Review: 'The Other Side of the Wind'

Sex, sarcasm and terminal moviemaking converge in Orson Welles' lost film
John Huston plays Jake Hannaford, Orson Welles' alter ego, in Welles' Netflix-resurrected lost film, 'The Other Side of the Wind.'

Likely the most famous unfinished film ever, The Other Side of the Wind is now available in what its studio Netflix deems "An attempt to honor and complete his vision." The 'he' in that sentence is Orson Welles.

Welles, the creator of Citizen Kane (1941), left Hollywood some years after RKO Picture's vandalism of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He continued with brilliant work throughout Europe, including innovative, low-budget Shakespeare adaptations. Back in the States, he devised the crown of film noir, Touch of Evil (1958). And yet, as biographer Joseph McBride notes, at the time of Welles' American Film Institute award, director Henry Hathaway complained, "What are we honoring him for? He only made one movie."

Much like Welles' Mr. Arkadin (1962), The Other Side of the Wind begins with the question of whether a death might be a suicide: a still of a crumpled sports car, wiped out by the noted director, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), Welles' alter ego. The night before the crash was Hannaford's wild birthday party, in a desert mansion that keeps losing its electricity. The place is crowded with cinema-verite documentary makers and cronies—old-timers and young flat-voiced groupies alike. Also on hand is Hannaford's former mistress (Lili Palmer, standing in for Welles own intimate, Marlene Dietrich).

Hannaford's principle disciple is the wellborn Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), who corrects that notion even as he first hears it said of him: He's not a disciple, he's an apostle. Flashing that devil-sick-of-sin grin, Huston's Hannaford gets exasperated with these bespectacled poindexters following him (McBride is among them). They grill Hannaford, as if there were several Boswells and only one Johnson to go around.

Hannaford is at the end stages of making his film within a film, The Other Side of the Wind. One projectionist says it all, while hauling a stack of film cans: "Well, here it is… if anybody wants to see it." The studio is ready to pull the plug. And Hannaford has already chased away his pretty-boy Jim Morrison look-alike star (Bob Random) for reasons of his own.

We'd seen some authentically crass filming of a mosh pit of topless hippie chicks. But in the screenings, velvety images form, suffused with L.A. beachfront smog. The film within a film is a love letter to Welles' mistress, the dark, impassive Oja Kodar, credited here as co-writer. Kodar reflects zero emotion as she strides around nude in this blue gloaming.

Welles being Welles, he got into the spirit of what he was satirizing in a bravura psychedelic orgy scene, all wet silk and ice cubes and violent carnival lights, capped with some psycho doll-mutilation. This is followed by Kodar's astonishing girl-on-top sex scene in a speeding car during a cloudburst. Here's what an Orson Welles soft-core porn film would have looked like… and it would have been sensational, better than the best of Radley Metzger and Russ Meyer. Like those two expert eroticists, Welles displays a striking pro-female bent; Hannaford declares his belief in a female God, compared to which all men are but weaklings.

Welles' terminal vision of the movies was contemporary with titles like The Last Picture Show, and The Last Movie; their directors Bogdanovich and Dennis Hopper even are on screen. The twilight of the Hollywood Gods is embodied by Kodar, solitary, striped with shadows from the boards of ruined, wobbling movie sets—all just false fronts ready for a good wind to blow them over. (The ingenious Welles got this footage illegally, sneaking into the Paramount lot early on a Sunday morning.)

If there's a fogeyish side to this brand-new and yet almost 50-year-old film, it's in questions of male potency that don't really obsess the public today like they did in the past. The Other Side of the Wind reflects a question endlessly batted back and forth, of whether Welles couldn't finish films because of money or because of his own disinterest in end games.

As with the question of Hannaford's crash, commentators wonder whether Welles' woes were due to deliberate self-destruction or accident. Likely it's the latter, with Welles being worn out from the endless search for funds to complete his films, and having to prostitute his presence for TV commercials. But in this evocative satirical drama, Welles demonstrates a last magic act. He was still ahead of his time even at the end of his career.

The Other Side of the Wind
R; 125 Mins.

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