Orson Welles: Between Setting and Character
George Orson Welles began his early career in theater and quickly rose to fame with his Mercury Theatre radio broadcasts. As a director auteur in cinema, Welles is partly defined by the stylistic settings and character portrayals of his films. Three films that demonstrate these elements are, Touch of Evil (1958), Citizen Kane (1941), and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Through identification and comparison of these films, this essay will present evidence that it was Welles’ theatrical approach to film that provided his distinctive mark on cinema. The inquiry will argue that it was the applying of theatre form to film, by partitioning the setting or stage from the character or actors, which creates a dynamic tension in Welles’ films. Additionally, Welles’ auteur qualifications will be supported in specifying trends of cinematic technique across genres.
The following are some of the secondary sources that may help shed light on this inquiry. Peter Bogdanovich, a longtime friend of Welles, conducts a series of poignant interviews in his book, “This is Orson Welles”. A second source of insight into Welles’ career, and auteur status, is James Naremore’s book, “The Magic World of Orson Welles”. This source covers in depth many of the films directed by Welles. In “Despite the System”, written by Clinton Heydon, the rebellious origin of Welles’ reputation as a les enfant terribles in Hollywood is explored. This source also provides references to the connection between Welles’ theatre background and his films. Mike Prokosch’s article “Orson Welles” covers stylistic methods and compositional insight into many of Orson Welles films. His detailed scene analysis will be helpful in defining the visual cues that distinguish an Orson Welles film. The article explores Touch of Evil in the areas of setting and character development and presentation.
At first glance, these two aspects of setting and character may appear unified due to Welles’ skill in blending cinematic techniques. Specifically, methods he uses include long tracking shots, low camera angles, and deep space focus combined with lighting design, and fast paced editing. However, deconstruction of the three films reveal distinct properties that merge in a cinematic synthesis and propel Welles’ mythical persona. The exterior setting in the drama, mystery, genre film Citizen Kane is a gothic castle. The castle’s interior reveals a great deal more than its intimidating edifice. As Naremore states, “In the climactic moments, the camera glides forward over Kane’s possessions, a collection that looks like an aerial view of a metropolis” (56, 57). This interior crane shot of Kane’s castle is more personal, as it enshrines all of the deceased Kane’s worldly possessions. Kane’s empty stage or space, according to Mike Prokosch, “is left as the only permanent reality (29)”. It appears as though an emphasis is being placed on the material setting that distinguishes it from the character of Charles Kane. This attention to the setting was carefully contrived by Welles in pre-production. Heydin cites actor Joseph Cotton’s autobiography memoir, “The largest wall of Orson’s office was covered with rows and rows of sharply defined drawings” (60). This detailed creation of setting which the characters inhabit can also be observed in Touch of Evil.
While an urban environment setting in crime, noir, genre films may not be unique, the level of consideration to detail that is used to create Touch of Evil’s Los Robles is highly stylistic. As Naremore states, “Welles’ skill is obvious, his vision of Los Robles is at once more stylized and more specific than usual studio expressionism”(158). Touch of Evil opens with a two minute and fifteen second long tracking crane shot beginning with a close up of a ticking time bomb being placed into the trunk of a car. Naremore describes the shot as, “…rising in the sky, arching over dark roofs and neon signs, then drifting backward ahead of the car to present gradually the town of Los Robles”(158). This opening scene marks an advancement of Welles’ ability to establish a film setting. The earlier use of surveying the material possessions in Kane has expanded in revealing an entire societal structure as portrayed by Los Robles. Prokosch references the setting, “This town is a piece of visual nightmare poetry, a metaphor of essential threat and corruption, which tells more about the meaning of action than any amount of dialogue or character exposition” (34). Although the setting in Touch of Evil is a populated exterior, and the setting in Kane is an empty interior, both may be considered as the backdrops for characters who will act within Welles’ compositions.
Welles’ mindset was continually preoccupied with theatre; more specifically, the works of Shakespeare. Heylin states, “Macbeth, the theatrical version of which Welles liked to characterize as his greatest success, continued to occupy him even after he took off for Hollywood” (237). In theatrical arts, an actor must adhere to rules of blocking that are comprised of nine stage placements. The placements consist of combinations of up, center, down, right and left stage. The actors must also interact with props and backdrop flats provided as natural surroundings, walls, doorways, stairs and balconies. Welles creates similar theatrical spaces within the framing composition of his films. Lighting may be considered as another adaptation from Welles’ theater background that finds its way into his films. The use of lighting in Kane bares resemblance to the lights coming up to reveal a dramatic stage set, and next reveal the actor. Cinematographer Greg Toland, credited for photography, is cited by Heydon on the use of transitions and lighting, “ …most of the transitions in Citizen Kane are lap dissolves in which the background dissolves from one scene to the next shortly before the players in the foreground are dissolved” (61). Toland explains that two separate light dimming systems were utilized for the effect, first for the setting, and the secondly for the characters. Welles’ is establishing the film setting through lighting and theatrical spacing prior to permitting the actors upon his equivalent of a celluloid stage.
Deep focus is one tool used to achieve dynamic tension between setting and character and is a method often cited in the recognition of Welles’ work. Heydon explains how the specialty lens allowed a closer connection to theatre form, deep focus, “…enabled the actors to play the scenes much as they would on stage, engaging in those long takes that were destined to become something of a Wellesian trademark” (61). Welles credits his development of this technique to Greg Toland’s skill and innovative use of the film camera. In an interview with Bogdanovich, recounts, “Some people have said that the look of Kane is a result of Toland’s photography, but all your pictures have the same visual signature, and you only worked with Toland once.” Welles replies, “It’s impossible to say how much I owe Greg. He was superb” (59). The deep focus shots that retain Welles’ visual signature, attributed by Bogdonovich, may also result from the character placements within the setting. The compositional framing that Kane presents in the ‘barroom’ scene provides one such example. The film’s characters are placed in a triangular configuration. Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), and Mr. Bernstien (Everett Sloane) occupy the right and left frame foreground while Kane (Orson Welles) dances with the chorus in the deep space center frame. Naremore describes the planes presented serve to create a dynamic tension over a portrayal of realism. “Welles uses deep focus not as a ‘realistic’ mode of perception, but as a way of suggesting a conflict between the characters’ instinctual needs and the social or material world that determines their fate” (40). Comparison of Welles deep focus trend may also be drawn between Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, in the ‘strawberry shortcake’ scene. Three characters, Georgie (Tim Holt), Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), and Uncle Jack (Ray Collins) are pinned between the kitchen background antre and an opulent silver tea set in the foreground. Welles depicts their ‘material world’ while placing characters in the triangular perspective previously regarded in Kane. This depicts two levels of conflict, the first between the characters and the setting, and the second between the characters’ interactions. As Prokosch notes, “The Amberson mansion encloses the characters, restricting their personal development of their relationship to one another” (30).
A further development of the deep focus trend is carried from melodrama to the crime, noir, genre as Welles finds new ways of exploiting the technique. According to Naremore, the deep focus form in Touch of Evil is still prevalent although it is now being used to accentuate the narrative. Naremore states, “Welles isn’t using mobile, deep focus shots to emphasize fateful mishaps and dual lines of action, he is editing so as to underline the ironies of the double plot” (161). In the ‘blind woman’ scene, the first shot in the motel contains Mrs. Vargus (Janet Liegh) as she reclines invitingly on the bed. This shot is purposely designed to entice a male voyeuristic tendency and is abruptly disrupted by a cut to a low deep focus shot of a Blind Woman (uncredited), and Mr. Vargus (Charlton Heston). The Blind Woman’s distorted face suddenly leers from the right fore plane, contrasting ugliness with Liegh’s sensuality. The deep focus placement of Mr. Vargus within the central left plane reduces his degree of male prowess. Flanking the two characters is a wall of compartmentalized boxes, perhaps indicative of the isolated circumstances in which the newlywed characters find themselves. Heydon cites Welles memo to the studio on this relationship, “What’s vital is that both stories – the leading man’s and the leading woman’s – be kept equally and continuously alive: each scene, as we move back and forth across the border, should play at roughly equal lengths leading up to the moment at the hotel when the lovers meet again” (319).
A film like Touch of Evil in the hands of another director may have amounted to little more than a low budget crime film or B movie slated for second billing in a double matinee feature. Unfortunately, the film was wrested from Welles control, in the editing stage, by Universal Studios. The film then underwent six editing revisions before the general release version, as explained by Heyland “It was taken away from him because the studio had no idea of what he was doing, and why it was taking so long to do it” (307). The film making process that Welles used, which the studio disregarded, may be attributed to the earlier references to drawings by Joseph Cotton. The drawings were the physical manifestations of what Welles referred to as “Visual Patterns” (307). Cotton’s excerpt reveals that for Welles the process of making a film involved both a visual and auditory perceiving of the final product. The fact that the film was never seen to fruition by Welles in the editing process may explain why Touch of Evil has, as Heydon notes “that quality of strangeness” (324). Although, it was not edited as Welles had envisioned the production aspects of setting and character still retain his signature. Heydon explains that, “Welles had been constructing films that could not be easily recast by some other ‘dominant personality’. For all of Universal’s rejigging, the atmosphere was still Welles” (324). Despite the failure attributed to its release, Touch of Evil won the first prize at the Brussels’s Film Festival and is today considered one of Welles’ masterpieces. Through the study of his theatre background origin, and early career arc through his waning years, a deeper appreciation might be gained as to the cinematic masterpieces that are Welles’ legacy. While his wrangling with studios and maverick approach to filmmaking is the stuff of Hollywood legend, his cinematic art may as yet remain undiscovered. In examining the separation of setting and character, attributable to theatrical form, this essay hopes to have unearthed one small relic in that endeavor.
Bogdonovich, Peter. This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1992.
Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore. RKO
Radio Pictures, 1941. Film.
Heylin, Clinton. Despite the System. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, Inc., 2005. Print. Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles. Dallas: Southern Methodist University
Press, 1989. Print.
Prokosch, Michael. “Orson Welles”. Film Comment. Summer 1971, 28. Web. 21 Mar. 2012.
The Magnificent Ambersons. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Tim Holt, Joseph Cotton, Dolores
Costello. RKO Radio Pictures, 1942. Film.
Touch of Evil. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh. Universal
International Pictures, 1958. Film.