Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (3 stars)

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Enjoyable if insufficiently insightful doc about the legendary actor-director

The spiralling cinematic career of Orson Welles – from the dizzy highs of Citizen Kane (1941) to the dismal lows of The Transformers: The Movie (1986) – represents one of the strangest, saddest car crashes in film history. Really, it's deserving of the documentary to end all documentaries. But could any filmmaker measure up to the boy-genius who never quite measured up to himself?

Director Chuck Workman certainly gives it his best shot, cycling more or less chronologically from Welles’ youth as a troubled prodigy ('I must have been intolerable,' he recalls) to his heyday as the wunderkind of American theatre, radio, then film. His legendary 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast showed a man fully intending to upset the status quo, but it brought him enough Hollywood latitude to make Kane – still a crystalline classic (although Welles later denounced its 'Rosebud' detective story structure) – and enough rope to effectively hang himself. Follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was butchered by the studio, RKO, as an apologetic Robert Wise (director of The Sound of Music, who helped cut it) explains, and Welles never enjoyed the same level of autonomy – or success – again.

Although there are some great clips from Kane et al, and plenty of brilliantly basso anecdotage from Welles himself, we never really get to the bottom of why he, in his own words, 'began as a star and worked my way down.' Was it his vaulting ambition – a conspiracy started by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, upon whom Kane was based – or just bad luck / judgement? Contributors such as Sydney Pollack, Walter Murch and Welles' biographer Simon Callow don’t know, or aren’t telling, and Magician, like Welles’ least loved works, ends up as a great bunch of moments with no clear through-line. Perhaps there’s too much story for one film. Or perhaps there was too much man.

Selected release from Fri 3 Jul.

Magician - Trailer

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

  • 3 stars
  • 2014
  • US
  • 1h 34min
  • Directed by: Chuck Workman
  • UK release: 3 July 2015

Documentary about the great actor-director, chronicling his swift rise to the dizzy highs of Citizen Kane in 1941 and his long, slow decline to Transformers: The Movie in 1986. Despite great clips, we never really get the bottom of Welles's mystery; perhaps there was too much of him for one movie.