Best Orson Welles Movies — His 13 Directed Films Ranked - Featured

Orson Welles used to say “they’ll love me when I’m dead” — well at least that’s what his protege Peter Bogdanovich said. I suppose in some sense that perspective was well-warranted. Although Welles received a lot of acclaim during his life, particularly for writing, directing, and starring in Citizen Kane, he never got the respect many contemporary critics suppose he deserved. Welles’ career was plagued by studio censorship, personal vendettas, and a desire for perfectionism. But still, Welles endured making more than a dozen movies, as well as more than a dozen unfinished movies. We’re going to rank the Best Orson Welles movies – of course including Orson Welles first film Citizen Kane. By the end, you’ll know more than just Orson Welles first film – you’ll know how a vagabond kid became one of cinema’s most respected leading-figures.

Orson Welles Movie List

Orson Welles filmography explained

Before we rank the best Orson Welles movies, let’s consider the documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead — which was released posthumously at the same time as Orson Welles' last movie The Other Side of the Wind.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead  •  Trailer

As we review the best Orson Welles movies, consider this documentary and how it may explain Welles’ perspective on movie-making.

We ranked the best Orson Welles movies based on three criteria: acting, story, and direction. Each of the films on this list was directed by Welles — and many star him in the leading role. Welles was a director who frequently failed to finish his movies; as such there are a lot of “Orson Welles unfinished movies” and here's a list of what he left behind.

  • It’s All True (1941-1942)
  • An Evening With Orson Welles (1950)
  • The Tragedy of Lurs (1955)
  • Moby Dick — Rehearsed (1955)
  • Don Quixote (1957-1972)
  • Orson Welles in Dublin (1960)
  • The Heroine (1967)
  • The Deep (1967-1970)
  • Vienna (1968)
  • One Man Band (1968-1971)
  • Orson Welles Magic Show (1976-1985)
  • Filming The Trial (1981)
  • The Dreamers (1982)
  • King Lear (1985)

A lot of the footage of Welles’ unfinished works has either been destroyed or lost to time. The world will never know if one of these unfinished films would have been another cinematic masterpiece.

But thankfully, more than a few great works in Orson Welles filmography have survived the test of time. Without further ado, here’s our list of the best Orson Welles movies of all-time.

Orson Welles Directed Movies

13. The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

The Lady From Shanghai  •  Funhouse Scene

The Lady From Shanghai is most well-known for its elaborate “funhouse mirrors” scene at the end. But is that iconic scene all that’s good about it? Well, yes and no. If you’ve ever wanted to see Orson Welles give his best shot at an Irish accent, then The Lady From Shanghai is your chance.

Welles co-starred in the film with his second wife Rita Hayworth and both gave excellent performances — but if you’re looking for Welles at the top of his directorial game, you won’t find it consistently in The Lady From Shanghai.

85%
ACTING
70%
STORY
70%
DIRECTION
75%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Welles and Hayworth
  • Mirrors Sequence
  • Influential
  • Uneven Story
  • Atonal
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Films

Conclusion

The Lady From Shanghai finds Welles working at his best and worst — mixing distance and intimacy to uneven effect.

Orson Welles First Feature Film in Color

12. The Immortal Story (1968)

The Immortal Story  •  Opening Clip

Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story is a strange feature film — the original cut was only 48 minutes long and it was produced for French television. It wasn’t until 2016 that the film was refined and expanded with the Criterion edit.

The middle part of Welles’ career was dogged by production hurdles and lack of financing, which was certainly evident by The Immortal Story — which was supposed to be the first part of a double feature based on Karen Blixen stories — but the second part never came to fruition.

80%
ACTING
75%
STORY
85%
DIRECTION
80%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Jeanne Moreau
  • Fabulistic Narrative
  • Camera Angles
  • Odd Pacing
  • Poor Structure
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Films

Conclusion

The Immortal Story is a hodge podge commentary of Welles’ favorite subjects — truth, deception, legacy, love and sex.

Orson Welles Movie List

11. Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Orson Welles on His Favorite Film Chimes at Midnight

“Shakespeare said everything. Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man’s season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats,” Orson Welles said in the foreword to Everybody’s Shakespeare.

Much has been said about Welles love of Shakespeare — and there’s no denying that the two men share considerable similarities. With Chimes at Midnight, Welles built a story based on the classic Shakespeare character Sir John Falstaff, and succeeded due to some sharp writing, great performances, and an unforgettable soundtrack.

80%
ACTING
80%
STORY
80%
DIRECTION
80%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Welles’ Performance
  • Impactful Ending
  • Iconic Music
  • Poor Pacing
  • Middle Act
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Movies Ranked

Conclusion

Welles said that Chimes at Midnight was his favorite film — and it even made our list of the best Shakespeare film adaptations.

Best Orson Welles Shakespeare Adaptations

10. Othello (1952)

Othello  •  Trailer

Over the course of his career on Broadway and in Hollywood, Welles played the leading man in just about every Shakespeare play. But as a director, Welles only made two feature-length “direct” Shakespeare adaptations: Othello and Macbeth.

Othello had an arduous shoot that lasted more than three years. The Producers ran out of money, which forced Welles to fund the project through to its completion. Although the film isn’t regarded as one of Welles’ best, it’s considered a treatise on how to use chiaroscuro lighting.

85%
ACTING
75%
STORY
85%
DIRECTION
82%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Chiaroscuro
  • Strong Cast
  • Classic Story
  • Framing
  • Some Editing
  • N/A

Orson Welles Best Films

Conclusion

Welles’ cinematic adaptation of Othello is a visual treat due to the use of eye-popping black and white cinematography.

Best Orson Welles Movies Ever Made

9. Macbeth (1948)

Macbeth  •  Trailer

Macbeth has been privy to some excellent cinematic adaptations over the years; in 1957 with Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, in 1971 with Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, and in 2015 with Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. But many cinema historians still consider Welles’ adaptation the best of them all.

I suppose it’s not surprising that there have been so many adaptations of Macbeth, considering it’s widely regarded as Shakespeare’s best work.

80%
ACTING
90%
STORY
95%
DIRECTION
88%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Atmospheric
  • Visually Rich
  • Great Story
  • Some Acting
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Movies Ranked

Conclusion

Welles was forced to make Macbeth on a tight budget, but the end result surpassed expectations.

Full List Orson Welles Movies

8. F for Fake (1973)

F for Fake  •  How to Structure a Video Essay

Is it possible to be original? How do we determine whether something is good or bad? Why do we attribute value by “expert” opinion? These are the questions at the heart of F for Fake — a 90 minute essay film that explores forgers of the most clinical kind.

F for Fake simultaneously finds Welles at his most unrestrained and self-indulgent. I’d argue that Welles was nearly more infatuated with star Oja Kodar than he was with the film itself.

N/A
ACTING
90%
STORY
85%
DIRECTION
88%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Landmark Style
  • Insane Story
  • Reflective and Profound
  • Lacks Focus
  • Some Over-Editing
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Films

Conclusion

F for Fake takes an unflinching look at the battle between self-satisfaction and critical acclaim.

Orson Welles Directed Movies

7. The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger  •  Trailer

RKO aimed big for directors during Pre-Production of The Stranger. The Studio’s first choice was John Huston, but he was unavailable due to other commitments. The studio’s second choice was Huston’s good friend Orson Welles, who agreed to direct the project.

The Stranger turned into an Orson Welles production after Huston bowed out. Welles directed, starred, and co-penned the script. In the end, Welles’ lust for control proved to irritate RKO and resulted in the Studio backing out of a contract agreement with him. Nonetheless, The Stranger went on to become a box-office success.

95%
ACTING
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STORY
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DIRECTION
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Bold Story
  • Doc. Footage
  • Welles and Robinson
  • Middle Act
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Movies of All-Time

Conclusion

The Stranger is one of many films in the public domain — and is available on nearly every streaming service.

Orson Welles Movie List

6. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificence of the Ambersons

Orson Welles adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons is a brilliant film. I’d venture to say that if the film’s production hadn’t been so mired in controversy, it would probably be considered a classic.

Over the course of shooting The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles fell out of favor with RKO. When the film went to Post-Production, he struggled to retain control of the editing process. Tragically, Welles' cut of the movie was destroyed and it’s widely believed that all additional footage beyond the released version is lost to history. Still, the RKO cut is very good, even if it does shy away from a more sinister ending.

95%
ACTING
95%
STORY
95%
DIRECTION
95%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Set Design
  • Excellent Story
  • "Safe” Ending
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Films

Conclusion

The Magnificent Ambersons may not have been the film Welles wanted, but it’s still a great film of the Hollywood Golden Age.

Best Orson Welles Movies Ranked

5. Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report)

Mr. Arkadin  •  Clip

Orson Welles had a penchant for appearing larger than life. This created a shadow that he could never escape. With Mr. Arkadin (1955), Welles found himself engulfed in this shadow more than ever.

There are more than four cuts of Mr. Arkadin because a ton of footage was lost/destroyed at various points in Post-Production. Just recently, the film was restored by Criterion with editing supervision done by Welles’ friend Peter Bogdanovich.

95%
ACTING
100%
STORY
90%
DIRECTION
95%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Brilliant Story
  • Mysterious Setting
  • Story Arc
  • Some of the Lighting
  • N/A
  • N/A

Orson Welles Best Films

Conclusion

In a thematic sense, Mr. Arkadin serves as the middle act between Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Other Side of the Wind.

Best Orson Welles Movies of All-Time

4. Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil  •  Opening Shot

Touch of Evil may be most famous for its opening tracking shot, but there’s so much more to it that makes it one of the best movies of the 1950s. Welles, Janet Leigh, and Charlton Heston all give excellent performances — and the script is tight and taut throughout.

Sadly, Touch of Evil was buried by Universal upon distribution in 1958. It was released as a B-movie for Hedy Lamar’s The Female Animal, and never found much traction in the U.S. despite its all-star cast.

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ACTING
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STORY
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DIRECTION
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Impactful Story
  • Masterclass Acting
  • Steady Direction
  • Short Drag in Middle
  • N/A
  • N/A

Full List Orson Welles Movies

Conclusion

Today, Touch of Evil is considered one of Orson Welles best movies, and a classic example of film noir.

Orson Welles Directed Movies

3. The Trial (1962)

The Trial Allegory  •  Clip

Franz Kanfka was a writer who had a style so distinctive that his imposters and replicators — as well as the works they made — became known as “Kafkaesque.” At first glance, Welles may not seem like a Kafkaesque director, but upon further investigation, the similarities are definitely there.

Welles adapted Kafka’s iconic novel The Trial into a film in 1962, and although it didn’t receive widespread acclaim upon release, it has become more well-regarded in the decades since.

100%
ACTING
95%
STORY
100%
DIRECTION
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Perkins
  • Prod. Design
  • Absurdist Story
  • Drags a Little
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Films

Conclusion

You may be shocked to find how prescient the themes of The Trial are, not only in Welles cinematic adaptation, but in Kafka’s 1925 novel as well.

Best Orson Welles Movies Ranked

2. The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

The Other Side of the Wind  •  Trailer

Billed in its own credits as a film more than 40 years in the making, The Other Side of the Wind is one of the most fascinating movies of all-time. The Other Side of the Wind follows fictional auteur director Jake Hannaford on the last day of his life.

Years prior to the events of the film, Hannaford had been ousted from Hollywood. But now, he’s returned to make one final film. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the story of Orson Welles — but alas, Welles insisted that The Other Side of the Wind wasn’t auto-biographical.

I have a sneaking suspicion that The Other Side of the Wind will continue to grow in esteem. One day, critics may consider The Other Side of the Wind even more impactful than Citizen Kane.

100%
ACTING
100%
STORY
100%
DIRECTION
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Audaciously Bold
  • Narratively Diametric
  • John Huston
  • Heavy Cuts
  • N/A
  • N/A

Orson Welles Last Movie

Conclusion

The Other Side of the Wind is Welles’ most intimate picture and it closes the book on one of cinema’s most daring figures.

Orson Welles First Feature Film

1. Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane  •  Crash Course History

Is Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made? Don’t take my word for it; here’s what some of the best have said about it.

  • “I think many people can agree, it’s one of the great American experiences in cinema.” — Steven Spielberg
  • “It’s the only lesson I’ve ever had in filmmaking… Citizen Kane is flat-out the most important and greatest American film ever made as far as I’m concerned.” — William Friedkin
  • “People don't always ask about the greatest film. They ask, 'What's your favorite movie?' Again, I always answer with Citizen Kane." — Roger Ebert

Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at the age of 26 and although he didn’t know it then, the film would go on to top every poll of the greatest movies ever made. Kane proved to be a blessing and a curse for Welles — although the film was a critical success, it cast a giant shadow that he could never escape. For better or worse, no matter what he did, nothing would ever beat Citizen Kane — even if it were better than Citizen Kane.

100%
ACTING
100%
STORY
100%
DIRECTION
100%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Landmark Direction
  • Captivating Performances
  • Unforgettable Ending
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Orson Welles Films

Conclusion

Is Citizen Kane deserving of all of the acclaim it receives? Personally, I feel that it is — and I know there are many others who feel the same way.

UP NEXT

Best Stanley Kubrick Movies

Orson Welles may have been one of the first auteur directors, but he isn’t the most famous. That distinction squarely belongs to Stanley Kubrick. Few filmmakers have had as great of an impression on the cinema landscape as Kubrick. In this next article, we rank his best feature films from bottom to top. You may be surprised to see which film earned the top honor!

Up Next: Kubrick Movies Ranked →
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