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The Masterful Orson Welles

Getty Images / New York Daily News / Harry Warnecke

The Masterful Orson Welles

Mention Orson Welles and talk inevitably turns to Citizen Kane. Welles, who died Oct. 10, 1985, at 70, had a long and storied career that included television, radio and Broadway, but it's that 1941 movie that's most often connected to his name.

Welles co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in Citizen Kane, which The New York Times lauded as "one of the great (if not the greatest) motion pictures of all time" after its premiere. Seventy years later, the paper again praised the movie, saying it proved Welles was "a master of genre. It's a newspaper comedy, a domestic melodrama, a gothic romance and a historical epic." The American Film Institute has run multiple polls asking film professionals to name the 100 greatest movies of all time. Citizen Kane tops the list each time.

Journalist Ray Kelly, owner and operator of Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource, spoke to Legacy.com about Welles and the film that many believe defines him.

What interests you the most about Orson Welles?

"I never cease to be amazed at the level of success Welles achieved as a young man and the rocky road he walked the remainder of his life. Welles had written books, directed and starred in Broadway productions, achieved fame and notoriety on the radio, and signed a Hollywood contract – all before his 25th birthday.

"By the time he was 27, he was on the outs with Hollywood. He would spend the next four decades hustling for money to make some of the greatest films ever produced."

Welles was in his mid-20s when he made Citizen Kane. How did the film's narrative style change movie storytelling?

"Citizen Kane abstains from traditional linear storytelling. Charles Foster Kane's life unfolds through a series of flashbacks and multiple viewpoints. Of course, it is not the first film or only film to do so. The silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920 was told in flashback. The use of multiple contradictory viewpoints has been used since Kane, notably in Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon. Multiple points of view can be seen in more recent films like Babel (2006) or Vantage Point (2008)."

Much is made of the film's cinematography. What made it so special?

"Welles was blessed with one of Hollywood's greatest cinematographers, Gregg Toland. Kane is known for inventive camera angles and its use of a technique described as 'deep focus.' Deep focus refers to having everything in the frame, even the background, in focus at the same time. Toland had used the technique a year earlier in John Ford's The Long Voyage Home, but not to the extent he did in Kane.

"Welles spoke highly of Toland throughout his lifetime. Toland's contribution was so critical to Kane's success that Welles placed his own directing credit on the same title card as Toland's cinematography credit."

One academic noted that Citizen Kane tops the best film lists of "informed" movie watchers. Does it have the same hold on the uninformed?

"Citizen Kane was a critical, but not a box office, hit when it was released in 1941. It then faded from public view. It experience a revival in 1956 when it was re-released to theaters as Welles returned to New York to star in King Lear. It was lauded at the time by critic Andrew Sarris in his piece Citizen Kane, American Baroque.

"I saw Citizen Kane for the first time in 1980 at a renovated movie palace. A college professor/Academy Award nominee had described the film to me as art. While he was correct, he did not mention that it was highly entertaining. Themes of gain and loss, friendship and betrayal, and corruption are not lost on average moviegoers."

How do you think Citizen Kane would be received if released in 2014?

"There are no marauding aliens, costumed superheroes or car chases in Kane, so it clearly would not be a blockbuster. Even a film like last year's Oscar-winning best picture, 12 Years a Slave, had a tough time at the box office. That film earned $56 million domestically. Jackass: Bad Grandpa came out the same month and took in $102 million.

"As it did in 1941, Kane would be hailed for its direction, cinematography, acting and writing."

Today, "Wellesian" is an adjective. What does it mean? 

"To me, it means resilient, immensely creative and larger than life."

What is your favorite scene in Citizen Kane and why?

 "In a fit of fury after his second wife walks out on him and their million-dollar mansion, Kane wildly tears apart her lavish bedroom – overturning furniture and breaking bottles. He grasps a snow globe, ready to smash it, gazes at it and quietly mutters 'rosebud.' He silently exits her room. Later, we learn Rosebud was the name of the sled he was playing with as a child on the snowy Colorado afternoon when his parents turned over guardianship of him to a banker. The loss of love and the cold comfort of material wealth bookend his life."

Is there any director at work today who, like Welles, is doing things that will change the industry?

"There are many great directors who have an impact on the industry, both good and bad, though their directorial styles may be nothing likes Welles. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese immediately come to mind as filmmakers whose work will be appreciated for decades to come."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."