Cahiers du Cinema £6.95 (104pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Orson Welles, By Paolo Mereghetti
Friday 13 May 2011
Astonishing value for money, this monograph on the legendary director is worth getting for the pictures alone. The double-page spreads include some of the most striking stills in the history of cinema: Welles and Joseph Cotten surrounded by bales of the New York Inquirer from Citizen Kane;multiple mirror images of Rita Heyworth from The Lady from Shanghai. Equally remarkable is a 1942 shot of Heyworth sitting next to Randolph Hearst, the resentful model for Citizen Kane. Five years later, at the fag-end of her marriage to Welles, Heyworth starred in The Lady from Shanghai. As Paolo Mereghetti notes, "The film ends with a devastating gesture of contempt for star status as the hero walks away from the dying Heyworth."
Subversion was a trademark of Welles. Throughout his career, he took traditional Hollywood vehicles and adapted them for his own ends. This even applied to Citizen Kane, "clearly related to the journalistic comedy, one of the most popular genres of the 1930s". Mereghetti describes how the disorienting opening of the film "destroys the 10 years of work that Hollywood had devoted to constructing in the viewer's imagination a coherent image."
The famous deep focus developed for Welles by cinematographer Greg Toland is viewed by Mereghetti as "a new symbolic form" to subvert the conventions of the medium. A simpler explanation might be that Welles was a fledgling director who wanted to use every trick in the book.
We learn that the battle scenes in Chimes at Midnight, Welles's 1966 Falstaff collage, "have an extraordinary visual power: 17 minutes of pure spectacle constructed from 392 different shots". As a graphic portrayal of warfare, it compares with the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan. Yet even here, Welles subverts the drama of battle by cutting away to the blundering Falstaff. Clad in a preposterously vast suit of armour, Welles resembles nothing so much as a super-sized tin of corned beef. When the battle ends and the distractingly unsynchronised dialogue resumes, the magic is lost even with Shakespeare as screenwriter.
Contrary to received wisdom, Mereghetti maintains that Welles achieved his finest work towards the end of his career. His 57-minute movie The Immortal Story (1968), adapted from an Isak Dinesen story, is described as "an absolutely perfect film".
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