Film Review: “Magician: The Astonishing Life of Orson Welles” — What’s the Rush?

At a mere 1 hour and 34 minutes, Chuck Workman’s documentary about Orson Welles is rushed and sometimes choppy, leaping through the filmmaker’s bountiful life.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, directed by Chuck Workman. At the Kendall Square Cinema.

Orson Welles as a magnificent Falstaff in "Chimes at Midnight."

Orson Welles as a magnificent Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight.”

By Gerald Peary

I’m a long-time admirer of the work and craft of Chuck Workman. Since 1986, he’s the person behind the illuminating montage sequences of Hollywood history at the Academy Awards. He’s made an number of first-rate documentaries, including two favorites of mine, Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990) and The Source: The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation (1999). Also, I’ve met him. He’s a sharp guy with an infectious love of cinema. And that’s on display in his newest film, Magician: the Astonishing Life of Orson Welles, a knowledgeable portrait of the filmmaker who brought us Citizen Kane and other movie delights. But I’m sad to report that at a mere 1 hour and 34 minutes Magician is rushed and sometimes choppy, leaping through Welles’s bountiful life.

Did Workman’s producers insist on cutting Magician so short, perhaps for a television slot after a brief theatrical run? 119 minutes, Kane’s length, might have been a more apropos running time. Here are reasons:

So many significant Wellesians are interviewed, from Orson’s family to fellow thespians to the most learned Welles scholars. Why not let everyone talk on for a while, with flushed-out anecdotes? Workman seems privy to all of Welles’s unfinished works. Why not linger on what is unavailable to the public, showing scenes beginning to end from The Deep, The Other Side of the Wind, and Don Quixote? Or lengthier footage of Welles as King Lear in a 1950s Omnibus TV presentation. Or spend more time with Orson on stage as Captain Ahab. And how about this? Magician teases with only two seconds of an episode in which Welles guested on I Love Lucy. Give us more of such a peculiar coupling, the distinguished cineaste making funny with Lucille Ball!

Workman does an excellent job of filling us in on Welles’s early life, the young prodigy of Woodstock, Illinois, awful at sports but an expert on Shakespeare, and eager for the stage. “I played Mary, the mother of Jesus, at 13,” a bemused adult Welles says in an interview. “Yes, I was very good at drag.” At 16, he went to Ireland, claimed he was 19, and announced, “I’d like to play all the leading roles.” His cockiness and extraordinary confidence paid off. And before you know how or why (one of those jumps in the movie), Welles is directing an all-black Macbeth for the Federal Theatre and, soon after, forming the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman. Magician does stop for the Mercury Theatre’s elaborate media joke, the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds which panicked America. There’s footage after the show that I’ve never seen before, of Welles at a press conference, sitting among a huddle of journalists and feigning innocence. Only later would he admit that there was a bit of malice toward the gullible public, who ate up everything on radio. Welles confessed, “We were fed up because whatever came through the magic box was believed.”

What other gems did Workman uncover? Welles’s 1937 screen test — he looks right and then left, sporting comely profiles. This Hollywood audition yielded no roles. His first movie acting was in his own first feature, also the first time he ever stepped on a sound stage: as the titular Charles Foster in a little piece called Citizen Kane (1941). Another leap in Magician: if you don’t know in advance the way Kane’s release was sabotaged by William Randolph Hearst, you won’t understand it by the abrupt telling in Magic.

The documentary is better demonstrating how RKO destroyed Welles’s next film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). With shooting complete, its director took off for Brazil to produce a documentary for Nelson Rockefeller. Time passed, and the studio got impatient waiting for Welles’s return to edit; Ambersons was a self-consciously literary movie RKO obviously loathed. The studio imposed a new structure on the last part of the movie, ripped out key scenes, and reshot Welles’s pessimistic conclusion, replacing it with the corniest imaginable upbeat ending. Of this debacle, Welles scholar James Naremore takes the filmmaker’s side totally: “RKO had hired him to make a masterpiece. He made a masterpiece.” Even if he was too long at the Carnival in Rio.

Welles, with his artsy, maverick attitude, had used up his Hollywood credibility. His two films, however masterly, both lost money. Nobody would hire him. It took four years before he was allowed to direct again, the Edward G. Robinson potboiler called The Stranger (1946). Welles said, “I had to show that I didn’t glow in the dark. I said ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ like other people.” This straightforward “noir” was his only picture ever to make a profit. The rest of his life? By default he was an independent filmmaker, often living in Europe, always struggling to finance such monumentally idiosyncratic works as Macbeth (1950), Othello (1955), Mr. Arkadin (1962), The Trial (1963),The Immortal Story (1968), and F For Fake (1973). All were embraced by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, abhorred by the American public.

Twice, Hollywood studios took a chance and hired him, and he rewarded Columbia and Universal with The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958). Both were too baroque for the studios. The first was recut to make more sense (it doesn’t), the second sat in limbo for decades before the genius editor, Walter Murch, made a posthumous version following Welles’s elaborate editing notes. Touch of Evil now joins Kane and Ambersons among Welles’s acknowledged masterpieces. The fourth of this bunch is Chimes at Midnight (1966), Shakespeare’s three Henry IV plays beautifully compressed, and with Orson sublime as Falstaff. “If I had to get into heaven on one movie, this is it,” said Welles.

These were films among the best ever made. But why so few completed in the many years between Citizen Kane and Welles’s death in 1985? His adulators see a complete victim, an artist of uncompromising integrity blackballed unfairly by the studios and shunned by moneybag producers. Skeptics see Welles as his own worst enemy, smug and snotty, often distracted from his art by his traveling, his womanizing, and his obsessive love of eating. And overeating. Handsome Orson Welles became fat.

His extreme obesity was used to advantage in his portraits of Touch of Evil’s ungainly Hank Quinlan and the rotund Falstaff. But was his going to waist also a telltale sign of self-destructive indulgence, a lack of discipline and character? Did film projects stop dead because Welles became distracted? Did he lose his assurance while making them? Again, Magician, running a swift hour-and-a-half, has little time to delve into Welles’s psychology. “I don’t think it was fear of finishing,” Welles scholar Naremore says in defense of the filmmaker’s small output. Only Elvis Mitchell, film critic, dares mention Orson’s weight, describing him ignobly as “Big as a Buick.”

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess

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