When 'Midnight' Struck Orson Welles' Career

Terry Teachout writes in the Wall Street Journal that Chimes at Midnight, released in 1965, just as Orson Welles' career as a film director would go into a long period of freefall, is being re-released in a "brand-new, never-seen-before restoration" next month. As Teachout writes, this restoration covers a multitude of cinematic sins:

The reason it had to be restored is that "Chimes at Midnight" was made independently and on the cheap, for by 1965 Mr. Welles had so antagonized the Hollywood establishment that no major studio would have anything to do with him. As a result, "Chimes at Midnight" was shot, edited and dubbed under substandard conditions, and the prints that have circulated since the film's original release are all of low quality.

But why was Welles so hated by Hollywood? It wasn't for his acting; Welles would have died a wealthy man if all he did was appear as a featured character actor in other directors' movies. Instead, Welles plowed much of his own money from acting into self-funding his later pictures. As Welles said at his infamous American Film Institute tribute in 1975, where he was "honored" as a director by many of the same men who would never think of hiring Welles to direct a film for their studios:

As a director, for instance, I pay myself out of my acting jobs. I use my own work to subsidize my work. In other words, I’m crazy. But not crazy enough to pretend to be free. But it’s a fact that many of the films you’ve seen tonight could never have been made otherwise. Or if otherwise--well, they might have been better. But certainly they wouldn’t have been mine.

Teachout wonders if it was perfectionism that eventually grounded Orson Welles' film career:

The road to malignant perfectionism, by contrast, starts with chronic indecision. Jerome Robbins, whose inability to make up his mind was legendary throughout the world of dance, was known for choreographing multiple versions of a variation, then waiting until the last possible minute to decide which one to use. Beyond a certain point, this kind of perfectionism is all but impossible to distinguish from unprofessionalism, and Mr. Welles reached that point early in his career. Instead of carefully thinking through what he wanted to do and making the tough calls in advance, he walked into the studio unprepared, trusting in his ability to pull everything together at the dress rehearsal. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, and once he moved from Broadway to Hollywood, the financial stakes grew so high that no one was willing to gamble on his genius.

Mr. Welles's problem was that he wanted it both ways. He was a perfectionist who expected his collaborators to sit around endlessly waiting for him to make up his mind—and to pay for all the overtime that he ran up along the way. Simon Callow, his biographer, has summed up this failing in one devastating sentence: "Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive." That's the wrong kind of perfectionism, and it led, as it usually does, to disaster.

Is "Chimes at Midnight" a masterpiece? Opinions vary, widely and wildly. For all its flaws, I incline to think so, but I also think that if Mr. Welles hadn't suffered from malignant perfectionism, he might have made many more such masterpieces. Instead his career was brilliant but fragmentary—as well as an object lesson in the dangers of not knowing when to write "The End" and move on.

As somebody once said (and Googling around to find whom, I've seen it credited to just about everyone), "A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned." But if perfectionism derailed Welles' career in Hollywood, it wasn't his biggest sin.