Orson Welles Centennial: Seven Films You Should See

On this day in 1915, writer-director-star Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Raised in Chicago starting at age four and educated at the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, Welles began his career as a teenager by creating and performing in theatrical productions at Todd and by working on a school radio station. As Welles began to act in more and bigger stage and radio projects in the 1930s, his career as an actor and director took off in New York (with his Mercury Theatre company) and across the country. After his notorious, panic-inducing “War of the Worlds” radio program broadcast on October 30, 1938, Welles was offered a contract with film production company RKO Radio Pictures that offered him total artistic control. Thus began one of American film history’s most interesting careers, one which was not without its failures and setbacks but which always entertained and enriched the minds of the viewers. Here are seven top-notch examples of films he acted in and/or directed, all excellent choices for becoming acquainted with Welles.

Citizen Kane (1941) – When asked once what film might screen on a constant loop in heaven and which free (including calorie-free) moviegoing snack would be offered, film critic Roger Ebert replied, “Citizen Kane and vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream.” Kane’s stature in pop culture has not waned for three-quarters of a century, consistently acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made and a neverending source of discussion with regard to its technical achievements, particularly the use of deep-focus in the black-and-white cinematography by Gregg Toland and the beautiful score by composer Bernard Herrmann (his first!). The film also launched major careers for many of the actors in its cast, besides Welles himself: Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Everett Sloane, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris and others all saw their prominence in Hollywood grow after performing in the film.

Jane Eyre (1943) – For years the rumor has been that Welles directed much of this film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic Gothic novel, rather than the director who received credit, Robert Stevenson. Whether that’s true or not, Welles gives a terrific performance as Rochester, paired perfectly with lovely Joan Fontaine as Jane. Bernard Herrmann’s score is possibly my favorite out of everything he composed for film, while George Barnes’ cinematography perfectly captures the moody atmosphere of the moors, making this Jane Eyre a romantic classic.

The Stranger (1946) – Welles’ most underrated directorial effort is a tense, intelligent thriller about evil lurking in suburban America after the end of World War II. Loretta Young plays a woman caught in Welles’ web when she marries him, unaware that he is a war criminal intent on bringing the Nazis back into power. Edward G. Robinson is the federal agent hot on Welles’ trail, ably supported by a cast including Philip Merivale, Richard Long, Konstantin Shayne, Billy House (a scene-stealer as a checkers-playing druggist) and Martha Wentworth. The film’s script was written by Anthony Veiller, a talented scribe who penned the screenplay for the noir classic The Killers that same year. Russell Metty’s cinematography gives added flair as well.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) – The marriage of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth made for one of Hollywood’s most scintillating (if short-lived) couples. Their lone onscreen pairing in this weird yet intoxicating film noir needs to be seen by all film buffs, reveling in the strangeness of Welles’ Irish accent, Hayworth’s short platinum-blonde hairdo and Everett Sloane’s performance as Hayworth’s psychotic, crippled husband. As the film reaches its dizzying climax in a mirrored funhouse – all the more suspenseful thanks to Viola Lawrence’s editing of the scene – one wonders how Welles ever convinced Columbia Pictures that the end result would make any sense.

The Third Man (1949) – As enigmatic opportunist Harry Lime, Welles is both a charmer and a menace. Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli get top billing, but as soon as Welles shows up, you know that he’s the center of the film. (Actually, you get that sense long before he appears; he’s one of those figures spoken of in hushed tones, though it takes quite some time before he actually steps in front of the camera.) If you are a fan of director Carol Reed or the film’s writer, Graham Greene, you will definitely be more curious about this film, but even if you are not a connoisseur of British cinema you will be entranced by Anton Karas’s zither-friendly score and Robert Krasker’s cinematography (including the final shot to end all final shots).

Touch of Evil (1958) – Orson Welles encountered great difficulty in getting this, the last true film noir, to the screen as he intended it. Luckily film preservationists took the time and effort to restore this masterpiece of seedy intrigue, the story of a Good Cop (Charlton Heston) versus a Very, Very Bad Cop (Welles) in a town on the borderline between the U.S. and Mexico. Some of Welles’ old pals show up in the cast (Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Ray Collins, a cameo by Joseph Cotten) and you will not soon forget the appearances by Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver and Marlene Dietrich either. Take note of Russell Metty’s cinematography too; the film’s famous opening shot is a uncut tracking shot following a car crossing the border. The vehicle is a literal ticking time-bomb in a take that lasts an unbroken three and a half minutes.

The Trial (1962) – Unusual and surreal, Welles’ adaptation of the 1926 novel by Franz Kafka takes one nightmarish turn after another, dragging protagonist Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) through an endless series of torturous interrogations for charges that are not explained to him. Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Elsa Martinelli drift through different scenes, as well as Welles stalwart Akim Tamiroff, but it is Welles’ own role as “The Advocate,” doling out philosophical advice for the hapless Josef K., that will stay with the audience as surely as Anthony Perkins’ performance will. In the wake of Psycho, I’m sure a lot of people were confused as to how to view Perkins or what kinds of roles he should be cast in, but Welles certainly gave him a superb showcase. If you need evidence of Welles as an “auteur” after Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, this is one film that proves it.


2 thoughts on “Orson Welles Centennial: Seven Films You Should See

  1. I guess I hadn’t stopped to think about it for so long, but it shocked me to see 1915 as Welles’ birth date. Maybe it’s because his talent continues to be legendary. I would love to make it through the list of all the movies you’ve mentioned. There are at least four here I know I’ve never seen, and perhaps with the exception of Citizen Kane, I haven’t seen any of them in more than twenty years. You’ve inspired me to have a few movie nights!

    • That’s great! I hope you discover some new favorite films. I have a particular affection for The Stranger, which I just saw again recently, as well as Touch of Evil, which I haven’t seen in many years but which left a permanent mark on my growing movie-loving brain when I was a youngster.

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