The Sorry State of Orson Welles on DVD

The Sorry State of Orson Welles on DVD

Sep 14, 2011

The greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane, makes its Blu-Ray debut this week, and will also be available in a new DVD edition. Of course, there's no scientific or definitive way to judge "the greatest movie ever made," but the fact is that Kane routinely tops most lists and polls of the best of the best. Thankfully it's no stiff, stuffy classic. It's very easy and fun to watch, contains many quotable lines, and holds up to many viewings.
 
But what about its maker, Orson Welles? Is he also the greatest filmmaker of all time? Most polls say 'yes,' but if so, then what's up with the rest of Welles' filmography? Where are those films? The general belief is that, after Welles came to Hollywood at age 25 and made his first film with complete and total freedom, everything else represented a long, slow decline. That's simply not the case. While Welles never had total freedom ever again, that definitely does not translate into a string of failures. He was brilliant enough and talented enough that his vision came through regardless of his budget constraints, investors or producers.
 
And so it's time to revisit all of Welles' 13-plus completed features as director, and check out their status on DVD and/or Blu-Ray in the United States. The list, as you'll see, is rather sorry. Let's hope it does not stay this way.
 
Citizen Kane (1941)
Warner Home Video, which holds the rights to the RKO vaults, released this on DVD in 2001. The two-disc set came with two great commentary tracks by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich (the latter of whom interviewed and befriended Welles during his later years). Unfortunately the DVD technology of the time left the picture looking a little too scrubbed and clean; the film grain was gone, and it never looked quite right. According to DVDBeaver, the new Blu-Ray corrects this problem and restores the film to its best possible self.

DVD Score: Outstanding
 
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Welles went into production on his second film, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel, rather quickly. It's a great film, and even richer than Kane in some ways, but RKO famously butchered it, chopping it from 132 minutes down to 88 minutes, while Welles was away in South America working on his would-be third film. Strangely, it has NEVER been available on DVD in the United States. Even more perplexing is that now Warner has chosen to release it as part of a package deal: fans may only purchase it along with the Kane Blu-Ray for $80 retail.

DVD Score: Unacceptable


 
 

Journey Into Fear (1943)
Welles insisted he did not direct this 68-minute crime movie, and that he was only on set long enough to play his supporting part. But it has a decidedly Wellesian touch, and it's worth looking into. Some years back, Warner announced plans to release both this and Ambersons on DVD, but as of this week, there's no news of Journey Into Fear being available at all.

DVD Score: Unavailable
 
The Stranger (1946)
After his financial failures and his departure from RKO, Welles slunk back to Hollywood and agreed to make a routine, moneymaking thriller for producer Sam Spiegel. In it, Edward G. Robinson plays a Nazi hunter looking for a notorious criminal in a small town. It's probably Welles' least interesting movie, but it's a thousand times better than most ordinary movies. It fell into the public domain and has been available in many cheap DVD editions, but fortunately, MGM finally produced an official release in 2007. Earlier this year, a Blu-Ray edition surfaced, but it turned out to be just another public domain release; the image was soft and waxy. It's the only case I can think of in which the DVD is superior to the Blu-Ray.

DVD Score: Acceptable


 
 

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Welles reportedly pitched this movie to Columbia Pictures by randomly grabbing a nearby pulp paperback and reading the title over the phone. It didn't hurt that he could also offer his then-wife Rita Hayworth in the lead role. Unfortunately, Welles irked the studio heads by cutting off her astoundingly luscious locks and dying her remaining hair blond. (They divorced soon after.) Nonetheless, the finished film is a wonderfully weird film noir with a decidedly off-kilter mood and a memorable house-of-mirrors finale. Sony released a DVD in 2000 that is still in print and is perfectly acceptable (it has a good Bogdanovich commentary track as well).

DVD Score: Acceptable
 
Macbeth (1948)
Like John Ford and other great filmmakers, Welles found a brief home at the low budget "B" studio Republic Pictures, where he shot his first Shakespeare adaptation, playing the title role himself, and casting young Roddy McDowall as "Malcolm." Drawing on his radio background, Welles used an experimental technique to speed up the production; he shot the entire thing without sound and dubbed everything later in the studio. As a result, the synching is a bit... off, but it works well with the film's nightmarish quality. If you live in the UK or have a region-free DVD player, you can get a DVD of this, but if you're looking for a Region 1, United States release, it doesn't exist yet.

DVD Score: Unacceptable
 
Othello (1952)
This one is very confusing. In 1992, Welles' daughter Beatrice arranged for a restoration of Othello, which was re-released to theaters. It used computers to re-sync the sound to make it match up with the actors' lips a bit more closely, and slightly tweaked the music score as well. It was hailed as a great success, but some purists griped that it had been altered from Welles' original vision. Soon after, the Criterion Collection issued a deluxe laserdisc that contained Welles' original version, which won the Grand Prize at Cannes, and not Beatrice's cut. In 1999, Beatrice's version was released on an American, Region 1 DVD, with the original cut nowhere in sight. Now that DVD has gone out of print, and the movie isn't available anywhere. My dream release would be a three-disc set, with both versions of the film, plus Welles' later documentary Filming Othello as a bonus. Until then, this is a fail.

DVD Score: Unacceptable


 
Mr. Arkadin (1955)
At last, saner heads prevail. Like many of Welles' films, this one existed in many cuts. Mr. Arkadin was the U.S. release, and the slightly longer, European release was called Confidential Report. The Criterion Collection DVD box set contains both of those cuts, plus a new "definitive" cut, which tries to come as closely as possible to Welles' original plan. It's usually not listed among Welles' best films, but it's notable for being the only original screenplay in his filmography aside from Citizen Kane, and taken bit by bit, it's absolutely dazzling.

DVD Score: Outstanding
 
The Fountain of Youth (1958)
Based on a story by John Collier, this was a half-hour TV pilot that never aired. Welles hosted, introducing the characters and story, a love triangle involving a scientist and a youth formula. It's surprisingly economic and spare, but still moves well and looks great. Of course, it's not available on DVD, but as of this writing, it is at least available on YouTube.

DVD Score: Unavailable
 

 
Touch of Evil (1958)
A great, twisted film noir starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, this is probably Welles' best-known and best-loved film outside of Citizen Kane. Made at Universal, it marked Welles' return to Hollywood -- with a push from Heston -- and also his last film at a Hollywood studio. After this, he only received funding from Europe. In its day, it was released in a 96-minute cut, and years later, a 109-minute pre-release version was discovered. In 1998, editor extraordinaire Walter Murch put together a 111-minute cut that closely followed Welles' notes; the result was a much cleaner, more logical movie, though -- once again -- some purists prefer the 109-minute cut. Happily, in 2008, Universal released a super-deluxe DVD set with all three cuts. However, some people still found something to complain about: all three cuts are presented in a matted 1:1.85 widescreen format, and there is some speculation as to whether the film should have been presented in 1:1.33, as it was shot. (At the time some movies were shot in 1:1.33 with the full intention that they would be matted during projection, but no one seems to know whether this was the case with Touch of Evil.) This tiny technical quibble aside, the Touch of Evil DVD set is still essential.

DVD Score: Outstanding


 
The Trial (1962)
According to Bogdanovich's interviews, Welles had complete control over everything on this film except the music, and the fact that producers Alexander and Michael Salkind (who later came to Hollywood to make Superman) asked him to choose from a list of pre-existing projects. The finished movie is one of my favorites, with Welles making great advances into capturing an eerie dreamlike mood as poor Anthony Perkins tries to figure out what he's accused of and why. This was restored and re-released in 1999, and Milestone released a DVD later that year. It's now out of print, and we could certainly use an updated, remastered version, given that 1999 DVD technology was fairly primitive. Additionally, like The Stranger, this movie is in the public domain, so there are multiple cheap, low-quality versions available.

DVD Score: Unavailable
 
Chimes at Midnight (1966)
My favorite Welles movie, this one mashes up bits of five Shakespeare plays to tell the complete story of Falstaff (played by the enormous Welles himself). It features some astounding cinematography, with some of the most amazing battle sequences ever filmed. It also used the same soundless shooting style of Macbeth, and the audio is pretty messed up. Even so, that doesn't detract from the movie's immense power. For such a masterpiece, this one is arguably the most glaring omission in Welles' canon. It's available in a fairly expensive Spanish DVD, and you need an all-region player to watch it. Amazon also has for sale a suspicious-looking release (from "Hollywood's Attic"); some customers praise it and other say it's a cheap knockoff.

DVD Score: Unavailable
 
The Immortal Story (1968)
Welles made this terrific, moody, hour-long movie for French TV, and it was to be the first in a series of Isak Dinesen adaptations. Unfortunately, it was also the last. Welles stars with Jeanne Moreau in a tale of a wealthy old man who pays to make a fictional story come true. I saw it once on a very shoddy bootleg VHS tape, and as of today it doesn't appear to be available, at all, in any format, in any country. (I have heard reports of an Italian DVD, now out of print, that contained a truncated cut.)

DVD Score: Unavailable


 
F for Fake (1973)

Hurray! The Criterion Collection rescued this remarkable quasi-documentary and gave it a proper DVD release in 2005. According to legend, Welles inherited some footage about the art forger Elmyr de Hory and edited it into a larger essay film about fakery in general (including a bit about his own infamous "War of the Worlds" radio scandal). Better still, a bonus disc includes a German documentary, Orson Welles: One-Man Band (1995), which is a treasure trove of clips from unreleased and unfinished Welles films.

DVD Score: Outstanding
 
The Other Side of the Wind (1976)
Peter Bogdanovich told me in a 2002 interview that this legendary film was "closer than ever" to being released. Apparently, the footage is owned by three different parties and they have never been able to agree on profits or percentages or whatnot. From clips, it looks amazing, like a true breakthrough in dizzying editing; it stars John Huston as a filmmaker, with many of Welles friends and colleagues in supporting parts.

DVD Score: Unavailable
 
Filming Othello (1978)
Many years after the fact, Welles was given money to shoot a "making of" documentary about Othello. Most of the footage consists of Welles sitting around an editing bay, showing clips of the film (without sound) and talking about its troubled history. He also films a dinner conversation between himself and two of the actors. This really should be an extra on a deluxe Othello set, but it's a fascinating documentary all by itself. It's not available on DVD, but I recently found it at archive.org.

DVD Score: Unavailable
 
Don Quixote (1992)
Welles was tilting at windmills with this one. According to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Welles' post-modern adaptation of Cervantes remains unfinished; Rosenbaum speculates that Welles was happier that way. If the film were never finished, then it could never be judged by critics or box-office. Unfinished, it remained "perfect." Nevertheless, in 1992 -- seven years after Welles' death -- the Spanish schlockmeister Jesus Franco prepared a 116-minute cut that was shown at film festivals -- to disastrous reviews. That cut is available on DVD, but I have not yet been able to bring myself to watch it.

DVD Score: Unacceptable/Unavailable
 
It's All True (1993)
During WWII, Welles was sent to Brazil to participate in the Good Neighor policy, and to make his third movie there. This is actually a documentary about that unfinished project, but it contains some gorgeous footage directed by Welles. The documentary is interesting, but it's more like a footnote than anything essential. Paramount released a basic DVD in 2004.

DVD Score: Acceptable

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