The Undead Orson Welles
From Citizen Kane to the other side of the grave: life, death, and afterlife on film.
While I was dallying with the dead in the aisles of The Strand and in the pages of the Aeneid, the undead were never far from my mind. More precisely, one representative thereof kept coming back to haunt me. That he — ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Orson Welles — was in fact the subject of the ten-year-old essay by A. S. Hamrah that had started the train of thought I’d climbed aboard seemed like a magic trick Welles himself might have relished. In any case, throughout the early months of 2019 I couldn’t scroll through my inbox without seeing several announcements from Netflix heralding the release of a new film by this man who had been dead since 1985. The movie in question was his ultimate unfinished work, The Other Side of the Wind, which, nearly a half-century after it had been begun, and then secreted by the director through years of gestation and creative indigestion, had been completed posthumously by acolytes and attendant financiers.
At the same time as Netflix was trumpeting The Other Side of the Wind, it was also promoting Morgan Neville’s documentary about its making, called, aptly enough, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (something Welles is alleged to have said at one point or another in his post-Citizen Kane exile from the land of the high living in Hollywood). While I’m not sure love is exactly what Welles has earned from beyond the grave — love takes a kind of intimacy he was loathe to exude or embrace — it does seem we can’t quite get him off our minds.
I’d read enough about the work in progress across the decades to know what The Other Side of the Wind was about, and how it went about pursuing what it was about. Nonetheless, watching it at long last proved to be a disorienting experience. In fact, if I hadn’t had the preparation of all that reading, I might have been at a complete loss. The film follows a band of celebrities, journalists, technicians, pretty people, pleasure seekers, and hangers on as they join a caravan to a house in the desert for the 70th birthday party of legendary director Jake Hannaford. As the movement, revelry, and violent melancholy swirls, it is being filmed by a documentary crew and recorded by a multitude of cameras and microphones, all on screen and in the way, a palpable distraction of media between us and the action, and between the characters and any sense of unmediated experience they may once have possessed.
Played by a haggard John Huston, the features of his face drooping with a sybaritic fatigue, Hannaford is running on the fumes of his wit and his experience, his creative exhaustion exhibited in the scenes from his current production that are screened at intervals in The Other Side of the Wind, in the midst of all the tawdry celebrating, for the partygoers and potential backers. The visually arresting — indeed, sometimes virtuosic — sequences of the film-within-a-film explore the emptiness of an Antonioni-like aesthetic landscape without enough emotional tension to illuminate the longueurs they lure the viewer into; watching them, one can’t quite tell if Welles’s tongue is in his cheek or stuck out at the audience. Even in the party sequences, a dazzle of movement and cutting and lights and angles — delivered in mixed-up footage shot on different gauges (Super 8, 16mm, 35mm) and in both color and black-and-white — is enervating; there is no real exposition: the viewer has to weave together the salient threads of the tale on the fly as the images accumulate in fleeting, fast-shuffled frames.
Imagine a story of Hollywood written by Norman Mailer and redacted into a screenplay by Joan Didion and you’ll get some idea of the illuminating force and penetrating preposterousness of the result, which concentrates the visual energy for at least three dozen brilliant films into two unsettling and often perplexing hours. As it approaches the end of its unwinding, about twenty-five minutes before the finish and for the next fifteen minutes or so, it concentrates that energy into a study of faces, some rendered in acute black-and-white and others in oversatuated, startling color, a gallery of portraits as telling as anything Welles ever filmed, in which his lifelong fascination with larger-than-life figures — Kane, Othello, Arkadin, Falstaff — is reduced to an intimacy he’d been avoiding from the start. These passing studies of the principals — Huston; Peter Bogdanovich as Hannaford’s protégé; Susan Strasberg as a hectoring, incisive critic; Lilli Palmer as the retired actress at whose home the party is held — and the splendid character actors Welles assembled over the years to minister to their story — Norman Foster, Tonio Selwart, Paul Stewart, Mercedes McCambridge — are revelatory in the disappointment, resignation, indulgence, and mortification they capture, the corruptions of flesh and fancy that are the ineluctable results of the spell of glamour the movies cast. It’s all there in Huston’s weathered face, worthy of late Rembrandt’s gaze; or in the plump, youthful face of Bogdanovich, illumined as if by some California Caravaggio; and especially in the poise of Lilli Palmer, shot in black-and-white and looking like a leading lady who could have carried both Casablanca and L’Eclisse, but had a deeper privacy to plumb.
It’s bracing to watch Citizen Kane again after the buffetings of The Other Side of the Wind. What struck me most this time was the narrative density of Welles’s celebrated debut. There’s more sheer story delivered in the first half-hour than most novelists could pack into a six-hundred-page fiction; the delivery is aided by the newsreel of Kane’s life that serves as an establishing shot for the dramatic elaborations that follow, but the effect of being presented a world entire, right from the start, is produced by more than that ingenious framing device. As the newsreel reporter sets out in search of the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud,” he pursues a tangled path through the memories of the dead man’s associates, presented to the viewer as flashback sequences, each with their own shape and style.
As the first of these flashbacks begins, summoned to the screen as the reporter turns the pages of the hand-written memoir of Walter Parks Thatcher, the banker who became Kane’s legal guardian when the boy became heir to a fortune, we’re swept up in a swirl of staged magic as expert as any the cinema has ever seen. The concise confidence of the scene-by-scene presentation of Kane’s uprooting from his family and exile into a world of privilege and incipient importance; the pace of the raveling of incident and character as Kane grows from boy playing in the Colorado snow to young man assuming cosmopolitan power like a plaything (“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!” fumes George Coulouris as Thatcher, mimicking his charge’s iconoclastic desire to take control of one of his smallest holdings in his portfolio, the New York Inquirer); the protagonist’s aging into middle-aged sobriety as the intoxications of youthful spirits wear off, presaging his final years of well-endowed, entitled decline — all of this is epitomized in quickly played interviews with Thatcher across the decades, conjured into careful images and crisp verbal exchanges, the latter jumping across time and space in a kind of antiphonal shorthand, underlining its wit and expository ingenuity.
The flashbacks that follow the Thatcher episodes, as the story of Kane’s life as public figure and private puzzle is told through the eyes of his business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his estranged, embittered best friend, Jedidiah Leland (Joseph Cotten), and his second wife, Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), reprise the flair of the early storytelling style (including a virtuosic exposé of Kane’s failed first marriage, in which six scenes over a breakfast table encapsulate years of misapprehension in a little over two minutes — even as the tale slows and darkens, eventually pooling in the empty shadows of Kane’s sad and cavernous mansion, Xanadu. Which is where, metaphorically speaking, The Other Side of the Wind starts, in the ruin of its own story, without Kane’s portmanteau of narrative rhetoric to tell it.
What Wind does have in abundance is visual rhetoric, a carpetbag full of devices collected by Welles in his years of budget-strapped, time-distended productions, their bricolage of cast and location held together only as a thought in the director’s mind until it found expression at an editing console. That the expression was sometimes fractured, like a magic trick in which the sleight of hand is clumsy enough to mar our infatuation with the performance, was the cost of Welles’s creative self-reliance, and the price audiences paid for experiencing the power of the abiding thought behind it.
By the time he got to — or, to be accurate — almost got to The Other Side of the Wind, his visual language was a patois of close-up and interruption, as if he were seeing the action depicted through a dozen sets of eyes. Just as we piece together the story by leaping over the elisions in its telling, so we establish scenes in time and space by assembling them from the disparate pieces of the rapidly montaged shots, their angles — and often enough their lighting and film stock — at odds with one another. Few shots occupy the screen for more than a moment; the rapid cutting and the jumps in color and illumination leave us edgy, uncertain. Pulling us along after him, Welles passes through the looking-glass of the movies, in which the machinations of two day’s start-and-stop filming are rendered into two minutes of seamless on-screen action, to make the art’s editing of reality the very experience of watching his film. If the cinema is truth twenty-four times a second, he tells us in The Other Side of the Wind, truth remains slippery, inscrutable; you put together the footage you have the best you can. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown,” he might as well intone, “And what strength I have’s mine own, / Which is most faint.” For all it’s faintness, it’s hard to look away.
For someone who first fell under the spell of Welles’s charms in Citizen Kane, with its layered concentration of narrative and the astonishing focus of its visual compositions, in which we can see deep into frames with no loss of sharpness, in which our our eyes are invited to penetrate the cinematic space and occupy it with a different kind of attention than films, generally speaking, had previously asked for, the experience of watching The Other Side of the Wind can be disconcerting, the accidental character of its aesthetic, however brilliant, a little suspicious. In Kane, of course, no such shortcomings were visible, because the technical arsenal at the director’s disposal required no shortcuts, and his ambition and inspiration were youthful enough to master any contingency.
Where the storytelling and visual continuity in The Other Side of the Wind is all elision, a culmination of the style Welles had invented for Othello, adapted for Mr. Arkadin, and finally made into a kind of artist’s statement in the essay-film F for Fake, in Kane he casually but carefully uses the animating elements of cinema — editing, aural montage, dialogue, depth of field — with such élan he makes them expressive in themselves, synthesizing a story out of all the discrete, exquisitely manicured narrative elements. No one had done this at such scale before, or made it such fun to watch.
His command of the medium, his ability to put it through new paces, was apparent as well in the shooting of his second Hollywood feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, if not so completely in the final product, which would be cut by nearly forty minutes and altered by the studio in more ways than one before the film’s release. All the technical prowess of Kane is on exhibit, displayed with even more poise in the narrative leisure that reflects the era invoked in the opening narration, spoken by Welles in his only acting contribution to the movie:
The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and everybody knew everybody else’s family horse-and-carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the “girl” what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried the less time we have to spare. But in those days they had time for everything, time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions, and open house on New Year’s, and all day picnics in the woods, and even that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade.
With that last sentence, we see — in an incident which we’ll learn soon enough drives hopeful romance off the rails — Joseph Cotten, in the character of Eugene Morgan, tripping over a bass fiddle in the nighttime street and making a fool of himself, not only in the eyes of his beloved, Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but in the reflection of herself, and their ill-starred love, that will come to shine in the eyes of her knowing neighbors.
Long ago, when I was in college, in an age in which such immersion in an old film took special effort, requiring not easy-to-come-by access to a print, a projector, and a screening room, I watched Ambersons so often in the short period it had been rented for our course that I could recite the entirety of Welles’s preamble, an arcane form of homage that did not endear me to any of my friends, who quickly grew tired of me launching into it for no apparent reason. In any case, the words that wormed their way into my memory then were culled, then recomposed to fit the director’s sense of style, from the first pages of the movie’s source, Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 novel of the same name, which Welles treats with respect in most particulars, even as he colors its tale with unexpected dimensions of mystery and sorrowful grandeur.
As in Kane, the first reels provide us with an enormous amount of information in a manner so concise in presentation, and so entertaining in delivery, that we barely notice how much we have been told. Indeed, the initial half-hour of the film, from the introductory tableaux with their playful introduction of the key characters, through the grand ball that lights up the Amberson mansion with an uncharacteristic liveliness (and one that will soon be extinguished), followed by the snow-cushioned ride, by horse-drawn sleigh and horse-drawn carriage, through an idyllic winter’s landscape, is as close to perfect as a movie is likely to get.
As the widower Eugene Morgan, once the young Isabel’s ardent suitor, rejected for the dull but predictable Wilbur Minafer, returns to the influence of the Amberson sphere for the ball at the mansion, with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) on his arm, the camera leads them, and us, through the front door and into the party, traversing the capacious interior in an intricately choreographed, gracefully flowing tracking shot that describes a physical setting in which there is more to see than we can take in; the visual movement escorts our attention through a meticulously realized imaginative space that is absorptive and expansive rather than defined by the camera’s frame or the characters in it, a world of deep focus that intimates the secret history of the house and the life of the family it holds.
The festive radiance of the party sequence gradually fades into the brilliant shadows of the goodnight moment in the front hall, with Isabel’s face caught in a cameo that occupies the screen with a kind of quivering longing as she bids Eugene adieu; never was a silhouette so tender and revealing. After Isabel and family — Wilbur (Don Dillaway); their entitled and insufferable college-age son George (Tim Holt), whose “comeuppance” will provide the story’s forward motion; Wilbur’s sister’s Fanny (brilliantly embodied by Agnes Moorehead), and Isabel’s brother Jack (Ray Collins) — climb the mansion’s ornate staircase to their bedrooms, their speech ricochets around the dark hallway in an aural collage alive with dramatic apprehension. The cadences of their spoken rhythms; the pitches of their distinct voices; the overlapping lines that seem to measure the invisible depths of the darkened hallway; the taunting, back-and-forth mimicry of Holt and Moorehead — each element of the sonic display is a bravura brushstroke in a searching portrait of family dynamics, emotions hidden and imploding all about. Where in Kane Welles used cinematic technique to expressive ends, in Ambersons he endows sight and sound themselves a kind of organic eloquence, an aura that intensifies what a plot can present in and of itself.
There’s one shot my mind dwells on whenever I think of Ambersons, because its visual simplicity is as striking as its emotional complexity is revealing. In one uninterrupted five minute take, static except for a slight pan right at the start and return pan left at the finish, Holt and Moorehead sit together at a table in the kitchen while he bolts a piece of strawberry shortcake and she plies him with questions about a recent excursion that included Eugene and Isabel (Fanny is increasingly jealous of the former’s attention to the latter). The deep focus tableau they inhabit is endlessly fascinating; the imaging of the background space before the foregrounded faces is so rich one can almost touch the oiled iron surfaces of the skillets hanging from the ceiling, encrusted with the flavors of time and family meals — so redolent with interest one is never certain where to look.
It’s a striking contrast to what audiences were accustomed to seeing on screens then, when shots were posed and cut to emphasize drama and direct our attention to it. And while the innovation of Welles and others in this regard were adopted by many other filmmakers in the decades since, the innovation seems to have outlived its utility, as filmmakers order frames with a purpose-built precision that hectors us with effects: Look here — now here — at him — at her. Our eyes are offered little choice within the frame, to say nothing of being allowed time to explore its contents. Every shot is a form of CGI, even when, technically, it isn’t: no life inside the frame, and none implied outside it. (The last formulation makes me think, as a contrast, of the chase scene in Renoir’s Rules of the Game, in which the action continually bursts out of the frame and, at one point, the camera pans rapidly right to pick up another thread of the pursuit, as if to say, “Wait, we can’t keep up with this.” Renoir once said, “When filming one must always leave one door open for reality.” That’s the same way the imagination is let in.)
Holding the camera nearly still on Tim Holt and Agnes Moorehead in the kitchen of the Amberson mansion, Welles gives our eyes, and all the understanding they inspire, freedom to wander in a way most directors didn’t then, and don’t now. The loss of that liberty of attention, and the deterioration of an art that tries to empower it, is a potent metaphor for what’s happening to the nature of our apprehension as it becomes more and more inured to the constraints of the prescriptive, predictive functions of the small-screen surveillance that now frames us, infiltrating every aspect of our intelligence across the borders of convenience.
The playful ride in the snow that follows the grand ball and concludes the first half-hour of Ambersons ends with a silent-movie iris out, a telescoping of the frame’s illumination to a circle of light that grows smaller and smaller until the screen goes black; it’s an old-fashion invocation of the end of an era. The next shot, cued by somber music, is of the mourning-dressed front door of the Amberson mansion catching Joseph Cotten’s shadow as Eugene and Lucy arrive there again, this time to pay their respects to the deceased Wilbur. A tracking shot observes mourners filing by the casket as they view the body; it’s punctuated by a close-up of the grief-stricken face of Agnes Moorehead, which sounds a chord of sorrow that was meant to be spun into a symphony of loss across the remaining span of the film, at least in Welles’s original conception.
But, after some unsuccessful public screenings in its rough cut of approximately 135 minutes, the film was chopped by the studio by roughly a third, destroying its symphonic development and shape. Strains of the music certainly remain, but in disjunctive, fragmented form; the newly shot, tacked-on happy ending seems to have been composed in another style entirely, and orchestrated on another planet.
When I first fell under the spell of Ambersons in college, I made my way to the Museum of Modern Art film library to study the shooting script, in search of the the continuity of vision that the finished film, for all its glories, clearly lost after the first few reels. And I found it: shots from the buoyant early portion of the film reprised through the empty rooms of the later sections like leitmotifs of imagery and camera movement; layers of resonance in action, dialogue, and narration carefully measured, ordered, and described; development of character and setting fully realized, on the page at least. (This was in 1975 or 1976, before publication of Robert L. Carringer’s marvelous, scholarly reconstruction of the film between covers in 1993, so even my cursory three hours with the material felt like a real discovery to me; see Joseph Egan’s extraordinary Ambersons website to get a look at the lost material.) Based on the evidence of the first thirty minutes of the released version of the film, the least violated by the studio’s anxious meddling, there’s no reason to conclude that Welles failed to deliver a fully realized performance of the entire magnificent elegy that he and his team had conjured from the pages of Tarkington’s novel.
“Hollywood,” says the theatrical firebrand “Orson” in the unproduced screenplay Welles eventually wrote about his dramatic 1937 staging of Marc Blitzstein’s political musical, The Cradle Will Rock, “is a place where you must never sit down because when you stand up you’re sixty-five years old.” No doubt in writing this the elder Welles was imbuing his younger self with lessons he’d only really learned later, but it’s a telling quip nonetheless. I discovered it in reading Patrick McGilligan’s prodigious and entertaining 2015 biography, Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to “Citizen Kane,” which takes more than 700 pages to tell the story of its subject’s life from birth up to the moment when, at age twenty-five, he called “Action!” on the first day of shooting for his most famous film.
McGilligan’s portrait of Welles as inspired and inspiring prodigy of theater and radio proves just what a precocious dynamo he was, possessed of an imaginative appetite that was voracious and the energy and intellect to keep it fed. It offers definitive evidence, if anyone should need it, that creating Kane was not the start of a journey but merely the logical next step in an existing one. And perhaps, indeed, the last step; it left me thinking that it might be better to look at that masterpiece as the apt resolution of the spectacle of “luck and genius” that had come before it, the final chapter in a complete and concluded Bildungsroman. This is admittedly a fanciful way to view Welles’s cinematic initiation, but why view the rest of his work on screen as a failure to live up to Kane, when it is more interesting when looked at as a whole new novel in its own right? As Welles himself was so fond of commencing a story with the death of its protagonist, why not throw caution to the wind and see Citizen Kane as a death scene rather than an opening act, and, while we’re at it, throw in The Magnificent Ambersons as a funeral, albeit one in which the elegiac mood is shattered when a rainstorm of popular opinion sends the carefully composed mourners, and all of their emotions, running for whatever cover they can find, leaving the body unattended?
All that follows would be an afterlife of sorts, restless and haunting.
It took Welles some time to find his footing in the underworld in which he was exiled after Ambersons. In 1946, he made The Stranger, an interesting if somewhat conventional thriller — it’s about a Nazi war criminal disguised as a teacher in a Connecticut town — that retreats quite effectively, in terms of storytelling technique, to the tightness of his radio dramas. The Lady from Shanghai followed a year later in the same noir vein, although it was more like a radio drama embellished by a drunken sailor, with some remarkable visual effects adding ebullience to his inebriated narration. His Macbeth, filmed on the cheap in 1948 when a backlot used for Westerns became available to him, conjures the impulsiveness of his theater work from a decade earlier; shot in twenty-three days, it has a madcap “let’s put on a tragedy” energy that mixes intention and improvisation in equal measure.
In a nod to his landmark Federal Theatre Project “Voodoo Macbeth” of 1936, Welles has the three witches, at the start of his film adaptation of the play, pull from their bubbling cauldron a clay effigy of the hero, through which they will exercise influence upon his fate. By some kind of sympathetic magic, his work on the messy, rushed, wildly inventive Macbeth reconnected Welles to the artistic fearlessness that had distinguished his theatrical triumphs; over the next decade, this fortitude, sometimes looking like fecklessness, would shape the character of his cinema, as the making of his movies — the technical, financial, and logistical plots he had to ravel and unravel off the screen while pursuing aesthetic goals on it — became a medium all its own.
His Othello was filmed over three years and shot in bits and pieces in disparate locations — Morocco, Venice, Tuscany, and Rome among them — with a catch-as-catch-can attention, the players being summoned across continents on a moment’s notice and not uncommonly stranded, left to their own devices, in the appointed locations. (For a marvelously entertaining account of the antics of the filming, see Put Money in Thy Purse, the exasperated memoir of the movie’s Iago, Micheál MacLiammóir.) Yet the result is one of the most visually stunning specimens in the history of cinema, a rhapsody in black-and-white that demanded of its creator a willing suspension of belief in space and time and practicality. Its demands on the viewer are also considerable. Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons teach us to watch them in a certain way. Soaked in time — the first a wonder cabinet of narrative complexity, the second a well of atmosphere — they are both, in a word, absorbing, and we immerse ourselves in them with a concentration that Othello, with its acute angles, rapid cutting, oblique framings, and dramatic colloquies of shadow and light, refuses to allow; it leaves us always in the moment of glancing perception, Welles’s artistry with imagery glossing Shakespeare’s with words to make that perception new. An abstract work that is not entirely satisfying in a conventional sense, Othello is impossible to stop watching; it’s like a spell. In an important way, it’s film as process rather than product, as far from Hollywood as one could get in the 1951, and even further from it now.
If, after 1950, Welles was dead as a director to Hollywood, Othello taught him how to sneak out of the grave of the studio system and adorn his sarcophagus with new and curious testaments to his genius, if not his luck. The most mystifying of these is Mr. Arkadin, sometimes called Confidential Report, which exists in a dizzying array of variants (the current Criterion Collection release includes three full-length versions).
The movie starts — well, in some versions it starts, but in all versions it gets there pretty quickly — with the death of the title character, a larger-than-life figure of international influence. Yet unlike Citizen Kane, which it superficially resembles in its puzzling on the past of a man of means, the 1955 film isn’t about the search for what may have been lost; rather, it’s about the central figure’s attempt to erase all evidence of his early years in order to hide the iniquity that made his fortune. Exhibiting little of the narrative poise or visual concentration of Kane, Arkadin is disorienting, fragmentary, makeshift, cobbled together from brilliant set pieces illuminated with delightfully over-the-top performances by an international cast of distinguished actors — including Mischa Auer, Katina Paxinou, Michael Redgrave, and Akim Tamiroff — and shadowed by the looming figure of Welles as Arkadin, made up to look like an illustration for a beastly king from a not especially sophisticated edition of ancient myths for children. And yet, nonetheless, it’s mesmerizing, as Welles’s vision comes into focus and then slips away again, doing its best to make its way to the screen against all the odds of time and money stacked against it.
Every time I watch it, I recall Gabriel García Márquez’s special fondness for a late novel of Hemingway’s. “[E]ven if it appears to be a mockery of his own fate,” García Márquez wrote, “it seems to me that his most charming and human work is his least successful one: Across the River and Into the Trees.” Watch it enough, in fact, and Arkadin begins to seem the most representative work in Welles’s canon, in part because there are so many versions you can’t watch it enough: for all the scholarship that has gone into tracking its history and variations, it remains elusive even now, every scene as unfixed as the day he shot it.
If his cinematic art had grown provocatively unfixed, it was also, famously, unfinished. I’m not sure when the legend of his incomplete and unproduced projects took root, but by the time I’d come of filmgoing age, about the same time as Welles was beginning work on The Other Side of the Wind, it had begun to eclipse his actual output. Not that he hadn’t finished some of his most accomplished work in the decade after Mr. Arkadin slinked on and off screens. He returned to Hollywood to make Touch of Evil, in which he imbued a compact thriller with his trademark sense of loss, the evil cop at the story’s core carrying decades of moral dissipation like so much extra weight; not much heralded on its 1958 release, it’s been hailed as a noir masterpiece in the years since, especially after the studio release was recut according to Welles’s original plan. His 1962 version of Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, is replete with wonders of staging, scenic design, and cinematography, brilliant but brutal in its evocation of terror in a relentless, perpetual present tense: no past to fall back on, no future to escape to.
Then came a meditation on time more congenial to his spirit, his luminous, autumnal, and — despite some awkward dubbing and continuity — altogether glorious Chimes at Midnight, which ranges across several of Shakespeare’s history plays to give the character of Falstaff his due. Welles was fifty when he assumed the role, and in character as the roguish knight he looks like he’s half again as old. In the opening scene, Welles and Alan Webb, as Justice Robert Shallow, trek across a snow covered landscape to find a resting place beside a roaring fire in a tavern, where they begin to reminisce, setting the tone for the profound drama of Falstaff’s foregone friendship with Prince Hal, in which the comedy of the present tense matures to the melancholy of the past perfect before our eyes. For the filmmaker, weaned on nostalgia, it was like coming home at last; for his devoted watchers, the snowscape of that opening sequence points back to Ambersons, and the fire reflected on Falstaff’s cheeks recalls the flames flickering on the face of Major Amberson, seated before the hearth in his mansion, as Welles’s youthful narrator’s voice intones:
And now Major Amberson was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. And he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste beside what concerned him now. For the Major knew now that he had to plan how to enter an unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson.
Welles, for years a ghost in the country known as Hollywood, was always sure of being recognized, if generally for the wrong distinctions: his obesity, his talk show appearances, his shilling for mass market wine. Even as remarkable a film as Chimes at Midnight was seldom seen in his lifetime, to say nothing of the phantom works — It’s All True, The Merchant of Venice, The Magic Show — that he labored over but never finished, the unproduced screenplays like Heart of Darkness, The Cradle Will Rock, and The Dreamers, and all the other abandoned projects for film, television, and theater that greet us on nearly every page of the many biographies and are more exciting to read about than most of the completed works of other artists are to watch. If, by the time of his death, all this unrealized art seemed to overshadow our sense of his achievement, now it seems one of the highlights of it, illuminating all the rest, increasing interest in the films that aren’t as fixed as Kane and fascination with those so unfixed as to remain forever unfinished. All of them were sketchbooks of sorts, capturing the mercury of his incessant image-making, so rivetingly celebrated in The Eyes of Orson Welles, Mark Cousins’s revelatory 2018 documentary meditation on a cache of Welles’s drawings and paintings.
Just six years ago, his long-lost first film, Too Much Johnson, a 1938 silent comedy made as a component of a stage production, had its premiere after having been uncovered in a warehouse in Italy in 2008 and carefully restored. Apprentice work though it is, it exudes a vitality unique to its creator. The Other Side of the Wind explodes with that same force, whether or not it adds up to either marketable product or masterpiece.
Early in Welles’s half-century-in-the-making final work, the caravan of revelers on their way to Hannaford’s birthday party pass the Sepulveda Drive In Theater, where two titles are promoted on the marquee: I Eat Your Skin and I Drink Your Blood, tipping a playful hat to the undead and unburied movie dreams that Welles’s tale is trying to perform last rites on and set to rest. But like The Other Side of the Wind itself, those dreams just won’t die.
Neither will Welles. I can see his undead spirit now, haunting some screen of the future, “the way art,” as A. S. Hamrah puts it in another context, “isn’t always there in the movies, but the promise of art always is.”