Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles more or less delivers what it promises: an examination of the life and work of Orson Welles. However, it doesn't have a whole lot of magic. Chuck Workman's new documentary is the sort of straightforward, handsomely-crafted, no-nonsense career overview that you might see on TCM or PBS. It begins with an examination of Orson's childhood and ends by noting the details of his death, and it never deviates from that basic chronological path at any point.

I often complain that too many documentaries feel like little more than audiovisual adaptations of their subject's Wikipedia page. That's technically true in this case (devoted cinephiles certainly won't learn anything new about Welles from this flick), but it's less of a problem this time around due to the fact that the accompanying interviews and film clips are such a pleasure to watch. In addition to being one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century, Welles was one of the great personalities of the 20th century – I could listen to him happily reminisce about his savory meals or complain about the state of Hollywood for hours.

Welles lived such a vast, fascinating life that one can't help but think a more unique documentary might have been made about a specific part of his life – his obsession with magic, for instance, or his inability to finish almost any project without some sort of studio interference. It's a little disappointing that Workman chose the standard birth-to-death format, but it must be said that he does an exceptionally fine job with that format. The film moves at an enjoyably brisk pace, and the editing has a surprising elegance at times (there are a lot of clever little cuts that blur the line between clips of Welles' real life and clips from his movies).

Perhaps the most striking that about Magician is the way Workman opts not to overemphasize the importance of Citizen Kane in Welles' professional career. This feels like a gesture of respect rather than dismissiveness: everyone already knows about the greatness of Citizen Kane, and the film wants to remind us that he made plenty of other rich, fascinating works. So, we spend just as much time on movies like The Magnificent Ambersons, Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil and so on. The clips from these films are consistently well-chosen bits, and we also see a few clips from newer films (Get Shorty, Ed Wood, Me and Orson Welles, etc.) that remind us of Welles' influence on pop culture.

The movie uses interview clips from Welles himself as often as possible, but other talking heads pop up to provide additional context or gentle corrections. After Welles spins some fantastic yarn about the way he managed to get the rights to make The Lady from Shanghai, director Peter Bogdonavich and historian Simon Callow inform us that he was notorious for telling outlandish lies about that film's production. Indeed, part of the reason that Welles is such a consistently great interview is that he rarely lets something as tedious as the truth get in the way of a good story (a tendency Welles more or less admitted in his wonderfully odd semi-documentary F for Fake).

Above all, Magician is a rebuttal to the notion that Welles made a single masterpiece and then withered away. His work was vibrant and rich and fascinating all the way to the end, even if he had an increasing amount of difficulty actually finishing the projects he started. Watching the brief interview clips with a variety of noted directors, you recognize the scope of his influence: Steven Spielberg gushes over Citizen Kane, Martin Scorsese reveals his love of The Lady from Shanghai and George Lucas marvels over the technical ingenuity of Touch of Evil.

The movie doesn't attempt to brush over Welles' foibles. It's noted that he wasn't a particularly good father to his children (he had three daughters from three different marriages), and we see plenty of clips from the period of Welles' career where he started to take any lousy assignment he could get for the sake of scrounging up a few extra bucks (yes, including the “frozen peas” commercial). His life was messy. His films were often messy. Still, when he was at his best, there was almost no one who could match him. He was an obscenely talented filmmaker, and the deeper you get into his work the more tragic his uncompleted projects begin to feel. Magician is a decent (if predictable) portrait of a magnificent (and wildly unpredictable) man.


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Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 2014