“The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See” is the rare movie book that won’t send you scrambling to Netflix with a list of must-see titles. But before you start mourning these unfilmed (and merely presumed) masterworks, consider the subject’s flip side: For every potential classic we’ve been denied, think of the bombs we’ve been spared. We’ll never know which of the book’s featured wannabes would have fallen into which category, and that’s part of what makes this what-if collection so fascinating.
Though written by a host of contributors (led by editor Simon Braund), the text has a surprisingly cohesive tone, pleasurably marked with humor, personality and strong opinions. This consistently entertaining ride introduces itself as “an alternative history of cinema” or “the skeleton of one,” and what could be more alternative or skeletal than a history that, essentially, didn’t happen? Call it a “phantom film festival,” one without premieres or popcorn.
Covering more than 50 unrealized projects, from Charlie Chaplin’s to Charlie Kaufman’s, the book’s entries are brisk and concise yet packed with information. Some include screenplay snippets, and all come with sidebars labeled “What Happened Next . . . ” and “Will It Ever Happen?” Depressingly similar problems sabotaged these movies: the “development hell” of rewrites; illnesses and deaths; rival productions; obsessive, perfectionist directors; and, biggest of all, the finances (or, rather, the lack thereof). You’re left wondering how any film ever gets made, then instantly grateful for the many great ones that found their way to completion.
What serious cinephile wouldn’t want to see Audrey Hepburn in Alfred Hitchcock’s “No Bail for the Judge”? But if they had made that film, then maybe she wouldn’t have done “The Nun’s Story,” and he might have skipped “Psycho.” So be careful what you wish for. I assume, though, we can all applaud the squelching of a proposed “Casablanca” sequel, and it’s also easy not to care too much about all the Batman, Superman and Star Trek movies we didn’t get. Then there’s an earlier version of “American Hustle” with John Belushi in Christian Bale’s role, and a “Gladiator” sequel with a resurrected Russell Crowe. All the book’s hopefuls, even the worst-sounding among them, are attractively presented with imagined posters, which gives the book the gloss of a softbound coffee-table edition.
Some of the selections never graduated from mere notion (Nicole Kidman in Wong Kar-wai’s “The Lady from Shanghai”), while others were on the verge of completion (David O. Russell’s “Nailed”) or finished and hidden away (Jerry Lewis’s reportedly abysmal Holocaust film, “The Day the Clown Cried”). In the cases where only partial footage exists, such as “Something’s Got to Give” with Marilyn Monroe, there’s something ineffably sad about those scattered pieces of film left dangling.
If this book has a patron saint, it’s Orson Welles. His career was strewn with films unmade, half-made, almost finished, unedited, mangled. Some of his actors died as his movies went on being filmed for years, put on hold while Welles accepted cash-raising acting gigs. Of directing, he said: “It’s about 2 percent moviemaking and 98 percent hustling.” Would Welles’s “Don Quixote” have been as impressive as his “Chimes at Midnight”? If such questions keep you up at night, then this is a book to stoke your fantasies. Or nightmares, if you happen to be an aspiring writer with a script or two tucked away in a drawer. And yet, the book ends optimistically: The closer we get to the present, the greater the odds that some of these movies, with screenplays still floating around, could actually get made.
It’s obviously too late for Chaplin’s “Napoleon” and Stanley Kubrick’s own Bonaparte epic (which is supposedly unrivaled as the most thoroughly researched project in film history). Other examples — David Lean’s “Nostromo,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis,” Sergio Leone’s “Leningrad” — join Kubrick’s in seeming too colossally expensive and ambitious to have been attempted, better left as grand dreams instead of compromised realities. But sometimes one failed project becomes the creative (and sacrificial) gateway to another. Hitchcock’s sex-and-violence ambitions for his rejected “Kaleidoscope” appear to have been realized in “Frenzy.” Something similar happened with Steven Spielberg and “E.T.,” a movie enhanced by the time he devoted to an unmade alien film called “Night Skies.”
Let director Terry Gilliam have the last word on this book’s daunting, mysterious terrain: “I’m beginning to think these films are never meant to be made. They’re your workouts between real films. You explore ideas and characters and then the right script comes along and you incorporate the ideas that have been tried out on these other things. In a way, the picture I have in my head is of an artist’s studio with all these half-finished canvasses all around the place.”
That’s comforting, as if the gods of cinema were actually in control, seeing that all the movies meant to be made actually do get made. Try telling that to Orson Welles.
DiLeo is the author of “Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery.”
Edited by Simon Braund
Cassell. 256 pp. Paperback, $24.99