A Tall Drink of Water

Stars we love at the Paramount Summer Classic Film series


Me and Orson Welles

The trouble with touting a movie as the greatest ever made is that for successive generations of filmgoers it becomes something like schoolwork. But in 2012, Hitchcock's Vertigo – not his best, by the way – overtook Citizen Kane as No. 1 in the Sight and Sound poll, the British Film Institute's decennial temperature-check, and I for one say so much the better. Orson Welles, that misfit prince, was always a bad fit for best in class.

A chubby-cheeked boy genius who aged into a kind of majestic corpulence in his underemployed twilight years, Welles was too principled and unruly for commercial success. His first film, 1941's Citizen Kane – a trenchant take on the rise and fall of a media mogul – was a supernova. Weirdly prophetic, too: a mythic man, his myopic vision, an unsatisfied death, all mirrored in Welles' own trajectory. His career was bedeviled by studio intervention, chronic lack of funds, his own carelessness, and a reputation for being difficult. There were too many failed projects to chew over here, but what did make it to screen was a feast, including supple adaptations of Shakespeare, such as 1948's clammy, shadowy Macbeth; spirited genre spins, like the 1958 noir Touch of Evil, with its masterful opening tracking shot and Welles near-unrecognizable as a toady, corrupt cop; and paycheck gigs as an actor, director, and script doctor.

In 1949, he famously penned a bravura monologue for his silky criminal Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man. It's worth repeating here: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

I'll take the brilliant, embattled Welles over a cuckoo clock any day of the week.

Citizen Kane: Mon., June 23, 7pm; Tue., June 24, 9:05pm (P)

The Third Man: Mon., June 23, 9:20pm; Tue., June 24, 7pm (P)

Macbeth: Mon., June 23, 7:15pm; Tue., June 24, 9:30pm (S)

Touch of Evil: Mon., June 23, 9:25pm; Tue., June 24, 7:15pm (S)

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