Thursday, June 20, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.8: Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 76/B+

Orson Welles had so many of his films taken away from him and re-edited against his will that fans could spend all day debating which of his films was the worst butchering. Welles had his own answer: Mr. Arkadin, a 1955 film with so many different versions that critic and Welles historian Jonathan Rosenbaum actually wrote a full article mapping them out. Welles wanted to use an ambitious flashback structure that the studio hated, and the film was initially released as the disappointing Confidential Report in Europe. Peter Bogdanovich, meanwhile, found and exhibited the so-called “Corinth” cut that had the flashback structure but was still missing footage. Then, in 2006, the Criterion collection released high quality DVDs of both of those versions, plus a 106-minute cut supposedly closest to Welles’ intentions. It’s hard to know for sure whether this is everything Welles wanted it to be, but the Criterion version of Mr. Arkadin certainly makes a great case for the overlooked film.

Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is an American smuggler in Europe who witnesses the murder of a man who, in his dying breath, whispers the name of Gregory Arkadin. Van Stratten tracks down the mysterious Arkadin (Welles), a mysterious millionaire who claims to have no memory of his life before 1927. Arkadin hires van Stratten to track down old acquaintances of his, but Arkadin might have sinister motives, and things are further complicated when Van Stratten develops a romantic interest in Arkadin’s daughter Raina (Welles’ soon-to-be wife Paola Mori).

It should be stated up front that the greatest flaw in Mr. Arkadin is its blatant similarities to two previous Welles triumphs, namely Citizen Kane (structural similarities, reclusive rich man) and the Welles-starring masterwork The Third Man (Welles character with a mysterious, possibly dangerous past). Welles even took the plot from a few episodes of the Third Man radio show prequel The Lives of Harry Lime. The familiarity occasionally makes one feel that Welles is trying too hard to emulate his earlier work, and the fact that Van Stratten (played flaccidly by Arden) is a weak substitute for either Harry Lime or Holly Martins doesn’t much help the comparison.

Still, that’s an extraordinarily high standard to hold Mr. Arkadin to, and it’s still a vibrant, often exhilarating piece of work. Welles’ gift for mystery, combined with the film’s zippy pacing, keeps things chugging along rather nicely as we’re whisked all over Europe (often to different places in a matter of seconds through whip pans), where Van Arden bumps against bizarre Europeans in often unwelcoming places. The supporting cast (Akim Tamiroff, Michael Redgrave, Mischa Auer, Katina Paxinou) all give memorably weird performances, and Welles adds to the strangeness to shooting the film Dutch angles and wide angle lenses.

Welles’ gift for Brechtian strangeness pays off in an early scene at one of Arkadin’s parties. A long tracking shot goes through a sea of people in Goya-inspired masks and costumes, making everything seem a little alien to ugly American Van Arden. When we first meet Arkadin, the mask he wears in the shadows both alienates us and tips us off that he’s someone we should worry about, but even as he removes his mask, Arkadin’s gigantic beard and bizarre hair (combined with a deliciously hammy Eastern European accent) still keeps us off-guard. That the beard and hair are clearly fake actually adds to the strangeness of the thing, not to mention Welles’ often frightening use of low-angle shots. We’re in the middle of a movie where not everything is what it seems.

Thematically, much of Mr. Arkadin is a familiar Wellesian tale of a man’s struggle with morality vs. megalomania and his subsequent downfall, but the film might be more interesting when considering where Welles was in his career at this point and how it relates to the film. Mr. Arkadin is a man in exile, one who has a dark past but is trying to hide it from both his friends and, more importantly, the daughter he adores. Welles, meanwhile, was a great filmmaker exiled from America, one who had to scramble for money to make films in Europe. The character’s faked amnesia about his past could serve as an analogue to Welles’ own inability to escape his own past commercial failures. The fact that Van Stratten’s American protagonist isn’t the least bit sympathetic could further serve as a commentary on a country that abandoned and demonized him. Of course, it’s not a perfect analogy. Welles isn’t the monstrous, murderous ogre that Arkadin is (accurately) described as, but to some degree that was Welles’ gift- taking his worst qualities, fears about himself, and worst aspects of his past and turning them into art. That’s much of what made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons great, it’s what would help make his next film, Touch of Evil, great, and it at least makes Mr. Arkadin fascinating.

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