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10 Triumphs of Orson Welles

by Edward Benjamin
fact checked by Alex Hanton

There’s no doubt that Orson Welles didn’t have an easy time career-wise. The multi-talented actor, writer, and director had a moment of incandescent success in the 1930s and early 1940s, but after that his life was a long struggle to continue his often uncompromising work. As a result, most recent assessments of Welles tend to concentrate on those struggles and, quite often, his failures. What gets lost along the way is the fact that Welles probably had more artistic triumphs to his name than any other American artist of the 20th century – and not just in the realm of cinema. Here are ten of them.


Citizen Kane

It’s admittedly become a cliché, but no list of Welles’ triumphs is complete without his greatest. Whether it’s the best film ever made will always be a somewhat subjective question, but no one can argue that Citizen Kane is not the most influential film ever made. After a long interregnum following the coming of sound, it put the director back at the center of film-making, and inspired everyone from François Truffaut to Steven Spielberg to make films that expressed – for better or worse – a personal, authorial vision.

At the same time, watching the film today forces you to admit – putting all the hype aside – just how good it actually is. Bringing together all the techniques of cinema developed over the half-century the art form had existed, it exploits all the possibilities of writing, directing, cinematography, and editing to the fullest, using cinema’s unique ability to manipulate time in order to tell a story that is both nonlinear and propelled with a seemingly relentless momentum toward its legendary twist ending.

But one factor that often gets lost in discussion of the film is Welles’ own extraordinary lead performance. Aging from matinée idol looks to decrepit old age over the course of the story, Welles’ Kane is one of the most difficult characters ever put on screen – simultaneously sympathetic and despicable. For a 25 year-old actor who was also tasked with writing and directing at the same time, it’s simply a tour-de-force performance.


War of the Worlds
War Of The Worlds Radio Broadcast Part 1

This one is equally legendary, and for good reason. While Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ seminal tale of interstellar invasion may not have caused quite the national panic the newspapers of the day reported, it remains a startlingly original use of dramatic radio to manipulate the audience’s emotions and fears.

As in Kane, Welles exploited the potentialities of his medium to the fullest. Employing the clichés and familiar structure of radio news reports, Welles draws his audience in and then scares the living hell out of them, even going so far as to employ the dreaded “dead air” in order to telegraph the annihilation of New York City to an audience that by then must have been trembling next to their Philcos.

Welles joked later that everyone else who tried the same trick went to jail as a result, while he went to Hollywood. His impish sense of humor hinted that he had gotten the worst of it. Nonetheless, it is true that thanks to War of the Worlds, Welles went to Hollywood – and not just that, but he also got the most famously generous contract ever awarded a filmmaker. Listening to the broadcast now, that seemingly inexplicable concession starts to make a lot more sense.


Around the World in 80 Days
Orson Welles “Around the World in 80 Days” Cole Porter Broadway Cast Live Radio

This is one of Welles’ lesser-known works, and while it was a box-office disaster, wiping out Welles financially for years, this adaptation of Jules Verne’s beloved fantasy as a spectacular stage musical – with songs by the legendary Cole Porter – was praised by many of his colleagues as a typically ambitious artistic triumph.

It was never filmed, but contemporary reports describe it as quintessentially Wellesian, jumping across time and space in moments, with locations and characters appearing and disappearing as seamlessly as they do in cinema. Most famously, the equally legendary German playwright Bertolt Brecht said it was the greatest piece of theater he’d ever seen.


Harry Lime in The Third Man
The Third Man – Lime’s Introduction

Another heavily-hyped triumph that lives up to its billing. Deep in the hole financially with the aforementioned Around the World in 80 Days, Welles accepted this seemingly minor role as a Viennese black marketeer in Carol Reed’s The Third Man purely for the money, and somehow turned it into one of the most celebrated performances in cinema history.

On screen for barely ten minutes, Welles’s Harry Lime is a testimony to his extraordinary charisma as an actor. His introduction is justly considered a classic – his face illuminated by a sudden shaft of light into a Vienna doorway, Welles responds with an impish smile that manages to convey his entire character in a matter of seconds without a single line of dialogue. Equally celebrated is Lime’s “cuckoo-clock” speech (the final lines of which were written by Welles himself) in which his character conveys his amoral world-view so convincingly that you’re almost persuaded of it yourself.

Welles was self-deprecating about the role in later years, saying that whenever a character is talked about constantly for an hour, when he finally appears whoever plays him is bound to be celebrated no matter how bad he is; but no one who watches the film can deny just how much Welles’ underrated gift for subtlety and manipulation makes Lime an unforgettable character.


Donovan’s Brain
Donovan’s Brain Trailer 1953

Everyone worships realism these days, but more theatrical styles of acting have a long and distinguished pedigree, and there’s no doubt that Welles’ had an unapologetic gift for melodrama. This radio play, produced for the hit series Suspense, features Welles at his most gloriously over-the-top.

Playing a ruthless scientist whose mind is slowly taken over by a disembodied brain he has kept alive in a jar, Welles simply devours all the scenery in sight, delivering an unforgettably manic performance in which his voice and manner sometimes change from line to line and even word to word.

It seems all the more extraordinary when you consider that it was probably just another gig in between what Welles considered bigger and better things. Indeed, at one point Welles obviously forgets his lines, struggles for a second to get back on script, and then barrels ahead without missing a beat. Welles may have given more subtle and realistic performances, but none of them are this much fun.


Video SparkNotes: Shakespeare’s Othello summary

This is the first of several Shakespeare adaptations on this list, and critics and audiences often have mixed feelings about it. Some think its the greatest Shakespeare adaptation ever filmed, while others think its a mess bordering on incoherence.

Nonetheless, it’s a triumph just for getting made at all. In 1949, Welles had the backing to make a big costume epic out of Shakespeare’s Othello, and had just arrived on location in Venice when his financiers pulled out. Undeterred, he shot the film with his own money in between other gigs over the course of two years, somehow managing to keep cast and crew together while grabbing shots in Venice and Morocco whenever he could.

When it was finally finished in 1952, the film was often disjointed and jarring as a result, yet Othello met with not inconsiderable success, winning the Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival and a future reputation as one of Welles’ most daring adaptations of Shakespeare. It was also one of the first truly independent films of the sound era, and stands as another case of Welles being ahead of his time not only in terms of technique, but in the entire method of making films in a difficult but genuinely uncompromising fashion.


The “Black” Macbeth
Orson Welles’ “Voodoo” Macbeth

Welles himself called this the greatest triumph of his career; and it came early. He was barely 20 years-old when the New Deal’s WPA put Welles in charge of a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth featuring an African-American cast.

The WPA’s intention was simply to give employment to black actors out of work due to the Great Depression, but Welles clearly had grander visions in mind. As he would in many later adaptation, Welles brought an aggressive, modernist approach to the classics, transposing Macbeth to Haiti and turning the witches into Voodoo priestesses.

Legends abound about the production, usually concentrating on Welles’ dominating and sometimes abusive method of directing, as well as his precocious skill in doing so, coaxing what were by all accounts extraordinary performances from a cast that included many who were not professional actors.

Political controversy dogged the production throughout. Welles’ anti-racist views were already well-known, and the Right-wing press attacked the play as subversive. At the same time, the Left tried to exploit the issue to its own ends, attacking Welles for putting on a derogatory “minstrel show.” The tension grew so high that Welles was physically attacked after one rehearsal.

When it premiered, however, the accolades were universal, gaining praise from audiences both black and white, and shooting Welles to the top of the world of New York theater. For the first time, the previously unknown Welles was spoken of as a “boy genius.”

A few minutes of film footage of the play exist, and give a tantalizing view of the visual aplomb and high energy Welles brought to the play, following his own expressed desire to produce Shakespeare with its “original speed and violence.”


Julius Caesar

If anything, Welles’ next Shakespeare production was even more influential. Working with his own Mercury Theater company, Welles took a three hundred year-old play and turned it into a devastatingly current political statement.

Transposing Julius Caesar to the present-day, Welles recast the play as an allegory of fascism, with his characters clad in military uniforms and the play’s meager scenery mostly composed of spotlights shining up at the actors from below, echoing the lighting scheme employed by Nazi propaganda. At the same time, he went at Shakespeare with a gleeful irreverence, slicing and dicing the Bard’s legendary dialogue in hopes of rescuing the play from its long and stultifying history.

Some loved it and some hated it, but the production became both a sensation and the godfather of all modern-dress productions of Shakespeare in the American theater. No filmed record of the play exists, and Welles’s attempt to perform it in a radio version is badly marred by technical problems; but the still photographs that remain testify to its striking visual power.


Chimes at Midnight

This was Welles’ last full-length feature film, and while it’s tempting to see it as a bookend to Citizen Kane, Welles had different opinions. Whereas he tended to talk down Kane in public, he was unabashed about his affection for Chimes at Midnight, which he often called his personal favorite.

Although Welles was 50 when he made it, Chimes at Midnight was a dream project going all the way back to Welles’ teenage years. A mash-up of five of Shakespeare’s history plays with the dissipated, jolly, and tragic knight Sir John Falstaff at its center, Welles had tried to produce some form of the idea since his school days.

All attempts failed until this one. Shooting on a small budget in Spain, Welles managed to make a funny, visually beautiful, and ultimately tear-jerking tribute to Falstaff – his favorite character in all literature. Put simply, it’s a stunning film, displaying an intensity and innovation worthy of a much younger man.

In particular, it contains one of the most influential scenes in cinema history. Shot in part with handheld cameras and – unusually for the time – slow motion, Welles turns a medieval battle into a vision of mud-soaked, brutally gory modern warfare. It’s so intense you barely breathe while it’s playing; and it famously influenced such celebrated directors as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

At the same time, one of the best parts of the film is Welles’ own performance as Falstaff. It displays all his talents for comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, and when Falstaff’s surrogate son Prince Hal finally rejects the aging knight (“I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers”), Welles’ silent tears mark one of cinema’s most powerful dramatic moments.


AFI Lifetime Achievement Speech
Orson Welles Accepts the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1975

Perhaps to make up for previous mistreatments, perhaps because of the lobbying of friends like Charlton Heston, Welles was given a lifetime achievement award by the American Film Institute in 1975. Hoping to use the occasion to garner attention and financial support for his unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind, a still vital Welles went into it with his usual showmanship, screening clips of Wind and subtly reminding the audience of their frequent failure to support such efforts in the past. But when it came time to make his big speech, the event turned into more than that.

Most such speeches are maudlin encomiums to careers whose vitality lies far in the past, but Welles turned it into a defiant restatement of his iconoclastic approach to his life and his art. At turns eloquent, funny, somber, and self-deprecating (“As a director, for instance, I pay myself out of my acting jobs. I use my own work to subsidize my work. In other words, I’m crazy”), he ended up making the case for the kind of artistic independence he had achieved at such cost to himself and his career.

“This honor,” he said, “I can only accept in the name of all the mavericks. A maverick may go his own way but he doesn’t think that it’s the only way or ever claim that it’s the best one, except maybe for himself… It’s a fact that many of the films you’ve seen tonight could never have been made otherwise; or if otherwise, well, they might have been better, but they certainly wouldn’t have been mine. The truth is I don’t believe that this great evening would ever have brightened my life if it weren’t for this: my own particular contrariety.”

Welles lived for almost ten more years, in the same rag-tag and uncompromising style he had before. When he died, all the praise and adoration that had often eluded him in life came his way, along with much of the ambivalent disappointment he had faced all his life. But oddly enough, this speech remains the most famous and beloved summing-up of his unique legacy. After everything was over, it turned out that Welles, in typically mischievous fashion, had managed to write his own epitaph.

fact checked by Alex Hanton