Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) [DVD]
Director : Orson Welles
Screenplay : Orson Welles
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1955
Stars : Robert Arden (Guy van Stratten), Paola Mori (Raina Arkadin), Orson Welles (Gregory Arkadin), Akim Tamiroff (Jakob Zouk), Grégoire Aslan (Bracco), Patricia Medina (Mily), Jack Watling (Marquis of Rutleigh), Mischa Auer (The Professor), Peter van Eyck (Thaddeus), Michael Redgrave (Burgomil Trebitsch), Suzanne Flon (Baroness Nagel), Frédéric O'Brady (Oscar), Katina Paxinou (Sophie)
Like so many of Orson Welles’s films, we will never know for sure what Mr. Arkadin could have been had Welles been allowed to finish it his way. In the annals of cinema history, it will forever remain an enigma, a film that exists in multiple versions (at least five that were theatrically distributed at some point), yet none of which fully adhere to Welles’s original intentions. This is partially because he was pulled off the project before he could finish and partially because Welles himself wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted it to be. Welles created his films in the editing suite, and it is anyone’s guess exactly what Mr. Arkadin would have been had he been given the time he wanted to fine-tune it.
In many ways, Mr. Arkadin revisits the same themes as Citizen Kane (1941), centering as it does on the mysterious life of a powerful, wealthy, and elusive man. The ultimate unknowability of “truth” and the enigmatic nature of human personalities are the film’s central themes, which binds it closely to much of Welles’s oeuvre. Despite the fact that Welles was never being able to finish it to his satisfaction, Mr. Arkadin is film in which Welles’s sensibility is burned into every frame.
The film’s protagonist is an American expatriate named Guy van Stratten, who is played by Robert Arden, a less-than-conventional leading man whom Welles plucked from the cast of the popular BBC radio program The Adventures of Harry Lime. Guy is not a particularly likable or sympathetic character, which poses a challenge to audiences that Welles, not doubt, intended. Guy attempts to blackmail a powerful European millionaire named Gregory Arkadin, who, like the inscrutable Charles Foster Kane, is played by Welles himself. After Guy becomes involved with Arkadin’s daughter, Raina (Paola Mori, Welles’s then-girlfriend), Arkadin sends him on a mission to unearth his past, claiming to remember nothing before 1927 when he found himself on a street corner in Zurich with thousands of Swiss francs.
The rest of the film follows Guy as he attempts to piece together Arkadin’s shadowy past. However, once he begins discovering the “truth,” which Arkadin never thought he would actually find, people begin dying and Guy discovers that Arkadin is trying to erase his own history. Thus, the film has the fascinating structure of simultaneous revelation and erasure, with each new piece of information being literally snuffed out as soon as it emerges into the light (it is of no small consequence that Welles wanted the film to open on a shot of a dead body, the ultimate mystery jump-start). All of this is told via flashback, as Guy tells his story to a resigned Jew named Jakob Zouk (Akim Tamiroff) who is hiding out in an attic and may be the last link to the shameful past events that brought Arkadin to his current heights of power, money, and influence.
Visually, Mr. Arkadin is a frequently breathtaking film, even though it lacks some of the finer polish of Welles’ best Hollywood productions (note, for example, how badly many of the actors’ lines are dubbed and how patently false Arkadin’s wig and beard look). Like so many of Welles’s independently produced films, which he made by scraping together financing and shooting like a gypsy outrunning both his critics and his creditors, Mr. Arkadin displays flashes of brilliance in a rambling, unfinished construction that suggests, rather than cements, its auteur’s virtuosity. Welles deploys canted camera angles, deep focus, chiaroscuro lighting, and intense close-ups to reflect and refract his characters’ psychologies. With its complicated plot structure and unconventional characters, Mr. Arkadin is a film that keeps the viewer constantly upended, never quite sure of where it is or where it’s going, which is both its strength and its weakness.
The flashback narrative and structuring enigma regarding Mr. Arkadin and his past keep the film consistently interesting, but Welles fails in character development and drama. Despite all the mystery, Gregory Arkadin never becomes the fully compelling character that he should be, despite Welles’s bravura performance and his use of every visual trick in the book (note how he keeps Arkadin out of sight when he is first introduced and shows him for the first time masked in a rapid dolly in, suggesting a virtual vortex of character power sucking us toward him).
Although Welles is now best remembered as the director of Citizen Kane, “the greatest film ever made,” in the mid-1950s he was best known for his role as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s incisive postwar European thriller The Third Man (1951). At this time, Welles was in his first bout of self-imposed exile in Europe, having found Hollywood intolerable to work in. RKO had butchered his second film The Magnificent Ambersons; in order to make The Stranger (1946), he had had to submit entirely to Republic Pictures; and Republic had repaid his subservience to them by shortening his 1948 version of Macbeth and re-recording all new dialogue to cover over Welles’s use of authentic Scottish dialects.
Mr. Arkadin was financed by Welles’s friend Louis Dolivet, and by the time the production was over, they would no longer be friends. Dolivet blamed Welles for taking too long in editing the film and wasting money; Welles blamed Dolivet for his inexperience in producing films. Wherever the fault lies, Welles lost the battle because Dolivet took control of the film away from him and recut it, losing much of the complex flashback structure Welles had intended, resulting in, according to Welles, the most complete destruction of any film he had made, including The Magnificent Ambersons.
Thankfully, a shadow of Welles’s intended version of Mr. Arkadin does exist. Film critic and director Peter Bogdanovich, who was a close friend of Welles, unearthed a copy in 1960 that predated Dolivet’s tampering. And, in recent years, film historians Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes have assembled a “comprehensive version,” using Welles’s editing notes to combine aspects of all the existing versions (including two Spanish-language versions and the European release titled Confidential Report). This version is not, as Drössler and Bertemes will readily attest, a final, definitive version, but rather the closest we will likely get to piecing together what Welles originally intended. Given that so many of Welles’s films involved protagonists trying and failing to fit together the pieces of life’s puzzles, this seems strangely and almost satisfyingly appropriate.
|“The Complete Mr. Arkadin” Criterion Collection DVD|
|This three-disc box set contains three separate versions of Welles’s film: the “Corinth Cut,” the European cut retitled Confidential Report, and the newly created “Comprehensive Cut.”|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||April 18, 2006|
|Each of the three versions of Welles’s film is presented in a new high-definition transfer that makes it look as good as possible—significantly better than the junky DVDs currently available from public domain companies. Both the “Corinth Cut” and the “Comprehensive Cut” were made from multiple elements to ensure the best possible quality. The former utilized a 35mm composite fine-grain print, a 35mm duplicate negative, and a 16mm duplicate negative, while the latter used those three elements along another 35mm print, the so-called “work print” from Luxembourg. The Confidential Report version was transferred from a 35mm composite fine-grain print. All three versions were digitally restored, removing all instances of dirt, debris, and age. |
The resulting images on all three versions are very impressive, given the film’s age and its difficult history. Even knowing that some of the transfers came from up to four different sources, there is little variation in the image quality across the film’s running length. The picture is generally strong and well-detailed, with fine gradations of gray and a nicely film-like image. The blacks sometimes seem a tad gray, most likely from the 16mm source material, but that is a minor quibble. The image is, like other recent Criterion releases of films in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, picture-boxed to eliminate loss of image due to overscan on conventional tube TVs, a concession that I still feel is unnecessary given the rapidly increasing saturation of high-definition widescreen monitors.
|Like the image, the soundtracks for all three films were constructed from the audio elements of the source prints used for the image transfer. The resulting monaural soundtracks all sound good for their age, although there is some audible ambient hiss from time to time despite digital restoration.|
|In short, it is releases like this that show why The Criterion Collection constantly stands head and shoulders above all other DVD distributors, large and small. Ranking alongside such Criterion gems as their three-disc set of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and the “John Cassavetes: Five Films” box set, “The Complete Mr. Arkadin” is film history in a box--a fascinating glimpse into the intangible nature of cinematic creation and its many discontents. Just having all three versions of the film in one set would be quite enough, but Criterion has also assembled a fascinating set of supplements to add further insight. |
The “Corinth Cut” features screen-specific audio commentary by Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore, a recently retired film professor at Indiana University and author of The Magic World of Orson Welles (I was lucky enough to work under Naremore when I was doing my doctorate at Indiana University, and he is every bit as brilliant and insightful in person as he is on this commentary track). Rosenbaum and Naremore are old friends, and they have an easy-going, but consistently informative cadence in the commentary, illuminating the tangled history of Mr. Arkadin and why it is such an important film.
For those interested in the history of the many versions of Mr. Arkadin, there is a wealth of information, beginning with the 20-minute featurette “On the Comprehensive Version,” which includes new interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Stefan Drössler, and Claude Bertemes, who explain some of the differences among the five major versions of the film and how they went about “reconstructing” a more comprehensive version. The insert booklet also includes an essay about the history of the film as well as three separate essays extolling the virtues of the three included versions: Jonathan Rosenbaum on the “Corinth Cut,” film professor François Thomas on Confidential Report, and Stefan Drössler on the “Comprehensive Version.”
The most fascinating supplement, however, is the inclusion of a representative sample of material from the eight hours of footage (the so-called “work print”) held at the Cinémathèque municipale de Luxembourg. This includes 15 minutes of outtakes of Welles’s performance, three and a half minutes of particularly rare outtakes of other actors being directed by Welles (usually just his voice off-screen), and roughly five minutes of silent deleted scenes and shots that never made it into any existing cut of the film. There are also two scenes featuring Baroness Nagel and Sophie played by Spanish actresses, which was part of the agreement with the film’s Spanish co-financiers.
Other supplements in the set include an extensive stills gallery (including behind-the-scenes and production photos, as well as ad materials), an interview with Welles biographer Simon Callow (which features portions of Callow’s interview with actor Robert Arden), and three half-hour episodes of the BBC radio show The Adventures of Harry Lime. And, if all that weren’t enough, the box set is also packaged with a paperback reprint of Welles’s novel Mr. Arkadin, on which his screenplay was based (the book features an intriguing new preface by Roberto Polito). The novel itself is not actually Welles’s original work, but rather an uncredited English translation of a French text that was adapted and translated from Welles’s original writing.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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