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
We totally agree here again. My favorite director but I really agree with the « analyze the film we have left… » thing.
It’s work with actors (Dean,Brando,Day-Lewis) too.
the definition of an artist in my opinion. all his films have emotional weight of course but can read still with the sound off because his pictures were great. as spielberg said kane is one of the great american experiences.
@m . Thanks for the comment. Yes- Welles is truly one of the great artists of the 20th century. I didn’t know Spielberg said that– good stuff.
Touch of Evil is such a great movie man. Orson Welles gives a brilliant performance.When compared to performances of 50’s, I think
Orson Welles gives better performance than Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Brando was great but Welles performance touched me and I felt sorry for his character. I also think its an underrated movie.
Hi, Seriously? If so, then it is the best performance in history, since I think it is the best (Brando)
I agree with you. Waterfront may be the best performance in history.
Brando (godfather and apocalypse)
Hauer (blade runner)
Pacino (godfather 1,2, Dog day afternoon)
Aleksei Kravchenko (Come and See)
Guilletta Masina (Nights of cabiria)
Maria Falconeeti (Passion of Joan of Arc) etc. are also some other great performances.
Hey thanks, in fact it only said of men, but yes.
Of women I would go with Maria Falconeeti (Passion of Joan of Arc) and I don’t know, Bergman (Casablanca) Farrow (Rosemary’s baby)
What you think?
What are your best female performances?
Oh sorry I didnt see you mention that you were only talking about men. I got a bit confused. But yes, the 2 performances I mentioned and the female performances you mentioned are all great. I feel Falconettis is the best.
For men, how could I forget di Niro in raging bull, he at, the godfather part 2, Taxi driver, goodfellas and pesci in raging bull and goodfellas.
Brando was great in On the Waterfront. But i don’t think its the best performance in the history of cinema. Brando’s The Godfather,A streetcar Named Desire, Apocalypse Now,Last Tango in Paris are the performances i find better than On the Waterfront. Also Welles performance is not the best in the history of cinema but surely is one brilliant performance.
We can debate what is or is not the best performance in history, but Welles IS incredible in Touch of Evil.
There’s no doubt, he is great, but he said it’s better than Brando, to give an example 2 MP Raging Bull and The shining, does anyone take Nicholson over De Niro?
Psych0, is your favorite movie Psycho? curiosity haha
hahaha no 😛
@Matt Harris — this is a good point. Welles is incredible in Touch of Evil. It is impossible to see any actor, no matter how talented (including Brando), in the role.
Today i talked to a friend about the Coenn, we mentioned how Blood Simple is one of the best debuts, but later he repented and said that the best debut only behind Citizen Kane .. is 12 angry men and not only that, but it is one of the most perfect films that exist of those that are no longer made in these times (21st century) debated and mentioned some (Breathless, 400 blows, Night of the hunter, Blood simple, Ivan childhood, Eraserhead) he agreed with me on this, but said it was in the top 10 i have yet to watch it again, but 12 angry men it’s tremendously overrated.
With a cool head i thought about some others, it would be very helpful if we could make the definitive list of the best debuts.
I hope you can order them from better to not so better.
Citizen Kane, Breathless, The 400 blows, The Night of the Hunter, Blood Simple, Ivan Childhood, Eraserhead, Reservoir of Dogs, Badlands, Pather Panchali, Mad max, Virgin suicides, Hunger, Pi, Amores Perros, The maltese falcon, Lola, Knife in the Water, Hiroshima, mon amour, Elevator to the Gallows, Donnie Darko, La Pointe Courte
@Aldo- that’s a great list of debuts— I haven’t put a page together for all-time debuts (other than to try to note them as I go along year by year or on their individual directors page– but that could take some time to collect) but I did one for the 21st century if that helps http://thecinemaarchives.com/2018/11/26/best-debuts-of-the-21st-century/
I think Mad Max, 12 Angry Men and Donnie Darko sort of stick out as not quite up to snuff with the rest of these— but still- impressive.
citizen kane and badlands are masterful. so is breathless and many others. but i’d say my personal pick for best is night of the hunter because i think the two parallel studies (gish, the matriarch and mitchum the hypocrite) are near perfect. charles laughtons visuals are also great.
Wow I just watched touch of evil today. Blown away. I think it is better than lady from Shanghai, and the stranger. I dont know about other side of the wind or kane. Also I was watching ambersons and enjoyed the visuals immensely but my family was being loud and i couldn’t relish in the narrative or acting like i could have so it could be higher. I thought welles was amazing as harry. I want to see more of his films because he is a true genius who rarely disappoints.
About to watch Touch of Evil tonight. Just wondering which cut is the best?
@Joel- thanks may be too late but I think it is the 1998 version with Welles notes that you want if memory serves
1.What about F for Fake ?
2.Do you have an account on letterboxd?If yes what’s your username?
@Hitchscorstanricosawa- so I’d categorize F for Fake as sort of an essay film– not really a narrative fiction film. I’ve seen it- enjoyed it- but it isn’t in the archives
What do you think of The Immortal Story? Would you not count that since it’s a tv movie, because it’s too short or did you not think it was good considering how different it is?
@jaxon- thanks for visiting the site and the comment- you know what- I’ve never seen it (I’m not even sure I’ve heard of it). Thanks for pointing it out. It is available on criterion so I’m going to add it to my list to see
It’s definitely one of his most interesting films in my opinion. The pacing and style of it are very meditative and not like anything else I’ve seen from him. The only films I haven’t seen are Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, F For Fake, and Other Side Of The Wind. I don’t think any of those will be like this except F For Fake, making it very unique for him. It’s pretty short, though, which could be a problem for some people but the style is so rich I didn’t have a problem with it.
@Drake – I’m curious why you have Tarkovsky ahead of Welles. I know you’ve said before that the point of the site isn’t to compare films that are very close together in the ranking so I apologize in advance haha. It’s just that Welles seems to have all the advantages.
– 4 top 100 movies 3 in the top 31) to 2 for Tarkovsky
– Welles’s best film, Citizen Kane is higher ranked than Tarkovsky’s best, The Stalker, although again there only separated by a few spots
– Welles’s probably is more influential and has more important contributions to the art form
– Welles’ has 13 film to Tarkovsky’s 7 although Tarkovsky does have a better per film average
– They’re both amazing behind the camera but Welles’s would seem to have the advantage here as well
Anyhow perhaps I’m nitpicking a little too much, just thought it was interesting
@James Trapp– Yes, but there are statistics or metrics in favor of Tarkovsky, too. You mention the higher per film average. But though they both have seven films on the top 500— Tarkovsky has six in the top 250 and Welles only has four. They are extremely close though– I certainly don’t have a big problem if someone has one ahead of the other. My main objection would come if someone doesn’t think they’re close, actually.
Hy Drake, maybe exist another version of The Magnificent Ambersons except the 88 min ones? Because I loved the first 45 min of the movie, maybe 1 hour. but then the cuts became difficult to accept.. I mean it’s so obvious that big parts of the movie were thrown away.. Not his fault of course, but It’s an amputated movie
@benedetto- yeah maybe- but I’m with the consensus here- this is a top 100 movie as it stands
@benedetto – I did a Welles study recently, loved The Magnificent Ambersons. The version Welles wanted, The Director’s Cut, was lost. It’s become a sort of legend amongst cinephiles. It’s similar to what you see sometimes in music, great “lost” albums. For example, The Beach Boys album “Smile” was intended to be a follow up to their legendary album “Pet Sounds” in 1967 but instead it was never released until a box set came out in 2011 I believe, nearly 44 years later!
Anyhow here’s an interesting article about the ongoing Quest to find the original Magnificent Ambersons version that Welles intended on releasing.
@james trapp- thank you man, appreciate it. I still loved the movie, but I was a bit disappointed because it looks like could be even better than citizien Kane but in the end it feels like it’s not his movie anymore
@benedetto – I know, imagine how Welles must have felt at the time! It’s tough when business and art collide. It took Welles nearly 40 years to finally try to watch the Magnificent Ambersons and apparently he couldn’t even finish it because it was too depressing for him.
The funny thing is that the version we have is still regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. I even read the novel after (I don’t read many).
[…] 9. Orson Welles […]
Citizen Kane MP
The Magnificent Ambersons MP
The Stranger HR
The Lady From Shanghai MS
Mr. Arkadin HR
The Touch of Evil MP
The Trial MS
Chimes At Midnight MS
F for Fake MP
The Other Side of the Wind R
@Drake – I was thinking of watching Mr Arkadin in the next couple of days, but Criterion has a few different versions available to watch. Was wondering if you have a preferred version and would be able to recommend it.
@Chase- There isn’t a really great answer here I’m afraid- which is both good and bad as I don’t think you can see the wrong one. I’ve seen the comprehensive version and Confidential Report. So my next one will be the Corinth Cut I think. Given the two I’ve seen- I’d say the comprehensive cut but again there’s no wrong answer (like seeing the analog 2001 Imax version that Nolan touted a few years ago- this is the wrong choice).
@Chase – I came across this article (link below) and while
Just finished up my Welles study a few days ago. I agree with your placement of him on the list, although I’d probably put him just outside of the top 10. He’s an unfortunate case because I think you can make a very convincing case that he’s the most talented person to ever pick up a camera, but studio interference, financial issues, etc just got in the way. Honestly though, it just makes his oeuvre even more impressive considering the quality of films in it despite all those issues. I’d have him graded out like this:
1. Citizen Kane – MP
2. Touch of Evil – MP
3. The Trial – MP
4. Magnificent Ambersons – MS/MP (very close to MP but just feels too incomplete)
5. F For Fake – MS
6. Chimes At Midnight – MS
7. The Lady From Shanghai – HR/MS
8. Othello – HR/MS
9. The Other Side Of The Wind – HR
10. Mr Arkadin – R/HR
11. Macbeth – R
12. The Stranger – R
@Chase – nice work, my list is very similar, I am curious where did you watch The Trial? I have not been able to get a high quality version and when I did a Welles study myself last year just settled for whatever I could find online for The Trial.
@James Trapp not sure if you’re a physical media person but The Trial was just released on 4k. No idea if it’s on any kind of stream yet, but I bought a copy of the 4k and am waiting for it to arrive. It’s a UK release and I’m in the US, but all 4k’s are region free. Maybe you could look into that and it’s possible it will be online sometime soon.
@LeBronSmith – Thanks, I like both purchasing from the Amazon Prime Store when films I want are on sale. I also do like physical media, at this point only interested in Blu Ray 4K.
I also live in the US. I think the US is Region A for physical copies, I assume Region Free means it works in all locations?
@James Trapp – I watched it on a streaming service called Peacock, which is owned by NBC. I believe it is free as well, although don’t know if it’s available in other countries besides the US (if you don’t live there).
@James Trapp Yes, even though The Trail 4k is a Region B release, it will still work in Region A.
@LeBronSmith – good to know, I am definitely going to order, I think Amazon can convert British currency to USD. It’s funny I actually made the following post in June of this year on another page on this site.
“Does anyone know where I can find a quality version of The Trial. I’ve seen it twice but both times the quality was not great, I still thought very highly of it as I have posted about previously. Given that the set designs and mise-en-scenes are its biggest strengths this film could definitely use a UHD 4K restoration”
Does anyone have any good Orson Welles books to recommend? I rewatched Chimes at Midnight (1966) last night and was even more impressed by it. Got me interested in Welles again.
@James Trapp- Years ago I read just about everything that Peter Bogdanovich wrote including This is Orson Welles – sort of an interview/conversation style. It has been awhile- but I would recommend this (and really anything Bogdanovich wrote).
@Drake – thanks, yeah I remember on the Bogdanovich page you mentioned that his value to Cinema as an author/historian was as great as his contributions as a director. When I did my Hawks study for the Criterion versions of Bringing Up Baby, Angels Have Wings, and Red River Bogdanovich had significant contributions including the audio commentary which was very insightful.
@James Trapp- for sure- and this is my favorite of his books if you have time for just one https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/929602.Who_the_Devil_Made_It