Orson Welles’s screenplay for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”
This article is based on a piece by Jean-Pierre Berthome that appeared in French in The Unknown Orson Welles, the wonderful book edited by Stefan Drossler of the Filmmuseum Munchen.
Special thanks to Francois Thomas, who graciously translated key portions of the text for me.
All the sections below in bold type are taken from Welles screenplay.
In June 1967, the professional film journals announced that Orson Welles would direct an episode of the omnibus film Histoires Extraordinaires or Spirits of the Dead as it was known in America. By September, it was made public that Welles’s episode would not be used. Instead the final film would comprise three episodes based on some of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser known stories and be directed by Roger Vadim (Metzengerstein), Louis Malle (William Wilson) and Federico Fellini (Toby Dammit, or Never Bet the Devil Your Head).
See color images from the original French pressbook at my Facebook page HERE.
Early on, Ingmar Berman may have also been approached about directing an episode. In his book Encountering Directors (1972), Charles Thomas Samuels talked with Federico Fellini about the three original directors who were under consideration for the project. Fellini said: “I was still under contract to make The Voyage of Mastorna for (Dino) De Laurentiis and was in total confusion. Then along come these French producers who begged me to participate in a multi-episode film. They assured me that of the three stories, I would make one, Bergman another and Welles the last. So I said yes. Then it turned out that they had lied about Bergman and that Welles, who didn’t trust them, refused to sign. I continued anyway, simply because this was a way of freeing myself from De Laurentiis. When they told me my partners were to be Malle and Vadim, I could have legally refused. With me, Welles, and Bergman—three visionary artists whose images have a richness of meaning—there would have been some common quality in this homage to Poe. That’s why I signed, not for monetary considerations.”
Needless to say, the mind boggles at the thought of the "richness" of images we might have received if an anthology of Poe stories had been realized by Fellini, Bergman and Welles! It certainly would have been far more memorable than what eventually emerged as Spirits of the Dead. The Bergman episode, in particular, would have been fascinating, since, at the time, the Swedish director was in the midst of his own “horror” phase, having just directed Persona and Hour of the Wolf, and soon would be filming the real-life horrors depicted so memorably in Shame and The Passion of Anna. Poe’s story The Masque of the Red Death also more than likely inspired Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal. There’s certainly little doubt that Bergman’s 1956 film went on to influence Roger Corman when he made his own movie version of Poe's story in 1964, starring Vincent Price as Prince Prospero.
Even more intriguing is to find out that Bergman wrote a never-published 11-page story in 1938, when he was only 20-years old, entitled A Peculiar Tale which appears to have been influenced by Poe. In it we come across the figure of a personified death for the first time in Bergman’s oeuvre. Maaret Koskinen, an authority on Bergman’s work describes A Peculiar Tale as follows:
It is an emotionally charged story of an anonymous narrator who encounters a beautiful yet highly perfumed woman in a florist's. She turns out to be a prostitute, a widowed mother and an intravenous drug user. Towards the end of the story the narrator finds her beaten to death by one of her clients. Her neighbor, a garrulous old woman, tells him about the assailant:
"And last night I met her on the stairs with a man. And the way he looked gave me a chill of fear. His appearance was completely white, and it didn't look as if he had any eyes, and he had a big floppy hat, and a long black cape"
The tale ends with the narrator walking out onto the street, his collar turned up against the "rain and autumn storms", having gone up to the dead woman and stroked her forehead: “Poor little thing, I thought. You wanted to be Death's pretty little harlot, and he paid you in his fashion."
What Poe story Bergman might have chosen to make is unknown, but Welles chose to adapt two of Poe's more famous tales for his proposed segment. It should also be noted that 21 years earlier, in June 1946, Welles had adapted Poe's The Tell Tale Heart for his radio show.
Working with his companion Oja Kodar on the script, Welles used The Masque of the Red Death to frame the story of The Cask of Amontillado and cleverly changed the sex of Fortunato, from a male to female. An undated copy of the script is in the Welles collection of the Filmmuseum in Munich.
The title page indicates the principal roles and notes the script would be combining two of Poe’s short stories into one episode:
The following script comprises two stories by Edgar Allan Poe, including a free adaptation of “The Cask of Amontillado.” The two are grouped together under the title:
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
By Orson Welles and Oja Kodar
In the first ten pages of the 57-page script, Prince Prospero shuts himself up with his friends in his medieval castle in order to escape the Red Death, the horrific plague that is ravaging the countryside, but at the last stroke of midnight the personified figure of the Red Death mysteriously appears in the midst of the great costume ball and his mere presence is enough to end the revels of all the revelers.
Welles writes in his screenplay:
As the last of the fires flicker out, the only light to remain comes from the windows. A great cloud of scarlet colored dust hangs motionless over the monstrous heap of dead revelers frozen in the last agonies of the Pest, sprawling grotesquely on the ballroom floor…
The story ends with Poe’s famous lines:
“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Then, after a beat, we hear murmurs followed by applause, and we see a close-up of the Narrator who has just finished reading the above text from a book and acknowledges the applause. The Narrator proceeds to stand up and walk through the ballroom, while all the dancers who had just enacted the roles of guests at the Masque come to their feet. Then, as the Narrator approaches the Prince we see:
He who played the role of the Prince gets to his feet. We realize that the mask he is wearing is a precise mirror image of the face of the Narrator. As the Narrator approaches, he removes the mask and bows. The Narrator is, in fact, the true Prince and lord of the castle where this weird little performance has been given. The actor playing the Prince is, in fact, the real Prince’s Majordomo. That the Prince in the play has worn a mask that duplicates the real Prince is just the sort of complicated joke he most relishes.
Although casting was never finalized, it appears that Welles would have played the part of both the Narrator and the Prince, while the English Shakespearian actor Charles Gray (who appeared with Welles in The Merchant of Venice and several episodes of Orson’s Bag), might well have played the Majordomo. Oja Kodar would have played Fortunata. In the script Welles describes the Prince as a cross between Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde:
A great dandy, he is most elaborately primped and corseted; his hair is dyed and curled, his cheeks are rouged, and under it all he looks like one of the very late Roman Emperors gone badly to seed. And yet, in a way, he manages to give the impression that the ruin and decay is of something rather impressive. He is flourishing (like the Green Bay Tree) a few years after the death of Byron, and somewhat before the rise of Oscar Wilde, but there is something of both in him; a matter of style, however, not of genius. The truth? He has flair, personality; it doesn’t go much further than that. The evil is real enough, though. There are thick dossiers on His Highness’ escapades in every police department in civilized Europe.
At the end of the play, we also realize the real setting of the story is the Prince’s Italian castle in 1860. Welles’s then begins to merge the script into the second Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado by having the Prince bring in yet another novelty to entertain his guests: A circus troupe from Trieste. Among the performers is a beautiful ropedancer named Fortunata, who some time earlier had spurned the unwanted advances of the Prince. However, she has failed to realize that this night she will be performing for the depraved Prince Prospero, “like a strange and beautiful lizard.” It is only when she goes to claim her payment, and all the other circus performers have mysteriously disappeared, that Fortunata realizes that the paymaster is none other than the Prince himself. When the Prince makes a crude proposition to her, Fortunata replies, “I am a rope dancer, not a whore.”
The Prince then assumes the Montresor role from Poe’s story and lures the lovely Fortunata to the catacombs beneath his castle, taking great relish in his attempts to frighten her with morbid tales of terror and torture, such as the true story of the famous child molester, Gilles de Rais:
THE PRINCE: …Children, babies, murdered slowly, all of them, by the most exquisite torture …Ghouls exist not only in dreams and in nightmares… but in the real world… there are men and women who drink blood …I myself am (one of them.)
When they reach the dank depths of the catacombs, the Prince chains Fortunata to the wall and begins to entomb her while yet alive, telling her: “Dear child, indeed you are a burden. A burden of flame and fire. The flame must be quenched.”
The Prince’s motives are both obscure and complex, fueled by love, jealousy, sexual desire and (as in Othello), impotence.
Welles details the Prince's motives in his script:
His requisite is darkness. Just as the girl is light itself, sunshine. He must put out that light, black it out, kill the sun. But in his heart, does he really want her to die? All he is sure of is that he wants her to fear death, to fear it in his own person. He feels that to the girl he has been, up to now, only a sort of harmless ghost, a ghost she neither fears nor even quite believes in. He has never been real to her, but now he will make himself real. Through terror, she will learn to believe in him. This is a last, despairing gesture of impotence. Assuredly, he is a sick man yearning to infect the object of his love with his own fatal disease, his own Red Death.
The Prince offers to release Fortunata from her tomb, but only if she will cry out and admit her terror, but she valiantly resists him, unwilling to give in to his perverse desires:
Fortunata remains a shadowy figure motionless against the wall. Silence. No power on Earth will make her break that silence.
Unable to make Fortunata submit to his will, the Prince’s ego leaves him little choice but to abandon her in the depths of the catacombs. As the script explains:
The Prince requires from her (his victim) that seriousness without which the whole distorted fabric of his dreams will fall into dust. …It also depends (like most sexual kinkiness) on a certain solemnity.
Thus, the Prince, having met a will stronger than his own (and one he cannot fathom, since Fortunata is willing to accept a horrible death over saving herself), Prospero returns to his insular world, where Fortunata’s complete rejection of him and everything he stands for, will drive him hopelessly insane, like so many of Poe’s other protagonists:
The Prince gives a “hoarse and terrible roar, like the roaring of some rabid beast. It is the Prince in hopeless pain, a voice out of hell… but we see that there is no real place for him to go. He will never escape.
SPIRITS OF THE DEAD by Edgar Allan Poe
Thy soul shall find itself alone
'Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness - for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.
The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne'er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew-drop from the grass.
The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!
One final "mystery of mysteries" is whether Welles might have been in any way influenced by Fellini’s Toby Dammit episode of Spirits of the Dead. The ending of Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind bears some interesting similarities to Toby Dammit, where Terence Stamp plays a handsome young film star, who has come to Rome to star in the first “Catholic Western,” because he has been promised a new Ferrari by the film’s producers. Toby attends a surreal awards ceremony where he is to receive an honorary “She-Wolf” and during a drunken speech Toby even recites lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth. Likewise, in The Other Side of the Wind, Jake Hannaford is planning to give his leading actor, John Dale, a brand new red Porsche. In the end, both Jake and Toby drive off in their shiny new sports cars, only to meet death who comes “driving down the highway” to claim them.