Orson Welles | Welles' Career
| The Voodoo Macbeth
| Too Much Johnson | Citizen Kane
| The Magnificent Ambersons | Journey Into Fear
| It's All True
| The Stranger | The Lady From Shanghai
| Mr. Arkadin | Around the World with Orson Welles
| The Fountain of Youth
| The Immortal Story | Vienna
| F for Fake | F for Fake Trailer
| Filming The Trial
Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)
Commentary on Orson Welles:
Some common subjects in the films of Orson Welles.
- A detailed thematic analysis of Welles' films can be found in
Orson Welles by Joseph McBride (Revised and expanded edition, 1996).
- A rich look at Welles' life and career is in This Is Orson Welles (1992),
by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
- Orson Welles Remembered: interviews with his actors, editors, cinematographers and magicians (2007) by Peter Tonguette.
- Welles' most famous radio broadcast is
discussed in War of the Worlds.
Society and life:
Artistic creation, often reflexive looks at:
- Traditional childhoods (hero as child with sled: Citizen Kane, United States: The Magnificent Ambersons,
teen life at school: The Stranger,
Pays Basque II: Around the World with Orson Welles, childhood visit to Vienna, sweet tooth in Vienna: Vienna)
related (making movies for kids of all ages: Filming The Trial)
- 1900 United States (Too Much Johnson, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons)
related (1920's US: The Fountain of Youth)
- Latin America (Haiti: The Voodoo Macbeth,
Cuba: Too Much Johnson, Spanish-American War discussed: Citizen Kane,
Brazil: It's All True, Nazi war criminals: The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai,
Mexico: Mr. Arkadin, Mexico: Touch of Evil)
- Honest Jewish business managers (Citizen Kane, The Immortal Story)
- Anti-Semitism condemned (early discussion of Holocaust in film: The Stranger,
pogroms: The Immortal Story, Holocaust discussed: Filming The Trial)
- Borders of countries (Journey Into Fear, entering Latin American country at docks: The Stranger,
Basque episodes: Around the World with Orson Welles, Touch of Evil)
- Heroes hired by unscrupulous, wealthy businessmen (sailor: The Lady From Shanghai,
hero on the docks: Mr. Arkadin, sailor: The Immortal Story)
- Bad guys support fascists (Kane in newsreel: Citizen Kane,
Nazi war criminal: The Stranger,
Arkadin builds for Mussolini: Mr. Arkadin)
- Improving lives of workers (Kane's crusade for the working man: Citizen Kane,
raft voyage to get government benefits for fishermen: It's All True)
- Mass assemblies of ordinary people (people assemble at end: The Voodoo Macbeth,
Times Square rally in newsreel: Citizen Kane,
recovering body and funeral, welcome of raft to Rio: It's All True,
townspeople come out at finale: The Stranger)
- Carnivals (Brazil: It's All True, Spain: Mr. Arkadin)
- Skepticism about technological "advances" actually causing harm instead (automobile: The Magnificent Ambersons,
anti-aging drug: The Fountain of Youth)
- People discuss serious issues (influence of the auto: The Magnificent Ambersons,
democratic ideas in various countries: The Stranger,
Welles and film students: Filming The Trial)
- Working men comment on what they see (stagehands high above opera: Citizen Kane,
sailors wave enthusiastically to men on raft: It's All True)
- Self service by customers, with democratic undertones (pushing streetcar: The Magnificent Ambersons,
getting coffee in drug store counter: The Stranger)
- Privacy warnings in signs (Private and Keep Out sign at docks: Too Much Johnson,
"No Trespassing" at opening and end: Citizen Kane)
related (woman across street spies on Ambersons: The Magnificent Ambersons,
manager's obsession with privacy in his room: The Immortal Story)
- Kidnapped women (Kane keeps wife isolated at home: Citizen Kane,
George keeps mother in Europe against her will: The Magnificent Ambersons,
heroine: Touch of Evil,
Senta Berger kidnapped in spy spoof: Vienna)
- Marriages collapse, over a sizable period (Kane and wife at breakfast: Citizen Kane,
debates in front of formula on mantel: The Fountain of Youth)
- Marrying women for their connections (President's niece: Citizen Kane,
daughter of Supreme Court Justice: The Stranger)
- Androgyny (little George Amberson in long hair and skirt: The Magnificent Ambersons,
statue of angel could be male or female: The Stranger,
woman's voice comes out of narrator Welles' mouth, Welles speaks heroine's dialog: The Fountain of Youth)
- Young men from wealthy families, sometimes hanging out with low-lifes (Kane: Citizen Kane,
George Amberson and the Friends Of The Ace club: The Magnificent Ambersons,
students at prep school: The Stranger,
Prince Hal and Falstaff and his friends: Chimes at Midnight)
- Society and one's relation to it (George disdains society and chooses not to work, Eugene talks of "the beauty of the world": The Magnificent Ambersons,
Welles insists he has a good relationship to society: Filming The Trial)
- The future (inventor Eugene says "new times" are all there is, Eugene wonders about the future and the auto, Major talks about the Sun and the future: The Magnificent Ambersons,
cards predict future of Welles: Touch of Evil,
computer predicts future of hero and the computer itself (deleted scene): The Trial,
heroine tells fortunes: The Immortal Story,
bureaucracy as a vision of the future, Welles expresses skepticism about "the future" as a concept: Filming The Trial)
- Films being made, within the film (newsreel: Citizen Kane,
Citizen Kane being made: Citizen Kane Trailer,
the film itself being edited on a moviola: F for Fake,
interviewing Muppets creators: The Orson Welles Show,
shooting of film highlighted: Filming The Trial)
related (early movie theater: The Magnificent Ambersons,
film within film: The Stranger,
magic lantern slide projector: The Fountain of Youth)
- Works that self-reflexively discuss their own creation (newsreel being made and discussed: Citizen Kane,
the film itself being edited on a moviola: F for Fake,
shooting of film highlighted: Filming The Trial)
- Artists in documentaries (St.-Germain-des-Près: Around the World with Orson Welles, F for Fake,
Welles talks about Christo: Tonight Show,
Welles talks about classical composer Gesualdo, writer Gogol, playwrights Elmer Rice, Brecht, director Abel Gance: Filming The Trial)
- Newspapers (Citizen Kane,
shots through newspaper window in Chinatown: The Lady From Shanghai,
St.-Germain-des-Près: Around the World with Orson Welles,
gossip columnists, photographers, science writer for magazines, radio broadcaster: The Fountain of Youth)
- Creating works in other media (opera, photograph, newspaper criticism, memoir, testifying to Congress, zoo: Citizen Kane,
photograph, repairing clock statues: The Stranger,
storytelling discussed in Basque episode: Around the World with Orson Welles,
photos, magazine stories: The Fountain of Youth,
bring story to life: The Immortal Story)
- Craftsmanship (men build raft and basket and women make cloth: It's All True,
artist Raymond Duncan makes everything: Around the World with Orson Welles)
- Businesses built up (Kane's newspaper: Citizen Kane,
Morgan Motors auto manufacturer: The Magnificent Ambersons)
- Black musicians (Macduff carries trumpet: The Voodoo Macbeth, picnic at Xanadu: Citizen Kane,
Samba: It's All True, night club: Mr. Arkadin)
- Performance involving sound (alarm bells: The Voodoo Macbeth,
failed attempt at serenade: The Magnificent Ambersons,
Peking Opera: The Lady From Shanghai,
band with Christmas carols: Mr. Arkadin,
sound poetry, Basque pigeon-netter cries, musical score-keeping in pelote: Around the World with Orson Welles,
player piano: Touch of Evil)
- Statues (collected by Kane: Citizen Kane,
clock tower: The Stranger, Chartres: F for Fake)
- Shakespeare (The Voodoo Macbeth, Macbeth, Othello, Chimes at Midnight,
The Merchant of Venice, Filming Othello)
- Literary adaptations (The Magnificent Ambersons, Moby Dick - Rehearsed, The Fountain of Youth,
The Trial, Don Quixote, The Immortal Story, The Dreamers)
- Film noir thrillers (Journey Into Fear, The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai,
Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Dead Calm)
- Culture & Travel documentaries (Samba and Brazil: It's All True,
Around the World with Orson Welles, Vienna, Chartres: F for Fake)
- Autobiography, concentrating on Welles' creative work (Welles' early days, Mercury Theater: F for Fake,
Welles talks with USC students about his work: Filming The Trial)
Mythology, often about animals:
- Palms (painted on backdrop: The Voodoo Macbeth, Too Much Johnson,
at Xanadu in newsreel: Citizen Kane, Brazil: It's All True,
near arcade, villa, framed in car window: Mr. Arkadin,
sailor introduced in alley near shadow of palm, sailor leaving grounds: The Immortal Story)
- Zoos (private zoo at Xanadu: Citizen Kane, aquarium: The Lady From Shanghai)
- Birds (cockatoo: Citizen Kane,
wheels painted like feathers in parade float: It's All True,
ducks on pond, man feeds birds in park: Vienna)
- Mammals (monkeys in zoo at start: Citizen Kane,
dog finds buried murder victim: The Stranger,
kitten altered by formula: The Fountain of Youth,
monkey on shoulder, dog at party: F for Fake,
tiger: F for Fake Trailer)
- Snow (snowball, childhood: Citizen Kane, winter fun: The Magnificent Ambersons,
finale: The Stranger,
Christmas opening and finale: Mr. Arkadin)
- The Sun (Macbeth talks about Sun: The Voodoo Macbeth,
Major's speech about the Sun and its future: The Magnificent Ambersons,
Sun parade float: It's All True) related (the Moon discussed: Filming The Trial)
- Dragons (Carnival parade float: It's All True)
- Winged animals from mythology (parade float with Assyrian creature: It's All True,
statue of sphinx: Vienna)
- Animal fables (scorpion and frog: Mr. Arkadin, Muppets animal characters guest star: The Orson Welles Show)
- Sea creatures (giant fish formed by special effects in Aquarium: The Lady From Shanghai)
- Magicians (simple tricks by Kane for Susan: Citizen Kane, Hans Conried: Journey Into Fear,
escape from box: Vienna,
levitation act in the park: F for Fake,
magic tricks: The Orson Welles Show,
compilation of Welles' act: Orson Welles' Magic Show)
- Cards (Mexico: Mr. Arkadin, Marlene Dietrich fortune telling: Touch of Evil)
- Adults playing with toys (jigsaw puzzles: Citizen Kane,
party with beach ball, model cars and trains: Mr. Arkadin)
related (students arrange paper chase: The Stranger)
- Archers (carnival paraders dressed as tribesmen with bows and arrows: It's All True,
battle: Chimes at Midnight)
- Man clapping his hands together as a signal (father of fighting boy: The Magnificent Ambersons,
Welles at start of takes: Filming The Trial)
- Tape recorders (wired cop: Touch of Evil, "Mission: Impossible" spoof: Vienna)
related (sound recording efforts shown on screen: Filming The Trial)
- Sparks (sparks from hammer at factory: The Magnificent Ambersons,
fireworks in bull in Basque episode, Pentecost: Around the World with Orson Welles)
- Pharmacies (traditional: The Magnificent Ambersons, small town: The Stranger,
passing by in Chinatown: The Lady From Shanghai)
- Beds, disassembled (finale with Kane's possessions: Citizen Kane, opening at Tamiroff's: Mr. Arkadin)
- Desserts (strawberry shortcake: The Magnificent Ambersons,
candy, ice cream, cake at drug store: The Stranger,
Almond Cookies sign in Chinatown: The Lady From Shanghai,
candy: Touch of Evil,
Viennese cakes from pastry shop: Vienna)
- Planes (greeting raft in Rio: It's All True, final flight: Mr. Arkadin,
Howard Hughes: F for Fake)
- Train stations (The Magnificent Ambersons, F for Fake)
- Sail boats and beaches (It's All True, The Lady From Shanghai) related (opening at beach: Mr. Arkadin)
- Docks (Too Much Johnson, at Xanadu in opening: Citizen Kane,
Latin America: The Stranger,
The Lady From Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, return from Europe: The Fountain of Youth)
- Boxes and crates (stacked in piles: Too Much Johnson, finale: Citizen Kane, docks: Mr. Arkadin)
- Horse drawn carriages (Too Much Johnson,
Kane first arrives at newspaper: Citizen Kane,
pony cart, carriage, streetcar: The Magnificent Ambersons,
taxi: The Lady From Shanghai, The Immortal Story, Welles in old photo: F for Fake)
- Pedestrians walk by moving vehicles (man with hoe and young George in pony cart: The Magnificent Ambersons,
man evades car in streets: The Stranger,
opening: The Lady From Shanghai,
hero and heroine dodge carts on a Spanish road: Mr. Arkadin,
opening: Touch of Evil, sailor running along carriage: The Immortal Story)
- Men carrying big long things (pike with head: The Voodoo Macbeth,
hero and ladder: Too Much Johnson,
furniture moved into news office: Citizen Kane,
logs to build raft: It's All True,
body on stretcher: The Lady From Shanghai,
spies carry kidnap victim in bag: Vienna)
Style and movement:
- Arched doorways (under landing: The Voodoo Macbeth,
Xanadu in newsreel: Citizen Kane, Mexican arcade: Mr. Arkadin,
Madrid Bullfight: Around the World with Orson Welles,
town: Touch of Evil, millionaire's house: The Immortal Story)
- Staircases, landings and balconies (stairs and landing at top: The Voodoo Macbeth,
stairs at Susan's: Citizen Kane,
mansion staircase: The Magnificent Ambersons,
docks, church stairs and ladder with lofts, gymnasium balcony without stairs: The Stranger,
docks: The Lady From Shanghai,
Tamiroff's courtyard: Mr. Arkadin,
ship gangplank: The Fountain of Youth,
stairs to computer balcony: The Trial,
opening cityscape: The Immortal Story,
outdoor staircase overlooks city: Vienna)
- Ramps (leaving docks: The Stranger, parking garage, fun house chute: The Lady From Shanghai)
- People look out of upstairs windows (George Amberson, woman across street: The Magnificent Ambersons,
men in doctor's office: The Stranger)
- Phone booths with glass doors (night club: Citizen Kane, night club: Mr. Arkadin)
- Stained glass windows (Amberson mansion: The Magnificent Ambersons,
Chartres cathedral: F for Fake)
- Grillwork (gates of Xanadu: Citizen Kane,
Amberson mansion: The Magnificent Ambersons,
Mr. Arkadin, The Immortal Story, gates: Vienna)
- Ferris wheels (Mr. Arkadin, Vienna)
- Elaborate kitchens (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady From Shanghai)
- Parties in elaborate indoor suites (newspaper office: Citizen Kane,
ball: The Magnificent Ambersons,
Christmas: Mr. Arkadin)
- File rooms (secretaries' room: Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, The Immortal Story)
- Sets with ceilings (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Mr. Arkadin,
Touch of Evil, The Immortal Story)
- Disintegrating settings (possessions fed into furnace at finale: Citizen Kane,
shattered mirrors: The Lady From Shanghai,
settings planned to fly apart for The Trial: Filming The Trial)
- Chimneys emitting smoke (Too Much Johnson, finale: Citizen Kane,
finale as car drives away from airport: Mr. Arkadin)
related (talk about smoke over city in deleted scenes: The Magnificent Ambersons)
- Columns, traditional Greek (parade float in Carnival: It's All True,
- Peaked roofs (house in snowball: Citizen Kane,
hut being built, church of wedding: It's All True,
church: The Stranger,
airport building: Mr. Arkadin,
porch at end: The Immortal Story,
in background when spies are first seen: Vienna,
train station: F for Fake)
- Large building facades (chase: Too Much Johnson,
hospital where Jed lives: Citizen Kane,
Rio buildings: It's All True,
outside club: Mr. Arkadin,
pan up building in St.-Germain-des-Près: Around the World with Orson Welles,
through window: The Fountain of Youth,
opening: Touch of Evil,
street across from hotel: Vienna)
- Castles (Xanadu: Citizen Kane, Arkadin's home: Mr. Arkadin)
- Overviews of cities (town in distance in iris shot: The Magnificent Ambersons,
panning shot of Rio before raft arrives: It's All True,
Vienna viewed from outdoor staircase: Vienna)
Composition and Geometry:
- Rhythmic effects (going into door past man: Citizen Kane, record: Journey Into Fear,
two German cops talking at once: Mr. Arkadin,
flashing neon signs: Touch of Evil, sailor running along carriage: The Immortal Story)
- Falling objects (snowball: Citizen Kane, pearls from necklace fall and scatter: The Stranger,
shell: The Immortal Story)
- Long takes while people moving between floors (woman descends house to streetcar: The Magnificent Ambersons,
elevator and Heston taking stairs: Touch of Evil)
Mirrors and Multiple Images:
- Fanning vertical lines (palm trees: Too Much Johnson,
masts of various rafts before launch, crosses: It's All True,
photography flash holders: The Fountain of Youth,
giant arrows sticking in the air from machine: Chimes at Midnight,
paint brushes: F for Fake)
- Compositions based on posters or signs (suffragettes' signs: Too Much Johnson,
campaign signs for Kane, papers on wall in storage area: Citizen Kane,
last shot with amusement park signs: The Lady From Shanghai,
artist Raymond Duncan's studio, wall of posters in introduction to Madrid Bullfight: Around the World with Orson Welles,
Chinese banners and signs: The Immortal Story)
- Rectangles frame characters (movie screen rectangle frames characters after newsreel: Citizen Kane,
orange rectangles behind Welles, white panel: F for Fake)
- Repeating vertical lines (columns in newspaper office, Bernstein's office interview: Citizen Kane,
hotel windows at ledge finale: Journey Into Fear,
mirrors at end: The Lady From Shanghai,
arches in downtown Venice buildings: Touch of Evil)
- Triangles (on Macduff's uniform: The Voodoo Macbeth,
triangle bell at mother's boarding house: Citizen Kane,
sails: It's All True,
chair arms, terrace seen from above: Mr. Arkadin)
- Spheres (snowball: Citizen Kane,
globe in parade float, mirror-covered sphere, glitter sphere on float: It's All True,
beach ball at Christmas party: Mr. Arkadin,
wine glass, bottle base, candle guards, chair in finale: The Immortal Story,
hanging outdoor grillwork ornament on street: Vienna)
- Rotary motion (crankshaft and gears, spinning wheels of stuck horseless carriage: The Magnificent Ambersons,
parade floats with wheels like feathers or sun: It's All True,
movie projector, machinery in tower at finale, clock dial at finale: The Stranger,
exit bars from fun house: The Lady From Shanghai)
- Polyhedral glass containers (street light in Chinatown: The Lady From Shanghai,
air control tower room: Mr. Arkadin,
magic show container with Senta Berger: Vienna)
- Complex mirrors (hall of mirrors, curving mirror at start, in Bernstein's desk: Citizen Kane,
Everett Sloane runs into mirror: Citizen Kane Trailer,
Joseph Cotten uses large and small mirror, woman and mirrors at right angles, barbershop, ball, bathroom mirror, reflection in water: The Magnificent Ambersons,
mirror-covered sphere in Carnival: It's All True,
mirrors in drug store, heroine's bedroom, reflection in camera: The Stranger,
fun house Magic Mirror Maze: The Lady From Shanghai,
mirror inside cabinet at night club, phone call: Mr. Arkadin,
above mantel, myth of Narcissus and his reflection in spring: The Fountain of Youth,
in hotel room: Touch of Evil,
mirrors at right angles: The Immortal Story)
related (mirrors discussed, the camera as a sort of mirror: Filming The Trial)
- Reflections in windows (in newspaper window: Citizen Kane,
George reflected in window, street shops with windows reflecting across street: The Magnificent Ambersons,
men seen through doctor's window with trees reflected: The Stranger,
chess game reflected in window, glass book case, Welles and Chinatown reflected in shop window: The Lady From Shanghai,
hero reflected in window near airport: Mr. Arkadin,
Welles reflected in row of shop windows: F for Fake)
- Multiple images of a person (Kane makes speech in front of giant campaign poster: Citizen Kane,
hero in front of movie images: The Stranger,
narrator Welles stands in front of still images of characters: The Fountain of Youth,
photographs, person in front of movie screen or television: F for Fake Trailer,
talk show guests with big photos of them behind them: The Orson Welles Show)
- Red backgrounds (dinner: The Immortal Story, hotel room: Vienna)
- Red and gold (parade floats in Carnival, Carnival uniforms: It's All True,
dinner: The Immortal Story, hotel room: Vienna)
- Red-yellow-blue (many Carnival scenes: It's All True)
- Thimble-shaped hats (Keystone Kop style helmets: Too Much Johnson,
first derby in opening: The Magnificent Ambersons,
men launching raft: It's All True)
- White suits (Kane returns from Europe with fiancee: Citizen Kane,
groom at wedding: It's All True,
photographer, white naval uniform: The Stranger,
white lab coat: The Fountain of Youth)
Periods of Orson Welles' Career
Orson Welles' career breaks into two main phases. During 1934 - 1947,
Welles was a big star in radio, a major medium at that time in
the United States. This made Welles one of America's best known
performers. Welles used his radio earnings to support his critically
praised work in the New York theater. He also leveraged his radio
stardom to launch a career in motion pictures. This opportunity
to work in the movies was fairly common for radio stars of the
day, although Welles' achievements in film went further than any
other radio personality. Welles directed 7 films from 1940-1947,
all financed by Hollywood studios. Welles is astonishingly prolific
in these years, in radio, theater and film.
All of this changes abruptly mid-1947. Welles leaves America for
Europe, and his career will never be the same again. Welles mainly
stops working in radio drama, which is a dying medium from this
point on, one that soon ceases to exist in the United States.
He does far less theater work, as well. In 1949, after a number
of commercial European film projects fall through, Welles starts
filming his self-financed production of Othello. From this
point forward, much of Welles' creative work will be self-financed,
based on his income as a movie actor.
There will be exceptions to this, especially during a period of
temporary commercial success in 1954-1957, when Welles will film:
Aside from this interlude, Welles will have
no real basis of public or commercial support for most of his
non-acting work from 1947 on. He will be viewed as a has-been
by most of the world - or maybe as a never-was. While French film
critics will view Orson Welles as a giant of the film medium,
American reviewers will largely slam his work.
- Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil for commercial producers.
- A series of television projects including Orson Welles' Sketch Book,
Around the World with Orson Welles and The Fountain of Youth.
- A self-financed film, Moby Dick - Rehearsed.
Welles and Culture
Orson Welles spent a considerable part of his stage, radio and film careers,
dramatizing major works of world literature. Despite this, he garnered
little support after 1945 from guardians or promoters of culture or cultural education.
Welles released three Shakespeare films, that were largely dismissed in their eras.
Their reception contrasts with Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, which won Oscars,
and which was treated as a major cultural event.
Similarly, Welles' adaptation of Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story, hardly made
a critical ripple. But a later film version of Dinesen, Out of Africa, was showered
with Oscars and acclaim.
Welles received and receives almost no recognition from professors who teach literature,
or the humanities. While Welles was the major American interpreter of Shakespeare
of his era, his adaptations of Shakespeare and other literary authors are
treated by non-film professors of the humanities as not being of the slightest
interest or value. One can compare the all out efforts made by the academy to
promote Existentialism, Deconstructionism and Lacan, to the complete indifference
shown to Welles.
The Voodoo Macbeth
The Voodoo Macbeth (1936) is a stage play directed by Orson Welles,
a famous, much acclaimed version of Macbeth with an all-black cast.
The play's finale was filmed as part of the WPA documentary We Work Again (1937).
It is unclear if Welles had anything to do with directing the film version.
But it does preserve an excerpt from Welles' stage production.
It is the first of Welles' great Shakespeare productions to survive.
Even at this early date, the set shows favorite Orson Welles motifs:
The people assemble at the finale: an early example of this key Welles subject.
- A staircase, and a landing on top.
- An arched doorway (under the landing).
- What look like trunks of palm trees on the painted backdrop.
(This Is Orson Welles says "Birnam wood" consisted of palms and banana trees,
in this Haiti-set version.)
The finale is quite cut from Shakespeare's text. But it includes Macbeth's remarks
about the Sun. This is an early example of the Sun imagery that runs through Welles.
Macduff carries a trumpet: one of the black musicians in Welles.
Macduff's costume is full of parallel lines. These include nested triangles along the front of his tunic.
Too Much Johnson
Too Much Johnson (1938) is a film Orson Welles created to accompany a stage play.
These brief notes are based on screen captures.
Too Much Johnson seems directly linked as a historical film about earlier America to
Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
The suffragettes are very Gibson Girl-ish.
They are consistent with Welles' portraits of a vanished era in WASP upper middle class life.
But they don't look anything like the real-life suffragettes in this landmark newsreel, part of the
TREASURES DVD series.
A woman and a trunk ride in an open carriage. It especially resembles the one in The Immortal Story.
The dockside scenes anticipate Mr. Arkadin.
A sign near the water says "Private" and "Keep Out". It anticipates the "No Trespassing" sign
that opens and closes Citizen Kane.
The roof chimneys emitting smoke anticipate the finale of Citizen Kane.
This is an early film with that favorite Welles setting Latin Amrica.
The palms will return at Xanadu in the newsreel in Citizen Kane.
The ladder carried by the hero anticipates the long objects carried by men in other Welles,
such as the logs for the raft in It's All True.
Composition: Fanning vertical lines
A shot showing palm trees, is one of Welles' compositions involving vertical lines jutting at angles.
Another shot shows boxes pilled high on a dock.
The stacks too form vertical lines, although not quite at jutting angles to each other.
The suffragettes carry signs, and wear banners. This is an early example of Welles' approach
of creating compositions out of signs, posters or banners.
Costumes and Geometry
The thimble-shaped helmets worn by the Keystone Kop-style police, will get echoed in shape
by the hats worn by the Brazilian fishermen in It's All True,
and by the tall first derby tried on in opening of The Magnificent Ambersons.
This shape is unusual and distinctive. It seems nearly unique to Orson Welles;
I haven't noticed it much in other filmmakers.
The original play Too Much Johnson (1894) was written by William Gillette,
adapted from a French farce.
I've seen and disliked two films made from Gillette's most famous play
Sherlock Holmes (1899). These are the silent film Sherlock Holmes (Albert Parker, 1922)
with John Barrymore, and a "filmed stage play" version Sherlock Holmes (Peter H. Hunt, 1981)
with Frank Langella. While the original Holmes stories by
Doyle seem fresh and terrific today,
Gillette's's play seems like a creaking relic of the Victorian era.
Citizen Kane is filled with backstage looks at the creation of several types of artworks
or communication systems:
We also get looks at some finished projects in the arts and communication.
We don't see these being created. So they are simpler, more straightforward in their presentation.
But they otherwise seem like addendums to the above list:
- The newsreel. This is a film-within-the film.
- The opera. This is both a musical work, and a full-scale stage creation.
It reminds us that Welles was a theater director as well as a filmmaker.
- The newspaper.
- A photograph of the newspaper staff.
- The review of the opera.
- A political campaign, complete with speeches and newspaper headlines and coverage.
- A zoo, built in the newsreel.
The newsreel is like a miniature version of Citizen Kane as a whole.
Both are film biographies of Kane. The scenes of the newsmen discussing the making of the newsreel,
likely paralleled the creation of Citizen Kane itself.
- The financier's testimony to a Congressional committee.
- The financier's memoirs.
- The speech to the crowd in Times Square.
Some artworks, such as Citizen Kane, include material that discusses the creation of art works.
Literary theorist Alastair Fowler talks about post-modern literature in which
creation of an artwork is itself a subject of the book. He dubs this "poioumenon".
(Its plural is poioumena. It seems to be pronounced pwee-OU-meh-non, rather like "phenomenon").
Citizen Kane is perhaps an ancestor of this sort of post-modernism.
In Citizen Kane, the look at the newsreel creation, symbolically gives insight
to the making of Citizen Kane itself.
In both Citizen Kane and many post-modernist books, the creation of the work itself is a subject.
This gives Citizen Kane and such books a self-reflexive quality.
A Western?: Mining and Capitalism
The scenes at the mother's boarding house take place in the rural West pre-1900.
Technically this makes Citizen Kane a Western.
But it has very little "Western" feel, even in this boarding house scene.
One Western touch: the triangle-shaped bell on the porch, a common feature
used to summon cowhands in Westerns.
As far as I know, Orson Welles never made any other Westerns, as a director or writer.
As an actor he starred in a film set in the modern-day West Man in the Shadow (Jack Arnold, 1957),
and narrated a Canadian TV series Tales of the Klondike (1981).
Twenty years later in This Is Orson Welles,
Welles complained to Peter Bogdanovich about having to appear in a Western like Man in the Shadow.
In Filming The Trial (1981), Welles tells USC students that
he had only learned to like watching Westerns in recent years.
The emphasis on gold mining in the Western part of Citizen Kane perhaps finds an echo
in some later full scale Westerns centered on mining.
These later works are a closely connected series, but their links to Citizen Kane are distant.
Like Citizen Kane, they explore both mining and capitalism.
Also like Citizen Kane, they de-emphasize most traditional components of the Western,
such as cowboys and horses, to concentrate instead on mining and its business implications:
The dissolves in Citizen Kane are beautifully designed
to make geometric patterns, during the moment of superimposition.
For example, when the opera singers appear simultaneously with
the newspaper headlines, they are grouped around the rectilinear
lines formed by the newspaper column. So are the opera audiences.
The huge circular lights are also set so they blend seamlessly
into the compositions.
The newspaper columns show Welles' interest in repeating vertical
lines. One thinks of the hotel windows at the ledge finale of
Journey Into Fear, or the arches on the downtown Venice
buildings in Touch of Evil. Also the mirrors at the end
of The Lady From Shanghai, although these are much narrower
vertical panes, and much closer together.
There are also vertical lines in the scene where Bernstein is interviewed by the reporter.
The windows make strong verticals.
Some of the shots of the baroque architecture of Xanadu at the
beginning remind one of the baroque basilica in Sergei Eisenstein's
Qué viva Mexico! (1932).
The grillwork gates recur in other Welles films.
The model house in the snowball has a peaked roof. Peaked roofs recur in Welles films.
Citizen Kane is notable for its complex mirror shots:
Everett Sloane runs into a mirror the Citizen Kane Trailer.
- The curving mirror at the start, showing the nurse.
- A reflection in the newspaper window.
- Bernstein reflected in his shiny desk top, while being interviewed.
- Best of all, the hall of mirrors.
Citizen Kane is often viewed as a stylistic precursor in film noir,
both for its dazzling visual style, and its flashback structure.
Mirrors and staircases are everywhere in film noir, and they are prominent in
Citizen Kane too.
Other kinds of multiple images of people occur in Citizen Kane, without involving mirrors.
The political speech has the real Kane, in front of a giant campaign picture.
The Magnificent Ambersons
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is considered by many Welles admirers to be his greatest film.
I disagree. It is often visually creative, especially in elaborately compositions
staged inside the Amberson mansion. Its visual style makes the film very much worth watching.
But otherwise, the film has many limitations.
The Magnificent Ambersons is the Welles work closest to ideals of Realism.
It is based on a well-known Realist novel, by Booth Tarkington.
Unlike the baroque Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons uses a
straightforward linear approach to narration that is grounded in the Realist Novel.
Many people in the arts view Realism as the highest goal of fiction, both in print and on film.
If one thinks the approach of Realist Fiction is artistically superior to
everything else, one will like The Magnificent Ambersons better than Welles' other work.
Many, many people today who specialize in literature and film regard Realism as the ultimate.
A vast network of academics, writing training programs, and critics centers on Realism.
The idea that less realistic works might be better than anything realistic is anathema to them.
In my judgement Orson Welles' best film, among those publicly released so far, is The Immortal Story.
It is less Realistic than The Magnificent Ambersons, but a much better film.
The idea that The Immortal Story or The Story of Samba are better than a
Realistic work like The Magnificent Ambersons is hard for many people in our culture to grasp.
The Magnificent Ambersons is also much inferior to the wildly creative Citizen Kane.
The Cut Scenes
To be fair on the subject of The Magnificent Ambersons and Realism,
the existing version of The Magnificent Ambersons has been drastically cut.
The continuity and dialogue of Welles' original version survives, and is available in the book
This Is Orson Welles by Welles, Peter Bogdanovich and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
It makes fascinating reading. Everyone who watches The Magnificent Ambersons
should read this. It makes for an incomparably better artistic experience.
The cut scenes mainly deal with two interlocking topics:
The business investments of the Ambersons and the development of Indianapolis are interlinked.
- The careers and business dealings of the Amberson family members.
- The development of the city of Indianapolis, its industry, pollution, smoke and grime, and its changing real estate.
Realistic fiction often shows society and how it functions, including business and industry.
This topic was well-developed in the original version of The Magnificent Ambersons.
The Major's dying speech about the Sun is also an important casualty of the cuts.
This is a memorably poetic monologue. It comes right out of the original novel
The Magnificent Ambersons (end of Chapter 30), with some tiny modifications.
Gender: "Normalcy" and Bigotry
The villain of The Magnificent Ambersons is the spoiled young heir George.
George has been ruined by his upbringing by his doting mother.
We see George as a boy. He has long hair and wears a skirt!
He is essentially dressed like a little girl.
This is the Psychological Root of all of George's troubles. He has not been raised to
have proper male gender. George will spend the rest of his life and The Magnificent Ambersons
ruining his mother's life, his own life, the Morgan family, and everyone else he meets.
George will destroy all these people's chances to get married: the highest good.
He is the implacable enemy of heterosexual fulfillment.
George is not the only villain in American cinema to be raised as a little girl.
On can argue he is less villainous in fact than the Nazi spy and saboteur in
Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)
and the serial killer in While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956).
All of these men's childhood gender issues allegedly caused them to grow up into villains.
Welles, Hitchcock and Lang are all great filmmakers. But their treatment
of people with non-standard gender is just plain wrong. It expresses bigotry
towards a minority. It tells lies about what this minority can accomplish.
In real life, many people in the GLBT community make major contributions to society.
George violates gender norms in other ways:
George abandons his girlfriend Lucy, to whisk his mother away to Europe.
This is seen as a failure of heterosexuality on his part.
- He tells Lucy he wishes she had gone to a man's college, like him.
- George imitates Aunt Fanny's high-pitched voice, with startling accuracy.
- George has trouble steering his sleigh, and has an accident, spilling himself and Lucy.
Vehicles are often phallic symbols, and driving them is often a symbol of sexual potency.
George fails to succeed with this.
- The original Welles version of The Magnificent Ambersons has George expelled from college,
failing to graduate because he got in trouble with the faculty. Symbolically,
this is George failing to enter the world of adult manhood, being rejected by adult men.
- George absolutely refuses to take up any profession. All he wants to do is spend large sums
of his family's money, and sail a yacht. This too marks him off from traditional American male roles.
Welles' original version has a finale with Eugene telling about George and Lucy's reconciliation.
This happens off-screen: we do not see it. Jonathan Rosenbaum's commentary in
This Is Orson Welles talks insightfully about this finale as an off-trail, avant-garde ending
that violates Hollywood tradition. One can also point out that a consequence of this scene is
that we do not actually see George behaving in a heterosexual manner.
A traditional Hollywood ending would have shown George proposing to Lucy at the end,
behaving as a heterosexual hero. Welles refuses to do this. One suspects Welles thought this would
undermine the portrait of George as anti-heterosexual built up during the film.
Aunt Fanny and Marriage
Aunt Fanny is a portrait of an unhappy "old maid". She is seen as having her life ruined,
because she has been cheated out of romance, marriage and children.
This is a common view in its era.
But it ignores the fact that in real life,
many people are happier if they are not involved with heterosexual marriage.
Some people prefer to be single. Others are part of the GLBT world,
and want nothing to do with heterosexual marriage.
There are indeed people like Aunt Fanny in real life, people who want
heterosexual marriage but are unhappy because they failed to get it.
But The Magnificent Ambersons gives no perspective, that real life
also includes people who want no part of this institution.
A Bad Boy
George Amberson gets involved with some appealing activities in his early stages.
A deleted scene has him hanging out with other young men at a club, the Friends Of The Ace.
These are a bunch of very young men, maybe late teenagers, who want to be Bad Boys.
These guys are satisfyingly dressed as sports and low life wanna-be's, in soft caps and tie-less jackets.
They are a bunch of innocents who want to think of themselves as Bad Boys.
George hanging out with them recalls Prince Hal hanging out with Falstaff and his friends
in Chimes at Midnight.
The club has the old pirate symbol on its door, a skull and cross bones,
like Marlon Brando's motorcycle club in The Wild One (1954).
Welles would later play pirate Long John Silver in the film Treasure Island (1972).
George can go right from this to a fancy ball. He looks splendid in white tie and tails,
the ultimate dressed-up look for men. George is clearly enjoying all this swagger.
At the ball, George expresses a wish that his mother had not invited the young men from a club he used to head.
It is unclear if this is the Friends Of The Ace. In any case, his disdain shows a lack of loyalty to his friends.
George's early scenes show him having potential. He has a youthful energy and rebelliousness
that could be used to build a life. George is far from being any sort of role model,
with his anti-work attitude. But his brio might have been turned in a socially useful direction.
Unfortunately, he will later go off the rails with his mother, ruining everyone's lives.
There is a long take tracking shot in an automobile factory. As a piece of cinema, this is interesting.
We see a relatively small group of workers at the factory. Much of what they are doing seems more like
craftsmanship than assembly line mass production. Their work resembles the personal craftsmanship
that runs through other Welles movies.
Running through The Magnificent Ambersons is the rise of Eugene Morgan's company, Morgan Motors.
At the start, we see Eugene with a barely functioning - but still successful - early horseless carriage.
Near the end (in a deleted scene) we see Eugene in his office, with the company's sign outside his window.
This recalls the rise of Kane's newspaper in the first half of Citizen Kane.
The factory in The Magnificent Ambersons is much smaller and simpler than those in real life.
It's a Hollywood set, and as best I can tell, none too accurate. See three films showing real factories:
Unfortunately, many Americans today have rarely if ever been inside a factory,
and know little about them. This is especially true of critics. I am not a blue collar worker either,
but I did three computer projects in automotive factories in the 1980's,
one in Anderson, Indiana, and the other two in Michigan, in Hamtramck and Livonia.
One suspects this makes me one of the few critics who have both written on Welles and
worked in an Indiana factory.
- To get a better idea of what Henry Ford's pioneering auto factories were like,
see the outstanding documentary 10 Buildings That Changed America (Dan Protess, 2013).
- A film widely available for free on the Internet
Westinghouse Works, 1904 (Billy Bitzer, 1904);
the section Panorama View, Street Car Motor Room is especially good.
- Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin, 1961), which has a brief section in a French factory:
see the chapter "Angelo's Day" on the DVD.
- A modern day narrative film shot in real factories is The Ryan White Story (John Herzfeld, 1989),
which takes place in Indiana, just like The Magnificent Ambersons.
The Magnificent Ambersons continues Welles' interest in complex mirror shots:
The sleigh scene has the characters reflected in water on the ground.
- Joseph Cotten uses are large mirror backed by a small mirror to try on clothes. This is an unusual combination.
It leads to odd rhythmic effects, as he appears and disappears from the various mirrors.
- A half-dressed woman trying on clothes uses two mirrors set at right angles.
Such a combination at right angles will return in The Immortal Story.
The two mirrors in The Magnificent Ambersons are not as close together as those in The Immortal Story,
and do not produce the complex effects seen so memorably in The Immortal Story.
- There is a mirror at the barbershop.
- A mirror is in the bathroom.
- Another mirror is at the ball.
- George is reflected in a window, as he watches Eugene leave the house.
- A remarkable long take follows George and Lucy down a town street. As they pass by shops,
the shop windows reflect the buildings across the street.
- The cut scenes were full of characters reflected in mirrors.
Journey Into Fear
Genre: Spy films - and film noir
Journey Into Fear (1943) is right at the beginning of the
film noir era. Its brilliant visual style certainly anticipates
some film noir features, such as extreme camera angles, overhead
shots, and scenes of night and rain. It is not clear that it is
a "real" film noir, like the huge numbers Hollywood
made in 1944- 1951. Instead, it perhaps seems like a film on the
road to the evolution of noir.
For one thing, it is a spy movie, not a crime thriller. Spy movies
became fairly common in the early days of World War II, both in
England and the United States. They form an early alternative
tradition, one that probably played an influencing role on the
rise of film noir. Like many spy movies, Journey Into Fear
is set abroad. Also like many spy films, it involves a chase over
a great swath of territory, unlike many film noirs, which often
take place within a single US city.
It is not clear if there is "alienation and obsession"
here, Alain Silver's key identifying characteristics of noir.
The hero and the other characters are involved in the fight against
Nazis. They are normal people, not people struggling with an emotional
obsession. There is paranoia here: Nazi murderers are lurking
around every corner. And the way one Nazi villain plays the same
record over and over certainly has qualities of obsession. It
also shows Welles' constant attempts to experiment with unusual
Parts of the finale of this film take place after the characters
have crossed over into Soviet territory. As far as I can tell,
these scenes are ideologically neutral. They neither endorse nor
condemn Communism. Welles always said that he was a Roosevelt
Democrat, and I have never seen any evidence that his politics
was ever radical or supportive of the extreme left. He seems to
have been a consistent liberal Democrat throughout his career.
I liked the magician character, played by the delightful
character actor Hans Conried. Welles was a gifted magician himself,
who toured with his magic act on stage. So a magician character
is probably dear to Welles' heart.
It's All True
A Travel Documentary
It's All True (1942) is an unfinished film, shot by Orson Welles in Brazil.
Much of the footage was edited into a restored version in 1993, which is widely available.
It's All True is a kind of film Welles will return to throughout his career.
It is a documentary set in a fascinating foreign country, showing both the life of that country,
and cultural events. These documentaries mix staged footage with actualities.
They usually show activities Welles likes, and of which he strongly approves.
Welles' personal attitude comes through emphatically.
Four Men On a Raft: Politics
The bulk of It's All True recreates a real-life political protest.
Four Men On a Raft shows the remarkable voyage of four fisherman down the coast of Brazil.
The daring voyage was staged as a politic protest. It asked the government to extend
retirement benefits to fishermen, who were not previously covered. Such benefits were
just beginning in the United States: Social Security had just been signed into law in 1935,
and still didn't cover many classes of workers, to whom it would later be extended.
The protest recalls Kane's newspaper crusading for the working man in Citizen Kane.
It differs in that this protest is by working people themselves, rather than a plutocrat like Kane.
Kane is told off by Jeb, that he is not going to like it when the "working man"
organizes himself and forms labor unions and struggles for himself.
So Four Men On a Raft goes beyond what is shown in Kane,
and shows the contemporary world where workers stand up for themselves.
The finale of the raft journey shows other boats joining the raft when it arrives in Rio.
These are full of sailors waving congratulations. This recalls Citizen Kane:
- It is an assembly of ordinary people,
like the big rally seen in the newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane.
Earlier, the procession after the funeral in Four Men On a Raft was another such assembly.
- The waving shows working men expressing an opinion,
like the stage hands dismissing the heroine's opera singing in Citizen Kane.
Four Men On a Raft: Motion
At the journey's end, the raft is raised up by cords, then turned around in air.
It is a striking, joyous looking motion. It forms a celebratory end to the journey.
The Story of Samba: Color
A segment of It's All True is in color: The Story of Samba
shows the spectacular Carnival in Rio.
Overall, most of the Carnival scenes are organized around the three Primary Colors:
red, yellow and blue. This is an extremely popular color scheme, in both painting and film.
Some shots include all three colors. Others include just two of the three.
Some shots include a straightforward yellow. But the "yellow" in many shots is a metallic gold.
Gold is popular in Carnival floats and costumes shown in The Story of Samba.
Some shots have a bright, traditional blue.
In other shots, we get a very light pale blue, almost white.
Some shots are organized around a mixture of red and gold. This is a favorite Welles color scheme,
that will return in later pictures.
A memorable shot focuses on a young man in a shiny gold shirt.
A few shots differ from the red-yellow-blue approach, by including people dressed in green.
The Story of Samba: Imagery
Several parade floats evoke different regions of the Ancient World:
Welles in general did not seem to have too much interest in the Ancient World, or anything older than
Shakespeare and Cervantes. Kane collects some old statues.
- Assyrian winged animals. A statue of a mythological winged animal is in Vienna.
- A dragon: perhaps Chinese.
- Elaborate Greek columns, with complex ornamentation on top. A building with Greek columns is shown in Vienna.
A spectacular parade float shows the Sun. This recalls the memorable speech about the Sun,
by the Major in The Magnificent Ambersons. A wheel spins behind the sun, creating a complex effect
mixing a moving and fixed image. This involves the rotary motion that occasionally appears in Welles.
Some traditional types of 19th Century military uniforms get spoofed in the Carnival.
They are turned into brilliantly-colored exaggerations.
A shot tends to show a group of people in related costumes. Then a second shot will show a
different group of related costumes. And so on. The variety of spectacular costumes
anticipates the opening of The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979).
A group of men are dressed as primitive tribesmen. They carry bows and arrows,
anticipating the archers in the battle in Chimes at Midnight.
Many of the parade groups mix men and women. This groups seems mainly male, however.
The Story of Samba: Geometry
One of the parade floats contains a giant globe. It is one of several objects in Welles films
shaped like a sphere. The black-and-white footage of the Rio Carnival has both a mirror-covered sphere,
and a glitter-covered sphere on a parade float.
Wheels of some of the parade floats are painted in spectacular ways.
One is a design full of peacock feathers, echoing Welles' interest in birds.
Rio is shown in a spectacular panning shot, that slowly sweeps over much of the city.
This is in the last stage of the raft journey.
A Carnival shot has a fascinating Art Deco skyscraper in the background, with the word "Mundo" on top.
This is one of Welles' shots showing building facades.
The Stranger (1946) is a film noir crime thriller, about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal.
The Stranger is important as one of the first films to discuss the Holocaust.
At the end, we have a Welles tradition: a mass assembly of "plain and ordinary people",
as they are called in the film. The democratic political values they represent are contrasted to
those of the Nazi villain.
The drug store owner makes his customers serve themselves. It's a subject of humor,
suggesting he is too lazy to get out of his chair. But it also symbolizes democracy,
with everyone equal and waiting on themselves.
Relationship to The Magnificent Ambersons
The Stranger has features that recall The Magnificent Ambersons. Both have:
- A small American town or city representing traditional American values and way of life.
- Groups of townspeople.
- Characters walking along the town streets.
- An upper crust family prominent in the town.
- A young man from the upper crust family as a major character.
- The young man's male friends, a group of teens: dressed as low-lifes or "sports" in a club in The Magnificent Ambersons,
upper crust athletes from a prep school in matching sweat shirts and pants in The Stranger.
- A party at the lead family's home with the townspeople as guest.
- A discussion of serious political issues at the dinner table: the influence of the auto in The Magnificent Ambersons,
democratic ideas in various countries in The Stranger.
- Self service by customers, with democratic undertones: pushing the streetcar in The Magnificent Ambersons,
getting coffee at the drug store counter in The Stranger.
- An attempted romantic relationship involving a woman from the family, that gets engulfed in failure.
- Androgyny: little George Amberson in long hair and skirt in The Magnificent Ambersons,
the angel statue could be male or female in The Stranger, as dialog points out.
- Outdoor scenes, including woods.
- Sweet foods the characters eat.
- Machinery, and characters expert on these machines: the clock in The Stranger,
the horseless carriage in The Magnificent Ambersons.
- Public or mass transportation: a bus in The Stranger,
the street car in The Magnificent Ambersons.
- Bad characters who repent at the end: the Nazi in The Stranger,
young George Amberson in a deleted scene in The Magnificent Ambersons.
Welles films often have elaborate staircases filled with balconies and landings.
In The Stranger, the church has this form. It has a staircase, ladder, a choir loft,
and higher lofts leading to the bell tower.
The docks at the start have multiple levels. Soon, we see ramps leading out of them.
Two locales have balconies, but without stairs shown on screen:
Richard Long is posed on a stairway in the background of a shot.
This interior room is all on one level, and we do not see very high up the stairway.
- The gymnasium with its high mezzanine.
- The house with its second story porch, where the heroine goes late in the film.
The Stranger continues Welles' interest in mirror shots:
- A villain being photographed is reflected in the camera lens: one of Welles' bravura images.
This is also one of Welles' scenes of a work of art being created, in this case a photograph.
- There are two mirrors in the drug store, one behind the owner's chair, one behind the lunch counter.
These mirrors are simple and straightforward, but they do enhance the visual style of the pharmacy scenes
- When the three men look out of the doctor's window, we also see trees reflected in the window,
superimposed on the three men.
The Lady From Shanghai
Relationship to Touch of Evil
Much of the imagery in The Lady From Shanghai anticipates
Welles' later film, Touch of Evil (1958). The earlier film
is usually simpler; the ideas are developed in more complex style
in the later film.
Both films are crime dramas, with California settings and location
photography. Many early scenes in Lady take place in Central
America and Mexico; these anticipate the border town that dominates
the whole of the later film. The heroine is attacked by a group
of young toughs here, in the opening New York sequence; more elaborate
attacks occur in the later film. Men keep intruding themselves
on the relationship between O'Hara and Hayworth here; more complex
intrusions will occur in Touch of Evil.
Both films open with pedestrians walking by a slowly moving vehicle;
the pace of the pedestrians and vehicle are counterpointed. Welles
seemed to find the balance between the two kinds of movement interesting.
The counterpoint is more elaborate in Touch of Evil. There
is also the scene in Mr. Arkadin, where the hero and heroine
dodge carts on a Spanish road - a similar handcart also shows
up in the start of Touch of Evil. Later, in The Immortal
Story, the sailor will run along side the slowly moving horse-drawn
carriage carrying Mr. Clay. But, rather than counterpoint, the
movement is completely synchronized: the hero keeps his hand on
the carriage as it moves along.
After the cab ride, O'Hara and Rita Hayworth walk along to the
garage, in a long take sequence. This too reminds one of another
male-female couple, Heston and Janet Leigh, in their long take
walk at the start of Touch of Evil.
One kind of shot in Lady is the long take, in which people
arrive and depart, entering and leaving the shot. Shots like this
include the scene in which Grisby's body shows up on a stretcher;
and the scene where Bannister and his wife are discussing the
case before the trial. This kind of shot is used extensively in
Touch of Evil. In Lady, the entrance is often used
for shock value. For example, O'Hara thinks Grisby is alive; the
sudden pulling of his corpse into the shot is terrible, shocking
news for him. The staging, with its entrance, underscores the
disruption of O'Hara's world. The entrance soon after of the lawyer
Bannister suggests further problems for O'Hara: he is the most
powerful figure in the film, and the one most likely to be O'Hara's
antagonist. So his sudden arrival suggests a further wrenching
of O'Hara's life.
Welles weaves his camera through pillared walkways in the Mexico
scenes. These too recall the complex opening shot of Touch
of Evil, which uses the arched covered sidewalks of the town.
The large beach fire anticipates the scene of the burning
car in Touch of Evil.
Another kind of shot: the dock scenes, which emphasize the vertical
patterns formed by the docks. The patterns are hugely complex,
and are further elaborated by the camera movement through them.
These shots, too, recall those of the opening of Touch of Evil.
After the fake killing, when O'Hara lets off his gun, the docks
are still a setting, but they are photographed in a very different
The yacht scenes and the beach picnic recall Welles' earlier
It's All True (1942). In both films, scenes of boats in the water
make complex, visually interesting compositions. The scenes near
the rocky island, with people going ashore in small boats, anticipate
the island scenes in Michelangelo Antonioni's
Welles liked to set mystery films aboard ship: see the middle
sequence of Journey Into Fear, and Dead Calm. There
are also sailor heroes in The Immortal Story and Mr. Arkadin,
which opens on the harbor in Naples, and which contains
some boat scenes.
Much of The Lady From Shanghai takes place at entertainment
sites. These include:
Many of these entertainments are fairly exotic. None of the lead characters seem to be having
much fun, however; the sparkling settings contrast with the morose
central characters, obsessed with their problems. Park scenes
will later be central to F for Fake.
- The Central Park horse cab ride,
- The yacht,
- The picnic,
- The Aquarium,
- The dock side dance hall,
- The Peking Opera
- The Amusement Park.
The brief scene in which O'Hara waits in the kitchen recalls the
kitchen scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons. Both kitchens
are quite elaborate and imposing.
The curving ramp at the parking garage at the beginning anticipates
the ramps down which the characters slide in the fun house at the end.
The Aquarium visit is one of Welles' visually elaborate set pieces.
It recalls the zoo in Citizen Kane.
Some of the shots look like process work, with the characters filmed in front of movie screens showing fish.
The process work is good, and normally I do not emphasize or feel concerned about
whether I am watching process work in a movie, or not. But Welles has apparently
done something unusual with the process shots in The Lady From Shanghai.
It looks as if films of small tropical fish have been shot, then blown up to enormous size.
The fish behind the hero and heroine look like giant sea creatures, far bigger than such fish get in real life.
The effect recalls the even bigger parade floats of a dragon and other creatures in It's All True.
The Chinatown exteriors show Welles' skill with cityscapes and architecture.
Welles has photographed some of his favorite kinds of buildings:
A street light, seen from a high angle is one of the polyhedral glass containers
seen in Welles films. It is part of a striking composition.
- A view through the window of a Chinese language newspaper.
The word "HERALD" is visible in reverse in the window.
A page from the paper is pasted on the window.
- A pharmacy.
- A sign advertising "Almond Cookies": Welles likes deserts.
A beautiful composition shows both the hero and a pagoda reflected in a shop window near Chinatown.
The judge and his chess game are reflected in a window.
The glass-covered book case in the judge's office briefly reflects.
This effect is subtle and not emphasized.
Plot Construction: Adultery leads to Crime
Frank Krutnik has linked The Lady From Shanghai to a series
of film noirs centered around adultery, a series which began with
Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. See Krutnik's book
In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991).
I would like to comment
on this classification. On the level of plot this is very true.
The plots of Double Indemnity school movies fall into three parts:
These similarities in plot do not necessarily extend to style
or thematic elements.
- First the hero gets lured into an adulterous affair, against
his better judgment.
- Then he gets involved in a scheme involving a perfect murder.
- Finally, the scheme unravels, and the hero has to struggle
with persecution from the law, detectives and crooks, all stemming
from his involvement in the crime.
The Last Shots
The hero leaves the fun house, through a set of revolving bars.
This is the kind of rotary motion Welles likes.
The last shot is a wonderful long take. It shows the deserted amusement park.
The numerous signs help form the compositions.
Mr. Arkadin (1955) is a mystery thriller. Its plot is somewhat
reminiscent of Eric Ambler's prose mystery thriller,
The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) (also known as A Coffin for Dimitrios).
Ambler was a famous spy novelist, and this was his best known book.
Welles starred in the film version of Ambler's Journey Into Fear (1940), and most certainly
would be familiar with his work. Welles and Ambler also shared
a left-wing political orientation.
Links to Citizen Kane
Mr. Arkadin bears many resemblances to Citizen Kane:
- Both investigate the life and past of a powerful millionaire, played by Orson Welles.
- A mystery is investigated: the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane, the origin of Arkadin.
- The sinister millionaire supported the fascists in the 1930's.
- The millionaire lives in a huge castle.
- Both have the hero torn between romancing a woman from a powerful family for her connections
(the President's niece in Citizen Kane) or money (Arkadin's daughter),
and a lower class, common acting, penniless but sincere nightclub singer.
- Black musicians perform.
- Snow is a motif.
- Crates are the background of visually spectacular scenes.
- A night club phone booth has glass windows and door.
- Rich adults have frivolous parties in which they behave in a silly manner.
- A disassembled bed frame is seen.
- Palms are a motif, as in other Welles films.
- Mirror shots and reflection images are common.
- A building with smoke going up from a chimney is among the last shots of both films.
It suggests a life in ruins. In Mr. Arkadin , this is in the background as the
heroine drives away from the airport.
Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is a wonderfully sleazy character.
He is a sort of low life hustler, of a kind purely confined to
the early and middle 1950's. He recalls Ralph Meeker's characterization of
Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955).
Both men are all dressed up in flashy, dressy, but somehow
vulgar looking clothes. They seem like working class men's idea
of cool. There is a sense of pathos in both men. They are working class types,
out to try to get a little bit from a world dominated by rich monsters like Arkadin.
The arcade by the phone booth in Mexico is full of repeated arches.
It recalls the store front arcades Welles would soon use in Touch of Evil, which also represent Mexico.
Such arches run through The Immortal Story, and the bullfight episode of
Around the World with Orson Welles.
The Christmas scenes seem almost like a parody of the party in
The Magnificent Ambersons. We see the same high ceilinged
rooms, the same decorations on every pillar and door frame, the
same crowd of merry-making guests.
There are two spiral staircases.
The airport control tower is a polyhedral glass room.
It shape anticipates the (much smaller) glass container holding
Senta Berger in the magic act in Vienna.
The Mr. Arkadin control tower also contains a woman, Raina.
An airport building contains that Welles favorite, a peaked roof.
Another airport building, in the finale, is in Art Deco style.
Art Deco is not that common in Orson Welles. The building is
striking geometric, including curves.
The Christmas party has the camera repeatedly moving back and forth between two rooms.
The camera moves in both directions. In some ways, this is a path / reverse path
series of movements, with the camera both moving on a path between the two rooms,
then reversing itself to go back along the same path, but in a reverse direction.
The penitentes are a Spanish tradition that go back hundreds of
years. I recently saw a painting by the great Dutch artist
Gerard Ter Borch, Procession With Flagellants (circa 1636-1640),
based on a trip the artist made to Spain as a teenager. The subjects
wear the same conical hooded costumes as in Welles' film. Borch's
subjects were apparently members of a sect known as The Brotherhood of the Cross.
The party with the Goya masks shows Welles' deep interest in painting.
They recall the Day of the Dead masks worn in Sergei Eisenstein's
Qué viva Mexico! (1932), a major influence on Welles'
work. The flagellants in Eisenstein's film also anticipate Welles.
The necklace worn by Katina Paxinou is echoed by the blinds of
the windows behind her. The two look almost exactly the same,
and it is sort of a visual pun.
Around the World with Orson Welles
Around the World with Orson Welles (1955) is a series of
26-minute TV documentaries, made for British television. Five
of the episodes survive, and have been collected and released on a DVD.
Welles compared the series to home movies. This is a
bit misleading. There are travelogue sections shot silent, edited
together with narration by Welles - segments that do resemble
in form the average person's vacation films of the era. But there
are also extensive synch sound interviews with people Welles meets
in his travels. These parts are a bit like a talk show, although
they are generally set on locations where the person lives, rather
than in a studio. In general, Welles resists "voice of authority"
narration here, and tries to disguise his comments as elements
of conversation with another character. Welles will also frequently
show the camera, microphone, and the camera crews filming. It
is part of the spectacle.
St.-Germain-des-Près: Personal Craftsmanship
The best of the series is the one dealing with an intellectual
neighborhood of Paris, St.-Germain-des-Près. This
features a long interview with Raymond Duncan, an eccentric American
artist who was a long time resident. Duncan has a philosophy of
doing everything for yourself, and is a craftsman who makes everything
from his own printing press and type fonts, to the clothes he
wears. It is hard not to compare this to Welles himself, and his
do-it-yourself movies. And while Duncan's clothes are extremely
unusual, Welles would spend much of his later years in costumes
such as long capes and floppy bow ties, that were also both "artistic"
and unique. Duncan's other major personal philosophy, never to
imitate others or be a conformist, but always to stretch out in
one's own direction, could also serve as a credo for Welles. So
we are getting a philosophical statement of Welles' own life and
beliefs here, as well. Duncan is an articulate man with a rich,
resonant voice and a love of Shakespeare, also like Welles himself.
Duncan's authenticity serves as the direct opposite of all the
swindlers and forgers to come in F for Fake (1973). He
is an artist who represents the antithesis of these painters who
use their skills to deceive. Both Welles documentaries have an
artist at their center, both take place at least partly in France,
both make philosophical statements about authenticity, both include
Welles' on-screen presence, both show celebrated French historical
buildings and landmarks, both have real intelligentsia filmed,
both show scenes of evening life and the French having after hours
fun, both show French trains in stations from the outside. Picasso's
drawings of bullfighters are discussed in a later episode of Around
the World with Orson Welles; a story about Picasso is dramatized
in F for Fake.
There is a party atmosphere to this film. Everyone from Art Buchwald's
secretary to people on the street look as if they are enjoying
The other episodes are not quite as good. Perhaps this simply
reflects my own prejudices: films about artists such as St.-Germain-des-Près
have always fascinated me. Plus it is hard to resist a portrait
of Paris and its intellectual life.
The episode has "intertitles" in the form of brief statements
being typed on a reporter's typewriter. These newspaper scenes
recall Citizen Kane. They also give a silent movie feel
to the episode.
St.-Germain-des-Près: The Pan up the newspaper building
The pan up the newspaper building, the real Herald-Tribune in
Paris, is a "Welles shot": a moving camera work that
creates a series of compositions-in-motion, based on the complex
architecture of the building. In a small, much shorter way, it
anticipates the famed moving camera opening of Touch of Evil,
to be made the next year. Welles first pans upward, then executes
a complex lateral turn. The opening camera movement in Touch
of Evil also involves shifts of direction, also in 90 degree
Sound poetry, Music, Dancing and Sports Movements
In St.-Germain-des-Près, Welles will have sound-poets
give demos of "letterisme", a sound-based art movement
of the era. In the later episode, Pays Basque II (La
Pelote basque), we will hear the unique long-distance cries
of Basque pigeon-netters, and the musical score-keeping announcements
during games of pelote. This interest in unique forms of vocal
expression perhaps derives from Welles' background in radio.
Welles also includes much about music and dancing in both films.
Both films celebrate cultures where intricate dance steps play
a major role in ordinary people's entertainment.
Madrid Bullfight and Pays Basque II (La Pelote
basque) focus mainly on sports: bullfighting and pelote. Both
sports emphasize physical dexterity, and complex movements of
the whole body. In this they resemble the dancing that plays a
role in both St.-Germain-des-Près and Pays Basque
These two sports episodes are the closest in the series to conventional
travelogues or documentaries. Both are quite absorbing to watch,
and both have a great deal of visual style. Neither quite reaches
the level of St.-Germain-des-Près, but both make
Madrid Bullfight: Personal Craftsmanship
There is much less focus in Welles on actually fighting bulls,
than in most films about bullfighting. Instead, Welles depicts
the whole surrounding world of the bullfight, from the ranches
where the bulls breed, to the architectural details of the arena.
The bullfighters are seen not so much as killers, as representatives
of a skilled, ancient tradition. This links them to Raymond Duncan,
and to Welles himself. Such personal craftsmanship is part of
Welles' ideal. Welles is deeply a man of the theater, a 2500 year
old skilled profession, and has a "neighborhood grocery store"
vision of himself.
One bullfighter's skill as a horseman is emphasized, in a dynamically
filmed demonstration. This recalls Welles' character's skill with
driving the carriage in The Lady From Shanghai.
The spectacular, Hispanic costumes worn by the matadors, even
outside of the ring practicing their horsemanship, add glamour
to the proceedings. One also thinks of Brazilian hero of It's
All True and the Mexican policeman hero of Touch of Evil.
Welles is definitely in touch with the tradition of the Latin
Hero that was so important to films from Valentino onward.
Madrid Bullfight has a brief autobiographical moment, in
which it is revealed that Welles himself had been a picador in
Spain during his youth. There will be a longer autobiographical
sequence, in Welles' later documentary, F for Fake.
Madrid Bullfight: Architecture
The arcades that are a Welles trademark show up in the bullring,
in the title credits. There are two stories of corridors, with
Welles' beloved rounded arches topping pillars at the top. The
exterior of the bullring is also full of arched doorways, which
form much of the background of the mid-section of the episode.
Later, at the farm, we will see bulls driven through a rounded
arch into a pen. At the bullring, there is a spectacular view
of the cars and pedestrians outside the ring, shot through a scalloped
arch. There are similar series of arches in the bullring of Sergei Eisenstein's
Qué viva Mexico! (1932), which probably influenced
An overhead shots of the bullpens is one of the most striking
in this film - which is all deeply architectural. These bullpens
are made up out of the regular, repeated units that recall the
San Francisco docks in The Lady From Shanghai and the opening
shot arcades in Touch of Evil. Like the docks, and unlike
the arcades, the bullpens are mainly rectilinear. Even here, there
are some unique narrow doors with arched tops, wide enough for
humans but not bulls. Welles uses his trademark somewhat overhead
angle to give us a broad, detailed view of the architecture.
Before the bullfight, Welles shows public spectators at galleries,
watching bulls in a pen below. The galleries run above the pen,
which forms a central courtyard below. This recalls the galleried
courtyards in the Tamiroff episode of Mr. Arkadin. Welles
loves such multi-storied structures. There are also multistoried
arcades on the facade of the church that runs through Pays
Basque II (La Pelote basque).
Circular forms play a role as well. We see crowds gathering on
curving outdoor staircases near the bullring. And the circular
wall of the ring itself is frequently seen in shots.
The Tynans introduce the film standing in front of a wall filled
with posters. There are also the notices all over the inside and
exterior of Duncan's studio in St.-Germain-des-Près.
This anticipates all the Chinese banners and signs that are so
important to the compositions in The Immortal Story.
Chelsea Pensioners and Pays Basque I (The Basque
Countries) concentrate on interviews with ordinary people.
The interviews, with Welles asking them about their lives, recall
a bit the framework story of Citizen Kane. These interviews
tend to the dull side in terms of content. And there is not much
visual interest in such interviews, either. These inoffensive
episodes constitute the low point of the series. By contrast,
the 11-year-old in Pays Basque II (La Pelote basque)
is a natural, offering terrific color commentary throughout.
Chelsea Pensioners deals with retirees in London. Welles
presents them as examples of "independent" life, like
Duncan in the other film. A call for Americans to resist conformity
is issued in many of these episodes. While the series was shown
on British TV, the audience addressed philosophically throughout
seems to be modern day Americans. Perhaps Welles hoped to sell
the show to American TV networks. Welles would move back to the
US in October 1955, shortly after completing these films.
The opening of Chelsea Pensioners is shot right across
from the stage door of a famed London musical hall, the Hawley
Empire. Welles had shot Moby Dick - Rehearsed (1955) there,
and he mentions that he had shot "a movie" in this celebrated
The Basque episodes
For obscure reasons, Welles has the same opening and closing sequences
in the two Basque episodes, Pays Basque I (The Basque
Countries) and Pays Basque II (La Pelote basque).
The shared sequences are very good. Aside from this, part I is
mainly a series of interviews, and not very interesting, whereas
part II is a beautifully filmed documentary about life, sports
and dance in the region.
Both Basque episodes end with the same sequence: a festival with
a metallic bull shooting off fireworks, recalling a similar artificial-bull-with-fireworks
in Sergei Eisenstein's Qué
viva Mexico! (1932). These sequences recall the Chinatown
processions near the end of The Lady From Shanghai.
Borders. The Basque episodes open right on the border of
France and Spain. Later, there is a sequence of the border being
opened to celebrate the holiday of Pentecost. This recalls the
border elements of Journey Into Fear and Touch of Evil.
The footbridge that links the two sides anticipates the bridge
finale of Touch of Evil. In both films, the bridges are
full of pedestrians.
Storytelling. Welles' brief discussion of storytelling
at the end, invoking Basque traditions, anticipates in a small
way the subject matter of The Immortal Story.
Childhood. Pays Basque II (La Pelote basque)
contains the most explicit look at childhood in Welles' cinema.
The 11-year old hero is depicted as having an ideal existence,
getting to take part in traditional sports, music and travel.
This echoes the re-creation of traditional US Midwestern lifestyles
and amusements that opens The Magnificent Ambersons. It
also recalls the earliest scenes of Kane's life. The boy here
is privileged over Welles, sitting above him in trees or on walls,
and giving Welles the inside scoop on Basque traditions. Welles
here reflects other 1950's movies, especially Westerns, which
often included boy characters with whom youthful viewers could
The Fountain of Youth
A TV Pilot
The Fountain of Youth (filmed 1956, broadcast 1958) is a half-hour TV pilot,
for a series that was never produced. The comedy-drama includes science fiction elements,
along with much sophisticated comedy.
The Fountain of Youth is based a short story by John Collier, "Youth from Vienna".
At the end, narrator Welles announces next week's show in the proposed series,
"Green Thoughts", based on another short story by Collier, about an orchid.
Unfortunately, neither "Green Thoughts" nor any other episodes were actually filmed.
An Experimental Film: Mixing Stills and Moving Images
The Fountain of Youth uses experimental filming techniques.
It mixes still photographs of the actors and drama, with conventional moving images.
Breakdown (Alfred Hitchcock, made for TV, 1955)
was filmed as a prologue with motion, and a main film entirely as a series of still photographs.
Breakdown is a grim suspense thriller,
while The Fountain of Youth is a giddy comedy. The way that The Fountain of Youth
moves back-and-forth between stills and moving images, without any apparent
rhyme or reason other than the director's whim, helps create the giddy, anything goes feeling of the film.
By contrast, the strict use of pure stills in most of Breakdown likely underscores its solemn nature.
Both films anticipate La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), which is mainly filmed with stills,
together with a brief moving image.
The stills are linked in The Fountain of Youth to a concrete technology: a magic lantern slide projector.
This is seen as an "old-fashioned" technology, shown while old-style music is played.
It's an evocation of the world of the past, and its entertainment.
Narrator Welles sometimes stands in front of still images of characters.
This is an example of that Welles approach, "multiple images of people".
One might note that 1950's US television was occasionally experimental.
Confessions of a Nervous Man (Paul Nickell, 1953)
doesn't do anything as formally avant-garde as mixing photos and moving images.
But it does contain a wild farrago of material, as part of its comic story.
It's a gem that should be better known. So should his unusual drama An Almanac of Liberty (1954).
Both were part of the Studio One drama series.
An Experimental Film: Mixing in Drawn Images
When the heroine starts seeing images of herself grown decayed, these seem to be paintings.
Mixing painted images with filmed ones is also experimental.
It recalls Carnegie Hall (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1947),
which shows a drawn version of the exterior of Carnegie Hall,
and The Man From Planet X (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1951),
which perhaps uses a painting for its spaceship interior.
The Fountain of Youth also uses stylized backdrops, such as the silhouettes of lab equipment.
These might well be drawn images.
Welles is shown near the beginning against out-of-focus, purely abstract backgrounds.
This is a rare use of abstraction in Welles films.
Links to Welles Subjects
Some Welles films show skepticism about technological "advances" actually causing harm instead:
the automobile in The Magnificent Ambersons, the anti-aging drug in The Fountain of Youth.
The Fountain of Youth is a science fiction film. It has links to technology-produced dystopias,
such as Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), which also suggest that technology is leading to a worse future.
The "ideal young couple" shows the same smarmy materialism as people in Mr. Arkadin.
This is a look at mid-1950's "beautiful people" and their superficial lives.
The debate in front of the mirror, is a series of linked scenes that show the couple's marriage breaking down
over a long period. This recalls the series of breakfast scenes in Citizen Kane,
which depict the collapse of the Kane marriage.
Welles likes to show newspaper people. The Fountain of Youth has a
wide variety of journalists: gossip columnists, photographers, science writer for magazines, radio broadcaster.
These are not all newspaper people, strictly speaking: some work for magazines or radio.
We get a look at the science writer creating publicity for the scientist: he is very successful at it!
The Welles subject of androgyny gets linked to Welles himself, as on-screen narrator:
- The heroine's voice comes out of Welles' mouth. This sound is the gateway to the first moving images of the characters.
It is as if androgyny has set them in motion, and made them come to life.
- Welles speaks dialogue we see mouthed silently by the heroine, in a later sequence.
Such effects had been used in The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948),
and in many documentary shorts with a narrator but no dialogue, such as
The Face Behind the Mask (Jacques Tourneur, 1938).
However such films most typically had the male narrator mouthing the words of male actors,
rather than the male narrator / female actor combination of The Fountain of Youth.
The Debate: Mirror and Architecture
The long debate between the couple, is mainly filmed in front of the mantel where the formula sits.
Behind the couple, we see elaborate building facades through the window.
Such building facades are a Welles tradition. Those in The Fountain of Youth show large scale,
sophisticated urban buildings, as do other Welles films.
On top of the mantel is a mirror, allowing Welles to create the mirror shots he loves.
These mirror images often encompass not only the couple, but the window and building facades behind them.
The 1920's news photographers use flashes held on long poles. The poles form the
slightly tilting vertical lines Welles likes.
The Immortal Story
The Immortal Story (1968) is one of Orson Welles' best
movies. This work is very rich, both in its subject matter, and
its baroque visual style. It is Welles' most beautiful movie.
We'll start out with a brief discussion of the film's characters
and themes. But most of the discussion will be of Welles' visual
style. Everyone agrees that Welles' movies do not look like any
one else's. Frame after frame of Welles' films contain spectacular
compositions that are only found in the work of Orson Welles.
These complex, gorgeous images have been dubbed "Welles shots".
While the visual aspect of Welles' work is universally admired
- "Welles shots" have been famous for sixty years, and
were mentioned in the 1950's by Truffaut - there has been little
attempt to analyze them in concrete terms. Just what do "Welles
shots" consist of? What techniques and approaches are used
by Welles to create his famous "Welles shots"?
All four of the main characters of The Immortal Story have
ancestors in previous Welles films. They are extensions of characters
who fascinated and preoccupied Welles though his career.
The characters of rich, unscrupulous business man Mr. Clay and
his far more moral, and highly loyal Jewish clerk Mr. Levinsky,
recall Citizen Kane and his business manager Mr. Bernstein. The
mention of the pogroms which wiped out Elishama Levinsky's family
recalls Welles' pioneering discussion of the Holocaust in The
Stranger, perhaps the first in any fiction film. The prophecy
from Isaiah is one of the few discussions of religion anywhere
in the available films of Orson Welles. The first name Elishama
also recalls the prophet Elisha.
The woman's somewhat raffish home here recalls Marlene Dietrich's
in Touch of Evil. She is telling fortunes, like Marlene's
character in the earlier film - a subject that relates to the
prophecy that is a central theme of the movie. She also offers
skeptical opposition to Welles' character, just like Marlene.
The cards look like Tarot cards, just as in Welles' admirer Curtis
Harrington, and his Night Tide (1960) and Games
(1967), and like Agnès Varda in
Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961).
Mr. Clay is a wealthy businessman who winds up alone, in a big
house. This recalls Citizen Kane, and The Magnificent
Ambersons. Welles himself came from an upper middle class
American WASP background, which he recreated in such films as
The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger.
Mr. Clay has rejected his partner, because he was not able to
accept his friendship. This is like Kane's rejection of his best
friend Jedediah. Jedediah is often seen as a gay character. Here,
Mr. Clay has never been attracted to a woman, and there are suggestions
that he is a gay man whose rejection of his partner was based
in a lack of acceptance of homosexual relationships, or perhaps
a deep coldness. Mr. Clay's hiring of the sailor is also compared
by Mr. Levinsky to the heroine's sexual encounter with the sailor
- a suggestion that this is a gay relationship at last. This scene
includes a long close-up of the sailor's rear, a homosexual overtone.
The sailor is one of many sympathetic sailing men in Welles, such
as the heroes of It's All True and The Lady From Shanghai.
The hero of Mr. Arkadin is also introduced on the docks.
Working class characters in Welles tend to be sailors. The heroes
of both The Lady From Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin are
hired by unscrupulous, wealthy businessmen, like the sailor in
The Immortal Story.
The rest of this article will deal with Welles' visual style.
The Opening Shot
The title shot shows two sails of a boat in the foreground, and
a deep focus stair between two buildings. This is similar to the
first shot of Mr. Arkadin, which shows two large pieces
of machinery in the foreground, and a deep focus outdoor passage
between them. The Mr. Arkadin shot is all on one level,
whereas here we already have one of Welles' staircases. This title
shot already has two series of Chinese banners, which will play
a major role in many of the film's exteriors.
Rectangles, Architecture and Staircases
The film's second shot shows a panorama of buildings and balconies.
These are full of Chinese banners, shutters, balcony regions,
windows, and other rectangular regions, arranged in a series of
horizontal bands across the screen. The effect is like a work
of abstract painting. Its rectilinear qualities evokes Mondrian.
Its bands of abstract images recalls paintings by Klee and Kandinsky.
Welles' filmmaking in Citizen Kane recalled German Expressionism,
including Fritz Lang. Here he is evoking
German abstract painting of the same era.
When the businessmen come out to discuss Mr. Clay, they are shown
against another set of buildings with balconies. These too furnish
a series of rectilinear regions arranged into a broader grid.
Here, many of the regions consist of a series of repeated bars
or slats - shutters, staircases, partitions, undersides of balconies.
These echoes between the various kinds of repeated bars give a
visual unity to the design. It also suggests an ingenious, fascinating
world behind the characters - a sort of visual fantasy land in
which the eye can wander delightedly. The multi-storied nature
of the buildings recalls a bit the multi-storied staircase in
The Magnificent Ambersons. Like the staircase in that film,
the buildings in The Immortal Story contain angles, including
sections which join together at other than 90 degrees. Welles
juxtaposes shots of these building sections, stressing the angles
between them, and the heads of his players. It gives a complex
background to the dialogue. The buildings also recall the balconied,
many-storied courtyard of the building housing Akim Tamiroff at
the end of Mr. Arkadin.
The file drawers recall the huge filing room in Touch of Evil.
Each drawer here is of a different color of wood. They make another
series of varied rectangles arranged in horizontal rows, like
the opening shots of the film. However, they are stretched out
at an angle behind Mr. Levinsky, giving a 3D effect.
Mr. Clay's home has one of the most complex staircases in Welles.
This recalls a long tradition of staircase shots, both in Welles,
and in the film noir that Welles influenced. Here, pairs of people
encounter each other on the stairs, also a Welles tradition. The
stair has vertical bars, like the doors in the house, and the
balconies outside early in the film.
Mr. Clay is shown riding in a horse-drawn, open carriage. This
is like the cab driver played by Welles in The Lady From Shanghai,
and even more like the photo of the teenage Welles in F for
Fake. The two elaborate chairs in which he sits later also
have a bit of a carriage-like effect.
The sailor runs along with the carriage, holding on to while the
horses draw it along. The contrasting rhythms of the horses and
the man make one of the best counterpoint effects in Welles. Welles
often built scenes out of rhythmic effects: the repeating record
at the start of Journey Into Fear, the flashing neon signs
in Touch of Evil.
Welles has a series of repeating mirrors in Mr. Clay's home. These
allow reflections to infinity, as in Citizen Kane. They
also recall the fun-house mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai.
In The Immortal Story, a second mirror is placed at right
angles to the infinite repeating mirrors. One can see its frame
reflected inside the frame of the repeating mirrors, and vice
versa. These mirror frames extend the imagery of box-like rectangular
regions, that run through the early sections of the movie. The
frames are at right angles to each other, something Welles frequently
uses for complex effects in his films: see the famous opening
of Touch of Evil, for example.
Later in the film, we see the sailor in the mirrors, walking past,
while the early shots show a seated Mr. Clay, eating. The sailor
shots are staged so that his reflections come in close pairs,
with longer gaps between the pairs. The shots show Welles' delight
at experimenting with different kinds of mirror effects in his
In Mr. Clay's home, we see a series of repeated arches. These
echo other repeated arches in the street. Both sets recall downtown
Venice in Touch of Evil, and its colonnades of arches.
Here, the arches are more than one level deep, however: we see
arches framed within arches, including a door in deep focus in
the background. The arches are echoed by the arch of Mr. Clay's
chair. This is one of the most striking images of the film, with
the chair arch being the mirror image of the room arches. The
double level of arches recalls the Mexican arcade in Mr. Arkadin,
and Katina Paxinou's home, in which one parabolic-arched doorway
is seen at right angles within another, to highly unusual effect.
The heroine's walk with Levinsky: A compositional masterpiece
The moving camera shot in which the heroine first walks along
with Levinsky is perhaps the most dazzling in the movie. They
pass by and under a series of hanging Chinese signs and banners.
The shot recalls Josef von Sternberg,
who frequently employed tracking shots along paths in which many
objects hang in the foreground. However, these signs are more
solid than Sternberg's typical nets or curtains. The shot's brilliant
use of varied colors for the signs is also unique.
The heroine and Levinsky pass by a huge Chinese umbrella, the
start of a series of circular forms that will gradually invade
the picture. Next, they are in a beautiful shot with mist, also
a Sternberg-like effect. They wind up by a building whose step-like,
zigzag border is echoed by a series of step-like seats underneath
Red and Spheres: The Dinner Scene and the Bedroom
The dinner scene with the sailor recalls the paintings of Vermeer.
There is a huge gold chandelier, much like those that appears
in Vermeer's paintings. And we see wine in a crystal glass and
bottle, also a favorite study of Dutch still life painting. The
flaming red background here is not Dutch-like, but it does underscore
the painterly quality of these shots. Both the glass and the base
of the bottle have spherical shapes, and are filled with red wine.
Soon, we will see the candles in the bedroom surrounded by spherical
red guards. This shot, in which the candles, candelabra, and the
spherical guards are all partly reflected in the mirror, is one
of the most complex in the film.
The sailor is in an alley, near the shadow of a palm tree when
introduced. The last shots of him leaving the grounds also contain
palm trees. Similarly, when the sailor gets out of jail near the
start of Mr. Arkadin, he is seen near a palm tree on a
Mediterranean street. While on the porch at the end of The
Immortal Story, the heroine is shown surrounded by vines,
just as she was surrounded by flowers earlier in the bedroom.
The porch at the end has a peaked roof, like the train station
to come in F for Fake. An early shot here contrasts the
tall vertical rectangle of a doorway to the left, with a squarer
region behind Mr. Levinsky to the right. The two regions are in
dynamic balance. Later, many shots of the porch will stress that
it is partly screened in by lattice work, and partly not, an odd
effect. This too will be used to give a sort of balance between
two different regions of the shot.
Welles' chair in the finale has a spherical head. It adds curves
to the otherwise rectilinear porch. So does the spiral shell.
The shell that falls from Mr. Clay's hand when he dies, recalls
the glass snowball in Citizen Kane. It does not shatter,
however. It was intended by the sailor as a present for the heroine;
instead Mr. Levinsky winds up listening to it, in the film's haunting
Vienna (filmed circa 1968) is a short documentary or non-fiction film.
It was made as part of a TV special Orson Welles directed, Orson's Bag
(filmed circa 1968, 1969) which was never broadcast.
In the book This Is Orson Welles,
this segment of Orson's Bag is briefly referred to as Spying in Vienna.
(See the Chronology in This Is Orson Welles for 1970, which gives credits for Orson's Bag.)
Spying in Vienna is a good title, partly because it has comic passages on spies,
and partly because it has Welles viewing Vienna locations, and thus "spying" around the city.
There are comic references in the magic act to American TV of the era:
- The tape recorder that goes up in smoke spoofs Mission: Impossible, whose theme song gets played.
- Arte Johnson has the same role as on Laugh-In.
- In general, spies were hugely popular on US television of the era.
Links to The Immortal Story
The style of the first half of Vienna is visibly indebted to The Immortal Story:
The Immortal Story was shot in 1966, roughly two years before Vienna.
- Welles wanders around narrow, picturesque passageways in Vienna, recalling
Levinsky's walk to his room in The Immortal Story.
The Viennese streets are on a bigger scale.
- The hotel room has a deep red background, like the dinner in The Immortal Story.
- There are golden accents in the hotel room including a picture frame, echoing
the gold chandelier in The Immortal Story.
- Both films show grill work.
- One of the best images shows a street in Vienna with a hanging spherical ornament,
echoing the spherical imagery in The Immortal Story..
- Both films have a delicate, poetic atmosphere.
Links to Touch of Evil
The comic second half of Vienna burlesques subjects from Touch of Evil:
- A woman gets kidnapped, as part of a sinister plot.
- A tape recorder is used.
Welles talks about his childhood consuming Viennese pastries.
This is another evocation of boyhood life in Welles.
The man who is good with birds in the park, recalls the cockatoo in Citizen Kane.
Welles celebrating the prettiness of two women on the street,
recalls him admiring the chorus girls in the Citizen Kane Trailer.
Vienna concludes with Welles doing a magic act.
The kidnap victim in the bag, is another of the long objects carried by men in Welles films.
F for Fake
F for Fake (1973) seems like a minor work in the Welles
oeuvre. Its chief limitation: most of the images in the film lack
the compositional brilliance of Welles' best work. Its second
biggest problem: its main subjects, Clifford Irving and Elmyr,
lack interest as people.
Autobiography and Green Fields: the best parts of the film
Three segments are far and away the best parts of the picture:
All three sequences share a mood, and a common visual style. They
center on parks and landscapes, and have a common mood of melancholy
reflection. Their visual strength is due to all three being shot
by Welles - whereas much of the rest of the film includes re-edited
footage shot by other people. Both the photograph of Welles as
a teenage artist, and the modern day shots of Welles in the park,
put Welles into outdoor, tree-filled areas. Their lush greenness
recalls the dying Falstaff, who "babbled of green fields".
This is part of Welles' self-image as an artist.
- The autobiographical account of Welles' early days, in the
midsection of the picture. Welles and his Mercury Theater colleagues
are vastly more admirable and interesting than Irving & Co.
This haunting section also has the best mise-en-scène of
the film, with its beautifully composed images of Welles in the
- These images return near the end of the film, with the brief
shots of Welles performing a levitation act in the park. Welles
liked to perform levitation, as part of his magic act. When Welles
appeared on I Love Lucy, he levitated Lucille Ball, as
the climax of the show. Here a levitation forms the finale of
F for Fake. There are a number of levitation scenes in
Andrei Tarkovsky, treated not as magic tricks, as in Welles, but
- Also well-composed: the sequence dealing with Chartres.
Welles is driving a horse-drawn cart in the old photo; he is first
seen near a horse-drawn cab in The Lady From Shanghai.
The association of Welles and horse-drawn vehicles also recalls
The Magnificent Ambersons, and its skepticism about the
Fanning Vertical Lines, jutting up from the base of the image
The nude study of Oja Kodar and the paint brushes, recalls the
giant arrows sticking in the air from the machine before the battle
of Shrewsbury, in Chimes at Midnight. Both the brushes
and the arrows are a series of strong vertical lines of largely
equal length, fanning out at a diagonal to each other, jutting
upwards. Both are phallic symbols. The many trees in the park
during the autobiographical section, are also strong vertical
lines, jutting up from the base of the frame. Both the brushes,
and the trees, are in the lower sections of the frame - they mainly
do not reach the upper edge of the film frame.
The Train Station
The train station at the film's start has ceilings, that are worked
into complex compositions, an ancient Welles tradition. The grill
work in the train station also recalls the geometric backgrounds
of the walls in Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal
The Rectangles - and The Immortal Story
A fine image of Welles shows him talking against a background
of orange rectangles. These shapes, beautifully composed, recall
the Chinese banners in The Immortal Story. Just as these
banners formed rectangular regions in the background of the heroine
and Mr. Levinsky during their walk, so do these rectangles form
a background for Welles speaking. Their orange color recalls the
warm hues of the Chinese banners, which were different shades
of orange and orange-red.
F for Fake differs from The Immortal Story, in that
these rectangles seem sleekly modernistic. They look like the
sort of design that might be found in a glittering modern day
office building. Some of Welles' later projects will have this
sort of modernistic set design, including the pilot for Welles'
unsold TV talk-show (1978-1979). The talk show pilot will be made
a few years after F for Fake, and have the same sort of
warm, utterly vivid and burning colors. Both will be filmed by Gary Graver.
The rectangles also differ in that they are hollow inside, while
the Chinese banners are solid.
The material throughout the film is carefully edited. In fact,
much of the film can be described as montage. The editing is most
elaborate, creating complex rhythmic patterns, and strange echoes
between each pair of shots that are joined together. Much of the
claim of F for Fake to be considered as a work of art,
centers on the editing of the film. The emphasis on editing, combined
with the scenes of the film itself being edited on a moviola,
recall The Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1928).
Welles' film is as much of a montage film, as are many of the
early Soviet classics. In addition to the reels of film, Welles
also cuts back and forth between "reality", and the
film being edited in a smaller screen. The effect is often startling.
Crooks: A Separate World
The sections with Irving & Elmyr thematically recall the early
sequences on the boat in The Lady From Shanghai:
- Once again, we have Welles as the bemused spectator, involved with a group
of strange and sinister people.
- These people seem full of complex, interlocking relationships with each other,
that are constantly shifting in appearance.
- Welles is in their world in both films, not his own,
a world that is semi-tropical in climate, and full
of a sinister luxury in setting and living conditions.
- Both worlds are heavily influenced by lawyers, and legal considerations and schemes.
Modern Art and Art Experts
Welles' narration expresses much skepticism about art experts,
those people who claim to be able to tell real paintings from
forgeries, purely on the basis of visual style. Later sections
of the film express a more complex skepticism about the art of
One recalls seeing Welles on the Tonight
Show, ridiculing the work of Christo, the artist who specialized
in wrapping cliffs and other large outdoor art installations.
Clearly, the world of modern art was important to Welles, and
he had strong beliefs about it.
The end of the autobiographical section deals with Welles' proposed
film about Howard Hughes. Here we see a wealth of newsreel images
of Hughes, combined with some still photographs. These newsreels
seem to have been a primary source of inspiration to Martin Scorsese
on his biopic about Hughes, The Aviator (2004). Many of
the scenes in them are recreated in Scorsese's picture - not surprisingly,
as they present key moments in Hughes' life. Welles' treatment
of Hughes is far more negative than Scorsese's, viewing Hughes
as another of the con men who are the subject of F for Fake.
F for Fake Trailer
The F for Fake Trailer (1976) is a nine-minute short film,
created by Orson Welles as a trailer for his movie F for Fake.
It is far from being any sort of conventional Coming Attraction.
Instead, it should be considered as a short film in its own right,
albeit one with close ties to F for Fake.
Oja Kodar is presented in the F for Fake Trailer as an
International Woman of Mystery. The shots of her and the tiger
make her character seem like a dangerous-but-sexy woman, recalling
Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai.
Multiple Images - and a link to the finale of The Lady From Shanghai
Several of the shots involve more than one image of a person.
Welles uses a number of strategies to accomplish this:
The multiple images of people recall the finale of The Lady From Shanghai.
In that film, a Hall of Mirrors created the
multiple images. Here, it is filming strategies. But the compositional
effect is often surprisingly similar. The F for Fake Trailer
also has a strong rhythmic pulse, also like the finale of The Lady From Shanghai.
- There are multiple photographs of a person, shown side by side on the screen.
- A person can stand in front of a movie screen, which shows another person.
- Some of these shots are presented as "news" commentary,
with a newscaster talking about a person seen on the screen behind them.
Gary Graver is spiffed up in the sort of good suit used
by TV news anchormen, and plays this role.
Rectangles often frame the characters in the F for Fake Trailer.
Photographs of the characters are accompanied by prominent borders.
These also form rectangles behind the characters.
Filming The Trial
Filming The Trial (1981) is a filmed record of Orson Welles
answering students' questions at the University of Southern California (USC),
about both his work as a whole, and the making of The Trial.
Welles reportedly planned to incorporate this material into a detailed autobiographical film,
recounting his production of The Trial. This never happened. In this sense,
Filming The Trial is an "unfinished film". However, the question-and-answer session
feels perfectly complete in itself.
It is a simple format, but a pleasant one. Both the questions and Welles' answers are often stimulating.
The students are highly intelligent, know a lot about Welles' work and filmmaking in general.
The questions are thoroughly intellectual.
It is a pleasure to see Welles in an intellectual environment.
One wishes there were more records of Welles getting recognition from the intelligentsia.
Filming The Trial serves as evidence, of how intellectual US film students were in 1981.
These are the sort of hard core intellectuals one associates with the 1960's.
Links to The Stranger
Filming The Trial has elements in common with The Stranger. Both:
- Offer Welles' memorial of the Holocaust. One can see Welles' outrage, and his desire to bring the subject
to the attention of a mass audience.
- Welles has a role as teacher, to students at a high prestige institution.
- Show Welles or his character engaged in intellectual discussion.
- Depict the camera as a mirror, and link this idea to Welles' "mirror shots".
- Are set in the USA, but discuss events in Europe.
Welles' insistence that he has a good relationship to society, is the exact opposite of George's total disdain
for society and the work activities of humans in it, in The Magnificent Ambersons.
George is something of a villain, and The Magnificent Ambersons might be read as condemning George's ideas.
But The Magnificent Ambersons also allows George to expound them at length,
and maybe also shows some sympathy to them.
Both The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger have scenes where the characters sit around
the dinner table, discussing serious social issues. These scenes have much of the same approach as
Filming The Trial, where Welles and film students discuss serious topics. While Filming The Trial
is a "documentary" and The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger are "fiction",
the actual content and approach in these scenes is quite similar.
Welles gives a rousing defense of making films for children. And also for "children of all ages".
This is perhaps related to Welles' depiction of traditional childhood in other films.
Welles presents himself as a man of the theater, and discusses some intellectual playwrights.
This is in keeping with the intellectual tone of Filming The Trial:
Welles expresses skepticism about the work of film director Abel Gance, as well
as a fair-and-balanced look at Gance's positive achievements.
- Welles contrasts Kafka's The Trial with the experimental play
The Adding Machine (1923) by Elmer Rice,
and its protagonist Mr. Zero.
- He also discusses Brecht in some depth, who he met while working on Brecht's Galileo.
A Film Being Made
Filming The Trial self-reflexively shows itself being filmed. It thus becomes one of those
Welles films which show a film being made.
The sound recording is especially discussed:
linking Filming The Trial to Welles films which show sound being recorded.
Such films more often depict tape recorders: something not seen in Filming The Trial.