These are rich days to be a fan of Orson Welles. Some of the legendary director’s movies have recently been restored and re-released. And then there are the films lost, abandoned or left in fragments – poignant reminders of the peripatetic, disordered life Welles led as an artist. Some of these mythical titles (most notably Welles’ final major project “The Other Side of the Wind” are reportedly being reappraised and reassembled, hopefully into a form coherent enough to be released. Or not. The career of Orson Welles was filled with such blind alleys.
Thirty-one years after his death, Welles’ reputation as an innovative director of film and theater has never been greater. At least a dozen books have been published on his life and art in the past two years. Perhaps the most critically acclaimed has been the enthralling, obsessively detailed multi-volume biography by Simon Callow. “Orson Welles: One-Man Band” is the third volum.
In his preface to the first volume, “The Road to Xanadu” (1989), Callow made it clear he intended to conclude his Welles biography with a single follow-up volume. Not so fast: “The Road to Xanadu,” 700 pages in length, took the reader only as far as the release of Welles’ debut film, “Citizen Kane.” The year was 1941 and Welles was 26. “Hello Americans,” the second volume, covered the next six years of Welles’ life.
“One-Man Band” takes Welles from 1947 to 1964, a 17-year period in which he catapulted between film, theater and television with reckless bravado and bold experimentation.
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If there’s a single sad theme that binds together the many strands of Welles’ life, it was the constant lack of financial solvency. This is the reason many of his films were compromised or shut down as funding appeared and disappeared as capriciously as a desert mirage.
Welles had basically become an independent filmmaker by the 1950s, scraping together funds for his films by accepting roles in other directors’ films – a far cry from the days RKO awarded him carte blanche to make “Citizen Kane.” Disillusioned with how studios had tampered with his films or blocked their release, Welles moved to Europe in hopes of regaining artistic autonomy.
Callow provides invaluable analyses of Welles’ stage work from the 1950s. Some of the productions, such as Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” and Welles’ own “Rehearsing Moby Dick,” were as dynamic and provocative as anything Welles directed 30 years earlier with the Mercury Theater. Callow’s descriptions of these works are intriguing, enhanced by his familiarity with stagecraft and backstage maneuvering developed over a long, distinguished career as an actor and director. (He’s perhaps best known in the U.S. for his role in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”)
First and foremost, Welles obeyed the siren song of cinema. The most important achievement of this biography is that it upends the myth of the post-Kane slide into irrelevance. The chapter on “Touch of Evil,” for example, helped me to appreciate that complex crime film in thrilling new ways.
“One-Man Band” concludes with the release of “Chimes at Midnight,” the glorious amalgamation of “history plays” that showcase Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff. Boisterous and magniloquent, a thorn in the side of authority, Falstaff was the role Welles seemed always destined to play.
The film would turn out to be Welles’ final feature-length film, although he lived another 20 years.
But as Callow points out: “He never stopped, not for one waking moment, trying to tell stories he believed mattered, in the way in which he wanted to tell them, always striving to progress a medium that he felt had hardly begun to fulfill its potential.”
Sam Shapiro is a manager and film programmer at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
Orson Welles: One-Man Band
By Simon Callow
Viking Press; 466 pages