There is a common narrative surrounding Orson Welles that he was too ambitious for the studio system of his day; the final edits of his movies were rarely under his control after his first film, and his ability to secure budgets was notoriously insecure. Yet, amongst this chaos, the man behind Citizen Kane (1941) produced a range of innovative films that almost always nudged at the boundaries of cinematic convention. Indeed, his relentless sense of roguishness and subversion make him one of the most entertaining and approachable directors in the canon.

Unlike other auteurs of classic Hollywood such as his friend and collaborator John Huston, Welles saw cinema as a playground in which he could forge and investigate his own identity, and this makes some of his works surprisingly experimental and contemporary. Kane is of course the most recognisable, and for good reason (though his first film was almost an insanely ambitious adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). In it, burgeoning filmmaking techniques and the grandeur of the studio system converge in what is still the pre-eminent debut film: a true symbol of the young director as artist and pioneer.

Courtesy of: RKO Radio Pictures

Citizen Kane is an expertly crafted exploration of a newspaper tycoon’s success and eventual downfall, finishing in complete alienation. Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz approach this material in a deeply elliptical and engrossing way, heightening the sense of tragedy by distilling a man’s life into a set of irreconcilable fragments. 

Welles’s deep-focus compositions (no doubt influenced by Jean Renoir) lucidly depict Charles Foster Kane in the luxurious and gargantuan mansion Xanadu, anticipating the complex imagery and depth of character that distinguishes his later films. Despite the gravity of its themes, Kane too suggests that the signs of Welles the rascal were never particularly far away. The scenes of the young entrepreneur are lush and energetic, depicting a flamboyant and charming man who, while played by Welles himself, sours in a way that he never did.

Courtesy of: RKO Radio Pictures

Following this was a discomforting masterpiece of familial tension, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which, despite being a rather austere drama with no appearance from the man himself, still manages to emphasise Welles as a showman through its spoken director credit. Ironically – in the face of such blatant appeals to authorship – the movie has become one of the most famous examples of a studio butchering a great film. It remains an amazing watch, however, with blistering and tight performances across the board.

His next work The Stranger (1946), a noir of small-town anxieties featuring Welles as an incognito Nazi hiding amongst the suburbs, was often unfairly compared to Hitchcock’s brilliant Shadow of a Doubt (1946), which also depicts an unassuming killer on the loose in Americana. Alongside The Lady from Shanghai (1947), it proved that the filmmaker of the earlier, weighty dramas could make genre films as vivid and as startling as those of Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder. What unites these brilliant movies is an utterly inimitable visual style, and you only need to bear witness to the clock tower in The Stranger and the oft-referenced hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai to see this in action.

Courtesy of: RKO Radio Pictures

At this point – with most of his films surviving studio tampering – it’s fair to assume Welles was perhaps becoming a little disillusioned with the world of filmmaking. Yet, if anything, he went even further into crafting passion projects. Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1951) may turn some people off with their subject matter; they are certainly some of the less approachable of his oeuvre, yet, with their expressionistic compositions and catastrophic renditions of Shakespearean drama, they are well worth seeking out. 

Touch of Evil (1958) is the next undeniable heavy hitter. Often construed as the endpoint of the classical era of noir films, it stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as a couple victimised by the schemes of Welles’ aged and alcoholic police chief Hank Quinlan. The opening scene, a breathless one-take tracking shot of a car rigged with explosives, is appropriately lauded. In it, we witness a meticulous spectacle of diverse camera angles and seething atmosphere; we return to the playfulness of his earlier films and his self-aggrandising but impressive mastery of the form. 

Courtesy of: Universal International

Touch of Evil was in some ways the zenith of his Hollywood genre movies, but it was also the breaking point. After it, Welles’ career became a more sporadic and challenging affair. He spent his days chasing investors for projects that would end up obscured or abandoned.  But the final few films he did manage to complete cemented his prime status as a playful and bold innovator, none more so than Chimes at Midnight (1965), one of the great Shakespeare films.

Despite being a work of adaptation, Chimes has lent itself to autobiographical readings from critics who view Welles’ Falstaff as a kind of analogous figure to the director himself, growing old and eventually being rejected by the system that produced him. It is just as ambitious and conceptually grand as F for Fake (1973) and The Other Side of the Wind (2018), but lacks their radical editing. In these final films, the latter completed posthumously by close friend and colleague Peter Bogdanovich and producer Frank Marshall, a myriad of perspectives compete and jar to create what may be described as a polyphonic, explorative cinema.

Courtesy of: Planfilm

F for Fake was the last completed film of Welles’ lifetime, and it showed him returning once again to his tricky and self-reflexive instincts. It is touching and appropriate that in it, the filmmaker fashions himself as a kind of magician, constructing a movie that questions ideas of authorship and authenticity by documenting some of the world’s most famous forgers and fakers. Like these indistinct, shifting figures, he was a man who constantly reinvented himself in his art, but, crucially, took his audience along every step of the way.

Top Five Orson Welles Films (in chronological order):

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane

Courtesy of: RKO Radio Pictures

Truly the Citizen Kane of this list, it’s impossible to go wrong with this one except by getting too bogged down in its lofty reputation. Indeed, while the status of “greatest movie ever” may conjure images of cobwebs for those who aren’t avid fans of classic Hollywood, each indelible scene suggests that Welles was a young director riding a wave of utter ambition and excitement.

Currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Courtesy of: RKO Radio Pictures

Ambersons, while still noticeably a victim of studio-led savagery, is such an enduringly expressive work, full of majestic tracking shots and shadowy environments. Like the previous film, its deep compositions and poetic realism are something of a high-water mark in American cinema.

Currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer

Touch of Evil (1958)

Courtesy of: Universal International

An excellent, stylish, and morally complex noir about a border town and the characters who are slowly and insecurely slipping through its cracks. All versions are good, but the reconstructed one made through consulting Welles’ wealth of notes is essential.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Courtesy of: Peppercorn-Wormser Film Enterprises

Arguably the pinnacle of all Shakespeare adaptations, Chimes at Midnight conflates the Henry plays into a tragic and mournful portrait of the drunkard Falstaff. The dialogue may be slightly hard to discern at first, but the film contains some of the most innovative, visceral, and unique sequences of Welles’ entire career.

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

Courtesy of: Netflix UK

My personal favourite of the experimental films that mark the end of his illustrious career: endlessly inventive, jarring, and monumental. A movie that, even when released more than 30 years after its creator’s death, feels impossibly fresh and brilliant.