Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Archive for February 9th, 2011

Great Directors: Orson Welles

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Essential films: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, F for Fake

I have to admit that it took me a long time to come around to Kane. Few other movies have been so unfairly suffocated by their own reputations: advance expectations run so high, for the officially certified greatest film of all time, that it nearly overwhelms what is really, as Pauline Kael points out, the fastest and frothiest of all newspaper comedies. At least, that’s how it plays at first. But as time goes on, thanks largely to David Thomson, I’ve found depths in Kane that probably weren’t evident even to its creator, who was, in fact, the secret subject of his own movie. Citizen Kane is a prophetic foreshadowing of the career of Orson Welles, the boy wonder who plays only a handful of scenes in his own face, and its power grows all the greater as the years take us further away from the incredible physical fact of Welles himself.

And the movie wouldn’t be able to sustain the weight of such baggage, or scrutiny, if it weren’t so intricate and beautiful a toy—a labyrinth without a center, as Borges notes. Of all the faces in Kane, the one that stays with me most is that of George Coulouris, as Thatcher, scowling, at the end of the closing credits, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” No other film has made the art of movies seem like such mischievous fun for boys, and though Welles’s vision darkened over the years, that sense of delight is never entirely gone. It’s there throughout Touch of Evil, and it’s wonderfully evident in F for Fake, his last film, a feat of sleight of hand that even Exit Through the Gift Shop can’t hope to match. In the end, Welles’s life remains, as David Thomson says, “the greatest career in film, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.”

Tomorrow: Akira Kurosawa and the triumph of storytelling.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2011 at 7:37 am

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