Is it possible to sum up a great man’s life in 91 minutes? That’s a very Orson Welles-ish question to ask – imagine it pondered in that rich, stentorian voice – and he’s perhaps the only filmmaker who might conceivably have managed it. So the question isn’t whether this highlights-reel documentary encapsulates the magnitude of Welles (it doesn’t, and never could have) but whether it was worth attempting in the first place?
The answer will depend on what you’re after. If you’re a budding film student or a newly-minted cineaste looking for a quick and easy brush-up on the all-time great American director, ‘Magician’ will serve perfectly well. It’s packed with recognisable talking heads (Spielberg, Lucas, Friedkin) and laced with amusing clips from recent cine-literate films like ‘Get Shorty’ and ‘Me and Orson Welles’. And while it hits all the key events – ‘War of the Worlds’, ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Touch of Evil’ – it’s strongest in the latter stages, offering keen insight into the likes of ‘The Trial’ and ‘Chimes at Midnight’ and a nifty resume of Welles’s catalogue of unfinished works.
But if you’re already a Welles lover, there’s little that’s new here, and the gaps can be infuriating: the briefest mention of his radical stage show ‘Cradle Will Rock’, and indeed his entire activist career; the same for his groundbreaking ‘Moby Dick’ theatre piece; hardly a nod to his marriages and relationships. As impossible tasks go, this is carried off with a certain aplomb. But you’d be better off with his complete back catalogue and a good doorstop biography.