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.