BOOK REVIEW / Wit and vitriol after dinner: This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich - HarperCollins pounds 20

Click to follow
THE older people in the room always sighed when the Orson Welles sherry ads came on. Here was talent destroyed, a career on the schuss. They blamed Welles's temperament, and they blamed Hollywood's myopia and greed, but still they couldn't understand how the man who made Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil and The Magnificent Ambersons didn't make another studio picture in the last three decades of his life.

There have been a lot of books dissecting the decline, combing the myth from Welles's appearance on the cover of Time at the age of 22 to his knockabout routines on low-rent television chat- shows in the years before his death in 1985. But this is something else: 300 pages of transcribed taperecorded conversations between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, recorded between 1969 and 1972, bristling with anecdote, vitriol and hard humour.

Welles took a shine to a monograph the young Bogdanovich had written that flew in the face of contemporary criticism: sure Kane was a great film, but the work that followed showed major technical and intellectual advances. So this is self-serving stuff, with Bogdanovich firmly at the master's feet.

But it's a beguiling and valuable document none the less. Welles delights in turning everything on its head. The 'Rosebud' sequence at the end of Kane, still the subject of highbrow quarrel, he dismisses as 'the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville'. Then there's the famous ferris wheel speech in The Third Man (about the creativity of artists under the violent Borgias versus the boring decency of the Swiss), for which Welles takes the writing credit. Now we learn: 'When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they've never made any cuckoo clocks - they all come from the Schwarzwald in Bavaria]' Never made any cuckoo clocks? We get reams of Welles as we like him best: declamatory, puffing, after-dinner.

These tapes were lost, or locked up, or suppressed, as Welles accepted thick wads to write his autobiography. But barely anything materialised, and this book now stands as the closest we get to his own account. It's a tightly edited work, supplemented with the original script for Ambersons and a career summary that emphasises his work as a political commentator and his devotion to radio broadcasts. Inevitably, this summary includes much trivial stuff: the appearances on The Muppets, the narration of the trailer for Revenge of the Nerds.

And who should we blame? No one really. Welles did not have a tragic career; if he'd churned them out one a year we'd probably think less of him now. The barbed creative struggle was after all part of the performance, and these conversations are a vigorous and illuminating addition to it all.