Netflix to present Orson Welles’ lost masterpiece

Claire Leibovich discusses Netflix's resurrection of Orson Welles' unfinished final film

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On Tuesday, Netflix dropped a bomb in the world of cinema by announcing that it had acquired the rights to Orson Welles’ unfinished movie, The Other Side of the Wind, and would finance its completion and distribution worldwide. This marks the conclusion of a saga that began in the early 1970s, marred by endless legal battles and various failed attempts to finish the film, including an online crowdfunding campaign in 2015 that raised more than £304,000.

Considered a child prodigy and genius by many, Orson Welles is a legendary figure in theatre, radio and cinema. He is acclaimed as one of the greatest film directors of all time. His life was a tale of beautiful women and excessive quantities of food, drink and tobacco, fuelled by a titan’s energy for work that produced an endless list of incomplete and aborted projects.

The Other Side of the Wind is one of those. Welles started filming the picture in 1970, with a cast list including John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Lili Palmer and Dennis Hopper. Yet this story of a ‘bastard director’ (in Welles’ own words) who returns to Los Angeles after a mediocre European adventure was never completed.

1970 was also the year Welles returned to Hollywood after a decade spent in Europe. The Other Side of the Wind was intended to be his comeback film, a new Citizen Kane. But despite the similarities between his own life and the incomplete film, Welles claimed there was no autobiographical basis to the plot of The Other Side of the Wind. Rather, it appears to be a satire of the New Hollywood generation of directors.

There are very high expectations for the film, which has been publicised by Netflix as a masterpiece rescued from obscurity. Josh Karp, author of the recently published book Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of the Other Side of the Wind, said: “This is like finding a lost Shakespeare play… Except, no one wants to read a Shakespeare play – so this is better because it’s a movie.” Peter Bogdanovich, who acted in the film and is one of the leading figures in the quest to finish it, stated: “From what I know it was one of his best things.”

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Like Citizen KaneThe Other Side of the Wind opens with the death of its lead and takes us back in time to prior events, with Welles narrating throughout. The main character Jake Hannafot is described as an authoritative figure striving for power, which seems reminiscent of George Amberson Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons and Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. As for the meta-cinematic theme of a film within a film, and the innovative black-and-white and colour montage, we are reminded of Welles’ other work from this same period, including his so-called ‘essay film’ F for Fake (1973) where the director explores the value of artistic authorship and authenticity.

With expectations so high we can only hope that Netflix will keep its promise of presenting us with Orson Welles’ last masterpiece. After all, two versions of Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote were released in 1992 and 2008 respectively, and both offerings served to disappoint the critics.

However, at the time of his death in 1985, Welles had already edited 40 minutes of The Other Side of the Wind. Furthermore, the team behind its restoration include numerous people from the original project, including Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall. This surely bodes well for the upcoming finished version.

Netflix’s acquisition of a film, that has remained until now a ‘lost masterpiece’, is a milestone in the company’s effort to increase their output of feature films, and draws them first blood in a long running battle against competing streaming services. As yet, the entertainment company has given no precise date for the film’s release. However, for those who would prefer watching The Other Side of the Wind on the big screen (and I am one of them), Netflix has announced a 35 mm version for cinema release.