Orson Welles: Magician, radical and ham

With “Orson Welles at 100” the Northwest Film Center celebrates the great actor/director during the next three weeks


Orson Welles was known as many different things during his 70 years on Earth: boy genius, drunken has-been, radio superstar, theatrical innovator, handsome leading man, grotesque character actor, and, of course, cinematic genius, to name but a few. In fact, it might be easier to name the things he was never known as: compromising, lazy, shy, or small—in any sense of the word.

Welles would have turned 100 this year, and Portland’s Northwest Film Center is throwing a three-week birthday party for the man voted the greatest film director of all time by a British Film Institute poll in 2002. (It’s safe to say no one has emerged in the last thirteen years to challenge him for the title). “Orson Welles at 100” assembles 17 films Welles either acted in or directed and one documentary about him (all beginning with “Citizen Kane” on Saturday, December 12), to offer a panoramic view of one of the most (literally) mercurial careers in American cinema.

Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil." Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil.” Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

Of all the descriptors used on Welles, though, it seems to me that there are three primary Orsons, one of which dominates each of his films, though all three are present to some degree in everything he did: The Magician, The Radical, and The Ham.

Orson the Magician

The first of these is stolen from the title of Chuck Workman’s documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles,” which screens as part of the series on January 2. (I would have programmed it at the beginning of the retrospective, as a primer, but it’s available on disc and digitally for those coming fresh to Welles and needing a head start at home.) From the earliest surviving film footage he shot—a surrealist short called “The Hearts of Age,” clips of which appear in “Magician”—Welles was obsessed with the trickery and illusion possible, even inherent, in moviemaking.

Of course, many of the things that made “Citizen Kane” so revolutionary were visual tricks, whether derived from camera movement (through the glass ceiling of the El Rancho restaurant), editing (covering a span of years in the ellipsis of “Merry Christmas…and a Happy New Year!), and set design (using matte paintings to represent enormous rooms). The biggest scam Welles pulls, though, in his breakthrough first feature, is on the audience. His storytelling is so effective that few viewers realize that, in the opening scene, Kane’s nurse doesn’t enter the room until after he utters “Rosebud” and dies, making it impossible for anyone, much less a newspaper reporter, to know the man’s final word.

Orson Welles in "Macbeth." Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

Orson Welles in “Macbeth.” Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

The film that most overtly plays up Welles’ prestidigitatory inclinations is his last great one, 1973’s “F for Fake.” Positioned as a non-fictional tour of hoaxes and scams, it plays fast and loose enough with truth itself to be considered maybe the first mockumentary. But the seeds of that meta-fictional fun were planted much earlier. In “Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “Mr. Arkadin,” the stories are presented by narrators or as fictionalized documentaries. And, returning to visual sorcery, the hall-of-mirrors shootout at the climax of “The Lady from Shanghai” is one of the more dazzling pieces of sleight-of-hand ever committed to film.

Welles the Radical

Orson Welles wasn’t just an artistic revolutionary—he was very nearly a political one as well. Maybe it was the timing: the decade of Welles’ birth marked a high point for socialism in the United States. When he was a year old, the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 40 miles from his birthplace, elected its second socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan, whose 24 years in office rank as the longest continuous socialist administration in the nation’s history. Though he came from privilege (his father got rich by inventing a bicycle lamp), Welles’ childhood was turbulent. His mother died when he was nine, followed by his father six years later. His life can serve as both an advertisement and a cautionary tale for the indulgence and subsequent abandonment of a precocious child.

This background certainly helped to foster in Welles an empathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed, a quality which emerged in his theatrical output under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration that employed actors and other creatives during the Great Depression. His all-black staging of “Macbeth” (when he was twenty!) drew raves, but his abortive attempt at realizing Marc Blitzstein’s allegorical pro-union operetta “Cradle Will Rock” led to his split from the FTP and the creation of the Mercury Theatre, with which he directed a notable, anti-fascist rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

Orson Welles and Loretta Young in "The Stranger". Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

Orson Welles and Loretta Young in “The Stranger”. Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

Moving to cinema, he famously took on right-wing media mogul William Randolph Hearst by basing the character of Charles Foster Kane on him. Welles’ liberal leanings are equally evident in many of his later directorial efforts. “The Stranger,” released in 1946, was one of the first films to confront the reality that many high-ranking Nazis had survived and fled Europe at the conclusion of World War II. “Touch of Evil” uses its highly entertaining thriller plot and Welles’ massive, iconic performance, to touch on eternal truths about the corrupting nature of power. 1942’s “Journey Into Fear,” which Welles claimed not to have directed despite rumors to the contrary, is a B-movie spy thriller, but its villains are Nazi fascists, so we’ll put it in this category, too. And you can’t really make a movie of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” (as Welles did in 1963) without having a healthy anti-authoritarian streak.

The most politically radical film Welles ever made (or at least almost made) was “It’s All True,” the wartime project he was assigned as part of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy towards Latin America. Another of Welles’ quasi-documentary projects, it focused in part on a group of impoverished Brazilian fishermen trying to draw attention to their economic exploitation. It was never finished, and the surviving materials were eventually incorporated into a 1993 documentary, which is probably the Film Center series’ most notable omission.

Welles the Ham

With all the talk of artistic genius and cultural importance that constantly swirls about our idea of Welles, it’s crucial to remember that none of his accomplishments would have penetrated our collective consciousness so thoroughly if he had not also been a fantastic entertainer. From his earliest schoolboy days, he clearly sought and thrived on the attention of audiences, and it’s his ability to combine the Hollywood commandment to entertain with the artist’s internal compulsion to innovate that made him perfectly suited for the movies.

During the years following his virtual exile from the director’s chair, Welles often acted in films as a way to make money for his own independent productions. But it seems evident that, most of the time, at least, he also enjoyed playing to the camera. Like everything else in his life, he never acted halfway. Whether brooding on the English moors as Rochester in “Jane Eyre” or prowling in a courtroom as a defense attorney in “Compulsion,” Welles seemingly can’t help but hog the screen. He’s the most vivid memory most people have of the classic post-war thriller “The Third Man,” despite being on screen for less than fifteen minutes.

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles as Falstaff in "Chimes of Midnight." Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles as Falstaff in “Chimes of Midnight.” Courtesy of the Northwest Film Center

Even in something as hackneyed as the low-budget “Black Magic,” from 1949, he never condescends to the material. (This may be less true of some of his later, cameo-style appearances, not to mention his sideline as a Paul Masson pitchman, but happily we’re not forced to contend with Welles the Cynic in this series.)

And then there are the Shakespeare films. In the 1930s, his stage productions of the Bard made him a star. In succeeding decades, he would continue to wrangle with the only collaborator he ever considered his superior, directing himself as “Macbeth” in the ‘40s, “Othello” in the ‘50s, and Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight” in the ‘60s. (He also played “King Lear” in a Peter Brook production televised in 1953.) These films capture hamminess raised to the level of high art—and that’s not meant as a dig. Only someone with an adamantine self-confidence and a take-no-prisoners approach to acting could bring these outsized, tragic figures to life the way Welles did. Only someone with an appreciation for his own genius would truncate, manipulate, and reconfigure Shakespeare’s texts as willingly as Welles did. All three are masterpieces, and some critics consider “Chimes” to be Welles’ crowning triumph.


All that said, why bother going downtown during the busy holiday season to watch movies you can, in many cases, just as easily catch on the flat-screen at home? That’s the eternal question in the days of discs and downloads.

The eternal answer is two-fold: one, unless you’re in Phil Knight’s tax bracket, your screen still isn’t as big as the one at the Whitsell Auditorium; and two, if you’re going to watch an Orson Welles film, turn off your damn phone and do it. No one should be interrupted by a text or a doorbell or anything else during the opening shot of “Touch of Evil.” No one.

Orson Welles in "Lady from Shanghai." Courtesy of Northwest Film Center

Orson Welles in “Lady from Shanghai.” Courtesy of Northwest Film Center

Still, it’s overly ambitious to expect to see every film in the series. Assuming you’ve seen “Kane” and “Ambersons” (and if you haven’t, they are must-sees), these are the five others most worth making the effort to catch:

  1. “Chimes at Midnight” has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S., you can’t stream or download it legally, and any bootleg version you could find will be in terrible condition. That will likely change next year, as Janus Films has recently completed a digital restoration of the film, which is scheduled to open in New York City on January 1. That restoration will screen at the Film Center the very next day. Don’t miss it.
  2. “Othello” is another Welles-Shakespeare combo that existed in bastardized, ragged versions prior to its 1992 reconstruction, supervised by Welles’ daughter. A new restoration of that reconstruction will screen on December 20.
  3. “Compulsion” contains one of Welles’ most under-heralded acting jobs, as the attorney defending a pair of thrill-seeking killers loosely based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb case. Another new digital restoration, this widescreen, 20th Century Fox production should look grand on the big screen.
  4. “Lady from Shanghai” is both a twisty, film noir thriller and a fascinating lens through which to view the relationship between Welles and leading lady Rita Hayworth, who were ex-spouses by the time this was made.
  5. “Touch of Evil” demands to be seen in a theater, not only for the famous opening shot, but also so that the aura of seedy menace and corrupted nobility that oozes out of the pores of Welles’ Hank Quinlan can fully permeate your soul.

For me, there’s a sixth as well. The final film in the series is 1968’s “The Immortal Story,” Welles’ first color film after more than 25 years as a director. It co-stars Jeanne Moreau, and it’s the only one I haven’t seen before. I could watch it today—it’s available on Hulu. But you can’t see a film for the first time twice, so I’ve got my calendar marked for January 3rd. There are a million worse ways to kick off a new year.


“Orson Welles at 100” runs from Dec. 12 through Jan. 4. All screenings are at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.

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