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Master montage editor Chuck Workman has assembled his entertaining filmic history of the one and only Orson Welles the way an editor would -- by letting the film do the talking. With the famed director's 100th birthday upon us numerous Welles re-premieres and rediscoveries have been popping up; since his passing in 1985 at least a couple of generations have sprouted that can stand to learn more about him. Workman's film has plenty of great footage to play with -- nothing the filmmaker shot could ever be described as dull -- and is helped by the fact that most every Welles movie is autobiographical in one way or another. The music for Citizen Kane is just as much the soundtrack for the bigger-than-life Welles. Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles will encourage the curious to learn more about the original enfant terible.
Workman's editorial approach skips most fancy frills, as the movie clips provide all the eye candy needed. He starts off with a Kane sequence that's probably the right choice, even if it's an obvious one, the 'snow globe scene.' But following almost immediately is an assurance that the show isn't going to spend 90 minutes bowing before the Great and Powerful Orson. A high school classmate describes what she refers to as Welles' lack of empathy for other people. When another spokesman mentions Orson's profound humility, we cut back to the classmate, and she rolls her eyes. Yes, Welles is a very special guy. He spent most of his life trying to convince the world of that fact. He's a loveable-unloveable rogue.
Welles life is such a whirl that Workman breaks his always-eventful storyline into acts. A well-educated, articulate and nervy fireball of creativity at age 16, Orson bluffs his way into this and that until he's the sensation of New York drama and radio. The photos, clips, letters, and testimony we see convince us that the kid's a genius, not necessarily because he can act up a theatrical storm but because he has realized that every new challenge is a soft target, another audience that can be won over with his mix of superior attitude and theatrical emotionalism. And, as Welles himself would say it, old-fashioned carnival salesmanship.
Magician doesn't try to nail down the truth about Welles' success in the highly politicized theater scene, or what really happened in the War of the Worlds radio debacle. During his heartfelt apologies for the news film cameras, he also seems to be saying, "It worked." Choosing to attack William Randolph Hearst wasn't an accident either, as his response to RKO's legal jitters was to note how much publicity the controversy would garner: the way to succeed is to court disaster in the most public way possible. Welles was the ultimate show biz climber, cutting through the barriers that slowed the progress of mere mortals.
The difference between him and other ambitious showmen is that Welles was a brilliant artist as well. He wanted everything -- to be a great star, a great lover, a great performer -- but grabbed first at the challenge of becoming a great film director. There's been nobody like him.
Workman doesn't try to solve any of the controversies around Welles -- why did his career falter? -- how did he become a Hollywood pariah? -- how did he make such masterpieces on a shoestring? -- why were so many films started but not finished? The docu's strong suit, and what makes it such a valuable resource, is its collage of vintage interview clips, many from Welles himself. We see him talking about his movies and his ambitions in various places, for various reasons, over the years; at one point he fumbles in Italian for a news microphone in Rome. Welles seems grateful for his career but also puzzled at the curious inverted ladder of success that he climbed. Of course, Welles is such a practiced manipulator of his public persona that one wonders if his profound sincerity is something he reserves for the camera. What's the difference? Even his brand of grandstanding humility reveals his nature. He's an artist with great commercial instincts that didn't mesh well with businessmen. His defenders would say that his first loyalty was always to his art. Magician doesn't get deeply into the reasons why Hollywood rolled up the welcome mat. We see Charlton Heston, a major Welles booster, defending him on camera. Even he no longer seems surprised that Orson found doors slammed in his face.
The interviews are insightful, funny and eclectic -- theater people, actor-collaborators and even the marvelous Norman Lloyd, an insider who knows where all the bodies are buried. Magician catches Welles making a self-contradictory statement or two, but wisely doesn't try to paint them as significant. The montage of Welles's acting appearances in other directors' movies is particularly amusing. Those of us not familiar with stagecraft don't always notice that Welles approached every role by designing a new nose for himself. Here we are given a parade of clever schnozzolas, some inspired, others preposterous... I'm looking at you, The Long Hot Summer. There's also a hilarious montage of pieces of film where Orson talks about food, which critics have been using to make fat Orson jokes since the middle '50s.
We see hints of some of his incomplete pictures, like Don Quixote, as well as nice clips from those great shows so few people have seen, The Trial and Chimes a Midnight. Two of Welles' daughters appear in new interviews that quickly establish their enmity toward each other, a major cause of Welles' legacy of unfinished movies not seeing the light of day. Hopefully the impetus of the centennial will get some of those projects put into shape for public viewing-- without too much 'creative divining' of Welles' artistic intent.
Magician isn't in itself controversial, which is a very good thing. Orson Welles' legacy needs some good restoration and caretaking, not more rancor.
Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles is a documentary of excellent quality. The huge assortment of clips is presented in mostly excellent condition. The screen goes pillar-boxed for all of the films pre- Touch of Evil. The older interviews are carefully cleaned up where possible. One news film interview from just after the War of the Worlds fracas seems to have been filmed at about 22 fps, making everybody sound higher-pitched! Workman uses a lot of film music as underscore, naturally favoring the melodies of Bernard Herrmann from Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, etc.
Director Workman appears in a short (9 minute) featurette answering questions about Welles with Annette Insdorf, backed with docu film clips. The show's trailer is present as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.