Orson Welles: Scorpion in a cage
By LARS TRODSON
When writing about Orson Welles, it's always best to begin at the end.
In a taped conversation that director Henry Jaglom had with Welles, which ended up on the very last page of the book "My Lunches With Orson," (2013) Welles made it as clear as he possibly could about how he hoped his life would end.
"Directors are poor fellows, carrying not much baggage," Welles is quoted as saying. "We come in with only our overnight bags, and go out with nothing. There are names in these old lists of the greatest movies that have totally vanished, you know? Now, when my career is only a memory, I'm still sitting here like some kind of monument, but the moment will come when I'll drop out of sight altogether, as though a trapdoor had opened, you know?"
There is not, as it turns out, a more perfect Wellesian term for death than "trapdoor." It evokes images of helplessness, of confinement, and lack of choice. It's appropriate because in the 50 years that preceded that quote, Welles populated his works with doomed, trapped people, who were also incapable of changing the course of their own lives. They were all victims of their own destinies. Welles was fond of this idea — maybe even obsessed with it. This is why he had Gregory Arkadin tell the fable of the scorpion and the frog in "Mr. Arkadin."
The anecdote is a story about a lack of free will; it reinforces the idea that we are servants to our natural character; we are without free will.
Welles' biographer Simon Callow was one of many to recognize this trait in Welles, but he, as did so many others, treated it tangentially, casually, as though it was not essential to Welles's work. This is what Callow said about Welles's "Macbeth," from 1948: "Almost from the moment we see him, this Macbeth appears haunted and dismayed... His conception of the role seems to be of a man tranced, somnabulistically obeying a destiny over which he has no sway. This is very much how he played Franz Kindler in 'The Stranger.'" There it is right there: the idea of an inexorable pull toward some terrible destiny and the fact that Macbeth was "haunted." These two themes begin much earlier, with Cinna the Poet in the Mercury production of "Julius Caesar" and travels down through Jonathan Harker, Charlie Kane, all of the Ambersons, Franz Kindler, Elsa Bannister, Harry Lime, Susan Vargas, Falstaff, Mr.Clay, the old man who stands before the law in "The Trial," and, at the end, Welles himself.
In terms of symbolism, Welles, throughout his life, deflected any psychological analysis of his films. He called Rosebud "dollar-book Freud" and flat out said to Peter Bogdonavich, "I hate symbolism." He would speak at length about his life and career, but if he freely spun yarns about people he knew, or the techniques he employed, he never offered any insight as to why he chose the material he did, or how that material revealed who he was. He commanded us, his obedient servants, not to bother to look for clues.; he always maintained there were never any "keys" to his life in his work.
In Welles's work, the image, the symbol, the image of a door, means many things, and none of them are comforting or freeing. Whether Welles consciously employed this symbol can't be known, but its indisputable that he returned to it over and over.
We can go back to 1937 to find the origins of the theme of entrapment and the use of a door. It's the moment when a cornered, doomed man — a wrongly accused man — got Welles out of his first big professional jam.
Welles had just started the Mercury Theater with John Houseman and its first production was Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Dress rehearsals were chaotic; audiences weren't responding. There was panic among the troupe. Welles had decided on a modern-dress "Julius Caesar," after the intimidating, impersonal look of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Add to that the distinct expressionistic lighting, the spare sets, the very aggressiveness of what modern theater was experimenting with at the time, and the idea was to imbue a 300-year old play with a frightening, immediate modernity, but it wasn't working.
This was not just any production. Expectations for Welles, even this early in his career, were exceedingly high. He had co-produced and directed the all-black "Macbeth" and other hits while working for the WPA and he was — in this interregnum between O'Neill, Williams and Miller — the very face of American theater. When he broke with the WPA and started the Mercury with Houseman, Welles needed to top himself. He was just 22.
A murdered poet comes to the rescue. According to actor Norman Lloyd, who tells the story in the documentary "The Battle Over 'Citizen Kane'," Welles, at the last minute, decided to restore a brief scene in which a mob attacks Cinna the Poet. This poor poet happens to have the same name as a man who is a conspirator in the plot to kill Caesar and the poet becomes a victim of the kind of frightening, fatal mob mentality that was occurring in Europe at the time.
The moment comes in the last scene of Act III, and it's brief. The Plebians — commoners, members of the lower classes — follow Cinna the Poet onto the stage, which causes Cinna to remark:
I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar,
And things unluckily charge my fantasy,
I have no will to wander forth of doors,
Yet something leads me forth.
The Plebians taunt Cinna the Poet: "What is your name?" "Whither are you going?" "Where do you dwell? "Are you a married man or a bachelor?" He is told to answer "every man directly." He does answer every question, but when he identifies himself as "Cinna the Poet," and not the Cinna the Plebians are looking for, the crowd, in a fever and unable to stem its violent goal, cries, "Tear him to pieces for his bad verses!"
Lloyd, who played Cinna the Poet, said this scene, once staged, "literally stopped the show." "Julius Caesar" went on to be a triumph for Welles and the Mercury Theater, and soon Welles was off on an almost unprecedented four-year run of success in multiple mediums.
This theme of physical and psychological entrapment makes an appearance (as does a door) very early in Welles's career as a producer and director on radio. The first Mercury On The Air broadcast, on July 11, 1938, was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s "Dracula." The production is efficient, eerie, and beautifully played by the Mercury actors.
In the story, solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania with some real estate documents for the mysterious Count Dracula to sign. Count Dracula, of course, is a character without choice. He has no free will; a nocturnal mammal guided by destiny and biology.
Very quickly, Harker finds himself in a dangerous situation. His belongings have been taken away and the doors and windows to the castle have been locked. Harker describes himself as a “prisoner” and Dracula's castle as a “prison.”
Increasingly desperate, Harker has the following conversation with the Count, who is played by Welles:
Jonathan Harker: Count Dracula?
Dracula: Yes, my young friend.
Harker: Well, what of me? When am I free? When can I leave this place?
Dracula: Free? Mr Harker, you’re always free. You want to leave? Would you like to leave tonight?
Harker: Yes, yes, in God’s name.
Dracula: My dear young friend, not an hour will you wait in my house against your will. Come, follow me.
(There is the sound of the Count trying to repeatedly unlock a door.)
Dracula: The door seems to be bolted. How strange. It’s locked.
(Dracula then flings the door open, shouting "Goodbye, Mr. Harker!", only to reveal a pack of murderous wolves wailing just outside the door, preventing Harker from leaving his self-described "prison.")
This scene of false imprisonment is repeated in a strangely similar fashion almost 20 years later in Welles's cubist thriller, “Touch Of Evil." (1958)
Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) is coerced into meeting with a crime boss, Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) in his little office in a tiny border town in Mexico. Mrs. Vargas has been told Grandi has something for her husband, Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston), the attorney who is trying a case against Joe Grandi’s brother.
After she learns that all Grandi wanted to give her was a petty threat to be delivered to her husband, and after he brandishes a gun, there is nothing more to be said. Mrs. Vargas heads for the door, and there is this exchange:
Mrs. Vargas: Then the conference is over? I’m free to leave?
Joe Grandi: Free? Nobody was holding you or keeping you, Mrs. Vargas. Nobody laid a hand on you. You were just paying us a little visit.
Mrs. Vargas: Well... goodbye all.
(She struggles to unbolt the door, and finally succeeds. She goes out to the street.)
If we can jump forward in time for a moment, in the "Lunches with Orson" book, Welles then says that he would prefer that his life end like the composer Verdi.
Henry Jaglom: What's that?
O.W.: Verdi did great work when he was young... Then, in old age, someone came and told him, "Wagner is dead." He lit up. Did the greatest work in the following years, after decades of nothing.
HJ: Who would your Wagner be? Who would have to die to set you free?
OW: I'm not going to answer that.
Probably he couldn't, even if the answer was about his own self. In the world of Orson Welles, almost no one was free, in any sense.
This idea of confinement, of restricted movement, leads to a unique interpretation of the Welles aesthetic in "Citizen Kane." One way to portray a sense of confinement for your characters is to put them in a box, and a box requires walls, and one of those walls, for a room, is a ceiling. Welles's famed use of ceilings in "Kane," was not simply a novel way to frame a scene, he was confining these characters. This is an aesthetic borne out of a tremendous feeling of restriction, of being closed in on.
Escape from this confinement appears in "Citizen Kane" in a particularly Wellesian way: Charles Foster Kane kept his second wife, Susan Alexander Kane, a prisoner in Xanadu, their mansion in Florida. The scene in which Susan tells Charlie she is leaving him takes place in her room, and the ceilings in that room are especially low, barely above their heads. The ceiling is designed so that it appears to have cubes within cubes.
When Susan finally walks out — she is the only one who has the most success in running away from Charles Foster Kane — she has to travel through not one door, but two. The first door is so thick it looks like the door to a bank vault. As she passes through the second door, Susan disappears as though she never existed.
Whether Welles knew it or not, he was expressing just how difficult he must have felt it was to break free of anyone or anything. And if you do break free, there is only darkness.
This inexorable pull toward some unavoidable destiny is what "The Magnificent Ambersons" is all about — or what it was about in Welles's original version. The movie is simply a longer version of the scorpion and frog fable that is included in "Mr. Arkadin." This is the story of the scorpion stinging the frog while the frog carries the scorpion on its back as they cross a river, even though it will lead to both their deaths. "Why did you sting me?" cries the drowning frog. "It is in my character," says the dying scorpion.
"Here's to character," says Mr. Arkadin.
And so it was within the very DNA of the Ambersons to ignore the flaws in their own character, the flaws that lead to their own decay, to ignore the world that was "rolling right over them," as Uncle Jack Amberson says.
The Ambersons are the wealthiest and most ostentatious family in Indianapolis. The Amberson mansion is one of the most prominent characters in the film, and the most important feature of that character is the front door — the most significant location in the film. It is at the front door that love is lost, a homecoming is announced, and death must be faced. The story concerns the beautiful granddaughter of Major Amberson, Isabel (played by Dolores Costello), who marries a man, Wilbur Minafer, she does not love. They have a spoiled, unpleasant son, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt). After Wilbur dies, George discovers that his mother has feelings for Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), and that those feelings may have preceded his father's death. The family also learns their fortune has been depleted. The film follows two thwarted love stories. Eugene and Isabel, and George and Lucy Morgan, Eugene's daughter. When Eugene comes calling one day for Isabel after Wilbur dies, George — prudish and vaguely Oedipal —stops him at the front door, and tells Eugene he is no longer welcome at the Amberson house, which plunges his mother into a depression. To void further social unpleasantness, mother and son go on a trip around the world, during which her health begins to fail. The news of her poor health is brought to Eugene Morgan by Uncle Jack Amberson (Ray Collins).
During the discussion, there is another moment of Wellesian psychic entrapment that is in the same spirit as the scenes from "Dracula" and "Touch of Evil."
The Major says that he told his niece "that I thought she ought to let Georgie make her come home" to Indianapolis.
Then Eugene Morgan replies, with a bit of surprise that she can't make the decision on her own: "Let her?" He pauses. "Does she want to?"
"She doesn't urge it."
And later in that same discussion, Morgan says to the Major: "And you say he won't let her come home?"
"I don't think he uses force. He's very gentle with her. I doubt if the subject is mentioned between them, yet knowing my interesting nephew as you do, wouldn't you think that was about the way to put it?"
"Knowing him as I do," Eugene says. "Yes."
These people are all trapped, trapped by their social graces and courtesies and false sense of pride, trapped by their hidden desires, and they have no understanding how to change the course of their own lives.
Welles makes this all very clear near the end of the film, when Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter), Eugene's daughter and the woman that George Amberson Minafer loved, remembers the original Indian name of an old grove in town, which she pronounces to her father.
"What does it mean?" Eugene asks.
"They couldn't help it," Lucy answers.
"Journey Into Fear" (1943), from an Eric Ambler novel and a script by Joseph Cotten, was directed by Norman Foster but, as many have said, it has the immutable Welles stamp all over it. The film opens with a killer, named Banat, in a hotel room. He's grooming himself, as though he is about to go out on the town. He plays a phonograph record, which skips. He then fixes his gun to make sure it's loaded. He buttons his coat, opens the door to his room, and he closes the door rather ominously, rather obviously, with a loud thud. The picture goes black for just a moment, and then the movie's title appears: "Journey Into Fear." The message is not so subtle: a door is an opening to a sinister world.
Nobody could be more on the run than Charles Rankin, the Nazi known in his homeland as Franz Kindler, that Welles plays in "The Stranger" (1946). This is a man trapped in a small Connecticut town, trapped by his past atrocities, trapped by his upcoming nuptials, trapped by his new identity. It's almost amusing that Welles begins what is often cited as his least personal film with the image of a door opening and closing, and with Edward G. Robinson (as the Nazi hunter, Mr. Wilson) uttering the first words in the film: "Keep the cell door open! It's as simple as that! Let him escape!" (Wilson is referring to a jailed former colleague of Rankin/Kindler, who they know will lead them straight to Kindler when released.)
Nothing, and no one, can provide a way to escape for Franz Kindler and he is hunted down and killed at the end.
If you listen to Welles, the only reason he made "The Lady From Shanghai" (1948) was because he needed $55,000 to get the props and costumes out of hock for his gargantuan theatrical production of "Around the World In Eighty Days." (Biographer Callow and others have dismantled this colorful story.) The anecdote, told in many versions, is essentially that Welles called Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, for the money. Welles said that, during the call, he looked at a paperback novel the woman in the ticket office was reading and said, 'Buy this book, I'll make the picture for you.' In the Welles version, the money was sent, and the picture became "The Lady From Shanghai." As marvelous as this story is, it is designed to point the critic and audience in a particular direction: this movie was nothing more than an assignment, a job, so don't read too much into it.
This is the movie in which Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) tells her lover, Michael O'Hara (Welles) that "human nature is eternal, therefore one who follows his nature keeps his original nature, in the end." This is just another version of the scorpion and frog story.
Briefly, O'Hara, a seaman, encounters Elsa in Central Park, saves her life, and she offers him a job on the crew of her yacht. He refuses, but is persuaded later by Elsa's husband, Arthur Bannister, who is called "the world's greatest criminal lawyer." O'Hara is infatuated, even obsessed, with Elsa. Through convoluted and not entirely plausible circumstances, O'Hara allows himself to be framed for murder for a payoff that will allow the two lovers to run away. As the frame is being explained to him, O'Hara asks a helpless question, as though he has no control over his own situation. "What happens to me?" The rest of the movie answers that.
O'Hara informs Elsa of the frame during the famous scene at the aquarium, the captured and confined fish, in their aquatic cages, swimming without purpose behind them. When Elsa reads the fake letter of confession that has been written for O'Hara, Elsa says, "It's a trap of some kind." After he is arrested for murder, O'Hara literally ends up in a cage.
Looked at in the context of the existential dilemma — the idea of no exit — the famous "hall of mirrors" climax to "The Lady From Shanghai" can be looked at as something other than an example of Welles' bravura showmanship.
Because what could be more terrifying to a man who is always feeling trapped than, when finally cornered, to literally have no way out? Where there is no escape and the only thing you have to face is multiple versions of yourself? A situation like this must have been a nightmare to Welles, and he put that nightmare on the screen in this famous sequence. Only a mind that is in a fever about being trapped could devise a scene like that.
"The Third Man" (1949) is not a Welles film. It was written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed. Over the years, Welles told various versions of the extent of his involvement. He was either on set for only a few days, or he influenced the entire production. (Most people today believe it is completely a Carol Reed picture.) Even so, the creation of Harry Lime seems distinctly Wellesian, specifically in the scene in which we first meet Lime. Welles either had something to do with the staging of the scene, or it was an incredible piece of intuitive directing and staging by Reed.
In the film, an American writer of pulp westerns, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), has come to post-war Vienna to track down his old friend Harry Lime, who, it turns out, was a black marketeer who sold watered-down penicillin that killed innocent people. After Martins arrives in Vienna, he is told that Harry was killed by a car, but when the details of the accident don't add up, Martins stays in Vienna demanding the truth. Of course, Lime is still alive.
Where do we first see Harry Lime, the man on the run? In a dark doorway.
Here's the scene: Holly, at night, is wandering Vienna, drunk. The military authorities have been eyeing him, so when he sees a pair of feet in a doorway, he only thinks he's being tailed.
The dialogue given to Martins is reminiscent of the insistent questioning by the Plebians of Cinna the Poet and, later, the probing of Joseph K. by the two cops in "The Trial."
Holly Martins: What kind of a spy do you think you are, satchel-foot?
(We see the pair of feet in a pitch-black doorway and a cat sitting, licking his paws at those feet.)
Holly Martins: What are you tailing me for? Cat got your tongue? Come on out. (Singing the nursery rhyme.) Come out, come out, whoever you are. Step out into the light and let’s have a look at you. (Pause) Who’s your boss?
(Just then an old woman lights a lamp in a second story window, which illuminates Lime's face.)
Holly Martins, shocked at seeing his supposedly dead friend, says, in surprise, “Harry.”
But Lime doesn’t speak. Holly tries to cross the street toward the door, but is blocked by a passing car and when he reaches the doorway, Harry is gone. Later, Harry is tracked down, in a sewer, and is finally killed.
A cage is a prominent prop in his "Othello" (1952). This is a Welles' inclusion to the play; Shakespeare didn't write it. Iago is hoisted in this cage during Othello's funeral at the opening of the film, and its black bars crossing the screen is an image that is repeated not only in how Welles frames the Christian cross carried by Othello's mourners, but also in the window that Desdemona looks out of on the canals of Venice.
"Touch of Evil" (1958) is almost a quarry for this theme of entrapment. Police detective Hank Quinlan (Welles, of course), is trapped inside a grotesque body of fat and decay, trapped by his corruption, trapped in that border town, trapped by his own sense of self importance, limited by his bigotry, and he ends up dying in a putrid pool of polluted water. He is the chaser who becomes the chased. Although Welles's camera had never, ever been more fluid, or weightless, the people it catches within its lens are doomed, weighted down, stuck.
"The Trial" (1962) offers one of the most explicit clues as to how Welles must have viewed the world and his place in it. Perhaps the best-reviewed movie Welles made (in his lifetime) after "Othello," it tells the story of Joseph K., a man who is arrested and jailed without explanation. Here's a short passage from the Franz Kafka book of when two policemen come to Joseph K.'s rooms to arrest him. The situation echoes the question of physical freedom.
"And now my advice to you," [the policeman] added, "is to go into your room, stay calm, and wait and see what's to be done with you. If you take our advice, you won't tire yourself out thinking about things to no purpose, you need to pull yourself together as there's a lot that's going to be required of you.
You've not behaved towards us the way we deserve after being so good to you. You forget that we, whatever we are, we're still free men and you're not, and that's quite an advantage...
"Without giving any answer to this offer, K. stood still for some time. Perhaps, if he opened the door of the next room or even the front door, the two of them would not dare to stand in his way, perhaps that would be the simplest way to settle the whole thing, by bringing it to a head. But maybe they would grab him, and if he were thrown down on the ground he would lose all the advantage he, in a certain respect, had over them. So he decided on the more certain solution, the way things would go in the natural course of events, and went back in his room without another word either from him or from the policemen."
Welles claimed that he adapted the book because it was the only one he felt was filmable from a list of books the European producers, the Salkinds, offered him as possible choices to direct. But something obviously drew Welles to this odd story of faceless, senseless persecution and murder.
In his adaptation, Welles chose to highlight a fable that may be the closest thing to autobiography that he ever performed. This is the parable "Before the law" that Kafka included midway through the book. Welles, however, chose to begin his movie version with narration (in his own voice) telling this unsettling tale. This is the most heightened example of Welles's existential dilemma, the idea of feeling powerless to change the course of your life.
The film version opens with a door, a door that looks to be a prison door, dark and foreboding. (Welles drew this image himself.)
"Before the law, there is a guard," the narrator (Welles) intones. "A man comes from the country begging admittance, but the guard cannot admit him. Can he hope to enter at a later time? That is possible, says the guard. The man tries to peer through the entrance. He had been taught that the law had been accessible to every man. Do not attempt to enter without my permission, says the guard. I'm very powerful, yet I am the least of all the gods. Hall to hall, door to door, each guard is more powerful than the last. By the guard's permission, that man sits down by the side of the door. There, he waits. For years, he waits. Everything he has he gives away in the hope of bribing the guard, who never fails to say to him that I never fail to take what you give me only that you will not feel that you have left something undone. Keeping his watch, during these long years, the man has gotten to know even the fleas in the guard's fur collar. And, growing childish in old age, he begs the very fleas to persuade the guard to change his mind and allow him to enter. His sight is dimmed, in the darkness he perceives a radiance streaming immortally from the door of the law. And now, before he dies, all of his experience condenses into one question, a question he's never asked. He beckons to the guard. The guard says you are insatiable! What is it now?' Says the man, 'Every man strives to attain the law. How is it then, in all these years, no one else has ever come here seeking admittance? His hearing has failed so the guard yells into his ear: 'No one else but you could ever have obtained admittance. No one else could enter this door! This door was intended only for you! And now I am going to close it."
Now, who is Welles talking about here?
Welles, in interviews throughout the years, maintained that Joseph K. was a guilty man. We may never know his crime, but Welles was adamant about that. This certainly fits another pattern. The characters in a Welles film may have felt persecuted and often killed — but, tellingly, never wrongly. They either were guilty, or Welles conferred on them a guilt they may or may not have earned. In this way, Welles, tempermentally, culturally and artistically, was the exact opposite of his near-contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn't the entrapment of the innocent man that interested Welles; he focused on the punishment of the guilty who had little or no chance of escape, even if given the opportunity.
Hitchcock focused on the caprice of chance; Welles focused on the opposite: men and women were simply doomed pawns, in both a social and cosmic sense.
(This sense of entrapment and guilt was not relegated just to his fiction. An excerpt from F.X. Feeney’s book, "Power, Heart and Soul” (2015), that was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on May 6, 2015, the centennial of Welles's birth, Feeney tells the story of how Welles vowed to bring a police chief from South Carolina to justice for an incident that happened just after World War II. The officer assaults a black soldier for “talking back” to a white bus driver. The blackjack the cop uses bursts the soldier’s eyeballs and blinds him, and Welles takes up the soldier's cause, vowing to identify the as-yet-unnamed officer. According to Feeney, Welles, on his syndicated radio show "Orson Welles Commentaries," on ABC radio, publicly invites the officer to turn himself in. Feeney writes: "The man does not. In succeeding weeks, Welles puts on the pressure, enlisting his listeners in a real-life drama, happening this instant: 'Officer X, after I have found you I will never lose you. If they try you, I’m going to watch the trial. If they jail you, I’m going to wait for your first day of freedom. You won’t be free of me. I want to see who’s waiting for you at the prison gate.")
We can now look at one of the last, full images of Welles that he gave us, a man confined by his own foolish pride. Here he is as Falstaff in "Chimes at Midnight" (1966); a broken man kneeling before a king awaiting absolution and recognition. But from which king? From the mogul kings of the American studios or from King Henry? It doesn't matter, because the message from all of them was the same: No absolution, only banishment.
"Jesus, the days we have seen," says Shallow to Falstaff in "Chimes at Midnight." He — Welles or Sir John — was simply yearning for the old days, when everything was in order, when they were all friends, and the times were good. His banishment meant those days were gone for good, for Falstaff and for Welles.
After the failure of "Chimes of Midnight" failed to find an audience, the symbol of the door took on yet another role.
The title of "The Immortal Story," (from 1968) echoes the teleplay that Welles did for Desilu in 1956: "The Fountain of Youth." In this adaptation of an Isak Dineson story, the door becomes not an opening, but a barricade. The story involves a young clerk, Levinsky, who works for a very rich man named Clay (Welles). Levinsky tells Clay the fable of a rich man who recruits a young sailor to impregnate his wife so the rich man can have an heir. Clay becomes obsessed with the story, and asks Levinsky to orchestrate such a liaison in real life so Clay can fantasize about having an heir because he has no wife of his own.
In one scene, we see Levinsky walking through the streets of Macao. In a voiceover by Welles, Levinsky is given the following thoughts. Welles's screenplay adaptation conflates a few pages of Denison's prose into one brief passage that highlights the central idea of seeking refuge:
"[Clay], he thought, was going mad. From this moment he realized that he was indispensable to his master. He did not intend to derive any advantage from this, but the idea pleased him. This clerk might very well have been a highly dangerous person, except that ambition, desire, in any form, had been washed and bleached and burnt out of him. He had no yearning for love in him. No fear, and no wish to fight. He was like some kind of insect, hard to crush, even to the heel of a boot. And yet there were things not yet to be recounted, which moved like big deepwater fish in the depths of his dark mind. He had only passion, a craving to be left alone. His soul was concentrated on this one request, that he might enter his little room and shut his door, with the security that here no one in the world could possibly follow him."
And then, in the opening moments of "F for Fake" (1973), Welles, incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally after all, performs a few magic tricks in which turns a coin (money) into a key. A key has only two jobs: to lock or unlock something. And after he produces the key (which is produced in place of, perhaps not so coincidentally, money), Welles takes the time, quite purposefully, and quite out of the blue, to tell us something he doesn't do at any other point in the movie:
"The key," he says, "Is not symbolic of anything."
Did Orson Welles feel trapped? Did he feel persecuted or under siege? It's impossible to think this was so.
Because, despite his own preoccupation with persecution and entrapment, very few American artists — perhaps no other American artist — captured as many aspects of what it feels like to be alive as Orson Welles managed to in his work and his art. There have been so many arguments about his failures, and the word tragedy is so often used when describing his career, that we fail to see that through images, sound, film, radio, newspaper articles, television shows, theater, monologues, editing, in interviews, on comedy specials, in song, writing, interpreting Shakespeare, acting, working with other actors, in his political work — he celebrated the magnificence and spontaneity of life itself.
And no biography, or documentary, and certainly not a limited essay such as this, can capture the sheer magnitude of what Welles must have experienced at any given moment during his own 70 years. Recognized genius at 10, experimental films while in high school, writing the first textbooks on Shakespeare, a star on the Dublin stage during his teens, touring with Katherine Cornell, newspaper columnist, confidant of presidents and political leaders, friend to some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, traveling the world, husband of Rita Hayworth, lover of Oja Kodar and countless others, and the creator of singular, classic, innovative productions for stage, radio, and the movies. His life was so obviously rich that while many people may have felt he was inactive, even while he was alive, he was always, as the police say of a suspect, a person of interest.
Even so, it would be too precious, and perhaps too wildly inaccurate, to say that Welles was afraid of death. (But if it were so, it makes him, finally, charmingly, endearingly human. It would be nice, after all, to share something with Welles.) But it is certainly plausible to believe that he, as much as anybody, did not want the endlessly fascinating journey that was his own life to end. If you had lived such a life, wouldn't you feel fenced in by the unfortunate inevitability of mortality?
Welles did give himself away, finally, in an unexpectedly candid moment. This was at the AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony in 1975, during which he asked the assembled kings to help him finish "The Other Side of the Wind." In his speech he said that, during his career, he was "following the great American tradition of the maverick, and we are a vanishing breed. This is an honor I can only accept in the name of all the mavericks." We remember that, and we remember that he called himself a "raggle-taggle gypsy" because that was what we — all of us hopeful writers, directors, actors and fans — wanted, perhaps more than anything, from Orson Welles. We wanted to believe that he was the ultimate free man. That he would genuflect before nobody. We, the underdogs, were thrilled by this notion.
We do not want to remember what he actually said, which was this: "And don't imagine that this raggle-taggle gypsy is pretending to be free." He then mentions that he pays himself out of his own acting work to subsidize his other work. "In other words, I'm crazy," Welles famously said, and then came the reiterated philosophy: "But not crazy enough to pretend I'm free."
Josh Karp, in the Vanity Fair excerpt from his book, titled "The Epic Story of Orson Welles's Unfinished Masterpiece," published in May 2015, argues that Welles went too far in that AFI speech. He mentions the last clip that Welles showed from "The Other Side Of The Wind" — just at the exact moment when he was asking for money to help finish the film — hit too close to home about Welles's own chaotic and unsatisfactory methods. In the scene, the studio heads discover that the new film the great director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) is making has no script. "He's just making it up as he goes along," says one of the characters in the film about Hannaford. The Karp essay quotes Peter Bogdonavich: “That was the horrible irony of the whole thing. Everyone applauded wildly, but no one came up with a cent.”
We shouldn't be too surprised. Throughout his entire life Welles, the old scorpion, kept stinging not only his benefactors and supporters, those that wanted to help and carry him, but himself. He ran away from projects, alienated people, and became so unhealthy as to be virtually unemployable. He died relatively young. Any question as to why all this happened is useless speculation. Welles's destiny was in his character, he just couldn't help it.
This article was originally published on the website, www.wellesnet.com on July 14, 2015.