Producer: Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza
Director: Orson Welles
Writer: Orson Welles and Oja Kodar
Stars: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Bob Random, Lilli Palmer, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Gregory Sierra, Tonio Stewart, Dan Tobin, John Carroll, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason, Joseph McBride, Dennis Hopper and Curtis Harrington
Few things are more exciting than the recovery of a work of art long thought lost forever, and though films are a fairly recent art form, their fragility has led to the disappearance of many early ones (not to mention decisions to hack out scenes and then allow the discarded footage to vanish). Determined researchers try to locate lost films or restore mutilated ones, and sometimes they succeed, at least to some extent (see the extended version of the 1954 “A Star Is Born,” or of Kubrick’s “Spartacus,” or to take a less exalted example, the recent discovery of the complete second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s “The Battle of the Century”).
Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” represents a different sort of recovery, an act of devotion to one of the screen’s enduring icons that tries, in effect, to save him from himself. His film career, from the very beginning in the early 1940s, was littered with unfinished projects, starting with “It’s All True,” the documentary that his work on in Brazil led RKO to mutilate “The Magnificent Ambersons” in his absence—an act of desecration that it has never been possible to rectify, because the original cut wasn’t archived.
The exile from the studio system that followed left Welles struggling to find financing for projects he had to try making in bits and pieces over years, often being forced to abandon them when support dried up. Even when he got another chance in Hollywood with “Touch of Evil,” his intended version was taken from his hands and only later restored, insofar as possible.
“Wind” was only the last such debacle. Filmed in snatches between 1970 and 1976, it got caught up in incredibly labyrinthine international financing problems, with the result that when Welles died in 1985, he left behind many hours of footage, along with copious notes about his intentions of how it would be assembled. (Those interested in a full account can consult Joseph Karp’s 2015 “Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of the Other Side of the Wind”).
Of course all the disarray wasn’t due to circumstances beyond Welles’s control. It was also a matter of sheer egotism and what seems to have increasingly become a phobia about finishing anything. One can argue either that Welles’s career was undermined by outside forces, or that he deliberately sabotaged it himself. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Fortunately Welles has finally found a restoration team who’ve dared to do what he wouldn’t or couldn’t—turn “The Other Side of the Wind” into a finished film. Producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski have taken up the torch long carried by—among others—Welles’s cinematographer Gary Graver, and have fashioned a coherent narrative out of the material he left. The question is whether all the effort was worth it.
From a purely historical perspective, the answer is a definite yes. “The Other Side of the Wind” puts a period to the career that began with “Citizen Kane” in a way that nothing else could. However, it’s no “Citizen Kane.” In this form—and probably in whatever form Welles might have fashioned himself—it’s more “Mr. Arkadin” than “Kane,” another tale of investigating the past of a “great man” that discloses mysteries that might ultimately be impenetrable. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important, and especially for film buffs, well worth watching.
The plot concocted by Welles and Oja Kodar centers on grizzled Hollywood director Jake Hannaford (played with boozy gruffness by John Huston) who’s showing friends and hangers-on footage from his latest film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” It’s an unfinished project that he’s desperately searching for funding to complete. That sounds self-referential, of course, but Hannaford is no Welles. He’s an old-line studio player struggling to remain relevant in the changing environment of the seventies, with studios interested in movies that will appeal to the youth culture of the time. So what we see of Hannaford’s picture suggests a more abstract version of Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” (1970) in which a beautiful young man with windblown hair (Rob Random as Hannaford’s latest discovery, actor John Dale) pursues a sultry femme fatale (Kodar). Much nudity and sexual play are involved, though for the most part the sequences we see consist of broad vistas, long, lingering looks, static poses and chases through deteriorating industrial landscapes.
Presumably Welles intended this as satire, though it’s of a pretty puerile sort (and also misguided—“Zabriskie” and other movies of its type were major bombs). What’s more interesting is the surrounding material—fast, fervid, jumpy snippets of dialogue first at the studio lot, where the viewing junket originates (and where a Hannaford factotum named Billy, played by Norman Foster, tries to convince a slick studio executive, played by Geoffrey Land, to pony up completion money by showing him some of the footage), then in the vehicles driving the guests (journalists, Hannaford cronies and crew members) to the ranch where the screening party is to be held, and then at the all night bash at the ranch itself, before repeated electrical outages force the relocation of the screening to a dumpy drive-in.
During these sequences, the lines come fast and furious, and are often witty bits of repartee, particularly when there’s a back-stabbing motive behind them. Plenty of familiar faces show up to deliver them—including Cameron Mitchell, Lilli Palmer, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmund O’Brien and Paul Stewart (the greedy butler from “Kane”) along with a number of filmmakers—Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol—who either add to the conversation or simply walk around in the background.
The most voluble of the party, though, is undoubtedly Hannaford protégé Brooks Otterlake, a director who’s scored some hugely remunerative success and spends the night fending off rumors about his mentor from the likes of a critical journalist played by Susan Strasberg and cynical screenwriter Jack Simon (Gregory Sierra)—as well as, in the end, appeals from Hannaford for monetary assistance. Played by Peter Bogdanovich in his most unctuous, slick style, Otterlake represents the film’s ultimate statement about the reality that friendship means very little in the cutthroat world of Hollywood.
That’s certainly one obvious, and very personal, message in the picture, but it has another major thread surrounding the disappearance of Dale, its “mystery” element. The young man was supposedly rescued from drowning—perhaps a suicide attempt—by Hannaford, but in the end he stalked off the picture and is nowhere to be found. Why? A suggestion of the reason emerges not only in the insinuations that Simon makes about “man’s man” Hannaford, but in the revelations about Dale’s background offered by one of the party’s most unlikely attendees—a prissy English teacher from his old school played by Dan Tobin. They broaden the definition of playing the Hollywood game considerably, though it’s a debatable point whether in the final analysis the overall picture they draw, and the decision taken by Hannaford in reaction to them, will convince you that the time you’ve spent awaiting them was worthwhile.
What is more certain is that the display of typically bravura Welles style is something no film buff will want to miss. If the plot of the film—what little there actually is—might not be all that compelling (in fact, the script is less so than the story of the film’s resurrection), watching the flickering images will convince you that you’re in the hands of a master, even if he’s not on his best form. Graver’s cinematography, which mixes the smooth, widescreen visuals of the “film within a film” with gritty, hand-held black-and-white clips of conversation occasionally punctuated by color footage, isn’t precisely what you’d call beautiful, but it certainly has impact. And Murawski, following Welles’s instructions as much as possible, has edited it skillfully, covering over the parts that remained unshot so that you don’t much notice the omissions. It was also an inspired move to enlist Michel Legrand to compose the jazz-inflected score, which helps minimize the disjointedness.
Certainly the cast threw themselves vigorously into the effort, giving unstinting support to Welles’s vision. Huston presides over the proceedings with the same leonine presence he brought to “Chinatown,” and Welles gave him some great lines to rumble off with a growl. Bogdanovich, who was of course as close to Welles as Otterlake is to Hannaford, does as oily a turn as one could desire; and Random and Kodar spare nothing in their Antonioni-style footage. All the others offer pointed turns, clearly relishing the chance to put forward their very best for the director.
“The Other Side of the Wind” does not emerge from its long hibernation as a masterpiece on the order of “Kane” or “Ambersons,” or even “Touch of Evil.” Mainstream moviegoers will be baffled and bored by it, as many were by those earlier Welles films; and even cineastes are unlikely to embrace it fully. But this painstaking restoration effort fills a major lacuna not only in Welles’s résumé but in cinematic history, and anyone who loves film will appreciate the opportunity to see it on that ground alone.