“You have a choice of one of three movies for the Orson Welles centennial” says Nathaniel at the end of last week’s post, like he doesn’t even know me. Okay, so I get it, Hit Me with Your Best Shot isn’t entirely or even mostly about me. But come on. Give me a choice between three films directed by one of the greatest visual storytellers in the history of the medium, and fuckit, maybe the greatest, you know what I pick? I pick all three. Fella could have said, “choose one movie out of all of the things Welles directed”, I’d have found a shot from everything. Damn me, but I’d have considered the Citizen Kane trailer a separate short film (that’s a YouTube link, and if you haven’t seen that trailer, you really must), I’d have picked something out of the material in the It’s All True documentary, and I’d have tracked down the nine episodes of In the Land of Don Quixote even if I had to break every law of man and God to do it.
But I need only pick one shot from three films. That’s easy and containable enough. So here, in chronological order, are those shots.
Citizen Kane (1941)
No longer the official Best Movie Ever Made, though its decades in that position were unarguably well-earned. It is a film that synthesises nearly every filmmaking technique available in 1941 and presents them in one neatly wrapped package; it is so driven by the complexity of its images that the rampaging egotist Welles saw fit to share his directorial title card with cinematographer Gregg Toland, an unheard-of gesture of equality. Choosing the “best shot” from Citizen Kane is like trying to pick the godliest saint.
So this isn’t necessarily my favorite image from the whole movie, so much as it is the one I decided to write about when the time came to do the writing. Ask me tomorrow, this might have been an entirely different essay.
We all know Citizen Kane, right? So I can just dive in? This is the moment almost all the way at the end of Jedediah Leland’s (Joseph Cotten) reminiscences about Charles Kane (Welles), reaching the moment where he passed out drunkenly in preparation to write a scathing review of Kane’s wife’s stage debut, only to wake to find Kane finishing up the job for him. He walks through the office of the newspaper down the long Z-axis path (this movie is such an orgy of deep compositions) to his desk and his typewriter, and his eerily beatific boss tapping away and holding an entire conversation without looking up.
The lighting first: for all those slate-grey noir shadows, Toland manages to keep Welles and Cotten mostly well-lit. Mostly. There’s that rounded wash of jet black around Welles’s face, of course, which does all the work that the acting can’t – won’t – do to imply the cruelty and anger that’s being left conspicuously, suffocatingly unexpressed. Kane’s quiet calm as he fulfills his last duty as an honorable member of the press is peaceful as it gets; even his dismissal of his best friend and most important employee is casual and unforced: “Sure, we’re speaking, Jedediah. You’re fired”. Welles glides through the moment imperturbably; only the shadows cradling his face and slashing across his arms speak to the moral decay that led these men to this pass.
The staging second: Jesus Christ, that focal depth is a miracle. We have one set arranged so that it can contain a close-up dominating a third of the frame all the way down to a little dot of a man who’d be totally invisible if the backlighting hadn’t been arranged specifically to accentuate him. This is the last time that Kane, Leland, and Bernstein (Everett Sloane) all appear in the same image, the three young lions who started off so eager to change the world for the better with their revolution in journalism now fragmented into three visual components so detached from each other that it’s hard to imagine that they were all there at the same time, and it’s not just some kind of optical effect. The arrangement of their faces in the frame, and the lines (especially the ceiling beams) between them insist on drawing our eyes through the scene in a kind of zig-zag, unifying the characters; but there’s no smoothness, no fluidity to that connection. It’s harsh, jarring, moving through high-contrast black-and-white and crashing against shapes and lines within the frame that disrupt it even more. This is what three men who no longer have anything to say to each other looks like.
And then the matter of composition and lighting. Welles is by far the most noticeable thing in frame, but the lighting calls attention to Cotten, who appears too bright for the frame, being the one decent thing in Kane’s life. It’s almost tempting to read the image as a riff on the “shoulder angel” trope, as Leland stands over Kane’s shoulder, offering him one last chance to stay a good human being. Of course he doesn’t take it; this is a tragedy. And as communicated through shadowy, dense images like this one, it’s a rather inevitable tragedy.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The director’s second feature and the beginning of the end: with RKO butchering the movie while Welles was off on Brazil filming a movie he never completed, The Magnificent Ambersons is the first of five out of the thirteen completed Welles features that does not exist in a form of which the director approved.* And this isn’t just a disappointment in the general sense that it’s nice when directors get to see their visions carried to completion; on a scene-by-scene and shot-by-shot basis, The Magnificent Ambersons seems like it might very well have been an even more accomplished work of filmmaking than Citizen Kane, if only we didn’t have such a transparently hacked-apart finished project to judge it by. The unprecedented tracking shots and long takes that were to have made the film a brand-new kind of exploration of cinematic space remain only in fragments; the guts ripped out of the Bernard Herrmann score leave the soundtrack of the film an emotional grab-bag that veers from working flawlessly to barely functioning (the composer demanded his name be taken off the film as a result of the studio’s tinkering with his music as they reshaped the images).
The genius, however, still lies just underneath, despite all RKO’s attempts to murder it. In its own different ways, Ambersons is every inch as radical as its more famous and beloved sibling: the use of sound especially is dazzling, particularly the playful and surprising way that Welles’s narration interacts with the imagery and performances. What remains of the original editing it truly superb, even above and beyond what was already brilliant in Citizen Kane; entire psychological arcs are expressed wordlessly based on the subtleties of how two frames contrast with each other.
The editing also leads to the bravura sequence near the end, with Welles calmly intoning how the bratty George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), having spent the whole film railing against the coming of the 20th Century, with its new styles and technologies threatening to overturn the old ways of the American aristocracy, walks home to his ancestral mansion for the last time. This sequence is presented entirely subjectively, without George showing up in frame even once, as the buildings and streets he walks dissolve one into the other, giving us a chronological tour of the evolution of middle America as classic old buildings phase into new buildings, which phase into the girders and factories of the new industrial nation growing up despite the angry objections of George and people like him. And it looks a little something like this:
The whole brief sequence is a wonderful recapitulation of one of the movie’s central themes: times change and can be a rough, disorienting process. The constant, overlapping images bleed into each other till it’s virtually impossible to pick them apart, a slurried mash-up of past and present and future all existing at the same time. It’s a vivid visual description of memory collapsing on itself, nostalgia slamming into modernity, and the cinema straining against its seams trying to contain them all.
Also, automobiles: slow.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
We skip over Welles’s third feature now, 1946’s The Stranger, to go on to his famed film noir that was a decisive flop when it was new. And we see here a new kind of Orson Welles, for that matter: Kane and Ambersons were both the work of a fearless, arrogant genius, who wanted to beat cinema into a new form at his own pleasure; his subsequent American movies can’t match them, though Touch of Evil comes reasonably close. What they all showcase is intermittent brilliance hemmed in by The Rules; in the particular case of The Lady from Shanghai, this means a solid but not especially unusual noir with a collection of extra-deranged performances and some discomfitingly grotesque close-ups (it’s a film that manages to make every named human being seem like a kind of gargoyle, and I mean that in the best way). It’s also pepped up at either end by two scenes where the director and his crew were able to go nuts: an early sequence shot in a yacht in Mexico, far from the studio’s ability to tinker, and a legendary climax set in a fun house and hall of mirrors, where from absolutely nowhere at all, Welles inserts a Surrealistic horror film with some of the most unhinged editing of his career into the last act of a melodramatic crime story.
It’s by far the best-known sequence in the movie, and for good reason: there’s not a frame of it that isn’t worthy of a master’s thesis. But picking a shot from it would be the cheapest way out imaginable, so I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I also was going to steer clear of the film’s second most famous sequence, which finds Michael “Black Irish” O’Hara (Welles, sporting a comically disastrous Irish accent) and Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) comforting each other in the San Francisco aquarium. Comforting each other with their mouths, you know. The scene is famous for its wildly fanciful use of projections of fish swimming around, great huge monsters dominating the back of the frame, and giving good credence to the occasionally-voiced idea that Welles was secretly trying to make a farce of this crime picture; but when I ended up picking a shot from this sequence, I comforted myself with knowing that at least I’d stayed away from the completely obvious.
At this point, Michael has no clue that Elsa is actually pure evil, and we in the audience don’t know, but we probably understand how ’40s film noir works, and if there’s a lady from Shanghai or anywhere else that gets the protagonist sexually excited, she’s bound to be Satan incarnate. But we don’t know. Not until Welles silently inserts this shot, in total violation of the lighting continuity of the rest of the scene, that contrasts their kiss, with the fact that Elsa is a pitch-black nightmare beast, right down to that little tiny speck of light in her left eye, which I suspect took cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. a hell of a lot of effort to get exactly right. It shines and sparkles without any other part of her face lit from the same source; it looks for all the world like an inner glow radiating out of her shadowy body. “Satan incarnate”, I said, but golly, does any noir heroine actually look as much like a demon as Hayworth does right here? It’s potent foreshadowing, made all the bleaker since this is the closest the film gets to sex, and it’s emblematic of one of Welles’s most characteristic tricks: using the severe contrast between darkness and light to guide our eye and communicate directly with our sense of danger, no brain necessary. The Lady from Shanghai doesn’t rank very high on my private ranking of Welles films, but it certainly has its share of moments that stand proudly with anything he ever did, stylishly exaggerating and distorting the studio-enforced rules he was obliged to follow.