lost movie is like a locked treasure chest: until the seal is broken and the contents revealed, the possibility of limitless riches is enchanting. There are many reasons why potential masterpieces remain submerged, never to be seen by the public: directors are cruelly extracted from projects or unable to come to terms with the material; finances collapse or the money men are struck with fear of failure; studios assume creative control; negatives are misplaced or destroyed; and often, highly ambitious projects never get off the ground at all. Lost movies frequently generate wide public interest and become the focus of intense speculation—until that treasure chest is opened and shafts of reality expose the truth. The expectation surrounding these movies represent both our inner desire for greatness and our fear of destruction.
Inevitably it is the follies of great directors that frustrate us the most and there is no figure in the history of film more frustrating than that of Orson Welles. His is a lost career, not merely the story of a few incomplete films. His work exists in tantalising fragments. Only Citizen Kane, of his major films, remains as the great man intended. As early as The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles began to feel the waters rising, drowning parts of his work, the entire final sequence of that film re-shot by a rather opportunistic Robert Wise.
Incredibly a project lost to us forever predates even his first feature, the planned adaptation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, to be filmed in the first person and with a noirish voice over, was deemed too costly. The most famous of his Hollywood films to be butchered is Touch of Evil, the wisdom of the studio dictating that the opening credits be placed over the greatest shot in cinema. What exists now is a re-cut edition following the mandates of an impassioned 50 page memo by Welles.
This was just a prelude, however, to the grandest folly of Welles' fraught career: Don Quixote. For over 25 years Welles tried to scrape together the money and belief to complete the meandering epic, filming snatches here and there whenever the opportunity presented itself. Eventually, as a tribute to its indefinite delay, Welles titled the film When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote? Mischa Auer played the Don for some years, he was then dropped for Francisco Reiguera, who died. Akim Tamiroff, cast as Sancho Panza, also died and it was this that finally killed the project, as Welles thought him irreplaceable and had over twenty years' footage to re-shoot! Welles was a true independent, but perhaps he needed more of the studio's stubbornness. He abandoned the fight for Touch of Evil to pursue Don Quixote, leaving one incomplete film for another.
Welles died with two significant unfinished films in production, an adaptation of Isak Dineson's The Dreamers and his own The Other Side of the Wind starring John Huston. The Dreamers indicated a new and understated style for Welles, but it’s only half-complete. Despite an unfulfilled promise from Peter Bogdanovich that he would finish the editing of The Other Side of the Wind, it remains adrift from critical existence, rumoured to be owned by the Shah of Iran, destined to be destroyed in an impending nuclear strike. Some say that Welles developed a fear of editing, and would perform as neat a disappearing act from the cutting room as any from his many magic shows. Perhaps Welles feared the final production, realising that completion was, in many ways, destruction, of the pure idea, opening the door to imperfection and failure. So, the incompleteness of Welles' jigsaw of a career cannot be wholly blamed on those acting against his grand vision. He was guilty, on occasion, of hiding the pieces himself.
Of all missed opportunities, it is Erich von Stroheim's Queen Kelly, which may well be the most crucial loss. Queen Kelly was to be a five-hour epic starring Gloria Swanson, and billed to be her tour de force and the crowning achievement of silent cinema, bankrolled by Swanson's lover, bootlegger Joe Kennedy. The ripe story of sex, death, abduction, slavery, suicide, prostitution, mysticism, and revenge—in the hands of the riotous director and glorious Gloria—is mouth-watering. However, Kennedy and Swanson became increasingly impatient with von Stroheim's seemingly wasteful, monomaniacal approach. Finally, he was sacked in the middle of an African sequence feted to be some of the most dazzling footage ever captured. The producers turned sour and cut the film together, with less than a third completed. In the 60's, von Stroheim released his own version, with explanatory notes. In 1985, a further reconstruction was cobbled together. What exists is outstanding, what remains outstanding—but much will never be recovered. Wonder and curiosity can reach only so far, the waters are too deep and hide too much.
A figure equally renowned for his almost absurd dictation, Stanley Kubrick envisaged a sweeping biopic of Napoleon, with Jack Nicholson. It is well known that Kubrick was obsessed with the Frenchman, apparently creating a system of filed cards that detailed every recorded moment of his life, in chronological order. It was the confidence of the financiers that Kubrick could not command. No doubt his personal and accurate portrayal would have been enthralling, momentous, particularly as played by a committed Nicholson who had not yet become 'Jack.' Unwilling to compromise the scale of the project, Kubrick watched it sink to the depths, his own image reflected back from its descent. He would mourn the non-film until his final years.
A story of a missing film more remarkable still is the completed yet never released Jerry Lewis production The Day the Clown Cried. The mere existence of this movie is painfully enticing. The story is set in Nazi Germany, Jerry Lewis playing a failed German clown who is branded a traitor and thrown into a concentration camp. While at the camp, he finds unexpected success entertaining the Jewish children, whom the Nazi's have had trouble controlling. They enlist Lewis to walk them pied piper-style to the gas chambers. Surely one of the most inappropriate, vile and intriguing film narratives ever conceived, The Day the Clown Cried, which was directed by Lewis, demands viewing. However, Lewis has withdrawn the film. Some say because it is too crass and insensitive. Others, the very few who have viewed its entirety, claim that it is uniquely morbid and deeply disturbing. Although the ailing comic has vowed to rework and release it, the negatives remain hidden away.
There are some wondrous projects that we'll never see, tantalising but stillborn. One such film was the adaptation of A Portrait of Dorian Gray starring Greta Garbo. Hitchcock famously abandoned the radical and sensational kaleidoscope, deemed to be overly concerned with sexual violence and homosexuality—thus a commercial risk. Philip K. Dick had a deal in place with a studio and wrote a screenplay of his awesome novel Ubik, but the idea was inexplicably dropped. Ridley Scott booked Shepperton studios in 1989 to begin work on a sequel to Bladerunner, but nothing happened. Francis Ford Coppola has been shooting second unit footage on his futuristic social epic Megalopolis since the early eighties. Billy Wilder's Schindler's List, whisked from under his feet by Spielberg, is another stolen gem. Who knows how Wilder's acerbic wit might have handled the subject? Terry Gilliam's own version of Don Quixote may yet still be raised from the depths. However, with his already dubious commercial influence dwindling, it is unlikely he will retain final cut on the project. And, of course, there are hundreds more stories that we never even get to hear.
The desire to see that which will never be seen is a simple one: we all want what we can't have. We want perfect art, never-ending lives. Any attempt at perfection inevitably falls short in transition from thought to actuality. However, the lost movie retains the power, perfectly formed and timeless in concept. Something never released into the public consciousness can be nothing but successful, in that it cannot fail. Recently, the Exorcist prequel directed by Paul Schrader, which was withdrawn for being 'too intelligent' was another lost movie generating impossible expectations, until it was released on DVD. It wasn't too intelligent and it wasn't very good. In 1994 a version of Welles' It's All True [a film he was commissioned to make for the purpose of keeping South America on-side during the war effort] was sent out into the world. Although it is unfair to judge any incomplete work, the captured footage was notably dull. There is so much that isn't there in the history of the cinema, so many gaps, missing reels, and conspicuous silences. In many ways it is an art form of absences. La Regle du Jeu was, like much of Renoir's celebrated work, until recently, not available in its complete form. What else lurks beneath the surface that we'll never know about? DVD has made us realise how much is left behind. The inclusion of deleted scenes on commercial disks is of debatable worth, but it certainly makes us aware that the formation of a film is a sensitive thing, like spinning a potter's wheel, making impressions in the clay with tremulous hands. There is a tension between the fragment and the complete, the beginning and end. Foucault believed there was a thread between narrative and sexual closure. The wish to delay indefinitely the finality of pleasure pervades human nature, in sex, in life, and in the inescapable fear of death. Is there anything more fatally iconic than the words “The End” that seem to present themselves on the screen or printed page, even in their absence, at the closure of a story? The unfinished film, the unconsummated project, cannot end, if it is never finished, or even begun. It is a curious, particular type of ideal art whether intentionally created or otherwise. Nothing is lost in this drowned world of non-films—in them, once more, we escape the failure and disappointment of mortality.