Orson Welles Undone

DATELINE:Roots of Career Destruction

  Distraught Orson!

If you want to trace the root of all the problems of the great director Orson Welles, you can go straight to Rio. After the fame and accolades of Citizen Kane, Welles took on two simultaneous projects –Magnificent Ambersons and Journey into Fear. 

They filmed at adjoining sound stages at RKO, and he ran from one to the other in costume, trying to act and/or direct. Both are stunning films, but flawed. If only he had put full attention to each.

That’s when Nelson Rockefeller called and told him he had a duty to build bridges with South America to stop any Nazi foothold from developing. He went there on a good will trip to make a documentary—and the rest is catastrophe.

It’s All True is the name of this doc, and it was to be the name of three films made in Brazil. Alas, he went down there with no specific plan—but to research and film. He decided to make a film about the political and social conditions by showing the history of samba. Welles is quite a sympathetic figure here.

In the middle of trying to put together rushes and a plot, RKO underwent change of ownership—and shelved his project, leaving Welles in the lurch.

As he was about to film a voodoo ceremony, he could not pay the participants. One ringleader visited, quite upset, and put a spike with red ribbon through the script It was a curse of the moviedom and doom.

Welles knew it, and he spent the rest of his career trying to finish films when money ran out. He knew he should have simply moved on, but could not.

This film would have been fascinating if it had focused on the problems of making his movies—but most of the footage he made was found in 1985. It actually comprises (without soundtrack) more than half of this film.

Beautiful footage may well tell us masterpieces were lost. However, we don’t need more than one bite to prove the point. Overlong and overkill marks this 1993 attempt to show the master’s work, rather than the master at work.