Joseph McBride to Appear at Fabulous Orson Welles Tribute at Film Forum
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 1/11/15)
I hope all movie fans are aware of the extraordinary retrospective, "Orson Welles 100," that began at the Film Forum on January 1 and concludes Tuesday February 3. Every theatrical feature Welles directed will be screened, some in different versions. We can see reconstructed versions of various films and several newly restored prints. There will even be a presentation of Too Much Johnson on Monday February 2, which will combine a reading of William Gillette's 1894 play by the "Film Forum Players" and recently discovered rough-cut footage Welles shot in 1938 (three years before the release of Citizen Kane) to be used (it never happened) in conjunction with his Mercury Theatre's adaptation of Gillette's farce. Additionally, there will be films helmed by other directors featuring Welles the actor. Credit for this one-of-a-kind Welles showcase goes to programmer Bruce Goldstein and series consultant Joseph McBride, the foremost Welles expert in the world. Certainly a highlight of the five-week series will be McBride's appearances four days this week. On Wednesday January 14 at 7 pm, he will introduce the 108-minute prerelease "Preview version" of Touch of Evil and discuss all three versions of Welles' masterpiece that are showing in this series. On Thursday at 7:10 and Saturday at 2:45, he will present "Wellesiana," which is fascinating program of Welles rarities, including the short he made at 19, The Hearts of Age, rushes, trailers, and TV appearances. On Friday at 7:10, he will present the "Scottish" version of Macbeth--did you even know it existed? Not to be missed is a 5:15 Saturday screening of the 1942 studio-edited release version of The Magnificent Ambersons, after which McBride will compare it to the unofficial 1993 Roger Ryan "reconstruction" and the missing-in action Welles cut, the intrepid critic's "holy grail." Throughout the series, Joseph McBride's book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, will be on sale at the concession stand.
I will be excited to be at the Wednesday evening event for two reasons. First, Touch of Evil is a personal favorite (which I included in my new--shameless plug--eBook, Cult Crime Movies), which I have seen countless times but never in this version. Second, though we have had contact through the years, I will be seeing my friend Joseph McBride in person for the first time in forty-five years. Joe and I both attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the sixties and were part of an incredible film community on campus that turned out numerous film critics, film historians, and filmmakers. Indeed, I saw so many great movies for the first time at screenings of the Wisconsin Film Society, which Joe ran. I am eternally indebted. I admit to being a bit in awe of him because at the time I was getting (unjustly) B minuses on my film papers, my fellow student was actually getting erudite film books published! It was obvious to everyone that he was headed for a tremendous career as a writer and scholar. Sure enough, he went on to write seventeen books (and counting), including acclaimed biographies on Welles, John Ford, Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg and an interview book with Howard Hawks--as well as his mind-blowing nonmovie tome, Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J. D. Tippit. His scriptwriting credits include cult movies Rock 'n' Roll High School and Blood and Guts and American Film Institute Life Achievement Award specials on Capra, Fred Astaire, Lillian Gish, John Huston, and James Stewart. He received the Writers Guild of America Award for cowriting AFI's Salute to John Huston with producer George Stevens, Jr., and also has received four other WGA nominations and two Emmy nominations. In the 1970s, he played a film critic in Welles' still-unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. He is the subject of Hart Perez's 2011 documentary Behind the Curtain: Joseph McBride on Writing Film History. McBride, who teaches film at San Francisco State, resides in Berkeley, so I conducted the following Q&A with him about Orson Welles and his upcoming appearances at the Film Forum via email. It's long but worth a look. In our 48-year acquaintance, it is the first time I ever interviewed him.
Danny Peary: Did you discover Orson Welles as a kid in Milwaukee by seeing a film or several of his films on television or in the theater?
Joseph McBride: No, I was a film buff from childhood but saw mostly new films then and didn’t see a Welles film until I went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison (where I met you and your brother Gerry). It was on September 22, 1966, in Professor Richard Byrne’s film class (one of the few film classes we had at UW), that I first saw Citizen Kane. It changed my life. Until then I was an English major planning to be a journalist and write novels. After that I wanted to devote my life to studying and writing about films and to making them. It led me to be a screenwriter, author of film books (including three on Welles), and film teacher. Shortly after that classroom screening, serendipitously, the Memorial Union had a mini-Welles retrospective. I saw such films as The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil and realized that there was much more to Welles than Kane. I couldn’t find a good book on Welles in English to read, so I began writing my first book on him, which took four years to write and was published in 1972 by the British Film Institute in its Cinema One series as Orson Welles.
DP: Didn’t you update it?
JM: I updated and expanded it by 30,000 words in 1996. I recently reacquired the rights and will do another edition, but I think I will wait until The Other Side of the Wind is released, unless that is delayed further.
DP: I was eighteen when I met you and you were twenty and by that time you were obsessed with and incredibly knowledgeable about film. How much of that was due to Welles?
JM: As Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, “May we be accursed if we ever forget for one second that he alone with Griffith--one in silent days, one sound--was able to start up that marvelous little electric train. All of us, always, will owe him everything.” My scholarship on Welles led to my entire career as a film historian and critic. I soon discovered John Ford and began writing about him as well. When I learned that Ford was Welles’s favorite director, it all seemed fitting. Ford has long been my favorite--I think he’s the greatest of all filmmakers--but Welles always has that special place in my heart.
DP: Looking back, why do you think you, coming from Milwaukee, became so enamored by Welles? It couldn’t have been because he was from Wisconsin too, right?
JM: Actually, it was partly because he was from Wisconsin. When I learned that, soon after seeing Kane, that also seemed fitting. I was trying to move into the wider world, and I was pleased that such a genius had come from what I then viewed as our somewhat backward state. I’ve since come to realize I was being patronizing about Wisconsin, from which so many great people have emerged. But we do have to emerge. As Lenny Bruce put it, “Milwaukee is the kind of town where cab drivers ask you where to get laid.”
Madison is a more sophisticated place. In those days we had thirty-five film societies (including the Wisconsin Film Society, which I ran so I could show the films I wanted to see) and tremendous political ferment, which also furthered my education greatly. I wrote most of Orson Welles in a student rooming house a couple of blocks from the public school Welles had attended when he lived in town for a year at the age of ten. Only many years later did I learn that he had lived in an apartment just up the street and around the corner from where I wrote the book. These “coincidences” helped galvanize my interest in Welles, and The Magnificent Ambersons is my favorite film in part because it so profoundly captures the spirit and tragedy of life in the Midwest. The film is so personal to Welles, such a loving but clear-eyed recreation of the time just before his birth.
DP: Did the fact that Welles was so young when he burst onto the movie scene with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons impact you because you were young?
JM: Yes, indeed, I also wanted, rashly, to make my first feature film by the time I was twenty-five. When I told Welles that in 1970, I was twenty-three. He kindly said, “You will.” I was making Super 8 shorts and writing scripts at the time, using the Welles-Herman J. Mankiewicz script of Kane and a 16mm print of the film as my Bible (I found the script at the Wisconsin Historical Society and spent a month typing an exact copy, since I couldn’t afford to Xerox it). I didn’t sell my first screenplay until 1976, though. There’s only one Orson Welles, but as François Truffaut noted, Kane “consecrated a great many of us to the vocation of cinéaste.”
DP: When I met you, you were equally a John Ford fanatic and expert. If I said, Welles and Ford have nothing in common, what would be your response?
JM: I think that’s wrong. Both were intensely nostalgic and critical of American history, for starters. They mourn a lost Eden that they know didn’t actually exist. Truffaut said Welles made two kinds of films: The ones he made with his left hand have guns in them, and the ones he made with his right hand always have snow. The snow films, such as Kane, Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight, are the most Fordian. Welles was asked what directors he most admired, and he said, “The old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”
DP: Did they cross paths often in Hollywood?
JM: They had a sort of artistic kinship from the beginning. Ford came to the set of Kane to wish him well and to warn him against his assistant director, Eddie Donahue, who was a front-office spy. Welles arrived in a stagecoach at the wrap party, which had a Western theme to honor Ford (Welles famously had studied the filmmaking craft before making Kane by screening Stagecoach over and over). Ford later wanted Welles to play Mayor Skeffington in The Last Hurrah, but the Red-baiting Ward Bond interfered with Columbia Pictures and evidently discouraged them from letting Ford cast Welles (Ford was furious at Bond; Welles thought, or said he thought, that his agent had bungled the deal). Early in Welles’s time in Hollywood, Ford and his pals, including John Wayne, sent Welles a makeshift cardboard certificate festooned with beer-bottle labels that said simply, “Orson Welles has been elected.” Welles said it was the only award he ever kept on his office wall, until someone stole it. I’m not sure how much time Welles spent with Ford; probably not a lot, especially if Bond was around. But Welles pumped Ford collaborators such as Gregg Toland and Tim Holt at great length about the master’s working methods and learned much from Ford, such as how to avoid closeups and to stage scenes in long uninterrupted takes. I believe Ambersons, for example, shows the influence of How Green Was My Valley, which opened the same day Welles’s film began shooting. But Welles moves his camera much of the time, and Ford rarely moves his. You don’t have to be identical with your master to learn from him.
DP: In Sight & Sound’s last critics’ poll, Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane as the greatest movie ever made. I think Vertigo, for all its virtues, is about Hitchcock’s tenth best film, so I wasn’t pleased. I’m not sure you think Citizen Kane is Welles’s best film, but what was your reaction to the poll?
JM: Polls are somewhat frivolous, but they at least stimulate discussion, and I was glad to be asked anyway. I felt somewhat guilty not putting Kane in my top ten, but Welles is the only director who has two films on my list--Ambersons and Chimes. I love Vertigo too and wrote and coproduced the documentary Obsessed with “Vertigo”: New Life for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece. But among Hitchcock films, I probably prefer Psycho and Marnie. Nevertheless, I think it’s idle to rank films of that level of quality, as polls compel us to do. And I would add that I believe we have David Thomson to blame for Kane being displaced from the top spot, since he had written a Sight & Sound piece urging people to do just that. Thomson wrote perhaps the worst book on Welles, the grossly underresearched, sloppy biography Rosebud, in which says he hopes The Other Side of the Wind never comes out, so he was somewhat biased. But then I didn’t put Kane on my Sight & Sound list, so you can blame me too. I think I wore out Kane after watching it more than a hundred times. I know every shot and every line before they appear onscreen, which spoils it for me to a large extent, unfortunately. I loved it too much.
DP: When I first met you in 1967 and still when you wrote the book Orson Welles that was first published in 1972, I already believed you were the top expert on Welles. Looking back, do you think there was still a lot for you to learn about him and his films? Have your views changed in major ways regarding his directing, his acting, particular movies, or Welles himself?
JM: Yes, Welles scholarship was still in its formative phase back when I began. I’ve written two more books on him since then as well as updating my first one. In the process, I have learned a lot more about him thanks to my endless research and the fine work of many other researchers. He has many more facets than I could have dreamed of at the time. He keeps surprising us with new dimensions and new discoveries, not only in film but also in radio and theater and television and print and other media. I have seen much more of his work (including the unfinished work) than I was able to see when I wrote my first book. And his career is not over, since he left a number of unfinished films for his admirers to complete, perhaps partly by intention to keep us working for him (we members of the cast and crew of Other Wind called ourselves members of VISTOW, or “Volunteers in Service to Orson Welles”).
I spent decades trying to make a deal to complete Other Wind, and Gary Graver (the film’s cinematographer) and I made one with Showtime in 1999 for $3 million, and then I was fired from the project by Oja Kodar and Peter Bogdanovich, who thought they didn’t need me. I didn’t make a fuss because I didn’t want to hurt the film, but I washed my hands of any more direct involvement with it. The project then immediately collapsed. If I had remained part of it, it would have been out by about 2004. I have answered questions and helped the current producers of the film with whatever advice and encouragement I can. And then there is Don Quixote waiting to be finished properly . . . no one has stepped up to the plate. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has probably seen more of the Quixote footage than anyone else, told me he thinks that is the great unfinished Welles film. One of my remaining projects is to do what I can to search for the complete print of Ambersons that Welles may have left in Brazil. It’s a long shot, but who would have thought his unfinished 1938 film Too Much Johnson would have turned up in Italy?
DP: Can you briefly tell of your involvement with The Other Side of the Wind, including your getting to meet Orson Welles?
JM: It was a Walter Mitty experience. I went to Hollywood in 1970 to interview Ford, and I looked up Bogdanovich. When I called him, he said he was “on the other line with Orson.” I was almost finished writing my book on Welles and had no idea he was in the States; he always seemed to be Somewhere in
Europe when I
was writing it. Peter said Welles wanted me to call him. When I did, he said,
“We’re about to start shooting a new film--would you like to be in it?” Since I
had never acted before, all I could think of was a stupid question, “Is this
going to be a feature-length film?” He laughed and said, “We certainly hope
so.” Actually, my question wasn’t that stupid, since it’s still not a
feature-length film. He cast me partly because he appreciated my published
articles on his work that I was excerpting from the book. And partly because
Bogdanovich recommended me as a funny young film buff type. After
I spent an afternoon talking with Welles about all kinds of subjects, I was
before his cameras, playing a spoof of myself and helping Welles write my own
dialogue. I kept doing that for the next six years. The Other Side of the Wind was my film school.
Joseph McBride and Orson Welles, 1978
DP: What kind of relationship did you have with Welles after meeting him on that film?
JM: I allowed myself to be putty in his hands. In any case, after we wrote the dialogue I had to speak, he was dictatorial about exactly how I moved and spoke. He would often say, “It’s terrible when a director gives line readings, but --,” and give me a line reading. I was pleased, because he was teaching me. But he bullied me a lot to keep me in an intimidated mood to fit the character. After about four years into the shooting, one of the crew told me that at rushes, Welles had said, “Joe looks good up there onscreen. But then he always looks good onscreen.” So I instantly relaxed and enjoyed myself for the next two years. Our relationship was always friendly but a bit prickly on occasion since I didn’t hesitate to disagree with him. He was irked when we had some political disagreements the day we met--he didn’t like it when I criticized Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and when I also said the antiwar protesters in Madison were getting crazy and were about to kill someone, which they did just two days later. So I think he always felt somewhat on guard with me. But he often called me over to explain what he was doing. I think one reason he put me on the set was that he wanted a historian there who would report accurately what he was doing.
DP: I know that in your writing you at times contradicted what Welles said about his own films. Did you ever teach Welles anything about his own films that he had never thought of? Would he argue with you?
JM: I am not sure if I taught him anything about himself; he was one of the most self-aware of artists. We did have differences of opinion on some of his films. One time during the making of Other Wind, I heard Welles say loudly from another room, “Joe would like Christopher Plummer. He doesn’t like my Shakespearean performances either.” I hastened to Welles’s side and reminded him that I thought his Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight was his greatest performance and that I also thought he was good as Macbeth, but that he was miscast as Othello. That didn’t seem to mollify Welles. He didn’t try to argue these points with me, though. He was thin-skinned about criticism, as most directors are, but I think he ultimately, if grudgingly, respected the fact that I wasn’t a sycophant and didn’t simply praise his work but had complex opinions about it and drew distinctions.
DP: What Welles character would Welles have most enjoyed spending an evening dining with as friends? My wild guess would be Harry Lime in The Third Man, directed not by Welles but Carol Reed—maybe the prewar Lime, before he went bad? Was Lime integral to Welles?
JM: As odious as Lime is, Welles no doubt would have found it fascinating to spend time with such a character. His films show that tendency. But Harry Lime was actually the character Welles played that he despised the most. He considered Lime the most evil character he played. After all, Lime profits from selling diluted black-market penicillin that kills people, including children, and he has no compunction about it. It was ironic that Welles became identified with that character to the point that when he would enter restaurants, the orchestra would strike up the “Harry Lime Theme.” And he played Lime again in the British radio series that downplayed Lime’s villainy and played up his charm. So what other character would Welles have wanted to dine with? He most identified with and loved Sir John Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. Welles considered him the most completely good man in all drama. Falstaff of course would have been a great dining and drinking companion as well! But I also have a sneaking suspicion Welles would have found much to enjoy having dinner with Charlie Kane. He played him as more charming than he is in the script. Asked why, he said he found out more about the character as he played him.
DP: I think Welles movies are about flawed men, betrayal, bad choices, hubris, and failure. Do you consider these essential to Welles? And what have I foolishly left out?
JM: Yes, those are key themes in his work. He would say they are key themes in all serious drama--as he did when a French interviewer noted that each of his films is a story of a failure with a death in it. I would add that a constant theme of Welles’s work is the intense friendship between two men, one of whom ends up betraying the other. This can be traced back to Welles’s feeling that he betrayed his father, by abandoning him when he was drinking himself to death; Welles actually believed he had killed his father. And perhaps this theme stems from Welles’s feeling that his mother and father betrayed him by dying in his youth. There is a homoerotic element to the male relationships in Welles’s films that is one of the two great taboos in Welles criticism. The other you’re not supposed to acknowledge is that he was blacklisted. I discuss both of those topics in my 2006 book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career, and drew some of the expected flak for doing so, but I am glad to have broken the taboos.
DP: If you asked Welles if he was proud of his movies, what would his honest answer be?
JM: Welles was always dissatisfied with his work and would still be reediting all his films now if he had the chance. But he knew his worth. He would say such things as, “In moving the actors in relation to the camera, I believe I have no peer.” He was proudest of Chimes at Midnight. It expresses his worldview most fully, and there is little distance between him and Falstaff. It’s such a profound and beautiful and haunting film. Ambersons probably would be his greatest film if we still had all of it. He said it was much better than Kane before RKO started hacking it up.
DP: If you asked Welles if he was happy with his film career, what would his honest answer be?
JM: He said on numerous occasions late in life that he should have left the film business, which treated him so badly, but that he fell in love with movies, the most expensive mistress a man can have, and couldn’t leave her. His first wife, Virginia Nicolson, advised him not to go to Hollywood and stay in the theater instead. Their daughter, Chris Welles Feder, told me he acknowledged late in life that Virginia was right. He would have been happier in the theater and would have had an easier time of it (his Mercury stage production of Julius Caesar cost only $12,000 to mount). But then we would not have all those great movies.
DP: Was he pleased that you, Peter Bogdanovich, and most film critics of the sixties and seventies and film historians revered him, or did he humbly—the wrong word for Welles?--think he didn’t deserve such acclaim?
JM: I don’t know how humble he was, and he actually was to some extent, but Welles was once accused of being vain. He said precisely, “I am conceited--I am not vain.” He said once that since he didn’t command the popular audience that Doris Day pictures did, he needed serious film magazines such as Sight & Sound to keep him viable. So he appreciated what Peter and I and others wrote about him. But I believe that need caused him to resent us critics as well. He shouldn’t have had to depend on us to the extent he did. That’s one reason he takes out against us in The Other Side of the Wind. I was aware of that when we colluded in satirizing the foolishly earnest young critic I was playing. I sympathized with his point of view and shared his sense of the absurdity of the situation, that a Mister Pister could be important to the career of a Jake Hannaford (the legendary director played by John Huston). But in fact, critics and historians are important to careers and to analyzing and to some extent judging them; we just have to avoid being too self-important about it.
DP: Was he slightly embarrassed that “Rosebud” caused such a reaction in the film world? Or was the devilish magician pleased?
JM: He thought “Rosebud” was the weakest element in the film. That’s why he wrote that line in which the reporter says, “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” But it is thrilling when the camera then leaves the reporter and reveals Rosebud. It explains parts of Kane, but far from everything. Jonathan Rosenbaum has said, and I agree, that Kane is about the impossibility of completely defining a human being. Welles tried to put as much of that into Kane as he could, but felt somewhat stymied by the “Rosebud” theatrical gimmick, as he considered it, and by people seizing on it to think they understood Charles Foster Kane once they knew he had been deprived of his childhood sled. And yet his loss of his childhood, his Eden, is critical. His mother actually sells him to a bank (one of the film’s profound mysteries). That means a great deal in the scheme of things.
DP: In my chapter on Citizen Kane in my 1981 book Cult Movies I contended that Kane remembers “Rosebud” so strongly not because he wishes for a return to his idyllic youth as most critics profess—because he was not happy then—but because the sled was his one possession before he had the money to buy everything (and everyone) and lost the capability to grow up to become a great man. This interpretation doesn’t contradict anything you said but I don’t think anyone else has ever written this. What do you think?
JM: Your observation about the sled is a good insight. I hadn't looked at it in quite that way before. The sled means more than one thing. I think in its largest sense it is a clear symbol of all he has lost. He may not have had a happy childhood in Colorado (that's an excellent point—there is the implication his father beats him, and his mother is severe, though anguished--why she sells him to a bank is somewhat mysterious), and Welles mourned Lost Edens while still recognizing they are imperfect. But I would not necessarily say the sled is his only or even Number One possession, since we see the glass ball on a table behind his mother in a slight panning movement at the exact moment when she signs him away. This is of course mysterious, since it turns up in Susie's apartment where she lives when Kane meets her in New York and later at his Florida castle, Xanadu. It's another symbol, and it pops up as if by magic. We don't literally have to think he carried it from Colorado to Xanadu, but it links him emotionally/thematically with his mother (like the stuff he keeps at the warehouse and/or moves to Xanadu, including the sled). Very few viewers even notice the ball in Colorado, or in New York. It took me multiple viewings to spot it in those scenes, though in New York it's more visible since it's in the foreground (our view is directed into the background through a mirror, though, so the magician is using indirection). The film does say a lot about possessions not equaling happiness, but this possession is a vestige of happiness.
DP: Tell me about the Welles documentaries you have been in. And did you always feel you should have been the director?
JM: I ask Welles a question in his 1981 documentary Filming “The Trial,” which he didn’t complete but has been assembled by the
. It’s a
fascinating ninety-minute discussion about the film and other topics with an
audience at the University of Southern California. He blows off my question
about whether he dubs eleven voices in the film to demonstrate his ubiquity. I
am also in several recent documentaries on Welles as a pundit or talking head
or witness. I did a forty-five-minute interview with Robert Fischer, Perspectives on “Othello”: Joseph McBride on
Orson Welles, which was released in the Fall of 2014 with the French
Blu-ray edition of that film. I am in Chuck Workman’s blitzkreig-style feature
documentary Magician and French
documentaries by Clara and Julia Kuperberg and by Elisabeth Kapnist. No, I
didn’t wish I were the director. I am happy to sit and be interviewed.
Directors have to get up at five in the morning. Being a writer means you can
sleep in and work late and work in your bathrobe. And being a talking head
means you can set your own schedule. Little did I know all that when I
foolishly wanted to be a director in what Welles would call my “hot youth.” I
turned down two offers to direct films, because it’s not a job I am meant to
do. Munich Film
DP: I know the Film Forum is only one stop on your schedule and that you will be speaking at several Welles events this year. Will this be different from the others?
JM: This is a wide-ranging retrospective programmed by the estimable Bruce Goldstein. He is including all of Welles’s released films except for the unavailable Filming Othello, along with some films Welles acted in but did not direct. Bruce is also producing and writing the intertitles for the first-ever production of the Too Much Johnson footage with a reading from the William Gillette play. (William Holhauser is editing the footage, and Allen Lewis Rickman is adapting and directing the play portion of the event). Other Welles events I am attending will be conferences or briefer retrospectives. I am going to Woodstock, Illinois, where he went to the Todd School, to talk about Other Wind and Ambersons, and to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he was born, to show Ambersons in a house in his old neighborhood that resembles the Amberson mansion. I will also be part of a scholarly conference at Indiana University in Bloomington, where Welles’s Mercury Theatre papers are housed. And I will be part of a conference in Barcelona, where international scholars will assemble and we will watch a restored print of Chimes at Midnight in the cathedral where Welles shot thirty percent of the film.
DP: The Film Forum is, amazingly, showing three versions of Touch of Evil, and you will be comparing and contrasting all three. Would I or anyone else have seen the 108-minute "preview" version you are introducing when you talk on Wednesday, January 14? And if you had your way, would you keep only one version in circulation or do you like having all three versions available to the public?
JM: The preview version is available on the Universal DVD set with the other two versions. It is good to have all three versions: preview, release, and restoration. I was a consultant (along with fellow Welles scholars Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore) on the 1998 restoration done by Walter Murch. Murch made fifty changes to correspond to requests by Welles to Universal-International in his fifty-eight-page memo in December 1957 after seeing a version they had put together after barring him from the editing process (that version already contained additional scenes shot by another director, Harry Keller). The studio followed only a few of Welles’s requests, but Murch did all he could, and it helps the film immensely. The preview version contains some footage by Welles that was not retained in the 1958 release version, but it also contains more of the Keller footage than made it into the release version, so it’s a mixed bag. The preview version is not the “director’s cut.” Nor is the Murch version, though both have mistakenly been described as that. The director’s cut has vanished. The studio, which Welles said was positive about the shooting and the rushes, was horrified by the film as he assembled it and reedited it. As Murch put it, “The film committed perhaps the worst sin in the Hollywood book: it was a decade or so ahead of its time.”
DP: Do you consider Touch of Evil separate from his other masterpieces and more connected to Man in the Shadow? Of course, both films were brought to him by Albert Zugsmith.
JM: Man in the Shadow helped lead to Touch of Evil, and it has some elements similar to the thematic concerns of Welles’s own films as a director (partly because he helped write the earlier film, which was directed by Jack Arnold), but it’s not remotely in the same league artistically as Touch of Evil. Charlton Heston also played a key role in getting Welles the job of directing Touch of Evil (for which Welles initially was considered only to play the “heavy,” Captain Quinlan), but Welles’s prior working relationship with Zugsmith also was important.
DP: According to Zugsmith, he and Welles got along well and Welles didn't object to Zugsmith's cutting suggestions. Is that accurate and if so why was Welles so amenable to the cuts?
JM: Although Welles seems to have had a rapport with Zugsmith, Welles wasn’t amenable to most of the many alterations the studio did to the film, as the memo shows. Diplomatic as that memo is--because he was trying to persuade the studio to go along with his suggestions, even though he had no contractual control--it clearly emerged from his acute distress at how much tampering had gone on behind his back. Zugsmith’s role in all this is not entirely clear, but it’s evident that the blame rests on the executive level at Universal-International. Nevertheless, Touch of Evil is a genuinely great film. Heston liked to patronize it by calling it the greatest B movie ever made, but it requires no such excuses. It’s a spectacular Hollywood comeback by a formerly blacklisted director who was making a frontal attack on the abuse of police authority and on injustice toward minority groups in the U.S. As such it remains highly timely. And aesthetically, of course, Touch of Evil is one of the most daring, innovative, and groundbreaking of Welles’s films, which is why it’s one of his most influential and widely imitated works.
DP: I think Janet Leigh, even more than Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, is portrayed sexually. Few other females in Welles's films are remembered for being sexual. Leigh has some pre-Psycho scenes that are far more lurid than anything in Welles's other films. So was this Zugsmith's influence, or did Welles do this on his own?
JM: Zugsmith’s lurid influence certainly can be credited in part with this development. And Touch of Evil was such an influence on Psycho that Welles was angry about it, even claiming to me that Psycho is “a sick film.” Welles’s work as a director until what I call his “Oja period”-- i.e., his films after he met his companion and collaborator Oja Kodar in 1962--had been relatively puritanical when it came to portraying sex. In that era he hated to be blatant about sex, and the roles played by women in his films also tend to be less complex than those of his men. Shanghai, however, deals with sexuality to a large extent, partly because it’s a meditation on Rita Hayworth (Welles’s second wife) and her appeal as a star. The “Oja period” Welles films--from The Trial and The Immortal Story to The Other Side of the Wind and The Dreamers and other unfinished works--deal much more explicitly with sexual themes, both heterosexual and homosexual. Welles seemed somewhat liberated by Kodar’s influence. And the changing times no doubt influenced him; no artist is immune from the world around him, and Welles was always reflecting and commenting on social changes. In Other Wind’s film-within-the-film, he’s partly satirizing the sex-and-violence obsessions of what we now call Easy Rider era Hollywood, and specifically the way the visiting filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni deals with American youth culture in Zabriskie Point, a fascinating film about that era, even if Welles loathed Antonioni. The sex scene in the car in Other Wind is one of the greatest sequences in Welles’s body of work. That tour-de-force sequence of rapid, rhythmical editing and expressionistic color changes, coupled with the intense action of Kodar humping Bob Random in a car in the rain, amounts to a cinematic equivalent of an orgasm.
DP: Including Moses and Ben-Hur, do you think Ramon Miguel (“Mike”) Vargas in Touch of Evil is Charlton Heston's most important role?
JM: Heston was described in France as “an axiom of the cinema,” and he deserves cinematic immortality for getting Welles to direct Touch of Evil, not to mention his always solid body of work as an actor. He is fine as Vargas--he doesn’t get enough credit for being unstereotypical and heroic as the Mexican official, a role for which he is unfairly disparaged by today’s PC police--and I also particularly admire his General Gordon in Khartoum.
Welles, Heston and camera operator Phil Lathrop
DP: How many times did you have to see the three-minute opening shot before you fully appreciated it?
JM: The very first time, in a little room at the Memorial Union in Madison…it blew me away! It is enhanced in the Murch version by not having the titles superimposed to distract us from the visuals. And by having the sounds of the border town play in a complex Murchian aural collage (as Welles intended) rather than being drowned out by the former Henry Mancini title music. Welles told me, on the other hand, that the first interrogation scene in the apartment (lasting five minutes and twenty-three seconds) is “the greatest use of the moving camera in the history of cinema.” He said that while “Everyone talks about the opening shot,” he felt that interrogation scene is more impressive. I agree. There are more than sixty camera moves and several characters moving balletically from room to room, along with their shadows. The other two interrogation scenes in the apartment are also done in unbroken long takes, although they are shorter. These three interrogation scenes are subtler than the spectacular opening shot, so most viewers don’t realize how astonishing they are technically and artistically.
DP: Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Touch of Evil is the relationship between Welles's brilliant but crooked, racist cop and his adoring partner, who eventually realizes his idol is corrupt. This is far-fetched, but do you think this relationship resonated with Welles in that he was insecure that all his idolizing fans and critics would discover (wrongly of course) that he was a fake?
JM: Welles told Cahiers du Cinéma that “the real theme of the scenario is treason, the terrible impulsion that Menzies [Joseph Calleia] has to betray his friend,” Captain Quinlan. Menzies is acting on principle, after he comes to grips with the depths of his idol’s corruption, but on a human level it is tragic; it’s another of Welles’s male relationships that ends in betrayal. Heston’s Vargas also feels besmirched by having to bug Quinlan to get the evidence on him. These are elements that make the theme of exposing the abuse of authority more complex and nuanced. It’s not coincidental that the feature film Welles made in Hollywood after coming back from the blacklist deals with a friend betraying a friend.
But I don’t think Welles suffered from what’s called by psychologists “the imposter phenomenon,” the fear that one will be found out to be a fake and the feeling that one is being admired for the wrong reasons. Frank Capra suffered from that anxiety, as I discuss at length in my biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. But Welles had a healthy self-regard. He had his anxieties and insecurities as every artist does, and his troubles with studios and money people, often centered around the editing process, caused him to be highly skittish in dealing with the “suits.” As Heston noted, the one skill Welles lacked was charming the money men, though understandably so. After Touch of Evil was taken away from him, which he called a “terribly traumatic experience,” he was lastingly resistant to working for major studios. I don’t know how he went on after The Magnificent Ambersons was mutilated, but he did. Still, after it happened again, though to a lesser extent, on Touch of Evil, he never wanted to direct a studio film again and went totally independent, literally making “home movies” for the rest of his time in America. My book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? argues that he was always essentially an independent filmmaker, though from time to time he used the resources of major studios. I am indebted for this insight to the esteemed film historian Douglas Gomery, another of our University of Wisconsin “film mafia” colleagues.
DP: You're introducing the restored "Scottish version" of Macbeth. I know the original Scottish burrs were restored by the UCLA Film Archive. What do you think that does for the film? And is that the only change from the theatrical version you will talk about?
JM: I was amazed when Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, with the help of Welles's longtime assistant Richard Wilson, restored Macbeth in 1980. I did a program with them at the University of Southern California when the film was unveiled there. (Yes, USC, not UCLA). Following its initial U.S. release in 1948, which occasioned critical derision, the film had been cut and partially redubbed, in a mistaken attempt by Republic to make it seem more intelligible to American audiences. Welles didn't want to make changes--such as redubbing his and other actors' authentic Scottish burrs to more "American"-sounding voices--but cooperated from Europe, where he had escaped from the blacklist, with poor Dick Wilson staying behind, having to execute the instructions for a 1950 reissue. Bob Gitt located original elements and put the film back the way Welles intended. I had been negative toward the film in my 1972 book Orson Welles but was delighted to find my opinion of it radically reversed with the restoration: The acting is much better with the Scottish accents (particularly that of Jeanette Nolan's Lady Macbeth, whose good work Welles thought was badly hurt by the dubbing), and the atmosphere, camerawork, and editing are richer, their texture more complex (the astonishing full uncut reel of King Duncan's murder was restored, for instance). I now see Macbeth as a triumph of avant-garde, low-budget filmmaking pulled off somehow within the Hollywood system (Republic sometimes went after prestige). The film was mocked by critics who preferred Laurence Olivier's stodgy Hamlet, but Welles's film is far more cinematically vital and daring.
DP: Would you want to see subtitles or should we just listen harder?
DP: Would you want to see subtitles or should we just listen harder?
JM: Actually, Welles thought, and I agree, that the Scottish burrs are easier for American
audiences to understand, because that accent slows down the speech. The enhanced authenticity of the ancient tale also helps convey the strangeness of the story. It does help to be familiar with any Shakespearean play before you see its film adaptation. But most of us read (or used to do so) Macbeth in high school or college, and its relatively
straightforward plot makes it easy enough to follow. I am happy that my San Francisco
State students in my recent course on Welles found it among his most exciting films.
DP: Which do you prefer: Welles's Macbeth or Welles's Othello?
DP: Which do you prefer: Welles's Macbeth or Welles's Othello?
JM: Macbeth by far. I find some serious problems with Othello, both in Welles's performance (he was miscast and seems ill at ease in the role) and in the somewhat muffled soundtrack. The highly fragmented editing (necessitated by shooting on location for four years in different countries) is virtuosic, but I prefer the longer takes of Macbeth.
DP: What can the audience expect when you host “Wellesiana” at the Film Forum?
JM: Surprises, for various reasons, partly out of showmanship. We will show some crowd-pleasing familiar treats that bear repeating but are perhaps known by Welles aficionados more than by casual filmgoers, some rarities “civilians” may not know at all (such as his early experimental film The Hearts of Age), but much more that is esoteric and hard to see, little known even by Welles buffs. We will try to cover a wide range from early Welles to late unfinished Welles, with unexpected points of achievement and hilarity in between.
DP: And you are also introducing The Magnificent Ambersons and discussing the theatrical version with the studio-imposed edits and its differences from the original Welles version. I would think the most difficult challenge you face is: convincing viewers who saw the cut version for years and consider it a masterpiece that the version Welles intended would have been so much better.
JM: I did the first verbal “reconstruction” of Ambersons for my 1968 Wisconsin Film Society book Persistence of Vision: An Anthology of Film Criticism and revised it for my 1972 book Orson Welles and again for the 1996 edition. I consider that my best piece of film criticism, one that shows in detail how much deeper Welles’s version was in every respect, thematically and stylistically. I believe Ambersons might well have been the greatest American film if RKO had left it alone. As we go on here, I will discuss my reasons for saying that.
DP: Both Robert Wise and Mark Robson expressed sincere regret to me that RKO forced them to edit a final version after Welles abandoned ship and went off to make Journey into Fear. So who do you think are the villains and the victims?
JM: Welles didn’t “abandon ship.” He was shooting Ambersons when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, and the U.S. government told him it was his urgent patriotic duty to go to South America to make a documentary, It’s All True, to celebrate our alliance with that part of the world and to help combat fascism. He was reluctant to go but felt he had no choice, especially since the Hearst papers and others were calling him a draft dodger. Welles had Norman Foster finishing Journey into Fear at the same time as Ambersons was finishing shooting. Welles made arrangements for Wise to go to Brazil to complete the finetuning of the Ambersons editing with him. Wise either couldn’t get a plane because of the war, or RKO reneged on the agreement, or both. Then the studio lied to Welles about what the budget was on It’s All True. They also fought with him over his duties to the U.S. to serve as a goodwill ambassador during the shoot and blamed him for production problems, not all of his control. Because of the studio’s chicanery, he never realized he actually was $447,452 under budget when he was doing his final shooting after being fired for allegedly being over budget; I discovered this by going through RKO and U.S. government documents. It changes everything about the myth that Welles was run out of Hollywood for extravagance. RKO spread that lie, which seriously damaged his career and is still believed by many people.
In his forced absence, Ambersons had a couple of previews in which mostly youthful yahoos hooted at Agnes Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny (as, indeed, they did until the women’s movement arrived in the late 1960s) and were restless over the film’s somber nature and harsh social commentary. So RKO got Wise to cut fifty minutes out of the film and reshoot parts of it; assistant director Freddie Fleck shot the ridiculous ending. Then RKO dumped the film on the market, deliberately sabotaged the release after it opened well in some places, and kicked Welles’s unit off the lot. Welles always blamed Wise for the ruination of Ambersons, and Wise deserves some of the blame, although it was a more complicated situation than laying it all on one man. Wise no doubt was advancing his career by doing the studio’s bidding, as Welles believed, but when I spoke with Wise more than once about the situation, it was clear that he sincerely believed he was saving a film that was almost unreleasable, even though he recognized Welles’s version was better.
The problem with that was that Wise was a Hollywood guy through-and-through and Welles was not; Welles was an artist. Welles also had the misfortune to be making a film attacking American industrialization and pollution at the precise time the country was gearing up its industrial production massively for its entry into the world war. In that climate, Ambersons was seen as subversive, which, in a way, it is. And Welles was the fall guy for a change of regimes at RKO and for a board of directors that never believed hiring an artist from the New York stage was a good idea. Jean Renoir once remarked that Welles’s problem in films was that he was an aristocrat working in a popular medium. He was a democrat (small “d”) and progressive politically but an aristocrat by temperament.
DP: I know that you feel the edits broke up the film’s fluidity at key times, including the ending, and made the town less important than it should be. What else? Without giving away too much of your talk, what are the main points you try to make in your talk?
JM: My friend Roger Ryan put together his own partial “reconstruction” using stills to cover many of the missing scenes and having amateur actors deliver the missing dialogue, which we know from the cutting continuity for the Welles version. Roger also uses the Bernard Herrmann music that had been cut from the film (Herrmann took his name off it when another composer redid part of his work). The result of this “reconstruction” is actually shocking--it’s such a different film from the release version. It’s far darker and far more political. RKO tried to cut as much of the critique of industrialization and its prescient view of air pollution as it could, although some remains. There were many more Chekhovian overtones of the family lamenting the changes in their town and their lives; it was an American Cherry Orchard. What a disturbing and challenging film about our society Ambersons would have been if it had been left alone. Roger’s admirable attempt to show us what it was like is only partial, but we can get the idea of what it was.
DP: This film is so unlike Welles’s other films—though you have pointed out connections to Citizen Kane—so I sincerely ask: why did he want to adapt the book into a movie? Was it the story or the filmmaking possibilities that most intrigued him?
JM: Welles saw in the book and in the film much of his own upbringing and heritage. He believed novelist Booth Tarkington based Eugene Morgan partly on his own father, industrialist Richard Welles, and there is evidence that Tarkington did know Mr. Welles. I also believe that George Orson Welles saw his dark side in the devilishly charming but destructive young George Amberson Minafer, and the death scene of his mother, Isabel Amberson Minafer, is drawn from Welles’s memory of his own last meeting with his mother, who died when he was nine. As I mentioned, Welles felt he had caused his own father’s death. Welles suffered from lifelong guilt as a result, much as George does after his mother dies, although he may not fully appreciate all the damage he has done. Welles was always mourning Lost Edens. This was his. It can’t get any more personal than that, even if someone else wrote the book. I think Falstaff is Welles as he saw himself. George is Welles as he feared he partly was or had been when he regarded himself as the demonic youth he portrays in his semiautobiographical 1934 play Bright Lucifer.
Welles and Tim Holt
DP: Did Welles cast Tim Holt as George because he resembled Welles? And do you think Holt is the weak link in the movie, or am I underestimating him?
JM: Welles played George in the 1939 radio version, poorly, putting on a pouting little-boy voice. He was too old to play George in the film, so he narrates instead, with unparalleled eloquence. I want to write an essay on how good Tim Holt is in that film. People have always underestimated him because they find his character objectionable. You have to differentiate between an actor and the character he or she plays. Over the years I have come to appreciate just how fine and nuanced Holt is. He somehow manages to make us empathize with George despite all of his egomania and all the despicable things he does, including killing his mother after ruining her life. He’s a classic tragic protagonist. I want to explain how he does that. His George manages to charm people who should know better, such as Lucy and Eugene Morgan. That trait is critical to the success of the performance. For contrast, see Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the abysmal 2002 TV remake of Ambersons. He is so monstrous and loathsome that no one would want to be in the same room with him. Holt’s George, by contrast, is very human. He compels people to want to be with him, if only to try to understand him, as we do with tragic characters.
I also identify with Holt because Welles would shout at me when I was acting in Other Wind, “Don’t act!” I read in a 1942 Los Angeles Times article that Welles would do that to Holt as well. But Holt was an accomplished actor (he is also fine in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Ford’s My Darling Clementine, among others), and Welles was the greatest actors’ director in the history of the cinema. His secret was that he treated every actor differently and was a master psychologist, giving each actor what he or she needed. So he drew great performances not only from John Gielgud and Jeanne Moreau but also from Tim Holt and Dorothy Comingore and many others of varying range.
DP: Do people at your talks ask about Stanley Cortez?
JM: I was on a panel with him once. He was as pompous and arrogant as Welles thought he was. He was a great cameraman in many ways but a “criminally slow” one, according to Welles. Cortez falsely claimed he shot all of Ambersons. But Welles told me with bemusement about the time he received an invitation to a tribute for Cortez, “the only cameraman I’ve ever fired.” Actually, he fired some on Othello too. But Welles told me he fired Cortez from Ambersons for slowness. Cortez cried and begged to stay on the film. So Welles relented to the extent of setting up a second unit for Cortez. Cortez would work for three or four hours setting up a shot while Welles was working on the main unit with Harry J. Wild or Russell Metty or other DPs who were faster. Then Welles would go and quickly direct the scene Cortez had set up, and return to the first unit. There’s no denying Cortez did beautiful work in Ambersons, but it wasn’t all him. He was also fired from Chinatown, another great film. That said, Cortez did astonishing work on The Night of the Hunter. And I wish I’d asked Sam Fuller how he got Cortez to do those quickie shoots on Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, also strikingly shot films.
DP: How important is The Magnificent Ambersons to Welles’ career and how important would it be for movie fans to see the “director’s cut?"
JM: If we could find the director's cut, it would be one of the great artistic finds in history. Welles’s standing in film history is already high, but it would go even higher. I am planning an expedition to Brazil to do what I can to see if it can be found.
DP: Would you have liked Welles, if he had the money, to have done a remake to his liking later in his career with an entirely new cast?
JM: Not a remake, but he was thinking of redoing the lost ending in the boarding house with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead naturally aged into their roles. That would have been wonderful. I saw the frame enlargement of the final shot when Bogdanovich had it in 1970. It’s since been lost. It shows an overhead long shot of the polluted city with Eugene’s little car vanishing around a corner. There is an elevated train in the background, the car is surrounded by tall impersonal buildings, and smoke wreathes the atmosphere. It’s a hellish vision of what happened to our country in the modern machine age.
DP: Is there any question you would now like to ask Welles about Ambersons to satisfy your curiosity?
JM: Yes, I wish I’d asked him in great detail what he did with that print in Brazil and if it was left there or might have come back with him. Frame enlargements were made of missing scenes. I thought perhaps he had them made after his return to Hollywood in June, but evidently they were made in Hollywood when he was in South America. Some mysteries remain.
DP: Many decades have passed since you first became a Welles fan. We’re nearing Welles’s age when he died. How has your aging changed how you look at him and his work? Do you see anything differently because you have a different perspective?
JM: Sure, and I’m older now than he was when I met him. Films change as we grow; they seem to change for better or worse. We can see layers and depths we may have missed before. But my view of his work has remained relatively consistent. Like Welles, I was into old age themes when I was very young; I did not identify with my generation. Perhaps I am less into old age now that I am getting to be a certified geezer. In any case, I have learned that once you start writing about someone, you can never stop. I am sure when I turn ninety, I will be writing a book called Orson Welles: The Last Word.
DP: What are the five Welles films you want to be buried with?
JM: This interview has taken a very morbid turn! But that’s OK, Danny, since Welles’s films are so much about mortality. I think the only immortality is when a person or a work lives in our memory. I think about John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Orson Welles and John Ford all the time. So they live in my memory and those of many other people. We don’t need to be buried with their works. They become part of us.