The cinema’s revolutionary

A still from "The Third Man"
A still from “The Third Man”
As the Orson Welles’ centennial tribute season at BFI Southbank starts in a few days (and not to mention the cover of this month’s Sight and Sound), and “The Third Man” has been on all June (and will continue in July), which I am preparing to see for the ninth time, in the last couple of days I found myself thinking about both the man and what he left behind.

George Orson Welles was born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. After troubled childhood, in 1931 Orson was awarded a scholarship for Harvard University, which he declined and went travelling.  At the Art Institute of Chicago he studied briefly with Boris Anisfeld, a Russian-American painter and theatre designer, who encouraged him to pursue a painting career. He made his first theatre debut in Dublin that same year playing the Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg in an adaptation of Jew Suss. He continued his theatre career after returning to U.S., playing in Macbeth in 1936, Faustus in 1937, The Cradle Will Rock that same year, and many more.

In mid-thirties he started simultaneously pursuing two careers, theatre and radio, where in the latter his individuality and character came to the spotlight. For the radio he did all the work and in most cases completely without the credit! Nevertheless, he remained very popular in the business with adaptations of Les Misérables in 1937, The War of The Worlds in 1938 (which allegedly caused a mass panic at the time), The Campbell Playhouse and many more.

After rejecting him twice, Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures agreed to produce his first ever feature film, later to be one of the biggest cinematic masterpieces of all time, “Citizen Kane”, which Welles co-written and directed, while also performing the lead role. The film was nominated for nine Oscars, while winning only for Best Original Screenplay, written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles. In case your film library is incomplete and you need a time machine to remember it, visit BFI on Friday 03 July at 18:15 to recall this masterpiece.

I am positive that there isn’t a movie list in the world that doesn’t contain it…It is justified for so many reasons and on so many levels that this space I have here is insufficient to further elaborate. 

Of course, “Citizen Kane” was just the beginning of soon to be a very memorable career. In 1946 came “The Stranger” and Welles’ importance of long sequences. A year after Welles made “The Lady from Shanghai” known for its catchy storytelling. In 1952 he turned to Shakespeare and made “Othello” which later won the Palme d’Or. His brilliance became evident in 1958 with “Touch of Evil”, one of the finest examples of film noirs and Orson’s last feature film made in Hollywood. Regarded often as one of the Welles’ best films, “Touch of Evil” will be mostly remembered for the controversy of shooting, famous Welles’ rough-cuts and the film’s very long opening sequence/3.20 s tracking shot (a 1998 re-edit of “Touch of Evil” will be at BFI Southbank as well). 4 years later he made “The Trial”, based on Franz Kafka’s novel, for which he famously said is the best film he has ever made.

Welles loved to dip his fingers everywhere, even in other directors’ work. He played in more films than he directed. Going back to the beginning of this post, in 1949 Carol Reed made probably one of the best decisions when picking him for a very short but unforgettable role in yet another cinematic masterpiece, “The Third Man” aka one of my favourite film noirs of all time. Its beauty lies in the power of Robert Krasker’s expressionist cinematography. But also in its amazing music score and Welles’ performance. “The Third Man” won an Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography, Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and the British Academy Award for Best Film. Go to BFI Southbank and catch one of the July screenings, even if you’re like me and you’ve seen it so many times that you lost count… 

Also, don’t miss “Too Much Johnson” on Wednesday 08 July 2015 at 20:30, the recently discovered unfinished and unedited silent comedy film he shot when he was 23, which, allegedly, he wanted to use in a live stage play. 

Orson Welles programme – BFI Southbank 

Would it be fair to say he’s more historically and culturally important than any other film director? Can we actually say and pick what was the most important thing he brought to the film industry? Or will that go far beyond the film industry… 

Let’s see what my local (and not so local) movie gurus have to say.”

“With Citizen Kane everything is crystal clear, I’m not sure whether a more complete film exists elsewhere”, a rather serious-looking fellow with spectacles and smart shirt started typing to me. “He showed us that in the mainstream film you can seriously consider the pictures and the cinematography. You can make them the weapon that carries the story. On the other hand he proved that a mainstream movie can be also seen through the eyes of the auteur. However, if he hadn’t do it in those couple of years, someone else would show up and do it instead.”

So, can we actually consider that Welles stole someone’s thunder?

“In order to efficiently understand him, his work and his legacy you need pick carefully certain time frame, technology challenges in that time frame and not compare him with any other director”, screamed the blondie at the table opposite of me. “The minute you start with the ‘comparison game’ you lose the essence. No, not a single director nowadays is even close to bring reality to our screens the way he did it. Especially baring in mind all the s*it that is happening around us at the moment, it is quite remarkable none of them is inspired to do so the way he did it.”

I wonder, does that make him the biggest movie influencer of all time?

“No”, sighed the blue-eyed man. “The problem you, and the rest of us have is that you cannot compare it. It would be too easy. Yes, he was highly innovative, a very special film director who knew why and how to tackle certain issues. Yes, he completely revolutionised theatre, radio and cinema, and yes, he stands behind one the best films ever made, but I cannot label him as the greatest in that respect.” Wishing I was dead at this point, I asked for an elaboration. He politely added that he “has to take the decades and the European film directors of that time into the picture. All of them dealt with several issues on different ways. It’s your character that defines where you will ‘go’. I personally will always ‘hug’ Billy Wilder. Why? The depth. You might go the other way…”

Character or not, emotions or not, innovations or not, Orson Welles is undoubtedly one the cinema’s biggest magicians. We can only hope to have an opportunity to see some similarly important work from film directors from the current film scene. If not, luckily we can always go back to the images from Welles, Wilder, Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni…

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