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Orson Welles at The Astor

Posted by G. Raymond Leavold

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Orson Welles once said of his career that he ‘Started at the top and worked his way down.’ Witticism aside, this unfortunately is a statement that is apt if not entirely accurate. Welles made many fascinating, engaging and often great films in his career, but his life is a portrait of a man continually struggling for creative freedom and the means to achieve his vision.

Welles had already conquered radio and theatre when he tackled film in 1940, which resulted in his masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Being given the keys to the kingdom with Kane, Welles was forever kept on a short leash afterwards. Becoming frustrated with the studio-system, he tried to finance his own films any way he could, acting in commercials for champagne and frozen peas —apparently having to get wasted just to get through them—to make money to put towards his cinematic visions.

Possessing an unmatched intellect, Welles never gave up, and throughout all of the struggles, he managed to make some great films that are often overlooked in the wake of Kane.

For the next few Sundays, our favourite theatre in Melbourne, The Astor, is playing a bunch of Welles’ films.

Citizen Kane & The Magnificent Ambersons (Februay 19th, 7pm)


The one that Welles is best remembered for, there is a good reason why Citizen Kane is often hailed the greatest film of all time. The story of Charles Foster Kane, a man corrupted by his own power and influence, told through the eyes of a reporter after Kane’s death, really is flawless filmmaking, and not just because it was years ahead of its time.

The absolutely amazing camera work, the use of non-linear storytelling, the acting from Welles and his Mercury theatre pals Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane and Agnes Moorhead (Esmeralda from Bewitched in a very early role) as Kane’s mother, make this a stunning piece of cinema. The make-up effects also deserve a mention, as Welles plays the character of Charles Foster Kane from the late teens to elderly, and it holds up pretty damn well.

If for no other reason, you should see this because you’ll instantly understand a hell of a lot more Simpsons references. Mr. Burns is practically Charles Foster Kane with an over-bite and bird-nose.

The Magnificent Ambersons, a story about the decline of a rich and influential family that coincides with the birth of the automobile was an interesting choice for Welles directly after Kane, and even though he did not enjoy the freedoms that he had on his previous film (Ambersons was re-edited by the studio against Welles’ wishes and the ending was changed) it is still an very interesting period drama, though Tim Holt as the whiny young heir to the Amberson’s fortune is a little annoying. Interestingly, Welles does not appear in this one, focusing instead on telling the story of the relationship that forms between two middle-aged friends who have always loved each other, and the brat who tries to keep them apart.

The Trial & Macbeth (February 26th, 7pm)
Based on Franz Kafka’s book, The Trial stars Anthony Perkins as a man who is put on trial without knowing what the hell he has been accused of. With Welles behind the camera and in a smaller role, this dense material is in good hands.

About 10 years after directing the first all-black cast of Macbeth on Broadway, Welles returned to ‘The Scottish Play’ in the lead role. Whether you’ve seen a version of Macbeth or not, you’ve probably seen the plot in any number of gangster films: a power hungry man kills, usurps power and ends up being toppled himself. Macbeth was the original Scarface!

The Third Man & Touch of Evil (March 4th, 7pm)

Welles had the rare honour of being a part of what are regarded as the greatest American film ever made and the greatest British film ever made, though in the latter he was only in an acting role.

Directed by Carol Reed and with a screenplay by Graham Greene, The Third Man opens with hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arriving in post-war Vienna to visit with his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find on arrival that Lime recently died in a motor accident. But there’s always more to it in a noir film.

Welles makes his presence felt throughout the film despite the fact that he has very little screen time, and he plays the part of the despicable Harry Lime with so much grinning charm that it’s hard not to love him.

Also worth a mention is the zither-heavy score by Anton Karas.

One of Welles’ later efforts, Touch of Evil had him directing himself as a bloated corrupt cop right on the border of the US and Mexico, and Charlton Heston as a Mexican detective who is intent on exposing him. An exceptionally dark and at times disturbing film, Touch of Evil is very much a film about atmosphere, and Welles was certainly no stranger to creating a dark and intense atmosphere in his films. Speaking of strangers…

The Stranger & Lady from Shanghai (March 11th, 7pm)
Another postwar film, The Stranger has Welles as a Nazi war criminal living under the guise of an upstanding American citizen. But Edward G. Robinson knows better, see.

‘If Edward G. Robinson thinks you’re bad, you must be a Nazi. Anything less and he wouldn’t waste his time.’

A noir plot if ever there was one, in Lady from Shanghai Welles plays an Irishman caught in a difficult situation when he meets a beautiful blonde (Rita Hayworth) who gets him a job on her husband’s yacht and proceeds to have an affair with him. Though the plot is a little transparent these days, and Welles accent isn’t all that convincing, it has all the hallmarks of a memorable Welles’ film: a keen eye for style, atmosphere and detail. Mercury Theatre’s Everett Sloane puts in his greatest performance as Hayworth’s rich disabled husband, and the final scene in the hall of mirrors is as striking as any scene from Welles’ impressive career.

To find out more about Orson Welles at The Astor visit www.astortheatre.net.au.


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