Actors, like artists, often reveal themselves in the jobs they take for the money – and in the projects that get away from them. Orson Welles is one of them. Enough has been written and said about a series of adverts he made in the latter half of his life already – enough to paint him forever as a drunken failure taking jobs cash in hand, drinking – a little too greedily – the free wine. An enemy of promise.
Joseph McBride, in the two editions of his book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, has shown that Welles was not the spectacular failure of popular myth. So enough with that. I believe that even in jobs taken for the money – or work messed with beyond sanity – patches of good will out. It’s the only reason I can continue to work, as it happens.
Welles was, for most of his career, what he was at the beginning of his life – a talented and jobbing actor. In the days before home video, when even records were a luxury, most art was as throwaway and gone-tomorrow as a play – performed and lost for ever the second the curtain fell. Before Hollywood and Citizen Kane, Welles made much of the money for his New York theatre in radio. He appeared in crime fare like The Shadow, and purportedly had so little time to rehearse that he would fly from the theatre to the recording studio – in an ambulance hired specially – and sit down to the script: reading it for the first time, live, on the air.
Then Hollywood came and so did the disappointment of it. After being ejected from the industry by the studios, Welles became even more a nomad. And the need for money reappeared.
Welles acted in others’ films, including a decent 1943 Jane Eyre, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man in 1949 – one of the greatest films ever made. Welles was Harry Lime in that film for a fraction of its runtime, but he stole the picture. He was attractive, witty, and frightening – a vicious swindler whom fortune had elevated to murderer. He was the villain of the piece but also its hero. The audience, and I, loved him.
Only a few years later, Welles was in London – hard up, we have to imagine. And he struck a deal with Harry Alan Towers, an enterprising radio entrepreneur. Welles would offer his distinctive baritone and presence for a couple of radio projects – written in bulk, produced quickly, and well. And popular on commercial radio across the Anglophone world.
All took the subject of crime.
One was The Black Museum – a standard criminal anthology. The gimmick was the setting. Welles wandered through the museum of violence kept beneath Scotland Yard, alighting on seemingly ordinary objects, which in fact bore some relation to unspeakable crimes. Welles would then speak, and actors would re-enact. Most were based on fact, but some of these cases were wholly invented. Their sole point of contact was Welles’ mellifluous voice, and some decent writing. ‘Here in the grim stone structure on the Thames which houses Scotland Yard is a warehouse of homicide, where everyday objects … are touched by murder.’
And tied up with a bow – ‘Now until we meet again in the same place, and I tell you another tale of the Black Museum, I remain, as always, obediently yours.’
The drama of The Black Museum is efficient, if a little formulaic. A crime is committed, after which the police investigate and eventually get their man. It’s often a comforting fantasy – of police efficiency, the value of routine investigation, and the inevitability of the rope, or another ironically suitable fate, for the criminal. The police are diligent and wooden, but endearing. The victims get some justice, in the end.
Welles later played a villain, Professor Moriarty – a powerful voice for a malevolent intelligence – in a couple of episodes of a Towers-produced Sherlock Holmes serial.
And ancillary to The Black Museum was another Towers property – The Lives of Harry Lime, a series of capers starring the villain of The Third Man. In only a few years, Lime had transformed from charming monster to rascally adventurer. He travels the world, getting into scrapes. He still speaks of suckers and planned scams, and lives for larceny; but just as often as not, Lime is himself robbed of the money, or jewels, or paintings – once or twice he accidentally makes large-scale charitable donations. He sometimes fights and wins, but always gets away.
In this radio series, there are beautiful girls as well as violent criminals: the girls not the weepy, wounded and complex kind played in The Third Man by Alida Valli, who, after being asked to laugh again, says ‘There isn’t enough for two laughs’ with tears in her eyes. Instead they appear, offer a little distraction, and are gone largely before the end. Perhaps they have hoodwinked Lime themselves.
The scripts of Lime are well written if a little hokey. They have wit, and are well accompanied by musical cues of quality. Welles once complained about being haunted by the zither music of Anton Keras, who scored The Third Man. People played it wherever he went. But the music is excellent, and appropriate here, whatever Welles thought.
And one of the scripts, “Man of Mystery” contained the origin of another Welles picture: Mr Arkardin,or Confidential Report. I won’t summarise the plot, but each of these properties contained the idea of a rich man commissioning a younger one to investigate the rich man’s own past – of secrets and lies, as it were. A past of thefts and murders, all built upon profound life-long deceit. Any bonhomie is deceptive.
Welles plays Lime in the radio series, but as an only slightly older man he was Arkadin – the enormous billionaire. In the film Arkadin is as rich as Croesus and ruthless as any. He is obsessed with artifice. His hair and beard are meticulous constructions. He likes wearing masks. At his parties, fun is compulsory, and everyone must drink vodka to excess even to be allowed in.
This gentility is forced and masks great viciousness. Arkadin is a great criminal in the line of Lime as originally performed – and a greater character of Welles’ own sort than the happy scoundrel Lime had by the end become.
Welles later played a physically grotesque dirty cop in Touch of Evil, to his own direction, three years after Mr Arkadin was released. Moral ambiguity – and crime – were where his heart lay.
Mr Arkadin was a failure in most terms. It was released in up to seven versions, none of them with the Welles imprinter. The studios cut and they chopped, and little was spared save the basic plot – a glorified radio serial – and some striking visuals. Welles picked his frames – he took the viewer into torchlit parades of hooded penitents, purportedly Mexican villas, and tumbledown Gilliam-esque junk shops. Arkadin is sometimes isolated in the frame, alone amid luxury or landscape like Kane, a man who has raised himself to the role of an isolated icon.
In the failure of this film, and the joyful hack-work of radio, fun can be found and resurrected. Arkadin himself, in between acts of violence, takes pleasure in his work. He makes ironic toasts at his parties after a grim story, or prefiguring an unpleasant action. ‘To character’, he toasts after recounting the story of the scorpion and the frog. ‘To friendship’ he says after telling a tale of an old man in a cemetery, surrounded by the headstones of his former companions.
‘Here’s to crime’, Arkadin says, as he tricks the name of someone he intends to kill out of a dining companion. He raises his glass and his eyebrow. He smiles.
This essay was originally published in Correspondence, an occasional journal.