Orson Welles' "Mr. Arkadin" is, depending on whom you ask, an unfinished masterpiece, an unholy mess, or both at once. It was made during Welles' European exile of sorts in the 1950s, the same period that found him scrounging to finish several low-budget, high-ambition features, including "Othello" and the never completed "Don Quixote." Like the film that followed it, "Touch of Evil," "Mr. Arkadin" displays Welles' love for pulp thrillers. It's not nearly the work of genius "Evil" turned out to be - and for reasons tied to its infamous production history, it's rather incomprehensible at times - but there's a playful tone and curious spirit pouring out of every scene, proving that Welles always made something well worth watching.
Ah, but we should start with that infamous production history. It's a story that's been told and retold by film geeks over the decades, so pardon me if you've heard it before - you can always skip ahead, and I'll meet up with you a few paragraphs down.
We begin in 1949, and "The Third Man." Welles' performance in that film was so popular at the time that a spin-off radio series was created: "The Lives of Harry Lime" (aka "The Adventures of Harry Lime" - yes, we've already started with the alternate titles). From several episodes, most notably "Man of Mystery," came the seeds for the story that Welles would nurture into a film, first called "Masquerade," then "Mr. Arkadin," and eventually released in the UK as "Confidential Report." Still with me? Good - we're just getting started.
Production lasted five months, and post-production was bound to last much longer, with Welles bringing his trademark casual work ethic to the editing room. Confounded by the director's laissez-faire approach, producer Louis Dolivet seized the film and hired a new editor to finish the film. But you can't call it finished; several different edits of the movie, including a few foreign language versions, were unleashed on audiences over the years (it wouldn't come to the States until 1962). Meanwhile, Welles denounced the film, and despite the many versions out there - seven seems to be the favorite count - there is no official "director's" cut. In that regard, "Mr. Arkadin" remains eternally unfinished.
Oh, but there's more. There's the matter of credit, with the film listing only Welles as the script author, no mention made of the "Harry Lime" radio show or the Arkadian character on which the title role was based. Then there's the novel, also credited to Welles despite being apparently ghostwritten Maurice Bessy (and that is viewed as a translation from something else still). The complete history of the film's creation, it seems, is as much a puzzle as Gregory Arkadin himself.
Which, perhaps, is why the film is so much fun for movie freaks: we can crack a smile at the thought of parallels between the movie and its making. But even if you remove the backstory, there's something here that's just so endlessly compelling, if only in a trashy, pulpy way. In his report on "Mr. Arkadin," Phil Hall of Film Threat, in his rundown of the film's bootleg history, dubbed the film "junk food for cineastes," adding that this "wonderfully terrible movie" is "so full of outlandish, self-indulgent and foolish trappings that it is difficult not to be entertained by it." The Village Voice's J. Hoberman, meanwhile, calls it a "madly stylized cheapster." Indeed, this is crazed noir filtered through Welles' wild genius, a highbrow telling of a lowbrow mystery.
The plot, once you crack it, is a web that begins its tangle when American smuggler/con man Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) and his stripper girlfriend Mily (the lovely Patricia Medina) come across a dying man one night; for providing him with a few final moments of peace (away from the stinking coppers), he rewards them with a bit of information: two names, one of them being Gregory Arkadin.
The two decide to track down the notoriously reclusive millionaire, perhaps to squeeze some cash out of him in a blackmail scheme. But Arkadin is one step ahead of them, and when he reveals himself to Van Stratten, he proposes a deal; claiming amnesia, Arkadin hires Van Stratten to investigate his own life - to get to the heart of the mystery that is Gregory Arkadin. It is, of course, not nearly as simple as it sounds, and soon people start showing up dead.
Consider for a moment Welles' performance as Arkadin. Not only is the character a mystery, with a deep history that seems impossible to be entirely solved, but the surface of the man is an enigma as well. Welles appears here in a ridiculously obvious wig and false beard, and his performance is capped off with an even more insane accent - maybe Russian, maybe Greek, definitely hokey. And then there's the name: while the original "Arkadian" is real, the altered "Arkadin" (with its awkward emphasis on the second syllable) sounds just plain made up. Is this Arkadin meant to be for real, or is this all part of Welles' winking trickery, the kind of playful cinematic games he would continue in such works as "F For Fake?"
Adding to Welles' prankster attitude is his gleeful one. The story jumps from exotic European locale to exotic European locale with little (if any) logic involved, as if Welles just wanted to visit Spain for a while, and bring the cameras along! There's an entire scene featuring Mischa Auer as the operator of a flea circus; the dialogue is relevant, but the delightfully gratuitous fleas are not. Many shots quote the famous works of several painters, including Goya, who also gets a nod during a masked ball sequence in which the guests wear masks inspired by the artist.
Most playfully, perhaps, it has been argued that the entire screenplay borrows liberally from Welles' previous works, if only in spirit. Welles revisits familiar themes, such as the investigation of a larger-than-life mystery man, a plot point that has drawn many comparisons to "Citizen Kane." I don't feel that "Mr. Arkadin" is a direct answer to "Kane," but it is instead a filmmaker toying with recurring themes. If "Kane" was the Great American Story, then "Mr. Arkadin" was to be the Great American (or European) Popcorn Escape.
Although with Welles at the helm, even the Great Escape is bound to have depth. It is in this film that we get to hear Welles deliver the wonderful fable of the scorpion and the frog (he stings the frog while the frog is carrying them both to safety; when asked why he would damn them both, the scorpion jocularly replies, "I can't help it, it's my character"), and leave it to Welles to deliver such an enjoyable tale in the middle of his film (stopping the story to do so, allowing the audience to gather like the on-screen partygoers, to listen attentively to Welles' every word, to allow the host the chance to be the very grand center of attention that the filmmaker loved to be) but do it in a way that reflects on the characters themselves. The scorpion is like Arkadin, destined to self-destruction. Welles may be making a popcorn picture, but he intends to make one with some depth and intelligence along the way.
Of course, the film's production troubles prevents it from entirely reaching Welles' grand intent. "Mr. Arkadin," in all of its varied forms, is a chaotic jumble, and watching it, it becomes all too obvious that what's on screen is the result of a frantic attempt to present a cohesive story out of scraps. Watch the scene where Van Stratten first comes on to Arkadin's daughter, Raina (Paola Mori); there seems to be too much missing information in this sequence, the audience only receiving the bare minimum. Then again, perhaps this was Welles' plan, to keep us confused, all while he laughed from behind the camera.
Even if the chaos of this scene was by accident, a result of uninformed editing done without Welles's permission, it still fits into the film's overall delusion-esque tone. The movie unfolds like a half-remembered fever dream, large chunks missing, others coming across as overplayed and overwhelming. Add to this the not-quite-right dubbing of the entire cast - a too-proper English accent springs from Mori's lips, the soundtrack is often out of synch with the actors, and Welles provides the voice not just for himself, but for several side characters - and the whole thing comes off as an anarchic, sideways twist on reality.
"Mr. Arkadin" has its fair share of detractors, and when I first saw it, I felt that I might become one of them. The chaos overwhelmed me, and although I had a blast, the failures outweighed the successes. And yet, slowly but surely, the film began to creep into the back of my brain. Soon, I found myself yearning for repeat viewings and defending even the most problematic of aspects (Arden, a clumsy, uncertain actor in the early days of his career - and who looks like Karl Malden's dumber, younger brother - has long been attacked for not looking the part of the leading man; I claim that Van Stratten is a heel, not a hero, and Arden fits the bill perfectly). Would I place "Mr. Arkadin" alongside Welles' better known works? Not quite. After all, a mess is still a mess, no matter how mesmerizing it is, no matter how much of Welles can be seen in the final product(s). But it's some of the highest class trash you'll ever get to see, and even if you walk away completely baffled by it all, at least you can say you had some great fun along the way. This is a brilliant disaster.
"Mr. Arkadin" has been around on DVD before, mostly in shoddy public domain prints, lousy imports, and the occasional bootleg. The Criterion Collection remedies this (and then some!) with its release of "The Complete Mr. Arkadin," a mammoth three-disc set that sets a new standard for high end collector's sets. The collection includes three separate versions of the film: the "Corinth Version," which is one of the most complete edits and is considered by some to be closest to Welles' original vision; "Confidential Report," the British release of the film which has become something of an "official" version thanks to its being the one most seen; and, in a marvelous treat, a newly created "Comprehensive Version," in which film historians Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes re-edited the film to match a "best guess" at Welles' original vision. Every fan will obviously have his/her own favorite, but I currently prefer the Comprehensive Version, which is a bit more streamlined.
While some may wonder why one would need three versions of one movie (I'll assume these same people wondered the same thing about Anchor Bay's "Dawn of the Dead" box), it's a decision that makes perfect sense to me. By including the most familiar edit and the most complete one, Criterion is hoping to avoid any "why didn't you include this version?" complaints. The Comprehensive Version, then, is a chance at a "special edition" of sorts without ignoring the more commonly recognized "original" editions.
The three discs come in a fold-out digipak housed in a gorgeous cardboard slipsleeve case, which also includes the complete "Mr. Arkadin" novel, in paperback with a new preface by Robert Polito. Also included is a slick 36-page booklet that features several critical essays on the film and its wild history; these essays are an invaluable resource for any Welles fan.
All three versions are presented in the original 1.33:1 full frame format, and while I shouldn't be surprised at getting superior quality from Criterion, I am. "Mr. Arkadin" has been through the wringer for some five decades now, but you'd never know it from looking at these presentations. The only issue is a large scratch on the left side of the frame that runs through the opening credits of the Corinth Version - and which reappears for one early shot in the Comprehensive Version, which reveals that the Corinth Version was mastered using three separate prints (as Criterion explains both in the set and on its website). The rest of all three edits look remarkably clean, with very little grain, even less visible enhancing and artifacting, and vibrant use of the black and white photography. Leave it to Criterion to do repair work this exceptional.
The dubbing and overdubbing and over-overdubbing left this film with a distinctively (intentionally?) odd sound, and it's tempting to call the audio mix (presented here in the original mono) unimpressive. But when you consider the almost complete absence of hiss and pops, you realize just how much work was put into rescuing this soundtrack. The bizarre soundscapes of the film spring to life in these restorations.
Optional English subtitles are available on all three versions.
Wow. Just plain wow. I've already mentioned the book and the booklet, which alone would be worth the asking price. But that's just for starters.
Disc One: The Corinth Version
This edit is accompanied with a (mostly) lively commentary with film critics/Welles experts Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. Their discussion is detailed and interesting, although there are a few too-long gaps in the conversation.
The three episodes of "The Lives of Harry Lime" are presented in two versions: you can listen to them on your DVD player, or, in a brilliant move (one that I'd love to see other companies make), you can download copies of the programs in MP3 format. How perfect is that? Now, instead of being stuck in your living room, you can put them on CD or your iPod and take the bonus material with you. Nice. (The bad news: These radio shows have definitely seen better days. All three are hissy and problematic, the worst being the one that's most important, "Man of Mystery," the one with the Arkadian character. Still, the MP3 gimmick makes up for it.)
Accompanying the radio plays is "Reviving Harry Lime," a 20-minute documentary featuring an in-depth interview with Harry Alan Towers, producer of both "Harry Lime" and "The Black Museum," another radio series featuring Welles.
A rather lengthy stills gallery, containing behind-the-scenes photos, on-set publicity stills, and other random shots, concludes the first disc.
Disc Two: Confidential Report
The lone extra on this disc is "Men of Mystery," a documentary (24 minutes) which combines a video interview with actor/Welles biographer Simon Callow with an archival audio interview with Robert Arden. Combined, this feature covers plenty of ground in a short amount of time, including Welles' past, life on the set, Michael Redgrave's bit role, and the politics and mysteries of producer Louis Dolivet.
Disc Three: The Comprehensive Version
"On the Comprehensive Version" (20 minutes) finds Drössler and Bertemes discussing their role in crafting a new edit and the problems met in dealing with five key versions of the film. What to keep, what to lose? Peter Bogdanovich also stops by, giving some valuable first-hand anecdotes of Welles and his feelings regarding "the most butchered film of his whole career."
An impressive collection of outtakes and rushes offers more than the expected bloopers, deleted scenes, and alternate takes (although they're here, too) - we get a rare glimpse at footage of Welles on the set, a chance to see and hear a master at work. Not something for one full sitting (there are long stretches of multiple takes and such), but of great interest nonetheless.
Finally, Criterion also includes two alternate scenes featuring Spanish actresses that replaced English-speaking ones for two small but important roles in a Spanish language version Welles also shot. As these are "replacement" cast members, this is footage not used in any of the three full versions presented in this set. It's one last shot of Criterion overloading us with as much available "Arkadin" as possible.
If you're familiar with Criterion, then you already know that all of the special features come with a page of on-screen text to help detail what you're about to watch. Each disc also includes a screen of text providing a quick explanation as to which version you're about to watch.
In keeping with the feature film, all supplemental material is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, except "On the Comprehensive Version," which is offered in an attractive anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), with footage from the film appropriately windowboxed. No alternate audio tracks are offered, and no subtitles are available, except in the two Spanish scenes.
There's simply no denying that this outstanding set belongs in the DVD Talk Collector Series. The movie alone is worth owning; three complete versions in Criterion-level presentation quality make it better; the mind-boggling assortment of bonus features caps it all off. And that's not even counting the book, booklet, and attractive packaging. There's enough here to satisfy even the pickiest Welles fanatic. More importantly, however, there's not an ounce of fluff here. Every single extra actually does its job of fully supplementing the feature, enhancing the viewer's knowledge and appreciation of the central work. This is a film school in a box, and one of the very best releases from what everyone knows is the very best DVD production company. Absolute perfection.