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Trying to get a handle on some of the later films of Orson Welles was once a difficult proposition, as definitive versions didn't seem to exist. Bob Epstein showed us a slightly longer copy of Touch of Evil in film school at UCLA and described studio-imposed alterations like covering up the bravura opening tracking shot with a title sequence. Reading about The Stranger and The Lady From Shanghai, we discovered that the films we knew actually had major sequences missing, remixed soundtracks, and even entire scenes re-shot by other hands. 1
Unless one wants to go into projects that were only partially completed, Mr. Arkadin is the biggest Welles puzzle of all. Several differing versions were given localized releases, so that when the film finally surfaced in the U.S. seven years later no one really knew what they were looking at. Not only did the order of some scenes change from release to release, one version told the story without benefit of Welles' Citizen Kane- like flashback structure.
We've seen reconstructions of supposed director's cuts of movies in recent years, including an elaborate refurbishing of Touch of Evil. Criterion's pricey but fascinating 3-disc set offers the two best-known release versions of Mr. Arkadin plus a new Comprehensive version, an attempt to assemble the longest, most inclusive and coherent version possible. It's all annotated with commentaries, explanatory docus, galleries of alternate scenes and outtakes, and even the full published novel of Mr. Arkadin. The book is its own mystery; Welles signed it but we're told that he didn't write it.
Unlike some autopsies of movies that have been partially lost or exist only as a scrambled set of puzzle pieces (a theme integrated into the set's cover artwork), Criterion's effort leads to a rediscovery of a worthy near-classic. I confess to having had very little interest in the picture before now, but this disc set lays out the cinematic mystery so that we can ponder the clues for ourselves.
Mr. Arkadin must have held a special attraction for Welles, as he obviously cared enough to wrestle it almost all the way to the finish line. By 1955 he had accumulated more problem projects than completed movies, and Arkadin had all of his favorite film elements. Given a dry run in a "Harry Lime" radio show, the story concerns one powerful and mysterious man's attempt to erase a crooked past that involves smuggling, politics, murder and white slavery going back thirty years. Gregory Arkadin is like The Third Man's Harry Lime -- if Lime had escaped Vienna and used his fortune to change his identity and build a financial empire.
The movie is almost good enough to stand on its own feet without invoking the usual excuses --- insufficient funding, flaky financing, producer "interference." 2 Take Orson Welles' name off and it would still be an arresting whirlwind of original images, eccentric characters and convoluted storytelling. But the film does have aspects (not necessarily flaws) that work against it.
Robert Arden's Guy Van Stratten is a curious leading man, a charmless crook and a belligerent thug. We really don't see any reason for Raina to be attracted to him. He abuses Milly and is indirectly responsible for a series of murders. Frankly, we suspect that Welles picked Arden so that the audience wouldn't gravitate toward Van Stratten as a conventional hero. A disagreeable 'hero' adds a touch of moral ambiguity and keeps us from dismissing the Arkadin character as a stock villain. I'm not saying that Van Stratten needed to be Cary Grant, but even Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer has some attractive qualities.
There's really nobody in the film for an audience to identify with. Poor Milly talks herself into deep trouble and Raina Arkadin is something of a sheltered princess type. We're left with the partial compensation of a rogue's gallery of colorful eccentrics, most of whom are crooks of one kind or another.
Like it or not, Mr. Arkadin is still an Orson Welles vanity production. The Arkadin character dominates the movie; only airline personnel seem able to put him in his place. Welles may be trying to hide himself but his make-up job and beard transform him into the Roman Zeus or some other classically inflected character. He upstages the other actors along with several travelogue castles in Spain and Germany. Welles doesn't direct himself as well as he does other people; he always seems to be winking at the camera, saying "It's that cute old trickster me, you know." Whether he plays a billionaire, a Borgia or an ordinary tramp sailor, his characters stand outside the drama at hand. Welles must have thought his perfect stage was live radio, where he could play a character while doing asides to the audience and the orchestra and even criticize the script as he read it. He does the same thing when he acts. His characters are at the center of the tale, making noise and doing actor's gymnastics, but he just doesn't know when to back off from the close-ups.
Finally, some of the storytelling is simply sloppy. The basic setup with Van Stratten spilling the plot to crusty old Akim Tamiroff (who seems to have reprised this role in Alphaville) is bad radio work: "Hey Buddy, we have to get you out of this room right away or be murdered by assassins, so let me instead tell you my tale from the beginning ...". The structurally interesting film begins more like a third-rate film noir than the reworking of Citizen Kane so frequently cited.
In almost every other aspect Mr. Arkadin is a dazzler. The cast is a riot of entertaining grotesques. Michael Redgrave's insinuating, mischievous antiques dealer is a bit much, but Tamiroff, Grégoire Aslan, Mischa Auer, Peter van Eyck and Suzanne Flon put in excellent appearances. Welles actually shows us Auer's flea circus at work, making us wonder if the sequence isn't an elaborate hoax. Van Eyck is appropriately cold and nobody stumbles on-screen with a knife in his back better than Aslan. Suzanne Flon (Moulin Rouge) is an ex-resistance fighter who makes Arkadin into his own definition of a fool: A person who pays for the same thing twice. The best is Katina Paxinou's (For Whom the Bell Tolls) cigarette-smoking old slaver. She gives Arden at least a dozen different dirty looks while playing cards with Manuel Requena's corpulent old General.
Criterion's DVD set of The Complete Mr. Arkadin a.k.a. Confidential Report is one of their best all-inclusive research jobs yet.
The three discs hold the "Corinth" version, the variant version Confidential Report and the new Comprehensive version. The quality is very good, alternating between razor-sharp original negative material and versions cut from dupes. Only a few moments come from softer 16mm film. Several scenes, especially aerial shots of Arkadin's plane, exhibit dirt that appears to be from the original photography. The audio is good as well, with Paul Misraki's score providing transitions as Welles constantly shifts locales. Christmas Carols heard from the street tell us we're in Germany with Akim Tamiroff, and Arkadin's wild costume party in Spain is an even wilder mass of noise.
Savant watched the Comprehensive version and sampled the two others; the extras do a good job of cataloguing the remarkable differences between them. We don't know if Welles' work was unjustly yanked from him at the last minute or if the producers had no choice but to take it away, but what happened to this film is just plain weird: Multiple release versions with radical re-editing. The producers must have thought Welles' cutting ideas were an aberration needing "fixing" by more reasonable hands.
Disc producer Issa Clubb edited most of the documentaries on the show, the best of which is On the Comprehensive Version, a fascinating report on Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes' decision process of what to include and what to leave out. Each version had content not found in the others. Clubb shows us how one version moved a scene of Arkadin warning Van Stratten about some Mexican policemen waiting to interview him, several scenes after the interview takes place. Across three versions, the shot of a dead body on a beach shows up variously at the beginning, in the middle, and not at all.
Commentaries, radio shows, still galleries and a Harper Collins paperback of Welles' novel are a part of the boxed set. Participants include critics Jonathan Rosenbaum, James Naremore and Peter Bogdanovich. A full accounting is below.
A gallery of outtake dailies of Welles' directing is particularly rewarding. He'll have an actor concentrate on a particular line, repeating it endlessly with minute directorial instructions ... it's maddening. When Welles is on camera, he'll cover a single line reading six or seven different ways. At one point Welles shouts at someone on the set to stop moving. On another take he rattles through his entire half of a conversation, jumping back and forth in the script. It's a well-known Edgar G. Ulmer "Wild Card" economy strategy; Welles is trying to conserve film. The gallery also includes a pair of Spanish-version alternate scenes in which Spanish actresses replace Suzanne Flon and Katina Paxinou.
Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin can finally be seen in a version with audible dialogue and a continuity that makes sense. It's still emotionally cold, unless one identifies with the lonely old serial killer, racketeer and raconteur Arkadin enough to shed a tear for him. But nobody ever made thrillers as cinematically exciting as Welles did, and Arkadin is quite an accomplishment.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I first read about an extensive, lost prologue to The Stranger in Bret Wood's terrific article in Video Watchdog's issue #23, May/June 1994. That movie was meant to begin with a serious Arkadin- like Nazi hunt from Germany to Argentina before finally catching up with Welles' character posing as a college professor in a small New England town.
2. Producer Interference: In some cases definable as a producer expecting the terms of his business deal with an filmmaker to be honored, even if the filmmaker is a capricious genius.