Bright Lights Film Journal

You Look Pretty Splendid Yourself, Orson: A Conversation with Curtis Harrington

On unfinished projects and friendship

How often does one great filmmaker appear in the film of another great filmmaker? Not very often, but Orson Welles managed the trick several times over in his unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind, which was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, and partially edited at the time of his death. In the film, John Huston plays an aging film director named Jake Hannaford in the declining years of his career. Peter Bogdanovich plays a younger director named Brooks Otterlake, whose career is on the ascent. But that’s only the beginning. At Jake’s birthday party — an elaborate sequence that is reportedly a centerpiece of the film — all sorts of movie types gather to pay homage: film buffs, groupies, critics, artistic collaborators past and present, and, naturally, other directors. Claude Chabrol, Paul Mazursky, and Curtis Harrington are among those in that last group.

With such films to his credit as Night Tide, Games, What’s the Matter with Helen? (the director’s personal favorite), and Ruby, Harrington is one of the most distinctive filmmakers of the modern era, with an immaculate visual sense and an instinctive feel for the horror genre. And he’s still in the filmmaking game, having recently directed a wonderfully moody and evocative 40-minute Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, Usher (right), which has played to enthusiastic response on the festival circuit.

Harrington only worked for two evenings on The Other Side of the Wind, but in our April 2004 conversation, he remembers them vividly, as he does his several other encounters with the master filmmaker in the years up to his death.

Peter Tonguette: How did you come to be involved in The Other Side of the Wind?

Curtis Harrington: When Orson was shooting The Other Side of the Wind, a friend of mine named Robert Aiken appeared in the film. Have you seen any of the footage?

I’ve seen several excerpts of it. You know, he presented some clips from it at his AFI Tribute.

Yes. Did you see the scene in the car?

The sex scene in the car?

Yes. Well, the driver of the car in that sequence is my friend Robert Aiken. So I said to Robert, “Oh God, I’d love to watch Orson work.” They were shooting that sequence in what is called poor man’s process. In other words, that car wasn’t even moving. It was just jiggled and had water being sprayed on it for rain. And then there were lights that kept turning. It’s an effect. That’s how they were doing it, at a top of a hill where Orson was living at the time in the Beverly Hills area.

So a friend and I climbed up the side of the hill, just to peek; Robert had told us where they would be. And I can’t quite remember how, but at some point we were discovered. [Laughs] And it was all very embarrassing. But because I was a friend of Gary Graver’s [Welles’ chief cinematographer from 1970 onward], instead of being told to go away, we were welcomed, and Orson said, “We need someone else on a light. Will you work on one of the lights?” So the next thing I knew, I was on the crew doing one of those turning lights to give the effect of lights going by as the car moves along.

Do you remember what year this was?

It must have been around 1970.

Had you ever met Welles before?

Well, the first time I met Welles was when Gary invited me to join the two of them for dinner. So I’d had dinner with Mr. Welles. But that’s the only contact I’d had with him, that one dinner.

Now you had worked with Michael MacLiammor, Welles’ great friend from Dublin, on your film What’s the Matter With Helen?

No, that happened after this. In regard to my appearance in The Other Side of the Wind, it happened mainly through Gary but Orson wanted me. There is a sequence in the film where the John Huston character interviews a number of younger directors at a party, in the big party sequence. And I’m one of the directors.

Were you playing yourself?

Yes, I was myself. He was interviewing me as myself. And at that time, John Huston had still not been cast. So, in the curious way that Orson had been shooting in those days, he’d shoot one side of a scene and he played the John Huston part off-screen while he was shooting me. Then, eventually, when he found someone to play the role — which he finally found in Huston — then the other side of it would be shot and then it would be intercut.

So the night that he did that scene with me, interviewing me, playing the John Huston part off-screen and directing me, was the very night before I started to shoot What’s the Matter with Helen? Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have thought of doing anything like that on the night before my very first day of shooting. But it was such a privilege and honor for me, and I was so flattered that Orson wanted to do it. And it was the only time [Welles could shoot the scene], really, so I agreed to it.

I remember that evening, I told him that I had engaged Michael MacLiammor to appear in What’s the Matter with Helen? and he was very pleased. He mentioned “dear Michael” and how much he loved him.

Did you get the chance to talk about Welles with MacLiammor?

When I was shooting What’s the Matter with Helen?, whenever Michael was working, I had two lunches brought to me in my dressing room trailer (or, when we were at the studio, I had a little room), so we could have lunch together.

I imagine he had a lot of stories.

He did indeed. I wish I could remember them all. I didn’t write them down.

You actually worked with two other “Welles actors” in that film, Agnes Moorehead and Dennis Weaver.

That’s right. I don’t remember asking either Agnes or Dennis particularly about working with Welles.

I was curious if you feel that Welles’ films have had an influence on your own work as a director?

Oh, very much so. Not in the way that the work of von Sternberg did, von Sternberg still being my most admired of American directors. I admired Welles deeply. When I’ve watched his films, I often studied how he shoots and cuts very carefully. I’ve tried to duplicate that at moments in some of my films.

Did you stay in touch with Welles in the years following your appearance in The Other Side of the Wind?

Yes. I wasn’t in the Welles circle, as it were, I wasn’t close to Welles, like Peter Bogdanovich was. In his later years, Welles was in the habit of having lunch every day at a restaurant called Ma Maison in Beverly Hills on Melrose Avenue. I also ate lunch there often in those days. Welles always ate inside and often he would be in a corner with Peter Bogdanovich or whomever. He dined there virtually every day and so sometimes he would be eating alone. Always inside. I always ate outside. It had a garden area outside and I liked that the best, so that’s where I always ate. But Welles always ate inside, possibly to avoid the crowds staring at him and so on.

Anyway, so one day I had to go to the men’s room inside. I would not have had the temerity — even though I had met him — to interrupt his lunch. It was just not my nature because I consider that to be rude. So I was coming back from the men’s room and walking past his table, but at some distance from it. And suddenly the great voice boomed out, “Curtis!” [Laughs] I said, “Yes, Orson?” He said, “Come here.” So I went over to his table. He was sitting, having lunch alone. He said, “Now Curtis. When you come to Ma Maison to have lunch, I expect you to come to my table and say hello to me.” Of course, I was deeply flattered. I said, “Well, thank you. I would love to do that and I will!” So from that moment on, whenever I saw him there, even when he was with other people, I always made that effort, to go to the table and say hello. He was always very gracious towards me. I think that gives a wonderful insight to the sort of person he was. His generosity of spirit.

I just wanted to tell you this wonderful story about our very last meeting, just a few days before he died. I was in the restaurant to have lunch. And I had some kind of an appointment with somebody. So I was all dressed up. I had a coat and a tie and you know. So he was in the corner table with Peter and two or three other people. But, as usual, I went over to the table to say hello to him. And I can tell you exactly what he said to me. He looked up at me and he said, “Don’t you look splendid!” And it was so nice, you know. My last words to him, in return, which I also remember, were, “You look pretty splendid yourself, Orson.”

That’s a wonderful story.

Isn’t that a nice good-bye?

Talking to the people who really knew or worked with Welles, you rarely hear about the cantankerous person with a temper. I think the most significant thing I’ve learned from talking to these people is what a genuinely nice spirit it seems he was.

He was. You see, because he was a person of extraordinary intelligence, taste, and, I think, the greatest American theatrical genius of our time. He was a great man. I think there is absolutely no doubt about that. And the fact that he had such a hard time keeping it together in later life is very, very, very sad. But he couldn’t really get any proper backing. And it’s very hard to make films with no money. I just made one called Usher and I know how difficult that is.

Obviously, he was indulgent. He ate too much, he drank too much — I don’t mean that he was a drunkard, but he loved his wine with his meals. He was overweight and got more and more and more overweight. And I think on that level, he was never able to discipline himself. Also, I think he did have a complex about finishing things. I wouldn’t presume to do an amateur psychological analysis of his fear of completion, but I think that it did exist. In some ways, I suspect that it was because of that overwhelming success and brilliance of his beginning work. My theory — and it’s only a theory — is that weighed on him as time went by. And he wanted to create, he wanted to keep working, but at the same time, I think he realized — in fact, I know he realized — that a great deal of what he was doing was not up to his own standards. And what better way to cut that off than to be unable to complete it?

I’ve seen now all this footage of Dead Calm1 and I think it’s very poor. It’s no wonder that he didn’t want to finish that film.

When Welles was interviewed by Bill Krohn in the ’80s, I got the sense thatThe Deep was not necessarily one of his favorite projects. [In Krohn’s interview, Welles stated that the film “looks like a TV movie,” though he praised it for its wonderful performances.]2

Well, he had an ability to transform everything. But I don’t know. He just wasn’t able to do it in that. It was very, very disappointing.

Have you seen any footage from The Dreamers?

No, that’s one I have not seen.

I wrote a lengthy article on that project. I have seen that footage and it’s pretty amazing. You couldn’t make a finished film from the existing material — it’s only 20 minutes. But it’s absolutely beautiful. One wishes he had been able to make the whole film, because the footage that he did shoot is remarkable, I think.

I see. For some reason, I haven’t seen that. But I would love to see The Other Side of the Wind completed. It has all kinds of brilliance in it, and I think the whole idea of the film within the film is very fascinating. And the difference in style of the two.

I remember that first dinner with him was very amusing for me. He spent most of the evening talking about the Irish theatre. And, as you know, I got to know Michael MacLiammor and his partner, Hilton Edwards, very well. And I did ask them about the story of Welles coming to their theatre in Dublin and announcing that he was a well-known American actor. [Laughs] I said, “Did you really believe that?” Michael said, “Oh no, we didn’t believe that for a minute. But we let him think that we believed it. And we also thought that he was absolutely brilliant and we wanted to put him in a play right away.”

  1. Dead Calm, also known as The Deep, was a thriller Welles shot off the Dalmation coast between 1967 and 1969. Never completed, this author has only seen brief excerpts from it as featured in the documentary Orson Welles: The One Man Band. In This Is Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich seems to agree with Harrington that Welles may have stopped work on The Deep because he felt that, in Bogdanovich’s words, “the film was too slight to be his next major film after Chimes at Midnight.” It’s worth emphasizing, however, that The Deep appears to stand as an isolated example in the Welles oeuvre of the director apparently intentionally stopping work on a film and that Bogdanovich believes this wasn’t “fear of completion,” but, in his words, “an attempt to prioritize his career.” The testimonies of many who worked closely with Welles indicate that, in most cases, the director did everything in his power to finish films. []
  2. See “My Favorite Mask Is Myself: An Interview with Orson Welles by Bill Krohn,” The Unknown Orson Welles, edited by Stefan Droessler, Belleville/Filmmuseum Munchen, 2004. []