'Citizen Kane'

Orson Welles in 'Citizen Kane'

Orson Welles is characterized as a restless innovator and experimenter. Even if the only film he had ever made had been his debut feature, 1941’s Citizen Kane, Welles would likely still be remembered for his ground-breaking use of depth of field and deep focus; long, fluid takes incorporating complex camera movement; a non-linear narrative structure; and many other advances in film, too numerous too list. Few other filmmakers have displayed such a distinctive voice and style throughout their careers, but Welles belongs on a short list of auteurs whose films could only have been made by the one person whose name appears in the credits as director.

Robert Altman is another such auteur, and his films are all similarly unified by a unique directorial vision. Altman is a director who spawned his own adjective – “Altmanesque” – much like films made in the style of Orson Welles can be called “Wellesian.” An Altman film is instantly recognizable as such for its large cast of characters; long takes and moving cameras; complex multi-layer sound track; and multiple storylines coinciding in a way that defies typical narrative structure, among other more intangible traits.

If this suggests that the work of these two directors intersects in many respects, it is no coincidence. Not only is Altman an innovator in his own right, but his films also bear a striking resemblance in various unexpected ways to those of Orson Welles. I would argue that many of the developments that Welles introduced to the language of cinema in the early 1940s (and throughout his prolific career) were advanced even further by Altman in the 1970s and beyond.

Any analysis or comparison of the creative output of these prolific directors should begin with a brief mention of their similarities off the set. Welles and Altman were both Hollywood “outlaws” of a sort, who left Hollywood and produced their films independently after initial successes (Welles’ Citizen Kane, Altman’s M*A*S*H and Nashville, among others) led to critical and commercial disappointments (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, and a series of unfinished projects for Welles; Quintet, Popeye and a string of ‘80s flops for Altman).

Both directors expanded their roles and were instrumental in the writing and editing processes of their films. Both managed to venerate and criticize American culture, often at the same time (Welles’ critiques were primarily a product of the New Deal culture of the 1930s, as well as World War II, while Altman drew from such wide-ranging yet distinctly American issues as the Vietnam War, football and country music), in a way that always managed to defy our expectations. Both were at one time considered has-beens and failures; both are now revered as masters of their craft.

In an interview with Andre Bazin and Charles Bitsch in 1958 for Cahiers du Cinema, Welles said:

Film is like a colony and there are very few colonists. When America was wide open, with the Spanish at the Mexican border, the French in Canada, the Dutch in New York, you can be sure that the English would go to a place that was still unoccupied… It’s not a question of preference. I occupy positions that aren’t occupied because, in this young medium of expression, it’s a necessity. The first thing one must remember about film is that it is a young medium. And it is essential for every responsible artist to cultivate the ground that has been left fallow… I don’t do this out of a spirit of contradiction, I don’t want to counter what has been done; I just want to occupy an unoccupied terrain and work there.

Years later, Altman said:

Nobody makes the films they want to make, they make the films they’re able to make… I don’t go in and say, “Let’s see how we can do it differently.” It’s more like, “I don’t want to do that, because I’ve seen that.” And also, it never rings true to me. It’s more starting at the inside of these projects and building them from the inside out. I’m always surprised myself by what the exterior, the total package, looks like.

Although Altman’s thoughts may not resonate with the same theatricality or poetic lyricism exhibited by Welles, each of their shared views could easily have been co-written by the other, suggesting an intimate connection beneath the surface of their films, even though there is no evidence that the two filmmakers ever knew each other.

But more interesting than their analogous world views, for the purposes of this essay, are their technical and artistic innovations on film, as introduced by Welles and cultivated by Altman. In the interest of time and space, I will limit my discussion to only a few of their major works, focusing on the more successful or well-known of their films as examples of their greatest achievements. In the case of Welles, this includes Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil. In the case of Altman, these films primarily include M*A*S*H, The Player and Short Cuts. Other films, as well as the works of film theorists and critics, will be referenced when appropriate.

Welles began his tumultuous relationship with Hollywood with Citizen Kane, a groundbreaking work that introduced the world to a director who had already made a name for himself in theater and radio prior to his film career. He brought with him the cast of the Mercury Theater, including Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick and Everett Sloane, most of whom had never acted on film before and many of whom Welles would work with several times throughout his career, and who became known chiefly for their roles in Welles’ films. Moorehead and Cotten would appear in The Magnificent Ambersons, Sloane would be featured next to Welles in The Lady from Shanghai, and Ray Collins – who played rival politico James W. Gettys in Citizen Kane – had prominent roles in both Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

Robert Altman

Robert Altman

Although Altman did not travel with a theater troupe to the set of his first film, his career was punctuated with a recurring cast of characters. After bringing actors such as Elliott Gould, Shelley Duvall and Lily Tomlin to stardom in the early 1970s, he continued to cast them and other actors repeatedly in his films, creating a community of Altman specialists even broader than the circle that Welles had once formed. Altman also took the possibilities of an ensemble cast, similar in theory to a theater company, much further than Welles was able to at any point in his career.

Maurice Yacowar writes in his article “Actors as Conventions in the Films of Robert Altman:”

The 24-character cast of Nashville and the 48-character cast of A Wedding are the extreme instances of an Altman tendency. Instead of focusing on a star, he develops a community of characters. As Altman tells it, on M*A*S*H he cast ten actors who were not in the script “so that we had an identity and a community rather than just this guy works one day because we need a guy who has a line here. We put everybody on for the run of the picture so that we could develop a communal feeling – we weren’t restricted to just this part and that part.” On McCabe and Mrs. Miller he did the same thing with 40 actors. Consistent with this are the reports from his shooting locations that stress the party atmosphere; Altman’s crews enjoy a community experience in the filming.

Part of the reason for Altman’s ability to include so many prominent characters in his films is a matter of simple economics. Welles had complete creative control over the production of Citizen Kane, but he was not able to maintain his status in Hollywood to garner the budgets necessary to hire so many principles later on in his career; in fact, on films such as Othello and Mr. Arkadin, most of his actors were not even on set at the same time due to budget and scheduling conflicts, and the shooting style of those films changed accordingly. However, it is safe to assume that just as no other director had been so ambitious before Altman, Welles would not have considered a cast of 40 stars, or even 20, to be possible.

In addition, many actors took significant pay cuts to work on Altman films (reports indicate that The Player would have cost over $100 million on salaries alone if all the celebrity cameos, including Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Jack Lemmon and countless more, had charged their normal asking prices). This allowed Altman much more freedom to control the casting in his films, even as he allowed his actors to improvise their lines in nearly every one of his movies and even occasionally involved them in the editing process. In an Altman film, an actor is not cast just because he can act. Altman invites his cast into a community that will create his film.

Conversely, it seems the only film that Welles improvised with his actors was his unfinished and unreleased experimental version of Don Quixote, which would have been a silent film accompanied by voiceover narration and a musical score. Otherwise, Welles was known typically as an autocratic director, collaborating more closely with his writers or editors than with his actors on set and exhibiting complete control over the final product.

This brief comparison in casting leads us to the most prominent stylistic features shared by Welles and Altman: multi-layered sound design, complex camera movement and long takes. These features are dictated by technology and budgetary concerns possibly more than any other single aspect of the directors’ works. Welles made his greatest leaps in these areas early in his career, when he had the confidence of a major studio and the reputation of a genius. After only a few missteps, however, Welles lost favor with his financial and creative backers, and as he explained in his interview with Bazin and Bitsch:

If you’ve noticed that I don’t use long takes, it’s not because I don’t like them, but because no one gives me the necessary means to treat myself to them. It’s more economical to make one image, then this image and then that image, and try to control them later, in the editing studio. Obviously I would prefer to control the elements in front of the camera while I’m filming, but that requires money and the confidence of your sponsors.

Welles noted that even though he had made grand use of long tracking shots in his early films (see the conversation between George and Lucy on a horse and buggy ride in The Magnificent Ambersons, for example – a single long tracking shot that follows the pair through the streets of town as they talk about their futures), he was unable to utilize that stylistic element when he left Hollywood and began making films in Europe. “I didn’t use long shots,” he told Bazin and Bitsch, “because a long shot requires a large and capable technical team. There are very few European teams competent to successfully carry out a long shot, very few men, technicians who can manage it.”

When he was given the directing chair for 1958’s Touch of Evil, however, Welles filmed his most ambitious shot yet. The opening scene of the film is one continuous shot that moves through a Mexican border town, swooping low to catch brief snippets of conversations, then rising again to show a view of the entire town as people meander through the streets. Welles captures moving cars, a murder plot and a romantic gesture, and introduces the viewer to the manic world of the film while the camera follows two couples on their parallel paths until both parties reach the border, creating a complex and chaotic scene leading up to an explosion that literally starts the film with a bang.

Altman bested the great Orson Welles in The Player, released in 1992. He effectively says, “Anything you can do, Orson, I can do better,” when he opens The Player with a “bang” as well – a virtuoso shot that spans a movie studio lot and continues uninterrupted for eight minutes, in which we see and hear a discussion of the virtues of fast cutting vs. continuous, unbroken shots; a chat about the famous opening shot in Touch of Evil; two different close-ups of a postcard; several cases of mistaken identity; a variety of activities seen through windows; a group of Japanese visitors on a studio tour; and three or four movie pitches. And the dialogue was, reportedly, all improvised.

This homage to Welles in The Player exemplifies the ways in which Altman had progressed beyond Welles stylistically, while it also reminds the viewer of Welles’ past importance as an innovator more than three decades prior. Welles had called himself a pioneer, and in terms of camera movement, long takes and sound design, he certainly paved the road that Altman would follow. And much like Welles made an all-too-brief return from Hollywood exile with Touch of Evil, The Player marked Altman’s return, with glorious vengeance, to a Hollywood that had cast him into the outer darkness in the 1980s, when his eclectic vision didn’t fit with movies made by marketing studies.

Roger Ebert, in his review of The Player, also contends, “Watching [main character Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins)] in some shots, especially when the camera is below eye level and Altman uses a mock-heroic composition, we realize with a shock that Griffin looks uncannily like the young Citizen Kane. He has a similar morality, too, but not the breadth of vision.”

The Player is not purely a Welles homage, and the two opening shots compared above are certainly not the only instances of such complicated shots at work, but this analysis leads to the next – and perhaps most significant -junction of the two director’s stylistic trademarks: sound design. Because so few filmmakers are recognized for their originality in the use of sound, Welles and Altman stand out as perhaps the two most important directors in this area. Citizen Kane‘s celebrated technical innovations – dramatic camera angles, long takes and rapid cuts, reliance on deep focus to show individuals in terms of their environment and other men – have been widely discussed, but as Richard Pells writes,

Perhaps of even greater significance was its imaginative use of sound. A veteran of radio, Welles understood the potency of music, disembodied voices, overlapping dialogue, the ability to edit aurally rather than visually by having one person begin a sentence to be completed by someone else in another place at another time. Here words were not utilized simply to convey information, establish character, or lecture the audience but to create a special world… All of these devices tended to make the sound track of Citizen Kane just as memorable as the images on the screen.

Welles continued to experiment with sound throughout his career, but like in the case of long takes, camera movement and ensemble casts, Altman broadens the possibilities of the medium even further. Yacowar writes:

Robert Altman’s cinema is the cinema of uncertainty and surprise. As he himself lives a life of risk and gamble, with all coherence – and complacency – gone, his cinema technique is characterized by devices that unsettle the viewer. His over-lapping soundtracks, with multiple babble where we are accustomed to the artifice of one character speaking at a time, typify Altman’s subversion of familiar devices. Altman’s soundtrack prevents passive reception; the viewer must actively select which voice he will listen to from the jumble he hears.

Welles also used sound to this same chaotic effect, and created the same sense of “uncertainty and surprise,” perhaps most memorably in Touch of Evil, in a scene where most of the cast is gathered in a murder suspect’s small apartment, talking, shouting and circling each other at once so that the viewer must constantly choose where to focus his attention. But additionally, in films like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, “Welles uses deep focus wherever possible, adding a sense of confusion to certain scenes by not guiding our eyes to any one focal point.” Altman used his sound track to the same basic effect, although he allowed the sound to work separately, or even incongruently, with the visuals more than Welles tended to. Both directors created a more complete sense of space through sound design, so that even the most seemingly insignificant sound effects or bits of dialogue were included to flesh out what appeared to be a real world on the screen.

Up to this point, I have avoided a detailed discussion of a prevailing, unorthodox narrative structure in Welles’ films. Citizen Kane best represents this deviation from the norm, with its flashbacks and vignettes comprising almost the entirety of a disjointed and enigmatic plot. Altman did not typically employ flashbacks or voiceover, as Welles so often did, but his narratives cannot be considered conventional either. After the structure of a film like Kane had been copied countless times thereafter, Altman experimented with different ways of exploring the same themes of time and temporality that had been so integral to Welles.

The action in M*A*S*H is framed on the sound track by lines of dialogue that overlap or are casually tossed away; the PA system continually breaks in with an odd announcement or the Japanese version of an American popular song. Throughout the film, the PA announces the titles of war films that will shown for the troops; the last film to be shown is, in fact, the same one that the viewer has just seen – M*A*S*H. In this way, Altman plays with the idea that the film we have just seen exists in more than one temporal space, just as Welles suggested in Citizen Kane that there is more than one version of the truth as time passes and memories fade and change.

Similarly, the final scene of The Player involves a phone conversation in which a screenwriter pitches a new movie – the very same story that we have just seen played out by fictional characters on screen. The worlds of fantasy and reality are thus self-reflexively melded into one.

Robert Altman

Robert Altman

Just as Robert Altman continued, in his way, the cinematic traditions of Orson Welles, other contemporary directors have learned from the combination of Welles and Altman, and are continuing to expand upon the limits and possibilities of film. The strongest example is likely Paul Thomas Anderson, who in films such as Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia combines an enormous ensemble cast with stylistic flourishes such as long tracking shots (similar to those in Touch of Evil or The Player), multilayered sound tracks and complex narrative structures to create something entirely new. Anderson was even hired as a “backup” director on Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, in case the aging director did not make it through the entire shoot.

My intent in this essay has not been to suggest that Altman was the only director to learn from Orson Welles. Altman was not the only director, before or after Welles, to cast the same actors in his films repeatedly throughout his career. He was not the only director to be so integrally involved in the writing and editing of his films. He was not the only director to use long takes. He was certainly not the only director to use camera movement. He was not even the only director to complicate his soundtracks with overlapping dialogue. But the degree to which he advanced each of these techniques, quite possibly beyond what Welles had envisioned, and the way in which he combined all of these separate elements to make films that are distinctly his own, reflects the spirit and intent of Orson Welles better in my mind than any director before or since.

Works Cited:

Johnson, William. “M*A*S*H.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 23, No. 3. (Spring, 1970): 38-41.

Sawhill, Ray. “The Player.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 46, No. 2. (Winter, 1992-1993): 47-50.

Yacowar, Maurice. “Actors as Conventions in the Films of Robert Altman.” Cinema Journal. Volume 20, No. 1 (1980): 14-28.

This essay was written Dec. 2006 for the NYU Cinema Studies course devoted to Orson Welles.