The common perception of Orson Welles is that of a man who peaked too early in life – making Citizen Kane at just 25 – and whose career gradually descended into mediocrity. For every later success, such as Touch of Evil or The Third Man, there were a dozen abysmal films; both just-in-it-for-the-money acting jobs and directorial flops like F for Fake.
Chuck Workman’s insightful documentary, Magician, aims to readdress this perception. Narrated largely by Welles himself via archive interviews, alongside new and historical interviews with co-workers, family members and celebrity fans (including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and Simon Callow), Workman paints a very different picture.
Welles’ ability was obvious from an early age. He was starring in and directing plays whilst at school. In his teens he blagged his way into starring roles in Irish theatre. By his early 20s, he was back in America with his own reparatory company. Radio soon followed, including his now legendary version of War of the Worlds. By the time he moved to Hollywood (somewhat reluctantly he claimed), Welles was already a huge star.
After his first film, Kane upset newspaper baron Randolph Hurst – upon whom it was loosely based – RKO got scared, reigning in the young artist and butchering his follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons. From then on, his relationship with Hollywood was never the same. Welles continued to direct and act in both films and theatre for over 30 years, to mixed success. There were occasional critical and commercial hits, such as Touch of Evil (another film recut against the director’s wishes), but he never again matched his early success. When he died in 1985, he was known more for his celebrity than his work – his appearances in numerous substandard films and adverts having cheapened his legacy.
Using copious clips from his films - including his numerous unfinished projects - Workman lets Welles’ genius speak for itself. Rather than paint the traditional picture of Welles’ as an artist in decline, Workman portrays Welles as both ahead of his time (which he unquestionably was) and someone whose talent continued to flourish throughout his career. Simon Callow - who has written several acclaimed biographies of the director, and features extensively in the film - even suggests 1965’s Chimes at Midnight, not Citizen Kane, may well in fact be his best film.
What is clear is that Welles was never meant to fit into the studio system. Unlike his contemporary Hitchcock, Welles’ brand of filmmaking was incompatible with what studios wanted. Proclaimed by Richard Linklater as “the patron saint of indie filmmakers”, he became an indie filmmaker at a time when indie filmmaking didn’t exist, working largely in Europe, using money wherever he could find it.
For a film subtitled The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Magician also skims over much of his personal life. We’re shown famous actresses that Welles was known to have associated with, but the film won’t go so far as to say they were his lovers. Likewise, rumours of Welles’ alleged homosexuality and his illegitimate son (the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg) are mentioned, but not dwelled on. Magician is very much focused on mythologizing Welles, not humanising him. The work he took in later life – where he accepted pretty much any role if the money was right – is glossed over in a short montage, with an unquestioned explanation from Welles that he only took these roles to finance his work. Likewise, his weaker films, such the widely derided F for Fake, are spared the same analysis afforded some of his more resounding successes.
Whilst Magician may not be the most objective documentary ever made – it’s clearly aiming to paint its subject in the most flattering light possible – it is nonetheless a portrait of a remarkable, if flawed, artist. Whilst it may not present as compelling case for the director’s later works as it would like, the talent on display from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs is remarkable.
Special Features: A conversation with director Chuck Workman / A personal appreciation of Orson Welles by Simon Callow
MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES / CERT: E / DIRECTOR: CHUCK WORKMAN / SCREENPLAY: N/A / STARRING: ORSON WELLES, PETER BOGDANOVICH, SIMON CALLOW / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW