The first time I saw Orson Welles’ 1955 black-and-white drama Mr. Arkadin was a few years ago, on a cheap 91-minute DVD version put out by LaserLight. It was a film often called Welles’ “European Citizen Kane,” and had a bizarre introduction by a fey and gloved Tony Curtis. It was a very poor-quality disk, with a scratched and highly white-contrasted print that looked washed out. This turned out to be what was known as the American version of the film – the storyline was truncated and was presented in a strict chronological order. It was a bizarre scrambled-eggs sort of film with brilliant moments, but it made no sense logically. I just knew something was askew, and likely missing.
Earlier this year, The Criterion Collection released a three-DVD version of the film, The Complete Mr. Arkadin along with a paperback version of the film’s novelization, ghostwritten for Welles by his friend Maurice Bessy. This DVD edition contains what was the original 99-minute version of the film, called the Corinth version, which added back the original framing device of a flashback sequence – which greatly improved the film’s narrative flow vis-Á -vis the American version.
The DVD set also contains the 98-minute English version of the film, retitled Confidential Report. This version has a few key scenes added back – such as a famous scene with Welles, as the title character, relating an anecdote about an odd graveyard where the dates on the tombstones mark the years of friendships, not lifespans. However, like the American version it has scenes out of order and no flashback structure.
Then, there were several other versions of the film that existed (including two from Spain – where the antihero Guy Van Stratten’s portrayer was listed under pseudonyms, and a German version called Mr. Satan in Person). The best parts of all of these films were worked into what Criterion has dubbed the Comprehensive version, based upon notes that Welles left regarding his intentions for Mr. Arkadin. It was put together by film historians Stefan Drossler and Claude Bertemes.
This version has some of the key scenes found in the lesser-known versions, and retains the original flashback structure. It also opens with an psychologically symbolic sequence in which we see the dead stripper Mily’s corpse on a beach. This was a shot that Welles always intended to start the film with, but which was axed by the film’s producer, Louis Dolivet, when he took control of the film because the director was taking too long to deliver a final cut.
All three versions of Mr. Arkadin found in this edition are significantly better than the American version from LaserLight; in ascending order starting with Confidential Report, then the Corinth version, and ending with the Comprehensive version. In short, the final film is a near masterpiece – even with the several flaws that remain. It is one of the most visually arresting and stylized films ever made. In it, one can easily see why Welles was so revered by the New Wave European filmmakers of the 1960s, and why he is considered their spiritual forefather.
The noirish story, in all versions, is rather simple and heavily influenced by The Third Man, Welles’ 1949 film, directed by Carol Reed. It has been said that Reed, a journeyman English filmmaker, acted as a “beard” for Welles, for the American director was persona non grata in the film world. [Note from the Editor: Filmmaker Guy Hamilton, Carol Reed’s assistant director in The Third Man asserts that the film was a Carol Reed job.]
In Mr. Arkadin, a small-potatoes American hustler, gigolo, and cigarette smuggler, Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), is hired for ten thousand dollars by a mysterious and reclusive billionaire, war profiteer, and parasite, named Gregory Arkadin (Welles) to investigate his own past, for Arkadin claims to suffer from memory loss, having mysteriously turned up, with no past, not unlike Kasper Hauser, a century before in Germany. Arkadin claims to know nothing of his past before turning up in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1927 with two hundred thousand Swiss francs in his pocket.
This all came about, we learn, because Van Stratten was smuggling cigarettes with his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina), a stripper at a club celebrating the Atomic Age, while in Naples. Van Stratten sees a peg-legged man on the docks, and soon discovers a guy named Bracco (Gregoire Aslan – whose voice is dubbed by Welles) has been stabbed. Bracco whispers two names to Mily – Arkadin’s and Sophie’s, before he dies. Van Stratten sees an opportunity to extort monety from the rich man, and initially tries to cozy up to Arkadin’s daughter, Raina (Paola Mori – then Welles’ fiancée, and later third wife, whose lines are dubbed by British actress Billie Whitelaw), to get close to Arkadin in order to blackmail him.
That is when Arkadin propositions Van Stratten to dig up dirt on himself. Van Stratten then crisscrosses Europe and the Atlantic to Mexico to reconstruct Arkadin’s life. Both main characters are shady, but Arkadin is worse – he’s a murderer, who seems to be leading Van Stratten around on a wild goose chase to keep him away from his daughter Raina. As Van Stratten digs further into Arkadin’s past, the people who were closest to Arkadin – all small time criminals, start turning up dead, and Van Stratten is being systematically set up as their killer. Arkadin is using the witless Van Stratten to smoke out all the remaining potential threats to his world and silence them.
Through it all, we also learn of Arkadin’s shady dealings with all sorts of despots and the criminal underworld. In short, he is very much like the soulless Harry Lime character from The Third Man, from whose radio teleplays – including one where Lime acted as Arkadin’s puppet in the Van Stratten role, the Arkadin character made his first appearances. Except that Arkadin is better at hiding his past and manipulating people than Lime.
He’s also more passionate than Lime, and this is why, reputedly, Welles preferred him to Lime. The exceptions to his manipulations are Van Stratten and Raina. Ultimately, this failure leads Arkadin to suicide in a bit too melodramatic of an end for the film. After the murder of ex-con Jacob Zouk, (Akim Tamiroff), the last surviving member of Arkadin’s criminal past, who desires to eat goose liver on Christmas Eve, Van Stratten is framed for his murder, so tries to get to Raina in Spain before Arkadin does, to tell her the truth about his past, and thwart Arkadin’s plans to frame or kill him.
Arkadin sees Van Stratten as a younger version of himself, and that’s the last thing he wants for the daughter he clearly has incestuous feelings for. He desires to keep her separate from his dark world, which includes white slavery, murder, drug running, and ties to Mussolini’s Black Shirts and the Nazis. But, after leaving Arkadin behind at an airport, without a plane ticket, Van Stratten gets to Raina first, and convinces her into making her make Arkadin believe she has been told of his sordid past. The bluff works, and Arkadin then jumps out of the plane – a symbol of his ultimate impotence, having shot his proverbial load and lost, leaving the anomic phallic plane to eventually circle and crash as his daughter drives away to the future.
There are many subtexts to the film, such as the fact that Arkadin rarely states things directly – he always implies, and lets others assume things, such as his “amnesia,” which Van Stratten is the first to mention, for all Arkadin claims is to “not know himself.” This trait also ties in to the frog and the scorpion parable he tells at a party, where character becomes destiny as the scorpion stings the frog while they cross a river and both end up dying. Arkadin cannot help himself, and his ego does, as it should, prove his undoing.
The acting is also surprisingly good, given the film’s checkered reputation. Arden, as Van Stratten, has always been viciously maligned as not handsome enough a leading man, but his acting has come under the worst attack. Yet, the stage and radio veteran is thoroughly believable as a sort of second rate Mike Hammer sort, and his loud shrill persona is leavened by a number of comic scenes in the film, such as when he stupidly calls a partygoer Goya, after another character mentions the masks they are wearing were inspired by the Spanish painter’s imagery.
In another scene, with Jacob Zouk, the two men long to hide from Arkadin, but Zouk won’t leave the apartment until he gets his pants, and he and Van Stratten play tug of war with a bedsheet. Michael Redgrave also has a great scene in the film as a junk dealer. Mischa Auer’s flea circus vaudevillean character s also a great little performance, even though his lines are also dubbed by Welles. The female roles are mostly throwaways, and Mori’s is especially weak. Welles’ performance has been attacked almost as much as Arden’s but this disk should help stop that. It is Arkadin who is a bad actor, not Welles as Arkadin, for Welles is portraying Arkadin as a ham who wears make-up to hide from a past he clearly recalls all too well, lest why would he murder old ‘friends’ willy-nilly?
There are a handful of scenes where Arkadin tones himself down, and it is a subdued delicious portrayal of evil that dwarfs anything that more renowned scenery chewing screen villains like Darth Vader, or Hannibal Lecter have ever uttered. Yet, the whole film is an odd amalgam of pulp fiction and archetypal mythos, and certainly makes the most of its defining epigraph, which opens the film:
A certain great and powerful king once asked a poet,
‘What can I give you of all that I have?’
He wisely replied,
‘Anything, sir, but your secret.’
The Corinth version was discovered by the ubiquitous former filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who appears in the twenty-minute featurette in the Comprehensive version. The Corinth version also is the only one of the three versions with a DVD commentary track, by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Welles scholar James Naremore. The commentary is pretty good when discussing minutiae on the film’s history and provenance, as well as biographical asides on Welles, but falls far short in any insightful analysis into the actual film – the Corinth or any other versions. Roger Ebert’s commentary on Citizen Kane is still the best offered up on Welles.
The closest to any real insight from the duo comes with mostly self-congratulatory statements of the most manifest aspects of the screenplay or symbolism, or when they rightly claim Welles should not be seen as a failed Hollywood filmmaker but the first successful independent filmmaker and auteur in America. But too often they veer wildly off into the silliest sort of comments, such as claiming that Welles, as Arkadin, with his purposefully weird make-up, is somehow to represent Joseph Stalin and Van Stratten is a stand in for Richard Nixon in a Cold War morality play.
Clearly, the tale within the film explains this wrong interpretation away, as Arkadin is always wearing a mask, so he can move among the world as a living ghost of the not too recent murderous and colonial past of Europe – his make-up merely sort of a pre-Michael Jackson sort of fetish. Even worse is when they try to shoehorn the smallest aspects of the film on to some offhand comment Welles uttered years later, thus giving any supposed intent far too much credence while ignoring what actually is onscreen. Many critics do this, thus ignoring the art for the artists’ intent, but to do so with Welles is especially silly, given his supreme reputation as a bullshitter extraordinaire.
There are also three The Lives Of Harry Lime (1951-1952) radio shows in this package, and they formed the basis of this film, its ur-text, if you will, and their stories, as well as the film’s screenplay, were all written by Welles. They are Man Of Mystery (April 11th, 1952), Murder On The Riviera (May 23rd, 1952), and Blackmail Is A Nasty Word (June 13th, 1952). All three versions of the film are shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Reviving Harry Lime is a twenty-one-minute documentary with critic Simon Callow, who talks of the radio series. There’s also an audio interview with actor Robert Arden that is perhaps the most insightful feature offered, since he’s the only person with firsthand knowledge of the film that appears in this package. The Comprehensive version disk has outtakes, rushes, a photo stills gallery, and alternate scenes with Spanish actresses playing the Mily and Sophie roles. There’s also the ghosted novelization of the film included, and a booklet insert with critical essays.
The film has some technical flaws, such as some large blemishes (white lines) in several scenes, and one has to wonder why Criterion did not remove them via CG technology? Also, there are the poor dubbing jobs – with out-of-synch lip movements, from Welles’ original versions – and why Criterion could not try to synch them a little better is a mystery. But Paul Misraki’s score is never intrusive and only adds to the film, as do the odd angular shots by Jean Bourgoin, most from below, which seem like a far more adventurous Yasujiro Ozu film’s camera work.
The most memorable bit shows of Van Stratten rushing up to Zouk’s apartment at the start of the film, only to have the camera pull back down a dark tunnel, very quickly, to give a de facto iris to the scene. Because the tale is told in flashback in two of the versions, we see the same shot again, later in the film, once we’ve caught up to the film’s present, and the déjÁ vu effect enhances the film greatly, for it makes us more readily identify with Van Stratten from thereon out.
Other memorable scenes are on Arkadin’s yacht, when the camera is stable, but the boat rocks, and we get much of Arkadin’s past revealed, before Mily is murdered; a scene where Arkadin laughs at Zouk, and says he’s laughing at old age itself; long tracking shots at a religious festival and at a Christmas party – filmed in deep focus; as well as shots of Van Stratten and Arkadin on top of a castle; or the diminution of Arkadin at an airport when he’s belittled and heckled by onlookers and cannot buy a ticket on to the plane Van Stratten’s boarding.
Near the film’s end there’s a truly great shot of Van Stratten threatening Raina’s fey English boyfriend, as a half image of his reflected face appears in the window, symbolizing that that part of him that was like Arkadin is now gone since the old man is dead. Thus, it makes sense that, unlike in a Hollywood film, he won’t get the girl, for she has been freed of her father, and his would be usurper – Van Stratten.
This film may be the most intrinsically Wellesian of all his works, combining the story unspooling of Citizen Kane, the post-war shadiness of The Stranger and The Third Man, the visual oddities of The Lady from Shanghai – starting with the pilotless airplane that opens the film, the soliloquizing of his Shakespearean films, the later ruthless characterizations of Touch of Evil, and the decayed world feel of The Trial, which – like this film – also combines scenes shot in different countries for an oddly geo-disorienting feel.
While the pseudo-intellectual French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinéma called Mr. Arkadin (actually Confidential Report – the worst of the three in this set) Welles’ best film, and one of the top ten ever made, it is not close to being that, for their choice was as politically motivated as the opinions of those critics who have derided Welles as a failure.
Yet, it’s a damned good film, and, especially the Comprehensive version can make claims to greatness, with a very modern look and sensibility to it that makes it all the more galling that Hollywood has never once come up with something as daring as this. Perhaps the recent crime noir film Memento comes close, but that film is internally complex, whereas Mr. Arkadin‘s complexities are externally complex and fractal.
The influence of this film on French filmmakers of the New Wave, but even on directors like Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, in their chronologically challenging films of the 1960s, is immense and manifest. Mr. Arkadin is not only a palimpsest within itself, but in its exterior making and history. This package, and the Comprehensive version, do an excellent job in decoding that all.
But, this film is not, as critic J. Hoberman claims in the booklet, a Jorge Luis Borgesian film, for there is rationality, realism, resolution, and character development in this film. It is not wan or failed Surrealism-cum-Magical Realism. It is one of the highest manifestations of film noir and pulp fiction, and as such has been rendered a great service in this explication of its meaning and roots by The Criterion Collection.
See this film and see a world that did exist after the Second World War, both in reality and in the minds of those whose warp of it is remembered even more keenly. Yet, the greatest thing about it, as with all art than can be called great, is that for all it gives, its best secrets still remain.
Mr. Arkadin (1955). Director: Orson Welles. Screenplay: Orson Welles. Starring Orson Welles, Michael Redgrave, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.