One thinks of the famous lost reel of the ball scene from The Magnificent Ambersons; or Welles's complaints about the diminished final versions of The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil; or of Don Quixote, the near- mythical "home movie" that he made over a 20-year period which has been seen only in fragments in international film festivals.
Now, though, some of the lost Welles is trickling back to us. Most of his major works are being reissued in restored versions - and, in the case of Touch of Evil, with the benefit of a re-edit based on his own hitherto ignored instructions.
Perhaps most intriguingly, two unproduced Welles scripts are currently being shot by other people: a political satire called The Big Brass Ring, by George Hickenlooper, and a retelling of an extraordinary episode in Welles's stage career in the 1930s called The Cradle Will Rock, by Tim Robbins. A third Welles script called The Dreamers, based on a story by Karen Blixen, is also doing the rounds in Hollywood but has yet to raise the necessary funds to go into production.
Why the renewed interest, and why now? According to FX Feeney, who has updated the script of The Big Brass Ring, it is a matter of changing perceptions. In his time, Welles was deemed unpredictable, and a poor financial bet by the producers holding the purse strings. "Now we can see him as the first great independent film-maker," Feeney said. "The Tarantino generation is really plugged into him." One can't help detecting, also, a sense of guilt towards Welles, arguably the greatest film-maker of his time, but one whose talent was never given room to grow and prosper. He was too individualistic, too radical to be understood by his peers. Indeed, the popular impression that was allowed to build up of Welles in the years leading up to his death in 1985 was of a man chronically incapable of committing to a project, much less finishing it, who let himself go physically and was reduced to making television commercials to scrape a living. In short, a great talent gone pathetically to waste.
The truth, though, was that the same Hollywood grandees who bestowed lifetime achievement honours on Welles in the 1970s and 1980s repeatedly turned him down on an extraordinary number of new projects. Welles wanted to adapt Graham Greene and Jim Thompson as well as Blixen; he had a script about Bobby Kennedy's assassin Sirhan Sirhan, another based on the book that was eventually filmed as Dead Calm, with Nicole Kidman, and yet another that was a broad satire of Hollywood mores called The Other Side of the Wind.
Some of these projects he attempted to finance or co-finance himself. The Other Side of the Wind reached the end of its shooting schedule before falling victim to an extraordinary international intrigue involving a Spanish swindler and a group of Iranians whose commitment to the film wavered and collapsed in synchrony with the Shah's regime.
It is perhaps in keeping with Welles's character that his legacy has become the stuff of legend. And where there is legend, there is both aggrandisement and much dog-fighting among his survivors. His last companion, Oja Kodar, and his daughter, Beatrice Welles, have been jostling for years to establish who owns the rights to what, and indeed Beatrice Welles pushed the re- edited Touch of Evil off the roster at this year's Cannes festival with a lawsuit. (It was eventually released in the US last month.)
Part of the reason the unproduced scripts are now attracting interest is that Kodar started publishing them a few years ago in the hope of raising money. She has also endeavoured to put together a releasable version of Don Quixote but, according to insider gossip, a part of the original negative is being held by one of Welles's regular actresses, who will not surrender it until she receives a small fortune in back pay.
Are the "new" Welles movies doomed to similarly tawdry fates? FX Feeney has been working on The Big Brass Ring for more than 10 years and, although he does not feel jinxed, he has no illusions about what he is doing. "This is not a Welles film. This has to be our film," he says. "But if it stands, then we will have made a monument to Welles." A monument is no substitute for the real thing, of course, but one suspects that the prodigiously mercurial Orson Welles would have approved.Reuse content