The 9th of October, 1985, and one of the greatest talents of American cinema – Orson Welles – appeared on the Merv Griffin show. At first he’d been reluctant to concentrate on his past – Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Citizen Kane and RKO – no doubt he wanted to use the opportunity to drum up more money for his as yet unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind, but at the last minute he changed his mind and took the viewers, and Merv down memory lane, with his biography Barbara Leaming beside him. He even did magic tricks. Then he dined out at Ma Maison.
When Barbara got tired, he called over some other friends – the inexhaustible Welles always had his friends ready to work in shifts – and continued the night before returning to his bungalow where early the next morning he died of a heart attack. When he was found, he had a typewriter perched on his stomach – he often typed lying down. An actor friend Paul Stewart would rush over to the house and see the body, with an incredible sense of deja vu. Years earlier Stewart played the Butler in Citizen Kane. It is of course the person who discovers Kane’s dead body soon after he has whispered ‘Rosebud’!
The Merv Griffin Show will go out a few days later. The unfinished films are doomed to remain unfinished; Welles’ reputation now fossilized as the boy genius who started at the top and worked his way down. But 2018 has seen something of a revival. Already in 2014, we have had Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles. But this year we get Mark Cousin’s up close and personal portrait The Eyes of Orson Welles, detailing Welles’ aesthetic and work through the perspective of his interest in painting and the visual arts.
We’ve also got the Netflix documentary They’ll All Love Me When I’m Dead, which largely concentrates on the later years. As if that wasn’t enough, the unfinished film that he wanted to plug on the Merv Griffin show – The Other Side of the Wind – has been posthumously finished and some are even wondering if Orson Welles could find himself with a posthumous Oscar nomination.
I very much doubt it. Welles at heart was an iconoclast and the Academy doesn’t look well on those who seek to smash the dream factory rather than keep it well oiled. Just look at his most famous accomplishment. Rewatching Citizen Kane recently I was struck by how acerbic, acidic, at times downright cynical view of power and corruption that film is. And it’s original title was ‘American’! The Other Side of the Wind still has the zesty prosecco of a young filmmaker’s energy but mixed with the vinegar of an old man’s despair and disappointment. Even the title mixes the elemental with the verbose and perhaps even the flatulent. It’s a fitting bookend to a career that tore up the rule book and in so doing invented much of the language of modern cinema.
And that’s why we keep going back to Welles. That’s why for filmmakers, documentarians, actors and cinema-lovers he remains a gargantuan figure. Having started as a painter and theatre man, he first made his national name in radio. He invented multimedia sensation before anyone knew what it was. Even his interest in magic and bullfighting would play into his creative process. This meant that you can watch (or listen to his movies) from so many angles.
Mark Cousins could easily do another documentary called The Ears of Orson Welles – just listen to the sound design of Touch of Evil or The Trial and there’s as much complexity and thought there as there is in the visual mise en scene. F for Fake concerns the impressiveness of trickery and joy of being fooled. In his performances from his romantic lead in Jane Eyre to his shadowy scene stealing in The Third Man, his acting was always compelling, frequently over the top but never ever dull.
So with the restorations about to be released and the documentaries running, have we yet to have the final word on Orson Welles? Maybe. However, as we know from Citizen Kane, the final word might only be the beginning.
From Touch of Evil to The Letter Kremlin: discover on CHILI the many faces of Orson Welles
- “You know I’m a magician”: Orson Welles on Cold Reading.