Rotten Tomatoes for Orson Welles

I recently wrote that I am not a worshiper of artists. But when I looked at how Orson Welles’ films have been rated over at Rotten Tomatoes, I was shocked. Here they are in chronological order, followed by their rating in parentheses:

1941 Citizen Kane (100%)
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons (96%)
1946 The Stranger (95%)
1947 The Lady from Shanghai (85%)
1948 Macbeth (86%)
1952 Othello (90%)
1955 Mr. Arkadin (83%)
1958 Touch of Evil (95%)
1962 The Trial (88%)
1965 Chimes at Midnight (92%)
1974 F for Fake (88%)

Some of these ratings I quite agree with. One can hardly argue with Citizen Kane, a movie that is quite good on so many levels. But The Stranger gets 95%?! It is by far the worst film Welles ever directed—his attempt to make nice with the studio system. It is a good example of what happens to artists who get too political (e.g. Picasso’s WWII posters): it is a perfectly workmanlike film. Sure, it’s about as good as anyone else’s work at that time. And that’s the problem.

I will put them in the order I think they deserve. I reserve the right to change my mind at any time.

1974 F for Fake (88%)
1962 The Trial (88%)
1955 Mr. Arkadin (83%)
1958 Touch of Evil (95%)
1941 Citizen Kane (100%)
1965 Chimes at Midnight (92%)
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons (96%)
1952 Othello (90%)
1948 Macbeth (86%)
1947 The Lady from Shanghai (85%)
1946 The Stranger (95%)

Yes, F for Fake is my favorite of Welles’ films. It is not only a great film, it was a totally new kind of film that no one has picked up on to this day. It is not a documentary. It is a filmed personal essay. In a time when the written personal essay is coming back in a big way, I don’t see why filmmakers haven’t picked up on it. Unless it is like Mozart’s music: it’s a lot harder than Welles makes it look.

The Trial is quite simply a perfect film. I cannot imagine how anyone will ever be able to better translate Kafka’s nightmare to the screen. It is disturbing, of course. What do you expect? Welles said that it was his favorite movie, not that it matters. He also said this about Chimes at Midnight.

Most Welles fans will find it surprising, my placement of Mr. Arkadin so high on the list. But unless you have seen the Corith or Comprehensive versions, you really haven’t seen the film. Every time I watch it, I perceive it differently. It is always and forever an exciting experience.

Ah, Touch of Evil. “You wanna go check it out? Watch Charlton Heston play a Mexican?” What could be better? Perhaps, Marlene Dietrich saying, “He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?” Or Welles telling her, “It’s either the candy or the hooch. I must say, I wish it was your chili I was getting fat on. Anyway, you’re sure looking good.” And there’s that whole business of the three and a half minute tracking shot that takes us from the US across the border to Mexico. And there’s just about everything in the film. Yeah, it is totally genre. Totally great.

Yeah, yeah. Citizen Kane. The greatest film of all time. Whatever. It is a great film. I’ve seen it 20 times. It does not age as well as Mr. Arkadin.

I’ve already talked about Chimes at Midnight. Welles was the first director to figure out how to do Shakespeare on screen. Step one, cut That Bard savagely… Note, this film is badly in need of restoration, so if anyone has a million dollars lying around…

The Magnificent Ambersons is a stunning movie. But imagine if someone took a razor and cut the face out of the Mona Lisa. Now you have an idea of what’s going on in this film. The studio took it away from Welles, cut the hell out of the last act, and pasted a happy ending on it that looks like it comes from another film. It is painful to watch. I haven’t been able to face it for years.

Othello is great for reasons I discussed previously. I watched again last night, and it is so good. Most of Shakespeare moves very slowly, but this moves right along. It shows how easy it is to make a great film if you are a great filmmaker.

Macbeth is quite good, helped in large part by being what I consider to be Shakespeare’s best play as well as Welles’ expanded use of the witches. The film is clearly shot on a budget. The sets are limited and it has a claustrophobic feel that is absent from just about everything else he ever did. But it is good and consistent.

The Lady from Shanghai is what most people think of when they think of Welles: flashes of brilliance in a film you just can’t follow. But really, in 1948, who ever did anything close to this great:

Which brings us back The Stranger, which is not a bad film, just nothing I ever want to see again. That in itself is a testament to Welles: his worst film is a totally professional, studio picture. Frankly, until I got this list and started working on it, I didn’t realize just how much I respected this great artist. It’s too bad all those millions are being used to restore his films now rather than being used to fund them then.

Update (7 August 2013 7:15 pm)

I am getting so tired of film clips being removed from YouTube. Before, I had the whole hall of mirrors scene from The Lady from Shanghai. Now all I can find is the meat of it above. I think film owners are making a big mistake by clamping down on this stuff. Articles like this make people rent and buy the films. Regardless, any film from 1948 should now be in the public domain. This is all out of hand.

3 thoughts on “Rotten Tomatoes for Orson Welles

  1. You definitely not a worshiper of artists, but, of a few, you ARE their biggest fan.

    On a side note: worshiper is a weird looking word. Shouldn’t it be spelled worshipper? Someone should tell the conservatives that English is a difficult language and to give the non-native speakers a break. English is a non-intuitive, arbitrary hodgepodge of sounds and letters.

  2. That’s just not true. There are much bigger Welles fans. But writing this did show me how much I do like him.

    As for spelling, if Shaw couldn’t reform the system, what hope is there for us? You are right, however: most people who want "English only" know only one language. To me, it’s a prison, but if you’ve only ever lived in a prison, it is hard to see that.

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