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.