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Orson Welles: A Life in Movies: The Stories of His Life Hardcover – 18 Sep 2003


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; First Edition edition (18 Sep 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571209785
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571209781
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.2 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,079,970 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

A fresh, provocative look at one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of film by "one of our most acute cultural critics"--Paul Fussell

From the Back Cover

Peter Conrad, author of The Hitchcock Murders, now turns his eye to the mercurial life and work of the enigmatic maestro who made Citizen Kane, remembered to this day as the greatest of all motion pictures.

In death, Orson Welles remains a legendary, outsized, and ambiguous figure. Conrad’s study is a critical biography of Welles, viewing the man through the optic of his sprawling and yet utterly singular body of work. This is not a debunking of the well-aired Welles-as-Genius myth so much as an attempt to identify and examine the wellsprings of his polymorphous gifts.

At times (and fittingly, given his well-known fondness for magic) Orson Welles seemed to be capable of anything; and yet finally he achieved only a fraction of what he had hoped to. Peter Conrad goes in search of the man through expert examination of the many and varied personae that Welles adopted – from Faust to Falstaff, The Shadow to Harry Lime – in a life lived at large across stage, screen, and airwaves.


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Format: Paperback
According to the title page, Peter Conrad has taught English at Christ Church, Oxford, since 1973. I find this almost impossible to believe.
From p.61; "Welles the compulsive philanderer was not much of a lover. He revered women but also feared them, as his treatment of Rita Hayworth in "The Lady from Shanghai" reveals. As for soldiering, he had no more taste for it than Falstaff did. His duelling in the Macbeth film is laughably clumsy; he shrewdly avoided the draft after Pearl Harbour".
Where to start? The confusion of film with real life? The assumption that modern warfare actually requires swordsmanship? Or just the general clumsiness of the whole paragraph?
And someone really should have worked on the editing and indexing; the first mention of Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" appears on page 11. According to the index, it appears on page 80.
It is also at least page 75 before the Federal Theatre Project is mentioned; which means that up until that point we have ploughed through 72 pages of assorted mentions of the politics of the time without ever realising the significance of same.
It is possible that Mr Conrad assumes that all his readers will know his subject; if this is his thinking, then the book is quite woefully under-referenced. If not, there are too many references to too many other productions/plays/actors to make it anything like pleasurable reading. Really disappointing.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 3 reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The Whole Career 10 July 2005
By Michael Samerdyke - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I thought this was a very interesting book on Welles. It is not a conventional biography. Peter Conrad covers Welles' career by looking at the various archetypes that Welles played/embodied/wrote about during his career: boy genius, Faust, Falstaff, etc.

It takes a while to get used to the book. Making a judgment after five minutes is a mistake. Once you get into Conrad's groove, leaping from Welles' radio work to stage, to movies in the space of a chapter makes sense. He shows how echoes of "Citizen Kane" recur in later Welles' projects, and how unrealized things like "Heart of Darkness" influenced the projects Welles was able to pull off.

The best thing about the book was that it covered all of Welles' career, instead of saying: "And after RKO took 'Magnificent Ambersons' away, Welles became a big fat loser." Conrad shows there was a consistency and throughlines in Welles' disrupted career.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Rich And Strange 14 Nov 2005
By Kevin Killian - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Entertaining glimpse into a big man's many personalities. Conrad's schema is sweet: each chapter takes an established archetype and then shows the many ways in which Orson Welles seemed to try out each role and alter it as he saw fit.

Welles seems corny, as though he actually believed that he was bigger than life, but ultimately Conrad saves Welles from himself and his own delusions of grandeur.

One of the roles is "Everybody." There was a decidedly essentialist streak to Orson Welles, and when he directed Eartha Kitt as Helen in his version of Faustus, she was confounded when he told her his directorial rules, that she was required to play "every woman at every age in every historical time period." Sometimes Conrad plays the game a little too wellm he could cut himself he's so clever, as when he notices that the Mercury Shakespeare Welles edited was originally published as "Everybody's Shakespeare." But even as this example shows, it's telling all the same, and says something about Welles that I had never thought of before, and I don't expect any previous writer on Welles has either.

There's a chapter on "Mercury" (aha, thought of one already!), on "Prospero," on "Quixote," on "Peter Pan," "Kurtz," "Falstaff," and chapters on such vaguer archetypes as the "Lord of Misrule," the "Sacred Beasy," the "Renaissance Man," each chapter packed with dozens of insights and more than your ordinary share of whimsy.

If you're up for making the trip, this could be a valuable book. If not, you might find it too rich, like Jack Horner pulling plum after plum out an impossibly greasy pie.

PS, all the archetypes are very male, I wonder if Conrad considered any female archetypes for surely Welles tried these on too?
8 of 18 people found the following review helpful
What a bunch of junk! 2 Jun 2005
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I'm a librarian, and I threw this book away after five minutes. Conrad is the kind of author who tries to find some significance in comparing (Welles' made-up term) "pan-focus" with aspects of the god Pan. The book was filled with this sort of unrelenting BS word-play and devoid of any real research or insights. "Despite the System" offers a far better return of time and money for the Welles fan.
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