David Bromwich

  • Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life by Peter Conrad
    Faber, 384 pp, £20.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 571 20978 5

At 8 o’clock on the night of 30 October 1938, listeners to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater on the Air might have noticed a short announcement: the show that evening was going to be an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. A lead-in paragraph followed: ‘We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.’ The station cut away to a weather report, and then to a swing band in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, playing, with numbing tediousness, a tango, ‘La Cumparsita’, sodden at half-tempo, followed by a sleepwalk through that ‘perennial favourite, "Stardust"’. The music was interrupted once for a bulletin, something about an atmospheric event on Mars, a series of pulses each ‘like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun’. At intervals in the music, further bulletins announced that the Mars event was being tracked, but nothing was out of the ordinary. ‘We continue now with our piano interlude’ – the slow swing replaced by a nocturne. The station cut in again with a learned authority, ‘Professor Richard Pierson, famous astronomer’, direct from the Princeton observatory to explain the discharge and point out that Mars could not support intelligent life. Pierson, however, confessed that he could not explain the regularity of the emissions. More music. Another bulletin. ‘A huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite,’ had crashed to earth at Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Professor Pierson and his interviewer, Carl Phillips, were speeding to the scene.

Thus began a 57-minute experiment on mass opinion in America. Carl Phillips was obviously the sort of brave reporter who would die at his post rather than deny his listeners a break in a developing story, and the evident anxiety in his voice, as he pushed through the crowd at Grovers Mill and put up his microphone to catch a skirmish with the police, would be recalled by listeners a few minutes later when his charred remains were found among the first casualties of the Martian death ray. Professor Pierson, meanwhile, had repaired to a nearby farmhouse, where he set up a makeshift transmitter. In words hard to make out behind a tinny echo, he gave a restrained account of what had passed at Grovers Mill. The Martians had found a way to compress light, just as a lighthouse does. The ray was bounced off a parabolic mirror on a tripod the size of a tall building.

And now the pace began to quicken. A commander of the New Jersey National Guard declared that his 7000 crack troops were poised to attack the Martians. Seconds later, someone reported back ashen-voiced: only 120 men had survived the worst rout in American history. The secretary of the interior came on to affirm that we were still ‘a nation united, courageous and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth’. This was contradicted by another bulletin: ‘Police and army reserves are unable to control the mad flight.’ And another: people fleeing in cars should confine themselves to Routes 7, 23 and 24, and ‘avoid congested areas’. The fall of New York was described by an eyewitness reporter from the top of a skyscraper amid the tolling of bells. The gigantic tripods had crossed the Hudson ‘the way a man crosses a brook’, and were rising ‘like a line of new towers on the city’s west side’. Now the Martian poison gas was oozing across Sixth Avenue. Now Fifth. The reporter coughed, and there was a sickly chiming of bells.

Thirty-nine minutes passed before the programme identified itself at a station break. Anyone still sitting would have heard the narrative wind down with the diary of Professor Pierson. The Martians were dying off, he observed from a vantage point some weeks later, ‘killed by the putrefactive and diseased bacteria against which their systems were unprepared’. A happy ending, of sorts, like the end of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year; but phone calls were pouring into CBS from the bewildered and distraught, and it was clear by 8.30 that the Mercury Theater on the Air had scored a terrifying hit. In the remaining minute Welles threw together an apology: ‘This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it.’ In the days that followed, he was suitably penitent, but only the degree of the uproar had surprised him. The War of the Worlds was a Halloween prank and meant to cause a stir. He would have been tied up in the courts for years if anyone could have found the law he broke.

When he made his famous broadcast, Welles was 23; and it was the sensation of this show, rather than his work on stage and radio over the previous two years, that got him the offer to come to Hollywood and make a picture for RKO. The Martian script was by Howard Koch, who would later work on Casablanca and The Letter, but everyone always knew that Welles’s contribution was central. He had advised Koch to employ the present tense and let the story unfold as a piece of live radio: it would leak out, a string of bizarre disruptions. Melodramatic understatement was essential, to thicken the atmosphere of panic: when, several times in the hour, a reporter or an artillery officer or a bomber-squadron leader was vaporised, the calamity was not remarked; the mike simply went dead. Each silent kill was enough to raise a creeping horror, and under the combined impact, it was possible to crowd several hours of narrative action into several minutes of radio time. The actor playing the hapless reporter Carl Phillips gave an inspired performance, shaken yet wonderfully courageous before he was zapped; only the wary could have noticed that Professor Pierson sounded a good deal like Orson Welles, as did that man on the bell tower watching the tripods cross the river with enormous strides. But to have noticed the odd resemblance probably would not have comforted anyone already hooked; it might have made things even eerier. After all, it was all happening ‘before your very ears’, and the ear is more gullible than the eye. We would believe everything if we could. Orson Welles was the most familiar narrator on radio, and even when acting he seemed at least half a narrator. It was an unforgettable voice: tremendous, buoyant, stirring, devious, full of mischief and of wonder, equally apt for provoking doubts and dispelling them – a voice that knew itself to be irresistible and carried everything in its path.

Citizen Kane is a newsroom movie, a rise-of-a-great-man movie, a biopic. It is also a satire of the generous sort that places the hero beyond the reach of scorn. If the result falls short of tragedy, the reason is perplexity about the stature of Kane himself. In the feelings of the audience, how high a place does he fall from? A further ambiguity comes in with the hint of self-mockery that was inevitable with Welles in the lead. Every detail of the portrait suggested a curious intuition: this hero who loves himself and betrays others never entirely fools himself. He exists to draw people in, to make them enjoy no world but his, yet he knows his own egotism even if he cannot reckon its effects. The newspaper scenes are full of this understanding, which comes into brilliant focus in the musical number in the manner of Brecht and Weill, ‘There Is a Man’, a late improvisation by Welles and his composer, Bernard Herrmann. The sentimental idea of Kane, which the film undercuts but fails to conjure away, has its source in the incurable wish of spectators that a man who enjoys so natural a sway over others should also be a man who uses his gifts well. The plot and the narrative cast of Citizen Kane are unforgiving, yet Kane seems a man made to be forgiven.

There is a related puzzle about the action itself. When exactly does Kane’s fall occur, and what is his tragic flaw? Behind the drama of the great man’s choice between benevolent and selfish conduct lies a drama of vocation. Kane devotes himself to shaping other people’s desires because there is no other work he was sent into the world to perform. He might with equal facility have been an editor, a philanthropist, a demagogue, a maker and breaker of people and whole nations. ‘You provide the prose-poems,’ he tells his correspondent, ‘I’ll provide the war.’ Yet none of these possible roles suits him better than the others. He is a great man, in short, without a great project, and if one had to place him as a type one would call him an artist. This suggestion, under the rapid wit of the dialogue and the scene shifts, may have done most to compel the admiration of the first grateful viewers of Citizen Kane. Welles’s own ‘presence in the picture’, Otis Ferguson wrote, ‘is always a vital thing, an object of fascination to the beholder. In fact, without him the picture would have fallen into all its various component pieces of effect, allusion and display. He is the big part and no one will say he is not worth it.’ The charm is made mysterious and renewable by the sense of the man behind the character.

The camera dominated Citizen Kane as the microphone had dominated The War of the Worlds. This was partly accomplished through the full-scale adoption of the wide-angle shot with deep focus, which rendered a figure at two hundred feet with the same high definition as one ten feet off. There were few close-ups. Rather, as Ferguson pointed out, human figures were intensified by being starkly lit or shadowed:

The camera here loves deep perspectives, long rooms, rooms seen through doors and giving onto rooms through other doors, rooms lengthened out by low ceilings or made immense by high-angle shots where the ceiling seems to be the sky. Figures are widely spaced down this perspective, moving far off at will, yet kept in focus. The camera loves partial lighting or underlighting, with faces or figures blacked out, features emphasised or thrown into shadow, with one point of high light in an area of gloom or foreground figures black against brightness, with the key shifting according to mood.

These decisions were in keeping with Welles’s monumental analysis of the hero: the camera would delve like a shovel or coax as a sculptor chips a block of stone to find the lurking image. He had been instructed in the value of deep focus by his cameraman, Gregg Toland, whose name he placed beside his own on the last card of the closing credits.

Citizen Kane was talked of before it appeared, and admired by those who knew what they were seeing. Yet its box office was disappointing, and by the time the Academy voted on awards, the war had come and people wanted happier stories. It was this unpredictable turn of fortune that robbed Welles of control over the final cut of his next picture with RKO. When, in 1942, The Magnificent Ambersons was previewed in Pomona, the audience found it jeeringly slow for their taste, and the frightened studio at once decided to bury it. Welles was on location in Brazil, shooting a documentary about the carnival, when he heard that the movie would have to be trimmed, and he gave advice for cutting 14 of its 131 minutes. (He always seemed able to carry his films in his head, frame by frame.) A happier preview in Pasadena did nothing to shame the pusillanimity of the studio. Welles sent detailed instructions for additional cuts, but they were ignored. An assistant editor, Robert Wise, was brought in to chop 30 more minutes out of the running time: half of the second half of the film. It was released on a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, and Welles was never again welcomed by the people in Hollywood with the money to back projects of much size.

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