Close Up

15 - 30 January 2018: Close-Up on Orson Welles


“Critical successes and box-office failures, peerless technical innovation alongside cynical studio slicing-and-dicing, a man both idolized and exiled – the established narrative of American cinema’s most infamous lone wolf is one of mounting contradictions. For every fawning account of Welles the Master Craftsman, there is a horror story of compromise and breakdown somewhere out there as counterpoint. Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made, but follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons suffers irretrievably from behind-the-scenes troubles. The Lady from Shanghai is a fascinating film made on assignment, while The Stranger is an uneven tangle made on assignment. Touch of Evil was the last exhale of greatness before a long sigh of unfinished and often incoherent late-career B-sides. Channeling Shakespeare since boyhood, his handful of adaptations at this late stage ranged from the unforgettable tempest of Chimes at Midnight to a forgettable, incomplete small-screen version of The Merchant of Venice.

Such accepted vulgarizations have fueled the myth of Orson Welles, a distorted history that too often obscures the work itself. Look without these biases and one can see that even as Welles fell out of favor with American audiences – inaugurating a public plummet from multi-talented industry whiz to international enigma with financial woes – and even as he dealt increasingly with limited resources and bureaucratic pressures (some of these hardships, to be sure, self-perpetuated), his work was always developing in surprising ways while remaining astonishingly consistent in others. His unmistakable formal blueprint (a heavy reliance on inky shadow, dense post-synchronized sound design, and immense deep-focus detail that found a quick admirer in Andre Bazin) was established out of the gate with Citizen Kane, but its audacity never wavered, even as it allowed for further exaggerations and new eccentricities. Moreover, the quintessential Wellesian figure – an ideologically misguided, morally broken anti-hero grasping vainly for some lost purity or innocence or truth (a proverbial “Rosebud,” if you will) – stuck around even through his creator’s persistent proficiency in knocking him down through potent ironic detachment or fatalistic plots that continually left him lonely, paranoid or dead. Call it poetic survival in the face of sure defeat.” – Carson Lund

Citizen Kane
Orson Welles
1941 | 119 min | B/W | 35mm

What often gets lost within all the popular discourse around Citizen Kane – which tends to focus on the film’s themes of wealth, ambition and collapse; Gregg Toland’s landmark cinematography; Welles’ swaggering performance; the famous “Rosebud” motif; and the film’s lasting influence on Hollywood storytelling – is just how impenetrable and peculiar it is on a structural level. For a cinematic debut, the film is bravely scattershot, careening from the expressionist mosaic of its prelude to pastiches of Capra-esque newsreel montage, somber chamber drama, nostalgic impressionism, and a panoramic talking-heads approach that splinters the narrative proper (the flashbacks to Charles Foster Kane’s biography) across various arguably dubious perspectives – friends, colleagues, and family members of the inexhaustible newspaper tycoon. All these different registers forecast the many stylistic temperaments the director would adopt throughout his illustrious career, while also introducing what would become a major, though less frequently articulated, Welles theme: the inherent inadequacy of storytelling, despite its many bells and whistles, to comprehensively encompass a human life. read more

The Magnificent Ambersons
Orson Welles
1942 | 88 min | B/W | 35mm

In What is Cinema?, Andre Bazin’s seminal ontological study, Welles’ studio-hacked second featureis a frequent reference point, because in some ways it is even more committed than Citizen Kane to the French critic’s notion of cinematic realism – that is, the rigorous preservation of spatial and dramatic unity in a scene through the use of long takes and deep focus. Welles employs such immersive mise-en-scène for a striking end goal: the resurrection of the textures, rhythms, and emotional flavors of a bygone era, that of the titular Ambersons. Working from a Booth Tarkington novel about the financial decline and resulting interpersonal turmoil of this aristocratic Indiana family, Welles fixates his film version on the story’s larger themes of societal transformation and industrialization at the turn of the 20th century, in the process observing the passing of a pre-modern era with wise detachment. Silent cinema vignettes and iris effects abound, aesthetic anachronisms that encase a host of superb Hollywood character actors (Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Anne Baxter) in an elegiac snow globe of regret. In Welles’ hands, the Ambersons collectively become a tragic metaphor for the futility of dwelling on the past. read more

The Stranger
Orson Welles
1946 | 95 min | B/W | Digital

No more than two minutes into Welles’ alleged Hollywood sellout project, bulging eyes lunge toward the camera, a voice beckoning ominously from the shadows: “I am traveling for my health.” The Stranger’s unflattering reputation as a bland for-hire quickie after the one-two punch of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons is complicated quickly by the film itself, which channels every spare minute not spent depositing exposition into nervous expressionistic formal play: a tense murder scene plays out in a long panning shot framing characters against a dense backdrop of tree branches; dinner party conversations unfold as extreme close-up sparring matches; and a climactic clock-tower showdown is cut up into shadowy fragments that portend the famous mirrored set piece from The Lady from Shanghai. Welles, onscreen as an escaped Goebbels proxy pursued by a relentless investigator of Nazi war criminals, auditions the doom-laden eloquence of his later villain Harry Lime (from The Third Man) and winds up with a chilling example of the kind of sophistication that can easily fool the American middle-class into naïve complacency. read more

The Lady from Shanghai
Orson Welles
1948 | 87 min | B/W | Digital

Welles brings his metaphysical and psychological preoccupations, as well as his heated camera and editing style, to the genre of film noir in this story of a Spanish Civil War veteran and adventurer (played by the director himself) who falls for a charismatic but dangerous woman (Hayworth, Welles’ wife at the time). She leads him into an abyss of personal intrigue and moral bankruptcy that famously climaxes in a chase through a Chinese theater and a gun battle in a hall of mirrors. With spectacular location shooting in San Francisco and Acapulco, the film nevertheless becomes a largely mental or spiritual space, a landscape of pure romantic ecstasy and existential uncertainty. read more

Orson Welles
1948 | 108 min | B/W | Digital

Attempting to rise above their standard B-movie fare, Republic Pictures agreed to produce Orson Welles’ adaptation of Macbeth. The extremely low budget compressed shooting into a brisk twenty-three days and most likely intensified the film’s raw, stylized edge. Dramatically angled within stark, jagged sets, Welles’ Macbeth cinematically wrenches Shakespeare’s original into an eerie, brutally expressionistic nightmare featuring an exquisitely choreographed ten-minute tracking shot of the play’s initial transgression. Here, the dark soliloquies hang in the looming fog and the curse of the three witches echoes to point toward a dark cycle rather than an end. Feeling cursed himself, Welles once again endured the studio’s disfiguring his creation with crude edits and replacing the actors’ quavering Scottish burrs with English-accented dialogue. It was not until 1980 that UCLA and Welles’ assistant Richard Wilson fully restored Welles’ original vision and also restored his reputation in the eyes of critics who immediately switched from complete dismissal to an embrace of the timeless tragedy as one of the director’s finest creations. read more

Orson Welles
1952 | 91 min | B/W | Digital

Following his innovative adaptation of Macbeth, Welles' Othello suffered from delays and budget problems from the first day. As with Macbeth, the director’s genius and resourcefulness transformed obstacles into opportunities, such as the celebrated fight scene staged in a steamy Turkish bath after the production’s costumes failed to arrive. While Welles' cosmetic dark skin has contributed to the film's general neglect, he gives one of his finest performances, conjuring a genuinely moving Othello who is deeply tormented by love and jealousy. Despite garnering the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1952, Othello remained virtually impossible to see until a wonderful 1992 restoration made new prints available. read more

Confidential Report
Orson Welles
1955 | 98 min | B/W | Digital

A detective story without a solution, a film with several versions but no agreed-upon definitive cut, a widely held misfire that was once hailed by Cahiers du Cinema as one of the best films ever made – the paradoxes at the heart of the Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (A.K.A. Confidential Report) are strange and bountiful, rivaling even The Magnificent Ambersons atop the director’s most fantastic fiascos. It’s a legacy of mystery mirrored by the content of the film, which follows the daunting effort of hired American detective Guy Van Stratten to compile a report on the past of amnesiac international tycoon Gregory Arkadin (Welles). Pressing on through an atmosphere of Cold War obfuscation, Van Stratten confronts an endless array of gonzo European bit players only to witness Arkadin’s history growing increasingly convoluted and elusive. Compounding Van Stratten’s confused outsider perspective, Welles encumbers the surface of the film with distorted perspectives, menacing chiaroscuro and hysterically overloaded sets captured in excessive clarity. The net result is a behemoth – despite its relatively short runtime – whose vertiginous surplus of narrative, visual and auditory information cannot be rationally parsed in one sitting. read more

Touch of Evil
Orson Welles
1958 | 108 min | B/W | 35mm

Setting fire to the film’s relentless velocity, the infamously electrifying opening one-take shot celebrates its own virtuosity by incorporating the time it will unfold into the plot. An incessant stream of talk, collusion and activity swirling around every dark corner, Welles’ barren border town seems to exist in a cinematic purgatory, hovering between a seedy naturalism and the cunning artifice of a Hollywood set. The unusual casting of Charlton Heston as wholesome Mexican police official Mike Vargas and Marlene Dietrich as a jaded, fortune-telling madam suits the dense interplay of cinematic stereotypes and their opposites constantly joining and repelling one another. Uneasily reflecting his failed attempts to maintain authority over his studio pictures, Welles himself plays the corrupt, corpulent detective Hank Quinlan, whose personal traumas have festered and now contaminate everything he touches. By the time his intricate schemes reach Vargas’ wife (Janet Leigh), her torment in a remote hotel room run by an awkward eccentric has uncannily predated Psycho by a couple of years, and the breathless darkness of Touch of Evil carries on to haunt innumerable filmmakers – from Robert Altman to David Lynch. read more

The Trial
Orson Welles
1962 | 120 min | B/W | Digital

Hailed as a masterpiece by European critics but dismissed as a failure by the British and American press, The Trial is arguably Welles’s finest film after Citizen Kane (and with Kane, the only other film over which he exercised complete creative control). Welles’s rendition of Franz Kafka’s nightmarish story of a man arrested for a crime that is never explained to him is entirely faithful to the novel, even with the necessary transpositions made to update the action. Anthony Perkins portrays Josef K., a sensitive, "twitchy" individual pursued by a repressive bureaucracy, obsessed by an undefined guilt, and bewildered by the burden of living. Replete with unforgettably baroque, expressionistic imagery, The Trial evokes a caustic vision of the modern world, where implausible events seem like everyday occurrences. read more

Chimes at Midnight
Orson Welles
1967 | 115 min | B/W | Digital

One of the few films over which Orson Welles wielded complete creative control, Chimes at Midnight is a creative, combinatory adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Even more than a sublime John Gielgud as the guilt-ridden Henry IV and Jeanne Moreau as a lusty Doll Tearsheet, the most fascinating performance comes from Welles himself in a riveting Falstaff that is a classic Welles grotesque – by turns abrasive, gentle, pathetic and boastful. Among Welles’ most moving films, Chimes at Midnight reveals the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hall to be Shakespeare’s nuanced reflection on the difficult gap between political power and its human instrument. read more

F for Fake
Orson Welles
1975 | 85 min | Colour | 35mm

This playful homage to forgery and illusionism is the last film Orson Welles released before his death. Both a self-portrait and a wry refutation of the auteur principle, its labyrinthine play of paradoxes and ironies creates the cinematic equivalent of an Escher drawing. Described as "a vertigo of lies," the film itself becomes a kind of fake, for although it bears the signature of its author it was in fact the product of many hands. Starting with some found footage of art forger Elmyr de Hory shot by French documentarist François Reichenbach, Welles transforms the material into an interrogation of the nature of truth and illusion, with stops to revisit his own Citizen Kane and The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, detours with Howard Hughes and his hoax biographer Clifford Irving, and a profile of Picasso deceived by love. read more

The Third Man
Carol Reed
1949 | 104 min | B/W | Digital
Part of a double-bill with Confidential Report

Only making his startling entrance an hour into the film, Orson Welles leaves a disconcertingly vivid imprint upon yet another work destined to echo endlessly throughout cinema and popular culture. Though not directed by Welles, his presence and influence loom in every dark corner, oblique angle and long shadow. Frequent Welles collaborator Joseph Cotten also materializes in a degraded, divided postwar Vienna to find his friend has just died and left behind a beautiful, tormented lover as well as a strange game of conspiracy, romance and ethics – all enigmatically underscored by Anton Karas’ famous theme. With a charming wink, every detail within the film’s tricky maze of alternating darks and lights seems precisely and subtly posed to tease, provoke and puzzle until the final unsettling question mark. Featuring many who were directly affected by the confusing horrors of World War II, the production’s fortuitous assembly of artists – including writer Grahame Greene and director Carol Reed – had to battle the studio over every artistic decision every step of the way. And what did that produce? The Third Man. read more

Throne of Blood
Akira Kurosawa
1957 | 104 min | B/W | 35mm
Part of a double-bill with Macbeth

Although the script uses not a single line from its source, Kurosawa’s celebrated transplantation of Macbeth to the lawless realm of 16th-century Japan counts among the finest screen adaptations of Shakespeare ever realised, a faithful rendition of the story that works perfectly within its own historical context. Its title translates literally as "Spider’s Web Castle", and the gothic setting of a deserted castle filled with dark shadows and swathed in fog forms the perfect frame for Mifune’s tortured turn as Washizu, the samurai usurper haunted by past crimes. The austere staging and performances, drawing upon traditional Noh theatre, lend an appropriate note of theatricality to proceedings, blurring the gap between the real and the supernatural, while Kurosawa surpasses even himself with the quite jaw-dropping climax as Washizu’s violent misdeeds catch up with him. read more