Mr. Arkadin

May 5, 2008 at 8:41 am (Cinema, Kiran David)

If anything could be called quintessentially Wellesian, Mr. Arkadin is it. More than Citizen Kane, Lady from Shanghai or, Touch of Evil – it all comes together and crystallizes here.


There doesn’t seem to exist what one can call a definitive version of this film. Over the years there have been five versions including two Spanish language versions due to part- funding with a nominally different supporting cast. And now, there is a sixth version that tries to reconstruct the film in a manner as close to Orson Welles’ vision as possible.


Post – Citizen Kane, Welles was the most persecuted American film director, Erich von Strohiem being probably the only other director who faced similar problems. Almost everything he did from and including The Magnificent Ambersons has either been massacred or not completed. According to Welles, Arkadin is his most-butchered film.


Before we get into the thick of things, I think a brief history of sorts is needed to place matters in perspective.


Welles left America (the land of the free!) in 1947 during the HUAC era and lived the life of a wanderer of sorts in Europe, trying to get people to finance and produce his films.

Most films in this period like Othello [1952] had haphazard funding that always ran out at the wrong time. Welles also cast his films using a mixture of good and mediocre actors, often dubbing various parts himself.


Mr. Arkadin was produced in 1954 by Louis Dolivet, a curious character with a dubious past who shaped Welles’ interest in the politics of the left. There were rumours of Dolivet having killed someone.


Once the film was shot, Dolivet, who felt that Welles was spending too much time on the edit, took the film out of his hands and put together an edit known as “Confidential Report” (a name Welles hated) and released it in Europe.  This edit, though interesting, wrecked the more complex flashback structure that Welles had in mind. Dolivet got it edited to make it appear more accessible to the paying public. It was however hailed by the Cahier du Cinema critics as a masterpiece and an indication of Welles as an auteur in the truest sense.


Seven years later, a horribly truncated version was released in the US. What is known as the Corinth version was discovered much later by Peter Bogdanovitch in a TV studio. Welles, in an interview with Bogdanovitch, admitted that this was an early rough cut and, of all his released edits, the closest to his vision. However he mentioned he had an opening image of a dead body on a beach which seemed to be the opening of one of the two Spanish edits, both of which Welles did not really get involved with. He also mentioned that a point-of-view shot of a pilotless plane crashing was meant to be the original end of the film. The dead body does appear in “Confidential Report” but much later in the film.


Each existing version, though not definitive, had within it things unique and exclusive to other versions. Stefan Drossler and Claude Bertemes have now put together an edit called ‘The comprehensive version’.


(Whether this can really be called the comprehensive version is any one’s guess but it is possibly as close as we can get to what Welles had in mind. Unlike in the case of the Touch of Evil edit, where in response to an ‘approximate restoration’, there exists a 50- page letter that Welles had written to the studio, detailing how they ruined the film and what he really wanted.)


Drossler and Bertemes pieced Arkadin together by taking elements from all existing versions. They also went through interviews in which Welles talks about the film.


The genesis of the film itself seems very convoluted, largely due to the various contradictory stories Welles told different people over the years. He once claimed he had written the book or that it was written by him and Maurice Bessey or yet again that he never heard of the book. (There does seem to be a book with the same title credited to Welles.)


At one point Welles told Bogdanovitch that it was derived from the BBC Harry Lime Radio series, which in turn came from the character Welles played in Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man. The character of Harry Lime in the film was believed to have been written by Welles, particularly the famous cuckoo-clock bit. The character of Arkadin played by Welles was supposed to be, according to him, a mixture of some shady European financier/arms dealer and Josef Stalin.


As for the film, it’s pure Welles, with its baroque visuals, and extreme wide-angle compositions shot by Jean Bourgoin. His staging of the Goya masked ball has no equal in cinema with the possible exception of the opening sequence of the first story in Max Ophuls’ Le Plaisir. Both are very different in their intent but equally exhilarating and dark. While there have been many great directors of Film Noir, no one come close to Welles when it comes to pushing it as far as he has.  He treads where no one dares to. In Arkadin he pushes the film so far, it shatters, and reflected in its fragments we see a battered, decaying post-war Europe like never before.


It would be easy for critics to rip the film apart – its jagged nature, the eccentric performances, the dizzy and seemingly incoherent narrative, the ghastly make-up, especially Welles’. But these are the very things from which the film draws its strength, voice and vision.


As for the performances, Robert Arden who plays Guy Van Stratten, the ‘hero’ who even supporters of the film have called bland, is in fact bland, but within the scheme of things his blandness (not that his range was limited) works when stacked up against the world he enters. Misha Auer as the professor who runs a flea circus and Michael Redgrave, stalwart of so many British films, who plays the antique dealer Bergomil Trebitch are wonderful creatures you could spend time with in your favourite nightmare/dream.


Both Suzanne Flon as the Baroness Nagel and Katina Paxinou who plays Sophie Arkadin’s ex-girlfriend work much better than their Spanish replacements, as they carry with them a sense of their pained histories.


As for Welles himself, again much maligned in this performance as Arkadin, one must look at him in relation to the nature of the film and not just as a performance. In his films, actors and the way they appear and perform are a part of his visual and dramatic scheme. Everything translates into something visual, not necessarily realistic and typically logical, but evocative.  His make-up which almost looks primitive and about to fall off, his speeches that seem both something he is telling the characters in the film and an aside to the audience, all this is part of a greater aural and visual scheme – the Wellesian image. This is not the film for those who convert film viewing into screenplay reading.


Welles in Arkadin stands naked in front of us, he gives us a ringside view of his life and art. Through the images we confront the pain and tragedy of Welles as man, artist, genius, outsider and the charlatan he loved to project himself as. He forces you to construct your individual narratives from the fractured images that confront you.


As for my favourite version, it’s difficult to say. I’ve confronted, experienced and loved Arkadin through so many versions; I sometimes seem to time-travel through all of them while viewing each of one. I suppose common sense would dictate giving a nod to the comprehensive version, as it seems more finished, but the Corinth version I saw in an auditorium in Delhi ( perhaps newly built, with not enough air to breathe) is the version I first saw and fell in love with, it’s a bit more… bloody …


Kiran David


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