Visual gems from Orson Welles's masterpieces

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Orson Welles, an eccentric and visionary director, has studded his films with sequences that have remained in the history of cinema as examples of absolute mastery of technical means as well as the ability to translate meanings and emotions into powerful and evocative images. Starting with his first feature film, Citizen Kane, Welles has profoundly innovated the use of film language, bringing to maximum maturity what cinema had produced up to then, and, at the same time, bending the expressive means of cinema itself to his vision. The "visual gems" that follow are just a small example of the many elements of film language that Welles was able to master: from mise-en-scène to the use of lights, from focus choice to depth of field, from camera movements to editing, from special effects to soundtrack and music.

A tip: it is useful to first watch each sequence from start to finish, and then watch it again while reading the side comments.

For a detailed discussion of film language, see the appropriate section of this site. The terms in bold in the following texts are given a brief definition (from Film terminology and other resources, Pennsylvania State University - Integrative arts).

Citizen Kane (USA 1941)

Against a gloomy dark background, and with an equally disturbing background music, the camera immediately frames a sign: "No trespassing", and then begins to rise upwards, with an iron grid in close-up shot (*). From this moment on, we will approach our destination through a series of fades (*): we see a wrought iron gate appear and then in the distance, the silhouette of a castle, almost a fairytale manor, with a single lit up window ... Then, on the left, two monkeys in a cage, then two gondolas ... until the camera, ignoring the initial sign, takes us in front of a sumptuous door, with the window now lit up on the right. We are now immediately outside the window: the light inside goes out, and the music stops abruptly; then light and music start again. The screen is filled with a heavy snowfall on a small house ... which immediately turns out to be unreal: it is inside a glass ball, held by a hand. Cut (*) to a pair of male lips pronouncing the word "Rosebud", then the hand drops the ball, which shatters to the ground. A fragment of glass frames the figure of a nurse, distorting it. Cut to a close-up of the nurse's hands crossing the man's hands on his chest: then we see the black silhouette of the nurse covering the man's head with a sheet. Fade in, back to the window from outside, then fade out. This is the introduction to the fantastic and picturesque manor of the tycoon Charles Foster Kane, whose life the film will tell, starting from the moment of his death.

Shot: A single uninterrupted action of a camera as seen by a viewer. Shots are labeled according to the apparent distance of the subject from the camera: extreme long-shot; long-shot; medium long-shot; medium or mid-shot; medium close-up; close-up; and extreme close-up (ECU).
Fade: A transitional device in which either an image gradually dims until the viewer sees only a black screen (Fade-Out) or an image slowly emerges from a black screen to a clear and bright picture (Fade-In). 
Cut: The separation of two pieces of action as a "transition" (used when one says, e.g. "cut from the shot of the boy to the shot of the girl").

A manuscript introduces us to Kane's childhood: "I first encountered Mr. Kane for the first time in 1871" and a quick fade shows us a boy playing in the snow with a sled, throwing snowballs, in a long shot, one of which hits a sign: "Mrs. Kane's Pension". With a backward movement of the camera, the child is then framed by a window, with his his mother yelling at him to be careful. Continuing in its uninterrupted backward movement, the camera frames, in addition to the mother, the father and Mr. Thatcher, to whom the parents intend to entrust the child. Still backing away, the camera shows us the adults walking into another room, and here we stop: the mother and Thatcher, now in middle-close-up, sit down to sign the fostering papers, while the father, standing in middle shot, continues to express his dissent. Meanwhile, the child is almost always visible (and audible), in long shot, through the window.

We therefore have three levels of vision: in middle-close-up, the mother and Mr. Thatcher, in medium shot the father in the doorway, in the long shot the child. The camera starts moving again to frame the signature of the documents and the father going to close the window; then it starts its reverse path, towards the window, following the mother (and Thatcher), who reopens the window. Only at this point is there a cut, with the mother's face in close-up looking outwards, towards the child, with the figures of the two men on either side, in medium shot. The camera starts moving again, coming out of the window, to frame the three characters outside: behind a snowman we see the child framed between his mother and Mr. Thatcher, on the left, and the father in medium shot. The shot changes immediately: now the father and the child are close, while in middle shot, to the side, we see the mother and Mr. Thatcher. Now the child is close-up between the two: visibly annoyed by the plans that the adults are explaining to him, he throws the sled at Mr. Thatcher, running away, to be immediately taken back. Only at this point do we have a cut that shows us the mother's face in extreme close-up, looking towards an extreme close-up of  the child, who now looks upwards with a hard and resentful but at the same time determined expression.

Together with the long take (*), here Welles uses depth of field (*) to increase the effect of realism, thus playing on several planes of variable depth: these integrate different actions and characters in the same image, keeping them all in focus and at the same time avoiding cuts.

Long take: A shot that is allowed to continue for longer than usual without editing.
Depth of field: The area within which objects are in focus; a large depth of field allows a great range of objects to be in focus simultaneously, while a shallow depth of field offers a very limited area in focus.

Citizen Kane (USA 1941)
Citizen Kane (USA 1941) This sequence begins in a retirement home, where Kane's best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), interviewed about Kane's life, remembers Kane's marriage. A crossfade (*) takes us back to the early days of this marriage. We are at the breakfast table: Kane, before sitting down, kisses his wife, who regrets that her husband has to leave her alone, to work at his newspaper: Kane tells her that "she shouldn't have married a man of the press": the camera slowly approaches the two ... then, a series of shots/reverse shots (*) of the two shows them as young, smiling couple, happily in love ... A swish pan (*) (at 01:16) takes us to the future. It is clear that the scene has now moved forward: husband and wife are visibly older, and the wife has a slightly disappointed expression as she asks her husband, "Do you know how long I had to wait for you last night. ...? " A new series of shots/reverse shots, but now large bouquets of flowers stand betrween the two ... Another swish pan advances the scene for a few more years, while the wife's complaints continue with a sound bridge that links the two sequences: always at the breakfast table, still a little older, and always with the wife complaining about her husband's absence. A new swish pan, accompanied by a new sound bridge, shows us the two, visibly aged ...  New sequences for later moments in time: the tones of voice are harsher, the looks more hostile ... until, in the last scene, the two don't even talk anymore: each reads the newspaper by her/himself. At this point the shots/reverse shots are over: the camera moves back and shows the couple, always sitting at the same table ...

The progressive deterioration of this marriage over time is rendered, above all visually, with an accurate editing (*) of a series of shots/reverse shots that focus on the faces of the characters, their expressions and the tones of their voices. The years and decades that elapse between the initial medium shot (which shows the two of them sitting at the table) and the corresponding final medium shot are summarized in a rapid succession of scenes, linked by swish pans and sound bridges, which give us almost the impression of an uninterrupted dialogue, up to the final silence and emotional detachment.

Cross-fade: An image gradually fading into another one.
Reverse shot: A shot from the other side of the previous shot, such as cutting between two characters talking, a person exiting and entering though a doorway.
Swish pan - A quick pan from one position to another caused by spinning the camera on its vertical axis and resulting in a blurring of details between the two points. Sometimes a swish pan is used as a transition by creating a blur and then ending the blur at an action in an entirely different place or time.
Editing: The process of splicing individual shots together into a complete film.

We are now at the end of the film: after the death of Kane, who had accumulated over time an immense heritage of works of art, picturesque objects and various curiosities, it is time to empty the manor and to transfer or eliminate the colourful content of this huge warehouse. The camera begins to frame a group of people who are wondering about the mystery (a "puzzle") of Kane's life, and in particular the mystery of the word "rosebud", which he pronounced on his deathbed. "Maybe it's something he couldn't have, or something he lost," ventures one of the people. Meanwhile, the camera, shooting this scene from above, slowly moves away, higher and higher, discovering more and more of the mass of objects, while the human figures shrink, at the same time magnifying the environment overloaded with things. A crossfade introduces another slow motion of the camera above a myriad of crates and objects, gliding down to frame the hands of a man lifting a sled ... Cut to a furnace where some men are standing throwing objects ... the camera quickly approaches the sled that is burning, while the musical soundtrack becomes more drammatic and gloomy ... With a zoom (*), the camera approaches the sled, and with a fade it frames the word " Rosebud "... Fade to black, and now we see Kane's castle, with a smoking chimney ... the smoke rises until the metal grate with the "No trespassing "sign reappears ... and another fade opens to a final view of Kane's manor, towering in the background. Kane's parable thus comes to the conclusion: the mystery of his life remains, but we viewers are allowed to discover the meaning and value of the word "Rosebud" - a childhood memory that seals and condenses an entire life.

Zoom shot:  A shot accomplished with a lens capable of smoothly and continuously changing focal lengths from wide-angle to telephoto (zoom in) or telephoto to wide-angle (zoom out).
Citizen Kane (USA 1941)
The magnificent Ambersons (USA 1942)
A narrator (Orson Welles) introduces the story of the wealthy Amberson family, "whose magnificence began in 1873". The first sequences of the film make us relive the spirit of that distant time, in which everyone knew each other in the city, and the only "novelty" in terms of transport was the horse-drawn tram: this would  stop in front of the house, waiting for the lady to close the window, put on her hat, take her umbrella and finally reaching the vehicle ... "All too slow for us today, because the faster we are carried, the less time we have to spare" (the film will actually focus on changes due to the arrival of the automobile). A series of funny and ironic scenes follows, showing how quickly men's fashion changed, in terms of hats, shoes, trousers, evening suits ... "But then, you had time for everything". .. We then see the snow-covered Amberson house, and the narrator's voice that reminds us of the parties, the dances, the serenades that in the summer men used to perform below the window of their beloved ... except when they happened to trip and fall ...

A further illustration of the magnificence of the Ambersons follows: in a tightly edited sequence, we see close-ups of the faces of some fellow citizens commenting: "$ 50,000 just for the woodwork alone ... hot and cold running water ... both below and upstairs ... and a washbaasin in every single bedroom!".

Still in an ironic tone, we see Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) trying in vain to woo Isabel Anderson, under the gaze and comments of the people ... but also the same Morgan driving a puffing car in front of the Ambersons' house ...

In this sequence, Michael (Orson Welles) meets his mistress Elsa (Rita Hayworth, then his real wife) in an aquarium, to discuss the details of a plan that could finally allow them to be together, by getting rid of her husband. The whole sequence is shot in the darkness of the place, where the lights come mainly from the tanks. At first we see a huge octopus, then Michael's figure silhouetted against a tank ... A series of shots/reverse shots of him and Elsa follows: "I've never seen in an aquarium. Be my guide," he says. "I couldn't think where else we could meet ... only schoolchildren come here", she answers, while the background is filled with the shadows of the fish. As the two passionately kiss ... cut to a group of schoolchildren, in a long shot, entering the room (note the sudden change in the soundtrack). The two lovers move, and they always appear as black silhouettes against the light of the tanks. In shot/reverse shots, only Elsa's face is lit. Note in particular, at 01:36, the menacing image of a large fish behind Elsa, who is now reading a letter, part of the criminal plan, while in the background sharks appear ... a clear symbolic image, which makes the environment an objective correlate of the crime being planned - with the two lovers still as black silhouettes ... Until we get extreme close-ups of the profiles of the couple (03:22), and thenl the final kiss ...

The lady from Shanghai (USA 1947)

The lady from Shanghai (USA 1947)

But of course, in a "film noir" like this, not everything goes as planned, and Michael finds himself dealing with a double-crossing "dark lady" or "femme fatale" ... The final showdown takes place in a very famous sequence, where the "perverse triangle" of Michael, Elsa and her husband appear inside a "labyrinth of mirrors" in an amusement park. Here the figures split, multiply, and reality merges with illusion. The relationships between these people are shown for what they are: impossibility of distinguishing true from false and fidelity from betrayal, and a symbolic confusion which no longer allows us to tell the authentic characters from their doubles (and the relationships among them crumble into a myriad of alternatives, all false and all true at the same time). The final shots sees this whole system of falsehood and ambiguity collapse, with a shower of broken glass that multiplies the confusion and makes the distinction impossible (as the husband says to Elsa: "Killing you is like killing myself").
In Welles's version of the Shakespearean tragedy, the film opens and ends with the funeral of Othello and Desdemona. We first see the coffin, carried by four men, who open a procession of figures, whose black silhouettes stand out against the sky, with a gloomy and dramatic musical background accompanied by tolling bells and, shortly after, by a choir, as if to render the tragic sacrality of the moment. There follow excited scenes of soldiers, in medium shots alternating with long shots, and Iago being pushed inside a wooden cage. The image of closed places, such as cages, grids, barred windows, signals the prevailing theme of the film, the story of characters trapped, physically but even more symbolically, by a destiny that unites them - a destiny well rendered by Iago's words, "I will build the net that will ensnare them all". The audience, too, is often forced to watch the scenes through grids or fences, as in this case, in which we see Iago thrown into the cage, his face in close-up, trapped, and then, through his eyes, what he sees from inside the cage itself. With a series of quick cuts, we witness the raising of the cage, also seen through the eyes of characters looking upwards (e.g. at 00:52 and 01:13). Long shots of the castle seen from below quickly alternate with close-ups of Iago inside the cage, and images of the procession from above, projecting long black shadows onto the ground.
Othello (Morocco/Italy/France/USA 1952)

Othello (Morocco/Italy/France/USA 1952)
The scene of Desdemona'smurder starts from a gloomy vision of the dark interior of the castle, in which the black silhouette of a powerful figure grows to fill the entire frame. The musical commentary consists of piano touches and a dark rhythm, which is accompanied by the choir. Fade - we now see, through a grid (the recurring motif of the trap), Desdemona's face, while the black shape towers over her. Fade to black, and in the almost total darkness we glimpse Othello's face, again through the grid, in extreme close-up, as we hear his voice: "I will not leave blood or scars on her snow-white skin as smooth as alabaster ... and yet she must die." The figure of Desdemona lying on the bed alternates with the image of the interior of the castle, through a series of quick cuts. Suddenly we see the threatening figure of Othello, shot from below, filling in the frame again, while the music shows an equally sudden peak. Extreme close-ups of Desdemona asleep alternate with the figure of Othello, who blows out a candle, prefiguring the extinguishing of Desdemona's life - opening her eyes, she says, "Othello, will you come to bed, my lord?". Visions of Desdemona alternate with close-ups of Othello above her, then a series of shots/reverse shots accompany Othello's accusations and Desdemona's self-defense - the light bathing her face now piercing the darkness in which the tragedy takes place ... until Othello's face, lit only in profile, fills the frame ... "Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight!". "It's too late," replies Othello, covering her face with a sheet. Othello's close-up is matched by the ghostly white mask of Desdemona's face, whose features are clearly visible under the texture of the fabric ...

This short sequence shows us Welles's ability to describe the simple arrival of a character by framing him from different camera angles within the structure of a building. A close-up of snow-covered carriages frames an opening in the background, through which we see our character arrive, at first an indistinct point in a very long shot, walking towards the fixed camera, gradually approaching up to a medium shot. The figure - just a black silhouette - almost fills the frame, exiting to the right. Cut - the same silhouette fills the next shot, but this time away from the camera. New cut - now we see the man from the top of a staircase, then the same going up the stairs - and at this point, with a backward zoom, the stairs gradually move away, framed by a door, through which the camera seems to exit,until the image becomes a point on the black screen ... as the musical commentary comes to an end.
Mr. Arkadin (Switzerland/Spain 1955)

Touch of evil (USA 1958)
And here is the famous opening long take of Touch of evil. The sequence opens on a hand in close-up that activates a timer (we understand this is a bomb). The camera runs after the man, who reaches a car, opens the trunk, (we suppose) leaves the bomb, and then runs away. The camera rises above the car, showing a couple getting into it. The camera rises again, runs over a roof, and then moves down a street lit by a neon sign. We see the car entering the street, then the camera rises, as the shot widens on a crossroads where a policeman regulates the traffic. We still follow the car, which stops to let pedestrians pass, until the camera lowers to the left, to frame some arcades and a couple walking on the sidewalk. The camera follows them, while the car overtakes them and exits the frame on the left. With a backwards tracking shot, we still follow the couple, until the camera moves away when we reach a barrier: we understand that it is a border crossing. We see the car pass slowly, in the centre of the frame, while the couple continues to walk on the right. We hear a voice, "Are you American citizens?" and, while the woman talks to the border officer, the car stops. Then, as the couple exits the frame on the left, the officer walks over to the car and exchanges jokes with the man behind the wheel. The woman in the car says she hears a ticking ... The car also exits on the left, and the camera continues to follow the couple walking, until it frames them in medium shot as they kiss. At this very moment we hear an explosion, and only at this point do we have a cut: 3 minutes and 14 seconds have passed since the beginning of the sequence. We see a medium shot of a fire, then, with a new cut, the couple running towards the place of the explosion.

For another masterful example of a long take, perhaps less impressive but equally effective (a long dialogue among different characters, without cuts), see this sequence from the same film.

In adapting Franz Kafka's The trial, Welles finds a way to express all the absurd rationality of the novel, giving vent to his visionary nature, with shots that express the tragic and at the same time irrational sense of the story. In this sequence, the young employee Joseph (Anthony Perkins) comes face to face with the lawyer (Orson Welles) who is supposed to defend him from the mysterious charge of an indefinite crime. Reality is severely tested in the face of the visions that confuse it: we see Joseph in front of a gloomy architecture, towards which he seems to be walking, when the background suddenly changes and his black silhouette stands out against it. But it is all an illusion: the images are slides manipulated by the lawyer, who also projects his dark silhouette onto the screen (at 00:42). Thus in the same shot we have three simultaneous planes: Joseph, the (illusory) background and the (real but impalpable) silhouette of the lawyer. Joseph seems to want to take control of the dialogue, acting on the projector, with the result of projecting a bank slide, against whose light the figure of the lawyer stands out even more imposingly (01:09). A subsequent movement causes Joseph to appear against the blank slide (01:24), stressing its almost unreal dimension. Shots follow that alternatively show close-ups of the two, but only half of their faces are illuminated (Joseph from left, the lawyer from right), until Joseph, ignoring the appeal of a priest, leaves the real place where the sequence has taken place, a church. All the dialogue is centered on words such as illusion, deception, truth and lie, appearance and reality, meaning and beliefs, madness and rationality ... the verbal counterpart of a visionary and almost dreamlike mise-en-scène and the prelude to the end of Joseph, who, by taking on the role of victim, will eventually accept a death sentence.  
Le procès/The trial (France/Federal Republic of Germany/Italy 1962)



Want to know more?

* Wellesnet, Orson Welles Web Resource, with several links to other sites
* has in-depth articles on his films
* On Wikipedia
* IMDb provides a lengthy, comprehensive list of his productions
* Encyclopaedia Britannica on Welles: articles, facts & data, media, and more
* University of Michigan Library hosts "the most extensive international collection of archives on Welles, including documents, letters, telegrams, scripts, production and financial statements, photographs, illustrations, and audiovisual materials"
* Interview with Dick Cavett (1970)
Interviews and other videos on YouTube:
The Paris interview (1960)
* With Michael Parkinson (1974)
* The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson (1976)
* Final interview (1985, a few hours before he died)

* Arena - The Orson Welles Story - Part 1; Part 2
* Talking Pictures /BBC programme
* Orson Welles documentary


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