Director: Orson Welles
Cast: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich
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“We’ll have our own movie. A real movie!” cries someone on set during The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’ legendary final film. It began production in Los Angeles during the summer of 1970. It finished post-production almost exactly 48 years later – and even then, the word “finished” doesn’t feel like it can apply.
Welles, who for years had been something of an outcast in Hollywood, saw The Other Side as his shot at a comeback – one last demonstration of his grandeur behind the camera, a chance to leave behind a legacy on the screen. The result is a dizzyingly ambitious work, as groundbreaking as Citizen Kane in its attempt to reshape and define narrative cinema for the future: his film is a movie about a movie, combining vivid colour photography with black-and-white, behind-the-scenes footage, a mash-up of fictional filmmaking and faux off-set disputes that doesn’t feel all that out of place in today’s cinema. The arrogant director of the titular non-project, one Jake Hannaford (John Huston), is even followed by countless journalists and hangers-on with cameras and microphones, as each one seeks to capture their own truth of events.
The movie’s plot, to use the term as loosely as possible, sees the crew of this film-within-in-a-film descend upon Hannaford’s villa for his 70th birthday party, a celebration that extends into the bawdy early hours of the morning. It’s shot like a documentary by DoP Gary Graver, whose frantic visuals leave Welles’ signature expressionistic compositions long behind. The more stately shots we do get, from Hannaford’s in-progress work, instead are full of nudes, smoky landscapes and moody deserts – Welles’ own apparent nod to the French New Wave.
But his satire is aimed just as squarely at Hollywood, and he stuffs the screen full of impressive faces, from Dennis Hopper, Cameron Mitchell and Curtis Harrington to Joseph McBride as a pretentious academic and even a critic inspired by Pauline Kael (played by Susan Strasberg). At the heart of it all is Huston, whose imperious, self-important veteran barks bile-laden dialogue with lip-smacking relish, each line more politically incorrect than the last – it’s quickly clear we’re not meant to admire him, just as it’s clear Welles is having far too much fun centering his scabrous swan-song around a figure who appears to resemble himself.
To blur boundaries further, Hannaford is contrasted by a loyal yet up-and-coming director, Brooks Otterlake – played by Welles’ real life confidante, Peter Bogdanovich. It’s a shame that their dynamic isn’t milked for real drama; Welles’ scrapbook of scathing insults and sour destruction is too haphazard to build up a real head of steam. Tellingly, one of the most memorable sequences is an erotic sex scene that fixates on a necklace of beads bouncing back and forth around the neck of Oja Kodar (Welles’ longtime partner, also credited as co-writer), and it’s the propulsion and dynamism of that sequence that comes to define this patchwork piece of cinema, more concerned with mood than plot. The mood, it goes without saying, is set firmly to “bitter”, but the team restoring the project (including producer Frank Marshall) smartly recruit Michael Legrand to match Welles’ impatient urgency with a vibrant jazz score that smooths the cracks between the unscripted scenes.
“What’s it supposed to mean?” asks someone halfway through, and you wonder whether that’s an input from the present day edit or a remnant of Welles’ original, anarchic vision. Indeed, the hysterical declaration of having “our own movie” that erupts partway through feels just as much a claim by Netflix’s fledgling film studio as it does a defiant cry from a director charging back into Hollywood like he’s never been away. As an experiment out of time, there’s as much fascination here as there is frustration; the dated distaste and brilliant ambition collide in ways that are often uninvolving but always surprising – a juxtaposition that’s all too apt for a cinephile’s dream that has only been completed with the support of a streaming service.
As the kaleidoscopic rollercoaster picks up speed, you find yourself with no idea where on earth this reinvigorated filmmaker might go next – a chaotic farce that acts as a prelude to the farcical tragedy of Welles’ failed attempts to finish the thing. The result isn’t something to fall in love with, but you’ll be glad it exists. It’s romantically fitting, then, that a feeling of closure should still elude us, just as it did him for so many years; the thought that this angry whirlwind of an opus might only have made sense with Welles still among us is, perhaps, a legacy the director would have smirkingly enjoyed.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a documentary about the making of The Other Side of the Wind is also available on Netflix. Read our interview with its director, Morgan Neville.
The Other Side of the Wind is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
This review was originally published at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018.