Mr. Arkadin

When he was young, Orson Welles already played grown-ups. He shouted excerpts of Shakespeare’s plays in front of bewildered people, anticipating both his trilogy of works inspired by the bard’s oeuvre (Macbeth [1948], Othello [1952] and Chimes at Midnight [1966]) and his own ferocity as an actor/filmmaker. He already needed to use his knowledge to be someone else, or rather to add layers to his own personality. As an actor, he often confessed the need to resort to disguises and mystifications in order to play some characters. This chameleonic doubling between the man and the actor becomes triple since all the characters he gives life to, in his own films, are themselves veiled by various ramifications. These masks can be physical, metaphorical or both; Mr. Arkadin (1955), a French/Spanish production that Welles shot during his forced exile from the United States, falls into the third group.

Orson Welles’ films are full of masks and false doubles; they’re always morally ambiguous. While he wants to maintain man’s dignity, he refuses to judge since judgment, according to him, is ineffectual: it invariably leads to chaos or death (Citizen Kane [1941], The Lady From Shanghai [1948], Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil [1958], The Trial [1962], Chimes at Midnight). Trying to dig deep through an individual’s inner self will never reveal his precise portrait since too many aspects elude us. Citizen Kane exposed this conflict, the goal of its quest being ultimately ignored. Welles’ film debut built the foundations of his moral approach, and each subsequent one proposes a new reading of the eternal friction between a quest (for truth, for justice, for identity) and its consequences. This preoccupation can be traced back both to his essay films (F For Fake [1973], Filming Othello [1978]) and to his narrative features.

Mr. Arkadin opens with an image whose importance is only apparent later on: a plane is moving in the sky, seemingly without any destination. A bit later, Van Stratten (Robert Arden) and his girlfriend (Patricia Medina) end up near a dying man who tells them the name “Arkadin”. After some research, Van Stratten reaches the mysterious man bearing this name (Welles) and Arkadin, pleading amnesia, requests him to prepare a report containing the main events of his life, promising him a sum of money in return. As the case progresses, the witnesses called upon by Van Stratten are assassinated; he soon discovers the link between these murders and Arkadin as he tries to protect the only witness still alive (Akim Tamiroff). Arkadin’s daughter (Paola Mori), unknowingly, drives the denouement home.

In the films of Orson Welles, the quest for truth can be initiated in a number of ways – it can be encouraged by those who represent the image of good (cops, journalists, kings, etc. – that’s the case in Citizen Kane, The Stranger [1946], Macbeth, Othello, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight), but it can also be unintentionally kicked off by a character who is at the center of the dilemma, one who unwittingly drops some cues (The Magnificent Ambersons [1942], The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil). Along with The Immortal Story [1968], Mr. Arkadin is the sole Welles narrative feature in which the character undergoing the investigation voluntarily initiated it.

This, in turn, affects all reflections concerning the film’s thematic elements. When Arkadin tells the story of the scorpion who, unable to control his instincts, stings the frog that transports him over the water’s surface and thus kills both of them, he relates the story of the characters that Welles embodies in his own films. These men, in part conditioned by exterior factors (implicitly tied – at various degrees and necessarily arbitrary since they’re subjective – to the past, to the experience of the actor who incarnates them), have an objective and are only guided by it. They’re sometimes aware of the utopian aspect of their goal but still proceed towards it, literally unshakeable. Arkadin’s enterprise is doomed from the start – it would be intolerable for him if his daughter knew of his machinations, yet even this cannot stop him. This gives Arkadin the obsessive, pathetic aspect that defines Welles’ characters – people running to their ruin since they stay true to their nature (to their character, to use a more precise word that’s mentioned throughout the film).

On the other hand, Van Stratten isn’t infused with the same strength: he’s intrigued by the sum promised by Arkadin, but eventually capitulates in order to fight for his own survival. Only Van Stratten’s thirst for money implicates him in the plot: his main role is that of a pawn manipulated by Arkadin for the creation of his confidential report. Van Stratten is also ultimately responsible for Arkadin’s death, for it is his inference (more specifically, his confessions to Arkadin’s daughter) that urges his employer to opt for suicide as an option at the last moment. Refusing Arkadin’s conditions, though, would have provoked Van Stratten’s own death. Mr. Arkadin‘s universe, whose intransigent moral prizes integrity over the fight for survival, is a sort of maze whose exits are as rare as they are hard to reach (and in which Arkadin is both a minotaur and a victim).

In that vein, Orson Welles’ films never conclude with a return to the status quo because they occur, from start to finish, in a world that doesn’t accept compromises. The antagonistic forces that fight with each other can’t remain unscathed from their experiences since their scheming is bound to cause a deep change in the balance that both initially had. In Mr. Arkadin, the obliteration of strict rules goes as far as to have geographic repercussions, with Welles bringing together wildly different settings in the space of a few shots (a strategy that is also evident in The Trial). During the film, absolutely nothing is anchored in a space fixed and limited by its particular reference points. The architecture isn’t only dictated by the physical movements of the characters, but also by their moral (an essential element of the metaphysical implications of Welles’ oeuvre).

One doesn’t need to get a peak at the film’s opening credits to note that Arkadin is Welles’ creation. This can be in part inferred by the fact that he stays true to his character, but also because his portrait is mainly given by the intermediary of other people’s testimonies. Physically and psychologically, the man takes form more via the perceptions of those who knew him than from his own initiative. Like Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane), Macbeth, Othello, Hank Quinlan (Touch of Evil), Joseph K. (The Trial), Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight) and Mr. Clay (The Immortal Story) in their respective films, Arkadin is the object of study of Mr. Arkadin, the mirror in which all the themes reflect and bring new meanings. That said, and contrary to what critical dogma has been implying for a few decades, Mr. Arkadin isn’t a pocket Citizen Kane, but an extension (a vital nuance) of that film, with variations on its philosophical explorations.

Orson Welles, after a few shots showing Kane’s Xanadu castle and its surroundings, begins Citizen Kane with a newsreel (“News on the march”) offering information on Charles Foster Kane, a tycoon of the journalism industry who recently died. The truth of this segment isn’t absolute – Kane is intermittently present, but the narrator is the one which spins the web on which rest the man’s exploits and failures. What’s more, Welles accumulates speculative portraits of Kane during the film: the protagonist’s appearances sometimes follow testimonies, but nothing assures the viewers (which include both the film’s spectators and some of its characters) that everything is true. The filmmaker, both with the screenplay’s developments and his performances as an actor, constantly plays with the dialectic of truth and lies, of subjective and objective. Thus, the “News on the march” segue, far from being an introduction to the film, is intricately interwoven in the massive construction that is Citizen Kane: it becomes a symbol of its eminently complex structure.

Considering Citizen Kane as a series of flashbacks would be a reductive reading of the film since we’d neglect the scope of the interplay between creator and creation: the word “reconstitutions” would seem more appropriate. (In F For Fake, Welles would explore these potentially problematic aspects). While he’s defined by his acquaintances’ perceptions, Gregory Arkadin doesn’t appear in such reconstitutions: his presence is witnessed in the reality of Van Stratten and Arkadin’s daughter. The reconstitutions, in Mr. Arkadin, are exclusively verbal, while witnesses share their perceptions of the title-character with Van Stratten. Thus, Arkadin is at the center of a chess game from which his own life depends, but a game that he voluntarily started. We know that he’s a player, but he’s also one of the pawns. As the film progresses, Arkadin makes a breach in the screen and enters from top to bottom in Orson Welles’ tragic cinema.

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Translated from the French by Philippe St-Germain and Steve Erickson.

About The Author

Philippe St-Germain is a Quebec-based writer.