Thank You, Mr. Welles: Definitive actor, consummate director, and true auteur

Touch of Evil - Orson Welles

Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles is considered by many to be the greatest film maker in history. I do not necessarily agree with that, although I do consider him to be one of the greatest actors of all time. His voice alone is worth a career, let alone his charismatic presence in a film.

As a very young man, I was captivated by him on film at the cinema, and on TV, when his films were shown there. His brief appearances in The Third Man (1949), lift the film totally, and his wry grin steals every scene that he is in. Whatever you might think of him, his talent is surely indisputable, and from an early age he showed the touch of genius that would characterise his life in cinema. The ensemble cast of his best known films, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Citizen Kane (1941), were to follow him throughout his all too short film career, and ‘Kane’ is often lauded as the best film ever made (although I don’t concur).

Despite his obsession with casting Joseph Cotten, who I have always considered to be at best an average actor, he enjoyed great success with many films; not least the aforementioned The Third Man, and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), starring his soon to be ex-wife, Rita Hayworth. He was also a Shakespearean actor of some note, and was well-received as both Macbeth and Othello, playing both leads.

For me, his genius is best viewed in only two films, Touch of Evil (1958), and Chimes at Midnight, (1966). If I could only ever have one film, it would be a hard choice between these two, with ‘Chimes’ probably winning. Touch of Evil, despite a classic miscasting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican police officer, is a lesson in film-making. The opening crane shot is an absolute wonder, no matter how many times you see it. Welles’ performance as an obese, corrupt cop, is a complete tour-de-force, and his presence on screen is mesmerising. He even ropes in Marlene Dietrich to play a has-been good time girl, and the location filming, with sumptuous black and white photography, is a lesson to anyone wanting to direct a film.

Here is the famous opening sequence, three and a half minutes of cinematic excellence.

 

Chimes at Midnight sees Welles playing the Shakespearean character of Sir John Falstaff, with the various plays featuring him all rolled into one. His performance is without parallel, before or since. Welles strikes just the right note of failed grandeur, pathetic has-been, and former bon-viveur; all essential to fully understand Falstaff’s decline. The acting is truly heartbreaking, and if you know anything of the actual story, it is also riveting in its authenticity. A bloated Welles, heavily made up, sonorous of voice, and acting seamlessly, is completely believable in this classic role. It is one of my favourite films of all time, and for my money, one of the best, and most complete films ever made.

Here is a trailer for the film.

 

I admit unashamedly to being a fan. I could watch Orson Welles read the news, and be enthralled. The malicious twinkle in his eye, and cheeky grin, need no words to portray a character. He is the definitive actor, consummate director, and a true auteur.

I am glad he was alive, and thankful for all his work. So, from me, it is a ‘thank you’ to Mr. Welles.

I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

23 thoughts on “Thank You, Mr. Welles: Definitive actor, consummate director, and true auteur

  1. If you ever find yourself in Calfornia, Welles’ fave house was featured on a ghost hunting show. They believe it’s either his mother or Welles himself still haunting the house–the ghost likes to put out Welle’s items for display! Love Touch of Evil & others…wasn’t a fan of Othello when I saw it in college. Guy was brilliant–a trait I’d love to see in a new filmmaker for our times.

  2. Thanks for this. A little seque … I happened to see the 2008 film ‘Me and Orson Welles’ with Zac Efron and Claire Danes. It’s about a teenager cast in the Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar” directed by a young Welles in 1937. The actor who played Welles – Christian McKay was excellent. I had no expectations about the film but really enjoyed it.

  3. Great post! I love Welles in “Chimes at Midnight” (which I only recently saw). Falstaf is such a flawed and hard-to-love guy – but it’s great fun to follow his story in one film and, in Welles’ hands, he’s such a heartbreaking figure…

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  6. Thank you for psoting the crane shot from Touch of Evil in your post. I haven’t seen it in a while and had quite forgotten the scene, the tension build-up, etc. I too, could listen to Welles read a newspaper. Enjoyed your post very much!

    • Thanks Jenni. I am glad you enjoyed revisiting that crane shot. I have to try to see it at least once a year! Your kind comment is much appreciated.
      Regards from England, Pete.

  7. Good post. Have you read the books “Road to Xanadu” and “Hello Americans”? They’re biographies by Simon Callow that chart Orson Welles’ life. I’ve only read the first volume so far but I’m expecting ‘Hello Americans’ for Christmas. They’re very extensive and informative, a lot of the first book deals with his early work in theatre.

    • Thanks MOY. I have not read the books you mention, I am sorry to say. I spend so much time on my blog these days (as well as everyday life!) that I have less time for reading. I must remedy that situation one of these days…I hope you get that anticipated Christmas gift.
      Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

    • Thanks very much Cindy, I am glad that you enjoyed it. The radio hoax is often forgotten, and worth tracking down on the Internet. It just shows how the world was less informed in those days, and ready to believe that they were being attacked from outer space!
      Regards to you from England, Pete.

  8. Director Monte Hellman has cited Chimes of Midnight as his favorite of all shakespeare films. I think it is a mess, although brimming over with brilliant ideas that are rarely fully executed. The recent restorations have made the picture look and sound much better than it was upon its theatrical release. Despite Welles’ mammoth performance as Falstaff, I would choose macbeth as his most successful shakespeare adaptation.Jesus Franco thought that Welles had a hard time completing his latter day projects because he took a four hour lunch that began at ten am, after which it was impossible for him to work. Welles’ friend and biographer Barbara Leaming claimed the director ate and drank very little,even when at his most obese. Pete, the only issue i would take with your otherwise fine tribute is your dismissal of Joseph Cotton. Even if he is only an average actor, he is a solid part of the company that had been with Welles since the days of Mercury theater, so I disagree that his casting was merely an obsession with Welles. Although he is far from my favorite director, i credit him with resurrecting Hollywoodmovies from the stagebound mummification that followed the silent era. perhaps his experience in radio gave him an blank slate with which to work when visualizing scenes.

    • Bill, thanks very much for your informative and considered reply. I am sorry that you consider ‘Chimes’ to be a mess, but everyone is entitled to their opinion. I think I agree that is is actually a bit of a mess, but a grand mess, nonetheless. I know about Cotten and others, being part of the Mercury group. I also liked him a lot in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’. I just feel he always played the same part. (As do many famous actors).
      I really do appreciate the comment, on this my first ever ‘published article’.
      Regards from England, Pete.

  9. Great post, Pete. Welles truly was a mesmerising performer. I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing ‘Falstaff’ but it’s now high on my list. ‘Touch of Evil’ is my favourite but what are your thoughts on ‘The Trial’? It’s a close second for me with its dark and surreal atmosphere and striking imagery. PS. Anthony Perkins is a hypnotic performer who could perhaps be compared to Welles.

    • Thanks for your kind comments CK. ‘The Trial’ is certainly surreal, and transfers much of the feel of the original book to the screen. I agree that Perkins delivered some good performances, but felt his range was somewhat limited, as he always played most parts with an angst-ridden demeanour. Or perhaps it was just the ones I have seen!
      Regards from England, Pete.

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