“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” – Orson Welles
American filmmaker Orson Welles is widely regarded as one of the best directors of all time. His magnum opus Citizen Kane frequently finds its way onto the list of greatest films ever made as well. Apart from films, Welles also directed high-profile stage productions for the Federal Theatre Project, including an adaptation of Macbeth with an entirely African-American cast. In 2018, his final film The Other Side of the Wind was released on Netflix 33 years after his death.
Welles believed, “the job of the director is to choose what he sees and, to an extent, to create, but a great deal of what is applauded as creation is simply there… the job of the director is to choose what he sees and, to an extent, to create, but a great deal of what is applauded as creation is simply there.”
He also said, “he various technical jobs can be taught, just as you can teach the principles of grammar and rhetoric. But you can’t teach writing, and directing a picture is very much like writing, except that it involves 300 people and a great many more skills. A director has to function like a commander in the field in time of battle. You need the same ability to inspire, terrify, encourage, reinforce and generally dominate. So, it’s partly a question of personality, which isn’t so easy to acquire as a skill.”
On the 35th anniversary of his death, we take a look back at the enduring legacy of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
All Orson Welles films ranked from worst to best:
13. The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
It took fifty years to make but Welles’ final film was finally available to the public in 2018. Edited from footage shot between 1970-1976, The Other Side of the Wind focuses on an ageing John Huston who is struggling to finish an innovative film. His friend and co-star, Peter Bogdanovich, spent years trying to restore it. He reached an agreement with Netflix and the world received the final piece of Welles’ illustrious filmography.
Peter Bogdanovich said, “I’m sure there are things he would’ve changed, but we did the best we could. We certainly tried. We definitely tried to keep his vision of the picture as much as we possibly could without having him here.”
Adding, “The only thing we actually changed, and we didn’t change it much, was the opening of the film, which I introduce because Orson never recorded that. The first thing it says in the script is ‘O.W. voice over’ and he never did it himself. Frank said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I felt I couldn’t do it as Peter Bogdanovich, but I could do it as my character, Brooks Otterlake, which would work in terms of the story.”
12. Macbeth (1948)
Orson Welles took on the challenge of translating Shakespeare’s famous play to the cinematic medium in 1948. He first rose to prominence because of a 1935 stage-production of Macbeth with an all-black cast. The film was shot in just 23 days on a shoestring budget, something that Welles was ashamed of. However, the film remains an interesting addition to the extensive discourse surrounding Macbeth.
Welles himself described the story as “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein.” He noted, “I thought I was making what might be a good film, and what, if the 23-day shoot schedule came off, might encourage other filmmakers to tackle difficult subjects at greater speed. Unfortunately, not one critic in any part of the world chose to compliment me on the speed.”
11. The Immortal Story (1968)
Based on the short story by Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story was Welles’ last completed fictional feature as well as his first feature in colour. The film follows the story of Mr. Clay (Welles), a wealthy merchant who recruits two young people to fulfil his perverse obsession.
Originally intended to be the first half of a two-part anthology film with another Dinesen story, The Deluge at Norenay, the unfinished film is an hour long. It is the shortest feature film directed by Welles.
Welles was contractually obligated to shoot the film in colour but he was not a fan of colour cinematography, and in one interview he stated: “Colour enhances the set, the scenery, the costumes, but mysteriously enough it only detracts from the actors. Today it is impossible to name one outstanding performance by an actor in a colour film.”
10. The Stranger (1946)
Welles’ third completed feature and his first film noir, The Stranger is about a war crimes investigator who tracks a high-ranking Nazi fugitive to a Connecticut town. This was one of the first films to try and understand the horrors of the Holocaust through cinema.
It was the first Hollywood film to present documentary footage of the Holocaust. The original story by Victor Trivas was nominated for an Academy Award. After the commercial failures of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, this was Welles’ attempt at mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.
9. Mr. Arkadin (1955)
There exist eight different versions of Welles’ 1955 work: three radio plays (which featured Welles’s character from The Third Man, Harry Lime), a novel, several different cuts, and the European release, which was retitled Confidential Report. Welles plays a reclusive billionaire Gregory Arkadin who hires an American smuggler (Robert Arden) to research his past.
Welles explained, “Arkadin is closer to Harry Lime, because he is a profiteer, an opportunist, a person who lives off the decay of the world, a parasite that feeds off the universal corruption of things, but he doesn’t attempt to justify himself, like Harry Lime, by thinking himself a sort of ‘superman.’ Arkadin is a Russian adventurer, a corsair.”
8. Othello (1951)
It took Orson Welles three years to complete his unique film adaptation of yet another Shakespeare play. He shot in bits and pieces in Europe, shooting whenever he could afford to. Welles incorporated his own artistic sensibility into Shakespeare’s legend and made the story his own. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but remained neglected for decades.
In Elaine Dundy’s book Finch, Bloody Finch, Welles is quoted as telling the actors “To hell with the Method! This is the Welles way! Act, you sons of bitches!” Before opening, the eccentric filmmaker abruptly disappeared for four days, as he later stated, to attend a party in Venice.
7. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Although the film did not receive much attention when it was released, it has become a fan-favourite in later years. Based on Sherwood King’s novel If I Die Before I Wake, it features a seaman who finds himself in the middle of a complex murder plot. The film is best remembered for its iconic ending shootout in a hall of mirrors
Welles said, “I got in touch with Harry Cohn, then director of Columbia, who was in Hollywood, and I said to him, ‘I have an extraordinary story for you if you send me 50,000 dollars, by telegram in one hour, on account, and I will sign a contract to make it.’
“Cohn asked, ‘What story?’ I was telephoning from the theatre box office; beside it was a pocket books display and I gave him the title of one of them: Lady from Shanghai.”
6. The Trial (1962)
Welles considered his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s brilliant eponymous novel to be the greatest film he’d ever made. A nightmarish vision of a dystopian society, Welles manages to use expressionism to render the Kafkaesque absurdity.
The director explained, “I’ve generally tried to be faithful to Kafka’s novel in my film but there are a couple of major points in my film that don’t correspond when reading the novel. First of all, the character of Joseph K. in the film doesn’t really deteriorate, certainly doesn’t surrender at the end.”
5. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Based on William Shakespeare’s recurring character Sir John Falstaff, this 1965 period comedy-drama is one of the best films that Welles ever made and the finest of his Shakespeare adaptations. The script contains text from five of Shakespeare’s plays and stars Welles as Falstaff, Keith Baxter as Prince Hal and John Gielgud as Henry IV.
Welles spoke about the preparations for the film, “I did a stack of research. But I had already worked on that period earlier, so I knew it rather well. But after you have done that research, the elements of that research are only a preparation, because the drama itself fixes the universe in which it is going to unroll. So, you must not make museum pieces; you must create a new period. You must invent your own England, your own period, starting from what you have learned.”
4. F for Fake (1973)
Welles stars alongside François Reichenbach, Oja Kodar, and Gary Graver in this 1973 docudrama which is often considered as an example of a film essay. It presents the narrative through Elmyr de Hory’s recounting of his career as a professional art forger while launching powerful explorations about art and authenticity in a postmodern world that is full of copies of copies ad infinitum.
“In F for Fake, I said I was a charlatan and didn’t mean it,” Welles said. “Because I didn’t want to sound superior to Elmyr, so I emphasized that I was a magician and called it a charlatan, which isn’t the same thing. And so, I was faking even then. Everything was a lie. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t.”
3. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
An adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 novel, this was Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane and focused on the declining fortunes of a wealthy Midwestern family and the social changes forced upon them by modernity. The real tragedy here is that the production company seized control of the footage and substituted the ending with a happier one. They also cut more than an hour of footage.
Despite all of this, The Magnificent Ambersons remains one of his best works. The film earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Agnes Moorehead as George’s frail aunt.
When asked whether he wrote the script for the film on his own, Welles replied, “Yes. Quite a lot of it on King Vidor’s yacht off Catalina. And the rest of it in Mexico with Molly Kent, the script girl from Citizen Kane, doing the secretarial work on it — best script girl that ever existed. Then we rehearsed it longer than I’ve ever rehearsed anything in movies. It was a relatively small cast, and everybody worked very hard.
“I think we were five weeks — not on the set or anything, no movements, just rehearsing the words. We discussed everybody’s life, each one’s character, their background, their position at this moment in the story, what they would think about everything.”
2. Touch of Evil (1958)
Loosely based on the contemporary Whit Masterson novel Badge of Evil, Welles’ 1958 film noir masterpiece stars Charlton Heston as a Mexican-born police detective who confronts a dishonest cop (played by Welles) in a shady border town. Like many of his works, the original release was butchered by the studio but Welles’ preferred version was released in 1998.
After seeing the complete version of Touch of Evil for the first time, Welles said, “The completion of the montage in the film was accomplished by the studio and by myself and they didn’t invite me to a preview, I don’t know why.”
Welles admitted that the end product wasn’t exactly what he had envisioned because of the studio’s interference, “I must say it’s not too far from what I wanted. It’s not too different, that’s the best thing.”
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
It is hardly a surprise to anyone that Welles’ first feature film is also his finest. Famed critic Roger Ebert called Citizen Kane the best film that has ever been made and frequently stated that it was his favourite. Welles conducted a radical reimagining of what cinema means in Citizen Kane, employing non-linear narrative and canted-angled cinematography.
Based in part on the lives of contemporary American media barons and tycoons, the film presents a modern retelling of the Faustian archetype through the life and legacy of a publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles). The acclaimed film garnered 9 Oscar nominations and a win for Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz’s screenplay.
“I must answer this in a way that I loathe,” he says when asked if the film was intended as a social document or a story. “I must admit that it was intended, consciously, as a sort of social document — as an attack on the acquisitive society.”
He added, “I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do, so anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.”