Nostalgia and Social Justice: The Cinema of Orson Welles

by Veronica Boscia

During a 1938 radio broadcast, Orson Welles stated “Almost all serious stories in the world are stories of a failure with a death in it. There is more lost paradise in them than defeat.” Welles tells these stories brilliantly with both his narrative and innovative cinematic film techniques such as use of shadows, deep focus wide screen lens, story within a story flashbacks and more, while at the same time using his progressive political views in regard to the cultural and historical context of that time in effort to expose corruption and to bring forth social justice. In this paper I will discuss not only the inspiration for, as well as the commonalities amongst Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958), but also how Welles’s signature theme and style have contributed to his well-deserved legacy in spite of the adversity and pushback from Hollywood.

Citizen Kane is a story about a reporter on a quest to uncover the meaning of the mysterious MacGuffin “Rosebud”. This is demonstrated through multiple nonlinear narrators via flashback following the opening scene. At the start of the film we get a glimpse of an intimate look at Charles Fosters Kane as he says his last word “Rosebud” which is symbolic of this private, lonely man who longed for the loss of his childhood. The exhibition of this scene begins as the camera fades into a close-up of a No Trespassing sign which tracks up into different dissolves of fences and barbed wire pointing to his privacy. The establishing shot of the Estate points to his wealth, but the dark desolate and gloomy atmosphere point to his void. Not only was our character elusive and secretive, but the film itself was shot in complete secrecy and rewritten in an isolated location. The shots of the monkeys and his pond indicate that he is wealthy, but despite that he is in an empty home reminiscing about the happier times in his life on the day that he dies. In The Magic World of Orson Welles, James Naremore states “Leaving us complacently and ignorantly believing that money can’t buy happiness” (Naremore, p. 98). Kane knows this firsthand as he was given away by his family with the promise of a wealthy future. The scene in which his fate was decided is a great example of Welles’s use of deep focus. Welles features everyone in the frame perfectly which is not only innovative cinematically, but also narratively. The composition of the shot shows the mother closest in the foreground and displays Kane playing outside in the snow in the background. Although he is outside, we see him in full view through the window. Not only is it foretelling in the sense that he has been “cast out”, but it shows just how far removed he is as he has no choice in the matter, similar to Kane being powerless over the loss of his own mother. 

When word got out about the movie and that it was loosely based on Hearst, a campaign was raised against it.

“He (Hearst) threatened the industry with a series of scandals and exposes unless the picture was destroyed before release. His stooge, MGM’s Louis B Mayer, the most powerful man in the industry, offered to reimburse RKOs costs, plus a tidy profit, if the studio would destroy the negative. Hearst pressured the other studios to refuse to book the film in their theaters. His newspaper attacked well as a communist and suggested he was a draft dodger.”  (Giannetti, 274)

The Hearst campaign was quick to retaliate against Welles but the irony of it is the character of Kane is just as similar to Orson Welles as it was to Hearst. “Unlike films of the previous decade, it was at least loosely based on a live and kicking subject, a proto-fascist demagogue whose power in Hollywood was only second to his power over a newspaper company.” (Naramore, 99) Despite winning the New York Film Critics best picture of 1941 it was considered a box office failure. This combined with the contempt felt toward Welles from the Hollywood industry and RKO led his next film The Magnificent Ambersons to ultimately be cut down to 88 minutes from its original length of 131 minutes with several scenes reshot.

While Citizen Kane shows money cannot buy happiness, the characters in The Magnificent Ambersons learn the same message through their fall from grace. The Magnificent Ambersons was an adaptation of a Pulitzer winning novel about a wealthy, well-known family who fall from grace, suffer loss and face financial hardship almost immediately after the death of minor character, Wilber Minafer. Despite this being the plot, we know very little about what actually causes the economic downfall. Instead, the adaptation of this film focuses more on the relationship aspects as creative control had been stripped away from Welles before the end of the movie. Aside from the cuts there were many scenes that were reshot “Including George’s argument with his mother about Eugene… The most offensive of these revisions is the closing of the film, in which we see Eugene reading of George’s accident and then visiting the hospital with Fanny.” (Naremore, 132) Welles’s biggest gripe with the cuts was with what he described as “the best scene in the picture,” in which Eugene was to visit Fanny in the boarding house as he says in an interview with Leslie Megahey broadcasted on BBC titled The Orson Welles Story in 1982. The studio justified this with the need of a more upbeat ending even though it was the opposite of what Welles wanted. Welles was in Rio when this took place, so he had little input in the final product. 

This movie can not only be viewed to have autobiographical undertones in regards to Welles but it also has a parallel that could be compared to the stages of Charles Foster Kane’s life as well as several commonalities with both Ambersons, Eugene Morgan and George Minafer.

“Because Kane was shown at various stages of his life we can see his character echoed by all the generations in Ambersons: like the elderly major, Kane becomes an anachronism; like Eugene Morgan he is the progenitor of a New World, an inventor who creates a monster; like personal time and time of the city of the entrance the chance of desire and the useless of hindsight …” (Naremore, 109,110 )

With lack of directing offers, due to Hollywood’s less than favorable opinion at the time, and little desire to take on-screen roles combined with communist accusations and the imposition of the Hollywood blacklist, Welles left the country in 1947. After returning to the United States after a nearly 10-year hiatus, he sought the role of Police Captain Hank Quinlan. Charleston Heston got word of this and recommended him for the job of director in the movie Touch of Evil. Welles became the director of the film in addition to his role as Quinlan. His one stipulation upon taking the role of director was that he was able to rewrite it as well. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this would be the last film he would direct for a studio. With three weeks to start he adapted the screenplay to highlight the moral and philosophical issues of the time: such as, racism, corruption, and abuse of power amongst authorities. Welles had been strongly associated with these themes as he had been directly involved with Mexican politics as a spokesman for the Citizens’ Committee for the Defense of Mexican American Youth. At the request of the NAACP, Welles dedicated several episodes of his radio show, Orson Welles Commentaries to speak about the brutal beating of African American War Veteran Isaac Woodard Jr at the hands of the police for having spoken up for himself in response to a racist bus driver. 

“The blind soldier fought for me in this war. The least I can do now is fight for him. I have eyes. He hasn’t. I have a voice on the radio. He hasn’t. I was born a white man and until a colored man is a full citizen like me 1 haven’t the leisure to enjoy the freedom that colored man risked his life to maintain for me. I don’t own what I have until he owns an equal share of it.”(Learning,403)

Both of these instances influenced his adaptation of the screenplay. He was able to use his knowledge of the widespread oppression/injustice and highlight it in his film. He employed several narratives and cinematic techniques to get his point across. Touch of Evil is famous for the beginning sequence which is shot in one long continuous take.

“From the onset of the film, Welles focuses on cultural intersections. He designed a visual and musical collage of cultural dislocations, as evoked by a remarkable continuous tracking shot that proceeds from one side of the border to its crossing, and by disjunctive musical splicing of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, boogie woogie, Mariachi, Latin, and Chicano styles.” (Green, 114)

The film begins with a fade in to a close up shot of a ticking time bomb. As the man holding the bomb turns, so does the camera in effort to display the two characters who will be entering the car he is about to place the bomb in. The camera quickly pans to the right as we see the bomber’s shadow quickly head to the car and place the bomb in the trunk. The camera then cranes upward to a high angle long shot frame as the characters enter the car. This technique establishes location and demonstrates the people in this car are in a vulnerable position despite the upbeat diegetic music playing in the background. We hear their footsteps as the couple enter the car, as well as the car’s own music as they start it. The camera tracks the car to an intersection until the director utilizes blocking in which our two main characters Vargas and Susie, another couple, are introduced. As the car passes Vargas and his wife, the point of view shifts to follow them specifically. Welles makes use of the sound as the car passes by having the car’s music drive by with it. 

“He designed a visual and musical collage of cultural dislocations, as evoked by a remarkable continuous tracking shot that proceeds from one side of the border to its crossing, and by disjunctive musical splicing of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, boogie woogie, Mariachi, Latin, and Chicano styles. His conception employs the seemingly “natural” sounds that would spill out of the various cultural establishments that the characters walk past on their way to tire border crossing.” (Green, 114)

We are now focused on the new couple, but both plotlines are relevant. The story within the story happens to be about how the main characters, Vargas and Susie, get wrapped up in the aftermath of what happened to that car. The couple in the car, Linaker and Lita, happen to be driving alongside Susie and Vargas as they walk up to reach customs. The border patrol is taken back that Susie and Vargas are married. Lineker, the man in the car, asks to be let through as the custom officer talks over him to ask him about the Grandi crime family.  As they walk away, we see the original couple, passengers of the car, dismissed and waved off as she expresses concern over a ticking sound in the car. They ask Linekar and Lita if they are American citizens and wave them off. The camera then focuses back on Vargas and his wife as they reflect on how this is the first time they’ve been together in America. They lean for a kiss and Boom. The bomb goes off as they share their first kiss together in America. Neither of them is yet aware of what is to come. Not only is this scene an impressively long uninterrupted serves as the exhibition for the movie. It portrays the border town while it sets up the story. “It introduces us to the world of the border, a world littered with psychopathic youth gangs, sleazy motel rooms, garish strip joints, seedy border posts, peeling police cells, filthy canals and cheap bars.” (Wollen, 2), In addition it displays themes of classism and racism. 

Each of these stories of failure demonstrate loss of paradise with a death in it. Each of the Films feature a character whose attitude or experience resembles one of Orson Welles.  It’s no surprise Orson Welles was revered as “Boy Genius” as he was a skilled writer, director, actor and producer. He used his theatrical and radio background to incorporate his skills definitions of morality that are still relevant today onscreen in a way that had not been utilized before. Not only was this auteur skilled creatively but he used his platform to expose racial injustice, corruption, media influence and power while reminding the audience that wealth does not equal happiness.  He may not have received the credit he deserved at the time, but his legacy carries on.

Works Cited

Welles, O (Director). (1941) Citizen Kane [Film].

Welles, O (Director) (1942) The Magnificent Ambersons [Film].

Welles, O (Director) (1958) Touch of evil [Film}

The Orson Welles Story.” Arena. BBC, 18 May. 1982.

WOLLEN, P. “Foreign Relations: Welles and Touch of Evil.” Sight and Sound 6 (Oct. 1996): 20–23.

GREEN, G. “Choosing ‘between the Morality of the Law and the Morality of Simple Justice’: The Intersections of Culture, Justice, and National Identity in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958).” Interdisciplinary Humanities, vol. 33, no. 1, Spring 2016, pp. 111–122.

Learning, B. Orson Welles. (New York: Penguin, 1986) p 403

NAREMORE, J. The Magic World of Orson Welles. University of Illinois Press,2015. pp. 66-95

GIANETTI, L. Masters of the American Cinema. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

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