Review: ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ Is Orson Welles’ Haunted Hall of Mirrors

Posted November 1, 2018 5:58 p.m. EDT

Orson Welles once described his final film this way: “'The Other Side of the Wind’ is divided into two sections. There is the film, which is made by documentary cameramen, which is the story of the last day of the director’s life. And there is the film, which is made by the director, which has just broken down for lack of funds.” That’s a fair summation of what transpires, the kind of elevator pitch you can imagine Welles perfected while he was filming and trying to complete this opus over 15 difficult, often turbulent years in multiple locations on two continents.

An opening crawl offers some of the baroque back story. Welles began shooting “The Other Side” in 1970, but for financial, legal and political reasons it remained unfinished when he died in 1985. He was already a god of cinema or a fallen idol (depending on who’s telling the tale) when he started it in Los Angeles with a crew that included cinematographer Gary Graver, who stuck with Welles throughout. According to Josh Karp’s engaging book “Orson Welles’s Last Movie,” Welles wanted to begin the shoot in Tijuana, Mexico, but instead commenced production in his own house, a fitting liftoff for a film that is a checkered masterwork.

“The Other Side” opens with a brief sequence consisting largely of black-and-white still and moving images — an overturned car, a young man on a motorcycle going nowhere, various familiar and less-so figures — while a sober-sounding, offscreen Peter Bogdanovich speaks about a filmmaker named J.J. Hannaford, called Jake. “He died many summers ago,” Bogdanovich says in a voice that sounds like a sigh. He is nominally referring to the leading character, memorably played by director John Huston, Welles’ old friend. But it’s obvious that Bogdanovich is also speaking about Welles and already blurring the line — between fiction and nonfiction, the director and his protagonist — that will only grow more indistinguishable as the story unfolds.

As Bogdanovich continues, a shot of Hannaford fades out, supplanted by an image of the young Bogdanovich in a transition that puts one of the themes into visual terms. Welles takes on a lot in “The Other Side” — men, women, the decline of Hollywood, the persistence of vision, and the charms, torments and betrayals of close male friendships. “For years, I personally didn’t want this document shown,” Bogdanovich continues, as a lonely horn wails, “frankly, I didn’t like the way I came off in the piece. But I’m old enough now not to care anymore how my role in Jake’s life is interpreted.” That this seems unlikely is presumably the point.

Then again, maybe not; it’s hard to know, exactly, because of the film’s sly ambiguity, which is part of its pleasure, and because Welles did not actually finish it. A handful of others did, including Bogdanovich and the producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, who relied on memories, script notes and a postproduction team that included editor Bob Murawski to put Welles’ presumed intentions into commercially acceptable shape. It’s an admirable undertaking, though what relation it bears to the project that Welles carried around in his head — and that he shot and edited for years, massaging it like sculptor’s clay — is a question that only a séance could answer.

What we have is something of a seductive tease, a haunted film that at times entrances and delights and at times offends and embarrasses. Its most successful section takes place over a single day that ends in death. Shot in different film formats, it centers on Hannaford, a gruffly appealing macho director based partly on Hemingway. Hannaford, who enters dressed in safari-style clothing that suggests that filmmaking, perhaps life, is an exotic adventure or maybe a blood sport, has recently returned from Europe, where he’s been making a film, also titled “The Other Side of the Wind.”

As yet unfinished, this highly stylized movie within a movie is seen in fragments throughout — at a screening for a wary studio executive (Geoffrey Land as a Robert Evans type), at a birthday party for Hannaford and at a run-down drive-in. Dialogue-free and filled with strikingly derelict locations, Hannaford’s film follows a motorcycle guy (Bob Random) who chases — and is pursued — by a woman known as the Actress (Oja Kodar), a regal beauty with enviable posture and a derrière that, to judge from its prominence, Welles cherished. Kodar was his companion in his later years, and shares script credit on this film. Welles apparently wanted the movie within the movie to be a take on, or perhaps parody of, an art film; he intensely disliked Antonioni, for one. It’s unclear, though, if the vividly staged and shot results — with their chases, poses, negative space and sexploitation vibe (we’re a long way from Antonioni) — were supposed to be this silly and emptily decoratively. Welles may have thought Kodar a fascinating screen subject, but here she’s a stilted fetish object. For much of the movie within the movie, she prowls around in diaphanous caftans or little or nothing, only occasionally dropping her mask to reveal something beguiling and human.

Beguiling and human describe the rest of “The Other Side,” which is often as visually expressive and narratively engrossing as the faux art film is visually florid yet stultifying. Stuffed with old Welles friends and colleagues — including Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien and Paul Stewart — this part of the story takes off with Hannaford on a set where he’s been filming some kind of comical-looking cine-smut with toys and naked women. He then makes his way to a party that is being given by a famous actress (Lilli Palmer in place of Marlene Dietrich), amid a scrum of sycophants, auteurs, cinephiles and whirring cameras.

In time, a vision of a film artist worn down by life — or fame or disappointment — emerges, though it would be a mistake to assume that Welles was making a self-portrait. His traces are scattered throughout, inviting you to chase bread crumbs here or there. But nothing is obvious in “The Other Side of the Wind,” including how Welles places people in the frame, his brilliant use of dialogue — which overlaps but also suggests that people are incapable of speaking to one another — or the delicacy with which he directs his actors, his friends and his loves. If there’s a self-portrait, it’s the one reflected in all those beautiful, ragged, immortal faces.

‘The Other Side of the Wind’ is rated R for female nudity and gun play. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.