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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Around The World With Orson Welles: The Complete Series (Blu-ray)
Around The World With Orson Welles: The Complete Series (Blu-ray)
Other // Unrated // July 15, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 8, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Much as I adore the films of director-writer-actor Orson Welles, I had only a vague awareness of Around the World, a seven-episode television series Welles made in 1955 for Britain's then brand-new ITV network. It and other long-unseen Welles obscurities (Too Much Johnson, The Immortal Story) are finally being made available on this, the centenary of his birth, a year capped, one hopes, with the eventual release, finally, of Welles's never-entirely-finished The Other Side of the Wind (1976), reportedly being completed as I write this.

Around the World, alternately known as Around the World with Orson Welles and, in one episode, Round the World, is something of a revelation. Years ahead of its time, these half-hour episodes are primarily travel essays of a type later typified by Michael Palin's popular and acclaimed shows. Like Palin, Welles the host comes off as genial, essentially nonjudgmental, and an astute observer. The difference is that where the audience vicariously shares in everyman Palin's experiences, Welles is a man of the world drawing on his peerless skill as a raconteur and essayist.

Except for the two-part "Pays Basque," each episode is very different from all the others, both in terms of content as well as style, though each oozes with Welles's distinctive style. Typical of his work from the period, Around the World is uneven and, at times, noticeably haphazard. The second episode is so padded with stock footage from the first that, initially, I thought there had been an encoding error on the disc. The sixth and weakest episode barely features Welles at all, with Kenneth Tynan and then-wife actress-novelist Elaine Dundy awkwardly pinch-hitting for Welles in footage so visually and narratively at odds with Welles-shot scenes that it plays like the travelogue equivalent of The Magnificent Ambersons' faux happy ending, filmed without Welles's participation. A seventh episode, "The Tragedy of Lurs," was never entirely finished, but is reconstructed as the centerpiece of a fascinating 52-minute documentary.

Each show has merits different from all the others. "Pays Basque" is a fascinating look at a people neither Spanish nor French, with language and culture unique in all the world, but its highlight is a lengthy interview with an expatriate American writer and widow discussing the benefits of raising her son in a land so different from 1950s America. It appears Welles shot more than enough material there for a single episode but not quite enough for two, hence the second episode of which at least half consists of stock footage from the first.

"Revisiting Vienna" suggests Welles returning to locations made famous in his signature role, as Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). Instead, the show focuses almost entirely on an intense rivalry between the Hotel Sacher and the Demel bakery over legal rights to Vienna's famed Sachertorte, a kind of chocolate cake. Welles tours Demel's kitchen drooling over its fantastic collection of pastries and interviews longtime customers there about the 18th-century pastry shop's history.

"St-Germanin-des-Prés," another padded show (less so than the others) features columnist Art Buchwald (who, again in Paris, is also prominently featured in Cinerama Holiday) for much of the show, seemingly filing a story about Welles. The Blu-ray's cover art prominently bills Juliette Greco and Jean Cocteau in the cast, but they're barely glimpsed, along with Eddie Constantine (who memorably scowls/winks at the camera), Jean-Paul Sartre and a few others, but Welles's focus is on artist and philosopher Raymond Duncan, dancer Isadora's brother. Walking a fine line between genius and lunatic, the elderly but energetic Duncan couldn't be more outwardly different from the dapper, well-groomed, cigar-smoking Welles, yet the relative youngster is clearly fascinated by this antecede kindred-spirit, undoubtedly quite like men Welles knew as a boy.

"Chelsea Pensioners" has Welles visiting an 18th-century home set aside for widows, all archly-conservative Tories whom the die-hard liberal Welles nonetheless finds as totally charming as they find him. Later he visits a home for aged veterans, retaining the military structure with which its residents are familiar.

"Madrid Bullfight" is a real patchwork, the weakest show. For all of the episodes Welles shot reverse angles of himself asking questions, making observations, at different locations at other times perhaps months after interviewing his subjects, but their integration up to this point had been pretty seamless, at least to the casual observer. Here, however, it's painfully clear that only a handful of shots actually put Welles in the bullfighting stadium. The inserts are more obvious, and Kenneth Tynan (struggling with a speech impediment) and Elaine Dundy make barely adequate substitutes for Welles for most of this episode.

The last show breaks markedly from the travelogue format with the precision of a modern crime documentary to explore the Dominici Affair, the 1952 triple murder of a British lord, Sir Jack Drummond, his wife, and their 10-year-old daughter, in France near a struggling farm in Lurs in the Basses-Alpes. The elderly family patriarch, Gaston Dominici, was convicted of the crime, which Welles reconstructs through a series of interviews at and near the scene of the crime. A hostile French press and government meddling in the case drove Welles and his crew away before its completion. (After initially being sentenced to death, the manipulative Dominici, viewed sympathetically by France's working class, was eventually released at the behest of the wife of Charles de Gaulle.)

Around the World is fascinating on many levels. For one thing it's amusing and a bit sad to find Welles almost exactly halfway between his great triumph of Citizen Kane and his last years as a mass-market wine and frozen peas pitchman, vainly trying to jump-start several last great films. Pushing 40, he's at once still almost boyish but also ballooning in weight, which he tries to hide by shooting his on-camera appearances with his face always at a 45-degree angle. His stories and observations are interesting and amusing, and he interacts surprisingly well with everyone: small Basque boys, elderly soldiers, peasant farmers, expat artists, and pastry chefs. He's never condescending nor does he ever project a superior air. "Pays Basque II," "St-Germanin-des-Prés," and especially "Spanish Bullfight" all suffer somewhat due to Welles's tendency to overextend himself and fly off to the next job before the current one is completely done. (Reportedly, Welles narrated the first broadcast episode from Rome while it was being broadcast live from London.)

Yet, despite their imperfections, Around the World remains enormously impressive in their prescience, naturalness, and sophistication. Though made 60 years ago they are at once contemporary and timeless, a bit like the greatly missed Charles Kuralt's On the Road segments of the ‘70s-‘90s for CBS. It's difficult to imagine any British or American television programming like this existing in the 1950s or for many years after.

Video & Audio

Shot on film for television broadcast in 4:3 format, Around the World looks exceptionally good without, with only the last episode-documentary, from an older source, up-rezzed from standard definition. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is also fine, though, probably due to the source elements, the volume seemed to fluctuate a lot from scene to scene; sometimes the dialogue is almost inaudible without turning up the volume considerably. The disc is Region A encoded.

Extra Features

The lone supplement is a good if vaguely condescending essay by Peter Tonguette, editor of a collection of interviews on Welles.

Parting Thoughts

Like so many of Welles's European projects, Around the World is a beguiling piece of filmmaking that constantly seems at imminent risk of unraveling completely, yet Welles's on-the-fly genius keeps his audience enthralled regardless. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.


  Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.

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