After THE TRIAL, Welles spent a few years making highbrow fare for the Europeans. In 1965, he made the film many Wellesians consider his masterpiece, FALSTAFF (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT), an original script culled together from several Shakespeare plays about Falstaff, the disgraced old knight and “misleader of youth” Welles was born to play. In 1968, he directed, wrote, and costarred in a color adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s THE IMMORTAL STORY with Jeanne Moreau for French television. And in 1973, he directed F FOR Fake, an essay film that is part documentary, part creative nonfiction. It is a meditation on art and forgery—and one of his best films.
By then, however, the money had dried up in Europe. Welles may have been a great artist, but he was never box office gold. He was barely box office bronze. He returned to America and took roles in films that were beneath him. He channeled the money back into his projects like THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, a drama featuring John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, and his buddy from his RKO days, JOURNEY INTO FEAR director Norman Foster.
He still dabbled in pulp and noir, too. He shot an adaptation of Charles Williams’s DEAD CALM called THE DEEP with Laurence Harvey, working on it until Harvey died. He planned an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s A HELL OF A WOMAN with director Gary Graver, but like almost all of his projects in the seventies and eighties, it had to be shelved for lack of funds. Hollywood, which had never liked Welles, had now forgotten him. He was old and broke in a town where only youth and money mattered. In 1985, at the age of 70, he died at home working on a script.
There is a heartbreaking bargain you have to make with Orson Welles. Much of his work—more than that of any other major director—comes to us in damaged shape. When you consider that he was making difficult films to begin with, the full picture begins to emerge.
Orson Welles was either too much of an artist or too much of an egomaniac—perhaps both—to ever fully commit to genre, even for the duration of a single film. He liked genre but viewed it as a beginning, a jumping off place. This was no less true for a thriller than for a Shakespeare adaptation. His instinct was to be, as he once angrily wrote Harry Cohn, “original, or at the least somewhat oblique.” Win or lose—and he lost often—his films were stamped with the conviction that cinema was an instrument of experimentation and poetry, not formula.
In some ways, this brings us back to his first film, CITIZEN KANE. A flop upon first release, it influenced, directly or indirectly, almost everyone and everything that came after it. After being studied with Talmudic intensity by film geeks for nearly seventy years, it’s been enshrined as something approaching the Ur-text of modern film. Yet its reputation as the so-called “Greatest Movie Ever Made” threatens to render it a museum piece, like something Charles Foster Kane would have boxed up in his warehouse—an odd fate for a film that crackles with a giddy delight in the possibilities of cinema.
It is neither a crime film nor a thriller—indeed part of its appeal is that it defies easy categorization—but it contains many distinctly noir elements: chiaroscuro lighting, slanted angles, narrative disorientation, a sense of futility, a downbeat ending. Its fundamental story of a poor boy gaining the world but losing his soul is the American Dream turned gothic nightmare. Welles didn’t invent film noir, but he got to the party early.
Indeed, his immediate impact on noir was profound. Consider the talent he helped bring to Hollywood: actors Joseph Cotton, Paul Stewart, Erskine Sanford, Ted de Corsia, Everett Sloane, Norman Lloyd, Agnes Moorehead; producer John Houseman; composer Bernard Herrmann; director John Berry. Consider his direct influence on noir directors like Berry, Norman Foster, and Robert Wise. Or consider the stylistic influence of CITIZEN KANE, The LADY FROM SHANGHAI, TOUCH OF EVIL and THE TRIAL.
Most of all, consider the worldview permeating almost all his work. Welles was an artist with something to say. From his first film until his last, his movies presented a distinct vision, a distinctly noir vision, of life as a strange place, one we’re all struggling to survive.