Orson Welles: the stories of his life by Peter Conrad

Juggling the ideas of Orson Welles
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The Independent Culture

The protean, broken life of Orson Welles makes rich pickings for cultural commentators, biographers and people who inhabit the mid-ground, like Peter Conrad, the Oxford critic whose The Hitchcock Murders was widely praised. Dispensing with the vulgar trade of biography (too many hours spent grubbing through diaries or spending meagre advances on trips abroad?), Conrad purportedly teases out the essence of Welles entirely through fragments, biographical shards and images from the films.

The story is known: the thundering 1930s "War of the Worlds" broadcast, then Citizen Kane and the crash of The Magnificent Ambersons leading to a pitiful life in exile full of unrealised projects. Finally, there are the dog food and lager adverts when he was still (probably) the greatest living director in the world. So what can be added to the acres of biographical matter already published?

Conrad notes Welles's affinity with the film pioneer Georges Méliès, but apparently fails to mark Méliès' similar ignominious end: running a toy shop in the Gare Montparnasse minutes away from where Welles filmed The Trial.

One of Welles's onscreen roles was as the magician Cagliostro, and Conrad remarks how much Welles conforms to the image of the charlatan-conjuror, one part infernal powers to two parts fraudulence. He was also, we discover (if we did not already know from that bulging cummerbund), a man of Rabelaisian appetites. That corpulence is seen to its best effect in his late film with Harry Kümel, Malpertuis, where he's a beached whale of a dying, superannuated magician who has managed to imprison the Apollonian gods in human form and threatens also to imprison his visiting heirs. It's curious that Conrad barely discusses this film, which should be important to his thesis.

Conrad examines lesser films such as Macbeth, Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake. He looks in detail at Welles's performances in The Third Man (another key moment) and bread-and-butter parts in virtually unknown films such as The Stranger in 1946 (where he plays a Nazi schoolteacher hiding out in Connecticut).

Themes quickly emerge: a love of Shakespeare that even embarrassed Olivier and Gielgud, and a passionate involvement with the central drama of Don Quixote and Moby Dick. Welles identified strongly with foolish quests; kings and great generals appealed to the girth of his imagination. He was ever the wounded sovereign and wheezing Falstaffian wreck. He loved illusion, false clothes and padding, make-up and codpieces and false noses (although his Harry Lime has no make-up at all).

This is the book not of someone who particularly spends a lot of time in the cinema, but someone who enjoys juggling ideas, offering them up like a kind of exalted gossip. Expect a fluttering scholarly preoccupation with cultural nuance here, and a cloistered eye for obscure detail there, and you will not be disappointed.