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Square Eyes; Awesome Welles This Christmas… December 4, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film General, Square Eyes , trackback

Citizen Welles…

BBC FOUR IS TREATING US TO AN Orson Welles season over the Christmas holiday, featuring five of The Great Man’s best known films, a little screened BBC series from the ’50s, a welcome repeat of an excellent Arena ’80s documentary, and a brand new look at Welles’ post Hollywood career courtesy of leading ‘Wellesian’ Simon Callow.

A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.

Orson Welles

The schedule, as it stands now, is:

Friday, Dec.18, 19:30-19.45 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; A series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches. This is fascinating - the Beeb digging deep into its own archives for a series first aired in 1955 in six parts. I’ve never seen this so I’m grateful for this neat précis courtesy of IMDB: “This six-episode series, produced on a shoestring budget for the BBC, proves that above all else Orson Welles was a great storyteller. The camera cuts back and forth between close-ups of Welles and his charming sketches as he tells anecdotes ranging from the tragic (such as the case of a black U.S. serviceman who returned to the South after a tour in the Pacific, got into a dispute with a bus driver, and as a result was beaten blind by a policeman) to the hilarious (the varied reactions to the Mercury Theatre of the Air’s infamous radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds). This is as minimalist as television gets - just his drawings, his subtle facial expressions, and that wonderful, wry voice - and it’s riveting; a great showcase of Welles’s talent, wit, and charisma.”

What is a little odd is that, thus far, BBC4 only appear to be showing five of the six parts, if indeed that is what we’re getting. Detail so far is scant - let’s hope it isn’t just one or two of the ‘Sketchbooks’ repeated over.

Wednesday, Dec. 23, 00:10-00:25 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

Christmas Eve, Thursday, Dec. 24, 19.00-19:15 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

I have the terrible feeling that, because I am wearing a white beard and am sitting in the back of the theatre, you expect me to tell you the truth about something. These are the cheap seats, not Mount Sinai.

Orson Welles

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 19.00-21:00 - Citizen Kane; Welles’ tour de force is weighed down by it consistently being voted the Best Film Ever Made, as if there could ever be such a thing. If you’re viewing for the first time, I can only beg you to view Orson Welles’s masterpiece as a piece of pure cinema and not an irrefutable icon that sits there Citizen Kanebegging to be shot at. Kane tells the story of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane in a series of stylish and stylised flashbacks. A reporter is intrigued by the dying Kane’s last word - rosebud - and sets out to find a new angle on the life of one of the most powerful men in America. Nine Oscar nominations resulted in only one award for the wunderkind Welles - Best Screenplay - and was to serve as both a medal of honour and the millstone that would forever hang round his substantial neck. If you allow it, Welles astonishing, vibrant debut serves to dazzle still. Blindingly so.

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 21:00-22:50 - Arena: The Orson Welles Story (Part 1); First of a fine two-part profile of Orson Welles, premiered on the BBC in 1982, looking at his life and career in theatre, radio and particularly film. With Jeanne Moreau, John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Wise, Charlton Heston, and a detailed interview with Welles himself. This part deals with his work up to Touch of Evil.

Christmas Day, Friday, Dec. 25, 22:50-24:00 - Journey Into Fear; A nightmarish tale of espionage and treachery in Istanbul, as an American arms dealer goes on the run from the Gestapo during the Second World War. Orson Welles, who acts the role of a corrupt chief of the Turkish secret police, wrote the script with co-star Joseph Cotten, and, while Mercury Theatre alumni Norman Foster is credited as director, it was Welles who oversaw the production, and also shared directorial responsibilities, dashing from the set of ‘Ambersons’ and back again. Adapted from a novel by Eric Ambler.

Boxing Day, Saturday, Dec. 26, 19.00-19:15 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; Series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.

Boxing Day, Saturday, Dec. 26, 19.15-21:00 - The Third Man; Classic Graham Greene thriller set in a shattered and divided post-WW2 Vienna where American writer Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) is invited by his friend Harry Lime (Welles), only to find that Lime is dead. However, all is not what it seems - a mysterious ‘third man’ was seen tending to the dying Lime. But who was he?

The Third Man

Carol Reed is the genius behind the camera on this occasion, Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, graciously allowing Welles to slip in the famous ‘cuckoo clock’ speech, obviously recognising a bloody good line when he hears it. Of all the films in this season, this is the one that bears the least imprimatur of the legendary producer, writer, director (and sherry salesman); but for all that, it’s one with which he is famously connected. It speaks volumes for Welles sheer star power, and Reed’s masterly handling of that star. Fabulously entertaining.

I do not suppose I shall be remembered for anything. But I don’t think about my work in those terms. It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.

Orson Welles

Sunday, Dec. 27, 20.00-21:30 - The Magnificent Ambersons; Period drama telling the story of a wilful son of the proud Amberson family who destroys his mother’s hopes of marrying her first love - a recent widower. Refusing to move with the times, he not only causes his mother to suffer but also brings about his own financial ruin. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, and famously edited in Welles absence (he was in Rio filming a never to be completed documentary) by Robert Wise, who, at the studio’s insistence, hacked an hour or so from Orson’s original cut. What’s left is wonderful, what could have been is tantalisingly missing, though if they can find the missing scenes from Metropolis, who knows what may turn up one day? I’m an eternal optimist. Warners have been threatening to release the film in the US for a couple of years now in a special edition home video set, blaming a search for the ‘best elements’ on the delay. If it ends up in their benighted ‘Archive’, Orson will haunt the grounds of Burbank, rattling old film cans and intoning ‘pressed discs you bastaaaarrrrrds’ until those Brothers come to their senses.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 21.30-22:30 (repeated at 1.45am) - Orson Welles Over Europe; When Orson Welles went into self-imposed exile in Europe, he first found stardom with The Third Man and then immersed himself in challenging films, television, theatre and bullfighting. Hello AmericansSimon Callow, author of two fantastic volumes of biography on Welles (we await the third), trails the complex actor-director in what promises to be an authoritative and entertaining new documentary. Ideal companion piece to the Arena documentary that follows.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 23.00-23:55 - Arena: The Orson Welles Story (Part 2); Second of the two-part profile of Orson Welles, looking at films including The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story and F for Fake and discussing his many unfinished projects, including The Other Side of the Wind (which Peter Bogdanovich is currently completing on his one time house guest’s behalf) and Don Quixote.

Sunday, Dec. 27, 23.55-1:30 - The Stranger; In which a federal agent is assigned to track down an escaped Nazi war criminal, and eventually finds him in a small Connecticut village. Welles stars with Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, yet another of his movies missing up to half an hour of footage (thought to have been destroyed) and said to be one of Orson’s least favourites - nevertheless, a very watchable noir-ish thriller.

Monday, Dec. 28, 1.30-1:45 - The Orson Welles Sketchbook; The last in the series of talks by Orson Welles, illustrated by his own sketches.


1. Livius - December 4, 2009

Sounds great.
I remember that Arena docu being marvellous stuff.

2. Mike - December 6, 2009

Thanks for the heads up, John. The RKO Story last Christmas, and a Welles season this time around - BBC Four are really spoiling us!

I’ve seen the Arena documentary before and it’s always a pleasure to catch Kane again, plus a screening of The Third Man, perhaps my personal all time favourite movie, to enjoy. I can’t wait to bore the family with this little lot!

3. Rob - December 7, 2009

Great News this is..especially the stuff that we haven’t seen before and the the rare Arena doc…

I have a version of the Arena doc and I think there are 2 versions of it..a long one and a slightly shorter version -you don’t know which version is showing I suppose ?!

4. John Hodson - December 7, 2009

I saw this when it was originally broadcast, but I cannot for the life of me recall the running time. However, this site reveals (amongst several other interesting facts) that ‘…the interview….was trimmed down to three hours for a two-part Arena special, broadcast in 1982′ (I think I’ll take ‘three hours’ as approximate).

To mark Welles’ passing, it was repeated in one part December 1985, with a run-time of 2 hours 50 minutes (I can’t imagine anything vital was edited). In 1990, the interview tapes were cut into a 2 hour 30 minute show called ‘With Orson Welles; Stories From A Life in Film’ for broadcast in the US. However for a 1994 BBC broadcast, it was cut down again to 2 hours 19 minutes. For this year’s showing, the first part is, according to various TV guides, 1 hour 50 minutes, the second runs 55 minutes - again, I think we’re pretty much getting, give or take, the whole thing.

Earlier this year Leslie Megahey, who interviewed Welles for Arena in ‘82, told The Independent: “I went along determined to get his entire life on film. The whole arrangement was rather informal. At the beginning of the programme, I asked him three questions. One was about something he had said to Huw Weldon about his approach to every film being like walking along a precipice. The first three questions seemed to convince him that I was alright. We got there at 8am and filmed to almost 8pm. Then, he went home to watch the Oscar ceremony on television. He had talked all day, non-stop. We rang him the next day to thank him and he said: ‘You bastards, I lost my voice!’”

“The day of making the documentary was the most unforgettable day I had in the business. The raison d’etre was to give people a taste of what it was like to be in his presence. When you are actually sitting opposite Orson Welles for virtually a whole day, it’s just the most extraordinary experience. When he talked about Falstaff, it was almost as if he turned into Falstaff. When he talked about Kane, it was almost as if he grew younger and became the young Kane again.” 

5. Daniel Stephens - December 17, 2009

Thanks for this John, I must see The Third Man again and I haven’t seen some of the other Welles films.

6. John Hodson - December 19, 2009

The first ‘Sketchbook’ was broadcast last night; from the looks of things we are getting five of the six originally screened. Fascinating stuff, Welles delivering a couple of delicious tales (embroidered? Undoubtedly, but the best tales usually are), appearing humble and self-deprecating, but in that manner that suggests the very opposite. As I write, if you missed it you still have six days to catch it again, via the BBC iPlayer here. Presumably the other ‘Sketchbooks’ will also be available to view again in the same manner.

7. Mike - December 23, 2009

Loving the Sketchbooks - as you say, Welles could have possessed a streak of arrogance considering his achievements, but instead concentrates on the pratfalls and things going wrong on the stage. What an engaging guy, even if each episode is pretty much him talking to the camera, a smile never close from his lips.

8. John Hodson - December 23, 2009

Hmmm; good aren’t they? In Hello Americans Simon Callow points out that the events in the witchdoctor story didn’t involve Welles personally, but Richard Wilson. However, Welles appropriated the story probably to suggest that not only had It’s All True been cursed but perhaps himself too.

And it’s a fact that as the ju-ju needle was being driven through his script, RKO were already making plans to dismember The Magnificent Ambersons in his absence.

BTW, Wellesnet has just very handily uploaded a transcript of the first ‘Sketchbook’.

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