Around the World with Orson Welles (Orson Welles, 1955)

Eclipse LogoIn 1955, Orson Welles brought his distinctive character to Britain’s new ITV channel in 6 travelogues wherein he investigated people and places as iconoclastic and controversial as the famed filmmaker himself.  In Around the World with Orson Welles, he surveys the Basque country, attends the bullfights in Spain, converses with composer Anton Karas, and rubs elbows with Parisian artists and intellectuals, all while developing techniques for location reporting now commonplace in television journalism.  Also included is Christophe Cognet’s 2000 documentary The Dominici Affair, recounting and reconstructing the uncompleted seventh episode, “The Tragedy of Lurs”.  Around the World with Orson Welles is a missing link to Welles’ body of work, part film essay, part home movie, and is a fascinating portrait of Welles and Europe in the 1950s.

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Previously released on DVD by Image Entertainment, but now out of print, is Around the World with Orson Welles.  It’s a shame, as this 1955 travelogue, prepared for Britain’s then-new ITV channel following the modest success of Orson Welles’ Sketch Book, deserves more attention within Welles’ masterful body of work.  In each episode, Welles, with his baritone voice and wry manner, examines the places and people of a new locale, creating for the art house set a proto-Where in the World is Matt Laurer?  The director and star travels to the Basque region of Spain in the first 2 episodes, “The Basque Countries” and “La Pelote Basque”.  Once believed lost (and absent from the Image DVD, but re-discovered in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives), the third episode, “The Third Man Returns to Vienna”, has Welles converse with composer Anton Karas and wax nostalgically on the Austrian capital.  Welles discovers a community of Parisian intellectuals in “St-Germain-des-pris”, travels to London to meet the “Chelsea Pensioners”, and examines all the surrounding aspects of bullfighting culture in “Madrid Bullfight”.  A seventh, uncompleted episode entitled “The Tragedy of Lurs”, focused on the scandalous French Dominici murder case, although its reconstruction is included in Christophe Cognet’s 2000 documentary, The Dominici Affair.  Personally, I’m most fond of the pelote portion of Around the World with Orson Welles, particularly for Welles’ gruff interaction with the sporting boys.

While fascinating as a document of these locations circa 1955, Around the World with Orson Welles is a technically trailblazing work of television.  It’s easy to miss when viewed with a modern eye, but Welles is creating much of the rules for contemporary on-location reportage in the series.  Welles provided his cameramen with clear direction to establish his presence in shots by catching glimpses of his back or shoulder before moving in on the subject, Welles’ interviewee.  This “over-the-shoulder” format is now de rigueur, but Welles is imagining this process within the series, no small feat given the more cumbersome nature of film cameras at the time.  Ironically, Welles exploits these techniques of verisimilitude to mask his editing and reconstruction of scenes, as he frequently utilizes shots, filmed later, to fill out and better organize his narrative content, knowing that those brief hints at his presence would suture those later shots of him into the scene.  This is the technical genius of a true innovator and it is this aspect of the work that offers an unexpected depth to what might otherwise be simply another fascinating opportunity to revel in one of the screen’s most arresting figures.

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