Ever since I first became seriously interested in the cinema, I have considered Orson Welles one of the very finest filmmakers of all time; and whenever I’m invited to do the impossible and nominate one movie as the greatest ever made, I usually opt for Citizen Kane. So I was obviously one of those Welles nuts who’d long been hoping that his famously never finished The Other Side of the Wind (the shooting of which began in August 1970) would one day get some sort of release. At the same time, however, having seen a couple of clips, a part of me was fearful that, if the whole movie were suddenly to appear on our screens, it might turn out to be a dreadful disappointment.
Well, thanks to Netflix and a bunch of Welles fans who worked on or financed the completion of the film, as of this weekend The Other Side of the Wind is getting some kind of release, albeit a very limited one. (In the UK, a few Curzon cinemas are giving it single daily morning or lunchtime screenings for what appears to be one week only, and it is also, of course, possible to watch it on Netflix.) I felt that my first viewing of this ‘long-believed-lost’ work should be on a big screen, so I headed to a cinema and ended what had been a wait of four decades. (I first read about the film in the mid-70s in a book by the critic Joseph McBride, who happens to have a small part in the movie.)
So was it worth the wait? Definitely; for Welles fans at least, The Other Side of the Wind is pretty much a must-see, and while it has its flaws, it is undoubtedly an ambitious, audacious, rewarding piece of work of frequently dazzling brilliance; moreover, it feels like a film which no one else could have made. (Of course, since Welles himself only edited about 42 minutes of the film himself, and the other 80 minutes were assembled by Bob Murawski from some 96 hours of footage, we’ll never know how closely the finished work fits Welles’ intentions – though the plan, obviously, was to respect his notes as far as possible.) However, precisely because the movie is so ambitious and audacious, it is also quite challenging, and may frustrate those who prefer to be spoon-fed their entertainment rather than be asked to pay close attention to what they are seeing and hearing. I for one know I’ll be watching it again, so full is it of details I may have missed.
The film centres on the 70th birthday celebrations of filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston), an egotistical, macho type whose latest work-in-progress, entitled The Other Side of the Wind, represents a change in style; it’s an impenetrably arty movie full of nudity, sex and symbolism which some see as the veteran’s attempt to move in on the radical cinematic territory being explored by the young Turks who are attracting new audiences following the demise of the studio system. Indeed, a number of these bright young things – Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, Claude Chabrol and Hannaford’s friend Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich) are at his party, along with various members of Hannaford’s entourage and a horde of journalists, film students and documentarists filming or recording the occasion in the hope of learning the great man’s secrets. They also want to know what his new film’s about, so a screening of what’s been shot to date constitutes the real raison d’être for the gathering – for, truth be told, Hannaford is in need of more money if he’s to finish the film.
Even that brief synopsis suggests there was a personal dimension to the film for Welles, who for years found it difficult to find funding for his projects. But the film is personal in other ways, and resembles other Welles movies in its themes and motifs, not least Citizen Kane itself. It begins by telling us that Hannaford died driving a car he’d bought for the young actor he’d ‘discovered’ and cast in his latest movie, before going on to show his final hours and investigate his personality – and secrets – through a dizzying range of perpectives, including those of his friends, colleagues, rumoured ex-lovers and the various professionals – most notably, perhaps, a Pauline Kael-esque film critic (Susan Strasberg) – constantly posing questions and observing him. A fractured study of a powerful, conflicted, sometimes destructive character, it’s about friendship and exploitation, loyalty and betrayal (particularly between men), and tortured feelings about parents. And there’s even a film-within-a-film (which was co-wtitten by and stars Oja Kodar, then Welles’ lover and muse); here, instead of a brief prologue à la Time on the March, it’s the footage Hannaford’s shot for his new movie, screened in several chunks to potential producers and admirers – a visually tricksy, verbally silent soft-core parable of who-knows-what that suggests both Hannaford’s questionable attitude towards women and his desperate efforts at creative renewal in a changing world.
Welles himself clearly had no problems with creative renewal (other than funding it). As with Kane, The Other Side of the Wind constitutes an attempt to find a fresh cinematic language: the multi-perspective, verité style deployed in all the scenes except for the film-within-a-film predates and anticipates his revolutionary approach to narrative in F for Fake a few years later. What Welles was doing here arguably goes further than anything attempted by the movie brats of the late 60s and early 70s, and is far more concise and meaningful than the kind of moody mystical whimsy which is brilliantly evoked by Hannaford’s overblown footage. (Welles himself said, ‘The movie within a movie is not a movie I ever would have made.’) The Other Side of the Wind, in other words, is yet another instance of Welles wanting to stay ahead of the game.
In doing something different, Welles was remaining true to himself; by constantly pushing himself through change, he remained the same. That much is evident not only in his innovative approach to film form but in his expertise with actors. The cast members of The Other Side of the Wind come from a range of different approaches to acting, yet the performances are generally superb and seamlessly interwoven. It’s great to see faces from earlier Welles films like Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane) and Mercedes McCambridge (Touch of Evil) mingling with younger talent, relative unknowns and amateurs like McBride, and there are especially fine performances from Bogdanovich, Strasberg, Lilli Palmer and former Welles associate Norman Foster. But the laurels surely go to Huston, whose playing of Hannaford is perhaps the most extraordinary performance of his career – even finer, I’d say, than his Noah Cross in Chinatown, not only because it involves considerably more screen time but because it is, in the end, more subtly shaded. As written and played, Hannaford – a mix, seemingly, of Hemingway, Huston himself and various Welles characters from Kane to Quinlan, Prince Hal to Mr Clay – may be monstrous in many ways, but he is never simply a monster. The portrait of Hannaford on the last day of his life on earth has real depth – and: real humanity, in all its messy complexity. He was, evidently, some kind of a man.
The Other Side of the Wind plays at selected Curzon cinemas until Thursday 8 November. It can now also be seen on Netflix.