Over the last hundred years or so the world of cinema has been illuminated by a myriad of visionary artists who revolutionized the medium by reinventing it from time to time: be it Georges Méliès, D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Charles Chaplin, F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Yasujirô Ozu, Luis Buñuel, Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier, or Quentin Tarantino. But, if ever there has been a master of cinema so diverse and versatile in talent and abilities to be truly worthy of being called the consummate artist, it is the great American filmmaker Orson Welles. Prodigiously gifted, Welles was a radio jockey, playwright, theatre director, film producer, actor, screenwriter, but most importantly an auteur par-excellence. Welles worked extensively in theatre (best renowned for the 1937 Broadway play Caesar, a groundbreaking adaption of Julius Caesar), radio (the scandalous enactment of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds which tricked many listeners into believing that an actual alien invasion was taking place) and film, and is ubiquitously renowned for his indelible contribution to all the three media.
"Most of his greatest works invariably featured a singular performance from Welles that remained permanently etched in the minds of his viewers."
But, it is his contribution to cinema that remains most notable. During a career that spanned over four decades, Welles produced many groundbreaking masterpieces like Citizen Kane (Welles' controversial debut film, a commercial disaster which is now widely considered as one of the greatest films ever made, for which Welles won his first and only Oscar), The Lady from Shanghai (a fascinating film noir starring Welles and the ravishing Rita Hayworth, his then wife), Touch of Evil (an eerie crime thriller in the vein of early Hitchcock films), The Trial (a Kafkaesque extravaganza), Chimes at Midnight (a film adaptation of a play based on William Shakespeare's recurring character Sir John Falstaff), F for Fake (a genre-transcending documentary film underlining Welles' multifaceted genius), etc. One essential attribute of Welles' multifaceted genius that's often overlooked (especially in comparison to his stellar stature as a master filmmaker) by scholars is his acting. Most of his greatest works invariably featured a singular performance from Welles that remained permanently etched in the minds of his viewers. Even in the movies that Welles didn't direct himself, his performances usually stood out. Take, for example, the case of The Third Man: Welles' portrayal of Harry Lime in Carol Reed's 1949 masterpiece is still considered to be one of the most remarkable cameo performances of all time.
If cinema were to write its own tale of glory then one filmmaker whose name would be engraved in golden letters for having suffered the most in order to make his art see the light of the day would definitely be Orson Welles. Throughout his career, Welles suffered miserably at the hands of supererogatory Production Studios, but he fought till his last breath to keep his works free from commercial sabotage and cheap shenanigans. Welles leveraged upon his The War of the Worlds infamy to gain the trust of his studio boss at RKO as he made full use of the carte blanche granted to him for the filming of Citizen Kane, a privilege that Welles would never enjoy again. With every new movie that Welles made, the unsolicited interference of Production Studios became more and more intolerable. His second motion picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was brutally sabotaged to almost half its length by RKO Pictures without him being even apprised. RKO Pictures justified the sabotage as a business decision taken to give the movie a happy ending. Much to Welles' chagrin, another of his masterpieces, Touch of Evil (1958) was made to suffer a similar fate.
"[I]t wouldn't be a hyperbole to hail Welles as the greatest American filmmaker of all time."
Citizen Kane, being Orson Welles' debut motion picture, fortunately happens to be his most pristine and original piece of work. It is often touted as the best film that American Cinema has ever offered. Welles was a true maverick and while his avant garde works often didn't receive the kind of attention they deserved (at the time) in his native country they were far more popular outside the US, especially Europe. Welles belonged to a very elite club of filmmakers who played a pivotal role in evolution of cinema as the definitive art form of the 20th century. In fact, it wouldn't be a hyperbole to hail Welles as the greatest American filmmaker of all time (the only other American filmmaker to be in the same league as Welles would be Stanley Kubrick). In 2002, Welles was voted the greatest film director of all time in two separate polls conducted by British Film Institute. He was voted number 16 in American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Stars list of the greatest American film actors of all time. Welles was a genius filmmaker who was far ahead of his time. It is for this reason that many of his most personal works (those snubbed at the time as well as those which couldn't be completed) are still being rediscovered and reexamined by the students of cinema all across the globe.
P.S. Readers are encouraged to watch the brilliant documentary, Orson Welles: The One Man Band (1996) to learn more about those works of Orson Welles which remain hidden in the vaults and closets of the disputed Welles' estate waiting to see the light of the day.
A version of this article was first published at A Potpourri of Vestiges.