Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles Review

A documentary on Orson Welles’s life and career, released by the BFI for his centenary.

In the late nineties, when he and Walter Murch were preparing a version of Touch of Evil closer to Orson Welles’s intentions, Rick Schmidlin tracked down Ernest Nims, then in his late eighties, who had been head of postproduction at Universal at the time of the film’s making. “Orson Welles!” said Nims. “The only genius I ever worked for. He was twenty years ahead of his time.” In that lay Welles’s genius and also the cause of the resistance he met from the Hollywood studios. It’s perhaps due to the support of Nims, who died in 2000, that the film, despite being re-edited and partly reshot by the studio, ended up as good as it was.

Genius is the word, one I would use of few other film directors, but Welles was clearly not a fulfilled one. He arrived in Hollywood as a twenty-six-year-old wunderkind, with an already established reputation on stage and radio, in the latter capacity most famous for an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds which caused mass panic. Citizen Kane, seventy-three years after its making, may be a standby of Best Films of All Time lists, but later films suffered at the hands of the studios. The Magnificent Ambersons which may well have been a still greater achievement, was cut by some half an hour (one of the editors responsible, Robert Wise, appears to say his piece) and while he contributed to the direction of Journey into Fear, it was credited to Norman Foster. The Stranger, a film noir, was partly made by Welles to prove he could bring in a film on time and within budget. In the meantime, Welles sustained his career as an actor, but found increasing resistance to being hired as a director.

Welles’s acting work helped finance later films, shot piecemeal in various parts of Europe as and when he had the resources to do so. After Othello was completed in 1952 and Mr Arkadin (also known as Confidential Report) in 1955, Welles was suggested by Charlton Heston to direct Touch of Evil, to some resistance from the studio (Universal), who removed Welles from the film and re-edited it. After that, Welles returned to Europe and finished his career as a maker of dramatic features with adaptations from Kafka (The Trial), Shakespeare (Chimes at Midnight) and Isak Dinesen (The Immortal Story, an hour-long film made for French television but also given a cinema release, Welles’s only completed dramatic feature in colour).

Welles died in 1985 at the age of seventy, and Magician, Chuck Workman’s 2014 documentary is one of two releases that the BFI are putting out to mark Welles’s centenary. The other is his 1955 TV series Around the World with Orson Welles, which I have reviewed for the Digital Fix’s television site. Magician is a feature-length documentary giving an overview of Welles’s life and career from the beginning to his death, with plenty of extracts from his work, archive interviews with Welles and interviews with friends, family members, film critics and filmmakers. While there’s not a lot here that will be unfamiliar to many filmwatchers, it serves admirably in placing key moments of Welles’s work in one place, including extracts from unfinished films such as Don Quixote, The Dreamers and The Deep and the then litigation-bound and commercially unavailable Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff), which Welles thought as his best, or least flawed film. Magician concentrates on Welles’s big-screen narrative features, so there’s no mention of his television work or indeed the documentary essay F for Fake, conceived for the small screen but ending up on the large one. While there are certainly more in-depth work on Welles out there – such as the biography by Simon Callow, interviewed here, the third volume of which is published in November 2015, with a fourth to follow – it does very well as an introduction to one of the great geniuses of cinema in the twentieth century.

The Disc

Magician is released by the BFI as a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. As a documentary, the disc has been exempted from BBFC certification.

The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. Magician is made up of new interview footage shot in high definition and a variety of other sources, some of them SD, especially the extracts from television interviews. Some of the latter show how NTSC was once nicknamed Never Twice the Same Colour. There are plenty of extracts from Welles’s films and also those which have been influenced by them, and also such as Woody Allen’s Radio Days, which has a scene featuring the War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

The soundtrack is available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). There’s no difference between the two. As the documentary is made up of talking-head interviews and extracts from films and television material which all had mono soundtracks, the sound mix here is pretty much monophonic too, with just the music score using the surrounds. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available.

The extras begin with a trailer for Magician (1:58). Next up, Chuck Workman is interviewed by Annette Insdorf (8:34). This isn’t really a talk about the making of the film, but is mainly Workman making the point that even when Welles was trying to play within the rules (as with The Stranger) he still couldn’t make a film anything like what the studios expected, and in this case they cut twenty minutes out of it. Workman does wonder how much of Welles’s greatness lay in what Welles described as if “confidence in ignorance”, a lack of awareness as a new filmmaker in the received wisdom of what the medium could and could not do. Finally, Simon Callow, Welles’s biographer, who is interviewed in the documentary, gives a personal appreciation of Welles (30:59), covering his life and work, from his pre-Kane excursions into cinema (the amateur short Hearts of Age and the recently rediscovered Too Much Johnson, shot to accompany a stage production but in the event never used, to the end of his career. Callow quotes Welles to sum him up: the doing of a thing was more important than the achieving of it.

The BFI’s booklet runs to twelve pages, beginning with a four-page essay on Magician by Paul Fairclough, and continuing with film credits, credits and notes for the extras, transfer notes and stills.


Updated: Aug 24, 2015

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