Orson Welles and the Death of Sirhan Sirhan
Part II: The Safehouse
Part I of this article at Bright Lights Film Journal told the story of how Orson Welles, while directing his legendary and never-finished Other Side of the Wind, took time out in early 1975 to accept a leading role in an independent conspiracy thriller called Sirhan Sirhan or RFK Must Die. The film, scripted by Donald Freed and to be produced by Ananke Productions, was intended to exonerate the Palestinian refugee Sirhan Sirhan as the lone assassin of Robert F. Kennedy. In fact, it dramatized Sirhan’s duping by a network of intelligence “programmers.” Welles was asked to play the chief conspirator, Dr. William A. Must Jr.
Welles’ co-stars would have been Sal Mineo (as Sirhan) and football legend Jim Brown. The project should have been an easy $125,000 paycheck for Welles, but it didn’t turn out that way. He quickly became the project’s central creative figure. He demanded contractually assured approval of director, script, and cast, completely rewrote the screenplay, and installed his Yugoslavian lover and collaborator Oja Kodar in a starring role.
Part II continues the story in early July 1975. Welles’s reluctance to sign his contract has put the project in doubt. Welles leaves Hollywood for Europe.
My new interview with Scott Simmon of the National Film Preservation Foundation on Orson Welles’s long-lost Too Much Johnson is at Wellesnet.
From the introduction:
One of the great archival discoveries of the decade is surely Orson Welles’s Too Much Johnson. In 1938 Welles shot a series of film sequences intended to be screened during a Mercury Theatre adaptation of William Gillette’s farce. The sequences were never completed but survive in the form of a partially edited 66-minute workprint. Long thought lost, the rediscovered workprint premiered to universal acclaim in 2014.
Scott Simmon is Professor of English at UC Davis. His books include The Films of D.W. Griffith (1993) and The Invention of the Western Film (2003). Simmon’s informative essays accompanied the National Film Preservation Foundation’s free online release of Too Much Johnson. He also created a 34-minute edit to suggest one possible form the material may have taken if it had been finished.
American writer Lester Goran died aged 85 on February 6, 2014. This week the University of Miami is celebrating Goran’s life and work – and his legacy to his many thousands of creative writing students – with Goran’s Gifts, a series of events. I’ll be appearing at the celebration.
Here is my long unavailable scholarly essay on two of Lester Goran’s most important novels. I first presented this paper at the Interdisciplinary Themes conference on The City: Culture, Society, Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada (November 6-7, 2009). An earlier version of this text appeared in Interdisciplinary Themes Journal 1.1 (2009).
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ABSTRACT: For more than half a century Lester Goran (1928-2014) wrote fiction set in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This paper explores Goran’s continuing attempts to map this evolving urban space in novels such as The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue (1960) and Bing Crosby’s Last Song (1998). Passages in these novels are closely examined in relation to Pittsburgh’s postwar ‘urban renewal’ and the expansion of the University of Pittsburgh. Additional insights are drawn from an extensive 2008 interview with the author. Goran’s imaginative recreations of Sobaski’s Stairway (a fictionalised Hill District) and the Irish neighbourhood of Oakland constitute an unjustly ignored trove of postwar American urban realism.
Here’s my new photo-essay for Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource. It begins:
Orson Welles’ Mr Arkadin (1955) is an international narrative set mostly in Western Europe but also in Mexico City, Acapulco, and Tangiers. Many of the locations were convincingly faked. Welles shot most of Arkadin in Spain, on the French Riviera, and in and around Paris (including at Photosonar studios in Courbevoie).
Some of the film’s most impressive sequences were filmed on location in Munich, including the framing narrative of Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) seeking Jakob Zouk (Akim Tamiroff) at ‘Sebastianplatz 16’. There are also some exciting Munich street scenes as Van Stratten seeks a Christmas goose liver for Zouk while avoiding the murderous Gregory Arkadin (Welles).
For a long time the circumstances of the Arkadin project were obscure. A production chronology was only recently established by François Thomas – see the booklet included with the Criterion Collection’s Complete Mr Arkadin DVD set (2006) and also Thomas & Jean-Pierre Berthomé’s Orson Welles at Work (Phaidon, 2008). Here’s a surprise: the Munich Christmas scenes were actually filmed during April and May of 1954. Springtime! The snow-blanketed city is so convincing faked that few viewers seem to have ever realised those scenes were not really shot in December. But Welles hardly pursued the methods of the Italian Neorealists when shooting on location. He consistently embellished and transformed real urban places. And through montage actual locations became malleable cinematic space, which will be evident when we look at the ‘Sebastianplatz 16’ sequences of Arkadin. This approach served Welles’ dramatic, thematic, and ideological purposes – although his removal from the Arkadin project in the editing room surely obscured his intentions. (A few years later Welles pursued the same techniques when he used the detritus of eddying garbage and frayed bill posters to transform Venice Beach into the fascistic border town Los Robles for Touch of Evil.)
Welles had caused an uproar within Germany in the early 1950s when he published newspaper articles accusing the country of lingering Nazism. That phenomenon is directly implied in Arkadin by the upside-down Hitler portrait somebody has hidden in Jakob Zouk’s garret. Welles’ Munich is a bleak and frigid rubblescape, the final refuge of the impoverished and dying ex-con. It is an imagined city richer than what might be captured through documentary realism, as it arose from the encounter of the actual material terrain with Welles’ understanding of postwar Germany. In other words, Welles’ mise-en-scène is consciously political.
My review-essay T For True appeared in issue 68 of the online film journal Senses of Cinema (September 2013). It discusses these new Orson Welles books:
Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts by Todd Tarbox (BearManor Media, 2013).
My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. Edited and with an introduction by Peter Biskind (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2013).
Orson Welles in Italy by Alberto Anile (translated by Marcus Perryman). (Indiana University Press, 2013).
The essay begins:
Bewildered by false tales circulating about his life, Orson Welles once came to a general conclusion: “I don’t think history can possibly be true!” Of course, in the same interview, Welles claimed to be the great-grandson of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under President Lincoln, so he can’t be considered a completely innocent victim of historians. Even now, despite decades of often exemplary research – by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Catherine Benamou, François Thomas & Jean-Pierre Berthomé, and others – the complicated facts of Welles’ life continue to be obscured by his irresistible self-invented mythology and the popular counter-myth of a prodigy in a decline that knew no indignity.
Two entertaining new books of transcribed conversations with, respectively, his former headmaster Roger ‘Skipper’ Hill and the filmmaker Henry Jaglom, reaffirm Welles’ reputation as a great (if unreliable) raconteur and go some way towards unmasking the private man. The conversations date from the early 1980s as Welles, in weakening health, struggled to organise financing for a range of doomed film projects in Los Angeles. That was the unhappy end; Alberto Anile’s Orson Welles in Italy (translated from the Italian original of 2006) takes us back to the invention of Welles’ independent methods after the Second World War. Anile’s research into contemporaneous Italian sources adds degrees of nuance to a largely mythical period in Welles’ career….