Magician, the Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles review

Documentary reveals what citizen Welles did after making his most famous movie

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles
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Director: Chuck Workman
Cert: G
Genre: Biography
Starring: Orson Welles
Running Time: 1 hr 31 mins

Orson Welles was a 16-year-old prodigy when he blagged his way on to the stage of Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Recalling his time there, he said: “I started as a star and worked my way down.”

It's a great line and precisely the kind of witticism that made him a life-long, chat-show fixture, even when his film career took him to such low-fallutin' places as Transformers: The Movie.

As everybody knows, Welles exploded onto movie screens with Citizen Kane, a film that redefined what cinema could be, at the age of 25.

He would never again be afforded such artistic licence. RKO would famously take control of his sophomore effort, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and butcher the film with cuts and reshoots.


Years later, Welles recalls a fan inquiring: "Did you ever make a picture after Citizen Kane?"

But, of course he did. The Stranger (1945) was the first commercial picture to use footage from the concentration camps; The Lady from Shanghai's (1947) Brechtian devices were applauded by European critics; Macbeth (1948) brought a dash of Cocteau to the Bard.

As a European exile during the height of McCarthyism, he made Othello and Mr Arkadin before returning to Hollywood to direct Touch of Evil for Universal. Inevitably, the studio locked him out of the editing suite. "I love Hollywood," he says. "But the feeling is not reciprocated."

By Welles's own account, his best works were Chimes at Midnight (1966) and The Trial (1962). Both were self-financed. And both received only minimal theatrical runs.

Any one of these projects might warrant its own documentary, and many previously have. Welles's colourful post-Kane career was dogged by setbacks and gaps in funding: Othello alone took four years to complete.

But Chuck Workman’s fine documentary only has time to function as an overview: wives (Virginia Nicolson, Rita Hayworth, Paola Mori) and major projects are necessarily reduced to soundbites.

The director and archivist, best known for his montages for Academy Awards ceremonies, mostly allows Welles to do the talking and, even from the archives, he makes for great company.

The film throws light on Welles's theatre career and reminds us that even before his news bulletin radio adaption of War of the Worlds caused widespread panic, he was already the most exciting talent in American theatre.

There are no surprises or revelations here: Welles’s life, even the bare-bones version, is eventful enough.

And besides, as Welles's conflicting accounts of how he came to make The Lady From Shanghai demonstrate – a selection are presented side-by-side for our amusement – by the end, even Orson Welles wasn't sure where Orson Welles ended and 'Orson Welles' began.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic