Other Side of the Wind, The: Film History’s Debt to Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ troubled feature, The Other Side of the Wind, which was in production for 15 years, and then went into a limbo for four decades, was finally restored (in the best manner possible) and publicly unveiled, courtesy of Netflix (who else?), as a special event of the 2018 Venice Film Fest.

As expected, the press press showing of Welle’s last, unfinished until now, was packed, with very high expectations going into the screening.

Netflix will release the film in limited theatrical format on November 2, before streaming it to its millions of viewers all over the world, many of whom have never heard of this film–or of Welles, for that matter.

In 1970, Welles returns to Hollywood after 15 years of exile, hoping to make a splashy comeback with.  It didn’t work that way for the genius director, who at age 26 made what’s considered the best American film, Citizen Kane.

This was followed by another great film, The Magnificent Ambersons, in 1942 (my favorite Welles movie), which was released in truncated version, after losing more than 40 minutes in the post-production cutting process.

Form the start, he was Hollywood’s enfant terrible, recognized as brilliant but “difficult” filmmaker, which led to his exile and status as martyred victim.

Shot in an unconventional style in both color and black-and-white, Welles’ satire contains a narrative-within narrative, replete with references to both Classic Hollywood Cinema and Avant-Garde European Art Film, specifically Antonioni’s films, Blow-Up and Zabriskie’s Point.  The presence of real-life directors, American and foreign, representing a wide array of strategies and styles–from John Huston to Paul Mazursky to Claude Chabrol to Henry Jaglom–adds rich layers of self-reflexivity and intertextuality.

In this movie, John Huston plays Jake Hannaford, an aging, egomaniac Hollywood director (possibly modeled on Welles and Huston himself) who was killed in a car crash on his 70th birthday. (Ironically, Welles himself died in 1985, when he was 70!). Just before his death, Hannaford was trying to revive his career with a sensationalistic film containing gratuitous sex scenes and graphic violence.

At the time of Hannaford’s party, this trashy faux art picture, titled Other Side of the Wind, has been left unfinished after its star, John Daly, stormed off the set. A screening of some parts of the unfinished feature is arranged to get extra-financial backing from studio boss Max David. Since Hannaford is absent, former child star Billy Boyle makes an impossible effort to describe the film’s contents.  Intercut with the main thread are scenes about various groups setting out for Hannaford’s celebration at his Arizona ranch, including his young protégé and bright cineaste Otterlake (Bogdanovich), , and former lover and actress in his film, played by the lovely Lili Palmer.

Obnoxious reporter Mr. Pister is thrown out of Hannaford’s car after infuriating him. Stranded in the desert, he gets on a bus that takes crew members and journalists—including Mercedes McCambridge–to the party. Journalists are asking invasive questions about Hannaford’s bi-sexuality—in public, he displays macho persona a la Hemingway/Hawks/Fleming. Hannaford is also notorious for seducing his actors’ wives and girlfriends. Most notable is the absence of John Dale, the androgynous-looking, leather-clad star, whom Hannaford had discovered when he attempted suicide by jumping into the ocean.

Meanwhile scenes from the film are shown at a private screening room. Hannaford, drunk and out of control, breaks down, asking Otterlake’s help to revive his flagging career, desperately trying to sober up. A power outage interrupts the screening, but the party continues by lantern-light, eventually moving to empty drive-in Arizona.  When journalist Juliette Riche persists in asking irritating questions, the already angry director assaults her violently.

Numerous technicians and archivists have worked hard on the restoration to lend it coherence and meaning.  Occasionally, notes onscreen inform us about scenes and shots still missing.  End result is a sporadically involving, intermittently dazzling feature, but ultimately a mystery puzzle and curio item. I can only guess what the movie would have looked if Welles himself finished it. But I highly recommend that you see it: We spectators–and film history–owe this debt to one of world’s greatest filmmakers.