Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Director Spotlight #14 Sidetrack: Orson Welles' Unfinished Projects

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: Incomplete

More than almost any other great director, Orson Welles left behind him a wealth of unrealized, unfinished, and unreleased projects. Citizen Kane gave Welles a reputation as a man whose vision was too ambitious and audacious for Hollywood, but to some degree this was true even before Kane. Welles’ first film project, which he planned to film in 1939, was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness. Welles’ vision would make revolutionary use not only of long takes, but also POV: the whole film was to be seen from Marlow’s perspective. Welles was to voice Marlow and likely play Kurtz, with the Mercury Theatre Players filling in the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, RKO-Radio Pictures balked at the cost and pulled the plug.  Welles would have another false start on the more modest thriller The Smiler with the Knife (based on the novel by Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel Day-Lewis) before moving on to his masterful debut.

Welles would have plenty of problematic productions in the 1940s, from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Lady from Shanghai, but none more catastrophic than It’s All True. Conceived as a film made up of a mixture of fact (footage of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval) and fiction (the re-enactment of four fishermen’s dangerous journey on the sea, starring the real fishermen), the project was part of the Good Neighbor policy, a wartime effort meant to persuade Latin and South America to stay on the Allied side. Welles spent several months filming It’s All True while RKO re-edited The Magnificent Ambersons against his will. The production was beset with problems: RKO changed management, the project’s costs skyrocketed, and one of the men in the fishermen was killed when he fell off the boat during filming. RKO canceled production and requisitioned the remaining footage. Welles tried to find financing to complete the film, but to no avail. What remains can be viewed in the documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.

Welles spent most of the rest of his life scrambling for money, and some of his projects never wound up being more than experimental shorts. For example, there’s Magic Trick, a perfectly-OK documentation of Welles’ magic skills. There’s also Vienna, an odd experimental series of skits that concludes with an utterly bizarre appearance by Mickey Rooney. Less successful still is One Man Band, a short that takes Welles’ versatility and turns it into an unfunny one-note joke (the segment available on YouTube is interminable). Oddly, the most affecting of Welles’ short films is the least assuming. The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh is little more than Welles’ recitation of a Lindbergh speech, but its dedication of Welles’ dying friend Bill Cronshaw (not to mention Welles’ impending death) makes it a worthwhile little monologue.
Welles also took a number of stabs at television fame, some more successful than others. The 1955 BBC miniseries Orson Welles’ Sketch Book makes good use of Welles’ storytelling gifts in the simplest way: by having Welles talk to the camera while sketching, which he introduces in a rather droll fashion. Welles did even better work in 1958 with the TV pilot The Fountain ofYouth, a Peabody Award-winning story with an O. Henry-style flavor. It’s easily his niftiest television work, and it’s particularly valuable as a precursor to F for Fake. Pity that not all of Welles’ television work is as worthwhile: Portrait of Gina and Aroundthe World are diverting but forgettable travelogues, and Welles himself admitted that 1979’s The Orson WellesShow was a misconceived attempt at talk-show fame.

Welles never completely abandoned the theatre, though it was often a jumping-off point for his planned films. That’s the case for Chimes at Midnight, and it would have been the case for 1955’s Moby Dick- Rehearsed. The ingenious concept saw a theatre troupe planning on putting on a production of King Lear, only to be forced to improvise a production of Moby Dick. Welles filmed much of the project but wasn’t completely satisfied with it, although those who saw it were quite impressed. The film was lost when Robert Shaw, who was staying in Welles’ Madrid home, set fire to the only known copy while he was drunkenly sleeping in bed. Welles also filmed around 20 minutes of another version in 1971, this time with Welles playing every part, but this was never released.

Shortly after Welles wrapped production on Touch of Evil, he moved onto his passion project Don Quixote. The film would follow Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as men transported to the modern day. Welles had to stop production multiple times to find funding, and the production dragged from 1957 to 1969. Welles was heartbroken that he never had the chance to finish the film, which he never completely gave up on. Filmmaker Jesus Franco (Welles’ Second Unit Director on Chimes at Midnight) would complete an edit in 1992, but that version was universally reviled.

The late 1960s saw Welles barely getting a chance to finish films at all. 1967’s The Heroine, based on the short story by Isak Dinesen, was to be a companion-piece to Welles’ The Immortal Story, but Welles quit filming after one day after he ran into trouble with the Hungarian film crew and a questionable price for the day’s filming. Welles moved on to the more commercial venture The Deep, based on the novel by Charles Williams. The production was plagued with problems, and was unfinished when lead actor Laurence Harvey died of stomach cancer. Welles did get a chance to complete a film version of The Merchant of Venice in 1969, but two reels of the film were stolen shortly after a preview screening, and it is unlikely the film will ever be finished.

Welles only released two films in the 1970s: the documentary/essay-film F for Fake and Filming Othello, about Welles’ struggles completing the Bard’s tale of jealousy. Welles planned a similar documentary, Filming The Trial, but only had a chance to finish a Q&A session that would have made up part of the film. More interesting were Welles’ late-period collaborations with Oja Kodar, his late-period muse, lover, and collaborator on F for Fake. Welles and Kodar co-wrote The Dreamers, based on a pair of Karen Blixen stories. Welles never found financing for the film, but the entire screenplay is now available for the reading pleasure of Welles fans all over the world.

Finally, there’s The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ planned comeback film about a struggling director (John Huston) planning a comeback with a new sex-filled film. The project was many things: ambitious commentary on Welles’ own situation, cynical portrait of 1970s Hollywood, and a sign that Welles was willing to experiment in his later years. Welles did finish filming The Other Side of the Wind, but his project ran into trouble after he made the unwise decision to go to the Shah of Iran’s brother for funding. When the Shah was overthrown, the Iranian government seized the footage before eventually relinquishing it. Welles’ daughter, Beatrice, has also been a major obstacle. Beatrice Welles is famously unhappy over her father’s relationship with Kodar, which she blames for the breakup of her parents’ marriage, and now threatens litigation against any attempt Kodar or Welles’ other associates make to release the man’s films (this is why the superior edit of 1952’s Othello is so difficult to find).

The film has a complicated legal history to the point where it’s hard to know whether Beatice Welles is still threatening to sue should the film see completion (you’d think the fact that her father, one of the greatest directors who ever lived, has one more film to show the world would convince her otherwise). But Kodar has tried many times to bring the film’s completion to fruition, and Welles’ friend Peter Bogdanovich (who co-starred in Wind) is trying like hell to finish the film. Here’s hoping.
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