THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE IMMORTAL STORY”

Orson Welles is considered by many to be the greatest filmmaker of all time.  Yet during his lifetime, Welles continually struggled to finance his productions.  As a result, many of his films remained unfinished and the relatively few that he completed frequently wound up in legal limbo due to disputes of ownership stemming from the various parties who funded his work.  This problem continues today–an upcoming April retrospective of Welles’ film output at New York’s Film Forum will be absent of his classic “Chimes at Midnight,” which is the center of a seemingly eternal ownership dispute.

However, the Film Forum retrospective will include a very rare screening of Welles’ least-known film: the 1968 “The Immortal Story.”  This film was originally produced for French television, but its compact one-hour running time created difficulties in securing a theatrical release.  To date, most people only know this title from bootleg videos.  This is a shame, since the quality of these videos run the gamut from mediocre to horrible.  But more on that in a minute.

“The Immortal Story” is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (best known today for her autobiographical “Out of Africa”).  Welles was a huge fan of Dinesen’s writing and intended to create a series of films based on her canon.  However, “The Immortal Story” was the only one that Welles completed.

“The Immortal Story” takes place in late 19th century Macao.  Welles plays Charles Clay, a wealthy old merchant who lives alone in an opulent mansion.  Aside from his bookkeeper Levinsky, a Polish-Jewish emigrant, he has virtually no contact with the outside world and, not surprisingly, is often the subject of much gossip and speculation within Macao’s European community.  What people do not know is that Clay is dying, and in his failing final days he’s become obsessed with the legend of a wealthy man who pays a handsome sailor five guineas to make love with his wife and produce an heir.  Although Clay has no wife, he insists that this legend come to life and instructs Levinsky to secure the services of a temporary wife and a handsome sailor.

The sailor is easy enough to find: Paul, a young blonde Englishman who is stranded in Macao after a shipwreck is more than willing to receive money for an evening’s worth of love-muscle pumping.  But the role of the wife goes to an unusual choice: Virginie, a prostitute whose father was once Clay’s business partner but who was forced into bankruptcy and then suicide by Clay’s ruthless behavior.  Virginie grew up in the mansion that Clay took from her father and she sees her role in this masquerade as revenge on Clay.

Virginie and Paul are united in a lavish bedroom in Clay’s mansion.  The game plan does not quite go the way either expected.  With Paul, Virginie recalls the embrace and emotion of a long-lost lover and for one evening her horizontal position is a performance of genuine affection and not a mere commercial transaction.  For Paul, Virginie is the most beautiful woman in the world and his labor of love is, indeed, a labor of love.  In the morning, the lovers part forever and Clay is found dead on his veranda by Levinsky, who imagines that no one would ever believe this story took place.

Admittedly, this is a strange little story.  And Welles doesn’t quite have the right handle in bringing it to the screen.  In playing Clay, Welles gives an uncommonly stagnant performance.  Arranging to be photographed in close-ups or unusually tight medium shots (clearly designed to hide his considerable girth), Welles goes through the film with a dyspeptic sneer and nasty squint.  The impression is not so much a dying obsessed old man but a glutton getting impatient for the dinner bell to ring.  The menace that Welles normally gave in his films (even in relatively minor stuff like “Mr. Arkadin”) is absent here and his Clay is something of an old bore.

Much of the fuel for “The Immortal Story” comes from the sublime Jeanne Moreau, who infuses Virginie’s desire for revenge and unexpected vulnerability with uncommon depth.  Moreau had starred in two other films under Welles’ direction (“The Trial” and “Chimes at Midnight”), but those efforts merely showed off her beauty without allowing her to shine as an actress.  In “The Immortal Story” her performance is bold and shaded with hints of tragedy and dark humor.  The power of her personality is strong enough to distract from the less-than-memorable screen presences of Roger Coggio as Levinsky and Norman Eshley (who seems too patrician to be a naive young sailor) as Paul.

“The Immortal Story” had its U.S. premiere at the 1968 New York Film Festival, where it received a poor response.  Clearly influencing the reaction was Welles’ decision to present an English-dubbed version in which the dialogue is out of sync with the actor’s performances.  Welles also decided to dub Coggio’s performance, and despite giving the character a Polish-accented sing-song delivery it is blatantly obvious who is the source of that voice.  (I am not certain if Eshley dubbed his own performance, but the voice in the U.S. version is rather effete for a lusty sailor and doesn’t seem to match Eshley’s appearance.)  “The Immortal Story” would later play in the U.S. on a double-bill with another short feature by a master director, Luis Buñuel’s “Simon of the Desert,” and then it virtually disappeared.

To date, “The Immortal Story” has never received a commercial home video release in the U.S.  The exact reason for its absence is unclear, since the ownership rights don’t appear to be in dispute.  Even more puzzling is the fact the film had a commercial home video release in Great Britain, and it appears that many of the U.S. bootlegs have been second or third generation dupes of this version.  The bootlegs on the market tend to be unsatisfactory, with a slightly blurry visual quality that makes the color cinematography seem garish and unbalanced (this was the first color film that Welles directed).  The film’s seeming obscurity can easily be traced to the fact few people have seen it properly.

Last year, an Italian label gave “The Immortal Story” its first DVD release.  The visual quality of this release is dramatically superior to the British video version, but it also offered a surprise to many Welles fans: two alternate versions of “The Immortal Story,” one in the original French language production and one dubbed into Italian.  Both of these European versions are considerably shorter than the U.S. release (they clock in at 47 minutes), which might actually improve in removing the flabbier elements of the story.  This DVD release is only available through an Italian web source (www.dvd.it) and is not commercially sold in the U.S.

It is not impossible to imagine “The Immortal Story” will emerge in a proper commercial release, though it is difficult to determine whether the film will see a boost in its reputation with such a release.  Admittedly, it is not prime Welles.  But then again, second-rate Welles is more intriguing than the first-rate work of many filmmakers!

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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 January 30, 2004 in Features by
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