Last week two of Welles' most famous phantoms had world premieres. In a piece of bungling that is appropriate to his chaotic, vagrant talent, they were shown on opposite sides of the Atlantic on the same day. They make an apt pair, book-ends for a career. It's All True, shown at the New York Film Festival, was made in 1942, just after he'd shot his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons; Don Quixote, unveiled at an Independent on Sunday screening at the Raindance Festival in London, was the pet project of his dotage, begun in 1955, but still being rethought when he died 30 years later.
To begin with It's All True is to begin at the beginning of the end: it's the film that Welles said destroyed him, creating the myth of flamboyant waste. A three-part documentary shot in South America, it was the US government's idea: they thought it would cement relations with Latin America at a time when the Axis had designs on the area. But it was foisted on Welles while he was still editing Ambersons, and while a palace coup was taking place at the sponsoring RKO studio. The new brooms saw the footage Welles was shooting - largely unscripted - of the Brazilian carnival, described it as 'jigaboos jumping up and down', and brushed it and Welles away.
It's All True was said to be cursed. The film now opens with a 40-minute documentary on its history, starting with a black-tied Welles talking to camera. Hair slicked back, bovine face still hinting at its sleek youth, the great head leans forward, telling of a witch doctor who invoked the curse in chagrin at the film's abandonment before his own appearance. A script was found with a steel needle stuck through it, coiled in red wool. 'The end of the story is that it was the end of the film,' Welles concludes, a trace of a smile playing on his pursed lips.
It wasn't the end. Footage was unearthed in Paramount's film vaults in 1986. Not much survives of the opening episode, a Robert Flaherty story about a boy and a bull (we see a few charming, if sentimental, sequences of the frolicking beast and the toothily smiling child), or of the carnival footage. The final section is restored to its original glory, telling the true story of four Brazilian fishermen who travelled 1,650 miles to Rio de Janeiro on their flimsy raft to complain to the president about working conditions, and became national heroes.
The Paramount executive who discovered the footage says in the documentary that he knew at once it was Welles. The camera's low angles, arabesques and flourishes all bear his signature. Above all, there is the matchless eye. A funeral procession tapering around a mountain is shot from the ground as the feet trudge gravely by. With crucifixes silhouetted in the gloom it recalls the opening of Welles' Othello. Shots of the boat - a tiny plume of white sail on the horizon - are among Welles' most beautiful. The sea itself becomes a Welles character, capricious as Kane, changing scene by scene.
What is missing is Welles' rapid, startling editing. The film was put together by his long-time associate, Richard Wilson, who has created a clear, linear narrative. Welles was more audacious and concise. And his usual deliciously ripe narration would have turned It's All True into a great documentary. It is still a remarkable portrait of the fisherman's life, with its craft and dedication, and of people whose ravaged, hopeful faces speak to us across the years.
The joy of seeing this fresh footage is mingled with anger that the studios should only now be devoting their resources to resurrecting it. That feeling is even stronger in Don Quixote, which Welles made entirely with his own money and which is technically ragged. As technology marched on, the great innovator's films retreated into shambles. The sound of Don Quixote is as scratchy as the much-criticised Chimes at Midnight soundtrack. Shot in black and white, the film has the same shadowy, bleached look as The Trial. But the ramshackleness can seem appropriate. When Don Quixote attacks a religious procession, his huffing and puffing and the stately march are clearly shot in different places. But it only goes to emphasise his isolation and delusion.
Set in the modern day, and with Welles offering his thoughts about Spain (the country he loved most and was buried in), this is far from a straight adaptation of Cervantes. Welles is playing with the book's own anachronism, as it were, bringing it up to date. The Don skirmishes with a Vespa; Sancho boggles at a television, developing the book's play on storytelling; Welles himself appears as the director of a film about Don Quixote.
The film is an essay on Spain, and also an essay on Welles. Welles shared the Don's magniloquence, boundless self-esteem, ruinous generosity, romantic illusions and moral fervour. His Michael O'Hara in The Lady of Shanghai is described as a 'knight errant', and like the Don's, Welles' life - and all his best films - were a story of decline. Welles was the ultimate chiaroscuro artist and in Don Quixote he found two perfectly contrasted figures: the Don, altruistic, wise and mad; Sancho, selfish, stupid and sane. Both are in Welles, whose darkest roles were always lit up by his incandescent humour.
His Don Quixote has the measured simplicity of a silent film. He could have cast no more expressive figures than Francisco Reiguera, his scarecrow-thin Don, with a narrow, pallid face and a buttress of a nose, and the swarthy, earthbound Akim Tamiroff as Sancho. Welles uses them to the same geometric effect he did his own bulk as Macbeth beside Lady Macbeth's bony resolution. With much of the soundtrack dubbed by Welles himself, the film could be described as the best home-movie ever made. In fact it's more, with two sequences that are among Welles' finest, as the Don assails sheep and then fights the windmills. In both, the editing is as fast and bold as the battle scene in Chimes at Midnight. Windmill sails are traced over the Don's harrowed face, quickening with his turmoil.
The film has been restored by the Spanish director Jess Franco. Why did Welles not finish it himself, having completed most of the photography as early as 1972? Why did he finish so little? Of the biographers, one answers: cowardice. Another: fate - sheer bad luck. A third sits on the fence.
Like the reporter in Citizen Kane, I don't think any word can explain a man's life. The evidence is largely in Welles' favour, a condemnation of studio short-sightedness. But his genius may have sprung from an innocence that was also his fatal weakness. Cocteau described him as 'a kind of giant with the look of a child', and reading the memoir of Welles' secretary on Don Quixote, by turns exhilarated and exasperated, you see both sides of the man. In It's All True we see the genius in full flower, just as it was cut down; Don Quixote shows its remarkable resilience in rejection. Neither is quite a great film, but both add to their maker's imperishable greatness. -
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