There are so many books and films about Orson Welles that it’s tempting to wonder what could possibly be left to cover. Of course, with any life, let alone one as self-consciously large as that of Welles, there’s always something more, whether it’s a new juxtaposition, a new contextualization, or even a new discovery, such as the footage that was uprooted of Too Much Johnson last year, the short film Welles shot early in his career that was to be shown as part of a theatrical experiment. Welles left so many projects, lovers, and dashed dreams in his wake that there will probably be discoveries popping up for the next century, and that’s but one portion of his considerable legend. Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, however, is basically a clip show that dutifully covers all of the big beats of the generally accepted narrative without forging any new ground, offering a passable but mostly uninspired 101 summation of the filmmaker and raconteur.
Director Chuck Workman simply compiles Welles’s greatest moments, offering little in the way of an authorial point of view. There’s Welles’s precocious childhood as a brilliant boy who’s almost supernaturally conversant with the Bible and the work of William Shakespeare. There’s the Todd School, which encouraged and nurtured his theatrical obsessions, the Irish “art” trip right after school, the Mercury Theater, the controversial radio production of War of the Worlds, the short-lived golden-boy status at RKO before the release of Citizen Kane, and so on. Peter Bogdanovich, of course, is interviewed, repeating the stories that he’s been telling for the last 50 years. Norman Lloyd briefly, elegantly, speaks of Welles’s ability to unite all theatrical elements on the stage with the force of his personality. Elvis Mitchell offers a casually astute assessment of Welles’s command of his own body. But there are no surprises: Magician feels as if it was culled from every Welles DVD supplement ever released—an impression that’s bolstered by the dozens of interviews that have clearly been recycled from other sources.
Still, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching old footage of Orson Welles, and Workman does achieve some subtle effects that are cheeky and moving. There’s a good moment where a Welles interview concerning the initiation of the funding of The Lady from Shanghai is edited with another testimonial many years later on the same subject to offer a succinct illustration of the artist’s gift and tendency for cultivating his own mythology. Another scene layers audio of Welles speaking of his ex-wife, Rita Hayworth, over footage of her sexy close-ups from Shanghai to create a scene that’s both poignant and erotic; we’re allowed to feel Welles’s vulnerability, an impression that’s too rarely fostered in relation to the titan. Magician could have used more of these sorts of inventions of compression and recalibration, as it’s ultimately a superficial hodgepodge of incident.