THAT NIGHT the curtain rose twenty minutes late in the Paris Theatre where Orson Welles was the main attraction; Orson Welles, the producer and principal actor of The Blessed and The Damned written by himself in collaboration with Milton, Dante and Marlowe, as the program explains.
The angry audience, stamping their feet impatiently, fortunately never suspected that my own dinner-table interview with Welles had been the cause of that delay; the fact was that, engrossed in conversation, we both completely forgot to look at the time. Much as I regretted the result, I could not help feeling that—from the mere journalistic point of view—this was not exactly a failure, considering that Orson Welles had started our talk with the plain statement: “You highbrows writing on movies are nuts! In order to write about movies you must first make them”
He was still as unconventional and unafraid of shocking anybody as when I first met him three years ago on his arrival in England. On that occasion, towards the end of a reception given in his honor by Sir Alexander Korda, he started a heated discussion on Hamlet with Eileen Herlie (just then playing in Laurence Olivieri film) and myself. When the executives of London Films approached him, pointing out that the reception was practically finished and they were going home, Welles replied undisturbed, “I bid you farewell then, gentlemen, but I am just having a most interesting talk with these folks here, and I would like to continue if you don’t mind.” And then, while the lights went out one after another and the waiters were clearing the tables, Welles—with a stunning abundance of Shakespearian quotations—proceeded to psychoanalyze Ophelia and to explain to us his conception of Hamlet as Shakespeare’s most anti-feminist play.
He must have behaved with the same dazzling self-assurance when in 1932—at the age of 17—he arrived in Dublin and obtained a part at the Gate Theatre, pretending to the manager-director, Hilton Edwards, to be one of the stars of the New York Theatre Guild. Very soon Hilton Edwards—like the rest of the world—discovered that the self-assurance was backed by original genuine talent, and he became one of Welles’ closest friends. (As a matter of fact, he is co-producer of the show running in Paris at present, and plans to direct Welles’ next film.) The prodigy attracted worldwide attention in 1936 with his production of Macbeth with an all Negro cast, and again in 1938 with his radioplay on the invasion from Mars. Its unsurpassed realism created a panic in the United States at the time and led to an abrupt end of the young author’s brilliant broadcasting career.
Undismayed by countless failures, Orson Welles founded his own theatre, wrote, produced, acted and concentrated on the study of Shakespeare, poured out new ideas. In 1939 he turned to the cinema and in 1941 produced Citizen Kane, one of the most controversial films of the last decade. Admired by a discerning minority, hated and bitterly attacked by more or less inarticulate majorities in most countries, the picture did not bring the financial results expected, but it established Welles’ name in the cinema. It cost him that unlimited freedom hardly ever given before to a film-maker by Hollywood executives; a freedom that is to him an essential condition of creative film-work. Lack of this condition is discernible in the pictures that followed: The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey into Fear, The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger.
The derogatory statement about serious cinema journalists coming from a man of such achievements—a man who at 35 still gives the impression of an exuberant, brilliantly seductive child prodigy—did not sound offensive at all. It was pronounced with a twinkling smile and in a perfectly charming manner, so typical of Welles—but when I asked him to substantiate it, he erupted:
“Well, I cannot swallow all the sacrosanct principles and accepted truths underlying the writings of people who try to deal seriously with the problems of films. For one, you all seem to start from the article of faith that a silent picture is necessarily better than a sound one. . . .”
My puzzled expression and a timid attempt at interruption were of no avail. All signs of my disagreement and bewilderment were swept aside by a grandiloquent hand movement.
“What I mean to say,” he continued, “is that you always overstress the value of images. You judge films in the first place by their visual impact instead of looking for content. This is a great disservice to the cinema. It is like judging a novel only by the quality of its prose. I was guilty of the same sin when I first started writing about the cinema. It was the experience of film-making that changed my outlook.
“Now I feel that only the literary mind can help the movies out of that cul-de-sac into which they have been driven by mere technicians and artificers. That is why I think that today the importance of the director in film-making is exaggerated, while the writer hardly ever gets the place of honor due to him. To me people like Marcel Pagnol or Jacques Prévert mean more than any others in the French cinema. In my opinion the writer should have the first and the last word in film-making, the only better alternative being the writer-director, but with the stress on the first word.”
When I pressed for actual examples to illustrate this theory (which sounds somewhat startling from a man made famous by the visual impact of Citizen Kane), Orson Welles produced one without hesitation:
“Take a picture that has become a classic, and deservedly so: La Femme du Boulanger. What have you got there? Bad photography, inadequate cutting and a lot of happenings which are told instead of shown. But there is a story and an actor—both superb—which makes it a perfect movie. The story is not even particularly “cinema.” I think I could make a play out of it in one evening, if I wanted to.
“This example illustrates perhaps better than anything else what I mean when I talk about the primary importance of the film story. I certainly don’t refer merely to the anecdotal value, that you can summarize in a brief outline like: ‘She slaves for 20 years to repay that pearl necklace, and then it proved to be a fake. . . .’ It is really more a combination of human factors and basic ideas that makes a subject worth putting on the screen.”
It turns out that Orson has been considerably impressed by the Italian neo-realists, but for reasons which fit into the line of his argument. He was struck by Vittorio de Sica’s lyric power, partieularly as expressed in Sciuscia, while he thinks Bicycle Thieves more commercial and slick, but less observed. To him de Sica’s greatness lies in his being a writer-director in the Chaplin tradition. Together with Carol Reed he has been fighting tooth and nail to get one particular de Sica story which was just “an ideal subject for a great movie.” But in the end de Sica decided to make the film himself. Among the younger generation he considers Renato Castellani one of the most promising directors, and is very enthusiastic about his E Primavera.
Although in the course of conversation Orson underlines several times that he is essentially a theatre man and “rather hazy on the subject of movies,” the continuous flow of ideas cascading from his lips with fervor and conviction belies these affirmations.
“I definitely prefer to act on the stage than before the camera,” he says. “I find film-acting extremely exhausting, both mentally and physically, and I honestly believe I am not a good movie-actor. Even so, I prefer acting to directing, and I prefer writing to anything. Cinema as a medium of expression fascinates me, of course, but ever so often—when directing—I ask myself whether we really know what we are doing and whether there is any reasonable proportion between the thousands of man-hours spent on the director’s job and the final result. And then, I hate the worries connected with the financial and administrative side of film-making. . . .”
But between statements brought forward with utmost sincerity there are flashes of half humorous exaggeration obviously designed to produce a certain effect. They make me think of André Bazin’s most fitting remark: “Welles possède en effet, parmi beaucoup d’autres, le génie du bluff. Il le traite comme l’un des beaux-arts au même tître que la prestidigitation, le cinéma ou le theâtre.”
When discussing contemporary Italian films, for instance, he suddenly remarks with a mischievous glint in his eyes: “Good as some of them are, they are largely overestimated by snobs who avidly swallow the subtitles and don’t understand a word of Italian. I can see it, now that I have mastered the language. . . . You would probably like them only half as much, if you understood the dialogue.”
At my slow-witted reply that my more than superficial knowledge of Italian led me to disagree, Welles with superb versatility turned his flash of irony into a firework of sarcasm:
“Oh, you know, this is part of a theory I once elaborated with Hitchcock in a happy moment. We decided then that in order to have a sweeping success in all the highbrow cinemas of the Anglo-Saxon world we should make a picture about nothing, in no language at all and with bad photography—but copiously subtitled. We agreed that people would scream their heads off with delight.”
I asked Welles whether his achievements of the last fifteen years or so had satisfied his ambitions. Of course they had not.
“I have lost years and years of my life,” he exclaims, “fighting for the right to do things my own way, and mostly fighting in vain. I have wasted five years writing film-scripts which no producer would accept. Among the pictures I have made I can only accept full responsibility for one: Citizen Kane. In all the others I have been more or less muzzled, and the narrative line of my stories was ruined by commercially-minded people.
“I came to Europe because in Hollywood there was not the slightest chance for me (or for anybody, at that) to obtain freedom of action. With Othello I have now at least made a picture for which I can again accept full responsibility. It is true that I would have never embarked on that project, had I known that my financial backers would withdraw. This will be in any case the last of my ‘adaptations’ as I am only interested now in putting my own stories on the screen. But left high and dry in the middle of shooting I have put every ounce of energy into this picture, and also every penny I had earned working on The Third Man, Black Rose, Prince of Foxes and Black Magic. Many people will certainly not understand why I accepted some of the parts in question. Well, the requirements of Othello are the explanation.
“I frankly don’t think that I am particularly good as Othello but even so I firmly believe that this will be a remarkable picture. I have kept as closely as possible to the original, and the only change I introduced concerns the character of Iago, as played by the Irish actor Michael MacLiammoir; I have taken from him the diabolic quality and made him more human. The motive for his actions is supplied by the implication of impotence.”
Orson is, of course, less happy about his previous Shakespeare film, Macbeth, which during its extended run in Paris has provoked a variety of comment, most of it not very flattering.
“On the first night there was a fight in the cinema between the supporters and adversaries of the picture,” he told me. “Indifference would hurt me much more. After all, the film cannot be worthless if people like Jean Cocteau like it. On the other hand I don’t take it as a compliment that the picture is having terriffic success in Germany, where people are probably attracted by the medieval savagery of the subject. I now see its many shortcomings, particularly in the remade version, but I still think that it is better Shakespeare than most stage productions of Macbeth I have seen. The worst of all is that nobody seems to judge the picture on its own grounds: as an experiment achieved in 23 days and on an extremely low budget.”
Orson Welles looks tired, and he admits he is. It is not so much the actual work on the Othello production (that took almost a year) as the worries around it that have lead to his feeling of exhaustion.
“Returning to the theatre for a while is to me a relaxation” he says with an ambiguous smile.
But his capacity for work is enormous. He treats his nightly appearances on the stage in two diametrically opposed parts as a welcome change from film-work, but his days are still occupied with the editing and dubbing of Othello. And in between he finds the time to prepare his next production.
And new films? Not for a while yet. But he entrusts me with the secret (an open one) that in his free moments (where on earth does he find them?) he is scripting a picture about sexual obsession called Lovelife.
“Despite the subject, it will not be endangered by any censorship,” he proclaims. “It will be so respectable that families will take their children to see it without the slightest hesitation. But if I succeed—the picture will shock every adult with human feelings and social conscience.”
From Sight and Sound, December 1950, pp. 314-16.