The Magic World of Orson Welles (9 page)

Much of the script involves a wonderfully atmospheric journey through the jungle toward the radio station. The Mexican generals soon grow wary of Welles and hire a guide, an altogether repulsive but somehow charming killer, to see to it that he never reaches his destination. The plot fails, however, and when Welles reaches the island of Santiago he discovers that the real man has been hiding there all along, trying to keep his presence a secret from the world. Welles is taken captive by “Mr. England,” an urbane gentleman who, it turns out, actually comes from Minnesota; he is also tortured, but to no avail. After a complicated series of events, the film reaches its climax. While a group of Germans and Mexicans are meeting in Santiago to plan a coup d'état, Welles manages to escape and force his way into the radio station, where he goes on the air with a broadcast aimed at North America. For the first time in the film, we find ourselves taking a point of view different from the protagonist's:

. . . 
everybody shuts up to listen to the radio. (It is important to note that from here to the finish of this entire sequence, my speech is continuous.)

MY VOICE
:—very important! You haven't any reason to believe me. But this time you've got to. I'm telling the truth . . .

MR. ENGLAND
: There's the station.—He must be speaking from there.

Mr. England starts away, but my next words on the radio stop him
.

MY VOICE
: Listen! Listen to this.
(Effect)
Hear that sound? The sound of ticking?
(Pause—Effect very clear)
That's a time bomb. I don't know just when it's going to explode. But I think that before it does there'll be just enough time for me to tell you about October first.—

ITURBIDE
: The date! That's the date!

ONE OF THE LATINS
: Now everyone knows it! . . .

MY VOICE
: I want you to know all about October first before I die. You see, I'm going to die any minute now because I'm holding the time bomb in my hand.

A moment's pause filled with the sound of ticking. Then Mr. England starts away. . . . As he leaves
,
CAMERA
starts slowly closing in on the
RADIO
.

MY VOICE
(during the above)
: I'm broadcasting from a munitions dump. This microphone is located over a warehouse containing over a thousand tons of high explosives . . .

THE FACES OF THE CONSPIRATORS
 . . .

MY VOICE
: Maybe if you got here in time, and you'd have to come quick, you'd see a big steam yacht making out to sea. It might be interesting for you to know who's on board.

DISSOLVE TO
:

A BIG CHART
—
the Island of Santiago, almost filling the screen. A pencil in someone's hand checks the location
.

CAMERA PULLS BACK TO REVEAL: INT. A GOVERNMENT OFFICE IN MEXICO CITY
.
My voice continues from a small radio in the office. Several officials are listening. . . .

MY VOICE
: I think you'd find big men in the Americas. The wrong kind . . .

OFFICIAL
(on the telephone)
: Larga distancia—Washington.

DISSOLVE

INT. LOWER MIDDLE CLASS AMERICAN HOME

MY VOICE
(on this)
: These, the ones that don't belong-

FATHER
(at phone)
: Hello—is this the Inquirer?

MY VOICE
: They're the real power in this revolution -

FATHER
(at phone)
: Say—there's a fellow on the radio-

DISSOLVE

A BIG LOUDSPEAKER. CAMERA PULLS BACK TO SHOW
:
THE FACADE OF A MUSIC STORE IN A LARGE MEXICAN TOWN
,
a crowd of Mexicans of various classes gathered before the loudspeaker. . . . A Mexican is translating my words to the crowd. . . .

DISSOLVE: THE PRESIDENTS PALACE—MEXICO CITY
. . . .

MY VOICE
: On the sixteenth of September the people of Mexico celebrate their Independence Day. The president rings a bell and cries out in the square—“Viva Mexico! Viva La Republica!” Years ago, a priest named Hidalgo rang that bell and gave that cry for the first time in that country. They call it the Grito.—Well, here's another Grito. I hope it'll be heard.—I hope—

SUDDEN SILENCE
.
The sound of ticking has stopped, too. Complete silence. . . .

AN EXPENSIVE-LOOKING BAR IN RIO DE JANEIRO
.
Men, and women too, who have gotten up from their tables and are gathered by the radio at the bar . . .

THE LOUDSPEAKER: IN FRONT OF THE MUSIC STORE
.
The Mexicans listening
.

THE GOVERNMENT OFFICE—MEXICO CITY
.
The officials listening. The one at the phone lowers the receiver
.

A GOVERNMENT OFFICE IN WASHINGTON
—
American officials. . . .

THE AMERICAN HOME
.
The family listening
.

THE FATHER
: That must have been an awful explosion.

DISSOLVE: INT. THE WAREHOUSE
.
I am standing by the microphone. In one hand, I hold an alarm clock!

For a time Welles has chosen to keep the movie audience deceived along with everyone else; happily, however, the radio broadcast is a reverse of
War of the Worlds
, a hoax that saves people instead of putting them in danger. The trick takes on added interest in the perspective of Welles's whole career, because he was always preoccupied with the notion of art as a medium for lies. In this case the big lie of the fascists is exposed by another lie. “I'm telling the truth,” the Welles character insists at the beginning of his broadcast, and in a sense he is, but even in this relatively ordinary Wellesian effort, truth and deception are inextricably linked, the difference between demagoguery and benign illusionism growing very vague indeed.

Despite such ironies, Welles's Mexican film was fairly direct propaganda for the war, its more pessimistic qualities suggested only in the bizarre, film noir treatment of some scenes. It was a likely project partly because it would have made an exciting melodrama and partly because it was well suited to the politics of RKO. Throughout the thirties and early forties, that studio had undertaken a kind of “good neighbor” policy, staging everything from Fred Astaire musicals to Disney cartoons in a Latin American setting. One of the underlying motives for these films was Rockefeller oil holdings in Latin America and the concern to keep those holdings within the orbit of the United States. (Welles's script actually refers to an oil industry in Mexico that is being threatened by the Germans; it does not, however, suggest that the Americans themselves might have been guilty of economic imperialism—a far cry from the way American oil would be depicted in
Touch of Evil
.) As it happened, however, the script encountered objections from the Mexican government itself, and because RKO was sensitive to the Latin American market, the project was shelved.

Thus both
Heart of Darkness
and the “Mexican Melodrama” remain sketches for possible films. Perhaps it is just as well that they were not produced—Welles was able to employ their themes and style in other works (in place of a Kurtz discovered at the heart of darkness, he gave us a Kane discovered in the center of a labyrinth), and by any standard his first two films represent a more impressive debut.

But in advance of any direct discussion of these films, it will be helpful to pause and consider the typical qualities of Welles's staging of a story for the camera—his work as a director rather than as a scriptwriter.

2
The Magician

According to John Houseman, Welles was “at heart a magician whose particular talent lies not so much in his creative imagination (which is considerable) as in his proven ability to stretch the familiar elements of theatrical effect far beyond their normal point of tension.” Left-handed as the compliment may seem, Welles was in fact a magician, and watching his movies is sometimes like attending a performance by Blackstone or Sorcar. In
Citizen Kane
, for example, there is a famous shot where the camera moves in to a close-up of a group photograph of the
Chronicle
staff while Kane talks about what good men they are; suddenly Kane walks right into the photo, and as the camera pulls back from the assembled journalists we find ourselves at an
Inquirer
party six years later. Near the beginning of
The Magnificent Ambersons
Welles reads Booth Tarkington offscreen while the house across the street from the Amberson mansion is shown in long shot; slowly the sky darkens, a moon appears, and the house is festooned with lanterns—as if by magic, a winter day is transformed into a summer night. Moments like these are not merely functional; they also draw upon a cinema of illusionism as old as Georges Méliès. Even if we were to disregard such obvious showpieces of movie trickery, Welles's films would still seem flamboyant, filled with magic and “theatrical effect.”

Most people are attracted to Welles's work because of this spectacular quality, despite the fact that he liked to think of himself as a man of ideas. Before considering any of his films as narratives or philosophic statements, therefore, let us look at their surfaces—not so much the elaborate special effects as the typical dramatic scenes within a given film. For at this level Welles's
handling of the medium constitutes an idiolect, a personal style with as many historical, cultural, and psychological implications as his more public ideas or themes.

The obvious place to begin is with
Citizen Kane
, and within that film a logical starting point is the wide-angle, deep-focus photography that became one of the most distinctive features of Welles's style. As we shall see in later chapters, his methods were to change somewhat, growing more fluid, various, and in some ways more daring as he gained experience and encountered other cameramen after Toland; in fact he seldom returned to a really elaborate depth of field—as in those grotesque shots where a giant head only a few inches from the screen is in equally sharp focus with a figure that seems to be standing a mile away. Nevertheless, the principle of exaggerated perspective was suited to his temperament and remained an essential quality of his work until very late. Like much of the acting in his films, it creates a slightly hallucinatory effect, marking him from the beginning of his career as anything but a purely representational or conventional artist. Indeed in every feature of his early work—from the photography, to the sound, to the acting—Welles's style is mildly unorthodox, implicitly rebellious against the norm. These points will become clearer, however, after we have examined a few scenes.

I

One of the best-known and most written about moments in Welles's first full-length movie is the boardinghouse segment, where we meet Kane in his youth. The camera pans slowly across a handwritten line of Walter Parks Thatcher's memoirs—“I first met Charles Foster Kane in 1871”—and then, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's lilting “Rosebud” theme, the image dissolves from the white margin of the page into an unreal land of snow where Charlie frolics with his sled. At first the black dot against pure white echoes the manuscript we have been looking at, but it swoops across the screen counter to the direction the camera has been moving, in conflict with the stiff, prissy banker's handwriting, suggesting the conflict between Kane and Thatcher that runs through the early parts of the movie. The camera moves in closer, and an insert establishes the setting when one of the boy's snowballs strikes the sign over Mrs. Kane's boardinghouse. Following this shot is a long take. The camera retreats from the boy and moves through the window where his mother stands admonishing him not to catch cold; she turns, accompanied first by Thatcher and then her husband, walking the full length of the parlor, the camera tracking with her until it frames the whole room. She
and Thatcher sit at a table in the foreground, and the camera holds relatively stationary for the rest of the scene. By this means Welles deliberately avoids conventional editing techniques and lets each element—the actors and the decor of the home—reveal itself successively, until everything is placed in a highly symbolic composition.

Figure 2.1: Thatcher and Mrs. Kane in the boardinghouse.

Toland's photography is of course much sharper than this reproduction of a frame can indicate. The deep focus enables us to see everything at once, and the wide-angle lens slightly enlarges the foreground, giving it dramatic impact. As is typical in
Kane
, the camera views the action in terms of three planes of interest: in the foreground at the lower right, Mrs. Kane and the banker sit negotiating the child's future; in the middle distance, Mr. Kane makes agitated pacing movements back and forth, whining and complaining to his wife; far away, framed in the square of the window as if in the light at the end of a tunnel, Charlie plays in the snow. While the parents and banker converse inside, the sound of the boy's play can be heard through the window, which Mrs. Kane has insisted must be left open. According to the RKO cutting continuity, the boy's shouts are “indistinct,” but if you listen closely you will hear some of his lines. As his mother prepares to sign him over to a guardian and thus dissolve her family, the boy shouts, “The Union forever! The Union forever!”

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