1) Charles Foster Kane – Citizen Kane (1941)
Although Welles is mostly commended for his brilliant directing job in this masterpiece, his performance also ranks among one of the greatest of all-time. At the age of 25 Orson Welles manages to believably portray a man who ages from 25 to 70 throughout the course of the film. He masters the part physically, portraying gradually increasing fatigue to the point that when he tears apart his wifeâ€™s room at the end, it comes as no easy task. He matches the physicality with great emotional depth as we see his ego begin to control him. Itâ€™s particularly effective in the scenes told through the perspective of Susan Alexander where we see the emptiness in the relationship between her and Kane and Welles is always towering over her and talking down to her like a child.
Below is a clip from early in the film where the cocky Kane describes his ideals for running a newspaper:
2) Harry Lime – The Third Man (1949)
This film offers up the best example of Orson Welles natural poise, his confident delivery and his rapier wit. As Harry Lime, Welles begins the story on top of the world, but as his friend, Holly Martins played by Joseph Cotten, begins digging around, Lime steadily sinks into paranoia. Only Orson Welles could pull off this blend of fear and confidence so gracefully. His interactions with long-time collaborator Joseph Cotten are particularly brilliant as they bounce off each other and seamlessly switch positions of power.
Below is a clip from the clock tower scene in which Martins reveals to Lime that he is not as safe as he thinks. Watch Wellesâ€™ character arc as he goes from over-confident to reliant on his friend:
3) Captain Hank Quinlan – Touch of Evil (1958)
For any other actor this role would have been pure gimmick â€“ he wears a fat suit, uses a nasally voice, and waddles from room to room. However, for Orson Welles it turns into one of the most understated performances of his career. He speaks over other charactersâ€™ lines, he always positions himself in a dominant stance, and he rarely seems to make eye contact with other characters; all in order to give himself the edge. Hank Quinlan is a police captain who is crazy with power. He is racist, corrupt, and evil, yet he even manages to earn some sympathy from the audience as he presents himself as a worn-down cop who has seen the worst horrors. The mystery is what made him the man he is and Welles keeps us guessing every step of the way.
Below is one of the best scenes from the film where Hank Quinlan investigates and interrogates at a crime scene. Watch how he always positions himself in a way that makes him seem intimidating to the other characters:
4) Othello â€“ The Tragedy of Othello (1952)
Welles did several Shakespeare film adaptations throughout his career, usually taking the title role in each. Othello is one of the most intense, layered characters in Shakespeareâ€™s canon and Welles masters the part beautifully. Wellesâ€™ performance style is ideal for Shakespearean tragic heroes, as throughout his career he seems to always play a man who descends into madness. However, this time around it is not through his own, but through the hands of others that causes his undoing. Seeing Welles react as his world spins out of control is tragic, but brilliant to watch. His monologues are some of the best I have ever heard from Othello.
Below is the final scene of the film (it shouldnâ€™t be a spoiler if you know anything about the play or Shakespeare tragedies in general). Watch his quiet realization that his world is not what he has come to believe:
5) Professor Charles Rankin – The Stranger (1946)
This is one of Wellesâ€™ most different performances in that he plays the man on the run throughout the entirety of the film. We first see him in hiding as a Nazi on the run. He states in a monologue that he plans to hide out until it is time to rise again, but in that speech you realize that the S.S. rising again is not one of his foremost concerns. The towering Orson Welles manages to successfully appear to be terrified of the petite Edward G. Robinson. Also, his obsession with the clock tower as a distraction from the cat-and-mouse chase is fantastically executed.
Below is a clip from the dinner scene where Welles first suspects that Robinson is on to him. Watch as he becomes defensive, but still lets the Nazi within shine through:
What is your favorite Orson Welles performance?