The debate over Orson Welles's career has been renewed by his passing. Again we hear the inevitable clich'e -- ``unfulfilled promise'' -- that dogged him almost from the start. And again we are reminded of the reality behind that clich'e: the uneven but startling Welles movies that have left an enduring mark on world cinema. True, it takes a bit of straining to make a case for pictures like ``Othello'' and ``Mr. Arkadin,'' which are minor efforts by almost any standard. But zealous critics have risen to the challenge many times, citing beauties of architecture and perspective when there isn't much to praise in the acting or scripting departments.
And these polemicists have a point. The subtleties of Welles's camera style have a way of cutting through the crassness and vagueness he sometimes fell prey to when choosing material. His was a profoundly visual cinema, which explains why sharp-eyed viewers have such a lasting romance with flawed but fascinating pictures like the thriller ``Touch of Evil'' and his apocalyptic rendition of Kafka's great novel ``The Trial.''
The bumpy course of Welles's film career began in 1941 with ``Citizen Kane,'' which flopped at the box office even as it cemented the ``wonder boy'' reputation he had earned in other media.
Its financial failure was caused less by its complexity than by the rage of William Randolph Hearst, the influential magnate whose life was echoed in Charles Foster Kane's on-screen escapades. But movies are an industry as well as an art, and boat-rockers aren't suffered lightly. When a worried studio decided that Welles's next project might also lose money, it took advantage of wonder-boy's absence from the country and recut ``The Magnificent Ambersons'' into a safe Hollywood shape. Thus went the patte rn from then on: Welles was a genius, and geniuses mean trouble in Tinseltown. The rest of his directing career was a string of minor victories and major debacles in jousting matches with the show-biz establishment.
The joke, of course, was on the Hollywood system that failed to exploit Welles's gifts. ``The Magnificent Ambersons'' is a soaring experience despite its mutilation, just as the later ``Falstaff'' (also called ``Chimes at Midnight'') grips the heart and mind even though it appears to have been spliced with Krazy Glue and recorded underwater. Such triumphs are a tribute to Welles's resilience as well as to his talents.
As bravura as Welles's cinematic style was, it rarely courted the charge of empty virtuosity. In the deeply humanistic tradition of Jean Renoir, one of his idols, his stunning feats of camera movement and composition served not just to nourish the eye, but to express a unified vision of human experience -- a vision not chopped into the bits and pieces of traditional film editing, but captured whole in shots of exhilarating length and depth. For him as for few others, cinema was not a way of showing, but
a way of seeing. His presence changed the movies forever.