Welles. He’s undoubtedly a better director than the resulting filmography if that makes sense. TSPDT has him 2nd (behind Hitchcock) on the all-time director list based on a composite list. I have good reasons for Welles to be behind my previous 8 mentions here and I’ll try to explain. I get why people want to pick Welles. The first reason is that many consider Citizen Kane the very best film of all-time and therefore Welles is their greatest film artist. I don’t and I don’t– not that complicated. I had Kane 5th on my top 500 list. Welles, also, was clearly a genius and was declared so (correctly) at the age of 26. (for the bulk of their careers, Hitchcock and Ford, for instance, were considered great studio directors by many and master genre filmmakers but not artists—The Searchers and Vertigo– their singular masterpieces weren’t hits at the time or considered great art). Maybe Welles was as much of a “genius” as anyone who has ever directed a film- but he was also his own worst enemy in a lot of ways (failing to realize that cinema is not poetry or painting and you need money to make films). Welles simply shot movies differently (in a time when few did). He gave us 2 of the best 3 films of the 1940’s. Also, I think critics and fans alike love the Hollywood vs artist narrative where Welles’ career was sidetracked by greedy meddlesome producers and if it weren’t for intervention he would’ve made 10 films like Citizen Kane instead of one (I’d argue he made about 4 which is the # of times I have of his in my top 500). When compiling this ranking of great directors, I can’t try to factor in what Welles career would have looked like no more than I try to project what the careers of Fassbinder, Murnau, Tarkovsky or Truffaut’s would’ve been if they hadn’t died so young or if Malick had worked more (yikes maybe we’re seeing that now) or if Godard hadn’t lost interest in making the sort of art I’m interested in 1967. I mean I’ve read at least 4-5 books (from others and Welles himself) about how this film or that film would’ve been the greatest ever if it weren’t butchered by the producers. It’s like von Stroheim’s Greed (large chunks of it are lost forever) or the missing Tarkovsky film. I mean we have to analyze the film we have left… There are other reasons for Welles falling to #9 on my list. F for Fake is the #5 Welles film on TSPDT and it’s more of an essay/documentary film and not in a category I count or archive. Also, and this is a very tiny beef- but I wish Welles had used better actors. Tim Holt is weak in Ambersons, ditto for Heston in Touch of Evil and even Anthony Perkins in The Trial. Welles is good himself as an actor in Kane, Chimes at Midnight and Touch of Evil but if you look at the other top 8 directors look at who they worked with: Mifune, Stewart, Masina, Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullman, De Niro, DiCaprio, Cary Grant, Nicholson, Fonda, von Sydow, etc- I think Welles work could’ve been elevated (even slightly) with better actors.
Best film: Citizen Kane. It’s his best film beginning to end and every shot is flush with layered bravura sequences in front of (mise-en-scene) and behind (cinematography) the camera.The film is a perfect melding of cinematic ingenuity and narrative brilliance- both perfectly executed and daringly unique. It’s jarring how different it looks than every other film before it and nearly every one since. Anyone film buff who is too cool for Citizen Kane get a long look and an eyebrow raise from me.
total archiveable films: 11
top 100 films: 4 (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial)
top 500 films: : 7 (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, The Lady from Shanghai, Chimes at Midnight, Othello)
top 100 films of the decade: 7 (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, The Lady from Shanghai, Chimes at Midnight, Othello)
most overrated: Chimes at Midnight is still too high for me at #159 on TSPDT. I’ve got it at #377 but it has grown on me with the second viewing in 2018. I’m excited to see it again. It features typically spectacular visuals form Welles and a poignant narrative. Welles use of natural light has rarely, if ever, been better. There are shots of the sun pouring into the castle that are amongst the best shadow/lighting work cinema has produced. Welles actual performance as the jovial Falstaff is amongst his best work (up there with Kane and Touch of Evil and that scene in the third man). There are some soundtrack issues even though the bluray cleaned it up— many of the problems are part of the production (low budget, shot on location in Spain, heavy dubbing) so no bluray overall is going to clean it up—more to that some of the editing cutaways aren’t razor sharp. Wonderful staging and framing of Welles fat face (I can say this as a guy with a fat face). Multiple examples of depth of field framing conversations with two characters, at different depths, facing the camera and having dialogue. Love the woods loaded with trees—it would be formally mirrored by the wall of spears and polls for the flags in the final march and coronation of the King (and Welles’ Falstaff’s heart removal). Welles trademark low angles galore. John Gielgud is superb- he’s not in enough of the film to my liking but I can’t remember him being better. Welles, smartly, shows the full ceiling of the castle in the interior sequences. His trademark low-angles. It’s a pleasure to watch- ornate. It’s a great juxtaposition with Falstaff’s den (again showing off the ceiling work as part of the mise-en-scene). There are long patches of just flat narrative and acting which is unlike Welles best work—otherwise this would be right there with his best 3-4 films. A meditation on disloyalty and abandonment.
most underrated : The Trial. Tragically placed at # 747 all-time on TSPDT and it’s my #71 film overall. I get why it’s rated so low, the quality of the transfers are awful and this film requires patience with that first 25 minutes (of total 119). We have that uninspired cartoon prologue at the beginning and then we’re trapped in that ugly room forever… and wait… and then at 26 minutes in… we’re off!! We’re in that massive office built like a maze, it’s a stunner of desks and lighting- ceiling as mise-en-scene given Welles angle work and eye for massive set pieces. As Perkins character falls more and more out of reality and into that surrealistic world we’re going from one dazzling set piece to another from artistic standpoint. Underneath the bleachers like a spider web—sea of chairs. Architecture as character at its finest—apartment exterior. A sea of extras as architecture. Clearly an influence on Soderbergh, Pakula, Fincher with their office work and lighting/ceiling as mise-en-scene. The house of Welles character is gorgeous—a sea of books with the girl. Set piece after set piece of a mise-en-scene designed to perfection- not just perfection but ambition and formal consistency that is married to narrative. The lighting in the underground tunnel. Avant-garde. Sea of newspapers. Steps and skyscrapers—exhibition shots with framing. The former wunderkind, boy genius not auteur martyr takes a Kafka adaptation, blows it up with unbelievable visuals and set pieces—but there’s a dual meaning there with a second reading of Welles trapped and the victim of Hollywood. Bleak, baroque, a labyrinthine. Welles’ called it “the finest film I have ever made”. Surrealism into a nihilistic dystopia— made with such bravado—fragmented, ambiguous, and claustrophobic. Anthony Perkins as a homosexual as one reading. Another reading is Welles persecuted by Hollywood… Nazi reading is another. Welles as an intellectual- always an adaptation of weighty material if not his own- The Shakespeare work then Kafta. Clearly an influence Blade Runner, Brazil– clearly some borrowed from Metropolis. Some of the visuals are among the greatest of the decade, Welles’ career- the attic with light coming in and picture frames all over, the hall of cabinets going on forever.
gem I want to spotlight: The Magnificent Ambersons. This film, the year after Kane, is really more of a continuation of that masterpiece from a stylistic (actually and a narrative theme standpoint tracking fallen, once great, men/families). Its way closer to Kane in quality then like 1946’s The Stranger which is a departure. The house is one giant, beautiful set piece. The ball entrance with the doors flying open and the wind blowing is a stunner and when the film truly starts. The Tim Holt performance is a problem. The depth of field work—deep focus work on luxurious mansion— not shot by Gregg Toland so don’t give me that he’s the true master/artist. Welles repeatedly frames, tracks, and then reframes within the same shot—just stunning- this is Renoir. The mise en-scene is expressionism. Shadows and cluttered frames blocking and shaping- Von Sternberg, Murnau. The pans in the background of the kitchen scene between Moorehead and Holt (couldn’t find a nice enough pic to post) is an example of this. It’s just not two people talking at the kitchen table. It’s art. Twin long dolly tracking shots of Baxter and Holt moving. One in a carriage and the other walking
stylistic innovations/traits: The camera height and angle (low angle master) is as good a place as any to start. It’s gorgeous work and the framing of objects goes hand in hand. We have the b/w deep focus mise-en-scene work and framing. The mise en-scene is expressionism. Shadows and cluttered frames blocking and shaping- Von Sternberg, Murnau Touch of Evil also has one of cinema’s greatest single tracking shots. New angles and experimentation with miniatures. Welles wasn’t perfect- his films, especially later, almost all have dubbing/synching issues (though I think most great auteurs chose to dub their films—it’s just freer) and we’ve got the acting issues in some of his films. I don’t think of him as an editor but we have the kaleidoscope scattershot approach in The Other Side of the Wind, inspired montages in Kane. Welles obsessions not only with windows (shots through windows and reflecting off windows– Renoir) but mirrors as well (from both Kane and Lady from Shanghai. From a narrative standpoint his stories have great yet severely (often fatally) flawed men often done in by their vices (sound familiar?). They’re meditations often on disloyalty and abandonment or of fallen men/families.
- Citizen Kane
- Touch of Evil
- The Magnificent Ambersons
- The Trial
- The Lady from Shanghai
- Chimes at Midnight
- Mr. Arkadin
- The Stranger
By year and grades
|1941- Citizen Kane||MP|
|1942- The Magnificent Ambersons||MP|
|1946- The Stranger||R|
|1947- The Lady From Shanghai||MS|
|1955- Mr. Arkadin||R|
|1958- The Touch of Evil||MP|
|1962- The Trial||MP|
|1965- Chimes At Midnight||MS|
|1976- The Other Side of the Wind||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives