Orson Welles (1915–1985) would have been 96 this Friday. Like the other three greatest American-born directors (D. W. Griffith from La Grange, Kentucky; John Ford from Portland, Maine; and Howard Hawks from Goshen, Indiana), Welles (from Kenosha, Wisconsin) was a product of that essentially rural America which began to disappear with the coming of the Industrial Age. It became a common thread in American literature and history (even as far back as Lincoln) for ambitious or talented young men to leave for urban creative centers at a young age, and both Charles Foster Kane and Orson Welles conformed to this pattern with a vengeance. Thus Citizen Kane, whatever its script owes to Herman J. Mankiewicz, can be justly seen as an autobiographical expression of Welles’s. What 25-year-old was ever so ambitious and innately talented? Certainly no one in cinema before or since.
Citizen Kane may or may not be the greatest film ever made, but, as a late friend of mine suggested, it is the most fun of all the great films. It just oozes with gratification, due in no small measure to Welles’s almost orgasmic joy at playing with his new toy. It has been argued that the film is, in some ways, superficial—how much depth is it reasonable to expect from someone so young? —and it takes full advantage of all the cinematic accomplishments of Welles’s predecessors, from Soviet montage to German Expressionism filtered through John Ford. Does this make Welles, the great innovator, a poseur or fraud? He was not uncomfortable in this role, of course. His early exploits, like going to Ireland as a teenager and masquerading as an older prominent American actor, hoodwinking the country into thinking the Martians were taking over, or settling comfortably into the role of a stage magician, all expressed a willingness to deceive. (One of his last completed films, F For Fake (1975), helped reinforce this image.) But what, after all, is the cinema but deception, an alternative reality that, in the hands of its masters, can make us believe in and feel that reality? The Church of Cinema offers its congregants a mythologized fantasy, but at less cost and with fewer demands than most religions.
Charles Foster Kane, who aspired to be a profit-making prophet, seems all too contemporary in today’s über-capitalist America. What has changed is Welles’s great theme of loss. In almost all of his films, the towering figures he created for himself to play wind up losing, falling, often dying alone and unmourned: Kane, Franz Kindler in The Stranger, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin in Confidential Report, Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, Falstaff, Mr. Clay in The Immortal Story. All carry with them Welles’s own sense of having reached the heights and then fallen from grace. Is there a film poet today even remotely capable of conveying this sense of tragic loss? And have we lost any sense that the wicked and hubristic will be punished? The airwaves and newspapers in this Easter season seem to be awash in discussions of whether there is such a place as Hell. As a nonbeliever, this seems to me to be frivolous and irrelevant. (I sort of think that the absence of Hell would be a letdown; I’m looking forward, like Mark Twain, to shaking the Devil by the tail.) It does, however, point to a contemporary level of despair, a feeling that, today, anything goes. Marlene Dietrich, who was sawed in two by Welles in Follow the Boys (1944) and gave what she deemed her best performance in a Touch of Evil (1958) cameo, saw Welles as a kind of saint or deity: “When I have seen him and talked to him, I feel like a plant that has been watered.” Unlike Kane, Welles, with all his foibles, was not good Hell material.
Simon Callow, at the conclusion of the first volume of his Welles biography, The Road to Xanadu, wrote, “His engagement with his own personality led to the complete abolition of the dividing wall between himself and his creations…. Eventually, he found an extraordinary benevolence towards life, coming finally to smile on his younger self, that self preserved forever in Citizen Kane.“