Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles

Released to accompany a major, two-month season of Orson Welles films at BFI Southbank, Chuck Workman’s documentary Magician *** is an impressively exhaustive film about the man’s life and work.

Indeed, you can’t really separate the two. Welles appears to have arrived fully formed into the artistic firmament, as testimonies from former class mates at his school in Illinois prove, directing theatre productions of Shakespeare from the age of 14.

Welles travelled, performed in Ireland and returned to New York to form a theatre company, the Mercury, that made him a star on and off Broadway (the era and subject of Richard Linklater’s sweet showbiz tale Me and Orson Welles – with Christian MacKay fantastic as Welles, as well as Tim Robbins’ The Cradle Will Rock, with John Cusack.) Not for nothing was Orson known as the Boy Wonder, a label which irked him because he was stuck with it, no matter how old he got.

He become a radio star, too, with that epochal War of the Worlds production that had everyone believed the Martians had invaded. That moment is beautifully captured in a clip from Woody Allen’s Radio Days, with Dianne Wiest’s Aunt Bee left in the lurch by her fleeing lover.

Workman cleverly uses several other clips of Welles’ work popping up in other movies, including the kid in Truffaut’s Day for Night gathering up cinema cards, and John Travolta and Renee Russo in Get Shorty watching A Touch of Evil.

This film crams in nearly every film Welles made – and many he of course nearly made. For a genius, he was remarkably bad at getting stuff done, quarrelling with every and any studio executive and frequently having his work cut and slashed to a dispiriting degree, necessitating legal arguments, lost reels, restored versions, including one literally directed “from beyond the grave”, in the case of Touch of Evil.

Yet Welles never really seemed dispirited – he’d just get up and go and make something else. Maybe the journey was everything to him, rather than the nitty gritty of seeing a film through to the finish line. Even getting one over the start line of pleasing the film’s backers often seemed beyond him.

He of course left us 1941’s Citizen Kane, with which he will always be identified. Is it the greatest film ever made? I’m not sure anyone can definitively nail that one, but it’s certainly not bad and is probably, at the very least, the best debut movie ever made.

But there’s also The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil and, to my mind – and I was pleased to hear that of several others – the best screen adaptation of Shakespeare ever, Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight, which I review here.

With plenty of puckish interviews from his later life – for which he become more famous than making movies – we get a real sense of Welles’ charm and wit, as well as his size, mischief and restlessness. There are his many bit parts as an actor, such as in Casino Royale and, of course, in his biggest ever hit, as scene-stealing Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s British masterpiece, The Third Man.

As Workman says, he wanted to show Welles’ “life as a star, a political figure, a fairly good magician, an aficionado of bullfighting, a lover of food and wine and the good life, and also a lover of many remarkable women, a man with a life of constant movement and exploration.”

And he achieves this. Patiently, many good talking heads are interviewed, or at least old interviews with them are shown – Charlton Heston, Jeanne Moreau, Steven Spielberg, Robert Wise, Walter Murch, Martin Scorsese as well as Welles biographer Simon Callow. And there’s a sweet bit where actor Richard Benjamin – star of Catch 22 – expresses his joy at having shared screen time with Orson Welles.

Which allows me to express my own joy at having something of my own, too, now share the screen with Orson Welles. The doc uses an old interview of mine with Richard Linklater, which I did for an early web series I had at the Guardian, called In The Director’s Chair. I interviewed Linklater in 2009, when he was promoting Me and Orson Welles, and this doc uses the bit where Linklater and I discuss the influence of Orson and he calls Welles the “patron saint of indie film makers”.

Here’s a link to that old interview in full:

Look out for this informative and often touching doc and here’s more info on the Wellesian summer of 2015:

  • Touch of Evil (1958/1998 version) is released by the BFI in selected cinemas UK-wide on 10 July.