On this day 27 years ago, great American actor, radio presenter, film director, writer and producer Orson Welles died of a heart-attack a few hours after giving his last interview on the Merv Griffin Show. The actor, who experienced a long, notorious life was found slumped over his typewriter while working on a new script- perhaps a more poignant way to go.
In his final interview, a somewhat characteristically guarded Welles discusses Rita Hayworth and turning 70, in an eerie manner that seems to allow him his final thoughts on touching moments in his life, as though it was meant to be the last interview.
Welles’ voice, more so than any other aspect of his being, is his most well-known feature; the deep, wisdom-laden voice that was always there beyond his years. The most notorious example of this was his infamous radio broadcast of H.G Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds, taken to be real by its listeners. After the event, Welles was forced to apologise for the stunt.
While his most notable work is undoubtedly Citizen Kane (1941), Welles has a long list of creative achievements, including his final film, The Immortal Story (1968). Set in the Portuguese colony of Macao in the 19th century, Welles plays the character Mr. Clay, an old, wealthy merchant who makes his clerk, Levinsky, read to him each night. Mr. Clay then expresses his desire to hear the story of a rich man who paid a dishevelled, penniless sailor to make love and father a child with his wife. Despite being childless and alone, Mr Clay decides to manifest the story, hiring a sailor and another clerk’s mistress to re-enact the story. A short film- less than an hour long- the story is nevertheless an intriguing and often neglected work in Welles’ oeuvre. It is subtle, abreast with symbolism throughout the film, with the ending scene of the porch not too dissimilar from the train station in Welles’ F for Fake (1973), another great work. Other greats included Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear (1943), Chimes at Midnight (1965) and Mr Arakadin (1955). His foray into Noir also proved fruitful with A Touch of Evil (1958).
In another interview, Welles is asked whether ‘home’ has any meaning for him, to which he responds:
Welles: Oh yes. As a kid I was moved around everywhere. I have lots of homes. But I would like to have the one.
Interviewer: You don’t have a Rosebud?
Welles (smiles): No..
Interviewer: But one must have inside oneself a sense of home…
Interviewer: You must have it…Now where is it?
Welles: That’s a wonderful question…While I sit here and think about it, all the viewers will be bored it’ll take me so long to think…I suppose it’s Woodstock, Illinois if it’s anywhere…
The interview is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tk6oQbhZRdE&feature=related
One of the comments to this clip states, ‘this was back when interviewers asked real questions.’ Similarly, what can be said about the tremendous reception of Welles’ work is that it was composed in a time when each and every scene seemed crafted with deadly precision, which is at least true for Welles’ works. Analogous to French new wave cinema, Welles, as director, used each scene itself, each angle to communicate something of significance. Of films, Welles stated, ‘A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.’ When comparing his vast body of work with the films of today, it is easy to spot the crucial difference between those films that communicate merely via the script– the obvious form of communication—and those that utilise every inch and aspect of the camera itself. Ironically, and somewhat disconcertingly, current films seem to forget or ignore that film is a visual art-form, and therefore must be taken advantage of as such.
It is with a cautious approach that great men must be talked of and about, especially where ‘greatness’ is, pessimistically or not, something that has degenerated into chaotic ubiquity. By this I mean that writing or talking about the greatness of someone like Orson Welles makes one reflect unfavourably upon the present. In a unit I am currently completing for my honours, myself and my peers are looking at Charisma and Celebrity. In his scathing essay on celebrity, The Human Pseudo-Event, Boorstin writes, ‘The universal lament of aging men [and women, like myself], in all epochs, then, is that greatness has become obsolete…Each successive age has believed that heroes—great men [and women]—dwelt mostly before its own time.’
With severe lack of clarity, it seems as though Boorstin’s grim prognosis has its footing well within the twenty-first century culture. While it’s debatable whether Boorstin’s essay may have been referring, intentionally or not, to Welles, we can certainly place the man in this seemingly ‘obsolete’ category of greatness.
American writer Rodger Jacobs compares Welles to the equally egotistic detective Sherlock Holmes in his essay, A Man of a Certain Ego (2010):
“There are numerous similarities in the psychological make-up of Orson Welles and Doyle’s famous fictional detective, both men possessing extraordinary intellectual gifts, both haunted and made dangerously restless by the “bone-deep understanding” that each individual life is but a mere speck in the cosmos.”
The rest of the article is available from Popmatters here: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/tools/full/119264
It is difficult, or at the very least tricky to discern whether Welles’ greatness surpassed that of his films. Like the chicken and egg scenario, one wonders whether Welles acquired greatness through his films, or whether his films were great because of Orson Welles. Though Welles had an interesting take, as he did on a great many aspects, on his work and life: ‘I do not suppose I shall be remembered for anything. But I don’t think about my work in those terms. It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.’