The beard and the baritone helped.
In 1981, in one of his umpteen efforts to pick up a paycheck and to remain a force on screen, Orson Welles appeared in The Man Who Saw Tomorrow — a “documentary” that feebly endeavors to establish the veracity of various prognostications of Nostradamus. The project is preposterous, but it is made no more so by the presence of Welles, who, at the age of 65, possessed something of the gravity of Winston Churchill and the dimensions of Santa Claus. Nursing a cigar, Welles introduces his subject with great panache. “We’re going to look at this man — this Michel de Nostredame,” he says. “He was a respected French physician whose predictions of the future have mystified scholars for over 400 years . . .”
At 65, Welles was at an age that suited him. Pauline Kael had already written, in reference to his film Chimes at Midnight (1965), that Welles had “grown into his voice; he’s not too young for it anymore, and he’s certainly big enough.” The beard and the baritone allowed him to retain his dignity even as he was talking up Nostradamus or banging the drum for Paul Masson wine. Welles, who was born in 1915, seems to have been attuned to matters of age. In a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, recounted in the book This Is Orson Welles, Welles admitted that he prized his youth and his dotage, but he declined to honor the years in between. “It’s only in your twenties and in your seventies and eighties,” he said, “that you do the greatest work.”
Simply put, middle age did not wear well on Orson Welles. In his 30s and 40s, he found himself unsettled, careening across continents and trying the patience of collaborators, in search of projects that could measure up to what he had done during his salad days: the War of the Worlds radio broadcast (1938), for example, or the twin tours de force of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
By contrast, between 1947 and 1965, Welles’s woebegone undertakings included making a series of independently produced, carelessly crafted movies, filmed mostly outside the United States, and fruitlessly attempting to transform himself into a television personality.
These misspent years are the focus of the third volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Welles, which has been proceeding at a famously ponderous pace since the publication of The Road to Xanadu in 1995. In that book, Callow navigated 26 years: from Welles’s birth to the unveiling of Citizen Kane. In Hello Americans (2006), Callow narrowed his scope to the six years that followed. Now, in One-Man Band, Callow considers Welles at the midpoint of his life.
Welles’s flaws at middle age do not seem to be very different from his flaws at any other age. He was always too cavalier about details, too disdainful of compromise, and too confident in his genius. In the period described in this book, however, these defects are magnified owing to his newly won liberation from Hollywood. “Frustrated in his dealings with every studio he ever worked for, Welles made a full declaration of independence with his film of Othello,” Callow writes, “taking on more and more of the functions associated with film-making: raising the money, designing, editing, sometimes even shooting scenes himself.”
Yet, as Callow admits, “with that freedom came the possibilities of chaos.” As production was slated to start on Othello (1952), for example, it emerged that no payment had been tendered for the actors’ costumes, rendering them unavailable. Consequently, Callow writes, the setting of the scene depicting the killing of Roderigo was switched from a street to a Turkish bath. There is some question as to whether this solution was arrived at then and there or was already in place as a contingency plan. In any event, Callow finds praiseworthy both the ingenuity of Welles and production designer Alexandre Trauner and the on-screen result. “Either way,” Callow writes, “the scene as shot has a fantastic sense of sprezzatura, a freshness and a sense of being made up as it goes along, which is everything Welles wanted in a film.”
On the other hand, Callow concedes that Welles’s grab-bag approach to acquiring film stock on Othello — “he had got stock from wherever he could” — was problematic, as was the slipshod sound recording. Such problems are not likely to go unnoticed; in fact, a great deal of the dialogue was subject to dubbing, and Callow is much too charitable when he reckons that this process resulted in the improvement of some performances. Even more dubious is Callow’s assertion that Welles’s decision to personally dub actor Robert Coote (who plays Roderigo) makes a certain thematic sense: “Coote . . . is unmistakably voiced by his director, with the result that the character Roderigo becomes even more of a puppet than usual.” Also lamely excused: the sorry sight of Welles performing in a 1956 New York City Center production of King Lear while sidelined in a wheelchair, owing to a pair of broken ankles. Sorry, but Welles’s pre-performance request that the audience ignore the wheelchair was not “a bold piece of showmanship.”
Then there is the case of Welles’s next film, the overdone would-be thriller Mr. Arkadin (1955). Seven variants emerged in the editing room, Callow writes, “some supervised by Welles, others not, many of them almost identical but for different dialogue dubbed over the same scene, without any real correlation between the words and the actors’ lips — a somewhat surreal experience.” Callow maintains that the septet of Mr. Arkadins represents “hog-heaven for Welles scholars,” but such a sentiment is at odds with ordinary audiences’ expectations. Is it unreasonable to ask that a film’s dialogue be in sync?
When making the first-rate film noir Touch of Evil (1958) for Universal, Welles was permitted to follow his flights of fancy — for example, adding at the eleventh hour the great actress Mercedes McCambridge to the cast as the chief tough among a gang harassing Janet Leigh. “This, too, is Welles in his element,” Callow writes, “joyously playing with the best electric train set a boy ever had: being able to summon actors and mould them into pleasing and interesting shapes.”
The studio’s alterations to the picture in editing — to which Welles strenuously took exception — dimmed but did not destroy it. Referring to reshoots taken to smooth out aspects of the film, studio executive Edward Muhl wrote to Welles: “It is my definite feeling that this will not impair the fine creative contribution you have already made to the picture which I duly appreciate.” Callow mocks this “formal legalistic language,” but a more generous perspective would take Muhl at his word: The executive sought commercial and artistic success. Later, Callow sensibly frames the disagreement this way: Universal desired “something punchy, effective, instantly graspable,” while Welles was working toward “something subtle, sophisticated, complex.”
Would Welles’s career have been all that impoverished if he had, occasionally, settled for putting his name on “something punchy, effective, instantly graspable”? Does that not describe many of the finest films ever made in Hollywood, from Stagecoach to North by Northwest? In his refusal to call a truce with the studios, and his decision to become a “one-man band,” Welles resembles, I think, architect Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, who could not brook even a modest compromise in design. Not a way to build buildings or to make movies.
And so Welles returned to going it alone. In 1965, as this book winds down, the director does conjure a masterwork, Chimes at Midnight, in which Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and Falstaff are made center stage in selections from several plays. “Heart and mind, form and content, casting and location, technology and manpower — all meshed perfectly,” Callow writes, but allow me to add some caveats: The film’s extraordinary beauty exists in spite of the troubles of Welles’s flying-solo years, including feckless editing and substandard sound. In a quote taken from my book Orson Welles Remembered, editor Frederick Muller observes that Welles would become “bored” by the film and start cutting: “And he didn’t allow for an audience who saw it for the first and only time to absorb what was happening before going into the next scene.”
Worse, Welles’s angle on the story — that Prince Hal is unspeakably sinful for jettisoning Falstaff — is consistent with the worldview of a very conceited man. Let us not forget that, in anecdotes included in Callow’s book, Welles advances the fiction that he wrote all of Harry Lime’s lines (rather than one speech) in The Third Man (1949). He also insisted to director Richard Fleischer that his rude treatment of a stills photographer on a movie set was justified by a kind of cinematic divine right of kings: “‘Good God, Orson!’ I said, ‘You treated that poor guy as though you were royalty,’” Fleischer recalled. “‘I am royalty!’ replied Welles.”
No matter what season of life Welles was in, his flaws in character and vision remained constant.
– Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.