The miracle discovery of Too Much Johnson in the Italian port of Pordenone in 2013 satiated the restless curiosity (comes with the territory) of Welles aficionados around the world. Standing as it does between the glib avant-garde parody Hearts of the World and crystalline film studies favourite Citizen Kane, Too Much Johnson represents, or should have represented, no less than the full introduction to the world of Orson Welles the narrative filmmaker. Yet like Welles’ classics and non-classics alike, the movie exists all but compromised—narratively compromised, one could almost suggest, with purpose: malformed, even the Great Man’s classiest movies seem to be locked in an endless, distressing struggle with their own difficult existence.
Not only was Too Much Johnson intended as a companion piece to a 1894 play also titled “Too Much Johnson”, but the print that was discovered in Pordenone was a work-print, featuring endless alternate takes and clanky, first-draft edits. And the film itself—a 66-minute tribute to Keystone Kops and Mack Sennett, featuring elaborate, hammy re-stagings of routines cliché to anybody who’s seen their fair share—can indeed be a trying experience. Even with such impish material, Welles’ looming camerawork and gift for overthinking things sullies the inspired and primitive source material getting paid tribute to with undue importance.
Still, with a home-movie feel undoubtedly borne of the presence of Welles’ (unpaid) buddies yucking it up in the cast, Too Much Johnson in its own strange way anticipates such late works as the remarkable and remarkably amateurish The Immortal Story. What’s great about this 1968 production—with the disappearance of the negatives of The Merchant of Venice, it counts as Welles’ last narrative feature film—is that it backs the director into a corner and demands that he work with only the most primitive of available tools. Shot in and around his Spanish villa, the scenario tests Welles’ ingenuity at a breakneck pace.
A TV movie, shot in colour (which Welles despised), The Immortal Story pushes Orson Welles to pose such philosophical questions as “how do I circumvent typical shot-reverse shot when the scene consists of two people sat opposite each other at a table?” In other words, the director must adopt the thinking of the first great filmmakers, whose twee ingenuity he shot for in Too Much Johnson, has to ask himself: “how do I film a room?” The results are interesting enough, with Welles adopting a cheapened, strained version of his baroque style that, in exaggerated, volleying cuts leaping across diegetic space, still manages to be every bit as stylish and cataclysmic as that of Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons.
Too Much Johnson and The Immortal Story are out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.