Frank McLynn

Mister Bombastic

Orson Welles: Hello Americans

By

Jonathan Cape 461pp £20 order from our bookshop

After ten years’ gestation, Simon Callow’s superb biography of Orson Welles moves on another six years with this second volume; at this rate the author will find himself involved in a race against time to complete his mammoth work. The years in question are 1942–47, during which Welles directed The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, Journey into Fear, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth. Flushed with his triumph in Citizen Kane, Welles began 1942 in a mood of vaulting ambition. He came to the end of 1947 in despair – his political hopes shattered, his movie career in tatters – and was on the point of going into an almost lifelong exile in Europe (there were, of course, the bizarre last years in a Las Vegas penthouse). Callow makes the case that in the years covered by this second volume Welles was implicitly posing the question: what does it mean to be an American? Having by 1947 given up trying to get America to listen to his answer to this question, with his finances in chaos and Truman’s anti-Communist Cold War crusade beginning its reign of terror against liberals and radicals in Hollywood, the previously pugnacious Welles concluded that standing firm against the post-war American ethos was like issuing a papal bull against a comet. He did not battle it out with the HUAC, Senator McCarthy and the right-wing zealots, as his more courageous movie confrères did, but lit out for the territory of (of all people) General Franco. Meanwhile, he had become persona non grata in Hollywood, and this formidable and talented man had allowed himself to be habitually worsted by lesser men in the production of his films. How did all this happen? To answer this question, Callow takes us through the six movies Welles directed during this period in great detail, sometimes shot by shot, and then deals with the studio politics in each case.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,
    • 'The heroic male nude could not, I think, be used today to signify civic pride and glory', as Michelangelo’s 'David… ,
    • 'Munch’s later works show us a man liberated from the torments that gave rise to some of the best-known early works… ,
    • 'We read from left to right and from start to finish. Or do we?' Stuart Hannabus considers the merits of reading i… ,
    • Domestic scandal, sexual abuse and serial killers are on the menu in April's crime round-up. revie… ,
    • What did Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell and Edmund Burke all have in common? Clare Bucknell reveal… ,