3. Orson Welles (1915 – 1985)
What D.W. Griffith invented, Orson Welles perfected. With no previous film experience, Welles was given a contract with RKO Pictures (that included final cut) when his 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast sent radio listeners into a state of panic. The result: Citizen Kane, the most studied film in the history of cinema.
Unlike the innovators before him, the techniques employed by Welles and his Kane team (including DP Gregg Toland and editor Robert Wise) seem contemporary even by today’s standards. The film’s unique cinematography, accomplished through the use of a “deep focus” lens created by Toland specifically for the film, reevaluated the impact a single image could have. Bringing every person, prop and nuance of a scene into focus, deep focus widened the canvas on which Welles could paint his picture, so that each viewing could offer up something new for the audience.
For the larger part of his post-Kane career Welles floundered. He pushed several ideas to various stages of development, but ran into walls each time when he couldn’t find the financial backing. Though a pariah in Hollywood, Welles has continued to influence each new crop of moviemakers, regardless of genre. Documentarians Albert and David Maysles were struck by Welles’ philosophy of film when they spent a week with him in Madrid in the early 1960s. Their nine-minute recording of that time shows Welles talking about an upcoming project (that would become The Other Side of the Wind). He tells the Maysles that “Some of the greatest moments in film have been divine accidents.” Recalls Albert today, almost 30 years after the taping, “As documentarians, that hit us right between the eyes. I’ve always remembered that.”
Regardless of the place he came to hold in an industry always looking for the next big thing, the interminable influence of Citizen Kane is no accident. Even if Welles’ legacy is defined by that first brilliant film, the influence of Kane is so vast that the director’s place in film history is guaranteed for the generations to come. Each viewing of Citizen Kane yields a new cinematic innovation and a deeper understanding of a genius at work.