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Orson Welles and the great film he never got to finish

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Thrilling: Orson Welles on the set of Citizen Kane.

Thrilling: Orson Welles on the set of Citizen Kane.

Everett Collection

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

Orson Welles and Charlton Hestin in a Touch of Evil.

Orson Welles and Charlton Hestin in a Touch of Evil.

Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now

Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now

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Thrilling: Orson Welles on the set of Citizen Kane.

About six months back we all got in a flap about the discovery and re-release of Orson Welles' first experimental feature film, Too Much Johnson, a surreal, slapstick comic drama that had been lost for years and shed new light on Welles' early fascination with cinema. Now comes the even more exciting possibility that his last film may finally get to see the light of day.

When Orson Welles died in 1985, he was still working to wrest his last great epic The Other Side of the Wind free from a nasty legal dispute and get it released. He failed, and ever since a daunting pile of 1,000 movie reels filmed as long ago as 1971 have been gathering dust in an obscure Parisian suburb, mired in lawsuits involving Welles' daughter, Beatrice, his last wife Oja Kodar and a backer who also happened to be the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran.

It's a classic Welles-ian post-production mess, and typical of the kind of shady deals and odd arrangements he had to resort to to get his films financed in the latter half of his career. And in fact The Other Side of the Wind has a strong biographical component that dramatises the great director's struggles: it stars John Huston as an ageing, maverick film-maker attempting to stage a comeback.

Now it looks as though we may finally get to see the movie, as a Los Angeles production company called Royal Road Entertainment announced that it had reached agreement with the warring parties and would be buying the film's rights. The next step if all goes smoothly will be to ship the reels to California, where Welles' friend and biographer Peter Bogdanovich will attempt a daunting restoring and editing job.

As a young Bogdanovich actually appears in the film, the experience is bound to be an emotional one for him. And he's against the clock, because the plan is to release the film in May, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Welles' birth.

The Other Side of the Wind is one of the most celebrated movies never to have been completed, and film critics and historians are very excited about the prospect of finally getting to see it. Josh Karp, who's writing a book about it, said recently that "this is like finding the Land of Oz or some lost tomb - it's become so mythical because of all the failures to finish it and the players involved". But of course the problem is, how on earth will the actual film manage to live up to all this hype?

It's a problem Orson Welles was all too familiar with, because every single film he finished was always compared to his first.

Orson's mother had been telling him he was a genius since he was two, and when he arrived in Hollywood in 1939 everyone there told him the same. He'd made his name in New York with a string of remarkable stage productions as well as his terrifying 1938 broadcast based on H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. RKO were so impressed with Welles that they gave him total control of the final cut of his first feature film.

Citizen Kane would revolutionise film-making, as the 25-year-old Welles tore up the rulebook and invented a raft of daring new techniques in order to tell his story of a megalomaniac newspaper publisher. It was the most extraordinary cinematic début ever, but it intimidated audiences and, more importantly, fell foul of a vindictive William Randolph Hearst.

The newspaper magnate thought, quite rightly, that Kane had been based on him, and used all his power to attack the film. And when Citizen Kane failed to make a dent at the box office, Hollywood quietly decided that Orson wasn't worth the effort.

His second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which might have been another masterpiece, was hacked to bits by the studio while Welles was away in Brazil making a film to support the war effort. And the few remaining films he made in Hollywood through the 1940s met a similar fate.

His vastly underrated 1946 thriller, The Stranger was a paranoid film noir in which he starred as a Nazi fugitive hiding out in a small American town. But in making it Welles was forced into compromises by RKO, including the casting of glamour-puss Loretta Young in the lead female role. And he worked under the constant threat of having to foot the bill if he went over budget.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) is now considered a minor masterpiece, and is full of typical Welles flourishes like the famous hall of mirrors sequence at the end. But the film we know is not the one its director intended: he made it for Columbia Pictures, whose boss Harry Cohn took an hour out of Welles' final cut, and butchered the mirrors climax so badly that Orson could never bear to look at it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Lady from Shanghai flopped at the box office.

Macbeth was the last straw. In 1947 Welles had persuaded Republic Pictures to finance a low-budget version of Shakespeare's tragedy, which he shot in 23 days on abandoned sets originally used for westerns. With typical highhanded vision, Welles substantially cut and re-organised the play to make it more cinematic, and its brooding visual aesthetic was reminiscent of Citizen Kane. Working fast on a low budget, he hoped Macbeth would finally debunk the notion that he was a profligate and capricious director.

It's a very fine film, an extraordinary and gleefully excessive adaptation of a very strange play, but surprise, surprise, the good folks at Republic hated it. They delayed its release for over a year after middle-American audiences reacted negatively to the film's dark look and the Scottish burrs Welles and his cast had affected. They got him to cut 20 minutes off it and rerecord some of the soundtrack. It flopped.

By the time it came out, Orson Welles had left Hollywood to wander Europe, picking up acting jobs to finance his next grand project. And over the next decade or so he was ridiculed back home as a shambling gypsy who squandered his great talent by appearing in hack movies that should have been beneath him.

He did act in bad films during his European period, like Prince of Foxes, The Black Rose and Sacha Guitry's shambling biopic, Napoleon. But he also starred in a few good ones, like The Third Man and John Huston's Moby Dick. And what his detractors back in Hollywood failed to realise was that he poured every cent back into his often self-financed arthouse projects, like his 1952 adaptation of Othello.

Welles spent four years making Othello, stopping and starting production as and when he earned more money from acting, and spending vast sums putting up his cast and crew in fancy hotels around Europe and North Africa. His old comrade from Dublin's Gate Theatre, Micheal MacLiammoir, co-starred as the scheming Iago, and Welles was often forced to improvise with his bargain basement budget, for instance filming an entire scene in a sauna because the costumes hadn't arrived yet.

He did so quite brilliantly, and the finished film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1952. But it didn't get a release in America for another three years, and when it did was largely ignored. So was his next film, Mr. Arkadin (1955), a dark psychological thriller starring Welles himself as a multimillionaire businessman and socialite with a shocking secret past. It was an intriguing film, full of interesting possibilities. But the film's producer, Louis Dolivet, became incensed by Welles's slow editing, fired him and finished the film (badly) himself.

In 1956, Orson returned to Hollywood ostensibly to work on a project for Lucille Ball's production company Desilu. He began picking up acting work, and in 1958 was given one last chance to direct a major Hollywood production. Accounts differ about how Welles ended up directing the Universal potboiler Touch of Evil, though it's likely that the film's star Charlton Heston persuaded the studio to hire the great man.

For Welles, it was a chance to prove himself once and for all as a commercial director, and he enjoyed the challenge of turning a hack thriller into something special. He extensively rewrote the original script, encouraged his stars Heston and Janet Leigh to improvise, and persuaded old friends like Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Cotton to appear in resonant cameos.

He completed the film on time and under budget, and the rough cut of Touch of Evil was full of fantastically imaginative touches, like the gripping opening scene involving a bomb, a car trunk and a Mexican parade, and the harrowing moments when Leigh is terrorised by a sadistic gang. Welles was convinced his Hollywood career was back on track, but yet again, luck was not on his side. Universal just didn't get it, and substantially re-edited and re-shot the film. They then released it as a B-picture.

Orson returned to Europe, but amazingly, did not give up on cinema. In 1962 he released The Trial, a remarkably vivid and paranoid adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel. And in 1965 he managed to finish Chimes at Midnight, a brilliant and audacious retelling of Shakespeare's history plays starring Welles himself as a magnificently corpulent Falstaff. Critics hated it, but Orson considered it his best film of all.

Then, in 1969, came The Other Side of the Wind, the grand, doomed project that would dominate Welles' thoughts for the rest of his life and prove his last great disappointment. I wonder if he believed it would one day see the light of day.

The films Welles never made

Throughout his life, Orson Welles chased a series of grandly ambitious projects that never materialised. Before he started on Citizen Kane, Welles planned to film Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness. Sets were designed and built, and an opening sequence survives that offers a tantalising glimpse of the film it might have become. But the studio baulked at his lavish budgetary estimate, and the idea was permanently shelved. Ironically, Francis Coppola wanted Welles for the part of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, which was also based on Heart of Darkness.

Through the 1960s, he chased chimerical plans for a film of Don Quixote, shooting scenes and assembling a glittering international cast that afterwards proved difficult to reassemble. The project was eventually abandoned in 1969 when his leading man, Francisco Reiguera, died. And in 1970 he began filming The Other Side of the Wind, which as we know never saw the light of day either. But Welles smuggled a partial print out of Paris in 1975, and spent the rest of his life lovingly editing it.

Indo Review