“I began at the top, and have been working my way down ever since.” -Orson Welles
At 26, Welles had written, directed and starred in what is generally considered the greatest film ever made. He would assume this would give him final approval on his next projects. Yet he would never get so much freedom and resources again. He would struggle for nearly the rest of his career to make films just as he wanted. And yet, he is rightly considered one of the greatest directors of all time. One wonders if he could have only continued to realize his visions, what might have been.
Despite being an Academy Award winning film, Citizen Kane did not make money on release. This would prove fatal, as the studios would decide they knew better than Welles how to edit his films.
His follow up film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was cut down by an hour by the editors of RKO. It is still considered one of the most significant films in movie history, despite what most critics agree are mistakes made by RKO, not Welles.
Maybe the best example of seeing Welles’ talent be undermined was, The Lady From Shanghai (1948). The film is about 90 minutes long but was intended to be 150. It is a classic film noir with a blonde haired Rita Hayworth (and Welles’ wife at the time) playing the femme fatale. A somewhat complicated story is made very confusing in just 90 minutes. Some things simply don’t add up, that Welles’ notes and lost footage make much clearer. Maybe the most ridiculous additional scene was one demanded by the head of Columbia, Harry Cohn. Furious Welles had dyed and cut Hayworth’s hair, Cohn added a scene of Hayworth singing. This was to piggyback onto the success of her singing in the recent, Gilda. He also demanded close-ups of Hayworth and a cutesy new score.
Amid this travesty by Cohn, we see what the film nearly was, and still is in parts. The finale is riveting. The speech by Welles about sharks eating each other, proves prophetic by the end. The “Hall Of Mirrors” scene has been redone over and over since. Welles’ character walking away from Hayworth at the end would shadow their life, as they would divorce soon after filming was completed.
Final edit approval would be taken away from him for nearly every subsequent film. Years after his death, Welles’ decisions are continually vindicated by his meticulous notes. Touch of Evil (1958), was reedited in 1998 according to 58 pages of notes from Welles. It is nearly unanimous in thought that his version if far superior to the version the studios released at the time. 13 years after his death, Welles would not be around to hear the praise.
The Trial, made in 1962, is the most autobiographical of Welles' films. It is at once difficult and utterly fascinating. The fact that the viewer has little idea what is happening is inconsequential to the experience. The main character has no idea either. Underappreciated until years later, The Trial is Welles asking his critics, “what did I do wrong?”
The film stars Anthony Perkins as a man accused of a crime. He is never told what crime he has committed and must weave his way through a maze of bureaucracy and nonsense to figure out how to defend himself.
The Trial was one of the few films after Citizen Kane that would be 100% his own. In it you see shades of things Kubrick would do later, and even Richard Lester in, A Hard Day's Night. According to Welles himself, it was his greatest film.
In 1974 Welles would release his last completed film; F For Fake. Part documentary, part fiction feature, part film essay, Welles described it as “a new kind of film.” He would be correct. The editing is masterful. For better or worse it would influence untold works through the subsequent years. The quick editing was new at the time. Of course it has been copied much since. Often to good effect; often not. Rarely as good as in F For Fake.