Seth Alexander Thévoz: Orson Welles and pan-Europeanism, 1947-1970

Recently, Sight and Sound’s decennial critics’ poll displaced Citizen Kane from its perch; for the first time since the poll’s launch in 1962, Orson Welles’ dazzling debut did not take the top spot. This was a pity; but not for the reason that Wellesians worldwide lamented as their King was deposed.


The tragedy is that Welles’ remarkable body of directorial work is still seen through the prism of what Welles himself dismissed as ‘that movie’. It has become fashionable in recent years to downplay how revolutionary Citizen Kane(1941) was. But this misses the point: in Welles’ own eyes, Kane wasn’t even the director’s best film. [1]

There is a growing realisation among critics that far from being burnt out at the age of 25 as popular lore maintains, Welles remained a remarkable creative force. Welles’ image is still tarred by a series of lazy criticisms dating from the 1970s (‘Welles had a fear of completion on his films/He ended his days acting in the Transformers movie’). [2] The counter-argument has long been made by Welles devotees, but has only recently found a wider audience: [3] The director consistently reinvented himself as one of the earliest avant-garde independent directors, turning out masterpieces (or ‘flawed masterpieces’ as he self-deprecating acknowledged) like Othello (1952), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1965), The Immortal Story (1968) and F for Fake (1974). Such films were quirky, seldom seen in the cinemas – and are still dazzlingly original, decades later. Such work was also distinctively European.

With this year’s BFI poll, the title of director of the ‘Greatest’ film made has passed from an American-turned-European director (Welles) to a European-turned-American director (Hitchcock); and in both cases, the accolade went to a signature film made in their Hollywood years. Hitchcock’s early British cinema has widely been considered inferior to his later, bigger-budget American efforts, even though his slow-paced 1956 Hollywood remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much is often considered worse than the much breezier 1934 English original, and recent critics like Charles Barr have questioned this neglect of the early English Hitchock. [4] Welles’ European career has suffered from similar critical neglect. Indeed, of his later films, only the Hollywood-produced noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958, thankfully restored to something approaching a director’s cut in 1998) has enjoyed anything approaching the widespread acclaim of Citizen Kane.

This is a great shame. Welles was as much a European director as an American one. Having been deeply impressed by Europe during extensive travel in his childhood, he ran away to Ireland and Spain as a teenager, where he worked as an actor, pulp fiction writer and bullfighter. He often proclaimed a deep love of Europe, which he saw – as so many Americans do – not as a series of nations, but as one united continent (although he would also view Spain as being so complex as constituting a continent in its own right). When his Hollywood career hit the doldrums in 1947, it was to Europe that he turned. Initially, this was a purely mercenary decision: he had contacts in the Italian film industry, and hoped to make a fortune from a few commercially successful acting jobs, and after a couple of years to return to America in triumph. Yet matters never worked to plan. Apart from an abortive Hollywood return in 1956-8, Welles remained in Europe until 1970. He had homes in France, Italy and Spain, and also worked in Austria, Belgium, Britain, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, West Germany and Yugoslavia.

Pragmatism played a large part in Welles’ European exile. Welles was considered ‘damaged goods’ in Hollywood, which was already in a state of decline after the war, with studio heads seldom willing to take commercial risks on an enfant terrible. Indeed, Welles’ famous 1939 RKO contract, which gave him unprecedented levels of artistic freedom on Citizen Kane, had partly been the product of RKO’s desperation over the looming prospect of decline. [5] By contrast, many European countries had growing post-war film industries, propped up by generous state subsidies in France, Italy and Spain. When Welles eventually moved back to America in 1970, it was a similarly pragmatic decision – he believed ‘that’s where the action is’, and with American investors pulling money out of European studios in the late 1960s, the European work opportunities would dry up. (In the event, the move proved catastrophic. Not one of the American funding opportunities led to a completed film being released, and Welles’ only 1970s directorial releases continued to be in Europe.)

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