At the age of 25, Orson Welles produced, wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane (1941), a film widely considered to be one of the greatest ever made. In many ways, this proved to be the peak of his career. To celebrate Welles’ centenary, Chuck Workman’s Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2015) gives us a cradle-to-grave biopic of the filmmaker and raconteur. It starts with his precocious childhood in Woodstock, Illinois. Welles adored his mother, whose view was that “a child had to do something extraordinary… or you were exiled to the nursery.” She died when he was nine, but he kept her lessons and never failed to entertain.
Welles carefully pruned his mythology, and Workman’s documentary runs us through the old anecdotes. We hear how he liked to give interviews from the bath tub, and how he extemporised the plot for The Lady from Shanghai (1947) from a newspaper article on his desk while on the phone to a Hollywood exec. In part, it was his mythology that got him his big break. While doing a radio dramatisation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, parts of it were read in the form of a news report. Some hapless listeners tuned in just then, believed what they heard, and the show triggered a minor national panic. Appalled and moralising letters flooded in, but Welles was delighted: “I didn’t go to jail — I went to Hollywood.” It was then that Welles made Citizen Kane. Thereafter, the documentary charts his fall from grace. Many interviews are cut and patched together, and the result is dense; a life so full of incident is hard to fit into a single film.
The fawning interviewees include Spielberg, Linklater and the actor Simon Callow. Sadly, none of them really says anything original; like much of the footage used, the material is simply recycled. Yet Welles himself lights up the documentary. He was born to be interviewed, and it is a pleasure to watch him at different ages. As a young man, those faint eyebrows curve up over his nose with quizzical mirth as his voice winds laconically through clause after clause, somehow remaining articulate. In later days, exiled in Europe with his silvered beard and heavy jowls, he looks every bit the destitute king. Desire to understand the alchemy behind his various incarnations – the corpulent detective in Touch of Evil (1958); the cynical Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949); the doomed press baron of Citizen Kane – naturally leads to a biopic, but Workman never really gets at the core of his subject. Behind the smile and the oiled eloquence, Welles remains inscrutable. Perhaps the title acknowledges this: a good magician never reveals his tricks, after all.