- 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.
The torso that is the first hour of The Magnificent Ambersons remains a great historical film, the only thing by an American that might be compared to the work Visconti would do in films such as The Leopard and Death in Venice. ‘Historical’ seems a necessary word: by 1942, the first years of the century seemed longer ago than 1942 can seem today. The pace of the action is deliberate. Rather than cut up a single portrait composed of headlines, placards, impressions, as he had done in Citizen Kane, Welles in the new film told a generational story in a sequence of extended scenes: this was an actors’ movie but with a fluidity no actor had ever known on the stage. The dance in the great house of the Ambersons where a world is ending; the solitary eating scene where George, spoilt inheritor of the family, is watched and questioned by his spinster aunt Fanny; the dinner where Eugene Morgan, in love with George’s mother, the last of the Ambersons, sees the truth in a thoughtless insult by George and says that though cars have made his fortune, men may come to think they were something that ‘had no business to be invented’ – all these scenes have a grace and subtlety in the record of faces that allow us to see more of relationships than the characters themselves know. The satire in Citizen Kane was editorial and sharply cued: the irony of The Magnificent Ambersons is implicit. Welles always thought this his major effort; and there is hardly a performance of the 1940s to set beside the vehemence Agnes Moorehead brought to the role of Aunt Fanny. Welles’s own gradual descent, in the next two decades, into miscellaneous acting in parts that ranged from Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre to the lawyer in Compulsion, can be understood only in the light of this disaster that gave no scope for recovery.
When he was 35, somebody called him ‘the youngest living has-been’. Yet he continued to work in radio, as long as it stayed an available medium for rehearsed entertainment; to find parts in the theatre, in London as well as New York; to act in French and Italian movies; and to appear on talk shows, where he was a great and good holder-forth. Any two minutes of him were apt to bring out something fresh.
People think they know what makes a star, but there isn’t any one thing. I used to have an idea that eyes were the thing. A star has to have eyes that are alive, the eyes are the source of the fascination. But even with that – it isn’t so. Clint Eastwood is a star whose eyes are totally dead.
He kept in his drawer a screenplay for War and Peace. He sold Chaplin the idea for Monsieur Verdoux. He gave many interviews with bits of autobiography, genuine or wishful, thrown in with the criticism of his peers and distinguished predecessors: ‘The goddam pantheon is a perfectly legitimate shooting gallery.’ He always spoke with ease and éclat. When he died in 1985, at the age of 70, it was possible to think he had a movie up his sleeve. This was an illusion he encouraged, and there was some pleasure in sharing it.
Peter Conrad’s Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life does not treat the actual life of Welles or its salient circumstances: his collaborations with John Houseman and Joseph Cotten and Michéal Mac Liammóir; his affairs with Dolores Del Rio and Lena Horne, and his marriage to Rita Hayworth; complicated relationships, usually rounded up to some sort of friendship, with the great producers of the day who used him as they liked but enjoyed his ambience (Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn); warmer if not closer friendships with Cocteau and Renoir, Hemingway and Sinatra; and the frequent company of younger men in theatre and the movies who emulated him (Kenneth Tynan, Peter Bogdanovich). All this is known to Conrad, but the subject of this book is Welles’s life in his art, a life that is made to hang together symptomatically. The chapters are centred on myths or archetypes – ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Faust’, ‘Mercury’, ‘Kurtz’, ‘Kublai Cain’, ‘Lord of Misrule’, ‘Sacred Beast’ – to suggest the themes under whose aspect Welles lived and worked. Everything is relevant here, and everything equally relevant: something that happened to the subject or something that almost happened, a line in a film or the literary text it echoes or half-echoes, a remark he made himself or an odd aside by a character he played. Yet Conrad says he is not writing a biography. ‘Rather than telling the story of his life, I have set out to investigate the stories he told about that life.’ Little need be done therefore to separate Welles’s creations as writer, director, actor and impresario, and this is a definite time-saver. ‘Welles,’ Conrad says, ‘left us only fragments of himself.’ Well, yes and no; you would think so if you trusted this book alone. ‘I have tried to piece them together’ – but he has not done it and has not tried. The pieces are shuffled, put into little piles, divided by suit or number and then reshuffled. This makes it a maddening book to read, and only someone who knows the biographies of Welles by Charles Higham, Simon Callow and others is likely to guess what Conrad is up to and why.
Yet he is also writing criticism. Here the difference should matter between a line written as a writer writes and a line spoken as an actor reads. Even in a study like this (a scrambled biography, thematically recombined), the things Welles executed and the things he conceived ought to be referred to in somewhat different ways. Again, there is a range of intermediate objects, things Welles brought into being with help from others, regarding which a critic’s judgment is needed to characterise the detail or the mood that belongs uniquely to Welles. But Conrad refuses to make that call. The method is assimilative: one thing gets added to another because this reminds Conrad of that. Welles once jumped an interview in Los Angeles and flew to New York, obliging his admirer to spend $300 on long-distance questions and answers. Confronted with the evasion, he said that when he saw someone’s face he was always tempted to tell the lies his listener wanted to hear. Over the phone he was a safer bet. An excuse, of course, but indicative of an admirable self-doubt, a quality entirely missing in Conrad.
At least he is free of the professional deformation that has marred so much writing about Welles. Those who set up as his public appreciators are often cooled-off idolators, and their work tends to exhibit, in peculiarly curdled form, the case of the contemporary disciple. First they confess that it was Welles who made them fall in love with movies. Then they show you that they have seen through him – partly. Still, they admire and are charmed by the idea of Orson Welles, and they would like to please and abash him; but since it is too late for that they take him down a notch or two, and reassert their affection. Has any other modern artist provoked so keen a transference from an indebted and resentful following? This posture of the disappointed enthusiast led Pauline Kael to describe Citizen Kane as ‘a shallow masterpiece’, and to forgive the man who made it: ‘In a less confused world, his glory would be greater than his guilt.’ In a similar mood, David Thomson published a biography in which every chapter ends with a dialogue of self-examination by the critic, and in which Welles’s best-known innovation is side-swiped and helped to its feet all in the course of a sentence: ‘In truth, there was more going on in the photography of Kane than Welles grasped in a lifetime.’ Homage mixed with condescension is not the Conrad brew; he is all apparent homage. Every gesture of Welles brings his ‘stories’ more conformably into a pattern that a whole life’s forethought could not have improved. But the pattern is Conrad’s and the book a paean to his own ingenuity.
All, here, is gimcrack-gimmickry, every page a shower of aperçus falling brightly to the floor, and you hear the clink and shudder as the critic passes a handkerchief over the vanished gleam. He would take a snapshot of each paragraph and write beneath it: ‘I have forgotten more about Orson Welles than you will ever know.’ So, a word may call up a theme Welles shared with a writer he cared for, Robert Graves or Isak Dinesen or T.H. White, yet the commentary never takes two breaths free of the words and images it has set spinning from a theme by Welles. This performance is an indoor spectacle, in no way compelling, since ideas are never allowed to develop beyond a sentence or two. The central suggestion appears to be that Welles’s personae are the metaphors of a magnifico, the regalia of an artist-sage of our time, with inward relations as instructive as their relations to the world we know. Are his preoccupations typical, then, of the art of the mid-20th century? Or are they anomalous and chiefly fascinating for their eccentricity? Conrad wants it both ways and every way. Welles’s personification of the Shadow, in a popular radio show of the 1930s, must make him ‘the imposing shadow we all cast’. Not even the dimmest of listeners, camped out in a cave near Route 24, is likely ever to have felt this. Kane/Cain, the distant possible pun, made Welles’s co-writer Herman Mankiewicz so gun-shy that he asked to change the hero’s name to Craig. Welles reassured him that nobody sensible would worry much about it. But Conrad harries the Kane/ Cain pun all the way into a comparison with Steinbeck’s East of Eden. A couple of pages on, Kane/Khan swims into view – ‘That sunny dome, those caves of ice’, the sun god and the winter king – but before things get cooking at Xanadu the commentary has whirled on.
The grinding whimsy is aimed at nothing; there is no reason for it to end. Recalling the ‘March of Time’ frame-narrative of Citizen Kane, which mentions ‘a dying daily’, the newspaper that the young Kane revives, Conrad, snatching the phrase from midair, reflects: ‘We die daily; each day, living journalistically, we edge closer to death.’ The critical procedure here seems oddly recondite until you recall a passage from one of Welles’s interviews:
Hamming is faking. It’s opening a bag of tricks instead of turning on the juice. The right actor – the movie actor – can never be too strong. What he must not be is too broad . . . Hamming has no target, its only aim is to please . . . Ham actors are not all of them strutters and fretters, theatrical vocalisers – a lot of them are understaters, flashing winsome little smiles over the teacups, or scratching their T-shirts.
Welles ‘made himself experience death’, Conrad says, by acting old men when he was young; but no actor ever made himself experience death. That is Conrad scratching his shirt. He does better with the smiles over the teacups.
You have to tell stories about Welles, Conrad implies, rather than just one story, because none of his careers had what could be called a normal trajectory. Though fashionable, this is not false. What one objects to is the glibness in the acceptance of the finished composite, without any measure taken of the artistic sacrifice or the human cost involved. This pluralism in any case bears no interesting relation to Welles’s aesthetic. Conrad asks us to believe that Welles ‘delighted in’ the ‘provisional nature’ of thought, ‘its inspired accidents, its lively refusal to reach an end, a stop, a conclusion’. His career had plenty of deferrals and detours, but they made him wretched and were a subject of self-reproach, only mitigated by his extreme distaste for the moralistic reproach he endured from others. What evidence is there that Welles aimed for the fragmentary? He would gladly have banished the provisional nature of several of his films, having been the servant not the master of botched re-cuttings and dried-up funds. There may be something in what Conrad is saying, though not what he thinks. Look at the fascinating month-by-month chronology in Peter Bogdanovich’s This Is Orson Welles, and you are amazed at the number of adaptations Welles had a hand in. These were commonly abridgments of popular classics: the second half of 1938 for the Mercury Theater on the Air alone lists Dracula, Treasure Island, The Man who Was Thursday, Jane Eyre, Heart of Darkness, The Pickwick Papers. It could be said that these were fragments; and Welles had a showman’s lack of reverence for any text as a final text: an interviewer sounded more shocked than he on learning that at the last minute he had to cut a reel out of Macbeth. Welles is matter-of-fact: ‘It’s a little too hustled now.’ One gets the impression that he was happy enough, so long as he could make the cuts himself. None of this means that he is a cheerful espouser of the fragment.
There was one kind of accident Welles did seek to conspire with: the change in the air of a movie that occurs when an actor, out of harmony with the story-idea, walks on and compels the other actors and elements to shake themselves into a new combination. It looks as if Welles was trying to do this when he cast Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, and again when he brought Jeanne Moreau into Chimes at Midnight. In those cases, the results were ‘cameo’ and broke even at best; but he himself had been the actor who caused such a change in The Third Man. It was shrewd of Carol Reed to pick Welles for the confidence man whose pranks and fixes and easy-come ideas about everything make others care for him and for life. And yet Harry Lime is the man who ‘never grew up: the world grew up around him.’ Reed cannot have guessed how Welles’s performance in the big scene would alter the dynamic of the film. Graham Greene wrote the hero and the hero’s friend as Englishmen; getting Welles for Harry Lime meant taking another American for his friend Holly; and the casting of Joseph Cotten as the loyal friend could not help pointing to Citizen Kane. This prepared viewers to listen to Harry with the tolerance and distrust they had brought to Kane. On the Ferris wheel, Holly confronts him with the ugliness of his crime: selling adulterated penicillin on the black market so that its victims fill the hospitals. ‘Victims?’ Harry says. ‘Don’t be melodramatic, Holly. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving for ever?’ This speech, as written, marks Harry as evil, yet since the writer is Greene, Harry is perversely on the side of life, while his Protestant friend and betrayer is exempt alike from evil and love. But the grown-up baby face and the masculine persuasive charm of Welles in the part suggested a man vainglorious and callow but not evil. The Harry we see in the film, whom no one could have found in the screenplay, is a rascal whose death can weigh lightly. Also, thanks to the speech that Welles wrote and inserted – ‘You know what the fellow said. In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed; they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo-clock’ – Harry sounds clever as a wit but not as a tempter is clever. Thus with Welles in the part, Harry Lime becomes what Greene’s character was not, both charismatic and paltry, and the irony and the melodrama work hand in hand. The moral of the film would have been queasier with, say, Michael Redgrave and John Mills in these roles. There is no other movie on which Welles worked quite this alchemy; but there are few enough actors who have done it once.
Harry Lime was a romantic part, as was Mr Rochester, and a secondary thesis of Conrad’s book is that Welles was a born romantic. He was indeed an extravagant personality, who lived high and fast when he could, and at great cost to his projects. ‘My signature against the world!’ With a friend in Rio in 1942, he pointed out the girls in a dance troupe he had slept with and announced his plans for the rest: this, while he was spending his free hours writing memorandums on the re-cutting of The Magnificent Ambersons on another continent. Churchill once bowed to him in a restaurant in Venice, and by doing so impressed an onlooker into offering some money to back Welles’s Othello (then faltering in mid-shoot). Who will accuse Welles of cultivating Churchill? The interest would more likely have started the other way; and this is romantic, in the sense of glamorous. But when Conrad decides to mean by romantic that ‘he assumed that he could do everything himself. But you can only become everybody if, secretly, you are nobody at all,’ the Everyman conceit is playing him false. Welles’s genius was not of the Keatsian-chameleon type, the genius that is ‘not itself’, that ‘has no self’ but is ‘continually informing and filling some other body’. Welles did not mind self-aggrandisement when he was the self. He was a star, finally, more than an actor, and this gets into the pleasure a viewer may take in him. ‘That was only one of my masks’ isn’t an apology that was open to him, and to imagine that he would lean on it is to underrate his integrity. This is not to say that every part he played (Macbeth, Lear, Ahab and Father Mapple in Moby-Dick, the corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, Cardinal Wolsey) reveals something profound about the man who played it. Yet the experience one has in looking at Welles is different in kind from the experience of watching an actor who seems to inhabit a part. Consummate actors who do convey that impression may be uninteresting people. While we are looking at Orson Welles, it is not possible for a moment to doubt that the man who plays the part is interesting.
Conrad has sensible things to say about Welles’s interest in Falstaff and Don Quixote. They embody the reverse of a spirit of calculation – living from appetite rather than prudence, or from an idealism refined to the point at which the meaning of success vanishes. So the final chapter, on Prospero, must have looked like a clean hit – master, magister, magician, end-of-career, end-of-book – but it grows less plausible when you think about it. In fact, magic and power were sharply distinguished in Welles’s mind, the deeds of Charles Foster Kane a different affair from his own performance in the Mercury Wonder Show, when, on Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1943, he sawed Marlene Dietrich in half to divert the soldiers on their way to the war. Between Falstaff the benign half-magician and Hal the man of power, only one master could be served, and Chimes at Midnight frankly sides with Falstaff. On the other hand, the concatenation of magic-power-wisdom-benevolence-fatherhood, the ingredients that make Prospero, held no appeal for Welles. Visibly planted in Prospero, at the beginning of his story and the end, are the seeds of Faust, whereas Quixote and Falstaff are in different ways opposites of Faust. This contrast mattered to Welles and was often in his mind. His praise of Faustian Man in the speech he wrote for Harry Lime is the bon mot of a dandy and a murderer, and it defends a pride of acquisitiveness that Welles thoroughly distrusted. He was working on a film about Quixote when he died. From a piety that none of his biographers has fully explained, he asked to be buried in Seville.
Welles had lived there when he was 18, in a room above a brothel; and a few other facts of his early life are undisputed. Before Seville, he had spent a year acting on the stage in Dublin; after that, New York; before any of it, Kenosha, Wisconsin. Orson was a middle name, from a great-grandfather, but he chose to put it first, replacing George: George Orson Welles, Charles Foster Kane. His mother, Beatrice, was intelligent and strong-willed, a concert pianist of some renown in the Midwest, who gave herself in later years to charitable causes and female suffrage. She died when Orson was not yet nine, but by then had taught him more than school ever did, largely by reading aloud. His father, Richard, ran a company that made bicycle lamps, and was a part-time inventor, sporadically successful; he preferred life on the road and owned a small hotel in Grand Detour, Illinois, where Orson sometimes stayed. A family friend, Dr Maurice Bernstein – the last name would surface in a private joke, ‘Mr Bernstein’, the manager of the Kane newspapers – was the other important grown-up; sympathetic, crafty, a good audience and probably Beatrice’s lover, he would become Orson’s legal guardian after his father died when Orson was 15. Accounts differ at this point, but Welles seems to have played King Lear in a backyard production. He wrote, directed and acted through his teens, before coming to New York, at 19, as the Chorus and Tybalt in a Romeo and Juliet that included Maurice Evans, Katharine Cornell and Tyrone Power. Not long afterwards, he took the lead as the tycoon McGafferty in Archibald MacLeish’s Panic; and he turned 21 in 1936, during the run of his voodoo Macbeth in Harlem. Over the next few years, the Mercury Players would mount productions of Julius Caesar, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Cradle Will Rock, Danton’s Death and Native Son. Together with the Group Theater, they were the nerve power of the New York stage in the 1930s and early 1940s.
There is a line more traceable than is sometimes noticed from the style of the Mercury Theater to the cinematic style of Citizen Kane, just as there is a connection between the Group Theater manner and the story and acting of On the Waterfront. The Group Theater was naturalistic and its left-wing politics candidly shown: Odets’s Awake and Sing and Waiting for Lefty were their plays. Welles’s blackshirt Caesar left no doubt of his sympathies, but in the theatre one was meant to be conscious of the theatre at every moment. He seems to have absorbed from Brecht a conviction that dramatic thought consists of proving that a character who does something might well have done something else. The viewer should be guided to a free movement of the mind, so that an actor does not appear all one thing, and action, however determinate, is unpredictable. This was the explanation Welles gave, too, for his practice in Citizen Kane. The mobile camera and depth-of-field permit the eye to rove within the frame, and so allow an attentiveness that the theatre has to bring about in other ways. As Welles said once, in the theatre you have 1500 cameras rolling, in a movie only one. Does that mean that film is an inherently more ambiguous medium? If anything, Welles thought the opposite. As André Bazin wrote, characterising with inspired accuracy ‘a style that creates meaning’ in Citizen Kane, Welles had aimed there
to impose a particular vision of drama on us – a vision that could be called infernal, since the gaze upward seems to come out of the earth, while the ceilings, forbidding any escape within the decor, complete the fatality of this curse. Kane’s lust for power crushes us, but is itself crushed by the decor. Through the camera, we are capable in a way of perceiving Kane’s failure at the same time that we experience his power.
You can test the truth of the insight by looking again at the lighting and the camera angles in the scenes at the Inquirer office between Kane and Jed Leland, and at those near the end in Xanadu when Susan puts together jigsaw puzzles and Kane stands or stalks impotently from room to room.
Yet Welles was not simple-minded about the failure of Charles Foster Kane. ‘Rosebud’ was melodramatic bait, and he spent two hours coaching an actor to get the right shade of wheedling appraisal into the housekeeper’s line, ‘I’ll tell you about Rosebud, Mr Thompson. How much is it worth to you, a thousand dollars?’ He had no truck with the idea that a great man could be explained by a small secret. On the other hand, he stood firm against this hero. Kane was a selfish man who seduced others and deceived himself – that was the main drift. In the story, this was the view taken by the hero’s friend Jed Leland, but it was also Welles’s own. The interview in which he set the record straight is printed in Bogdanovich’s interview-biography, easily the most entertaining book on Welles, and not least because of the author’s Boswellian willingness to pester and make a nuisance of himself. Welles admits under pressure that Jed Leland’s perspective may have been partial, but he urges his young friend not to confuse the narrowness of a character with a necessary corruption of judgment. Falling back on intuition, Bogdanovich reiterates: ‘I certainly felt that Leland betrays him – I felt that emotionally.’
OW: No, he doesn’t. You’re using the word ‘betrayal’ wrong. He’s cruel to him, but he doesn’t betray him.
PB: Well, he betrays their friendship, then.
OW: He doesn’t. It’s Kane who betrayed the friendship.
PB: Then why do I somewhat dislike Leland?
OW: Because he likes principles more than the man, and he doesn’t have the size as a person to love Kane for his faults.
PB: Well, then, there you are.
OW: But that’s not betrayal.
In the annals of interviews with modern artists, there has never been anything like this. Bogdanovich is offering Welles, again and again, the ultimate praise in the arsenal of the critic – ‘He builded better than he knew’ – and Welles insists he will have none of it.
In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, Welles used his largest reserve of energy in completing films of Macbeth and Othello. The later and bigger Falstaff movie, Chimes at Midnight, has enjoyed greater favour than these, not only for its obvious distinction but as a kind of life award: this was the role that Welles most nearly associated with himself. He captured the wit of Falstaff, but without the humour, and the earlier films have a sharper edge. Macbeth was released in 1948, Othello in 1952; the first was shot in 23 days, the second over two years; and they make a study in antithetical styles of invention. Of all Welles’s films, Othello shows his mastery of editing in the most consequential setting and with the most unshakable results. Narrated with an impetuous command, which would do for farce as well as tragedy, the cuts in the opening minutes take us rapidly over the courtship of Othello and Desdemona, through glimpses of Venetian alleys and by-ways and the balconies that overlook them. This manner will return later in the spiral of discovery when the hero comes to see what he has done. The athletic turns of the camera and the cutting slow down significantly just once, to a sustained tracking shot, for a walk with Iago and Othello around the stone path inside the fortress where the action is laid. And this is how we see the hypnotic dialogue of Act III, after Iago’s ‘I like not that.’ An opening image of Iago, caged and committed to saying nothing, is brought in again to close the story, and it becomes part of one’s permanent imagination of the play.
His Othello is certainly the less uneven film. Welles’s Scottish and pre-Christian Macbeth has a middle third that is flatly misjudged, a dank smear of grunts and stumbles leading up to and away from the murder of Banquo: the hero in all this part is loutish and drunk, and the busy music squats on a few weird notes on the tuba, as if the whole company for Macbeth had wandered into Ubu Roi. Yet Welles’s own performance in both movies comes up to a standard of aptness that settles attention on the meaning of the lines. And there are places in both his Othello and his Macbeth that show the delicacy he was capable of. Macbeth’s confessing ‘O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife,/Yet be thou jocund’ is made to show the bitterness under the words of comfort, and Welles finely catches the double twist at the comma and the line-break. Yet, in all of his Shakespeare movies, he functions mostly as a centre of forces; and his surprising quality is an intelligence that presses others to a height beyond himself. He was able to draw performances of a brave originality from Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth and Mac Liammóir as Iago. The voice of Nolan ascends to shouts that are an audible grimace and cries of forgetting that are nothing like innocence. Mac Liammóir’s Iago has a wider field to achieve his effects, and his walk is itself an essay in character, a shuffle and scamper that stiffens into propriety, ‘our ancient’, as it senses other eyes close by, and again becomes a huddle of restless purpose. ‘Oh, he has no reason,’ Welles said of Iago, concurring with Hazlitt and Coleridge. There are people who do evil ‘without any motive other than the exercise of mischief and the enjoyment of the power to destroy’.
The ruling metaphor of this Othello is a labyrinth, whereas the Macbeth is a piece of nature shrouded and yet utterly exposed. The camera in Macbeth is an eye of fate, going everywhere with the characters; in Othello, it is a conspirator and gossip, sometimes darting from concealment. These early adaptations are partly unified by an idea of the hero as a scapegoat: in Macbeth a demon who was once a man and cannot tell how he came away; in Othello, a half-formed consciousness on ‘a stairway to the sea,/ Where down the blind are driven’. The sets, too, make a fantastic and satisfying pair, the Macbeth a garage, tunnel or sewer, with the witches’ bare silhouettes glimpsed under the fog, articulate bubbles of earth who will slice off the head of a clay Macbeth when his time is over. Cocteau admired the poetic consistency of the images, and the film may have owed something to him: Welles was always able to take what he needed from the most diverse tributaries, just as in Venice once he pinched an armload of costumes from Prince of Foxes, in which he was playing Cesare Borgia for Darryl Zanuck, to furnish the actors of Othello in a not-too-distant canal.
Both of the early Shakespeare films lean on Welles’s voice-over to recount missing parts of the story and adjust the viewer to the climate. The Magnificent Ambersons had done the same; so had The Lady from Shanghai; so would The Trial. The pervasiveness of the tactic was remarked by Joseph McBride in his excellent study of Welles, and it must have served a defensive purpose. His voice was the endowment that he trusted to put across an admonitory signal or a complex design. Yet Welles was also, from the first, a teller of tales, a mode not identical with fiction in the modern sense but which survives in writers like Conrad and Dinesen. One recalls that Heart of Darkness, another tale, which he had performed on radio, was the first idea that Welles put forward for his debut in Hollywood. There was an anti-purist theatricality in his insistence on the utility and wit of tale-telling. Truffaut and Godard were among the admirers who found this heterodoxy invigorating. They took Welles to embody the cinematic imperative of thinking with your nerves, and from Shoot the Piano Player to Alphaville their films use voice-over without prejudice to the claims of film as a medium.
And yet in Welles this use of his authority was connected with public aspirations, too. He wrote speeches for President Roosevelt in 1944, and gave speeches of his own to assist the campaign; in 1945, he wrote a regular column, first daily then weekly, for the New York Post; and starting in September of that year, ABC ran a series of weekly broadcasts for 13 months under the title Orson Welles Commentaries. In that postwar interval when the New Deal seemed ready to return, he was a voice of liberalism that had no precedent in America and that has found no successor. But journalism was never his favourite kind of work, though the quotations printed by the biographers show that he did it well. If he was not allowed to comment or narrate, the next best thing was to present a one-man show. He did this often as a magician, and twice came close on stage: Around the World in Eighty Days (1946) and Moby Dick – Rehearsed (1955). Brecht believed the first of these the greatest piece of American theatre he had ever seen (‘done with a shoestring’, a friend commented, ‘on the grand scale’).
As one adds it up, his work for the theatre before as well as after his movie projects of the 1940s exhibits an impressive continuity and dedication. His role in bringing Marc Blitzstein’s anti-capitalist opera, The Cradle Will Rock, to the New York stage in 1937 occurred much as Tim Robbins showed in his affectionate movie. The Blitzstein opera centred on a strike in a steel town run by a despotic captain of industry, and federal backing was withdrawn when the labour protests of 1937, during which several people were killed by police, made the subject politically dangerous. Locked out of their theatre, the company – led by Blitzstein, Welles and John Houseman – rented other premises for a night, and the preview went on as scheduled, with ticket-holders marching 21 blocks alongside the actors and, once it got under way, the actors singing out their parts from the audience. Robbins’s movie never explains its intercutting of the rehearsals for Cradle with scenes of Welles in Doctor Faustus: Welles in these weeks was the lead in Marlowe’s play, and was also minding his duties for the Mercury Theater on the Air, so that the rehearsals with Blitzstein often took place in the small hours. Incidents of his life seem legendary because they were. ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes God’ – Mankiewicz’s remark about Welles on the set – is a fine epigram but wrongly heard if one doesn’t feel the undertone of awe. It could not be witty if said of an ordinary egotist, or a figure whose effects were other than prodigious.
Mankiewicz and Welles shared the credit for the screenplay of Citizen Kane. On this hangs a story, a smaller one than has been generally supposed. Mankiewicz submitted a draft that would have run for four hours. Welles revised, cut out whole scenes and added others, and turned a series of dialogues into a compact story that moves: light-stepping, brilliantly syncopated, ponderous only as and where it wants to be. When he learned that they had won the Oscar for best screenplay, he sent his congratulations from Rio, and the note shows a certain side of Welles distinctly: his effort to be a gentler man than he feels himself to be; his nervous presence of mind in seizing an awkward moment and putting things right.
Here’s what I wanted to wire you after the Academy Dinner: ‘You can kiss my half.’
I dare to send it through the mails only now I find it possible to enclose a ready-made retort. I don’t presume to write your jokes for you, but you ought to like this: ‘Dear Orson: You don’t know your half from a whole in the ground.’
In return for his partner’s goods, Welles makes a gift of words that both rebuke and forgive his borrowing, and the words themselves are in Mankiewicz’s manner. A complex joke, in which sympathy plays an elusive part, like Kane finishing the negative review of his wife that his friend has begun.
Who deserves the credit for a work of art? Livelihood apart, it is both a futile and an idle speculation. This was the premise of Welles’s last completed movie, F for Fake. He thought the great man idea was ‘a 19th-century mistake’ and one that he personally should try to explode. The idea goes back to the Renaissance, and some way into his train of thought, Welles was liable to be handed the compliment: ‘What about you, Orson? Aren’t you a Renaissance man?’ Once, in reply, he said that if he had to pick a century, his favourite would be the 12th. F for Fake tells why. Recall that Welles was a born charismatic, prone to believe a thing as soon as he heard himself say it. He also had an intelligence hardened by very mixed luck, and knew that beliefs lean on nothing but people’s wish for someone to admire, to give themselves away to when their wills have grown tired – the normal condition for many people much of the time. He liked to quote the magician Robert-Houdin: ‘A great magician is a great actor playing a magician.’ So F for Fake – a pseudo-documentary based on actual footage of two confidence men, Howard Hughes’s counterfeit biographer Clifford Irving and the art forger Elmyr de Hory – draws out a connection between art and illusionism, technical mastery and the well-made lie. The film is a tour de force of trickery that bristles with aggression and polish. There is something parched about the unremitting virtuosity, until it turns against itself in a straightforward sermon. Works of art are lies, Welles concludes (he is the narrator once more), but people cannot live on truth and the only detestable lie is the pretence of the artist to possess his signature the way a man may own a house or a car. For that is a lie against self-knowledge. Even so, worse than the vanity of the artist is the devotion he enjoys from a pliable public and their masters, the art-experts. The cult of the great man depends on the need of people for someone to put above themselves; so a normally well-fed culture is bound to have a ready supply of great men in waiting. All of them are being set up for a fall, and it is a fate they richly deserve.
Just as the greatest art is beyond the claim of an individual maker, so there are things beyond the reach of any art. Welles thought no film should ever show an actor at prayer or having sex. When he did see it, he seemed to hear the director calling out: ‘Good! Cut!’ His reticence came from a respect for feelings that are not synonymous with effects, for a love that does not prove itself in cries or pledges. ‘Nature rather than art’ is the message in all his judgments, including his preference for Renoir over other directors, and it comes out as well in his scattered opinions on acting. Bogdanovich heard him praise Cagney once and asked if that way of acting was perhaps bigger than life. ‘Well, not any bigger than truth.’ It could be said that Welles’s own career in acting was a violation of this precept. He would have agreed. ‘The camera,’ he said, ‘does not make understatement obligatory.’ But he added: ‘There are personalities who seem to be overstatements in themselves. Unhappily, I’m one of those.’ We owe it to his weakness and his strength that he was watchable. Had he been happier about this, the complacency would have sunk the intelligence. As it was, the sense of a power never exactly level with the work, of gifts that defy economy, was the connecting link among the parts he played. It is a Byronic quality: a self-knowledge that declines to excuse itself and does not seriously hope to reform. In attaining ‘perfection of the life, or of the work’, there were contemporaries better skilled than Welles, but who has ever wanted to hear their voice over his?