Was Orson Welles the greatest director of all time? Yes. No. Maybe. Impossible to say. Welles only made 12 or 13 or 14 feature films while he was alive, depending on if you count documentaries, lost movies, or butchered masterworks. He made films too short to be features, too long to be short films. Welles died 30 years ago; there may yet be one more Orson Welles movie, The Other Side of the Wind, a vaguely-unfinished autobiographical wormhole that recently inspired a great new book. Appropriate, since most of Orson Welles’ best movies were still less interesting than the story behind his movies.
If Welles is not the greatest director of all time, he is unquestionably the most fun director to write about. Insanely ambitious early success; globetrotting sojourns as an itinerant genius-raconteur-playboy through midcentury Europe; wives, mistresses, some of them appearing onscreen in movies directed by Welles. You could make a line of action figures out of Welles: The handsome young Broadway dynamo, the dashing renegade filmmaker, the Shakespeare fanboy in cheap period attire, the bearded mystic in an all-black outfit that disguised and hyperbolized the bloat therein.
But for the same reason, Welles can seem impenetrable to the layman. Worry not. Here’s how to become a Welles connoisseur, in seven easy steps.
1. Watch Citizen Kane
Some people have never watched Citizen Kane. I get it. It’s old. And it’s been called “the greatest” way too much. It’s The Wire problem: The more people say that something is THE GREATEST [whatever] OF ALL TIME, the harder it is to force yourself to watch it. And when you do finally force yourself to watch THE GREATEST [whatever] OF ALL TIME, the only natural response is to check your watch after five minutes and wonder why you haven’t learned the secret mystery of human existence already.
So watch Citizen Kane. It is two hours long. That means it is eleven hours shorter than that disappointing season of House of Cards you just watched. It is half an hour shorter than Avengers: Age of Ultron. (Imagine if someone made the life story of Thanos, instead of making Thanos do nothing for 11 movies.) Like, when Game of Thrones and Mad Men are both finished this year, you might find yourself all alone on Sunday night, wishing that you had something to watch. Here’s an idea: Before you talk yourself into thinking Halt and Catch Fire is something you actually care about, watch Citizen Kane instead.
You might not get it. Parts of the movie feel like the definition of old-timey farce. (Dancing girls!) Parts of the movie feel like depressive Swedish films. (Oo, mirrors!) There’s a lot of old-age makeup, and we’ve become weirdly snotty about old-age makeup. (“That doesn’t look real!” said the modern viewer, pointing at a movie that isn’t real.) To the modern eye, certain aspects of Citizen Kane seem extremely on-the-nose. So many of the technical and narrative advancements of Citizen Kane were absorbed immediately into filmmaking—so there’s also a bit of the Avatar problem with Citizen Kane, the sense that something was much cooler before everybody else learned those tricks.
But at a certain point, believe me, you will groove onto Citizen Kane. What makes the movie still work, I think, is its perspective on time. Every single character you meet in Citizen Kane grows old. (Some of them die offscreen.) The movie is a chronicle of dreams dying, slowly or all at once. This is why you have to watch Citizen Kane first: Orson Welles only makes sense when you realize that he predicted his own weird life.
2. Watch the outtakes from this commercial featuring an old, smashed Orson Welles
To be a fan of Welles is to be a fan of his movies, and also a fan of the glorious ruin he could make of his life. Welles was a consummate performer—he had a voice that could pay the bills—and one of the great party guests. The combination of the two goes supernova in that champagne commercial. The key moment comes at :52, when Welles—looking three sheets to the (other side of the) wind—rubs his forehead, hears the director say “Action!”, and snaps into character, unleashing a primal “maaaaHAAAAAA.”
3. Watch the mirror scene from The Lady From Shanghai
Welles might actually make more sense in the era of streaming video and YouTube, when 20th-century notions of “film” and “television” and what defines a “motion picture” have all gotten mixed up into a postmodern stew. Welles made brilliant features, but you could chop even his best movies into individual short films. (Just look at Citizen Kane: The Girl with a Parasol. Scenes From a Marriage. The Man Who Clapped.)
You should maybe watch all of The Lady From Shanghai. I don’t blame you if you don’t. It’s a bit slow. Also, it’s cuckoo for coca puffs. Just skip straight to the good part: The climactic mirror scene, which is like the whole history of film noir in under three minutes.
4. Watch Orson Welles talk about the mirror scene on The Dick Cavett Show
The three things to take away from this interview (which is online in chunks):
1. Welles walks onto the set of a talk show in the 1970s and immediately begins deconstructing the foundation of the TV medium. Welles, tangentially existential: “I still think everything is live. I wish it were.”
2. Almost a quarter-century after making The Lady From Shanghai, Welles is still visibly upset about the music in the mirror scene.
3. Welles on Harry Cohn: “I liked him. He was a monster. But they all were.”
5. Watch Touch of Evil
Start with the opening scene, one of the great single takes.
Then do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie. Touch of Evil has a reputation as Welles’ more approachable masterpiece. (It’s fascinating to think that the same man made Citizen Kane; imagine if F. Scott Fitzgerald was also Raymond Chandler.) Some stuff hasn’t aged well—androgynous leather-jacket rapist drug gang; Charlton Heston, Mexican. But there’s something utterly unrepentant about Touch of Evil. The movie seems to despise people on either side of Touch of Evil‘s border town; imagine if Anton Chigurh could direct his own version of No Country For Old Men. Which makes the sad humanity of the movie’s final act all the more surprising.
6. Watch The Third Man
Welles didn’t direct The Third Man, and he doesn’t appear until late. When he does appear, he steals everything: The movie, America’s postwar optimism, your innocence. Don’t let the jaunty music fool you: The Third Man is darker than a black hole.
I’m hesitant to post the Ferris Wheel scene, since it plays much better in context—but every single line Welles says here belongs in a museum.
7. Watch the “Chartres” interlude from F for Fake
F for Fake is, more or less, the last feature film Welles directed. It’s a documentary about an art forger. Wait, no, it’s a documentary about the fake Howard Hughes biography. Wait, no, it’s a movie about Orson Welles cosplaying Gandalf the Grey cosplaying George R. R. Martin. No, it’s a love letter to Welles’ girlfriend. No, it’s a movie about movies. Look, sweet church!
Bizarrely, F for Fake might actually be Welles’ most approachable movie from a modern internet-generation perspective. It skips freely between narrative tangents and directorial styles. The central motif of the movie—What is reality, anyhow?—was practically the only motif in movies for a few years there. (F for Fake is like Welles inventing Catfishing four decades early.) But the standout segment of the movie is just Welles reflecting—on art; on time; on life, the universe, and everything.
F for Fake arrived in 1973. In 1985, Welles died. In 1986, he voiced a giant all-consuming cyber-planet. And now, in 2015, he would be 100 years old.