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Magician: The Astonishing Work & Life of Orson Welles (Blu-ray Review)

22 Jun, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$24.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray

Box Office $0.016 million
Not rated

The accurate rap on Magician, including by the many to whom this brisk overview gave a good time, is its tendency toward surface skimming — an inevitable result, perhaps. After all, the running time is just 94 minutes, and we’re dealing with a subject who directed in multiple mediums, acted, was an ubiquitous talk-show guest in his day and counted among his wives Rita Hayworth (the list of lovers was formidable, too). Lordy, how many books have there been on Welles? I must own at least five myself, some of them thick, and Chuck Workman’s documentary is enough of a table-setter to make me want to tackle a couple before too long.

Workman, of course, is the movie marvel known to even casual fans (if not necessarily by name) for the assemblage of those memorable clip montages for the Oscarcasts — something of a lost art, now that the show’s more recent producers have relegated the special awards that often utilize them to the untelevised prelims, all to make more room for John Hughes tributes and other assorted piffle. You really have to know your material even to attempt one of these assemblages, and the Magician excerpts from Citizen Kane, forever butchered The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady From Shanghai and all that followed (movies both completed and un-) do make one want to sit down for the full-course meal. And speaking of this, feasting (the regular kind) was, no surprise, another side of Welles’s biography — and the sometimes briefly utilized, but copious, list of interviewees here even finds room for Wolfgang Puck himself to marvel at how much our subject liked to hit the trough.

Welles’s training in stagecraft, which enabled him to master lighting, sound and the other essential condiments that eventually helped Kane to mesmerize on every level, began early during an apparently happy schooling experience in Woodstock, IL — this despite the fact that this overweight and full-of-himself attendee from Wisconsin never quite fit in with his peers. Interviewed is a now gray-haired woman who was a student as well at the time, and there’s a great reaction shot of her to a dedication of the school’s Orson Welles “stage” when the dedicator alludes to Welles’s humility. In later talk show years, Welles would reflect on how much of a pain he must have been to others in his younger years, though modesty was not a totally successful fit for him. Among the more amusing clips here — just as it was on the PBS documentary about his 1938 CBS radio broadcast of War of the Worlds — is the one of Welles pretending to be contrite, after the airing, about the mass panic that ensued in some of the less geographically sophisticated burgs when channel surfers became convinced that Martians were really attacking the U.S.

Had Magician wanted to go the full epic route, it could have devoted more time to Welles’s family life; I was surprised to hear him say in an interview here that he was married longer to Hayworth longer than anyone else — a feat of sorts given Henny Youngman’s old crack that he used to fly out to Hollywood every year for Rita’s wedding and that her face was scarred from rice marks. Still, you get the sense that Welles wasn’t the type who sat around with his daughters playing a whole lot of Parcheesi, so the narrative inevitably turns to The Stranger and Shanghai and Macbeth (at Republic, miracle of miracles) and the forever-in-production Othello — it the one where, when the production couldn’t get the costumes out of hock, staged a key scene in a Turkish bath (inspired). For those who are into irony (or at least cynical), The Stranger was both the most commercial and/or conventional movie Welles ever made and the only one to turn a nice profit — though I’ve always liked it since I was a kid and, besides, conventional is a relative term. (I always thought “conventional” is what, say, Robert Z. Leonard turned out at MGM.) When it comes time for Touch of Evil, we get interviews with editor/sound genius Walter Murch (who supervised this late-blooming classic’s reconstruction) and lead Charlton Heston, the one who suggested to Universal-International that co-star Welles be allowed to direct. If people are going to knock Heston (and I’m as guilty as anyone), it should never be forgotten that he championed Welles and Sam Peckinpah when almost nobody else would.

Magician makes an impassioned case for the brilliance of Chimes at Midnight (one of those cases where Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris agreed), and I eagerly await the chance to see its new restoration (as well as The Other Side of the Wind if the campaign to get it assembled ever hits the accelerator full force). Even way back when, Welles was successful at attracting printers’ ink — but not many funds. He got an AFI Life Achievement Award plus talk show invites (and by the way, a fairly meaty clip from the Merv Griffin appearance that was done just hours before he went home and died), but little work beyond acting. And even that, he never exploited the way he might have; the documentary says he was offered a financial piece of The Third Man, which has his greatest performance this side of Kane, and the eternal grosses might have set him up for life. But he was so strapped for cash at the time (Othello again) that he was compelled to take a flat fee for his services.

Ultimately, the proof is in the movies themselves — and, as Workman says in a short interview with film historian Annette Insdorf on a bonus extra, the movies are what he wanted to play up here. His key accomplishment here (hopefully) is a laying to rest the mothballed accusation (though it’s a mothball with a long shelf life) that Welles only made one great movie in his career. That’s like saying Norman Mailer lost his mojo after The Naked and the Dead (I’ve heard that one, too).

About the Author: Mike Clark

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