A Conspicuous Gap: On Orson Welles in Italy

By Kevin CanfieldOctober 5, 2013

A Conspicuous Gap: On Orson Welles in Italy

Orson Welles in Italy by Alberto Anile

BY THE SUMMER OF 1948, Orson Welles had been living and working in Italy for nine months, and during that time, he’d been savaged by several of the country’s gossip columnists and film journalists. He was uncouth, they said, and overrated. But at the beginning of September, as Welles prepared to show his new film, Macbeth, at the ninth Venice Film Festival, the 33-year-old director of Citizen Kane thought he might catch a break. As Alberto Anile puts it in his new book, Orson Welles in Italy, “He was chipper, confident that Macbeth would be given a proper reception.” Sooner or later, Welles believed, the Italian film press would reward him with the kind of reviews he deserved.

He was wrong. “It is Welles, the presumptuous director, showing off the histrionics of Welles, the actor,” one critic wrote after the Venice screening. Another proclaimed Macbeth “(a)n overblown attempt to astound and confound” — a film of such poor quality that “Shakespeare’s bones are turning in their grave.” A third, who had evidently hoped to nap during the movie, called it “the film that murders sleep.” A fourth Italian critic, meanwhile, assailed Welles’s Macbeth for the most idiosyncratic of reasons: “His characters all eat chicken with their fingers — not out of bad manners but an excess of temperament, imagination, and willpower. Exactly the sort of characters that bore us to death.” Anile concludes:“Far from home, instead of finding refuge from Hollywood, Welles had found in Italy another country that didn’t understand him.”

In Orson Welles in Italy, Anile focuses on a five-and-a-half-year stretch beginning in 1947 and ending in 1953, one of the most frustrating periods in Welles’s inimitable, if famously uneven, career. Welles’s extended stay in the country was colored by professional miscalculations, financial worries, legal entanglements, and amusing language gaffes. According to Anile, when Welles fell for a local actress, he declared his desire to marry her, but in his imperfect Italian, what he actually said was, “I’m going to register her.” Amidst it all, he suffered a drubbing from Italian journalists and film critics, the sustained nature of which forms the through-line of Anile’s rich and fascinating book. “[E]gocentric, histrionic, proud as Mephistopheles,” is how one critic described Welles in a Milanese newspaper in 1948 — and he was a fan.

Anile, the author of books about Italian film icons Roberto Rossellini and the actor Toto, says he aims to fill a conspicuous gap: “In all of Welles’ career, the period from autumn 1947 to the spring of 1953 is the one that has been investigated least. Most biographies skip through the period — making only a few references to the films in which he acted, details of the one film (Othello) he made (as a director), and a few anecdotes.” This is partly true, if a bit misleading. A number of books — among them Barbara Leaming’s 1985 biography Orson Welles; This is Orson Welles, the 1992 compilation of discussions between Welles and the director Peter Bogdanovich; and Orson Welles, Joseph McBride’s 1996 bio (an expanded edition of a title first published in 1972) — have dealt with Welles’s years in Italy, although none are as singularly focused as Anile’s. A more recent book, the entertaining yet slight My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, edited by Peter Biskind and published in July of this year, touches only briefly on the period.

Anile has obviously spent hundreds of hours sifting through old newspaper and magazine clips, which provide him with some of his most colorful material. Orson Welles in Italy also benefits from its inspired structure. The book tells a linear story, but every few chapters, Anile jumps in to present one of the extraordinary interviews he’s recently conducted with venerable journalists and film industry professionals who witnessed Welles’s time in Italy 60 years ago. In one interview, the actress and writer Franca Faldini says that Welles’s experience wasn’t unique: “Any American actor who stayed for any length of time in Italy soon got treated badly. We Italians are like that.” In another, Gian Luigi Rondi, a critic who first panned Welles’s films in the 1940s, says the filmmaker earned his bad reviews. “I should warn you,” he tells Anile, “I haven’t changed my mind and am not about to now.” There are five of these Q&A sessions scattered throughout the book, and they offer invaluable measures of nuance and perspective.

On the other hand, Anile occasionally overdramatizes the proceedings. For instance, the first chapter opens with Welles’s flight from France to Italy in the fall of 1947. It was an eventful trip, and after a lengthy detour that used up lots of fuel, Anile writes, the filmmaker, who had evidently been reading the entire time, “closed his book and for the first time looked at the pilot, perplexed. His glance was met by a still-expressionless face.” These are details that Anile couldn’t possibly know — the book includes scores of endnotes, but none for this anecdote — and they’re more suited to a novel than a work of nonfiction. Similarly, late in the book Anile writes about the “quarantine” Welles was subjected to after a bite from a rabid dog, and how the downtime left him “unable to travel or shoot.” But did the incident — the bite itself — actually occur? Anile’s sourcing is too thin to say for sure. But these are relatively minor lapses in a generally well-documented book.

Ostensibly, Welles went to Italy for a role in Black Magic, director Gregory Ratoff’s film version of a novel by Alexandre Dumas, which would be released in 1949. But as Anile reminds us, the young American star had plenty of reasons to look for work abroad. From a filmmaking standpoint, the previous few years had been choppy: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), his second movie as a director, was edited without his approval, and in the half-decade that followed, Welles would battle with stateside studio executives over production budgets, casting decisions and assorted creative-control issues. An enemy of William Randolph Hearst ever since his fictionalized telling of the press baron’s life story in Citizen Kane (1941), Welles had found another potent antagonist in J. Edgar Hoover; the FBI director’s men were keeping an eye on the politically left-of-center director. What’s more, he had huge debts — Anile says that one point, Welles owed more than $300,000 in taxes — and his marriage to Rita Hayworth was failing. He had nothing to lose by giving it a go in Italy.

To Welles, postwar Italy must have resembled a clean slate — “mainly,” Anile writes, “because he was practically unheard of … Citizen Kane had not been released in Italy; very few had managed to catch it in France, and among those who hadn’t it had an ambiguous reputation. And only the most attentive critics could have seen The Magnificent Ambersons and The Stranger,” Welles’s 1946 noir thriller. But there would be no grace period. In November 1947 Welles announced his presence with a press conference in Rome. He intended to talk about all the film work he had planned. Reporters, however, were more interested in the state of his relationship with the glamorous Hayworth. Welles wore a gray suit jacket and a pair of cufflinks. His clothes, one scribe told her readers, were adequate “for an American, perhaps, but shabby for an Italian.” 

Welles spent late 1947 and early 1948 working on Black Magic. The production was troubled. A stand-in was injured in an accident, the cinematographer had a fatal heart attack, and rumors of Welles’s incompetence began to fly. According to one yarn, the filmmakers, who were granted permission to shoot inside the Quirinale Palace — a building with long ties to the Italian government and the Catholic Church, and the future home of the country’s new president — had torn a door from its hinges. “The story of the broken door did the rounds,” Anile writes, “changing a little each time. Some said that Welles had kicked the door down in a fit of rage and the shocking idea began to circulate that the Americans were reducing one of Italy’s most prestigious historical buildings to a circus.” The anecdote was almost certainly untrue, but it nonetheless helped shape the notion, growing within certain segments of the Italian movie press, that Welles was a vulgarian.

If Welles was worried about feeding into such a perception, he wasn’t about to reinvent himself as a wallflower.  He was soon to be single again. Married since 1943, he and Hayworth divorced in 1948 and he kept a busy social calendar, which provided reporters and gossip columnists with plenty of material. He was seen squiring various women about town, and he was parodied as an overweight, narcissistic blowhard. One article said that after a few months in the country, Welles was already wearing out his welcome: “We would ask one thing of the artist: a little discretion. In the end his rolling eyes and booming laugh lose interest.” Welles, another publication reported, was “corpulent, with ruffled hair. His expression is somehow amazed, candid, and simple at the same time: the eyes of a child hypnotist. He laughs loudly, baring his teeth and gums. He wears a baggy sports jacket that might double up as a pajama top at home.” Yet another piece described him as a nonstop drinker trying to erase from his memory a run of romantic and professional failures. This last article prompted a lawsuit from Welles; the publication eventually closed, and the suit was dropped three years later.

With his personal life a source of mockery, Welles managed to find inspiration in his burgeoning relationship with the producer of Black Magic, Michele Scalera. For several years, Scalera had wanted to make a film version of Othello, and he shared his vision with Welles. Though Scalera suggested that he “act in the film, nothing more,” Anile writes, Welles soon hatched a bigger plan, one that would take him years to complete.

With Welles preparing to make what he thought would his next great film, his first movie, Citizen Kane finally opened in Italy in the spring of 1948. Kane, Anile explains, had been “held up first by the Fascist policy of homegrown talent and then by the war and is aftermath,” and its arrival coincided with the rise of neorealism, a school of filmmaking that prized naturalistic performances and working-class stories. The stylized Kane, with its exotic camera angles, inventive lighting schemes and bold performances, offered audiences an altogether different kind of experience. The film won praise from some ardent fans. “Finally,” wrote a critic in Milan, “we have a masterpiece.” But in other quarters, Kane received a “lukewarm” reception. Anile writes. To look back on the Italian reviews from 1948 is to be struck by “the absurd distance between the opinions of the critics of the day and the unanimous praise, if not veneration, for the film today,” he adds.  

It’s easy, 60 years later, to second-guess critics. But it’s clear that Welles wasn’t getting an entirely fair shake. For instance, Anile tells us that one particularly negative review was written by a critic who, under a pseudonym, had published the article that resulted in Welles’s lawsuit. Meanwhile, some of the criticism, Anile says, was politically motivated: “Marxist critics,” several of whom remained influential in postwar Italy, “could not get past the film’s formalism — and, thus, its presumed indifference to social issues.”

Within a few months, a round of critical takedowns would greet Macbeth at the 1948 Venice Film Festival. But Welles didn’t sulk, at least not publicly. In the fall of 1948, he signed on to play a key role in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, and he began production, initially in Venice and later in Morocco, of Othello. The projects would provide Welles with two very different filmmaking experiences. The Third Man, Welles recalls in My Lunches with Orson, required him to spend just a handful of days on the film’s Vienna and London sets. The production, from Welles’s perspective, was efficient, and it resulted in one of his most memorable performances. (The Third Man, made outside of Italy, gets little attention in Anile’s book.) Othello, however, was a tortured process from the start.

Welles had recently fallen for a would-be Italian starlet named Lea Padovani, and she was set to play Desdemona to Welles’s Othello. But when the romance failed near the end of 1948, the production fell into disarray. Welles, Anile writes, was forced to scrap “most of the film he had shot in Venice (thought to be, according to the Venetian press, 3,000 meters, or an hour and 50 minutes).” His search for a new Desdemona wasn’t easy. Suzanne Cloutier, who finally got the part, “was the fourth actress hired by Welles to play Desdemona,” Anile writes, “although the press book of the restored film of 1992 … claims she was the eleventh.” Money, meanwhile, was a constant concern; on several occasions, a dwindling budget stopped the production cold. Several cinematographers came and went. And then there was plain bad luck. “When some seagulls got into one shot,” Anile says, “Welles was forced to try to include them later as well; he tried to bellow them down from the skies, then sprinkled ten kilos of sardines over the ground.”

Othello, finally finished after a lengthy stop-and-go shoot, was due to debut at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. But when it was removed from the slate, apparently because of audio problems, Italian journalists renewed their hammering of Welles. Their main objection was based on the fact that Welles had shown Macbeth in Venice three years earlier but, apparently stung by bad reviews, had pulled it from the roster of movies up for awards from the festival’s jury. Now he was at it again. “Could Orson Welles come to the festival without creating some sort of ruckus?” wondered one journalist. “Of course not.” Though Welles took questions from reporters, and tried to explain why the film wasn’t ready, Anile says that the relationship between the Italian press and the American filmmaker was completely severed: “When Othello was withdrawn from the Venice Film Festival, the possibility that Welles and Italy might be reconciled faded away to nothing … Four years’ worth of gossip and criticism had dug a deep hole for Welles that no press conference could fill.”

What Anile fails to emphasize, however, is the degree to which Welles’s magnificently bad timing played a role in his relationship with Italy. He arrived after the war, and to some Italians the big, loud American must have looked like a man who’d embarked on an unseemly victory lap, the very embodiment of empire. Anile suggests as much, but it’s a point, more forcefully argued, that would’ve improved his book. Gossip and critical hostility poisoned his stay in Italy, but the bad press makes a lot more sense given its historical context.

By 1952, Welles seemed to have been as tired of the Italian movie industry as it was of him.  That year, he agreed to appear in a film titled L'uomo, la bestia e la virtù, but the following year he left the production before it was done, and the movie, Anile says, received bad reviews. In terms of his behind-the-camera work, “between the end of 1951 and the beginning of 1953 Welles thought up six films, and appears to have written a script for each one. But he didn’t shoot a single foot of film,” Anile writes.

No single event chased Welles out of Italy, Anile tells us, “but generally,” by the spring of 1953, “he preferred Spain and France.” Even so, he would return to the country on and off throughout his life. He shot part of Don Quixote, a film he never finished, in Rome in 1960, and the following year Welles worked on the screenplay for The Trial (1962) in Fregene, at the family home of the Italian actress Paola Mori, whom he married in 1955. He spent several days in Venice in 1974 making a documentary about Othello, and as late as 1984 he was hoping to return to Italy to do some more filming.

Absorbing as it is, Anile’s book isn’t one that will redefine the way we understand Welles. At the end of the final chapter, he remains the filmmaker who, in Citizen Kane, made what some say is the greatest movie ever, only to spend the next half-century being told that he would never recapture the creative vigor of his mid-20s. But if we judge a book based solely on whether or not it upends everything we thought we knew about its subject, we’re bound to be disappointed. On its own terms, Orson Welles in Italy gives us a more detailed impression of a great artist in the midst of a gruesome spell, and it entertains in the process. As the years passed, Anile writes, Welles would be reassessed by new generations of Italian critics, who offered praise of a kind that he never received in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But My Lunches with Orson makes clear that Welles never forgot his experience in the country. “[T]he Italians,” he tells Jaglom shortly before his death in 1985, “always despised me.”


Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York. 

LARB Contributor

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Bookforum, Film Comment and other publications.


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