Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Revisiting Orson Welles’ ‘Mr. Arkadin’

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday August 04, 2006

The Criterion Collection continues to set the standard for classic film on DVD. The company recently released a three-disc set of Orson Welles’ long-neglected 1955 film Mr. Arkadin (also known as Confidential Report) that contains a wealth of material documenting the film’s murky history. Just as Criterion gave the deluxe treatment last year to Welles’ 1972 F For Fake, so this year the company has produced a respectful and informative package for Arkadin that does well to salvage the mystery and reputation of this confounding movie.  

The line on Mr. Arkadin is that it is essentially a surrealist version of Citizen Kane, taking the earlier film’s plot and form and elevating every aspect to absurdist heights. Arkadin follows the pattern of Kane by sending a young man off in search of the mysteries of an older man’s life. However, in the case of Mr. Arkadin, the older man is still alive, has in fact commissioned the search, and kills off each witness the younger man uncovers in an attempt to erase his unsavory past, with the goal of protecting his daughter from the disturbing truth behind the family’s wealth. It’s a good enough plot for a pulp movie, but Welles tried to elevate it to something more meaningful and significant, as well as baroque, and that didn’t sit too well with the film’s producer, or its distributors. Eventually, as with so many other Welles projects, the film was taken out of his hands before he could finish it. The result is a film often regarded as his poorest effort. 

Mr. Arkadin has its roots in a weekly English radio show Welles starred in called The Lives of Harry Lime, a series exploiting the character he made famous in the 1949 Carol Reed film The Third Man. In the early 1950s, Welles was working on his screen version of Othello, traipsing all over Europe on a dwindling budget, desperately trying to raise cash to finance the film. An English producer proposed the radio series and Welles seized the opportunity to make some easy money, cranking out these slight entertainments for a year while he continued to make Othello. 

The script for Mr. Arkadin grew from three of these radio shows, and the Criterion DVD includes all of them, providing a fascinating glimpse into the genesis of the film. 

There are any number of published critiques comparing Kane and Arkadin, some merely tracking the similarities between the two, others taking a psychoanalytical approach, positing that Welles himself was burdened by his earlier greatness and was seeking to somehow negate it through the latter film’s perverse fantasy. However, an often overlooked aspect of Arkadin is that it provides something of a blueprint for Welles’ later works, as many of its scenes, and even individual shots prefigure those of Touch of Evil (1958), the would-be B movie that Welles transformed into a noir masterpiece, and The Trial (1962), Welles’ feverish adaptation of Franz Kafka’s nightmarish novel. 

All of these films reflect Welles’ favored themes: power, regret, betrayal among men, and a strong hint of nostalgia. But what’s interesting about Arkadin is that it uses devices and shots that are replicated almost exactly in Welles’ later films. It’s as if he was so disappointed in the failure of Arkadin that he couldn’t bear to abandon some of its finer moments. 

All three films feature Akim Tamiroff in key roles, usually as a sort of clownish character to be abused by Welles’ tyrants. Toward the end of Arkadin, there is a scene in which Welles looms over Tamiroff as Tamiroff lies on a bed, the wrought-iron bedframe decorating the edge of the image. A few years later, Welles, backed this time with Hollywood money, would stage a similar scene much more elaborately in Touch of Evil, with gaudy flashing neon lights illuminating Welles’ Hank Quinlan as he stalks Tamiroff’s Uncle Joe Grande around a hotel room, strangling him and leaving him to wilt over a similarly ornate bedframe.  

Also in Arkadin, Tamiroff, in another hotel room, at one point moves toward a high window, stepping on a chair as though he is about to escape. Again, in Touch of Evil, Tamiroff, in an effort to escape the murderous Quinlan, climbs toward a high window and shatters it in an escape attempt before Welles pulls him back down. 

One more parallel is in each film’s closing scenes. In Mr. Arkadin, Paola Mori, Arkadin’s daughter, offers a stoic and ambiguous epitaph for her deceased father: “He was capable of anything.” The line is uttered almost without inflection—a frequent problem with Mori’s acting, but in this case the tone is intentional. Likewise, Touch of Evil closes with another exotic beauty—this time Marlene Dietrich—eulogizing the fallen Captain Hank Quinlan with another terse remark: “He was some kind of man.” These closing lines are almost Hemingwayesque in their simplicity, providing stark, dry conclusions to otherwise elaborate melodramas.  

Other aspects of Arkadin show up in The Trial, another of Welles’ independent European productions. The film again features Tamiroff in a key role and is edited to resemble a nightmare, with canted camera angles and disorienting cuts from one off-kilter shot to another. Welles had been something of a pioneer in independent filmmaking, demonstrating with his Macbeth that film could be a living, breathing organism, that it didn’t require the polished sheen of Hollywood. He sought to prove that film could be more free-flowing, deviating from scripts and indulging whimsical tangents with improvised shots and dialogue. Usually his experiments paid off. In the case of Mr. Arkadin, they didn’t. 

Welles never finished editing the film before its producer took it out of its hands. It was released in a compromised form, Welles’ elaborate flashback structure having been replaced by a chronological re-ordering of the scenes. The Criterion release presents three versions: the re-edited European version, an even more heavily re-edited American version (re-titled Confidential Report), and a brand new version in which historians and researchers have attempted to restore Welles’ original editing pattern, reconfiguring the picture to reflect, as best as can be determined, what Welles had originally intended. The result is a more coherent and artistic film than heretofore suspected. 

Mr. Arkadin may still be a failure but few directors fail as spectacularly as Orson Welles. The Criterion edition provides beautifully restored prints that showcase its photography, as well as a host of extra features that help to provide a clear picture of just what exactly Welles was striving for with this film and how and why he failed.  


MR. ARKADIN (1955) 

Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Welles, Paola Mori, Robert Arden, Akim Tamiroff.105 minutes, $49.95.