Orson Welles Best Films

Citizen Kane

By the accounts of nearly all the experts Kane is one of the very best movies ever made. It was ahead of its time stylistically, bold in structure, and compelling in its narrative.

Citizen Kane was not only Orson Welles’ best film, but his first. With it, he went from being a big--though still relatively new--figure in the New York drama scene, as well as a radio star, to being hailed as a film director of prodigious talent and boundless potential.

For Citizen Kane, Welles cast many of his Mercury Theatre veterans. Joseph Cotten played Jedediah Leland; Dorothy Comingore played Susan Alexander Kane; Agnes Moorehead was Mary Kane, Ruth Warrick, Emily Monroe Norton Kane, Everett Sloane, Mr. Bernstein. Welles starred as the man himself, Charles Foster Kane.

The story centers around a gaggle of reporters chasing the meaning of the last word, “Rosebud,” of Charles Foster Kane, an iconic and enigmatic newspaper publisher. Their journey takes the viewer through a tour of Kane’s life and rise to fame and power.

We see that when Kane his father and then his mother die, and the boy is sent to live with the tycoon Walter Thatcher, whose memoirs become one of the clues used by Jerry Thompson, one of the reporters investigating the origin of “Rosebud.” Kane’s relations with Thatcher were thorny, but that can probably be said of his relations with many of the people in his lives, his various business associates and wives.

Orson Welles best film, was, accordingly, very well received. Not only did critiques heap praise upon it, but The American Film Institute would eventually name Citizen Kane number one, atop its 100 Years...100 Movies list. The movie has topped the annual list of the British publication Sight and Sound fifty times, and has topped countless other similar lists.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Another of Orson Welles’ best films was his second, The Magnificent Ambersons. Like Citizen Kane, it was a sweeping narrative of lost grandeur. In this case, however, the focus was on a family, the Ambersons, whose greatness began with Major Amberson and which has prospered in the automobile business. The protagonist is George Minafer, the Major’s grandson. George struggles with his identity and place in the family as parents and aunts and uncles pass away, leaving him the heir to and guardian of the family’s magnificence. The family wealth dissipates, leaving George a manual laborer.

The screenplay, which Welles wrote, was based on Booth Tarkington’s 1920 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize but had mostly slipped into the mists of time. By choosing it, Orson showed he was still drawn to works concerning a male protagonist who lost his parents, in succession, at a relatively young age. He was also concerned with the simple beauty and innocence of bygone eras.

In the wake of controversies and adulation surrounding Citizen Kane, Welles cast the movie, with Tim Holt as George Minafer, Dolores Costello as Isabel Minafer, Richard Bennett as Major Amberson, and the familiar faces Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan and Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny Minafer.

The Third Man

If by Orson Welles’ films, we count those in which he starred, we can consider The Third Man to be one of the best. In it, Welles played a character who would resonate through American culture for decades, Harry Lime. Lime was a mysterious racketeer , who we would eventually Trevor Howard.

learn, sold penicillin on the black market. He is initially thought to be an honest man. The film’s protagonist, pulp writer Holly Martins (Cotten) finds him dead in Vienna, suspects his death was a murder, and endeavors to learn more. It is that process that takes him deeper and deeper into Lime’s web of corruption.

Welles was so recognizable in his role that for years after the movie, whenever he’d walk into a middle-Eastern restaurant with a band, he’d be serenaded with the movie’s famous zither-oriented “The Third Man Theme.”

The movie was directed and produced by Carol Reed, starring Cotten, Welles, and Alida Valli.


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