The great filmmaker Orson Welles was born on this day back in 1915. Yes, I gave him the day last year but my only other choice was Sigmund Freud who I am deeply divided about. Of course, in some ways I’m divided about Welles too. This is why I think of him more and more as a filmmaking innovator. He was always—to the very end—looking for new and better ways to tell stories. So it is probably better to think of all his films as experiments.
A constant complaint about Welles is that he left a lot of films unfinished. That strikes me as a very unfair criticism. He left unfinished films because of the way his films were made. Since they were mostly self-financed and made over time, he left unfinished work in the same way that most writers leave unfinished work. I think that’s a testament to him. We should applaud it. What’s more surprising is that Welles managed to finish as many films as he did.
And look at the films where he had major Hollywood support. They include three of the finest films ever made: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil. And you could probably add The Lady from Shanghai to that, and that is with the mangling of the film by Harry Cohn.
But it’s really his independent films that I most love. It’s interesting how critics of the time had mostly just written off Welles. When his filmed version of Macbeth came out, everyone said it was all wrong and proclaimed that Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet was the way they ought to do Shakespeare on film. Well, Macbeth isn’t a great film. But I still find it more compelling than Hamlet, which I’ve always found too reverential. And Macbeth led to another great film five years later: Othello. Regardless of what the critics said at the time, Othello showed how Shakespeare would be done on screen. The film is still amazingly powerful.
This really was the high point of Welles’ career. After Othello came: Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, The Trial, and Chimes at Midnight. The first and third of these are especially unrated. I kind of understand that with regard to Mr. Arkadin, because it isn’t all that polished and most people would rather have polished crap than rough brilliance. But I don’t understand why people are somewhat cool to The Trial. It’s a perfect film. But maybe the problem isn’t Welles but rather Kafka.
In the last years when Welles was not able to get much released, he created what is a whole new kind of film, F for Fake. I think of it as a cinematic essay. It’s just great. I watch it at least once per year.
Here is a nice montage of his major films (strangely with the theme from The Third Man in the background):
Happy birthday Orson Welles!