In 1941, Orson Welles co-wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, still regarded by many critics as the greatest movie of all time. He was 26 years old.
For such a remarkable beginning, Welles had quite a rough career, filled with disagreements, unfinished works, and disappointments. His last performance came in the glorified toy commercial Transformers: The Movie, in which he voiced a planet-sized robot, released the same year he died in 1985.
Whatever the shortcomings of his career, Welles still changed cinema forever as both an actor and a director. A giant of a man, in terms of both size and on-screen persona, he left behind a host of fascinating films. Find here the best Orson Welles movies.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
Even non-cinephiles know Citizen Kane as the greatest movie ever made, and that hyperbole still doesn’t capture the achievement of Welles’s film. Co-written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Citizen Kane follows the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, an imperious newspaper magnate with political ambitions brought down by the emptiness within him. Welles has the ideal counterpoint in his frequent co-star Joseph Cotten as reporter Jerry Thompson, tasked with investigating Kane’s life to discern the meaning of his last word, “Rosebud.” Cotten’s less-theatrical approach gives Welles space to go big as Kane, an acting achievement almost overshadowed by the film’s stylish direction. Of course we also consider it one of the best Orson Welles movies.
2. The Third Man (1949)
English film director Sir Carol Reed may not have the same name recognition as Welles, but the two filmmakers share one quality, having both directed Welles in his best roles. Welles doesn’t appear until late in The Third Man, which focuses on author Holly Martins (Cotten) looking for information about his friend Harry Lime (Welles), who seems to have disappeared amidst lawless postwar Vienna. When Lime makes his entrance, he does so with style, with flickering shadows and an impish smile. That scene is just one example of the expressionist photography Reed employs throughout the film, capturing the moral morass of this noir classic.
3. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Of course, any movie that follows Citizen Kane will disappoint on some level. So no one can complain that The Magnificent Ambersons from the next year isn’t the greatest movie ever made. It’s just one of the greatest movies ever made. That designation deserves attention due to the troubled nature of the production, which ended with RKO Studios excising more than an hour from Welles’s intended cut, giving the movie a happy ending, and driving composer Bernard Herrmann to abandon the film. Despite this meddling, The Magnificent Ambersons stands as a monumental piece of cinema, a testament to the mercurial nature of American fortune.
4. Touch of Evil (1958)
Touch of Evil opens with a tense single-take, tracing the course of an oblivious couple who drives across the U.S./Mexico border with a bomb hidden in the vehicle. But the most audacious part of the film comes with Welles’s role as corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan. Forced to work with Mexican officer Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston, believe it or not), Quinlan chomps on cigars and leers at passing women. Welles indulges in every available acting tic to play Quinlin, chewing more scenery than his hammy scene partner, Heston. And yet, the overheated take matches the tone of Touch of Evil, a dyspeptic noir about corruption across borders.
5. The Trial (1962)
Welles has always integrated into his work the strong contrasts and canted angles of German Expressionism, but never as much as he does in The Trial, his adaptation of the novel by Franz Kafka. Welles recreates the absurd bureaucracy that ensnares Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) by simplifying his sets to bold blocks of black and grey, constructing labyrinthine structures where the Advocate (Welles) pleads the case of his client. The Trial proves to be a marriage of like minds, as Welles understands Kafka’s frustration with modern society and works that anger into every frame of the picture.
6. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Orson Welles often plays larger-than-life figures in love with their own mythology with more than a little comic energy. So it’s only natural that he would take on the role of Shakespeare’s noble clown Falstaff from Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2. For Chimes at Midnight, Welles integrates those plays with several other Shakespeare works, including The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, and Richard III. The remix provides a wider look at Falstaff’s influence on Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the next King of England. The expanded role allows Welles to find more dignity in Falstaff, making him more than a lout whom Hal must desert on the way to the throne.
7. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Welles’s unmistakable baritone might be his greatest tool as an actor, which is why The Lady from Shanghai puts off viewers in its opening moments. Welles adopts a ridiculous Irish accent to play Mike O’Hara, a seaman hired to look after Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), the beautiful young wife of rich lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). When he falls for Elsa, O’Hara allows himself to be drawn into a murder plot by Bannister’s partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Byzantine plot twists follow, made even more dazzling by Welles’s dizzying cinematography.
8. Mr. Arkadin (1955)
When Welles’s character unmasks himself as the titular Mr. Arkadin towards the start of the film, the camera pushes into his face and turns on a slight angle, underscoring his bulging eyes. Over the top as it is, the shot serves as a fitting introduction to the character, who seems like an echo of Charles Foster Kane. Arkadin plays a mystery at the center of the movie, a giant of a man who knows nothing about his past and hires petty criminal Guy (Robert Arden) to compile a confidential dossier about him. Mr. Arkadin proves why Wlles is the best director of himself, as he limits his own screen time while still dominating every scene.
9. F for Fake (1973)
The last theatrical work directed by Welles, with the possible exception of the posthumously finished and released The Other Side of the Wind, F for Fake defies every definition. Welles appears at the start of the film to declare it a documentary about the famed art forger Everett Sloane. However, Welles leads the reader along endless digressions and reversals, indulging in discussions about the lover of Pablo Picasso and even his own work, including his famous War of the Worlds prank. That radio program proves to be the inspiration for F for Fake, which may, in the end, be another colossal prank.
10. Othello (1951)
Any conversation about Welles’s Othello must acknowledge that Welles cast himself as the titular Moor, and does darken his face and style his hair for the part. Outside of that extreme lapse in taste, Othello is an incredible film. Welles's bold filmmaking ratchets up the tension already present in Shakespeare’s play. Othello and Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) stride across courtyards lined by columns half in shadow. A blade of light illuminates the glare of Iago (Micheál Mac Liammóir) as he concocts his evil scheme. Welles throws himself into the tragedy and fire of Shakespeare’s play, matching his thunderous performance with his courageous camera.
11. The Stranger (1946)
Given his frustration during the production of The Magnificent Ambersons, it’s no surprise that he would try something more studio-friendly for his third movie. Based on a story by Victor Trivas and written by Anthony Veiller, The Stranger takes place in a small Connecticut town, where fugitive German Franz Kindler (Welles) has made a new life for himself as a respected teacher, Charles Rankin. When war criminal hunter Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) follows Kindler to his new home, he must stay alive long enough to bring Ranking to justice. Welles resented the movie, but there’s no denying the talent he brings even to a half-hearted effort, shooting the climactic bell tower scene with his signature dynamism.
12. Moby Dick (1956)
Director John Huston knows how to make a classic adventure film, so it’s no surprise that he would take on one of the great American adventure tales, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Huston and his co-writer Ray Bradbury strip away the symbolic ramblings of Melville’s book, whittling it down to an exciting tale of wandering sailor Ishmael (Richard Basehart) serving on the Pequod under maniacal Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck). However, Huston does retain some of Melville’s mesmerizing language by casting Welles as Father Mapple, preacher at the Whaleman's Chapel. Welles delivers Mapple’s sermon on Jonah and the Whale with a thundering voice and a Puritan’s scowl, lending the film some of the novel’s spiritual stirring for just a moment.
13. Macbeth (1948)
After the lukewarm reception to The Lady from Shanghai, Republic Pictures did not want to give Welles a large budget, especially not for a Shakespeare adaptation. That limitation can be seen throughout Macbeth, not just in the casting choices available to him to the sets he had to use. However, Welles took every opportunity available to make the movie his way, which did allow him and his cast members to use a thick Scottish accent. That push and pull may sound like a recipe for disaster, but somehow, Welles turns in an exciting and fresh take on the great tragedy.
14. Jane Eyre (1943)
When his RKO contract expired and he was free to work for other studios, Welles took the opportunity to play Edward Rochester in an adaptation of Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre, as it would earn money for his own projects. Director Robert Stevenson mounts a handsome version of the novel from a script he wrote with Brave New World author Aldous Huxley and Welles’s one-time collaborator John Houseman. Stevenson emphasizes the gothic elements of the tale, which matches Welles’s smoldering take on Rochester’s romance with Joan Fontaine’s Jane.
15. Compulsion (1959)
Based on the novel by Meyer Levin, itself a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb murders, Compulsion stars Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as young men who believe they can commit the perfect crime. Journeyman director Richard Fleischer and Oscar-nominated writer Richard Murphy craft a compelling psychological study, which builds to a trial in which Welles plays a Clarence Darrow-style defense attorney. Welles’s take threatens to break the reality of Fliescher’s otherwise sober film, but it sells the power of his character’s argument.
16. Is Paris Burning? (1966)
Welles is not the sole big name in Is Paris Burning? the French historical epic directed by René Clément. He joins a cast that includes Americans Kirk Douglas and Glenn Ford as well as international stars such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, and Ernst Fritz. Welles plays Swede Raoul Nordling, a relatively small role even within such a stuffed cast. As always, Welles does as much as possible with his part, adding a level of theatricality to the sometimes self-important proceedings.
17. The Muppet Movie (1979)
The Muppet Movie may be the perfect cinematic adaptation of a beloved television series. It tells how the misfits of The Muppet Show came together and uses celebrity cameos in place of the guest host conceit of the TV show. As a tale about the love of showbiz and Hollywood success, The Muppet Movie wears its optimism on its sleeve, which makes Welles the perfect choice to play Lew Lord, the studio head who finally awards Kermit and his gang with “a standard rich and famous contract.” It's not just one of the best Orson Welles movies; it's one of the greatest movies ever made about Hollywood dreams.
18. The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
Welles left numerous projects uncompleted throughout his life, including The Other Side of the Wind, which he first imagined as his Hollywood comeback. Welles shot over 100 hours of footage and left behind notes about their assembly, but the film remained unfinished until 2018 when Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall edited a version for Netflix. If the thought of a brand new Orson Welles movie in 2018 sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. The completed version of The Other Side of the Wind feels like an even less focused version of F for Fake, far too rambling to be a satisfying satire of Old Hollywood, New Hollywood, or anything else.
19. Prince of Foxes (1949)
Based on the novel by Samuel Shellabarger, Prince of Foxes stars Tyrone Power as Andrea Orsini, a soldier in the service of imperious Prince Cesare Borgia (Welles). The movie might strike modern viewers as stodgy and slow, but Welles clearly enjoys playing a larger-than-life baddie. The movie also worked for Oscar voters, who recognized the film for Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Costume Design, Black and White in the 1950 Academy Awards.
20. Ro.Po.Pa.G. (1949)
Welles did not direct any of the four segments in the anthology film Ro.Po.Pa.G., but no one would complain about the omission. After all, even he has to respect the four filmmakers involved, Jean-Luc Godard, Ugo Gregoretti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Roberto Rossellini. Furthermore, Welles at least plays a director, appearing in Pasolini’s section La ricotta. A religious and social satire in keeping with the Italian filmmaker’s most famous work, La ricotta documents the struggle of an impoverished actor in a biblical movie. Welles’s arrogant and disaffected director captures Pasolin’s anger at the world’s support of his country’s ruling elite.
21. Oedipus the King (1968)
Directed by Philip Saville, the 1968 production of Oedipus the King shares Welles’s artistic spirit. Saville works from a direct translation of the Greek original and filmed the movie on location in Greece. Despite these nods towards authenticity, Saville’s Oedipus has a stagey, theatrical feel, which suits Welles just fine. He appears as the seer Tiresias, decked in a massive cloak and scruffy silver beard. Welles bogs out his eyes and adds vibrato to his voice as Tiresias tells Oedipus (Christopher Plummer) about his fate, giving the prophecy its proper weight.
22. Catch-22 (1970)
Welles can sometimes go big in performance to the point of absurdity, making him an excellent pick for the film version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Director Mike Nichols and writer Buck Henry have a rebellious spirit that seems like an odd match for the more classical Welles, but he makes a meal of his scene as Brigadier General Dreedle. However, the division serves the film, as Dreedle has no patience for the knuckleheads under his command. It’s not enough to prevent Nichols’s ambling version from muting the satire of the source material, but good for a few chuckles.
23. Journey Into Fear (1943)
Joseph Cotten is Welles’s most important co-star, if not his most important collaborator. A conventional leading man, Cotten made space on the screen for Welles to go as big as possible. So when Cotten wanted to star in a screenplay of his own, adapted from the novel by Eric Ambler, Welles lent both his assistance in revisions and played a bit part as Turkish officer Colonel Haki. Cotten’s authorial voice matches his screen presence, as Journey Into Fear is a functional, if unmemorable, thriller. But the movie never matches the excitement of Welles’s appearances on screen.
24. Slapstick of Another Kind (1982)
As a producer, Steven Paul has his name on Baby Geniuses, Ghost Rider, and other famously bad movies. As a director, he helmed Slapstick of Another Kind, a misguided adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s most vulnerable novel. Jerry Lewis and Madeline Khan play Wilbur and Alicia Swain, twins who enjoy the perfect intimacy of a shared mind. Vonnegut uses that bizarre premise as a study of the need for community, a concept that falls far beyond the movie’s reach. However, Paul does manage to make Slapstick into an unsettling film in its own right, as when Welles lends his voice to the Beaver, the all-powerful alien who brought the twins into being.
25. Casino Royale (1967)
Casino Royale is indeed a James Bond movie about 007 pursuing the international criminal Le Chifre, but it is a far cry from the excellent 2006 movie starring Daniel Craig. Rather, this is a satirical adaptation of the first James Bond novel, an ensemble picture about Sir James Bond (David Niven) coming out of retirement to battle the evil organization SMERSH.
Despite the involvement of greats such as Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Anders, and others, Casino Royale is a singularly unfunny movie, a victim of endless production and the involvement of no fewer than five directors, resulting in a mess bereft of laughs. However, no one can deny the joy of seeing Welles as Le Chifre, even in a flat comedy, as it gives us a glimpse of another world where Welles would have been a fantastic real Bond villain.