Orson Welles: Volume 2, Hello Americans

Simon Callow plumbs Orson Welles' long, sad decline from promise undone by dysfunction in his follow-up tome on the wunderkind director. This account of Welles' multitudinous activities following the premiere of "Citizen Kane" through his departure for Europe in 1947 is unfailingly intelligent and well written, just like the earlier volume.

Simon Callow plumbs Orson Welles’ long, sad decline from promise undone by dysfunction in his follow-up tome on the wunderkind director. This account of Welles’ multitudinous activities following the premiere of “Citizen Kane” through his departure for Europe in 1947 is unfailingly intelligent and well written, just like the earlier volume. Whether even an analyst as thought-provoking as Callow should spend more than 100 pages per year on someone as fascinating and complex as Welles remains an open question.

Callow’s greatest virtue is his ability to see his subject as neither a persecuted prodigy nor a self-destructive madman, the opposing but equally oversimplified views taken by many previous biographers. “Orson Welles was a real man, if an exceptional one, confronting real and recognizable problems, making real and very human mistakes, with real consequences,” he writes in his preface.

Indeed, Callow’s portrait is so vivid and three-dimensional that at several moments in the book readers will want to take Orson by the shoulders and shake him, crying, “What are you doing?” Why did he party in Brazil when he should have been in Hollywood defending his cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons”? Why did he also walk away from “The Stranger,” “The Lady From Shanghai,” and “Macbeth,” allowing these risk-taking films to be butchered in post-production?

It almost seems as though Welles had attention-deficit disorder; he was always juggling too many commitments, always on to the next project before seeing the previous one completed. Yes, he had to deal with studio executives indifferent to his experiments with narrative and sound, but Callow makes it clear that Welles, if not precisely self-destructive, was unforgivably careless with his talent and his work.

The author has more respect for Welles’ political activities — and that is the book’s greatest flaw. Like many artists of the era, Welles was a Popular Front liberal: an ardent admirer of FDR and even more of his left-wing VP, Henry Wallace, an outspoken opponent of fascism and racism who vigorously supported civil rights for black Americans. Those beliefs, and his activism on behalf of them, are admirable but not interesting enough to justify the amount of time Callow devotes to them.

The author’s contention that Welles, “more than most of his contemporaries, seemed driven to find a satisfactory answer to the issue of how Americans were to live” does not illuminate Welles’ art nearly as much as the close examinations of his films, in which Callow excels. He’s especially perceptive about Welles’ boundary-testing desire to find new ways of telling stories and fresh approaches to the classics — which whets the appetite for Callow’s thoughts on “Othello,” “Chimes at Midnight,” “The Trial,” and “Touch of Evil” in Volume Three.

Popular on Variety

More Reviews

  • 'The Son' Review: Bosnian Family Drama

    Sarajevo Film Review: 'The Son'

    It is a mixed blessing to be born in the aftermath of a war. On the one hand, you never have to experience the terror and suffering your parents did; on the other, you grow up with your own personal crises forever made to feel smaller by comparison. That, at least, is the frustration driving [...]

  • Gerard Butler Angel Has Fallen

    Film Review: 'Angel Has Fallen'

    “Angel Has Fallen” marks the third time that Gerard Butler, as the Secret Service agent and scowling samurai cowboy Mike Banning, has had to rescue the President of the United States from an international conspiracy so cuckoo bananas that the movie barely expects you to believe it. (Actually, in the six years since this series [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]

  • The Bromley Boys

    Film Review: 'The Bromley Boys'

    There’s a sweet message at the heart of “The Bromley Boys” about finding the heroism in mediocrity, thought it’s one not best served by the film being entirely mediocre itself. Adapted from a sepia-tinted memoir by British author Dave Roberts — detailing the childhood origins of his obsession with the consistently second-rate Bromley soccer team [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content