Mr. Arkadin: A Version History

<em>Mr. Arkadin: </em>A Version History

A manuscript that bears the traces of earlier drafts is known as a palimpsest. Mr. Arkadin suggests such a form in celluloid—except that, without a finished, definitive version, all we have are the traces. 

These are the known edits of the film, five in all: the Corinth, believed to be the earliest extant English-language version; Confidential Report, the notorious 1956 European release, finished by producer Louis Dolivet after Welles and his split; two cuts of a Spanish-language version, produced as part of an arrangement with Spanish investors; and a pirated American release (a simple butchering of the Corinth version that can be dismissed right off the bat). The Complete “Mr. Arkadin” is an attempt to collect and present the various versions of the film in as understandable a format as possible, including the Corinth, Confidential Report, and a newly created “comprehensive version,” which pieces together elements from all the others.

The Corinth print was not discovered until 1960, when Peter Bogdanovich found it while researching an Orson Welles retrospective. It premiered in 1962, at the New Yorker Theater, and was later distributed in the United States by Corinth Films. It corresponds to many (but not all) of Welles’s statements about the version he would have made; most importantly, it contains the fullest expression of Welles’s preferred flashback structure. Surviving only in a 16mm negative, however, it lacks the finished quality of Welles’s masterpieces. Some of this finished quality can be found in Confidential Report. Welles almost certainly had a hand in this later edit of the film, but it is just as certain that Dolivet completed the job. Complicating things further, there may have been two versions of Confidential Report, one for the London premiere, in 1955, and the other for the general release in Europe. It is the latter that appears in this box. It differs substantially from the two others included—scenes have different dialogue, shots are rearranged, and the flashback structure is much diminished.

The two versions in Spanish are known by how they misidentify star Robert Arden—hence the “Bob Harden” version and the “Mark Sharpe” version. Only recently discovered, the Mark Sharpe cut was the one actually released in Spain. Marred by some rather amateurish editing techniques generally considered to have been added in Spain after Welles left the project, it does include one of the few concrete things Welles later said he intended: the opening image of a dead body on a beach. Intriguingly for Mr. Arkadin archaeologists, the Bob Harden version closely resembles the Corinth version—in fact, much of our upgrading of the Corinth version from 16mm to 35mm for this edition was possible only because of scene transitions from that version. (The primary distinguishing feature of the Spanish versions is two scenes that were reshot with different actresses. These are included as a special feature.)

In all of these versions, there is some unique thing—a shot, a line, an idea—that cannot be found in any other. Working from clues in Welles’s interviews, working materials, and early scripts and versions, film historians Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes have attempted to collect these disparate elements into one watchable edit of the film—the new comprehensive version.

The mystery of Mr. Arkadin will never be solved. What the film might have been, had Orson Welles kept control over the project, was lost with his death, in 1985. Still, the evidence abounds and continues to entice. For the three film versions presented in full here, we have enlisted three writers to explain the merits of each. With these, and a chronology of Arkadin-related events, we hope to arm viewers entering this typically Wellesian maze with as much evidence as possible.

Take Three

The Corinth Version: The Elusive Mr. Arkadin

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Broadly speaking, the features of Orson Welles fall into two cate­gories: those he finished and released to his satisfaction and those he didn’t. In the first category are Citizen Kane, Macbeth, Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming “Othello.” And in the second batch, The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, The Deep, The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers, and Don Quixote.

Is it correct to regard the last ten as unfinished? I think it is—at least if we continue to regard them as films by Welles, and agree with Welles that the editing was crucial to what made them his. (Although he came relatively close to finishing half of the latter ten—Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and Don Quixote—we no longer have access to any of those cuts.) Yet the standard practice has been to regard all of the ones released when he was alive as finished, regardless of whether he approved them or not. This places the matter in the hands of distributors, and Mr. Arkadin in the category of a finished work by Welles. But I think Welles himself would have disagreed.

What we have, in fact, are competing fragmentary glimpses of something that never assumed full shape. Within this contentious arena, I consider the so-called Corinth version of the film the most satisfying, particularly in terms of its labyrinthine storytelling. Even though Welles was a director who rarely repeated himself, the relation of Mr. Arkadin to Citizen Kane is impossible to ignore. And the centrality of a narrative structure based on flashbacks that try to explain the life of a mysterious tycoon logically makes this version preferable to all the others, especially with a story tied so centrally to memory and the past—and because Welles himself placed so much importance on that structure in his interviews. So, after Peter Bogdanovich hunted down that version for the 1962 release of the film in the U.S., it was only natural that it should become the preferred version of scholars. And this bias was confirmed for me after I edited Bogdanovich’s book-length interview with Welles, This Is Orson Welles, in the early 1990s, and discovered that the minimal Arkadin material that I had available basically reiterated the same point. (Welles also admitted to having a mental block about the film, which accounted for the sparse material, but he didn’t explain why.)

So James Naremore and I were in full agreement that our commentary should be on this version, even though a few bits that Welles had mentioned in passing, such as Arkadin’s story about a cemetery, were missing. Like many others attempting to reconcile Welles’s working methods with those of more conventional filmmakers, we based our decision on an effort to pinpoint his intentions. But, because a good many of Welles’s creative deliberations were in a continual state of flux, claiming that any version could have conformed to his “intentions” necessarily entails a certain amount of distortion as well as wishful thinking.

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