You cannot call yourself a movie buff without being a fan of the cinema’s greatest artist and original “enfant terrible” Orson Welles. It’s just not allowed.
So rather than lose my card-carrying-cinephile card, I finally got around to the last film of the director who gave us “Citizen Kane,” “Touch of Evil,” “Chimes at Midnight” and “The Trial.”
Filmed from filmed from 1970 to ’76, running out of money, time and luck all along the way, “The Other Side of the Wind” was rescued from storage and legal limbo, finished and released by Netflix in the fall of 2018.
Let’s give the proper due to the streaming service for performing this public service to the cinema, letting the world see a film that has been little more than legend and Peter Bogdanovich (and Rich Little, who appears and mentioned it to me once) cocktail party anecdotes for decades.
It is nothing short of glorious, seeing the all-stars in this “all star cast,” a movie about making a movie in the tradition of “Day for Night” or “The Stuntman.”
Here’s the ancient Edmund O’Brien (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) playing one last bellowing drunk, the AD/unit manager for legendary director Jake Hannaford.
There’s the late Austrian actress Lilli Palmer, listening to Welles (heard off camera as interviewer), weighing in on “Hannaford,” another version of Welles himself played by the only actor/director who rivaled Welles as “larger than life” — John Huston.
“Mr. Hannaford pretends to be ignorant,” Palmer purrs, speaking of the man she nicknamed “GF, God the Father,” resplendently made up and shot in black and white. “Men only like men.”
Yes, she could be talking about the filmmaker’s sexuality.
Welles acolyte Peter Bogdanovich narrates, his own career blowing up even as he was setting aside nights and weekends to help Welles with this one. He plays a filmmaker/producer disciple of Hannaford.
“The man is infested with disciples. I’m the Apostle!”
Huston’s Hannaford is “God the Father” in the flesh, booming, twinking, cigar at the ready, wearing his droll sarcasm like an ascot with his omni-present safari jacket wardrobe.
“I want a drink!”
Vaudevillian George Jessel toasts Hannaford on his birthday, “The Ernest Hemingway of the Cinema!” Directors Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol and Henry Jaglom bicker over “meaning” in cinema.
And most gloriously of all, Paul Stewart, who was with Welles from his radio days on into “Citizen Kane,” strides through a backlot with Mercedes McCambridge (“Touch of Evil”), film crew in tow, boom microphone overhead, breaking down just what went wrong with “The Other Side of the Wind.”
Because something did go wrong. There was a car crash. Somebody died. The footage was abandoned. And now it’s been pieced together (there are missing bits) and presented to the world almost five decades after the project began.
The film within the film mimics the finished film we’re watching now (on Netflix) in that most important regard. And it’s a bit of a mess, too.
Here’s the familiar Wellesian banter of actors, overlapping their dialogue, talking about someone who isn’t “there” — on that backlot, in the screening room where a trusted aid is showing rushes to a moneyman who isn’t buying into this, on the drive to “The Ranch,” at the party there that follows and at a drive-in theater rented to show the movie when all other means fail.
That “Citizen Kane” (and later “Rashomon” and “The Third Man” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” trick of having EVERYbody talking about the protagonist, who isn’t in the frame, has never been more emphatically applied than here.
Max (Geoffrey Land): Jake is just making it up as he’s done before.
Billy (Norman Foster): “He’s done is before.”
The movie within the movie is an obtuse, dated dollop of pretense, Welles imitating the art cinema of the 60s — “Last Year at Marienbad” to “Zabriskie Point” — with an obscure, symbolic and largely nude coupling and existential wrestling match between a Jim Morrison look-alike (Robert Random) and the Object of Desire who Desires Him and Will Have Him, without ever saying a word. Inane.
That “character” is played by Welles’ longtime companion, the exotic, olive-skinned Oja Kadar, credited as co-writer of the script (Sure.) and nude in ways mainstream film actresses never acquiesced to in that era.
This 70th birthday party is, our narrator tells us, “the last day of (Jake’s) life,” and he is surrounded by friends, peers, fans and cineastes of the academic, biography writing, CBC documentary-filming persuasion.
The shots are fluid, everything and everyone always in near-breathless motion. There is little here one could call an “establishing shot.” We’re just stuffed into an over-crowded convertible with Jake, his “Apostle” (Bogdanovich) and a film crew frantically asking insanely inane questions.
The smoky jazz of Michel LeGrand fills the soundtrack as busloads of cast and crew (Susan Strasberg plays a much-derided “critic”) follow Jake to The Ranch.
Meanwhile, the screening of rushes continues and continues to go badly, despite the Yes Man reassurances of Billy about “when we get that shot” and “when he” (the missing leading man) comes back.
Despite the disorienting, breathless flurry of motion and the near blur of montage, Welles’ eye for screen composition and staging is evident in every single frame — candlelit or shadowed, sunlit or in a car in the decades before GoPro cameras or even Steadicams.
The parade of extreme closeups look “grabbed” as opposed to “staged,” which of course they were. The whole has the feeling of the student film of a pretentious and quite rich and well-connected grad student at USC.
Huston has the odd post-“Chinatown” pearl of wisdom.
“Hemingway? That left hook of his…was over-rated.”
Only Strasberg and Gregory Sierra, a TV actor of the day (“Barney Miller,” “Sanford & Son”) give much of what I’d call performances. Still, Palmer, McCambridge and Stewart acquit themselves with honor. And O’Brien is always a film buff’s delight, no matter how over-the-top.
Bogdanovich, who taped and taped his conversations with Welles and turned them into a good biography of his mentor, cracks about having to “abandon” his own planned biography…of Hannaford.
A telling moment, when a character notes Jake’s declining fortunes as the party empties out. He pronounced “biographer” the way Welles himself, the subject of too many such books, jokingly did.
Movies and friendship. Those are…mysteries Jake
“Five of our best BEE-ographers have gone over to Otto Preminger!”
As if that’d ever happen.
There’s a self-awareness to “The Other Side of the Wind” that is almost funny, an editor complains to a projectionist about what’s up on the screen.
“The reels are out of order? It doesn’t matter, I suppose.”
In those rushes, the “actors” act — a “steambath” orgy, an explicit-for-its-era sex in a moving-car scene, other encounters in the buff — with Huston as Hannaford, the Voice of God whispering stage directions to his nude actors, mid performance, through a megaphone.
“”Pure Hitchcock, if you’ll pardon the language.”
It seems as if almost everybody in this fascinating artifact has a megaphone at some point, even Bogdanovich, doing his Jimmy Cagney impression, maybe a little Tennessee Williams, quoting Welles’ beloved Bard in line that gives the entire enterprise its one truly poignant moment.
“Our revels now are ended.”
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and some language
Cast: John Huston, Oja Kadar, Susan Strasberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Lilli Palmer, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Edmund O’Brien, Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Henry Jaglom, George Jessel, Bob Random, Gregory Sierra.
Credits: Directed by Orson Welles, script by Orson Welles and Oja Kadar. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:02