Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Combining extensive filmmaker interviews and rare archival footage, Chuck Workman’s documentary takes us through the life of one of cinema’s greatest masters: Orson Welles.


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  • ★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd

    It's a bit risky having a workmanlike documentary directed by a guy who's actually called Chuck Workman, kind of like a Rob Schneider movie being directed by Frank Shitforbrains. And it's true that Magician suffers from a lot of the things I've complained about in recent documentaries - most notably, the incessant, twinkly score. (Can someone please shut these things off once in a while?)

    So what makes it work? For a start, it's impressive just getting Welles's life into ninety minutes without (mostly) feeling over-compressed. Simon Callow, who is interviewed here, has taken two volumes of autobiography to get up to 1948, such is the richness and activity of his subject. Sometimes you do wish Workman had the time to go deeper; there are occasional allusions to his Civil Rights work, which deserve a documentary on their own, and Pauline Kael's views on the authorship of Citizen Kane are rebutted without making it clear to the uninitiated what butt is being re-ed here. (For a thoroughly researched demolition of Kael's claims, check out Clinton Heyman's Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios, which finds a lot of the ideas Kael ascribes to Mankiewicz in scripts written by Welles before Mank was brought on board)

    The other thing is that Welles was such a great chronicler of his own life, particularly during the later years, where he would pass heartbreakingly from failing to finance a new film to going onto a chat show and telling a rapt audience about his old films. Workman cleverly cuts between several tellings of one of these anecdotes - about the origins of The Lady from Shanghai - showing how casually Welles embellished the details over time. Mostly, though, what Welles says is allowed to stand.

    I enjoyed Callow and other interviewees advocating so strongly for Chimes at Midnight, and wished there had been similarly forceful voices for The Trial and F for Fake. The clips are, of course, a delight to see back up on the big screen, particularly ones from unfinished projects: The Deep, The Merchant of Venice, The Dreamers, Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind. There are also Welles-related clips from the films of Francois Truffaut, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Richard Linklater, Barry Sonnenfeld, Benjamin Ross and Peter Jackson, reminding us how pervasive the spectre of Welles is on his centenary.

  • ★★★½ review by Joe on Letterboxd

    "He returned to a world where he felt comfortable but was also challenged."

  • ★★★½ review by Craig Duffy on Letterboxd

    Nothing revolutionary but a solid doc about a great talent. Dug the integration of clips from Ed Wood and such. Also getting to see some flashes of the unreleased stuff. In the end it's a story we all already know.

  • ★★★★ review by Matt Thomas on Letterboxd

    A thorough tribute to Welles - warts and all. His talent and torments are captured really well through the archival clips, contributions and films.

  • ★★★½ review by Robert A. on Letterboxd

    Whenever I watch a biographical documentary I have to ask myself whether it transcends the trappings of something that would look like a basic cable biography special. However I haven't watched a basic cable biography special in years.

    So that leaves me with... Orson Welles is pretty darn cool.

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