The Magic World of Orson Welles

The Magic World
of Orson Welles

The Magic World
of Orson Welles

Centennial Anniversary Edition


© 1978 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

© 1989, 2015 by James Naremore

Reprinted by arrangement with the author.

All rights reserved.

Manufactured in the United States of America

1 2 3 4 5
5 4 3 2 1

This book is printed on acid-free paper.

Photo credits: RKO, Columbia Pictures, Wisconsin Center for
Film and Theater Research, Universal Pictures.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Naremore, James.

The magic world of Orson Welles / James Naremore. —

Centennial anniversary edition.

pages   cm

Includes filmography.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

978-0-252-03977-5 (hardcover : alk. paper)—

978-0-252-08131-6 (pbk. : alk. paper)—

978-0-252-09787-4 (e-book)

1. Welles, Orson, 1915–1985 — Criticism and interpretation. I.

37          2015

791.4302'33092—dc23        2015006093


For my son, Jay, as usual,
and in memory of Rosa Hart, my favorite director



Introduction: Orson Welles at 100

1 The Prodigy

2 The Magician

Citizen Kane

The Magnificent Ambersons

5 The Radicalization of Style

Touch of Evil

7 The Gypsy

The Trial

Chimes at Midnight

10 Art about Art (and Sex)

11 Between Works and Texts

Bibliographic Notes




My work on the first edition of this book, published in 1978, was supported by many institutions and individuals. The office of Research and Graduate Development at Indiana University provided me with a summer grant in 1976, and the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded me a summer fellowship the following year. In addition to these agencies, I was assisted by Charles Silver and the staff at the Museum of Modern Art, and by librarians at the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Wisconsin Center for Theater Research. Among the individuals, I must first of all thank film director Richard Wilson, an old friend of Welles, who answered my questions, allowed me to glance at the Mercury Theatre files, and gave me a memorable day in Hollywood. Ronald Gottesman, Robert Carringer, and Joseph McBride also helped with their knowledge about Welles. Claudia Gorbman and the late Charles Eckert, my colleagues at Indiana, read early parts of the manuscript and gave important criticisms. Joanne Eustis made a crucially important gift of her extensive library research on Welles, and Bill Kelly, Mark Kemmerle, Robert Ray, and Dennis Turner all read individual chapters and offered comments on the films.

The scope and shape of the book were influenced strongly by my editor at Oxford University Press, James Raimes, who also made a number of important incidental suggestions; for his faith in the project and for his intelligent, sympathetic ear, I owe him gratitude. I want also to thank Ellen Posner for her editorial assistance, and William Stott of the University of Texas, who recommended my work to Oxford at an early stage.

The book never would have been written at all without the enthusiasm of students in Comparative Literature C491 at Indiana, who inspired me and
contributed many ideas about Welles's films. And for moral support when the going was roughest, I owe thanks to Ken Gros Louis, Harry and Carolyn Geduld, Lee Chelminiak, and Melinda Giles. Parts of
chapter 5
, in a different form, appeared in
Literature/Film Quarterly
Focus on Orson Welles
, and I am grateful to the editors, Thomas Erskine and Ronald Gottesman, for their encouragement.

For making the second edition of the book possible in 1989, I thank Suzanne Comer, Bill May, and the staff of Southern Methodist University Press. Special thanks to Martha Farlow for her handsome design, and to Elli Puffe and Kathy Lewis, who repaired my terrible spelling and helped to correct the multitude of mangled names and printing errors that had found their way into the original version. A few others also deserve mention: Jonathan Rosenbaum generously shared his ideas about Welles and helped me to see some of the late films. William G. Simon and the faculty of the Cinema Studies program at New York University honored me with an invitation to speak on Welles at a symposium they organized in May 1988; my talk on that occasion, subsequently published in the journal
Persistence of Vision
, provided the basis for the concluding chapter.

For this third edition, my thanks to Daniel Nasset and the staff of the University of Illinois Press. Special thanks to Jill Hughes for her expert copy-editing (who knew there was so much left to be done?), Tad Ringo for his supervision of production, and Lisa Connery for her design. And to Darlene Sadlier, who gave me her advice, support, and love.

Orson Welles at 100

When the first edition of
The Magic World of Orson Welles
was published by Oxford University Press in 1978, I was a young college professor trained in literature and new to writing about film, without access to the trove of archival and biographical material on Welles that has since become available. Welles was alive and active, but when I wrote to him in the wild hope of seeing
Don Quixote
and some of his other unfinished work, he never replied. This was perhaps just as well. I was able to remain an independent observer, concentrating on the public record and aiming at a close study of the released films, most of which, in that pre-digital age, were available in 16mm prints.

When a second, revised edition of my book, containing a new concluding chapter, was published by Southern Methodist University Press in 1989, I noted in the preface the melancholy fact that it was now possible to begin a book about Welles in the same fashion as some of his films: with the death of the protagonist. Welles had died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1985, at the age of seventy. He was found with his typewriter in his lap, working until the very end. A day before, he had taped an appearance on Merv Griffin's television show, where he performed a charming card trick and wryly described old age as a “shipwreck.” Although his health had not been good, he was quite busy. (An extended discussion of his crowded late years can be found in Joseph McBride's
Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?
) Jonathan Rosenbaum has estimated conservatively that during the first half of the 1980s alone, Welles was working on at least a dozen films or scripts for films, among them
The Magic Show
(documenting his magic act, without camera tricks);
Don Quixote
(begun in the 1950s);
The Assassin
(about Sirhan
The Other Man
(based on Graham Greene's
The Honorary Consul
Dead Giveaway
(based on Jim Thompson's
A Hell of a Woman
The Dreamers
(derived from two Isak Dinesen stories);
King Lear
(a sort of video closet drama to be shot mostly in black-and-white close-ups); and
(from a short story by his late-life partner, Oja Kodar).

This prodigious quantity of work was not unusual for Welles. Throughout his life he was involved in multiple activities and at times seemed to operate in a whirlwind. In the single year of 1940, for example, he produced, directed, acted in, and supervised scripts for a dozen radio dramas; appeared as a guest on a couple of other radio programs; oversaw the production of a recorded version of
by the Mercury players; toured thirteen cities with a lecture titled “The New Actor”; wrote a screenplay for Dolores del Rio; completed the screenplays for
Smiler with a Knife
Mexican Melodrama
(discussed in
chapter 2
); completed the screenplay and principal photography of
Citizen Kane
; sought Richard Wright's approval for the forthcoming Mercury stage production of
Native Son
; and consulted with a dozen US ministers of various faiths regarding his idea for a film about the life of Jesus Christ, in which Christ's face would never be shown and all the dialogue and narration would come directly from the Bible.

Fragments of Welles's prolific output keep appearing, and it seems likely that many years will pass before there can be a full discussion of them. Meanwhile, he still makes news. In 2012 there were headlines around the world announcing that
Citizen Kane
, which since 1962 had been named the best film of all time in the prestigious
Sight and Sound
poll of filmmakers and critics, had fallen to the number two spot, displaced by Hitchcock's
. I had the privilege of voting that year and I confess that I did not vote for
(nor did I vote for
). In my opinion, no film is more emblematic of the cinema than
, but after decades of showing it to students I feel its canonicity has become a burden. It has acquired an aura of respectability and seriousness, and in schools (maybe because of people like me) it is often treated as something to be studied rather than thoughtfully enjoyed. My students like it, but from everything they have heard before viewing it, they expect it to be life-changing. Nobody should see any film for the first time expecting that result. As a voter in the
Sight and Sound
poll, I wanted to divest
of the weight of first prize and call attention to other films by Welles. I could have named
The Magnificent Ambersons
Chimes at Midnight
, but I chose
Touch of Evil
. If I have the opportunity to vote again, I will choose something else. But a film by Welles will always be in my top ten.

The most exciting discovery for Wellesians in 2014, while I was preparing this new edition, was the film footage intended to accompany
Too Much
, Welles's 1938 Mercury Theatre adaptation of a stage farce by William Gillette. This footage (photographed by New York cameramen Harry Dunham and Paul Dunbar) was Welles's first professional attempt at moviemaking. Intended as an introductory exposition for each act of the fast-paced play, it was shot in the style of silent comedy, but the Connecticut summer theater where
Too Much Johnson
had its out-of-town tryout was inadequately equipped to project film. The footage was never screened with the play and was thought to have been destroyed by a fire at Welles's home in Madrid in 1970. Its reemergence in pristine condition, albeit incompletely edited and full of retakes, is something of a miracle. A witty, often thrilling pastiche of silent pictures (an “interior” set lit by daylight, a daredevil chase across rooftops à la Harold Lloyd, and a couple of montages reminiscent of René Clair and the European avant-garde), it is also a distinctively Wellesian creation, with extreme wide-angle, deep-focus compositions that prefigure
(as when we see Joseph Cotten's very large head in the foreground and a tiny figure in the distance pursuing him), and an impressively unorthodox blocking of the actors (as when the camera looks down from a great height at a group of men who move rapidly in unison from one point to another like a big, swift worm). The second half of the film, which is supposed to take place in Cuba, is not as good as the city chase scenes, chiefly because Welles had to fake a Cuban landscape somewhere in New York, but it includes a wonderfully surreal shot looking up from the ground at a mountainous ridge where two barely visible men flail away in a sword fight, with Joseph Cotten and his umbrella caught between them.

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