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When auteurs are actors

We go over roles by Orson Welles, John Huston, and Woody Allen

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When director Orson Welles needed money to finish a movie, actor Orson Welles took over, helping to raise it by appearing in other filmmakers’ pictures. When director-actor Woody Allen sought novelty, he starred in Paul Mazursky’s Scenes From a Mall as a non-nebbish. Be it for pocket change or a change of pace, directors have often traded in their directorial hats for character costumes, sometimes with remarkable results.

Orson Welles in The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, 1949)
Welles appears for only about 20 minutes all told, but his presence as the boyishly charming, ruthless Harry Lime dominates the style of this classic, which uses the kind of cinematic devices associated more with Welles (Citizen Kane) than with Carol Reed (Oliver!) — askew camera angles, deep focus, and shadowy figures. A

Eric Von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard (dir. Billy Wilder, 1950)
Creemusing, Wilder’s piercing parable on the cult of celebrity is full of insight into the destructiveness of self-delusion. Von Stroheim plays the butler, Max, a former director whose silent stares and cryptic comments paint an unnerving picture of a man destroyed by an all-consuming love. A

John Huston in Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski, 1974)
Huston, whose presence links this 1970s film noir to his own dark thrillers of the ’40s (The Maltese Falcon), is exquisitely cast as the personification of unstoppable evil. His folksy manner and craggy, weather-beaten face veil a juggernaut of immorality that will stop at nothing to prevail. A

Wody Allen in The Front (dir. Martin Ritt, 1976)
Allen essentially plays the character he created for himself in his own early films — a neurotic geek — only this time he’s a geek who agrees to front scripts for blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era. Movingly, he finds his conscience. A-

François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1977)
As in his other noteworthy performance (as a filmmaker plagued with problems in his own Day for Night, 1973), Truffaut brings a probing gaze, curiosity, and a director’s authority to Claude Lacombe, a UFO scientist methodically searching for extraterrestrial life. B+

Martin Scorsese in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1990)
Scorsese may seem a bizarre choice for Vincent Van Gogh, one of many characters in this collection of short, gloomy tales. But the gritty director of GoodFellas is the personification of Kurosawa’s notion of the artist as obsessive perfectionist. Neurotically intense, fast-talking, and self-absorbed, he is driven by a powerful inner vision. B+