What to call this Hollywood takedown from Orson Welles, besides the best 1970’s movie to be released in the 21st century? The director, who died of a heart attack in 1985 at age 70, filmed The Other Side of the Wind between 1970 and 1976, gathering over 100 hours of footage that was never close to being fully assembled … until now. With funding from Netflix, we now have a 124-minute feature that still feels tantalizingly unfinished, though editor Bob Murawski and his expert team worked from Welles’ annotated script. It is clearly a labor of love for everyone involved in this rescue mission. (You can find the fascinating tale of how the film was pieced together in Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, also on Netflix, and a sharp look at the arguments over rights and ownership — some involving the inner circle of the Shah of Iran — and provides rare glimpses of Welles directing and interacting with actors.)
But what of the film itself? How does this inside-baseball opus play nearly half a century later when tastes have changed and movies along with them? Welles scholars will be in nirvana, savoring every detail about the final film from the former boy wonder who gave the world Citizen Kane. The plot focuses on Jake Hannaford, a legendary director played by another legend, John Huston, in brilliant form. It’s no accident that Jake seems to be cut from the same cloth as Welles, who mixes his script’s bitterness with trenchant humor, swiping mischievously at the pretensions of early Seventies filmmaking. Jake is still struggling to raise financing to finish his latest work — called, yes, The Other Side of the Wind.
From what we see it of it — a young dude (Robert Random) is pursued through a barren landscape by an often nude woman (Welles’ late-life inamorata Oja Kodar) — the film looks like a straight-up parody of Antonioni in his Zabriskie Point period. No matter. Jake needs completion funds, which the young studio chief (Geoffrey Land) seems unlikely to provide. In a last-ditch effort, Jake plans to show footage at the 70th birthday party being thrown for him in the desert home of a hostess friend (Lilli Palmer).
Welles builds his film around that party. Everyone is there, including Jake’s friends, most of whom have stabbed him in the back. Susan Strasberg offers her take on a critic very much like Pauline Kael, with whom Welles famously feuded (she thought the visually innovative Citizen Kane was a writer’s picture). Several directors of the day, including Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, Dennis Hopper and Claude Chabrol, show up playing themselves. Most significantly, longtime Orson pal Peter Bogdanovich takes the part of the talented, treacherous Brooks Otterlake, a hanger-on who strikes it rich as a director, much as Bogdanovich himself did with The Last Picture Show.
There are times in Wind when Welles seems to be settling scores, showing Jake swimming with sharks and barely surviving under an annihilating Tinseltown glare. In his filmmaking technique, Welles is miles from the deep focus elegance of Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil. Using quick cuts and fragments of scenes shot on the go by cinematographer Gary Graver, the movie renders the chaos of a Hollywood imploding from its own hubris. That’s the same industry that left Welles adrift at the end of his career. So to answer the question posed at the start of this review, the chaotic, jumbled The Other Side of the Wind isn’t for everyone — just folks who cares about the history of film and the master builder who helped make it great.