Orson Welles – Out of the Shadows

January 15, 2017

Orson Welles as he appears from the shadows in Carol Reed's unforgettable post war masterpiece, The Third Man

Orson Welles, as the elusive Harry Lime, emerges from the shadows in Carol Reed’s unforgettable post-war masterpiece, The Third Man. London Film Productions, 1949, Cinematography by Robert Krasker

It’s next time again.

Why in the world should you care about an old actor/director who died over 30 years ago? The answer falls into two baskets. If you saw Citizen Kane you know why. If you didn’t, there is not much I can do to explain. But, then again, maybe after taking a look at this post you will watch Citizen Kane for the first time (or reacquaint yourself with an old forgotten friend of a movie). Is it arrogant for me to say if you watch Citizen Kane and it doesn’t grab you then you’re probably not paying attention? Maybe. However, I’m not alone in my high regard for this motion picture.

RKO Radio Pictures, still photographer Alexander Kahle - Motion Picture Herald, Volume 140, Number 13 (page 34)

Welles, at 26, miraculously attains mastery in the first movie he ever made. 1941, RKO Radio Pictures, still photographer Alexander Kahle – Motion Picture Herald

Roger Ebert said, “It is one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece…Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding.”

Jorge Luis Borges said, “…’nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center’. This film is precisely that labyrinth.”

When the film first came out in 1941 Bosley Crowther in the New York Times said, “it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.”

And so on, so many times that perhaps you may be astonished that anything more can be said about the film and its creator that you haven’t heard a hundred times before.

If you are a fan of the movie you’ll be delighted to know there is an ongoing big, thick, (three volumes and counting) biography of Orson Welles that is almost as entertaining as the great man himself. Do we really need yet another biography of Orson Welles? Maybe not, but, chances are you like good books that really hold your attention and that once started you can’t wait to continue and Simon Callow’s masterful project is just such an absorbing read.

Simon Callow as he appeared in Amadeus, Four Weddings & a Funeral, and in a recent photo for the Telegraph

Simon Callow as he appeared in Amadeus, Four Weddings & A Funeral, and in a recent photo shoot for the Telegraph.

Do you recognize the name? I didn’t. I knew it was vaguely familiar but I had to look him up. Remember that guy in Amadeus? Or that other guy in Four Weddings and a Funeral? That’s Simon Callow and it is almost unfair that such a good actor is also such an articulate writer. How come all that talent gets aggregated in one guy? So appropriate when you consider the greatness of the man he exhaustively profiles.

Orson, a life-long magician, conjured the astounding from every artistic medium he touched.

Dreamy young Orson, a life-long magician, conjured the astounding from every artistic medium he touched.

The charm just drips off the page. It’s laugh out loud funny and filled with irony and tragedy and it is delightfully well-written with profound insight. But, for me, it is such a total fascination because there is no earthly reason that an actor should be able to write that well or that an actor should become one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. It just worked out that way and it is a tribute to Simon Callow’s tenacity and grit that he took on such a daunting personality and conquered the complexities of the man in such a hugely entertaining way.

Volume One is 600 pages. The Road to Xanadu covers Orson’s life up through age 26 and the creation of Citizen Kane. Volume Two, Hello Americans is only 445 pages but, it took Mr. Callow ten years of his life and was supposed to cover the next 45 years of Welles’ life (after Citizen Kane).  Turns out, it covers just 5 years of Welles’ life. Volume Three, One Man Band another 9 years of hard work for Callow, another 400 pages, and takes us to Welles (up to age 50) in 1965. It will take a fourth volume (at least) to cover the next 20 years up to Welles’ death at the age of 70, in 1985.

Simon Callow's three volumes on Orson Welles is still not completed. It is an ongoing odyssey that began for Callow in 1997

Simon Callow’s three volume biography of Orson Welles is still not completed. It is an ongoing odyssey that began for Callow in 1997

But back to that question of why should you care? Is it because Callow’s indefatigable gusto for Welles is infectious? It’s more than that. He points out he is not one of the “Welles can do no wrong” biographers. Nor does he claim to be one of the “film school analyzers” who provide shot-by-shot autopsies. He is much closer to a true biographer like William Manchester whose three volume investigation of Winston Churchill was a similar superbly-written, multi-year project. Both writers use language so well that they are easy and fun to read. Both subjects are heroic. And both offer in-depth brilliance to illuminate aspects of your own internal life. Hard to ask for more.

Callow’s books do have one advantage on Welles that Manchester could not have had on Churchill. Callow is himself an actor and Manchester certainly did not declare himself to be a statesman, politician, or Prime Minister. The actor’s insights are crucial to penetrate Welles’ many personas and the psychological affinity Callow feels for Welles offers some of these volume’s most heart racing episodes.

RKO Radio Pictures, still photographer Alexander Kahle - International Photographer, Volume XII, Number 12, January 1941

Orson Welles and his cinematographer Greg Tolland set up a dramatic extreme low angle shot. The virtuosity of Tolland and Welles’ camerawork distract you from fully appreciating the soundtrack. 1941 RKO Radio Pictures, still photographer Alexander Kahle – International Photographer

There are important Filmmaking insights as well. Here is the best example. It validates something you already knew about Welles but probably never adequately examined. Why, after all is said and done, is Citizen Kane such a colossally successful film? Why does it still work so well after all these years? These are questions that have dogged the film for 75 years and there have been thousands of valid theories, exhaustively investigated and more or less proven over the years. But this idea, so breathtakingly simple, is born out by common sense and my own personal experience.

Orson the radio star shown here in publicity photos for the hugely popular pulp detective series "The Shadow."

Orson the hugely successful radio star shown here in publicity photos for the hugely popular pulp detective series “The Shadow.”

It is fundamental filmmaking truth I learned many years ago but it took Callow’s books to forever imbed the idea in my feeble brain specifically as it applies to Citizen Kane. You’ve probably heard me say this before, “If your soundtrack sucks – your movie sucks.” But, think about it. Orson Welles was, at his core, a radio genius. He first appeared on the radio as The Shadow (“Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows!”) and his radio dramatization of H.G.Welles’ (no relation) War of the Worlds caused a nationwide panic when it was broadcast on Halloween 1938. Welles was a truly legendary radio warrior long before he took his creative battles to Hollywood.

I never fully realized before that the soundtrack of Citizen Kane completely carries the movie. I was so dazzled, over the years, by Greg Toland’s brilliant cinematography, I never stopped to think about the fact that the entire drama of Citizen Kane could be satisfyingly enjoyed with my eyes closed!

Orson Welles with the incomparable composer Bernard Herrmann

Orson Welles with the incomparable composer Bernard Herrmann

Lest you forget, the music in the soundtrack (as contrasted and blended with those magnificent voices and sound effects) was by none other than Bernard Herrmann, himself a Hollywood legend. Callow explains his genius perfectly, “Herrmann conceived of music not as a duplication or an underling of the mood of the images and the text, but as an additional element, making its own comment, creating space by its absence as much as by its presence. Every bar, every orchestral color, every rhythmic transformation was closely linked to the frame for which it was composed.”

This lesson was not ignored by the filmmakers to come, from Alfred Hitchcock to Stanley Kubrick to Quentin Tarantino.

RKO Radio Pictures, still photographer Alexander Kahle - International Photographer, Volume XII, Number 12, January 1941 (page 5)

Welles with his co-star Joseph Cotton  on the set of Citizen Kane, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures, still photographer Alexander Kahle – International Photographer, Volume XII.

There are these sorts of treats in every chapter of these books. Just imagine the dramatic possibilities and historic value of some of Orson’s unmade projects. Consider, The History of Jazz, a documentary commissioned by Welles featuring an original soundtrack by Duke Ellington. Or, how about a Welles’ War & Peace produced by Alexander Korda and with an original soundtrack by Dimitri Shostakovich? These were real projects. Callow calls them “unfinished torsos” and one imagines them lying around in half opened wooden crates, bleeding sawdust, excelsior, and expired contracts used as packing material; enough of them to fill the giant abandoned warehouse seen in those unforgettable wide shots in Citizen Kane.

If you love movies and love reading biographies, I think you would be vastly entertained by these volumes. Callow delivers what one of Welles’ lost films (It’s All True) promised but never realized. Callow imagines of the unfinished work, “an almost Proustian detail, offering a picture of Welles at work and play, inspired and indulgent, deeply sensitive and grossly indifferent, mature and infantile, admired and despised, which provokes both admiration and compassion for a man in the grip of a temperament that was often fundamentally at war with his gifts.” 

Until next time with much love, I remain your,

Tommaso

5 Comments

  • Charles Michener says:

    Wonderful appreciation of the Callow/Welles collaboration, Tom. No person of the stage or screen I can think of has written better than Simon Callow, particularly about what it takes to be a good actor and about his colleagues in the theater. (Alec Guinness came close in his memoir “Blessings in Disguise,” but that was marred by Guinness’s frequent petulance and tendency to put down others to boost himself.) I haven’t read the Callow books about Welles, partly because through my friendship with Peter Bogdanovich, a brilliant film chronicler, I felt I had heard all I needed to know about the great Rennaissance Man. I do have one not particularly insightful memory of meeting Welles on one occasion. This was in 1970s at Ma Maison, the movie colony’s “in” restaurant of the time. We were both having lunch – at separate tables – and I can’t remember who was with Welles (probably Bogdanovich), but as I was leaving, he waved me over and introduced me to the great man. Great is too small a word. Welles in his fallow later years was enormous – in girth, of course, but also in sheer presence. I remember only two other things about this fleeting encounter: that gorgeous basso profundo as he probably said, “So nice to meet you,” and the sheer pleasure he took in what was undoubtedly my awestruck manner. His greatest creation was undoubtedly himself, and his cocked eyebrow and curling smile let you know that he was in on this secret, which wasn’t, of course, a secret at all.

  • Joe Garry says:

    Simon Callow’s one man show at Stratford,Canada revealed his insight and perception. We left dazzled.
    His massive treatment of Well’s masterwork only reaffirms Callow’s ability to see into an artist and his work.
    Ditto for your sharp analysis and provocative remarks. Unintentionally you are also revealing your special gifts. Bravo

  • Myriam says:

    Super blog Tom! You have given me many good reasons for seeking out Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” again. Thank you for enlightening me…

  • Filippo Abbadir says:

    Dear Tom!
    What a wonderful piece of history, perfectly described! I love that kind of cinema it has a completely different flavour, and often you realized that most of theese films has been inspirations for the productions of today.
    Tnx a lot, and BRAVO!!
    Filippo!

  • Juan Bastos says:

    Congratulations on your very informative blog! I have always being an admirer of good movies. I took a cinema class while I was in art school, and I recall watching (again!) “Citizen Kane”, in its glorious black and white. I remember admiring the camera angles, that later I applied in some of my drawings. Not only as an artist I get my inspiration in museums but also in movies like C.K. So glad to hear that Callow’s research has brought to us more information about Orson Wells. You mentioned about his radio days, which brought me memories of the radio program “The Happy Prince” narrated by Bing Crosby and Orson Wells. Oscar Wilde’s masterful story is brought to life with those great actors. There’s a brilliant novel by Patrick Dennis,creator of the well known “Auntie Mame”. The title is “Genius”. Clearly a satire on Orson Wells. A very entertaining book!
    Thank you Tom for sharing this…
    All my best,
    Juan

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