Remembering the work of a difficult genius

Orson Welles: One-Man Band. Simon Callow. Viking. 496 pages. $40.
Orson Welles: One-Man Band. Simon Callow. Viking. 496 pages. $40.

“Who’s this Welles?” asks Pat Hobby, the screenwriter-hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of Hollywood stories. Seventy-five years later, the answer is still up for grabs. Like Thompson, the faceless reporter in Citizen Kane, fans and scholars have rummaged through the crevices of Orson Welles’ life for a Rosebud that neatly explains a career whose rise was as astonishing as its fall. And like Thompson, they are left with fragments, the pieces of a complex and unfinished jigsaw puzzle.

Simon Callow has spent a third of his life trying to fit the pieces together. The first two volumes of his exhaustive biography retraced Welles’ steps from his precocious childhood to his notoriously turbulent Hollywood sojourn in the 1940s. Now comes the next (and penultimate) installment, Orson Welles: One-Man Band, which opens in 1947, with the former wunderkind a tax exile in Europe, digging a deeper hole for himself filming a largely self-financed version of Othello, and closes in 1964, with the completion of another Shakespeare adaptation, Chimes at Midnight. We still have 20 years of bit parts, voiceovers and Paul Masson wine commercials to go, but for all intents and purposes his directorial career was over.

An actor of some renown, with four decades of experience under his belt, Callow is acutely qualified to elucidate the professional obstacles Welles faced — many of which were self-imposed. If he were acting on someone else’s set, he would make the director’s life difficult.

“It is notable that until the day he died,” Callow writes, “Welles behaved more or less badly on virtually every film he did not direct. ... As much as possible, he took over any film in which he acted.” If you were in his employ, he would not hesitate to bully or berate you to get what he wanted. He once warned a cinematographer of “the human risk involved in working with me.”

And yet a lot of talented people were willing to take that risk. Welles may have been half-mad, but he was also a genius, brimming with ideas. When he played Harry Lime in The Third Man, he came up with the “cuckoo clock” speech his character gives at an amusement park, arguably the most memorable scene in the movie. And when Universal hired him to direct a potboiler, he spun straw into gold with Touch of Evil, a stylish indictment of racism and police brutality in a border town that is even more timely today.

Touch of Evil is illustrative of how Welles could be his own worst enemy. It was his last chance to direct for a studio. He had to do it for free. Universal thought so little of him, they only paid him for playing the role of the corrupt top cop, Quinlan. Nevertheless, if he behaved himself, Hollywood might welcome him back.

But like the scorpion and the frog — a fable Welles used in his disjointed mystery, Mr. Arkadin — he had to be true to his nature. His short attention span was his undoing. While one can applaud Welles for insulting studio executives (what else is a suit for?), there is no excuse for leaving the editing of the film in someone else’s hands while pursuing other projects. The same thing happened with The Magnificent Ambersons, Callow informs us, to disastrous effect.

At heart, Welles was an independent filmmaker, the granddaddy of them all, perhaps. He preferred chaos and freedom to the security and conformity of the studio system. Usually this required him to demean himself to raise money. “Lower than this I cannot stoop,” he moaned, after agreeing to introduce a cheap pulp radio program.

Oh yes, he can. Two words: Frozen peas. Look it up and laugh until you cry.

Still, one has to praise the commitment to his personal art, which remained unflagging despite multiple setbacks. And this, above all, earned him his countrymen’s resentment. “Welles had committed an unforgivable crime in American eyes,” Callow observes. “He had failed, but refused to give up. He was just irritatingly there, a constant reminder of the disappointment he had caused.”

Callow sees him as a one-man band, and that he was, indeed. But Jean Cocteau offered a more revealing description, capturing the loneliness of a misunderstood visionary: “a solitary surrounded by humanity.”

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.