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July 17, 2013


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Jason Michelitch

Don't mean to play gotcha or anything, but on the issue of Lady of Shanghai being or not being "mutilated" by the studio, James Naremore's The Magic World of Orson Welles details (with reference to studio records, scripts, and other primary sources) how Harry Cohn reduced the runtime by an hour and demanded scenes re-shot and reworked, and turned the editing over to Viola Lawrence (who added the soundtrack you mention.)

Naremore writes: "In later years Welles said little about what had been done to the film, although he often complained about the score Columbia used…The archival material also makes clear, however, that Viola Lawrence's editing of the film involved major alterations, leaving whole sequences on the cutting room floor."

Even in Bogdanovich's book, there are excerpts from a nine-page memo from Welles to the studio (every point of which, Bogdanovich notes, was ignored in the final cutting) that deals with more than just the soundtrack…and it seems from Naremore's evidence that the 9-page memo was but one piece of a long, painful process, having been written after much of the mutilation had already taken place.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Glenn, I agree with many of your points, but a few demurrals, caveats, and/or simple additions seem necessary:

(1) Many people who were close to Welles during the last week or so of his life--and that includes Oja Kodar, Gary Graver, Barbara Leaming, and Alessandro Tasca de Cuto--have avowed (in Tasca's case, publicly and at length in Andre S. Labarthe's semidocumentary for French TV, The Big O; in Gary's case, in at least one interview) that Welles reported to them having discovered that Jaglom had been recording their conversations without his knowledge. Whether or not Welles confronted Jaglom with this discovery is less clear (it appears that he didn't), and whether it can be accepted without any head-scratching (i.e., how could Welles have been in the dark about this for so long, over so many lunches?) is also worth discussing. But there's no question that this is what Welles reported to his immediate circle, along with an expression that he felt utterly betrayed by the taping. (In his interview, Gary Graver even compared it to what Menzies does to Quinlan in the closing sequence of Touch of Evil.)
Seeing the palpable glee with which Welles' nastiest comments are being received by his ambivalent "fans," it isn't hard to see why Jaglom held back the tapes and transcripts for so long--and if he really does have recorded evidence that Welles was aware of the taping (and, according to Jaglom, actually requested it), as he has repeatedly claimed, Biskind has admitted that he still hasn't heard or read this evidence, nor has Jaglom offered it in any form (as Tasca challenged him to do in the Labarthe film).

(2) Whether or not Welles speaks about the mutilation of The Lady from Shanghai in This is Orson Welles, one can't look at the existing evidence without concluding that massive mutilations did take place. (Just for starters, just look at James Naremore's account of the 155-minute cutting continuity of the film's rough cut in the second edition of The Magic World of Orson Welles.)

(3) For me it's odd that Biskind never once alludes to the published scripts by Welles of The Big Brass Ring and The Cradle Will Rock by Santa Teresa Press in 1987 and 1994, respectively, whose publications I helped to instigate. (The former script, moreover, reviewed at length by Gore Vidal, subsequently came out in English and Italian paperback editions.) But it's equally odd that, despite Biskind's referencing my Discovering Orson Welles as a major source, he insists on repeating the misinformation that F for Fake, not Filming Othello, a subsequent essay film, was Welles' last completed feature. Perhaps all this is deemed the sort of information that only specialists would be interested in, but for me, Jaglom getting Welles to write The Big Brass Ring remains his most important cultural achievement.

(4) It's lamentable (if sadly predictable) that Todd Tarbox's Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts (BearManor Media), available from Amazon, which is appearing simultaneously with Biskind's book--another book-length series of conversations between Welles and a friend, but in this case recorded with Welles' approval over the better part of his life, beautifully illustrated, and far more scholarly--is being ignored completely in most quarters for the sake of the more spiteful, gossipy, and largely negative portrait of Welles by Biskind that is riding the crest of the mainstream.

Glenn Kenny

Thanks Jason and Jonathan. As I have some sentimental attachment to Peter and remain on cordial terms with him, I did not want to pile on him too much. It seems I did, though, with respect to "Shanghai," and apologize for shooting from the hip. And I will be sure to seek out the Tarbox book.


Welles' view of Olivier, as you describe it, actually chimes well with other views of him. He was no dolt, but outside his all-encompassing obsession with theater he wasn't particularly intellectual or well-rounded; his second wife, Vivien Leigh, was generally regarded as cleverer and more cultured. The dark side of his temperament is also commonly acknowledged - he could be vindictive, jealous, and plain mean (and also subject to great remorse afterwards). Of course, Welles was no paragon, either.


When I first read the names "Peter Biskind" and "Orson Welles" together in the same sentence, I cringed. Glad to hear that it's not that bad (or maybe it is, according to Mr. Rosenbaum).

As for Welles' storytelling tendencies, when I was a kid I saw a documentary on spanish TV with footage of Orson Welles explaining to his delighted audience (during a sort of official event) that Franco (the Generalísimo) had been an animator during his youth, and had even completed a short animated film. For years I believed it was true, and even looked for other references to that film; now I realize that it was probably Welles pulling people's leg...

Mr. Gittes

So what did Orson Welles think of Stanley Kubrick? I know there's a quote out there of Welles favoring The Killing over Asphalt Jungle...maybe nobody cares. Also, I hope Simon Callow is still working on Volume 3 of his Welles books. Thanks for the review, Glenn.


My top 5 Orson Welles commercials.

5. G&G Whiskey
4. Vivitar Cameras
3. Eastern Airlines
2. Findus frozen foods
1. Paul Masson wine

Don R. Lewis

I'm excited to read this and also kind of shocked I';m STILL game to read ANOTHER book about Orson Welles. For a guy with such a limited directorial career, man....there's just mountains of info available. And as a fan, I can't say no.

Also- I recently read Owen Kings kick-ass debut novel DOUBLE FEATURE in which the father of the lead character is a dead ringer for (and an open imitator of) Welles. I know Glenn and Owen are buddies so he hasn't mentioned the book here (and if I'm not mistaken, you helped him out a bit as well?) but it's a really great book.

Todd Tarbox

For those interested,here's a link to Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts—


Brian Dauth

The problem seems to be that tragic/dysfunctional narratives about the lives of artists are more appealing to popular/critical eyes than narratives about artists who go about their business and make their art. But the emphasis on the tragic/dysfunctional often obscures the virtues and accomplishments of the art itself -- often in weird ways. THE TRIAL (which I find to be Welles' greatest film) has some interesting stories about its making, but its lack of a tragic/dramatic arc of mutilation and/or tortuous production, seems to have relegated it to the sidelines for some (many?) spectators (Jonathan R., our host and others here excepted). The film is a powerful experience of oppression/resistance -- as if Welles had finally succeeded in wedding emotion to cognition in a film. Admittedly, this impression may be due to the fact that the film was not mutilated by others and produced over a compact length of time -- the union I experience may have been achieved in prior films, but obscured by the interfering mauling of others.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

"...such a limited directorial career?" Thirteen completed and released features--the same number that was made by Kubrick, who lived to the same age (70). Why is there so much discrepancy between Kubrick's public profile in the U.S. and that of Welles? It seems like industry publicity is the big difference--plus the fact that Kubrick went from low-budget indies to big-budget studio releases while Welles proceeded in the reverse direction, largely in order to keep his creative control.

Brian Dauth

When I saw the phrase "limited directorial career," I thought of how the problems Welles faced in making films to his specifications inhibited his growth as an artist. When I was writing my earlier post, along with my praise for THE TRIAL, I wanted to add that the movie often feels to me like Welles' second film -- or maybe the inauguration of the second phase of his career. As Jonathan R. notes in his piece on THE TRIAL, Welles' earlier work has the taint of misogyny and I wonder if he had worked more regularly and with greater control over the finished product whether he could have worked the misogyny out of his aesthetic earlier in his career (I have always felt a certain prudishness in Welles work - as if the desires of the body are squirm inducing and this may be what leads to the misogyny).

When he gets to THE TRIAL and he has to confront Kafka, something wondrous happens -- the body angst is reversed and the fight of the body and its desires against repression takes center stage. Crucially, he gives Joseph K. something to be guilty over -- being queer (an amazing/daring choice seven years before Stonewall). I do not know if Welles came up with this idea before or after casting Anthony Perkins -- maybe you know Jonathan R. -- but by grounding K's persecution in queerness, Welles reverses the trend of his earlier films where the queer character commits an act of betrayal -- Leland in CITIZEN KANE, Iago in OTHELLO, Menzies in TOUCH OF EVIL -- so that now the queer male is the one being betrayed by a hetero/normative/insistent society. Welles' K will not "die like a dog" -- he will resist. When K defies the priest and says "I am not your son," the film opens up a queer distance between K and the culture that wants to annihilate him. The predatory women that Jonathan notes make perfect sense since that is exactly how they would be experienced by a closeted gay man who has ambitions to rise in society -- K may be a careerist, but he is a queer careerist.

In Welles subsequent work, the queer becomes more prominent (Welles would have played a queer character in THE BIG BRASS RING), and this new openness to bodily desire (though not at all total) makes for much more capacious cinema than that found in his earlier work.

Paul Clipson

Thirteen completed features, the "least" of which dazzle brighter than the "masterpieces" of many of other directors. Despite the diligent work being done by Jonathan and others, Welles is too often discussed with attitudes lazily borrowed from countless bios, press clippings and tired academic appraisals, that repeat the same worn out assessments- flashes of greatness amidst years of compromised projects and mutilated dreams. I for one return to THE STRANGER time and time again. The sequences left of the South American scenes from that film are hypnotic poems of shadow and movement. The first three minutes of MACBETH offer some of the most sublime experimental cinema ever made. It's only a small step from that pre-credit sequence to Brakhage's DOG STAR MAN. Welles' genius was that he was able to create the most in the world utilizing the least, but with a boldness and scope of imagination that was resented by many because it was from a talent of extravagant proportions. As Ben Gazzara eloquently and startlingly suggested to Dick Cavett in 1970, a theatre should have been made for Orson Welles, a place where he could give us pleasure. Gazzara viewed the neglect as a crime, rightly so, but to me, Welles' films and his struggles to make films are inspiring examples of an artist working and succeeding despite commercial cinema.

Brian Dauth

Paul: the reality is that a number of Welles’ films were mutilated/compromised/left unfinished. To object to this statement of fact is akin to complaining when a person avers that water is wet. You yourself post: “The sequences left of the South American scenes …” – in other words – fragments. They may be poetic and hypnotic, but they are unfinished/incomplete.

Welles more than other directors needed to control the editing of his work. When he has control – as in THE TRIAL – the results are amazing. When that relationship is altered by other hands as in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI for example, the results are poor. When I watch TLFS, I feel I am being jostled around from one aesthetic sensibility to another. In contrast, when the films George Cukor have been mutilated, Cukor’s genius is better able to handle such abuse since his movies are less dependent upon the precision editing that Welles’ films require. Making this observation has nothing to do with adhering/disavowing any particular narrative of Welles’ life, but in attending to the spectoral experience of watching his films.

Welles’ struggles to make his works are inspiring, but the fact that he had struggles does not enhance the aesthetic value of the work. To take Cukor again as an example: he had struggles as well, and his triumphs are as impressive as the artistic victories of Welles. Welles may have had to struggle with commercial cinema as you note, but Cukor had to contend with a homophobic industry/society, and he did so openly and without a sham marriage.

Clayton Sutherland

Damn, here I always thought The Lady From Shanghai was a very enjoyable picture, whatever the compromises/"mutilations". Didn't Bogdanovich actually prefer it to Kane?

I mean, yeah, it's all over the place tonally, but I still think the end result is rather hypnotic.

Brian Dauth

Clayton: TLFS is enjoyable, but its being "all over the place tonally" is not experienced as directorial intention (as in say a film by Almodovar who orchestrates his dissonance), but because it was re-directed by other hands: the pieces are Welles' product along with some of the rhythm, but the lack of complete control limits the pleasure -- it is like being in attendance at an opera where the tenor and soprano are fine, but the baritone is off-key -- there are are many pleasures to be had, but the aesthetic experience never comes together completely.

Paul Clipson

That moment at the end of Aldo Ray's nightmare in THE MARRYING KIND, where a row of Judy Holliday's is shooting at him...this is from memory, but it always stuck me as a loose parody of the end of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Both films were released by Columbia....

Brian Dauth

Paul: Thank you for this insight. It had never occurred to me. I have never been able to find a great deal of information about filmmakers who influenced Cukor -- he does not say much in his interviews. But he was open to the suggestions and talents of others -- he sent the script of CAMILLE to his women friends to get their opinion before he agreed to make it and his collaboration with Hoyningen-Huene is well known. So it is quite possible that the row of Judy's was suggested to him by someone at Columbia and that he incorporated it.

Clayton Sutherland

All good points, Brian, but I actually think the most problematic aspect of TLFS is Welles' rather hokey performance (well, his attempt at an accent, at any rate). Still, I like the film a lot: I guess we'll just chalk it up to my bad taste. ;)

Brian Dauth

Clayton: I rather like the performance and always appreciate the element of performativity Welles brings to his performances -- for me it is a piece with the other ways he calls attention to the other formal elements of his films.

It is not at all bad taste to like TLFS -- all aesthetic judgments have an important element of taste -- a person just needs to be able to defend what she experiences.

Dan C.

I always liked Dave Kehr's description of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, in his capsule review, as "the only true film noir comedy," for its back-and-forth tonal shifts from satire to dirge. I don't know whether he would stand by that "only," but it seems right that the film's jaggedness is part of its fascination, whether it's a product of mutilation, intention, or a little of both. The leaps between absurdity and poignance seem more carefully modulated in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and MR. ARKADIN, for example, but they are part of what makes those films tick.

Not sure about THE TRIAL. Brian Dauth's comments make me want to take a another look, but apart from the oddly moving sparseness of those train station sets it's always left me a little cold.

Brian Dauth

It is my limitation that I cannot respond more positively to the jaggedness of TLFS -- though I do agree with Dan C. that the same technique is evident in both MR. ARKADIN and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT where it works much better for me (especially CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT).

As for THE TRIAL's coldness: in comparison with Welles' other films it can be experienced as cold, but I think that is because it is structured much differently. In prior films, there was often a central male figure played by Welles who is betrayed by a male who is often cast as loving/in love with Welles' character (makes sense why THE THIRD MAN got the reputation as a Welles film). The strong aura of homosociality in these films is mixed with a sense of dread and danger (target practice). In these films it seems that male/male relationships are laden with anxiety.

In THE TRIAL Welles flips the script. The central character is queer and the Welles character is in secondary role and part of the oppressive structure (the Advocate is not as warm as characters Welles had played previously where he even tried to generate some sympathy for Franz Kindler). Joseph K. might be a hard figure for a heterosexual spectator to identify with since they have never been faced with the issue of coming out of the closet. The parable at the beginning is about going through the closet door, and at the end, when K rejects the priest, he goes through a door to freedom (and visually away from the architecture of oppression), which is why he can laugh at the end at the absurd lengths to which society will go to eradicate sexual otherness. But as Welles made the film, THE TRIAL is not so much about Joseph K's coming to a greater sense of self (that would make it a Cukor film), but more about a careful delineation of systems of oppression -- which can result in a cold, clinical artwork.

THE TRIAL's advance over the male/male betrayal narrative is why the movie feels like a second film to me (although Welles will revert back to it in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT). But now that queerness has been let out of the bag so to speak, Welles continues to explore it in his next films, though not as openly and anxiety-free as he does in THE TRIAL (think of F FOR FAKE when the film casts a glance at Elmyr de Hory's boy toy only to quickly scamper away).

Jeff McMahon

To be clear, Joseph K. in the film of The Trial is queer subtextually, not textually. And this makes it very different from the identity politics/othering/guilt process of Kafka's novel.

Brian Dauth

Joseph K's queerness is indicated textually by (among other things): Anthony Perkins' performance; K's rejection of the advances of three women; the coat of the Advocate (the most heterosexualized character) being too large for K -- he cannot fulfill the heteronormative role. The film bends/queers the guilt process as it exists in the Kafka novel, not content to be a mere illustration of the work, but a re-imagining of it appropriate to and resonant with the time of its production (early 1960's).

Also, as I noted previously, queerness will play a role in subsequent films, and we can only regret that THE BIG BRASS RING and THE CRADLE WILL ROCK -- both of which would have featured queer characters at their center -- never were made. I often wonder if Welles was making a postmodern/queer turn starting with THE TRIAL which seems to me to exist at the edge between modernist inwardness and postmodern horizontality.

Jeff McMahon

Maybe I needed to say "explicitly" textual. It's possible to read that film as about things other than sexuality.

Brian Dauth

Jeff: It is definitely possible to read the film in other ways. What I find fascinating and enjoyable about THE TRIAL is the way the film is built to allow for a queer reading. Such construction was not common to movies in 1962. At best films included some bland nods in the direction of a tepid homoeroticism. For me, THE TRAIL and FILMING OTHELLO represent Welles at his most capacious.


Brian Dauth: THE TRIAL is one of my favorite Welles films too. Funny I should see your remarks now, since I've been reading Reiner Stach's acclaimed biography of Kafka, which, like most Kafka scholarship, plants the author firmly within a heterosexual context. Yet I can't name another allegedly straight writer whose work so easily opens itself to queer interpretations. I think a lot of the queer subtext comes directly from Kafka. You might be interested in Colm Tóibín's review of A HISTORY OF GAY LITERATURE by Gregory Woods, which seems to posit the less widely-held theory that Kafka himself was a closeted homosexual:


Anyway, I'm hoping to pick up MY LUNCHES WITH ORSON at some point. I read an excerpt in New York Magazine a few weeks ago, and it was a fun read.

Brian Dauth

Scott: Thanks for your thoughts and the link. I am not a Kafka expert in any way -- I read him because Orson Welles made a film of one of his books and I thought I should at least be familiar with his fiction ("The Castle" is my favorite), but it is interesting that you note that his work is open to queer readings. Maybe that openness combined with Welles existing interest in/exploration of homosociality helped give birth the wonderful film that is THE TRIAL. Since this thread started I have re-watched F FOR FAKE and FILMING OTHELLO and it is fascinating to watch both films dance around/come close to the issue of queerness, only then to back away.

Lastly, if you have not already read it, Alexander Doty's "Making Things Perfectly Queer" (which, with a little hunting, can be found on the web in pdf form) is -- especially in its opening chapters -- a wonderful introduction to the queer approach to criticism/critique.

As for Kafka being a closeted homosexual -- does not ring true with what little I know about Kafka, but non-queer artists can produce extraordinarily queer-friendly artworks without knowing or even trying, e.g. Joseph L. Mankiewicz.


Brian Dauth: Thanks for the tip on that book. I'll have to look it up.

Kafka is the best! It's not that hard to read all of this work: if you don't count the journals, there's only three unfinished novels and some short stories. Again, there is very little evidence that he was gay, closeted or otherwise. (Scholarship often emphasizes his strained, difficult relationships with women.) But much of his important work (certainly THE TRIAL, THE METAMORPHOSIS, AMERIKA and the story "The Judgement"), is about the threat of exposure, which seems to be tied to some kind of sexual transgression. There are deleted passage from THE TRIAL, in which K makes advances toward the painter Titorelli in the hopes of helping his case. There's plenty of homoerotic stuff in THE CASTLE too. Then again, Kafka also had serious daddy issues, so maybe that accounts for the expressions of guilt and shame and anxiety.

I'd recommend a long, early story of his, "Description of a Struggle". It's not a major work, but it has a LOT of queer subtext.

Jeff McMahon

Kafka's identity as an intellectual German-speaking Jew was a more prevalent problem than anything to do with his sexuality. It's part of his genius that the alienation he expresses is so easily translatable into other contexts.

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