By the end of the Great Depression, cinema was at a standstill, sound made the movies into talkies and the invention of Technicolor transported Dorothy into Oz. But sound and color were only aesthetics. Cinematic storytelling was not progressing. Directors and producers found themselves stuck in a studio system that pigeonholed their experimentation. Not since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) had storytelling in movies progressed. What was needed was something drastic to evolve the way filmmakers told their stories. It was going to take an unprecedented boring legal document giving a director carte blanche and shook Hollywood to its core and changed cinema from a popular entertainment into being discussed as an art form. It was going to take Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Of course, Welles did not did this alone, you cannot make a Hollywood film alone, but as his career shows: The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Macbeth, Chimes at Midnight, Don Quixote, F for Fake, etc. the cinematic milestone Citizen Kane was not a fluke nor was, as Pauline Kael would have you believe, the film a result of everyone except Orson Welles. His filmography is filled with masterpieces, uncompleted, and unreleased films. He lived during a time when cameras were getting smaller and film stock was getting cheaper. The advance of technology allowed Welles to put his stories and images on film without the need for a large Hollywood crew. Unfortunately his later films such as Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake, and The Other Side of the Wind were not widely released or not released at all. In the age of the internet and DVD and blu-rays audiences now have a chance to rediscover the work of Orson Welles.
The virtual library that is Netflix lets you order the DVD of any Welles’ works no matter how obscure. You might have to wait a couple of days for the DVD to show up in the mail, but it’s worth it. But, if you are one of those people with no patience and like instant gratification you can find his film on iTunes for download (Citizen Kane, F for Fake, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady of Shanghai, The Trial, and The Stranger). It will cost you just short of twenty-eight dollars to rent and just short of one hundred-four dollars to buy the films. You can find the same films on Amazon to stream and some of them are free (with a subscription to Amazon prime).
What about the less popular films? Well, that’s when you get into murky waters. I could tell you that you can find some of them on YouTube or other streaming websites, but I’m not. Understand? Good.
I have spent the last few weeks watching all the films that Welles directed and I have made three main observations.
Citizen Kane might be the film that had the largest impact on cinema as a whole, but it is not Welles’s best film. What do I mean by that? Welles took all that he learned in the sixteen years since his debut film and put it into Touch of Evil. What is Touch of Evil if not Citizen Kane redux? The film chronicles the rise and fall of Hank Quinlan, and like Kane, Quinlan was once an idealist who becomes morally corrupt. By the time of the making of Touch of Evil Welles had been the wunderkind who had suffered a precipitous fall from grace. This led to a better performance as Quinlan; you can see the wear and tear in Welles’ eyes.
As a lifelong FDR liberal Welles constantly fought for those marginalized by society or the Government. He used his influence on radio in the 1940s to bring awareness to the struggle for Civil Rights. In his films such as Citizen Kane, The Trial, and Touch of Evil Welles’s points to the plight of the underprivileged by the wealthy (Kane), the state (The Trial), and the police (Touch of Evil).
Never a cookie cutter director, Welles never fit into Hollywood. Watch Citizen Kane (1941) and F for Fake (1973) and notice the difference.
I only mean the completed films. The rights to his films are all mixed up, so it’s a pipe dream, but come on!