early 70s —at the very time Irving and his wife were planning a hoax autobiography of Howard Hughes.

But the main reason to watch F for Fake is Welles’s meditation on art and time and history delivered over his film clips of the mist-shrouded cathedral at Chartres. ““Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing.”

As Hank Quinlan in “Touch of Evil”

At the very least my advice to a film aficionado who wants to know more about the essential Welles would be to re-watch Citizen Kane. Watch Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight.

Welles was an original. A Falstaffian character—larger than life, bombastic, a clown, voracious of appetite. And yet also a great observer, a poet, a gifted actor.

At the end of Touch of Evil Marlene Dietrich says of the crooked cop character Hank Quinlan (Welles)…”He was some kind of a man…what does it matter what you say about people?”

In a posthumous tribute to French filmmaker Jean Renoir, published in the Los Angeles Times in 1979, Welles wrote the following, which could also sum up his career. After listing Renoir’s best-known pictures (La Grande Illusion, The Rules of the Game, etc.) Welles wrote: “Some of these were commercial and even, in their time, critical failures. Some enjoyed success. None were blockbusters. Many are immortal….There are no easy labels for such a man.”


Freelance writer Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among his former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C. and an electricity company in Hawaii.

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