BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN

By • Apr 18th, 2006 •

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Criterion Collection
Disc One: the Corinth version 1955. 99 minutes. Black & White. Mono Aspect ratio 1:33:1
Disc Two: CONFIDENTIAL REPORT. 1955. 98 minutes. Black & White. Mono. Aspect ratio 1:33:1
Disc Three: The Comprehensive Version. 2006. 105 minutes. Black & White. Mono. Aspect ratio 1:33:1

When I was young, I used to stay up late. There was something appealing about the sudden stillness that pervaded Manhattan streets around three AM. Then, the simple backfiring of a gypsy cab seemed important. I would watch television silently so my parents wouldn’t hear. Sandwiched between utterly weird commercials – I remember in particular one with fat men in baby clothes promoting cribs – were equally strange films. Once, distracted by the rustling of leaves against the windowpane, I turned to see this mysterious image that seemed not only out of place, but out of time.
It was, of course, in glorious black and white; but perhaps shades of gray would be more accurate. In the courtyard of a bombed-out building in Munich, a trench-coated man is surrounded by drifting snowflakes. It is Christmas Eve, for a brass band plays carols outside. Checking a scrap of paper in his pocket, he passes through an arched Gothic doorway as the camera tracks backwards. Soon he is only a tiny dot in the center of the screen. The camera lingers on this image, then slowly fades, reminding one of an eye staring into nothingness, or perhaps inhabiting the view of an unknown watcher. This image is from Orson Welles’ MR. ARKADIN, and has stayed in my memory ever since.
Unfortunately, this vision remains more of a possibly, or perhaps an hallucination, for as with many Welles projects, the film is unfinished. Louis Dolivet, the producer – who according to one of the Criterion set’s extras, was a KGB agent who murdered at least three people – barred Welles from the cutting room. Dolivet then radically altered the film, which was released in Europe in 1955 as CONFIDENTIAL REPORT. (That version is on the second disc of the Criterion set.)
Although there are striking scenes, including a masked ball that invokes Goya with careening low-angles and grotesque faces, MR. ARKADIN for me has always been a deeply flawed and fairly unwatchable piece of work. This despite the editorial staff of “Cahiers du Cinema” in 1956 , including Godard & Truffaut, voting it the best film ever made. So when I heard Criterion was coming out with a complete version, I was curious to see if my attitude would change.
“Complete” is a bit of a misnomer, as there are four variants with different editing , dialogue and even scenes. Jorge Luis Borges, that Argentine purveyor of mazes, once wrote that Orson Welles’ films were labyrinths without a center. What we are left with is a series of dazzling fragments, mirrored by the unfinished state of the film itself. Working one’s way through these discs is akin to becoming an investigator in a seemingly unsolvable mystery.
There is a center, however, and that is the new comprehensive edition prepared by Stefan Drossler & Claude Bertemes of the Luxembourg Cinematheque. They have assembled the existing versions into a form that is easy to watch as well as valid to Welles’ original vision. A work that has heretofore been known in muddy 16mm prints, it is a bit of a shock to see the polished and perfect visuals on display here. Suddenly, MR. ARKADIN is no longer an empty exercise betraying the vagaries of low budget and bad continuity. For the first time, I found myself caring about these characters, on the edge of my seat, even. Looking at what has been accomplished here, one feels that if Welles’ had been allowed to complete the project, it might have even been the popular success he craved.
As in CITIZEN KANE, MR. ARKADIN is a mystery; the mystery of a man. In this case, Guy van Stratten (Robert Arden), expatiate American con man, is hired by Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles), a mysterious Balkan billionaire arms dealer, to discover his forgotten past. Arkadin (who seems enamored of false beards, not to mention a fugitive accent) professes amnesia, remembering only as far back as 1927, when he appeared in Warsaw with $20,000 in his pocket. A further complication is Guy’s romantic involvement with Arkadin’s daughter Raina (Paola Mori).
Arkadin’s anger towards this liaison is almost incestuous, underscored by the intimacy Mori displays towards Welles onscreen. (Welles and Mori were engaged when this film was being made.) As Guy continues his investigation, every person he meets who knew Arkadin–including Misha Auer as a flea circus owner who beds his troupe on himself (“Feeding time!”, he calls out), and an amazing Michael Redgrave as a Polish eccentric in a hairnet–ends up dead. It soon becomes clear that Guy is the only living person who still knows Arkadin’s secret.
Welles’ doomed opus could also be considered the granddaddy of all indie art movies. It is easy to list films, not to mention directors, that have sprung, Athena-like, from MR. ARKADIN’s baroque enigmas: ALPHAVILLE, THX1138, THE CONVERSATION, TAXI DRIVER, THE PASSENGER. Imagine the complicated flashback structure of CITIZEN KANE crossed with a 50’s paperback novel of international intrigue and looking like one of Cocteau’s poetic meditations.
The Criterion edition comes in this fat, reddish-brown box with serious design aspirations. On the cover, Orson Welles’ face, partially obscured by a fake beard and putty nose, is surrounded by pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Inside, one finds a novel attributed to Welles but actually written by Maurice Bessy, a friend of Welles during his European sojourn. Still, it is worth looking at, for Guy Van Stratten is given huge swatches of Welles’ childhood, preparing one for the autobiographical elements that are less explicitly stated in the film, but evoked through composition and editing, the same way Mozart articulates Beaumarchais’ revolutionary politics through music in “The Marriage Of Figaro”.
As for the film, it is spread over three discs. The first disc contains the “Corinth edition”. An early edit retaining the original flashback structure conceived by Welles on the eve of shooting, it was discovered in 16mm by Peter Bogdanovich in 1963 and premiered at the New Yorker theatre. Unfortunately, this version has poor image quality and is also plagued by particularly confusing continuity.
A big plus on this disc, though, is a wonderful commentary by Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. In particular, they focus on Welles’ filming method as the equivalent of sniper activity. Due to the lack of even a moderate budget, MR. ARKADIN was made entirely in Welles’ head–on the run, so to speak–with shots taken out of continuity and even done in different locations. In order to achieve a finished film under what must have been pure chaos, Welles invented a style that has since become the lingua franca of international art cinema; in particular the post-modern excursions of Antonioni and Godard.
However, in Welles’ hands, the intention is not to alienate. The style appeared out of necessity. Shots are strung together in an almost cubist manner, while maintaining continuity through dialogue and camera placement. For instance, a shot in Spain of Paola Mori near a Medieval castle is cut together with another filmed in Munich with a different background (and lighting scheme). One is constantly being pushed out of the film, only to be pulled back again.
For all its surface avant-garde trappings, though, the montage is directly connected, in an almost classical manner, with the deeper meaning of the film. These rhythmic mosaics of disparate images, accompanied by an equally rhythmic soundtrack, somehow create the same effect of intense involvement in a viewer as the long take, deep focus shots in CITIZEN KANE. (This is not entirely strange, as there is a great deal of subtle counterpoint between different elements of the shots in KANE; for instance, the famous scene where Kane’s parents are discussing his future while he is seen through the window sledding in the snow outside.)
With this in mind, it is particularly fascinating watching the footage of Welles directing on the third and final disc. We see him feeding lines to actors on camera and even prompting them as to rhythm and tone. Obviously, he had intentions on using only specific pieces of what he was shooting. He also changes dialogue from take to take, for instance, in the hotel room scene, where “New York” later becomes “Paris”.
It is this scene of confrontation between Guy, Arkadin and Raina that for me is the film’s pivotal moment. Here the plot driven mechanics of espionage suddenly spirals into personal tragedy. The film’s look also becomes darker, not to mention claustrophobic. Arkadin and Raina appear simultaneously at Guy’s hotel with opposite aims in mind. The camera follows them down a dim corridor into a tiny room beset by strobing neon against Venetian blinds, the curtain-like backdrop simultaneously theatrical & other-worldly. (If this makes one think of ALPHAVILLE or ERASERHEAD, it is not, I believe, accidental.)
In these low-angle close ups of a brooding Welles inundated by flashing lights, the feeling of jealousy is almost palpable, putting one in mind of OTHELLO (which, of course, was Welles’ previous film.) Suddenly, the pulpy plot and science-fiction like visuals combine to create not just a different style, but a form that forces us to look beyond the surface of things, past tacky make-up and low budget lighting, to the human beast in the center whose emotions are in themselves a kind of labyrinth. Perhaps the unknown watcher in the opening shots of MR. ARKADIN isn’t such a mystery after all.


Extra Features: Audio commentary by Jonathan Rosenbaum & James Naremore, interview with Simon Callow featuring his audio interview with star Robert Arden, three episodes of the radio program “The Lives of Harry Lime” & an interview with producer Harry Allan Towers, a new documentary featuring interviews with film historians Stefan Drossler, Claude Bertemes & Peter Bogdanovich, outtakes, rushes & alternate scenes from the film, stills gallery, “Mr. Arkadin” the novel with a preface by Robert Polito & a booklet featuring J. Hoberman, Francois Thomas, Rosenbaum, Drossler & a time-line of “Arkadin” related events.

Credits:
Original story, screenplay & direction by Orson Welles.
Photography by Jean Bourgoin.
Edited by Renzo Lucidi.
Music by Paul Misraki.
Produced by Louis Dolivet.

Cast: Orson Welles, Robert Arden, Paola Mori, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff, Gregoire Aslan, Jack Watling, Mischa Auer, Peter van Eyck, Michael Redgrave, Suzanne Flon, Frederic O’Brady, Katina Paxinou.

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