The Mythic Welles

Orson Welles was frequently in Britain during the sixties, trying to raise funds for his long-cherished project Chimes at Midnight. It must have been early 1963 when, bent on writing a book about Welles’s films and reading that he had arrived in London and was staying at the Ritz, I phoned the hotel, where the operator said that Mr. Welles was not accepting any calls. I waited thirty minutes and then rang back, adopting a fake Spanish accent and shouting, “This is Madrid! I have an urgent person-to-person call for Señor Welles!” It worked. A PA informed me in cut-glass tones that Mr. Welles was very busy but that she would talk to him about my request for even a brief meeting.

A couple of days later, I was interviewing Anthony “Puffin” Asquith for a profile in Films and Filming. As we talked, a secretary crept into Puffin’s Thurloe Square drawing room and said that there was a call for Mr. Cowie. “Who’s it from?” I asked. “I believe it is Mr. Orson Welles, sir.” Had he said it was Mr. Arkadin, I could not have been more startled. Asquith, who had been directing Welles in The V.I.P.s, jumped to his feet and said I should take the call at once. In fact, it was Welles’s PA, Ann Rogers, who had tracked me down via my home and informed me glacially that Mr. Welles would receive me at the Ritz the following afternoon. I trusted he would not be in the basement barber’s salon, where I had met Louis Malle a year or so earlier, lying supine, his face covered with shaving lather and a cigarillo in his mouth, answering my questions as the barber scraped his way across that aristocratic terrain.

The next day, at the appointed hour, I knocked on the suite door, and Welles himself opened it, massive and somehow mythic, part Arkadin, part advocate from The Trial, with an endless cigar jutting forward as he bade me welcome. We talked of The Trial, hislatest film, and the abandoned railroad station in Paris, the Gare d’Orsay, which he’d used as his main location, long before it was converted into a museum for the impressionists. When I praised his use of the Albinoni Adagio, he sought for the right adjective: “Yes . . . it’s very . . . noblemusic . . . noble.” He spoke gently, with dignity, and with a deep-purple resonance. When I remarked that much of K’s dialogue in The Trial verged on the cynical, he demurred: “No, I’m a pessimist. I’m not a cynic—I hate cynicism.” I told him I planned to write a monograph on his work, and he responded warmly, without a trace of condescension. I had not even approached a publisher at that stage.

Welles advised me to write him with any questions and assured me he would reply. He did indeed, dictating his letters either from his quarters in Rome’s Viale Mazzini or from the Hotel Suecia in Madrid. When I requested permission to reproduce some of his screenplays, he responded: “I am fundamentally opposed to this and have always refused to grant such permission, since I feel that the only real existence of screen writing is on film. I’ll be happy to let your publishers have some excerpts from different scripts, particularly if I can have a hand in choosing them, but no full texts. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. In fact, I think really interesting chunks from all of my films would make more interesting reading than the full versions of just two or three.”

In a subsequent letter, however, he confessed that he did not have the scripts of any of his films. “There are a few somewhere in Rome, but here I am in Madrid.” Then he replied to the kind of detailed questions that only a young man asks—how long did the script of The Trial take to write (“about six weeks”), where did he find the striking picture of the judge (“It was originally painted by a commercial artist from a photograph. I then worked over it.”)?

When I made the mistake of querying the significance of the nuclear mushroom rising over the landscape at the end of The Trial, he balked: “About the cloud, and all other subject matters, I must hold firmly to my rule of never explaining anything.” He also jumped on my jejune admiration for the “aged” look of the newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane. “There is no particular secret to aging and graining film. The stuff for the newsreel in Kane was worked over several times before we got it right, but the process is standard and represents no innovation.” (He continued: “When the picture opened in Italy right after the war, a lot of people booed and hissed and even shook their fists at the projection booth. Because they thought this old newsreel stuff was bad photography.”)

Welles did furnish me with some specific comments about some of his other films, including The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger. “I never expected to have control over the editing of The Stranger, since Sam Spiegel was the producer,” he wrote on July 10, 1964. “This is the only picture I have made in which I did not at least expect to function as producer (in the American sense of the word). The best stuff in the picture was a couple of reels taking place in South America. Spiegel cut it out entirely. There was also a famous fight about a close-up. He wanted to cut into a scene for a close reaction of Loretta Young. I was opposed to this and, remarkably enough, Miss Young took my side in a heated debate involving Spiegel, her agent, and a number of other officials. Because the female star demanded that she should not have a close-up, we won the day.”

As for The Magnificent Ambersons, “Five, maybe six reels of Ambersons are exactly as I cut them before leaving for South America, with the exception of a single cut in the middle of a very long traveling shot. The cut involved a couple of remarks about ‘olives’—a novelty in the town. Don’t ask me why they wanted it out. The result was a useless jump in an otherwise unbroken scene. I also cut the last part of Ambersons, but it was completely redone after a preview. About forty-five minutes were cut out—the whole heart of the picture really—for which the first part had been a preparation. The closing sequence in the hospital was writtenand directed by somebody else. It bears no relation to my script.”

Women adored Welles, from Sylvia Syms, who told me how affectionate he’d been on location for Ferry to Hong Kong in 1959, to Jeanne Moreau, who had fallen under his spell in 1950. “One evening,” she remembered for me more than half a century later, “Maurice Bessy, a French journalist, came to my dressing room and said that Orson was in town and wanted to meet me. I was then playing Bianca in Othello. My first husband, Jean-Louis Richard, was jealous and did not want me to go, but I did. Orson sat opposite me at the table, and many years later he reminded me that when he’d dropped me in the street outside my apartment, I had been too shy to say anything.” Moreau would go on to star in four of the master’s films, most notably Chimes at Midnight, where she capers cheerfully over his corpulent Falstaff. Ruth Warrick was another out-and-out admirer. Welles had welcomed her into his company at the Mercury Theatre, and persuaded her to appear on-screen for the first time as Mrs. Charles Foster Kane. When a bevy of us forgathered in Marrakech in 1992 to pay tribute to Welles on the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting of Othello in Morocco, Ruthregaled us with stories of how Orson had nursed her through the early days of the shoot. “He was always there to put an arm around me and dry my tears when I was hiding in the wings, feeling I just couldn’t go on set for the first take.” In fact, he was just two months older than his protégée, but it seems that for everyone who met him, Orson Welles was the elder statesman.

At the Cannes Festival of 1966, I met Welles at the alfresco press lunch held at Mandelieu as he basked in the triumph of Chimes at Midnight. “Peter Cowie is always welcome in my house,” he boomed when a Swiss friend asked if he’d read my book. I never did make it to any of those houses, in L.A., Las Vegas, Rome, or Madrid, but I like to think that he would have been as warm as his word.

Peter Cowie has written more than thirty books on film and was the founding editor of the annual International Film Guide. He was international publishing director of Variety throughout the 1990s and now consults for the Berlin and Venice film festivals, and he is a longtime contributor of commentaries, supplements, and essays to the Criterion Collection.

This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.

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