Things I Read Off the Screen in the Films of Orson Welles

I’ve long been interested in the use of signs in Orson Welles’ work. I don’t mean symbolism, I mean literal signposts, like the one which begins and ends his very first feature, CITIZEN KANE. A warning to keep out, which is immediately disobeyed by Greg Toland’s camera, which simply cranes up and over the fence, allowing editor Robert Wise to dissolve us ever closer to the forbidden dream palace of Xanadu.

Theory: Welles’ anarchic side is going to make him want to disobey or poke fun at shouty authoritarian signs whenever he can. Let’s see if there’s any basis for this.


At 8.36 into this clip from Welles’ THE STRANGER there’s a modest bit of signage: “KEEP THIS SPACE CLEAR FIRE EQUIPMENT.” Not particularly ironic, although the fugitive Nazi immediately violates the spirit of the fire equipment by trying to grab the axe to murder his pursuer. He’s unable to get ahold of it, suggesting that the fire equipment is noty properly maintained. (I remember a list of movie clichés pointing out that fire extinguishers etc are never used for their proper purpose in films.)

But just moments later, 9.29 in the same clip, is a humdinger. After braining Edward G Robinson with a piece of gymnasiana (I don’t know the technical term for it), the nasty Nazi departs through a Big Door which carries a Big Sign: “ANYONE USING APPARATUS IN THIS ROOM – DOES SO AT THEIR OWN RISK Coach Raskie”. The sign is enormous— obviously Welles really wanted us to get this joke. Sadly we never get to meet this Coach Raskie fellow, a man who, despite his highly developed physique, lives in mortal fear of disgruntled clientele suing him for damages in respect of accidental injuries inflicted with barbells, vaulting-horses and medicine balls.

In LADY FROM SHANGHAI there’s a different kind of sign in the Crazy House sequence, truncated by Columbia Pictures but still enthralling. Giant placards reading STAND UP OR GIVE UP confront Welles as he staggers through the distorted sets and spinning rooms — but though the signs dwarf our protag, he is unable to obey them, as the floor keeps sliding from under his feet. Rather than defying the sign, he would like to follow its advice, but the sign is part of a structure which makes such compliance impossible. This is almost a perfect analogy for the world of film noir, where society imposes firm laws, and strict penalties for breaking them, but seems to make lawful existence difficult by rewarding crime more richly than virtue, and putting temptation in everybody’s path.

What I tell you two times is true.


In TOUCH OF EVIL there’s another example of a sign Welles, or somebody in the edit, was obviously anxious for us not to miss. As Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Welles) departs the sleazy neon-lit hotel room where he’s throttled Akim Tamiroff, drunkenly leaving behind a piece of incriminating evidence, his walking stick. Some commentators have delighted in the perceived pun: Welles is destroyed by his cane / KANE. I think this is a bit too contrived (and I doubt Welles saw KANE that way), and it misses the more filmic joke, the sign on the hotel room door advising guests not to leave anything behind in the room. As Welles shuts the door behind him, an optical zoom and brief freeze-frame make sure we have time to read the warning Quinlan ignores.

You Have Been Warned.

Another cute bit of signage, earlier in the same film, is this baby:

OK, I will!

This one is sort of just quirky scene-setting, in a way. The film abounds with odd details of production design and alluring, decayed textures. But maybe there’s more to be read into it: Chuck Heston is on the phone to his young bride, Janet Leigh, who lies sprawled in pneumatic ‘fifties lingerie in one of her unlucky motels, just at the other end of that phone line. Perhaps Heston is the blind one, blind to her charms, since he can’t see her, and blind to the danger she’s in, since he’s mostly several steps behind Welles’ Sheriff Quinlan. It’s worth recalling, perhaps, that Welles himself hated the telephone, and this may be an attack on that Infernal Contraption: to communicate by Bell’s invention is to render oneself blind.

Just as we can divide the Welles films neatly into those with gunshots and those with snow (only MR ARKADIN has both), we can also find films with signs and films without any writing at all, typically the period films. MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is largely sign-free, and even the credits are spoken by Welles rather than printed. This is carried on in at least one version of OTHELLO and also in the end titles of THE TRIAL, a film set in no particular country, where the presence of any kind of printed matter would be an intrusion, despite all those typewriters clacking away in Joseph K’s giant open-plan office.


F FOR FAKE gives us a series of title cards shrieking FAKE! at us, as well as a pile of film cans with lettering inked across the camera tape sealing the negative in. A stab at a title, ABOUT FAKES, is writted on the top of one can (another misleading sign, since that’s not the name this film generally goes by), and the producer’s credit is signed on a canvas, an ambiguous gesture in a film much concerned with forged signatures.

Illuminated signs, billboards and theatrical posters are perhaps best saved for a separate thread…

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