The bogus myth about Orson Welles is that he never produced anything worthwhile after his monumental directorial debut, "Citizen Kane." Even those who affirm the greatness of "The Magnificent Ambersons," "The Lady From Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil" dismiss the last decades of Welles' life as a pathetic parade of self-parodying wine commercials and voice-over narration.
You might be inclined to agree, since the image that most of us alive today retain of Welles is that of an obese raconteur overflowing Johnny Carson's couch. Well, thank Jah for a fascinating new documentary, "Orson Welles: The One-Man Band," which resuscitates the brilliant director's reputation as an endlessly creative force. Assembled by a German crew, "One-Man Band" offers, among other treats, unseen footage from numerous films that Welles started in the 70s and 80s but couldn't finish.
These precious relics finally see the light of day thanks to Oja Kodar, a beautiful starlet who was Welles "companion and collaborator" from 1965 until his death in 1985. She offers occasional bland commentary and some narcissistic nude footage Welles shot of her years ago, but mostly she stays out of the way. It's Welles we've come to see, after all, and that's who we get. Welles doing a slew of magic tricks. Welles wittily answering questions from earnest college students. Welles delivering a gracious, amusing speech upon receiving the American Film Institute's lifetime achievement award in 1975.
The big news, though, is the lost clips. Welles buffs will drool over two scenes from his unfinished opus, "The Other Side of the Wind," including a tense front-seat sex scene unlike anything else Welles ever put on screen. There's footage of the great Orson as "The Merchant of Venice," a chilling TV production that died a brutal, premature death when the negatives disappeared mysteriously. All these bits of Welles add up to a mosaic of amazing vitality, vast intelligence and sly humor.
Nonetheless, the experience of watching "One-Man Band" is like trying to solve a mystery. Welles remains a cypher, always knowing more than he lets on. Therefore we never tire of seeing him onscreen, in whatever guise, for maybe now he'll pull back the cloak or reveal himself unintentionally through a careless remark. "Orson Welles: One-Man Band" draws a portrait not of a bitter, dissolute man but of one who, in his own words, "sustained himself on hope and enthusiasm."
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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