'Citizen Kane' at 70: The Legacy of the Film and Its Director

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"God, how they'll love me when I'm dead."
–Orson Welles

Interestingly, Orson Welles never lost his personal connection with the general public. In a March 1967 Playboy interview, Kenneth Tynan notes, "At 51, he has long since joined the select group of international celebrities whose fame is self-sustaining, no matter how widely opinions of their work may vary, and no matter how much the work itself may fluctuate in quality." Tynan places Welles on a list that includes Chaplin, Ellington, Picasso, and Hemingway. And that fame seems only to have grown with time. A countless number of biographies have been written about him, and he's featured in hundreds of books. He has been portrayed on stage and in film—notably in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, but most recently in Richard Linklater's acclaimed Me and Orson Welles. Woody Allen described Welles as "the only American director." Jack White of the band The White Stripes considers Welles a hero, and wrote a song consisting entirely of lines from Citizen Kane. In a Mother Jones interview, television virtuoso Joss Whedon admitted to weeping at the news of Welles's death, lamenting that a "great genius had been trodden down," a man that had "shown such promise and not been allowed to speak." Television and radio personality Glenn Beck went so far as to name his media company Mercury Radio Arts in honor of Welles. Film critic Roger Ebert refers to Welles solemnly as "the Great Man."

Proof that Orson Welles has ascended from "filmmaker" to "immortal" can be found in the way his incomplete works are now treated. Sealed reels of The Merchant of Venice have been stolen, just as art thieves might snatch a Renoir. There is an ongoing war for the rights to several of Welles's pictures. Nobody expects to make any money from these films—they're incomplete at best, and many reels would disintegrate when exposed to air. These battles are about being the sole owner of art itself. Meanwhile, the Welles Archive at the Munich Film Museum houses scraps of films—mere shots, really—simply to be admired. There is a fair comparison to be made with the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Just as his scribblings are considered priceless, so too are fleeting seconds of footage filmed by the American auteur.

At the same time, there are two parts of the Welles legacy that remain unresolved. His final film, The Other Side of the Wind, remains locked in a Parisian vault, the result of a bitter rights battle between Welles's partner, Oja Kodar, the Welles estate, Beatrice Welles, and—with typical Wellesian gusto—a relative of the Shah of Iran. Orson Welles left detailed notes on how the film is to be edited, and personally tapped director Peter Bogdanovich to complete it. Though rumors surface every year that the film might finally meet an audience, there's been no real progress in the unsettled legal matters. After 40 years, however, it's unclear how a completed film would be received. Stanley Kubrick handed in the final cut of Eyes Wide Shut one week before his death, and wild expectations resulted in a critical assault on the cerebral film. (It has since received a more positive artistic reevaluation.)

In the case of The Other Side of the Wind, even in his time Welles was never an easily accessible director. But according to Mr. French, "Its style predicts films like Natural Born Killers. It uses a frenetic editing technique, it has boldness in film stocks—going from black and white to color—and it has a lot of quick cutting and wild camera movements. If it would have come out in 1975, it would have been seen as very innovative." Having viewed a rough cut of the film, Mr. French notes, "It's quite an interesting film. It's not Citizen Kane, but if it's put together right, it will be very well received." One problem is that even if the rights issues are settled, people are afraid to touch the film. "Whoever puts it together will be blamed for ruining it."

Meanwhile, there are rumors of a pristine "Orson Welles cut" of The Magnificent Ambersons, unmolested by RKO and with the original ending. A long print of the film was sent to Welles in Brazil while he was filming It's All True. It is possible that it was preserved, but many, including Mr. French, suspect this is pure fantasy. It is, however, a tantalizing fantasy. That 70 years later, a film might exist that surpasses Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made. And that it is directed by Orson Welles.

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David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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