Mr. Arkadin

Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report (1955 USA/Spain 99 mins)

Source: NFSA Prod Co: Mercury Productions/Film Organization S.A./Filmorsa/ Cervantes Films/Sevilla Film Studios Prod, Dir, Scr, Art Dir, Cost: Orson Welles Phot: Jean Bourgoin Ed: Renzo Lucidi Mus: Paul Misraki

Cast: Orson Welles, Robert Arden, Paola Mori, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff, Michael Redgrave, Mischa Auer, Katina Paxinou, Suzanne Flon

1. Production History

In 1951, Orson Welles was only in his mid-30s, but he was years past the golden boy phase of his career. After the debacle of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the middling success of The Stranger (1946), and the lukewarm response to The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Hollywood was in no hurry to finance another Welles film. He had been living in Europe for a few years, making Othello (1952) in fits and starts: shooting until the budget ran out, then scrambling for acting work, then using the money to shoot some more.

Around the time Othello was nearing completion, he found himself acting in The Adventures of Harry Lime, a BBC radio series based around Welles’ beloved villain from Graham Greene and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Welles also wrote several episodes, cranking the scripts out quickly, “about seven [of them] in a couple of days” (1). One of the stories he came up with was called “Greek Meets Greek”, in which Harry Lime encounters a mysterious man of finance, Gregory Arkadian, who claims to be suffering from amnesia. Arkadian hires Lime to investigate his own past. But Arkadian is lying about his amnesia: actually he plans to use Lime’s findings to track down anyone with knowledge of his old criminal dealings, and kill them to ensure their silence.

Welles realised the inspired plot twist was good enough to expand into something larger. The “Greek Meets Greek” story became the starting-point for a new feature script, a globetrotting thriller called Masquerade. He changed Arkadian to Arkadin, and replaced Lime as protagonist with Guy Van Stratten, an American fortune hunter. Van Stratten initiates an affair with Arkadin’s daughter Raina in order to get close to her father; he then tries to blackmail Arkadin, only to be hired by him instead. In search of Arkadin’s past, Van Stratten moves from country to country, talking to people who knew him in his youth, and the picture gradually becomes clear: a white-slavery ring in Warsaw; later, crooked dealings with the Germans and the Italians during World War II. It is revealed that the great financial titan with the power to influence the economies of entire Western nations started out as a small-time kidnapper, pimp and war profiteer. Eventually, Van Stratten realises that Arkadin is killing off his old acquaintances to prevent Raina from ever finding out what kind of man her father really was. When Arkadin hears that Raina has found out, he commits suicide, jumping out of the airplane he was piloting.

For financing, Welles turned to an old friend, Louis Dolivet, a political activist with moviemaking ambitions – he would go on to produce Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958). Dolivet raised the money, and in early 1954 Welles began shooting the newly renamed Mr. Arkadin. Filming took place over eight months, in Spain, France, Germany and Italy; then dubbing in Paris and editing in Rome. (During this year Welles also acted in three European films, and appeared as Father Mapple in John Huston’s Moby Dick [1956]) (2).

Welles played the part of Arkadin himself. For the lead role of Van Stratten, he picked Robert Arden, a stage veteran he’d worked with in radio, and for Raina, the Italian Countess di Girfalco, Paola Mori (later the third Mrs. Welles). Patricia Medina, an English actress who later married Joseph Cotten, was cast as Van Stratten’s girlfriend Mily, the scheming showgirl he throws over to pursue Raina. Akim Tamiroff, Katina Paxinou, Suzanne Flon, Mischa Auer and Michael Redgrave rounded out the ensemble as a series of shady characters connected to Arkadin’s criminal past. The director of photography was Jean Bourgoin, who shot Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938), and later Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959).

Louis Dolivet wanted the editing completed by Christmas 1954. Welles would later tell his biographer Barbara Leaming that Dolivet, an inexperienced producer, had promised the film’s Swiss investors an impossible timetable for the finished film. After Dolivet’s deadline passed, the producer took the footage out of Welles’ hands and gave new directives to the editor, Renzo Lucidi. Neither for the first time nor the last, Welles was unable to complete work on his own film.

Welles had planned an elaborate story structure based on multiple layers of flashback—one of many similarities to Citizen Kane (1941). Dolivet and Lucidi eliminated most traces of this, opting for a more linear narrative. According to Welles, they also cut some scenes that were crucial to developing the character of Arkadin himself. The exact extent of the changes are hard to measure; there are several versions of Mr. Arkadin, and it’s likely none of them come close to what Welles intended (3). One version of the film was eventually released in the U.S. in 1962. Another, titled Confidential Report, opened in Europe in 1955. Still other variants, some of shockingly low quality, have appeared on video. Welles disowned whichever version or versions he saw in his lifetime; decades later, he told Leaming, the wound still stung:

They took it away from me…. More completely than any other picture of mine has been hurt by anybody, Arkadin was destroyed because they completely changed the entire form of it: the whole order of it, the whole point of it… Ambersons is nothing compared to Arkadin! (4)

And to Peter Bogdanovich: “It was the best popular story I ever thought up for a movie, and really it should have been a roaring success. I’d love to make that story again…. It was blown, blown, blown by the cutting.” (5)

Dolivet sued Welles, claiming his excessive drinking and carousing had caused the delays and blown deadlines. The lawsuit dragged on for years. They never patched up their friendship.

2. “’There is no logic in this!’ ‘I know’, said the scorpion, ‘but I can’t help it. It’s my character.’” – Gregory Arkadin

Lacking as we do anything close to a “director’s cut” of Mr. Arkadin, or even a detailed statement of intent, like Welles’ long memo that was used as a guideline for the recent re-edit of Touch of Evil, it’s impossible to gauge exactly how far the film strays from Welles’ original vision. But even giving the great man the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Arkadin is a mess in ways that can’t be blamed entirely on the cutting. Welles told Bogdanovich that if not for the producer’s interference the film had a shot at popular success, but the first condition of such success is narrative coherence, and at the most fundamental level of story construction Mr. Arkadin’s dots don’t connect. Why would Arkadin, a billionaire with the best private security in the world at his disposal, entrust his secrets to a proven blackmailer and half-bright hustler? Why does Arkadin warn Van Stratten he’ll be the last to die, and why doesn’t he then kill Van Stratten once he’s got what he needs? Again and again in Mr. Arkadin, cause leaves effect waiting at the altar, and it’s hard to see how an even trickier narrative structure involving multiple flashbacks would’ve made the story more sensible.

Worse, there are holes in the human heart of the film. The lovers, Van Stratten and Raina, do not convince, either as written or as embodied onscreen by Arden and Mori. Welles hardly seems to have tried to make them alive to us, or to each other. It’s not even clear to what extent Van Stratten comes to care for her, or her for him. And Arkadin himself never achieves the vivid grandeur of Kane, Macbeth, Harry Lime, Quinlan, Falstaff, or the trickster “Orson Welles” in F for Fake (1973). Welles said he was partly inspired by Stalin, partly by various war profiteers and arms dealers – scavengers who clawed their way to wealth and power in a devastated Europe, feasting on the rotting corpse of Western Civilisation. This sounds like an intriguing idea for a character, but the man in the movie is closer to a campy James Bond villain.

The thinness of the characterisations also ensures that the most interesting aspect of the story, Arkadin’s need to hide the truth of his past from Raina, remains undeveloped. A father who believes he can make his daughter see him always as The Father, infallible, who subsequently fails and falls to earth: this is a rich premise, holding the potential to add tragic depth to the tale. But the scenes between Arkadin and Raina are mostly generic and unaffecting, merely speeding the rickety plot along, devoid of any sense of a real relationship. Similarly, the hints of Oedipal struggle between Arkadin the father and Van Stratten the lover (“he couldn’t stand you knowing he was once someone like me”) are like shots fired from an empty gun: Welles nods in the direction of emotional complexity but neglects to supply the actual emotions. Arkadin’s suicide is an excellent narrative twist, but I doubt any viewer has ever been moved by it (6).

And yet, even as you throw your hands up at the slapdash indifference with which the thing seems to have been hurled onto the screen, the film rivets your attention. Whatever its shortcomings as drama, Mr. Arkadin is one of the director’s most dazzling displays of fun-with-filmmaking. As a feast for the eyes and ears, as an anthology of inventive ways to set a mood or stage a scene, Mr. Arkadin rivals Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, and proves how little he needed Hollywood and its armies of artisans to make his magic. From the great mysterious opening with the pilotless plane flying over Barcelona, to the masquerade with the Goya masks (even better than the ball in Eyes Wide Shut [Stanley Kubrick, 1999], which it clearly inspired), to the vertiginous scene between Arkadin and Mily aboard his yacht, where the camera itself seems drunk and seasick, the movie delivers one stunning set piece after another. There’s a restless, kaleidoscopic rush to the images: wild angles, startling and combustive edits, and heavy use of very short lenses, which compress the space in the frame, adding near-expressionist distortion to the most mundane dialogue exchange.

Nor is the film only a feat of cinematic pyrotechnics. If the central Arkadin-Raina-Van Stratten storyline never catches fire, the minor characters measure up to those in any Welles film – and he always did right by his supporting casts. In particular, the scenes with Suzanne Flon as a déclassé baroness, Akim Tamiroff as a weary ex-con, and Katina Paxinou as Arkadin’s former lover Sophie, make up the true emotional core of the movie. In these moments the film’s sense of an old decaying Europe beaten down by war and poverty is palpable, and deeply affecting. (But then, saluting the shipwreck of old age never failed to bring out the best in Welles, even when he was in his 20s.) Flon’s proud refusal of charity, Tamiroff’s near-death exhaustion, above all Paxinou’s lingering affection for an unworthy man (“I was crazy in love with him, mister!” she tells Van Stratten): these are triumphs of acting, and Welles gave his players the space and time they needed to reach the heights.

Mr. Arkadin was well-received in Europe – a 1958 poll of Cahiers du Cinéma critics ranked it as number six in a list of the best films by the top auteurs of all time – but in Welles’ own country it did nothing to alter his post-Kane reputation as a “disappointment”. This reputation would last until his death, even though the triumphs of Touch of Evil, The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1966), The Immortal Story (1968) and F for Fake were still to come. To this day, most Americans know him only as the director of Kane. (Imagine an England where the conventional wisdom is that Shakespeare never did anything worthwhile after Romeo and Juliet!) 20 years have passed since Welles’ death, and the greatest body of work in American filmmaking is still mostly without honour in its native land. But there has been a steady trickle of restorations and re-releases, and subsequent reappraisals. Some of the uncompleted projects from the later years, currently caught up in legal and financial tangles, may yet find their way to viewers. And Mr. Arkadin itself will be due for re-evaluation when The Criterion Collection releases its new DVD edition (7). Unlike Gregory Arkadin’s, the lifework of Orson Welles only gets better the deeper you dig.

Endnotes

  1. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum, HarperCollins, 1992, New York, p. 237.
  2. The clearest and most comprehensive chronology of Welles’ career appears as Chapter 9 of This Is Orson Welles, assembled by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Details of the production of Mr. Arkadin appear on p. 415.
  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum describes the various versions of Mr. Arkadin in his essay “The Seven Arkadins”, Film Comment vol. 28, no. 1, January-February 1992; reprinted in Movies as Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1997, pp. 291-302. An online essay recounting a 1955 test screening in London of what sounds like something closer to Welles’ intended version can be found at: www.epinions.com/mvie-review-7A18-458AFFD2-3A4C153E-prod3.
  4. Barbara Leaming, Orson Welles: A Biography, Viking, New York, 1985, pp. 393-4.
  5. Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 237.
  6. In fairness, Welles was quite specific in telling Bogdanovich that two of the crucial scenes cut from the film added depth to the character of Arkadin, and were essential in setting up his suicide. Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 237.
  7. The Criterion DVD set will include the 1955 Confidential Report, the original 1962 U.S. release version, and a new edit by Stefan Droessler of the Munich Film Archives, plus audio commentaries and liner notes by Rosenbaum, James Naremore and others. The supplementary materials draw on recent scholarship into Welles’ career and Mr. Arkadin in particular, such as François Thomas’ reading of the Welles-Dolivet correspondence. As more of this information becomes widely available, much of what we now assume to be true of Mr. Arkadin and its production history – including the sources I’ve relied on for this essay – may prove to be inaccurate or outdated. For Leslie Weisman’s account of a recent panel discussion on Mr. Arkadin, part of a major Welles retrospective at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival, see Storyboard November 2005 (scroll down to the section “The Magnificent Welles”): www.dcfilmsociety.org/storyboard0511.htm.

About The Author

Nelson Kim is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. He teaches film at Columbia University and Fordham University and contributes regularly to the website Hammer to Nail.