Orson Welles was not a patient man, not in the “win a few, lose a few” sense that a system such as Hollywood demands. “I’m a mud turtle,” he liked to say, meaning he could go for years, even decades, even half a lifetime, staying true to this or that project. Upon his death in 1985, there remained at least six feature films in various states of progress (Don Quixote, The Deep, The Merchant of Venice, The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers, and King Lear) squirreled away in vaults or stashed under beds in cities around the world, not to mention complete scripts for countless others.
One early biographer, Charles Higham, argued that such dispersal reflects a pathological “fear of completion” in Welles, a fear of success more crippling than any fear of failure – which theoretically plagued him as early as 1942, when he was trying to top Citizen Kane with The Magnificent Ambersons. But the remarkable assortment of films he did complete, purely by his own energies, argue otherwise. No one but Welles wanted his Othello, his Chimes at Midnight – but he made them happen, either accepting cheesy acting assignments to pay for them, or (in the case of Chimes) swindling a backer into thinking he was shooting an adaptation of Treasure Island. When the financing fell apart halfway through shooting The Trial, in the 1960s, Welles refused to accept defeat, as he would have if he “feared completion.” He let his intuition lead him to an abandoned Paris railway station whose gothic mazes could stand in for the more elaborate sets he’d been forced to abandon, and finished the picture.
If Welles’s difficulties can be ascribed to any single emotion, the likely culprit isn’t fear but despair: a despair of the marketplace; a despair of his place in the world. “It is not self-doubt – it is cosmic doubt,” he told his friend Henry Jaglom late in life, warming up his pitch for a politically-themed script called The Big Brass Ring. “[This is] the devil of self destruction that lives in every genius. You know that you’re absolutely great, there is no question of that, but have you chosen the right road? Should I be a monk? Should I jerk off in the park? Should I just fuck everybody and forget about everything else? Should I be President? ... What am I going to do – I am the best, I know that, now what do I do with it?” These were not empty tortures, for Welles. The works of William Shakespeare were a lifelong comfort. He imbibed Shakespeare’s lyrics literally with his mother’s milk; Beatrice Head Welles (1882 – 1924) had been a political activist, musician and actress who, according to family legend, saw to it that her boy was spouting lines from King Lear as early as age three. After her sudden death when the boy was only nine, Shakespeare became his living link to her love, and her legacy in the formation of his character.
|Welles as a child|
Racial equality was a cause about which he was deeply passionate. During the 1930s, he had staged a landmark production of Macbeth in Harlem with an all-black cast. In 1952, he’d spent his own hard-earned money to produce his own take on Othello, with passionate emphasis on the interracial nature of the romance. No less urgently to this end he performed Shylock’s key speech from The Merchant of Venice for Dean Martin: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?” He wore a tuxedo to deliver this aria – adopting a subtle accent and, without makeup, making the character visible by means of his nuanced body language.
|Welles' staging of Voodoo Macbeth|
This is significant because it suggests Welles intended for the play and the skit to work as an integrated unit – the latter being perhaps “a satyr play” in the Greek tradition, following a tragedy with a cathartic farce built along an identical theme. Certainly Gray’s hobgoblin intensity as he giggles over Welles’s waistline is an interesting match to the more suave but equally self-pleased contempt with which he lowers his ceramic mask to confront Shylock. Against each assault Welles portrays a man fighting to hang onto his dignity.
To create the world of his Merchant, he used not only Saint Mark’s piazza in the actual Venice – a classic view with the Doge’s palace gleaming across the way – but worked thriftily in places with Venetian architecture such as Trogir along the coast of Yugoslavia; or in Asolo, Italy, at the onetime villa of actress Eleonora Duse (1858 – 1924). Welles, working again in color with three cinematographers (Giorgio Tonti, Ivica Rajkovic, and Tomislav Pinter) completed this film – including editing, scoring, and mixing it – only to be thwarted when the middle reel of three was stolen from his production office in Rome, in 1969. This may still exist. Welles suspected the thief’s identity (“a kind of minor Shakespearean villain”) but was not able to retrieve the reel while alive. He suffered this disappointment in silence until 1982. “Talking about invisible movies” only compounds a loss, he told scholar Bill Krohn. What he most cherished about the play was its mixture of tones: “Shakespeare had the nerve to put a tragic story right in the middle of a rather improbable fairy story.” He’d intended to cast his creative partner Oja Kodar as Portia. When she protested that her English wasn’t adequate, he eliminated the role entirely. This nervy break reduces the action to 45 minutes or so. “Word for word, it’s neither anti-Semitic nor pro-Semitic,” he told Krohn, marveling at Shakespeare’s tack-sharp ear for “the rhythms of Jewish speech” despite there being so few Jews in
England at the time. “If it’s done absolutely purely you can do it even after the Holocaust, because the cruelty and the shallowness of the Christians are such that Shylock does not have to be made good for us to see who’s bad.”
The fragments of this film that have come to light are striking. Welles builds our sense of a time and place out of slivers. The facades, canals and cobbled courtyards of Shylock’s Venice are constructed in our imaginations, using rhythmic, thinly sliced images. No shot of the city is sustained for more than a heartbeat as our hero navigates from place to place in distant silhouette. This must have been out of necessity. Hold a shot for longer than a few seconds and some gang of modern tourists might wander into frame, or a jet might glide past. Welles was working with such meager means day to day that he had to be ready to steal a shot at a moment’s notice. Fused and fine-cut, however, these images cast a fluid spell. The intricate patterns underfoot (a feature of Venetian walkways) as well as the baroque patterns in the marble floors of the Duse villa and the shadows cast by the elaborate colonnades feed our poetic sense of a spidery man moving about a web he did nothing to construct, but whose mute laws he is obliged to obey. He is surrounded by stealthy mobs of menacing, anonymous, masquerading figures. With their foxy snouts and skeletal, predatory eye sockets, Venetian masks always have a particularly sinister dramatic force. (Milos Foreman made memorable use of this in Amadeus, Kubrick even more so in Eyes Wide Shut.) Shylock is the only character on view who does not wear a false face. He alone presents himself as he is, honestly – in his curls, oily whiskers, and gabardine. Is this why he is so despised? The question is so self-evident as to be its own silent answer.
Welles’s performance of Shylock’s speech on The Dean Martin Show proved a tremendous hit with the show’s audience. People flooded Martin with letters, asking him to run it again – and Welles was invited back. He became a popular fixture on the show. His rendering of Sir John Falstaff a few weeks later was another hit, donning make-up as he introduced the character in a bit of not just audience-friendly but hippie-wooing magician’s patter: “Sir John was the original Bohemian, a flower child if you like.” There were purists who complained that Welles was polluting his art by pandering to a mass public in this way, but he would have none of it. In this case, he was promoting his own masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight. That film had opened without the benefit of advertising in 1966, and if he could resurrect it on the art-house circuit, there was no shame in reaching out to a mass public any way he could.
Toward the end of his life, Welles combined two related stories by Isak Dinesen, which center on a single female protagonist – "The Dreamers" and "Echoes" – into a single screenplay, of which he filmed 20 minutes before his death in 1985. Even in this radically abbreviated form, it is an exquisitely lit and acted hymn to romantic hope. See any few minutes of Welles’s thwarted works and, oblivion be damned, what is apparent in the fragments that do exist, everywhere you turn, is that this particular artist’s exceptional vitality bursts from the screen in frame after frame.
F.X. Feeney is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, and a frequent onstage interviewer for the American Cinematheque. His most recent book is Orson Welles: Power, Heart and Soul, published by The Critical Press.