October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
I choose Orson Welles for the simple reason that an orthodoxy has been established that amounts to a great ice sheet. Anyone asked the name of the greatest American film ever made —or even the best film produced anywhere—answers
The best demonstration of this is the widespread assertion that Citizen Kane is a very clever, cold, intellectual, tricksy film that pioneered all manner of new techniques. There’s truth in that assertion. But it is much more urgent to feel the film. Citizen Kane is an intensely emotional picture in which a great egotist measures achievement against utility. In that sense it is Welles at 25 realizing that he had almost certainly done his best work and beginning to sense the desperation of wondering what else he could do.
Equally, just because it was so far ahead of its time and a period piece, it is not always easy to see that Citizen Kane is a prediction about personality in politics and self-absorption in power in the years yet to come.
So the acceptance of Kane deters its proper appreciation. The film is both overrated and ignored. There should be a moratorium on it. It should become impossible to see, as it was in 1952, when it did not figure in the Sight & Sound poll.
Ladies and gentlemen, clearly the most criminally underrated director in world film is … Orson Welles. For all the reasons indicated above, the public has taken up an increasingly rigid attitude that whereas Citizen Kane is great, and perhaps the greatest, Welles went into a helpless decline thereafter and could never match his own heights. Further, he was temperamentally so arrogant and difficult that he could never again find the ideal working conditions he had had on Citizen Kane at RKO. Therefore, it’s all downhill after 1941.
What nonsense. If Orson Welles had only ever made
But suppose all of Ambersons had been dropped to the bottom of the ocean (that’s what became of Welles’s ending to the film), do you realize that we would have nothing left but Macbeth , Othello , Chimes at Midnight , Touch of Evil , Confidential Report , The Lady From Shanghai , The Stranger , The Trial , The Immortal Story , F for Fake , and whatever else may yet emerge from his muddled archive. This will one day include The Other Side of the Wind , a nearly complete feature film. And make no mistake about it, directors who win Oscars these days and who have accumulated medium-sized fortunes would probably surrender an arm, a mistress, and a wife to have made just one of those films.
The same person also played Harry Lime in The Third Man , adapted Moby Dick for the stage and The War of the Worlds on radio, did magic tricks on television, and talked the best, funniest, and wickedest at any dinner table. He wrote speeches for FDR. He romanced Rita Hayworth. No matter how highly we place him, we underrate Orson Welles.