unfinished business

A Guide to Orson Welles’s Other Unfinished Movies

The Deep. Photo: Orson Welles

The recent, belated, posthumous completion of The Other Side of the Wind has been billed as Orson Welles’s last film. That’s certainly true for now, but there is actually one more unfinished Welles feature that remains in a state of agonizing near completion. And the legendary director’s career was filled with incomplete projects, reaching all the way back to before Citizen Kane. Some of these were abandoned while they were being shot. Some were mostly shot but left unedited. Some were actually finished and edited, but then undone by contemptuous studios or anonymous pilferers. Yet others were personal movies that the director worked on for years and years until his death in 1985. And many of these projects are still shrouded in mystery, with different scholars believing different things. (It doesn’t help that Welles himself made many contradictory claims about these movies, and his intentions for them, over the years.) Nevertheless, here’s a guide to Orson Welles’s other major unfinished films.

Too Much Johnson (1938)
Shot back when Welles was a 23-year-old theater wunderkind who had yet to make Citizen Kane, this is a series of silent filmed prologues to the three acts of a theatrical production of William Gillette’s 1894 stage play Too Much Johnson. Together, these segments make for a somewhat experimental slapstick comedy that starts off as a bedroom farce but then becomes a visually striking and inventive chase through the streets of Manhattan, all leading up to a fantasy version of Cuba that Welles created in New York. He never finished editing the material — it turned out that the theater in question couldn’t have projected it — but at one point, he did consider cutting it together to give to his friend Joseph Cotten (who starred in it) as a Christmas present. The 60-plus minutes of footage was presumed lost for many decades — Welles claimed that the sole copy of it was destroyed in a fire at his house in Madrid in 1970 — until the discovery of a gorgeous nitrate work print in Italy in 2008. A recent restoration of the footage presents the seven minutes Welles originally edited and an assembly of the rest. It can all be seen here, and it’s quite marvelous.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Okay, this may seem like a bit of a cheat, since The Magnificent Ambersons was actually released in 1942, one year after Citizen Kane, and was even nominated for Best Picture. And it’s a great movie, possibly even a masterpiece — save for a joltingly artificial happy ending tacked on by the studio, which cut more than 40 minutes from Welles’s version while the director was off in Brazil working on a project for the U.S. government called It’s All True. (That one was also unfinished; see next item.) Over the years, Welles’s lost footage for Ambersons has become something of a Holy Grail for film archivists and preservationists. RKO reportedly junked the negative, but some think that Welles’s own work print must still be out there, somewhere — maybe in an unsearched attic or closet in Latin America. Many have looked far and wide. For more detail, you can check out Criterion’s loaded new edition of Ambersons coming out later this month.

It’s All True (1941–43)
As part of the war effort and to promote “hemisphere solidarity” and the Good Neighbor policy, Welles and RKO agreed to make a noncommercial film for the U.S. government about Latin America. The director hurriedly flew to Brazil in time to document the Carnaval and stayed there for about half a year working on It’s All True. The project had gone through multiple versions before Welles even started shooting, but ultimately, the plan was to make a film consisting of three segments. But along the way, RKO’s leadership changed, and the new regime, hostile to Welles, decided to abandon the production. (This period also coincided with The Magnificent Ambersons being taken away from him and recut.) It was never finished or edited, and several efforts were made over the years to retrieve the footage, which was reportedly dumped in the ocean sometime in the late 1960s or ’70s. (RKO had gone under in 1959, but its archive moved around to different companies.) Some of the material was found in 1981, and portions of it made its way into a brilliant 1993 documentary, It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, that partly reconstructs the three segments while also documenting Welles’s misadventures working on this movie.

Don Quixote (started 1955)
For many years, this was the decades-in-the-making unfinished Orson Welles film that everyone wanted to see. Welles had started it in the mid-1950s, but he had worked on it for so long that his leading man, Francisco Reguera (who himself had been a replacement for original star Mischa Auer), had died in 1969 before he could complete recording his dialogue. Reports have varied as to how in-the-can it was. In 1972, Welles told writer Jonathan Rosenbaum that he was basically done shooting and just needed to do some final sound work. But in 1982, he said he was planning to return to Spain to get some more footage for it, and to finish it as an essay film, perhaps in the vein of his experimental documentary F for Fake. Along the way, footage disappeared, sound disappeared, and nobody seemed to agree on just what exactly Welles had ultimately intended to do with it. The director insisted that the delays weren’t financial. “I will finish it as an author would finish it, at my own pace,” he told a USC audience in 1981. It’s even possible that he decided at some point that it was better left incomplete; Rosenbaum feels that “more than any other Welles project, Don Quixote remained unfinished by choice.”

Some years after Welles’s death, competing versions of Quixote appeared. Director Costa-Gavras put together a 45-minute version that screened at Cannes in 1986. Cult filmmaker Jess Franco, who had worked as a second-unit director on Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, released a nearly two-hour version in 1992 that drove many scholars nuts, as it patched together footage from Don Quixote with an entirely different project, a travelogue Welles had made for television called In the Land of Don Quixote. (Franco’s cut was eventually released on DVD and can be found via streaming and other sources.) Around the same time, Welles’s former editor, Mauro Bonanni, made a different, shorter cut, which was held up in litigation and never released. Recently, Bonanni and Oja Kodar, Welles’s longtime partner and collaborator, came to an agreement for her to assume all his footage. That has raised hopes that this film will eventually be completed in some way.

The Deep (started 1966)
Here’s another full feature that Welles shot over some years (from 1966–69) but never finished editing. Which is ironic because he had hoped that this one would be a more commercial movie: It’s an adaptation of Charles Williams’s novel Dead Calm — the same story that inspired the 1989 Nicole Kidman–Sam Neill–Billy Zane thriller — starring Welles himself, Jeanne Moreau, Laurence Harvey, Michael Bryant, and Oja Kodar. One of the major impediments to finalizing the film has been that many of the main actors are dead — Harvey died in 1973 — and a lot of their dialogue was never properly recorded. Additionally, the negatives have been lost, and the only surviving versions appear to be rough cuts Welles worked on but never finished over the years. A work print assembled by the Munich Film Museum screened at MoMA in 2015, but in order for this ever to be completed properly, a major undertaking would be needed — perhaps even more ambitious than what Netflix has done with The Other Side of the Wind.

The Merchant of Venice (1968–69)
This is a fascinating Welles project — the last of his Shakespeare adaptations — that has been shrouded in a great deal of mystery ever since the filmmaker himself revealed its existence in a 1982 interview. A 40-minute movie originally meant to be a part of an abandoned TV special called Orson’s Bag, it was reportedly shot, edited, scored, and mixed in 1969, with Welles himself playing the role of Shylock. But part of Merchant, along with key sound elements, went missing after a private screening, and there has been some whispered speculation as to who may have taken it, and why. In 2013, two missing reels of the work print surfaced, along with some of the sound, and the Munich Film Museum has put together a reconstruction based on the available footage.

Orson Welles’s London and Orson Welles’s Vienna (started 1968)
The other parts of Orson’s Bag would be little segments on London and Vienna. Welles actually filmed quite a bit of the London section, which consists of humorous vignettes about Winston Churchill, British tailors, inbred aristocrats, and Swinging London, with Welles playing multiple parts and attempting some Pythonesque cheekiness. The Vienna section mostly features Welles walking around the city (the setting for The Third Man, one of his greatest roles) while discussing his memories of it. It then devolves into a kidnapping subplot. After Orson’s Bag was abandoned, Welles continued to work on the London episode. Parts of these can be seen in the excellent documentary Orson Welles: The One Man Band.

The Magic Show (started 1969)
A lifelong illusionist, Welles intended this to be a feature about the history of magic, incorporating filmed magic acts — some of them legendary tricks that had been discussed for years — and comic interludes. Collaborating with the famous magician Abb Dickson, he worked on it off and on from 1969 through to the end of his life, shooting bits and pieces in various places. About a half-hour of edited footage exists, assembled by the Munich Film Archive. For more on this project, see this article.

Orson Welles’s Moby Dick (started 1971)
Moby Dick had been a constant in Welles’s life: Among other things, he’d done a radio play of it, he’d appeared in John Huston’s movie, and he’d written and directed Moby Dick — Rehearsed, a bare-bones, condensed stage adaptation of Melville’s masterpiece. In 1955, after a successful production of Moby Dick — Rehearsed on the London stage, Welles shot about 75 minutes of material, hoping to sell it to the TV show Omnibus; that footage remains completely lost, with very little information available about it. But in 1971, he started shooting a version of Moby Dick — Rehearsed with himself doing all the parts — essentially, a long filmed monologue. He worked on it at various points, but never finished it.

The Dreamers (started 1978)
Based on two stories by Isak Dinesen, this is a very personal project that Welles and his partner Oja Kodar started making in his final years, shooting about half an hour of usable footage between 1980 and 1982, much of it in their own house and garden. He was unable to get money to continue — much of what he did film was footage designed to get financiers interested — so all that remains are a touching series of spare, lovely vignettes featuring Welles and Kodar. The Munich Film Museum has put together an evocative 22-minute assembly, using Welles’s existing material.

Filming “The Trial” (started 1981)
The final feature Welles released during his lifetime was Filming “Othello, a documentary about his 1951 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. (It can be found as a supplement on Criterion’s release of Welles’s film.) He had hoped to continue making more documentaries about the productions of his classic pictures, and toward the end of his life, started working on one about his 1962 adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. But all he managed to shoot before his death was a lengthy Q&A session with a group of USC students after a screening of the film. The footage of that session can be viewed here.

A Guide to Orson Welles’s Other Unfinished Movies