The weirdest section of Chuck Workman’s new documentary on Orson Welles comes near the end. A portly and aged Welles returns to America where he’s paraded around commemorative luncheons and award ceremonies, where all the Hollywood luminaries eager to get a taste. It’s strange because it doesn’t fit the narrative of a man cast so often as the tragic, unappreciated genius of cinema. We’re supposed to look at him with a mixture of pity and despair, a man brought down by his truculent refusal to play inside the system. The traditional reading of his career trajectory sees an early and almost unimaginable high, followed by a near half century downward spiral. Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles acts as a rebuttal to this caricature, and while overly simplistic, proves undeniably fascinating.
Told in what amounts to little more than a flashy video diary, the film works chronologically through his career from childhood to the grave. Years are grouped into a number of sections, each tending to focus on one or two landmark events intercut with talking heads, countless footage of Welles himself, and related stills and subsidiary material. Although he’s rarely off the screen, the star of the show is his creative output, rather than Welles himself. His personal life is mostly side-lined, as is any detailed exploration of character and motivations. It makes it feel more like a tribute, but it does at least elevate work normally passed over in favour of Citizen Kane and his battles with Hollywood.
That’s not to say the documentary ignores these moments. The film opens with a clip from Citizen Kane (1941), and spends as long on its production as it does on any other individual achievement. What makes Magician interesting is its refusal to let this admittedly brilliant film overshadow everything that follows. Other traditional touch points like The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil (1958) still get their due, as does the legendary radio performance of The War of the Worlds that sent panicked listeners into the street, and notable acting turns in hits like The Third Man (1949).
We’ve all seen this before. What feels different is the equal weighting given to his lengthy period of intermittent independent filmmaking across Europe. This led to notable productions like Chimes at Midnight (1965), described here as his true masterpiece, and a number of unfinished projects. Often presented as proof that his career was on the skids, Workman takes a different view. What to one person might look like a lack of follow-through becomes evidence of work ethic and creative ambition. Always probing his preferred medium, he worked in a unique and relentless fashion, producing what he wanted and when.
The Welles on display here is a pioneering indie filmmaker. Viewed in this light, his expulsion from Hollywood is no bad thing. Why would someone of his talent and mind-set want to remain a stifled studio hack?
It’s an intriguing reading that never feels quite complete. Magician is too rushed to ever tug at any of the questions raised. This is symptomatic of a release offering an attractively glossy booklet, but little in the way of extras aside from a brief interview with Workman, and a longer one with actor and enthusiast Simon Callow. Enigmatic statements from artists like Peter Bogdanovich that Welles was no real fan of acting, are left to hang out there as self-evident truths. Workman often succeeds only in replacing a one-dimensional reading with an equally narrow version of his own making. Welles the tragic hero becomes Welles the magician, playing with his craft. The culmination of this image comes through in F Is For Fake (1973), where he becomes a magician of the screen.
Pause for deeper thought on his career is not encouraged by the frantic pace images fly past. Workman cuts with abandon, moving between a library of archive material. Everything from film clips to TV appearances, footage of radio plays and talking heads zip by. A favourite device is the inclusion of clips from auxiliary material. Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2008) and TV movie RKO 281 (1999) are just as likely to feature as interviews with childhood acquaintances recalling his early days in school theatre. Welles offers his own comments in the form of countless talk show appearances, but these are used mainly to deliver the occasional zinger.
It becomes overwhelming after a while, rushing the story forward at an unsustainable pace. The victim is Workman’s argument that Welles grew into his talent, lost somewhere in the feverish on-screen activity.
As a thoroughly entertaining alternative take on the Welles legend, Magician does the job, dashing through his life with giddy abandon. Workman manages to hold attention over his 87-minute running time and direct his audience to lesser known productions that deserve their day in the sun. It’s just a shame that once he’s set out his central premise, there’s only reinforcement rather than elaboration. By the time he’s done, Welles remains as unknowable as before, still cloaked in the mystery that’s surrounded him since he first emerged all those years ago.