Review: Orson Welles in the City and Beyond

Image from Welles's The Trial, courtesy jonathanrosenbaum.net

Matthew Asprey Gear’s At the End of the Street in Shadow: Orson Welles and the City (Wallflower Press, 2016) is an impressive work of archival research and film analysis, documenting the director’s use of locations in both his finished work and a vast array of unfinished projects, from scripts to unedited footage. While the subtitle suggests the book is just about urban locations, in fact Gear is concerned with the overall geography of Welles’s work: both where he shot his films and how setting becomes an aesthetic and thematic tool in Welles’s storytelling.

Gear organizes the book through a mixture of setting and chronology, clustering films together made around the same time period and in similar places. Such organization highlights the connections between different phases of Welles’s career and his ideological and strategic use of available locations. The first section, “Welles’s U.S.A.,” focuses on historical changes in America as depicted in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. The second section of the book, “Pan-America,” includes six chapters on Welles’s films, both finished and unfinished, set in Latin America or concerning cross-border travel throughout the Americas. The section on “Postwar Europe” includes two chapters on Mr. Arkadin/ Confidential Report and The Trial, and is preceded by an “interlude,” which surveys Welles’s nomadic lifestyle during the 1950s and 60s, when he worked on Othello and various aborted filmmaking projects in Morocco, Italy, Spain, and Yugoslavia. The final two chapters cover the filming of Chimes at Midnight in Venice and several episodes for the television series Around the World with Orson Welles and In the Land of Don Quixote, filmed in Spain.

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Several conceptual threads run through the book. One is Welles’s simultaneous interest in filming authentic cultures and places, contrasted with an expressionist aesthetic in which mise-en-scène visualizes inner states of mind. These divergent drives find a physical manifestation in the way that Welles took real buildings and streets, altered their appearance, and imaginatively edited footage together without regard to spatial continuity. One of Gear’s most interesting examples is of the “rubblescape” of postwar Munich used in Mr. Arkadin/ Confidential Report. Using historical sources and documentation of the shooting chronology, Gear demonstrates that it was filmed during the spring in a city that had largely been cleared of wartime ruins. So the wintery, rubble-strewn images in the film are evidence that Welles did not use location filming in a neo-realist manner; instead “he pursued ways of transforming found urban structures—immovable streets and buildings—by embellishing them with powerfully symbolic detritus”.1Gear, Matthew. At the End of the Street in Shadow: Orson Welles and the City. (New York: Wallflower Press, 2016). pg. 220.

One of the book’s most important contributions is Gear’s exploration of how Welles used setting to critique nationalism and promote instead a globalist worldview that emphasized free travel across borders. Welles saw himself as both anti-fascist and anti-bureaucratic, sentiments expressed in the films of the “Pan-America” section. Gear argues that Welles set films or key scenes in port cities (Acapulco and San Francisco in Lady from Shanghai), in marginalized neighborhoods (the Rio favelas in It’s All True), or on the U.S./Mexico border (Touch of Evil) in order to represent the mingling of cultures in an era of increasing trans-national travel. Thematically, noir motifs and crime narratives underscore the way that individuals’ mobility is stifled by government surveillance as well as differing access to money and power. It is with these films, too, that Welles shifted away from the constructed studio sets of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and towards on-location filmmaking. These films demonstrate how Welles used “innovative methods of transforming found urban spaces into cinematic spaces that expressed his ideological and personal vision.”2ibid. 78

Another contribution of the book is its linkage of the financial limitations Welles faced with his aesthetics of place. During the 1950s and 60s, Welles developed a “patchwork” style of multi-national filmmaking. Budget constraints often forced him to start and stop filming, as well as move from place to place until he could find paid work and then poach resources from a funded production to use on another, unfunded project. The result was films like Othello and The Trial, in which editing was a means “to transform … technically, temporally, and geographically disparate footage into a cohesive assembly.”3ibid. 193 One example is Gear’s close analysis of a sequence from The Trial in which Welles cuts together shots of buildings in Rome and Zagreb (in the former Yugoslavia) to craft a scene of the main character, K, walking through a city, capturing the hopelessness of a single man pitted against an imposing state apparatus.

The book holds Welles’s cosmopolitan lifestyle and leftist worldview in a provocative tension with his nostalgia for pre-modern ways of life, seen in material as diverse as the Shakespearian reimaginings of Chimes at Midnight and documentary footage of rural Basque Country. Gear introduces this tension in the early chapter on The Magnificent Ambersons and then returns to it at the end with a portrait of the historical London in Chimes at Midnight, on the verge of losing the earthy, carnivalesque spirit of Falstaff’s tavern. In the book’s final chapter, Gear describes interviews Welles conducts with Basque villagers for Around the World, in which he romanticizes their independence from technology and maintenance of a traditional culture that crosses the French-Spanish border.

A final thread that stands out is Gear’s attention to Welles’s use of soundtracks to evoke places. For instance, a memo Welles wrote criticizing Universal Pictures’s rough cut of Touch of Evil indicates that Welles planned a complex soundtrack of diegetic music and sound effects for the opening sequence – the changing sound meant to match the famous tracking shot that lasts over three minutes and reveals the planting of a bomb along with the protagonists’ journey across the border. Instead, the studio mixed in an “overwhelming” non-diegetic score for the theatrical release, which takes the audience out of the fictional world.4ibid. 173 Soundscapes remain understudied in cinematic analyses of location and Gear helpfully reminds us of how sound creates a sense of place as well as how important sound was to Welles as an artist.

While these threads partially connect the different sections of the book, the dominance of archival research as the book’s primary methodology prevents the material from coalescing under a unifying thesis. Gear often presents pieces of primary source material without much commentary, and some sections abruptly end without a clear summative point. As a result, while there are some connecting threads, there is no overarching claim about Welles’s thematic or aesthetic use of settings, nor much attempt to link the material to other work on cinematic geographies. So, while many of Gear’s points could be applicable to a broader body of scholarship on cinematic cities, or on the relation between cinematic locations and ideology, they remain under-developed in the current form.

Ultimately, Gear’s book will be of great interest to those who want to know the full scope of Welles’s career and his many unfinished projects. Gear has found and assembled a remarkable array of shooting scripts, production and editing notes, interviews, and unfinished footage. He carefully teases apart elements of the films that are the direct product of Welles’s artistic vision from those which seem to have resulted from inadequate budgets or studio interference. The book also demonstrates how fruitful it can be to think about cinematic places as a combination of production circumstances and artistic vision. While some may be left wanting more development of the aesthetic and ideological implications of Welles’s work, Gear’s work is still a valuable contribution to the scholarly literature on cinematic places.

At the End of the Street in Shadow is currently available from Wallflower Press.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Gear, Matthew. At the End of the Street in Shadow: Orson Welles and the City. (New York: Wallflower Press, 2016). pg. 220.
2. ibid. 78
3. ibid. 193
4. ibid. 173

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