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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Orson Welles explains the greatest “regret” of his life

Cinema has attracted many memorable characters over the years, with one of the most consequential being the late Orson Welles. Without his contributions, the form would be very different today – a claim that only a select few can lodge. 

Concerning his mark on cinema, his most famous offering is the 1941 film Citizen Kane. Universally deemed one of the most significant pieces in film history, its themes, narrative and style have been explored and parodied numerous times since release. Elsewhere, other classic features he helmed and starred in included, The Magnificent AmbersonsThe Lady from ShanghaiTouch of Evil and The Trial.

As an auteur, Welles cultivated a distinctive directorial style that emerged as a teenager. It boasts layered, nonlinear narratives, off-kilter camera angles, sound techniques borrowed from his career in radio, deep focus shots, long takes and most famously, chiaroscuro lighting. This created a base palette that many others would take from and adapt. There’s no wonder, then, that he is hailed by many as “the ultimate auteur”.

Displaying the depth of character that fuelled all of his work, Welles gave fans timeless quotes such as “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn”, which can be taken as his ethos. He also delivered more questionable ones like, There are three intolerable things in life – cold coffee, lukewarm champagne, and overexcited women”. 

Despite the dated nature of the last line, Welles rightly deserves his title as one of cinema’s definitive pioneers. Strengthening this is the progressive ethos he espoused for the time. After all, he publicly decried police brutality towards Black Americans in the 1940s.

Reflective of this is the extensive 1960 interview he gave to the BBC’s Huw Wheldon for Monitor. Looking back on Welles’ eminent career, Weldon asked him: “Are you ever afraid that you’ve, that you’ve, in a sense, attempted and tried too much? I mean, you’ve done radio, and you’ve written…”

Welles took this opportunity to explain the greatest regret of his life, which was not trying enough – a complete inversion of the social mores of the time when the job for life ruled universally. He said: “I don’t think I’ve attempted enough, and I don’t think anybody does. I think it’s an age of terrible specialisation. I think everybody has many more capacities than they have the gall to try out. And I regret how little adventuring I’ve done, not how much.”

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