Orson Welles Is Still Having the Last Laugh in ‘Magician’

Chuck Workman's Magician presents a vision of a man who made an equitable bargain with his genius and enjoyed a life larger than most of us could imagine.

In Magician, Orson Welles tells an anecdote about a waiter who asked him if he ever made anything after Citizen Kane. Whether that really happened or not, it captures a myth. Chuck Workman’s documentary sets the record straight in 90 fast-moving minutes of clips and talking heads, leaving us dazzled and tantalized with what we’ve seen before and what we’ve yet to see. For if Welles was faulted for not finishing enough movies in his lifetime, he’s surely the most prolific posthumous filmmaker.

Projects he left unfinished, such as It’s All True and Don Quixote, still come out in various versions. Others, like Touch of Evil and Macbeth, surface in newly polished variations while once-forgotten items, like his TV version of King Lear (directed by Peter Brook) and his British series Around the World with Orson Welles, are exhumed from vaults into the digital day.

Scenes from all these, plus glimpses of unfinished films like The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers and The Deep, rise before our eyes under the master assemblage of Workman, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who’s most famous for putting together many of the classic film montages on Oscar ceremonies. (More footage from these unfinished works can be seen in a documentary on the Criterion edition of F for Fake, also essential viewing.)

Workman’s title correctly calls Welles’ life astonishing, for he was already famous as a “boy wonder” of groundbreaking theatre (including an all-black Macbeth set in Haiti) and radio productions (such as the controversial War of the Worlds broadcast) before he made Citizen Kane.

Welles worked all his life; just check the exhausting and exhaustive catalogue of work in Peter Bogdanovich’s book This Is Orson Welles. He devoted his latter years to earning as much money as he could as an actor and narrator in order to self-finance his own films independently, since Hollywood producers found him too arty and usually took control away from him while European producers were given to bankruptcy and whatnot. As Richard Linklater says, there really wasn’t a serious indie film tradition when Welles was pioneering it. His method was to work on many things at once, piecemeal as time and cash and inspiration hit him.

He didn’t let work get in the way of enjoying life, yet he was a workhorse, and his controlled chaos remained open to improvisation in a way that frustrated those who wanted a more orderly production. (See, for example, the unflattering memories of an assistant in Alain Cavalier’s 2000 documentary Lives.) Welles has been criticized as undisciplined because of his legacy of interrupted, seized, and unfinished works. He released “only” 12 features in his lifetime — the same as Stanley Kubrick, who had a dream deal with Warner Brothers for all the time and funding he needed. Sigh.

There could be a 13-part serial on Welles’ life and work given how vast and monumental it is, but Workman’s film is the best 90-minute distillation we’re likely to see. Entertaining without being deeply analytical or critical, it emphasizes the work, especially the films, and that’s probably as it should be, for that’s his main legacy. At one point, Welles responds to a question of why he keeps working in film by saying “It’s like asking why do you stay married to that woman? Because you love her.”

DVD and Blu-ray editions include a trailer and a brief interview between Workman and scholar Annette Insdorf. Workman points out that Welles doesn’t come across as a bitter complainer in his interviews but as a basically happy person, one who says at one point that he’s always liked Hollywood — “It just wasn’t reciprocated.” This film presents a vision of a man who made an equitable bargain with his genius and enjoyed a life larger than most of us could imagine. His most profound and original creation was probably his life, especially those last “wasted” years. He’s still having the last laugh, and now he always will.

RATING 8 / 10