100 Most Important Film Directors of All Time #97. Orson Welles

100 Most Important Film Directors


Orson Welles


Orson Welles’s stature in the world of cinema has benefitted from an obsessive literary cult that have elevated his work to dizzying heights.  Critics worldwide have praised his film Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films of all time. To this day, it remains at or near the top of every critics ten best films of all time. The baby faced Welles, whose real love was the theater, was the boy genius who brought the grand traditions of the stage to the cinema.

Welles would come to prominence in the early 1930S with his participation in  the Federal  Theater Project. According to Wikipedia:

The Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) was a New Deal program to fund theatre and other live artistic performances and entertainment programs in the United States during the Great Depression. It was one of five Federal Project Number One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. It was created not as a cultural activity but as a relief measure to employ artists, writers, directors and theater workers. It was shaped by national director Hallie Flanagan into a federation of regional theatres that created relevant art, encouraged experimentation in new forms and techniques, and made it possible for millions of Americans to see live theatre for the first time.

It was from here that Welles’s idea of story and its presentation began to take shape. In fact, the entire cast of Citizen Kane was made up entirely of members of another repretory group, The Mercury Theater, when he  jumped from the Federal to join.  Welles would make great use of the experience gained from his theaterical days in storytelling in other future endeavours, beginning with his adaptation of HG Wells’s classic novel War of the Worlds in 1938 for radio.


His first film would be Citizen Kane. From Wikipedia:

Citizen Kane (1941) topped five critics’ polls, with 22 votes in 1962, 32 votes in 1972, 45 votes in 1982, 43 votes in 1992, and 46 votes in 2002. It also topped the first two directors’ polls, with 30 votes in 1992 and 42 votes in 2002

  • Citizen Kane (1941) was ranked number 1 with 48 votes when French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma asked 78 French critics and historians to vote for the best films in 2007.[5] It was also ranked number 1 with 48 votes when Chinese website Cinephilia.net asked 135 Chinese-speaking critics, scholars, curators, and cultural workers to vote for the best films in 2012. It was ranked number 1 with 49 votes when Spanish film magazine Nickel Odeon (es) asked 150 Spanish film experts to vote for the best films in 1999

Welles would procure the basic story of the film from the real life couple William Randolph Hearst and Mariann Davies. Hearst,  publishing magnet and very influential in California and US policies, and Davies, a noted Hollywood actress, were the stuff of tabloids and easy pickings. The material suited Welles theatrical flair and the resulting film would cement Welles’s legacy of genius for years to come.

Why Orson Welles is important: Whether or not Citizen Kane is  the greatest film of all time is debatable. However, its method of storytelling was innovative. To add to quasi-biographical aspects of the film is the fact that it is a thinly veiled portrait of the controversial and powerful William Randolph Hearst (The “Rosebud” reference reportedly being  Heart’s nickname for Davies’s lady parts).

Welles’s auteur approach to the look of the film was unique for that era. As well, Welles would make himself a part of the story and look of the film.  He would be one of the few directors to appear in  front of the camera as lead actor


To Catch a Thief

And for that Mr. Hitchcock will be forever grateful.