Guest Journal / Journal / Visual Culture

Orson Welles and pan-Europeanism, 1947-1970

Seth Alexander Thévoz.

Orson Welles and pan-Europeanism, 1947-1970

Recently, Sight and Sound’s decennial critics’ poll displaced Citizen Kane from its perch; after a fifty year reign, Orson Welles’ dazzling debut did not take the top spot. This was a pity; but not for the reason that Wellesians worldwide lamented as their King was deposed.

The tragedy is that Welles’ remarkable body of directorial work is still seen through the prism of what Welles himself dismissed as ‘that movie’. It has become fashionable in recent years to downplay how revolutionary Citizen Kane (1941) was. But this misses the point: in Welles’ own eyes, Kane wasn’t even the director’s best film. [1]

There is a growing realisation among critics that far from being burnt out at the age of 25 as popular lore maintains, Welles remained a remarkable creative force. Welles’ image is still tarred by a series of lazy criticisms dating from the 1970s (‘Welles had a fear of completion on his films/He ended his days acting in the Transformers movie’). [2] The counter-argument has long been made by Welles devotees, but has only recently found a wider audience: [3] The director consistently reinvented himself as one of the earliest avant-garde independent directors, turning out masterpieces (or ‘flawed masterpieces’ as he self-deprecating acknowledged) like Othello (1952), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1965), The Immortal Story (1968) and F for Fake (1974). Such films were quirky, seldom seen in the cinemas – and are still dazzlingly original, decades later.  Such work was also distinctively European.

With this year’s BFI poll, the title of director of the ‘Greatest’ film made has passed from an American-turned-European director (Welles) to a European-turned-American director (Hitchcock); and in both cases, the accolade went to a signature film made in their Hollywood years. Hitchcock’s early British cinema has widely been considered inferior to his later, bigger-budget American efforts, even though his slow-paced 1956 Hollywood remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much is often considered worse than the much breezier 1934 English original, and recent critics like Charles Barr have questioned this neglect of the early English Hitchock. [4] Welles’ European career has suffered from similar critical neglect. Indeed, of his later films, only the Hollywood-produced noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958, thankfully restored to something approaching a director’s cut in 1998) has enjoyed anything approaching the widespread acclaim of Citizen Kane.

This is a great shame. Welles was as much a European director as an American one. Having been deeply impressed by Europe during extensive travel in his childhood, he ran away to Ireland and Spain as a teenager, where he worked as an actor, pulp fiction writer and bullfighter. He often proclaimed a deep love of Europe, which he saw – as so many Americans do – not as a series of nations, but as one united continent (although he would also view Spain as being so complex as constituting a continent in its own right). When his Hollywood career hit the doldrums in 1947, it was to Europe that he turned. Initially, this was a purely mercenary decision: he had contacts in the Italian film industry, and hoped to make a fortune from a few commercially successful acting jobs, and after a couple of years to return to America in triumph. Yet matters never worked to plan. Apart from an abortive Hollywood return in 1956-8, Welles remained in Europe until 1970. He had homes in France, Italy and Spain, and also worked in Austria, Belgium, Britain, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, West Germany and Yugoslavia.

Pragmatism played a large part in Welles’ European exile. Welles was considered ‘damaged goods’ in Hollywood, which was already in a state of decline after the war, with studio heads seldom willing to take commercial risks on an enfant terrible. Indeed, Welles’ famous 1939 RKO contract, which gave him unprecedented levels of artistic freedom on Citizen Kane, had partly been the product of RKO’s desperation over the looming prospect of decline. [5] By contrast, many European countries had growing post-war film industries, propped up by generous state subsidies in France, Italy and Spain. When Welles eventually moved back to America in 1970, it was a similarly pragmatic decision – he believed ‘that’s where the action is’, and with American investors pulling money out of European studios in the late 1960s, the European work opportunities would dry up. (In the event, the move proved catastrophic. Not one of the American funding opportunities led to a completed film being released, and Welles’ only 1970s directorial releases continued to be in Europe.)

Welles’ politics have long been ignored (although Simon Callow has recently sought to draw more attention to them). [6] He was a prominent ‘progressive’ and liberal enthusiast for the New Deal, who campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt and flirted with a Senate run in 1946. Joseph McBride has argued that Welles’ European exile was a product of anti-communist blacklisting. Welles is not usually identified as a victim of the blacklist, as he was absent from America throughout its worst period, but as McBride notes, until 1956 he had an extensive FBI file littered with accusations of communism, his 1947 departure coincided with the HUAC hearings, and his return to America would have been improbable until after McCarthy’s disgrace. [7] Europe, with its ‘progressive’ politics closer to Welles’ own, was far more congenial, particularly among the Left Bank intellectuals who championed his work, and the Republican friends Welles had in Spain – in the 1930s, he had sided with the Republican cause, and he later declared that, ‘the Spanish Civil War was the central tragedy of anybody’s life who’s my age.’ [8]

These, then, were the reasons why Welles fled to Europe. But why did he stay for so long? Firstly, critical appreciation made his European residency rather congenial. Like Eric von Stroheim and the blacklisted directors Charlie Chaplin, Jules Dassin and Joseph Losey, Welles found that in Europe he enjoyed a level of critical acclaim which he had not experienced in America since his 1930s radio and stage work. In France, the very earliest generation of Cahier du Cinéma critics hailed Welles as a cinematic giant: André Bazin wrote a laudatory critical biography of him, introduced by François Truffaut. [9] French writers like Maurice Bessy championed even his lesser works. [10] Indeed, the praise Welles received in France could be out of all proportion. At a Paris gala screening of his darkly comic adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, the black tie-clad audience famously ‘shushed’ two people at the back who were disrespectfully laughing throughout the film – unaware that they were Welles himself, and his friend Peter Bogdanovich.

Furthermore, the role of enigmatic European globetrotter suited Welles; after the success of his turn as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), he cultivated that image, co-writing, directing and starring in the international hit radio series The Lives of Harry Lime (1952), in which the film’s sordid racketeer was remodelled into a lovable rogue. In Newcastle, Welles was enthusiastically hailed by dockers, who had not come to see his staging of Othello, but told him, ‘To us, you’ll always be ‘Arry Lime.’ It was an image he continued to play up for the next two decades, even as he began to resent it – most notably, his abandoned BBC TV series Around the World With Orson Welles (1955), and his US TV pilot Portrait of Gina (1958) both portrayed the real-life Welles as the same world-weary but charming European traveller. Even ‘hack work’ such as the Italian travelogue Nella Terra di Don Chisciotte (1964) and the disingenuously affectionate Around the World of Mike Todd (1968) revolved around this image. The reality was noticeably less glamorous, as the permanently impecunious Welles often sneaked out of one hotel after another, fleeing creditors. Producer Harry Alan Towers recalled that after he’d paid Welles for the Harry Lime series, which was being recorded in Paris, Welles stopped his taxi at four hotels, some of them grand and some decidedly dingy. It transpired that these were all the hotels where his luggage had been impounded after he had left unpaid bills. [11]

In understanding Welles’ working methods in Europe, his Othello (1952) is a key work. After the original producer went bankrupt early in the film’s shoot, Welles improvised the rest of filming over a four-year period, taking often-demeaning acting jobs to privately finance his own project. [12] (Welles pleaded guilty to the story that actors were abandoned on set for weeks at a time while he went off to raise more money: ‘The actors love to tell that story because they were stranded, but what they forget is that they were stranded in the four-star luxury hotels of Europe…at [my] great expense’.) [13] It was a pattern he would repeat over and over, to the detriment of his career, for his own personal projects would remain little-seen, often tied up in legal wrangles, and his only work to get widespread release would be ‘hack work’ including schlock films and sherry adverts, encouraging the perception that Welles’ creative powers were in terminal decline. In reality, Welles’ European period represents some of his most bold and original work as a mature director.

What made Othello so daring was the piecemeal nature of the shoot; different halves of scenes were shot in Italy, Spain, Morocco: anywhere Welles could gather his cast together. What should have presented a continuity nightmare was dazzlingly handled by deft editing. It was an editing technique Welles would continue to refine, merging disparate elements filmed miles apart, and it would be used to deploy his vision of a single pan-European identity. Of one of his later films, Welles would say, ‘[editing] is what made it…If it hadn’t been cut, you can’t imagine how sad the beginning and end of each shot was.’[14] While it was born out of the chaos and necessity of the Othello shoot, it became a staple of the Welles style – the whip-pans from Madrid to Paris to London in Mr. Arkadin (1955 – possibly his most self-consciously European film, with its labyrinthine plot moving from one capital to another), the jump-cuts from the monuments of Rome to the concrete blocks of Zagreb in The Trial, the abrupt inter-cutting of Paris restaurants and Ibiza artists’ studios in F for Fake. The effect was to use editing as a means to blend culture in cinema.

All this was set against the backdrop of Europe from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, encompassing a complex and questionable set of identities. Like the four zones of Vienna in The Third Man, post-war Europe had a rich cultural heritage that was simultaneously nostalgically evoked, and yet nervously articulated in uncertain political structures. Welles’ films, with their moral ambiguity, expressionistic lighting and contrast of old and new, serve as a peculiarly post-war embodiment of this transitional time in European identity.  Welles argued that all directors should seek to be slightly out of kilter with their time, but the noir-ish nightmare Europe witnessed in Mr. Arkadin and The Trial could not represent any other era.

This pan-Europeanism also permeated Welles’ work involuntarily – which is no surprise given that he described the job of a director as one ‘who presides over accidents.’ Both Chimes at Midnight, set in 15th century England, and The Immortal Story, set in 19th century Macao, were filmed in Spain on a shoestring – and betray their Spanish setting. Among his many ‘lost’ films, The Merchant of Venice (1969) was mostly filmed in Dubrovnik rather than Venice, while many of the inserts for London (1968-71) were filmed all over Europe.  Welles worked with what materials he had, and the peripatetic nature of his career, following employment, equipment and money, meant that the European quality of his cinema had an accidental as well as an intentional quality.

Conversely, his most intensely personal project during his last thirty years was his unfinished Don Quixote (1955-72). Although shot in fragments in Italy, Mexico, Spain and Yugoslavia, its identity was unambiguously Spanish, and as the film’s concept evolved over the years, Welles planned to  re-edit it into a personal essay-film on the transformation of Spanish culture. Where many of his other works betrayed their pan-European roots, Don Quixote appears to have succeeded in using disparate elements to portray just one European culture, albeit at several points in time.

Welles did much of his best work in Europe. He was a master of multiple genres and forms: an actor, director, producer, designer, lighting technician, editor, cameraman and magician who tackled each discipline with experimental relish, and did so in numerous genres: radio, film, television, plays, musicals, even a ballet. Much of his work has been unavailable, or difficult to see (which is thankfully becoming less of an issue for the YouTube generation), and so many of his best works have been mere rumours seen only by a privileged few ‘in the know’.

Welles continues to be better-regarded in Europe than in America, and in recent years, critics in Spain and Italy have sharply disagreed over which of those two countries was Welles’ ‘real’ home. The documentaries Rosabella: La Storia Italiana di Orson Welles (1993) and Roma, La Città di Orson Welles (2000) make the case for Italy, and Orson Welles en el Paìs de Don Quijote (2000) for Spain. Both make good arguments. Yet Charles Foster Kane’s words are also relevant: ‘I’m an American – always have been.’ Welles remained a man of multiple identities, perennially an American in Europe, and a European in America. To watch his later films – even fragments of unfinished works like The Other Side of the Wind (1976), mostly filmed in America – is to be dazzled by the technique of an exceptionally literate director who effortlessly hops through multiple cultures, allusions and identities. Catherine Benamou has described Welles’ first unfinished feature, It’s All True (1942-3), as being a ‘pan-American odyssey’. [15] Much of the enormously productive and undervalued middle part of Welles’ career can be viewed as a pan-European odyssey, from an outsider’s unique perspective. ■

Image courtesy of Fotopedia.

Seth Alexander Thévoz is a Seminar Tutor at Warwick University, where he is completing a PhD on the political impact of London clubs in the 19th century, in conjunction with the History of Parliament Trust.


[1] I use the description ‘King’ cautiously – Welles long maintained that he was stereotyped as a ‘King actor’: ‘Not necessarily the best actor, [but] the actor who played the King.’ Leslie Megahy, Arena: Orson Welles interview (1982)

[2] The most prominent exponents of these viewpoints were Pauline Kael (ed.), The Citizen Kane Book (Bantam, New York, 1971) and Charles Higham, Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1985). More recently, David Thomson, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Vintage, London, 1997) recycled many of these points.

[3] See Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles, This Is Orson Welles (DaCapo Press, New York, 1992[rev. 1998]) by long-standing champions Bogdanovich and Rosenbaum. More recent Welles scholarship includes the phenomenal François Thomas and Jean-Pierre Berthomé, Orson Welles at Work (Phaidon, London, 2008)

[4] See Charles Barr, English Hitchcock (Cameron Books, London, 2000), which  has been instrumental in prompting a positive reappraisal of Hitchcock’s early work. The current restoration of early Hitchcock films by the British Film Institute, accompanied by the first full BFI retrospective of his work in 13 years, can be seen as part of this critical rehabilitation of the young Hitchcock.

[5] Robert L. Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1985 [rev. 1999]), pp.1-15. RKO, which was always the smallest of the ‘big’ studios, owed much of its 1930s success to the lucrative Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. With Astaire & Rogers refusing to make any more after 1939, the studio searched in desperation for new talent, hoping to make up for lost revenue.

[6] Simon Callow, Orson Welles: Hello Americans (Jonathan Cape, London, 2006) pp.222-54

[7] Joseph McBride, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career (University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, Kentucky, 2006) pp.45-55, 97-105

[8] Filming the Trial (1981) – footage from Orson Welles interview in an unfinished documentary.

[9] André Bazin (trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum), Orson Welles: A Critical View (Harper & Row, New York, 1958 [ 1978 ed.])

[10] Maurice Bessy. Orson Welles (Seghers, Paris, 1963). Bessy also ghostwrote two books for Welles: Orson Welles, Une Grosse Légume (Gallimard, Paris, 1953) and Orson Welles, Monsieur Arkadin (Gallimard, Paris, 1954)

[11] Reviving Harry Lime: Harry Alan Towers on Producing Radio Plays With Orson Welles (2006) DVD extra on Mr. Arkadin: The Comprehensive Edition (Criterion, 2006)

[12] For a full account of the picaresque making of this film, see Michéal MacLiammóir, Put Money in Thy Purse: The Making of Othello (Methuen, London, 1952 [rev. 1976]), and Welles’ documentary Filming Othello (1979)

[13] Leslie Megahy, Arena: Orson Welles interview (1982)

[14] Ibid., Welles was referring to Chimes at Midnight; specifically, the battle scene.

[15] See Catherine L. Benamou, It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey (University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2007)

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