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    Orson Wellespring

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    “He inhaled legend – and changed our air. It is the greatest career in film, the most tragic, and the one with most warnings for the rest of us.” So says The New Biographical Dictionary of Film author David Thomson about Orson Welles (1915-1985), born 101 years ago today. (Welles’ consensus masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) marked its 75th anniversary this week.) Among all the hats he wore – master director, screenwriter/playwright, showman producer, stentorian narrator, plummy pitchman, talk-show raconteur – the one chapeau audiences experienced most often was that of actor for hire, whether in fast-buck dreck or in prestige outings. He commanded the camera’s attention, no matter the size of his part; he loomed large all the time. Twilight Time’s four Welles on-screen ventures represent such a spectrum. Jane Eyre (1944) [available on Blu-ray here:] bills Welles, as the haunted, love-cursed British aristocrat Edward Rochester, over co-star Joan Fontaine in the title role, and it is a marvel that Welles’ feverish bravado and Fontaine’s wraithlike delicacy mesh as well as they do. But, when considering that director Robert Stevenson, composer and Citizen Kane alumnus Bernard Herrmann and the ace design teams at Twentieth Century Fox give their all to the swirling, Gothic romantic vision of the Charlotte Brontë novel in way that evokes the post-Kane and Ambersons so-called “Wellesian influence,” the impression is that this wasn’t just a “money job” for Welles, but that all hands strove to make it the underrated classic it is. Even in less august circumstances, Welles hit his marks with notable style. Director John Huston’s adaptation of Romain Gary’s Africa-set novel The Roots of Heaven (1958) [available on Blu-ray here:], about the struggles of a naturalist (Trevor Howard) who gathers a band of outcasts (including Errol Flynn and Juliette Greco) in his campaign to curtail the wanton hunting of elephants, gives Welles a small but showy part as a bombastic American journalist and wannabe hunter who – after getting a load of buckshot in his pants – is won over to the conservation cause. Fred Zinnemann’s multi Academy Award®-winning A Man for All Seasons (1966) [available on Blu-ray here:] casts Welles as the crafty cleric with a cause, His Majesty’s grandiosely grumbling chancellor-with-a-cause Cardinal Wolsey, who inveigles to steer the stalwart Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) toward enabling King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) to remarry in order to produce a male heir. In just a few minutes of screen time and garbed in the gargantuan crimson robes of his office, Welles embodied a lifetime of wily but wearied statecraft and the bitter diminishment of a man whose power is seeping away in the backwash of political expediency. Back with director Huston in the depths of Cold War espionage and sporting a persuasive Russian accent, Welles fuels the sinister, ever-tightening tone of the dense, tension-charged thriller The Kremlin Letter (1970) [available on DVD here:] as a conniving and traitorous Soviet official blackmailed into help American operatives elude the KGB. It was on the set of The Kremlin Letter that Welles approached Huston about a movie he had in mind about a once-great director planning a comeback, to be called The Other Side of the Wind, a film he and Huston (playing the director) would later shoot and is reportedly in the works for completion and exhibition in the near future. So even three decades after his death, Welles endures as a primal touchstone of Cinema 101 for moviemakers and movie addicts – and may still surprise us even yet. At the very least, another fine film teaming director Huston and actor Welles sets sail on TT hi-def Blu-ray later this year.