“That was the greatest entrance there ever was,” Orson Welles tells Henry Jaglom in My Lunches with Orson (Metropolitan 2013), referring to his first moment as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949).
For me, at 11, it was more than an entrance. It was a revelation. Until then, most heroes on the screen were stock figures going through amusing motions, cowboys, villains, good guys, bad guys. This was something fascinating and new. Harry Lime was dead and buried, for one thing. Everybody in Vienna said so. He’d been hit by a car. Or had he?
What heightened the moment was the bombed-out European city of night surrounding it, the stark vistas of crumbling terraces, deep shadows, the blackest deepest blacks I’d ever seen, the way light gleamed on cobblestone pavement, the sense of menace in the war-haunted metropolis, the excitement of the name, Vienna, and the zither music that seemed to anticipate and express every last nuance of intrigue.
The fact that Joseph Cotten was playing Harry’s best friend immediately drew me in because I’d recently identified with the same actor as an artist in love with a mysterious girl who transcended time and space in A Portrait of Jennie. It was as if Joseph Cotten and I had already shared a romantic adventure and were together again trying to find out the truth about what had happened to Harry, who the police claimed had been involved in some nefarious business on the black market. He also had a girl friend, a sullen beauty named Anna whose cat was fond of Harry. And late one night, outside her building, we’re walking, footsteps echoing on the pavement, when we see the cat that liked Harry in a pool of light at the base of a dark doorway someone is standing in. The cat is grooming itself, very much at home. Suddenly a window in the building opposite opens and a light falls on the face of the man in the doorway. It’s Harry Lime back from the dead, slyly almost smugly alive, his face bright and strange, lit with a kind of cold radiance. The zither takes a run up my spine to give me the moment, putting a chill on the chill already climbing the back of my neck. Harry’s smiling, he seems about to speak, as if to say, “Yes, old friend, it’s me, and I’ve seen and done things you’ll never know or want to know.”
In his biography Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Knopf 1996), David Thomson gets the impact of the moment, Lime’s “grin is ineffably sinister but sweet, and it goes into the camera like charm’s knife.” Only Orson Welles could have filled that moment, made it magical, with help from director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker. As Welles says to Jaglom, referring to the film’s success overseas and his sudden fame, “In Europe Harry Lime represented their past … the dark side of them. Yet attractive, you know …. It was a kind of mania. When I came into a restaurant the people went crazy. At the hotel I was staying in, police had to come to quiet the fans. It was my one moment of being a superstar, a traffic-stopping superstar … I could have made a career out of that picture.”
The Power of His Presence
Orson Welles was born 100 years ago, May 6, 1915, and died 30 years ago, October 10, 1985, only hours after taping an interview with Merv Griffin. On a YouTube video he tells Griffin how it feels to be 70 and looks back on his life and career (“I was awful busy and awful lucky”). Such is the power of his presence, there’s no sense of a declining force; if anything, he gives the impression of entering his eighth decade still busy and still lucky. Nothing in his manner, his way of speaking, his frankness and clarity and his sense of humor about himself, would suggest that this is his last public appearance.
And busy he was, right up to the end. After taping the Griffin show, he put in some time at the typewriter working on stage directions for the television special, Orson Welles’s Magic Show, then to bed never to wake.
The Big Chill
My son just urged me to do a good job on Falstaff. It’s a Christmas Eve tradition for him to watch Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966) on tape/DVD; he’s been doing it for the past 14 years. There’s a warmth in Welles’s Falstaff that’s lacking in much of his other work. Citizen Kane begs for superlatives, it’s a phenomenon, a miracle, a triumph, but what, for me, keeps it from being as great as it’s cracked up to be is its lack of warmth. One obvious problem is in the boorish, unsympathetic aspect of Kane, a side-effect of the fact that he’s based on an unsympathetic, to put it mildly, model, W.R. Hearst. However vivid and energetic the visuals and the pace, however brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland, with superior performances by Welles and his players, notably his close friend and fellow centenarian Joseph Cotten (1915-1994), it’s an essentially cold piece of work.
There’s also a hint of the chill in the Welles aesthetic: the way people seem to talk at cross-purposes, one voice on top of another, and the sense of distance in the interiors, almost as if Welles had discovered the visual equivalent of the echo, the seen music of chilly echoing spaces. Like the brilliant early scene that has Kane as a boy shouting and playing in the snow outside the window while his future is being coldly decided. The magnificently gothic opening credits and the closing moments crowned by the “Rosebud” revelation are thrilling. But then so was the great hoax Welles pulled off three years before Kane with his radio broadcast of an invasion from Mars that sent a chill of fear up the spine of the nation (especially central and northern New Jersey). Then there’s Touch of Evil (1958), one of the craziest great films ever made, and as cold at the center as Welles’s Hank Quinlan, the dead mountain of corruption Marlene Dietrich absurdly eulogizes (“some kind of a man”) at the end; thrilling, too, as pure cinema, is the famous hall of mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai; and any number of other virtuoso moments in The Stranger and Mr. Arkadin, not to mention Othello and Macbeth.
There are moments of warmth in The Magnificent Ambersons (most of them, as I remember, centered on Joseph Cotten and Dolores Costello), but, as with so much of Welles’s work, the material has been so thoroughly violated by the studio, it’s not fair to Welles to assume the finished product is as he intended it. In Chimes at Midnight, however, he has the benefit of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a character as rich and warmly eloquent as any in literature. “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie,” he said in 1982, “that’s the one I’d offer up.”
It’s clear that Welles also feels close to his last completed film F for Fake (1976), which is, as he tells Henry Jaglom, “the only really original movie I’ve made since Kane.” David Thomson agrees, praising its “utmost originality, delicacy, and sly personal insight,” while finding it “flawless” and “unlike anything anyone had ever done before.” In spite of insisting, again speaking to Jaglom, that the film is “a fake confessional” and that “the fact that I confess to being a fraud is a fraud,” Welles inhabits the project companionably, and, more to the point, warmly. As he walks through the film, sometimes garbed in magician’s regalia of black cloak and broad-brimmed hat (in the opening scene he quotes Robert Houdin to the effect that “a magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician”), sometimes in his customary attire, at his ease, at table, he’s at once the director, the central presence, the narrator, and the reader, as when he recites poetry, not in the manner of an actor declaiming verse on the stage, but as he puts it, “by the fireside,” as if he were sitting side by side with you saying, “Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash — the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures, and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’”
Back in June 2013, I did a column about visiting Vienna on a summer tour (“Light and Dark: Themes and Anthems for a European Tour”). For the image I used a still from The Third Man showing the Joseph Cotten character in the shadow of the great ferris wheel at the Prater, waiting for what would be his one and only encounter with his old friend, Harry Lime. In that odd entity called “real life,” Cotten and Welles, who were born in the same month, same year, May 1915, enjoyed a friendship worth mentioning here, on their joint centenary. As Cotten recounts in his 1987 autobiography, when he suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke that affected his speech center, he began years of therapy that eventually made it possible for him to speak again. As he began to recover, he and Welles talked on the phone each week for a couple of hours: “He was strong and supportive,” Cotten wrote, “and whenever I used the wrong word (which was frequently) he would say, ‘That’s a much better word, Jo, I’m going to use it.’” One of the last things Welles read before he died was the manuscript of his old friend’s autobiography.