‘Magician’ a pleasant, if unfulfilling, intro to Welles 

If you have some interest in mid-20th century theater, radio or film, and (almost unbelievably) know next to nothing of the career of Orson Welles, then this facile yet breezily entertaining documentary on the man that director Richard Linklater calls “the patron saint of indie filmmakers” is just the ticket.

In “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles,” director Chuck Workman introduces virtually all of the big (and small) stories from the film titan’s full life on the centenary of his birth (May 6, 2015).

His approach to this material could best be construed as Welles 101, or Orson for Dummies, but his genuine respect for his subject is repeatedly undercut with unrevealing (and sometimes downright flaky) interviews with old friends and associates.

The film traces Welles’ life chronologically from Kenosha, Wisc., so we get his early theater projects (the “voodoo” MacBeth staged in Harlem), radio work (the infamous 1938 “War of the Worlds” Halloween broadcast), and finally on to Hollywood and “Citizen Kane.”

Mention is made of the countless films Welles appeared in as an actor; most forgettable, a few memorable (“Jane Eyre,” “The Third Man”). His three Shakespeare films are discussed, and through creative use of just a few snippets of 1966’s “Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight),” a persuasive case is made for it (and not “Citizen Kane”) to be his greatest achievement.

Addressing the Renaissance man’s “poverty of means” (in financing his films), director Workman glosses over Welles’ two major professional failings. Charlton Heston chuckles while speaking eloquently of Welles’ “alienating one producer after another.”

Welles famously held the “money people” – those would distribute his “ribbon of dreams” in utter contempt. Similarly, Charles Higham’s “fear of completion” thesis (a critique that pained Welles till the end) is never illuminated. A little more time should have been spent on these elephants in the room, the fatal flaws that derailed Welles’ Hollywood career.

Workman’s earnest desire to present the whole of the bon vivant’s life through archival footage and interviews is, of course, a fool’s errand. There is just too much there: Amusing, minor anecdotes share the stage with brief (and rather shallow) analysis of his 12 completed films.

Near the end, actress Jeanne Moreau calls her friend “a destitute king…On this earth, there is no kingdom that is good enough for Orson Welles.”

I felt much the same watching “Magician.” On this earth, there is no documentary that can do justice to the absolutely fascinating and compelling Welles’ story in 94 minutes. To this film’s credit, however, it tries, and, in the process, might turn people on anew to the glories of the great director’s career.


Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

two stars

Starring Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Charlton Heston, Richard Linklater

Directed by Chuck Workman

Rated PG-13

Running time 1 hour, 34 minutes

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Rob Hughes

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