This week the Gene Siskel Film Center screens a brand new DCP print of Orson Welles’s Shakespeare adaptation, Othello. Scanned from the controversial 1992 restoration that toyed with the film’s sound design, this 2K digital version is said to retain the film’s visual qualities, which is encouraging considering how many subpar digital versions of classic movies are currently exhibited. As fate would have it, Othello is one of two Welles blind spots I need to remedy (the other being his TV movie The Immortal Story), and though I’d have liked to have seen this infamous 1992 version in the flesh, I’m excited nonetheless to finally catch up with what “may well be the greatest Shakespeare film,” according to Jonathan Rosenbaum.
In honor of the screening, I’ve compiled a list of my five favorite Orson Welles films.
5. Citizen Kane (1941) I mean, do I really need to make an argument? It’s a classic, though I echo Dave Kehr’s sentiments: It isn’t my absolute favorite Welles film, and I don’t really even believe it’s his best overall film, but there isn’t a better film to kick-start a deep interest in movies. Unlike so many canonical works, this seems new with each viewing, even as its central qualities remain steadfast.
4. The Stranger (1946) Probably his most effortlessly enjoyable film (after all, he made it in an attempt to prove he could direct conventional Hollywood entertainment), though not without its share of intrigue. It’s compelling and just a little bizarre to see Welles in “studio mode,” where some of his authorial trademarks are somewhat less discernible. A shamelessly bawdy film technician, Welles is intriguingly restrained here, save for the climactic chase scene in which he can’t help but show off.
3. The Trial (1962) One of the few films to properly encapsulate that overused phrase “Kafkaesque,” Welles’s adaptation of the Franz Kafka novel is at once his most expressionistic and minimalistic work. His use of extreme angels and meticulous composition evoke the source material’s otherworldly tone, but there’s a sparseness to the characterizations that infiltrates the narrative as a whole; the only thing keeping the film together is Welles’s devilish instincts.
2. F For Fake (1974) Welles’s stately meditation on art as it relates to authorship, authenticity, and representation, this essay film is his last major work and, perhaps, the key text in deciphering his entire filmography. His conception of film editing as an inherently deceptive tool not only contextualizes his style (think of the opening sequence in Citizen Kane) but proved influential on generations of filmmakers to come.
1. Chimes at Midnight (1966) Welles considered this classical pastiche about Sir John Falstaff, a fictional character who appeared most prominently in Shakespeare’s work but also in plays by Giuseppe Verdi and Otto Nicolai, to be his finest film. The Battle of Shrewsbury sequence, among the most bracing scenes in American cinema, retains Shakespeare’s antiwar sentiment even as Welles reorients it to fit a more contemporary mindset. This is a masterclass in intertextuality and narrative semiotics.