Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ranked & Revisited: Orson Welles



As I was putting together my last "Ranked & Revisited" entry on Akira Kurosawa, I was left to ponder just which filmmaking career I'd next embark upon. I weighed a few options-- Bergman, Cassavetes, Imamura-- before I realized that I had seen all but a couple of Orson Welles films, a director whose career I find to be just about the most curiously fascinating amongst all great American auteurs. What's difficult, of course, when it comes to establishing a hierarchy of this sort-- not matter how arbitrary-- is the simple fact that very few of Welles' Hollywood films were seen through to completion by the man himself. In most every case-- the exceptions, of course, being Citizen Kane & Macbeth-- the films of Welles' Hollywood career were taken from him in the editing stage to be completed by a series of studio execs and assistants.

Thus, in most cases, we only have a fragment of what the films could have been had they been finished to Welles's specifications. Graciously, we have Welles aficionados such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and Peter Bogdanovich (among others) who have taken it upon themselves to help resurrect a handful of these films via surviving elements and in some cases Welles's personal production notes and editing memos. Of course, even these new versions of films such as Mr. Arkadin & Touch of Evil can't be considered definitive, since Welles was in constant creative mode, but they do represent the best available reconstructions of these vital pieces of filmmaking.

Which is a long way of saying that this list, more than any other in this quasi series, should be taken in the spirit of the proceedings. A few of these films (such as The Magnificent Ambersons & The Lady from Shanghai) only exist in tampered form, and thus can't be properly weighed against Welles's European productions such as The Trial and Chimes at Midnight, two films which obviously represent his total and unique creative vision. Thus, Citizen Kane takes the top spot here kind of by default, despite not being even amongst my personal favorites of Welles's work. In remains, however, the most influential American film ever made, and by status alone must be given it's due.

A few remaining notes on just what is included though: Welles left a bevy of unfinished projects in the wake of his 1985 death, including such tantalizing productions as Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind (the latter apparently all but finished, yet in a constant state of legal entanglement). Therefore, I've limited this list to the twelve films that Welles actually released to theaters. He did technically complete Filming Othello in 1978, but despite a few specialty screenings over the years in New York, the film has never been properly released. On the other hand, he made a one-hour movie for French television in 1968 (The Immortal Story) that later found its way onto a double bill with Luis Bunuel's Simon of the Desert here in the States. Thus, I include it on a technicality, despite not necessarily being anywhere close to my favorite of Welles' work.

Beyond that, I'll leave it up to you the reader to sift through this small but elusive catalogue, as we Americans have been left to suffer through inferior DVD releases of many of these films for years now, including the unfortunate fate of a few that have never even made they're way to the digital format in the States. Therefore, it can be a frustrating journey to track down a lot of these films (and one, in should be noted, that could be clouding my opinion of Othello, since I've never seen anywhere near a decent, let alone audible, print of the film), but without a doubt one of the most rewarding undertakings any serious film fan should pride themselves on.

01. Citizen Kane (1941)
02. Touch of Evil (1958)
03. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
04. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
05. Mr. Arkadin (1955)
06. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
07. The Trial (1962)
08. Macbeth (1948)
09. F for Fake (1974)
10. Othello (1952)
11. The Stranger (1946)
12. The Immortal Story (1968)

Previous "Ranked & Revisited" entries:

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