America in Welles’ European Films: A Few Speculations

A lecture written circa fall 2002, I forget for which occasion. I’m not even sure if this represents a complete or final draft. This was written before the belated rediscovery of The Third Man in Vienna (not one of the better episodes in Around the World with Orson Welles, alas, and now available on DVD).  — J.R.

My point of departure for this paper is remarks that have been made by myself and others about Orson Welles’ three completed features of the 1950s —- Othello, Mr. Arkadin, and Touch of Evil—- and how these reflect his attitudes towards what was happening in the United States around the same time. More specifically, I’m thinking of my own speculation that Othello (1952) may have something to do with the Hollywood blacklist and witch hunts, and James Naremore’s observation that the character of Van Stratten (Robert Arden) in Mr. Arkadin (1955), “quite by accident, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young, athletic Richard Nixon,” relates to the Cold War (with Arkadin having been modeled to some degree on Josef Stalin and the character of Van Stratten suggesting Richard Nixon in certain respects).

Now I hasten to add that the conscious intentionality of Welles in relation to either of these relationships or many others like them probably fluctuates a good deal, and that this isn’t my only frame of reference. That is, we know from his interview with Peter Bogdanovich that Arkadin was partially based on Stalin, but Welles doesn’t say a word in the same interview about Van Stratten being based on Nixon, accidentically or otherwise. My point is that part of what’s interesting about Mr. Arkadin is how it relates to postwar Europe in general, which includes various aspects of the Cold War, and the battle between Arkadin and Van Stratten over Raina has a good many implications that relate to the Cold War. How much Welles was or wasn’t conscious of this is virtually impossible for us to know, but in the final analysis I don’t think it matters; it’s the consciousness of the film and the consciousness of the audience, then and now, that interests me.

Similarly, I’ve never encountered any direct evidence that Welles thought Othello had anything to do with the blacklist, but the people and events relating to the blacklist were sufficiently part of that period for a certain amount of seepage to have taken place, with or without the artist’s conscious intentions —- and this is something that I believe happens to all storytellers during all periods. To cite a very mundane and unexceptional example from my own background, in 1953, when I was in Times Square with my father during a family trip, we passed an arcade where you could have newspapers with fake headlines printed up. I decided to have one made, and asked my father for a suggestion about a good headline; he proposed, “Jonny Rosenbaum Captures Red Spies” —- and I still have that newspaper with that fake headline today. I don’t think my father as a storyteller believed he was making any sort of ideological statement by making his suggestion; given all that was happening around him in 1953, such an ideological statement could arise quite naturally from all sorts of everyday situations.

Touch of Evil in 1958 provides us with a different kind of example because a good part of it is actually set within the United States. But even in this case, many newsworthy themes of the period relating specifically to America —- such as racism, police corruption, juvenile delinquency, drugs, and surveillance —- are addressed in the film. This is simply another way of saying that this film is both consciously and unconsciously a part of its own time, as every film is.

In any case, another particular reason for addressing Welles’ work in Europe in the 1950s in relation to his thoughts and feelings about America is to explore some of his work that has so far received very little analysis. I’m thinking in particular of his TV series Around the World with Orson Welles, made for British television in 1955, most of which has recently become available on two separate DVDs. Five of the six episodes that were completed, running about 26 minutes each, are included on one DVD (two of them, I should add, are variant versions of the same episode, about the Basque country); one unfinished episode, The Dominici Affair, is included on another DVD, along with a documentary about it by Cristophe Cognet that was shown three years in a rough cut at the Welles conference in Munich. The Cognet documentary also very usefully gives us a rough chronology of when all of these seven episodes were shot; it was basically in July 1955, just after the period when Welles was performing Moby Dick — Rehearsed in London, and at precisely the same time he was filming tests for Don Quixote with Mischa Auer in Spain. And he edited the episodes in August and September, during the same period when his film Othello opened in New York.

75551A72-9175-41BC-A9E3-F076082E9BB.jpg Basque Country

The missing episode, The Third Man in Vienna, was reportedly lost when one of Welles’s associates during this period, Maurice Bessy, borrowed the only copy of the film and then never returned it. I have no idea whether this rumor is true or whether any effort has been made to track down either Bessy, if he’s still alive, or his heirs to find this missing episode. It doesn’t appear that anyone had any particular motivation to destroy it, so it may still exist somewhere. Especially since this is the only episode in the series that dealt with eastern as opposed to western Europe, it would make a fascinating find. But one tends to be handicapped in starting such an investigation insofar as there appears to be very little interest in this series on the part of Welles scholars. Personally, I find it astonishing that over the past several years, a good many articles have been written and published about many Welles spinoffs —- George Hickenlooper’s The Big Brass Ring, Tim Robbins’ The Cradle Will Rock, both an Oscar-nominated documentary and a fiction feature about the making of Citizen Kane, and a TV miniseries that falsely purported to be a remake of The Magnificent Ambersons [allegedly] using Welles’s original script —- which is the only item on this list that I’ve refused to see — but no articles at all, to the best of my knowledge, about the material on either of these DVDs.

How can we account for this discrepancy? I can even report having three years ago proposed writing something about this material for Film Comment, one of the leading American film magazines, which had already run reviews of two or three of these Welles spinoffs, and it immediately became clear they weren’t in the slightest bit interested in or even curious about this material. I should add that the same thing was true when I approached the same magazine years before about publishing the lengthy Orson Welles memo to Universal Pictures about Touch of Evil —- the editor at the time wasn’t interested in reading it, and subsequently gave no coverage to the re-edited version of the film inspired by this memo.

What this suggests to me is that Welles continues to be a subversive and somewhat unmanageable figure in relation to the American mainstream, in spite of the fact that his mythological resonance continues to reverberate, so that one can still bankroll plenty of Welles-related projects nowadays more readily than one can bankroll the completion or release of many works by Welles. This is a vast subject in itself to which I could have devoted a separate paper, and all I want to say about it now is that I believe an important part of this discrepancy comes from the strong puritanical streak in American culture that continues to associate Welles rather fearfully with various kinds of pleasure and freedom -— a puritanical streak that also leads to many American misperceptions about Europe, in my opinion. For example, I suspect the false impression among Americans that “the French” still worship Jerry Lewis —- a notion that had some [limited] truth 30 or 40 years ago —- derives from a fear of what Jerry Lewis reveals about the American character in relation to adolescent sexual hysteria, nouveau riche taste, and megalomania, among other things.

I’m especially intrigued by the importance of Vienna in Welles’s most important work for television, The Fountain of Youth, made the following year. This is an adaptation of a story by John Collier entitled “Youth from Vienna”; its lead character is an American scientist in the 1920s named Humphrey Baxter who falls for and becomes engaged to a Broadway stage actress named Caroline Coates shortly before he sails off to Europe for three years of research studying the ductless glands in Vienna. (This occasions a passing joke by Welles, the narrator, alluding to Freud, although one should note that he was a passionate anti-Freudian.)

Part of what I want to argue here is that much of Welles’s 50s TV work in Europe is implicitly or even explicitly critical of America, and that this accounts in part for why it was never sold to or shown on American TV and why, even today, American Welles scholars have tended to shy away from this work. If I can briefly invoke the name of Freud again, I don’t believe this has necessarily been a conscious reason, but I suspect none the less that it has played a pivotal role in this work being effectively repressed in practically all American accounts of his work, despite the fact that a large part of this work is currently available there now, for the first time —- hiding in plain sight, one might say.

Two episodes from Around the World were shown at this conference this morning, and I believe that one of these, London Pensioners, by celebrating the way some old people are cared for in England, is implicitly offering a reproach to the way that comparable old people are not taken care of in the United States, where state support of this kind is generally frowned upon. The other episode, St.-Germain-des-Pres, doesn’t have this kind of polemical thrust, but it’s worth noting that the person in St.-Germain-des-Pres whom Welles devotes the most time to is an American, Raymond Duncan, who is himself fairly critical in passing about certain kinds of behavior in America, such as the intolerance shown towards his son wearing sandals on Fifth Avenue. In passing, I should note something that Welles for some reason prefers not to mention –that this eccentric individual was the brother of Isadora Duncan, although some of you may have noticed that there’s a poster for an Isadora Duncan Memorial on the wall of his atelier. We also might infer from part of what Raymond Duncan says that he’s wealthy, despite the studied simplicity of his life style, and this issue of class as well as a certain idealism about pre-industrial modes of life is a theme that recurs again and again throughout this TV series. It can even be traced back to a tiny village in Illinois where Welles spent an especially happy part of his childhood with his father, called Grand Detour, in a country hotel where his father often entertained friends from show business.

Significantly, Grand Detour is the only part of Welles’ own past that he was willing to associate with  “Rosebud,” and let me quote a few of the things he said about it to Peter Bogdanovich, all of which seem directly related to several portions of Around the World with Orson Welles: “A childhood there was like a childhood back in the 1870s. No electric light, horse-drawn buggies —- a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life….Grand Detour was one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get thrown out of. It really was kind of invented by my father. He’s the one who kept out the cars and the electric lights. It was one of the ‘Merrie Englands’….I feel as though I’ve had a childhood in the last century from these short summers.”

Let me compare this to a couple of key passages in the very first episode of Around the World which I’ll be showing you shortly and which are in some ways my favorite parts of the whole series. The first part comes at the beginning, and it deals with borders -— a subject that Welles had already touched on a couple of months before on one of the Orson Welles Sketch Book episodes and which would become even more important when he made Touch of Evil, set in a border town, about a year and a half later. I should note in passing that Welles even alludes to the Iron Curtain here, anchoring his remarks in a specific cold war context. [Show “Pays Basque 1,” chapter 1, up to “aboriginal” — almost 2 minutes]

The second part, which takes up close to half of the entire episode, is a very interesting conversation between Welles and an American writer, Lael Tucker Wertenbaker —- not Vertenbaker, which is the name erroneously given on the DVD. Prior to this passage, Welles has mentioned this woman’s recently deceased husband, Charles Wertenbaker, as someone who had been a dear friend of his. You won’t find either his name or his wife’s name mentioned in any Welles biography. (There are many such gaps in all the Welles biographies; another interesting one that comes to mind is the great novelist and Hollywood B-film screenwriter Nathanael West. During my one meeting with Welles, when we were talking about American novelists, he mentioned in passing that he used to hang out with West while he was working for Republic Pictures.) After a little bit of research on the Internet I discovered that Charles Wertenbaker was born in 1901, died in 1955, and was a European-based correspondent for Time magazine. I also discovered that a book by his widow about him, Death of a Man, remains one of her best-known works today. I ordered this book on the Internet, and now that I’ve read it, I can vouch for the fact that Welles is mentioned twice in the book. The first time, she quotes a letter of his to her that immediately makes it clear how intimate a friend he was to both her and her husband. Discussing the fact that Charles Wertenbaker hadn’t told many of his friends that he was dying —- and, in fact, had “redeceived” a couple of them who had guessed, Welles wrote, Ï think that they all rejoiced in that gaiety, which —- since it was clearly a matter of some highly serious private decision, the very opposite of caprice —- we found so overwhelmingly flattering.” The second time, Wertenbaker writes the following: “One early December day when Wert was especially well, we considered asking Orson Welles down for the afternoon, to recite Shakespeare and to talk Bible, bulls, and Botticelli with Wert in the little living room, as he had done several times in the summer after they had met in Pamplona” [where, I should inject, they were both aficionados of the bullfight, the subject of another one of the episodes in Around the World with Orson Welles]. “He was at his brilliant best around Wert and delighted in it, as did Wert.”

This second segment I’d like to show you lasts about 12 minutes, and I’m showing it at this length because of how much it reveals about Welles’ viewpoint. Significantly, it isn’t included in the variant version of this episode, where it’s replaced by a more touristic passage about the popularity of pelote, a form of handball, in the village, in which Welles’s guide is Chris, the boy we see introduced in this segment as well. I’m only guessing about this, but I suspect Welles may have shot two versions of this episode because he was hoping to sell the series to America for syndication and may have thought that this conversation with Lael Tucker might have seemed too intellectual and/or too critical of America. (Another portion of this episode missing in the alternate version that I’m not showing is an extended interview with a Basque shepherd who spent much of his life in Colorado, but who returned to his home town to get married to a woman who speaks only Basque.)

[Show “Pays Basque 1,” chapter 3, Vertenbaker Garden, up to “Basque man” — about 12 ½ minutes.]

Towards the end of this segment, there’s a shot of Basque peasants crossing the mountainous countryside in single file and walking past some crosses that provides an uncanny echo of the funeral of Jacare in the Fortaleza sequence of It’s All True. One reason why I’m bringing this up is that the preindustrial, utopian dream of a simple way of life that I’ve been speaking about, rooted in Welles’ memories of Grand Detour, finds many manifestations in his work.

There are many other things Welles did in Europe during this period that reflect some of his American concerns. One of the most obvious would be his character in The Third Man in 1949, Harry Lime, one of the two Americans featured in the plot —- a charming yet evil scoundrel who became reconfigured as a less evil character in the Harry Lime radio shows Welles made several years later, which wound up furnishing part of the plot of Mr. Arkadin. (A very inventive recycler, Welles also used part of the theme music for Arkadin in St-Germain-Des-Pres, as some of you may have noticed.) Then there’s Viva Italia! —- made as a pilot for but rejected by American network television, where there’s a conscious effort to be more positive about America, sometimes even at the expense of Italy. (For instance, when he’s talking about Rossano Brazzi, whom he says he got to know on a boat to Italy, he compares a photo of Brazzi in an American magazine where he’s posed next to a Greek god with a highly unflattering and hostile photo of him in an Italian newspaper sharing a piece of spaghetti with his wife. And he makes extensive use of cartoons by the American artist Saul Steinberg in depicting Italian life.)

I could also speak about the fascinating exercise in investigative journalism that went into The Dominici Affair —- a very detailed inquiry into the murder of an English family in Provence that anticipates the work of Truman Capote when he wrote In Cold Blood about the brutal murder of an entire family in Kansas, which is a tale with similar class overtones — namely the slaughter of a relatively well-to-do family by a couple of desperately poor men. (One might even postulate a very rough parallel between Welles’ innovative use of sync sound and Capote’s apparent capacity to reproduce entire conversations using his memory, although maybe that’s too much of a stretch.)

But what I’d rather speak about instead is a less obvious topic —- the relation of America to The Trial. I’m thinking especially about the casting of Anthony Perkins as Joseph K., as well as the hoped-for casting of Jackie Gleason in the role of the Advocate — a part ultimately played by another American, namely Welles himself. Especially because no attempt is made to make Perkins speak with any sort of European accent, despite the fact that the film is haunted by evocations of the Holocaust and numerous dingy locations suggesting not only Europe but Old Europe, a persistent sense of collapsed empires.

Why did Welles think of casting Perkins in the lead of this film? One of the suggestions I’ve encountered is that Welles is a specialist in offbeat casting: after all, only a few years earlier, he cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican. But on the other hand, a clear effort was made to make Heston resemble a Mexican whereas virtually no effort at all was made to make Perkins resemble a European — unless one counts the sort of neo-penal Eastern European high-rise his character lives in or the kind of conservative clothes he wears as a minor executive. One possible contributing factor to this casting is Joseph K’s prudishness, combined with the Puritanism associated with Perkins in his most famous role, Norman Bates in Psycho. Perhaps if Welles felt that Alfred Hitchcock had ripped off Touch of Evil a little in Psycho—- with Dennis Weaver prefiguring Perkins as the skittish, lonely individual operating a motel, and Janet Leigh prefiguring Janet Leigh as that motel’s only customer — a reasonable enough assumption, especially since some of the same people at Universal worked on both pictures —- maybe Welles decided it was only fair if he took a little of Norman Bates for his version of Joseph K. (In fact, I can at least say with certainty that Welles did feel a little ripped off by Hitchcock in Psycho because he said this to Peter Bogdanovich on one of the tapes I listed to for This is Orson Welles — a private remark that clearly wasn’t intended for the book, so I hope I can be forgiven for citing it here.)

The Trial is, of course, largely constructed around principles of irrational juxtaposition and surrealist combinations, so throwing a Hollywood actor into the hopper may not be quite as out of place within this scheme as it might first appear  —- especially if Welles was hoping for an American audience and wanted mainstream credentials even when he was making what is in some ways the film in his career that probably comes the closest to what we might call an “arthouse” picture. This is an important facet of Welles’ career that is often overlooked: as an artist who started out as a mainstream figure, especially on the radio, he was never quite able to see himself in other terms, which sometimes handicapped him both in relation to the mainstream and in relation to the arthouse circuits, specifically because he never quite fit in either camp. Many American critics wound up criticizing Welles harshly for the casting of Perkins precisely because he was overstepping the borders of genre, one might say, as well as the solemnity with which he was expected to approach Kafka -— forgetting, of course, that Kafka himself saw his novels as comic, and was disappointed when he read them aloud to his friends and they didn’t laugh. On the other hand, despite the presence in the film of the wonderful Akim Tamiroff — who was already playing Kafkaesque figures in Mr. Arkadin and even Touch of Evil —- the comedy in Welles’ version of The Trial is of a particularly American kind, especially when it gravitates towards lunatic farce; Joseph K.’s almost adolescent sexual hysteria, quite different from that of Kafka’s Joseph K., may even be closer to the sexual hysteria of Jerry Lewis, and in some respects the relative prudishness of Welles starts to become unleashed in this film by this hysteria —- a kind of unleashing that continues over some of his later works, ranging from The Immortal Story to The Other Side of the Wind. Even though this winds up contradicting the vision of Old Europe that permeates this film, it clears the way for an alternate version of a Joseph K. who fights back at his tormenters rather than succumb to defeat. Welles argued that in a post-Holocaust context, no other solution was possible in his view, and I agree with him; but arguably this view would never have been arrived at, at least in the same way, by an European.


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