Actor, Film Director :: Occupation ~ Genius

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Texts :: Biography

Orson Welles came to Hollywood having soared to prominence as a producer of stage and radio. Given carte blanche by George J. Schaefer, president of RKO studios, Welles was determined to create something highly personal for his film debut. He had considered and reluctantly discarded an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and been forced to abandon a project based on Nicholas Blake's The Smiler With a Knife, owing to the aversion of Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell - the film's potential stars - to working with an untried director.

Undeterred, Welles decided that he would play the lead in an original story, Citizen Kane (1940), concorted by Herman Mankiewicz and himself. Despite the risks involved, Schaefer stood by Welles and turned over the resources of his studio to him. But prior to release, the film ran into unexpected problems. Louella O. Parsons, head of the movie department of Hearst's newspaper empire, had been one of the first to view the film and had complained to Hearst that Citizen Kane's story was nothing but an unflattering version of Hearst's liaison with his mistress, Marion Davies. The Hearst newspapers refused to run advertisements for the film. As a result, Citizen Kane did not have a nationwide release and some cinemas even cancelled their bookings. In spite of a number of intelligent and enthusiastic reviews, it was not the runaway box-office hit the studios had hoped for.

RKO was concerned, therefore, about Welles' second venture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), a film version of Booth Tarkington's novel, which was already in production. Welles did not act in The Magnificent Ambersons, preferring to concentrate his talents on directing the picture. He was thoroughly conversant with his material; in 1939 he had played the part of the unsympathetic young hero, George Amberson Minafer, on the radio. He cast Tim Holt in this role for the film and devoted all his energies to re-creating a nostalgic picture of American life in the nineteenth century.

To those few who were lucky enough to see the sneak preview of the completed film at the United Artists Theatre in Pasadena, The Magnificent Ambersons was a stunning, never-to-be- forgotten event, in every way as important cinematically as Citizen Kane. However, the film was sent back to the editing room as the studio felt further cutting was necessary.

Welles was meanwhile staggering production on two films, Journey Into Fear (1942) - a version of the Eric Ambler novel, which Welles was directing with Norman Foster and also acting in - and a semi-documentary about South America made with the cooperation of the US government, It's All True.

orson welles

The worst thing that could have happened to Welles' career in Hollywood then hit with the suddenness of a Californian earthquake: Schaefer, Welles' sponsor, was replaced as head of production at RKO by Charles J. Koerner, a man who knew how to distribute and exhibit movies, had great taste, but no patience with failure at the box-office. Welles, busy shooting in South America, was summarily fired, and all the film he had shot for It's All True was deposited in the RKO vaults where it remained until June 1978 when a portion of it was shown for the first time.

On July 1. 1942, The Magnificent Ambersons, a third of its original length edited out - and with it much of its bitter-sweet drama - opened in Los Angeles as part of a double bill with a 'programmer' called Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942). The Hollywood career of Orson Welles seemed to have ground to a halt: he was regarded as an expensive eccentric.

When Journey Into Fear was released it had been even more mangled by RKO's editors than The Magnificent Ambersons. Wisely, Welles left Hollywood. His name had been linked with the beautiful Dolores Del Rio, but when she saw what remained of her work in Journey Into Fear, she threw up her hands in despair and returned to her native Mexico.

When Welles returned to Hollywood, he did so solely as an actor. He was cast in Jane Eyre (1943) as the moody Mr Rochester, who conceals his insane wife in the attic of his house. The production had been set up by David 0. Selznick and then sold with two other potential Selznick productions (Claudia, 1943, and Keys to the Kingdom, 1944) to 20th Century-Fox because Selznick desperately needed ready money. Selznick had set up Robert Stevenson as director of Jane Eyre, and he had supervised the script prepared by Aldous Huxley and the production designs of William Pereira. From the beginning, Jane Eyre was to star Joan Fontaine; the role of Rochester had been styled for an older actor, such as Ronald Colman. Colman, however, was ill, and another candidate, Laurence Olivier, was in war service for his own country. Welles was an unexpected choice for the part, but was approved by all concerned. His Rochester was young and handsome, and he played the character with great theatrical bombast. Colman and Olivier might have chosen to act the part with more subtlety, but Welles invested it with a romantic fury, more closely akin to another Bronte hero - Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

Jane Eyre was well received, and Welles had no difficulty getting other acting roles. He was believable in a mysterious soap-opera romance, Tomorrow Is Forever, playing opposite Claudette Colbert, and he was even allowed to direct The Stranger (both 1946), in which he played the lead - a Nazi war criminal attempting to conceal his murky past. He, however. never thought much of that picture.

orson welles the third man
Orson Welles ~ The Third Man (1949)

In 1947 he directed his wife Rita Hayworth (they had married in 1943) in The Lady From Shanghai, an exotic melodrama - now regarded as a classic - that at the time attracted a small coterie of admirers. They chose to disregard Louella Parsons when she named Welles 'awesome Orson, the self-styled genius' and informed fans that he was not only 'washed up' in Hollywood, but was finished as Rita's husband. She was right in her latter accusation, for Hayworth and Welles soon divorced, Miss Hayworth declaring:

    'I can't take his genius any more'

Welles may have been surprised to find that Hollywood - at least his own peers - was sympathetic to his previous misfortunes as a director. His first two films had many admirers. Vera Hruba Ralston, wife of the head of Republic studios, Herbert Yates, is rumoured to have persuaded her husband to put both Welles and John Ford on the Republic lists to give the studio some real class. Yates let Welles direct a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth (1948). which he made in just 23 days and on a remarkably low budget. It is an uneven but extremely effective picture, and one of the best presentations of the play on film.

Although he was to return to Hollywood once more to make Touch of Evil (1958), Welles' Macbeth (1948) may be taken to mark his final divorce, as director, from the film capital. This was the first of his series of screen encounters with Shakespeare. To admit that it is also the least satisfactory of them is not to deny that it is, at the same time, one of the most imaginative of the cinema's adaptations of the playwright, comparing with Kurosawa's Kumonso-Jo (1957, Throne of Blood) and towering, in its imaginative force, over Polanski's later version made in 1971. But the restrictions of time and money show. and the performances are uneven. Welles' collaborators seemed to find it hard to follow his imaginative flights.

This is hardly surprising: Welles spent sixty years of his life brooding on the mastery and mysteries of Shakespeare, and reshaping them to find new interpretations. It is said that his bed-time stories at the age of two were Charles Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare. At three he rejected these in favour of the original texts. By seven he knew King Lear by heart, and by ten he had learnt all the great tragic roles.

After Macbeth he began to film Othello. The work was to become the kind of odyssey which was henceforth to characterize Welles' life. The filming dragged on from 1949 to 1952, moving from location to location across Morocco and Italy. When money ran out, work would stop - to recommence when funds came in and cast could be reassembled.

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

If the difficulties of production again show in the uncertainty of the overall conception, at least here Welles could call on more talented associates than he had been able to for Macbeth : his old friend and early mentor from his youthful days as an actor in Dublin. Micheal MacLiammoir, creates a wonderful, feline Iago whose malice, the film infers, is the product of sexual impotence.

Welles now seemed doomed to endless wandering, leaving in his wake a host of uncompleted or abortive projects. In 1955 he began to film Don Quixote in Mexico and Paris, with himself as the Don and Akim Tamiroff, one of Welles' favourite actors, as Sancho Panza, but the film was never completed. Other projects talked of along the way include the Biblical stories of Noah, Abraham and Salome; two more Shakespeare subjects, King Lear and Julius Caesar (eventually produced in 1953 by an old Mercury Theatre collaborator, John Houseman, with Joseph Mankiewicz as director); Pickwick Papers and (ironically) The Odyssey ; Catch-22, which was eventually made by Mike Nichols in 1970. with Welles himself playing General Dreedle.

Even in the days of his childhood encounters with Shakespeare, Welles showed a special affection for larger-than-life characters. Mr Arkadin (1954) is a monster on the lines of Citizen Kane, a man of great wealth and power, who, unlike Kane, hires his own investigator to reconstruct the history of his mysterious career. This is, it is revealed, a test to establish if Arkadin's ultimate secret, the past guilt he most wants to conceal, is safe from detection. When it proves not to be, Arkadin realizes that the man must be silenced for good.

For many of Welles' admirers Touch of Evil (his last attempt to come to terms with the Hollywood studio system) is his masterpiece. Welles plays Hank Quinlan, a fat, decaying, crack cop, whose sense of deistic superiority leads him to frame people whom his 'infallible' instinct tells him are guilty. Welles sets the action in a border town of nightmare seediness, whose other inhabitants include Marlene Dietrich as a languidly philosophical madame, apparently a one-time flame of Quintan's, and Akim Tamiroff as the patriarch of a bizarre gang of hoodlums.

For years Touch of Evil was regarded as yet another example of Hollywood's legendary humiliation of creative genius: Universal studios' editors were alleged to have butchered Welles' original version. More recently, however, this has been reconstituted, and it is arguable that the Universal conception was actually an improvement; by leaving out some too-literal explanatory scenes, the cuts enhanced the sense of mystery and metaphysic which is the film's great attraction.

orson welles touch of evil
Orson Welles ~ Touch of Evil

Le Proces (1962, The Trial), a Franco-Italian- German co-production, was shot in Paris and Zagreb. Much admired on its first appearance, it now seems one of Welles' least successful works. His own evident philosophical distance from Kafka results not so much in invigorating tensions as in excessive debate: for an Orson Welles picture it is, unusually, often tediously talkative. Visually the film is remarkable. Much of it was shot in the abandoned buildings of the Gare d'Orsay in Paris: the old railway station, often bathed in swirling mists, provides some stunning images.

Thanks to Spanish and Swiss finance, Welles was next able to return to Shakespeare with a film that may well remain, alongside Citizen Kane, his monument - Chimes at Midnight (1966). In a textual adaptation so brilliant that even the most demanding Shakespearean cannot fault it on grounds of scholarship, Welles assembled scenes from Richard II, Henry IV Part I and II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, along with a commentary taken from the Chronicles of the Elizabethan historian Holinshed, to create a wholly new work which might be alternatively titied The Tragedy of Sir John Falstaff. Without any violence to Shakespeare's own, essentially comic, vision of Falstaff, Welles extracts a character that is heroic in his humour, generosity and goodness, flawed perhaps, but finally tragic in his incomprehension of the ingratitude of the great and powerful.

Over the years Welles acted indefatigably - often appearing in two or three films per year. Some of his roles - in Jane Eyre (1943), The Third Man (1949), Compulsion (1959) and Catch-22, for example - are memorable; all are enjoyable: none is without a conscientious intelligence. Often, however, Welles' willingness to accept parts in the most inconsiderable material - from TV commercials to Casino Royale (1967) - looks positively cynical. His majestic, unflawed performance as Falstaff, however, demonstrated that, to whatever extent he might have prostituted his talent to the service of much lesser creators, he had kept intact and pure his gifts as an interpreter.'

Histoire Immortelle (1968, Immortal Story), adapted from a tale by Isak Dineson (the pseudonym of Karen Blixen), provided him vith another of the monsters he loves: a man like Kane and Arkadin, rich and powerful in the worldly sense but troubled by a secret sense of incompleteness. This old man, Mr Clay, is the embodiment of the traditional sailors' legend of the rich man of Macao who invites a young mariner to sleep with his beautiful wife (played by Jeanne Moreau), and fulfil the marital function of which he is himself incapable. Brief, classical and near-perfect, this film was Welles' last completed formal story film.

His wanderings continued. He acted in Bondarchuk's Waterloo (1970) and Chabrol's La Decade Prodigieuse (1971, Ten Days' Wonder). His rich, inimitable voice and superb diction were constantly in demand for film commentaries; and it was thus that he "came to work with Francois Reichenbach. Out of their collaboration came the delicious, enigmatic Verites et Mensonges (1973, F for Fake). Welles was fascinated by some 16mm footage Reichenbach had shot for a TV series on fakers, with the celebrated art forger Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, who, subsequent to the original Reichenbach film, had become famous as the faker of Howard Hughes' 'autobiography'. To these, Welles added his own fakes (in which he included his role in the radio production of War of the Worlds which, over thirty years earlier, had fooled thousands of Americans into thinking that the USA was under attack by Martians). Welles orchestrates this material so as to entice the spectator into a fascinating labyrinth.

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

Old now but still exuding boyish mischief, Welles relished his film persona of magician and charlatan, amiably deceiving his willing audience with wonderful sleight of hand. Yet his place in movie history was nearer, in reality, to one of his tragic characterizations. Potentially one of the most gifted figures of world cinema, his output in the forty five years or so of his career had been miserably small, a constant story of frustrated or abortive projects. This may be detected in the tale he told himself in Filming Othello (1978) - his contribution to which undoub- tedly went further than mere commentary and interview. He confessed to an interviewer in 1965:

    'I do not work enough. I am frustrated. Do you understand?'
Orson Welles died of a heart attack on the 10th October 1985 in Hollywood.


1940 Swiss Family Robinson (narr. only)
1940 Citizen Kane (+co-sc; +act)
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons (+sc: +narr)
1942 Journey Into Fear (actor: +uncredited dir)
1943 Jane Fyre (actor only)
1944 Follow the Boys (actor only)
1946 Tomorrow Is Forever (actor only)
1946 The Stranger (+ act: + uncredited co-sc)
1946 Duel in the Sun (narr. only).
1947 The Lady From Shanghai (+act: +sc)
1948 Macbeth (+act: +sc: + co-cost)
1949 Prince of Foxes (actor only)
1949 The Third Man (actor only)
1949 Black Magic (actor only)
1950 The Black Rose (actor only)
1950 La Miracle de St Anne (short) (FR)
1950 La Disordre (narr. only) (FR)
1952 Othello (+act: + sc)
1952 Return to Glennascaul (actor only)(short)
1952 Trent's Last Case (actor only)
1954 Si Versailles M'Etait Conte (actor only) (FR) USA/GB: Versailles)
1954 L'Uomo, la Bestia e la Virtu (actor only) (IT)
1954 Trouble in the Glen (actor only) (GB)
1954 Mr Arkadin/Confidential Report (+ act: + sc: +cost)
1955 Three Cases of Murder ep Lord . Mountdrago (actor only) (GB)
1955 Napoleon (actor only) (FR)
1955 Out of Darkness (narr. only) (doc)
1956 Moby Dick (actor only)
1957 Man in the Shadow (actor only) (GB: Pay the Devil)
1958 The Long Hot Summer (actor only)
1958 Touch of Evil (+act; +sc)
1958 The Vikings (narr. only)
1958 South Seas Adventure (narr. only) (doc)
1958 Come to the Pair (narr. only) (doc)
1958 The Roots of Heaven (actor only)
1959 Les Seigneurs de la Foret (co-narr. only) (BEL) (USA/GB: Lords of the Forest)
1959 Compulsion (actor only)
1959 Ferry to Hong Kong (actor only) (GB)
1960 David e Golia (actor only) (IT) (USA/GB: David and Goliath)
1960 Crack in the Mirror (actor only)
1960 Austerlitz (actor only) (FR-IT-YUG) (USA/GB: The Battle of Austerlitz)
1961 I Tartari (actor only) (IT) (USA/GB: The Tartars)
1961 King of Kings (narr. only)
1962 Lafayette (actor only) (FR-IT)
1962 Le Proces (+act: +sc) (FR-IT-GER) (USA/GB: The Trial)
1963 River of the Ocean (narr. only) (doc) (GER)
1963 The VIP's (actor only) (GB) (USA: International Hotel)
1963 RoGoPaG (actor only) (IT-FR).
1964 The Finest Hour (narr. only) (GB)
1965 La Fabuleuse Aventure de Marco Polo (FR-IT-EG- YUG-AFG) (USA/GB: The Fabulous Adventures of Marco Polo/The Magnificent Marco Polo) (USA retitling for TV: Marco the Magnificent).
1966 Chimes at Midnight/Falstaff (+act; +sc: +cost) (SP-SWIT)
1966 Paris, Brule-t-il? (actor only) (PR) (USA/GB: Is Paris Burning?)
1966 A Man for All Seasons (actor only) (GB)
1967 Casino Royale (actor only) (GB)
1967 Sailor From Gibraltar (actor only) (GB)
1967 I'll Never Forget What's-'is-Name (actor only) (GB) (USA retitling for TV: The Takers)
1968 Histoire Immortelle (+act) (FR) (USA/GB: Immortal Story)
1968 Oedipus the King (actor only )(GB): House of Cards (actor only)
1969 L'Etoile du Sud (actor only) (FR-GB) (USA/GB: Southern Star)
1969 Tepepa (actor only) (IT-SP)
1969 Barbed Water (narr. only) (doc) (GB)
1969 Una su Tredici (actor only) (IT-FR) (USA/GB: 12 +1)
1970 The Kremlin Letter (actor only)
1970 Start the Revolution Without Me (narr. only) (USA-CZ)
1970 Catch- 22 (actor only)
1970 Waterloo (actor only) (IT-USSR)
1970 A Horse Called Njinsky (narr. only) (doc) (GB)
1971 Sentinels of Silence (narr. only) (short) (English version of Mexican short Sentinelas del Silencio): Directed by John Ford (narr. only) (doc)
1971 A Safe Place (actor only)
1971 La Decade Prodigieuse (actor only) (FR) (USA/GB
1971 Ten Days' Wonder)
1972 Treasure Island (+ act: + co- se) (GB-GHR-FR-SP)
1972 Malpertuis (actor only) (BEL-FR-GER)
1973 Get to Know Your Rabbit (actor only)
1973 Verites et Mensonges/F for Fake/ Question Mark/Nothing but the Truth) (+act: + sc) (FR-IRAN-GER)
1975 And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians/Ten Little Niggers/ Death in Persepolis (GER-FR-SP-IT)
1976 Voyage the Damned (actor only) (GB)
1976 The Late Great Planet Earth (narr: +act. only)
1978 Filming 'Othello' (+narr)
1979 The Muppet Movie (actor only) (GB)


Biog. >> Filmography >> Film Poster Gallery >> Citizen Kane >> F Is For Fake >> The 3rd Man >> The 3rd Man Film Poster Gallery >> The Stranger >> Trent's Last Case >> Trouble In The Glen >> Voyage Of The Damned >> Advertise >> Carol Reed >> Orson Welles Dvds available @

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