Orson Welles was an actor, producer, director, writer, and columnist who revolutionized the film industry by directing movies that depicted men and woman as real human beings. Throughout his writing career, Welles’ characters reflected his own personality and inspired others to write about human struggles, both good and bad. An innovative, dynamic individual, Welles spent his entire life experimenting with different mediums and bringing to the world his vision of man’s never ending struggle to conquer his own inner demons. Welles was a man whose life was one of paradox. His films reflected his inner conflicts and his attempt to assuage the two extremes of his own existence.
“For thirty years people have been asking me how I reconcile X with Y! The truthful answer is that I don’t. Everything about me is a contradiction and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There is a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don’t reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.” To Kennety Tynan, 1967 Orson Welles is often referred to as a Renaissance man, an individual who’s ambitious and concerned with revolutionizing multiple aspects of life. He was a prolific writer and talented actor who often appeared in his own productions. A gifted artist, Welles, coupled his abundant energy with an enthusiasm for life. He tried everything and was not afraid to take risks and to suffer the consequences of failures as well as the acclaims of success.
While, some critics say that Welles could never top Citizen Kane, such movies as The Trial, Touch of Evi, and The Lady from Shanghai are considered classics and monumental feats in cinema production. However, movies like The Stranger, Chimes at Midnights, and Mr. Arkadin were criticized as being One-Man Band shows where Welles glorified and engrandized himself.
Welles’ films reflect his ambivalent vision of life. He organized the Mercury Theater as the result of a feud with the Federal Theater Project after its attempt to sensor his work. Welles refused to bow to their demands to make his pro-labor play, The Cradle Will Rock, less political. Throughout the rest of his life, he preferred ostracism to compromise and often endured ridicule and condemnation rather than give in to the demands of those in authority.
Welles utilizes very distinctive images that are extravagant and dynamic to convey his unique prospective. In his anti-fascist play, Julius Caesar, he dressed his characters in modern attire and portrayed Brutus as an arrogant but reasonable human being.
Camera shots are traditionally deep focused with long takes and sweeping movements. One of his most famous shots takes place in the movie The Lady From Shanghai. In this movie, there is a famous hall-of-mirrors shoot-out where the villain and the hero exchange gun fire and the audience is unsure of what is going on. The scene is famous because Welles utilizes new camera techniques that bewilder the viewer with extravagant movements.
Throughout his career, Welles employs clever editing that shifts from one character to another and uses light and darkness to extenuate the action. His movies, like The Third Man and Compulsion, deal with characters who are flawed and have lost their innocence. He also uses bold music, and distinctive lighting to highlight the presentation of characters and plots. Bad guys are usually presented with dark lighting and good guys are typically depicted with brighter lighting. Villains are introduced with heavy music and heroes are represented with lighter music.
Examining how characters overcome or do not overcome the challenges and crisis of their lives is the major theme of most of his dramatic presentations. Many characters are taken from his own experience and are unable to surmount the difficulties of day to day living. Such characters often ruin the lives of others in their attempt to fix their own. Welles’ dramas are never clear cut and because of this, they are controversial as well as realistic.
Released in 1941, Citizen Kane was the most controversial film of his career and probably the most successful. It was critically acclaimed but did not receive financial rewards until much later. It depicted the life of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper tycoon who controlled the press by manufacturing news. Hearst used hyperbole to sell papers and printed his version of the trust. He was a single-minded publishing legend who built an empire by selling newspapers filled with entertaining and often more exaggerated than factual. An egotistical, self-serving man, Hearst continually sought to expand his empire at the expense of others. Welles resented Hearst’s power and prestige and took on Hearst in a crusade to destroy his reputation. Hearst did everything possible to stop the release of the movie and to discredit the producer/director. The campaign of disparaging remarks and smears was very hostile and impacted each man’s reputation.
After Citizen Kane, Welles was recognized for his genius as well as for his gifted and self destructive drive. During the course of his life, he was involved in the production of more than 46 movies. Many of his movies dealt with the theme of the little guy against the big guy. Sometimes, the little guy won, but most of the time, the big guy was the victor. However, the storyline conveyed empathy for both victim and victor.
The hero in Welles’ movies spent most of his time trying to overcome his situation and deal with circumstances that were beyond his control. In his film, Touch of Evil, Welles’ character posses a self-destructive tendency that causes problems and eventually his down fall. Welles often attributes his characters to his own experience declaring, I began at the top and have been making my way down ever since.
After Citizen Kane, Welles’ movies continued to depict the classic conflict of man versus man and man versus himself. Every charactor posses a rational element that is somehow lost in the course of living. Losing rationality results in conflict and self destruction.
“Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.” Excerpt from the book: The Portable Curmudgeon Redux by: Jon Winokur For Welles, the climax of every story revolved around accepting fate and not tampering with the will of Gods. Any character who refused to accept his or her fate was systematically destroyed. This dark side of Welles’ personality was often masked by a lighter side that enjoyed the company of others and the good life of drinking, women, and food.
In the end, Welles died a highly recognized man who reached his pinnacle too early and spent the rest of his life trying to repeat the act. However, other people believe that Welles’ later films were just as good as his early ones. That decision is left to the discretion of the viewer but his unique vision of life remains his legacy.