best film:  For any actor that has a significant role in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – like Joseph Cotten (Cotten plays Jedediah Leland – a big part) – that is going to be the answer here. Cotten surrounds Kane with The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man – both in the 1940s, and then Heaven’s Gate decades later in 1980. Cotten’s uncredited role as a coroner in Touch of Evil is not quite meaty enough to warrant a real look here. The second tier behind these masterpieces includes Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Cotten gives the second-best acting performance in Citizen Kane (behind Welles). It is an interesting bit of life imitating art to have Cotten play the old friend who is a contentious relationship with the genius protagonist (played by Welles… and Welles himself). Kane’s storytelling structure means Cotten plays the aging Jedediah Leland character in the interviews – and he knocks these scenes out of the park.


Joseph Cotten in the first of four (4) archiveable films directed by Orson Welles – Citizen Kane of course. Welles took Cotten with him to Hollywood as Cotten was part of the Mercury Theater players in the 1930s.


best performance:  With Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Third Man – Cotten is in three of the best films of the 1940s (all alongside Orson Welles and all in the top fifty (50) of all-time). But, it is Shadow of a Doubt that emerges, fairly handedly, as Cotten’s best single performance. Yes, Cotten was the chum and often-time collaborator of Welles – one of the best auteurs of all time – but it is under Hitchcock’s direction that Cotten taps into both the charm (a little) and that wonderful icy chill ( a great deal).


Cotten as Uncle Charlie – terrorizing young Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


stylistic innovations/traits:  Joseph Cotten has nineteen (19) archiveable films. He was never nominated for an Academy Award (won in Venice for Portrait of Jennie) but is in four of the best films of the 1940s – these are high stakes. This is from Cotten: “Orson Welles lists Citizen Kane as his best film, Alfred Hitchcock opts for Shadow of a Doubt, and Sir Carol Reed chose The Third Man – and I’m in all of them.”  There is certainly something to that statement and it does not even really consider how poignant and tender his performance in The Magnificent Ambersons is. He is essential to 1940s cinema and those four films stack up with any four from Humphrey Bogart. Cotten did not have Bogey’s talent though – and the devil’s advocate argument against Cotten’s case would be certainly being in the right place at the right time as Welles’ buddy (again, another reason Shadow of a Doubt is so important to Cotten’s resume).


Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins in Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Cotten plays off of Welles again and the brilliant Alida Valli.


directors worked with:  Orson Welles (4), Robert Aldrich (3), Alfred Hitchcock (1), George Cukor (1), King Vidor (1), Carol Reed (1), Sergio Corbucci (1), Michael Cimino (1). Welles is the key partnership of course even if two of the films are uncredited small time roles (the aforementioned Touch of Evil and Othello). Also, and he was not a director, but Cotten was under contract to David O. Selznick  (Since You Went Away, Duel in the Sun, Portrait of Jennie) meaning he often worked with Jennifer Jones. This was all post Kane/Ambersons and Gone with the Wind.


top five performances:

  1. Shadow of a Doubt
  2. The Third Man
  3. The Magnificent Ambersons
  4. Citizen Kane
  5. Portrait of Jennie


archiveable films

1941- Citizen Kane
1941- Lydia
1942- The Magnificent Ambersons
1943- Shadow of a Doubt
1944- Gaslight
1944- Since You Went Away
1946- Duel in the Sun
1947- The Farmer’s Daughter
1948- Portrait of Jennie
1949- The Third Man
1951- Othello
1953- Niagara
1958- Touch of Evil
1961- The Last Sunset
1964- Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte
1967- The Hellbenders
1968- Petulia
1977- Twilights Last Gleaming
1980- Heaven’s Gate