The Third Man

Orson Welles has invaded Chicago movie screens. F for Fake played at Doc on Friday; The Lady from Shanghai is currently at the Gene Siskel Film Center, alongside Carol Reed’s The Third Man; the Music Box‘s weekend matinee is Welles’s adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial; and the Northbrook Public Library, which recently resumed its screening series after a prolonged break, is showing Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer, in which Welles plays “a ceegar-chomping southern paterfamilias,” according to Dave Kehr. The Third Man and The Long, Hot Summer give audiences the chance to see Welles act in a film he didn’t direct. He was an atypical leading man, not particularly handsome nor traditionally charismatic but nonetheless enchanting and impossible to ignore. Even when he made only brief appearances onscreen, you can sense the action sort of slowing to a halt, as if he’s pulling the film into his own personal orbit. His intensity set him apart, as did his obsession. It didn’t matter if somebody else was running the show—if Welles was onscreen, he made the film his own, which is why I decided to limit my list of favorite Welles performances to those in films he didn’t direct. You can see my selections below.

5. Compulsion (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1959) Through his presence alone, Welles often lifted lesser material to higher standards, like in this nifty crime drama. His costars Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are no slouches themselves—together, the three principal leads won Best Actor at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival—but Welles adds an extra dynamic, a flamboyant attitude that elevates the conventional, often dry material.

4. Ro.Go.Pa.G — “La Ricotta” (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962) Admittedly, Welles doesn’t do much here, but I can’t deny my infatuation with his performance in Pasolini’s contribution to this four-segment film. Welles plays an American director in Italy filming a “primitive Catholic” rendition of the Crucifixion; he’s simultaneously indulging in a little self-parody while also channeling Pasolini himself, who often mingled his estranged Catholicism with his communist ideologies. In the film, Welles recites a bit of Pasolini’s poem “I Am a Force of the Past,” and though unfortunately his voice is dubbed by an Italian actor, you still get a sense of his trademark brio. 

3. Moby Dick (dir. John Huston, 1956) Welles and Huston were notorious compadres, so it’s not surprising that Huston selected Welles for this small but integral role. Once again, Welles is a shining beacon in a pretty tepid film. His famous sermon scene—the Hollywood legend maintains he delivered the monologue in a single take—is a ribald act of fire and brimstone. Welles’s larger-than-life persona is intensified by his placement above the congregation and Huston’s decision to shoot the actor from predominately low angles.

2. Jane Eyre (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1943) Welles’s tendency to overshadow his costars is perhaps best exemplified in this adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. Whether by design or some sort of unconscious directive, the film’s various screenwriters—John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, and director Stevenson each took a pass—frequently defer to Welles’s Edward Rochester, and the actor clearly revels in the source material’s morbid, gothic moods. Unsurprisingly, the title heroine, played well enough by Joan Fontaine, is essentially obscured behind the swirling cloud of Welles’s persona.

1. The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, 1949) Next to Charles Foster Kane, Harry Lime is Welles’s most famous screen character, an enigmatic black marketeer with a cynical worldview and dangerous charisma. Lime, as a figure, weighs over the entire film, and Welles’s gravitas is felt throughout. Whenever onscreen, he virtually commands the audience’s attention, packing every moment with top-shelf acting: the affectionate if slightly patronizing looks he gives Joseph Cotten; the dastardly certitude of his famous cuckoo-clock speech; the painful, human desperation as he fumbles through the sewer. It’s all perfect. 

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.