What can we really say about a life? It’s a question that is asked time and again in the films of Orson Welles, and which critics have often found themselves asking about Welles himself. Among the great American movie directors, his body of work is the most famously incomplete, compromised, and meta. The finished films—including such achievements of form and narrative fluidity as Citizen Kane, The Lady From Shanghai, Chimes At Midnight, and F For Fake—are profoundly self-reflexive. They are stories about stories, investigations of cryptic personalities, filled with mirrors and filmic illusions that speak equally to Welles’ lifelong love of stage magic and his interest in the illusions of our own lives. Often, they are also stories of things buried in the murky past, of Shakespearean betrayals of trust, of fraud and personal debris. The Other Side Of The Wind, Welles’ unfinished 1970s project about an unfinished film, even goes so far as to ask: Can the art betray its creator?

The upcoming release of the film (on Netflix and in select theaters November 2) is a major event. It represents the last important addition to a filmography defined by its lost or misplaced pieces, paralleling the plots of so many of his films, from Citizen Kane’s mysterious “Rosebud” on. This is part of the Welles mystique, the contradiction of his career. Welles was a wunderkind, only 25 and already famous when he made Kane, but his earliest triumphs in film and theater (including the all-black production of Macbeth and the anti-fascist production of Julius Caesar) demonstrate a powerful obsession with downfalls and fading glory. He was a multi-hyphenate and a pioneer of radio, cinema, and American theater, but his body of work is critical of greatness—openly in The Other Side Of The Wind, a poison-pen letter to the auteur cults of the 1960s and ’70s. The Welles style is one of contrary tendencies: wit and tragedy, illusion and disillusion, magnificence and decline.

It’s difficult to imagine Welles’ career without the money troubles and production woes, which often pushed his films in strange, evocative directions. Both the bleak, spartan Macbeth and the expressionistic Othello were creative solutions to low budgets. Mr. Arkadin, in which a mysterious European millionaire hires an opportunistic American to look into his own past à la Kane, ended up nightmarishly refracting Welles’ theme of identity: the film exists in a multitude of versions, with Welles dubbing some of the supporting roles in addition to playing the title character in hair and make-up that always looks like a disguise. Even Kane is filled with suggestive trickery. For Welles, fooling the audience was part of the art. Whether it’s Chimes At Midnight’s John Falstaff or The Lady From Shanghai’s Michael O’Hara, his characters were often victims of trust; at the same time, his movies play with ours.

Welles on the set of The Other Side Of The Wind.
Photo: Netflix

The thread of failure and stymied ambition begins at the earliest point in Welles’ filmography, with an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness that would have been shot entirely in first person; the project was deemed too complicated and expensive, and Welles ultimately moved on to make Kane, his first film and his most celebrated and influential. By the time he began shooting The Other Side Of The Wind some 30 years later, his name had become a Hollywood byword for unfilled potential. But in the decades since, many of his formerly underappreciated features have been reappraised as masterpieces. We mythologize Welles, even as we can’t resist reading his biography into the films themselves. Not coincidentally, this sort of director psychoanalysis plays an important role in the plot of The Other Side Of The Wind, his murkiest film.

Welles began filming The Other Side Of The Wind in 1970, a year after he stopped production on two other projects that would also remain unfinished: Don Quixote, which he had been working on since the late 1950s, and The Deep, a commercially minded adaptation of the Charles F. Williams novel Dead Calm. (The footage from Don Quixote was ultimately cobbled together by the Spanish schlockmeister Jesús Franco, a former assistant director to Welles, for a release in 1992. The Deep, which survives only in incomplete work prints, has never been officially released.) It was around this same time that Welles’ villa outside Madrid burned down, destroying many of his personal materials, including what was then believed to be the only copy of Too Much Johnson, Welles’ first concerted (and thwarted) attempt at filmmaking—though a print was miraculously discovered in an Italian warehouse in the late 2000s, and restored in 2013. He hadn’t directed a film in America since Touch Of Evil, and returned from European exile to a rapidly, radically changing Hollywood. In effect, he was starting from zero.

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Ultimately, Welles would spend almost six years shooting The Other Side Of The Wind; it was the last major project of his lifetime, though by the time he died in 1985, only about 40 minutes had been edited. (The completed version, which runs 122 minutes, was assembled by Bob Murawski, best known for editing The Hurt Locker and the films of Sam Raimi.) Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which accompanies the Netflix release and includes extensive interviews and outtakes from the roughly 100 hours of footage Welles left behind, offers a close look at its troubled, sporadic production, from its financing (which came in part from the brother-in-law of the Shah Of Iran) to the reshoots and recasting that became a necessity as filming dragged on and on.

It might be a stretch to say that the film (which The A.V. Club will be reviewing in-depth later this week) is now “done”: It’s the anti-Kane, a cacophonous rebuke to the lyrical omniscience of Welles’ early films. In a perverse, fascinating update of the unproduced Heart Of Darkness, much of it is in a kind of a polyphonic first person, with cameras (operated by different on- and off-screen characters, including an interviewer voiced by Welles himself) as unreliable narrators. Many of these cameras are pointed at Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a macho, alcoholic movie director a generation older than Welles. As his protégé, Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), explains in the opening narration, this is all footage shot in the last hours of Hannaford’s life, as he celebrated his 70th birthday surrounded by documentary filmmakers, old friends, and Hollywood wannabes. But there are also long sections from Hannaford’s own unfinished comeback film, a wordless and borderline-pornographic art movie that’s also called The Other Side Of The Wind.

Welles and Peter Bogdanovich during the filming of The Other Side Of The Wind.
Photo: Netflix

It’s all too easy to get swept up in questions of what The Other Side Of The Wind says about Welles and his feelings about film and popular culture in the aftermath of the 1960s. But for all of the biographical details that the cantankerous Hannaford shares with both Welles and Huston, the dissimilarities are even more striking. Both the raucous birthday party and the film-within-a-film represent different forms of excess—a kind of excess that we understand to be Hannaford’s lifelong façade. On the one hand, The Other Side Of The Wind asks whether movies can actually tell us anything about the people who make them; on the other, it suggests that Hannaford’s own repressed emotions are unconsciously woven into his final movie. He lived as he wanted to, without ever realizing what it was he really wanted.

Perhaps Welles’ film was always meant to feel incomplete: It is messy, manic, and short on straight answers. But then, that was one of the singular achievements of his career; whether in the sophisticated structure of Kane or in the ragged ingenuity of his later work, he made art out of missing pieces (intentional or not, as in the case of The Magnificent Ambersons), fascinated with memory and lost time, often implying that the most meaningful things we leave behind are unanswered questions, broken promises, ruins, and our own vain, private, anxious Xanadus. Seventy-seven years ago, Kane told us that there was no single answer to the mystery of another person’s life. We’ve spent the decades since trying to define the life and work of its creator. The Other Side Of The Wind is destined to become another part of that puzzle. As unfinished as any life’s work, it still has so much to tell us about the meanings we search for in our own lives.