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Orson Welles 101: Your Guide to the Great Filmmaker’s Most Pivotal Moments

Sure, you know ‘Citizen Kane,’ but what are the other movies that define this mercurial, flawed genius? Here’s a guide to his Shakespeare adaptations, impish documentaries and infamous wine commercials.

“I have been in the performing arts, working for my living, for some 47 years. I have never been rich. In this rather ridiculous business we learn to sustain ourselves on hope and enthusiasm. So I’ve never been really poor.”

That’s from a letter Orson Welles wrote in 1977, about eight years before he died at the age of 70. It is hard not to look at his life as the most quintessentially American. He starts off so full of promise, a master of stage and radio, and then conquers Hollywood with his first movie, a tale of a tycoon who never recaptured the innocent happiness of childhood. Welles was only 25 years old then, the world at his feet. But soon, setbacks and disappointments start to pile up, and eventually he’s viewed as a man who threw away his potential — he’s haunted by the greatness of his youth that now seems irretrievable. He continues to make challenging pictures, but he struggles to secure financing, and often they fail to be completed, or they’re taken away by studios that recut them. He had such ambition, but it was all for naught.

That’s a simplistic and romantic view of Welles — how many aspiring artists look to him as their patron saint of misunderstood geniuses? — but it’s also baked into the films he’d make later in his career, which often explored flawed, defeated men coming to terms with their lot in life. And yet, we adore him because of his larger-than-life personality and penchant for grandiosity and showmanship — not to mention his gift for self-promotion and mythmaking. (“I don’t want any description of me to be accurate,” he told Playboy in 1967. “I want it to be flattering.”) He remains revered as the ultimate maverick — an iconoclast who refused to compromise his vision, even after he fell out of favor in Hollywood. 

Unfortunately, Welles’ journey illustrates the pitfalls involved with such an obdurate career path. A lot of filmgoers and filmmakers admire the hell out of him, but they’d probably never want to be him. 

So where do you start if you’re new to Welles? There are some obvious highlights, but my 10 picks aren’t necessarily his greatest hits. Rather, they provide a chronological timeline of his highs and lows — some of those lows, by the way, have been reappraised in recent years and judged far more glowingly. Long after Welles’ death in 1985, we’re still wrestling with and reevaluating his work, which might be the highest compliment you can give an artist. Even more remarkably, we’re still getting new movies from the man.

Citizen Kane (1941)

That Welles probably never topped his debut only makes its achievement that much more astounding and bittersweet. For anyone approaching the Greatest Film Ever Made™ for the first time, Citizen Kane can be daunting or underwhelming. (“Wait, this is the best movie of all time?”) So try to put aside its enormous reputation for a moment and consider two things. First, Citizen Kane is the kind of exuberant, showoff-y movie a young person makes. Welles was about to turn 26 when the film premiered, and this cautionary tale of a rich, powerful entrepreneur laid low by his own hubris and need to be loved radiates the confidence of a wunderkind who thought he was going to change the world. And then second, appreciate how dead-on it remains about American ambition, providing a critique of the Great Man myth long before it became fashionable.

It’s telling that Welles himself played the swaggering, doomed Charles Foster Kane, as if he feared that his character’s pitiful fate might be his own. But he also foresaw a society that was becoming enamored with wealth, blind to the spiritual dead end that awaited. “I must admit that it was intended, consciously, as a sort of social document — as an attack on the acquisitive society,” Welles said in 1960, and it’s both funny and bitterly ironic that our current president loves this movie and doesn’t understand it at all.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

In the world of cineastes, the original, uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons could be thought of as the “Release the Snyder Cut” of classic films — probably the first (and hopefully only) time this Orson Welles gem will ever be compared to the god-awful Justice League. Alas, Welles’ butchered movie will probably remain permanently unfinished, his initial vision never to be realized.

As his follow-up to his Oscar-winning Citizen Kane, Welles had turned his attention to the acclaimed Booth Tarkington novel, about the affluent turn-of-the-century Amberson clan and their spoiled-rotten son George (Tim Holt), who will live long enough to watch his family’s fortune vanish. Welles aspired to make The Magnificent Ambersons a tragic, elegant melodrama that doubled as a commentary on a changing America at a time when the automobile was replacing the horse and buggy. But after test audiences balked at the film’s downer ending, the studio intervened and reshot it, giving The Magnificent Ambersons an incongruous, utterly phony finale. Welles, meanwhile, was overseas working on another project, having lost final cut, and therefore, powerless to stop the desecration.

It was a blow he never recovered from. (He infamously declared, “They destroyed Ambersons, and it destroyed me.”) Film fans have long hoped that, somewhere maybe, a print exists of Welles’ cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but as is, the movie is 4/5ths a masterpiece — and 1/5th a sad reminder of what might have been.

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

Welles loved to tell the story of how he decided to make this pulpy noir: “From Boston I got in touch with Harry Cohn, then director of Columbia, who was in Hollywood and I said to him, ‘I have an extraordinary story for you if you send me $50,000, by telegram in one hour, on account, and I will sign a contract to make it.’ Cohn asked, ‘What story?’ I was telephoning from the theater box-office; beside it was a display of pocketbooks and I gave him the title of one of them: Lady From Shanghai.”

Others disputed the details of that anecdote — for one thing, the Sherwood King novel is actually called If I Die Before I Wake but Welles swore he had no idea what the book was even about. (And, in perfect Welles fashion, he claimed he needed the money to finance another project, essentially tricking Cohn into a deal.)

Nonetheless, he produced a stunningly atmospheric, sometimes confounding look at a luckless man (Welles) who falls for an unattainable beauty (Rita Hayworth) and ends up being complicit in murder. Welles had wed the star in 1943, but their marriage was collapsing around the time of The Lady From Shanghai, which gives their onscreen pairing an extra spark and intrigue. This silky noir could be seen as his Vertigo: a moody portrait of doomed love that defies logic but accurately encapsulates the blinding power of obsession.

The Third Man (1949)

Director Carol Reed wanted Welles to play Harry Lime, the dastardly American living in postwar Vienna who everyone assumes is dead, but he worried Welles would say no. “Look,” Reed told him, “the script’s not ready yet, but I’m sure you’ll like it even though you don’t come on until halfway through.” To which Welles replied: “I’d much rather come in two-thirds of the way through.”

And so Welles took on the role that featured his most iconic entrance. Much of The Third Man concerns hack novelist Holly Martins’ (Joseph Cotten) search for answers about his old friend, convinced that his death was no accident — and that it may have been provoked by his ruthless wartime profiteering. Turns out, Harry isn’t dead, which led to Welles’ incredible reveal in the film’s second half. Welles isn’t in The Third Man for many scenes, but he makes his impact felt — he was never a more charismatic villain.

Touch of Evil (1958)

What a hideous figure Hank Quinlan is. As played by Welles, who also wrote and directed this adaptation of the Whit Masterson novel, the corrupt police captain is both physically unappealing and morally bankrupt, a perfect foil for the honorable DEA agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), who’s investigating a murder on his honeymoon. 

Touch of Evil is a brilliantly seedy little noir-thriller, and Welles invests fully in his character’s rottenness, aided by makeup and extra padding. It’s a portrait of evil without any bravado — an attempt on Welles’ part to distance himself from the matinee idol he’d once been. It was also the filmmaker’s stab at returning to Hollywood after years of living abroad in the wake of box-office failures like The Lady From Shanghai.

Unfortunately, a happy reunion was not to be: Universal recut Touch of Evil and backed out of a possible multi-film deal, essentially dumping the film, which would later be hailed as one of his greatest. “I was so sure I was going to go on making a lot of pictures at Universal, when suddenly I was fired from the lot,” Welles recalled. “A terribly traumatic experience. … It was sad for me it turned out that way because I was ready to settle down [back] in America.”

The Trial (1962)

“Say what you like, but The Trial is the best film I have ever made.” That was Welles’ lofty claim when this nervy adaptation of the Franz Kafka novel hit theaters in 1962, and although the filmmaker was known for making sweeping proclamations, this is definitely one of his most surreal and darkly comic efforts.

The Trial stars Anthony Perkins, two years after Psycho, as Josef K., an ordinary man who’s arrested but never told what his crime is. This is a movie about guilt and paranoia, but Welles films it like a nightmare — the off-kilter compositions and the sheer strangeness of the story give it a dream logic that’s stunningly sustained. At worse, you could call The Trial a flashy stylistic exercise, but it also demonstrates that Welles, in his late 40s and far out of favor, was still taking big swings, still proving himself an artist who hadn’t stopped believing in his own talent.

Chimes at Midnight (1966)

There are dozens of Shakespeare adaptations, but it’s possible none was as passionately felt as this one, which borrows from several different Bard works to tell the sad story of Falstaff, the drunken friend of Prince Hal, who is to become king. “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up,” Welles once said, and it’s easy to see why: Chimes at Midnight feels autobiographical, with Welles playing Falstaff as a once-great man who’s lived long enough to watch the world pass him by. 

But the movie’s not just a melancholy lament for wasted potential, as Welles demonstrates what a visionary filmmaker he still is by mounting incredibly visceral battle sequences. Chimes at Midnight would have been a hell of a finale for Welles, but because he never gave up on himself, of course he kept going.

F for Fake (1973)

Welles was asked what exactly F for Fake was supposed to be: Because of its interview footage, perhaps it was a documentary? “No, not a documentary,” he replied, “a new kind of film.”

Long before we became comfortable with the notion of so-called hybrid documentaries — movies that merged fiction and nonfiction — F for Fake was a lark but also deeply serious. Welles had been assigned to supervise an edit of a documentary on Elmyr de Hory, an infamous art forger, but soon the project spiraled out from there, becoming the director’s outlet to ponder the relationship between filmmaking and deception.

Unsurprisingly, this essay film was met with outright hostility from critics and audiences — Welles was too far ahead of his time in terms of this experimental project. “I really thought I was onto something,” he would say later, and he was right: Later generations of filmmakers, like Rian Johnson, would rave about F for Fake’s audacity and honesty.

Paul Masson ads (1978-1981)

It’s a harsh reality that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: Filmmakers and other artists often have to take gigs simply because they need the money. At the time, Welles was judged harshly for becoming a pitchman for Paul Masson wines and champagnes, seemingly debasing himself for a paycheck. In truth, Welles was trying to raise funds for his films, and since Hollywood wasn’t interested, he had to find financing other ways. 

Welles loved the dough — reportedly, he earned annually $500,000, plus residuals — but he hated what he had to do in the spots. As Welles’ cinematographer Gary Graver once recalled, “He’d get a [script] and look at me and say, ‘They’re not gonna have me say this, that this wine is finer than a Stradivarius!’ So he didn’t.” This was also around the time that Welles was doing demeaning films, like performing the voice of a planet-devouring robot in The Transformers: The Movie, just to stay afloat. “I started at the top and have been going downhill ever since,” Welles once lamented.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018)

In 2018, a “new” Orson Welles film was released, a finished version of his abandoned 1970s opus The Other Side of the Wind, assembled by colleagues and friends. In some ways, though, the accompanying documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is even more revealing as it explores that film’s tortuous journey to the big screen. (Welles worked on Other Side for more than a decade in fits and starts.)

In the process, Morgan Neville’s documentary is also a neat summation of what made Welles’ body of work so special. Through archival clips and new interviews with Welles’ associates and family members, newbies can start to grasp why film fans still worship him in all his fascinating, maddening glory — even years after his death, he represents everything that’s eternally youthful and optimistic about the people who decide to devote their lives to making movies, that most unpredictable of art forms. (A key line in They’ll Love Me comes from an old Welles interview, in which he says, “My definition of a film director is ‘the man who presides over accidents.’”)

And if They’ll Love Me hooks you, by all means try Other Side — they’re meant to be companion pieces, and the documentary adds insight into Welles’ transfixing, imperfect “final” film. After all, it wouldn’t be an Orson Welles movie if it wasn’t challenging, a little frustrating but ultimately rewarding.

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