We’ll never actually see Orson Welles’ final film The Other Side of the Wind, no more than we’ll ever actually see Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) or Touch of Evil (1958). But whereas the latter two were taken out of Welles’ hands by nervous studio heads and re-edited behind his back, the story of The Other Side of the Wind is far more tragic: he was never actually able to finish it. Begun in 1970 after a two-decade self-imposed exile in Europe, Welles labored on the film off-and-on for fifteen years until his death by heart attack in 1985, leaving the film intended to be his great Hollywood comeback incomplete. In-between those years is one of the strangest production stories in the annals of American cinema: tumultuous casting conflicts necessitating the reshooting of huge chunks of the film after actors stormed off set; financing issues including, but not limited to, shady investors suddenly vanishing with suitcases of Welles’ budget; and a dizzying legal battle over the completed footage involving the Shah of Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini. But this is not an article about the making of The Other Side of the Wind. Those interested in its background would do well to seek out Morgan Neville’s illuminative documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. This is, instead, a review of the film itself. But not Welles’ film—we can never actually have that. What we have instead is a labor of love, a film dutifully cobbled together by Welles’ remaining devotees and acolytes from the near 100 hours of footage he’d left behind. We’ll never know what Welles’ version might have been like. But at the very least this film gives us a glimpse.
The Other Side of the Wind is actually two films, the first a proto-found footage mockumentary examining the last day of the life of aging Hollywood director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) before his mysterious death in a car accident that may, or may not, have been suicide. Flanked by a small army of reporters, critics, assistants, biographers, and actors (all wielding cameras from which the footage making up this film was supposedly taken), he leaves the set of his final film, an experimental art thriller throbbing with gratuitous sex, and heads to his seventieth birthday party at the Arizona ranch of his close friend Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer). Once there, he screens what little completed footage of the film he’s managed to shoot and edit, prospectively to scrounge up “end money” from studio heads and potential investors. He’s particularly desperate for funds following the sudden departure of his leading man Oscar “John” Dale (Bob Random), a silent pretty-boy Jim Morrison-type he fished out off the ocean following a suicide attempt. But one-by-one the projectors fail and the power goes out, stranding Hannaford and his army of hangers-on in an existential downward spiral as they get increasingly drunk, depressed, and desperate.
This first film is dominated by various personalities intended as stand-ins for the people in Welles’ life, most notably his real-life friend and disciple Peter Bogdanovich as Brooks Otterlake, an up-and-coming director who serves as Hannaford’s confidant. Elsewhere there’s Susan Strasberg as Juliette Riche, a venomous film critic explicitly modeled on Pauline Kael who correctly diagnoses Hannaford’s macho posturing as camouflage for closeted homosexuality. (It’s important to note that while there are several journalists and critics in the film, all amalgams of prominent 70s film personalities, only Kael gets the one-to-one treatment, a fact made all the more queasy by Riche’s openly hostile and misogynist treatment at the hands of the other characters. This climaxes in a scene where Hannaford/Welles punches Riche/Kael in the face.) Even Palmer is a stand-in for Welles’ friend Marlene Dietrich, who’d earlier cameoed in Welles’ film Touch of Evil. The central birthday party is a who’s-who of directorial cameos including New Hollywood legends Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky and French New Wave luminary Claude Chabrol. Dennis Hopper also makes a brief appearance bemoaning the state of his career and explaining how he wants to make a picture that’ll draw in the “John Wayne audience.”
The second movie is Hannaford’s aborted project which appears as the film-within-a-film. Openly quoting the movies of European directors like Michelangelo Antonioni, it consists of little more than John Dale following after a mysterious mute woman enigmatically referred to as “The Actress,” played by Welles’ lover Oja Kodar. As they weave in and out of deserted city streets, barren landscapes, and crowded sex clubs, it becomes apparent that the film is Welles’ parody of 60s and 70s art cinema that elevated stillness to high art and boredom to an act of political radicalism. Unlike the Hannaford segments which demonstrate Welles’ late-career fondness for rapid-fire editing—at a panel following the NYFF premier of The Other Side of the Wind, Bogdanovich mentioned that as he grew older Welles changed from a cinematographer’s director to an editor’s director—these segments revel in longer static takes that emphasis emptiness born of visual negative space and stone-faced performances. The acting is particularly understated, if not nonexistent: Bob Random is little more than a blank face and a pair of eyes, Oja Kodar little more than a bare ass and a pair of breasts. (Kodar reportedly filmed the more explicit scenes of sex and nudity herself, as Welles was far too bashful.) The two exceptions are a bathroom orgy and a backseat sex scene between Random and Kodar which stand alongside the Pablo Picasso epilogue in F for Fake (1973) as the finest sequences Welles ever edited. The backseat sex scene was such a revelation that a visibly envious Martin Scorsese muttered during the aforementioned NYFF panel “Not bad…not bad…” It’s worth pointing out that the film-within-a-film sequences were largely completed by Welles himself before his death, giving us the clearest look into what The Other Side of the Wind might have been.
But what of the movie as a whole? It is, in so many words, hopelessly dated, unapologetically indulgent, occasionally inspired. There will always be a certain audience that will cling to The Other Side of the Wind simply for its legendary status as Welles’ lost film. There will also be a certain audience that will never be able to look beyond its repugnant racial and sexual politics, particularly its treatment of Riche/Kael and Kodar. (Despite being Croatian-Hungarian, Kodar’s character is Native American and subsequently exoticized as a hyper-sexualized racial other. She’s never given a name; in fact, she’s only ever referred to in the film by racial slurs like “Minnehaha” and “Pocahontas.” She’s also almost perpetually naked, and in her nakedness demonstrates no active agency for herself other than as a passive sex doll for Hannaford/Welles to adore.) Finally, there will also always be a small army of cineastes who will treasure the film as a pure cinematic exercise of style and form, as even in his twilight years Welles could write/direct/edit circles around his contemporaries. Are any of these sides correct?
In truth, all these perspectives have merit. Yet none draw attention to perhaps the film’s single greatest flaw: it’s interminably gloomy, nasty, and exhausting. At the halfway point when Valeska’s cameras fail and the power goes out, the film pulls the drag-chute and ruins all its foreword momentum with a slog of dreary conversations between dreary people sitting in dreary rooms. The film’s subpar audio exacerbates the problem, making the dialogue sound at times like it was recorded either in a tin-can or in a cave. Without the benefit of subtitles, it’s easy for the mind to wonder into la la land as all the talking melts into a dull, indistinguishable susurrus.
The Other Side of the Wind was both Welles’ last ditch effort to win the fame and recognition he knew he deserved as one of the great geniuses of Western cinema. Yet it’s also a meticulous bridge-burning as it savagely attacks the industry that abused him, the critics who misunderstood him, and most shockingly, the disciples who loved him. It’s an odd combination of acerbic sadism towards the world and vicious masochism towards himself. No matter how much he may have denied it during his life, Welles was Hannaford. And though there was certainly more to Welles than his blustery, arrogant exterior, this film gives us a look into his more primal hatreds and basest cravings for attention, sex, and recognition.
Who knows how Welles’ version would have been like if he’d completed it himself. As The Immortal Story (1968) proves, even Welles didn’t have a perfect directorial track record, so the possibility remains that it could’ve been a train wreck. In a strange way, Welles’ dying removes him from complete culpability over the film we have now before us. But it doesn’t excuse the film from being tired, tedious, and insensitive. It could’ve been better, it could’ve been worse. But this is the one we have. And despite everything, it’s a disappointment.