So, why did Welles prolong his stay in Europe? Firstly, the critical acclaim he received in Europe made his residency rather comfortable. Similar to Eric von Stroheim and blacklisted directors like Charlie Chaplin, Jules Dassin, and Joseph Losey, Welles discovered that in Europe, he enjoyed a level of critical appreciation that had eluded him in America since his 1930s radio and stage work.
In France, the earliest generation of Cahiers du Cinéma critics hailed Welles as a cinematic giant, with André Bazin even writing a laudatory critical biography of him, introduced by François Truffaut.
French writers like Maurice Bessy championed even his lesser-known works. Notably, Welles was sometimes praised to an exaggerated degree; at a Paris gala screening of his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, the audience shushed two people at the back who were laughing throughout the film, unaware that they were Welles himself and his friend Peter Bogdanovich.
Additionally, Welles found that the role of an enigmatic European globetrotter suited him well. Following the success of his portrayal as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), he embraced that image, co-writing, directing, and starring in the international hit radio series The Lives of Harry Lime (1952), where the film’s shady racketeer was transformed into a charming rogue.
In Newcastle, dockworkers enthusiastically hailed Welles not for his staging of Othello, but as ‘Arry Lime. Despite later resenting this image, Welles continued to cultivate it for the next two decades, notably in his abandoned BBC TV series Around the World With Orson Welles (1955) and his US TV pilot Portrait of Gina (1958), which depicted him as a world-weary yet charming European traveler. Even projects like the Italian travelogue Nella Terra di Don Chisciotte (1964) and the affectionate Around the World of Mike Todd (1968) revolved around this persona.
However, the reality was far less glamorous, as the financially struggling Welles often evaded creditors by sneaking out of hotels. Producer Harry Alan Towers recalled paying Welles for the Harry Lime series, only to discover that Welles’ luggage was impounded at multiple hotels due to unpaid bills.
In understanding Welles’ working methods in Europe, his Othello (1952) serves as a crucial example. When the original producer went bankrupt during filming, Welles improvised the rest of the shoot over a four-year period, often taking demeaning acting jobs to privately finance his project.
Despite accusations that he abandoned actors on set for weeks at a time while he raised money, Welles defended himself, highlighting the luxury accommodations provided for the stranded actors.
This pattern of self-financing and struggling for personal projects became characteristic of Welles’ career, resulting in his work being often unseen or mired in legal disputes. Despite this, Welles’ European period produced some of his boldest and most original work as a mature director.
What set Othello apart was the fragmented approach to filming; various segments of scenes were captured in Italy, Spain, Morocco—wherever Welles could assemble his cast. Despite the potential for continuity issues, the adept editing skillfully navigated these challenges. This editing technique, continuously honed by Welles, involved seamlessly integrating disparate elements filmed miles apart, ultimately serving to convey his vision of a unified pan-European identity.
Reflecting on one of his later films, Welles remarked, “[Editing] is what made it… If it hadn’t cut, you can’t imagine how disjointed the beginning and end of each shot would be.” While initially borne out of the chaos and exigencies of the Othello production, this approach became a hallmark of the Wellesian style—whether it was the whip-pans from Madrid to Paris to London in Mr. Arkadin (1955, perhaps his most overtly European film, featuring a labyrinthine plot spanning multiple capitals), the jump-cuts from Rome’s monuments to Zagreb’s concrete blocks in The Trial, or the abrupt inter-cutting of Parisian restaurants and Ibiza artists’ studios in F for Fake.
The overarching effect was to utilize editing as a tool for blending cultural elements within cinema.