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With: Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Brook, Simon Callow, William Friedkin, Oja Kodar, Richard Linklater, George Lucas, Joseph McBride, Elvis Mitchell, Walter Murch, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Steven Spielberg, Julie Taymor, Christopher Welles Foder, Jane Hill Sykes, Norman Lloyd, Ruth Ford, James Naremore, Henry Jaglom, Beatrice Welles-Smith, Eric Sherman, Costa-Gavras, Buck Henry, Richard Benjamin, Wolfgang Puck, Stefan Drossler, Peter Viertel, Michael Dawson, Sydney Pollack, Paul Mazursky, Frank Marshall, Orson Welles
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Chuck Workman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language, some suggestive images/nudity and smoking
Running Time: 94
Date: 03/13/2015

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Magnificent Orson

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Orson Welles would have been 100 this year. He died all the way back in 1985 at the age of 70, still struggling to raise money to make films, even though one film he made was already regarded as the greatest, ever. Now, filmmaker Chuck Workman (The Source), who is best known for editing all those montages you see on the Oscar broadcasts, has made the official Welles centennial documentary, and also an attempt to shine a light on the conundrum that was his life.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is a pretty simple movie, a primer, really. I'm not a Welles scholar by any stretch, but I have read about him at length, and written about him numerous times, and there wasn't anything in Magician that I didn't already know about him. But for newcomers eager to learn more about this all-time great filmmaker, it's a good place to start.

At a speedy pace, the documentary covers Welles' childhood, named a genius from an early age. It talks about his theater background, and contains footage of his all-black production of Macbeth. It talks about his radio work, including the fact that he would travel from station to station by ambulance. He would work in radio to raise money for his plays, but his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast gave him national fame. Hollywood came calling, and he held out for total control, final cut, of his first movie. That was Citizen Kane.

He continued to work at RKO, but his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was butchered while he was in South America, on assignment, filming It's All True; the latter of which would remain uncompleted in Welles' lifetime, but was released in a documentary format in 1993. From there, he gained the reputation of being too difficult, too artistic, and it was a struggle for him to make films for the rest of his life.

An entire generation grew up knowing him as the booming voice narrating documentaries, for his blustery cameo roles in certain movies, and for being the enormous fat man selling wine on TV ads. Perhaps the greatest myth about his life was that he never made another decent movie after Citizen Kane. But this is untrue. He made thirteen completed feature-length films in total, and almost all of them are as good as Citizen Kane, while some of them may be even better: The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1966), The Immortal Story (1968), F for Fake (1973), and Filming Othello (1978). Actor Simon Callow, who is also a Welles scholar and published a two-part Welles biography, shares my opinion that Chimes at Midnight is Welles' greatest film, but the documentary also remarks how difficult it is to see that film today.

The sheer number of great directors who turn up for this documentary attest to just how powerful Welles' work was, how inspirational, and how transformative. Nothing was the same after it, and if you saw a Welles film and made a film of your own, you would never compose a shot in quite the same old way again. Yet with all of these admirers, why did Welles struggle so much with money? Why couldn't he finish some of his unfinished works? Magician simply suggests that it was because he was ahead of his time. But a quick look at the film business now indicates that, unless he signed on for a superhero movie, an Orson Welles today would likely have even more trouble getting anything done.

The real victory of Welles' life was that he was able to do anything at all. Those dozen or so films that he actually made, and are actually out in the world for people to see, are miracles. Hopefully Magician, with its many lovely clips and its jovial, adoring portrait of the man who made them, will send more people on the hunt to see them.

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