'Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles': Telluride Review

Orson Welles - H 2014
AP Images

Orson Welles - H 2014

A lively and fresh retelling of the protean artist's eventful life.

The documentary combines rare footage of Welles' life and work with commentary from Steven Spielberg and Peter Bogdanovich, among others

An in-depth study of Orson Welles' singular life and career would run the length of a miniseries, but Chuck Workman engagingly hits a good many highlights in stone-skipping fashion in Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles. Additionally, by delving into the protean talent's bag of unfinished projects, the veteran documentary and clips-reel whiz tries to counter the view that Welles had a fear of completion later in life; as the film shows, he was always working, however under-financed he may have been. Premiered in a near-finished version at Telluride, this energetic, fast-moving portrait is a natural for festivals, specialty cinema venues internationally, TV and home formats.

The Welles saga has been told innumerable times, including in a host of hefty biographies, and it can't be said that there is much here in the way of new information or insights. One thing Workman does provide, however, is a strong visual sense of the world in which his subject lived and worked. No other Welles chronicler has gone to Woodstock, Illinois, to film the very theater in which Orson, in his early teens, put on and acted in his first Shakespeare productions, or has so vividly captured his subject's 1950s European sojourn (we hear Welles speaking barely passable Italian), which qualified him as the pioneer post-war independent American filmmaker.

Workman's strengths as a miner of archives really pay off here, as he offers up exceedingly rare documentary footage of his subject drawn from diverse international sources, peeks at unfinished works and camera tests Welles himself shot (Don Quixote, The Deep, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers, et al.) and often unfamiliar excerpts from old but relevant interviews with figures no longer with us (John Houseman, William Alland, Robert Wise, Pandro S. Berman, Richard Wilson, Michael MacLiammoir, Suzanne Cloutier, Peter Viertel, Anthony Perkins).

The film briskly reveals how young Orson was recognized as an artistic prodigy from the earliest age and how, his parents both dead and disliking his guardian, he found his metier and love of Shakespeare at the Todd School in Woodstock in his early teens before leaving for Ireland and bluffing his way into his first professional appearances. His Todd mentor Roger Hill's daughter Jane offers the telling insight that the young Orson had "no empathetic skills," while Welles' daughter Beatrice expresses with chagrin that, "Having wives and daughters was actually an encumbrance for him."

Welles' meteoric rise in the 1930s with the Federal and then Mercury Theater, as well as on radio, is colorfully rendered via plentiful stills and newsreels footage, an array of experts (including surviving participant Norman Lloyd) as well as clips from Richard Linklater's fine feature Me and Orson Welleswith the remarkable Christian McKay in the pivotal role.

For the umpteenth time is told the tale of Welles' extraordinary rise and fall upon moving to Hollywood, triumphing against adversity with Citizen Kane and then crashing to Earth in the wake of The Magnificent Ambersons. Relying too much on a self-justifying archival interview with editor Robert Wise, the documentary could have done a better job at laying out the sorry tale of Welles' doomed South American project It's All True and the related responsibilities (and irresponsibilities) on the parts of RKO; Nelson Rockefeller, who, as U.S. Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs during World War II, requested that Welles go to Brazil; and Welles himself. He was shunned as a Hollywood studio director ever-after.

Workman's tireless digging makes for a flavorsome, if abbreviated, account of Welles' international gypsy life from the late-1940s onward. Brushing very lightly over his continuing acting career (there is a too-brief interview excerpt of Peter Brook discussing his stage work with Welles on King Lear), the documentary provides a decent sense of the patchwork way a film like Othello got made, then rightly proposes Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff) as his great, mature achievement.

Conversely, the unfinished film Welles toiled on through the 1970s, The Other Side of the Wind, gets surprisingly short shrift, even though there are plenty of people still around who worked on it and could have provided firsthand accounts of its erratic, start-and-stop making and analysis of why it was never completed.

Breezy rather than analytical and prone to leaving psychological evaluation of this enormously complex figure mostly to the side, Magician adopts a lively, energetic approach in the worthy service of engaging the interest of viewers perhaps unfamiliar with Welles' life and work. Such a result would be all to the good for an artist about whom there are always more aspects to discover and perspectives to be shared.

Production: Cohen Media Group, Calliope Films, Wheelhouse Productions

With: Simon Callow, Christopher Welles Foder, Jane Hill Sykes, Norman Lloyd, Ruth Ford, Julie Taymor, Peter Bogdanovich, James Naremore, Steven Spielberg, Henry Jaglom, Elvis Mitchell, Beatrice Welles-Smith, Walter Murch, Costa-Gavras, Oja Kodar, Joseph McBride, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Michael Dawson, Paul Mazursky, Frank Marshall

Director: Chuck Workman

Producer: Charles S. Cohen

Directors of photography: John Sharaf, Tom Hurwitz, Michael Lisnet

Editor: Chuck Workman

94 minutes