Orson Welles vs Hollywood

The Guardian

Orson Welles - the wonder kid from Kenosha - arrived in Hollywood in 1939, aged 25, for what would be a critical period in the development of the studio system, which was personified by Welles’ lavish acceptance and his punishing rejection. He came with a track record in theatre and radio, was cosmopolitan, brattish, media-smart, daring and full of himself, challenging all the traditional assumptions about film-making, starting with his RKO contract, which gave him unprecedented freedom, including final cut. The previous year he had tapped deep into the collective conscience of America with his broadcast of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds, done as a breaking news story, provoking coast-to-coast hysteria. He would never be as widely effective again.

Welles is a hugely overwritten subject. Clinton Heylin tackles him from about the only angle left: the facts behind the making of the Hollywood films, unadorned by myth or embellishment.

No critic or stylist (“just four days after inscribing his moniker on the dotted line”), Heylin performs the equally useful task of gumshoe, digging up archive and source material to re-establish facts superseded by legend. The book’s real subject, valuable as such, is studio politics. Welles was undone by real enemies. Contrary to legend, he tried hard to accommodate them. As a director, he was decisive, technically proficient and fast. On Macbeth (1948) he managed an astounding 60 camera set-ups in a day. His famous opening tracking shot for Touch of Evil (1958) - shot in 30 days - took under two hours to shoot and put filming two days ahead of schedule.

Editors working at the behest of producers were his undoing. Robert Wise (future director of The Sound of Music) hugely re-cut The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) behind Welles’s back, destroying what may have been his greatest film. The Stranger (1946) was reworked by editor Ernest Nims, described by Welles as “the great supercutter, who believed that nothing should be in a movie that does not advance the story. And since most of the good stuff in my movies doesn’t advance the story at all, you can imagine what a nemesis he was to me.” By the time Welles returned to Hollywood to direct his last film there, Nims was head of studio post-production. The director’s cut for Touch of Evil went the way of the rest. The battle for Welles has long been won. Yet, seen again, the films do raise the question: how cinematic are they, really? The striving for a 3-D effect, the deep focus of Citizen Kane (1941); the shoot-out in the hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1948) - has the opposite effect of rendering them stagy. Despite photographic qualities, The Lady from Shanghai is also the same.