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Orson Welles' Don Quixote

Orson Welles' Don Quixote(1992)

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Orson Welles spent much of his career trying to film and finish personal productions, often on a piecemeal basis that no sane producer would attempt. His 'solid' directing jobs (Touch of Evil, The Trial) are outnumbered by projects either wrested from his hands and finished by others Mr. Arkadin) or left unfinished, with the pieces languishing in the hands of labs, creditors and unhappy investor-collaborators. The most famous unseen Welles production is The Other Side of the Wind, a tale filmed on the fly with an all-star cast of directors and close confidants, the Welles Inner Circle of 1972. Held up by legal and monetary entanglements, Wind has for over thirty years been rumored to be only a few months away from release.

In 1955 Orson Welles did some trial shooting on an modern-day version of Don Quixote for a TV program. The gig and the funding soon vanished but the director would continue off-and-on filming for years, using the daring production method that (miraculously) worked so well for his Othello: regrouping his cast and crew for a few scenes whenever he could scrape together enough money to float another few days of shooting. In a typical scene, Quixote seeks to rescue a maiden from a strange creature, which happens to be the motor scooter she's riding.

Welles' faithful actor-collaborator Akim Tamiroff has the Sancho Panza role, and a properly emaciated-looking Francisco Reiguera is Quixote. The pair is visually the best Quixote/Sancho team on film; Quixote for once really looks the part of a senile old visionary. Reiguera posed a serious logistics problem, as the actor was a Spanish Republican in exile in Mexico (where he later played in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee). Welles needed to film in Spain but Reiguera couldn't get a visa.

Don Quixote remained a rumored masterpiece, existing only in unfinished fragments. Forever fending off inquiries, Welles considered retitling his film, "When Are You Going To Finish Don Quixote?" Welles insiders lucky enough to see partially assembled bits (with Welles providing the voices for both Reiguera and Tamiroff) reported moments of brilliance and great potential.

Now the bad news. Orson Welles' Don Quixote is a 1992 "finish" job perpetrated on some of Welles' un-collated scenes. The feature is a depressing experience suitable only for those Welles scholars interested in seeing every piece of film the director shot. Orson Welles' Don Quixote obscures much more than it reveals, and suggests that Welles still had large sections of story yet to be filmed.

Around 1990 producer Patxi Irigoyen contracted with Welles heir Oja Kodar for the right to assemble a marketable feature from whatever could be found of the unfinished film. Organizing and assembling the show was exploitation director Jesus Franco, who had served as assistant director on Chimes at Midnight, one of Welles' very best movies.

Welles had apparently worked without a script, and left no written blueprint outlining his original plan. Franco assembled what he could, essentially stringing together Welles' pre-edited scenes with other views of Spanish scenery that Welles filmed travelogue-style. The main fault of Franco's work is that Welles would surely have found more creative editing strategies and patterns if he'd done the cutting himself. The fact that Welles didn't do more with his dream project leads us to believe that he knew all too well that too many crucial puzzle pieces were missing to assemble the footage into a satisfactory whole.

At least a third of Jesus Franco's movie concerns a reflexive subplot that may have been invented when Welles discovered that Señor Reiguera could not film in Spain. Akim Tamiroff's Sancho Panza becomes separated from his master and searches for him in a modern-day city during a bullfighting festival. A lot of footage is expended on rather violent "running of the bulls" action. Drunken runners fall and clog a bull gate, and a number of bulls stampede over of the pile-up. Welles' camera catches actor Henry Fonda sitting on a fence watching.

Among the people Sancho pesters are members of a film company in town to shoot a version of Don Quixote. The director, of course, is Orson Welles. Panza runs alongside Welles' limousine asking for help in finding his master, and gets a Hollywood brush-off. That's the gag, and we can't help but feel that Welles intended it to be a 90-second throwaway. It lasts forever in this cut, probably because Franco had so much film to work with.

Whatever way one looks at Orson Welles' Don Quixote, the idea persists that releasing it in this form was a bad idea. Editorial evidence suggests that Welles had assembled a basic cut of his good Quixote/Panza dialogue scenes that lasted maybe 25 minutes (a guess). Probably because he lacked access to the original negative, Jesus Franco simply duped that material and built the rest of the film around it. The visual quality fluctuates radically. The bullfight footage is razor sharp, the good dialogue scenes are indistinct and other scenes look like bad copies of washed out 16mm.

Franco wrote new connective dialogue and narration to hold the film together, further obfuscating Welles' direct contribution: imagine Citizen Kane edited by the guy who assembles public access shows down at the cable station. Welles had recorded a (temporary?) dialogue track for Sancho and Quixote, doing both voices himself. His impressive vocal tricks are the best thing in the show. But other voiceover artists read the substandard new dialogue, and their delivery comes nowhere near Welles' high standard. So the movie plays like an amateur film pasted together with bad dubbing. To his credit Franco didn't obliterate Welles' voice by redubbing everything. But the final film makes it obvious that the ideal format for Orson Welles' Don Quixote would be a non-narrative selection of Welles' unmolested trial scenes -- to wit, the investors' reel he put together in the first place.

If Welles had filmed enough of Quixote to make into a feature, he would have finished it. And if he were too sick to do it himself, he surely would have empowered Gary Graver or Peter Bogdanovich to carry the project through.

By accepting money and credit wherever he could get it, Welles doomed several of his projects to legal limbo. Oja Kodar had possession of the bulk of what was filmed for Quixote but possibly not the original negatives, which might have been held by labs or creditors. An editor on the original film refused to allow footage in his possession to be used in the 1992 compilation. One scene withheld is a six-minute piece better than anything in the Franco version; it's viewable online at this YouTube link. Sancho and Quixote attend a movie about knights in battle. Quixote becomes infuriated at what he sees and proceeds to hack the screen to shreds. It's classic Welles irony and it distills his Cervantes update concept into one nearly perfect image. And the scene is not in Jesus Franco's, I mean, Orson Welles' Don Quixote.

Franco's version introduces wretched opticals to paste windmills into scenes; his lazy cutting puts us to sleep. At 115 minutes, the film is grossly overlong -- even without the missing scenes.

The frequent cry we hear is that crude Hollywood Philistines envious of Welles' talent blackballed the great filmmaker and kept him from the production funds he needed and deserved. But Welles' own barnstorming style probably militated against his artistic ambitions. The bulk of the footage for Don Quixote appears to have been filmed in the late 1950s, when Welles bounced between acting jobs in America and Europe to support his personal productions. Producers would advance money only to see Welles and his entourage living the high life in hotels, leaving behind a trail of unpaid bills. Producer Walter Wanger forwarded Welles $50,000 to appear on screen as the "host" for a slight re-cut of Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers; Welles took the money but kept himself unreachable in Europe and never fulfilled his part of the contract. That sort of behavior sealed Welles' doom in Hollywood, despite the fact that bankable star Charlton Heston lobbied for him on more than one occasion.

Image's DVD of Orson Welles' Don Quixote is given an okay encoding that doesn't do well with some of the less-sharp and washed out B&W footage. Only about half the film looks as it should but this is probably because Jess Franco didn't have access to the best materials -- Welles' "good stuff" may have been mastered from a work print.

Image's handsome packaging combines a glowing review quote with liner notes carefully worded to avoid any mention of the ticky-tack nature of this version. The cover lists Patty McCormack as part of the cast, but I saw her only in the "movie theater" scene, the scene not included here. Fans will likely want to judge Orson Welles' Don Quixote for themselves, but be forewarned that the show is less an "unique vision" than a clumsy autopsy.

For more information about Orson Welles' Don Quixote, visit Image Entertainment. To order , go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson