Want to ward off the summertime blockbuster blues—that time in which the only films playing in most theaters are for 15-year-olds? How about rediscovering the films of a master? I put myself on an Orson Welles diet; partly because a local cinema was showing some of his films, and partly because Welles (1915-1985) was one of the first Americans to make the jump from radio to celluloid in ways that took full advantage of film's artistic possibilities. In 1949, the Hungarian-born cinematographer John Alton wrote the first serious treatises on his skill and called film "painting with light." Few have done this better than Welles.
Let's look at Welles's three most famous films: Citizen Kane (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); and Touch of Evil (1958). For the record, some film buffs rank The Third Man (1949) as among Welles' greatest, but Britain's Carol Reed directed that one–at least officially; film legend holds that Welles was the de facto director. Either way, I've restricted myself to film Welles officially directed. Here are some of my views on three films–feel free to chime in with your own thoughts.
Many scholars rate Citizen Kane (RKO, 119 mins.) as the greatest American film ever made. Is it? That's a tricky proposition. Seeing it again reminds me the importance of considering works of art in context and foregoing breezy labels. In its day, it was both path breaking and a downer few wished to see. Citizen Kane bombed at the box office and won a single Oscar (Best Writing). The titular character, Charles Foster Kane, was modeled on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and he was not amused. Hearst papers denounced the film and refused to run ads for it, a major reason for tepid ticket sales. The lesson in this is that the 1% had a long reach back then as well. Ironically, co-star Joseph Cotten–one of the greatest under-rated actors in film history–claims that the script originally planned to parody Howard Hughes, but he was thought too powerful to take on. Kane is a study of Machiavelli's adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We meet Kane as an impoverished Colorado child. A secret benefactor–shades of Great Expectations–leads Kane out of Colorado and into a bourgeois respectability that he initially rejects in favor of becoming a crusading, reforming journalist. As Kane rises higher—to mogul, playboy, to politician, to recluse living in a dream folly called Xanadu–we watch ideals being shed like a dog's summer coat. Kane is ultimately a tale of hubris that raises the question of what is remembered when the final reckoning comes.
How does it stand up? Welles' pseudo-documentary style was revolutionary for its day. So too was the interspersing of fake and real newsreel footage. And maybe German filmmakers were using skewed camera angles, but most Americans pointed the camera straight ahead. Cotten is wonderful as Kane's advisor/best friend/screw-you-Kane sparring partner Jedediah Leland, but it's almost impossible to keep you eyes off of Welles, who undergoes physical as well as moral transformations. Citizen Kane remains a seminal film—one of the finest rise-and-fall portraits imaginable. Greatest film ever? Maybe not given how much has changed in the past 75 years. (My personal vote goes to Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now.) But does the ranking really matter? Citizen Kane is, simply, essential viewing in one's personal cultural education. No excuses—if you've not seen it, you must.
Welles often betrayed his time in terms of gender. Males are the movers and shakers in his films and women generally appear in one of the dreaded "D" roles: delicate, dutiful, domesticated, debauched, or duped. It's one of the reasons why I never warmed to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, RKO, 88 mins.), his follow up to Kane. It too is a study of power, a sprawling multi-generational adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel that traces the extended Amberson/Minafer family from its place as patriarchal Southern aristocrats to a fading afterthought. Tim Holt plays George Amberson Minafer, a spoiled man-child puffed up on privilege, duty, and selfishness. He lords over his mother like a rajah, and plots to keep the widowed Isabel (Dolores Costello) from her true love, Eugene Morgan (Cotten), even though "Georgie" is in love with Morgan's daughter, Lucy (a young Anne Baxter). Why? Because Morgan is "common" and actually works for a living–and because he's vicious and can. Hubris is a major part of this film as well, though Welles was forced to jettison his original tragic ending in favor of a "happy" ending. It's an obvious ands sappy tack-on.
This one is like a black-and-white Norman Rockwell. I liked it better this time, but I fail to see why it's so highly regarded. I also wish Welles, not Holt, had played Georgie. I found Holt too petulant and lacking in the edge Welles would have brought. Baxter and Cotton are the liveliest things in the film. I liked Baxter's spunkiness, but the rest of the female roles—especially Agnes Moorehead's histrionic performance–just felt too dated.
Many have said that Touch of Evil (1958, Universal, 95 mins.) is better than Citizen Kane. I'd be tempted to agree except I'm a bit too modern to stomach Charlton Heston as a Mexican, Janet Leigh as one of the most clueless women who ever opened a forbidden door, or the over-the-top performance of Dennis Weaver as a browbeaten motel night manager. It's a murder mystery that takes place on both sides of the Mexico/Texas border. Heston is Miguel "Mike" Vargas (!), a Mexican drug enforcement officer who thinks Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) might be railroading a young Mexican lad for a bombing he didn't commit. Quinlan is, however, a border legend absolutely worshiped by associates like his partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). The film is a power struggle/morality play between Vargas and Quinlan, with "truth" playing an ambiguous role, and Leigh a decorative and imperiled one.
Despite shortcomings of the casting, Touch of Evil is film noir at its absolute best. The Shadow couldn't do shadows as well as Welles did them and the weird angles, dancing light, and ominous press of the darkness in the film's pivotal scene has seldom been matched. It's so impressive you could turn off the sound and still be dazzled. Two other reasons to watch Touch of Evil: Marlene Dietrich's cameo turn as a world-weary madam who understands Quinlan better than he knows himself; and Welles' stunning portrayal of Quinlan. Watch this and then check out The Heat of the Night (1967) in which Rod Steiger reached back in time 9 years and simply stole Welles' performance.