With Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles, documentarian Chuck Workman faced the herculean task of condensing one of the 20th century's richest, most varied lives into 94 minutes. Realizing that he can't possibly please everybody, Workman assembled a bunch of new interviews, beautifully selected film clips, vintage interviews and other Welles ephemera into a delightful, impressionistic portrait. Like its multi-hyphenate subject, the doc's got a little something for everyone.
The quirky yet honorific Magician comes across like Orson Welles himself (or, at least, the way he presented himself in interviews) - briskly surveying an extraordinary life from beginning to end with a detached bemusement. Best-known for the movie montages he did for the Academy Awards television broadcasts in the '80s and '90s, Workman applies the same collage-like technique here. The results are something akin to an episode of PBS's American Masters mixed with Welles' own quasi-documentary F for Fake. Workman takes on a totally democratic approach, devoting as much time to a noble failure like Richard III as to stuff like Citizen Kane or the panic-inducing "War of the Worlds" radio drama Welles directed. As with the latter topic (covered much more thoroughly in a recent episode of PBS's American Experience), many familiar episodes in Welles' life end up getting breezed through. It might get frustrating for die-hard Welles fanatics, but I found it concise and fun (it only gets too fawning in the final 20 minutes).
Magician benefits from revealing, new interviews with people who knew Welles at various points in his life, including director Peter Bogdonavich, actor Norman Lloyd, Welles' daughter, Beatrice, his late-in-life companion Oja Kodar, even a woman who was his childhood classmate in Woodstock, Illinois. Ruminations from Welles biographer Simon Callow are edited together with archival interviews with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater and other admirers. Workman also puts in a generous amount of terrific film clips from throughout Welles' career, adding in films with Welles as a story topic (Me and Orson Welles; RKO 281) or scenes of fictional characters reacting to Welles' work (Radio Days; Get Shorty; Heavenly Creatures). Having these trivial homages side-by-side with The Magnificent Ambersons and The Third Man seems off-putting at first, but it does prove the point that Welles' influence looms as large as his appetite for life.
As appealing as the montage of voices and images can be in Magician, there are a few times when Workman annoys by deliberately leaving the facts vague. One such moment comes when the subject of Welles' lifelong preference for fascinating, beautiful women comes up. This is accompanied with a montage of his famous companions - people like Lena Horne, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Eartha Kitt - shown as a succession of vintage publicity photos in heart-shaped frames. It's a lovely sequence, but Workman never delineates whether these women were Welles' friends, quickie sex partners, or romantic companions. At least it rushes by quickly, and we're off to the next subject.
Magician becomes most enthralling when it gets to the '60s and '70s. Welles was in an odd position where he kept busy as an actor and TV personality ("We will sell no wine before its time"), while being perceived as too much of a liability by Hollywood for time- and money-consuming directing jobs. Despite all that, he was much admired in Europe and kept making films there in unfinished fragments. The documentary offers tantalizing glimpses at projects like The Dreamers, The Deep, and The Immortal Story (with Jeanne Moreau) - films which remain under lock and key in a German film vault, their ownership under dispute by Welles' heirs.
The Blu Ray:
Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles arrives on Blu Ray as part of the Cohen Film Collection. The packaging sports a Blu-sized keep case in clear plastic (not blue), with a photograph of Welles behind the camera printed on the paper insert behind the disc tray. An eight-page booklet includes chapter notations, credits and a few photographs of Welles throughout the years.
Magician's new segments sport an ultra-clean, digitally photographed look with a 16:9 image boasting lifelike color and excellent light-dark balance. Sourced elements also look great (one can tell that the Citizen Kane clips come from the most recent digital restoration, for example), although some are derived from second-hand or aged sources. While a few vintage interviews are enlarged and cropped to fill a widescreen format, most of the TV and movie clips are presented in their proper aspect ratios.
The 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack likewise sounds clean and atmospheric, with newly recorded segments professionally mixed in with clips and vintage music. The mixing actually comes off impressively in a few segments, such as the '60s-era part with Welles' various doing-it-for-the-money acting roles scored to the Casino Royale theme by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. No subtitle option is provided.
An EPK Featurette has Workman discussing the film with historian/educator Annette Insdorf. The casual, ten-minute-long chat doesn't reveal too much of note, with a few intriguing bits on what Workman uncovered during his odyssey. A two-minute Trailer is also included.
Presto! Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles does a fine job of squeezing a life as encyclopedic as Mr. Welles' into a compact, unique portrait. Although the quirky approach of documentarian Chuck Workman might not be to everyone's tastes, Magician delightfully covers all the facets of this complex man's life and career (including Welles' rarely seen, unfinished '60s-'70s films). Recommended.