Orson Welles

Annie Lee | Jun 8, 2024

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George Orson Welles, simply called Orson Welles, is an American artist, actor, director, producer and screenwriter, but also theater director, designer, writer and illusionist, born May 6, 1915 in Kenosha (Wisconsin) and died October 10, 1985 in Hollywood (California).

He was sometimes credited as O. W. Jeeves or G. O. Spelvin.

First revealed to himself through Shakespeare's theater, then made famous by a radio program (War of the Worlds), Orson Welles became a major figure in cinema with his first feature film, Citizen Kane (1941), which critics consider one of the most important films of the 20th century.

Thereafter, his cinematographic style, but also his acting, exerted a great influence on the cinema of the years 1950-1970, especially on Stanley Kubrick. A precocious and polymorphous artist, fiercely in love with his independence, a lover of cigars, bullfighting and illusionism, Welles never ceased throughout his career to return to theater and literature, to the great classical texts (Othello, Don Quixote) as well as to contemporary ones (The Trial). Defying the production system and maintaining his own legend of spectacular and enigmatic effects, he left many films unfinished.


His father, Richard Heard Welles, is a dilettante industrialist and a great traveler, and is a pianist. The son describes them thus:

"My father was an Edwardian bon vivant who liked to call himself an inventor. He was generous and tolerant, adored by all his friends. I owe him a privileged childhood and a love of travel. My mother was a woman of memorable beauty, she was involved in politics, was a champion rifle shooter, as well as a gifted concert pianist. I got from her the love of music and eloquence without which no human being is complete.

Young Orson grew up in a refined and cultured environment with a touch of eccentricity. Evidence of his precociousness abounds: he could read at two, learn to play the piano at three, and direct Shakespeare's plays at seven. Legend has it that he was a child prodigy, performing King Lear by himself at the age of seven and accomplishing other feats before that. These "feats" are now well known: at the age of three he appeared in Samson and Delilah at the Chicago Opera, and later in Madame Butterfly.

In 1919, his parents separated and Orson followed his mother to Chicago. At the age of ten, he played Peter Rabbit at Marshall Field's mall in Chicago. Afterwards, the local newspaper wrote an article about him entitled: "Draughtsman, actor, poet; he's only ten". His skills and passion for show business did not stop there: he also wanted to be a set designer, director and above all an actor, and his favorite things were transformism and hairpieces.

At the age of ten, he entered a school in Madison (Wisconsin) as an intern, where he staged a theatrical adaptation of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. He met the magician Harry Houdini who introduced him to illusionism. On September 15, 1926, he joined the Todd School for Boys (en), an institution open to artistic practices located in Woodstock (Illinois) and directed by Roger Hill (to whom Welles will pay tribute later, to the mentor and friend for life). Indeed, during his four years at the Todd School, he deepened his taste for tragedy and classical poetry, but also for illusionism. He graduated in 1931. Very attached to this school, he returns there during the summer of 1934 to set up a theater festival which gives rise to his first book (first of a series of 3 books written in collaboration with Roger Hill, and published in 1934): Everybody's Shakespeare.

Two personal events tarnish Orson's childhood and adolescence: he loses his mother, only forty years old, on May 10, 1924, followed six years later by the death of his father. Orphaned at fifteen, he is taken in charge by the pediatrician Maurice Bernstein (later played by Everett Sloane in a role transposed for Citizen Kane), a long-time friend of his parents who will continue to perfect his education: he discerned in Orson, from a very young age, an uncommon taste for theater and illusion, even giving him a magic lantern and a puppet theater.

In 1930, while still a student at the Todd School, Orson won the prize for best student director with his Julius Caesar, a prize awarded by the Chicago Dramatic Association. Bernstein suggested that he enroll at Harvard and then introduced him to Boris Anisfeld of the Art Institute of Chicago, who was impressed with his designs, and Welles asked for a sabbatical to do a "tour of Europe.

He chose to leave for Ireland in the summer of 1930 to quench his thirst for painting - in fact, Welles had been drawing all his life. He travelled around the country in a mule-drawn wagon, made a detour to the Aran Islands, went to Dublin and from there to Paris. Sixteen years old and penniless, he returns to Dublin and presents himself as a "New York theater star" to Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, directors of the Gate Theatre: Orson is very convincing, because he has cleverly disguised himself, and his warm, deep voice makes him seem older than he is. Thanks to this deception, he is enrolled and remains in Dublin, where he deepens his experience of the stage:

"I started out playing the lead roles as a star. The small roles came later." The Gate, where James Mason also debuts, reveals Welles to his "theater demon". He plays the role of Duke Charles Alexander in an adaptation of The Jew Süss, but especially the title roles in Hamlet, Richard III, King John, Timon of Athens, that is to say about twenty plays, meeting for the first time a real audience. On and off, he was also the sound and lighting director for the Abbey Theatre, the Gate's more conservative rival.

Ambitious, Welles decided to conquer the London theaters, but his work permit was refused and he returned to Dublin. Between two theatrical seasons, he spent time in Seville and posed as a mystery writer. He said: "I lived in the Triana neighborhood. I wrote detective stories, which took me two days a week and earned me three hundred dollars. With that money, I was a great lord in Seville. It was also during this period that he developed a passion for bullfighting. After discovering Andalusia at the age of seventeen, he practiced bullfighting as an Aficionado practico, and then as a novillero. This will be one of his passions throughout his life (see below).

In 1932, he made his first cinematographic exercise, a ten-minute test, putting Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde into images, but according to Joseph McBride, "it was only an amateurish and chaotic work, in which Welles and a few Dublin friends had fun. In 1934, he decided to return to the United States.

New York (1934-1938)

In 1934, after this immersion in the theater, he returns to the United States, not without bitterness and somewhat idle. The young man then had a solid literary culture, as well as a good command of the techniques of staging. However, the years 1933-1934 brought many changes, first through the stage and then through his marriage.

While he struggled to find roles for himself, while his own plays such as The Marching Song were rejected and the United States sank into crisis, Welles produced, again thanks to Roger Hill, a series of illustrated educational books entitled Shakespeare for All, which allowed him to visit North Africa and bring back hundreds of drawings. In the meantime, he meets Thornton Wilder, who opens the doors of off-Broadway shows for him: this is how he begins to play in Katharine Cornell's company, and it is during his interpretation in Romeo and Juliet that he is noticed by John Houseman.

He was also lucky when Roger Hill, director of the Todd School, contacted him to organize a Summer Festival of Drama. He managed to invite Mac Liammóir and Edwards, the directors of the Gate. During the rehearsals, he met a young aspiring actress, Virginia Nicholson (1916-1996), whom he married four months later - in March 1938, the couple had a daughter named Chris, but divorced in 1939. Virginia remarried to the screenwriter Charles Lederer the following year.

In the meantime, Welles made his first film, The Hearts of Age, a short silent film lasting eight minutes, in which, in his words, he "mocks the poetic and phantasmagorical world of Jean Cocteau. Welles plays a man in a hat and disguise, trying to get off a boat and then playing the piano, while an elderly woman threatens him. The "vigorous and unbridled" editing, the angles and the light reveal a style very marked by expressionist cinema and the surrealist spirit. Virginia plays the old lady and the police officer, her fellow actor William Vance plays an Indian, all punctuated with shots of church bells and crosses. One sequence shows Welles' hand drawing. Restored and preserved in the Library of Congress, this first opus does not really distract Welles from his passion for the theater.

Based on his performances with Cornell, the producer and theater director John Houseman offered to work with him as part of the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Art Project, a cultural program that emerged from the New Deal and became operational in September 1935. In April 1936, he created a sensation by staging a highly original adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth in a Harlem theater, transposing the old, foggy, cold Scotland to a Caribbean atmosphere inspired by modern Haitian history, all performed by black actors. The story is set in the time of King Henry I, and the witches become voodoo priestesses. He also mounts Marlowe's Faust in a subdued and mortifying atmosphere. After an adaptation of Eugène Labiche's Horse Eats Hat, in which Joseph Cotten appeared for the first time, Houseman and Welles had a real success in June 1937, along with another scandal, with a sort of satire of American political life in the form of an opera composed by Marc Blitzstein and entitled The Craddle will rock. Many political opponents, as well as enemies of the Federal Theatre, put pressure on Washington and got the police to order the theater to close. Houseman and Welles decided to perform the opera in the street, where 600 people had gathered.

The two men resigned and founded the Mercury Theatre at the end of 1937, mainly to serve the Shakespearean repertoire. Their first production was Julius Caesar in a staging inspired by Mussolinian fascism.

Welles' second short film, Too Much Johnson is produced by Mercury Productions and is therefore part of the theatrical performances undertaken with Houseman. The origin of the film is not a work by Shakespeare, but a farce written by William Gillette. Shot in the summer of 1938 in the vicinity of New York, this 40-minute silent film was to be an integral part of the show, serving as both prologue and intermission. For a variety of reasons, it was not screened at the Stony Creek Summer Theater festival preview. The title role is played by Joseph Cotten, who wanders the rooftops of New York City, as well as Virginia Nicholson, Welles and Marc Blitzstein.

In parallel to his theatrical activity, Welles made his radio debut in 1935, in the program March of Time, where his warm and deep voice seduced listeners: for four years, he collaborated in about fifteen programs per week. CBS hired him to direct radio adaptations of literary works, with what would later become the Mercury Theatre company, including Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, Dolores del Rio, Ray Collins, and George Coulouris. The weekly show, entitled Mercury Theatre on the Air, featured numerous novels, including The Splendor of the Ambersons - which later became his second feature film - as well as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. The experience lasts twenty-one months.

On March 27, 1938, his first daughter, Chris Welles, was born.

On the evening of Monday, October 30, 1938, the day before Halloween, CBS broadcast an adaptation of Herbert George Wells' War of the Worlds. This program, because of its very realistic broadcasting (Welles pretended to be a CBS announcer interrupting the program), has, according to a very widespread thesis, but today questioned, frightened a good part of the East Coast of the United States, which would have believed in the invasion of the country by Martians. However, the circumstances of this program turn out to be less "glorious" than its consequences. CBS switchboards, but also police stations, were flooded with calls from people claiming to have seen Martians. The panic was relayed for a week in the written press, which presented that its monopoly was threatened by the appearance of the radio. In retrospect, the extent of the panic was, according to some authors, considerably exaggerated over the years, among others by Welles himself. However, this program allowed Welles to become famous throughout the country overnight, which opened the doors to Hollywood, where he was offered a golden contract.

Hollywood (1939-1947)

While Welles continued to work with Houseman for CBS on an identical show, but now renamed The Campbell Playhouse (after the Campbell Soup Company, the show's sponsor), he was approached during 1939 by the newly appointed president of RKO Radio Pictures, George J. Schaefer (1888-1981), whose ambition was to make quality films. Life magazine had just named Welles as the "new Max Reinhardt". And on June 22, he landed on the West Coast. Contrary to legend, this studio contract does not give him "complete freedom", but provides that he can be an actor, writer and director, and also co-producer via his company Mercury Production, a status that is actually quite unusual, but RKO remains the distributor, his right of veto remains considerable, especially on the choice of actors and the amount of money advanced. In addition, he was asked to make one film a year for five years, in exchange for 25% of the profits and $150,000 in advance, with freedom to choose the music and even the editing, something rarely seen in Hollywood. In 1939, a witness recounts the arrival of the Mercury Theatre troupe at RKO: "They walked through the studio canteen, all eyes were on them, they were kings.

Divorced, then settled in Brentwood (Los Angeles) and surrounded by secretaries, Welles first works on the adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness and proposes the use of a subjective camera. The RKO refuses because of an overrun in the projected budget, the project, although scripted, does not succeed. After the Conrad was rejected, Welles proposed an adaptation, this time by Cecil Day-Lewis, a political thriller entitled The Smiler with a Knife, which tells the story of a woman detective who investigates a mysterious character living incognito and who turns out to be a future despot and an eccentric aviator (obviously inspired by Howard Hughes). The choice of Lucille Ball for the title role displeased the studios, Carole Lombard having declined the offer. In his private life, Welles began a relationship with Dolores del Rio; in 1940, he broke off his association with John Houseman.

A year after his arrival in Hollywood, Orson Welles, who had wanted to adapt Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, associated with the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (brother of the filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz), wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane and was inspired in part by the life of the press magnate William Randolph Hearst. The entire cast of the Mercury is included in the distribution. The filmmaker finally obtained full control of the shooting, as he wanted to keep the subject of his film secret. The producers try to interfere by barging onto the set, but they find only the technicians and actors playing baseball, at the behest of the suspicious director.

Filming took place from July 30 to October 23, 1940. Once the editing and post-production are completed during the winter, Orson Welles participates in many promotional events where he is told only the parallel between the character of Charles Foster Kane and Hearst, and the reaction of the latter who has just launched a smear campaign through his own newspapers. Tired, Welles declares: "When the noise triggered by Citizen Kane is calmed, I will make a great film on the life of Hearst. Things escalate to the point that the RKO staff discusses confiscating the film negative; the directors decide to let go of the film, but not without passing a copy to Hearst, and Welles, feeling betrayed, publicly threatens the company with a lawsuit for breach of contract, in his name and that of the Mercury Theatre: the film cost $800,000. His health deteriorated so much that his doctor sent him to a clinic in Palm Springs to rest. Despite the smear campaign orchestrated by Hearst that lasted until April 1941, the film was released in theaters, with a delay, on May 1 and first at the New York Palace. Criticism is unanimously positive: the film appears as a revolution in terms of film technique and story structure. Later, Welles claims to have been inspired by Sacha Guitry's Roman d'un tricheur for the direction of certain stylistic effects (flashbacks, fades, subjective camera, voice-over, etc.), effects that are found in the following films. Still, if the public is not at the rendezvous, the exploitation is deficient, Welles still gets the first Oscar for best original screenplay, which he shares with Herman Mankiewicz.

To escape the world of Hollywood, Welles allowed himself a few weeks of directing on the boards where he mounted an adaptation of Native Son by Richard Wright. After having studied some forty possible scripts, including The Brothers Karamazov and a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven, he began work on a new script inspired by the novel The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, which he had already transposed to radio in October 1939.

The shooting took place from October 28, 1941 to January 22, 1942: the destruction of Pearl Harbor occurred in the meantime and the film was completed in an oppressive climate, especially since Welles was already working on other projects. For this second film, the studio reconsidered its contract, reducing its leeway in terms of final editing: not having access to it, Welles left for Brazil to shoot first a report on the Rio carnival. There, he learned that Schaefer had been fired (Welles lost his protector) and that following two negative pre-projections in terms of return, RKO cut the film by almost 43 minutes, which were never found. RKO also had assistant director Freddie Fleck and editor Robert Wise, who had already worked on Citizen Kane, shoot a more "morally acceptable" ending. Moreover, unhappy that his score was also mutilated, Bernard Herrmann refused to have his name included in the credits, which appeared as one of the first in the United States to be recited aloud, concluding with the final mark that has become mythical: My Name is Orson Welles (according to the habit of radio presenters). The premiere took place on August 13, 1942, and the film, which earned only $620,000, was on the list of four Oscars, but without success.

Started at the same time as The Splendor of the Ambersons, the shooting of Journey into Fear placed Welles in a delicate position: he was both actor and producer on the latter, but his contract with RKO initially provided that he would direct it. Visibly more interested in The Splendor of the Ambersons, Welles offended the studios somewhat by leaving the set. In addition, and at the urging of Nelson Rockefeller, he began work on a third project during the fall of 1941: initially entitled Pan American and soon renamed It's All True, which included four documentary episodes, Welles portrayed the lives of Americans on both continents. During the summer of 1941, as part of his work to bring together the American people threatened by war, Welles contacted Duke Ellington and commissioned a musical suite for a portrait of Louis Armstrong, which was never completed. In September, Norman Foster was sent to Mexico City to shoot the episode entitled My Friend Bonito, the story of a bull and a boy, which was later incorporated into the documentary project.

From February to August 1942, Welles traveled through Brazil in search of footage for two episodes: The Story of Samba and Four Men on a Raft. One can also assume that such a distance allowed RKO to take advantage of it: "I was in South America waiting for the dailies of Journey to Fearland, and then an RKO stooge, having received the benevolent approval of a couple of vice-presidents and the studio censors, took the liberty of editing the film. The result was fortunately shown on a dark night when no one was watching," Welles later said. The reasons why It's All True remains unfinished are multiple: first the direction of RKO changes, after the departure of Schaefer, it is Rockefeller who withdraws. And then there is the editing of The Splendor of the Ambersons, which infuriated Welles. Afterwards, the shooting was cancelled and the reels disappeared.

The year 1943 marked a return to optimism: on September 7, 1943, he married the star Rita Hayworth, and they had a daughter, Rebecca, who was born in 1944. Invited by Franklin Roosevelt to participate in the war effort, he proposed a series of lectures throughout the United States, some of which were published in the New Farmer Almanac and the New York Post or broadcast on CBS, throughout the war. CBS programs in 1942-43: Ceiling Unlimited, a 13-episode radio series that promotes the U.S. Air Force, commissioned by Lockheed-Vega, but written, directed and narrated by Welles; then Hello Americans, which consists of 12 episodes recorded in different countries of the American continent.

In early 1944, Welles became a movie star with Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre, which was also an adaptation of the radio play performed by The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Welles played the lead role and was a commercial success.

At the end of 1943, Welles became involved in theater in the army, producing, among other things, magic tricks. The revue was named The Mercury Wonder Show and he participated in the sketch film Hollywood Parade (Follow the Boys), in which he cut Marlene Dietrich into pieces and described himself as an "amateur magician". That same year, he wrote a screenplay entitled Monsieur Verdoux, inspired by a French news item, the Landru affair, and for which he approached Charlie Chaplin for the title role: Chaplin, having never been directed by anyone, rewrote it after reading it and transformed it according to his needs, including, in particular, a socio-economic critique, and, to compensate Welles, offered him 5,000 dollars, as well as his presence in the credits.

Welles did not return to the camera until the fall of 1945 with The Stranger: Sam Spiegel and the RKO, more reluctant than ever, offer him to direct this film, provided he takes Anthony Veiller's script without modification; John Huston, who is not credited, helps Welles as best he can and the two men become friends. Welles shipped the production ten days ahead of schedule and the film was released on May 25, 1946, and was a great success, but Welles himself considered it "his worst. There's nothing about me in it. I did it to prove that I could make a film like everyone else. The two reels shot in South America were the best part of the film. Spiegel cut them out. Welles played a former Nazi and it was also the first film to show images of concentration camps. However, the year 1946 was to bring him true satisfaction: to shoot freely with his wife, Rita Hayworth.

He directed that year The Lady of Shanghai, loosely based on a novel by Sherwood King, and magnified by the presence of Rita Hayworth - with whom he was already divorcing. The public cries scandal when they see the redheaded Rita, symbol of Hollywood glamour, transformed into a short-haired platinum blonde, who becomes a cynical and cold heroine on the screen; the film is sulked during the test screenings, which do not thrill Columbia either, which prefers to delay its release in favor of Gilda, another film starring Hayworth. The film was not released until May 1948. The fourth feature film by the man already described by the press as "Hollywood's enfant terrible with a fading star" ends with the Ice Palace sequence, where Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane, playing a married couple, kill each other in a terrifying din of broken glass, a maze of mirrors from which only the main character (and narrator), Michael O'Hara, played by Welles, manages to escape.

Just after the shooting, Welles returned to the theater and thus to New York. Some of the sequences from The Lady from Shanghai were used by Welles for his play Around the World in 80 Days after Jules Verne, which Michael Todd was planning to adapt for film. With this expensive theatrical production, which was shunned by the public, Welles ran into money problems for the first time.

In the summer of 1947, Herbert Yates, the president of Republic Pictures, a small independent studio specializing in Westerns and B-movies, agrees to finance his new film project, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, for $200,000, with the overage to be paid by Mercury Theatre, otherwise known as Welles. This economic gamble was not kept: Orson Welles paid nearly 100,000 dollars extra, while concealing the poverty of the sets in the middle of an artificial fog, but shooting his film in only twenty-one days. The result is striking in its strangeness and mystery, and perfectly captures "the telluric atmosphere of the tragedy. Released on October 1, 1948, the film failed to be presented at the Venice Film Festival against Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, then disappeared from the screens. It was released in France in 1950 and André Bazin presented himself as one of its most ardent defenders, contributing, with Jean Cocteau, to bringing the "prodigal son" to Europe. In reality, Welles was totally ruined by this experience and the American tax authorities demanded large sums of money from him. At the end of 1948, he embarked for Cinecittà, where he worked for various roles, thus taking advantage of his fame as an actor.

Tour of Europe (1949-1956)

In addition to his problems with the tax authorities, Welles had fallen into disfavor with American producers, particularly because he had been on the MPAA's blacklist since November 1947, following the recommendations of HUAAC, which refused to employ artists with allegedly communist tendencies. Paradoxically, Welles never hid his aversion to fascism and Stalinism, even maintaining a correspondence with Eisenstein, among others. Collateral victim of McCarthyism, Welles left for Europe where he played in many films to finance his new Shakespearean project: Othello.

After Rome, from which we can retain Black Magic (Cagliostro), which allows the meeting with Akim Tamiroff, then after a few aborted Parisian projects, Welles turns mainly in London. The film that began the transformation of Orson Welles into a real myth in Europe is the one in which, between shadow and fog, he appears only a little (compared to Joseph Cotten) and which is not a huge success: adapted from the novel of the same name by Graham Greene (also a screenwriter), The Third Man by the British Carol Reed remains a case apart in his career as an actor. Reed later admitted that Welles was particularly involved in this adventure that led them to Vienna, even giving some advice on two or three sequences, but no more. His character became one with him and Welles became for all Harry Lime, "the man who dies twice" doubled as an equivocal and fascinating crook.

The French public discovered Welles' first films after the Liberation. Jean-Paul Sartre praised Citizen Kane a year before the film was released in July 1946. Later, the young critics of the Cahiers du cinéma were also seduced, André Bazin in the lead.

The director returned to Europe in the mid-1940s, fleeing the taxman and McCarthyism. In France, he was more admired than in the United States, but his demands and claims during the following decades were sometimes disappointed.

In New York during the war, Orson Welles attended a screening of Marcel Pagnol's La Femme du boulanger. Welles landed in Marseille in September 1946, and Pagnol recounted that he saw a giant appear in his office who exclaimed: "I want to see Monsieur Raimu!" But Raimu had just died, and Welles then burst into tears: "He was the best of us all!" he finally said, before explaining that he had considered calling on Raimu for some film projects. Pagnol and Welles became friends, the latter not hesitating to criticize him, saying, for instance, that La Femme du boulanger (The Baker's Wife) was "one of the best films in the world, but one of the worst filmed". Welles also met one of Pagnol's collaborators, the set photographer Roger Corbeau, who was hired on Secret File and The Trial. A few years later, Welles was contacted by Sacha Guitry who offered him the role of Benjamin Franklin in If I Were Told Versailles... and that of Hudson Lowe for his Napoleon. When Bill Krohn spoke with Welles in the late 1970s, he revealed that he had forged his style "as an essayist, inspired by Guitry's work.

In 1951, the independent producer Harry Alan Towers asked Welles, then living between London and Italy, to direct Tales from the Black Museum, a radio series in 51 episodes inspired by real events from the files of Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police Service. Towers succeeded in exporting this program to all English-language channels around the world. In the United States, it was broadcast on Mutual Broadcasting System during 1952. The script was written by Ira Marion and had the originality of having both the police and the criminals' point of view.

It would take Welles four years to film Othello (The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice). Although it was in the Mercury Theatre's repertoire, André Bazin places the beginning of this project when Welles was in Italy. A stay in Venice and an affair with Lea Padovani, who was to play Desdemona, allowed him to move the start of shooting to the summer of 1948. The actor's Italian fees (via Mercury Productions) were used to pay for the first sequences, and then the fees from London were used. After a disappointing first audition, he called on Micheál MacLiammóir to play Iago, then on Suzanne Cloutier for Desdemona. The film crew soon turned out to be composed of different nationalities, as the shooting was interrupted by money problems and had to adapt to many changes of location. Thus, Welles used many exterior shots (Venice, Rome, Perugia, Viterbo, Essaouira) and made invisible connections, weaving his film stubbornly, and followed as best he could by his team, found himself without an Italian producer (Michele Scalera filed for bankruptcy in 1950), was saved by Les Films Marceau, for a total budget of about 6,000,000 lire with an editing that included 2,000 shots (compared to 500 for Citizen Kane). However, the film retains the mark of the director, who says: "The editing is essential for the director, it is the only time when he has complete control over the form of his film. Its artistic success was greeted by the Grand Prix (ex-aequo) at Cannes in 1952, the film being presented under the Moroccan flag.

Welles then returned to the stage and it was at the Édouard-VII theater in Paris that he proposed an adaptation of his own play The Unthinking Lobster (Miracle in Hollywood), a satirical fable against the Hollywood production system, for which he shot the short film The Miracle of St. Anne as a prelude and recruited Eartha Kitt; the whole thing was entitled The Blessed and the Damned. The Parisian critics, including Le Monde, praised the technical prowess, but were concerned about the financial cost, so Welles replaced the whole thing with Musset and Shakespeare, Eartha closed the evening with a song recital and then the show went on tour.

Back in London, Welles finally ended up directing Shakespeare with the help of Laurence Olivier, then participated in the launch of the BBC2 channel with an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. For English radio, he participated in a series in 52 episodes, prequel to The Third Man and entitled The Adventures of Harry Lime (BBC, 1951-52). There, he met Peter Brook who adapted King Lear with him for American television (Omnibus Theatre, CBS, 1953). In 1955, the BBC commissioned him to produce a series, Orson Welles' Sketch Book, six episodes in which he told personal anecdotes while drawing. In March, Associated-Rediffusion, a London-based production company, commissioned him to make 26 television films: Around the World with Orson Welles (ITV, 1955) is a "travels essays film", shot between Vienna, London, Paris, Lurs, Madrid and the Basque Country.

After a successful television debut, he threw himself completely into the project of a new film, partly inspired by three episodes of the Adventures of Harry Lime. Not only does this film have two (or even three) titles, but also five theatrical versions. The story of the filming is as complex as that of Othello.

Originally titled Masquerade, then Confidential Report (Secret File) and produced by the Frenchman Louis Dolivet (who confiscated the editing), the film was shot over seven months (1953-54), between Segovia, Madrid, Valladolid, Munich, Paris, the French Riviera and the Château de Chillon. Arkadin, the character played by Welles, is based on the life of the billionaire Basil Zaharoff, and the man in charge of investigating his past turns out to be Lime, but Welles renames him Van Stratten. The release of the film was two years late, because the editing started by Welles lasted almost the whole year 1954, mainly because of the post-synchronization. However, the premiere took place in Madrid in March 1955 under the title Mister Arkadin, then in London five months later and finally in Paris (June 1956). The critics were divided, but Éric Rohmer compared Welles to Eisenstein.

At the beginning of the shooting, Welles met the Italian actress Paola Mori whom he married in May 1955 - they had a daughter, Beatrice Welles, born at the end of the same year.

American interlude (1956-1959)

Welles had already returned to Broadway in 1954 for an acclaimed King Lear, which was picked up by CBS, but it was in London that he transposed Melville's novel Moby Dick for the stage in 1955, a production that was soon picked up by English television: entitled Moby Dick - Rehearsed, the production was never completed. Shortly after, John Huston is then asked to direct a film, from a script by Ray Bradbury: it is Moby Dick (film, 1956), where Welles plays Father Mapple, and thus returns after ten years of absence in Hollywood. He participates in a number of Shakespearean adaptations for CBS and NBC, but above all, and against all odds, he directs a feature film.

In 1958, he was entrusted by Universal Studios with the direction of Touch of Evil, based on a short noir novel. In later interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles explains how Charlton Heston, a real star at the time, was instrumental in this choice. Wanting the star for the project, Universal called Heston, who learned that the cast included Janet Leigh as his wife, and Orson Welles as Commissioner Quinlan. Following a misunderstanding, Heston understands that "Welles is going to be the director of the film", so he declares: "If Welles is the director, I agree". Contacted, Welles agreed to a trial run. The producers, viewing the dailies every night, were so excited that they offered Welles a contract for four films over the next five years. Unfortunately for him, once the film was edited, the studio radically changed its position. Universal decided to have the film completely re-edited by another director, cutting scenes and shooting new ones in a hurry. Welles says, "The humor I put into the film was unusual for the time. Today it has become commonplace. But at the time, it displeased the pundits at Universal. This is his last Hollywood film: we find Akim Tamiroff and Marlene Dietrich, and a mythical opening shot. During this stay, he turns in particular in The Fires of Summer after William Faulkner where he gets a role opposite Paul Newman and works for Desilu Productions, which contacts him in late 1956 to launch a series, The Orson Welles Show, but the project is aborted. The Fountain of Youth is programmed by NBC, the only completed episode, which wins a prestigious Peabody Award.

Back to Europe

Before returning to Europe, Welles met Oscar Dancigers in Mexico City, producer of Luis Buñuel, among others. A new project emerged: adapting Cervantes' Don Quixote. This film was never completed, but Welles, throughout his life, tried to finish it (see below). In 1961, the ABC channel programmed Orson Welles and the Art of Bullfighting, which he directed in Spain: it was around this time that he moved to Madrid, but Welles never stopped coming and going, flying whenever the opportunity arose.

In 1960, producer Alexander Salkind suggested that Welles adapt a modern, but free, work. Some time earlier, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Welles' (supposed) natural son, born in 1940 to Geraldine Fitzgerald, had submitted the idea of adapting Franz Kafka's The Trial for the stage. Later on, the film rights turned out to belong to a German agent. Nevertheless, Salkind managed to raise 650 million old francs with a Franco-Italian-German financial package and filming began in March 1962 in Zagreb (instead of Prague), via the Gare d'Orsay, and ended in June. Welles revisited the novel, but bypassed somewhat the author's black humor, innovating, however, by commissioning Alexandre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker to create an animation from the Parable of the Law, included in the text originally arranged by Max Brod. The film was released in Paris in December 1962 and won the Prix Méliès: The Trial was badly perceived by the Anglo-Saxon critics, judged baroque and destabilizing, and ended on a mushroom cloud, as the Cold War obliged.

At the end of the shooting, Welles began to live with Oja Kodar, whom he met in Zagreb. In the aftermath, he continues to be an actor for the films of others, and remember this period his meeting with Pasolini for La ricotta in 1963.

Three years after the shooting of The Trial, he directed Falstaff, which was a reworking of several Shakespeare tragedies that he had written under the name of Five Kings in 1939 (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor) and also inspired by the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed; In February 1960, he revived Five Kings at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, which was Welles' last performance on stage, but which in fact served as a "pre-rehearsal" for a film that he already had in mind. The shooting took place between September 1964 and April 1965 in Spain and the production was directed by Emiliano Piedra with the subsequent help of Harry Saltzman, whom Welles had met in Madrid for a project, the adaptation of Treasure Island.

The central theme of the film is based on betrayed friendship and lost youth; Orson Welles plays Sir John Falstaff. His consuming passion for the English playwright radiates from this film, which is both melancholy and buffoonish. He considers it his greatest success: "My best film is Falstaff, then The Ambersons. Falstaff is the complement, forty years later, of Citizen Kane that I shot at the dawn of my life. The film is a Spanish-Swiss co-production with shooting in English in the vicinity of Barcelona between the winter of 1964 and the spring of 1965. Jeanne Moreau, already present in The Trial, plays the role of Dolly, surrounded by a host of actors from the English theater including John Gielgud. Presented in Cannes in May 1966, the film won two awards: the XXth Anniversary Prize of the Film Festival and the Prize of the Superior Technical Commission. The director is disappointed, expecting to win the Palme d'Or.

In the fall of 1966, Welles shot for French television (ORTF), The Immortal Story, based on a short story by Isak Dinesen entitled The Eternal Story and for the first time in color. Conceived in the manner of a "miniature", this film features Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio and Orson Welles in the role of Mr Clay. It will be broadcast only on the second channel on May 24, 1968, going relatively unnoticed in view of the events in progress, except for a scene of eroticism rather advanced for the time and that Jean Renoir welcomed.

A few months later, Welles embarked on the shooting of The Deep (1967-1969) - based on Dead Calm (1963) by Charles Williams - on a boat off the coast of Yugoslavia, with, among others, Oja Kodar and Jeanne Moreau. The film remains unfinished (see below). Welles was then at a new turning point in his career: he faced a succession of aborted projects, the most famous of which was The Other Side of the Wind, begun in August 1970 with his friends John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich, and whose (chaotic) shooting lasted until 1976. In 1969, CBS programs Around the World with Orson Welles and then, in 1971, Orson Welles Bag, including excerpts from The Merchant of Venice. But the U.S. tax authorities confiscated the funding received by Welles and the TV movie remained unfinished. That year, Welles received the Oscar of honor for his entire career. It was probably during 1970 that he decided to leave Spain and return to the United States. He moved to Los Angeles with Oja Kodar, while still officially married to Paola Mori.

Last years

In fifteen years, Welles managed to release only two documentaries. While continuing to act in films, to appear in television programs, to participate even in commercials, he occupies most of his time trying to mount new projects. His relationship with Kodar is now public. She participated with him in most of the fiction films (adaptations) that Welles, due to lack of money and time, could not finish.

In 1974, he answered a series of interviews with Michael Parkinson for BBC One.

Directed with the complicity of François Reichenbach, Truths and Lies (F For Fake) is a documentary essay, a reflection on cinema as an art of illusion, as well as on the different techniques used to achieve it. Orson Welles appears in additional scenes as a magician

Filming Othello (1978), a film about the making of Othello based on documents from the 1950s and '52, was made for German television (Hellwig Productions), but received American theatrical distribution in June 1979, a rare occurrence due to the personality and prestige of its author. In 1982, Welles became the president of the César ceremony. The same year, on February 23, President François Mitterrand named him Commander of the Legion of Honor, the highest civilian honor in France, but, due to the lack of a financial agreement with the Socialist government, his project to adapt King Lear was not made.

He dies at 70 years, on October 10, 1985 in Los Angeles following a cardiac arrest a few hours after having participated in the television program the Merv Griffin Show.

He had obtained his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960.

In accordance with his last wishes, his ashes were scattered in Spain, in the finca Recreo de San Cayetano near Ronda in Andalusia, which belonged to his friend, the bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez.

The director's career is peppered with film projects that either remained in the script stage, initiated and then abandoned, or, better yet, shot but unseen. After Welles' death in 1985, many grey areas remain: problems of rights and inheritance, the location of archives, the filmmaker's editing intentions and the status of the works, etc. "In the old tradition of experimenters" according to André Bazin, these film projects are undoubtedly an integral part of his work, or at least participate in the construction of the Orson Welles character, a unique case in the history of cinema. Moreover, Welles himself only acknowledged two films "in progress" during his lifetime, namely: Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind.

This list does not claim to be exhaustive, and only lists films signed with a production company or for which there is a certain source.

It's All True

Unfinished, the shooting of It's All True began in late 1941 and was cancelled in August 1942. Welles originally had no intention of making this documentary on his own, but in the years that followed, he tried to get his hands on the dailies so that he could edit them into something usable. Some of these rushes were found in 1985. The rights of the film now belong to Paramount, but are only free after 50 years. In 1993, a documentary entitled It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, written and directed by Richard Wilson (one of Welles' collaborators in 1942), Bill Krohn and Myron Meisel with the participation of Catherine Benamou, was released.

Don Quixote

Welles began shooting the first images of Don Quixote in September-October 1957 in Mexico, with a first producer, Oscar Dancigers. The film never saw the light of day. He will shoot for seven years, voluntarily interrupting the film, mostly for budgetary reasons. In 1969, the actor Francisco Reiguera, who played the role of Don Quixote, died. Welles tried to edit the film in the 1970s. A second attempt to edit the film from the rushes and following the notes left by Welles was produced in 1992: the reactions of critics were mixed.

The Deep

Unfinished, the shooting of Dead Reckoning (planned title) is interrupted in 1969. One of the cinematographers was none other than Willy Kurant, the same as on An Immortal Story. One of the actors, Laurence Harvey, died in 1973, so Welles was never able to complete the missing scenes. Part of the film was also shot in the Bahamas. All the scenes were supposed to be in color, but due to a lack of funds, some were shot in black and white. The negatives are said to be lost, but the Munich Stadtmuseum has a working copy that was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2000. In 1989, Phillip Noyce shot an adaptation of Williams' (unfinished) novel, which was released in French under the title Calme blanc.

The Merchant of Venice

It was originally a color television film begun in 1969 for the CBS channel, but considered unfinished, and taken from Shakespeare's tragedy, The Merchant of Venice. Welles plays Shylock in the film, and in the documentary The Lost Films of Orson Welles we can discover his striking monologues shot on camera in the Arizona desert. Some of the negatives were lost in Rome, but Bogdanovich suggests that CBS simply suspended filming because of Welles' troubles with the American tax authorities.

The dangers linked to the progress of science, crystallized in the accident of George Amberson, in his second film, are still relevant today. But the man is above all a lover of literature, music, painting and theater. In 1958, Orson Welles came to France to present The Thirst for Evil. He met André Bazin, journalist and founder of Cahiers du cinéma, to whom he gave a long interview that was included in the book that the critic devoted to Welles. He talks about the filmmakers he admires: Marcel Pagnol, John Ford, whose Fantastic Ride he saw about forty times before making his first film, Vittorio De Sica, Kenji Mizoguchi, Sergei Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, René Clair and David Wark Griffith. But he is not soft on some of his peers. Still in the interview with Bazin, he shoots down Roberto Rossellini, Nicholas Ray and Vincente Minnelli. Only Stanley Kubrick finds grace in his eyes. Moreover, it is possible to consider Kubrick as the best disciple of Welles as the two artists have so much in common.

His career has not been a long quiet river. He was forced to fight hard to complete all his projects, whether in the theater or film. After 1946 and the commercial failure of the Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours by Jules Verne, in the theater, he had trouble with the tax authorities. But he also had some happy moments. He was able to stage a few Shakespeare plays in England. A visionary and daring man, he staged Macbeth in New York and transposed the story from foggy Scotland to the island of Haiti under the reign of King Christopher, using black actors. His passion for the great English playwright did not stop at the theater and the cinema: he produced several radio adaptations which he later released on record. He collaborates with several musicians: as a narrator on Alan Parsons Project's musical album Tales of Mystery and Imagination on the track A Dream Within a Dream; with the heavy metal band Manowar by lending his voice for narrations on the tracks Dark Avenger and Defender.


Orson Welles has been an avid reader of William Shakespeare from an early age. In the many interviews he has given, he has constantly repeated that the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon was the greatest poet of all time. The clash, in the most beautiful and noble sense of the word, between the two artists could only lead to masterpieces. Even before making movies, Welles mastered perfectly the Shakespearean theater: Richard III, a monster of the theater of the English playwright, is in his repertoire. In 1939, he produced The Five Kings, in which he recast several plays, and had it performed by the Mercury Theatre. The consecration takes place in the 1950s, some time after completing his adaptation of Othello. With the help of the actor Laurence Olivier, he was able to mount the play on the stage of the Saint James Theatre, the temple of Elizabethan theater. The triumph was total. In 1956, in New York, he staged King Lear at the City Center Theatre, again with the same success.

In the cinema, Shakespeare's influence is evident as early as Citizen Kane: a newspaper king, who seeks to expand his empire, must endure several sentimental, relational and professional failures that lead him to solitude and death. We find in this first film many Shakespearean themes: a lonely king, trying in vain to reconcile ambition, power and family life, and having to face betrayal; that of his friends, but also his own, as Charles Kane betrays his profession of faith. This theme of betrayal, and the failure that follows, will be found throughout his work, but also in his professional life. Just think of It's All True and Don Quixote: betrayed by his commercial failures, the filmmaker has many difficulties to complete his projects.

The adaptations that Orson Welles makes are each different, but also fascinating. Macbeth is mostly composed of very long sequence shots. The coronation of the king alone lasts almost ten minutes. The filmmaker immerses the film in mists, reminiscent of those in Scotland, in order to hide the poverty of the settings. In contrast, Othello is composed of about two thousand shots. This was a real technical feat for Welles, who interrupted his film to resume it a few months later, once the finances had arrived. It is also the film where the theme of betrayal is sublimated: Othello is deceived by Iago, whom he believes to be his friend, when in fact the latter only serves his ambitions. His last adaptation is also grandiose, Falstaff, in which he recasts several of the playwright's plays and turns John Falstaff, a secondary character, almost a stooge in Shakespeare's play, into a leading character. The battle sequence is admirable, and the pachyderm Welles, very far from the young actor of Citizen Kane, plays Falstaff, a buffoonish but sincere character, disowned by his friend who has become king.


Welles discovered Spain at the age of 17. During 1935, he travels again through Spain under the apodo of El Americano. But after two injuries, one in the neck, the other in the thigh, he gave up his ambition to become a bullfighter. He later declared, in an interview with a journalist from Arriba on February 10, 1951, that he had sought to become a bullfighter but "could not achieve what I set out to do... It (bullfighting) is a true Titan art". He cultivated a lifelong passion for bullfighting to the point of having his ashes scattered on May 7, 1987 in the finca (Recreo de San Cayetano, and to plant in Spain sometimes the setting of several of his films. However, during his career he never managed to find the financing for his film Sacred Monsters, whose subject is that of a filmmaker (himself) who follows bullfighters from town to town. From his Afición, only My Friend Bonito and some television programs remain, among them Corrida in Madrid (1955), The Orson Welles' Sketch Book (Around the World with Orson Welles, ABC, 1955) and Orson Welles on the Art of Bullfighting (ABC, 1961).

During his career, he tried to "contaminate" a number of Hollywood celebrities, occupying the front row seats in the arenas with actors and actresses. Some follow him because it is somehow fashionable: Frank Sinatra, Debra Paget, Lee Marvin, Glenn Ford. Others became real aficionados: Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Stefanie Powers (who was herself an Aficionada practica), Joseph Cotten, Anthony Quinn.

Drawing and literature

Texts published during his lifetime:

Posthumous publications:

Welles was an accomplished draftsman, even in Hearts of Age. In The Orson Welles' Sketch Book, he illustrates various anecdotes from his own sketches; in Truths and Lies, we see him drawing in several sequences. In 2019, an exhibition and a book highlight his art of drawing and painting.

This list presents the essence of Orson Welles' radio contributions between 1934 and 1952 and shows that during the first five years the man of theater and radio merge in a very absorbing, exploratory and foundational work, which reaches its peak with the adaptation of War of the Worlds in October 1938:


The direction is by Orson Welles, unless otherwise stated


Orson Welles agreed to pose for the main character of The Tower, the third album of the series The Dark Cities, created by the cartoonist François Schuiten and the scriptwriter Benoît Peeters. This album was released in 1987, after Welles' death.

Revenue at the time of theatrical release :


  1. Orson Welles
  2. Orson Welles
  3. ^ Richard H. Welles had changed the spelling of his surname by the time of the 1900 Federal Census, when he was living at Rudolphsheim, the 1888 Kenosha mansion built by his mother Mary Head Wells and her second husband, Frederick Gottfredsen.
  4. ^ Sources vary regarding Beatrice Ives Welles's birth year; her grave marker reads 1881, not 1883.[15] For more information see the talk page.
  5. ^ An alternative story of the source of his first and middle names was told by George Ade, who met Welles's parents on a West Indies cruise toward the end of 1914. Ade was traveling with a friend, Orson Wells (no relation), and the two of them sat at the same table as Mr. and Mrs. Richard Welles. Mrs. Welles was pregnant at the time, and when they said goodbye, she told them that she had enjoyed their company so much that if the child were a boy, she intended to name him after them: George Orson.[16]
  6. ^ Years later, the two men successively married Rita Hayworth.
  7. Prononciation en anglais américain retranscrite selon la norme API.
  8. a b «The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice». Archivado desde el original el 7 de abril de 2014. Consultado el 4 de abril de 2014.
  9. Valentinetti 1988, pp. 118-119
  10. McBride 1979, p. 19
  11. Ross, Ronald (January 1974). "The Role of Blacks in the Federal Theatre, 1935–1939". The Journal of Negro History. 59 (1): 38–50. doi:10.2307/2717139. JSTOR 2717139. S2CID 150210872.

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