Click on the image to enlarge.
“Something’s wriggling out of the shadow . . . It’s as large as a bear and glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . it’s indescribable . . . The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate . . .” It’s a war of the worlds! It was 1938, a Sunday, on the eve of Halloween just as the sun made its way below the horizon, and the moon began to warily take its place. Little did the people of the seemingly secure Grover’s Mill know that this could very well be the last night sky they would ever see. The last sky the entire planet might see . . . Millions of Americans sat glued to their radios as a familiar evening broadcast of dance music was suddenly interrupted by an urgent new bulletin. Invaders from Mars were attacking! This spine-chilling broadcast bent believers to its will in such a way that it is still considered the single most important event in radio history today.
The “War of the Worlds” radio-play was the brainchild of Orson Welles, a talented, 23-year-old actor, producer, and theater director. In order to fill empty air space, CBS offered Welles and his dramatic group, the Mercury Players, a program every Sunday night called Mercury Theater on the Air. The program was broadcast out of New York City, and included dramatic adaptations of plays and books. On the night in question, Orson Welles was presenting an adaptation of the famous book The War of the Worlds by H. G. Welles (written 1898). Orson, his partner John Houseman, the writer Howard Koch, and the small cast of Mercury Players, decided to present the War of the Worlds as if it were the actual event happening in real time. The audience was lulled by the “soothing” sounds of the dance band music, when suddenly one of the actors in a carefully planned interruption pretended to be an actual CBS network announcer with frightening breaking news, from New Jersey. America was under attack from Martians in giant war machines. For the next hour, the story escalated, with more detailed information as the event unfolded. According to the “newsmen,” cities were being destroyed, state militias were demolished, dark, poisonous alien gas was purposefully unleashed across the country, citizens were getting eaten by the invaders, and others were being crushed by huge, metal Martian machines. Clearly the end of the world was at hand. The precision, detail, and very powerful acting made the broadcast realistic, and created doubt even in the minds of people who thought they could just shrug it off as “nonsense.”
It is estimated that there were about nine million Americans across the country listening to the broadcast that night. Many were entertained and amused. Many did not know what to think or how to react. There’s no way to know how many people were actually frightened. But we do know that about 1,750,000 people were scared enough to take some action. (Bogdanovich, Welles, 346) Despite the fact that there were multiple reminders that it was just a fictional presentation, imaginations ran wild.
Panic was rampant. Emergency switchboards were on overload. People blocked off their doors and hid in their attics and basements. Shops closed, theaters closed, churches were filled, guns were cocked, and people were screaming in the streets, “The world is ending! The world is ending!” Many fled. Others organized small, armed resistances. Some people thought bigger. Governor Earle of Pennsylvania volunteered his state’s militia to help New Jersey fend off the Martians. A group of twenty families ran out of their apartment building with wet towels on their faces to “repel Martian rays.” Hospitals were flooded with offers from nurses and doctors to help out with all the “war casualties.” A modern day Paul Revere, blowing a loud horn and screaming warnings of the Martian invaders, motored through the streets of Baltimore. One man “bound for open country” had driven away for about ten miles, until he realized that his poor dog was still tied up in his backyard, so he sped all the way back to rescue him, “risking” his life against the aliens. It was recorded that one man almost drank a bottle of poison, telling his wife, “I’d rather die this way than that!” (Although were no actual deaths or suicides on record.) Rhode Island’s electric company was prompted into considering turning off all the lights in the entire city “to make it a less visible target.” (Oxford, 184 and 185)
Why did so many people believe that the broadcast was real? One of the reasons was the artistry of the broadcast itself. Orson cleverly planned every detail. He used real names of actual places and simulated both the “live” band music and the “broadcasters” with perfect skill. He knew what competing radio shows were on that night and when people would be likely to switch over to CBS. The actors did a superb job, including imitating the voice of President Roosevelt. Orson also knew how to build the intensity of the story for maximum dramatic effect. Another reason that the broadcast was so believable was that many listeners came in part way during the story and did not hear any of the four announcements reminding people that it was just a radio-play. Even more people heard about the alien invasion second-hand. Rumors spread like wild fire. Rumors and wild imaginations led to many false, eyewitness reports. Panic caused people to see and hear things that were not actually occurring, which only increased the panic in a vicious cycle. For example, one man in Grover’s Mill shot up a deathly, alien war machine with his shot gun, only to discover later that is was just his neighbor’s rather humdrum water tower. Some New Yorkers believed they heard Martian flying machines, or weapons firing, or saw the city on fire. Another man flipped his car over twice as he drove 80 miles an hour trying to escape Martian death rays. (Oxford, 184, 185) False eyewitness reports were widespread and fed the story even more convincingly than the broadcast itself. Another contributing factor was the newness of radio. In 1938, people were naïve about joke broadcasts. These were days before, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Updates,” or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or Steve Colbert. If the news (especially CBS) said something was true, people tended to believe it.
It’s one thing to try to understand why people believed it, but it’s another thing entirely to try to comprehend why people were so afraid. To grasp this, it is necessary to look at the historical context of the event. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it had a profound emotional and psychological effect on the American people. (Rosenburg, 1) Their sense of security in their society had been badly shaken. In 1938, most Americans were still struggling to get back on their feet. Optimism for the future was at all time low. Equally important were the events unfolding in Europe and Asia. Spain was in the middle of a civil war between socialists, fascists, and royalists. Japan began a series of invasions into China, killing thousands of innocent people. (Miller, 1and 2) Hitler was on the rise, making inflammatory speeches and building up a massive military. His attacks on Jews were escalating. In 1938, he invaded and took over Austria, and began his invasion of Czechoslovakia. (World History, 1938-1939, 3) Many Americans watched newsreels or listened to radio broadcast of Hitler’s speeches. In response, America was building up its army and its navy. Many Americans began to think that we would be drawn into another World War, so soon after the first one. This created an atmosphere of tension, and underlying fear. (Rosenburg, 1, 2) In fact, when Orson’s broadcast reported that “shells were falling” towards Earth, many believed that it was the beginning of Hitler’s assault of America. (Lovgen, 1) Houseman himself recognized later the importance of the historical context, when he said, “Only after the fact, did we perceive how ready and resonant the world was for the tale.” (Oxford 189)
Newspapers saw themselves as the voice of calm reason in troubled times. This made them particularly hostile about the broadcast. As it turns out, many of the newspaper reports were inaccurate and exaggerated. Newspapers reported suicides, heart attacks, and widespread destruction of property, and held the Mercury Theater responsible. Some accused the newspapers of being spiteful and jealous because newspapers had been losing more and more popularity and advertising money to radios. Newspapers used Orson’s broadcast as a way of pointing out the dangers of impulsive broadcasts. As a form of mass media, radios were capable of trickery and deception.
Before the “War of the Worlds” broadcast had even ended, cops were already storming CBS Studios. Fortunately, they didn’t know who to arrest — or even what the crime was — but they were ready. By the next morning, the stories were all over the newspapers. When people learned that it had all been a hoax, most responded with good humor. Many did not. The mayor of Flint, Michigan threatened to personally find Orson Welles and punch him in the nose. Some legislators, led by Iowa’s Senator Herring, called for new laws to prevent anything like this from happening again. The federal communications commission, the government agency which supervised radio, called Orson Welles a “terrorist” and tried unsuccessfully to decide on a new balance between censorship and free speech. Many denied ever having been duped in the first place. The newspaper, however, kept their pressure on Orson Welles, and soon he was facing $12 million in lawsuits (Bogdanovich, Welles, 19). In time, people came to the conclusion that the broadcast technically wasn’t even a legal offense, so the lawsuits were dropped.
Instead of punishment, the Mercury Theater’s popularity shot up. Campbell’s Soup became their first sponsor. And as for Welles, he instantly became an international celebrity. Throughout the start of the innumerable interviews Welles faced, he claimed over and over that all along that he and his crew had “no idea” that people would take the broadcast so seriously.
Hollywood offered him contracts and he went on to direct major motion pictures, including Citizen Kane, and The Magnificent Ambersons. In later years, Welles revealed that he did, in fact, know exactly the response his “War of the Worlds” broadcast would create, just not quite the magnitude (Bogdanovich, Welles, 18). He admitted that he apparently had said to Mercury Theater players, “Let’s do something impossible, make them believe it, then show them it’s only radio.” (Taylor, 38)
In 1938, it was easy for Americans to see how Hitler manipulated the media to create
fear, panic, and blinding hatred. But no one believed that it would ever happen here. Orson Welles showed the country how susceptible we all are to the powers of the media. It has been over seventy years since the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, but the issues it raised are just as relevant today. With the birth of television and Internet, news can spread quicker than ever before. Not all the news that gets spread is accurate, of course, but it can still influence the way people think and how they act. Networks, broadcasters, and websites need to be thoughtful and responsible. Different networks are run by different political sides, which makes their credibility suspect. (For example: Fox News VS. MSNBC) Therefore, it is crucial that every individual be smart about how he or she interprets, believes, and handles mass media “news.” As Orson Welles decorously described, “War of the Worlds’” was, “The Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘boo!’” We must always to remember to look for the sheet.
Edward, Oxford. “Night of the Martians.” American Experiences: Reading in American History. Volume 2. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2005. 179-190. Print.
Gale. “Welles Broadcasts the War of the Worlds, October 30, 1938.” DISCovering World History. Online Detroit, 2003. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.
Lovgen, Stephan. “”War of the Worlds”: Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic.” National Geographic. N.p., 17 June 2005. Web. 24 Jan. 2011. <http://new.nationalgeographic.com>.
Miller, David. “World History Timelines, 1938.” Din-Timelines.com. N.p., 2002. Web. 24 Jan. 2011. <http://dintimelines.com/1938_timeline.shtml >.
Rosenburg, Jennifer. “”The Great Depression.” About.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2011. <http://history1900s.about.com>.
Taylor, John. Orson Welles. Boston: Little, Brown And Company, 1986. Print.
Welles, Orson., Peter Bogdonavich., and Rosenbaum, Ed. This Is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. Print.
“World History, 1938-1939.” MultiEducator, Inc., 2000. Web. 20 Jan. 2011.
Gather the household around, dim the lights, click here — then sit back and enjoy the radio theater of Orson Welles.
This week — “The Pickwick Papers” . . .
This adaptation of the Dickens classic concluded the first season of Welles's Mercury Theater On the Air. Welles's radio show had initially been offered by CBS as a “sustaining program”, that is, without sponsorship, as a prestige project for the network and its affiliates, but Welles's sensational “War Of the Worlds” broadcast, on 30 October 1938, gained the show national notoriety and a sponsor — Campbell's Soup. In its second season, the show was renamed The Campbell Playhouse.
It was, under both names, one of the greatest achievements of the radio medium.
This show will only be on the site for a short while so download it if you can't listen to it right away, and if you've enjoyed these shows from the first season, check out the rest of Welles's remarkable work for radio, easily available today on the Internet.
[You can get more information on Welles's radio work and listen to or
download many of his broadcasts for free here -- The Mercury Theater On the Air. Many more broadcasts
can be downloaded for free at The Internet Archive.
If you get hooked, you can buy a remarkable collection of almost all of
Welles' radio work, as both actor and director, in MP3 format on 7 CDs
at OTRCat -- which also offers the discs separately.]
. . . a boy ever had.
André Bazin (above) wrote some of the most penetrating analyses of how screen images work, but, as I’ve suggested before, he had a blind spot in his obsession with a movie’s connection to visual fact, its function in providing “evidence”. He was saying something important about the psychological effect of the camera’s intimate relationship to physical reality, but his theories can’t explain why the imaginary spaces created in animation, for example, can have the same emotional and psychological power, the same cinematic power, as spaces recorded photographically.
This blind spot also led Bazin to draw a misleading contrast between stage space and screen space. With stage space, he argued, we’re always half aware of the backstage machinery that creates theatrical illusion, while a screen image gives the illusion that it’s only a window onto a wider, complete world.
This is not always true, even — perhaps especially — in the work of one of Bazin’s heroes, Orson Welles. I recently ran across a passage from the critic Chris Fujiwara which sums the issue up nicely:
In radio, all space is “off” and is evoked by sound, which alone has
materiality. From his experience in radio, Welles sometimes brings to
film a purely vocal offscreen space, as in the scene of the dying Major
Amberson contemplating something that “must be in the sun.” But
offscreen space as conjured by the looks and movements of characters to
impose an imaginary spatial coherence – this is something Welles has
little interest in. He prefers to leave offscreen space unfilled, to
reorganize the world with each cut, or to deny the offscreen by
enfolding all space, all revelation within a single shot. Welles’s
cinema is a forgetting of offscreen space, a denial of its potency.
This strikes me as quite true. The amazing long take in The Magnificent Ambersons of George eating strawberry shortcake in the kitchen as he talks to Fanny and then to Uncle Jack behind him in a deep onscreen space, seems to me to represent a precise and wholly self-contained theatrical environment. Even though the shot records a convincingly “real” place, I still feel that Uncle Jack enters the scene in the far background from “the wings”.
Welles has thoroughly theatricalized that space — we have no appreciable sense at all of a wider, complete world beyond it.
[The Fujiwara quote comes from a special issue of La Furia Umana, an online cinema magazine, devoted to Welles -- which I found via Wellesnet. The issue contains articles on Welles in English and in other languages.]
Arthur Pendennis was the protagonist of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel The History Of Pendennis, which appeared in serial parts between 1848 and 1850. Arthur was a young man of privilege spoiled by an adoring mother who had to learn to make his way in the wider world. Booth Tarkington gave his name to the Ambersons's carriage horse in his novel The Magnificent Ambersons, and the horse is both shown and mentioned several times in Orson Welles's film of the novel.
Thackeray's Pendennis is obviously related, in terms of character, to Tarkington's George Amberson Minafer, and the horse who bears his name is closely associated with George in several scenes from the novel and the film. Pendennis is pulling the sleigh carrying George and Lucy Morgan when they pass her father's automobile, stranded on the snowy lane. “Get a horse!” George shouts just before taking a corner too fast and overturning the sleigh — at which point Pendennis runs off home by himself.
George has already been associated in the film, as a child and young man, with reckless buggy driving, and will become increasingly associated with scorn for the automobile. The world of the horse and buggy is the world that coddled him and that he doesn't want to end. He and Pendennis will both be made obsolete by the world the automobile is ushering in.
Pendennis is also featured in the most beautiful shot in Welles's film of The Magnificent Ambersons, one of the most beautiful in the history of movies — the long tracking shot pacing the buggy down the main street of town while its passengers George and Lucy discuss their future, a scene taken from the book. In both book and film the conversation is one Lucy doesn't want to have, because she can't see a happy outcome to it, and she urges Pendennis to move faster to cut the talk short . . . but Pendennis obeys only George.
Welles moves his camera at Pendennis's speed, for a very long time, drawing us deeper and deeper into the space of the image — into George's world . . . a world that we, like Lucy, already know is doomed. It's often said that George in Welles's film is too unsympathetic, but the buggy ride that he and Pendennis take Lucy and us on is magical . . . a visceral evocation of a slower and more gracious time. It's the one scene in the film that I find myself wanting to return to again and again — its beauty is inexhaustible. While you're on that ride it's impossible not to see things from George's point of view, Pendennis's point of view, to grieve over what's about to be lost, and perhaps even to agree with George that “the automobile had no business to be invented”.
By the same token, when Lucy says, “Get up, Pendennis!” she's talking to George, begging him to get with it, to move with the times — but a horse and buggy, like George, can only move so fast.
[The image at the head of this post is not from The Magnificent Ambersons, but it might well have been -- a measure of how effectively the film evoked the world at the turn of the last century.]
The temperatures are inching up into the 90s out here in the Mojave Desert, a harbinger of the furnace-like heat that's on its way . . . making it a good time to pause and contemplate a Currier & Ives winter scene.
Orson Welles was clearly trying to evoke Victorian prints like this in the sleigh-versus-automobile episode in The Magnificent Ambersons. He may even have had this particular print in mind, with its rider tumbling from the overturned sleigh and the snowy road winding off into the distance under the bare tree branches.
Matt Barry over at The Art and Culture Of Movies has recently posted an insightful short review of Orson Welles's Touch Of Evil. He calls it an unnerving film, which it certainly is, but points out that one of its most unnerving aspects is the way Welles goofs on our expectations of what a gritty little film noir should be.
The film's extreme stylization both seduces us into its nightmare world and distances us from it as an aesthetic creation, all at the same time. Touch Of Evil was not quite the last classic noir — I think you'd have to give that distinction to Odds Against Tomorrow, which came out a bit later — but its self-consciousness about the form was a sure signal that the tradition had all but played itself out. One definition of a neo-noir is that it's at least as concerned with commenting on the form as with working inside it. In some ways, Touch Of Evil was the first of the neo-noirs.
Recently I've been listening to a lot of radio drama, which had an amazing run on the public airwaves for almost thirty years, between the 1930s and the 1950s. Attempts to revive it almost always fail, because radio dramatists have forgotten Orson Welles's great insight into the form — that it's primarily a narrative rather than a dramatic medium.
The reason for this is simple, I think — the imaginative world of radio is obscure and threatening, like a labyrinth that has to be negotiated in the dark. We don't want to go there without a guide, without the voice of a storyteller to lead us on. This can be an omniscient narrator, or a character in the tale recounting it to us, orienting us, letting us know that we won't be abandoned in the course of our journey.
Modern radio playwrights think we have what it takes to pick up all the clues we need from dialogue or sound effects, to piece together the narrative the way we do in live theater or in movies, from the dramatic elements of the story, but we don't — because radio storytelling reduces us to a state of childlike dependency, takes us back to the time when an oil lamp or a blazing hearth fought off the immense darkness of the nighttime world.
In that charmed circle of flickering, transient light, the storyteller offered himself as an authority on the dark regions of the mind which night invoked, he provided a path through them and an assurance of return. Without that authority, radio tales are bleak and alienating, abstract puzzles to be solved . . . just so much noise outside the window, while we inhabit a state of mind which doesn't want to think about what's going on outside the window, in the endless realm of darkness.
- Jenny kissed me when we met,
- Jumping from the chair she sat in.
- Time, you thief! who love to get
- Sweets into your list, put that in.
- Say I'm weary, say I'm sad;
- Say that health and wealth have missed me;
- Say I'm growing old, but add –
- Jenny kissed me!
The poem, called Rondeau, was written by Leigh Hunt (pictured above) and first published in 1838. Hunt was a minor literary figure of the Victorian era, a friend of Shelley and Keats and Dickens. His poetry has a simplicity that can make it seem trivial, but I think Rondeau is perfect. It's music allows its simplicity to breathe, and reminds us of that sincerity of unselfconscious sentiment which the Victorians at their best could summon — a sincerity which 20th century literature, charting the age of irony, completely lost touch with. Virginia Woolf, early in the century, lamented the loss, distressed that poets could no longer write lines like these, by Christina Rossetti:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
My heart is like an apple tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a purple sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.
Such directness of feeling did survive in the popular arts, in pop songs and in the movies — any place where the arbiters of high culture had no influence.
Most improbably, Orson Welles recited Rondeau at the close of a pilot for a TV talk show he made towards the end of his life (which wasn't picked up.) Welles was an unregenerate Victorian, which was a source of much of his secret power, and almost all of his films deal with loss, with the memory of some sweet, unrecoverable moment in time that haunts the present . . . a characteristic Victorian theme.
Rosebud, Mr. Bernstein's girl on the ferry, the Amberson's ball, a long-past love affair with the Baroness Nagel in Warsaw, the chimes at midnight . . . all these are one with Jenny's kiss.
Leigh Hunt wrote, “Every one should plant a tree who can. It is one of the cheapest . . . as well as easiest, of all tasks.” Trees, said Hunt, “are green footsteps of our existence, which show that we have not lived in vain.”
Rondeau is such a tree.
In a previous post about Orson Welles's ill-fated Brazilian film It's All True
I mentioned that Welles came to see the history of the samba as the key
to Brazilian culture. I wondered if there might be a CD
collection that showcased that history. Of course there was, and
of course it was French — the French having a knack for combining
passion about American music with a logical approach to presenting it.
Fremeaux & Associates offers several historical surveys of
Brazilian music which give a good idea of what Welles found when he
visited the country in 1942. The one above surveys the samba
alone, which originated around 1917 as music for the Carnival and
eventually became a highly commercialized form of dance music
throughout the Americas in the 1940s.
The great revelation of this set is Carmen Miranda in her pre-Hollywood
days. Before she became a musical comedy star, famous for her
tall fruit-basket hats (“Bananas is my business!”), she was one of the
musical treasures of Rio — a terrific and very sexy singer.
But samba, as it turns out, is just the rio
into which all streams of Brazilian music flow. The oldest style
it incorporates is choro, an instrumental form meant for listening, not
dancing. It usually features ornate flute lines accompanied by
various stringed instruments. It started out very European in
sound, with African rhythms adding flavor, but later became a bit more
rambunctious. Its evolutions are charted in the collection
Other subsets include brass marching-band compositions and various
regional styles, many of which are charted in the Fremeaux
Associates collection above. Fremeaux offers a couple of other
historical surveys, but these three will give you a comprehensive
picture of Brazilian music in the first half of the 20th Century.
The pleasures they deliver are not primarily scholarly, however.
There's hardly a song on any of the two-disc sets which is less than marvelous, and all of them
will set you either dreaming or dancing. (The imported sets can
be found on Amazon, most cheaply through their Amazon Marketplace
Listening to these CDs you'll see right away what so enchanted Welles
back in 1942 and grieve anew that he never got a chance to finish his
film about Brazil and the samba.
In 1942, right after he finished principal photography on his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons,
but before editing on it began, Orson Welles headed off to make a film
in Brazil promoting inter-American friendship. America was at war
and Welles had been convinced by the government that it was his
patriotic duty to undertake this assignment, designed to keep our
neighbors to the south from drifting into the sphere of Axis influence.
Welles, exempted from military service by various ailments, could
hardly have refused. He planned to make an omnibus film mixing
fictional and documentary episodes
– a kind of essay on aspects of South American culture. He fell
in love with Brazil and groped his way slowly towards a form in which
to convey what he found there, finally settling on the history of the
samba as a key to the society.
His groping frustrated his corporate masters at RKO back in
Hollywood. They were also worried that much of his documentary
footage of Carnival and the samba clubs of Rio showed what they called
“jigaboos” mixing and dancing with white people. It was precisely
this racial diversity that Welles admired in the Brazilian culture.
Eventually RKO pulled the plug on the project. Welles was left
with one camera, no sound equipment, 40,000 feet of black-and-white
film and $10,000. Hoping to salvage something from the adventure,
he headed north to what was then the small coastal village of Fortaleza (below) to make a documentary-like reconstruction of a
legendary event in recent Brazilian history — the 1500-mile voyage of
four fisherman on a crude sailing raft to present grievances to the
government in Rio.
The voyage made the four men national heroes, and they were received by
Brazil's strongman leader, a sort of populist dictator, who granted the
substance of their demands.
Welles shot most of the footage he needed for this film-within-a-film,
but was never allowed to edit it. After his death, the footage
was assembled into something presentable and included in a documentary
about Welles' ill-fated Brazilian project. The documentary is now
available on DVD:
The episode of the four fishermen, even crudely reconstructed, is
simply stunning. It may be the most beautiful semi-documentary
ever made. Eisenstein's very similar project, done in Mexico a
decade earlier, ¡Que Viva Mexico!, looks like static fashion photography by comparison. Four Men On A Raft, as Welles called the episode, also blows away the semi-documentaries of Robert Flaherty (like Nanook Of the North) and Michael Powell (The Edge Of the World.)
Welles's images are dynamic, lyrical, full of movement and yet also
convey a convincing documentary feel. They are cinematic poetry
of the highest order.
Simon Callow, in his multi-volume biography of Welles, says that if
Welles had shot nothing else in his life but this footage he would have
to be recognized as one of the supreme masters of cinema. This is
While Welles was creating this miracle in Brazil, the executives at
RKO, with the aid of some of Welles' most trusted associates, were busy
mutilating The Magnificent Ambersons.
They blamed the collapse of the South American film on Welles's
procrastination and extravagance, even though he had not exceeded the
project's budget at the time it was scrapped. The vandalism of Ambersons
had a vindictive quality to it, to judge by internal RKO correspondence
on the subject, and the myth of Welles as an irresponsible artist,
created by RKO to justify its actions, which included the dismantling
of Welles' production unit at RKO, haunted him for the rest of his life.
RKO made a point of destroying the footage they cut from Ambersons, although Hollywood figures like David O. Selznick begged them to preserve it, but the It's All True footage somehow survived. It includes ravishing Technicolor sequences shot in Rio, some of which can be seen in the It's All True documentary . . . and the material for Four Men On A Raft. (The color images above are not from the film.)
yourself a favor sometime and have a look at the material on the DVD –
unfinished as it is, it's still one of the treasures of 20th-Century
[With plot spoilers . . .]
Orson Welles's very strange film from 1955 (also known as Confidential Report), is a kind of parody of an
international suspense thriller — with a cartoonish expressionism of
style that sometimes verges on the Gothic, on the perfectly preposterous. Welles plays
the fabulously wealthy tycoon Gregory Arkadin, a man who is not at all what he seems to be
– and he plays him in a false nose and a bad beard and an even worse
wig that seem to make a joke of the whole proceedings.
Arkadin is ostensibly trying to keep the secret of his scandalous past
from his daughter, but this aspect of the story is barely dramatized
and totally unconvincing. We have no sense that the daughter has
anything invested in the image of her father as a respectable man, no
sense that she (or anybody else) sees him as a respectable man, and we're offered no psychological insight into why his daughter's good opinion of him matters to Arkadin.
But Welles never had much interest in psychology — anymore than
Shakespeare did. For a great dramatist, psychology is always a
reductive science. Why does Hamlet pretend to be mad? To
make himself seem less threatening to Claudius? To amuse himself
with play acting? Os is it because he is mad, and knows he's mad,
and enjoys the black irony of pretending to be what he actually is?
There are no answers to these questions. People have been
psychoanalyzing Hamlet for 400 years precisely because Shakespeare
There's no point in psychoanalyzing Arkadin, either — he is a perfect
blank at the center of Welles's film. But, by a wonderful mystery hidden in the storyteller's art, we learn all we need to
know about him at the fringes of the film — including his terrible
“secret”, which, like the character of Arkadin himself, is not at all what it seems to be.
The clue to everything lies back in Warsaw, before 1927 — the year in which
Arkadin claims he was afflicted with amnesia. We eventually learn that the
“amnesia” was self-induced. But what was he trying to forget?
The petty crook Arkadin hires to investigate his supposedly lost past
talks to people who knew Arkadin or his associates in
Warsaw. Although they are recalling a criminal underworld, they
all speak of Warsaw as though it was, in fact, a lost paradise — now
(in 1955) locked behind the Iron Curtain, a place they can never revisit.
Finally, what “Warsaw” really means is revealed by Arkadin's old lover
there, now a faded beauty who speaks of him and of their time together as worth the
betrayal that ended it all. “Warsaw” is simply youth — it's the
loss of this that Arkadin cannot abide. It's what has engendered
his vaguely incestuous obsession with his daughter, it's what leads
him to kill off all his old associates from Poland. Not to hide his
crimes but to wipe away the evidence of passing time, of the lost
paradise — the evidence that he was a
lover once, that he had comrades-in-arms . . . a connection to other human beings.
Welles's performance as Arkadin offers us only one moment when real
emotion seems to grip the character. It's the moment when he
looks into the decayed face of his last surviving friend
from Warsaw — and laughs, with an imperfectly disguised fury that is
genuinely chilling. When asked what it is he finds so funny,
Arkadin replies, “Old age.”
The story of Mr. Arkadin had its origins in a script Welles wrote for an English radio series he starred in, The Lives of Harry Lime.
There the name of the man of mystery is Mr. Arkadian, with its clear
reference to Arcadia, the mythological paradise which is also used as a
synonym for death, as in the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego . . . “even
now I am in death.”
In the film, Arkadin recounts a dream he has of walking through a
cemetery whose tombstones all record very brief lifespans. He
learns that they in fact record the spans of friendships — these being
the true measures of a life. This is the graveyard Arkadin now
inhabits — literally killing off his old friends is just his expression of
rage that they are dead to him already, and thus that he is dead.
The Latin phrase quoted above found its way into the Anglican Book Of Common Prayer,
in the burial service — “In the midst of life we are in death.”
That might serve as Arkadin's motto — one he cannot accept.
In the end, scared of losing his last friend, his daughter, he kills
himself. Because of the oblique way Welles has chosen to tell his
tale, we feel no great emotion at this. But our minds keep
drifting back to the monologue about the old days delivered by
Arkadin's aging lover from Warsaw — one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history. This is the narrow aperture
though which we get a glimpse of the real Mr. Arkadin, fleeting,
devastating, heartbreaking. Like Kane, he is, very simply, a lost
soul, bewildered and ultimately destroyed by his aloneness.
To have told us this in so many words would have been to trivialize the
insight. By making us tease it out for ourselves, feel it as a
haunting melancholy at the edge of consciousness, Welles takes us
inside Arkadin in a way Dr. Freud could never have managed.