The Essential Films of Orson Welles

Don’t give them what you think they want. Give them what they never thought was possible. — Orson Welles

A monumental figure in the development of cinema, George Orson Welles was the ultimate auteur, who dismantled many conventions by using non-linear narratives and filming with his unique directorial style full of unusual camera angles, lighting, deep focus shots, and long takes.

Born on May 6, 1915, in Wisconsin to an affluent family, Orson Welles’ childhood was difficult due to his parents’ separation, his mother’s early death, and his father’s alcoholic decline.

Theatre in Ireland

His father died when Welles was only 15, and Welles used a part of his inheritance to travel to Europe. Welles said that during his walking and painting trip through Ireland, he told the management of the prestigious Gate Theatre in Dublin that he was a Broadway star. The manager did not believe Welles but was still impressed with his confident manner and the quality of his audition.

Welles soon made his stage debut as Alexander of Württemberg in Jew Suss at the Gate Theatre in 1931, which led on to supporting roles in other Gate productions. Welles also produced and designed productions of his own in Dublin, and the following year, he performed in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Circle in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

Welles then went to London to find work but soon moved back to the United States.

Productions in the United States

Welles began a successful writing project at Todd School, entitled Everybody’s Shakespeare.

Theatrical impresarios, Katherine Cornell and her husband Guthrie McClintic, whom Welles met at a party in 1933, put Welles under contact in a repertory theatre company and cast him in three plays.

Whilst only in his twenties, Orson Welles directed highly regarded stage productions for the Federal Theatre Project, most notably an adaptation of Macbeth with an African American cast. This production was an important project for Welles because he was an outspoken critic of racism and the use of segregation in the United States.

Welles co-founded (with John Houseman) the Mercury Theatre Company that held productions on Broadway from 1937 to 1941.

Welles was soon to find radio work alongside actor/director Paul Stewart. He received international fame for his radio anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air when he narrated the radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. It has been documented that the broadcast had caused many members of the general public to think that aliens had invaded the earth.

Welles made an immediate impact with his first and greatest film in 1941, but he achieved much more. Here is the essential list of his important works.

Citizen Kane (1941)

To begin with the obvious, Citizen Kane is a cinematic masterpiece. Although receiving acclaim on release, Citizen Kane was soon to be neglected for the remainder of the decade. The film’s reputation was enhanced by television screenings during the 50s and has since topped many polls as the greatest film ever made.

Told through the eyes of everybody who knew him, Citizen Kane is the story of the newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (rumored to be based on magnate William Randolph Hearst – listen to the podcast for more juicy details) and the quest by a reporter to find the exact meaning of Kane’s last words at the moment of his death.

Many of the characters who are close to Kane depict a very complex man. His alcoholic ex-wife (whom Kane unwisely promoted to become an opera star), his old sickly friend in a convalescent home, his business partners and associates are all questioned to understand the possible meaning of his last words.

“It’s a tough thing to do in a newsreel. Seventy years of a man’s life…”

Citizen Kane is an enormously influential film. The non-linear narrative, the clever use of long takes, the unusual camera angles and stylish deep focus shots, along with stark contrasts between light and dark, all which had an enormous impact on subsequent films. Every shot reveals a creative genius in his prime, at only 24 years old, who stretched the possibilities of the medium.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles’ second feature, which he produced and directed, is an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a proud family that loses its wealth in the face of sprawling industrialization.

The Magnificent Ambersons boasts an impeccable cast (Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, and Tim Holt), but the film is a flawed masterpiece because the film was heavily cut by the studio. Almost 40 minutes to be taken out and destroyed whilst Welles was on location in South America. The film contains many magnificent moments, but the film does not work as a coherent whole.

The original uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons has often been cited as even better than Citizen Kane, but only a few have watched that version because no surviving prints exist. However, director Robert Wise (who edited the film) has claimed that the original film was not better than the edited version. (Ed. Note: I LOVE this film and agree with Wise that it’s better off shorter. – Melanie, CMR Producer)

The Stranger (1946)

The first film noir from Orson Welles and the only film he made that was a genuine box office success. Telling the story of an investigator who tracks down a high-ranking Nazi fugitive in Connecticut, The Stranger has all the Welles trademarks such as the unusual but inventive camera angles, deep focus, and superior lighting.

Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson in The Stranger

The performances are excellent too, especially from Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson, and Welles (playing Franz Kindler, also known as Professor Charles Rankin).

The Stranger is not in the same class as Citizen Kane, but it is a stylish and good-looking film, enhanced by Russell Metty’s startling cinematography.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai is a wonderfully murky and entertaining film noir. The confusing tale of Irish seaman Michael O’Hara who becomes involved with a married woman Elsa “Rosalie” Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and her husband, disabled criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister is quite a chore for the viewer to comprehend.

As for almost all of Welles’ films, Columbia boss Harry Cohn demanded that The Lady from Shanghai be recut, re-edited and re-scored before release, which affected the flow of the narrative throughout. Despite these failings, some whole sequences contain sheer brilliance, especially the memorable climax at the hall of mirrors.

The film’s initial mixed reviews and commercial failure rendered Welles as an outcast for a decade, but the film’s reputation has risen over the passing years, despite the confusing plot and Orson Welles’ genuinely bizarre Irish accent.

The Third Man (1949)

Orson Welles did not produce, write or direct this truly magnificent film noir set in post-war Vienna but his entrance in the Carol Reed’s The Third Man, as the sinister con-man Harry Lime ranks as one of the most unforgettable moments in film history.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man

Although there has been speculation throughout the years that Orson Welles was the de facto director of the film but that has been rubbished by various film experts, including Welles himself who told director Peter Bogdanovich in a 1967 interview that his contribution was minimal, and that it was “Carol’s picture”.

However, Welles did contribute to some of the most memorable dialogue in the film (the “Swiss cuckoo clock” speech).

The Third Man is a genuine classic which contains splendid cinematography by Robert Krasker is enormously entertaining, is full of incredible performances and is held together by that impressive zither score from Anton Score.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Despite winning best film at the 1958 Brussels World Fair (which included jury members Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut), film noir classic Touch of Evil was a commercial failure, ensuring that Orson Welles would never direct a film in Hollywood again.

Touch of Evil begins with one of the most acclaimed single uninterrupted tracking shots in film history, lasting three minutes and twenty seconds. Mexican narcotics detective Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his American bride Susan (Janet Leigh) are on honeymoon, but following a car bomb in a seedy border town in Mexico, Vargas agrees to help the investigation, but immediately incurs the wrath of the corrupt and bullying local American police Hank Quinlan (Welles), who has a perfect arrest record.

The original theatrical poster for Touch of Evil

Adapted by Welles from Whit Masterson’s pulp novel Badge of Evil, the story is told using plenty of deep focus shots and disorientating angles. The performances from the cast, whom Welles ensured contributed to the dialogue, are striking and the cinematography by Russell Metty is a delight.

The original film version of Touch of Evil was not Welles’ vision. Like most of his movies, the producers cut and re-edited the film. There were two other versions released, a preview in 1976 and the restored (and best) version in 1998.

Chimes at Midnight and F is for Fake

There were other high points in Orson Welles’ career such as the French-Italian-German drama The Trial in 1962 and his 1965 period comedy drama Chimes at Midnight featuring William Shakespeare’s recurring comical character Falstaff. Welles is memorable as Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre (1943), as Father Maple in Moby Dick (1956) and as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for all Seasons (1966).

Welles had plenty of low points though. His 1948 adaptation of Macbeth was criticized for the unintelligible accents and poor sets and because his later works were self-promoted, many productions were not completed. Welles’ 1973 docu-drama F is for Fake, which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, was branded as self-indulgent and confusing by critics on release.

Orson Welles died on October 9, 1985. He was married three times, including to Rita Hayworth, had three children and had two long term partners, including Dolores Del Rio.

The film career of Orson Welles has, in large, been an unfulfilled promise. Many argue that Welles peaked too soon with Citizen Kane and that he was megalomaniacal with his ambitions. Nevertheless, Orson Welles contributed significantly to the advancement of the American film as an art form and was creatively involved in some of the greatest films of all time.

Paul J. Bradley

Classic Movie Recall Podcast: Citizen Kane (1941)

Please also listen to the informative podcast from accomplished podcast from broadcaster Lara Scott, Oscar-winning documentary maker James Moll and widely respected producer/writer Melanie Hooks.

In the podcast, Classic Movie Recall welcomes author/historian Harlan Lebo to discuss the making and release of Citizen Kane. This is a very informative and entertaining podcast.


Be sure to visit the Classic Movie Recall blog for even more thoughts about these great vintage movies and their writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, composers, actors and everyone who brought these classics to the screen.

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