In honour of what would have been Orson Welles’ 99th birthday today, I’d like to offer some insight on one of his lesser-known and seldom-seen films, 1955’s Mr. Arkadin.
It’s impossible to meaningfully discuss Orson Welles without considering what happened to him in his life and career. His story has become, in some ways, one of his most important works of art. It’s a classic American story of Ego and Hubris mixed with tenacity and talent, driven by the fickle forces of time and industry. The short version is that this child prodigy made some of the most daring stage productions of the 1930s, became arguably the most important actor and director of the golden age of radio, created what many still consider to be the greatest film ever made (Citizen Kane) and then began a long downward spiral as an artist and, so goes the tale, as a man, leading to his early death in 1985. In that story there are many chapters and many films, some more successful than others, some more well-known than others, but always charged with potent “what if?” scenarios.
Although he didn’t plan on it or explicitly court the possibility, Orson became one of the first truly “independent” filmmakers, financing his own projects and releasing them through whoever would pick up the rights. This led him into contact with some very shady and unscrupulous people, and as a result many of his final films wound up in the hands of some less than worthy distribution companies, more used to peddling cheap exploitation products than great works of art. Some of his later films suffer from being re-edited by insensitive producers and exist in a number of badly-duplicated 16mm-sourced material on home video. The Criterion Collection has been steadily setting the record straight, and their boxed set of Mr. Arkadin is a great example of rescuing a movie from the vagaries of European distribution.
Welles had left America in 1947 after his repeated attempts to follow-up 1941’s Kane had failed for many reasons. (World War II, Hearst, politics, Orson’s own slightly self-destructive personality: take your pick of reasons or add one to the list.) In Europe, living from hotel to hotel and dining with the finest cuisine and the finest company but personally broke and homeless, Orson had managed a few remarkable feats. His appearance in the 1949 British thriller The Third Man gave him a new lease on fame in the UK, although at the time he tossed most of his salary back into his own project, a remarkable multinational and artistically daring adaptation of Othello, finally released in 1952. He still found radio work in England and after the enormous box office success of The Third Man (which he did not direct), a radio series featuring his character from that movie was produced, titled “The Lives of Harry Lime”. Welles claimed that he wrote for this series, and while this claim is disputed he was unquestionably its star, and this represented one of his last truly starring roles on the medium to which he had contributed so much 20 years before.
One of the episodes of The Lives of Harry Lime featured a story about a reclusive European man of mystery known as “Mr Arkadian”, who was a vaguely Eastern European arms dealer/gangster. This provided Welles with the inspiration for his own take on the character, “Mr Arkadin”, a pulp novel which he supposedly wrote in 1953. I recently found this early paperback edition of it at Vancouver Fan Expo.
It isn’t a great book by any stretch of the imagination but it conforms to the imperatives of the genre. Orson was a great fan of pulp fiction and kept a number of vintage pulp books and magazines with him over the years right up until his death. We can see how the exaggerated, theatrical characters and settings of that pulpy thriller-spy genre appealed to his artistic sensibilities. It also allowed for characterizations that ultimately turn out to be a pretence, something else which Orson liked a lot because it allowed him to remain somewhat distanced from his characters.
Mr Arkadin, both the book and the film, tells the story of a young American wandering around Europe as a freelance fortune seeker who happens across a reclusive and all-powerful criminal mastermind named Gregory Arkadin. Arkadin has a daughter who he loves very much but he, like many men of his age in 1950s Europe, has some serious skeletons in the closet from the “old days”. He hires the young American do do a complete background check on him, under the pretence that he suffers from amnesia, but in fact Arkadin is only interested to see what a determined person can uncover about his past. He wants to hide all of those awful things he did in the war, and before, from his daughter and from the US Army, which is now courting for lucrative cold war contracts. Thus, the story plays out as a series of interviews with people who knew Arkadin from long ago, and gradually the American (sporting the improbable pulp name Guy Van Stratten) discovers the old man’s true purpose and threatens to expose his secrets to his daughter. Arkadin, unable to live with the shame of his daughter knowing of his past misdeeds, commits suicide on Christmas Day.
The story, whether it was original or not, appealed to Welles up until his final days. In his book of interviews with Peter Bogdanovich from near the end of his life, he yearns for the opportunity to make that story “properly”. This makes a great deal of sense in the context of Welles’ life and work, taken as a whole. Welles’ meta-theme, running through all of the films he completed and even the ones he didn’t, is identity. That’s the key to understanding him and his works. He was a person who grew up essentially without a true identity, prompted by his mother and his “handlers” (he was a child prodigy, remember, similar to the kids in The Royal Tenenbaums) to take on roles and affect mannerisms. This must have left a terrible hole in the middle of his own sense of himself, and all of his films are in some ways about uncovering layers of socialization and culture in a person to get to their true nature. We can see this easily in Kane, but consider that this is also the theme of Othello, of Touch of Evil, of The Lady from Shanghai and all of his later works. That theme is absolutely front-and-center in Mr Arkadin.
But Arkadin also anticipates and elaborates upon Welles’ mature cinematic style. He had started, out of necessity, to shoot films in short pieces that were edited together later, which gave rise to a fragmented, fast-paced, quick-cutting style that anticipated the films of the 1980s among other things. It was genuinely born of out necessity, having limited time with certain actors and locations, often having to shoot the “coverage” of a scene with stand-ins, even in love scenes, because the principal actors were too expensive to keep around for another take.
This style, although it could be artistically very satisfying (Welles’ final finished film, 1973’s F for Fake, is an editing tour-de-force) also left Orson vulnerable to others later meddling with his raw footage. And this is the case with Mr Arkadin. Of all the things that could be criticized about this film, and there are several, the lasting criticism is of the rather sloppily edited versions that still circulate. The title Confidential Report was used on British releases of the film without Welles’ permission (he hated the title). But that was nothing compared to the mutilated, re-edited versions that played in the US. Welles had encountered problems with editing before, most famously in The Magnificent Ambersons, but the damage done to Mr Arkadin’s structure and drama were really beyond the pale. Probably as a consequence, the film remains virtually unknown to the American audience, who would nevertheless embrace Orson for his next film (his last in Hollywood), Touch of Evil.
What of the film itself? The Criterion Collection set presents three different versions, essentially the American release, the British release and a new edition. This new version, the “comprehensive version”, is a skillful bit of digital magic, re-incorporating all the best quality surviving film elements, some of which are still only in 16mm, and preserving the original editing structure that Welles intended. It isn’t a “director’s cut” and shouldn’t be mistaken for one, but it is longer and more complete than any other version. And, surprisingly, it’s the easiest to understand and follow, something of a vindication of the way Welles imagined the film. My comments here will be about this “Comprehensive Version”.
Starting in a melancholy Christmas sequence, where a Salvation Army band beats away at “Silent Night”, we see Guy Van Stratten, played by Robert Arden, ascend an almost Escher-like staircase to meet Jakob Zuck, an old, dying gangster. The scenes between Van Stratten and Zuck take place in the “present” in terms of film time. Mr Arkadin’s Christmas suicide ends the film. All of the scenes of Van Stratten jetting all over the world, collecting information and intelligence on Arkadin and finally having encounters with Arkadin himself are told in flashbacks from this moment. Van Stratten has been led to this point by his investigation, and just like in The Usual Suspects (a film greatly influenced by Mr Arkadin), Van Stratten narrates the story while also playing out an important scene.
We learn, for example, that Van Stratten and his “girl”, Millie, have been adventuring around Europe for some time, and both are originally intending to rip off Arkadin for some of his legendary fortune. Arkadin’s daughter, Raina, becomes Van Stratten’s leverage over the old man as he courts this woman with less than noble intentions. When she finally introduces him to Arkadin we have a long scene set at a banquet in Spain with Goya-esque masks and all manner of grotesque imagery. Welles himself plays Arkadin, in heavy makeup with a serviceably non-specific Eastern European accent. Downing huge glasses of Vodka (according to actor Robert Arden, the liquor was real), he convinces Van Stratten to look into his past, and thus begins the main body of the picture. We follow Van Stratten around to various European and finally Mexican locations as he interviews people from Arkadin’s past, some of which are played by enormously entertaining character actors. We occasionally flash back to that key Christmas sequence, as Van Stratten tries to hide Zouk from Arkadin, who he has learned is secretly killing each of Van Stratten’s interview subjects after they talk, including Millie. Zouk is “the last man alive with the dirt,” in the pulpy language of the script.
This fragmented story structure is tricky at the best of times, and on this film, Orson was not having the best of times. Chronically short of money and under the gun of Producer Louis Dolivet (whose own life could form the subject of an even better movie), Welles allowed some elements of the production to get away from him. His own performance, for example, is the sort of broad caricature that he could, and did, easily better in later and earlier films. But the key fault of Mr Arkadin, as a film, is that its two central characters, Van Stratten and Raina, are played by actors who give such poor performances. Robert Arden (playing Van Stratten) was an actor Welles had known from radio work in England and his stock, square-jawed performance is stiff and lifeless. Welles cast his soon-to-be-wife, Italian Paola Mori, as Raina and while she’s obviously game and trying hard, she’s not a professional actor and it shows. There are times when non-actors can give great, unmannered performances, as Roberto Rossellini and company were discovering in Italy at the time, but Mori’s is not one of them. Rare outtakes show Welles patiently talking Mori through every moment of her performance, coaching every line, which is generous as an artist but she was clearly a sentimental choice. The weak central performances are all the more noticeable because they stand in contrast to spectacular supporting performances from the likes of Michael Redgrave (as a Dutch antique shop owner), Mischa Auer and most entertainingly Akim Tamiroff as Jakob Zouk. Tamiroff would also have a notable roles in Touch of Evil, Welles’ The Trial from 1962 and finally in the famous Alphaville for Jean-Luc Godard. As a veteran character actor, he easily outshines Arden in every scene.
There are also many things to enjoy about Mr Arkadin. It might be confusing (the Comprehensive Version solves a lot of those problems) but it’s never boring, with quick cuts and big characters and directorial flourishes all over the place. It’s clearly a Welles film, through and through, with all the assertiveness and bold theatricality that implies. And it also marks a transition for Welles as auteur into exploring some dark issues in shady places with a sensibility that was at once highly artificial and highly naturalistic. It would remain his style until the end of his life.
Arkadin also gives us Welles most direct commentary on the post-war world, particularly on how the World War II era shaded into the Cold War. He would reference the cold war in The Trial, which would satirize the new bureaucracy of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, but in Arkadin he shows us a slightly earlier era, in which allegiances were shifting and people were still trying to find their place, their identity. Just as he was, as an American in Europe, and he would continue to search for his true identity right up until he was found dead at his typewriter in 1985.
Welles didn’t make that many movies, with his official directorial releases numbering only twelve in over 40 years. But, like his fellow ex-patriot Stanley Kubrick, the ones he did make are all singular and worthy of attention. So, today, on Orson’s birthday, treat yourself to a glass of wine, some frozen peas and discover Mr Arkadin.