Review – Magician:The Astonishing Life and Work Of Orson Welles

He was just about cinema ......

He wasn’t just about cinema ……


Title:                          Magician:The Astonishing Life And Work Of Orson Welles

Certificate:               12A

Director:                   Chuck Workman

Major Players:         As themselves – Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Simon Callow

Out Of Five:             Four


This is the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth and it’s also 30 years since his death so, although Magician:The Astonishing Life And Work Of Orson Welles was released last year in the USA, there’s a certain logic in holding it over to this year. The BFI is about to start a two month season devoted to the man who’s regarded one of the greats of 20th century cinema, which includes a re-released version of A Touch Of Evil (more of that next week) and a number of his better known films.

There are plenty of others that won’t be shown, though. As we discover in Chuck Workman’s documentary, Welles made and completed a total of fifteen movies, but there’s at least another eight that he didn’t finish or that were completed by others.  And many of his films are still the subject of protracted legal issues, which means they haven’t been seen for years. That pattern was a constant in his cinematic life and it inevitably repeats itself throughout the film. Who knows when we’ll see Chimes At Midnight again? In the meantime, the best we can do is enjoy the few scenes we see here.

The highlights of Welles’ career are well known and there were many. A child prodigy who went into the theatre in his teens, he was a star of stage and radio by the time he was 20. His directed and starred in his first major feature film, Citizen Kane, at just 25 and acted in films now regarded as classics, like The Third Man. He also had a consistently troubled relationship with Hollywood, to the extent that he left for Europe after the whole Touch Of Evil debacle and made his remaining films outside the USA.

Magician traces Welles’s career chronologically, but doesn’t use a narrator as such. The closest it comes to that is the excerpts from the many interviews that Welles gave on TV, which also show his dramatic physical changes over the years and how he would change some of his stories about his films, depending on who he was talking to. His tale about getting funding for The Lady From Shanghai was legendary, but the amount of money involved went up and down like a yo-yo. The other person telling his story is one of his biggest fans and his biographer, Simon Callow. His footage was clearly made for another reason and Callow looks surprisingly awkward in front of the camera, even though he’s taking about one of his favourite subjects. He appears to be reading from idiot boards, sometimes directly behind the camera, sometimes to the side. Just follow the line of his eyes.

This is a documentary that bills itself as being about his life and work, but actually it’s pretty much all about his work. And that’s because the two were inseparable. Even though he had relationships with some of the most beautiful women in the world, he was so immersed in his work that he really wasn’t cut out for family life, relationships or children. One of the commentators in the film says that they never actually saw Welles sleep. Ever. And, given his prodigious output, you have to assume that he was one of those people who didn’t need a lot of sleep. He loved food too – Wolfgang Puck testifies how his eyes would light up when eating – and suffered from back problems and flat feet! And, apart from that, the film doesn’t dwell overmuch on his upbringing or his personal life.

Even though this is really about Welles as a film maker – and, to a lesser extent, an actor – what it shows is that he was a man of the media. Theatre, radio and TV all played important roles in his life. You can’t help but think that he would have embraced today’s technology with mischievous relish: internet sensations on YouTube would have been a doddle for a man of his talents. Sadly, we’ll never know. But at least we can see some of his films, the influence he’s had on other film makers and, of course, watch this documentary which brings it all together. And for those not familiar with Welles, it gives enough of a taster of his films to encourage them to watch them, even if some – Macbeth in particular – look over-stylised by today’s standards.

Welles’ many fans will just sit back and wallow in it. There’s plenty of reminiscing about him and his films, copious clips, and big name talking heads like Scorsese, Lucas and Bogdanovich. What it also shows that it’s almost impossible to categorise somebody who had such a diverse career. But in cinematic terms, director Richard Linklater probably gets the closest when he describes him as the father of modern indie films. You get the feeling that Welles would have approved of that – and then gone off to do something entirely different!


Magician: The Astonishing Life And Work Of Orson Welles is released in selected cities and at the BFI from Friday, 3 July. It’s also reviewed on this week’s Talking Pictures podcast.



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