Despite it the fact it’s been held up in a legal quagmire for years, resulting in its sporadic distribution I managed to buy a copy of Orson Welles Chimes at Midnight. Alongside Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons I heard that it was his greatest creative achievement. Playing the Shakespearean knight-come-fool Falstaff he had made one of the best filmic adaptations of the bard. What struck me the most during the film wasn’t just the performances which range from the sublime to hammy or the brilliantly mounted battle sequences (for an independent production) it was the editing. Fast cutting from wides, to close ups, to whip pans back to extreme close ups all within seconds of each other. Nowadays we’re used to this style mostly thanks to MTV and years of music videos but this was made in 1965. It stands as testament to Orson Welles the craftsman and theatrical storyteller that he was also looking to expand on film making techniques and pushing convention.
This forms the basis of director Chuck Workman’s love letter to Welles, Magician.
With no formal voice-over to carry proceedings Workman uses the wealth of interview footage which exists of Welles to do much of the talking. A famous raconteur we’re greeted by the masters ever changing face as he tells the same anecdote at various points in his life. One moment he’s in black and white with a beard the next slick haired and clean shaven. It’s an editing slight of hand that Welles himself may have enjoyed. Showing one man at different stages of his existence recounting the same story with increasing embellishments.
The man’s marriages are touched upon. An ex-wife turns up here, one of his children their but for the most part matters are kept mostly to business rather than the personal. Director and protege Peter Bogdanovich, who by all accounts had Welles as his constant house guest for the last few years of his life, reveals some of little known facts about his thought process. Elsewhere Scorsese, Spielberg and Richard Linklater all pop in older interviews to pay homage. Simon Callow is on hand as the official Welles biographer (I didn’t know either) to expand on his earlier years as a theatrical pioneer with his all-African American production of Macbeth and his costly production of Around the World in 80 Days.
Very much a love letter to Welles, the main pleasure comes from the factoids from the making of his films. Sliding from “the boy wonder” who was nationally famous before he made his film and given carte-blanche to the food loving auteur who could not scrape two pennies for a production. The documentaries ace is undoubtedly the footage of Welles unfinished projects. His vaunted Don Quixote which looks as impressionist as his version of The Trial. The Other Side of the Wind starring directing titan John Huston in an improvised story of Hollywood creatives looks “interesting” and there’s screen test for a later film adaptation of Moby Dick. Sequences shown from his other films such as Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil remind you what a visual director he was and if anything the film works as a great advert to seek the films out once more.
An ode to giant of cinema, Magician, is fascinating in both it’s anecdotes and academia. I for one will be digging out my Touch of Evil DVD very soon.
Dir: Chuck Workman
Featuring: Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Simon Callow, Walter Murch, Charlton Heston, John Houseman, Martin Scorsese
Prd: Charles Cohen, Charles S. Cohen
DOP: Tom Hurwitz, Michael Lisnet, John Sharaf
Run time: 91 mins
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is available on DVD on 24 August 2015 via the BFI.