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Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ life and career could easily fill a miniseries,
but Chuck Workman, a past master of storytelling through montage (which earned
him an Oscar for his 1986 short Precious
Images
), has compressed Welles’ saga into a lively, colorful, fast-moving
feature. Think of it as a précis for that multi-episode exploration that
someone else should tackle down the road. I fancy myself to be reasonably
knowledgeable about Welles, but I was glued to the screen just the same.

There is virtually no aspect of the great man’s life Workman
doesn’t touch upon. We see glimpses of his youthful artwork, his first attempt
to make a film (The Hearts of Age),
his theater work in Dublin and then New York, the emergence of the Mercury
Theatre on stage and radio, an early screen test, the sensation that was The War of the Worlds, the astonishing Citizen Kane and its aftermath, his
sojourn to South America, his return to Hollywood for The Stranger and The Lady
from Shanghai
, and subsequent years in Europe, where he made but didn’t
always complete an array of film projects. There is Touch of Evil, the majestic Chimes
at Midnight
, and his later life in Los Angeles as a TV talk-show guest,
voice-over artist, occasional actor, and spinner of tales. We even get a brief
look at his yet-unreleased The Other Side
of the Wind.

Experts on camera include Welles’ friend and chronicler
Peter Bogdanovich, his oldest daughter Christopher, biographer Simon Callow, longtime
companion Oja Kodar, scholars James Naremore, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Joseph
McBride, Steven Spielberg, and editor Walter Murch, among many others. Such
Welles colleagues as John Houseman, Peter Brook, and Jeanne Moreau appear
briefly in archival footage. But the best vintage interviews are of Welles
himself, on a variety of talk shows over the years, telling stories and
cheerfully contradicting himself from one iteration to the next.

Magician doesn’t
pretend to be the last word on Orson Welles, but for its pace and brevity, it
is surprisingly wide-ranging—and highly enjoyable.

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