“One thing one can be sure of is that there wasn’t before him an Orson, and there’ll never be a second.”
This year (May 6, to be exact) marks what would’ve been Orson Welles’ 100th birthday. To celebrate, filmmaker Chuck Workman has made a charming documentary with a title as grandiose as its subject. Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles is a thoroughly entertaining — if somewhat superficial — survey of one of the 20th century’s greatest showmen.
“I must’ve been intolerable as a child.”
Magician splits Welles’ life into a handful of chapters, with the first portion of the film being the aptly-named “The Boy Wonder: 1915-1941.” The film opens with the most iconic image Welles ever put on film: the “Rosebud” scene from Citizen Kane. With that bit of business out of the way, the film smoothly segues into Welles’ childhood. We learn he was a musical prodigy (violin, piano) at age 10, directing Shakespeare (“Twelth Night”, among others) at 14, and had traveled to Ireland to paint at 16. Magician further connects Welles’ childhood to his most famous film by noting the Mr. Bernstein character in Kane shared a name with the man who became his guardian shortly after his mother died following Welles’ ninth birthday.
Workman won an Oscar for the 1986 documentary short Precious Images, which was a rapid cross-cut of some of the most famous cinematic images of all time. This first chapter of Magician takes up about 25 minutes of the film’s 91-minute running time, and inevitably rushes through some potentially fascinating material. Despite Workman’s adeptness at condensing and weaving together movie clips and archival interview footage, he had a tough task on his hands in telling Welles’ life story. For example, Welles’ most celebrated achievements from this time period — 1941’s Kane and 1938’s panic inducing radio adaptation of The War of The Worlds — are each worthy of their own documentaries. So while these two touchstones inevitably get the bulk of the early screen time, it comes at the expense of parts of Welles’ life that haven’t been chronicled nearly as well.
“Do you know that I always liked Hollywood very much? I just wasn’t reciprocated.”
As a result, Workman makes the decision to largely bypass Welles’ personal life and focus on his impact on cinema. (Welles’ supposed Hollywood lady loves are reduced to a montage of framed pictures, and actor/biographer Simon Callow states Welles’ was very flirtatious with both sexes while stopping short of making any claims that Welles had done anything beyond flirting.) A good portion of the rest of Magician operates under the premise that Welles was the “patron saint of independent filmmakers.” That title is bestowed on Welles by director Richard Linklater (Boyhood), one of many filmmakers who appear in old interview clips. (Along with titans like Spielberg, Scorsese, and Lucas.)
After Kane, Welles — who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in his most celebrated film at the age of 25 — became an in-demand movie star. Of course, what he really wanted to do was direct. Unfortunately, the autonomy and innovation Welles brought to Kane wasn’t an ideal fit with the studio system of the 1940s and ’50s. As a result, his directorial follow-up (The Magnificent Ambersons) was chopped up by the studio, and it wouldn’t be the last time (Touch of Evil). Magician also features clips from movies Welles directed in an uncredited capacity (Black Magic, Journey Into Fear), but the real treats are the rare, invaluable clips of some of his towering stage productions and unfinished films (The Deep, Don Quixote).
“Like a fruit picker, I go where the work is.”
To me, the most interesting part of the film is the one that covers the period in time where Welles was strapped for cash. (He declined a back-end deal on The Third Man because he needed money right away, and it ended up being the most commercially successful film he ever appeared in.) The last two chapters of Magician are “The Road Back: 1958-1966” and “The Master: 1966-1985” and they are both the most lighthearted and most melancholy parts of the film. Throughout the doc, we’ve been watching clips from the latter part of Welles’ life, and we finally see the transformation into self-parody get completed chronologically. (Basically, it’s what Will Ferrell was spoofing in The Spoils of Babylon.) Critic Elvis Mitchell describes him as being the size of a Buick, but I’m not sure we needed the extended Wolfgang Puck riff about how much Welles loved to eat. And for a guy who repeatedly said he didn’t enjoy acting as much as he should, Welles certainly seemed to relish putting on a performance for the cameras, even when he wasn’t technically running the show.
The film also shows us that Welles never stopped working, whether it was sharing the screen with The Muppets, selling wine, or trying to wrap up years-long projects like The Other Side of the Wind. It would be easy to dismiss this entire portion of Welles’ career as embarrassing folly. But since we’re talking about a bona fide genius, there is material here that Magician made me excited about seeking out. I’m thinking specifically of F for Fake, the 1974 free-form documentary that is also the last major film Welles completed, and Chimes at Midnight, which features Welles playing Shakespeare’s Falstaff and is considered his true masterpiece by a few commentators in Magician. This documentary isn’t the most insightful glimpse into Welles’ life and career, but it’s an effective, loving exploration nonetheless. And as the man himself said, “you can say anything with passion, and you get a hand.”
Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 24 mbps. The aspect ratio changes pretty regularly from the baseline 1.78:1 to a full-screen 1.33:1 whenever there are clips of Welles TV interviews or portions from his earliest films. Obviously, a significant chunk of the documentary is comprised of older material in both black & white and color that varies wildly in picture quality. And while there obviously hasn’t been any sort of extensive restoration work done for this Cohen Media Group Blu-ray, I’m happy to report the vintage clips are presented faithfully and have a pleasing richness to them. (Also, there are no distracting blemishes on display.) The modern talking head segments — the baseline for the HD presentation — are vibrant and similarly clean, even if they somewhat lack fine detail. Overall, a very impressive visual presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is certainly more potent than I expected from a documentary, especially one that is largely comprised of archival footage. The subs roar to life along with the foreboding score for the film’s more dramatic clips. There is also a surprising amount of immersion in the surround sound field, which mostly comes courtesy of the various musical cues. This being a documentary, the track unsurprisingly leans heavily towards dialogue, which comes through quite cleanly, even for the older Welles TV interviews and radio broadcasts. Please note: the Blu-ray inexplicably defaults to the Dolby Digital 5.1 track rather than DTS-HD Master Audio, so make sure you hop on the Set-Up menu and change it to the more impressive sonic selection.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
A Conversation with director Chuck Workman: (8:59) Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbian University, sits down for a chat with the documentary’s director. Workman slightly laments that his movie didn’t fully emphasize how huge of a star (not a fat joke) Welles was in his time, and he reveals that he most enjoyed spending time with Touch of Evil while working on the doc.
Orson Welles had one of the most extraordinary careers of any 20th century artist, becoming a megastar on stage, screen, and on the radio. Various periods of his life — getting Citizen Kane made; mounting the Mercury Theatre’s 1937 production of “Julius Caesar” — have been deemed worthy of getting their own films.
As a result, Magician skims through some engrossing material, but still remains an effective summation of Welles’ mind-boggling work and makes a strong case for his titanic, ahead-of-his-time impact on filmmaking. If nothing else, watching this documentary made me want to seek out more of Welles’ work for myself, so I certainly recommend you give this one a look.