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
illustrated above.

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
— 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 . . .]

Mr. Arkadin,
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.


Citizen Kane
is a hard film to “see”.  It's so alive with invention, so dense
with magical images (and camera tricks) that it's difficult to process
them in detail.  The film also has a relentless narrative drive,
aided by visual, musical and other sound transitions of exceptional
virtuosity which keep one in a perpetual state of anticipation.

The rap on the film has always been that all this razzle-dazzle
distracts one from the fact that Kane is hollow at its center — an
exercise in sensation rather than substance.  This is a complaint
that was often made about Welles' stage productions — that they were
thrilling while you were watching them but evaporated instantly from
the mind afterward.  Pauline Kael saw Kane
as a magic show — and a magic show is another kind of theatrical
experience that lives only in the moment, that has no artistic echo.

I myself disagree with this view of Kane. 
There is a hollowness at the center of the film but it's the hollowness
of Kane himself, of the character — not the actor who plays him or the
film's director (who of course are one and the same man.)  The
sharp dialogue and knowing wit of the film, the insistent technical
bravura of the filmmaking, tend to disguise the fact that Kane is a grandly sentimental work, a work of great compassion and feeling.

I have no doubt that this sentiment and compassion came from Welles
himself, though he may have been steered into it sidewise by his
screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who put a lot of Welles into Kane under
the cover of the roman à clef 
element that related the character to William Randolph Hearst. 
Welles always said that the Rosebud theme was all Mankiewicz's doing,
and that he wasn't terribly fond of it himself.  I would argue
that the Rosebud theme, far from being the artificial MacGuffin it's
often dismissed as, even by Welles, is in fact exactly what it seems to
be — the key
to Charles Foster Kane and to the film.  This may have been
something Welles could not admit because it struck such a deep nerve in

Welles is often treated as a uniquely mysterious character, a mass of
irreconcilable contradictions, but I think this is no more true of
Welles than it is of Kane.  Everything about Welles makes perfect
sense if you remember that he lost his mother, an adoring but demanding
woman, to jaundice when he was 9, and that he lost his father, by a
longer process, to alcoholism, which finally killed him when Welles was

Welles cut himself off from his father six months before his death, in
an effort to get him to face his drinking problem, and never forgave
himself for the betrayal, for allowing his father to die alone and
estranged from him — something he could never make up for.  It's
not dime-store psychology to see these traumas as the forces which
fueled and warped the unfolding of Welles' genius — they are primal
emotional events.  And so with Kane's abandonment by his mother
and father.

The nostalgia for Rosebud, for what it represents, does sum up Kane's
life, and it's not a simplistic analysis.  The loss of a parent in
childhood is a wound that never heals — it can be endured but never
overcome.  A child always sees the loss of a parent as a rejection
— in the case of Kane, his mother's decision to send him away was on one level a literal rejection, however well-motivated.

Simon Callow, Welles's most astute biographer, is dismissive of Welles's performance in Kane,
feeling that it never achieves depth, and he feels this way about most
of the performances in the film — with the notable exception of that
by Agnes Morehead as Kane's mother.  We don't see her for long but
we sense worlds of grief in her as she sends her son out to the wider
world, where she hopes he'll have a better life.

It is a singular performance in
the film, but I think its singularity makes perfect sense.  Kane
has a hole in his heart which robs him of personal substance, makes him
a perpetual performer incapable of real intimacy with anyone.  And the
significant others in his life are content to be his audience —
thrilled or appalled by his “act”, excited and inspired, but with no more real
commitment to him than a theater audience has for the lead actor in a
play after the curtain comes down, or after his celebrity fades.

We share their guilt in this, of course — we the audience are also
thrilled and appalled by Kane's act, excited and inspired, amused by his rise and morbidly delighted by
his fall.  But Welles won't let it go at that.

The story of Kane is a shadowplay, with one real person at its center
— Agnes Morehead's Mary Kane, who has unwittingly, in an act of misguided
sacrifice, turned her son into a shadow.  There are many moments
in the film, especially as Kane ages and begins losing everything, when
Welles lets us (though not the other characters in the film) into his
psychic universe, a place of bewilderment and pain.

Welles is curiously least convincing when he plays Kane at
the age Welles actually was when he made the film — he's like an older
man doing an unconvincing imitation of a younger one.  It's as
though Welles doesn't know how to be young — but that works for the
young Kane, a man born to power and wealth, who has to play at being a
regular lad.  Yet Welles is utterly convincing as the older Kane
— as though he knew in advance what it would be like to hold the world
in your hands and then see it slip from your grasp.  Callow
suggests that the young Welles is preserved in Kane
like a fly in amber but the truth is far stranger — the
older Welles is on display in that film, fully formed (and deformed) by
the vicissitudes of failure and disappointment.

This is uncanny, of course, and in retrospect disturbing — but it
represents a brilliant imaginative leap for the young actor, one he summoned up from the core of his being, and it's very
moving.  Welles asks us,
and allows us, to pity Kane, to forgive him — and he gives us good and
sufficient reason to do both.


The ambiguity, the unknowable quality of Charles Foster Kane is the real MacGuffin
of the film.  Rosebud is its heart, hiding in plain sight in the
last scene just as the truth of Kane hides in plain sight throughout the

[Thanks to six martinis and the seventh art for the screen grab of the sled in the snow.]


Charlton Heston has died at the age of 84.  In life he never got
the appreciation he deserved — damned with faint praise as an actor of
limited range, damned in more direct terms for his right wing politics
and defense of gun rights.  As an artist, however, he was a
genuine hero.

It was Heston who lobbied Universal to give Orson Welles the job as director of Touch Of Evil
(above), at a time when no one else in Hollywood would give Welles the
time of day, and he single-handedly kept Sam Peckinpah on Major Dundee by offering to kick back his own salary into the production.

In movies, presence is sometimes more important than range — one might
argue that it's always more important than range — and presence
requires more than mere personality.  It requires its own kind of
craft and courage.  There was no other actor of his generation who
could have held his own in El Cid, and his “presence” helped make that film a masterpiece.  It also elevated The Planet Of the Apes from a B-picture to a pop classic.

I am personally grateful to him for Touch Of Evil
— mangled as it was by the studio it's still one of the great American
films, and it wouldn't exist without the artistic heroism of Charlton

And for those of you who can't get past his efforts on behalf of the NRA,
remember that he also stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March
On Washington — one of the few Hollywood celebrities with the guts to
take a public stand like that in 1963.


Yesterday, Showtime screened a rough assembly of Orson Welles' legendary uncompleted film The Other Side Of the Wind,
which Peter Bogdanovich is restoring for the cable channel.  The
select group of critics in attendance were stunned to find that the
film bore no relation whatsoever to the brief excerpts from the film or
to the script pages
which have previously seen the light of day.

The film unveiled was in fact a shot-by-shot remake of Citizen Kane using sock-puppets in place of the original actors.  Citizen Kane
is considered Welles' masterpiece, and many have pronounced it the
greatest movie ever made — a stunning debut which Welles never managed
to live up to in the course of his subsequent career.

Bogdanovich explained the “very Wellesian” ruse involved — “He shot
fake footage and wrote a bogus script to keep his real plans a
secret.  'Everybody wants another Kane,' he told me, 'so I'm going to give it to them.  I'm going to shove it up their ass.'”

Bogdanovich believes that the sock-puppet Kane
will eventually be recognized as a greater work than the original —
“though it may take awhile.  Orson was always years ahead of his

Bogdanovich hopes that the restoration of the Kane
remake will be completed towards the end of this year and screened by
Showtime in 2009.  It will appear under the name Welles chose for
it shortly before his death — Kane You Believe It?


         [Photo by Carl Van Vechten]

poetry of a play by Shakespeare is characterized by an almost
supernatural density of imagery and invention, wordplay, wit and
insight.  Though designed to fly by in two hours' traffic
upon a stage it simply cannot be absorbed fully on a single hearing or
reading, composed as it is of  a torrent of miraculous phrases and passages that
repay continual study.  The sheer abundance, the sheer generosity
of it is overwhelming.

Orson Welles completed three films based on Shakespeare plays — Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff (Chimes At Midnight)
His interest, as it became clear over time, was not simply in mounting the plays within the cinematic
medium but pushing the medium to supply a cinematic equivalent to
Shakespeare's poetry.  In Falstaff,
I would argue, he finally succeeded in this ambition.  In the
process he completely rethought the approach to cinema he employed in
his early masterpieces Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Citizen Kane, though
dominated aesthetically by scenes shot in deep focus and playing in
long takes, in fact employs a grab-bag of cinematic techniques —
process shots involving backscreen projection, models and matte
paintings, double-exposures, faked newsreel footage.  In The Magnificent Ambersons,
Welles experimented with even longer and more elaborately choreographed
single-take scenes, some of which were cut up by Robert Wise at the
behest of RKO when they took the film away from Welles — but Welles
also included pictorial trick shots that violate the aesthetic of the
single-take scenes.

With The Stranger, Welles was
trying to work within the boundaries of a
more conventional studio style,
but he eschewed trick shots almost entirely and included one long,
stunning single-take scene made with a crane on tracks in a forest.  In The Lady From Shanghai
he tried his best to stick to location photography and to incorporate
long single-take scenes, but the film was so meddled with by Columbia
that we don't have a clear record of Welles's vision for the film as a whole.

All this was prelude to his first Shakespeare adaptation for film, Macbeth,
made cheaply and quickly for Republic Pictures.  The 23-day
shooting schedule meant that Welles had to limit his technical
ambitions for the film.  His increasing fascination with long
single-take scenes resulted in one extraordinary feat — a
10-minute shot which records the entire episode leading up to and including the murder of Duncan
and the arrival of Macduff, who discovers the crime.  It plays
out on several levels of the studio set, covered by pans, tracks and
crane moves.

There are two other less extraordinary single-take scenes of some
length.  One records the episode in which Macduff learns of the
deaths of all his “pretty ones”.  This is taken from a fixed
camera position on a studio-exterior set without great spatial
interest.  The four actors involved move about in ways that often
feel arbitrary in order to create different groupings of the characters
and heighten the complexity of the shot.  The other shot records the
scene in which Macbeth, on the parapet of Dunsinane, learns of the
approach of Macduff and his armies and then moves inside to discuss
Lady Macbeth's mental health with her doctor.  Again, the studio
sets here don't offer much spatial complexity and the choreography is not
especially dynamic.

Two shorter scenes involving dynamic camera moves are more
powerful.  In one, the camera starts on a close-up of Macbeth, left
alone in the banqueting hall, and moves with him, pulling back, as he
races outdoors to the top of a rock and summons the weird
sisters.  This is followed shortly by a high crane shot that swoops down
slowly onto the figure of Macbeth and ends in a close-up on his
upturned face.

The rest of the film employs a more conventional editing of shorter
shots.  Some of these shots are visually arresting, involving
dynamic camera moves and angles, but many more are merely
utilitarian.  There are a few interpolated shots taken on real
exteriors, a couple of shots employing matte paintings and, in the
final battle scene, a series of shots manipulated with optical
zooms.  Taken as a whole, the visual strategy of the film is

When he came to make Othello
few years later, Welles said he planned to shoot it all on built sets
and in long takes — making it, in effect, an extension of the approach
he took with the long single-take studio-bound scenes in Macbeth.  He had been disappointed with the execution of the sets he designed for Macbeth, which do indeed look pretty cheesy most of the time — but he had a superb designer for Othello, Alexander Trauner, who sketched out elaborate sets for the film, meant to
be built at the Victorine Studio in Nice.  Welles was thrilled
with the sets Trauner envisioned and always spoke of them wistfully in
later years.

All of Welles' plans for Othello had to be abandoned, however, when the film's
original financing fell through.  Welles could only afford to
shoot in real locations, few of which were suitable for the entirety
of a given scene.  In addition, limitations on equipment and the size of the crew
meant that he could not shoot long takes, which, as he explained,
require the technical resources of a large studio production unit.

These problems altered Welles' whole aesthetic approach to the film,
since he would not only have to use short takes more or less exclusively but he
would also have to match shots taken in disparate locations within a
single scene.

His response was masterful.  He concentrated the full power of his
visual imagination on the individual shots — almost all of which, however brief, record
deep, dynamic spaces and boldly choreographed movement — and used rhythmic, musical editing in an attempt to unify them
into a coherent artistic whole.

The result was impressive but not uniformly successful.  Clearly Welles was improvising
from day to day, sometimes desperately — the production was halted on numerous occasions when
funds ran out, necessitating changes of locale and the loss of actors
due to conflicting commitments.  The “music” of the editing was
something Welles could not always control expressively — often he was
just trying to keep the beat, to bridge extreme gaps in continuity.

But necessity had led him to new possibilities of invention.  He would deploy them spectacularly in Falstaff. 
In that film he would shoot to the music of the editing he
envisioned, without the technical vexations created by Othello's near-fatal financial emergencies.  There would be no long, virtuoso single-take scenes
but each shot would be dense, beautifully choreographed, with its own
dynamic spatial complexity.  These shots would be utterly
involving in themselves

— and Welles would be able to preserve a sense of spatial continuity
from shot to shot to a degree that had not been possible on Othello
but the images would flow by with a relentless momentum, regulated by the metric of the editing.

Welles would not linger on the rich poetry of his individual shots but
race through them — as Shakespeare races through the rich poetry
of his texts. 
The great battle scene in the film offers the most extraordinary
vindication of Welles's approach.  Though made up of scores of
short shots, each is like a film within a film — bold, dynamic,
involving.  You feel you could linger on every one of them

When he was 19, Welles wrote this about Shakespeare — “His
language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and the moon.  He
wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like
heartbeats.”  It's not too much to say that in the images of Falstaff Welles found a cinematic equivalent to Shakespeare's poetry — a true visual complement.
Which is to say that Welles took cinema as far, or nearly as far, as Shakespeare took the
English language — and that's as far as anyone has ever taken it.


Here's some interesting and possibly hopeful news from Wellesnet,
the invaluable web site resource for all things Orson Welles.  It
seems that Beatrice Welles, Orson Welles' daughter and one of his
heirs, made a legal claim against Turner Entertainment over the rights
to The Magnificent Ambersons and a couple of other films.  Court documents tracked down by Wellesnet reveal that the claims with regard to Ambersons have been settled.  This may explain why Ambersons
has not yet appeared on DVD in the U. S. and may be a sign that it will
be coming soon.  Let's hope.  This is one of the greatest
films not
yet available in the format in this country.  Others are:

The Big Parade
The Merry Widow
(silent version)
The Wedding March
City Girl
Falstaff (Chimes At Midnight)
Comanche Station


Below are my nephew Harry's notes for an oral presentation on Citizen Kane for his 9th-grade history class:

February 26, 2008

Citizen Kane

Intro Facts:

-Directed by Orson Wells in 1941.  
-He also starred in , co-wrote and co-produced it
– all at the age of 24
-Previously, had been in radio, creator of the famous War of the Worlds episode for Mercury Theater in N.Y.C.
-Citizen Kane= the first and last major studio film over which he would have total control.
-Considered universally to be one of the greatest films ever created

Some Elements that make this film revolutionary:
-use of depth of focus shots (=wide angle lenses to capture the details
of the foreground, middle ground and background without prioritizing)
-depth of focus important because it allows the viewer to actively
investigate the space, make conclusions, see relationships between
characters and their space in more complex ways, spectator is an active
participant in the scene
-use of ceilings and the “fourth wall” = more interesting camera angles, more creative lighting , more real
-camera is inquisitive, as if it is a character itself, instead of a stationary machine that records what’s in front of it
-non-linear storytelling
-narrative told in bits and pieces, out of chronological order
-some scenes are revisited more than once from different perspectives
-story of Kane’s life is revealed as a reporter interviews people who
were closest to Kane in attempt to learn meaning of Kane’s last dying
-leads to a richer, more complex portrait of a person


-On initial release, film was hated by most major film studios. 
-Negative was almost burned
-Wells was persecuted by newspaper tycoon William Randolf Hearst, who
saw unflattering parallels between himself and Charles Foster Kane.
-Wells was blacklisted in Hollywood
-Citizen Kane was never distributed to major commercial theaters
-Sad because this movie defines us – what drives power, materialism, and what we may have lost on the way

After Harry's presentation his teacher said, “We always hear that Citizen Kane is one of the greatest movies ever made — now we know why.”

My notes on the notes:

A superb summary — excellent stylistic and thematic analysis.  I
personally wouldn't call any of the stylistic elements of the film
“revolutionary”, however, since they had all been used before — just rarely
with such brilliance.  It's true that most studio heads hated the
picture, because it offended Hearst and they were afraid of him, but
the Hollywood community recognized its brilliance — it was nominated
for several Academy Awards and won in the category of Best
Screenplay.  The negative was indeed almost burned — Louis B.
Mayer offered to buy it from RKO and destroy it, as a favor to Hearst and to
protect the industry from his wrath.  Welles wasn't exactly
blacklisted in Hollywood — it just became hard for him to work as a
director there after his first two films, and a third which he
produced, tanked at the box office.  Kane
was distributed erratically and never got a chance to prove itself
commercially but it did play at a few major theaters in major cities —
it had its Los Angeles premiere at the El Capitan, which is still
standing.  The El Capitan wasn't the most prestigious house in
town but it was a respectable venue.


Well done, Harold!


Orson Welles once said that if any one of his films would qualify him for entry into heaven it would probably be Falstaff (also known as Chimes At Midnight.)  As credentials for salvation go, Falstaff is probably as impeccable as any — it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, so great that it almost seems to inhabit a new medium all its own.

Visually it’s a torrent of dense, lyrical, consistently exhilarating images — an explosion of plastic invention unequaled since the days of silent cinema.  But it’s a talkie, and its words are not just any words — they’re the words of Shakespeare.  It’s not too much to say that Welles’ images, with their musical rhythms of movement within individual shots and from shot to shot, constitute a co-equal element with Shakespeare’s poetry.  Image and word fly, dance, crack, soar and sing together.  There has never been anything quite like it.

The soundtrack has technical flaws, however, which make it hard to appreciate the full scope of Welles’ achievement.  The production was beset with severe financial problems — almost all the dialogue had to be dubbed, and Welles had to supervise the re-recording at a distance.  The line readings are uniformly superb but the sync is not always perfect and the “room tone” surrounding the dubbed voices is inconsistent and often disorienting.

I don’t know if the original sound elements still exist — if they do, modern digital technology could certainly be applied to correct the flaws, though it would probably cost a small fortune.

As things stand, one needs to accept a slight disconnect between image and dialogue — which is no more than saying  that the Parthenon has sustained a bit of damage through the years.  One makes allowances.

The film is not available on DVD in this country.  There is a barely acceptable all-region Brazilian edition in NTSC format which can be had online, but it’s not optimized for a widescreen monitor and the transfer of both sound and picture is mediocre.  Still, if you’ve seen the film on a big screen, the Brazilian DVD can evoke the experience well enough.

I saw Falstaff at the Paris Theater in New York in the summer of my 17th year.  During the battle scene my hair stood on end — I think I probably trembled with excitement.  I know what cinema is, I thought to myself — the secret of it is here, in this film.  It was more a gut feeling than a practical or intellectual insight, but the moment has inspired all my thinking about movies ever since.  A hundred years from now people will still be studying Falstaff in an effort to apprehend the craft and mystery of movies.