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


DIR: Chuck Workman • PRO: Charles Cohen, Charles S. Cohen DOP: Tom Hurwitz, Michael Lisnet, John Sharaf • ED: Chuck Workman • MUS: Heitor Pereira • Cast: Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles


The mythos that has been built around Orson Welles is akin to that of legend. However, unlike a lot of Welles’ counterparts, of which there are few, the line between man and myth seems to blur rather than clarify upon further inspection. Chuck Workman’s film provides a wide-ranging, but lacking in depth, insight into the life and legacy of one of the 20th century’s most important directors.

From child prodigy, to theatre master, to cinematic genius, Welles excelled in every artistic medium he dabbled in. Arguably, the only thing that ever eluded his brilliant mind was the legal intricacies of the film industry. To this day a significant chunk of Welles’ cinematic works, including 1965’s Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight, remain tied up in legal disputes, with questions of ownership making re-releases almost next to impossible. Welles’ steadfast confidence in his artistic vision inevitably led to doors being firmly shut in his face. On several occasions, studios refused to distribute his films unless he agreed (and he never did) to alter his work. Though, to be fair, when the first ever feature film you churn out is Citizen Kane perhaps it’s not unreasonable to believe that the money handlers should cough up, no questions ask.

This unwillingness to bend to studio demands ultimately made Welles a Hollywood outcast. Driven to independent filmmaking, the director’s filmography post-1940s is a patchwork of unfinished projects. A Renaissance man through and through, Welles’ talent was undeniable but frustrated at every turn by studio greed, a public unprepared for challenging cinema, financial troubles, and his own fickleness. As the years passed the director’s ego became matched only by his ever-expanding waistline, but it can be argued that the reasons for his tenacity were not unfounded.

We get glimpses of the complex industry politics that dominated Welles’ career throughout the film and less than a glimpse of the even more complex man himself. To Workman’s credit, he does manage to cram in every major touchstone of Welles’ career. With a body of work as sweeping as Orson Welles’, that is an achievement. However, the film never stops to linger over the events that need greater examination. Anybody who is a fan of Welles will find nothing new in Workman’s documentary, no revelations and no fresh insights. What the audience is left with is a chronologically correct document of Welles’ career, but not a better understanding of cultural icon.


Ellen Murray

94 minutes

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is released 23rd July 2015

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles – Official Website


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