The Devil's Advocate
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Despite the bad notices on Macbeth, you still spent the next four years acting in other people's films to finance and shoot Othello. I guess the best of those films was The Third Man - you even did that one for Othello, didn't you?
ORSON WELLES: Yes, I could have had a third of The Third Man if I hadn't needed cash.
PB: Besides playing Harry Lime, what else did you do on it?
OW: I wrote my part -
PB: Every word of it?
OW: Carol Reed is the kind of director who'll use any ideas - anything that's going. I had notions for the dialogue, and Carol liked them. Except for my rather minor contribution, the story, of course, was by the matchless Graham Greene. And the basic idea - though he took no credit for it - was Alex Korda's.
PB: Who produced.
OW: Yes, it's the only film Alex and I ever really did together.
PB: Did you have anything to do with the actual setups and shots in the picture?
OW: Just a very few ideas, like the fingers coming through the grille.
PB: What about the first time we see you in the doorway?
OW: Pure Carol. He had a little second unit specially set up for it, and at the end of every day we went there and tried it again, over and over, till he thought it was right.
PB: Was the last scene at the funeral your touch?
OW: No, it was not. It was a great shot invented by Carol - not by Greene or anybody else. Wonderful idea. I was there when they shot it. I wish I could pretend I'd contributed, but I was just standing there, watching them shoot it.
PB: The picture seemed influenced by you...perhaps because of the casting of Joseph Cotten.
OW: It was Carol's picture, Peter - and Korda's.
PB: Well you have the smallest part but it dominates one's whole memory of the film.
OW: That's the part, you know. Every sentence in the whole script is about Harry Lime - nobody talks about anything else for ten reels. And there's that shot in the doorway - what a star entrance that was! In theatre, you know, the old star actors never liked to come on until the end of the first act. Mister Wu is a classic example. I've played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour, shrieking, "What will happen when Mister Wu arrives?" "What is he like, this Mister Wu?," and so on. Finally a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mister Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, "Mister Wu!!!" The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everybody says, "Isn't that guy playing Mister Wu a great actor!" That's a star part for you! What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. Such a star vehicle really is a vehicle. All you have to do is ride. Like Jean Gabin in this last epoch of his career; he now has written in his contract that he never shall be required to bend over. Literally!
PB: Your Ferris wheel speech about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock is so convincing that we seem to agree with you even though you're the heavy.
OW: When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they've never made any cuckoo clocks - they all come from the Schwarzwald, in Bavaria!
PB: Is it true that you unknowingly threw Lady Eden off the set?
OW: Not unknowingly. Clarissa Churchill wasn't then married to Eden; she was doing publicity for Alex. He liked having all kinds of fashionable folk on his payroll... Well, one day, Clarissa brought all these society friends of hers to visit the set, and they wouldn't keep quiet. Carol was far too nice and much too English to tell her to shut them up, so I did it for him. I didn't throw her out, but she went, and that was the end of our friendship. I'm sorry about that.
PB: Many people still associate you with that role - Harry Lime.
OW: In every way, the picture broke every known record, and the people went insane. Wherever you went, you heard nothing but that zither.
A wire from Alexander Woollcott after the Mercury's Mars broadcast (October 30, 1938), when a good part of the country was frightened into believing that New Jersey had been invaded by Martians; on the rival network at the same time were Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy; Orson had it posted in his office for years:
This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to a dummy, and all the dummies were listening to you.
PB: I've often wondered if you had an idea, before you did it, that The War of the Worlds was going to get that kind of response.
OW: The kind of response, yes - that was merrily anticipated by us all. The size of it, of course, was flabbergasting. Six minutes after we'd gone on the air, the switchboards in radio stations right across the country were lighting up like Christmas trees. Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis there was wailing in the street and the rending of garments. Twenty minutes in, and we had a control room full of very bewildered cops. They didn't know who to arrest or for what, but they did lend a certain tone to the remainder of the broadcast. We began to realize, as we plowed on with the destruction of New Jersey, that the extent of our American lunatic fringe had been underestimated.
PB: You claimed innocence afterwards.
OW: There were headlines about lawsuits totalling some $12 million. Should I have pleaded guilty?
PB: What happened to the lawsuits?
OW: Most of them, as it turned out, existed in the fevered imagination of the newspapers. They'd been losing all that advertising to radio, so here, they reckoned, was a lovely chance to strike back. For a few days, I was a combination Benedict Arnold and John Wilkes Booth. But people were laughing much too hard, thank God - and pretty soon all the papers had to quit.
PB: What about CBS?
OW: The day after the show, all you could find were sound mixers and elevator men. There wasn't an executive in the building. During rehearsals they'd been rather edgy, but what was there to censor? We were told not to say "Langley Field" because that was a real place, so we wrote in "Langham Field" - little things like that, so they couldn't complain when the lid blew off. But as I say, we were surprised ourselves by the size and extent of it.
download the complete War of the Worlds broadcast here
PB: Is it a true story that when Pearl Harbor was announced, nobody believed it because - ?
OW: Dead right. Particularly since I had a patriotic broadcast that morning and was interrupted in the middle of it. I was on the full network, reading from Walt Whitman about how beautiful America was, when they said Pearl Harbor's attacked - now doesn't that sound like me trying to do that again? They interrupted the show to say that there had been an attack. Roosevelt sent me a wire about it. I've forgotten what - I don't have it. Something like "crying wolf" and that kind of thing. Not the same day - he was too busy! - but about ten days later.
PB: Then the Martian broadcast didn't really hurt you at all. Would you say it was lucky?
OW: Well, it put me in the movies. Was that lucky? I don't know. Anyway, thanks to the Martians, we got us a radio sponsor, and suddenly we were a great big commercial program, right up there with Benny, Burns and Allen, and the Lux Radio Theatre, with C.B. De Mille. The next step was Hollywood.
From an interview in Cahiers du Cinema, no. 87, September 1958:
Many of the big characters I've played are various forms of Faust, and I am against every form of Faust, because I believe it's impossible for a man to be great without admitting there's something greater than himself, whether it's the law, or God, or art....I have played a whole line of egotists, and I detest egotism...But an actor is not a devil's advocate: he is a lover. In playing Faust, I want to be just and loyal to him, to give him the best of myself and the best arguments that I can find, because we live in a world that has been made by Faust - our world is Faustian.
An actor never plays anything but himself. He simply takes out that which is not himself. And so, of course, in all these characters there is something of Orson Welles. I can't do anything about that. And when I play someone I hate, I try to be chivalrous to the enemy. I hate all dogmas which deny humanity the least of its privileges; if some belief requires denouncing something human, I detest it.
PB: What do you think of cynics?
OW: I despise them.
OW: Don't need to explain that. If it isn't self evident -
OW: Well, skeptics have nothing to do with cynics.
PB: No - it's another question.
OW: I don't care one way or another about skeptics. Cynics are intolerable, I think.
PB: Which do you value more highly - your instincts or your intellect? [OW grunts] It's a key question.
OW: Isn't it better to leave these key questions to the kind of people who enjoy them?
PB: Then what must you think of psychoanalysis?
OW: About as valuable as - but considerably more expensive than - consulting your local astrologer.
PB: By, the way, I forgot, your Othello won the first prize at Cannes.
OW: Yes, and the Russian Othello got it a few years later. There must have been two Othello first prizes at Cannes.
PB: They must like the play.
OW: Yes - it's very big in the south of France! Did I tell you how I'd found out I'd got the prize?
OW: You see, you cannot release a picture without what is called a "certificate of origin," for which the picture has to have a nationality. And you also need that in order to get it into a festival. The Italians and the French, and the Americans - who might have been able to enter Othello, didn't want to; they had their own pictures. So, because it had been shot in Morocco, I entered it as a Moroccan picture. Well, you're never told if you've won until the end, you know, but I was sitting in my hotel room, and the director of the festival, Robert Favre Le Bret, called me on the phone and said, "What is the Moroccan national anthem?" And that was how I knew I'd won the first prize. Because they always play the national anthem of the winning country. And, of course, there is no Moroccan national anthem, or wasn't then, so they played something out of Chu Chin Chow or something, and everybody stood up. There was no Moroccan delegation or anything. I think I'm the sole winner in the Arab world of a great international prize.
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