'Magician' conjures up the life of Orson Welles in his own words

Orson Welles got even better after 'Citizen Kane,' says the director of a new documentary about the filmmaker

Oscar-winning filmmaker Chuck Workman never met Orson Welles, but he saw the influential "Citizen Kane" director at his favorite luncheon watering hole, Ma Maison.

"My God, there he was," recalled Workman ("Precious Images") by phone. But as much as he admired Welles, Workman didn't muster the courage to say hello.

When he was starting as a director, Workman said, he did a lot of celebrity commercials with the likes of Fats Domino and Muhammad Ali. "I was a fearless young kid, but I was always afraid I would get Orson Welles," he said. "Because I heard that he told you what to do and where to put the lights."

Though Workman never discovered what it was like to direct the master filmmaker, he has directed the new documentary "Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles." The film, which opens Wednesday, is timed with Welles' centenary next year.

"Magician" features scenes from almost every Welles film, including such classics as 1934's "Hearts of Age," 1941's "Citizen Kane," 1942's "The Magnificent Ambersons," 1958's "Touch of Evil" and 1965's "Chimes at Midnight," Welles' favorite, as well as his unfinished works "The Other Side of the Dream," "The Deep" and "Don Quixote."

Among those interviewed are Welles' good friends directors Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom; his longtime companion Oja Kodar; his oldest daughter, Christopher; and Welles scholar James Naremore. Welles tells his own colorful life story through clips of more than a dozen interviews spanning a 50-year-period.

Making "Magician" was a revelation for Workman.

"I worked with the films for over two years," he said. "I would see so much in them. I really loved looking through all of those movies, finding scenes that I wanted to use, thinking about them and reading about them. There was so much depth to them."

Though "Citizen Kane" is considered by many critics and film historians to be the most important movie of the 20th century, Workman discovered Welles got "get better and better at certain things from one picture to the next."

His editing style, Workman said, changed after he left Hollywood in 1948 for Europe.

"He even said in an interview, he was so used to the slickness of the Hollywood crews and the high quality of the crews, he could do very big long shots. In Europe, he was doing shorter shots. He was running out of money, so he had to grab what he could and do reaction shots later. You can see how good an editor he was by the end of his life with 'F for Fake.' The editing is as good as anything that I have seen."

Welles also directed himself with more assurance, especially in "Touch of Evil," where he plays a corrupt police captain, and in "Chimes at Midnight," in which he plays Shakespeare's larger-than-life rapscallion Falstaff.

"You see how he learns to direct himself," Workman said. "He knows his own body in a way. After he did 'The Stranger' with Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson, he was better with stars."

Even his scripts, Workman noted, were richer. "You saw him working with sets better. So as great as 'Citizen Kane' is, if you look at the craft of the filmmaker, his films were improving."

Welles, who died in 1985 at 70, had a remarkable life: musical prodigy at 10, Shakespearean director at 14, wunderkind on Broadway and on radio in his early 20s, "Citizen Kane" director (his feature debut) at 25.

"He enjoyed the Hollywood life," Workman said. "He went through a lot of women and a lot of money. He certainly lived the life of a successful young kid who was a star. He was a monstrous star even before 'Citizen Kane.'"

But with "Kane," he incurred the wrath of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst because the film was a thinly veiled, scathing account of his life. Despite its influence today, "Kane" was not a hit.

Hollywood let Welles do what he wanted with "Citizen Kane," Workman said, "but not after that."

Welles, meanwhile, refused to adhere to the dictates of Hollywood.

"I think a lot of great filmmakers and great artists who come to Hollywood bend eventually," Workman said. "Orson Welles never went with it. He tried to, but he couldn't do it for some reason. He couldn't conceive his work that way, in a commodity way."

Hollywood, Workman noted, "wants you to do the same thing over and over again. He always wanted to be original. That's the way he thought about work."

susan.king@latimes.com

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