Welles Amazed: The Lives of Mr. Arkadin

Apr 18, 2006

Another movie, another cause célèbre: Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin has been dismissed as a disaster and hailed as a masterpiece. In 1958, Cahiers du cinéma declared it one of the twelve greatest films ever made—unaware that its intricate series of flashbacks had been reedited and “normalized,” or ruined, for its French release by producer Louis Dolivet.

A movie then without a definitive version (Jonathan Rosenbaum explicated seven texts and ur-texts in a 1992 Film Comment article), to be read in any order (like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch), this madly stylized cheapster, also known as Confidential Report, is the fullest expression of Welles’s European exile. Beginning in 1954, Mr. Arkadin was shot for five months, mainly in Spain—much of it in a Madrid studio—with additional locations in West Germany and France. This was followed by eight months of postsynchronization and editing in Paris and Rome. After Welles missed a Christmas 1954 deadline, Dolivet took control of the footage and assigned the editing to another. The world premiere was in London, in August 1955; a Spanish-­language version opened in Madrid around the same time; the Paris premiere was in June 1956. There, the Young Turks of Cahiers proclaimed it Welles’s greatest achievement.

Back home, Welles was all but invisible. He had left Hollywood during the summer of 1947, at the very time the House Un-American Activities Committee was preparing subpoenas, to spend the next eight-plus years as a European vagabond—acting in other people’s films while working piecemeal on Othello (1952), Don Quixote, and Mr. Arkadin. During this period, American interest in his career was confined mainly to cinephiles and the avant-garde. The maiden issue of Jonas Mekas’s Film Culture (January 1955) had featured Welles (as Othello) on its cover, with a manifesto (“For a Universal Cinema”) hopefully pegged to Mr. Arkadin, but the movie’s U.S. release only came seven and a half years later—at which point Film Culture’s cover was one of Mr. Arkadin’s oracular, oddly typewritten intertitles: “a certain great and powerful king once asked a poet ‘what can i give you of all that i have?’ he wisely replied ‘anything sir ... except your secret.’”

In 1962, Welles’s mocking jape might indeed have emerged from the re­cesses of the New American Cinema. Mr. Arka­din was no less personal than Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night (1958), analyzed in the same issue of Film Culture. Call it avant-trash. As Mr. Arkadin’s decomposing make-believe and unconvincing costumes anticipate Jack Smith’s concept of moldiness, so the convoluted narratives and bargain-basement baroque of vintage Raul Ruiz are inconceivable without Mr. Arkadin. (Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, from 1975, is an­other descendant—as are the far more ­déclassé, denatured, dubbed coproductions of the sixties and seventies.)

The man who made this absurd noir was answerable neither to studio nor Shakespeare, but only his own monumental whims. Thus, Mr. Arkadin sends Citizen Kane (1941) through the looking glass—the action transposed to post–World War II Spain and given a spin somewhere between metaphysics and megalomania. It is Citizen Kane, as critic Dave Kehr put it, with “the grandeur turned to theatrical fakery and the quest for truth deflected into shoddy opportunism.” The great and powerful, unspeakably shady international financier Gregory Arkadin (Welles) finagles a supremely unlovable American gold digger, Guy van Stratten (radio actor Robert Arden), into hopscotching the world—not just Spain, Munich, and the Côte d’Azur, but a made-up Acapulco, a studio Amsterdam, and a phony North Africa—on a treasure hunt for Arkadin’s buried past. The ostensible purpose is to excavate the truth; the underlying premise is to insure that the truth stays lost forever. Thus will the Ogre’s daughter, Raina (Paola Mori), maintain her fairy-tale princess innocence.

This insane investigation—which Welles intended to open with the never-explained shot of a woman’s body washing up on a beach, and to conclude with the incredible image of an empty private airplane flying over the Pyrenees and falling into the ocean—was an early attempt to represent unrepresentable power (Arkadin as Daedalus and Icarus). The filmmaker’s power is, however, everywhere apparent: the extreme angles, the deep-focus clutter, the impossible nocturnal shadows, the flashbacks within flashbacks. Atmosphere! Beyond ridiculous narrative coincidences! Madcap masquerades—that Spanish party with the fantastic Goya masks! A parade of lunatics! Much of the movie is a series of one-on-ones with heavily accented ham actors—Akim Tamiroff, Mischa Auer, Michael Redgrave. “Wasn’t it gutsy of him to put on that hairnet?” Welles asked Peter Bogdanovich—implying, of course, that in Mr. Arkadin he himself was working without one.

The great G. Cabrera Infante (known then as G. Cain) saw Mr. Arkadin in Paris and proclaimed it “the virtual vertigo of the Gothic . . . its demonism [and] obscure ritual calligraphy.” The movie’s impacted baroque visuals are complemented by the frantic sound mix—chanting penitentes, pathetic hurdy-gurdy men, Welles’s booming from the radio, even the often awful overlapping dialogue: “Well, that’s a castle in Spain for sure.” This is the film where Welles began using an extreme-wide-angle 18.5mm lens to achieve low-budget deep focus. Mr. Arkadin feels even more wildly pragmatic than Othello—in which, Welles claimed, a single cut might span years and continents—in part because it seems to have been edited at a near hysterical pitch.

If Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus recast myth as pulp, Mr. Arkadin elevates pulp to myth. It is the most Borgesian of Welles’s movies. Writing in Cahiers du cinéma, the young Eric Rohmer compared Mr. Arkadin to Jules Verne and Fantômas:

It creates something that is ­nearly impossible today: a romantic fiction that involves neither the future nor any removal from one’s usual surroundings . . . We discover our Europe in a strange light and recognize it nonetheless . . . [The character of Arkadin] is too far removed from the common mold and resembles too closely the “god Neptune” not to stand for something more: the personification of destiny, a modern, ubiquitous god, returning to the heavens from which he seems to have come . . .

For André Bazin, it was not Citizen Kane but The Third Man (1949) that turned Welles into a myth. At times, Mr. Arkadin suggests a cut-rate Third Man parody—all manner of clowns, not to mention a sinister black-marketing megalomaniac capering amid Europe’s ruins. Welles told Bogdanovich that Mr. Arkadin derived from the Harry Lime radio series he made with the BBC, in 1951: “It came from just throwing together a lot of bad radio scripts.” On the other hand, Welles informed his least, or perhaps his most, reliable biographer, Barbara Leaming, that the novel Mr. Arkadin—“The Secret Sordid Life of an International Tycoon”—supposedly written by Welles, was not a novelization of the movie but rather its source. But then again, he told Bogdanovich he wasn’t responsible for a single word of the book: “Nor have I ever read it.”

Arkadin is, then, its own Arkadin. Leaming writes that the movie’s enigmatic sacred monster was inspired by the nameless international tycoon from whom Welles raised cash to finish cutting Othello. Bazin says that the character of Arkadin was based on the fantastically wealthy, self-made financier, arms magnate, and so-called Merchant of Death Basil Zaharoff, an international man of mystery re­warded with knighthood. But, interviewed by Bogdanovich, Welles ups the ante with his insistence that Arkadin was Georgian (“even his name tells you that”) and informed by Joseph Stalin: “Cold, calculating, cruel, but with that terrible Slavic capacity to run to sentiment and self-destruction at the same time.”

Why such cosmic criminals? Mr. Arka­din gives considerable prominence to the parable of the frog and the scorpion, which, in its evocation of intractable “character,” has been taken by virtually all commentators to be Welles’s true confession. As explicated by Parker Tyler, in his 1963 Film Culture essay “Orson Welles and the Big Film Cult,” the fable explains that “the scorpion must cross a stream (that is, Welles must make a film), but, to do so, he must enlist the help of a frog”—i.e., a producer—whom he stings, “at his own expense.” By the time Mr. Arkadin was “finished,” in the mid-1950s, Welles had supplanted Erich von Stroheim as American cinema’s supreme martyr—“a lone wolf,” per Tyler, “whose egoistic failures have stacked up to make him both notorious and famous.”

Tyler called Welles the quintessential big experimental cult hero, “always achieving failure yet bringing it off brilliantly . . . the eternal Infant Prodigy” who made then independent directors like Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes seem “middle-aged” by comparison. At the same time, he wrote that Welles had superseded Cocteau as a model for the 16mm makers of lyrical films and personal cinema, whom Tyler termed “little experimentalists.” For them, film activity was privileged over film achievement, and filmmaking was understood as a way of life—and, in this, Welles was their peer. More than Citizen Kane or The Lady from Shanghai (1948) or even Othello, Mr. Arkadin is a psychodrama in which both the personality and the person of the filmmaker are the subject of the film. Indeed, Welles’s false nose, phony beard, and blatant wig are so extravagantly fake it’s tempting to imagine that his initial concept was his character’s makeup. (In one scene, he even appears as Santa Claus.) In any case, the great showman seems unconcerned, if not pleased, to don a disguise where the seams show.

As the character of Arkadin seems to keep everyone in the movie under constant surveillance, so the actor Welles dubs many of their voices. By one estimate, some eighteen characters—although never the terrible, yammering Van Stratten—speak with his barely disguised voice. The solipsistic puppet theater that is Mr. Arka­din projects a tawdry totalitarianism—Welles’s future wife plays the monster’s adoring daughter—and its collapse. In Mr. Arka­din, Welles reconstitutes the hall of mirrors shattered in The Lady from Shanghai, the better to reflect on . . . himself.

Borges famously described Citizen Kane as a labyrinth without a center. Mr. Arkadin does have a center. It’s a maze designed by the Minotaur.

J. Hoberman is senior film critic at The Village Voice. His books include The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Myth of the ’60s, The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism, and Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds.