Film Review: ‘Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles’

Pristine film clips highlight documentarian Chuck Workman's straightforward biographical tribute to Orson Welles.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles Review

Chuck Workman’s latest bouquet to cinematic history, “Magician,” provides a solid overview of Orson Welles’ life and output. While little here will be news to cineastes, the mix of interviews and archival footage — particularly high-quality clips from the subject’s directorial features — should engage fans while providing a fine introduction for those whose knowledge doesn’t stretch beyond recognizing the words “Citizen Kane.” More a natural for ancillary formats (it’ll be a film-studies classroom perennial) than theatrical exposure, the documentary plans a theatrical launch on Dec. 12.

A straightforward, chronological approach in chaptered form starts with “1915-1941: The Boy Wonder,” charting Welles’ eccentric, transient childhood, and the thirst for artistic expression that led to adventuresome stage triumphs (like the all-black “Voodoo Macbeth”) in his early 20s. He also became a highly popular radio actor (notably as voice of “The Shadow” on that mystery serial), and it was in that medium that he became infamous via the 1938 Halloween broadcast of H.G. Welles’ Martian-invasion fantasy “The War of the Worlds.” Dramatized in fake-newscast form, it panicked some gullible listeners (though some argue the extent of that reaction was greatly exaggerated).

Such notoriety brought Hollywood offers; Welles held out until RKO’s terms gave him virtual carte blanche. Though his initial plan to adapt Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was scuttled as too expensive and risky, “Kane” was scarcely less so — not least for being so blatantly inspired by the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who used his considerable might to thwart its success. (Though, as one observer points out here, the film was just as much a critical self-portrait for Welles.) As a result, RKO was all too happy to seize the post-production reins on “The Magnificent Ambersons” when Welles blithely decamped to South America for the abortive “It’s All True.” The sadly compromised if still brilliant result proved another box office failure, ending his cinematic honeymoon.

Thus began decades alternating lucrative (if often trivial) acting gigs with erratic directorial work, the latter often plagued by budgetary woes or front-office interference. Even his moneymaking 1946 thriller, “The Stranger,” couldn’t shake his rep for extravagance, unreliability and inconsistency with popular taste.

Spending most of the next decade in Europe, Welles made “Othello,” the first of several projects that were shot piecemeal whenever funding became available. He considered two late masterpieces, “The Trial” and “Chimes at Midnight,” his personal best — but they also flopped. Several other projects (“Don Quixote,” “The Merchant of Venice,” the improvised “The Other Side of the Wind”) never neared completion. (Some have been or will be released in posthumously constructed form; it’s noted that several titles, including “Chimes at Midnight,” remain in legal contention.) Meanwhile, his slightly embarrassing career as a public bon vivant flourished, represented via clips from “I Love Lucy,” “The Muppet Show,” myriad talkshows and commercials, etc.

Welles’ consistent stylistic innovation is amply highlighted via great-looking excerpts from projects both famous and subterranean. (He’s heard saying that “Citizen Kane’s” technical daring was largely born from “the confidence of ignorance.”) A segment contrasting the original studio-tampered release version of the incredible opening sequence of “Touch of Evil” with its much later restored version (reworked per his original editorial notes) underline the brilliance of his instincts, as well as the tin ears they often fell on.

Workman takes the old-school view of Welles as a maverick too daring for Hollywood’s comfort, with no consideration of the theory that he may often have been his own worst enemy — too impatient and enamored with high living to ride out projects that would wind up abandoned or finished by others. Did he eventually enjoy playing the thwarted genius more than he cared about the work itself? One fascinating moment, particularly since it raises issues otherwise ignored here, comes when a surviving schoolmate, still in awe of Welles’ precocity, qualifies that by saying he was “the only person I knew who had absolutely no empathetic skills.”

In addition to much archival input from Welles himself — always willing to talk about himself, albeit sometimes via tall tales — “Magician” draws on many commentators living and dead. The latter include such co-workers as Heston, Robert Wise and John Houseman. The former range from biographers, critics and relatives to present-day helmers still in awe of his influence. (Richard Linklater calls him “the patron saint of indie filmmakers.”) Among those extensively tapped are his close friend Peter Bogdanovich and his final long-term companion, Oja Kodar. One fleeting portrait montage provides a glimpse of the many famous, beautiful women Welles was involved with. The closing mention of a feud between two of Welles’ daughters hints at rich dramatic potential in the messy legacy of legal and personal conflicts, still roiling three decades after his death.

In an initially amusing device, Workman inserts clips from variably worthwhile movies in which Welles is portrayed (“Radio Days,” “Heavenly Creatures,” etc.), extending it unnecessarily to films that simply reference him (“Day for Night,” “Get Shorty”). The use of pre-existing music as a score is fine, though the choices aren’t very imaginative. Otherwise, assembly is polished and focused.

Film Review: ‘Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Oct. 18, 2014. (In Telluride, Chicago, Mill Valley, AFI film festivals.) Running time: <strong>92 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Cohen Media Group release and production. Produced by Charles S. Cohen. Co-producer, Alice Henty.
  • Crew: Directed, edited by Chuck Workman. Camera (color/B&W, HD), John Sharaf, Tom Hurwitz, Michael Lisnet; sound, Patty Sharaf, Freddie Clare, Tom Bergin, Andras Kucsai Jr., Jon Wermuth, Richard Gin, Michael Barra. Yves Leveque, Peter Miller; re-recording mixer, Tom Efinger.
  • With: Simon Callow, Christopher Welles Feder, Norman Lloyd, Julie Taymor, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Elvis Mitchell, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Henry Jaglom, Joseph McBride, Sir Peter Brook, Walter Murch, Eric Sherman, Costa-Gavras, Richard Linklater, Oja Kodar, Buck Henry, Richard Benjamin, Wolfgang Puck, Stefan Drossler, Peter Viertel, Michael Dawson, Sydney Pollack, Paul Mazursky, Frank Marshall.