Alan Brien

  • Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming
    Weidenfeld, 562 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 297 78476 5
  • The Making of ‘Citizen Kane’ by Robert Carringer
    Murray, 180 pp, £8.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 7195 4248 0
  • Spike Milligan by Pauline Scudamore
    Granada, 318 pp, £8.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 246 12275 7
  • Nancy Mitford by Selina Hastings
    Hamish Hamilton, 274 pp, £12.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 241 11684 8
  • Rebel: The Short Life of Esmond Romilly by Kevin Ingram
    Weidenfeld, 252 pp, £12.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 297 78707 1
  • The Mitford Family Album by Sophia Murphy
    Sidgwick, 160 pp, £12.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 283 99115 1

One mid-morning in the mid-Fifties, I came across Ken Tynan on Fleet Street, hurrying towards the Evening Standard offices, then around the corner in Shoe Lane. I tagged along as he explained, between puffs, that there had been an unfortunate misprint in a piece he had written about Orson Welles. Luckily, he had spotted this in the first edition and now was on his way to ensure it was corrected for the rest of the day’s run. While he was inside, I bought the paper and read his article in the pub over the way. I could not see the error that so agitated him. It seemed a brilliant sketch, containing one phrase I particularly admired, envied even. When Ken returned, he stabbed his finger at the page. ‘That’s it! What I wrote was: “Everything that passes through the hands of Mr Welles acquires a touch of poetry.” ’ I could not bring myself to tell him that the compositor’s slip had been, for me, the most penetrating insight in the essay. In the first edition, it had read: ‘Everything that passes through the hands of Mr Welles acquires a touch of perjury.’

I became conscious of Orson Welles when I was knocked out by Citizen Kane in a great hangar of a Sunderland cinema in 1941. I stayed on to see it round again, partly because I was too overcome to move, partly because I needed a second chance to eavesdrop on all that overlapping dialogue, much of it drowned out by the rattle and thump of tipped-up seats as the audience escaped. Next time it was much quieter on my side of the screen. Nobody came at all. Yet this was the most impressive showing of any film I can ever remember. I was totally alone, centre seat five rows back, in an auditorium that could have accommodated a touring version of the Nuremberg Rally. Behind me echoed emptily the now forgotten hierarchy of centre stalls, back stalls, grand circle, upper circle and balcony. To left and right, glossy wooden backs and arms that ought to have been blotted out by sitting customers reflected a frieze of silvery, dancing ghost images. There was nothing between me, the 15-year-old schoolboy, and Welles and Co, the Great Orsino – at 25 already an aging prodigy, the Mozart of celluloid, putting himself and his troupe through the hoops with self-conscious bravado. He irradiated the entire project with a glancing mockery that might have reminded a bookish provincial lad of Don Juan or the Dunciad, but of nothing he had previously encountered, or expected, in the cinema.

At least where I lived, these were the days when art – that is, something shaped, polished, individual, original, impassioned but controlled, encompassing ideas and emotions – was found on film only in certain carefully labelled and segregated cans. It might arrive in italics, guaranteed foreign, with subtitles, all the more picturesque for our not understanding the words, the acting all the more physical for our missing the nuances of speech. And it was only available on a once-a-quarter visit to the metropolis (Newcastle). Otherwise, among the regional intelligentsia (mainly educationalists of some sort), ‘the pictures’ were regarded as culturally respectable only when based on some classic text, preferably Shakespeare; when involving some OK modern author, H.G. Wells, Maugham, Greene, Huxley or the like; when starring players famous in the legitimate theatre, Olivier, Richardson, Laughton: or when wrapped in a European reputation, such as Garbo’s or Dietrich’s.

Citizen Kane may not have been the first film to break through this cloying curtain of snobbery, self-satisfaction and ignorant parochialism, but never had an American movie so brashly demonstrated that Hollywood could now no longer be a dirty word. Here at last was the cinematic equivalent of an author like Hemingway, proclaiming in what we thought a very ‘Yankee’ fashion the therapeutic value of vitality, impudence, rhetoric and high spirits. ‘Perjury’ in those days would not have been accepted as an improvement on ‘poetry’. Apart from garbled rumours about an all-black Macbeth in Harlem, and a documentary version of Wells’s War of the Worlds which panicked the US Eastern seaboard, this film was all we knew of him, and it hit us out of the blue. But even then, I recall my friends and I detecting a whiff of the brilliant mountebank, a flash of the fairground juggler, the gall of the top-level con-man, the suppressed excitement of the gambler so sure of his luck that he has discarded the aces up his sleeve. We swore allegiance to him all the more willingly because our elders appeared confused, irritated or bored by him, classic reactions of age to the heroes of youth.

Robert Carringer’s sharp-eyed, dispassionate post-mortem on what actually happened in the making of Kane, and Barbara Leaming’s almost embarrassingly intimate monitoring of the variations in the maker’s oft-told tales during what turned out to be the last five years of Welles’s life, finally extinguish the myth that the newly-made master-piece was an instant and complete flop. It had many, indeed mainly, enthusiastic, perceptive, admiring reviews when first press-shown. The box-office in the big cities was good without being sensational. It was among country audiences that it failed to engage enough people, becoming for a while the common man’s synonym for highbrow gibberish. What is more interesting is the way it vanished from the collective consciousness of the English-speaking world for almost a decade and a half. Carringer, checking the cinema announcements in the New Yorker from January 1950 to February 1956, could not find a single screening of Kane. In 1952 when Sight and Sound published a poll of leading critics for the best films of all time, it was not in the first ten. (Bicycle Thieves was top.) By 1962, Kane was number one, and was still there in 1982.

1956 was the year the tide turned. Then Citizen Kane became available on TV, and was re-released in the cinema to coincide with Welles’s return to the Broadway stage as King Lear. In America especially, the era of the art-house, the film-society circuit, film magazines and film schools began. Andrew Sarris launched the cult of the auteur. His key thesis was Citizen Kane: The American Baroque, in which he described Kane as ‘the work that influenced the cinema more profoundly than any American film since Birth of a Nation’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in