The Magic World of Orson Welles (8 page)

Certain aspects of the Conrad script ought to be reemphasized because they make an interesting comparison with the later undertaking. An important theme in both projects (somewhat concealed by the melodramatic form of the second film) is the irrational drive to evil that can be detected in the most humane of men. The Conrad novella (which Welles and Koch had done on radio soon after the Mars broadcast) develops this theme against the background of nineteenth-century Belgian imperialism in the Congo. Welles's script updates the story to make it apply to the rise of fascist dictatorships, but in most respects he is faithful to the original. Welles himself would play Mr. Kurtz, a man who, according to Lionel Trilling, embodies all
the extremes of his civilization. Like Welles, Kurtz is a latter-day Renaissance man—a painter, a writer, a musician, and a public speaker with a powerfully hypnotic voice—but we gradually learn that he is also the most hugely successful agent in the exploitation of the Congo. He has gained ascendancy over the Africans by persuading them that he has magical powers, and he has exercised his rule with extreme cruelty, giving himself over to acts of lust and violence that Conrad cannot even name.

The powerful effect of this character study derives largely from the fact that it is told impressionistically, through the eyes of the semiautobiographical narrator, Charles Marlow. Marlow's gradual discovery of Kurtz's secret, first by secondhand reports and then by a voyage up the Congo, is like a glimpse into the abyss, transforming him from a complacent European romantic (resembling Conrad's readers) into a wiser but more troubled character. What worries Marlow most of all is that he recognizes a subtle affinity between himself and Kurtz, a potential for evil that he believes is at the heart of civilization itself—as if all our ego-ideals could barely protect us from monsters of the id. Hence the story has a double edge: it is an attack both on European imperialism and on Rousseau's view of humanity.

Welles understood these themes—indeed he had been concerned with them since adolescence—and he recognized that the effect of the novella depended upon its limited, first-person viewpoint. On the stage this technique would be nearly impossible to achieve, but in the movies, which can fuse theatrical spectacle with the narrative potential of the novel, it offered interesting possibilities. Welles's idea was to substitute the eye of the camera for the “I” of Conrad's narrator; the camera would become Marlow, whose voice, that of Welles himself, would be heard offscreen. He even wrote a brief prologue to the film, hoping to “instruct and acquaint the audience as amusingly as possible with the technique.” After the regular RKO trademark title, followed by the Mercury title, it begins this way:



: Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Orson Welles. Don't worry. There's just nothing to look at for a while. You can close your eyes if you want to, but—please open them when I tell you to. . . . First of all, I am going to divide this audience into two parts—you and everybody else in the theatre. Now then, open your eyes.



Shooting from inside the bird cage, as it would appear to a bird inside the cage, looking out. The cage fills the entire screen. Beyond the bars can be seen the chin and mouth of Welles, tremendously magnified

: The big hole in the middle there is my mouth. You play the part of a canary. I'm asking you to sing and you refuse. That's the plot. I offer you an olive.

A couple of Gargantuan fingers appear from below cage and thrust an enormous olive towards
through bars of cage

: You don't want an olive. This enrages me.
Welles's chin moves down and his nose and eyes are revealed. He is scowling fiercely

: Here is a bird's-eye view of me being enraged. I threaten you with a gun.
Now the muzzle of a pistol is stuck between the bars of the cage. It looks like a Big Bertha

: That's the way a gun looks to a canary. I give you to the count of three to sing.

Nothing could have made a more dramatic transition from radio to cinema, and nothing could have announced more clearly the director's potential authority over the audience. In fact the whole prologue seems designed to establish the illusion of Welles's omnipotence. One imagines his amused, slightly hypnotic voice filling the theater, giving the impression that the ultimate magic trick is about to be performed. “You aren't going to see this picture,” he says at one point, “this picture is going to happen to you.” And the “you” here is of course singular, because in the movie theater everyone sees the same thing, the camera becoming the collective eye of the audience, which is manipulated by Welles's unseen hand.

It is worth noting that in contrast to the typical Hollywood production of the period, which tried to conceal its mechanics, Welles's movie would never let the audience forget that the whole thing was being cleverly managed. Thus after leading the audience through a series of unpleasant situations, including a scene where “you” become a condemned man about to die, Welles concludes the prologue with a couple of visual jokes meant to underline his point:

(cont'd, looking straight into lens)
: Now, if you're doing this right, this is what you ought to look like to me.



of inside of theatre as it would appear from the stage
or rather from the center of the moving picture screen!
Beginning on the
projection booth,
taking in the orchestra floor of the theatre, dimly lit by the reflected light from the screen
The audience is entirely made up of motion picture cameras.
When this has registered:

: I hope you get the idea.




A human eye appears on the left side of screen. Then an “equal” sign appears next to it. The capital “I.” Finally the eye winks and we

I hasten to add that all of this hardly amounts to an “alienation effect.” Welles was aware, after all, that a good magician can be appreciated if you know something about the skill involved in creating his tricks. Nevertheless, in a period when most technique was supposed to be invisible, concealing the labor behind the product, Welles's approach was anomalous. It cut against the grain of the impersonal factory style, serving both as an entertaining device and as a commentary upon the illusory, potentially authoritarian nature of the medium. Indeed his prologue to
Heart of Darkness
underlined the theme of manipulation and demagogic deception that was central to the story; on another level it helped establish the sense of pervasive evil, the subtle link between the audience and Kurtz that Conrad himself had implied. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has observed, “the multiple equations proposed by the introduction, whereby I = eye = camera = screen = spectator, are extended still further in the script proper, so that spectator = Marlow = Kurtz = Welles = dictator.”

The subsequent “Mexican Melodrama” touches upon many of these same issues, but it transposes them into a Hitchcock-style, “wrong man” thriller. It also abandons the camera eye technique, opting for a more conventional subjectivity. On the untitled cover of the script Welles wrote a brief explanatory note: “My part in this story has no name. The character will therefore be referred to in the first person.” The importance of this device becomes apparent from the opening shot, which plunges us immediately into a bewildering, Kafkaesque situation, revealing Welles's grand egotism as strongly as the opening of
Heart of Darkness


: I don't know who I am.

me seated in the middle of a big, bare white-washed room, dressed only in a sheet. I am surrounded by a lot
of men, representatives of nearly every race. With a sudden rush of sound, they begin firing questions at me

“Where did you come from?”

“When did you arrive?”

“Who attacked you?”

“How did you get into the country?”

These and more questions in as many languages as there are men to speak them:—Spanish, German, French, Italian, English and Japanese. I don't know any of the answers

: I don't know who I am. I don't know my name. I don't know where I come from.

Here the subjectivity is achieved by a method precisely opposite from
Heart of Darkness
. The camera aims at the central consciousness, and the objective world enters from offscreen. From this point on, Welles conveys emotions through simple reaction shots, the audience staying with the protagonist until late in the film, finding their bearings and learning the meaning of events only as he does. The technique is similar to the way Hitchcock treats Roger Thornhill in
North by Northwest
, but with one difference: in this case the protagonist suffers from amnesia. We soon discover that he has been struck on the head by political enemies, stripped, and brought to a police station, but we have no more idea of his identity or what country he is in than he does. At least Thornhill knows he is not Kaplan, but when the protagonist of this film is told his name is Kellar, he believes it. As he tells us later in the film, he has been born full grown (the opening image of Welles clad in a sheet contributes to the metaphor) and must find his way like a child.

The result of this narrative strategy is to make the audience's identification with the protagonist at once intense and uneasy—a situation rather different from the typical film. At first we are not sure whether we are in the mind of hero or villain, and even the settings add to the discomfort. We gradually learn that we are in Mexico, but the protagonist speaks no more Spanish than the majority of the American movie audience, so it becomes difficult to make sense of events. The early scenes add to the confusion because they are filled with a mélange of national types and languages. When one of the men in the police station, an American reporter named Johnson, treats Welles with amused contempt, offering to buy him a dress suit and dinner if he will come to a party, we move to some sort of official function in the Presidential Palace, where “every race in the world, every color, is represented . . . Diplomats, big businessmen, correspondents, politicians, labor leaders, American, English, Germans, Russians, Spaniards, a predominance of Indians.”

In the palace Welles is treated as a sensation—people stand around muttering and whispering about him, sometimes hissing. Johnson leads him through the crowd and introduces him to a beautiful Mexican named Elena (to be played by Dolores del Rio) and to a certain General Torres, who is described as weighing over four hundred pounds with a face like a “pockmarked bullfrog.” Welles is greeted as “Mr. Kellar” and is treated civilly but with some uneasiness, as if everyone were surprised at his presence. It becomes clear that Johnson has brought him to the party as a malicious joke on General Torres. Elena whispers an aside: “The General's presence here is in itself an embarrassment to the President. As we wished it to be. But
—Mr. Kellar—isn't this a mistake?” She quickly arranges for a meeting at midnight, in a nightclub called El Chango, and then melts back into the party.

The paranoid atmosphere is sustained throughout the first twenty-five pages of the script, with Welles always at the center of an unfamiliar crowd and the threat of violence always near. From the Presidential Palace we go to a plaza, where “thousands of Mexicans (credit Verne Walker) are waiting, their eyes turned towards the balcony of the Palace.” It is the Mexican day of independence, and as Johnson leads Welles through the milling people, fireworks begin to explode. Suddenly Johnson gasps and falls, the victim of a bullet that, we subsequently learn, was intended for Welles. After more confusion, Welles sneaks past a throng of people and hides aboard a sightseeing tour bus filled with “lady schoolteachers from Woodstock, Illinois,” and a group of Shriners from Wisconsin who are drunkenly singing “If You Want to Be a Badger.” Several people on the bus are talking excitedly, in an overlapping style, about the murder outside, and at last Welles learns exactly who he is. He overhears gossip about an infamous radio personality named “Mr. England,” a fascist propagandist who has turned up in Mexico and been attacked by “radicals.” Glancing down at a discarded newspaper on the bus, he is shocked to see his own face on the front page, under a caption reading “LINSAY KELLAR—MR. ENGLAND.” (There is no Kellar in the novel upon which the script is based, nor is there an amnesia victim. Even the choice of the broadcaster's name is part of Welles's signature—from Kurtz to Kane to Kellar, he was enamored of Kafka's initial K.)

Kellar, or “Mr. England,” is a character who suggests the real-life “Lord Haw-Haw,” an English radio commentator hired by the Nazis during the war. As the film develops, we learn that “Mr. England” has been sent to Mexico to broadcast to the United States from a secret radio station at Santiago, an obscure island off the coast of central Mexico. The fascists plan to start a Mexican version of the Spanish Civil War, and they hope to keep the United States neutral with the help of Kellar's propaganda. The twist in the plot is
that the amnesia victim played by Welles is not Mr. England at all, only a look-alike who never learns his real identity. For a long time, Welles believes that he is Kellar; he is instinctively antifascist, but he fears this is only an effect of the amnesia. He refuses to sleep, because a doctor has told him that his memory might return after a rest, and when he is sent on a torturous journey to Santiago, he hopes somehow to foil the enemy.

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