The Complete Mr Arkadin Review

Mike Sutton looks at Criterion’s remarkable three disc set of “The Complete Mr Arkadin”, the stuff of dreams for fans of Orson Welles and well up to the company’s usual high standards.

”Who are you?
I wish I knew…”

By 1955, Orson Welles was already a refugee, wandering around Europe trying to make his films in often spectacularly uncongenial conditions. He was frequently on hand to supply some gravitas to a movie – his rather splendid Lord Mountdrago in Three Cases of Murder for example – and he occasionally worked in Hollywood pictures such as The Black Rose but so far as the studios were concerned, his directoral career was more trouble than it was worth. This period produced the startlingly beautiful Othello and a famous London stage production of “Moby Dick” but was largely notable for a series of disappointments and missed opportunities. However, it’s probably only this context of creative dissatisfaction which could have produced a fascinating film which can be known as either Mr Arkadin or Confidential Report. It’s a hugely entertaining experience which is stimulating and absorbing even while it makes you feel frustrated that it was never properly finished.

Let us, however, be careful about the terms we use. Some people, having experienced a thrill of discovery, are eager to call Mr Arkadin a near-masterpiece. But it really isn’t a masterpiece of any kind, except perhaps as an example of organisational ingenuity. Welles has made masterpieces – Citizen Kane being the most obvious – and to apply the label to an unfinished, scrappy film is patronising to a great filmmaker. It seems to me that we have to judge Welles by his highest standards and by those standards, Mr Arkadin doesn’t come up to scratch. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting however. Indeed, it’s utterly riveting to watch because there’s something in every single scene which is of interest – a performance, a line of dialogue, a bizarre camera angle, a clever bit of trickery. In other words, I guess I’m saying that even a failed Welles film is more interesting than the successful ones of lesser filmmakers.

As we will see, there are several extant versions of Mr Arkadin which were released between 1955 and 1962 – two Spanish language versions, a truncated American edition and a European version called Confidential Report. Later, Peter Bogdanovich found a version belonging to a tiny company called Corinth which seemed to be the earliest edit of the film and contained Welles’s intended flashback structure which was butchered for the theatrical releases. What Criterion have done in this ‘Complete Mr Arkadin’ set is include three different edits of the film – the Corinth version, Confidential Report and a new ‘Comprehensive Version’ which takes the best from all the editions and tries to simulate what Welles might have produced had he been allowed to finish the film to his satisfaction.

You see, Mr Arkadin was the most butchered film of a career afflicted by the various mutilations of producers. Welles was eventually locked out of the editing room by producer Louis Dolivet and denied access to the elements and the ultimate Confidential Report title was imposed on the movie – Welles felt it made the film sound like a cheap pulp thriller. In his later years, Welles felt very sad about the movie and considered it a failure, something which his biographer David Thomson agrees with. But what this new Comprehensive Version reveals is that the film is very much of a piece with the rest of Welles’s work and concerns themes which constantly recur in his films. It’s also one of the films which seems to reflect the most about its maker and, ironically, his own love for the kind of pulp thrillers which his comment on the title seems to disdain.

All the versions have the same plot, although they have myriad different ways of telling it. An American of dubious reputation, Van Stratten (Arden) becomes fascinated with Raina (Mori), the daughter of a legendary ‘mystery man’ named Gregory Arkadin (Welles). Arkadin, who claims to have been suffering from amnesia since 1927, offers Van Stratten a large sum of money to produce a report on his past but all is not as it seems. Van Stratten soon realises that everyone he talks to about Arkadin seems to turn up dead, including his long-time friend Milly (Medina) who has begun a love affair with the big man. It’s not long before Van Stratten himself begins to fear for his life and wonders exactly what Arkadin’s motives are.

There are major problems right from the start here and the biggest of all is Robert Arden. It’s not merely that he’s a wooden screen actor whose rich voice seems to come from somewhere other than the stiffly posed body. It’s that the character of Van Stratten isn’t particularly interesting. There isn’t necessarily a problem in the fact that he’s unsympathetic – pushy and callous – but he’s not engaging on any level and considering that he’s the focus of so many scenes it’s very easy to lose one’s engagement in the story. If there were a sense that Van Stratten were an anti-hero or even an outright villain, he’d be more interesting but he just comes across as a bit brutish and, crucially, insensitive. Losing Raina doesn’t seem to matter much to him any more than the fact that he is indirectly responsible for the deaths of numerous people. For this to work in a film noir sense, we’d have to feel something was at stake and, with Arden, we don’t.

Another difficulty is the fragmented nature of the film. Even in the chronologically edited versions, the film seems disconnected in time and space with locations shifting wildly across the globe and an all too obvious sense that many scenes were snatched within a few minutes due to financial constraints. The various international locations are sometimes used interestingly – a lovely chase through a Spanish village for example – but often in a chocolate-box, touristy kind of way which reminds you of later European co-productions. There’s also some studio work which doesn’t always fit in with the scenes around it. It’s a tremendously episodic story and the only (slender) thread, initially, to connect things together is Van Stratten. Narrative momentum is seriously lacking and that’s one of the things which stops this from even approaching Citizen Kane where there’s a good deal of dramatic impetus to a somewhat similar story. The Comprehensive Version does help this somewhat as the flashbacks allow for a more complex viewing experience and give us more regular doses of the splendid Akim Tamiroff who, by virtue of the editing, becomes a more central character.

However, my reservations are more quibbles because whenever Welles is on screen, the film works triumphantly. Welles gives such a memorable performance as the monstrously powerful Arkadin, an amnesiac demon, that he fills in the centre of the film and makes you forget the limitations of Robert Arden. It’s an iconic Welles role – perhaps the iconic Welles role – in a film which seems to be about Welles as a man – who is Welles, the artist and Renaissance man who reached the peak of his career in 1941 and then had to live through forty years of disappointments? Filmmaker, magician, art expert, sexual athlete, bon-viveur, anecdotist, appalling husband, food and wine connoisseur, spoilt brat, spendthrift fool. Unable to finish his work, the man who was once famously profligate became a penny-pincher by circumstance yet it seems to me that, in the words of Arkadin’s famous anecdote, his own ‘character’ – a butterfly, flitting from one project to another – stopped him from making another masterpiece just as surely as any producer did. Both David Thomson and Simon Callow report a certain restlessness in the editing room, a sense that once the making of the film was out of the way, Welles began to lose interest and wanted to move on. This perhaps goes some way to explaining the ease with which he was, time and again, pushed aside by producers. Having conceived and nurtured the project, he simply wasn’t interested in delivering it.

Still, what we have here is the matter at hand and it’s important to say that Welles looks fantastic. The weight is beginning to be piled on but he’s still got a shape and his eyes are at their most intensely searching. The voice is also at its best; rich, deep and full of ironic humour. More significantly, he’s not particularly hammy – Arkadin is a performer but he’s got control and modulation, he knows when to hold back. You can put Arkadin with Kane and Hank Quinlan in a fascinating triptych of Wellesean monsters – and then add some of the ones he played in other people’s films such as Cardinal Wolsey, Louis XVII and, of course, Harry Lime. He looks like a pantomime demon and he’s certain a demon of some kind but what make him interesting is that, like Kane, he’s an all-too human demon and its his basic humanity that proves to be his undoing. His striving for the love of his daughter and his desperate need for her good opinion is what destroys him and those around him and it’s an appealingly down to earth concept. However, the explanation does have a problem; it feels somehow weightless and insubstantial. It’s hard not to feel that there’s something else behind the mask of the demon king driving him on to murder and treachery and, even if that’s nothing more than a vague suspicion, it adds a layer of mystery to the film. Ultimately, Mr Arkadin resembles a puzzle without a solution or, perhaps more aptly, a maze without a centre. The more we discover about Arkadin, the more elusive he becomes and the final explanation, while touching, doesn’t entirely satisfy. Ironically, this is also the case with Orson Welles himself and Simon Callow’s marvellous biography reveals just how little we really know about him. As such, Mr Arkadin – in its chaotic production and distribution history as well as in the central character – seems to be as good a representation of Welles, man and filmmaker, as any of his movies. It’s surely no accident that it’s the Arkadin side of the film that engages us most and that Arkadin, for all his sins, is the only character to even begin to earn our sympathies.

What it lacks, crucially, is the full achievement of Welles the artist, despite his efforts to put something in every scene to make it interesting. Mad camera angles, weirdly obsessive editing rhythms, gothic set decoration, the design of the particularly weird Goya-inspired costume party – this is a treat for fans of the more esoteric side of the director.

But it never comes together in the way that we expect from Welles’ best work. It just about coheres and resolves on a basic level of plotting but it doesn’t pull us in and we’re left feeling cold and a bit puzzled. Elements which should move and disturb us – the fate of Milly for example – seem to lack an emotional charge. Compare this to the enormous emotional pull of Touch of Evil or the mutilated but marvellous Ambersons and you can see what’s missing. It all seems a little icy, perhaps even a little academic to be the involving pulp fun that it could be.

Still, let’s not be too harsh. Mr Arkadin is very entertaining. Welles’ cinematic brio turns even a simple conversation into a three-ring circus and the supporting cast are let off the leash and allowed to have fun; none more so than Michael Redgrave as a creepily camp antique shop owner who sounds a bit like Alec Guinness’ Fagin. Of the three versions we now have easy access to, the Comprehensive Version is the one to watch. Welles was, of course, correct to impose the flashback structure late in the day, because this is a intellectual jigsaw which is only satisfying if we’re forced to play the game. Put it in chronological order and you’ve got a not very interesting ‘Dr Mabuse’ style thriller distinguished by the filmmaking style and the performances. In the new version, the nearest yet to what Welles might have given us himself, we have a film which constantly provokes, fascinates and annoys and, finally, reminds us that Welles really was a great filmmaker even when he found it increasingly hard to make great films. The final image of a plane flying through the air – going nowhere, destined to crash into the sea – is, in this context, as suggestive as it is poignant.

The Disc

Criterion’s job on The Complete Mr Arkadin is not unlike Van Stratten’s in the film and they are to be congratulated on their tenacity. This is, without doubt, as impressive a DVD package as they’ve ever produced and a major work of film archaeology. Whether it will be of much interest to anyone except Welles fans is a moot point but, to be honest, anyone who loves classic cinema should find plenty to interest them here.

Disc One: The Corinth Version

The Corinth Version of Mr Arkadin was discovered by Peter Bogdanovich in 1960 when he was writing about Orson Welles and rooting around for sources. He found it in the vaults of M&A Alexander distributors and it was later released in the USA by Corinth Films. It seems to be the earliest extant cut of the film and the last one into which Orson Welles had any significant input. It preserves some, but not all, of Welles’ intended flashback structure and is a considerable improvement on both Confidential Report and the further cut-down version which has been seen in the USA and omits Akim Tamiroff entirely.

The first disc contains a commentary track from American film scholars Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore which is informative and entertaining, although not without its share of silences. They know an awful lot about Welles and impart the information in a very good humoured manner. They consider the Corinth version of Mr Arkadin to be the most authoritatively Wellesean of the versions which is why they chose to commentate on it.

We also get an extensive and compelling stills gallery, beautifully presented and annotated, and three episodes of the British radio show “The Lives of Harry Lime”. This was a follow-up to the success of The Third Man, conjured up by producer Harry Alan Towers. Each half hour show is an entertaining period piece although the quality is highly variable. The one of most interest is “Man of Mystery” which introduces the character of Gregory Arkadin. The episodes are accompanied by a good documentary introduced by Simon Callow in which we hear from Harry Alan Towers who seems to be a very clubbable chap indeed.

Disc Two: Confidential Report

The second disc contains the version of the film which is most familiar to British viewers and which has been reviewed on DVD Times by my colleague Anthony Nield here. This is the version released in the UK and Europe in 1955 and which was completed by producer Louis Dolivet with no input from Welles.

The only extra on this disc is an exceptional documentary called “Men of Mystery” which is an extended interview with Simon Callow on the subjects of Robert Arden, Michael Redgrave and Louis Dolivet. Callow has been writing the definitive Welles biography – Volume 2 has just been published – and his knowledge and insight are hugely impressive. His taped interviews with Arden, recorded in 1990, are especially interesting.

Disc Three: The Comprehensive Version

And so onto the main course. The Comprehensive Version represents a staggering feat of film scholarship by some engagingly obsessive Welles fans who looked at every existing version of the film and put it together, using various clues left by Welles, in a manner which suggests what the director might have made of it in a final cut. It’s several minutes longer than the other versions and is structured using flashbacks which, as I’ve indicated above, make the film a more satisfying and complex experience. This is clearly the version for posterity but I’m glad that Criterion have given us the choice as to which version we choose to watch and taken time to make all of them look as good as possible.

The third disc also contains a 20 minute documentary about the creation of the Comprehensive Version and, best of all, outtakes and rushes from the film. The latter are a Welles fan’s wet dream as they contain some spectacularly rare material and reveal a lot about the style of direction which Welles favoured. Deleted scenes are also included, without sound. Finally, we get a taste of how two Spanish actresses interpreted the parts of the Baroness and Sophie for the Spanish version of the film.

The image of all three versions of the film is, considering the state of the material, stunningly good. Picture quality on the Corinth Version is surprisingly good after a very scratchy opening. Mastered from a variety of sources, 35MM as well as the more usual 16MM print, it is crisp and sharp with particularly good shadow detail. Much the same can be said for the Comprehensive Version which uses the Confidential Report material where possible as this version, on the second disc, has the best picture quality of the lot. Criterion’s transfer of Confidential Report urinates from a great height over every previous release, incidentally, and it looks very nice indeed. Some viewers might cavil at Criterion’s decision to ‘windowbox’ the image, resulting in small black borders to the left and right, but I didn’t find this distracting.

The sound is more variable with the post-synching being all over the place – a characteristic of several Welles films – but this is by far the best audio track I’ve yet heard on the film. Confidential Report fares best but you might be glad of the optional English subtitles which Criterion have included on each version. The extras, apart from the Spanish Actresses section, are all presented without subtitles.

Also in the package, we get a lengthy booklet and the tie-in novel which was, allegedly, written by Orson Welles but may well have had nothing to do with him. This is discussed in a comprehensive introduction by Robert Polito and is also touched on in the Simon Callow interview on the second disc. The booklet is particularly worth looking at, containing an excellent article by J. Hoberman and explanatory pieces on each version of the film.

Beautiful packaging rounds off this set which I have no hesitation in proclaiming a triumph.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jun 02, 2006

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