HomeVisual CultureOrson Welles and pan-Europeanism, 1947-1970

Orson Welles and pan-Europeanism, 1947-1970

In a recent twist, Sight and Sound’s decade-spanning critics’ poll dethroned Citizen Kane from its long-held position atop the list. Following a fifty-year reign, Orson Welles’ captivating debut failed to retain the top spot. While this development may disappoint Welles enthusiasts worldwide, the true tragedy lies elsewhere.

What’s truly lamentable is that Welles’ extraordinary directorial legacy continues to be overshadowed by what he himself dismissed as ‘that movie.’ Despite recent attempts to diminish the revolutionary impact of Citizen Kane (1941), it’s important to note that Welles didn’t even consider it his best work.

Critics increasingly recognize that Welles, far from burning out at the age of 25 as popular belief suggests, remained a formidable creative force. Unfortunately, Welles’ reputation was marred by simplistic criticisms dating back to the 1970s (‘Welles had a fear of completing his films/He ended his days acting in the Transformers movie’).

While Welles devotees have long argued against such notions, their perspective has only recently gained broader acceptance. The director consistently reinvented himself as one of the earliest avant-garde independent filmmakers, producing masterpieces (or as he humbly described them, ‘flawed masterpieces’) such as Othello (1952), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1965), The Immortal Story (1968), and F for Fake (1974).

These films, often characterized by their quirkiness and limited theatrical releases, remain strikingly original even decades later. Moreover, Welles’ later work exhibited a distinctly European flavor.

With this year’s BFI poll, the title of the director of the ‘Greatest’ film was shifted from an American-turned-European director (Welles) to a European-turned-American director (Hitchcock). Remarkably, in both instances, the accolade was bestowed upon a signature film from their Hollywood tenure.

While Hitchcock’s early British cinema was often deemed inferior to his later, higher-budget American works, recent critics such as Charles Barr have questioned the overlooking of Hitchcock’s early English films. It’s worth noting that Hitchcock’s leisurely-paced 1956 Hollywood remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much is frequently regarded as inferior to the brisker 1934 English original.

Similarly, Welles’ European career was unjustly disregarded by critics. Among his later films, only the Hollywood-produced noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958), which was thankfully restored to a semblance of a director’s cut in 1998, has garnered widespread acclaim comparable to Citizen Kane.

This oversight is regrettable. Welles was as much a European director as he was an American one. Having been deeply influenced by Europe during his extensive travels in childhood, he fled to Ireland and Spain as a teenager, where he pursued careers as an actor, pulp fiction writer, and bullfighter.

Welles often expressed a profound affection for Europe, viewing it – like many Americans – not as a collection of nations but as a unified continent (though he also regarded Spain as so multifaceted that it constituted its own continent). When his Hollywood career faltered in 1947, he turned to Europe. Initially, this decision was purely pragmatic: he had connections in the Italian film industry and hoped to amass a fortune through lucrative acting roles, intending to return to America triumphantly after a few years.

However, things didn’t unfold as planned. Except for a brief return to Hollywood in 1956-1958, Welles remained in Europe until 1970. He maintained residences in France, Italy, and Spain, and also worked in Austria, Belgium, Britain, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, West Germany, and Yugoslavia.

Pragmatism played a significant role in Welles’ decision to exile himself in Europe. In Hollywood, Welles was viewed as ‘damaged goods,’ particularly as the industry was already experiencing a post-war decline, with studio executives reluctant to take commercial risks on a maverick talent.

Notably, Welles’ groundbreaking 1939 contract with RKO, which granted him unprecedented artistic freedom for Citizen Kane, was partly a result of RKO’s desperation amid the looming specter of decline.

In contrast, many European countries boasted burgeoning post-war film industries, bolstered by generous state subsidies in countries like France, Italy, and Spain.

Welles’ eventual return to America in 1970 was similarly driven by pragmatism; he believed “that’s where the action is.” Additionally, with American investors withdrawing funds from European studios in the late 1960s, opportunities for work in Europe were dwindling. However, the move proved disastrous.

None of the American funding opportunities resulted in a completed film being released, and Welles’ only directorial releases in the 1970s continued to be in Europe.

Despite this, Welles’ political beliefs was often overlooked, though efforts by scholars like Simon Callow seek to rectify this neglect. He was a prominent advocate for progressive causes and a liberal supporter of the New Deal, actively campaigning for Franklin D. Roosevelt and even considering a Senate run in 1946.

Joseph McBride contends that Welles’ European exile was influenced by anti-communist blacklisting. Although Welles is not typically seen as a victim of the blacklist due to his absence from America during its peak period, McBride points out that until 1956, Welles had an extensive FBI file rife with accusations of communism. His departure in 1947 coincided with the HUAC hearings, and his return to America would have unlikely until after McCarthy’s downfall.

Europe, with its more progressive politics aligned with Welles’ own beliefs, proved more welcoming, especially among the Left Bank intellectuals who championed his work. Additionally, Welles found sympathetic Republican allies in Spain; during the 1930s, he had supported the Republican cause, later declaring that “the Spanish Civil War was the central tragedy of anybody’s life who’s my age.”

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.

Amidst the backdrop of Europe spanning from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, a period marked by complex and contested identities, Welles’ films emerged. Similar to the four zones of Vienna depicted in The Third Man, post-war Europe grappled with its rich cultural heritage, nostalgically recalled yet nervously articulated within uncertain political frameworks.

Welles’ cinematic oeuvre, characterized by moral ambiguity, expressionistic lighting, and juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity, serves as a distinct representation of this transitional phase in European identity. Welles advocated for directors to be slightly out of sync with their time, yet the noir-ish nightmare portrayed in Mr. Arkadin and The Trial could only belong to the era they depicted.

This ethos of pan-Europeanism was also inadvertently woven into Welles’ work, as he famously described the director’s role as overseeing accidents. Films like Chimes at Midnight, set in 15th-century England, and The Immortal Story, set in 19th-century Macao, were shot on a limited budget in Spain, subtly betraying their Spanish backdrop.

Among his many “lost” projects, The Merchant of Venice (1969) predominantly featured Dubrovnik instead of Venice, while scenes for London (1968-71) were captured across various European locales. Welles made the most of available resources, and the nomadic trajectory of his career, dictated by opportunities, resources, and finances, imbued his cinema with both accidental and deliberate European sensibilities.

Conversely, Welles’ most deeply personal endeavor during his final three decades was his unfinished Don Quixote (1955-72). Though filmed in fragments across Italy, Mexico, Spain, and Yugoslavia, its essence remained unequivocally Spanish. Evolving over the years, Welles intended to re-edit it into a reflective essay-film on the metamorphosis of Spanish culture.

While many of his other works reflected pan-European influences, Don Quixote seemingly succeeded in harmonizing disparate elements to portray a singular European culture across multiple temporal junctures.

Welles found his stride in Europe, where he showcased mastery across a spectrum of genres and mediums: acting, directing, producing, designing, lighting, editing, operating the camera, and even magic, approaching each with an experimental fervor. His creative endeavors spanned radio, film, television, stage plays, musicals, and even ballet.

Despite much of his work being previously inaccessible or challenging to access—though this is gradually changing with the advent of the YouTube era—many of his finest creations remained elusive, existing only as whispered rumors among a select few in-the-know individuals.

While Welles enjoys greater esteem in Europe than in his native America, recent years have seen spirited debates among critics in Spain and Italy regarding which country truly represented his “home.” Documentaries such as Rosabella: La Storia Italiana di Orson Welles (1993) and Roma, La Città di Orson Welles (2000) champion Italy, while Orson Welles en el Paìs de Don Quijote (2000) argues for Spain, each presenting compelling cases. However, the words of Charles Foster Kane resonate: “I’m an American—always have been.” Welles remained a figure of multiple identities, consistently an American in Europe and a European in America.

Even glimpses of his later works—like fragments from the unfinished The Other Side of the Wind (1976), largely shot in America—showcase the technical brilliance of a remarkably erudite director, effortlessly traversing diverse cultures, references, and personas. Catherine Benamou characterized Welles’ first incomplete feature, It’s All True (1942-3), as a “pan-American odyssey.”

Much of the prolific yet underappreciated middle phase of Welles’ career can similarly be seen as a pan-European journey, viewed through the lens of an outsider’s unique perspective.

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