Orson Welles: Of Time and Loss

Judged by first—even second or third—impressions, Welles’s films are a triumph of show over substance. His most memorable images seem like elephantine labors to bring forth mouse-size ideas.
Orson Welles

by William Johnson

Judged by first—even second or third—impressions, Welles’s films are a triumph of show over substance. His most memorable images seem like elephantine labors to bring forth mouse-size ideas.

His films bulge with preposterously vast spaces: the echoing halls of Kane’s Xanadu; the rambling castles of Macbeth, Othello, and Arkadin; the vertiginous offices of The Trial; the cathedral-like palace and tavern of Falstaff.

His camera moves with a swagger, craning down through the sky­light of El Rancho in Kane and up over the bomb-carrying car in Touch of Evil. When the camera is still, the composition may cry out for attention with anything from multiple reflections (the hall of mir­rors in Lady from Shanghai) to a flurry of silhouettes (the battle in Falstaff).

The action often runs along the edge of violence, and sometimes topples over with a spectacular splash: Kane destroying Susan’s room after she leaves him; Mike’s brawl in the judge’s office in Lady from Shanghai; Macbeth overturning the huge banquet table after Banquo’s ghost appears; Vargas running amuck in the bar in Touch of Evil. At other times Welles expresses his love of spectacle in a show-within- a-show: the dancing girls at Kane’s newspaper party and the opera in which Susan stars; the magician’s act in Journey into Fear;1 the Chinese theater in Lady from Shanghai; the flea circus in Arkadin; the slide show that begins and ends The Trial.

What makes all these Barnum qualities really seem to stick on Welles the director is the style and appearance of Welles the actor.

 With the sole exception of Magnificent Amber sons, the bravura man­ner of Welles’s films centers around characters that he himself plays. It is Welles whose voice booms across the cavernous drawing room of Xanadu, it is Welles who overturns the banquet table at Glamis castle, it is Welles who conducts the slide show in The Trial. And the Barnum image is reinforced by his roles in other people’s films, from the tongue- in-cheek sophistries of Harry Lime in The Third Man to the flam­boyant magic of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.

Of course, showmanship can be sublime, and even the harshest critics of Welles’s films have some kind words for Citizen Kane. Judged simply by its style, the film must be accounted an impressive achieve­ment for any director, let alone a 25-year-old newcomer to the movie medium. Many of the stylistic effects that Welles used with such appar­ent ease in Kane have become common screen currency only during the last ten years—wide-angle perspective, unusually long takes, abrupt cuts, intricate leaps in time, terse vignettes, heightened natural sound, and so on. Though precedents can be found for each of these devices, Welles was the first director to develop them into a full-blown style. With the exception of some typical forties process shots, the whole of Kane looks and sounds almost as modern today as it did in 1941—a good deal more modern, in fact, than many films of 1967.

Moreover, Welles’s protean style clearly reflects the character of Kane—himself a kind of Barnum who conceals his private self behind a dazzling set of public images. It’s possible for a critic to see no deeper into Kane than this and still give the film high marks for matching style and content.

Judged by these standards, Welles’s other films are inferior. Neither their stylistic inventiveness nor their matching of style and content stands out so obviously as Kane’s. After a brilliant start, Welles’s directing career seems to decline into potboilers (Stranger, Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil), distortions of literary originals (the Shake­speare films and Trial) and a rehash of Kane—Arkadin—which demon­strates only too clearly the coarsening of his showmanship.

The foregoing view of Welles is, I believe, utterly wrong, and yet it has plausibility because it rests on a few points of truth. Arkadin, for example, is an inferior rehash of Kane, with grotesques instead of characters and with episodes loosely strung together instead of inter­locking. Macbeth, with or without due allowance for the conditions under which it was made, is often ludicrous. There are other examples which I will come to later.

But it’s difficult to maintain a balanced view of Welles’s strengths and weaknesses. While his detractors see little but empty showiness, anyone who likes most of his work runs the risk of slipping to the opposite extreme. With a filmmaker as vigorous and idiosyncratic as Welles, it’s temptingly easy to find some justification for nearly everything he does. Arkadin is based on an exciting and fruitful idea; some of the se­quences in the film are excellent; many others are exciting or fascinat­ing—and so I could go on, justifying the film piece by piece to the conclusion that it is all good. But here I’d be falling into the same trap as those who deny the originality of Kane because (for example) Renoir had previously used deep focus. It’s the total effect that counts, and just as the total effect of Welles’s deep focus is quite different from Renoir’s, and much more far-reaching, so the total effect of Arkadin falls far short of its piecemeal felicities.

Similarly, Welles’s films are showy, but this is only one side of them. The other, quieter side gives a far better clue to what his films are all about.

One of the finest scenes in Kane features no craning or dollying, no dramatic chiaroscuro, no optical distortions, no unusual sound effects, no jump cuts or, for that matter, cuts of any kind whatsoever. The reporter visits Kane’s former lawyer, Bernstein, to see if he can explain “Rosebud.” Bernstein suggests that it may have referred to some very fleeting experience in Kane’s past, and cites as an example his own memory of a girl dressed in white whom he glimpsed forty years earlier. “I only saw her for a second,” says Bernstein, “and she didn’t see me at all, but I bet a month hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought about her.” Throughout the scene the camera remains absolutely still: all one sees is the back of the reporter’s head, Bernstein at his desk, and rain falling outside the window. This unexpected plumbing of the depths of the cheery Bernstein is made all the more moving by the sudden stillness with which Welles films it.

One of Welles’s films—Magnificent Ambersons—is nearly all still­ness, or only the most leisurely of movements. Its tempo is set by the horse and buggy typical of the age that is ending when the film’s action takes place. There is indeed an extremely long, gentle dolly shot that follows George and Lucy as they ride a buggy together through the town. But the basic tempo extends even to Gene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), the man who is hastening the death of the horse-and-buggy age by designing automobiles: he walks with an easy-going gait, and he talks with measured reasonableness even under verbal attack from the arrogant George.

The elegiac mood of Ambersons sets it apart from the rest of Welles’s films, but its theme recurs in all of them, sometimes burrowing deep beneath the surface, sometimes coming out into the open as in the Bernstein reminiscence. This theme can be summed up as loss of innocence.

Bernstein’s regret for a bright moment of his youth is a minor variation of the theme. It is Kane himself who provides the first and most sustained example of lost innocence—though it is one that may easily be misunderstood. Because Freudian symbolism was just creep­ing into Hollywood films when Kane appeared, the sled named Rose­bud was widely seized upon as a psychoanalytic key to Kane’s character. It is a simpler and more lyrical symbol—of Kane’s childhood inno­cence that cannot be recovered.

Welles does not, of course, thrust a symbol at us and leave it at that. He has designed the whole film so as to bring Kane’s predicament to life before our eyes; and he does this largely by giving an almost tangible presence to the passing of time. This might be called a 3-D film, with time instead of spatial depth as the salient third dimension. Nearly everything in the film contributes to this effect: the juxtaposi­tion of scenes showing the different ages not only of Kane but also of those who know him, notably Jed Leland alternating between hand­some youth and garrulous senility, Susan between wispy naivete and sufficient toughness to leave Kane; the use of a different quality of image and sound in the newsreel of Kane’s life, adding distance to the events featured in it and, by contrast, adding immediacy to the events filmed straight; and even such normally gimmicky devices as the dis­solves from a still photograph to its subject in motion. Above all it is the structure of the film that brings Welles’s theme to life. Two strands are intertwined throughout. In the film’s present tense, there is the reporter’s vain search for the meaning of Rosebud, which mirrors the aged Kane’s own yearning for his lost innocence. Concurrently, the flashbacks into Kane’s past follow him step by step as he loses that innocence. These alternating images of past and present fuse together stereoscopically into a powerful, poignant vision of Kane’s loss.

Welles’s other films present variations of this basic theme. Whereas Kane states it comprehensively, spanning almost a lifetime of change, several of the other films focus on particular stages: on the initial inno­cence of Mike in Lady from Shanghai and of Joseph K in The Trial; on the moment of loss for Macbeth and Othello; on a time long after the loss for Arkadin and for Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil. In the other three films the theme is not tied so closely to a single character: in The Stranger, Nazi-in-hiding Franz Kindler threatens the innocent coziness of a New England village; in Falstaff, as in Ambersons, the loss of innocence lies in the transition between two historical ages.

Far from clashing with this lyrical theme, Welles’s bravura qualities enrich it. Kane’s onslaught on Susan’s room comes to a halt when he sees the snow-scene paperweight: the sudden stillness, the whiteness of the paperweight as he cradles it in his hand, his whisper of “Rose­bud” are all the more moving because of the lengthy destruction that went before. Similarly, in Touch of Evil—the most agitated of all Welles’s films—the calm of Tanya’s place draws a charge of lyrical power from the surrounding frenzy. The odd parlor, where a TV set is perched on top of a player piano, is like a time machine that whisks Quinlan away to comfort him with his distant, innocent past.

In all of his films Welles uses this contrast between movement and stillness to embody the fragility of life, to compress the change of a lifetime or even of an age into a few vivid moments. Sometimes he reverses his usual method of injecting stillness into movement. The calm flow of events in Ambersons, for example, is broken by the lively sleigh-riding sequence, its liveliness sharpened by the brightness of the snow and the airy rapidity of Bernard Herrmann’s music. The sudden release of movement gives a physical reality to the passing of time.

Falstaff is one gigantic contrast of this kind. Its opening and closing scenes form a reflective prologue and epilogue that stand apart from the main action. The epilogue is straightforward: it shows Falstaff’s bulky coffin being trundled slowly off into the distance. The prologue is more unusual. To create it, Welles has sliced half a dozen lines out of the middle of the scene in which Shallow summons potential recruits for Falstaff (Henry IV, Part II, Act III, scene ii). In these few lines Falstaff and Shallow reminisce about their youth. “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” “That we have, that we have. . . . Jesus, the days that we have seenl” Singled out in this way, the brief exchange carries a more powerful charge of nostalgia than in the scene as Shakespeare wrote it; and since the main action of the film is appended to the prologue like a huge flashback, this nostalgia affects everything that follows. Indeed, Welles has left the time and place of the prologue so vague that one may end up linking it with the epilogue, as if Falstaff and Shallow are viewing the past from some limbo outside time.

Seen in this context, such excesses of agitation as the battle scenes are only minor flaws. They do not in any way undermine the total effect of the film, of action embedded in reflection. As to other apparent excesses, they turn out to be no excesses at all. The vastness of the film’s spaces serve to deepen the sense of nostalgia. The tavern, for example, is enlarged beyond probability in much the same way that a childhood haunt is enlarged in one’s memory: this is how Fal­staff, the perpetual child, would remember it. Similarly, the wide horizons of the film’s outdoor scenes (actually shot in Spain) evoke the spacious, innocent Olde Englande that Falstaff imagined he lived in. Naturalistic settings would have called attention to the costumes, the archaic language, the theatrical structure of the scenes, everything except what’s really important—the characters and their changing world. Welles’s exaggerations give the film its human perspective.

Though nostalgia for lost innocence recurs in all the films, in none except Arkadin is there any sense of Welles repeating himself. Endless variations on his basic theme are possible, and Welles remains recep­tive to any or all of them. This is where his other Barnum characteristics —from swaggering camera to tongue-in-cheek humor—come into play. They are usually a sign of the unexpected.

In Kane, for example, when Susan makes her operatic debut, the camera suddenly takes off into the flies until it comes to rest on two stagehands, one of whom expressively grasps his nose with thumb and forefinger. The scene is very funny, all the more so because Welles builds it up with the same kind of camerawork he uses elsewhere for serious purposes: the long upward movement apes Kane’s inordinate efforts to launch Susan’s feeble talent. An even briefer example of this double-edged humor occurs in Falstaff when Sir John is lying supine on the tavern floor and Doll Tearsheet, coming to comfort him, climbs over his belly to reach his face. In one stroke Welles translates a Shakespearian metaphor into literal terms (“a mountain of flesh”) and draws both humor and poignancy out of this new slant on Falstaff’s fatness.

Welles’s ability to bring out the unexpected in things usually taken for granted is at work throughout his best films. The most obvious example is found in the opposition between old and new in Ambersons. George, who stands for the innocent age that is dying, is the film’s most objectionable character; Gene Morgan, who is helping create the age of noise and crowds and air pollution, is its most likable.

Characters like Kane and Quinlan gain depth from similar contra­dictions. Here, though, Welles avoids not only the obvious cliche of making them out-and-out monsters but [also] the less obvious cliché of making them sympathetic monsters. They do not arouse any set pattern of responses.

One’s feelings about Kane, for example, change continually from repulsion to pity, indignation to amusement. At the point where Kane is running for governor and Boss Gettys summons Kane’s wife to Susan’s apartment with intent to blackmail, one is generally sympa­thetic to Kane. But in this scene, unexpectedly, it is Gettys who behaves with dignity, and one’s sympathies switch from Kane to him. Welles accomplishes the switch without trickery: Kane behaves completely in character, and there is no suggestion that Gettys is a decent politician or has a heart of gold.

The cross-currents in Touch of Evil are even more complex, though at first sight they do not seem so: Vargas is likable and right, Quinlan is repulsive and wrong. But it so happens that Quinlan is right about Sanchez’s guilt (as he was no doubt right about many he framed in the past), which means that the moral issue between him and Vargas is not at all neat and abstract—it pivots on the possibility that a callous murderer may not only get away with his crime but his victim’s daugh­ter and wealth, too. Moreover, despite Vargas’s moral stand, he is teetering on the same brink that Quinlan stepped over decades before, when his wife’s murderer escaped punishment for lack of evidence. As soon as Vargas learns that his own wife has been abducted he too takes the law into his own hands. “I’m not a police officer, I’m a husband!” he shouts in the bar where Grandi’s gang hangs out, and when they refuse to tell him anything he tries to beat the information out of them. It is only a touch of evil indeed that separates his destiny from Quinlan’s.2

Welles’s gift for making a vivid point with some unexpected develop­ment is at work even in the minor characters of Touch of Evil. Two of these, in particular, are involved in the moral issue—or rather, repre­sent the kind of bystanders who try to avoid getting involved. The night man at the motel where Susan Vargas is being held prisoner is a weak, neurotic creature, so outraged at the slightest infringement on what he considers to be his rights that he has no thought to spare for anyone else’s rights. In most films he would merely be contemptible; Welles makes him hilarious and unforgettable. Then there is the blind woman in the store where Vargas phones his wife. As he talks, the woman stands utterly still beside a sign that reads: “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, go ahead.’’ The scene arouses no sympathy for the woman but a sense of unease. The impression is that she is trading on her helplessness, refusing to take the slightest respon­sibility for what other people may do.

Perhaps the most subtly unexpected relationships in any of Welles’s films are found in Falstaff. As portrayed by Shakespeare, Falstaff is not only lazy, gluttonous, cowardly, lecherous, dishonest, and the rest but also a great innocent. He is devoid of malice or calculation; no matter what is done to him, he remains open and trusting. He lives in a dream world where there are no politicians or policemen or pedagogues; and when Hal destroys that world by rejecting him, he does not adjust to reality but dies.

Welles magnifies this innocence both by uniting the Falstaff scenes from several plays and by establishing the strong mood of nostalgia discussed earlier. But—and this is the unexpected stroke—he does not do this at Hal’s expense. Even in the two parts of Henry IV as Shake­speare wrote them—and as they are usually produced on stage—it is hard not to take a dislike to Hal for his callousness and calculation. But Welles makes it as difficult as he can for the audience to take sides between Hal and Falstaff—or rather, to take one side and stick to it throughout.

In the film, Hal is at his least likable right at the beginning, even before the asides in which he talks of one day renouncing Falstaff’s companionship. Welles presents him as an insecure, somewhat unstable, somewhat untrustworthy-looking youth, combining the flaws of imma­turity with the shifty traits of his father.3 Then, little by little, he acquires firmness and stature. The turning point comes on the battle­field at Shrewsbury. While King Henry is parleying with the rebel Worcester, Hal and Falstaff stand listening side by side. But their reac­tions are very different: Falstaff tosses out a frivolous remark; Hal silences him with a quiet “Peace, chewet, peace!” and walks over to join his father. During the battle itself, Hal emerges suddenly in close-up from a cloud of dust and is seen for the first time wearing his Prince of Wales coat of arms. From now on he is more and more the political-minded Prince Henry, less and less the irresponsible Hal. But because Welles has made him develop into a more likable human being at the same time that he has assumed his impersonal role, the prince man­ages to appear reasonable and humane even in the final confrontation with Falstaff: “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!”

Like Gene Morgan in Ambersons, Hal is changing the world for both better and worse. His political techniques, which Shakespeare depicts more fully in Henry V, will lead to Maoism and McCarthyism, but they will also lead to honest and efficient government. While the mood of the film is in sympathy with Falstaff, Welles makes it clear that there can be no final choice between Falstaff’s anarchic freedom and Hal’s well-ordered conformity.

The struggle between tradition and progress, old and new, order and disorder is one of the most powerful forces behind Welles’s work. It is reflected in his American background and his love of Europe, and in his filmmaking that embraces both Shakespeare and modern Amer­ican thrillers.

This drive to reconcile the irreconcilable goes beyond the subjects and themes of his films. In his European-made films it is at work even in the casting, which almost seems to be done on the assumption that Europe is a single country. The entire shaping of each film from Kane through Falstaff shows a desire to burst out of commonly accepted limitations. Welles is not content with a single viewpoint—in Kane there are at least seven different ones (the reminiscences of the five people interviewed by the reporter, the newsreel, and the God’s-eye-view opening and closing scenes), while in all his films he alternates between the detachment of stationary long shots and the involvement of wide-angle close-ups or of dolly shots that stalk the action like a hungry leopard. He is not content with the straightforward flow of time—four of his films (Kane, Othello, Arkadin, Falstaff) begin with the end of the action before leaping to the beginning, and Kane continues leaping throughout; Ambersons frequently skips across the years with the most laconic of vignettes. In Touch of Evil and The Trial the leaps are not so much in time as in space.

The same drive makes itself felt in almost every aspect of Welles’s style. It is found not only in the contrast between successive scenes—from stillness to movement, as described earlier, or from silence to noise, darkness to light, and so on—but also within individual scenes, many of which contain visual extremes or discords that threaten to burst the frame. Welles is continually using a wide-angle lens to throw a gulf between foreground and background, making figures near the camera loom preternaturally large over those further away. There are more unusual optical devices: the paperweight that falls from Kane’s dying hand, covering and distorting half of the image; the hall of mirrors in Lady from Shanghai, splintering the screen into a dozen images; the magnifying glass that enlarges the flea trainer’s eye in Arkadin. In other scenes the splintering is done by highlight and shadow: the reporter gesturing in the projector beam in Kane; Mac­beth’s breastplate highlighted, the rest of him in deep shadow after his “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy; the silhouetted funeral procession in Othello; the zebra stripes of light and dark that fall on Joseph K as he runs out of Titorelli’s studio.

Welles’s persistent attempts to harness opposites and contradictions generate .a tremendous potential energy in his films. Usually this energy is released little by little, like a controlled nuclear reaction, maintaining a steady urgency that compels attention. But even his most controlled films are often on the verge of exploding. The three Shakespeare films, for example, suffer in varying degrees from incon­sistency of acting styles and accents. The French accents of Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and Marina Vlady as Lady Percy in Falstaff are the most egregious, but the roles are not central. More damage is done by Margaret Rutherford’s assumed Irish accent as Mistress Quickly, since it reduces her description of Falstaff’s death to a flat, self-conscious recitation; but Welles immediately repairs the damage in the touching epilogue of Falstaff’s coffin.

The two biggest casualties of Welles’s explosive pressure are Arkadin and The Trial. Arkadin is like a grenade that flies apart chiefly along its groovings: each episode holds together fairly well, but fails to connect with the others. The Trial is more like the nuclear explosion with which it ends: nearly everything in it disintegrates.

All the centripetal elements of Welles are present in force in The Trial. The repeated use of an extreme wide-angle lens exaggerates the depth of each scene, which is further splintered by the application of chiaroscuro to complex settings (the halls and catwalks of the law offices; Hastler’s candle-dotted apartment; the cathedral). There are abrupt leaps in space and time not only from episode to episode but frequently from scene to scene. Both the cast and the locations are multinational.

Even the style and mood of the film come in fragments. Much of the decor derives from German expressionism of the 1920s, as do the Metropolis-like scenes in the vast office where Joseph K works and the rows of bare-chested accused waiting outside the law courts. The opening scenes in Joseph K’s room are more like Hitchcock of the Rope period. The scene with Leni and Block in Hastler’s kitchen (filmed partly with a long-focus lens) have a quiet hallucinatory quality reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad.

The idea of continually changing the settings and mood of the film sounds as if it might have created an apt sense of unease, keeping the audience in the same off-balance frame of mind as Joseph K. Occa­sionally it does work like that. There is one superb example when K first visits the law courts and walks from a deserted corridor into a jam-packed courtroom. Welles intensifies the transition by having everyone rise to their feet as K enters, and the noise of their movement bursts into the silence like a menacing roar. (This is Welles’s own addition— in Kafka’s book no one in the courtroom takes any notice of K.)

Most of the transitions, however, break the tension instead of height­ening it. The varied settings do not fuse together into an eerie world of their own but remain obstinately separate. Thus when K walks from the huge office into the storeroom where the policemen are being punished, the agoraphobic size of the former and the claustrophobic darkness of the latter tend not to reinforce but to neutralize each other. Time and time again in the film the nightmare is short-circuited.

To explain the failure of The Trial it’s easy to fall back on the accusation of size and showiness. It’s easy to argue that Welles’s style is too florid for Kafka, who relied on restraint to convey the bizarre mis­adventures of Joseph K. But these criticisms are irrelevant because they can be leveled at Welles’s other films which do not fall to pieces.

Consider Othello, which has just as many reasons as The Trial for disintegrating. Much of the film leaps from place to place with no regard for topographical continuity: any attempt to visualize the in­terior layout of Othello’s castle is quite pointless. As with The Trial, Welles in adapting the original shifts some scenes and alters others (such as the extended bathhouse scene where Iago kills Roderigo). He breaks up the rhythms of Shakespeare’s play, sometimes accelerating, sometimes almost halting the action. The settings and the cast are multinational. Most disruptive of all, his work on the film continued on and off for a period of three years.

Yet the film translates Shakespeare into screen terms with a superb coherence. Welles sets the whole tragedy in perspective with an opening sequence that interweaves the funeral corteges of Othello and Desdemona and the dragging of Iago to his punishment. In contrast to the sweeping flow of these scenes, the beginning of the action has a staccato rhythm as Iago and Roderigo follow Othello and Desdemona to their wedding and then rouse Brabantio. Calm is restored when Othello comes to justify his marrying Desdemona. But from this point on the staccato rhythm associated with Iago gradually imposes itself on Othello’s stately rhythm, and the increasing complexity of the film’s movements suggests the increasing turmoil of doubt in Othello’s mind. In the death scene, when Othello has finally decided there is no doubt of Desdemona’s infidelity, the stately rhythm reasserts itself. Then there is a brief flurry of movement as Iago’s duplicity is exposed and Othello kills himself, followed by a reprise of the grave calm of the opening scene.

There is only one moment, near the end of the film, where the disin­tegrating forces win out. Welles has Othello stab himself before instead of after the long speech in which he refers to himself as “one whose hand,/Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away/Richer than all his tribe.’’ During part of the speech Othello strides across the hall toward Desdemona’s body, and this rather improbable movement is intercut with a jarring close-up in which Welles has a Harry Lime-like smile on his face. This one lapse cannot spoil the film: it does, however, make one realize just how cohesive the rest of the film has been.

The binding force in Othello and in most of Welles’s other films is his use of symbolism. Even the most explicit of Welles’s symbols do not exist in isolation: they are rooted deep in the action of the film and share the same degree of reality.

Rosebud, for example, appears at first to be a pat and superficial symbol. As with all mysteries, its revelation is something of a letdown: the sled is “only” a symbol of Kane’s childhood. But the symbolism is not confined to the object itself. In fact, the adult Kane is never seen looking at it—the word Rosebud is triggered by the sight of Susan’s paperweight. But here again the symbolism goes beyond the object. The paperweight is not merely an artificial snow scene recalling a real one but a snow scene encapsulated and unattainable, like Kane’s lost innocence. Moreover, when the paperweight appears in close-up Welles highlights it so that it takes on a glowing halation—very much like the glare of the stage lights when Susan makes her operatic debut. Kane drives Susan to her vocal disaster not just to show his power but because, his own desire being unattainable, he wants hers to come true. Susan fails—the ironic floodlight flickers out as her voice trails away—and she is able to come to terms with reality. But the glow of Kane’s desire continues to the end: the paperweight falls and smashes only after his death.

There are further ramifications to this symbolism. When the paper­weight is shaken, its artificial snow settles again with preternatural slowness, prolonging and intensifying the matter-of-fact snowfall that covers the sled after young Kane leaves home. This slow settling, which is paralleled in the lingering dissolves between the reporter’s inter­views and his interviewees’ reminiscences, suggests not only the loss of Kane’s childhood innocence but the loss of all things with the relentless flow of time. At the end of the film Welles brings out this wider impli­cation still more powerfully by accelerating the time effect. The whole of Kane’s life is compressed symbolically into a few seconds as the sled—his childhood reality and manhood dream—burns and dissolves into smoke.

I’m not implying that Welles consciously planned all these interrela­tionships. But I do believe that he chose the particular objects, inci­dents, and techniques in these scenes because they felt right to him—and they felt right because they connected with the underlying sym­bolism. Anyone who thinks my analysis is far-fetched should try to explain why the burning of Rosebud is such a powerful scene—even more powerful than the book-burning scenes in Fahrenheit 451. After all, a sled lacks the ready-made associations that books have; and Rosebud is not even a new and handsome object like Dali’s Secret Life, over whose destruction Truffaut lingers for the longest time. It is the interlinking of symbols beneath the surface of Kane that accumulates the power of the final scenes.

This symbolism underlying conspicuous symbols can be found in nearly all of Welles’s films. Anyone who’s seen The Lady from Shanghai will remember the squid that pulses up and down in the aquarium as Mike and Elsa kiss. In isolation this might be an overemphatic com­ment on Elsa’s predatory nature, but it works because Welles has im­bued the whole film with visual and verbal imagery of the sea. The Lady herself comes from one seaport and has settled in another (San Francisco), and many scenes take place on or by the water. The squid is one of several images involving dangers that lurk beneath the surface, just as they lurk behind Elsa’s alluring exterior: there are shots of a water snake and an alligator, and Mike relates a parable about sharks that destroy one another. Even the hall of mirrors connects with the pelagic imagery: the multiple reflections are like waves receding row after row, and when the mirrors are smashed Mike can finally step out onto terra firma, ignoring Elsa’s last siren call. It is this cumulative imagery that helps place The Lady from Shanghai above other superior thrillers, which owe their success either to a series of disparate effects (like The Wages of Fear) or to sheer verve (like The Big Sleep).

The binding symbolism of Othello is also based on a sea-to-land pro­gression, but Welles develops it far more subtly than in The Lady from Shanghai and with a totally different meaning. Othello is a naval gen­eral and water is his element. At the beginning of the film, when he is strong and self-assured, he glides with Desdemona in a gondola, he commands a warship on the billowy sea, he strides beneath pennants that flutter in a stiff sea breeze. Then, as doubts about Desdemona grow in his mind, he begins to flounder out of his element. The one really spectacular scene in the film shows this transition with extra­ordinary vividness. When Iago says that Cassio has talked of having slept with Desdemona, Othello staggers away (Shakespeare’s stage direc­tion reads that he “falls in a trance”) and finds himself lying on the waterfront beneath a parapet from which a row of people stare down at him. Welles uses a wide-angle lens and places Othello’s bemused face in close-up so that it completely dwarfs the figures above: it is as if Othello were a beached whale. In more and more of the later scenes Welles draws the action away from the sea and the open air to keep Othello stranded. And in these interior scenes he leaves the walls and floors as bare as possible, criss-crossing them with spikes of shadow, in order to accentuate their dryness and airlessness.

In films with fewer centrifugal pressures than Othello or Kane the underlying symbolism plays a less important role. Indeed, it may merge indistinguishably into style: the leisurely movement of Ambersons and the vast spaces of Falstaff might be described as both medium and message.

Elsewhere the symbolism may be too rigid for the theme, or the theme too weak for the symbolism. Macbeth is conceived in terms of darkness, which is appropriate enough, but the darkness hardly varies: the film consists of one low-key scene after another. There is no vivid impression of Macbeth sinking from innocence into evil and despair as there is of Othello sinking from innocence into anguish. In The Stranger Welles does oppose darkness with light, as the film alternates between the shadowy belfry where Frank Kindler tinkers with the church clock and the whiteness of the New England colonial buildings. But here the situation is too static: the Nazi war criminal pretending to be a good small-town citizen is unchangingly evil all along.

Arkadin fails because its symbolism doesn’t counteract but reinforces the centrifugal pressures. In order to suggest the multiple layers of Arkadin’s personality, Welles locates the film in different elements—land, sea, air—and in different climates, from the sunny Mediterranean to wintry Germany. But the symbolism lacks a second layer of its own that would bind this geographic diversity together.

As to The Trial, it has no underlying symbolism whatsoever—all its symbolism is on the surface. The trouble is not so much that Welles departs from the book but that he does not depart far enough. In the book, Kafka grafts bizarre scenes onto the everyday settings of Prague, binding them together with a matter-of-fact style of writing. But it is impossible to film the scenes as Kafka describes them and at the same time remain matter-of-fact. For example, Kafka can casually write that “the size of the Cathedral struck him as bordering on the limit of what human beings could bear,” but this scene cannot be filmed with any­thing approaching casualness. In adapting the book for the screen Welles had two choices: to tone down Kafka’s incidents until they could plausibly fit the everyday settings of a real city, or to amplify Kafka’s settings until they fitted the bizarre incidents. The latter choice, arguably the more faithful, was the one Welles made; and he amplifies the style along with the settings.

In making this choice, however, Welles cut himself off from a prime source of strength. The Trial is the only one of his films that is not rooted in reality. The best films are worlds of their own that touch common experience at enough points to be accepted as reflections of the real world. It is this basis of reality that sustains Welles’s under­lying symbolism, which is nearly always elemental in nature—images of air, water, snow, fire, light, darkness.

The Trial is not one world but a succession of different worlds. Many of the scenes are so dissimilar in location, tempo, and atmos­phere that it is hardly possible to imagine them coexisting on any plane of reality. Weather, the progression of night and day, natural processes of all kinds are almost completely eliminated. There is noth­ing for any elemental symbolism to get a grip on.

It may be argued that The Trial is not meant to be coherent like Welles’s other films for the simple reason that it is portraying an inco­herent world—that by basing the style of this film on loose ends and nonsequiturs, Welles conveys the sharpest possible sense of the menac­ing absurdity of modern life. This is all very plausible and could lead to long and inconclusive discussion about the merits of portraying incoherence incoherently, boredom boringly, and so on. Luckily Welles has provided his own standard of comparison in Touch of Evil, which portrays the incoherence of modern life with a remarkable coherence of style and symbolism.

This is a film of darkness. It begins and ends in the night, and there are many other nocturnal or twilit scenes in between. But it is not a montonously dark film like Macbeth. The night is punctuated throughout with lights that make the darkness more menacing, from the glare of the exploding car to the pulsing of neon signs.

It is in this mechanical pulsing rather than in the light and darkness themselves that the underlying symbolism is to be found. Touch of Evil is geared to the automatic machinery of our time. The film opens with a close-up of the time bomb as it is set to tick its way to destruc­tion. The film ends with Quinlan unwittingly confessing to a tape recorder. The two machines are uncannily similar in appearance—and also in effect, since the recorder in its own way destroys Quinlan as thoroughly as any bomb.

In between these two mechanical destroyers, other machines dom­inate the action.-In the famous three-minute opening scene the camera follows the car but never allows a clear glimpse of the man and woman riding in it. When Susan Vargas stands on the hotel fire escape calling for help, the engine of Vargas’s car drowns out her voice and he speeds unknowingly past her. Quinlan’s car is his alter ego: it is big and fat (and Welles exaggerates its fatness with the wide-angle lens), and when it lurches across the quarrying site where the dynamite was stolen it translates Quinlan’s lazy ruthlessness into action. In a way, Quinlan himself is a machine—he has lost nearly all of his human flexibility in order to become an efficient manufacturer of convicted criminals. In the final scene his voice is heard alternately from the radio pick-up and direct from his mouth, as if there were little difference between the two sources; while all around him the oil wells pump on and on in a monstrous parody of his obsession.

Though Quinlan is the only character who has succumbed to the temptation of being a machine, nearly everyone in the film is under pressure to do so. Action, dialogue, camera movement, and editing conspire to keep the film rolling onward with machine-like relentless­ness. Characters are caught up in this tremendous momentum in much the same way that Joseph K is caught up in the legal labyrinth of The Trial: the important difference is that the momentum of Touch of Evil is not conveyed indirectly through fantasy but as a direct, tangible force.

A few of the characters avoid being caught up in the momentum—at a price. Tanya and the blind store woman choose to be bystanders in life. The night clerk at the motel is outraged to find himself in a situation that requires positive action. The scenes involving each of these three have an unexpected spaciousness that heightens the ruth­less urgency of the rest of the film.

It is the character who accepts the greatest responsibility, Vargas, who runs the greatest risk of succumbing to the machines. The time bomb at the beginning of the film is in the hands of a murderer; the recorder at the end is in Vargas’s hands. There is no doubt that Vargas is right to destroy Quinlan; but the film leaves the audience to wonder whether in so doing Vargas has begun to destroy himself.

I don’t want to overpraise Touch of Evil. For all its richness it re­mains a thriller with a Hollywood hero.4 But it does succeed superbly where The Trial fails—in revealing a nightmare world behind every­day reality.

Moreover, in Touch of Evil Welles is once again several years ahead of his time. It is only in the sixties that filmmakers have really as­similated the effects of post-World War II technological development on everyday life. Before then technology was usually featured either as mere décor or (in its noisier and uglier manifestations) as the anti­thesis to a quiet upper-income semirural existence. Welles makes it an integral part of life, and though he also uses it to symbolize the temptation of evil he certainly does not present it as the cause. In this, Touch of Evil anticipates Truffaut’s approach to gadgetry in The Soft Skin and, more indirectly, Godard’s in The Married Woman. It’s also worth noting that a 1967 film like Furie’s The Naked Runner, which links modern gadgetry to the amoral expedients of espionage, says nothing that Touch of Evil didn’t say far better and far less preten­tiously ten years before.

It may seem a measure of Welles’s limitations that his Hollywood-made Touch of Evil is better than his independently made Trial. But his work resists easy generalizations. Each of his really outstanding films—Kane, Ambersons, Othello, and Touch of Evil, with Falstaff as a close runner-up—was made under very different conditions. If his most independent film is a failure, it may well be because he seized the opportunity to take bigger risks.

In every one of his films Welles has taken some kind of risk. He has always been willing to pit his recurring theme of lost innocence and his elemental symbolism against the explosive diversity of his other resources. His films depend for their success on a fine balance of all kinds of opposites—sophistication and simplicity, realism and expres­sionism, introversion and extroversion, clarity and confusion. And yet, with each film, he has rejected the cautiousness and calculation that could assure him of balance at the expense of richness and resonance. He himself has never lost all of the innocence with which he first tackled Kane.


1. Welles’s hand in Journey, officially directed by Norman Foster, is uncertain, and I have avoided citing any further examples from this film.

2. In the novel from which Welles adapted the film, Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson, the framed man is innocent and there is nothing to explain why the police officer ever started framing suspects. These touches are Welles’s own.

3. According to Shakespeare, Henry IV acquired the crown by force and duplicity. The subtlety of Hal’s characterization—interpreted superbly by Keith Baxter—is obscured a little by John Gielgud’s misreading of Henry. While the king has mel­lowed and weakened with age, he would never suggest—as Gielgud’s plaintive declamation does—that the crown was thrust on him.

4. Even though Charlton Heston plays Vargas well, the mere fact that he is a star suggests that Vargas is unequivocally in the right.

“Orson Welles: Of Time and Loss” by William Johnson. From Film Quarterly 21 (1967): 13-24.


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