Did Orson Welles Really Peak at Citizen Kane?
Whether we've enjoyed it or not, it is pretty much impossible to be present in the film world without knowing about Orson Welles' 1941 film, Citizen Kane, widely known to be one of if not the greatest film of all time. Remarkably, Welles was able to create this film at the young age of twenty six. It turns out, creating something as brilliant as Citizen Kane that young is both a blessing and a curse, and it is vastly agreed upon that Orson Welles never made a film as good as his debut, every project that came afterwards was permanently doomed to be in the shadow of Citizen Kane. It's extremely unlikely that anyone familiar with Welles has even taken the time to watch any of his other work, but after doing just that I'm determined to answer the age old question: did Orson Welles really peak at Citizen Kane?
What casual movie watchers might not know about famed director, Orson Welles is that he was a child prodigy and a legitimate genius. Not only did he turn down a full scholarship to Harvard University, but he also boasted an amazing IQ score of 185, higher than Einstein, Hawking, and even Copernicus! He was obsessed with Shakespeare from a very young age, and was referred to as a "cartoonist, actor, poet and only 10." For Welles, it wasn't a question of if he was going to leave a mark on the world, it was when?
Although nothing in Orson Welles' filmography can compare to the notoriety of his debut film, one particular radio play might come close. On October 30th, 1938, from 8 to 9PM EST, Orson Welles directed and narrated a production of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, hosted by The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The play was a drama about aliens who came to invade Earth and it's most famous for being so realistic that it caused a panic among listeners who tuned in late, weren't aware that they were listening to a play, and proceeded to think that Earth was actually being taken over by aliens. Depending on how you view the situation, that sounds like a director's accomplishment, but can we truly say that The War of the Worlds proves that Orson Welles did not peak at Citizen Kane? Of course not. Not only did the radio play come out three years before Welles' debut film, but it's also more well known for the public disorder it caused rather than the content. But aside from that famous radio drama, what about his other films?
While I wish the truth was different, after watching so many of Welles' other projects, I can safely say that the quality of his work waned over time. His 1947 film, The Lady From Shanghai starring him and his then-wife, Rita Hayworth, serves as a bleak reminder that Welles might have been overestimating himself. Even after seeing it for myself I find it extraordinarily difficult to recall a single plot point, or anything else besides Welles' atrocious Irish accent. Even his ambitious adaptation of Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote took literal decades to gather all the footage, remained unfinished, yet still managed to be released, and to this day most people don't even know this film exists. Even one of his better received films, an adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins, is incredibly polarizing and despite positive reviews, it's often criticized for being confusing and "not for everybody."
So what happened to Orson Welles? Did his talent simply run out? Did he make a deal with the devil? Who knows. After watching so many subsequent projects of his, I nearly gave up the hunt and surrendered to the thought that maybe he did release his best movie at 26 and his success was merely a fluke. But then I discovered one particular film...
F for Fake is a documentary/drama film directed by Welles in 1973. This unusual film can be more accurately categorized as a documentary about famous Hungarian art forger, Elmyr de Hory, who could replicate the style of Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Even at a mere 88 minutes, the film does sometimes feel like it overstays its welcome, there is something about F for Fake that struck a chord with me. Although the content tended to drag on at times, it was every other technical aspect that was truly amazing. The film had strong themes of trickery, and how forgery is present in every aspect of life from the art we consume to the food we eat, but that wasn't a bad thing, it was something to be explored. The storytelling, the narration, the soundtrack, the cinematography, and most of all the editing made me realize that Orson Welles' talent never truly left, even after Citizen Kane. It was as if a cartoon lightbulb had appeared above my head while watching. Everything about this short documentary was so professional, so smart, so technically proficient, it made me rethink all that I knew about Welles as a filmmaker. For the first time, Orson Welles wasn't coming off pretentious or unapproachable, he seemed like somebody you could have a conversation with, granted it would probably be a very long, philosophical conversation but nevertheless, he seemed human.
Perhaps shedding the facade of an untouchable, cinematic genius capable of releasing the world's best film at 26 years old, was the key to Orson Welles "getting his groove back." All of the constant attempts to outdo himself following Citizen Kane wasn't doing anything but further proving what his critics were saying. Perhaps his career is just another example of the devastating side effects of terminal narcissism.
After going through his work I've made the realization that Orson Welles' talent for film never disappeared, the world just stopped paying attention. Perhaps he will always stand as a symbol of wasted potential, or peaking too soon and perhaps the simple act of peaking early will always be referred to as "The Orson Welles Effect" but I genuinely hope that in the future, fans of Citizen Kane will take the time to review his other work. Was Orson Welles merely ruined by his "delusional hubris" like David Fincher said? Quite possibly yes. But still, I hope at least F for Fake will soon get the viewership it deserves.