THE BOOTLEG FILES: “MR. ARKADIN”

Orson Welles is considered by many film critics and scholars to be the greatest American director of all time. Yet his canon as a director is relatively limited: he only completed 13 films in the years between 1941 and 1977 (this does not include a long residue trail of unfinished work, not to mention at least one completed film that was never released and is still unavailable for public viewing).

Somewhere in the middle of his cinematic output was a weird and silly movie called “Mr. Arkadin,” also released in some countries as “Confidential Report.” Anyone who believes Welles only made great films will be in for a happy shock here, because “Mr. Arkadin” is a terrible movie. But it is a wonderfully terrible movie – so full of outlandish, self-indulgent and foolish trappings that it is difficult not to be entertained by it. Even when the film becomes incoherently ridiculous, “Mr. Arkadin” is a guilty pleasure, sort of like junk food for cineastes.

According to Welles biographer Frank Brady, “Mr. Arkadin” was rooted in an episode of the BBC radio drama “The Adventures of Harry Lime,” which Welles starred in during the early 1950s. In that episode, Welles’ character of Harry Lime (based very loosely on his landmark performance in “The Third Man”) is hired by a mysterious millionaire named Gregory Arkadian to compile a confidential dossier. The subject of the report is Arkadian himself, who claims to be amnesiac and cannot recall any aspects of his youth. Welles loved the script and claimed that he would someday turn it into a movie, although he would play the Arkadian part. Sure enough, the film became “Mr. Arkadin” (the character’s surname was altered from its Armenian original to a Russian version), but Welles did not bother to credit the original radio script source in his film’s credits.

In “Mr. Arkadin,” Welles fashions his mysterious millionaire in the most ludicrous manner imaginable: with a blatantly false beard and nose and a comic Russian accent which sounds a lot like the Boris Badenov character from the Bullwinkle cartoons. Welles also shot his scenes primarily in tight close-up, obviously to emphasize Arkadin’s menace but also to hide the fact he was dreadfully overweight. In the relatively few shots were he is filmed full body, Welles’ excess weight is quite a sight to behold (sadly, this was the start of an endless fight with obesity which he would never be able to conquer).

As with the radio script from which the film is based, “Mr. Arkadin” focuses on the investigation into the origins of the title character’s wealth. The report is compiled by an American smuggler and petty crook named Guy Van Stratten, who does too good of a job digging up the facts of Arkadin’s past: a wide collection of con artists, ex-cons and miscreants are interviewed by Van Stratten, only to be bumped off after their information is relayed. Van Stratten realizes a bit too late that Arkadin is using his information to permanently erase the loose threads of his past by eliminating those who know the truth about him.

And from here “Mr. Arkadin” runs into two serious problems. The first is the casting of Robert Arden as Van Stratten. Arden was a minor actor who co-starred in several of “The Adventures of Harry Lime” episodes with Welles, and he was genuinely shocked that Welles wanted him for the film (Arden reportedly thought that Welles’ phone inquiry offering him the role was a crank call). Whether it was the inadequacy of the script or the actor’s incompetence, Arden came across as thoroughly obnoxious and abrasive. Welles clearly did not see what other directors did, for Arden never played a starring role again.

Compounding this matter was Welles’ curious decision to cast his wife, Italian countess and sometime-actress Paola Mori, in the key role as Arkadin’s daughter. The film is centered on Arkadin’s obsession with keeping his daughter from learning the truth of his past. Yet Mori was all wrong for the part. She was a beautiful woman but could not act for beans. Welles belatedly realized this and brought in British actress Billie Whitelaw to dub her lines. But Mori’s sultry Italian glamour was not matched by Whitelaw’s posh Britspeak, and the character wound up being wildly out of place and unfocused. As with Arden, this was her only starring role.

But being an Orson Welles production, the movie is not without its diversions. Welles managed to pack the film with a wealth of over-the-top cameos by some fine performers, including Michael Redgrave (as an effeminate antique dealer), Mischa Auer (as the creepy flea circus operator – and Welles supposedly dubbed his lines), Patricia Medina (wife of Welles’ one-time collaborator Joseph Cotten) as a dim moll, Katina Paxinou as the aged head of a former white slavery ring, and Akim Tamiroff as a dying crook (Tamiroff’s wife Tamara Shane has a bit part as a frantic landlady). The hammy excesses of these star turns, coupled with Welles’ trademark off-kilter camerawork, keeps the viewer’s attention long after the film’s logic evaporated.

“Mr. Arkadin” also contained a brief but famous monologue by Welles regarding a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion, eager to cross a river, convinces a reluctant frog to ferry him across even though the frog is afraid of being stung. Midway across their journey, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming both to a watery grave. When the frog asks where the logic of the action is, the scorpion apologetically replies he cannot help it because it is his character.

Welles’ character, not unlike the scorpion’s, doomed “Mr. Arkadin” while it was still in post-production. A hostile feud with his financial backers resulted in the film being taken from him before the editing was completed. The financiers charged Welles with excessive drinking, but it is not likely that alcohol was the problem. Welles’ inability to make sense of footage plus his legendary leisurely work habits resulted in an overlong and expensive post-production. But without Welles in the cutting room, the film was slapped together in a messy manner. The result was several different versions of the film, which played in Europe in the mid-1950s. “Mr. Arkadin” did not come to the U.S. until 1962, at which time it was barely acknowledged. Welles himself brushed the film off as a “fiasco” and never attempted to fix the damage done to it.

Over time, however, critics have re-approached “Mr. Arkadin” by placing it in the perspective of Welles’ career. Dennis Schwartz, the prolific reviewer from the online Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, offers this outlook: “I found it to be a silly but enjoyable film–not one of his masterpieces (but even a lesser flick from Welles is still better than most other films). If I were doing research for that most peculiar film noir, I would delve into how similar is the narrative to Orson’s personal life and get the scoop on all the budget problems that forced him to abandon his original lyrical screenplay (“Masquerade”) for this more pedestrian version. What I liked best was the theme presented in the form of a parable– the scorpion who can’t change his nature. It best explains not only Mr. Arkadin but the gargantuan filmmaker himself, who floundered in his later life and seemed like a caricature of himself. I saw him before his death on the Johnny Carson show where he played the fool–much like the benign host’s more familiar egotistical Hollywood guests. It was disappointing to see him at his most banal. I think “Mr. Arkadin” might be his most personal film, and also might best explain the great one’s character–both his perfections and imperfections.”

Rick Curnutte, editor of The Film Journal, offers this commentary: “Well, “Mr. Arkadin” is most certainly NOT Welles’ most personal film. That would have to be one of his later masterpieces: “Chimes at Midnight,” “F For Fake,” “The Immortal Story,” “Filming Othello”, “Magic Show”…any one of these is unquestionably more personal, more attuned to Welles’ specific, individualist aesthetic. Welles’ more obtuse, idiosyncratic works (like “Mr. Arkadin,” “The Stranger,” “The Trial”) are very often not taken as seriously as the more “respectable” films (“Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Touch of Evil,” “The Lady from Shanghai”). However, Welles’ distinct touch is everywhere in Arkadin: double identities, mysterious pronouncements, self-reflective narratives (as in the story of the frog and the scorpion which, incidentally was misappropriated in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game). However, the film’s internal investigations do make it unique in the Welles canon. It’s certainly a light picture…but much of Welles’ cinema is light, playful (how many truly great pictures like “Citizen Kane” are as much fun as it is?). It’s simply an undervalued gem, lost somewhere in the rough of the career-long mastery of cinema’s finest artisan.”

When “Mr. Arkadin” came to America for its theatrical release, no copyright was filed on it. As a result, the film has languished in the public domain for years. Bootleg videos and DVDs abound, with the various versions of the film appearing on different labels. Nearly all of the versions on the market are somewhere between satisfactory to poor in regard to visual quality (the film’s soundtrack was always a mess, so don’t worry there because it is consistently lousy). Since Welles never made an official director’s cut, the confusion over the vast variety of editions is staggering.

Welles addicts will be able to forgive the filmmaker’s excesses in “Mr. Arkadin,” although moviegoers unfamiliar with his output would do best to wait this one out until they see the better films in the Welles filmography.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on April 1, 2005 in Features by
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