With David Fincher’s Mank due to appear on Netflix any day now, this seems like the perfect moment to have a closer look at the maverick genius, Orson Welles. Mank is all about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and the making of Citizen Kane. For many decades consistently referred to as ‘the best movie ever made,’ it certainly was an absolute game changer when it appeared in 1941. Welles was only 24 years old at that point – but, mostly due to the awful treatment he subsequently received from his peers in Hollywood, he would never achieve such dizzy heights again.
Also on Netflix is this gem – a documentary about the great director’s long (and ultimately doomed) attempts to create one final movie, The Other Side of the Wind. The film, as meticulously reconstructed from a series of outtakes by Welles’ old buddy, Peter Bogdanovich, can also be found on Netflix if you look hard enough, but it’s this vivid documentary that makes for the better watch. Narrated by Alan Cummings, directed by Morgan Neville and starring a whole cavalcade of Welles’ former friends and acquaintances, it gives an all-too-clear indication of the kind of mayhem that ebbed and flowed around the great man during the film’s troubled shoot. (You can almost smell the hashish blasting around the likes of Dennis Hopper, John Huston and Rich Little as they stumble around the set, vainly trying to work out exactly what Welles is attempting to do.) But TOSOTW had other problems to contend with, not least having the movie’s master print seized and locked up by the Shah of Iran – one of Welles’ shady backers.
Did Welles deserve to be regarded as a cinematic genius? Oh, yes, definitely. Was he treated abominably by the country that spawned him? Most assuredly. Hollywood may belatedly have offered him a trumped-up award for cinematic achievement, but nobody was ready to back up any of his enterprises with hard currency. In retrospect, it seems that they were simply trying to absolve their own collective guilt.
But it’s important to point out that, through a career plagued by adversity, Welles did somehow manage to create some astonishing films. Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, A Touch of Evil… and also, some of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to celluloid – Chimes at Midnight is frankly extraordinary. This is a decent legacy for any director to leave behind, let alone one who started so promisingly and thereafter had every kind of shit heaped on his shoulders. He developed a reputation for being hard to get on with, but is it any wonder?
If you haven’t seen this, do take the opportunity to catch up with it and, if you’re feeling brave, move on to The Other Side of the Wind. Sure, it’s a tad incoherent and I’m really not sure about the film within a film – the one that clearly sets out to rubbish the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, but… imagine how good it might have been if only Welles’ had the budget he needed to do it properly.