DVD Review – Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Orson Welles lived perhaps the most remarkable life of any director, he was a child prodigy and then became a stage and radio star and at 25 he directed, wrote, produced and starred in perhaps the greatest film ever made Citizen Kane. If he stopped then he would have lived enough lives for any one person but he continued to his death at 1985 struggling to makes films his way often being released in compromised versions and eventually restored to a cut that was closer to his original vision after his death.

The documentary is Magician and that’s what Welles was both a real magician but also a cinematic magician with this use of deep focus, editing, shadows, stylization etc. It’s directed by Chuck Workman who has made documentaries on such 20th century figures as Andy Warhol and members of the Beat generation amongst numerous others. He takes a relatively straight forward biographical approach to the life of Welles starting from his birth through his many films with heavy focus on obviously Citizen Kane but also Touch of Evil (Workman’s favourite of Welles’ films) and Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (Welles’ own favourite). It also touches on the tragedy of the recutting of The Magnificent Ambersons including some stills from the cut scenes.

The film is mostly edited with interviews with Welles throughout his life, clips from his films and numerous TV appearances. Friends and family are interviewed along with archive clips of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and a more recent clip of Richard Linklater calling “Orson Welles the patron saint of indie filmmaking”. British actor Simon Callow is also featured heavily because he written a few books on Orson Welles over the years. It goes into a good amount of detail of his unfinished projects like The Other Side of the Wind (which looks like it will be coming out this year or next) and his famous take on Don Quixote including some rarely seen clips.

Overall it’s a slightly short documentary it’s only 87 minutes long and for a man like Orson Welles’ something like the Alex Gibney 4 hour epic on Frank Sinatra seems more fitting. It’s still an insightful documentary for newbies to the work of Orson Welles with some interesting tidbits for long-term fans but don’t going expecting the be all and end documentary on the life and work of cinema’s great magician. The disc includes interviews with Workman and Callow along a short booklet with an essay on the film as expected with BFI’s releases.

Ian Schultz