Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, directed by Chuck Workman

Having entered Hollywood a wunderkind, Orson Welles could never escape his own myth or his self-destructive tendencies, says Philip Kemp

July 2, 2015
Citizen Kane
Source: Rex

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles
Directed by Chuck Workman

Starring Orson Welles, Simon Callow and Jeanne Moreau
On general release in the UK from 3 July 2015

In June 1939, Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood. He was 24 years old and already famed as the “boy wonder” of live theatre and radio. His radio dramatisation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds had traumatised thousands of listeners who, tuning in too late for the opening announcement, believed that Martians really were attacking the US.

Welles was offered a deal by RKO that no other first-time director could have dreamed of. He was to make one film a year for three years. He could choose any subject he liked, script, shoot and edit it any way he wanted, cast and star whomever he wished, and no studio executive could interfere in any way before or during shooting, nor even see a foot of the film until it was complete.

Not surprisingly, envy and resentment of the wunderkind ran high in the movie colony. The wisecrack “There, but for the grace of God, goes God” has been widely attributed, most frequently to Herman Mankiewicz (co-screenwriter on Welles’ debut feature, Citizen Kane). It was the first of many bon mots generated by Welles’ extraordinary career, not least his own rueful “I started at the top – and have been working my way down ever since”.

Of the 12 features that Welles completed, Citizen Kane (1941) was probably the only one that turned out exactly the way he intended. The others were either mutilated by inept studio interference (The Magnificent Ambersons, Macbeth, Touch of Evil) or compromised by inadequate budgets and technical limitations (Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight). Indeed some critics, such as David Thomson, have considered all Welles’ subsequent films to be merely “offshoots of Kane, variations on its rich theme”. It can be argued that with that one film, Welles permanently affected the whole of Western cinema, making available to future film-makers a resonance and depth of cinematic complexity that have permanently enriched both the way films are constructed and the way we watch them.

Yet Kane flopped at the box office. Not through critical aversion – most critics, including such influential figures as Bosley Crowther at The New York Times and John O’Hara at Newsweek, hailed it as a groundbreaking masterpiece – but through the hostility it earned from one man. The film’s anti-hero, Charles Foster Kane, was all too recognisable as a satirical portrait of America’s most powerful press baron, William Randolph Hearst – and Hearst, forewarned, saw to it that in no time the whole crushing weight of the Hearst press machine was grinding into action against Kane, ensuring that it never got a decent release.

Kane’s financial failure irretrievably tarnished Welles’ reputation as a director. His next film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), might well, from what is left of it, have been even finer than Kane. But RKO, taking advantage of the director’s absence in South America making a propaganda piece in support of the US war effort, chopped more than a third out of it, had additional scenes shot by a studio hack and shoved it out as the lower half of a double bill. The missing footage has not yet resurfaced. 

From then on, Welles led an increasingly peripatetic life, making films when and where he could – sometimes in Hollywood, more often further afield. Now and then, to raise money for his own projects, he lent his impressive presence to other people’s films. Some were good (Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), where his 15 minutes of screen time dominate the whole film), most were mediocre or terrible. Several of the latter financed the interminable, ramshackle production of Othello (1952), shot over more than three years on two continents. On occasion, Welles could turn lack of funding to brilliant account: since there was no money for costumes, he staged Iago’s murder of Roderigo in a Turkish bath, the actors clad only in towels.

F for Fake
F for Fake was Orson Welles' final completed feature

Welles’ devotion to Shakespeare was lifelong and devoid of reverence; he never hesitated to rework the Bard to his own ends. (In 1937, his then production partner John Houseman was asked when Welles’ eagerly awaited stage production of Julius Caesar would be ready. “When Orson’s finished writing it,” Houseman responded.) Besides several stage productions, Welles made three Shakespeare films: Macbeth (1948), Othello and Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff, 1965) – interestingly, the same three subjects chosen by Verdi, and in the same order. A film of King Lear – with Welles himself, of course, in the title role – was one of the many unrealised or unfinished projects that litter his career. Some of them, such as his long-gestated Don Quixote, were intermittently filmed over a dozen years or more and still never completed.

There was always something of the conjurer, or the mountebank, about Welles, especially in his later years when he affected a broad-brimmed black hat and an ankle-length cape. And he was, in fact, a more than averagely talented amateur magician who relished performing conjuring tricks – as we see him doing in his last completed feature, F for Fake (1975). (Almost the opening words of the film, spoken by Welles himself, are “I’m a charlatan”.) It’s this abracadabra side of his persona that inspires the title of Chuck Workman’s documentary, Magician.

There are no surprises here for anyone reasonably well informed about Welles’ career. But the director lives up to his name and does a workmanlike job, marshalling the facts (and the legends), collecting assorted ephemera and assembling a fine gallery of witnesses. Welles himself, of course, eloquent as ever; Simon Callow, his biographer (the third part of whose three-volume biography is due out in November); numerous directors and actors (many no longer with us), including George Lucas, Jeanne Moreau, Richard Linklater, Charlton Heston, Sydney Pollack, Anthony Perkins, Peter Bogdanovich and, most affecting of all, Robert Wise, editor on The Magnificent Ambersons, still half a century later visibly racked with guilt over what RKO coerced him into doing to what might well have been Welles’ finest film. The director, we’re told, never spoke to him again.

Here, as so often, however, one can’t help wondering: why did Welles let these things happen to him? Why, in the case of Ambersons for example, didn’t he come storming back from South America to insist on the studio honouring its contract? The puzzle, as Callow puts it, is “why this extraordinarily smart guy was outwitted by so much less remarkable and intelligent people so often”. Magician supplies no direct answer, but over the years more than one commentator has detected in Welles a self-destructive impulse that led him to collude in the disintegration of his own career. Heston, who co-starred with him in Welles’ last Hollywood film, the sweaty, nightmarish thriller Touch of Evil (1958), noticed “something in him that drives him to alienate the people with the money”.

“I drag my myth around with me,” Welles once lamented. The myth, as befits any Wellesian artefact, is at once true and false, a shimmering tapestry of reality interwoven with illusion: the enfant terrible, irresistible conqueror of one art after another, iconoclast of all accepted notions of film-making – and then, hubris incarnate, the fallen angel, dragged down by his own overweening ambition to become the tragic exile, schlepping the tattered shreds of his former glory from one country to the next. The portrait is histrionically larger than life; and the suspicion persists that Welles, even while deploring this inflated image of himself, derived ironic amusement from it and could never resist giving a last tug to the flowing cape, an extra jaunty tilt to the wide-brimmed hat. Many observers – and not only hostile ones – have suggested that Welles’ greatest creation may have been himself.

Philip Kemp is visiting lecturer in film journalism at the University of Leicester. He reviews regularly for Sight and Sound, Total Film and Curzon Magazine, and edited Cinema: The Whole Story (2011).


Article originally published as: A conjurer who couldn’t control his magic (2 July 2015)

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