Orson Welles: Cinema's lost genius

A screening of fragments of his unreleased last film highlights the neglect of an icon, writes Geoffrey MacNab

Back in Hollywood, his second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, is being savagely re-edited behind his back. One of the jangadeiros, the four Brazilian sailors whose epic voyage from northern Brazil to Rio to complain about their living conditions is recreated in the documentary, drowns in a freak accident. Awitchdoctor due to take part in the film puts a curse on Welles, sticking a red-threaded steel needle through the script after Welles tells him the money has run out.

Forever after, Welles's career was dogged by misfortune. Legal disputes over his films have raged since his death in 1985, and much of his work remains unseen.

In the early 1990s, a group of film-makers putting together a documentary about the making of It's All True hired a priestess to lift the old curse. Last month, when there was a major retrospective of Welles's work at the Locarno Festival in Switzerland, one leading Welles expert stayed away.

"He refused to come because he believes that everything that talks about Orson Welles is kind of cursed," says Oja Kodar, Welles's lover, muse and companion in later life. Kodar bemoans the relative obscurity into which Welles is sinking. "People don't know him these days. You meet 19-year-olds and they have no idea. They have to search their memories. Citizen Kane - they ask, 'what was that?'"

In Locarno, footage was screened from Welles's incomplete Don Quixote. There was a strange poignancy in seeing Quixote (Francisco Reiguera) and Sancho Panza (Akim Tamiroff) riding on their bedraggled horses through a modern city. Quixote looks in bemusement at traffic lights, TV screens and billboards. He is a man out of his time. The same can be said for many of Welles's characters, whether the Ambersons baffled by the advent of the motorcar or Falstaff pining for a lost England in Chimes At Midnight.

Welles often appeared equally adrift. He projected power but rarely possessed it. On screen, he was a saturnine, imposing presence, accustomed to playing kings and tragic heroes, but that didn't mean he could finance his own movies.

Joseph McBride, a Welles expert who acted in the director's last (and, as yet, unreleased) film The Other Side Of The Wind, gives short shrift to the Brazilian witchdoctor story. "There is a curse on him but I think it is more from capitalism," he says.

Welles's problem, McBride argues, was simply that his films weren't especially commercial. He aspired to be a great popular artist, a Charles Dickens of the cinema, but his work was too downbeat.

Hollywood powerbrokers resented the "boy wonder" who madeCitizen Kane in 1941. There was both comedy and pathos in the way Hollywood treated Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons, which he thought was his masterpiece, was previewed in a double-bill with a lightweight Dorothy Lamour vehicle called The Fleet's In in Pomona, California. The audience was made up of kids expecting to see an upbeat musical. All too predictably, Ambersons was greeted with yawns and catcalls.

RKO was so alarmed that it began to shorten and re-edit the film. What began as a 131-minute epic was released at a little over 80 minutes. It still performed reasonably well in the big cities. The fact that it was pulled so rapidly from cinemas suggested that someone wanted to see it fail.

By then, the Hearst press and the FBI were gunning for Welles as well. The rumour was put about that he was a draft dodger. In truth, though he had little desire to serve, Welles was a "4-F", rejected for military service because of various physical ailments. He went down to Brazil at the Assistant Secretary of State Nelson Rockefeller's bidding: Washington was desperate to stop Latin-America being seduced by the fascists.

Welles was keen to underline his credentials as a patriot, but as soon as he set foot in Brazil, RKO began to sabotage The Magnificent Ambersons. "The studio ruined Ambersons and Ambersons ruined me," Welles later lamented.

McBride raises the tantalising possibility that a complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons may still exist somewhere in South America. RKO burned the negative in the early 1940s, but it is known that Welles took a copy with him to Brazil.

"Officially, he is supposed to have surrendered the print, but it's kind of hard to believe that he would do that," says McBride. "What we hope is that he didn't do that and that the print stayed in South America. There have been Welles scholars poking round Brazil, hoping to find it. Stranger things have happened."

The Magnificent Ambersons started a trend. All Welles's subsequent films were blighted in one way or another. The Welles relatives, experts and former collaborators who assembled in Locarno last month are determined to flush as much of his unseen work into the open as possible.

"I believe my father's work should be shown at every opportunity, even his unfinished work. Everything should be shown because everything is valuable," Welles's oldest daughter Chris Welles says. Kodar has donated her Welles material to the Film Museum in Munich on the condition that it is preserved and made available to the public.

In the latter part of his life, Welles was like a king in exile. Kodar offers a colourful description of her life with the maestro. "We were moving around like gypsies," she recalls. "For 15 years, it was one long, wonderful trip."

Welles and Kodar would travel around the world by train with cameras, editing machines and pet dogs in tow. While trying to make his own films, Welles paid his bills by taking acting roles. "I'm not rich. Never have been," he admitted. "When you see me in a bad movie as an actor (I hope not as a director), it is because a good movie has not been offered me. I often make bad films in order to live."

In Locarno last month, it became evident that there were aspects of Welles that those closest to him knew nothing about. Chris Welles admitted she "learnt something new every day" during the festival. Many were startled to hear of Welles's fight to bring a southern policeman to justice for lynching a young black soldier in the mid-1940s. This grisly incident is recounted in a new documentary, American Citizen.

"At that time, my father was a huge radio personality," his daughter recalls. "He decided to make this a cause célèbre because he was so horrified. He began to broadcast on the radio, telling the whole country what had happened and demanding that the policeman be brought to justice. They told him that if he continued these broadcasts, they would fire him. That was the end of his career in radio. Nobody wanted to hire him after that."

In Locarno, 40 minutes of his unfinished feature, The Other Side Of The Wind, were screened. Like most Welles films, it had a vexed history. Shooting was more or less completed by 1972, but the Iranian co-financier Mehdi Bousheri (brother-in-law of the late Shah of Iran) would not allow the film to be shown until his money was reimbursed. Sadly, one of the producers had forged the signature on the contracts and scarpered with the cash.

The back story to The Other Side Of The Wind is fascinating. Welles's original intention was to satirise the world of bullfighters and their celebrity entourages. The central character was to be based on Ernest Hemingway. Welles first met the writer in the late 1930s when he read the commentary for the Spanish Civil War documentary The Spanish Earth, co-scripted by Hemingway. "I don't want some faggot who runs an art theatre narrating my film," Hemingway is alleged to have told Welles, before starting a fight with him.

By the time The Other Side Of The Wind went into production, the setting had changed to late-1960s Hollywood. The central character Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) was a movie director trying to resurrect his career. As in Citizen Kane, the story begins with the protagonist's death and then unfolds in flashback.

Welles shot in a freewheeling, improvisatory fashion, using hand-held cameras and natural light. He also offered roles to just about everybody he encountered on his travels: old-time actors whom nobody would hire because of their drinking problems, earnest young critics and real-life film-makers all appear.

What is most startling is the explicit sex. At times, as Kodar (who co-wrote the film) makes love with a young man in the back of a car, or an actor (Bob Random) loses his nerve during another sex scene and runs off into the distance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Welles had fallen under the influence of exploitation king Russ Meyer. The real fascination of the film, though, is its forensic study of a macho old-timer. Hannaford is a chauvinist and a stud: the type of womaniser who (as McBride puts it) "doesn't make a pass at a woman until after he has slept with her." Beneath his braggadocio, he is vulnerable and self-loathing.

For many years, Kodar has been trying to complete The Other Side Of The Wind. She screened footage for Oliver Stone. "At the end, he said: 'I don't know what I can do with this. It is too experimental.'" Kodar also tried and failed to interest Clint Eastwood.

The net result is that Welles's final feature as a director still languishes on the shelf with Chimes At Midnight, The Deep and The Merchant Of Venice.

That old Brazilian curse, it seems, is still in place. But there is a way to lift it. All it needs is the one commodity Welles never had enough of in his lifetime: money.

The screenplay of 'The Other Side Of The Wind' is published by the International Festival of Locarno. For copies, contact info@pardo.ch

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future