Like many cinephiles, I’ve been slowly making my way through Criterion’s DVD set of Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin the last couple weeks. Welles was never allowed to finish editing his 1955 picture and it has appeared in various forms throughout the years, so Criterion includes the producer-finished Confidential Report version, the so-called “Corinth” version that corresponds most closely to Welles’ vision, and a newly reconstructed “comprehensive” version created by the Munich Film Archive that combines five different versions; plus various essays, interviews, radio shows, and a novel attributed to Welles but likely adapted from the screenplay by somebody else. For those determined to sift through the whole package, it’s a significant commitment…but a genuine pleasure; a film archive in a box.
The best feature of the set, however, is the commentary by Welles experts James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who breezily exchange observations about the film and its relation to Welles’ career while tossing in comments on the French New Wave, Cold War paranoia, the grotesque in art, and a wide array of themes and topics. It’s the best DVD commentary I’ve heard in a while; highly informed yet conversational and multi-faceted.
Rather than simply regurgitate the idea of Arkadin being a “failed” film, Naremore and Rosenbaum champion it as an incomplete but striking and influential one. (Taking an auteurist stance in 1958, Cahiers du cinÈma provocatively voted it among the best films of all time.) Naremore calls Welles “the first American director of an international art film,” and celebrates the movie’s contrasting elements. Made after a series of Hollywood films were taken from his control and re-edited, Welles shot the film (as he did 1952′s Othello) in various countries, piecemeal style–a production mode mirroring the film’s story of an opportunistic adventurer traversing the globe in an attempt to uncover the secret history of an aristocratic titan.
The film’s hook has little to do with story, however; what sings is its startling visual ingenuity in shot after shot: cramped attics filled with the detritus of WWII are distorted into shifting, enveloping spaces by a wide-angle lens (“I work,” Welles said, “in 18.5 only because other filmmakers haven’t used it…If everyone worked with wide-angle lenses, I’d shoot all my films in 75mm, because I believe very strongly in the possibilities of the 75mm”); a foggy dockyard plunged in low-key lighting is accented with leering close-ups of a dying man; the shadows of tree limbs expand in moving headlights over immense stone walls; European castles, towering ruins, street markets, cafes, and cavernous airports provide more locations. While the plot sometimes seems too fragmented for its own good, Welles’ consistently inventive imagery nevertheless ensures that the action remains thoroughly engrossing.
A visual highwater mark for the film is a scene involving Arkadin (Welles) and a woman named Mily (Patricia Medina) on a boat in the ocean; the room they are in rocks back and forth as Mily stumbles around from one corner to another, half-drunk, and the near fish-eye lens envelops the viewer in ever-shifting space. Naremore and Rosenbaum correctly identify the fact that the set itself is rocking back-and-forth (and Rosenbaum humorously informs us that Welles “borrowed” the various decor in the room from the Hilton hotel Welles was staying in), but what seems to me especially unique about the scene is the fact that Arkadin barely moves at all; in fact, in close-ups he seems to be standing on the same platform as the camera (or perhaps Welles carefully leans in accordance with its horizontal plane), the room twisting and turning around him, visually emphasizing his stability in chaos and dominance over Mily.
A scene known for its thematic qualities is Arkadin’s re-telling of the parable of the swimming frog who is stung by the scorpion he carries even though it spells both their doom: “It’s my character,” says the hapless scorpion. Arkadin is a typically Wellesian power mogul doomed by his own success. In 1958, Welles told AndrÈ Bazin and a group of Cahiers critics:
“All of Shakespeare’s great characters are swine; they are forced to be…All the characters I’ve played and that we’ve been talking about are Faustian, and I’m against the Faustian outlook, because I believe it is impossible for a man to be great unless he acknowledges something greater than himself…I believe there are two great human types in the world and one of them is the Faust type. I belong to the others, but in playing Faust, I want to be just and loyal to him, give him the best of myself, and put forward the best arguments that I can in his favor, because after all we live in a world which was built by Faust. Our world is Faustian.”
Yet near the end of the commentary, Rosenbaum identifies what he feels is one of the film’s flaws: Arkadin’s character remains insubstantial and seems more alive in the memory of others. But in a sense, isn’t this Welles’ point? Arkadin is a monumental, Faustian type, yet his power has transformed him into a hollow vestige of his former self, a monolithic shadow of his humble beginnings. “So what’s funny?” Arkadin is asked as he chuckles bitterly near the end of the film. “Old age,” he whispers. And just as viewers hoping to discover a definitive Mr. Arkadin will never do so, Mr. Arkadin remains a fragmented character, a man not in search of his past but in flight from it. Arkadin literally vanishes from the screen, an ephemeral token of the life he once lived.