Orson Welles: Charlatan Extraordinaire

Who was Orson Welles? He was an actor, director on radio, the stage and in films. He became a celebrity, a favorite of TV talk shows. He became known as a trouble maker on sets. He was difficult, so that no one would give him money to make films. He made poor films, did commercials and narrated things in order to pay the bills. He was a magician. By his own admission, like all actors, he was a charlatan.

A charlatan is hardly a compliment to lay upon oneself. They are a swindler, someone practicing quackery, deception, a confidence trick, usually to get money but also to achieve fame. Welles did all that to make films.

The word is French. Once, a charlatan was a seller of medicines who might have used music and magic to attract a crowd. Not unlike filmmakers.

Welles radio drama, The War of the Worlds, was certainly a grand deception that worked so well that it got him the chance to make Citizen Kane at the age of 23. That would be the only film of which Welles had full creative control

His much less known film, F for Fake, is certainly a charlatan at work. The subject is fakery, art and authorship. It was his final directorial project. In it,  Welles tells the story of the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and also the story of a hoax-biographer Philip Irving,

I think for Welles, this film was not quite a documentary. It was intentionally fiction, fact about fictions, and filled with film tricks.

It was also self-referential. Francois Truffaut said that he believed Welles made the film as a “reposte” because of the controversy created by the overrated film critic Pauline Kael who wrote that Welles had not written a single line of Citizen Kane. This was later shown to be untrue.

The Film Institute at Montclair State University held an event on "Welles at 100" in 2015 and has posted a few short videos about Welles.

One topic discussed then was how the charlatan side of Welles emerged.

In the video below, Welles shares his views on cinema and movie-making with French film school students. He applauds actors as the most important element. He praises the French for allowing for a director to be the true author of a film, but he is no fan of the director being the most important person on the set. He compares them to orchestra conductors and stage directors - in both cases the orchestra and acting company can perform quite well without a director once the pre-work has been done. Prepare and then get out of the way.


Like Herman Melville with Moby Dick (Welles would have been a great Ahab. Instead, he only played Father Mapple. See more about that here.) Welles will always be best known for Citizen Kane.
When I taught film courses and showed that film I was careful not to say it was "the greatest film ever made." It gets that title sometimes and it certainly is great, but a) I hate best-of, and greatest lists of anything, and b) that's the worst intro you could give to students about any film.

It was a critical success and a box office disappointment. The latter is due to William Randolph Hearst's newspaper empire boycott and outright attempts to kill the film. Yes, the film is largely based on Hearst, but that is hardly the point of the film.

Welles wanted his first film to be about people who are "larger than life," He was thinking Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli scale. One of his influences was supposedly Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan'' which is a novel supposedly also based on Hearst's life. Welles' ex-wife Virginia was part of Hearst's social circle and Hearst was a friend of his father.

Welles claimed that he took from Bible the idea of using different points of view on the man and "witnesses" testifying, sometimes contradicting, about Kane's character.'

In Citizen Welles, a biography by Frank Brady, I loved reading about young Orson as film apprentice screening John Ford's Stagecoach  forty times trying to learn cinematic techniques.

Not unlike others, from Napoleon to Bob Dylan, Orson Welles was a very good con artist who proved adept at self-promotion and self-invention.

The magician in him said that ''everything in this world was phony, worked with mirrors.''

That was true of his best and worst work.

Welles' film work made me think more about the technical aspects and possibilities of cinema. He also made me think about how we perceive the world in the light and shadows of a flickering projector and outside in the sunlight, shadows and moonlight where thing often don't appear as they are in what we call reality.

Welles editing F is for Fake



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