On November 2, Netflix released what is likely to be Orson Welles’s final completed film: The Other Side of the Wind. While it might normally be odd for a filmmaker to have a film released over 30 years after their death, for Welles it is kind of fitting. He has earned a place in the pantheon among cinephiles, but he is just as well-known for his unfinished and mangled films as he is for his masterpieces. Welles only completed 12 films in his lifetime, but they are all worth watching, and half of them belong in any conversation of the best films ever made.
Despite being recognized for directing what was long-considered the greatest film ever made, much of Welles’s filmography falls within a gap in film history. He never gained the mass appeal of Hitchcock, Ford, or Scorsese, nor did most of his films receive the arthouse cred of Bergman, Fellini, or Godard.
To provide a jumping off point for those interested in exploring Welles’s full filmography, I rewatched and ranked every film completed during his lifetime, with a couple of exceptions. I am not including Jess Franco’s release of Don Quixote because Franco made no attempt to follow Welles’s vision for the film; the film is an assemblage of footage shot by Welles, but cannot really be Orson Welles’s completed film. Welles’s Filming Othello, made for German television, is not included because it is essentially what we would now consider a DVD extra; it is nothing more than Welles delivering a monologue to the camera with some scenes from his Othello mixed in. If included, both would be on the bottom of the list.
13. The Trial (1962)
An adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel of the same name, this film is about a man, Josef K. (Anthony Perkins), who is accused of a crime, but never told what that crime is. He must proceed to defend himself and find counsel without ever learning of what he is accused.
This is my least favorite Welles film, but it is by no means bad. There are elements that are brilliant. The cinematography is daring. He began his career by exploring with the canted angles, sharp lines, and high sets of German Expressionism, but in The Trial he pushes this style into the abstract. The visuals and narrative work together to create a world that feels empty of meaning, where punishments and rewards are arbitrary; in some ways it anticipates the later work of Godard and Buñuel.
But it doesn’t quite work. Some of the problems come from the source material. The story is somewhat misogynistic, with women trapping Josef within an endless cycle of seduction and betrayal. In some ways they are blamed as much for his fall as the bureaucratic state itself. I also don’t think Perkins was the best choice for the role. He is too manic and a bit too unhinged.
12. The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
A film about the end of the studio system and the rise of the New Hollywood, Welles shot The Other Side of the Wind between 1970 and 1976, but had not finished editing the film before his death in 1985. Tied up in legal limbo for decades, Netflix finally made a deal for the rights and had Bob Murawski complete the editing process according to Welles’s original vision (Wellesnet has an interesting look at how Murawski completed such a difficult project).
So, what is the finished product like? Well, the film is really two films in one. The first is done in a documentary style, and is about John Huston-type director Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) who is attempting to complete his final picture, which is the second film. Hannford’s movie is done in the European art house style: filled with sex and violence, heavy on symbolism, light on substance.
The film-within-a-film works quite well as an Antonioni parody. It is often quite funny, and the decision to run voice-over of Hannaford directing his actors during these scenes breaks any spell the images might have had by exposing their artifice (and ridiculousness). It is an effective critique of a mode of cinema that could, at its worst, become meaningless and unbearably pretentious.
The mockumentary bits work less well. Huston is fantastic, as is Peter Bogdanovich as his young protégé, but the camera relies so much on close-ups and the editing so much on rapid cutting that it is quite difficult to get a feel for the cinematic space or to follow the action. These segments feel like they are the same sort of style-over-substance that Welles is mocking in the film-within-a-film.
There are interesting ideas here, and you can’t accuse the film of not being bold, but it doesn’t quite gel.
11. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
I imagine this is a lot lower on the list than most people expect. This is probably Welles’s third or fourth most popular movie. Welles plays an Irish sailor (with one of the worst accents in film history) who ends up falling for a rich man’s wife, and is accused of a murder he didn’t commit.
In most ways, it is the film is a standard noir, complete with a convoluted, twisting plot that you need a flowchart to make sense of. This in itself doesn’t necessarily matter. Some of the best noirs make little to no sense on the level of plot (see: The Big Sleep), but The Lady from Shanghai fails to bring much more to the table. Sexuality is the fuel upon which films noir run, and it is lacking here. Rita Hayworth at her prime is of course Hayworth at her prime, but Welles doesn’t give his best performance, even apart from the horrible accent, and oddly doesn’t have much chemistry with his then-wife Hayworth. That said, romantic chemistry was never one of Welles’s strengths as an actor, and the couple were divorced a few months after shooting concluded, so that perhaps played a factor as well.
The film does have one great sequence, and it is the one everybody has seen, whether they have watched the film or not: the final shootout in a fun house’s Hall of Mirrors. It is inventive, exciting, and gorgeously shot. It’s too bad the rest of the film doesn’t earn the iconic climax.
10. The Immortal Story (1968)
Only about one hour long, The Immortal Story is more allegory than traditional narrative. A wealthy old man in Macao (played by Welles) hears a story about a rich man who pays a sailor to impregnate his much younger wife. When told that this story is most likely fictional, the rich man decides to act out the story in real life, and has his assistant hire a woman to play his wife while he goes out to hire a sailor.
The film is an interesting parable, but as with most parables the characters are (intentionally) thinly drawn and the narrative is heightened rather than realistic. Any emotional investment in the characters comes from the cinematography and staging, which is beautiful. This was the first time Welles worked in color and the visuals pop. Welles himself also gives a strong performance as a tired, bored old man used to making the world do his bidding.
One of his least-watched films, it works well as a companion piece to his last film, F for Fake. Both are interested in exploring the sometimes fuzzy boundary between narrative and reality, interrogating how the artist functions as puppet master and conman.
9. The Stranger (1946)
After the problems with The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, Welles’s third film, was an attempt to prove that he could make a genre film under budget and on time. The film ended up being a standard, but very well-executed film noir about a UN investigator (played by Edward G. Robinson) on the trail of an escaped Nazi war criminal (played by Welles himself) hiding in small-town America.
While often written off as conventional, the film is worth seeing for the solid performances from Robinson and Welles, who is chilling as an unhinged white supremacist who can never fully hide his racist views.
In some ways very similar to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), it injects politics into the film noir and thriller formulas that make the movie somewhat deeper than it is given credit for. The fear that the Nazi order that was just defeated would reappear and take root in America itself was a valid one for a nation that was just beginning to reckon with its own racist policies. It also has one of the greatest on-screen deaths in the classical Hollywood era.
The major weakness here is Loretta Young, who gives a pretty dull performance in a poorly-written role; she has to make stupid mistake after stupid mistake in order to propel the plot forward. Still, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
8. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
This is one of the most infamous stories from film history. In brief: after completing filming of his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles was asked to go to Latin America to film a documentary as part of FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy with the region. Welles accepted with the expectation that he would be able to finish editing Ambersons while abroad. However, after a supposedly unfavorable test-screening, editing was handed over to future director Robert Wise, who cut 45 minutes from the film according to studio demands and reshot Welles’s original ending.
Despite the hack job, some critics, including Jonathan Rosenbaum, consider this one of his best films. For my part, I think it is quite good, but not great. Based on Bruce Tarkington’s novel of the same name, the film follows the fall of a wealthy family in Gilded Age Indianapolis. The acting is phenomenal, with Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead both giving career-best performances. Welles does an excellent job of using the sets and locations to illustrate the grandeur of that era as well as the sadness of its inevitable decay and collapse.
The camerawork too is among the best in any of his films. The film was shot to emphasize long takes, but unfortunately most of these were trimmed and edited into shorter cuts. A ball sequence was originally shot as a single long take where the camera would follow two party-goers, jump to other couples through the dance, and move throughout the rooms and floors of the Amberson mansion. What is there is still an excellent scene, but if left uncut, it might have been the most stunning technical achievement from the era. And that sums up the entire film: it is a very good film, with some great performances and excellent scenes, but it could have been a masterpiece.
7. F for Fake (1973)
Orson Welles’s essay film on conmen and fakery, F for Fake is a delightful hangout movie that is maybe just a bit too loose for its own good. The film starts as a documentary looking at an art forger, Elmyr de Hory, who sold paintings made to appear like those of artists such as Matisse and Renoir. However, during filming it was discovered that Clifford Irving, the author who exposed de Hory, is a fraud himself. Previously he had written an “authorized” biography of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, but it was later discovered that he had never even spoken with Hughes.
Welles is incredibly charismatic in this film and his persona and natural gifts as a storyteller drive it. At its best, F for Fake feels like you are at a party with some of the most interesting people in the world. Welles has some interesting things to say about fakery, narrative, and whether it ultimately matters if a story is “true” or not, but it is the hangout atmosphere that makes it a pleasure to watch.
It is structurally a bit shaggy because of this. The last third gets away from Welles, but it remains fun throughout.
6. Mr. Arkadin (1955)
Like The Magnificent Ambersons before it, Mr. Arkadin is defined by what was never released. In this case, Welles missed an editing deadline while completing the film and lost control of the project. Because of this, several versions of the film were released, none representing Welles’s vision.
Fortunately, in 2006 the Criterion Collection re-edited a “comprehensive” version, editing the available footage according to Welles’s notes and comments, as well as technical support from Welles scholars Jonathan Rosenbaum and Peter Bogdanovich. The result is the closest to Welles’s intent we will ever see.
Because of this convoluted production and release history, Mr. Arkadin is probably Welles’s least-watched film. This is a shame, because it is a film without comparison. The basic premise sounds like a typical noir: two-bit criminal Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) tries to run a con on wealthy businessman Gregory Arkadin (Welles). What the con is or what Guy plans to con him out of is a bit ambiguous, even to Guy. The con, such as it is, quickly collapses and Arkadin tells Guy that he suffers from amnesia and forgets everything that happened before he appeared in Switzerland in 1927 with 200,000 Francs in his pocket. He ends up hiring Guy to investigate his own past.
The film is a dark mirror version of Citizen Kane, with a man attempting to piece together the life of a powerful, wealthy man by interviewing his associates. Welles is an excellent figure of mysterious menace and Robert Arden delivers a terrific performance as a character type that was decades ahead of its time: the unlikeable, sleazy anti-hero. Nobody in the film is “good.” As with The Stranger, it is a political noir that suggests the sins of World War II have not ended. In the world of Mr. Arkadin, the prosperity of the post-war world was bought with the suffering and exploitation that came before it. The elite may attempt to forget or even erase their pasts, but it is who they are. It is a cutting, cynical film that is well-worth checking out.
5. Othello (1951)
Another area where Welles fails to get the respect he deserves is in bringing Shakespeare to the screen. The adaptations of Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and even Franco Zeffirelli get more credit, but they all suffer a bit from staginess and none experimented with cinematic techniques like Welles did.
Othello was a troubled production. Shocking, I know. The movie was shot in pieces between 1948 and 1951. As the story goes, Welles would shoot bits of the film in Europe until he ran out of money, fly back to the US to raise more funds, and then go back to Europe to shoot again. Because of this, actors were not always filming their scenes together and resources were not always available. When shooting the murder of Cassio, for example, the costumes had not yet arrived. Welles simply had the actors wear towels and filmed the murder in a Turkish bath. Incidentally, this is one of the most visually striking scenes in the film.
The entire film is gorgeous though, and opens with a funeral procession sequence that would have done Tarkovsky proud. It is perhaps the chaotic production schedule that forced Welles to shoot the actors sneaking around corners and hiding in archways in order to hide the fact that not all of the actors were present, but it adds to a play that is all about how people exploit what is seen, what is unseen, and what is hinted at. The acting is solid all around as well, but it is Micheál MacLiammóir who steals the film as Iago. Here and elsewhere Welles was bold in editing Shakespeare; the film runs about 90 minutes whereas a typical performance of the play is three hours. But it works. The tighter narrative loses nothing of significance and intensifies the drama. It does have Welles in blackface, however; this is a product of its time, perhaps, but it obviously is not a look that has aged well.
4. Macbeth (1948)
Made for Republic Studios on Poverty Row, Macbeth was a project where Welles wanted to prove that he could work on a tight budget, and Republic wanted to raise the prestige of their studio above the B-level Westerns they were mostly known for.
The budget definitely shows. The sets are sparse, the spaces largely empty, and fog is used to hide the limits of the sets. But despite this (or rather because of it), it all works. Welles viewed the play as “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights (1939) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)” and the film feels a bit like a Universal horror film. The expressionist sets make no logical sense, with bridges and archways that wander nowhere and stairs that lead up into seeming oblivion. Fog isolates the characters and the sets’ jagged edges make the walls, furniture, and even Macbeth’s crown feel like weapons.
Shakespeare’s play is, in many ways, a horror story, beginning with witches and ending with the mass murder of an innocent family that wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher movie. Welles leans into the horror with great effect, showing that even as Macbeth gains more and more of the power he craves, he becomes less and less human. Welles plays the character with true terror in the film’s final scenes, and it is a haunting moment. This is easily one of the best straight adaptations of Shakespeare ever filmed.
3. Touch of Evil (1958)
Before I get into my top three, I want to say that these final films are all masterpieces that easily belong on any list of the best movies ever made. The difference between the three is negligible.
Touch of Evil is often considered the last of Hollywood’s classic film noir cycle, and it is also one of the cycle’s weirdest. The film tells two stories with two distinct tones: in one, Charlton Heston plays Miguel Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement officer. Yes, Heston is playing a Mexican in brown face. He is excellent in the role, and never slides into caricature or stereotype, but, like Welles in blackface for Othello, it is still obviously problematic by today’s standards. He is paired up with Hank Quinlan (Welles), an American detective who is working to solve a bombing case on his side of the border. This part of the movie plays like a fairly standard crime procedural, with the straight-shooting Vargas clashing with the dirty Quinlan.
The second part of the film plays like a horror movie. Vargas’s wife (Janet Leigh) is sent to a hotel to wait for her husband to finish his investigation. While there, the drug cartel her husband is investigating takes over the hotel and slowly tortures her physically and mentally in an attempt to get at her husband. These scenes are quite frightening and shocking, even by today’s standards.
Both parts of the film are excellent, and together they work to criticize the corruption of the post-war world just as Welles did in Mr. Arkadin three years earlier. This was another film where Welles lost creative control and the version available for forty years did not represent Welles’s vision. Fortunately, in 1998 the film was restored to its original vision based on a memo Welles had written to the studio.
2. Citizen Kane (1941)
Welles’s first film and long held as the best film of all time by the Sight and Sound critics’ poll, having only recently lost this honor to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Is it the best film of all time? I don’t quite believe it is Welles’s best film (though it is, for my money, better than Vertigo), but it is unquestionably a masterpiece.
I won’t talk at length about the film, because anyone interested in film has likely seen it already. If you have not, do so. It establishes a central theme Welles would explore for the rest of his career: how can anyone ever truly know another human being, or make sense of why they do what they do? Charles Foster Kane (Welles), like most of his central characters, is a man who is great without necessarily being good, someone who could be both remarkably heroic and a horrific failure.
Being known as the greatest film of all time for fifty years invites “overrated” hot takes. But, despite what anyone might say, it deserves its accolades.
1. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Welles’s third and final Shakespeare adaptation is also his best. Not based on any one play, the film takes pieces from Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor to tell a story focused on Shakespeare’s fat fool, Falstaff (Welles). Mostly episodic, composed of separate scenes from these four plays, the overall arc concerns Falstaff’s relationship with Prince Hal, the future King Henry V.
So why is this Welles’s best film, even better than Citizen Kane? For one, it has the best performance Welles ever delivered. His Falstaff manages to be funny, sad, charming, conniving, and tragic, often in the same scene. Welles was, in general, a much better director than actor, and some of his performances (such as in The Lady from Shanghai) are the weakest parts of his films, but here he gives one of the greatest, most heartbreaking performances in film history.
It is also Welles at his best visually. Welles had a tendency to use visual tropes in unexpected ways. Here he uses space in a counterintuitive way that makes the film feel fresh. The open, cavernous halls of the castle make his characters feel trapped by grandeur, whereas the tighter, more claustrophobic scenes in the brothels and alehouses feel warmer and more inviting. This goes against how space is often filmed, but it works and makes the film feel not quite like anything else. The movie also has what is probably the best medieval battle scene to be put on film until at least the mid-1990s. Using quick edits (a signature of Welles’s late style), the sequence feels modern and fresh, even watching it in 2018.
Welles himself considered Chimes at Midnight his best work, saying that “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up. I think it’s because it is to me the least flawed; let me put it that way. It is the most successful for what I tried to do. I succeeded more completely in my view with that than with anything else.” I can hardly disagree.