In these pages, The Great Man and his acolyte chat about subjects great and small: fate vs. free will, the uniqueness of Shakespeare, the nature of artistic greatness, the differences among various countries’ sensibilities and artistic tastes, filmmaking techniques (“I never shot a master in my life”), Chaplin vs. Keaton, English vs. American actors (“English actors are more modest than Americans, because they’ve never had Lee Strasberg to teach ’em that they know better than the director”), Hitchcock’s late American films (“they’re all lit like television shows”), Joan Didion’s Salvador (“It should be called Seven Days in Central America”), and much more.
Welles gossips about and/or passes judgment on dozens of movies, directors, actors: Spencer Tracy was “hateful”; Olivier, “stupid”; Irene Dunne “Dumb. Dumb. Dumb”; Joan Fontaine, his costar in Jane Eyre, “just a plain old bad actor” with “four readings, and two expressions.” John Wayne “had some of the best manners,” while Norma Shearer was “one of the most minimally talented ladies ever to appear on the silver screen, and… looked like nothing.” On page 61, Humphrey Bogart is “both a coward and a very bad fighter”; on 203 he’s “a brave man.” Speaking of whom, Welles has this to say about Casablanca:
OW: The war flattened everybody’s taste in a very curious way. The best thing they could do in the movies was some delirious piece of fabrication like Casablanca. That was the great work of art, during the whole period of the war. Nothing else.
HJ: Why has that picture taken on such a—?
OW: It has nothing to do with anything except Hollywood’s dream of the war. But that’s its charm. To me, it’s like The Merry Widow, which is a great work of its kind. There never was a Vienna like the one in The Merry Widow, and there never was a Casablanca like the one in Casablanca. But who gives a damn, you know?