Thursday, December 24, 2015

Confidential Report (a.k.a. Mr. Arkadin, Orson Welles, 1955)

(Especially for the season, an old post on one of my favorite--and easily the strangest--of all Xmas films)

The mysterious Mr. Arkadin

(Revised; warning, story discussed in close detail)

Wow--do I really want to do this? Dip my toe into the murky history of Welles' Mr. Arkadin (1955), the film famously taken from his control, re-edited, eventually released in seven different versions? A picture every bit as baroque in the viewing as it is in its making? I say seven versions, but there are suggestions that "an infinite number of Mr. Arkadins" is possible, so--

Seen Confidential Report--the Warner Studio's recut version of Welles' picture--years ago, on laserdisc, agree with the assertion that it's "one of the most bizarre films ever made;" recently rented The Complete Mr. Arkadin issued by Criterion, with three discs (Confidential Report, the Corinth print, and a 'comprehensive' version assembled by Stefan Drossler). Interesting to watch, but as interesting if not more so was Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay posted just days after--basically he asserts that of the three versions here, the most preferable is the one considered the most mutilated (Confidential Report), the least preferable being the 'comprehensive' version. Rosenbaum points to University of Paris film professor Francois Thomas' essay defending Confidential, citing as his criteria the one quality that print possesses beyond the other two (said quality being mentioned in Rosenbaum's article, and discussed in more detail in Thomas' essay (found as an extra in the Criterion release)).

I think I agree. Look, say, at the Neapolitan dock scene in the Comprehensive Version, where Dossler opts to carry over the narration by Van Stratten (Robert Arden) for a few extra minutes. Confidential drops the narration and plunks us right in the middle of the docks--a dark and forbidding place, silent save for the clack of footsteps on stone. Van Stratten's voiceover in the Comprehensive is an intrusive accompaniment, whereas in Confidential we get this strong sense of foreboding: "where are we, what's about to happen?" one wants to ask. Police cry out, shots are fired; chaos reigns, only the chaos in Confidential is more confusing--the noises louder, the editing more frenetic. 

Certainly Dossler's cut is easier to follow. The voiceover helps establish that Van Stratten is there (but didn't he say as much before the film shifted scene?), that there are mysterious figures about (don't we see these figures?), that one of them has an unsteady gait (don't we realize this anyway, when Bracco (Gregoire Aslan) falls flat on his face?). Confidential's edit of the ensuing shootout is, as noted, harder to follow but more dramatic. Welles seems to cut to startle, not clarify, with some shots lasting only long enough to register (that steam engine--does it run on rails or cobbled ground?). The soundtrack reinforces this with the steam whistle's shriek declaring a state of emergency, melody skittering hysterically over the action, and horns blowing ominously in the far distance.

But that's today's (tonight's) assessment, based on what we know so far; some new development may shed further light on the matter (the surfacing of Thomas' long-yearned-for August '55 premiere print would do nicely). And we have to remember Welles' thoughts on the matter were also in a state of constant flux; his final version of Arkadin (if we could definitively say there is a final version of anything Welles) could be completely different--better, even--than what's available right now.

That's the most obvious example; I'd just stop here and repeat Rosenbaum's warning: not all restored scenes are desirable (some are dropped by the filmmaker for a reason), and not all restorations are necessarily the best version (in the sense that they don't necessarily follow the director's original intentions).

Rosenbaum mentions the film's resemblance to Citizen Kane; I'd agree plotwise, and point to actual images like when Arkadin (Welles) confronts Zouk (Akim Tamiroff). The scene recalls a similar one in Chimes at Midnight (1966) when Hal looms over Falstaff, the moment wordless yet eloquent. 

Arkadin laughs; Zouk asks "So what's so funny?" "Old age," Arkadin says. He repeats it: "Old age..." and you hear the dots trail away as he walks out the door. Suddenly the scene looks backward to one of the most famous scenes in Kane, when the old man whispers "Rosebud" then drifts past a hall of mirrors. 

Why didn't Arkadin kill Zouk? Because he realized the man was no threat. Then why kill him later? Easy to think Arkadin likes his privacy, and there was at least one witness inconveniently at hand (a nameless Tamara Shayne)--that makes sense. Or like Stalin (on whom Welles was said to partly base the character), Arkadin whimsically decided to spare Zouk, and as whimsically decided to finish the job later.

You could chart Welles' view of the world and of the characters he plays and be instantly struck by the trajectory, like a cannonball fired groundwards. From Kane the richest man in the world to Arkadin the richest man in Europe; from Kane the balding old recluse to Arkadin the insanely jealous (yet pathetically impotent) father. Kane's wealth was easy to depict--Welles had the resources of RKO studios behind him, and Gregg Toland to photograph the extravagance; Arkadin was reportedly a greater challenge--according to Patricia Medina (who plays Milly, Van Stratten's assistant/girlfriend), they had to steal furniture from a nearby Hilton to decorate the man's yacht. 

That said, the Christmas party at Arkadin's apartment (yes, one sometimes has to shake one's head to remember, but the film ends on Christmas morning) is a gloriously prodigious affair, complete with crossed swords, triple vodkas (you need to down one to get past the swords), miles of Christmas lights, a forest of decorated trees, table after table laden with food and drink, a tossed beach ball, and--love this--a miniature racing track complete with toy cars whizzing past each other. Even with poverty-row filmmaking Welles knew how to throw (and shoot) a party.

But it's more than just a matter of budget; the world of Arkadin is danker, darker, full of chaotic, uncivilized behavior. Police officers shoot first, ask questions later (criminals don't even bother to ask); knives are planted in peoples' backs; drug addicts are tortured, dying men tormented; rich daughters are courted in a spirit of full cynicism, with both parties aware that it's all about the money (and access, and power). 
It's also the attitude. Half the world is lost in dreams or despair; the other half is scrabbling up the ladder, mashing their feet into the faces below. Arkadin is one of the hardened and the film records his eventual crumbling and falling away, same time it records the ascent and inevitable victory of Van Stratten. Citizen Kane was a record of a man's rise and fall; Confidential Report is a record of a man's rise at the expense of another man's fall--a far more deliberate not to mention ruthless path.

It's not as simple as that of course (with Welles it never is). Rosenbaum and Indiana University professor James Naremore point out instances where Welles equates the two: a repeated camera angle when Arkadin crosses a courtyard Van Stratten crossed earlier; match-dissolves from one head to the other; a moment when Zouk ask of Van Stratten: "What are you, Santa Claus?" and later has Arkadin actually wear the familiar bearded mask ("are you kidding me?" Van Stratten snaps exasperated--expressing our own reaction to the too-weird touch). If Kane was destroyed by his own flaws, Arkadin is destroyed by a man who embodies Arkadin's younger, stronger, less compassionate self. 

For most of the film Arkadin has the upper hand, effortlessly intimidating Van Stratten and chasing him all around town in his gliding black limo until Van Stratten realizes what's really going on (Arkadin is terrified his daughter Raina (Paola Mori, who--kinky detail here--became Welles' third wife) will learn of his true origins). Van Stratten strides out of the church where he was hiding, climbs into Arkadin's car, orders the vehicle to the airport. The driver questions him, and he barks back: "Mr. Arkadin's orders!" In effect he's telling the truth--he is Arkadin, or has become him the moment he made the decision to play in full the role of the old man's doppelganger. 

Once this tectonic shift has occured everything else falls into place. Arkadin cannot get on the plane to chase after Van Stratten because, as one airline staff explains, all seats are taken, and an airline is a public service that cannot favor one passenger over another. Nice bit of democratic bugle-blat Welles tosses in there, though nowadays one imagines the airline could finagle some kind of excuse to bump Van Stratten off ("Sorry sir, overbooked your flight; have to wait. Would be happy to refund you, of course, or give an upgrade..."). More, Arkadin can claim Van Stratten has done something criminal like steal his limousine--why he doesn't no one knows; either he dislikes involving the police or there's a strange integrity to his struggle, an integrity Van Stratten (or a younger, less self-conscious Arkadin) doesn't seem to share. When Arkadin pleads to the passengers for a seat Van Stratten jeers; Arkadin loses the passengers' sympathy while immediately winning ours. 

Rosenbaum defends Mori's performance in the film, despite her being dubbed (by Billie Whitelaw)--I agree, she may not be skilled, but she's skillfully used. He defends Robert Arden's performance and I also agree; Arden plays an unsympathetic protagonist only too well, and the lack of sympathy probably influenced the many evaluations of his talents as an actor (he's pushy and loud--and suddenly you have an idea of what the young Arkadin must have been like). 

I don't agree with Rosenbaums' assessment of Welles' Arkadin. Yes he's underwritten; yes, he's a facade of gestures and gimmicks and the occasionally poignant line reading, flash and filigree hiding an emptiness inside--but it's part of Welles' concept, and I think it works. Arkadin is so tired and disgusted with himself he's already half-willing to leap out of that plane; the amnesia could be a half-truth--possibly he doesn't want to think about his past, or the lives he's bought and sold ("White slavery?" Van Stratten wonders at one point). Arkadin asks if Van Stratten knows what it's like to be ashamed of something you don't even remember; I think Arkadin does, wishes he doesn't, is trying with all his might not to. 

Welles holds back on introducing Arkadin, finally does so from behind a mask--he's possibly trying to reproduce the impact Carol Reed achieved with Harry Lime (Welles) in The Third Man (1949). Welles fails (despite the baroquely beautiful introduction to the masquerade ball, complete with papier-mache masks inspired by Goya) partly because Lime comes out at the perfect moment (some three-fourths of the way into Reed's picture and after over an hour's worth of preparation), partly because Welles' film is such a complex Yuletide* ornament it's difficult to introduce surprise of any kind.

*(Yuletide--Rosenbaum and Naremore in the commentary wonder endlessly at Welles' religious beliefs, mainly because Arkadin meets Van Stratten in a church. To which I thought: but a Christmas movie must have a church scene! And why, they also wondered, doesn't Arkadin just kill him in that church? Because, I thought, the church is too crowded, and far as I can see Arkadin likes his privacy)

Arkadin doesn't really come alive for us, doesn't really engage our sympathies as a character until we meet Sophie (the great Katina Paxinou). "I was crazy in love with him!" she growls, and suddenly we picture a handsome young man, a gigolo with enough dash to capture a gang leader' fierce heart but not enough to ask for the 200,000 Swiss francs he needed to start his own fortune (he has to steal the money). Yet there must have been good in him--enough that Sophie would sympathize and leave him alone. 

Through Sophie's eyes we see a young man; through Zouk's an ogre; through Raina's a possessive yet beloved father; through Van Stratten's an enigmatic giant; through our own Van Stratten himself, decades older and millions richer. Arkadin sees a monster who has begotten an angel, and wishes to protect that angel from his past (sometimes a child's view of her parents is the most devastating of all). Welles himself put it thusly in an earlier film: "You put all this together--the palaces and the paintings and the toys and everything--what would it spell?" A man's life was compared to a jigsaw puzzle, but Arkadin's isn't so much a puzzle as it is a labyrinth, with himself playing Minotaur.

Has Welles failed to bring this eponymous figure to life? I don't think so. Is Rosenbaum correct in thinking this is minor Welles? Don't think so, either. It's Welles' remake of Citizen Kane--but Kane was by a young if precocious man at the dawn of his life; Arkadin is by a man who has lived through some of the harrowing times his protagonist talks about (you see it in his tired, tiring eyes). The stench of despair about it is authentic, not a fashionable pose. He would push this portrait of an outsized man brought down low to a new extreme in Touch of Evil (1958)--also a masterpiece, also butchered by its studio.

One more point (finale discussed in close detail!): the film has possibly the single most poetic end for a screen character ever--vanishes into thin air leaving the plane to sputter and fail and crash. Welles' hollow man has been completely hollowed out: his power, ambitions, hopes, even (or so he believes (but such is the power of belief)) daughter's love taken from him. Like a great prestidigitator, a Prospero performing his final trick, he makes himself disappear, the white sheet covering his body fluttering to the ground. Show's over; time to go home.

7.31.11 (revised 8.6.11; link updated 12.21.13; revised again 12.25.15).


Patrick said...

Speaking of Touch of Evil, what did you think of the cut by Walter Murch?

Levi Harrison said...

Interesting stuff. Haven't seen Confidential Report yet, and I'm not sure which version of Mr. Arkadin I have on VHS, but I read that Peter Bogdanovich said the comprehensive version was the best. This is the 1st time I've heard that Confidential Report is the superior version, and now I've got to see both versions just to make sure (I also read the book, but was disappointed to learn that it was ghostwritten by someone other than Welles).

Noel Vera said...

"Walter Murch"

Haven't decided yet. Too busy studying the different Arkadins. Next project, maybe?

Bogdanovich has his opinion...but then I've never admired his films for their editing.

I''ve dipped into the book. It's interesting. Someone wrote it and presumably fleshed it out, but it was based on the Welles screenplay.

bbopman1 said...

Thanks so much for your keen insight....a wonderful, incisive review of an often misunderstood film.

Noel Vera said...