News And Commentary – Still Celebrating the Orson Welles Centennial
Celebrating Orson Welles’ 100th birthday isn’t something you do in just one day, or even a month, and here at Mid Century Cinema we’ve been in a very Wellesy state of mind. If you have not much familiarity with Welles (or even if you do), take a look at this entertaining and informative six minute video essay by film critic and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum.
The birthday season provided an opportunity to finally break the seal on StudioCanal’s excellent 2012 (region 2) edition of The Trial (1963). Featuring a marvelous cast, The Trial is a visually thrilling film, alive with the euphoric possibilities of cinematic storytelling. A tour-de-force of monochromatic beauty and virtuosic technique, it remains a movie that inspires awe, but with which I have not made an emotional connection. But take note of Roger Ebert’s high praise.
Of the flood of new Welles books, three in particular caught my attention. Orson Welles in Italy is a little scholarly for some tastes, but this detailed review of the six years Welles was based in Italy (1947-1953) offers three valuable contributions. A committed New-Dealer (and friend of FDR), Welles was never formally blacklisted, but his departure from the U.S. was surely encouraged by a political climate that found him targeted by the right-wing press and shadowed by the FBI. Shockingly, in leftist Italy his relations with the press and the community of Italian film critics were also dismal, if for very different reasons (and ought to take the edge off the self-pity of anyone who has felt mistreated by critics). And the book offers exceptional coverage of the extended production of Othello, which won the Palm d'Or at the 1952 Cannes film festival. (Speaking of Othello, word on the street is that the Criterion Collection is promising a special edition later this year; be sure to scroll down for a trailer.)
Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts is a small treat for Welles aficionados. The book doesn’t really offer any surprises, but what it does have, or seems to have, is Welles’s voice. Friendship is based on a series of telephone conversations recorded (with Welles’ knowledge) by Roger Hill, headmaster at the boarding school that Welles attended. Their friendship lasted a lifetime; introducing Hill (twenty years his senior) at a Director’s Guild function in 1978 Welles said: “He has never ceased to be my idea of who I would like to be.” They spoke for the last time on October 9, 1985, the night before Welles died; Orson was talking optimistically about securing financing for four different projects he was juggling, hopes that he knew, all too well, had been dashed too many times before. “Disappointments continue to affect my confidence,” Welles told Hill, “but never my resolve.”
Orson Welles's Last Movie is a welcome account of the making of The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ final film starring John Huston, which was shot in the early 1970s, only half-edited and famously unfinished, with reels of the film held in a Paris vault, bound by an impossible tangle of competing legal and financial claims. A little gossipy at times (and some of the stories are unattributed), and indefatigable to a fault in chasing the movie’s byzantine money trail (the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran was a chief backer – you do the math), but the accounts of the production-in-progress are invaluable.
For Welles followers, the centennial looks like a promising year. Coming soon to home video is the sixty-six minute print of Too Much Johnson that was discovered in an Italian warehouse in 2013; and with all the legal barriers finally surmounted (apparently), a new crowd-sourcing effort is underway to finance the final assembly of The Other Side of the Wind – you can donate here. And for some icing on the birthday cake, archivists have just announced the discovery of extensive notes and fragments from a would-be Welles autobiography. Let the celebrating continue.