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10 Essential Orson Welles Films You Need To Watch

06 October 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Sam Perduta

best Orson Welles movies

Orson Welles was a polarizing figure in his lifetime, and was groundbreaking in three forms of media: the radio (his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast), theater (he was involved in the New Deal funded Federal Theatre project, and founded the Mercury Theatre) and film.

Though some think his film career was largely an unfulfilled promise, that he may have been a creative genius who peaked too soon (he directed his first film at 24 years old), or a megalomaniacal charlatan who overspent his budgets and went long overdue on his deadlines, he did produce some of the greatest films in the history of cinema, and was groundbreaking in his style and aesthetic.


10. The Immortal Story (1968)

The Immortal Story (1968)

A made-for-T.V. movie that Welles produced in France, this short film, based on Isak Dinesen’s novella, is a display of all the best of Welles. Taking place in Macao, a millionaire (played by Welles) named Mr. Clay, who lives isolated in a mansion of mirrors, is dying, cut off from the rest of the world, like several other Welles protagonists, by the very thing he must have worked all his life for- his wealth. Unable to sleep at night, he has one of his clerks read to him from the daily ledgers.

Once those have all been read, the clerk reads a passage from Isaiah; “I’m only interested in things that have happened”, says Clay, and brings up a story he heard from a sailor. As he recalls the story, the clerk breaks it to Clay that this is an old sailors’ story, and that he, too, has heard it.

Clay then makes it the clerk’s task to set up the story- of a sailor who is picked up by a rich man and taken to his house to have sex with a young woman, while the rich man watches for pleasure- and given money all the while. The clerk sets out to do so, but is only able to find an aging Virginie (Jeanne Moreau). The sailor they find goes along with the rouse, knowing all along he’s in on the plot, yet doesn’t care- he’s a virgin.

Critics of the film say it doesn’t break any new ground is rather rigid and boring- but it’s a late-career film of poise and beauty, and undervalued in the career of Orson Welles- most likely due to the fact it’s a film that is hard to track down.


9. The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger (1946)

Welles made The Stranger, it is told, to prove that he could in fact work within the Hollywood system. Because of this fact, critics have pegged the film as a run-of-the-mill thriller, as a throwaway for Welles to make money. There is a certain sense of Welles toning it down on this film, especially in regards to his visual style, but The Stranger does hold up incredibly well, even within Welles’ canon, and still can be considered one of the best thrillers of the 1940s.

The story follows investigator Mr. Wilson to Connecticut, where he follows intentionally released war criminal Konrad Meineke in order to track down a bigger fish, Franz Kindler (Welles), who is posing as a history teacher at a local private school. Once Wilson is sure he’s found the right man, he then has to convince Rankin’s new wife that she’s married pure evil- before Rankin eventually exposes himself, under pressure.

Though some critics dismiss The Stranger as essentially a reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (which stars long-time Welles regular Joseph Cotton), it did earn an Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Screenplay’, and revive the directorial career of Orson Welles- it had been four years since his last film, and he, uncharacteristically, finished The Stranger under budget and on time.


8. Confidential Report (1955)

Confidential Report (1955)

While this film has many detractors, and at least six different versions that are known to exist, this pulp-y tale of a cigarette smuggler/ goods runner Guy Van Stratten (radio actor Robert Arden) who is hired by an enigmatic international arms dealer and financier Gregory Arkadin to compile a report on his own past is essential viewing for anyone interested in Orson Welles.

Arkadin, who hires Van Stratten because mysterious amnesia, follows him around the globe, overseeing his investigation at a distance. He is also trying to keep Van Stratten away from his daughter, his one true weakness- who is also played by Welles’ future wife, the stunning Paola Mori. The plot can be seen as a little corny, along with the make up and acting, but part of the film’s charm is in its corniness- Welles hams it up as Arkadin, more than making up for the total lack of depth that Robert Arden puts off.

Welles was famously kicked out of the production of his own film after squabbles with producer Louis Dolivet, and did not get the final cut (or any of the six known cuts). There is a DVD collection out that includes the released Confidential Report, as well as two other versions. This is one of Welles’ strangest and most fun to watch films.


7. The Trial (1962)

The Trial

Seemingly a perfect literary counterpart for Welles’ style- chiascuro, labyrinthine plots and narrative, and slightly skewed perspective, Franz Kafka’s The Trial is done here so well that Orson considered it among his favorites of his own works. Anthony Perkins plays the main character of the film, Joseph K, brilliantly, fresh off his career-defining (or ruining) role in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

From the opening scene, when unknown authorities enter his dwelling, taking him in for a crime he doesn’t even know he committed, therefore he is left unable assert his innocence. He pokes his way through the maze-like corridors of “the law” from here on out. What makes Welles vision of Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare so well done is that Welles seems to truly understand that nightmare- the bureaucracy so impenetrable that there is no understanding it, or escaping it. Perhaps Welles’ experiences with film studios led to this understanding.

The Trial was filmed in France, Germany, and Italy, and just missed the deadline for the 1962 Venice Film Festival. Critically polarized since its release, this is another undervalued masterpiece in the Welles canon. Not too be missed, especially for Kafka fans- it’s leaps and bounds the best film adaptation of one of his works.


6. The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

An early Welles noir, The Lady From Shanghai is a triumph of the genre in that it explores the untrustworthiness of our own perceptions of ourselves. Using frantic editing and a typically complex plot, the film follows the story of Michael O’Hara, who meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in Central Park. She and her criminal lawyer-husband Arthur (Everett Sloane) are travelling from Shanghai. While on the ship, Arthur’s partner George convinces Michael to help fake his death, and offers him $5,000 to do so, and sign a “confession”.

In typical noir fashion, a private detective is on the case, and has figured out George in fact planned to actually murder Bannister. The private detective informs Michael of the plot to frame him, and when Michael gets to George and Bannister, finds George’s body being taken away by police. He, of course, is blamed, and Bannister defends him in court. “Well, everybody is somebody’s fool,” to quote Michael in a conversation with Elsa.

This is the most energetic of Welles’ films- intercut shots of shaky movement with virtuosic tracking shots in the film’s opening sequence are some of the best shots in the film noir genre. The frantic style of the editing matches what we can imagine Michael’s frantic state of mind- he’s been set up in the worst way and has little information, always on the run.

The lighting and sharp contrasts that typify Orson Welles’ style are also perfectly suited for the genre. Using glass and mirrors to let the audience know deception is at play, stylistically The Lady From Shanghai displays the unbridled genius that Orson Welles could be capable of.



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  • Fernando Arenas

    Othello (1952) is very worth watching too.

  • Ted Wolf

    The other Shakespeare adaptations (Othello and MacBeth) are very good, but I’ve never felt they hold a candle to Falstaff/Chimes at Midnight. To me, this entire list is must see cinema. Confidential Report/Mr. Arkadin is must viewing to see how editing effects the story and overall movie. Criterion’s multi-disc Arkadin is a real eye-opener. Great list and thanks for this!

  • Charles Barnes

    I’d personally put Touch of Evil as his greatest film, but its easier to just do a list like this without the inevitable backlash of not having Kane at the top spot. Not that Kane isn’t an excellent piece of work anyway. I name it, arguably, the quintessential great film.

    Also, I never cared much for Ambersons, personally. None of the things I’ve accustomed to loving from Welles were particularly present (visual artistry, innovative camera, engaging characters) and I found the whole affair quite drab, unfortunately. Alas, it isn’t his final cut, so who knows if it indeed “superior to Kane” as Welles claims. (Keep in mind, he also claimed at some point that The Trial was his best movie, so maybe he wasn’t the best judge of his own work).

    Lastly, I feel as though you’re underselling The Stranger. I happen to think its one of his best works. I’m a sucker, I suppose, for Welles’ acting, I am in love everytime he speaks and moves on screen, and TS is some of his best acting work. S sucker I also am for great auteurs tackling thrillers with innovation, cleverness and artistry (like, as the article claims TS is ripped from, Hitchcock, and of course not at all dissimilar from de Palma).

  • Paul O’Connor

    Saw Citizen Kane for the first time this year and have to say wasn’t impressed by the story / acting BUT I was amazed and entranced by the way it was filmed the imagery is incredible but all in all didn’t think it was great film. 🙁 just my opinion 😉

    • Charles Barnes

      You weren’t impressed by Welles’ performance, that perfect portrait of a changing man?

      I respect your opinion, I just figured even those who dislike Kane acknowledge the wealth of Welles’ acting skills.

      • Ted Wolf

        I’ve heard a lot of younger viewers rebel against Citizen Kane (and many other golden age classics) and I think part of it is the dramatic changes are commonplace today. I also think that part of it is explained very well in the link below, and it also explains how someone like Christopher Nolan became a diety.

        • Charles Barnes

          To be fair, there are plenty of Golden Age classics I don’t care for either, (Citizen Kane not being one of them). Alas, also plenty of contemporary classics and acclaimed works I think are crap.

          Citizen Kane is no doubt attacked due to people have excessively high expectations for it, ‘the best movie of all time’. This happens with blockbusters too. People hype too much over your Skyfall and your Prometheus and thus a large vocal minority of hate is formed, unnecessarily, when they don’t become the next Casino Royale or the next Alien, respectively (although I think Skyfall was very good, personally, and I don’t actually mind Prometheus).

          Off topic, I agree with the article’s assessment that the Bond films aren’t typically good, but rather fun. I’d argue only five of them are genuinely good films. It was a good article, and I thank you for linking it to me.

    • Wolfstarking

      You could say that you didn’t liked it and ok i get that but you definitely have to accept that the film was definitely a cinematic achievement it broke all the rules and to me Orson Welles performance is one of the best, it’s a very young guy playing and aging man very realistically I have to say not many young actors can do that well and the fact that it was his first film it definitely showed he had talent. But if you didn’t liked it ok thats fine it’s not in my favorite films either but i admire it. I have to say i appreciate that you gave a constructive opinion and not like many idiots who comment things like “Oh that fucking sucks” “That is a piece of crap” those people don’t deserve attention. In order to consciously looks at a film you need to have in mind the time it was made otherwise you are gonna be frustrated.

      • Paul O’Connor

        as I said the imagery is incredible and probably ahead of its time, BUT, it was like a TV soap opera to me and simply didn’t like it same as I can’t understand why people say Gone with the wind is brilliant, to me, again, another TV soap opera with the exception of one scene where Scarlet is walking amongst the civil war wounded and the camera just rises up above her showing more and more injured, Or, Easy Rider which is simply rubbish with no saving graces oh except for the soundtrack 🙂

        • Wolfstarking

          Tv soap operas? That’s how you view those films? Gone with the wind is a cinematic masterpiece and epic in scale few american movies have done what Gone with the wind did in these terms. It was also one of the first films to use technicolor and the way it was done is something to admire Victor Fleming was a hell of a filmmaker. That comment you say about being a tv soap opera is really ignorant no offense. How do you even compare Tv soap operas to these Classics of cinema there is no comparison. Classic american movies had this elements of melodrama and music that evoked emotion and theater elements were more present back then. You don’t seem to be a guy that likes Classic cinema and it’s a shame or maybe I could be wrong, you can learn a lot and you can get a lot of inspiration from Classic films even more than from most current cinema.

          • Paul O’Connor

            notice you didn’t mention easy rider in your response. 🙂 Love Casablanca, 39 Steps, Metropolis, North By Northwest, love many classics just not these same as I am a Big Beatles fan but I don’t like all of their recordings especially “Drive My car”. I don’t “read” into films like many do just like critics, I watch a film for entertainment value and if they don’t entertain me in what ever form sight, sound, story, whatever, well then I don’t like them… pretty simple really

  • Russell Higham

    I had to scroll up and down 3 times just to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me….”The Third Man” is NOT on this list?!?!

    • Guffers

      Welles only acted in The Third Man, he didn’t direct it.

    • Leslie Gargan

      Russell, it should have been on the list, if only for the brilliant dialogue Welles wrote: e.g., “Italy produced geniuses of the Renaissance … da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael … what did the Swiss invent? The cuckoo clock” Welles was a genius.

  • Brian Lussier

    I knew Othello wouldn’t be here, and yet it’s a masterpiece, possibly the best cinematic Shakespeare adaptation outside of Kurosawa’s Ran. It should be here…