"There's so much in it, it's so rich"
It’s a measuring stick, just for its sheer ambition of what you can do with a film. It’s a masterful piece of storytelling in under two hours – how much can you get into that and still be manageable and still be watchable and not just become an intellectual exercise? You can still watch it as a film.
It’s a great universal story. A guy who has major talent but he also has major faults and in the end the latter destroy him. His pride and ambition are what make him great, but his pride and ambition also bring him down, as well as his complete lack of understanding about other people. And the way that story unfolds is that other people understand him and tell his story because what he can’t do is understand himself.
So there’s that, there’s the narrative. But the reason I think film scholars and film students like it – and I know film makers like it – is that it’s a box of tricks. It takes all of the rules, which Welles obviously knows, but he wants to push them so far to see if they’ll break or if they’ll just come apart. So you’ve got this kid, 25 years old, never made a film, going, “Can we do that?”
But the clever trick is that he doesn’t just do it and make stuff up, but he surrounds himself with real hardcore, long-standing Hollywood pros: Gregg Toland the cinematographer, Robert Wise the editor. So he can push things, but he can also get them to explain to him where the boxes are that you can push. And after he’s done that for a bit he pushes them a bit further. It’s like he says to Gregg Toland, “Everyone says you’re the greatest cinematographer in Hollywood, you’ve done stuff for John Ford, do something for me that you couldn’t do for him,” and he pushes him just that little bit further.
So there are just bits in the film where, it doesn’t how much you watch it, you just go, ‘That is so great’. That’s why people who are involved in filmmaking love it and people who study film love it, because there’s so much in it. It’s so rich.
For today’s students we have to contextualise it and remind them when it was made and what had come before, which was not on that level of sophistication. They really appreciate the editing. Sometimes with the cinematography they’ve seen it elsewhere, but really they’ve seen it elsewhere because this is where it came from. What a lot of undergraduates are excited about is that Welles was their age. He’s walked into a Hollywood studio full of old pros who’ve done it all and seen it all and taken them all further than they’ve gone before.