Magician Might Be Orson Welles 101 but It’s Still a Treat


If you’re already at least a moderate fan of all-around rogue genius Orson Welles, you probably don’t need Chuck Workman’s documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.

But since when was moviegoing about need? Sturdy and rudimentary, Magician may be Welles 101, but it’s dotted liberally with TV and radio clips of the famously loquacious auteur talking, talking, and doing more talking — and how could anybody with ears and a brain resist that buttery voice, spinning out clause-laden sentences that take more twists and turns than the streets of Venice but always end, somehow, in a place that’s ravishingly articulate?

Workman traces Welles’s story from his precocious, troubled youth to his audacious stint at the Gate Theatre in Dublin to his formation, with John Houseman, of the Mercury Theatre. Magician also breaks down the troubles Welles faced throughout his career, including the heartbreak of having one film after another — The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil — sabotaged by unimaginative studios.

But it also makes the case for Welles as the father of independent filmmaking: If not for his resourcefulness, we wouldn’t have pictures like the marvelous (if, owing to distribution woes, too little seen) Shakespearean dream Chimes at Midnight.

Welles may be best known for his brash debut, Citizen Kane, but Magician suggests, rightly, that Kane put just a small fraction of Welles’s gifts to use. Even if his career sometimes faltered, in the end he lived up to the seductive, bamboozling conviction of that voice.