5. Falstaff – Chimes At Midnight (1966)
A fusion of a number of William Shakespeare’s plays (Henry IV Pts 1 & 2, Richard II, Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V), Falstaff-Chimes At Midnight follows Falstaff- a fat jester, and a recurring character in many Shakespeare plays, and Prince Hal. Prince Hal spends the film conflicted over where to put his loyalty- to Falstaff, with whom he has a father-son relationship, or his actual father, King Henry IV. The core of the film is the particular “betrayal of friendship,” according to Welles.
The film, like many of Welles’ later work, can be seen as an analogy to his experiences as a filmmaker in the Hollywood system, and the betrayals he felt he suffered from friends and enemies alike. Welles certainly felt a kindred spirit in Falstaff, calling the character “Shakespeare’s greatest creation.” A sad, absurd, and loveable character- like Welles himself.
Like almost all of Orson Welles’ work after leaving Hollywood in the late 1940’s, he had trouble financing Falstaff- it’s said he even lied to producers, saying he was filming a version of Treasure Island to convince financial backers to give him money. At once reviled and admired upon release, this film has since been recognized as a masterpiece, and one of Orson Welles’ best films.
4. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Welles’ second film, it was panned for, well, not being Citizen Kane. It came just a year after Kane, and even has a main character as seemingly rotten as Kane- the Ambersons is, as Roger Ebert called it, a “memory movie”, weaving us through a valedictory American past to a family’s changing social order, and its rotten son George Minafer (Tim Holt) and his attempts to control his mother’s affairs after his father dies, and his eventual ‘comeuppance’.
Minafer, along with his Aunt Fanny, is eager to stop his mother, Isabel (Dolores Costello), from picking her romance with Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) back up, while he himself is with her daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). Fanny has been in love with Eugene for He is certainly the spoiled villain- the haughtiness, masculine, yet fragile and petty. Based on Booth Tarkington’s novel, Welles’ film version brings out the conflict within himself: between past and future, nostalgia and drive, and longing for a better time already seemingly past.
The Magnificent Ambersons was also Welles’ first taste of losing creative control- RKO changed the ending, Welles’ favorite scene in the film, after test audiences were uncomfortable. The original ending had Fanny rocking in the corner of her boarding house room, and when Eugene visits to tell of his visit to George in the hospital and his apology for all that he had done wrong, she continues to sit, expressionless. The ending was changed to a happier one, in addition to over 40 minutes being cut out of Welles original cut.
It received four Academy Award nominations- including the last “Best Picture” nomination Welles would receive in his career, yet The Magnificent Ambersons took a loss at the box office. Even so, it remains an ambitious epic, and a centerpiece, along with Citizen Kane, or Orson Welles’ canon.
3. F For Fake (1974)
A non-fictional film about fakes and frauds, F For Fake is the magician in Welles coming out. The film focuses on fakers: Elmyr de Hory, an art forger extraordinaire and his forger biographer Clifford Irving, Welles himself in regards to the War of the Worlds broadcast, and the elusive Howard Hughes, and discusses the “tyranny of ‘experts’”:
“if there were no experts, there would be no fakers”. The very foundation of truth is shattered to its core, but no without a great deal of fun. We see Welles relishing in his role of the charlatan, popping off one-liners both profound and ridiculous (though rather truthful): “A magician is just an actor playing a magician.”
Yet while there’s a great deal of fun to be had, and Welles is clearly having a good deal of it making the film, this is an extremely personal film. The decade previously, with Chimes at Midnight, Welles had to do a great deal of faking (he did a good deal of the voiceover work after filming the film silent, and in the film’s famous battle scene he had to use camera techniques to make it seem like there were more people present than there actually were- think a talk show studio) in order to triumph over halted production and budget issues.
F For Fake is a masterpiece of non-fiction film; the thesis of the film digs deep into the concepts of truth, art, and expertise, in a way that validates Welles’ role as a teller of truth, an artist, and an expert- if he ever claimed to be any of these things.
2. Touch of Evil (1958)
Considered the last ‘film noir’, and Welles’ last Hollywood film, Touch of Evil is a dark, atmospheric tale of police corruption on the U.S.-Mexican border is one of the finest of the noir genre- and features a tour de force performance in despicable by Welles as police chief Hank Quinlan, sucking down chocolate bars and cigars instead of booze and planting evidence, and looking wretched while doing it.
Charlton Heston stars as Mexican narcotics detective Mike Vargas, who is up against dope-peddling gang ‘the Grandi boys’ when we start the film. The set, which was located in a L.A. suburb that had been converted into an Italian-looking city, with seedy neon and cramped streets, seeps with sleaze, and is a character in the film unto itself.
In Welles fashion, the plot is complex, labyrinthine, and though the eyes of more than one character. There’s a double chase happening between Vargas and Quinlan, trying to find who is responsible for a car bomb that kills a local business tycoon that we see go off in the film’s mesmerizing opening scene, who are clashing with each other throughout the film. Vargas is the antithesis to Quinlan- full of integrity, if it’s not overly tense in its way, seeking the truth in justice, whereas Quinlan is looking to make his own truth, his own justice.
Welles never saw the final cut, and scenes directed by T.V. director Harry Keller were added after Welles had finished his edit, to cement the story better and to take out some ambiguity, but this still remains one of the finest films of all time, and quite possibly the best film noir.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
Routinely ranked at the top of many a “Best Films of All Time” list, Citizen Kane spins the yarn of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (based on William Randolph Hearst), through the eyes of those who knew him, after his death. Assigned to discover the meaning of Kane’s last words, ‘Rosebud’, reporter Jerry Thompson goes through those close to Kane in his lifetime: his alcoholic ex-wife who Kane falsely thought he could make an opera star his old friend whose health is waning in a convalescent home (Joseph Cotten), his business partner, his associates, to see if he can’t pin down the exact meaning of the magnate’s famous last words.
The beauty of the film, and the underlying message the film delivers, is that, of course, those last words mean nothing- a man’s life can’t be pinned down to a single word, or object; it is beheld in the minds of others. There was no single Charles Foster Kane; every person who was interviewed by Thompson knew a different Kane altogether.
Completed when he was just 24 years old, Citizen Kane earned Welles the only Oscar he would receive in his career: “Best Screenplay”, which he wrote with Herman Mankiewicz. Critics of Welles would cite this as his early peak in film, never bested. While this is true, in some ways, Kane also set the tone for Welles’ career, stylistically: unusual camera angles, deep focus shots, long takes, chiaroscuro lighting (stark contrast between lights and darks), and non-linear narrative. This is as great a start any director ever had in the history of film; this was not just a strong debut film, it was inventive, assured, fun and beautiful.
Author Bio: Sam Perduta is a reference librarian at the public library in the city of New Haven, CT, as well as a touring musician and singer-songwriter in the garage-folk band Elison Jackson. He studied filmmaking briefly at the University of Southern California, and contributed to developing a Cinema Studies minor at Central Connecticut State University. His interests other than film include Pataphysics, vinyl and book hoarding, and travel (by automobile).