The Gallery of Modern Art’s Orson Welles retrospective has showcased some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of cinema — but not everything the master touched turned to gold.
The retrospective has been programmed with all the love and care you’d expect from the team at GoMA, but there are a few curiosities, oddities and just plain misfires that didn’t make the cut. In many ways, they’re as essential to understanding the man and his legend as the films we remember more fondly.
You’ve seen the best — now see the rest.
Black Magic (1949)
“The biggest picture in ten years!” screamed the poster for this one, boldly proclaiming that the film would be bigger than Gone With The Wind and, say, Citizen Kane. In reality, it didn’t make much of an impression at all, and has become one of the most obscure entries in Welles’ catalogue — even most film buffs would stare blankly at you if you mentioned it.
Welles stars as the 18th century magician and scam artist, Count Cagliostro. Not only did the role tap into themes that Welles, a gifted magician and occasional scam artist, would obsess over for the rest of his career, but it co-starred Welles’ frequent collaborator Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil, Mr Arkadin, The Trial) and was directed by Welles’ friend Gregory Ratoff. Legend has it that many scenes were even directed by Welles himself, making it essential — and completely overlooked — viewing.
It fell into the public domain years ago, and can now be viewed for free in its entirety on YouTube.
The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981)
Welles was a magician and occasionally gave psychic readings, but there was nothing truly supernatural about it — Welles believed in tricks, not magic. He certainly didn’t believe that he, or anyone else, could actually see the future. “One might as well make predictions based on random passages from the phone book,” he once told talk show host Merv Griffin.
This makes his decision to host The Man Who Saw Tomorrow — a quasi-documentary about the life of 16th century prophet Nostradamus — a particularly strange one, although perhaps it’s not that hard to explain when you consider the difficulties he had funding his own projects at the time.
The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, which can also be viewed for free on YouTube, is a fun look at how people in 1981 thought the future might unfold, and a reminder that, hey, even a legend’s gotta eat sometimes.
Filming Othello (1978)
Seventeen years before DVDs were invented, Welles filmed this hour-and-a-half long special feature, looking back at his 1952 production of Shakespeare’s Othello. ‘Making Of’ specials weren’t uncommon in 1978, but they were usually made to promote new releases, not films from 26 years ago, and they usually consisted of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew. Instead, Filming Othello takes the form of a monologue, as Welles invites the viewer into his home and shares anecdotes about the film’s troubled production.
Welles liked to make films about golden boys who tragically squandered their potential, and you could argue he followed that arc in real life — despite being a superstar of film, radio and theatre at 25, Welles was eventually cast out by the studios and had to beg, borrow and steal to make his later films on shoestring budgets. That pain was never rawer than in the final moments of Filming Othello.
“There are too many regrets,” Welles says, “there are too many things I wish I could have done over again. If it wasn’t a memory, if it was a project for the future, talking about Othello would have been nothing but delight. After all, promises are more fun than explanations. In all my heart, I wish that I wasn’t looking back on Othello, but looking forward to it. That Othello would be one hell of a picture. Goodnight.”
Originally produced for West German television, Filming Othello has never been officially released, but can be viewed on YouTube.
Treasure Island (1972)
Perhaps the worst film ever made by a great talent because of contractual obligation, Treasure Island took a long, tortured path to the screen. In the early ’60s, Welles was determined to make Chimes at Midnight, his mash-up of five different Shakespeare plays. Unfortunately for him, nobody was interested in funding it, so he started shopping it around as part of a two-picture deal with a commercially viable adaptation of Treasure Island. Spanish investor Emiliano Piedra took the bait, and agreed to finance both films, which would be shot at the same time.
Welles wasn’t actually all that interested in making Treasure Island, though, and began funneling all of his resources towards Chimes at Midnight. Welles never did get around to directing Treasure Island, but eight years later, he was forced to fulfill his obligation and star as Long John Silver in a version of the film directed by John Hough, using Welles’ old screenplay. Welles was so ashamed of the whole affair that he asked not to be credited for the script, instead using the pseudonym O.W. Jeeves.
Hough’s production of Treasure Island, with Welles in the starring role, was eventually completed and released in several different languages, each version of which inexplicably credited a completely different director. None of them should be proud of themselves.
The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Most people like to ignore that this was Orson Welles’ last film, but they shouldn’t — in a way, it’s a bizarrely fitting capstone to his career. (He died just a few days after recording his final lines.) Welles provides the booming voice of Unicron, an enormous, planet-eating force of nature seemingly on track to take over the universe before he comes undone by his own hubris and is torn apart from the inside.
“Destiny,” Unicron bellows as he explodes, “you cannot… destroy… my… DESTINY!” Ah, but they could, Orson. Ah, but they did.
Bonus round — Paul Masson
In the late 1970s, Orson Welles spent two years promoting Californian winemaker Paul Masson’s wares. For some reason, these drunken outtakes from a Paul Masson ad aren’t part of GoMA’s Welles retrospective, but if you haven’t seen them, you’re not a real fan.