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.