You can say he was a failure – but that only leads to a more demanding appreciation of success than numbers will ever satisfy (George Lucas, I read the other day, has a net worth of around $5bn). Orson Welles never directed a picture that made a profit in his lifetime. He died, alone and broke, in a cottage in the Hollywood hills on 10 October 1985, at which point his affairs and his estate passed into a chaos that he had known and engineered for most of his life. This disorder is such that at least one film, The Other Side of the Wind, which was nearly finished while Welles was alive, has still not been delivered to us.
So he has been dead nearly 25 years and yet there is a gathering current of movies and other fictions in which Orson Welles is a character – both an inspiration and a warning to young film-makers. Beyond that, in 2012, Sight & Sound magazine will publish, as it has done every decade since 1952, its poll of critics and film-makers of the greatest films ever made. As things stand now, I cannot see how Citizen Kane will be replaced as top film – the rank it held in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002. In which case it will have reigned for 50 years. Has world film produced nothing since 2002 to overtake Kane? Slumdog Millionaire? The Lives of Others? A History of Violence? Perhaps some earlier film has so risen in esteem that it will now pass Kane. The Godfather? Vertigo? Tokyo Story? I don't see it. I can believe that new generations groan when told they have to watch Citizen Kane, and worship the past. If the movies breathe new air, shouldn't our best film change every few years? It only backs up the sad suspicion that the movies may be dead (or sleeping) if such a classic still rules.
Meanwhile, the large, busy ghost of Orson watches us with his Cheshire cat smile. In Kane, the hero says that at the rate of losing $1m a year he'll be broke – in 60 years. It's a nifty joke. But Welles's own capital shows no diminution and it has lasted longer than Kane's could have.
That's a stranger joke by far. It begins to suggest that something matters more than money.
Welles possessed intimidating charisma and perilous charm. Of course, we know Welles as an actor, something denied to DW Griffith, John Ford, Preston Sturges and so on. But his aura is more persistent still: few citizens of the 20th century left such an intimate imprint. We see him (as Harry Lime as much as Kane), but we hear him, too. He is a voice in the public imagination, reading John Donne, murmuring, "Free of income tax, old man" to Holly Martins, yet sighing over "no wine before its time".
It may hurt a film buff to admit this, but some film directors are dull fellows – because they have no life beyond film. The monotony of being Martin Scorsese or Alfred Hitchcock is a kind of imprisonment. Welles went off in so many other directions: as actor, as man of the theatre, as the spirit of radio, as a magician, a self-taught know-it-all, a traveller, a world-class raconteur and even a political prospect (he wrote speeches for FDR and he might have been a contender himself if the 1940s had been more hip about divorce).
Welles was such a wonder that biographers have always been drawn to him. There are books on Orson by Peter Noble, Frank Brady, Barbara Leaming, Charles Higham, Joseph McBride, Jonathan Rosenbaum and myself – to say nothing of a book-length interview by Peter Bogdanovich and (so far) the two volumes by Simon Callow that promise to be the definitive work. There are also many studies, some of which overlap with the life if only because of the conjuring way Welles addressed himself as subject. It is a beginner's duty to see Charles Foster Kane as a version of William Randolph Hearst (or other modern power-brokers); it is more interesting to place him as a warning version of George Orson Welles.
But it's not just a matter of biography and critical writing. Orson Welles has become a character. Richard Linklater's new film, Me and Orson Welles, is a fiction about a young actor who meets Welles (played by Christian McKay) and manages to be cast in the 1937 stage production of Caesar. It joins a group of pictures made since Welles's death: RKO 281 (1999), directed by Benjamin Ross, with Liev Schreiber as Welles caught up in the making of Citizen Kane; also in 1999, Tim Robbins cast Angus Macfadyen as Welles in the story of the Mercury theatre's troubled production of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock; and Ed Wood (1994) by Tim Burton has Vincent D'Onofrio in a cameo as Welles in what many connoisseurs reckon the best portrayal (other than those delivered by Orson himself).
It's notable that the Welles in these productions is young still, plump maybe but not obese, a hero to his acolytes. The Welles of 1936-42 worked 20 hours a day, ate double meals to keep going, pursued pretty young women like a demon and lived as if he had no tomorrow. He worked, all at once, in radio, on the stage and in preparation for his great film. He was a looming figure in American life: an offence to Hollywood in the way he achieved a carte blanche contract, and a boy wonder of such arrogance that it was said of him, "There but for the grace of God, goes God."
It's easy to see how this flamboyant figure has influenced would-be directors in America from Bogdanovich (who knew Welles well) and Spielberg to Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. But it's more than the flourish, the eloquence with which he let himself be interviewed, and the effortless seduction of the man himself. If ever our young directors feel fear, self-pity or failure in their lives – then surely they think of Welles again. For Welles is not just the boy wonder; he is Falstaff and Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil – gross hulks. At the root of Welles's fascination lies this question: how can anyone so creative be so self-destructive?
Though Orson Welles scrutinised himself intently, there's little evidence that he sought professional advice – even when his over-eating was sure to kill him. (He was only 70 when he died – yet in his early 20s Hollywood had welcomed him as a new Tyrone Power!) When it came to self-destruction's allure, he liked to tell the story of the scorpion and the frog – of how the scorpion begged a lift across a stream; how the frog did not trust the scorpion; of how the scorpion said, but if I sting you, froggie, you will die, and I will drown. And so they set out and the frog had gone halfway when he felt the pain of the stinger. Why? he cries out, why did you do it? Now we will all die. I know, says the scorpion, but it is my character.
You must not forget how, in the great celebration of American film by French critics in the 1950s, Welles was the outcast hero. Not just the maker of great films, but a scorpion, a genius waiting to be acclaimed. It was a romantic package and Orson was perfect casting. In Truffaut's celebration of movie-making, Day for Night, the director (played by Truffaut himself) has a recurring dream in which he is a little boy in the city at night. He comes to a movie theatre that is playing Citizen Kane. But it's locked and barred so the boy uses his stick to steal stills of the picture. That may be the most poetic tribute to the example Welles set in the world of cinema. For a generation, all over the world, he was the light and Citizen Kane was the film. A flop when it opened, in 1941, it was hardly known when Sight & Sound had its 1952 poll. But by 1962, it had taken over heaven, where it still rules.
Many of the people who revered Welles – and worshipped a system in which Kane might be made – overlooked his faults. People who knew Orson believed this above all: you never let him meet the money people. Why? He was his own worst enemy. You could say: now, Orson, just sit with them for a lunch, be patient, be polite, tell good stories, let them know the patrons of art and progress they would be if they gave you a little of their money. Just be humble. And Orson would say: of course, of course – I get it. Then lunch began and in 10 minutes he had been unruly, offensive, ugly. He turned on the moneybags and lashed them with envy and contempt. He blew it! Because he could not be humble. If you watch Citizen Kane closely, you can see the same trait and the same cocksure grin that goes with it.
Here is perhaps the largest point. Orson Welles was American. After he had amazed his country with his 1938 radio version of The War of the Worlds, he went to Hollywood. The film he made there – Citizen Kane – was a collection of all the new ways of making film, but it was a celebration of the old ways, too. It was brilliant, yet it could not resist lampooning Hearst (a jab that ruined its chance of success).
He may have died broke – his abiding condition – but he did not do it for the money. He did it for the sake of the medium and his artistic soul. That is a dangerous way to go, but it's a big reason why the young honour him. Hollywood has always fancied it could undermine and destroy the great talents that came its way by giving them money. So a kid (call him DW Griffith, call him the Coen brothers) starts out by saying: Gee, I'd just love to make a movie – as a matter of fact, I'd pay you if you gave me the chance. Oh no, says Hollywood, we couldn't do that. It's against the law and the union rules. Have $100,000. Have $1m. But then the film does well, and the kid gets "residuals". The money keeps coming until it's $5m and then $5bn. And by then, the kid has got a few houses or islands, and a lot of big projects, so he really needs $5m for his next contract. And that's when the system says, well, kid, if you need $5m you need us – so be humble, be grateful and put Julia Roberts in your picture.
Through lack of humility and other life- defying urges, Welles never went that way. He was an untamed outcast who got his money however he could – that's the big reason why "legal obstacles" prevent us from seeing The Other Side of the Wind. But don't make a fetish out of that. You can still see The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, F Is for Fake, The Trial, Macbeth, Othello, Chimes at Midnight, Mr Arkadin, The Lady from Shanghai and The Immortal Story, none of which is perfect. But if you've made a perfect film at 25 you grow up fast and you realise that there can be a liveliness in imperfection that draws you on more powerfully than magnificence. If Orson Welles had never made Citizen Kane, he would be a phenomenon. But he did and that leaves us all his children. His real children might tell you that it was a difficult and sad life to be caught with. Alas.
But remember this: Orson died alone in 1985 and you can read the reports as signs of sadness. On the contrary, I suspect he was exhilarated at the end. Real sadness is being worth $5bn and not knowing what to do with it.
Citizen Kane is rereleased on 30 October.
Me and Orson Welles is released on 4 December.