Considering that by the age of 26 he’d conquered the theatre (with his radical stagings of Shakespeare), radio (with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast) and cinema (with a film considered by many to be the greatest of all time), few could blame Orson Welles for struggling the rest of his life to live up to his own artistic legacy.
Turning his back on the studio system after control on films such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947) was wrestled from him in the final edit, Welles entered the precarious world of early independent filmmaking, spending whatever money he could get hold of on productions that might last for years – and which Welles might abandon if at any moment he felt the material wasn’t up to his standards. On his death in 1985, Welles would leave behind numerous projects unmade, unfinished or unreleased.
One such film, until recently, was The Other Side of the Wind, a Hollywood satire starring John Huston as an ageing director, which Welles shot sporadically from 1970 to 1976. As with all too many late Welles pictures, it remained unfinished in the director’s lifetime – the footage tied up in rights disputes. But a recent Netflix deal to finalise post-production means that the feature – Welles’ 14th – is set for a world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, then a release on Netflix from 2 November.
In anticipation of this new Welles film finally seeing the light of day, we charted the history of 10 unmade and unfinished Welles projects, some of which we may yet still get to see in one form or another.
Heart of Darkness (1939)
RKO had shown great faith in Welles when in 1939 it signed the theatre and radio wunderkind to a highly lucrative contract, one that would allow Welles total control of his first two movies as writer-director-star. Yet the studio ultimately balked at the price tag for his proposed debut. Having already put Joseph Conrad’s jungle odyssey Heart of Darkness to radio in 1938, Welles set about making a feature film in which he would star as both narrator Marlow and the mad, mythical Kurtz, and which would be shot entirely from Marlow’s point of view. Welles wrote the script, cast actors, meticulously planned camera set-ups and even shot test footage – but RKO, concerned that the war in Europe would harm the already over-budgeted film’s box office chances, pulled the plug.
The Life of Christ (1940-41)
After Citizen Kane, Welles toyed with the idea of filming the story of Christ (with himself in the title role, natch). It would have been a reimagining that retained the language of the Gospels while transporting Christ to the 19th-century American west, but a combination of factors eventually put paid to the idea: the potential for religious controversy, the vagueness of Welles’ overall plan and the fact that RKO was displeased with the time Welles was taking to develop such ambitious projects. Shelving his epic Christian western, Welles decided to instead swiftly move on to The Magnificent Ambersons, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington that he considered less challenging.
Lady Killer (1941)
Not long after the release of Citizen Kane, Welles pitched a ‘dramatised documentary’ to Charlie Chaplin provisionally entitled Lady Killer, to be written and directed by Welles and to star Chaplin as a character based on French serial killer Henri Landru. Chaplin, intrigued by the idea of taking a dramatic role but reluctant to be directed in a film by someone other than himself, instead bought the rights and ultimately turned Welles’ story into the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Chaplin later declared this “the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career”, but, in a 1960 interview, Welles insisted his version would have been better.
It’s All True (1941-42)
Intended as Welles’ third feature for RKO after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True was to be a docufiction comprising three stories set and shot in Latin America. Invented on the fly by Welles, the film had already gone through several iterations when a management reshuffle at RKO saw studio support for it (and Welles) withdrawn and the miles of footage already shot repurposed or dumped in the Pacific. Surviving elements, including the film’s entire third segment, appear in the 1993 documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1948)
Welles was drifting from studio to studio as a Hollywood director-for-hire when, in 1948, he relocated to Europe to work with producer Alexander Korda, on an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac that Welles had considered since his time at RKO. Over nine months, Welles wrote a script, scouted locations and commissioned Alexandre Trauner to design sets for a film he expected to direct and star in. But before Welles could shoot a frame, Korda sold the rights, with the project passing to producer Stanley Kramer and director Michael Gordon (who kept the set designs from Welles’ film for their 1950 Cyrano). Welles moved immediately on to a self-funded Othello.
Moby Dick – Rehearsed (1955)
Welles was so impressed with his 1955 London staging of Moby Dick – Rehearsed, his own take on Melville, in which the cast play repertory actors improvising the rehearsal of a new Moby Dick production, that he decided to record it for American television. It’s unclear how much Welles actually got on camera – cast member Kenneth Williams claimed the director filmed for just one weekend before giving up – but whatever footage there was of Rehearsed, which starred Christopher Lee and Joan Plowright along with Welles, the story goes that it was destroyed in the early 70s when Robert Shaw accidentally burned down Welles’ Madrid home while staying there as a houseguest.
Don Quixote (1955-85)
The great unfinished project of Welles’ career, Don Quixote began shooting in 1957, wrapped in 1972 and was still being edited in the months before the filmmaker’s death. Originating as a rejected 1955 Welles TV special that brought Quixote and Sancho Panza into the modern day, the expanded feature would quickly fall victim to Welles’ customary financial troubles and completion anxiety.
Paid for primarily by Welles’ acting and TV directing gigs, Quixote’s concept shifted constantly as the unscripted shoot moved from Mexico to Italy to Spain, Welles endlessly shooting and reshooting to the point where it took the two lead actors dying for him to finally call cut. Cult director Jess Franco released an unloved, cobbled-together version of Welles’ Don Quixote in 1992, but Welles’ film was probably always supposed to remain for him an ever-developing dream, as well as a tantalising ‘what if?’ for the rest of us.
The Deep (1967-73)
Two decades before Dead Calm was adapted into a 1989 Nicole Kidman vehicle, Orson Welles attempted his own version of Charles Williams’ novel. Mounted on the sizeable salary Welles had received for his appearance in Yugoslavian war film The Battle of Neretva, The Deep was filmed off the Dalmatian coast between 1967 and 1969, with Jeanne Moreau and Laurence Harvey starring. The death of Harvey in 1973 nixed any hopes of finishing the film, said Welles, though Moreau speculated that the movie was completed before then and that Welles simply chose not to release it. (Indeed, Welles admitted in a 1982 interview that he thought what he had was no better than a TV movie.) The original negative is now lost, although two work prints exist.
The Dreamers (1978-85)
Planned as Welles’ second stab at Isak Dinesen – he had already made The Immortal Story, based on a Dinesen short story, for French television in 1968 – The Dreamers would combine two Dinesen stories to weave a fantastical gothic romance about an opera singer facing an identity crisis. Welles, who didn’t abandon black and white photography until the late 60s, paid particular attention to colour and lighting for the promotional material he shot for the film, which critic and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum described as a “quantum leap” for the director. Unfortunately, no backers for the project were forthcoming – Hal Ashby’s Northstar Productions had paid for a screenplay but backed out upon reading it – and all that exists today of The Dreamers is a 20-minute test reel.
King Lear (1982-85)
Having already interpreted the character for stage, radio and television, Welles in his final years planned to direct himself in an intimate cinematic take on King Lear. Dubbing it an “anti-spectacle”, Welles was to film his Lear on videotape, in black and white, and largely in close-up. Test footage was shot to attract potential buyers, but funding never materialised before Welles’ death. Still, fans of Welles’ Bard are in luck: a restored version of Welles’ ‘condensed’ Merchant of Venice, an extended short made for a cancelled 1969 TV project, has been screening at film festivals since 2015 – meaning even more ‘new’ Welles may soon become widely available.