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Sunday 20 October 2019

Orson Welles' final film: a tale of rows and a revolution

A recent row between Netflix and Cannes is just the latest in a long list of controversies linked to 'The Other Side of the Wind', the completion of which is being funded by Netflix almost 50 years after its inception, writes our film critic

Final call: Huston, Welles and Bogdanovich on the set of The Other Side of the Wind
Final call: Huston, Welles and Bogdanovich on the set of The Other Side of the Wind
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Cannes kicks off on Tuesday, but without any input from Netflix, who withdrew their films from the festival last month after an angry spat with the organisers. The festival, and the French film industry, insist only movies that have been given a theatrical release in their territory are eligible for Cannes, while Netflix do not seem to believe in the concept of theatrical release at all. All of which is no doubt to be continued, but the saddest victim of this row is a new film from Orson Welles.

Welles began shooting The Other Side of the Wind almost 50 years ago: a tricky and experimental satire about a bullish film director who rages against the dying of the light, it was intended to mark Orson's triumphant return to Hollywood after decades of peripatetic exile. But it didn't work out that way.

Midway through shooting, the film got bogged down in a dispute over funding. Production was halted in 1975, and Welles was still fitfully editing it when he died of a heart attack a decade later. As legal wrangles dragged on, the original negative lay mouldering in a Parisian vault for decades before Orson's old friend Peter Bogdanovich gained access to the print and reported that it was in great condition.

After several attempts to edit and restore the film, Netflix stepped in to fund completion of The Other Side of the Wind, for a premiere on the streaming site.

Not at Cannes though, which would surely have been the most appropriate venue. Instead it will appear with a blip but without fanfare on Netflix, accompanied by a Morgan Neville documentary on its making.

Another documentary, The Eyes of Orson Welles, by British documentarian Mark Cousins will feature though, appearing in this year's Cannes Classics sidebar.

Orson, however, would surely have been amused by the fact that, even 30-odd years after his death, his unlucky film continues to inspire bitter disputes.

He started it with such high hopes. By 1969, Welles had been wandering through Spain, France, Italy and the Balkans for 20-odd years, living in hotels and taking on dodgy parts in bad films to finance his own projects. Some of them, like Othello, Macbeth and Touch of Evil (completed during a brief and unhappy return to the US in the 1950s) had been very good, and some critics go so far as to suggest that his 1965 mash-up of Shakespeare's history plays, Chimes at Midnight, is his real masterpiece. But the strain of making them in fits and starts while mired in constant debt had taken a heavy toll on Orson: he was tired, and wanted to return to the place where film making had, in some senses, been easiest.

Late 1960s Hollywood seemed ripe for a Welles revival. It was in the midst of being taken over by a new breed of young and daring auteurs who would radically reshape mainstream film-making. Arthouse experimentation was in, and Orson had practically invented it.

The idea for The Other Side of the Wind had come to him years before, shortly after the suicide of his sometime friend Ernest Hemingway. He wrote a draft called 'Sacred Beasts' about an ageing bullfighter who forms an ambiguous bond with a young protégé. When he returned to California in 1969, the bullfighter became a film director, allowing Orson to expand his film into a playful critique of the industry that had invented and half-destroyed him.

Filming began in 1970, after Welles had cast his old friend John Huston as Jake Hannaford, the bullying monomaniac at the centre of the movie.

Hannaford, desperate to be taken seriously by his peers, has made a slow-moving, pompous art movie which appears in long excerpts in Welles' film and was intended as a pastiche of Antonioni. But at a party for his 70th birthday, Hannaford's guests mock him behind his back, while he himself pursues an actor he's obsessed with and is pursued by a shrewish film journalist who was surely modelled on Pauline Kael, not a critic dear to Orson's heart.

Welles shot those party scenes boldly and brilliantly, arming his guests with 8mm cameras to allow for multiple perspectives. By 1972, he claimed that "96pc" of the film was in the can, but as usual he was spoofing, and principal photography didn't conclude until January, 1976.

By that point, unfortunately, other problems had arisen. Though his experiences as a guerilla auteur in Europe had taught him to shoot fast and make do, Orson had always been terrible with money. And while initially he'd used his and his partner Oja Kodar's money to fund the shoot, he was eventually forced to find other backers.

The film's co-producer, Dominique Antoine, began negotiations with an Iranian businessman, who turned out to be the Shah's brother-in-law. A Spanish associate would be the go-between, and the Iranians agreed to front up $250,000. But as the months passed and the Spaniard kept coming back empty handed, even the financially gullible Welles began to smell a rat.

That greedy go-between is alleged to have been the producer Andrés Vicente Gómez, who has always denied making off with the Iranian dough. Whatever happened to it, Welles was left without the money to edit his film in the complex and expensive way he'd wanted. And in 1979, when the Shah of Iran was deposed, the Ayatollah's revolutionary government claimed ownership of the only complete and pristine print. So did the French government, which would have been more inclined to return it to Orson, but instead a messy stalemate left the film - and its maker - in limbo.

I remember as a child seeing a fat man dressed in black wander across the screen of our Telefunken muttering amiably about sherry. "Who is he?" I asked my dad. "Orson Welles," he said. I sought no clarification.

In the last decade of his life, Orson became a show pony, doing TV ads and turning up on chat shows to tell tall tales about his film-making adventures. He chewed cigars and wore a Mephisto beard and seemed like a parody of the genius artist. And all the while, he tinkered away at an incomplete print of the film he hoped would eventually see the light of day.

Peter Bogdanovich, who put him up in his Beverly Hills mansion for two years and would become a kind of Saint Peter to Orson's Jesus, later said that Welles once made him promise that, if he died, the young director would do all in his power to ensure that The Other Side of the Wind was completed and released.

Bogdanovich cannot have known how very long that would take, but must now be immensely satisfied with the large part he played in saving the film. But Welles never got to see it play, and must have worried that it would join the long list of projects he'd started and left unfinished.

Incredibly, for a man who started his directing career at 25, Orson Welles only completed 13 features. He was an arrogant, grandiose character, not always easy to deal with, but Hollywood did a terrible job of it. The brilliance with which he'd shot to fame by co-writing, directing, producing and starring in the instant masterpiece Citizen Kane was never forgotten, also never forgiven, and from the very start, Tinseltown was brimming with enemies keen to see him fail.

In 1970, when Orson was given a lifetime achievement Oscar by the Academy, John Huston took to the stage at the Oscars to accept it in his colleague's stead. "I'll drop this off to Orson in Spain on my way back to Ireland," Huston said. But Welles was a couple of miles away, in Beverly Hills, hiding out but probably watching, complexed as ever about what Hollywood thought of him. It would ignore Welles pointedly until the bitter end.

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