Saturday, July 6, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.12: Orson Welles' The Immortal Story

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: 60/B-

By the time the late-1960s rolled around, Orson Welles was a persona non grata in Hollywood. Welles still acted in successful films such as A Man for All Seasons, but any attempts to fund one of his own directing projects were largely unsuccessful. The director was worshipped in France, however, and the Organisation Radio-Television Francaise hired him to direct a pair of Karen Blixen adaptations, The Immortal Story and The Deluge at Nordenay. Welles only ever ended up making the former, an undeniably minor entry in the director’s canon. But The Immortal Story is not without interest, and its central tale is indicative of Welles’ own struggles as a filmmaker.

19th Century Macao, China- Ailing merchant Mr. Clay (Welles) is a lonely man, with his bookkeeper Levinsky (Roger Coggio) as his only real company. One night, Levinsky tells Clay a legend of a rich old man who paid a sailor to impregnate his wife. Clay dislikes legends, and he becomes obsessed with making the tale true. Levinsky pays Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), the daughter of an old business partner driven to suicide by Clay, to act as Clay’s wife, and Paul (Norman Eshley), a poor British sailor living on the streets, to play the sailor. But Clay soon finds how difficult it is to make legends conform to his will.

At only an hour long, The Immortal Story is a very slight film, and not a completely successful one. Many of the moral and ethical questions facing Levinsky and Virginie are fascinating, but the film spends too much time letting the characters discuss their backgrounds, their motives, and their feelings about each other rather than sticking to incident. Simply put, this feels like it should have stayed a short story. Welles was also forced to shoot the film in color, which he felt detracted from the performances. And while it’s true that the performances here are largely nothing special, the real issue is that the color cinematography doesn’t completely gel with Welles’ expressionistic tendencies.

But that’s not to say that Welles is at sea in color. The film’s muted colors are no doubt in part because of the very bad print that’s most widely available, but part of it is also natural to the film, as Welles accentuates the feelings of death and decay in the story. Besides, no Welles film is without its share of fantastic, unusual angles, whether Welles is showing Clay’s solitude in the echoing chamber of his home or extreme close-ups on body parts in the creepy, voyeuristic sex scene between Moreau and Eshley.

Welles was a warmer and more likable person than Clay is, but he had a tendency to accentuate the worst aspects of his character in his films as a form of self-criticism (see: Touch of Evil, Tim Holt’s character in The Magnificent Ambersons). Here, Clay’s isolation from the world has made him bitter, which could serve as explication to Welles fears that isolation from the things he needs could turn him bitter. As for Clay’s difficulty forcing Virginie and Paul together, Welles could no doubt relate. After all, this is a man who spent much of his latter career trying and failing to tell stories his own way, always coming up against some unseen obstacle or variable. The Immortal Story is very much about the difficulty of telling stories in one’s own way, and how destructive those difficulties can be.

This film is available on Hulu Plus, though I will stress again that the print is very bad.

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