The Eyes of Orson Welles

Delivered in his characteristically florid and ruminative style, this documentary essay has film maker Mark Cousins seeing the world through the darting eyes of Orson Welles and compiling/conducting an imaginary dialogue with the great man.

Reflecting from our modern perspective, Cousins keeps asking: “What would you have done, Orson?” and filling his late in on how times have changed and how we now have an American President “who thinks he’s Charles Foster Kane…”

The key to the film, which I first saw on its debut amid the Cannes Classics last May, is the uncovering of a host of new sketches found in Welles’ archive and to which Welles’ daughter Beatrice has granted Cousins access. Cleverly, Cousins uses these doodles and paintings as gateways to the artist’s soul, indicators of how he viewed the world, and uses them to embark on an unusual, personal, yet thoroughly and quirkily researched biography.

The drawings start from when Welles was a child, a precocious 12-year-old traveling with his father and never let up, allowing the story to take us from Chicago to Ireland, to Paris and Morocco and Spain and Venice. Cousins sees stories and tell-tales images all over, his own free-associating filmic intellect spotting visual clues and recurring motifs that repeat in Welles’ films, from the interiors in a museum miniature to the use of skylights, or sunsets or hats.

It’s all very playful yet impressively plausible, throwing new light on Welles’ craft and approach, seeing fresh ways through well-charted terrain. Cousins’ curiosity is, as ever, pretentious but infectious, his narration often mannered into Wellesian flourishes that remain full of insight and childlike wonder.

He relishes the contradictions and bluster that come as part of the great man. As we look at a clip from yet another unfinished work, we wonder if Cousins is noticing how frequent his idol abandons things – films and people? There’s a possibility he’s equating the sketch books with the movies, that the camera was a pen and often ran out of ink. He quotes a passage of Welles wishing the camera didn’t have film in it, and wonders, Orson, what you would have made of today’s technology? 

Welles could, indeed, have flourished without studio interference and the cheapness of being able to film now might have suited him. And while the thought of Orson Welles shooting on his iPhone is not one I relish, the restlessness of his constant and candid doodling is fascinating, faces in crowds, noses. “You took a line for a walk,” says Cousins a few times, invoking the famous description of drawing usually attributed to Paul Klee. There are, indeed, firm lines and squiggled ones, curves and curlicues, blank faces, beards, hats, caricatures and landscapes, and all in a variety of mediums, which Cousins enumerates like a greedy lizard.

There’s a section on the “look of love”, how Orson saw and captured beauty, which allows Cousins to look at his subject’s famously colourful love life without gossip or moralising, from affairs with Dolores del Rio and Rita Hayworth (a delicious deconstruction of her singing in The Lady from Shanghai) to Paola Mori’s legs going for a walk in F is for Fake, how he framed his actresses adoringly, perhaps sometimes leeringly. There are several sketches and cards he’d send them, with passionate words of love scribbled in haste, a hopeless romantic inspired by chivalry, and probably sincere for that moment.

Some of Cousins’ observations, his cuts and visual comparisons are thrilling, sometimes whimsical, fanciful, even, but always expertly woven together by the narrative and the visual footage – if, early on in Cousins’ trip through the archive, we see a tin of Welles’ “beloved nose putty”, with a small amount taken out, you can be sure as the Chekovian gun that it will appear later, in extraordinary TV footage from a US chat show, where Welles is applying a pea-sized amount of putty on the end of his nose and working it in as he talks us through how he gets made up to play Falstaff on an American chat show.

There is genius aplenty here, on both sides, as well as sense of clowning, of experiment, of possibility and failure. And it’s this dexterity, this visual hunger and restless inquisition that the two men share. 

JANE BOWN PORTRAIT Credit: Jane Bown/Topfoto