On Sundays from May 31, the 100th anniversary of his birth, and continuing throughout June, the first of a two-part retrospective honoring the artistry of filmmaker Orson Welles (1915-1985) will be screened at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael One of the most ambitious and influential of all directors, Welles began his film career with the revolutionary Citizen Kane, the one movie that has probably inspired more aspiring filmmakers, film critics and film historians than any other.
Kane was a hard act to follow, and several denigrators have characterized his subsequent career as a downhill slide, especially as Welles’ Hollywood releases became sparse. However, it is important to remember two things. Welles (a prodigy who lost his parents early on) was a polymath who was always working, whether it was in film, theater, radio or scriptwriting, even in gigs as political columnist. In addition, judging his career solely by his Hollywood productions ignores his achievements as an independent artist outside the studio system with films that have been virtually invisible to American audiences.
Part One of the retrospective focuses on his Hollywood career preceding an extended sojourn abroad, where he would become a pioneering independent filmmaker, a focus of Part Two in the fall.
Whether or not one considers Citizen Kane to be ‘the greatest film ever made,’ Orson Welles’ first feature has certainly held its youth over 75 years. He was not yet 25 when he embarked on his bold Hollywood debut after wowing Broadway and marshalling a Martian invasion for the national radio audience. Working with the great cinematographer Gregg Toland, he adapted many of his theater and radio techniques to film, and the movies haven’t been the same since. The story of the rise and fall of a great newspaper tycoon is about many things, but the script that Welles wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz (they would share the screenplay Oscar) contained several references to William Randolph Hearst, who actively tried to suppress it. Citizen Kane would be Welles’ only Hollywood film to avoid studio tampering, because of an ironclad contract that would even prevent it from being colorized after his death. Director: Orson Welles. (US 1941) 119 min.
NOTE ABOUT CITIZEN KANE TRAILER: Orson Welles wanted his debut feature to surprise and amaze people, and that goal extended to the movie’s ‘preview’ or ‘trailer’ that he obviously created himself. It’s fun to notice that no footage is shown from the actual film, and that the entire trailer is staged as a ‘backstage’ peek. Welles’ humorous introductions of the players underline the fact that they are new to movies, having previously worked with him on stage and in radio broadcasts. He reserves the greatest mystery to himself. At this time, his voice was familiar to a national radio audience, but the only place people would have seen him perform would have been on Broadway. And so the ‘radio’ Welles, represented by the lone microphone, teases us about what ‘movie’ Welles might be like.
Sunday, May 31 4:15 PM, 7:00 PM
Never considered by scholars to be one of his best, Orson Welles’ return to the film director’s chair after a four-year absence remains a crackerjack film noir with much to savor. Made immediately after World War II, it stars Welles as a New England college professor who is secretly Franz Kindler, a Nazi architect of the Holocaust. Loretta Young is his beautiful fiancée and Edward G. Robinson impresses as the war-crimes investigator looking for him. After the career-bruising Ambersons/Brazil episode, Welles surrendered artistic control to prove himself bankable: ”I wished to show people that I didn’t glow in the dark, you know. That I could say ‘action’ and ‘cut’ just like the rest of the fellows.” His ambitions show through the restrictions, and The Stranger is the first Hollywood film to show (discreetly) footage from the concentration camps. Director: Orson Welles. (US 1946) 95 min.
Sunday, June 7 4:30 PM, 7:00 PM
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS
Presented by Joseph McBride
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, Orson Welles’s second feature was close to his heart: a mother-son tragedy set around the turn of the previous century and the declining fortunes of an influential Indiana family. Shortly after he finished shooting, Welles flew to Brazil, sent by the U.S. government to make a war-effort documentary, and RKO reneged on its promise to keep him involved as it made drastic cuts and reshot scenes against his wishes. Even in its much-altered state, the release version contains some of Welles’s most beautiful contributions to the art of cinema. With Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Dolores Costello, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter. Writer/Director: Orson Welles. (US 1942) 88 min. plus discussion.
Following each screening, film historian and San Francisco State University Professor Joseph McBride, the author of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career and two other books on Welles, will give a presentation about the changes imposed on the original version.
Sunday, June 14 4:15 PM, 7:00 PM
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI
Orson Welles and then-wife Rita Hayworth had already separated when he cast her as the alluring femme fatale in this film noir that critic Dave Kehr would call ”the weirdest great movie ever made.” Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a tough Irish sailor who signs aboard the yacht of criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) and his beautiful wife Elsa (Hayworth). Crazy murder plots and double-crosses abound in a delirious adventure that comes ashore in Sausalito and careens to a phantasmagorical climax in San Francisco’s Chinatown and Playland at the Beach. Although the release version suffered at the hands of the studio, there is much left to enjoy, and in a beautiful digital restoration, this Lady looks better than ever. With Glenn Anders, Everett Sloane. Writer/Director: Orson Welles. (US 1947) 87 min.
Sunday, June 21 4:30 PM, 7:00 PM
With his last Hollywood production before moving to Europe, Orson Welles intended to make a popular kind of Shakespeare adaptation on a B-movie budget and miniscule shooting schedule. His concept of the actors employing Scottish accents did not play well in previews, and Republic Pictures asked Welles to cut the film and re-dub it into conventional English. Fortunately the original, ‘Scottish’ version survived, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s restoration from 1980 is complete, accents and all. Overtly theatrical with shades of German expressionism, this Macbeth-on-a-budget is still rich in atmosphere; French poet, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau praised its ”crude, irreverent power.” With Jeanette Nolan, Dan O’Herlihy, Roddy McDowall. Director: Orson Welles. (US 1948) 107 min.
Sunday, June 28 7:00 PM