This talk was an informal introduction to a series of screenings of movies directed by Orson Welles held at the YWCA Cine-Club in New York. It gives special attention to The Lady from Shanghai, as that was the movie being shown the afternoon of the talk, March 1, 2003.


Orson Welles:
"Rich and Rare and Strange"

by Richard Hell

It's hard to know where to start talking about Orson Welles. He was so good at so many things and he was so famous that there's both too much to say and hardly anything left that hasn't been said. But most of all, he knew himself, and it's all been said in his movies.

I have to admit, though, that watching Lady From Shanghai again this week I got mad at him. I felt like it was his fault that we were deprived of the movie as it was shot and meant to be seen. I thought he didn't have to be that way, the way he was that got all his movies but the first one either hampered by nasty constraints on their making or mangled by the moneymen in post-production.

Lady from Shanghai is one of the latter. It's a Hollywood movie -- meaning that Welles had a budget --, and he pretty much got to make the movie as he'd like, but his version was two and a half hours long. What we'll see is eighty-seven minutes. The studio removed an hour. That's the reason the movie has a voice-over narration, to try and help cover over the rough spots. I don't know if the film would have made more sense if we could see the whole thing -- probably, but this thriller, noir, type of film often had plenty of plot holes... [It's like the famous story about the Hawks/Faulkner/Bogart The Big Sleep version of Raymond Chandler's detective novel (actually made the same year as our film, 1946) where Hawks and Faulkner found the plot so incomprehensible they called up Chandler to set them straight and he told them he didn't know what was going on himself....] But it makes me mad that there are the kind of patched together spots here where the sound falls out for dubbed dialogue, and a haphazard, sloppy, elided feel to the story even though doubtless it seems that way to me partly because I know how much is missing. Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic movie, but why did he have to be like that??? How the hell could he let it happen that he could work as a filmmaker from the ages of 25 to 70 and only have the one film, the first, Citizen Kane be the perfect genius movie he intended it to be??? I want more and he's a bastard for not having found a way to do better!!!

Then again, in a way his whole body of work is an examination of this matter, this issue, and you could say that every horrible studio reshoot of a scene and every clipped sequence is really a kind of magical witty despairing Wellesian self-reference. Yeah, that's it. It's all exactly as it should be. If you follow your nature, you will retain your original nature in the end.

It's often been said that movies are like dreams. Jung's approach to dream interpretation was that everyone in the dream was the person dreaming and if you looked at it that way you could learn a lot about your inner life. Welles dreams about the conflict within himself of the the driven, cynical, mesmerizing manipulator for personal gain versus the idealistic, innocent, more serene humanist -- four of the five movies in this series follow that pattern [a pattern described as a political tension typical of Welles's movies by James Naremore in his The Magic World of Orson Welles (Oxford University Press, 1985)] -- and... They cancel each other out. That's why his films are all in shreds -- that all that's left at the end are fields of broken infinity: grotesque and beautiful style. By the end, when he made "F" for Fake he was acknowledging it outright: that what matters, what remains is theater, fakery, chiaroscuro sound and fury. In that movie he literally declares that real life is empty, like "The toothbrush waiting for you in a glass, a bus ticket, or the grave," and that the one certainty is that everything passes, and the central truth of life is that "we're going to die."

Citizen Kane was perfect and endlessly satisfying because even though it was about unsolvable mysteries, the discovery that it was about unsolvable mysteries was the solution to the mystery! But as always it was mostly about style and magic and wit and drama in the telling of the parable of its story. It is so delicious and exhilirating to be transported like that and no one could do it like Welles and that was really the point itself, to get everything intensified with meaning and beauty, to be taken through the gates of Xanadu and slid and dipped through time and the lives of strangers in the form of the most fascinating pictures where there's singing in one corner and little gleaming outbreaks of memory in another and a gargoyle's head protruding while someone gives an accidentally false confession to the sound of delicate music... As Nicholas Ray said, "I never think of a film as doing anything except providing a heightened sense of being." And what a worthy purpose that is, a humble and worthy one for an artist. But Welles is not really humble and I think the awestruck but finally cheated or at least chilled feeling one sometimes leaves his movies with is also significant. His movies are gothic but they're not cathedrals. Just as he said about the "rosebud" revelation, "It's a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud." All messages and narratives and ideas for artists are finally interesting only as they reveal possibilities of the medium itself. The so-called content is just a pretext, which is the positive way of saying the story is a lie and empty, as Welles said in those lines from "F" for Fake.

One tends to leave a Welles film stimulated but sad, sad at some kind of failure or loss. In Kane, his only fully realized movie, maybe you feel it along with him, in a cathartic, pretty well resolved way, but with his subsequent movies, you feel it as a failure or loss deeper than anything he did in the movie. Don't get me wrong, I'm crazy about him, but check Borges about Kane in this general regard. In a short review of the movie upon its release, Borges calls Kane the most frightening thing there is, a labyrinth with no center, and he says, "We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an atmosphere of cordial and spontaneous cameraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth."

Welles is one of those artists, like Rimbaud or Van Gogh whose work you can't talk about without talking about his life.

He was born in the midwest [Kenosha, Wisconsin] to a bon vivant of an industrialist/inventor father and a concert pianist mother. They read him Shakespeare as an infant and he was treated as an adult, and more specifically as a genius, as soon as he could speak. His mother died when he was nine, and his father took him on a trip around the globe. When they returned his father bought an Illinois hotel that was a kind of retirement home for vaudevillians and the pair of them moved in. There Orson learned the first of the stage magic that would be a hobby for the rest of his life. He entered a progressive country boys school called Todd where he directed and acted Shakespeare and wrote plays. His alcoholic father died when he was fifteen and he became the ward of the highly cultured opera-patron, physician, and womanizer, close family friend, Dr. Bernstein. Welles graduated Todd at sixteen and from there travelled alone to Ireland ostensibly on a walking and painting tour (Dr. Bernstein was encouraging him as a painter). In Dublin he lied his way into an audition at the famous Gate theater and won a major role that ended up getting him a very favorable review in the New York Times. By the age of nineteen he was acting on the New York Broadway stage. At twenty he directed his first New York production, for the W.P.A.: an all-black version of Macbeth set in Haiti. It was so big a success that the government gave him and his producer-partner John Houseman a theater of their own. I'm not making this up! Pretty soon he marries Rita Hayworth!

To cut it short, nearly every production he staged was not only a success but made big news twice more over: for both creative innovation and topical content (Welles was a committed leftist). He was on the cover of Time magazine and was the voice of The Shadow on the radio even before the notorious broadcast of the War of the Worlds (which caused many listeners who tuned in late to believe the world was being attacked by Martians) when he was twenty-three. A year after that he had a contract with RKO to make movies that gave him unprecedented creative control. Famously, upon arriving in Hollywood to learn his way around the soundstages, he described them as "The greatest electric train set a boy ever had."

A year later he made Citizen Kane, which of course is still thought of by many as the greatest sound film ever made. It would ruin him. As charming and brilliant as he was it was inevitable that his success would create a lot of resentment in Hollywood. On top of that, his film was based on the career of a particular, living, powerful man, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was maybe something like Rupert Murdoch is now in his politically conservative, sensationalist style as a news publisher as well as his stupendous reach as a media magnate. Hearst used all his influence to try to destroy Kane and Welles, and many in Hollywood were not too broken up to see the spoiled kid get his comeuppance.

As Welles himself put it, he started at the top and worked his way down.

The movie we are seeing today was made in 1946, four years after Kane. In the interim he'd made The Magnificant Ambersons (1942) which was a poignant masterpiece that the studio removed from his control after shooting -- he'd gone off to Rio to make a documentary at Nelson Rockefeller's government office's request -- and then mutilated by cutting about forty-five minutes from what Welles intended while also shooting new material unapproved by the director, including a more cheerful ending. Then came Journey into Fear (1943) a good but relatively conventional thriller the direction of which Welles influenced, and in which he acted, but that's credited to Norman Foster; and after that The Stranger (1946), which will be screened in this series, also a relatively unambitious thriller that's full of wonderful touches. The Stranger took a lot of ideas from Hitchcock's 1942 Shadow of a Doubt. Both films are about psychotic murderers posing as benevolent charmers to win the confidence of the warm small-town American families with whom they hope to hide. Welles said later he made that movie to demonstrate his practical competence to the studios: "I did it to prove I could put out a movie as well as anyone else. I did not do it with cynicism however," and it did make money and was more than hack work, as was everything Welles ever did.

He'd married Rita Hayworth in 1943, but by now, 1946, the marriage was failing. Lady From Shanghai came about when Welles had to borrow money from the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, to finance a theater production. Cohn wanted a movie in return. Welles hadn't planned to use his estranged wife in the movie, but she was a star at Columbia and Cohn insisted. [Cohn was the guy whose funeral turn-out was so massive it prompted the quip, "Well, give the people what they want..."]

This movie is another one that was shredded by the studio. Though, as usual, Welles wasn't blameless: the movie went three months over schedule -- double the planned shooting time -- and cost more than $400,000 over the budget. Cohn said of him, "Well, it's taught me one lesson. Never have a leading man who's the director, because you can't fire the director!" Welles's first cut was two and a half hours long but Cohn panicked after audience previews and had an hour cut from it as well as adding a corny music score. The studio's confidence in the movie remained so low they didn't release it for two more years.

Still it's a spectacular film and a fair representation of Welles's abilities. Probably Welles's most striking knack was for making stories look the way they mean. That's a definition of filmmaking, but it's surprising how little it's done or with how little imagination by modern directors. Hitchcock was maybe the only other in America since silent days to work this way by policy. Kubrick comes to mind too. But Welles is the master. Possibly the most famous and most dramatic example of it in all his films is in the one we're seeing today: the climactic gun battle between Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane in a funhouse mirror maze. The point about it is not just how thrilling it is to watch but the way in which it presents the meaning of what is going on between this husband and wife as they frantically lunge and grope in every direction to find with bullets the "real" spouse among the fake ones as they literally shatter their whole grotesque world (and ours since it's our dream too). What could you compare it to? Maybe the shower scene in Psycho. They're about in the same class. (Though god damn it a big difference is that we'll never know how good Welles's really is because it was recut by the studio...)

Lady has many such marvelous sequences. I want to describe one other that I only just fully got as I rewatched the film this week. It uses completely different means than the mirror maze montage and only one cut to get its effect. The means are ones Welles is famous for: a long take shot in deep focus. Deep focus is a way of shooting that gets both an especially wide field of view in the frame and keeps things in focus at nearly all distances. It's an unusual way of shooting for a couple of reasons: one is that filmmakers are more often interested in directing the viewer's attention at one particular thing in the image by way of focusing on it; the other is that the wide angle distorts the shape of objects near the edge of the frame. But Welles liked to use it to be able to clearly show us things happening at more than one distance from the lens to give us the most information possible -- he'll sometimes make three different points in three different planes of the shot -- while the distortion actually contributes interestingly to the atmosphere of his strange and ominous stories. The sequence in Lady I'm talking about features Welles, as Michael O'Hara, the idealistic Irish sailor in the movie, sitting, smoking nervously in the dark decoration-cluttered office of the sleazy salesman of a lawyer who's making him a proposition. The lawyer is mesmerizing Welles into a stupor of agreement to commit a crime that Welles hopes will earn him enough to tempt Rita Hayworth into leaving her rich husband. The shot lasts a full two minutes without cutting, which is very long for a shot in a movie, and the camera glides and halts and rises and falls, following the nasal, fast-talking lawyer from one chair to a wall-safe to another chair and then in circles around the sweating, frowning, mystified O'Hara, until the sailor is completely dizzy and beaten, at which point the lawyer snorts in his snide pig-squeal of a voice, "But you're not a murderer unless I'm dead... Silly isn't it?" And the picture finally cuts -- to the huge waving tentacles of an octopus in the aquarium where O'Hara is rendezvousing with Hayworth.

But the movie is pretty flimsy as a story -- it's mostly all mood and atmosphere and conflict and even that is inconsistent and we are forced to mix our pleasure in Welles's wit and invention with our pleasure in typical Hollywood reveling in the pinup gorgeousness of Rita, probably pushed on the movie by the studio. At one point she comes out in a bottomless sailor suit that's some kind of more outrageous than a marriage of Michael Jackson and Madonna. Another example of the half-assed side of it is the repeated proverb that's supposed to say something meaningful to the story but that I find completely baffling. It goes something like, "If you follow your nature, you'll retain your original nature in the end." Huh? OK, what does that mean? Do whatever you feel like because then you're yourself even if you don't think so? OK. There is also one moment in all the fancy footwork that's actually affecting and that's the chilling last view of a wounded Rita screaming, "Michael come back. I don't want to die!" He barely pauses. The movie is pretty bleak. You do get the feeling that Welles doesn't much care about pleasing anybody but himself at this point. Harry Cohn wasn't happy about that.

Welles couldn't get hired for another two years and then it was for an extremely low budget version of Macbeth shot for a studio, Republic, known best for serials and grade C westerns. After that he didn't work in Hollywood for ten years, though he made Othello and Mr. Arkadin in Europe. Arkadin is another in this series and an interesting if uneven production. In 1958 he made the deeply squalid masterpiece Touch of Evil, also in the series, a truly great film that the studio chopped up but which retains incredible strength and which has recently been restored to a condition much closer to Welles's intentions. The Trial (1962), in our series too, came next, has much that is fascinating, and was shot and financed in Europe as are all the rest, which are few. Chimes at Midnight (1966), his Falstaff compilation of the Shakespeare Henry plays, and then the hour-long French TV production of Isak Dineson's Immortal Story (1968), and finally the documentary/essay compilation "F" for Fake (1973). Nothing else was completed and he died in 1985.



Robert Bresson and The Devil Probably
Hell's movie column for BlackBook magazine
program notes on 14 films in Hell's "Scowl" series

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