In praise of two compromised Orson Welles films, still vital and almost joyful in their imposed messiness.
It took a certain amount of chutzpah—alongside sheer genius—for a 25-year-old to devise one of the most revolutionary Hollywood films ever made. Citizen Kane’s formal innovations—deep-focus cinematography, camera angles, sound design, and a narrative constructed entirely from flashbacks—perfectly matched its thematic concerns of power, lost innocence, and myth-making (both personal and societal). Such integration between form and content is arguably still unprecedented in a Hollywood picture. While perhaps not as revered by younger cinephiles compared to those who re-discoverered it in the 1950s and ’60s, in my view, it remains an astonishing and modern piece of work.
Post-Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s 1940s films are a case-study in “what ifs.” Yet the “what if” nature of his career does not necessarily prove the standard narrative account of Welles as a filmmaker of precocious greatness followed by relentless failure. Failure is simply a mischaracterisation of his later career. Sure, Citizen Kane is presented as almost untainted, the product of a studio not having any idea of what it had funded, and so it is commonly held up as a rare example of Welles’s vision uncorrupted. And there is certainly enough to suggest in The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, and The Lady from Shanghai that if his visions had been supported by a more risk-taking studio, he would have produced something ‘objectively’ resembling another masterpiece. Welles confessed to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1958 that most of his films were “violently” taken out of his hands, so it’s clear Welles himself doesn’t consider them perfect end-products. But Citizen Kane itself was compromised. While it was done cheaply and on the fly, it was still a financial flop, and William Randolph Hearst’s pursuit of Welles (whose film was a thinly veiled account of the media magnate) made RKO wary of publicising it.
Welles’s subsequent films were subject to more scrutiny from the various studios—surprising that they even bothered with him in the first place—and the severe compromises imposed by baffled studio bosses ensured that they were left with noticable flaws. But they’re still extremely vital, almost joyful in their imposed messiness. The way Welles inextricably linked content and form in each film he made (oh, to see some of his suppressed ‘incomplete’ later works) meant that he was never going to make a bunch of Citizen Kanes. In other words, each film carries its own self-contained Wellesian imprint, to the extent that Citizen Kane is simply an example, rather than a culmination, of his career. Welles’s genius is clearly evidenced in The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948), two adjacent films recently presented by the Wellington Film Society (the latter as a 4K restoration at the New Zealand International Film Festival). Side by side, they suggest that the compromises, and the what-might-have-beens, make them even more intriguing than what was originally intended.
Welles got to those films via his second directorial effort, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). It is a rare example of a Welles film that legitimately references its source material: the Pulitzer Prize winning Booth Tarkington novel of the collapse of a high society family, a decline which takes place during the shift by rich families to the suburbs (in part brought about by the invention of cars). Other films, including A Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai, were based on novels Welles couldn’t be bothered reading. The studio, fearful of the scathing account of small-town America just as the country’s involvement in World War Two had begun, lopped off nearly an hour from the film and destroyed the rushes. The studio also tacked on a happy ending, all while Welles was shooting a documentary in Brazil. What remains, however, is more than enough of a hint of Welles’s genius: the lighting and sound design push the Citizen Kane experimentation even further (Welles is arguably the first master of film sound), its themes of nostalgia and obsession with a “golden era” heightened by Welles’s novel techniques. His next planned film was dumped by the studio, unsure what to do with this iconoclast.
It wasn’t until 1946 that he made The Stranger. Welles regarded it as his worst film, and its plot is nothing short of ludicrous: a vicious Nazi ends up in small-town Connecticut, passes as a beloved history teacher under the name of Mr. Taylor, and gets married to the daughter of a Supreme Court judge (Loretta Young), only for his past to catch up with him. Welles believed that the United States was at risk from fleeing Nazis, especially given that the industrial killing by the Nazis was an unprecedented low in humanity. The film has a rare kind of paranoia: of the town itself, provincial WASP New England and its fear of the outsider, and of its characters, individuals pursued by the demons of their past. The unstable tenor of the film matches the unstable post-war environment in which it was made.
Welles was also given a very short leash by the studio, and was personally liable if the film went over budget—a personal investment that adds to the strange tone, as if Welles was himself fearful of getting caught short. Despite this, The Stranger was a box office success, surprising in some respects given how chaotic it is. It was Welles’s only box office success as a director, and yet it’s hardly a typical film: the chiaroscuro lighting, the twisted angles, and the skewed use of lines in shot composition nudge the film as close to German Expressionism as Hollywood did at the time. (Austrian-Hungarian and German émigrés, Michael Curtiz and Billy Wilder—the latter whose accounts of the concentration camps appear in The Stranger—come close in feel in their direction of noir classics Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity, respectively). Welles, who was heavily influenced by German Expressionism, uses the technique to heighten tension; it allows him to meddle with tone to such an extent that despite the melodramatic nature of the plot, the film is quite unsettling in its realism. You can see traces of this tone in future classics: the visual camaraderie between the clock-tower and steeple in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or even the strained interplay between suburban life and characters trying to re-write their past in Mad Men. (Mad Men is more expressionistic—and Wellesian—than anything on television.)
Welles was given a slightly longer leash by Columbia to make The Lady from Shanghai, and he took advantage of this freedom to deliver as many ‘screw you’ moments as he could fit in. The plot aggressively twists and turns, not all that difficult to grasp by viewers used to sudden tonal shifts in contemporary cinema and television, but which would have been hard to fathom by audiences unused to such narrative approaches. The film indeed barely hangs together tonally. Bravura set-pieces such as the courtroom scene, the aquarium scene, and the pursuit in Chinatown all have completely different tones, and only hang together via the overall tension of the narrative. Welles’s characterisation and use of stars is also intriguingly unrepentant, whether it’s the slimy husband played by Everett Sloane (disabled, but not), his own naïve/world-weary lead (complete with a half-arsed Irish accent), or his sabotaging of (ex-wife) Rita Hayworth’s appearance (reportedly infuriating the studio) by cutting and dyeing her iconic red hair blonde, and also casting her as a depraved sociopath. His planned Grand Guignol finale, set in a room of mirrors within an abandoned amusement park, was originally intended to last 20 minutes, but was excised to a few minutes in the final product.
The destruction of Welles’s planned conclusion was part of the reason why the release was delayed for over a year. Moreover, the studio had no idea what to do with the edit of the film, and refused to accept Welles’s version. Columbia boss Harry Cohn apparently offered a reward to anybody who could explain the film to him, and Welles had evidently confused the studio with the gnarly plot, the then-relatively unusual approach of shooting on location, and the jarring use of light and sunshine to tell a noir story. And yet despite the studio’s amendments, the editing in The Lady from Shanghai is remarkable. It works because the studio had no idea how to put the film together. The ‘makeshift’ editing creates a Dreyer-like texture, the match-cuts don’t match (Welles was working towards long takes anyway), and classical Hollywood rules are broken by the lack of continuity. The ultimate effect is complete disorientation, explaining in some respects why the film tanked upon release, but which perfectly matches the journey of Welles’s protagonist and his inability to comprehend the things happening to him.
Both The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai are also purely enjoyable. Welles’s ability to tell a good yarn around the experimentation means that his films are held together by a certain kind of logic. He expanded narrative (dis)continuity even further with his next film, the 1948 adaptation of Macbeth, which helped draw a temporary end to his career in Hollywood. For all of the supposed shortcomings and compromises, Welles achieved a rare feat with The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai: he mixed formal experimentation, experimentation that still feels fresh and alive today, alongside compelling storytelling, and in the process confounded the studios who, truth be told, had no idea. Even if these films are still regarded as ‘lesser’ works—especially by those who argue that Citizen Kane and A Touch of Evil are the be-all and end-all of Welles’s oeuvre—I’ll take a compromised Welles over an uncompromised contemporary of the master director any day.